It had just rained.
The grass in Ireland, half tender shoots and half webby moss, is a curious carpet that has taken rain in its face for well over a thousand years. By now it has learned that when you walk over it mustn’t let you sink down. It feels as though the grass and the moss lift you up to give you the momentum for the next step. Behind you the footsteps pool slowly with cool water as if the soil, exposed for a moment, was taking a drink. But walking at night you would never know that because you can’t see your footsteps, or anything else for that matter.
Night in Ireland is different than night anywhere else. I once bought a postcard at a castle that read only “Nighttime in Ireland.” The rest of the card was completely black, and that is better than any way I can describe it except to say that you can feel the dark there. It is a cave that grows around you as the sun sinks down, and even after that it reaches out and touches you like the fingers of ghosts of other people whom it once swallowed. It is alive and it follows you if you have the misfortune of having forgotten your flashlight.
Something is always moving, over there near that wall or across your path or so close that you will always swear that it brushed you and that it felt warm and that it pulled your hair as it passed. This is what the Irish people call fairies, and I did not believe them at first, until I understood that fairies weren’t little Tinks fluttering in the bushes, no, but what you thought you saw when you lost your way home or what led you astray in the first place. It was whomever laid out the branches that tripped you and the Devil that stands at the cross roads and points your cousin or your nephew in the direction of the nearest village and they are never seen again. To that the older people will swear on their lives, and they won’t think it’s funny when you laugh your way through the forest at dark and they won’t warn you because they’ve been laughed at before.
Ireland is itself a fairy at night— Branches that snag you, bottomless falls, grass that can starve you by stepping on it— things that, were it night all of the time, would take your mind. And it has. An old man told me that his great uncle once walked by a fairy bush at midnight, went home and promptly slid under his bed for seven years. The man, known for his clumsiness, could dance better than anyone in the next three villages when he emerged, but he never spoke again. I don’t know what they said to him that night, the man told me.
The truth is that during the day, Ireland is a beautiful, magnificent place with walls of rocks stacked with no mortar that have stood for a thousand years, whole mountains carved by glaciers and lakes called turloughs that appear and disappear entirely within days. But it is a heartless place if you are stupid enough to let the sun set on you alone.
The first items I was given when I arrived to Ireland were a yellow reflective vest and a windowsill full of flashlights. It was fun to walk around in the dark with friends and hope we were going the right way, clinging to each other or the one person who did bring a flashlight and hope we didn’t wander into fields of sheep that, at night, huddled together in one big nimbus baying softly to each other. We always got where we were going eventually, even if on our way we splashed through a turlough that hadn’t been there yesterday.
As my time in Ireland went on I became increasingly eager to explore the surroundings – With or without my friend who brought the flashlight.
The night I was lost on the mountain, I had left that friend behind. In fact, I was completely alone, feeling confident I could make it back before dark and having left my cell phone and safety vest back at the farmhouse. I hadn’t told anyone where I was going.
I walked home from school that day and it was quite bright out. I decided it was an optimum time to take photos on the top of the mountain. This particular mountain was relatively easy to climb in the daylight because its glacier, long ago, carved out wide plateaus interrupting the slope every so often. I had my hiking boots on and I made it up in an hour and a half, giving the bulls and cows a wide berth because they often got defensive of their babies and there were few fences on the slope.
I shot photos in all directions. I could see the bay over there beyond the village, the church, and my house – And then suddenly I couldn’t see anything. The sun went down on me as I stood daring it, ignorantly, on the top of the mountain. Ireland had thrown its nets over me.
I felt out in the dark, calm at first, as if I could touch the way I came.
The mountain was made of limestone pavement that cracked and left gaps a foot wide in its face. The gaps and crevices go down a long way and out of them come vines with thorns three inches long. On the way up I had easily avoided all of this, but now I slid back down the face of the mountain, hands out, rolling my ankles and several times having to pry a leg or an arm out of the cracks in the limestone. The mountain and the dark took turns swallowing me whole and spitting me back out again, each time my heart going faster. Several times I found myself stuck between a stone and a patch of trees with no energy to get myself back out.
I was panicked, my hands were bleeding and I couldn’t breathe, so I paused for a moment on the side of the mountain, on a relatively smooth low rock, to suck on my cuts and pick the thorns out. I took some photos hoping the flash would light up the way out or even some landmark, even just that big boulder that looked like a hound. I didn’t recognize the photos in the screen and, now covered in smothering quilts of night, the only thing familiar was the distant glow of the city of Galway and much closer that eerie faint blue spotlight.
At night the Catholic Church in the village illuminated a statue of the Virgin Mary in blue light. Up close she is also painted blue, her skin completely white and her robes edged in sienna. She is praying. Up close she sits upon the age-old rock pedestal and looks somehow pleading and unearthly. On the mountain she is useless, a weak beam of light outlining her on the belly of low clouds, the only thing above me. She wouldn’t even last as long as the ruins of other solid stone Marys, but she could outlive me if I died on this mountain. She was too far away to serve as a beacon or a landmark, only a reminder that she marked a secret path from my farmhouse to my friend’s house on the other side of the village, and that I once touched her and she was made of flaking plastic, like a lawn ornament.
