Episode 184: Wine for Witches, Milk for Saints by Rachael K. Jones


Wine for Witches, Milk for Saints

by Rachael K. Jones

 

My grandmother would have disapproved of a Tinker in a Father Christmas suit, my customary dress in the children’s hospital each December. She believed no good could come of frivolity in our profession, when a routine procedure could end in tragedy. I saw her point when I found myself delivering bad news in costume to a 7-year-old and her sick friend on Christmas Eve.

Maria wasn’t supposed to be in Lia’s hospital room to begin with. She should have been in the Puppet Ward with her little brother Enzo, who was infected with puppetism. Instead, the two young girls curled up cross-legged on the hospital bed, divvying up sweets I knew Lia shouldn’t eat in her condition. Congenital heart failure didn’t require abstention from sugar, but with her transfer imminent, the Coromancers advised against heavy food, as it could interfere with medical magic.

I didn’t know how she’d smuggled in the contraband, but that was Maria. It wasn’t easy for siblings of sick children, stuck in a hospital for days on end. Maria coped by slipping into all sorts of places she shouldn’t go. But on Christmas Eve, we all tended to look the other way.

“Maria,” said Dr. Vanessa Silva, “would you please step out? We need a little privacy with the Giordanos right now.”

Mamma, can’t she stay?” Lia asked.

“Of course. I’m sure it’s all right,” said Mrs. Giordano. She shut her book and gave Dr. Silva her full attention. “What’s the trouble, dottore?”

Dr. Silva stole another glance at Maria, breathed deep. “I’m afraid there’s been a delay on Lia’s transfer today.”

“What do you mean ‘a delay’?” Mrs. Giordano asked in a careful, strained voice.

Dr. Silva rubbed her temple. She had volunteered to work the Christmas shift so the other Coromancers could be with their families tonight. But I knew she had no one to go home to except the absence of her elderly cat, who had died earlier this month. She cleared her throat. “The cogs Enzo needs were shipped from a Tinker in Canada last week. The package should have been here two days ago, but I’m afraid it’s been lost. Without the cogs, we can’t transfer Enzo’s puppetism to Lia today as planned.”

It was actually a good deal worse than that. Originally, we’d ordered the cogs from a Tinker in Belgium, but before they were produced, authorities discovered the Tinker had been selling precious human organ cogs on the black market for use in machinery. The Tinkers’ Code forbade the use of human parts, even broken, discarded ones, to repair a machine, and they jailed him for it. A Canadian Tinker filled the order at the last minute, but now the package had gone missing en route to Vittorio Veneto. Without the cogs, I couldn’t repair Enzo, and Dr. Silva couldn’t perform the magic disease transfer that would cure Enzo’s puppetism by infecting Lia.

“But Lia can’t wait that long!” Maria flushed deep red. “She’s really sick!” She was right. In truth, Lia Giordano was dying of her heart condition. She wouldn’t see New Year’s Day if she didn’t get treatment soon. But if Dr. Silva could transfer Enzo’s puppetism to the little girl, she would transform into a living doll. For a skilled Tinker, what is impossible to cure in flesh is easy to repair in wood. But until I could first repair Enzo, until his own replacement heart cogs arrived, the whole operation was stalled.

Lia shrank against her pillows, sniffling back tears. Mrs. Giordano stroked her hand. “It’s going to be okay, bambina.” Then, to Dr. Silva, “What can we do about it?”

Dr. Silva nodded toward me. “Nico Cinque phoned the Canadian Tinker, and she’s starting on replacement cogs immediately. I’m afraid all we can do is wait.”

Maria took in my costume–the wooly white beard and hair, the red handknit sweater and half-moon glasses, the stocking cap and suspenders–and I suddenly felt more ashamed than I ever had in my whole life. “Do something, Father Christmas! I know you can! It’s Christmas Eve!”

“I can’t, child. That’s not how it works.” It sounded unsatisfying even to me. My cheeks burned. Mrs. Giordano tried to say something, but Maria cut her off.

“You lied. You promised Lia and my brother the cogs would be here before Christmas, and you lied.”

It was true. I’d made that promise to them when the children were first admitted, during a consultation in my Tinker’s Workshop. “I didn’t know,” I said.

