written by: Barbara Avon
Catherine couldn’t understand why her curtains needed to be closed. The entire house was dark even though she knew that the sun was shining, it wasn’t allowed in her house. She sat on her bedroom floor combing the hair of her favourite doll. The doll wore a pink dress and pink shoes were painted on her feet so that Catherine could never change them. The paint was peeling on one of them and this upset Catherine who always liked everything to be perfect. She scooted closer to the one ray of sunlight that was inching closer to her with the passing hour. She was hungry but her mama was busy in the other room with Rose, her twin sister. Rose was sick, she knew, and Catherine missed her. It’s been several weeks now that her twin sister lay in her parent’s bed and Catherine was rightfully upset since they loved to jump rope together or skip stones at the pond near their house on Saturdays.
At night, they would stay up late telling stories to each other. Rose liked ghost stories and Catherine liked fairy tales; the kind where the handsome prince would come and save the day. She hoped for a prince to come now but instead, she sat alone in their room with the yellow-flowered wallpaper.
Catherine started to hum the tune to "This Old Man" since she couldn’t remember all the words. She was never really good at remembering things except for the fairy tales. She grew tired of the song and of her doll, too and set her aside, tracing the ray of sunlight on the wood floor with her finger. Her father was at work at the big building in town where smoke plumes rose from the roof at every hour of every day. He often came home smelling of smoke and something else. Something mysterious that Catherine didn’t recognize. Her father was a tall man with dark hair like hers and he had eyes the colour of water when the sky is so clear that the water actually looks blue.
In school, Catherine learned that water isn’t really blue. It just looks that way because of the sun’s rays. She remembered the day she ran home to sit at Rose’s bedside exclaiming the news as if she had just discovered a new moon but Rose remained silent. Rose was sleeping. She was always sleeping. Rose was born exactly three minutes and three seconds before Catherine. She was the oldest but she never acted like the boss. That’s why Catherine loved her so. The house was too quiet these days and Catherine just wished that she would wake up and that her mother would invite the sun back in.
Her stomach grumbled as she stretched across the floor to reach under her bed. She kept all of her secret treasures under her bed. Her favourite was the blank book that her father had bought her at the County Fair one year. The red cover depicted a blue jay soaring over an expanse of tall trees and the bird carried a worm in its beak. The rest of the book was blank: “So you can write your special thoughts,” her father had told her with a wink. She opened the book and turned the pages. Most were just scribbled on; senseless drawings or funny ones like the stick man with a big O for a stomach or the house she drew whose front door had a cartoon face on it. She imagined that the door would welcome guests in a husky voice every time someone knocked and Catherine giggled to herself as the notion was silly. One page had writing on it. She tried to write a poem once but most of the words were scratched out.
Stars that twinkle shine I wish you were mine
In the sky so high above I’m too to too small to reach touch you Will I ever grow taller?
She knew she needed to work on the poem if she wanted to grow up and write like her favourite poet. The one that her mama read. The leather-bound book sat in the parlor and Catherine always marveled at how beautiful the book was on the outside. She always hated her reflection in the mirror. She stared endlessly at her dimpled chin and at the space between her two front teeth and she wondered if she was just as beautiful as the book. One day she even asked her mama if she was pretty and her mother scolded her, telling her that she shouldn’t worry her head about such things but worry more about what she was filling her head with. Her mama told her that she should be educated, whatever that meant. Later, Catherine realized that it meant that she had to go to school.
Catherine hated school. She was teased often for her long curly hair and boys would pull at her pigtails while other little girls who wore their hair fashionably to their shoulders pointed and laughed at her. Rose rescued her one day when Catherine couldn’t stop from crying and although she had to write one hundred lines on the chalkboard for punching Jimmy Chaplin on the chin, she said it was well worth it and she would always do anything for her “most favourite sister in the whole wide world”.
Catherine felt a breeze behind her as her door swung open. She sat up expecting her mama but it was Doctor Jones. He was so big, it was a wonder that he fit through the door. He was as tall as he was wide and wore spectacles on his nose. He had no hair which Catherine thought was strange but he was a gentle giant and she grew to like him over the last weeks. He walked over to Catherine’s bed and sat down forcing the mattress to groan in response. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped at his brow, removed his glasses, rubbed at the bridge of his nose and sighed. When he looked up, he smiled at Catherine who sat cross-legged with her hands in lap, waiting patiently for the end of this ritual of his.