I tried collecting my breathing, praying to Mary and God and the dog of the farmer at the base of the mountain to come and find me. In the moment of rest all I heard was the shuffling and snorting of the cows and the bulls around me, sounding in and out, closer and farther. They kicked dirt on me as they passed. I stayed still, lying on the stone like Bilbo hiding from Gollum inside of his mountain. I thought of my friends and if they knew I was gone and I thought of the woman who truly had been missing, who didn’t lose her way due to stupidity.
I don’t remember her name, but I do remember seeing her leave the pub with someone else’s jacket on a few weeks before, how they found her bike nearby, broken in the woods to ruin and be covered by a turlough. At first they said she’d run away, then they said she might be lost on the mountain. Helicopters hovered over it for days, an odd sight because it isn’t like home where every time you look up there is a helicopter, a jet or that fading tail of clouds that they leave. The Garda parked in our driveway, questioned teachers and students at the school and once while we were away, shuffled through our house without permission.
Her house was located behind ours, through some trees a way. It was kept neat except the door was ajar when her boss went to look for her. She hadn’t shown up to work at the inn down the road, where I passed her getting mail quite often. The weather’s so fine today, she’d smile and say. Such a fine, soft day, she would have said if it was raining.
They didn’t find her on the mountain, but it stayed their prime suspect until a man called the Garda to the village by the sea located on the other side of the mountain. There friends and I had hiked once and exhausted, leaned into the wind on the beach. It was so strong that it held us upright, playing with our coats and taking our hats into the upset sea. It whipped salt into our hair and our eyes. Some friends picked up some trash that had washed ashore.
But the day the man called the Garda to that beach it wasn’t windy and storming and they found no trash. It was clear and fine and what they found was the woman who lived behind me, lying pale on the shore. She was naked and had cuts on her hands and arms and a faint line of purple on her throat. The newspaper had a curious line in the brief article about the discovery of her body. They noted that the man who found her had been walking his dog early on that Thursday morning, a few details about her cuts and bruises and that she had “seemed peaceful.” The next day they had a suspect, a man admitted to the hospital in Galway after surviving a suicide attempt. Eventually he was charged with her murder.
I was still panting on the mountainside, looking at Mary’s beam of light. Hundreds of cars had lined up for the woman’s funeral there and before that the doors were left open all night to pray for her safe return and maybe to light a candle. Now the streets, at least where I judged them to be, were empty and so was her house which would be… just there, approximately. I wondered if the fingerprint dust was still there or if family or friends had wiped it away, and whether the door was still unlocked or ajar and if it was had the wind blown away any of the dust?
The cows had passed, so I roused myself and continued my way down the mountain, rolling and waving like graceless sea grass. The air was cold and sharp in my nose and I could smell the piercing smell of salt from the sea somewhere in the dark just below the stars.
I fell in a hole and my backpack and jeans were caught for some time on the thorns there. I felt hopeless again, held so tight by dead vines like this, I called out for the dog again. Rosie, Rosie! I rested again, worn out and held upright by the thorns. With a last huff of energy I threw myself wildly out of the brush. I smacked my leg on a rock and felt the blood dry in my jeans.
Mary’s beam inched higher and higher, the cows sounded farther now and Rosie’s little bark one time seemed closer than before. Finally I was thrown over a pile of wood and after dusting over it with my hands and feeling nails recognized it as a pile of scrap I had seen near the base of the mountain. I allowed myself quick breathing now and a few minutes later rolled onto the pavement of the Barren Way. It felt cool and damp like a washrag against my forehead. I followed it back to the farmhouse, running and shaking most of the way.
Before I was lost on the mountain and before my neighbor was killed it was a full moon on a Saturday night and it had just rained.
My friend, Caitlin, a real photographer and not one who tries to find her way out of the dark with the flash of her camera, wanted to take night photography. She and Shawn and Casey were the friends who thought to bring their vests and torches. At first I was sleepy as we meandered the main street of the village, waiting for Caitlin’s shutter to finish clicking. A little excitement was found in taking turns batting at an electric fence with Shawn, but it was never on to begin with. After that we walked on the stone walls until we came to the main road. The road led to the church, our house and eventually to a place called An Rath. An Rath is what Irish people call a ring fort and it is precisely that. A raised halo of earth and moss enclosing what now looks like a courtyard but what in 800 BC was a fortified settlement encircled with a fence of sharpened stakes and a moat on the outside. Even now the moat still fills and since if has just rained I know that tonight it will be a moat again. Caitlin wants to photograph there.
That night the ring fort was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Ancient beech trees as big around as three or four grown men and taller than twenty were scattered throughout the courtyard of the fort all the way to the side of its wall and on the very top. To the touch these trees were smooth and if you you’re your hand there you could feel the tiniest of their strains against the wind. These trees had seen people visit this fort and maybe even the last of its residents— And when they were gone, the trees took the fort, protecting it with hidden systems of roots that emerge on the top of the ring, where there is a little path.
That night we sat on the ridge of the fort, shaded by the beeches and occasionally our faces or our hands or a patch of the roots were dipped in silver moonlight, depending on how the trees were moving in the midnight breeze.
Several times Shawn would become quiet and I would follow his gaze. Later he told me he kept seeing a strange shadow, but with substance, moving along the bottom of the ridge on the other side.
Shawn does not believe in ghosts, but he mentioned this to me the other day and I believe that he saw something, because what he described I saw several times on my way to and from school, alone in the dark. It always moved ahead of me and slunk into the trees, as I stood motionless in the road.
