LPTrendsStory. by Kathryn Mattingly. For the spook season lover in you.
This dark little piece was selected by TripleTree Publishing for a Ghosts At the Coast Anthology. The book was conceived by crazed writers who gathered at Siltcoos Lake on the Oregon Coast for a 3 day writing frenzy, in an old boat house full of it’s own ghosts… not to mention black widow spiders.
We would watch them scamper across the floor occasionally while reading our final stories by candlelight on the last night. Those deemed darkest, scariest or most twisted made it into the anthology, leaving us who were among the selected wondering if perhaps insanity had to be on your resume to make the final cut. Perhaps. Or maybe there is more truth in the dark corners of our reality than we would like to believe…
by Kathryn Mattingly
I’ve come to Italy to nurse my wounds, having lost another child and knowing it will be my last attempt to bear children. My doctor and friend, Grant, tells me that it takes more courage sometimes to give up and accept fate, than to try and change it. He’s lent me his late aunt’s house here in Rome near the Piazza Navonna, to help heal my frazzled nerves, which have made me painfully thin. Each morning after a sleepless night I carelessly tie my blonde hair in a ponytail, throw on my jeans and a sweater, and sit at this outdoor café in the Piazza.
I silently pray the late April sun will warm my numb heart as I sip on a cappuccino and think about the children I will never have. I cry behind my sunglasses and wipe away tears before they can escape down my cheeks. On my third day of this ritual that does not soothe my agony, a young gypsy appears out of nowhere. I think surely she is an angel, with eyes as dark and deep as God’s richest earth, and curls the color of mahogany bark. She peers up at me while holding an enormous white cat in her arms.
“Have you some change?” she asks.
Her English is decent and I find myself charmed by her confidence. The round eyes stare at me innocently. A little red tam on her head matches the plaid woolen skirt she wears. I think she looks more like a porcelain doll than a beggar, for her skin is pale and undernourished.
“I do have change,” I tell her, “but why don’t you sit with me a minute and talk?”
Her dark eyes look puzzled as she nervously pets the cat.
“I’ll buy you some milk, if you’ll just sit for a while,” I plead.
After a glance in each direction she sits down and the cat lets out a mournful meow. It jumps from her arms and crouches under the metal chair. The gypsy child doesn’t appear at all concerned that her cat will bolt. And it doesn’t. The feline begins to lick its paws contentedly.
“What’s your name?” I ask boldly.
“Morney,” the gypsy angel says.
“Is that Italian?” I inquire.
“No. My mama is American. Her mama was a Morney, until she married grandpapa. I think Mama misses them… her family in America.”
I ache for her soul that is wise beyond its years. “Is that why you speak English?” I ask.
“Yes, Papa does not speak it.”
A waiter appears and I order milk for my little friend. The waiter looks skeptical, with one brow arched. I look him straight in the eye, even though he can’t see my eyes behind the dark shades. He nods and leaves quietly.
“Well, it’s a beautiful name. Where did you get that big fluffy cat?” I sip the cappuccino, never taking my eyes from her thin, angelic face.
“She is fluffy, isn’t she?” Morney swells with pride for her enormous feline friend. “I find her one day, making screechy noises. Poor thing… so tiny, and starving.”
“There, in the side street. That’s where she was. Papa let me keep her.” Morney looks at me, her eyes serious. “But now he says she is too big and eats too much and I must take Chintzy to the cat place.”
“The cat place?” I ask, amazed.
“Yes… in the ruins, where Caesar died. It’s not far from here.”
“Why do they call it the cat place?”
“Because there are many many cats. Maybe a hundred.” Morney reaches under her seat and pets Chintzy while the waiter places a glass of milk in front of the child and disappears, not a smile or a word crossing his lips. After one gulp, she stares at the saucer beneath my cup. I offer it to her and she pours the milk into it carefully, placing it in front of the beloved pet. Morney is kneeling beside the chair and I smile at her red knee socks and little loafers. Someone has mindfully kept this enticing lure for pity from becoming too shabby.
Every day she comes, holding her large white cat, all the while stretching her hands out from beneath the feline to receive coins. The rich tourists at the cafés along the Piazza ignore her and I marvel at how they can be so complacent. Who could resist giving change to this brave little struggling spirit, a mere ghost of a child, with dark shimmering eyes and messy curls beneath a red tam?
I find her scrappy courage contagious, and somehow the pain of my loss is less suffocating. After nearly two weeks of this daily ritual with the child and the cat and the milk, the gypsy angel comes on a warm sultry morning without Chintzy.
“Papa took her to the cat place,” she moans sadly. “He says she drank the little bit of milk we had for my sister Lydia.” The stoic child hardens her eyes rather than cry. “I will visit Chintzy, every day maybe.”
“I’m so sorry Morney,” I mutter, thinking how often have I heard these words myself, and not found them helpful.
