Cutting Open the Cat
It is my turn to split open a cat.
I am hesitating.
I am embarrassed to pause for such a long time while my lab partner waits. I concentrate on the matted length of the torso, trying to look as though I am considering the task instead of avoiding it. I am irritated. I am irritated because my lab partner, Jason, is one of those two-hundred-plus-pound linemen on our high school football team, and he is big, and he is supposed to be brave, and for no other reason than it is my turn, I am the one holding this scalpel.
I'm sure Mrs. Weippert is offering additional instructions as she makes rounds to the lab tables, making that same joke about how there is more than one way to skin a cat. I'm sure the biology room is making its usual sounds: the piranha tank gurgling in the back of the room, bubbling through the water's silence, a rodent wheel whining like a rusted hinge that opens and closes around running mice, the soft deconstruction of newspaper as the birds tear up cage lining for bedding. Everything is doing something: burrowing in dirt or batting at air or bawling in cages. Everyone is doing something. Except for my lab partner and the cat; they are both waiting on me.
A few days before, Mrs. Weippert is waiting for me when I enter the biology room after lunch and navigate through the big lab tables toward the animals housed in the classroom. I am walking toward Blueberry. My parakeet. She is the first animal for which I have had sole responsibility, with one exception. Because this exception was a tremendous failure, I take this job very seriously.
But, on this day, on this walk toward that wall lined with mesh-metal iguana boxes and mulch-bedded rodent tanks, I stop and turn to Mrs. Weippert. She has startled me by shaping her hand around my elbow as I pass. Mrs. Weippert says she's sorry and nods toward Blueberry's cage, which is rattling in the air a little. The bird is at the bottom of the cage, her wings slung back like maybe she's in flight. One leg contorts in broken angles, is pulled straight into her breast as though the leg isn't even attached to her body—as though it were, instead, some sharp yellow object stabbing her straight in the chest. Blueberry's eeks make no recognizable rhythm, though they are quite obviously patterned in pain. Her whole body is a short breath, a gasping shape of blue feathers.
A few weeks earlier, my dad returns from a day of hanging drywall. It is wet this November; the snow is late to Michigan. Still, it is to-the-bone cold when my dad returns home and kicks off his boots, his hands cupped near his chest. He has come with a gift—a gift for me, a newborn kitten. Found in a gutter where some birthing thing had left her. My dad places her in my sole care. He says, If you can get her to quit shaking, you can keep her.
I go to work.
I warm baby formula and fill a syringe. I gather her up in a hot towel and try to think of a name.
Mrs. Weippert has made her way to our table to observe me holding the scalpel over the cat. I have paused all this time because it looks like a hard thing to do—to cut open a cat, I mean. I have never opened a body before. The clams were parted for us. The giant crickets had barely been together. But this cat is pointed, cold, and hard, like one of those dangerously long icicles that anchor the mouth of a gutter—and the cat seems that far away, too. Like it is up there somewhere, and I am down here somewhere, and Jason and Mrs. Weippert are waiting for me to knock the icicle away from the roof and into the snow so we can examine it together.
I look up to Mrs. Weippert.
I don't want to cut this cat, I almost say but forget to say when we make eye contact and Mrs. Weippert doesn't look away. I've never looked a teacher in the eyes this long before. One of the heat lamps from behind me reflects in her glasses. I think she might say something, but she doesn't. She knows I know what to do. She used diagrams of cats to teach us how to name the organs and bones, how to trace veins over the limbs and into the heart, how to pull skin away from the frame so that we didn't damage the inner body. I know what to do.
This kitten won't stop shaking. Not much of the milk has made it into her mouth, and the kitten has that sweet, baby-formula stink all over her body. I massage her with my fingertips and coo at her. The kitten easily fits in the cup of my hands, and I hold her close to the core of my body, where Mrs. Weippert says the heat is strongest in us.
It is late in September, and this fall is hot. The lab tables are sticky. Everyone has brought their insect-covered cardstock to class.