Tonight we were in a group, like the sheep slept, and we didn’t fear anything. Shawn, like a beech tree himself, tall and sturdy and trustworthy, brought out a book called “The Devil Was An Irish Man,” a small book of fairy tales written by a storyteller we had recently met. Shawn used his best Irish accent to read us some of the more frightening tales as we brought out tall take-away cans of Guinness and sipped and laughed and passed the book around. We waited for Caitlin’s shutter to click shut on its hour long exposure and when the night got cooler I pulled my jacket close around me and, feeling safe in the moonlight, wandered a bit. Half of the ring fort was shaded in forest and the other half was open. In the day the view from the fort is of the path that the glaciers once carved, gray dappled mountains of limestone with dark streaks waving across them and creating their form, of the green fields leading all the way to the base of the mountain and of hand built rock walls like strings of dark pearls strewn across the land and the hills. Tonight I liked knowing that that was all there but that it was streaked in a strange silver light and hardly visible, thick in dark where the mountains should be. I could have been anywhere in that moment. I took this in and slipped down the field side of the fort, down into the moat (I was wearing wellies of course) and sloshed my way to a nearby fence. The grass grew tall, beige and spread out like dune grass on these little hills and the mud got thicker in between. Somewhere beyond the fence, on an earlier day, I had seen the most magnificent horses around there.
I could smell them before I saw them. I have a nose for these things having muddled around farms when I was younger. I could smell, beyond the rich, earthy soup and biting breeze of Ireland a more familiar smell— That of sweat from a big heaving body and the almondy smell of hair, more precisely the winter coat of a horse, the way it smells when it clumps in the winter when it isn’t brushed. I could smell their breath, the sweet, hot perfume of enormous lungs.
I thought of the smells of my childhood, way deep back before I knew how to name them, when my mother and my aunt took me through a forest on my family’s land to a house in a clearing.
From what I remember it heaved out great smells of rotten wood crumbling, gritty sand, even a hint of Alabama red clay down below, the kind of clay that was sure to never come out of a little girl’s shorts or her swimsuits, the kind of clay they went ahead and used as Alabama specific dye. But in its pure form, peaking out from under an old little house, it smells creamy and smears like paint.
You can smell moss too, growing on the wood of the structure that is sure to have termites. But most of all that full-bodied smell of rot. Standing there, holding my aunt’s sweating palm, taking in that array of earth smells it was as if the house sprung up out of the ground like some odd rectangular brush, but natural all the same.
But you knew it used to be a dwelling, that folk used to live there. I figured it was built by the Cherokee, who built strong cabins, because it was so unusual. One side of the house had a wide raised porch and there were three doors. One door led to the kitchen, one to the bedroom and one to the living room. Regardless of whether it was built by the Indians it at a point more recent held my great-great granddaddy when his family owned all the land around, the green pine mountain ridge. My great-great uncle lived there too and everyone in Collinsville, the nearby town, called him simply that. Uncle.
I have heard about Uncle all of my life and now I have his hat. I once slept with it covering my face, breathing in what I imagined to be twenty year old sweat soaked in and dried on the underside. Uncle was special— He was tall, never married, never would drive a car but only rode a mule or walked, dressed “eccentrically” and couldn’t read. But beyond that he knew things, as my grand mother told me. He was quiet, but he could quote any part of the Bible you asked him for. When asked how he knew the verses, since he didn’t go to church, he told you that the pages turned before his eyes, one after the other, as he picked cotton in the fields.
My grandmother’s father was driving them and a family friend home from church one day when they saw Uncle on the side of the road and pulled over to give him a ride. He turned to the family friend in the car and told him clear as day “You sister needs you at home.” Everyone trusted Uncle, and so the man rushed home to find his sister collapsed on the floor from a diabetic fit. He was able to save her, but other things Uncle said simply came to pass. People would come from other towns in North West Alabama to ask him to pray for rain for their crops. And he did, and it rained.
Another time Uncle passed the gas station owner on the street. He greeted him, and then told him “Your store will burn tonight.” In a few hours a summer lightning storm passed by and a bolt struck the gas station, which exploded and was enveloped in flames, burning swiftly to the ground.
Uncle lived in this house and I imagine it was once a loved dwelling but now its clearing is grown up with weeds and it is falling to pieces. It was once a working farm, but the trees have gotten closer and are shading the place like it’s a secret, spilling sap down inside the house because its roof is long gone. Now it is a site that is only significant to my family alone and I can only hope for it to remain as long as possible, although none of us have been there in years.
I remember how high the grass was when we did visit it, enough to cover my seven-year-old body. I remember walking through one of its walls and reaching down into the dirt to find an old rotted out plow harness, thin with age, and I imagined smelling the salt of the sweat of a big animal on it. I also found a broken picture frame and worms – And worms were what really lit my fire back then, so I remember them, pink blood coursing through their vein bodies, twisting and trying to hold onto one another. I would beg my aunt and mother to hike with me through the forest from my great grandmother’s more functional farm, to emerge, finally, out of the bank of tall pine trees sweaty and sticky with sap and picking burrs out of my socks. The pale grass swallowed the abandoned house.
