First I heard the meow. Loud. Frantic.
I walked around and around each tree, looking up, trying to check every branch, behind every leaf. I circled all the houses, lifting up piles of wood, searching under porches, crawling under steps, overturning buckets, opening trash can lids, squinting at rooftops. Where could a kitten be so trapped? I checked the trees again. Then, when I stepped off the curb, I realized the sound was below me.
Not down there, I hoped, but when I put my face next to the sewer grate, I knew I had found the kitten. I cupped my hands over my eyes and tried to see. Backed against the wall, the kitten was squeezing out the big cry through its wide open mouth. I reached my arm down through the bigger opening under the curb. I stretched toward the kitten, who crouched away even further, hissing at my hand.
“Here, kitty-kitty,” I said in my most soothing voice.
I slipped my arm out and looked around for something. I tried a stick, but all the kitten did was back up, hiss and swat at the stick. Then I remembered the pile of shingles I had seen under a porch. Maybe I could scoop the kitten onto the shingle and then maneuver the shingle up so the kitten would fall into my hand. I ran, found the shingle and held it down, holding on to the grid with one arm and slipping my shoulder through the opening, but it was still too short to reach the kitten. A shovel? I remembered seeing one in the garage I had searched, and I ran and came back with the shovel, but it would not fit down and around the sewer opening. A rope? All the kitten did was skitter away from it.
“Don’t worry,” I vowed, “I’ll get you out of there.”
It was a cloudy day. If there was a summer storm, the rain would come down hard and fast, and the water would rush along the curb and pour down the sewer opening. I thought I felt a drop.
There was nothing to do but try to slip through the opening myself.
I tried feet first, with my belly resting on the grate, but realized that if I let go and dropped into the sewer, I might not be able to get back up. Then I realized I could lie face down, elbow myself toward the opening, turn my head sideways, slip my head in and down, round my shoulders through and then, one hand on the iron grid, with the other arm I could try to grab the kitten.
I waved my hand but the kitten hissed. Better to move slow, I thought. I held myself still for a while, then moved my hand toward the kitten, but I was not close enough. I inched down further, secured my hips over the grate, with my legs across it, and hung down, first holding on with one hand, and then, when I realized I could not reach the kitten, I let go, and dangled with both arms free. The kitten backed away from my hands, jumping sideways, its back up, its hair sticking out. Finally, I fanned my left hand toward the kitten and scared it into my other hand.
I was surprised how frail it felt. I could feel her ribs, tiny and moving in and out with her cries. She scratched at me and tried to wiggle loose. Now I had to figure out how to back out. I transferred the kitten to my left hand and grabbed the grid with my right, but it put me off balance and I almost slipped. I slowly centered myself.
“Hey, Ward, what are you doing down there?”
I felt my legs being lifted up as my body almost fell down head first into the sewer. I felt someone kick my leg.
“I’m trying to rescue a kitten,” I almost said, but then I realized it must be Butch, Frank and Bobbie, famous for tying cans to cat’s tails, putting them in bags and who knew what else. Something with fire, I heard once.
“Let’s push her down there,” Butch said. I felt someone grab both my ankles.
I got a hold on the grid with one hand, while I held the kitten, now frantically scratching my arm, with the other.
I felt someone step on my fingers.
“Well, if it isn’t Sandy-Fat-Fanny,” Butch said, peeling away my fingers.
“Down in the gutter where she belongs,” Frank said.
Butch easily pulled my hand off the grid. Then he pushed me down through the sewer opening.
Whoever was holding my ankles lifted them up and I fell further in.
“Let go,” Butch said. I held the kitten against my stomach, and put up my other hand to keep from hitting my head.
“Let go of her ankles,” Butch said again, but I felt the grip tighten.
I got to go,” Bobbie said. “I got a game.” He bounced a ball. Bobbie had given me a Barton knife earlier in the year. Before he went into detention. I have to give it back to him for this, I thought. Even if it was my most prized possession.
I was jerked back up, enough so my hips were out and I felt my legs drop. I heard them all head down the street.
On the way home, I cupped the tiny kitten in my hand. When I saw Butch coming toward me alone, I let it nestle in my arm and held my other arm over it.
“What you got there?” he said.