During the two weeks before, I collect nineteen bugs. After they die or are killed, I display them. Some of the specimens do not require great care; the familiar house fly, for example, requires only one thin pin through the thorax. Most of the other insects, however, demand special care. I am careful to spread out the melodious ground cricket to show off the trilling sheath-wings and whip-like antennae that make the cricket look like a perfect fishing lure. The slender, horse-like snout of the brittle fungus weevil breaks off in my fingers before I even attempt to stick it. The empty body of the dead woodland katydid, shaped like a dreidel or a helicopter, nearly flakes away under the draft of the ceiling fan. And the center of my board showcases a praying mantis, looking like a spill of toothpicks held together with a string of electric green light. The bugs make a tremendous display.
We go around the class to look at everyone's twenty-insect projects. As we move from table to table, the guilt in my gut starts to pinch. I hope the mantis doesn't flutter, doesn't churn its green head, doesn't reveal what I couldn't stomach to explain to them:
I didn't catch the mantis myself. It is waiting for me one day, idly in a mason jar when I return home from school; it is a gift from my mother. It is complex and fragile and perfect.
I tap on the glass. It doesn't move. I read in our biology book that mantises have a hollow casing in the exoskeleton, which allows for detection of sound. I coo at the bug and wonder how my voice feels rattling in its body. I want to release it. But I need it for my quota. And I want it for my display. But how to kill it? The others, the less perfect and fragile bugs, could simply be hit quickly with a fly swatter and retain little damage. This method won't do for the mantis. I mull over how to kill it and to preserve its perfection. It could take weeks for a praying mantis to starve to death, so that was out of the question. On television once, during some episode of a high school science lab, I saw a bug killed with an alcohol swab put into its jar. It seemed to have worked, so I decide this method is the best way to kill this insect easily and safely.
I soak a cotton swab and place it with the mantis. I assume it won't take long for it to succumb to the fumes. The hungry and curious insect walks, still praying, toward the swab. Graceful and humanlike, it is chilling. It bends over the cotton and examines it with its antennae. But then: the burning liquid covers the triangular head of the mantis. It desperately tries to wipe the alcohol off its burning, multi-compounded eyes with its spiny arms. It scrapes and scrapes. It rubs at its face, shakes its head, buckles its body, and flickers its wings. Its antennae are flaring. I could die. It is so humanlike in all its faculties.
And the worst part is that it doesn't die.
When I press my scalpel to the cat's chest, I half expect it to convulse. But it doesn't. And when I push down and pull toward me, it doesn't take much, really. The abdomen just sort of opens up, white and rubbered, as though I simply parted two pale lips. I look at what I have done. Or, rather, what I've undone. It is not so strange, the inside of the cat; it looks pink and intricate and wet, like the back of a throat seen through an open mouth with a mirror. And it is a simple thing to do—cutting open the cat, I mean. I wouldn't think that the body would be so willing to be opened, to be entered. But I'm not the only one who's been inside this cat. Some facility worker somewhere has pushed blue dye through the veins that pump away from the chest and red dye through those that carry blood into the heart. Formaldehyde soaks the whole body, transforming the thing into a tough, still, permanent version of a cat.
Mrs. Weippert quizzes me: Adipose, I say when she touches the fatty yellow tissue of the breast with a knife. Girdle, I say, when she traces the curve of the hind limbs. Trachea, I tell her as she runs her finger over the riveted tube that arches through the throat like an extended accordion.
And this, she says. What is this?
Our cat has something that the other cats do not, that the charts had not: a swollen bulb in the gut. It is soft and brown, not tight and vivid like the other organs and muscles. I look up. Everyone in the class is looking at Mrs. Weippert, and Mrs. Weippert is looking at the cat.
Cut it open, she says.
What is it?
We are lucky to see this, she says, loud enough for everyone to hear. It is a pregnant uterine horn. See how the formaldehyde did not change the horn? The womb is a safe place, she says. Much safer than you may think. It will hold up unless opened by force. So cut it open, she says.
Cut it open? I say.
Yes, cut it open.
(Knock the icicle off the roof, I think she says.)
I don't want to disappoint her. So I cut it open.
When the vet cut open the bird—performed a biopsy, Mrs. Weippert tells me—he found a cancerous growth pushing on Blueberry's spine.