It belongs now to the chicken plant and its vast tracts of land or to Kandy, the undertaker’s wife, but Kandy won’t care for it. Between her shifts as a post woman she bought my great grandmother’s house for next to nothing, painted it mint green, tore down her shed, scared off all the wild kittens there that I loved and burned mail in a big blue barrel because she didn’t feel like delivering it. The undertaker, Rodney, laughed when he told me that, but everyone feels about Kandy like she’s their ridiculous ex-wife.
I wonder if the strange old farmhouse is still standing, or if its been torn down by the chicken plant or Kandy or simply been taken back to the earth. I wonder if Kandy even knows it’s there, hidden by the pines, or if it now is only a ruin of my memory. One day I will wonder if it ever existed to begin with.
I looked around slowly and saw the outline of the great horses, standing in a mass to my left. I talked to them and walked slowly. The leader, a huge, all black thoroughbred barely took note of me before he nuzzled me with his nose. It felt like velvet and sand paper all together, He snorted into my ear and pulled me around by my jacket. I was laughing at him. I stroked his neck, rippling with muscles, pulled back his mane and he let me. I slipped under the barbed wire to rub his sides and noticed my friends had followed and were all petting the other horses. The black thoroughbred pinched my hat in his teeth and ran off with it, crow hopping and teasing the others, throwing his head up and down and disappearing, at times, into the dark. He let me have it back eventually and the horses all stood stamping and breathing out steam.
Stroking down the back bone of a well-behaved bay, I looked over my shoulder at An Rath, framed like a phantom in pallid light and empty once again, save for its swaying beeches.
My Grammy wrote letters to my Poppy after he passed away when I was six years old. They’re in a blue Mead notebook with brittle, yellowing pages. But it still smells like her— her house; the shiny wooden banisters and the piles of dusty quilting fabric stacked neatly in every closet. And that’s where my aunt found the notebook, in one of those closets. I keep it on my desk in a Ziploc bag to preserve the smell for as long as possible.
She writes about a day soon after they were married:
I’ll never forget the look on your face the morning you found out Patrick was killed, I knew something was wrong before you opened the door to tell me. My heart was pounding before you opened the door. It really got to you.
A few pages later my Grammy pauses to explain to him why she was writing this. A lot of times when she is remembering how she held my Poppy she says “I wish I could remember it all” or that she wishes she had a written record of everything they did together. This one time though, she was recounting the story of how my mother, who was still little, got that deep scar on her forehead when their car rolled over on the way down the mountain. That’s where she pauses and says: “I could not write about it the first time, the pain was too bad. Now I reach out for anything to bring your Memory close to me.” And just like that she capitalizes the word Memory.
That day it was hot, but then again it was always hot. By all accounts this day was no different, so I said that a couple times to myself, but when you have to say that to make yourself feel better you know it sure as hell is a different sort of day. Instead of realizing that, I waited around my house, being quiet until my father went to work and my mother went to Grammy’s house where she was in hospice. She was dying and I knew that. But instead of going with my mother as I had been since coming home for the summer, I mulled around in our backyard, listening to the cicadas droning as I kicked some pebbles around in the dust and threw sticks for my dog that she never brought back.
I almost thought my yard could be a time capsule. That as long as I was there I couldn’t hear the phone ring. But now the sun was changing and the searing white light was coming through the leaves of the trees right above me, dappling down over me and my dog and the stones in the dirt. The little droplets of sweat rolled down from behind my ears.
And then it was like something rolled over in my stomach. It happened so suddenly, so gently that I knew it was real. I stood up fast, the blood rushing to my head as I ran as quickly as I could to my car out front. I didn’t change my clothes that I’d sweated in, slept in. I didn’t lock our front door. I pulled the car door shut as I rolled out into the street. My car pitched down the hills of my neighborhood, turning really without me guiding it, relying on Memory more than anything. I thought briefly about putting my hazards on but couldn’t lift my hand off the wheel for the shaking.
I drove 90 when I turned onto the main road, the river becoming a muddy blur as I passed it. That same white light reflected off of it, blinding me. But I kept on, and there was nobody else out there that day, nobody but about three cops. And those I passed in turning lanes without a thought and none of them pulled me over.
It was so strange to me that I didn’t care if I killed someone or got killed. The faster I drove the more frozen I felt. The sensation was like a drop of water rolling down the side of a big ice cube and then fizzing out into nothing when it hits concrete. I was reminded of the soles of my tennis shoes melting on the sidewalk in the summer because I was standing too still for too long.
God took everyone out of my way on that road so I thought maybe I hadn’t messed up completely. Maybe I would make it in time.
I pulled up to Grammy’s house in the Mill Village. As I got out of my car I saw my aunt on the porch and saw her face and knew that I hadn’t made it. I took in the house all together for only a second before I had to push out all the Memories that come with growing up in a place. It was different now, whatever had rolled over in my stomach never turned back over. I took the red brick steps two at a time right into my aunt’s arms. And I put my head up against her neck, and let her hold me and cried and felt her diabetic pump pushing into my hip. I heard my cousin Adam choking back soft teenager gasps. I couldn’t look at him.
“I didn’t make it did I?” I breathed into my aunt’s ear.
“Honey, did your mom call you? It was only two minutes ago,” and she rocked me and I let her.
