The new volunteer, Anna, came while we were at school. We could see from the bus that the window of the fourth-floor guest room was open, and as we ran through the gate, we saw her face there, pale as a ghost’s. She had the kind of yellow hair that all the volunteers did, especially the German ones.
Suchita had found the kittens right before we got back from school, and she let us hold them, sitting on the steps outside the home, the concrete warm on our bare feet. We held the kittens in our hands like the eggs we sometimes got on special occasions, fearful that a fingernail might cause them to break. They were so small that they fit in our palms perfectly, and we had small hands. Our fingers were too little even to thread needles for mending our clothes. Suman’s left sleeve had been torn all year, and all three of Kajal’s socks—she would wear each one twice before washing it, so one was always clean—had holes in them. Suman’s ma’am at school slapped her palms every day with a ruler for her torn uniform, and Kajal always had blisters. Our hands were too small for mending. Too small for anything useful.
Suchita had found kittens once before, in the same spot behind the home under the fig tree in the backyard. The fig tree was a withered old thing next to the rickety playground, which no one used because it was too rusty to hold anyone’s weight except little Aarti’s. You could see both from the edge of the balcony where Suchita always sat to read. The light there was good, and the yellow cement walls of the home were cool in the afternoons. That was where she was sitting when she heard their cries, she told us. We need to protect them, she said. Staying outside on the street with dogs and motorcycles was dangerous for the baby kittens, but not as dangerous as their mother.
“She will get hungry, and then she will kill them,” she told us, setting her jaw just like she did when Muskan borrowed her Walkman without asking. “She will kill them.”
Last time there were kittens, she said, she woke up the next morning and ran outside with a saucer of milk to find that they had been torn apart, their limbs strewn throughout the garden. She didn’t tell us that she threw up before getting on the school bus, but we all knew the story, and we knew that she never drank milk anymore, even when Sheetal’s big sister Neelam put sugar in it to make our afternoon snack seem like a special occasion.
We marveled at the kittens, covering their ears so they wouldn’t hear the story. We had never had anything so precious so close to us before. We sat up straight and breathed more carefully when we had our turns holding them. Suchi sat on the steps above us, watching over the edge of her English textbook as we sang Bollywood love songs to the kittens.
The volunteer, Anna, was German like we’d guessed. We knew how this was going to work. We’d seen enough foreigners come and go enough times to remember how it went.
Monsoon season was always the worst for them. We knew that. The heat made the foreigners sleepy all the time, and they didn’t like to sweat. Anna was no different—on her first afternoon in the home, we found her asleep in the shade on the concrete floor of the tuition room. Foreigners like her, they forgot to oil their hair, or they didn’t know that they should. When they washed their hair, it stayed wet for days because of the humidity, and then they were surprised when their ponytails smelled like the moldy square of steel wool next to the sink in the kitchen. We laughed. Our oiled braids swung past our faces, and the scent made our mouths taste like coconut.
They didn’t know most things, these foreigners. They thought they were smarter than we were, that their toilet paper and their hand sanitizing gel protected them from whatever was wrong with us. They didn’t know that our lives weren’t like this because we didn’t wash our hands well enough. Our lives were like this because God had forgotten us. And soon enough, the foreigners would leave the orphanage and forget us, too.
We liked Suchita most of the time. She was a smart girl. She did her homework, and she wanted be a veterinarian someday. And she was beautiful. Her eyes were set far apart and her skin was fairer than most of ours, so we thought she was the most beautiful girl we had ever seen. Suchi was short-tempered, though. She got into a lot of fights and had to sleep on the second floor with us little girls because the big girls wouldn’t tolerate her. The last time she went upstairs, there was a lot of shouting about a stolen comb and who had kitchen duty. In the end, Karishma, who had silky hair and never smiled, pushed Suchi through a plate glass window that was too expensive to replace. We liked it better broken because we could hop through the empty frame and get from the stairwell to the hallway so much faster.
Suchi wasn’t really a nice girl, but she was one of the only big girls who would talk to us. She taught Kajal and Papiya to tie their shoes, and she would loan us money for chips if we asked really nicely. We were always careful, though. We knew how the big girls were, and we knew not to trust anyone.
“We need a box and some cloth,” Suchita told us, and we pushed a desk under the storage cabinet so Sheetal, who had grown maybe five inches that summer, her elbows and knees sharp and bony, could climb up and steal a sheet. Suchi settled the kittens into the box from her last pair of school shoes, and we crowded into a tuition room to watch over them while she did her geography homework.
“The white one is mine.”
“He’s a girl.”
“You don’t know that.”
Suchi told us to be quiet or leave, so we went back to watching the two kittens in silence. The grey one was smaller, and we worried about him when he began mewing frantically.
“We should feed them, Suchi didi.” She didn’t know how. We tried offering the kittens bread and a bowl of milk, but they just poked their noses into the corners of the cardboard box with their eyes shut. We laughed. Suchi dipped a finger in the milk and pressed it to the grey one’s mouth, but he pulled away. We called Anna, the volunteer. She tried doing the same thing with the corner of her T-shirt, but that didn’t work either.
“They’re not hungry,” Suchi said, and Anna made us put down the kittens and wash our hands twice.
Papiya had come to the home most recently. She was still too new to talk to about anything before it. She didn’t talk much anyway, and we didn’t try too hard with her because she had such bad lice that some strands of her hair were white with nits. We didn’t want to catch them. The rest of us, we had been there long enough to talk about a life before the orphanage, but we didn’t like to. Only Asmani told stories, mostly on nights like the one when we had the kittens, when the air was thick and unbreathable with heat and we all lay awake as sweat dripped across our cheeks and into our ears and pooled behind our knees and under our backs.
