One day, peering inside her cat’s pink mouth, Ida saw a tiny kitchen hidden in the folds of its tongue. On closer inspection she noticed a minuscule figure sitting at the dinner table, paging through a tattered recipe book. The figure had faded hair and was smoking a cigarette. It was her mother. Mother, Ida said, surprised, what are you doing in there? I thought you were gone. But her mother did not bother to look up. Leave me alone, she said. I’m busy. Ida frowned, then gently removed her fingers from her cat’s mouth and wandered away to sit by the window.
She gazed out onto the street covered with scraps of windblown litter, and remembered her mother’s black, wool coat disappearing down the driveway. Four weeks had passed since she’d left without saying goodbye. In her mother’s absence, Ida had lived off cheese sandwiches and apple juice. Her stomach rumbled. Lonely and tired, she drifted back to her cat and prised open its mouth. Please get out of Cleo and grow large again, Ida pleaded to her mother, but her mother was occupied chopping an onion. A bead of perspiration glowed on her temple like an unfallen tear. You were always such a nuisance, Ida. Your father’s gone and I’m making dinner for when he returns. Hearing this, Ida furrowed her brow. But he’s not coming back, she protested. Her father had left when Ida was only five years old; nevertheless, her mother continued to rattle and knock about the kitchen without acknowledging her daughter.
Thereafter, Ida quit trying to speak to her mother but would look in periodically for the comfort of seeing her mother’s hands cup a loaf of bread or carve a turnip. The scents that emanated from the miniature kitchen made Ida terribly hungry. One day, Ida was so hungry that she crawled over to her cat, pulled its mouth open and picked and poked around inside until she managed to yank her mother out by force. Yet, when she held her mother in her palm, she saw that it was only a rotten tooth the cat had been nursing for over a month. Mother? she cried pitifully.
Undeterred, she put the tooth in a little porcelain box, a gift from her father, with ballerina slippers etched on the lid. Sometimes, she would ask the tooth questions. Why did you leave? she asked it one afternoon. Why did you drive Dad away? she asked it the following day. The tooth was silent, so Ida rattled the box to prompt a response. Do you miss me? she asked, and the tooth rattled back, Of course. The next day she asked again, Are you coming home now? And the tooth rattled back, Of course. Each morning she asked the box, Will you hold me? And the tooth rattled back. Of course, Ida, of course. She nuzzled it nightly in her delirium, the kitchen floor cold against her cheek.