– Fiction by Dawn Ryan –
Winner of the 2021 Pen Parentis Writing Fellowship for New Parents
Jacob is in charge of the cats at his grandmother’s house. They are caged, calico cats and Jacob feels an affinity for them as though he’s loved them his entire life.
Jacob’s grandmother stays in the attic, and Jacob knows she stays up there to avoid the cats. The cats are having litters, one litter after another, until the cages are full with kittens. They are not kittens, but fist-sized human babies.
Jacob doesn’t know what to do. He runs across the house, from one caged-cat to the other, watching with awe the miracle of life; but Jacob wonders about the life in store for these babies. There are way too many to love, and how will society treat them when people learn they’ve come from cats? Suddenly, Jacob isn’t so sure about their value. He goes to his grandmother who is crouched in a dark corner of the attic. Are there supposed to be so many, Grandma?
Grandma turns from her hiding place in the corner of the attic. I don’t know.
Am I to care for every single one, Grandma?
I don’t know, Grandma says as she ducks behind a box of old family albums.
Jacob sighs. He looks down at his own sex parts and understands that he too is a cat who will someday have countless litters. He thinks about the Greeks, and the Chinese, and Jacob wonders out loud to his grandmother, if he couldn’t just put some of the babies in the woods.
Jacob’s grandmother smiles. She holds her grandson’s shoulders. Yes, Jacob, she says. Some of the babies can be put in the woods.
Jacob is relieved. He goes to the separate cat cages and gathers the babies who are the least desirable. Some babies have too much kitten fur, and some babies were born with only one eye, or with three eyes, or with one human eye and one cat eye. He gathers the babies whose limbs were not fully formed, or whose heads had warped and dented during childbirth. He gathers the babies who had already been rejected by the other babies, and lay whining in a corner by their lonesome. He collects babies whom he believes to be evil because they sneer and already have sharp, jagged teeth in their mouths. Soon, all that’s left in the cages with the cats are a dozen or so perfectly formed babies. Jacob feels the burden of child rearing lift from him. He puts on his shoes and jacket and prepares to leave for the woods.
His grandmother descends from the stairs just as Jacob is about to leave. Jacob sees that she is crying.
What is it, Grandma? Jacob asks.
His grandmother looks toward the babies. Some are already dead inside Jacob’s sack. I wish you’d chosen different babies, his grandmother says. But now that you’ve chosen, those are the babies that must be left in the woods.
Jacob is confused. He thought he’d made good choices, as these babies would be the most difficult to care for and the hardest to love. I don’t understand, Grandma, Jacob says. These babies are unsightly.
His grandmother places her hands on her chest, over her heart. These babies are unsightly, she says. But, if any of them survive in the woods, you must know that they will surely come back to find you, and when they find you, they will kill you, or worse.
Then I’ll put them back, Jacob says.
It’s too late, his grandmother says. They already know what they are now, and they already hate you.
Jacob looks to his sack. Some of the babies who were born with talons are clawing at the sack, at him. Jacob gives the sack a shake, loosening the babies’ claws, and runs for the woods. He finds a large ditch filled with mud and leaves, and empties his sack of babies. He can’t keep from watching them wriggle, struggling for air and earth. He can’t keep from vomiting when he sees some babies burrow into the mud. They are stronger than they look. Jacob wipes his chin. He considers apologizing, but instead he runs.
About the Pen Parentis Writing Fellowship
The Pen Parentis Writing Fellowship for New Parents annually honors a talented writer who is the parent of at least one child under 10 years old. This year’s fellow receives $1000 to further their writing career, a year of mentorship, and will read their winning story at the Pen Parentis Literary Salon in New York City on Tuesday, November 10, 2020. To watch the livestream, just RSVP to penparentis.org/calendar.
This year, submissions called for a new, never-published fiction story – any genre, on any subject – of up to 710 words. Word count changes each year because the main goal of this Fellowship is to motivate writers to continue to create new high-quality creative work at the very busiest time of the parenting journey.
Pen Parentis is a 501C3 literary nonprofit that helps writers stay on creative track after starting a family. Find out more!
About the Author – Dawn Ryan
Dawn Ryan is a writer and middle school teacher. She received her MFA from Rutgers University in Newark, NJ under the tutelage of Jayne Anne Phillips, Tayari Jones, and Alice Elliott Dark. Her first publication was a surprise to her. Maxim Jakubowski discovered one of her stories online and included it in his anthology Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica. Her stories have also appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Cagibi, American Short Fiction, and Gargoyle Magazine. She lives in Brooklyn with her wife and daughter who are the inspiration for her current novel-in-progress, The Never Forget Machine, a dark and campy adventure set in a Siberian Gulag circa 1943. She is humbled by the many opportunities afforded to her through the Pen Parentis Fellowship, and she is grateful to be among this community of writers during our perplexing and precarious moment in time.
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