HARD TIMES

By Nancy Machlis Rechtman

No one knew where they came from. It seemed they just appeared out of nowhere one day. It was hard to tell at first, but it turned out there were seven of them. Orphans, all of them, though we never did find out if they were all from one family or, if not, how they came to be together.

When they showed up that day, just as the last snow of winter was disappearing, the town went wild. I mean, you’ve got to admit, it’s a pretty strange sight to see a string of orphans, all in clothes that didn’t fit properly, suddenly appearing out of the clear blue sky at the edge of town like some ragtag band, and then setting up camp. That’s what my daddy called it – “setting up camp.” But I never did see any tent or anything.

To tell the truth, no one actually saw where they settled after they arrived. They must have built themselves some kind of a shelter deep in those woods because that’s where they disappeared every night. They never let anyone close enough during the day to follow them. And, you better believe that no one was going to follow them into the woods when it was pitch black, and you couldn’t even see your own hand in front of your face.

Folks in town didn’t exactly welcome strangers with open arms. They usually kept pretty much to themselves and regarded outsiders as intruders, to be treated with suspicion and mistrust. That suited the orphans just fine since it was obvious they felt the same way about the folks in town.  

In the beginning, a few of the women clucked about the orphans being “savages” who should be dragged into town, given a good scrubbing and forced to go to school like the rest of us poor miserable kids. They even went to the mayor about it. But since no one in town really wanted the orphans in their midst, the idea died a quiet death, and the orphans were left to themselves.

My family lived on the edge of town, as close to the woods as was possible while still being considered part of the town. My mama said it was positively spooky having those “wild Indians” living so close to us. Daddy just laughed and told her to stop being afraid of poor, homeless children. Mama told me she better not catch me near any of those “barbarians” or else. But I used to sneak out of my bed when I knew she and Daddy had fallen asleep, and I’d creep outside and look around, trying to see if I could see anything in the moonlight. I never could, but boy did my imagination run wild.  

I imagined what kind of a home the orphans had made for themselves in the woods and what it must be like not to have any adults around to make you listen to them and tell you when to go to sleep, and what it must be like inside those dark, forbidding woods, and what kind of wild animals must be watching and waiting… I’d finally go back to bed, too wound up to fall asleep, and I’d walk around the whole next day like a zombie. Mama always looked at me suspiciously on those mornings, but she kept her mouth shut, thank goodness.

Although we lived on the outskirts of town, we did have a few neighbours not too far away. The closest was the cat lady. That’s what we called her since no one could pronounce – or even remember – her real name anyway, and she was always taking in strays. All of us kids thought she was the most ancient lady in the world. She never paid any attention to what anyone said or thought, although I wonder if she even knew. Most of the people in town called her “eccentric” when they were being polite.  

One of the cat lady’s peculiarities was her habit of waking before dawn every morning and taking a walk down to the woods. People felt that no person in her right mind would go alone to those woods, especially when it wasn’t fully light. But the cat lady had been doing it for as long as I could remember, and nothing had ever happened to her. Secretly, I always wished I could join her. And, rumour had it that the cat lady was bringing food to those “barbarians” on her pre-dawn journeys.

I sure hoped that the rumour was true because I wondered how in the world the orphans were managing to eat unless they were just living on tree bark and acorns. I guess other folks were wondering the same thing, and it was making some of them awfully uneasy. Actually, it was as if they were looking for any excuse to make themselves uneasy about the orphans. It was like they knew, deep down, that they should be doing something to help them, but they didn’t do anything, so instead, they decided that the orphans were trouble and that something had to be done about them.

Rumours started flying that the orphans were stealing food from the grocer or from “honest, hard-working folks’ homes.” The mayor’s wife swore she had set a hot apple pie to cool on her window ledge and only left the room for a minute. But when she came back, the pie was gone, and she insisted that she saw one of those “ruffians” racing down the alley, carrying her fresh apple pie. Didn’t matter if it was true or not. She was the mayor’s wife and elected herself to be in charge of all the moral behaviour in our town.

People started grumbling and told the mayor that he better do something about the orphans. Of course, they meant that he better get rid of them, but no one would actually come out and say that. And, he was getting all that pressure from his wife, which, knowing her, must have been worse than being tied to a chair for several days straight and listening to someone’s nails scraping up and down a chalkboard the whole time. But he couldn’t just go and kick them out of town. Although, as I said, they weren’t really in town.