“I’m going to tell my brother.” Maria stalked out without so much as a backwards glance.

 


 

My grandmother, the brilliant Nicola Quattro, thought Italian children should hold to the old custom of la Befana, the good witch who brought toys on Epiphany, not the foreign intruder Father Christmas. When my siblings and I began leaving out milk and cookies alongside Befana’s traditional glass of red wine, she proclaimed no good would come of it. I was starting to agree with her.

Once out of earshot of the Giordanos, Dr. Silva reeled on me, her eyebrows drawn into a dark V. “Nico Cinque, you ass! That child has every right to be angry with you. How dare you make promises we cannot possibly keep? You promised her the cogs would be here for Christmas? Fah!” Her hands curled into fists.

“I meant no harm,” I said. “I only wanted to give hope. They’re children. It’s Christmas.”

“Hope,” Dr. Silva said, “is a bitter, dangerous thing. Look around you. We work with sick children. But you go parading around in that getup–” she waved at my outfit– “and you wink and insinuate, and the children really believe you’re Father Christmas, that you can perform miracles. And you have the gall to be surprised when they call you on your bullshit.”

I brindled at the profanity. “I’m not telling lies. It cheers them up.” 

“It’s wrong to make false promises,” she said. “Life is not a Christmas movie, Nico. The universe does not check the calendar when a child dies. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to break bad news to other families.”

 


 

After all these years, I had grown comfortable with my approach to the children. My grandmother pioneered many brilliant Tinkering techniques, but she was never a warm individual. As her apprentice I’d dreaded disappointing her, and resolved to be a more jovial Tinker when my time came.

But Maria’s accusation needled me. I doffed my stocking cap and tucked it into my back pocket.

A hallway divided the Puppet Ward into halves: West, where the doll-children stayed, and East, where we kept sick kids who were compatible matches pre-transfer. All the children shared a glassed-in playroom at the ward’s entrance.

Even in my terrible mood, my spirits lifted watching children in various stages of the disease play together. Some, fully transformed, bobbled on thin wooden limbs in doll clothes that fit their frames all wrong. Others looked almost normal, except their skin had taken on a striped grain.

Each had been admitted in grave condition: third degree burns, congenital organ defects, incurable cancer, or traumatic injuries. Dr. Silva or another Coromancer would transfer the puppetism from a fully-transformed compatible child, and then the sick patient would become a living doll, charred skin turning to burnt wood, eyes to glass, broken arms and legs to snapped wooden dowels, and failing organs to enchanted wooden cogs. Then they passed into the Tinker’s care. I replaced broken parts with new ones, so when the Coromancers transferred the puppetism to the next child, the original patient would return to flesh cured of all illness.

From a distance, you couldn’t always tell what diseases had brought them here, though you could guess. The oaken girl with the bowed wooden legs had come to us with osteogenesis imperfecta. Another boy had been in the final stages of leukemia. Tiny pinprick holes like termite bores riddled his pine body. He would take some time to repair. Each limb must be examined and replaced piece by piece.

The tricky bit was finding compatible replacements. Tinkers crafted the parts by hand, but like blood types, I could only make replacements for children that matched my own magical signature. So I traded. I would mail parts for other Tinkers worldwide, and in return, they made replacements for my patients.

Puppetism only transferred between two patients whose signatures matched, and only children could catch the disease at all. Most of the time, our program ran like clockwork, but every once in a while, something went wrong.

Enzo and Maria huddled in the play room’s corner, whispering. The little boy was in high spirits, despite the strangeness of his appearance: limbs thinned into slender oak dowels, face rounded and wood-grained, coffee-dark eyes gone glassy, thick brown hair clumped like yarn. He wore a little green elf costume, probably cannibalized from the teddy bear Maria had commandeered as a stool. Maria had a near-fanatical devotion to the little boy. Nearby, Mrs. Cattaneo had fallen asleep in an overstuffed easy chair, eyelids puffed from weeping or sleep deprivation or both.

Without a transfer, I thought, none of them will ever grow up.

That was the disease’s life-saving miracle and crippling curse: losing the capacity to grow or change, flesh hardening into wood. Marionettes don’t die–they just break. Replace the bad bits, and they’re as good as new, but then they’re puppets forever. They never grow up. Puppetism is incurable unless a Coromancer moves it from one child’s body to another.

