I was nine the summer I learned what cruelty was. It was then I knew it was true, what Tom had said. Berta really had killed two husbands.
Berta was always there, silent and disapproving. She grimly did the chores that came with a house, a big garden and some chickens, and never ever smiled or even acknowledged the children next door. The other kids would giggle and run away when she glared at us with her dark and joyless eyes, and ageless wrinkled face. But I was shy and never dared to make
much noise around Berta.
Her husband, Tom, was a big gentle Irishman with smile lines all over and boot blacking on his eyebrows. He told wonderful stories and I listened in awe to every one. There were stories of Ireland, the most perfect place on earth, and stories about his two strapping sons. I always wondered what strapping meant. But the story I remember the most was about Berta’s husbands. Tom insisted that Berta had killed two husbands before him and he’d be damned if she was going to kill him. He said she ran over the first husband with a wagon. He never told me what happened to the second.
Berta kept a grey-striped barn cat, simply called “Cat.” Cat lived in Berta’s shed and ate mice and chased the rats away from the chickens. Sometimes Cat would sneak away next door and curl up in my lap if I was really still. She felt warm and prickly soft, but she didn’t like people much and never stayed long.
Berta didn’t want the kittens that Cat would produce every now and then, so she drowned them. She didn’t do it when they were brand new and sightless. No, she waited till they were cute and furry and tumbling all over each other and Cat was having trouble keeping them together. My little brother and I clutched the wire fence on our side, wide eyed and horrified, but still we watched as Berta stuffed all the kittens one by one, in a grungy old gunny sack. Then she filled a big bucket with water, sat on her worn bench, and dunked that sack. She had to hold it down in the water because the kittens were crying and bumping around in the sack. It took a long time, but finally they were quiet.
With hard black eyes locked to mine, she pulled the sack from the bucket, water streaming from the still small bulges at the bottom. She stood, and the corners of her lipless mouth stretched into a malevolent grin.
We didn’t feel much like playing after that. I think my little brother went to bed. I sat on the step a while and thought about the second husband. I knew then what had happened to him.