After a little while I let go. I opened the big white door that sticks when it’s opened and stepped as quietly as possible into the tiny little mudroom with the glass door at the other end. It was always pristine in here and there never was any mud. But I don’t know what else to call it. The Ivy Room?
I held my breath. I knew this was a room big enough for only me, and that as soon as I stepped out into the main room things would be different. I looked down and even in the dim light could see the intricate never-ending vine of ivy painted around the edges of the room on the floor. My grandmother’s son, my mom’s brother and a skilled carpenter, had spent months remodeling the interior of my Grammy’s house and the finishing touch had been this little design of ivy on the floor of the mudroom. Every leaf was shaded with different hues of green. My uncle the big, dark, calloused and perfectly quiet man had kneeled over his mint colored vine, painting the dark veins on the leaves with a brush with only one hair. I was ten and equally as quiet as him, trying to not break his concentration. I remember how his shirt strained as he bent over with his face almost on the floor like he was praying for something big.
Now he would be in my Grammy’s room, with his wife and my mother. I let out the breath I had been holding. I didn’t want to go in there, and like she knew that my mother backed out of the room and turned towards me. She was sad, and that was difficult for me. She has pretty consistently been stone strong, hardly ever crying, at least in front of me. For a long time I didn’t understand that she was so hard for my sake. She held me too, which is something I always long for. We sat on a couch facing the bay window and my aunt came back in and sandwiched me between them.
“I should have come sooner,” I said into my mom’s arm. It was so soft. “I was just messing around. Just standing around.”
My mother, usually a fiercely honest person with me, lied. “You didn’t do anything wrong. And anyway she wasn’t awake today so she wouldn’t have known if you had been here.”
“I should’ve been here.”
“Do you want to see her?” She asked. I remembered when my Grammy’s mother died in the nursing home. Her eyes were open and so was her mouth. I didn’t know someone’s mouth could open that wide. It was horrible. I was thirteen.
“No,” I mumbled after a moment’s consideration. My mother understood. A little later I would go to the kitchen and on the way glance purposefully at Grammy in her room. Her mouth was open too and so I never did go in.
But right then we just sat on the couch. My uncle’s wife came in a couple times and told us she had called my older cousin Chris and that he had said “Oh crap,” when she’d told him. I didn’t see too much of my uncle, but I could hear him on the phone in Grammy’s bedroom, talking to Rodney the funeral director from Collinsville. And so the conversation turned to Rodney. He was 300 pounds and had just recently been in a topless photo shoot. It was for Rick and Bubba’s Big Sexy Men calendar and he’d been leaning on his hurse with his arms crossed. My aunt and my mom and I giggled about that for a minute, still all gazing out of the bay window on the other side of the room. Things got quiet again and all I could hear was the cicadas harmonizing out in the trees.
A cardinal suddenly careened into the window, leaving a little greasy smudge on the glass. I felt my mother think about speaking and then she did.
“I know this is weird, y’all,” She started. “But that’s the third time that’s happened today.” Her eyes, glassy, opened up for a moment. She kept looking out of the window, entranced and elsewhere.
“Carol, stop.” My aunt said and that was the last time we talked about the red birds. I know my mother had been thinking about how cardinals were my Grammy’s favorite.
We sat there like that for hours, looking through boxes of old photographs and talking about family in Collinsville—the odd ones, the folk who kept an old tanning bed in a shed with a door that was always unlocked and a tin can out front to put your payment in. My uncle eventually came in with his wife and waited with us for the van to come get my grandmother. He hugged me, and I think it was the first time. My aunt began talking with his wife.
Something rolled over even farther in my stomach but this time it didn’t feel so pure. My aunt’s family and my uncle’s family hadn’t even seen each other in years because they hadn’t wanted to. Once upon a time they had run a steel plant together, but it just hadn’t worked out. They got in a big fight and hadn’t seen fit to reconcile since. Since I was sixteen I had been going to separate holidays and events and choosing which side I wanted to see for the brief moments I was home from school.
The worst was Christmas Eve a few years ago. My grandmother invited both of the feuding families to our house for dinner, each without the other’s knowledge. My uncle and his wife saw my aunt and her little children at the door and they got up and left without saying much at all. I know Grammy had hoped they could at least just be together in the same room. She knew what she had done and she sat there in one of our chairs hardly moving. I could tell she was about to pass out so I brought her some water and sat with her. Her hand in mine was shaking. She was holding on so tight.
I wish it could’ve worked out that night. It turns out the only thing that could get my family to all be together again was when Grammy’s health dropped out into nothing. I returned from a semester abroad to a family who appeared whole, a dying grandmother and a summer of cicadas.
And now my uncle was hugging me and my aunt was talking to his wife. Somewhere deep within me an understanding bloomed and died at the same time. This was all there was left; their efforts to be together for my grandmother’s sake were over. There was nothing holding them together now and whatever peace was in this room, whatever common sadness we shared would be the last.
I watched my uncle’s wife pluck her at her blouse and put her hands on my aunt’s shoulders, speaking to her from behind. I watched my uncle sit with my mom. It all seemed ok except the dying wasn’t done. I took in the room, the glass door to the Ivy Room, my uncle’s wife and my aunt talking, the wood paneled walls with the strange jungle plants lined up along them. The big white bay window that always had a few dying flies trembling in the corners, where I had waved my daddy off to work everyday when I was little. The coffee table full of bible studies and self-help books in front of my mom who was hugging my uncle and his big rough hands lying motionless on his knees. I stayed to myself by the jungle plants and after a moment it was suddenly all too much. I walked over to my window and looked down at the driveway. There was no dead red bird there, not even one lost feather.