I lingered too long at the window, because Maria noticed me. She shielded Enzo with her body and glared. That contemptuous look again. The glass blocked the sound, so I didn’t catch what she said, but all the other children stopped their play and stared at me, too. None were smiling.

My cheeks burned. I  turned away, forcing myself to stroll back to the workshop.

It was my tradition to go all out for Christmas in the Tinker’s Workshop. Sawdust and paint commingled with pine and cinnamon. Garlands stringed the walls, interwoven with twinkling lights. I formed the centerpiece, beard and costume lifted from a Christmas book, pockets bursting with candy canes: Nico Cinque the Tinker.

Nicola Sei, my granddaughter and apprentice, had put the place to order, sweeping up sawdust and oiling the antique workbenches. Despite their age, the workbenches had not been in our family that long. My grandmother had preferred steel surgical tables to antiques, and anatomical charts to garlands. Metal is more resistant to enchantment spillover that sometimes accompanies medical magic. In her time, the Tinker’s Workshop might have passed for an operating room.

“Need anything else, Nonno?” asked Nicola, gathering up her coat and hat.

I waved toward the door. “Go on ahead. I’ll be along shortly.” We’d taken our scooters to the hospital today. After she left, I dialed the post office again, but got no answer. Maria’s hatred weighed on my heart like unconfessed sin. How could I go home and enjoy Christmas Eve with my children and grandchildren, passing out gift after gift while a sick child waited for a delivery that would never come?

Where were the cogs? If only they would arrive, I could swallow down the pressure in my throat.

Hope is a bitter, dangerous thing, Dr. Silva had said. Slowly, wearily, I buttoned up my coat. I reached for my stocking hat, but feeling again that pressure, I left it in my pocket.

An unobtrusive door in the workshop’s rear led to a service hallway. In my red coat, red as my shame, I couldn’t bear passing the children on my way through the hospital.

The service corridor would have pleased my grandmother, with its ultrawhite walls and antiseptic smell, devoid of clutter or decor. I trudged toward the elevators, head down, savoring the solitude. The staff had gone home for Christmas already.

Something rumbled behind me. I turned up the volume on my hearing aid until I could make out two–no, three–giggling, whispering voices. I nudged the volume a little higher.

A high shriek nearly deafened me as a motorized wheelchair whipped around the corner and careened toward my shins at top speed. Maria perched high on the wheelchair’s back, black hair flying loose. Enzo sat on her shoulder, wooden arms wrapped around her neck, his shout swallowed up by his sister’s.

But what astonished me most was the pale-faced little girl sitting in the chair, almost buried beneath the blankets: none other than Lia Giordano, who was definitely not following her doctor’s orders anymore.

I flattened myself against the wall too late. A leg rest banged hard into my shins. My vision swam white with pain. The wheelchair slowed. Maria’s head swiveled, tracking me.

“You!” She jabbed at Lia’s shoulder. “Go, go, go! Hurry!”

“Wait!” I fumbled with my hearing aid. My head rang. The escapees whizzed off again at top speed. I charged after them, boots thudding, bruised shins aching.

“Wait! Stop!” They mustn’t leave the hospital. In Lia’s condition, it would be the death of her. Dr. Silva would murder me. The parents would–oh, I didn’t want to contemplate it. And on Christmas Eve! My cheap costume boots slapped the tiles. The sterile fluorescent lights nauseated me. My ribs burned.

“Children, wait!” I stumbled into the elevator lobby just in time to see the doors closing, Enzo’s wooden fingers waving arrivederci as they shot downward to the basement.

The numbers dropped, three-two-Ground, then to my surprise continued to B1, the morgue. I jabbed the down arrow and prayed the elevator would arrive, pronto.

 


 

The doors opened on a floor I hadn’t seen since last Christmas, thank God. My eyes stung from the strong chemical embalming vapors. You could smell it in your hair for days, long after the family had claimed the body. An image came unbidden into my mind: a fleshy white hand connected to a long wooden dowel, joining to a little body that had become a chimera, a patchwork of wood and flesh vying for dominance. Transfer rejection. Rare but deadly.

The children were nowhere in sight. I turned up my hearing aid. Further off, wheels rumbled.