“How is my favourite Kitty Cat today?”
Cat liked this nickname the doctor gave her. It made her feel special. It made her feel like she could be someone else but still be herself at the same time. He told her that her hazel eyes reminded him of a cat and one day, after he called her Kitty Cat for the first time, the name stuck.
“I am doing well, sir.” Anticipating his next move, Catherine sat up straighter and just as expected, a cherry lollipop emerged from his inside coat pocket. Catherine accepted it gratefully and hoped it would tame some of the grumblings in her belly.
“Do you want to hear a story, Kitty Cat?”
“Come sit on the bed with me.” Catherine rose to sit next to the man and was dwarfed by his size. She faced him and enjoyed her candy treat as he began.
“A long long time ago, far up in the mountains, there lived a King in a beautiful castle. His riches could be seen in every crevice. Even the carpets were laced with gold. Next to him, lived a poor shoemaker who worked tirelessly from morning into the night making shoes for the King and all the people in the village below.”
“What was his name?”
“What was the shoemaker's name?”
The doctor loosened his bow tie and smiled to himself. “His name was Shoemaker Mack.”
“That’s a funny name.”
“Yes, well, he was a funny man. In fact, he was a happy man and when he worked, he always sang. He woke up with the birds and joined them in their singing. He sang as soon as he woke and he sang as he was eating breakfast.”
“Mama says that you shouldn’t talk with your mouth full.”
The doctor pondered this. “Your mama is right but this is just a story, Kitty Cat.”
“So anyway, Shoemaker Mack sang all day long and the King next door couldn’t stand it anymore.”
“He didn’t like singing?”
“No, he didn’t. One day, he sent one of his servants to fetch Shoemaker Mack and bring him to the castle to stand before him.” Catherine licked at her treat hungrily, enthralled with the story.
“Shoemaker Mack stood before the King with his hat in his hands and his head bowed and the King said to him, ‘Look at me and tell me: Will you accept this chest of gold from me?’ Well, Shoemaker Mack was shocked and his eyes grew wide at all of the shiny gold that gleamed from a huge wooden chest that sat beside the King’s thrown. He thought of his family next door and his hungry children and he immediately told the King, ‘Your Greatness, I would be humbled to accept that which will feed the mouths of my loved ones.’”
Catherine’s feet didn’t reach the floor and she swung them back and forth in anticipation of the ending of the story.
The doctor continued, “The King told him, ‘Good. You may have the treasure chest. On one condition, though. You must stop that dreadful, relentless singing of yours.’ Shoemaker Mack thought for only a moment and then conceded to his request.”
“What does conceded mean?”
“It means that he agreed to the King’s terms. Would you like to hear the end of the story?”
“Shoemaker Mack lugged and pulled the chest across the way until he was home and he, his wife and their nine children looked upon it in awe. They would never want for anything again. As time went on, the silence in the mountains was deafening which is just the way the King liked it.
One day, the King’s servant approached the King and told him that he had a visitor. The King told him to let the visitor in and much to his surprise, Shoemaker Mack entered through the massive doors to the King’s chamber lugging the chest of gold behind him. ‘What is this?’ the King demanded of him. Shoemaker Mack once again stood with his hat in his hands and his head bowed. ‘Your Majesty, it has taken me several weeks to replace in kind the one chalice of gold that was missing from the chest and I bring everything back to you, now.’ The King’s mouth gaped open, ‘Why would you do such a foolish thing?’ Shoemaker Mack told him earnestly, ‘Because I would rather be poor and happy than rich and miserable.’ That very day, Shoemaker Mack returned to his humble abode, singing all the way.”
Catherine stopped swinging her feet. She didn’t think that the story would end this way. Doctor Jones sat with his arms crossed and smiled down at the little girl. “Do you understand the moral of the story?”
Catherine gulped and replied with speed and pride, “Yes, sir!”
“Wonderful, Kitty Cat! What is it? What is the moral?”
“Never try to haul a huge chest of gold all by yourself!”
The usually quiet house reverberated with the Doctor’s hearty laugh. He slapped his knee and shook his head and squeezed Catherine around the shoulders. They were having fun. Almost, that is. Catherine could hear her mother’s scream resound like the blood-curdling cry of a man trapped frozen in front of a grizzly. The doctor ran from the room. Then the house grew quiet again.