If I had to imagine a purgatory it would be Grammy’s funeral. My family stayed civil but they had already separated again. There was no more hugging or anything like that.
I was nervous and Trent and Chris, who was just a friend at the time, sat with me on the funeral home’s porch, which was also Rodney’s porch. I stayed out there as long as I could, talking about Rodney’s calendar and how hot it was— the weather of course and not the photo of Rodney and his hurse. We talked about a beach trip that would never happen and Chris said he liked the pearls I was wearing, the ones my grandmother gave to me when I graduated high school. When we had to go back inside it smelled the way everyone complains about when they write about funerals. Lilies and dust and ladies’ perfumed linen blouses. I stalled in the foyer before going in with all those people. It was quiet in there with the old couches no one ever sat on. I didn’t want to talk to anyone in there with the coffin, and I certainly didn’t want to see my family’s last frail attempt at being together. Trent and Chris stood patiently with me.
There was a sign in book on a little wooden podium that no one had signed because they’d all come in through the back. I thought I knew this funeral home so well, but I had never noticed the rose encased in a glass globe sitting by the book. I stood there wondering where Rodney got that thing and what people thought about when they set out things like fake roses preserved in glass. Things like that don’t make anybody feel any better. But that dumb piece of glass is preserved in my memory better than almost anything that day. The thin layer of dust on the globe, the dark red petals of a fabric flower held inside and the tiny little air bubbles surrounding it.
The funeral itself was miserable, of course. Trent and Chris had never seen an open casket and I kept assuring them it wasn’t what my grandmother looked like. I kept showing them photos of her and Poppy that I had set out so that people could see her high cheekbones and jet black hair and almond colored eyes and know that she wasn’t that frail little powdered old woman resting in that pale blue coffin over there.
But the worst was the ride to the cemetery. Trent and Chris left and I got in my parent’s SUV. It was boiling hot in the car and I had to take my pearls off because it felt like I was being choked. My dad drove behind my uncle and in front of my aunt, creating a separation for the two even in their vehicles. He was quietly sad in that way that I hate to see and my mother too, except she was stone strong again in her old way. I sat by myself in the back with my forehead against the window for the cool glass of it. We drove slow, with a cop leading us with his lights on silently and that horrible Big Sexy Man hurse following behind him.
The roads were Collinsville roads—old pavement, grassy shoulders and with the billowing heat blurring out everything four feet over that. We passed a lot of cars on the way and every one slowed down, some even stopping on the side of the road. A man saluted the procession from inside his car. They started up again as we passed. The only sound was the hum of the cicadas. It was a bad day for them— you could see them clouding over the tops of the trees in a caramel colored haze.
It was hard for me, that ride, and I cried. My mom reached her arm back into the car and held my whole arm against hers. I could feel her blue birthmark against my wrist, and the warmth of her hand and arm was so different than the heat of sun outside. It reminded me of when I was three.
I had my first Memory when I was three years old.
Alabama will never be prepared for snow, let alone a sudden and extraordinary blizzard in March. When it happened it was overnight and when we woke up that morning we could hardly get out of our door to go get a shovel— The pipes were all frozen over, the power out and the car was now just a bump in the snow. It was like this for almost two weeks. My parents started a fire and covered doorways with big beach towels, jamming the smaller ones under the cracks of the door. My mom and my dad and I slept together on the floor of the living room in front of the little fire. Every morning after the snow I would move the beach towel aside and peek out of our big front window and every time it amazed me, the erasure of it all. Everything was different now, elevated, smoothed over.
The drifts of snow were taller than me, and because I didn’t own water resistant clothing I had a good half an hour of playtime before being soaked to the bone. I have never been so happy.
What I don’t remember, what I’m told is that a few days into the storm I fell off of our couch head first into the corner of our mahogany coffee table. My parents knew I had a concussion but had no way to get me to a hospital.
For years my mom had collected these exotic teas. I remember seeing them in their boxes, all different colors, lined up together. After I fell, she took them off of their shelf and brewed them over the fire, pouring them into my little plastic tea set. We sat shivering by the fire and sipping her tea. I didn’t know that she was trying to keep me awake until she could get help. We had a tea party for two days straight.
I don’t remember my fall, the impact of my head on the table, the lost teeth or the swallowed blood. What I do remember is how glassy and cool the tiles of our floor felt and the heat of a fire that I had never experienced. I remember little pink plastic teacups, the glint of white light off of my mom’s silver teapot, sleeping curled up between my parents on the floor. I remember the rush of cold air on my cheeks when I was sledding with my father on the lid of a garbage can and the cold springs of the rocking horse my Poppy gave to me that Christmas.
I remember being alone in my yard and touching the side of one of those big snow banks and feeling the stinging cold against my little finger tips. I understood, for the very first time, how very small I was. Climbing the drifts of snow in my layered pajamas and running full speed at them and being instantly defeated, exhausting myself and lying there elated in the snow.
