The story of Catharine

When Catharine was a child, her parents told stories. Some were written in books, others improvised or recited from memory. Catharine’s mother would sit on the edge of the bed in lamplight, reading. “Why?” asks Catherine: for every story, Why. Sometimes her mother knows the answer, sometimes she invents. Catharine makes pictures of her mother’s words. The pictures come to life as dreams, embellished by the hopes and fears of a child.

The clapboard bungalow is modest but tidy. Catharine’s father sustains them on his laborer’s wage. As a child he learned the virtues of hard work and economy from parents who would never forget the Depression and its humiliations. Catharine’s life will be better because he, too, will pass down everything he has learned.

Her father contracts to Catharine’s level, his folded haunches mounted on toetip.
“Do you see that garbage man Catharine?”
“Yes,” she says, her curious eyes studying his face.
“Stay in school,” he says. “You don’t want to be a garbage man, do you.”
It sounds to Catharine like a statement of fact rather than a question.
“No,” she replies. “I don’t want to be a garbage man!”

Catharine rises and prepares for school. Her father has already left for work and her mother has put breakfast on the table. The day unwinds to schedule, and Catharine’s teacher will upbraid her if she arrives even one minute late. In the classroom the children learn the virtues of punctuality and obedience. A good student keeps to the clock, follows the rules, submits to authority. The children learn that a good student is praised and rewarded, and that a bad student will be punished.

Catharine’s mother reads a story about a boy and a wolf.
“Why?” asks Catharine.
“Because the boy lied,” says her mother. “Always tell the truth, Catharine. It is wrong to lie.”

One day Catharine finishes college. She returns to a town she no longer recognizes as her childhood home. Fleabane, yarrow, and lambsquarters obscure the shuttered factory, where once work could be had by the punctual and obedient students of her youth. Dusty storefronts confound the once-vibrant street, blank as the ravished faces of shellshocked soldiers. Where, she wonders, are the people? Catharine walks to the desolate baseball grounds, the public pool the town can no longer afford. She hears the reedy keow of seagulls passing overhead.

The birds sweep eastward to the river. Catharine follows the trail and discovers a bar beyond the clearing. From a short distance she can see a small group of people, perhaps eight or ten, around a television. Once she’s inside, Catharine recognizes the person on the screen. It is the politician who promises to bring back the jobs and to restore the broken hopes and dreams of all the many towns like hers.

She studies the figures and faces of the people but no one is familiar. When the waitress comes she orders a soda and watches the television. She takes in the talk of the room. The politicians are all liars and it is time for change, they say: they have let us down and it is time for change!

Catharine knows change. She has seen with her own eyes that nothing in this world stays the same. Is it wrong to lie to people who want to be lied to? Is it wrong to speak of wolves to people who are frightened of wolves, and to promise that all will be well when in fact it may not? The stories of her childhood no longer have answers. She finishes her soda and walks into the gull-loud air. Keow, say the gulls. It is the only thing she hears.

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