“In the other orphanage,” she began, “it wasn’t like this. It was a government home, and they are different. They didn’t like children there. They like us here, at least a little bit. Here we go to school. We eat vegetables, usually. We drink milk. There, there was only rice.”
“I like rice.”
“Ey, moti, I’m talking. We all know you like rice too much. Shut up, na?” said Asmani. Jyoti got called fat pretty frequently because the Hindi word rhymed with her name, but she still got angry every time one of us said it. She turned onto her side and breathed deeply, pretending to sleep. The rest of us wanted to check on the kittens, but we were pinned to our beds by the heat, our limbs heavy under ropes of it, our lungs struggling to lift our ribcages under its weight.
“There were wolves outside,” Asmani continued, her voice lower this time. “We could hear them howling.”
“There are wolves here, too. The kittens wouldn’t have been safe from them, either.”
“We know, Suchi. We know. You saved them.”
“I’m just saying.”
“There were wolves, I said. There were wolves, and when we looked outside through the cracks in the walls—there were no windows—we could see their eyes glowing. They could smell us—we didn’t smell good, you know, because there wasn’t any soap, and they could smell us, and they wanted to eat us. And then we would put newspaper in the cracks in the walls to keep them out, but the room would fill with our breath and there wouldn’t be any oxygen left. And we would fall asleep without breathing, watching their claws scratch at the cracks and hearing their teeth snap. We could see their wild, yellow eyes glowing inside our eyelids all night long. And when we woke up, they would have eaten the newspaper out of the cracks, and all we would find would be soggy, chewed-up scraps of it in the street.”
Sonal, who was eleven but still slept on the floor and hung a damp mattress over the balcony every morning because she wet the bed, whimpered. Suchi thought it was one of the kittens, which we kept in the box under the window outside. Aunty, who cooked and cleaned for us and had teeth like the windows of the building across the street, all knocked out in turns, and whose old-man voice scared us just a little more than it irritated us, had found the box in the tuition room while we were washing up after dinner and told us that if they were inside tomorrow morning, she would beat all of us until next Saturday. We always listened to Aunty, eventually. We had to. She would beat us, and sometimes, if we were really bad, she wouldn’t give us our packets of shampoo for the week, and then everyone would lean away from us in class and stare and whisper, and we’d know that they knew—or that they remembered—that we lived in an orphanage and didn’t matter as much to anyone as they did.
“But that wasn’t so bad. We didn’t believe the wolves would get us, anyway. Their teeth were sharp, but we would have chased them out. We were wild, too. We didn’t go to school. There was a playground across the street, but we only went when there was going to be an adoption. This one morning, a woman came because she wanted to adopt one of us small girls. We—all six of us—got new dresses to wear that day, but we didn’t get to keep them. They took them back at night. Then the woman came back the next week, and we got to wear the dresses again. I knew they’d take that dress from me that night, too, but I didn’t let them. It was monsoon season, and I found the biggest puddle right there in the middle of the road and sat down in it on the way home. That yellow dress was so dirty you wouldn’t know it was the same dress. I got beaten—I had bruises on my back for two weeks—but the dress was mine. I washed it so carefully that it was almost perfect, and I wore it every day after school and everyone wanted to be my friend. They liked me there. I was the smartest one. I could read the best. I could dance the best. I could sing so much better than anyone else. All my teachers loved me. Even that woman, she wanted to adopt me most of all because I was the most beautiful and the most talented and the most interesting and kind. She really wanted to have me as her daughter. She just couldn’t. It was so sad for her, you know.”
Asmani’s stories always ended like this, just as we fell asleep.
“It was so sad for her.”
The next morning, three of us went out to check on the kittens. Suchi woke up late and ran to catch the bus, shouting as it pulled away about offering them milk. We peered inside the box to see the white one with a paw stretched across his motionless brother, mewling wildly, his eyes narrowed and his ears back. Papiya pried the grey kitten from beneath him, and we didn’t know what to think of its stiff body in her dark palm, paws crumpled against its chest. We passed it around. We shook it. We patted its head and turned it upside down. We blew on its nose. It didn’t wake up.
“Go to school,” Anna said as she took the kittens from us. We protested. She didn’t listen. Her blue eyes were lit with the sun, and her hair fluttered white-gold around her face.
We were restless all day with worry that whatever had happened to the grey one would happen to his brother. The bus ride home was so noisy that most of us got headaches.
“I hope my kitten is still alive.”
“That one is mine.”
“Who asked you? You don’t even know which is which.”
“Bas! Enough. I don’t want to hear your voice.”
When we got home from school, the box was empty. Anna was sitting on the steps, her jeans rolled up and her chin on her knees. Her hair was slipping out of a braid and sticking to her cheeks. She was smaller than most of the volunteers, and we couldn’t see her over one another when we ran up the stairs and tugged on her clothes, whining for answers. Neetu, who was old enough to know better, wandered around telling us that someone had killed them both, but we never listened to her because her one eye didn’t open all the way and it made us nervous.
Aunty scolded us. She said we shouldn’t have brought them inside. She said they smelled like us. With her eyes squinted up, she put her fingers together in front of her and made a gesture like she was throwing aside something she didn’t want to touch. They smelled like you, she said. No mother cat wants babies who smell like you. They were too small yet, she said. They needed a mother. They were too small yet to be without a mother.
We knew Aunty didn’t understand, but Anna did—we saw her eyes fill with tears when Aunty finished shouting, and she stayed with us on the porch as the sun began to set. Anna didn’t say anything, but she rubbed Suchi’s back when she cried into a dishtowel and she held small Aarti, whose thumb was in her mouth. She let Asmani tell a story about an orchard in Kolkata that we all knew was invented on the spot, and she kissed the top of Sonal’s head when she whimpered and tickled her until she laughed, a birdsong.