I remember one of the last days of being stranded in our home; waking up early when everyone was still asleep and the light all around was still pale blue. I walked quietly to the window and pulled back our towel. The world outside was so still and white and perfectly erased expect for six brilliant cardinals. Three couples, playing blissfully in the white field that had been my front yard. I sat on the back of our couch and watched their blurs of red twist and turn, chasing one another around in the blankness.
I thought about making a deal with the devil.
The idea came to me when I was standing, slumped over, panting in my patchy grassed backyard, nasty kamikaze cicada bullets hurling themselves at me all at once. Their eyes all round and red, like droplets of condensation magnifying tea in a pitcher. I thought this meant they had to be little agents of the devil. That’s what gave me the idea. I mulled it over. Weighed the pros and cons of even drawing the devil’s attentions. If he was anywhere, then it was in the steaming heat of the South and I figured he could hear me what with all these red-eyed henchmen following my every move.
You have to understand. It was so hot that day and everything was falling, crashing, shattering from where I’d placed it so carefully over the last 21 years. I had returned from studying abroad to a home here that was different somehow, like visiting a friend whom you hadn’t known had been disfigured in a car accident. I had returned to a mess of a family—my paternal grandmother was recovering from a stroke and a heart attack, my maternal grandmother, who helped raise me, my best friend and personal saint, was losing a battle with a sudden assault of cancer. My family, her sons and daughters, had been broken into different cities to escape each other after a bad business deal between them, and here they were back together for the first time. They weren’t arguing this time, and for that I was thankful, although I figured that if they were here it meant the worst.
I had travelled for two weeks to make it back home to my dying grandmother. I left Ireland and left all those blithesome notions of belonging there too. I had since been endlessly lost, fatigued, nearly broken my wrist and deeply alone. I had found my way to London and stayed, for ten days, on two chairs pulled together in a communal kitchen of a friend’s flat with a Delta airline blanket and someone’s frozen onions on my swollen wrist until I was able to purchase a return flight to the US. I was very ready to go home. I was tired.
The friend’s flat caught fire. I believed this was London was telling me to move along, in a similar way that the Irish Barren had ushered me out with the end of a school year. I thought I had it all together—to listen to where I needed to go, not to force anything. Let myself be moved.
But when I returned to Alabama from living abroad in Ireland something was indeed different. It felt good to be home but I noticed it—I don’t know even now if it was something physical or some idea or feeling hanging in the air there. I found myself, in the transitory days, inspecting from my wooden deck the trees beyond my house and remembering that when I was little I thought there was an endless wood connecting everything. They still drew me in but now something was less alive about them. Nothing was endless anymore.
That was exactly it, as close as I can describe it. Something had gone away. Though my home looked exactly as it had six months before, there was something less about it now. A sense of dearth lurked now in my trees, in the familiar cracks on driveways and in hydrangea bushes that I used to hide in. I attributed the change, or shift rather, to my own dreads of losing my grandmother, but I wasn’t entirely sure that was it.
I still felt like a traveler. I knew I belonged here, but it was the same feeling I had in London, that I should move on. I saw it like those medical stories I’d heard of—like a body rejecting hair plugs, or a graft of skin. Every morning I woke up with that distinct feeling of being somewhere unfamiliar, but I had to remind myself that this time it wasn’t so. I belong here. I am home, I am home. Anyway, I couldn’t just move on from Etowah County Alabama, my immutable sanctuary. In the mornings before the cicadas woke up and it got real hot I would move quietly out into the light on the back deck and every morning shiver at the depth of my unwelcome.
I cultivated hate in my heart. I hated that this was happening to my family and me. I hated that I couldn’t move to New York City like I’d planned. I hated imagining life without my grandmother, who prayed for me everyday. I hated the thirteen year swarm of cicadas that picked now, of all times, to crawl out of Hell and leave caramel colored nymphs of themselves lying around and clinging to screen doors. I hated the heat that I used to love and I imagined that it was cool in that empty third of the apartment in Chelsea that I couldn’t pay for. I sat simmering and telling myself lies in my backyard that used to hold so much comfort when I needed it. Now I couldn’t see for the big bugs, couldn’t hear the wind in the trees for the tornado siren song of the cicadas.
I spent the next few days bussing back and forth from one ER to my other grandmother’s home where she was in hospice. I kept myself anesthetized on momentary responsibility—pulling on my maternal grandmother’s socks, recounting to her of my life in the Orchard House in Ireland on the dairy farm. Pleasant things. I gave her a painting of our hands I had made after I dreamt of picking berries with her. I lied to myself.
One grandmother was recovering and the other was fading away. I was jealous of the recovering one. As I sat in the waiting room dozing off during her first surgery of the summer, a woman struck up a conversation with me. It was unwelcome and I had little energy to even turn towards her. She must have known I wasn’t listening because she said, quite suddenly:
“A lot of people have been healed by your grandmother, you know. She has a lot of people praying for her right now all over the country.”
Healed? What are you saying? I had healers in the other side of my family. I had prophets in my family. Things happen that way in the South. But my own little boney powdered donut of a grandmother? Who took me shopping for clip-on earrings and bright red lipstick when I was five?
According to this woman, my paternal grandmother had once travelled around the US to different hotels where she would meet people who needed help and prayed for them in a “certain way.” What do you mean? I was suddenly aware of the sterility of this waiting room, the smell of generic cleaning products.
“God just hears her prayers differently than ours”
“She heals people?”
