eleven: I find eyes of red staring back at me from the folds of my underwear. I tell my older sister Aisha that I feel like someone has thrusted kitchen knives into my center. She raises her eyebrows in disbelief and says, “But you’re too young.” At night, the red cat greets me, as Aisha has alerted me that she will come. With its lipstick-red fur, I feel the animal’s body press up against mine. I shove her off the bed in an attempt to reclaim my space again, but she hops back up and circles my mattress, situating herself onto my neck. I try to look unphased, but it occurs to me that she will never leave me alone. I check myself in the bathroom the rest of the night, washing and rewashing myself. I teach myself all the different shades of red.
fourteen: I sit with my friends after prayer and listen to the aunties tell us what they feel we must know. “You’ll burn in hell for every strand of hair a man sees,” says one of the aunties. She shoves the word hell into our faces like a mirror. By now, cats appear everywhere, their tails dancing like live bodies on fire: in the bedroom with me; in the kitchen with my mother slumped over the counter (too tired to cook dinner); in the room when the aunties catch my older sister Aisha coming home on a Friday, smelling of weed. I can hear them corner Aisha in the kitchen and speak until they’ve exhausted the feral out of her. Aisha spends the weekend praying dutifully. She tries to teach me about worship. “Desire for things in this world will only make you hungrier,” she says, in that distant, arrogant voice. She decides to only smoke weed on Sundays.
seventeen: “You’re such a good girl,” the aunties say to me. They give me hugs and kisses. “So wise, so smart. So good.” I play football with the guys until I buy my first bra. Then I learn to sit politely like my mother’s daughter. In the living room, I overhear one of the aunties admit to the other that her own daughter is shamelessly dating around. The color of my auntie’s shame is ghost white. The mention of her daughter is like some sort of wound. Now the aunties are all looking at me again, beaming. Their tongues dance like a cat’s tail: “Your parents raised you so well.”
twenty: Mama says there are mice in the house. She does not say that they are attracting the cats, but the cats come, unrestrained. We all take a turn leaving the door open for the cats to come and go from the house as they please. When the aunties visit, they leave the backdoor ajar. Everyone older than us knows that the animals are there but won’t acknowledge it with their words. Aisha and I learn to do the same. On the couch, I make room for a cat or two to settle in beside me. They circle all the bedrooms. Their scratches cut open the pillows. We hear their hisses as they paw each other in the hallways. The cats live and eat freely, filling the corners of our house. Aisha and I send the most naive of us all, our youngest sister Leila, to set up mice traps in the basement. She does this thoroughly. She comes back up and smiles proudly: “It’s done,” she says. I notice that she looks a bit different. Her body has taken the shape of something in-between: a girl on the verge of becoming a woman. Her hair, in floppy pigtails. Her hips, in curves.
twenty-two: I come home late and I find Aisha and Leila sitting in the living room. The smell of male perfume beams from my neck. Aisha takes a cat; thrusts her into my hands.
“You’re being reckless,” she says, in intense whispers. “You’re lucky Leila and I are the only ones awake!” She threatens to slap me, but the cat scratches me instead. My wrist bleeds, and I feel the true weight of the animal in my arms.
In anger, I lift Aisha’s sleeve and reveal cat scratches all against her olive-colored skin. Aisha pushes away from me. “Why would you do that?” she asks.
“What are those?” I ask, pretending to be innocent.
“I don’t want to talk about it with you,” she says. She holds onto the edges of the sleeve to cover her scars.
Despite her anxiousness, my sister is very beautiful. She has a curvy waist and round, soft eyes that make people trust her. But her confidence seems ruptured. Much like a flimsy door, she opens and closes indecisively. She walks in her body as if it is borrowed, as if she must only be known as a girl knelt in prayer.
I go to my room to be alone, but it is no more peaceful than the rest of the house. I grab a cat, pull her close to my chest. I push my face into her fur, finding familiarity. She hisses. The bottom of my tight dress rides up to my thigh, and quietly I admire the shape of my shadow cast against the wall until I see, too, a tail appear. I think of Aisha, dancing madly in the car with me one day and then suddenly stopping. How everything stops, when we remember the cats. “I probably shouldn’t do that,” she says, shyly looking around us. “It’s better I don’t do that.”
eleven: Leila turns eleven. A week later, she is in the kitchen with her back against a closed door. She stares at her feet, deeply thinking. I know what is on the other side of that door, and I gently tell her to open it.
“No way,” she says.
“Don’t be afraid like Aisha,” I say. “Let the cat in.”
But Leila is unwavering. “No,” she says.
“I’m telling you what to do. You should listen to me,” I say, “this is the only way you will not be afraid.”
At the end of my sentence, I can’t hide the shift in pitch, the break. The silence after exposes me. Leila watches me with wide eyes. Suddenly I feel that I am the younger one out of the two of us. I look around and with a sweep of my gaze make observations about the house, that it is mounting with cats, with dust, with filth.
“I’m not letting her in,” Leila says again.
In the corner of my eye, I see two mice scramble across our living room floor.
Nardine Taleb is an Egyptian-American writer, speech therapist, and Prose Editor of Gordon Square Review based in Cleveland, Ohio. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Passengers Journal, Yes Poetry, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and others. Twitter: @nardineta. Instagram: @nardineta.