Maggie Elizabeth Harrington is the story of a young woman in the 1890s, whose world is a remote northern Michigan mining town, where she tries to save a pack of young wolves from a bounty hunter.
A terse historical love story of a young woman’s struggle with environmental and moral issues concerning the slaughter of wolves, and the church’s condemnation of her love for a young man, are as real in today’s global world as they were for young Maggie more than a century ago.
My father drowns my kittens. It is like a ritual. Every summer Princess has a litter of kittens; and every summer my father drowns them. It makes me dread the summer, which is sad, because I love the sun. I like to see the flowers reaching up to the sky, as if they were trying to touch the sun. There is a large field behind my house where I watch the lupines, daisies, sweet peas and lazy Susan’s as they sway back and forth in the wind. Lazy Susan’s are my favorite, because like them, I am kind of lazy. I am also a dreamer. I have lived in my dream world for as long as I can remember, and I think I will always live there. I like to daydream, because in dreams I can have things the way I want them to be, not the way they are. Not the way my father says they are. Not the way the Reverend White says they are. Not even the way my friend Annie Stetter says they are. They are exactly the way I want them. So I will always live in two worlds, in the real world where I have to be, and in my dream world where I prefer to be.
I hear my father clanging around out by the shed. He has brought a steel gray washtub out of the basement and put it down on the grass. In one half of the shed he keeps his shovels and rakes for the garden. The other half of the shed is a chicken coop. It is June, it is late Saturday afternoon, and my father has just come home from the copper mine where he works. Most of the chickens are outside the coop walking around clucking and pecking in their fenced yard. I watch them. They are such stupid animals, walking around on their bony feet looking primitive. They look like little stick people, without arms, wearing silly hats on top of their heads. They make me laugh a little, even on this day, which I know is going to be very sad.
I know why my father has brought out the washtub, to drown the kittens. I am holding Princess on my lap. I have to hold her to keep her from running over to them. I looked in on the kittens this morning and their eyes were not open yet. I am glad for that. I am glad they cannot see where they will be going, and I didn’t have to see their little kitten eyes, look into their tiny faces, all the while knowing that my father would be coming for them soon. Until they have eyes, they don’t really have faces. They cannot see and love me, and I cannot look into their tiny eyes and love them either. So it is less personal.
I cannot kill anything. It is not in my power to kill things like my father does. I could not kill a chicken like he does every Sunday. That is something that only my father can do. And he seems to do it with an ease that is hard for me to understand. I would like to ask him about that, I would like to know how he can so matter-of-fact remove a life from this world. Chickens and kittens are not like carrots and beans that you plant in your garden. You grow carrots and beans from a dry seed. Then you pull them from the earth and eat them, and then plant more seeds. But kittens do not come from dry seeds, they come from other kittens, just like people come from other people. Why it is alright to kill a chicken, or a kitten, but you are not supposed to kill a person. That doesn’t seem to make any sense. We all come into this world from the same place.
I can forgive my father for the chickens; we have them for dinner. I eat them, even though I hate to think about killing them. I like our Sunday dinner of roast chicken, mashed potatoes, and bread stuffing that my grandmother makes. I like to cook, and I like to eat chicken. I know that I have to eat, and I believe that it is all right that we have to kill a chicken for our dinner. But we don’t eat kittens, so it is not the same as it is with the chickens. There is no reason for killing the kittens.
My father goes back into the house and he comes out with a box. I hold princess very tight on my shoulder, with her head away from the shed. I watch my father walk over to the steel gray washtub he has filled with water and dump the contents of the box into the tub. It takes my breath away when I see Brownie, Tiger, Sugar, Edward, Ginger, and Jackie tumble into the water. It makes my heart pound and I cannot breathe.
I remember the day they came into the world; the day they slid all gooey and sticky out of Princess. I remember how she spent the whole day licking and cleaning them as they clutched at her nipples. How they would squirm and push at each other as they struggled to get to her milk. It was so funny to watch them. They were so cute as they hung from her like furry young pears hanging from a tree, clinging to the nipples that give them life. I found the birthing of the kittens so amazing. One minute they are not here, and the next minute they have crawled mysteriously out of a dark, wet, and slippery world that exists inside Princess.
Now they are in this world, crawling around and looking for a nipple to hang onto so they can be fed and grow. I find it amazing. But my father does not see it as very amazing. I think he must see them as just kind of useless. I don’t think he cares much about anything except filling his stomach with chicken and other things that he kills. I have asked him why he kills the kittens. He tells me he is killing them because he does not wish to feed them. Because they have to be fed something that he could put in his stomach.
“I can’t be feeding every kitten that cat of yours is going to have. I would be feeding an army of them if I didn’t drown them every summer. You are going to have to learn, Maggie Elizabeth, the world doesn’t feed you for nothing. You have to earn your keep. You don’t work; you don’t eat. And anything that can’t work isn’t of any use. Those kittens aren’t of any use. We can’t even eat them.”
Why can’t he eat them? They are not so different than chickens other than the way they look. They are much prettier than chickens, but they have meat, and they have to be fed just like chickens, and they will grow up to be cats. Why couldn’t he just raise them and eat them. At least he wouldn’t have to drown them. Maybe if he let them grow they might just run off one day and have kittens of their own. I simply don’t understand why he has to drown them? He keeps Princess because she keeps the mice out of the house. Our basement, where we store food and wash our clothes, is very damp. It is full of little moles and mice. Princess catches them all the time. I could leave the door cracked open so there would be more mice. The kittens could catch mice just like Princess does when they get a little older. Then he wouldn’t have to feed them at all. But he won’t listen. He will drown them instead. I think he just doesn’t want to bother with them. Maybe he simply doesn’t like them. I don’t think my father likes very much. I don’t think he likes very many people. My mother died when I was born. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t seem to like me very much, either.