I sprinted in the sound’s direction, ignoring the stitch in my side and protests from my shins. I spotted them down a long hallway. The wheelchair had halted while Maria moved a gurney blocking the way. At the hall’s end, an exit sign pulsed red over a fire escape.

“Wait!” I shouted.

“Uh oh. The false Father Christmas–he’s coming!” said Enzo, jabbing a finger over the wheelchair’s back.

Maria shoved the gurney into the exit door’s crash bar. “Come on!” she shouted. Snow blew in as the wheelchair careened into a world of white.

I charged outside. At 4PM, the sun hovered just above the red terracotta roofs. The Italian Alps ranged along the horizon, their white peaks tinged golden in the early winter sunset. The wheelchair had vanished down the road. Vittorio Veneto’s winding medieval streets would provide a perfect labyrinth for three children who didn’t want to be found.

I trotted after them, gasping in the frigid air. They’d cut a distinct trail through the snow. I realized I should have stopped for my scooter, or sounded the alarm at the hospital, or even remembered my cell phone. Too late now.

The chair wouldn’t run forever. I shivered and pulled my coat tighter. I trudged forward, praying I wouldn’t have far to go.

 


 

I reached the town center, a box formed by city hall at one end and St. Nicolo’s Cathedral on the other. The square served as an open-air pedestrian plaza and erstwhile pigeon kingdom, but today it was commandeered by canvas-covered booths filled with silk scarves and gingerbread, honey-soaked candies and mulled wine in mugs, enormous blown glass ornaments and dolls commemorating la Befana, who entertained the Three Magi on their way to visit the Christ-child.

I worked my way toward the cathedral. Market-goers clustered around little tables, sipping wine and enjoying live music. None of the vendors had seen my missing patients in the crowd.

I reached the steps of St. Nicolo’s. I didn’t often go to Mass, unlike my grandmother, who considered herself a religious woman in her own eccentric way. She kept a journal of prayers to her patron saint Nicolas, my namesake and grandfather nine generations removed, hoping to settle with data the question of God’s existence. Before his time, children with puppetism would fade away, their strength attenuating year by year until they became ghastly wooden mummies. Nico Primo discovered the disease could be transferred, and for this, they sainted him.

On the cathedral steps, an old woman distributed little wrapped gifts to half a dozen children. She wore a ragged patchwork dress, a pointed hat, and carried a crooked broomstick strapped to her back. She winked at me.

“Father Christmas,” she said in a loud, theatrical storyteller’s voice, winking toward the children, “what are you doing here? You should be too busy tonight to attend the mercatino di Natale!

“I could say the same to you, Befana,” I replied. “It’s twelve days to Epiphany.”

“Then I don’t have much time left to find the Magi, do I?” Legend had it the Three Magi invited the old woman to accompany them in payment for her hospitality, but Befana demurred. Later, overcome with regret, she packed up some toys belonging to her own dead child and flew out the door on her broomstick to catch them. But she never managed to find them.

I lowered my voice. “I’m looking for some children myself. Two patients from the hospital–one with puppetism, and one in a wheelchair. And an older girl.”

“You just missed them. They were looking for a delivery over by the post office, something Father Christmas had promised them?” It sounded like an accusation.

I rubbed my beard. “I know it, Befana. I am trying to make amends.”

“They think they’re sneaky, taking the side roads. But they’ll leave clear tracks. Try that way.” She cocked her head toward a road leading south.

A lead. Relief flooded me. “Thank you, thank you!” I was about to charge off, but she gripped my elbow.

“It’s icy out there. Dangerous for old bones.” She offered me the broomstick. “Here. It should make a good walking stick.”

I tested my weight against it. “I’ll take good care of it,” I promised.

“It’s just a broom,” she said. “Buon Natale. Eat your fill of milk and cookies.”

“And enjoy your wine.”

I never learned what became of my grandmother’s meticulous prayer journals, if she found they had any effect at all, but I said a prayer to Nico Primo anyway. It couldn’t hurt.

 


 

Laced between the tire tracks, I spotted wheelchair prints headed off down the fresh snow over the sidewalk. I thanked Old Nico under my breath, brushed snow off my trousers with the broom, and set off on the trail. My coat was soaked. I flapped it open, trying to dry it.

