Diffuse light filtered through trees outside the bedroom window, not much of it to be sure, but Cessily positioned herself resourcefully on Claudia and Cecil’s lumpy bed so that she could use what there was of it. She grasped the little dog-eared book, a secondhand collection of rhyming stories, and tilted it so that the light fell across a pen-and-ink illustration on an open page. Carefully, obediently, she traced the shapes of the printed letters on it with her index finger: T-h-i-s. Her small hand followed the typeface; the cottony page felt so soft against her fingertip, the stitched binding worn through in places so that some pages clung to the spine by only traces of fiber, miraculously, she thought. The sharp edges and corners that once defined the pages were long gone; Cessily imagined other children poring over them when the ink was still fresh and the cover shiny and new, and wondered whether they had ever noticed the thread, or cared about such trivial things. She lifted the book and buried her nose in it, inhaling deeply and imagining some essence of children who had gone before her still lingered there.
Now she tried to say aloud the vexing words on the page. “TH, TH, TH,” she practiced, as her father had shown her. But the sounds the other letters made—the I and the S—eluded her this gloomy afternoon. Distracted by the roadblock, Cessily allowed her eyes to wander to the horror unfolding in the image, of a decidedly vicious feline readying to pounce upon its quarry. Ever the champion of the underdog, Cessily hoped the little rat might escape the clutches of the villainous cat. She could not bear to turn the page and discover the outcome—at least, not until she could first be certain of the words on this page, as if knowing them somehow gave her the power to bend and twist the plot to her will.
“THIS!” she exclaimed triumphantly, suddenly remembering. And easily intuiting the next word, Cessily continued with more self-possession, “This IS! This IS!” Looking at the drawing above the words and with gathering momentum, now she shouted, “THIS IS THE CAT! THIS IS THE CAT!” She scrambled off her parents’ bed and waved the book above her head, exploding through the house: “THIS-IS-THE-CAT! THIS-IS-THE-CAT!” Sensing his sister’s celebratory mood, young Andy fell in behind her, parroting “This the cat! This the cat!”
Claudia was dog-tired and ready to put supper on the table, but allowed herself a moment to swell with pride—a gesture that went unnoticed—before she chided this pair of children for being so little help to her when there was so much yet to do.