I can hear the kittens in the water. I hear them scratching at the sides of the tub. But I cannot see them unless I was to walk over by the shed and look down into the tub, which I would never do. I stay seated on the back porch steps with Princess. She is uncomfortable on my shoulder, squirming and wiggling. I take her with both of my hands and hold her out in front of me, and look at her face. I look at her eyes and I see fear. She can hear her kittens and she wants to go to them. She loves them. I don’t understand how a dumb cat can love something and not want it to die, and my father doesn’t love anything. I don’t understand this. Princess is trying to get away from me to save her kittens, and he is just standing there letting them drown. Not feeling anything other than he must feed them, and because they cannot work they are useless.
I wonder if their eyes are open as they struggle in the water. I wonder if they have tried to get at least one peek of the world they are leaving. The world they did not ask to come into. I hope they haven’t opened their eyes. There is not that much worth seeing. There is very little on this earth that makes you really happy. My father has taught me that.
I walk up the steps and put Princess back in the house. I am worried she will get away from me and run to her kittens. I do not want her to see what is happening to the kittens she loves, but my father doesn’t. So I put her inside the door and walk back down the steps. I can feel the bright sun on my face and I shield my eyes. I like the summer and the sun. They are feeding the flowers, feeding our garden full of beans, potatoes, peas and carrots. All we have to do is put the seeds in the ground and let the sun feed them. So my father is wrong. The world will feed us by itself if we let it. He is very wrong and he does not have to drown my kittens. I hate him right now. I know that I shouldn’t, he is my father. But right now, right this minute, as my kittens struggle for their lives and he does nothing, I hate him.
After several minutes the scratching against the side of the tub stops. My father pokes in the tub with his finger. Making sure they are dead. It gives me goose bumps to see him poking at my dead kittens. But he wants to make sure that none of them are alive. I hate him as I think about this. He pulls his hand out of the tub and shakes the water off. Yes, they are all dead. They have all drowned. They are filled with water instead of milk, and returned to wherever they came from, a place where no one has ever been, where no one survives. He takes the spade he had gotten from the shed, goes out to the garden on the other side of our yard, and digs a hole among the potatoes and carrots. Then he gets the washtub and carries it out to the garden, past the clucking funny looking chickens that are all right to eat, and dumps the dead kittens into the hole.
I watch where the spot is. Later I will make a little marker out of some sticks and twine. I will make a cross so that my kittens can go to heaven. This idea makes me feel a little better. The helpless feeling as I watched my father drowning them is starting to ease. I hate that feeling, knowing that something is happening that I don’t want to happen, and I am powerless to stop it. I am not going to live like that when I grow up. When I am older I am going to stop those things before they happen; and never feel that way again. But right now I am thirteen years old, and I can’t stop anything. I am thirteen years old, and I have chosen to live in a dream world because I cannot stop the things in the real world I do not like. Someday that will change. But even then I think I will hate my father. I think I will always hate him because of what he does to my kittens, and because I don’t think he likes me that much either. He just doesn’t drown me.
He fills the hole in with earth and stands there for a moment. It looks like he is saying a prayer for them. Why would you say a prayer for something you just killed? Why would you pray for something you removed on purpose from the world? That doesn’t seem to make any sense. But that is what I think he is doing. Then he puts the spade in the tub and walks back to the shed. He looks at the chickens as he walks by. He is picking out our Sunday dinner. I wonder if they know why he is looking at them. He puts the spade back in the shed and walks towards me carrying the washtub.
As he walks past me, down into the basement, he says to me. “You can’t just sit there all day, Maggie Elizabeth. You have chores to do. That soil out there needs to be loosened. The wash has got to be done. We need clean clothes for church tomorrow. This is Saturday and we have to catch up the chores before church tomorrow,” he says, and then he disappears down into the basement.
I don’t know why we go to church? Why we go and pray every Sunday to be forgiven for all the things we did wrong all week. It seems to me that it would be easier to simply not do all those things we did all week, and then sleep in on Sunday. But my father is a hard man, and I learned a long time ago not to think about those things and just do what he says. He is not a cruel man, in spite of what he did to my kittens. He is not cruel; he is just a hard man. I am sure it is because my mother died. Maybe all the love that God had given him went to heaven with her. Maybe he is bitter because I am here and my mother is not. I have asked him about my mother, but he doesn’t like to talk about her.
It makes him sad and he just shakes his head and says, “Never mind, Maggie Elizabeth. We can’t live in the past. What is done is done. It won’t do any good to be dragging it all up again. It won’t change a thing. It won’t make things different.”
I think this why he is so bitter. He just doesn’t believe things can get any better. I don’t feel that way.
But I know how he is, so, when he says, “It’s time to get up and do your chores,” I know it is time I got up and did my chores.
I am a little frightened, though, to go down into the basement today. I do not want to go down there and put my clothes in the steel gray tub that my kittens were drowned in and wash them. I do not want to put my hands into the tub. I am afraid I might touch their little spirits, which must be very sad and angry right now, and are still clinging to the sides of the washtub. But I do not want to make my father angry, either. He is a hard man, my father. He is not cruel, but his life has made him hard.