The cold intensified in the dusk. I’d reached the outskirts. Towns in Veneto linked together with short snips of highway like beads on a rosary. Snow lay atop an ice sheet so thick you had to jab your heel down hard with each step. The wheelchair tracks pressed forward anyway.

Nicola Quattro had hated the cold. In her day, fireplaces heated the hospital. My grandmother, in deference to her patients’ safety, forbade fires in the workshop, so she always worked in the chill. During my apprenticeship, steam boilers came into vogue, but Grandmother shivered no matter the warmth. She had taken her old enemy into her heart, and they became one and the same in the end.

Crunch, crunch. My boots stabbed through the ice crust. One shoe flapped open at the sole. I cursed my ridiculous costume and its cheap accessories. If not for my affectation, I might not be sore and cold and exhausted. “I get it,” I said aloud. “I am not Father Christmas. I should never have pretended to be.”

The boot flap caught on the ice. I windmilled my arms and fell forward, my shins banging the ground, my knees afire. “Oof!” Hot tears crept from my eyes, and I laughed in stolen gasps. I rolled over and lay flat in the snow, watching the stars appear, cold and bright. What sort of fools follow a star? I thought. And what sort of fool follows those fools?

I recalled my grandmother, sharp and clear and distant like a snow globe creche, tut-tutting over my latest failed cog. “A good beginning makes a good ending,” she said. “Take your time and do it right at the first, and you won’t have to do it again and again.

I forced myself to stand, throwing my weight on the broomstick. My knees shrieked and my shins ached. I swayed on tired feet, but my crutch somehow made it bearable.

 


 

I made much better time after that. The broomstick saved me from the black ice which seemed to be everywhere. I slung the wet coat over one shoulder–less chill without it.

Over the next rise, I found them.

The wheelchair was abandoned in a huge snowdrift at the foot of the hill. From the skid marks, it appeared they had coasted downhill and hit an icy patch at the bottom. That same ice had claimed a mail truck, which had tipped nose-first into the drift. Behind the truck, a man in a black coat heaved against the bumper with both hands. The three children stood beside him, Maria with arms around Lia, and Enzo leaping up and down, the snow nearly reaching his nose.

“Children! Oh, children, I’ve found you!” I shouted, and I waved my arms and laughed, weeping openly, and running, sliding downhill, brandishing the broomstick like a madman. Snow ran up my shirt and into my mouth, and my shins ached and it felt good, felt alive, and I didn’t care anymore because the children were okay. At the base of the hill I sat on my coat and sobbed.

Maria shielded Enzo from me. “Don’t go near him! That’s the fake Father Christmas. He wants to take us back to the hospital.”

“He doesn’t look like Father Christmas,” said Lia. “He has a broomstick and no coat. And look at his broken shoes!” She covered her mouth and tittered.

I rolled the broom’s coarse grain between my fingers. She had a point. I wasn’t a wise old saint. I was the kindly fool who chased after wiser heads. “You’re right. I’m Befana.”

Enzo collapsed into giggles. Maria’s mouth opened in surprise.

Lia’s eyes lit up. “He is! He’s Befana!” She recited,

 

”La Befana vien di notte

Con le scarpe tutte rotte

Col vestito alla romana

Viva, Viva La Befana!”

 

“Yes, that’s exactly right!” I said. “Broken shoes and Roman clothes, all of it, that’s Befana, that’s me.”

The man in the black coat wiped his hands on his pants and offered me a handshake. “Cesare Palermo. With the Post, and a little late on my delivery today. I take it you’re with the hospital?” He was an older fellow, perhaps older than me, with white hair and a gray beard.

“Yes, I’m Nico Cinque.”

“And you walked all the way out here? On Christmas Eve?” He sized me up, and then chuckled. “You really are Befana. Here, let’s get you warmed up.” Cesare offered me his black coat.

“Are you sure?” I asked, hesitant despite the gooseflesh running up my arms.

He beckoned for the soggy red coat draped over my shoulder. “Hand it over. If you’re Befana, I’m Father Christmas. He’s basically a postman, right?”

The postman’s coat radiated residual body heat around my arms. To my consternation, he slipped into the costume coat and buttoned it right up. He made an even better Father Christmas than I did.