So, he decided to give them some kind of an ultimatum. Since he didn’t know exactly how to contact them, he decided to leave a note pinned to a tree at the edge of the woods. He brought the sheriff and his deputy with him since he didn’t want to go near those woods alone. The note said the orphans should appear at the courthouse at 2:00 PM that Friday. Word spread, and people took bets on whether or not the orphans would show up.

Friday came, and I’d never seen that courthouse so packed. Seemed as if they’d stuffed the whole town in there like one big can of sardines. Just as the clock struck 2:00, the courthouse door opened. There were the orphans, all seven of them, dressed as raggedy as ever but looking like they had scrubbed themselves as clean as was possible for them. The oldest led them in. Looking at them, their ages probably ranged from fifteen on down to maybe two.  

It was the littlest one that you noticed right away though – he had the face of an angel, and his curly hair was so blond, it was as if the sun itself had come to rest on his head. As they walked in, they all looked straight ahead, and I swear, I’ve never again seen all of those gossips and loud-mouths from town so quiet.

The orphans marched themselves to the front of the courthouse, where the mayor (who was also the judge) was waiting for them. He motioned for them to sit down, but they stood. The mayor was obviously uncomfortable, and he kept clearing his throat. Finally, he came out with it. Basically, it was a lot of legal mumbo-jumbo, but it all boiled down to the fact that since the orphans were all minors, someone needed to take care of them. The mayor said that they couldn’t go on living in the woods – it just wasn’t natural – and besides, rainy season was coming on, so what would they do then anyway? And, if they couldn’t find someone to take care of them, they’d have to move on; it was as simple as that. He sat back and wiped the sweat from his forehead. The whole town seemed to breathe a sigh of relief, thinking who in the world would want to take care of a pack of orphans.  

But their relief was cut short when the cat lady stood up. She said she’d be happy to take the orphans in if they’d like to stay with her. Somebody yelled out that these weren’t a bunch of her damn stray cats. The cat lady ignored the outburst and told the mayor to let her know what she had to do to make things legal.

The mayor slumped down in his seat like she had just punched him hard in his gut. His face looked kind of greenish-blue. The cat lady walked over to the orphans and asked them if they’d like to come live with her since she wouldn’t mind having some human company for a change. The orphans didn’t hesitate. It’s like they had this instant bond with each other. They saw something in that old lady that they recognized and instinctively knew they belonged with each other. And they had probably figured out that she was the one who was leaving them food every day. The oldest boy nodded his head, and that was that. The cat lady said he knew where to find her, and she turned and walked out. The orphans followed, like seven little ducklings.  

When the door shut behind them, it was suddenly like the 4th of July in that courtroom – sparks were flying, eyes were flashing, tempers exploding. But there was nothing they could do. Not legally, anyway. Well, they consoled themselves; the cat lady lived so far on the edge of town that it really didn’t matter much since no one ever had much dealings with her anyway. Some of the ladies still clucked about how the orphans should be forced to go to school. No one really cared as long as they kept out of sight and stopped stealing food – although it had never been proved that they were actually taking food from anybody.

So the orphans moved in with the cat lady, and I was glad because the rainy season came on like a bat out of hell, and I would have worried about them if they were still living outside in those deep, dark woods. They seemed pretty happy with the cat lady. I’d see them every once in a while, and they all looked sturdy and healthy, and I was relieved I didn’t have to worry about them anymore. The town seemed to have forgotten about them, too.

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(Story continued below)

I think the orphans really loved that old lady. After they moved in, they did everything they could to help her. I heard that they cleaned up the house, took care of the yard, repainted the outside, and helped her take care of all those cats. No one knew exactly how many cats she had since she was always taking more strays in. Whenever you passed by that house, you could bet that if you saw one of the orphans, there’d be at least one or two cats with him. The strays were adopting the strays. That’s how I liked to think about it, although which strays adopting which strays was still a question in my mind.

As the year wore on, I saw my daddy smiling less and less. Mama started looking more and more like my sister, always putting her lips together real tight, with the worry lines digging themselves deeper and deeper into her face. I knew something was up even though they kept telling me that everything was just fine. But Daddy got paler and paler and weaker and weaker, and I think I knew even though nobody said anything. It took a few months, and then one day, he was gone, just like that. But it wasn’t really just like that.

My sister invited us to stay with her and her husband in town for as long as Mama needed to “readjust herself.” I didn’t want to go. I had never liked my sister – she was always so prim and proper and never smiled at all. Even Mama admitted that she considered herself lucky to have married her off in the first place. But somehow, she convinced Mama that it would be good for her to be in town with other people around, so we went. I guess Mama was lonely with just me for company.