I changed direction, crossing the street, speeding up, crouched down. He followed. The kitten was safer in the sewer, I thought, and took off running. Butch threw a few stones but did not follow me.
When I climbed the steps to my house, the kitten was meowing again.
You can’t bring that in here,” my brother said, sticking his foot out and trying to trip me as I went in the door. As I ran up the steps, he shouted after me, “I’m telling Mom!”
I decided to hide Sewer in my closet. I picked up my clothes off the floor and hung them up. I grabbed the big doll, which was wrapped in a red plastic quilted bed, and threw it up on the shelf over my head. I hated dolls, especially this one with a bandana and some folky outfit with an apron. Stupid doll! I wiped my hands on my shorts to get the doll scent off them. It was from my dad. A Danish doll. I never met him. And he must have never met me or he never would have given me a doll.
I brought a bowl of milk and pushed it toward the kitten. She crouched away in the corner. I grabbed her by the neck and pushed her mouth in the milk. She sneezed, shook her head, then began lapping up the milk.
I couldn’t hide Sewer forever. My brother did rat on me and my mother said Sewer had to go. I cried and begged and cried and begged and soon my mother gave up and I put a bowl for table scraps in the kitchen for Sewer. “No milk,” my mother said. “I can’t afford it.” Sewer was not the kind of cat to curl up on a lap. She wouldn’t let me pet her like I wanted. I took her outside, hoping to teach her to go to the bathroom, but she preferred the bit of dirt in the basement storm cellar. She hissed rather than purred.
“Once a barn cat, always a barn cat,” my mother said.
Sewer wasn’t easy to catch and she would run away and hide in the basement, but I would find her and try to hold her. She would scratch and scratch until I let her loose. Surely if I petted her enough, I thought, she would become tame. In Sunday School I learned I was supposed to help those less fortunate than myself. I was supposed to always put others first, to do what is best for someone else, to not want things, to give rather than receive, to do without, to take off my coat if someone wanted it, to walk a mile—no, three--to turn the other cheek . Other things we learned at Sunday School: to recite the books of the Old Testament and New, to color pages from the stories of the Bible, to wonder if we were as alone as Joseph in the pit, to wonder about who might kill a fatted calf should we return from wandering, to hope that we might be ne of all the children of the world who were loved by Jesus.
My Sunday School class consisted of only one other student, Alex. His mother was Amish from Hartville and would come to our Church of the Brethren in downtown Canton, Ohio, occasionally, bringing her two boys and standing alone with them in her dark Amish dress and prayer cap, which some of the older women of our church wore also. When Alex never came back, I was moved to the older teenage Sunday School class with my brother. It was his place, not mine, and I could sense it as soon as I walked in. No one spoke to me there and I was not included. I tried the choir but that didn’t work out either.
After a while I stopped going. When I was supposed to be in Sunday School I wandered around the neighborhood, then came back for the church service, where I stood beside my mother, holding up the hymnal, singing just as out of tune as she. She always took out her aqua billfold and put a five-dollar bill in the collection plate.
One day, as we were leaving the church, my old Sunday School teacher approached my mother. Oh, no, I thought, she is going to tell her I have not been going.
“Mrs. Ward,” she said, “I wondered if Sandy could go to Camp Zion with the other Sunday School students this summer? There is no charge.”
“Please,” I said to my mother. Then I remembered I would have to leave Sewer. And my plants. Every level surface of my room had a tin can or jar filled with dirt and maple tree sprouts. I couldn’t bear to see them mowed down, so I rescued each one. And I was conducting experiments, watching them turn toward the light, seeing which grew faster. Also, I had a new litter of pink wiggling baby mice. I kept them in a little covered box with fabric on the bottom. My friend Lorna had sold them to me after she said the mother was brutally murdered.
“Murdered?” I said.
“Murdered,” she said, covering her face. “It was horrible.”
“Poor little orphans,” I said, trying to pet them.
“Ten cents and they are all yours,” Lorna said, crossing her arms.
I fed them milk with a toy baby bottle Lorna included with the deal. I always wanted a hamster and these promised to be even cuter. Besides, there were five.
My mother saw the baby mice and gasped. “Take them out and put them in the garbage right now,” she said.
I clasped them to my chest. “No. If they are going in the garbage, then I am, too,” I said.