I dug my abandoned stocking cap from my pocket. “You’ll need this to complete the look. Now I dearly hope you have my package.”

“We found it!” said Enzo, swimming through the snowdrift to the truck’s nose, where a large brown-wrapped package balanced on the fender. He portered it ant-like back to the group. The package appeared to sail unaided along the snowdrift’s surface.

I read the address label: Saskatoon. Saskatchewan. Canada. Working with my pocket knife, I pried open a flap. Shredded paper spilled from the hole. Inside, several bubble-wrapped bundles nested between rainbow candies with English names, which I gave to the delighted children. I cut open a packet and cogs spilled out. “Oh, thank God,” I said. “This is it.”

Enzo whooped. Lia danced. Maria didn’t exactly smile, but she didn’t stare daggers either. I decided I’d take it.

“We still have a problem,” said Cesare. “The truck. The engine’s gone kaput. I don’t think anyone’s in shape to walk back to the hospital, especially not that one.” He indicated Lia with a delicate nod.

I saw his point, but all fear had fled. I held the solution in my hands. What is an engine, if not a machine’s heart? “You’re in luck, Cesare. I am a Tinker. I fix things.”

My grandmother would have hated me for it. It was a flagrant violation of the Tinkers’ Code, after all. But I was an old man; what would they do, fire me? Jail me, at my age? I would take that risk. Nicola Sei could run the Workshop in my stead.

It was an easy thing to swap out Enzo’s old cogs with the new ones. He sat on the truck’s hood, legs kicking, and I unscrewed the panel in his back and made the change. His used cogs weren’t in great shape, but they worked well enough to fuse with the engine and jumpstart it to life again. 

So it came to pass we rode to the hospital in a truck with a child’s heart, wood married to metal by my magic. The security team gaped when we drove up in our enchanted vehicle, the gift-bringers of Christmas: three wise ones, a delivery man, and a kindly fool.

We had much frenzied work to do after that, prepping Enzo and Lia for transfer. The procedure went without a hitch.

 


 

It was late, after 10PM, by the time Dr. Silva and I punched the call button for the elevator. Vanessa looked tired but pleased with herself. She had a long, narrow package tucked under one arm.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Oh, just my Christmas present to myself, some gluhwein from Germany. I thought it wouldn’t arrive on time, but it was on that truck you rescued.” She turned it over in her hands, arched an eyebrow. “Okay, don’t be so smug. I admit it.”

“Admit what?”

Dr. Silva sighed. “Everything worked out all holly-jolly, didn’t it? You got your Christmas movie ending.”

Every muscle and bone from my toes to neck hurt like the Devil’s lawnmower had chewed them up. Even in the hospital, I used the broom as a crutch. I had refused a proper replacement. I thought of my grandmother, how she puttered about with a cane near her life’s end, accepting a stick’s support while declining a kindly hand or shoulder. I think she wanted to bridge the distance between us, but never knew how. Her harshness was her love. Love is what you do, I guess.

“Dr. Silva–Vanessa–that wine would be most welcome at my family’s Christmas dinner. If you have no other plans, that is,” I said.

Her face’s tired lines relaxed into a smile. “I’d like that, Nico.”

Yes, wine would be just the thing, I decided. Milk and cookies for Father Christmas, but a nice red wine for Befana.

 

END

 

About the Author

Rachael K. Jones

Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, and acquired several degrees in the arts and sciences. Now she writes speculative fiction in Portland, Oregon. Her debut novella, Every River Runs to Salt, is now out with Fireside Fiction. Contrary to the rumors, she is probably not a secret android.

Rachael is a World Fantasy Award nominee and Tiptree Award honoree. Her fiction has appeared in dozens of venues worldwide, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and is an Escape Artists Worldwalker, having been published at all four podcasts.

Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones.

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About the Narrator

Kevin M. Hayes

Kevin M. Hayes has been reading science fiction since he was old enough to read, and has been writing it for almost as long. He is active in the Pittsburgh SFF organization, Parsec and helps put on Confluence, a genre fiction conference every year. He has had stories published in Six from Parsec and Triangulation as well as TV Gods and most recently in The Realm Beyond. He has narrated other stories for Pseudopod and, amazingly, has also published a few limericks.

He lives in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania with the love of his life, some of her children and all of her cats.

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