But I was never so miserable in my entire life as I was living with my gnarly old sister. And, I hated living in town – I never thought I’d miss those giant, spooky trees at the edge of our property that led into the woods, but I did. The only decent surprise was that my sister’s husband turned out not to be half bad. That really surprised me since I had never had much respect for him, marrying my sister and all. But after a while, we even kind of got to be friends, and life there wasn’t so bad after that.

No one knew how long she had been dead, but somehow it was discovered that the cat lady had died. The orphans had buried her and all; they just hadn’t bothered to tell anybody. Which kind of makes sense when you think about it. I mean, who would they tell? But it was found out, and it turned out that she had left a will, all signed and notarized. Only problem was that she had made it out before she met the orphans and obviously forgot to change it before she died. The house and everything she had was left to some nephew who lived several hundred miles away in the big city. Of course, the will also made sure that the nephew would take care of all her cats.

So, the lawyer contacted the nephew. He arrived in town with the most expensive shiny black car anyone had ever seen and the most beautiful wife you could possibly imagine. Everyone stopped dead in their tracks as that car passed them by and pulled up in front of the lawyer’s office. Later that day, the nephew and his wife drove out to the cat lady’s house. The orphans and the cats were all there to greet them. The wife was horrified and asked her husband if there wasn’t something he could do to get those “filthy vermin” out of that house. And she wasn’t talking about the cats. The husband said he’d work on it.

Word was that the wife decided the house was “quaint” and said she thought it would be quite a lark for them to leave the city and move into the house. She stood in front of the seven orphans and all the cats and ordered them to be out of the house by the next day – or else. The nephew reminded her that the cats would have to stay. On their way back into town, they passed our house, which was all boarded up, and they decided on the spot that they wanted to buy it in order to own all the land between the two houses. Mama didn’t want to sell at first, but they offered her enough money to fix her for life, and since times were as hard as they were, she didn’t have much choice.

The next week, after settling all of their business in the city, the nephew and his wife moved into the cat lady’s house. They found all the cats still there, but the orphans were gone. The nephew’s wife wanted to get rid of all the cats, but since that was part of the will, she was more or less stuck with them. But she did the very best she could to “encourage” the cats to run away. And, I guess the cats knew they weren’t wanted, and eventually, they did run off. Some found homes in town, but most just disappeared. The nephew’s wife decided to keep one little kitten which she thought was just the “cutest little thing.” It was just a little fluffy baby and didn’t know any better, so it stayed.

The nephew hired men to tear down our house. I snuck by one day to see for myself. It looked like someone had dropped a bomb on it, but it was hard to feel sad since it didn’t even look like my house anymore. It didn’t look like anything recognizable – it looked like the woods had taken revenge on it for trespassing, and now the woods were reclaiming it as their own.

The nephew and his wife didn’t associate with the people in town more than was absolutely necessary. They preferred to bring their friends in from the city. They were always having big parties that seemed to last for days on end, and every once in a while, we’d get a glimpse of another shiny black car as it roared down Main Street on its way to or from their house.

Now that the weather was getting colder again, I was curious to know how the orphans were doing. I figured they were somewhere in the woods, although no one ever saw them anymore. We lived too far away now for me to sneak out at night. But I worried about them. And we had one of the bitterest winters ever that year. The air was so cold it hurt just to breathe. And the snow was piled so high I was afraid I’d disappear into a giant drift one day and never be found. As much as I hate to admit it, it was actually a relief to walk into my sister’s house after being out in that awful cold.

About that time, the rumours started. I guess the orphans were having a pretty bad time of it, alone in the woods in the middle of that bone-chilling weather. It seems that they figured the nephew might want to help them, that he might have a heart, so they came to him, only asking for blankets and food and that kind of thing. And it wasn’t like the nephew was broke – he had plenty. But the wife would have nothing to do with them. She chased them away with a broom whenever they showed up. Or she slammed the door in their faces. Soon, rumour had it that the orphans were doing poorly – that they were thin and sickly looking, and some were having trouble walking. And that the littlest one had gotten a cough that just wouldn’t quit.

One day when there was finally a break in all that snow, the nephew and his wife decided to take a drive since they were getting cabin fever stuck alone in that house all that time, except for the orphans showing up. But when they got to their car, they discovered that the tires had been slashed. Now, there were lots of people who resented them and all their money while the rest of us were dealing with such hard times, but they immediately blamed the orphans. And, if they had done it, I sure wouldn’t have blamed them.