My mother raised her eyebrows, looked up, tilted her head. Then she stomped away.
Now, though, in front of the Sunday School teacher, she said my brother would take care of the mice, Sewer and my plants, so off I went to Camp Zion.
In a graph of my life, Camp Zion is a zenith.
The wooden cabins sat in a half circle around a small paved area. I claimed a top bunk, then followed the path behind the cabin through the trees to the dark wood bathrooms and showers. Every time I took a step, I saw something jumping. When I squatted down, I saw them, baby toads. I picked one up in my hand. Then another. And another. I looked up at the trees, at the woods. I put the toads down and watched them hop away. There must have been hundreds. I could always come back, I thought.
A bell clanged. “Dinner time,” the counselor in my cabin shouted to those of us coming back from the bathroom. She instructed us all to bring a sweater with us. As we walked with her, she pointed out the craft building, the white building where we would eat, the baseball field and down the hill she said was the swimming pool.
“A swimming pool!” I said, skipping and hopping beside her.
“A swimming pool with a diving board.”
“A diving board!” we all said with glee, looking at each other.
“And, every night at twilight time, on the hill, we have vespers.”
Twilight time, I thought. Twilight time. I had never heard those words before.
There were tables and chairs set up in the dining room. We were to sit at a table with the people from our cabin. On the table was a big plate of bread, a big bowl of corn, a bowl of green beans, a plate of meat loaf, a bowl of mashed potatoes with yellow butter melted in the center and a bowl of applesauce with cinnamon sprinkled on top. There was milk in every glass and a pitcher of milk on the table. I could hardly believe my eyes. After our prayer, we dug into the best food ever. Just when I thought that life could not be better, the tables started singing to each other.
“We are table, table number five. Where is table, table number six?”
In no time, I was singing along, a part of something, a part of table, table number three.
After we left the dinner table we walked together down the hill for vespers. There, blankets were spread out for us to sit on. Twilight time: when the trees turn to black and the sky to aquamarine, when the stars begin to shine, one at a time. We sang songs. My favorite, “Fairest Lord Jesus, fairer than all meadows…” which I knew was the hymn on page 100 in our hymnal at church. “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine,” we sang, looking at the face of the moon.
The next day, waking up and seeing green out the window, catching toads whenever I wanted, sitting at table, table number three, with a huge breakfast, making a braided key chain in crafts, looking at all the paints and paper and clay and tissue paper and wondering at all the art we would make, holding my mitt and being second base at a baseball game in the field and, finally, pulling on our bathing suits, grabbing our towels and running down the hill to jump, all of us at once, into the dark water of the spring fed pool, which was really a pond.
After lunch was quiet time at our bunks, when we all were given postcards and pencils and told to write home. “I miss Sewer,” I wrote in large letters on every card. Soon, it was campfire night and we followed a path beside the bathrooms and down the hill and sat on logs around a big fire. We roasted hot dogs and marshmallows on flimsy sticks and made S’Mores, my first taste of them. Then, while a counselor played the guitar we sang “Com-by-ya,” “This land is your land,” “Row, row, row your boat” and other songs in rounds. “Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.”
The logs crashed down and sparks floated up from the fire. The cold night air was at our backs, but our faces were flushed, we were all smiling and I, sitting with my new-found friends from my cabin, listening to the singing, feeling the warmth from the fire, was the happiest person alive. For some of the older campers, it was a night of romance, and some even held hands as we traipsed back up the hill by the light of the moon. I looked at one blond-haired boy up ahead and dreamed of holding his hand.
Our last big adventure was the hike to the strip mines.
Wear long pants and meet at the paved area in front of the cabins, we were told. I saw the blond-haired boy and decided now was my chance to impress him. I ran over toward the bathrooms, looking for toads. Where were they? Just when I needed one they were nowhere to be found. I could see the counselors already leading everyone down the hill. Frantic, I headed to the bathrooms where I was sure to find a toad and bent down to search in the grass. I combed the woods. Finally, I saw one hopping on the far side of the bathroom. I crouched down, scooped it up and then took off back up the hill, past the cabins, past the paved area, and in the direction I thought everyone had gone.