“I hate begging!” Morney announces. “But if I do not beg… then Lydia will have no milk, even though the milk is made bad with the drugs.” Her tone is sharp with anger.
“Lydia has drugs in her milk?” I ask, bewildered.
“Yes, it is to make her sleep, so Mama and Papa can beg and she will not cry. I wish…” she confides in me, “…one day to have many coins, so many, I never will beg again. Then Lydia can have milk that is not drugged, and she can be like other babies, shopping with their mama’s.”
I nod, unsure of how to respond. “Perhaps one day, Morney, you will grow up and earn money in one of the shops where you see the mothers with their babies.”
“Perhaps,” she replies, and leaves hurriedly without touching her milk.
One day Morney brings her baby sister in a carriage that is tattered and worn, and asks me to care for her because her mother is too ill to beg and her father has not returned from the bars. Nervously I look about, and see not a soul taking any notice of this battered pram housing a dark-haired darling like her sister. Hesitantly and with many misgivings I concede and tell Morney I will watch Lydia while sipping my cappuccino. But she must return for her by midmorning. As my little gypsy friend runs off into the cobbled side street of the Piazza, I see a woman looking sickly and frail well beyond her years looming in the distance. I wonder if she is Morney and Lydia’s mother.
Amidst odd and perplexed looks of pedestrians strolling by and café waiters gawking at my table, I study the little one placed in my care. She never opens her eyes fringed with curled lashes. Lydia’s face is round and smooth like Morney’s, another cherub with mahogany hair, and I wonder if her eyes are as dark as her sister’s. When no one comes for her I reluctantly stroll the sleeping Lydia across the Piazza and ask about her family in the shops. In one store on the corner of the narrow cobbled street someone knows her parents. The shopkeeper tells me the father and mother have probably run off, because the father is wanted for killing a man in a bar brawl.
“Rapheal is a violent one, when he has been drinking.” The little man uses heavily accented English. “He and that woman Isabella are like shadows of the night, always working the back streets.”
The shopkeeper tells me he hopes they will pay for the crime, having shamelessly overdosed their young daughter, addicted to the drugs almost since birth. I anxiously peer down at Lydia, but she is waking up from her drug-induced sleep. I can’t help myself as I reach for her, to cradle the toddler in my arms. She is so light I wonder what there is of her beneath the shabby blanket.
The storekeeper stares painfully at the baby and tells me it will also die from the drugs in the milk, which are too strong. “Rapheal and his woman have less sense than most.” He shakes his head sadly. “They are so young, and the mother… she takes the drugs. But Rapheal… he is just a thief and a drunk.”
“What do you mean I ask?” looking at him puzzled and confused. “Is this not the child you feared was overdosed? See… she’s fine!”
“No. Not that one, not yet anyway. The other one, with the cat.”
“Morney?” I whisper, staring helplessly into his bushy-browed eyes.
“Yes… that’s her name… Morney. She is dead a year this… this month I think.”
“But how can that be?” My mind races backward. I remember the pale woman in the shadows, the blank stares of the waiters and their non-recognition of my little gypsy friend, who has visited me every day for two weeks, begging coins while stealing my heart. I remember Grant telling me I have hallucinations because I am not well… the drugs, the tests, the pregnancies, the lost babies, the strain of it all. I must take a long vacation. And now this, discovering Morney has died well before she could have brought me her sister Lydia this morning.
I decide to leave Rome. I will reside in Milan. There is nothing to return to the States for. Unsuccessful pregnancies have taken their toll on my marriage. Before I go, I visit the cat place Morney spoke of. It is indeed a refuge of partially-restored ancient ruins, right in the middle of the city; one story beneath ground level. The whole area is overrun with cats of every size and shape. The felines vary widely from fat and sassy to haggard and frail. A big white cat sits like a queen among them and it is Chintzy. I am sure of it. Dusk is settling in and the lights play tricks, but I swear that in the shadows I see Morney, in her red tam and plaid skirt, waving at me. She is kneeling by the huge white cat, stroking its soft arched back with her free hand.
Racing down the cement steps with her sister still in my arms, I shout out… Morney …but only the cats respond, with wild guttural meows. Sitting down on a large stone in the ruins, there among the whining, growling cats, I cry into Lydia’s mahogany curls. We sit for hours in the darkness, huddled together for warmth, but Morney never reappears.
At home now in Milan not a day goes by I don’t think of the little ghost-child and her huge white feline. But thankfully, the voices and illusions within me have not come again. And I have a daughter who needs me, since her father was imprisoned for life, and her mother is dead of malnutrition… or perhaps a drug overdose. No one could be sure. But I am sure of one thing. It was Morney who brought me Lydia, an orphaned gypsy no more, but a child of my own at last.
You may visit the Kathryn Mattingly author page at Winter Goose Publishing where her literary fiction novel will be released May 2013. You may also visit her on Twitter and Facebook. Kathryn is a regular contributor to Leading Possibilities Magazine.