The orphans kept trying to get some kind of help from the nephew and his wife. But the wife was so upset about the slashed tires that she screamed that they were dirty filthy animals and they should be rounded up and shot, and that one day they just might find a shotgun right between their eyes…

Winter wore on, and rumour now that the orphans were slowly starving to death, if not freezing to death. It was too cold for them to make it to town to try to get anyone else to help them. I asked Mama if there wasn’t something we could do for them, and she said not to believe all those rumours since no one ever saw them anyway. I told her I was worried that they were going to starve. She told me to stop talking so much and to go do my homework.

A few days later, we heard sirens heading toward the edge of town. They were able to save the house – just an upstairs bedroom was damaged since that’s where the fire started. The rest of the house was fine. The nephew said he couldn’t imagine what caused the fire since no one ever used that room. The chief said it looked like faulty wiring. The wife went into hysterics and screamed that it was those “seven devils” in the woods, and she wanted justice to be served. And she became even more hysterical when she discovered that her precious little kitten had disappeared. They tried calming her down and told her there was no evidence that the orphans had anything to do with the fire or the kitten. But she knew what she knew, she said.

Next day, the orphans showed up. From what we heard from my second cousin, who was working part-time as a maid for the nephew and his wife, the oldest boy was carrying the littlest one who had become too weak to walk. The wife saw them coming, threw a bucket of ice water in their faces, and started screaming about them starting the fire and stealing her precious little kitten. Even though they told her they didn’t know anything about her kitten, as they turned and left, the wife screamed that they were going to pay for what they had done.

The next day, when the wife looked outside for her newspaper, there was her darling little kitten scratching at the door. She shrieked with delight and let the kitten in, not noticing the orphans shivering at the edge of the woods. As the day drew to a close, she was happier than she had been in ages, relieved that there had been no visit by the orphans. When the nephew arrived at his home, he was awfully surprised to get a big kiss from his wife. She told him she wanted to throw another party, that she needed something “terribly extravagant” to take her mind off all the awful trauma she’d been through. The nephew agreed, anything to keep her happy. So she called all of her fancy friends and told them to come over that Saturday night for the party to end all parties.

She was so busy that week ordering everyone around and getting ready for her big extravaganza that she actually forgot about the orphans and the fact that they hadn’t shown up at all ever since she had thrown that ice water at them. On Saturday, she got herself all dolled up, and the nephew was happy to have his beautiful, carefree wife back to normal.

In town, we knew something big was up when we saw lines of shiny black cars making their way down Main Street. We had never seen anything like this before. There was so much music and fun that I’m sure I was able to hear all the celebrating from my room. I was up half the night imagining what it must be like to eat all that fine food and wear those fine clothes and not worry about going hungry…

I guess sometime the next morning, the wife realized that her precious kitten was missing again. She told my second cousin to help her look in the yard and all through the house, but there was just no sign of her little darling. The nephew said that all the noise had probably scared it away and it was probably hiding somewhere, but that it would surely show up now that all was peaceful once again.

The wife had trouble sleeping that night and woke up very early the next morning. It was a dull grey day, the kind where the clouds are hanging heavy in the sky, making it clear that they’re up to no good. The nephew and the guests who had stayed were all still sleeping, and so was my second cousin, who had stayed overnight to help out. The wife went downstairs to get the paper. She opened the door and then she screamed. A scream like you hear from a wounded animal, everyone said. A scream that could wake the dead. The nephew and the guests, and my second cousin ran to see what happened and found her frozen at the doorway. They looked down, and then everyone saw. Lying on the doorstep was the littlest orphan, carefully wrapped in a worn, torn blanket, as dead as can be. And, tucked into his arms was the little kitten, fast asleep.

The doctor came and gave some kind of sedation to the wife, and then the nephew drove the wife back to the city, never to return. They had their belongings sent to them. Rumour has it that the wife had to be put in an institution for a while. The nephew tried selling the house but had no luck. So it just stood there neglected, at the very edge of the woods. The orphans could have moved in at that point since no one would’ve known or cared. But they just kind of disappeared. I couldn’t really blame them.

Every once in a while, I gather up my courage and head down that way. It’s hard to tell now that there ever was a house there. Just like my house, the woods reclaimed something that never belonged there in the first place. When I’m there, I always stop right at the edge of those woods, where there are only a few moss-covered trees before the dense growth takes over. I’ve never been able to enter those woods to find out their secret. But I still do wonder whatever became of those orphans.


Nancy Machlis Rechtman has had poetry and short stories published in Literary Yard, Paper Dragon, Page & Spine, The Thieving Magpie, Quail Bell, Anti-Heroin Chic, and Academy of the Heart and Mind. She wrote freelance Lifestyle stories for a local newspaper and writes a blog called Inanities.

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