It was there all this time? I ask her.
Yes. It was there all this time, she says.
What will the vet do? I ask.
Oh . . . Mrs. Weippert says. But we've already had her put down.
But she seemed fine yesterday, I say, feeling the urge to argue with her—about what, I don't know.
That's how these things usually go, she says.
One day, toward the end of our dissection unit, Mrs. Weippert comes to class late. She tells us the news. She doesn't write anything on the board for the day. She doesn't say anything about our cats. She only says that her doctor says she's in the late stages, and we'll probably have a sub in the upcoming weeks.
We've only known that her pneumonia has turned to lung cancer for several moments now, but already she seems very different. Especially when she starts crying. Shaking, actually. And she goes to sit at her lab table, which is much bigger and higher than all the other lab tables and is in the middle of everything. She puts down her head. And doesn't lift it again for the rest of the hour.
We all look around to each other, our glances begging for someone to go get someone so that we don't have to sit in the quiet, listening to Mrs. Weippert cry, watching her rest on the lab table.
But no one goes for someone. No one does anything that first day. We just watch. And listen.
The mantis doesn't make a single sound while it buckles and scrapes. Not a single sound.
I regret keeping it. But you need it, I remind myself. I want to release it. It's too late now. I could kill it quickly with a fly swatter. You will crush it and won't be able to use it.
I shut the jar up in a cupboard and walk away.
I pull the kitten away from my body when I realize it has stopped shaking. I've almost forgotten about it as I hold it, watching television while cradling the thing. But when I pull the kitten away from my body, I realize why it has stopped shaking: I have, sometime in this last hour, suffocated it against my chest. It is not shaking. But it is not warm.
The mantis is motionless, but I still approach it cautiously. My project is due in the morning, and there is one space remaining on the board.
I tip the jar over and let the lime body fall onto the table. It convulses as the mantis tries to stand. I jump back and watch the thing bend and extend its arms into the air. When it settles, hiding next to the jar, I approach it. And even though it struggles in my quivering hands, I put it upon the board. I pin each limb and the abdomen. It twitches still. And I hope it will—at some point in the following night—die.
I don't know anything about cancer. I don't know if this is a common way for birds to die. Or for anyone to die.
I put the knife to the bulb in the cat. My hand trembles in the cavity. The horn is thick but soft under the scalpel, like slicing open a cheek full of air. But the horn is not filled with air. The formaldehyde has not changed the horn: it holds red mud, fiercely rotten bodies, a ruddy stench—all untouched inside the place where a mother left her kittens, a place never meant to be touched. I drop the scalpel into the cat and put my latexed hands over my mouth and nose. I have never smelled anything like those kittens before—I doubt any of us have. People always say that you'll know death from a mile away when you smell it. I would know those kittens were dead even if I hadn't seen them—the smell fills the room; you can’t get away from it.
I look up. Everyone is looking to Mrs. Weippert. Mrs. Weippert is looking into the cat. Later, we will gossip in low tones about her reaction. There will be rumors that the cat made her cry. There will be whispers that it reminded her of the son she found bloated, naked in a water-filled tub with a bag closed around his head. How she was expressionless, like a plastic sheen covered her face. And how we waited with our hands over our noses for her to do something. To tell us something. How the smell was unbearable. We were all holding our breath.
I don't exactly know when Mrs. Weippert stopped breathing.
But, at her funeral, I keep thinking of something she taught us before the sub took over permanently. We had saved the cat's heart for last—not in a dramatic way, but because the heart is complicated. Mrs. Weippert taught us that a human heart and a cat heart are very similar. That the heart has evolved over epochs, losing chambers, gaining chambers. That blue whales are giant but need only four beats per minute. But right now, I am thinking about turtle hearts. A turtle's heart is very strong, she’d said. After it is removed by the body, if left in salt water, it will continue to beat for days after the turtle has been killed, each piece of heart contracting, trying to live. Even if cut into a thousand pieces.
Manda Frederick holds an MFA in nonfiction from the Inland Northwest Center for Writers. She currently serves as the managing editor of a print and e-learning educational company in the tech industry. She resides in Philadelphia, PA.