I could not see them. I could not hear them. Cupping the toad in both my hands, I ran as fast as I could down the hill, past the spot where we had the campfire and then I looked around for where they might have gone. A path seemed to lead up the hill, so I entered and, as fast as I could run up a steep hill, I ran, slipping on loose gravel and falling rocks. I could not see or hear anyone up ahead. It was a hot day and the sweat ran down my face and into my eyes. I slipped on a rock and, not able to catch myself because I was holding the toad in both hands, I landed on my face, shoulder and arm. I slid down a bit before I could stop. I brushed the dirt and tiny stones off my face and saw my arm was scraped up and bleeding and my jeans were covered with dust.
I stood up and followed the path down the hill, falling backwards a few times and sliding down. At the bottom, I walked along the soggy trail beside a creek, happy to see footsteps in the mud. Then the path seemed to stop. Some rocks made a stepping stone bridge across the creek, so I stepped on one rock that looked solid, but it was slippery and my foot slipped in the water almost up to my knee. I tried to get back on another rock but it was slippery, so I decided to just wade across. I easily found the path on the other side and headed up the hill. Finally I heard voices and knew I would catch up soon.
What will they say when they see me? I wanted to show the blond-haired boy the toad. What would he say? I opened my cupped hand and looked at it. Its big eyes. Its delicate feet. The way it held itself still, ready to jump. All the beautiful shades of brown, tan, black and white. The pattern on the back. Who could not see this and think it was not the most beautiful thing in the world? Then I thought about what Butch, Bobby and Frank or my brother and mother would say. Probably say I was going to get warts. Probably say I was the stupidest thing in all of downtown Canton, Ohio.
When I came to the top of the hill, I thought I had entered into another world. Not a tree, bush or blade of grass was in sight. Just miles and miles of what looked like a vast desert or the surface of the moon or a planet made up not of sand, but of tiny black and grey pieces of shale. When I stepped on it, it gave a little bit, like it was spongy. The land was wavy and hilly, sloping slightly up and down and I saw the group not too far away. I headed toward them, ready to get yelled at, ready to be grounded, ready to be in trouble, ready to be punished even worse when they told my mom and I had to go home.
“There’s Sandy,” someone said.
The girls from my cabin reached me first.
“Sandy, are you all right?” they said, crowding around.
“You’re bleeding,” Anne, who had the bunk next to me, said.
“We were so worried about you,” they said, hugging me.
“Cool,” the blond-haired boy said when he saw the toad.
Soon the counselor came and, taking a first aid kit out of her backpack, she cleaned my arm and put a bandage on.
“Just hold the toad until we get back to the camp,” she said, clasping her hands around mine and looking in my eyes. “Then let it go right where you found it.”
We took a tour of the strip mine, looking down into ponds of bright iridescent orange or pools of iridescent green. “Weird,” we all said together.
“This place is spooky,” Anne said and I agreed. We were told that here was where the coal came from to make the steel that we all used to live on. But now everything was dead.
When I arrived home, Sewer was gone, the mice were gone and the small maple seedlings and plants were all gone. For a while I tried to get my friends to sing “This Land is Your Land”, or roast marshmallows over a kitchen stove and make S’Mores, or look for toads in our city park, or talk about God as the sun was going down, but the parents shooed us away from the stoves with our marshmallows on sticks and my friends only made fun of my enthusiasm. I had to admit their renditions of me singing “Com-by-ya” were pretty funny and their imitations of my earnest discussions while looking up at the night sky about the vast universe and whether God actually cared about each and every one of us had me laughing so hard the Coca-Cola spewed out of my nose, too.
“Stop!” I cried, “My stomach hurts.”
After a while I forgot about Camp Zion. I had other things to worry about, like how I was going to get out of Canton, Ohio, which even I could see was on the way down.
Soon, most of Canton, Ohio, would be gone. The steel mills closed, the factories empty. My neighborhood would be boarded up, with “NO COPPER” spray painted over all the doors. The city would be trying to sell houses in my downtown area for one dollar and could find no takers. Half the population would have moved away and the rest would be fighting for the few remaining jobs. I myself would be a pregnant, alone teenager in just a few short years with no prospects of making much of anything.
I never knew what happened to Sewer but, even then, I suspected that the best I could hope for was that Sewer ended up as alone and destitute as when I first found her, back when I had such high hopes for both of us.