“She asks for it from God and it’s different than when we all pray, and then she’d lay her hands on the person,” I had been praying, grudgingly, blaming, to spare my grandmothers at least, having given up on my family becoming whole again. That was luxury, though I was thankful that they’d roughly stitched themselves back up, at least for a couple weeks to ease my grandmother’s mind. I focused on this woman who was speaking to me, interested now. Her big brown eyes were glossy and sincere and I felt a little bad for ignoring her earlier. She wrung her hands, but in a slow, motherly way that was comforting somehow.
“Your grandmother, she said she’d do the same for Betty if she could. She’s been praying that her cancer will just melt away. That’s what she said, melt away.”
“She said that about my grandmother?” I tried to keep her talking.
“You didn’t know she could do that did you?” She smiled and it seemed like she was letting me in on a secret that few knew. “So many people are grateful to her. I traveled with her to a conference in Ohio once, she was so torn up about fitting into this pants suit she had that…”
The woman, a family friend, diverged on about a floral pants suit and how my grandmother always wanted to look nice when she healed people. I had an idea (this is, of course, before I tried to make a deal with the devil— Oh, I tried God first, like a good Southern girl). I told myself lies and felt a pang of hope.
So I waited in the waiting room for my grandmother’s surgery. Hours and hours because those quadruple bypasses take forever and you have to wait by this panel of little older ladies, all donning brightly colored tweed jackets and big Sunday School hats and brooches, who volunteer to answer old-style porcelain-like dial phones.
“Hill family!” They shout. It’s the surgeon. Everything is looking fine; I’ll call back in half an hour. Everything is going well.
I picked at the pleather seat in the waiting room, dipped my finger into the fluff inside. It was cool in here and it felt nice to have my legs pulled up to my chest during the long wait. I relished in my budding idea. I could save her, I thought, and the childlike manner in which the idea formed in my mind surprised me.
I knew the grandmother in surgery was going to pull through this surgery. This grandmother was always sassy, a fighter. And apparently God needed her here on Earth a little longer to help people. I thought I saw a glimpse of his plan when the surgeon called for the last time, six hours later. Everything had gone smoothly. I couldn’t see her then, so I peeled myself out of the chair and left the hospital, glad that something had gone smoothly.
I came back every day until she woke up. The drugs or the surgery or something made her loopy and weird and she was always kicking under the sheets with her willow branch legs. I watched her from the windowsill until a few days later when she was able to speak without being totally confused. I spent most of the fifteen minute visiting slots looking out of the glass at a magnolia tree that had one bloom on it, perfectly framed by the window for my grandmother to wake and see. Oh God, I thought, are you trying to tell me something? I find your messages written in big dripping white flowers rather difficult to read sometimes.
My grandmother, lying there blending into the white sheets was still and papery when she woke. She was exactly like that flower outside. Creamy white flesh nestled in a background of ticking machines and monitors. She was perfect. I wondered how this worked, how she healed people. I talked to her for a while, afraid to mention what I’d learned about her. She was still confused. Before the fifteen minutes were up that day I moved closer to her and held her in the best embrace I could and careful not to crush her, I employed the first part of my plan.
The woman said she’s laid her hands on people to heal them. I placed my palms on her arm and her shoulder and I tried to make myself a vessel. Her skin was so soft, like a cobweb. I pulled with my mind, I prayed and I pulled at her healing powers, from wherever they came, into the skin of my open hands. I only wanted to borrow it and I figured God could take care of her since they were such good friends if I just took her healing powers for a day. I imagined I could feel them in my hands now, little sharp shards of God lingering there. I felt like I was going crazy. I kissed my grandmother and told her I’d be back soon.
“I would do it myself, go over there and help her, you know. If I could.” Her voice was little but surprisingly lucid. Maybe she knew what I was doing, maybe it wasn’t as childish as it seemed. She told me she loved me and I went with my parents out to the parking lot, holding my hands away from my clothes, clenching the fists so the borrowed powers wouldn’t evaporate in the humidity. I asked my dad to drive me to my other grandmother’s house, so nothing would rub off of my hands onto my own steering wheel. I held my hands still in my lap and watched them carefully, so nothing would leak out.
In my maternal grandmother’s room things were different. Her big oak bed was replaced with some metal hospital cot that could raise her up. I wondered how they’d gotten her beloved bed out of the doorway. I always had to stop thinking about it, pretend it had always been this way, pretend I hadn’t spent so many nights sleeping in this very room. Instead I looked at the framed photos of my relatives on her dresser. My grandfather who’d passed away years ago, my aunt and uncle who were dead to each other now. I looked at all the frames, fragmented ruins. She had put their pictures together because they couldn’t be together anymore.
Behind the frames, braced against the mirror was the painting I’d given her. I had dreamt of our hands picking berries together, something we did together in the summers. It meant something else now, the grasping hands. I figured I’d better just do it, so I walked over to my grandmother’s side, keeping my hands quite still.
She didn’t look at all like a flower. Her once creamy complexion, bright dark eyes and salt-and-pepper hair were duller now, her skin jaundiced by a failing liver. I hated it. I missed her old comforting, slightly Indian appearance. Her body was fading away before she herself did, leaving a frail and broken armature to a still impossibly phenomenal, gentle soul. I tried to let go of all of the hate I had accumulated.
The room was stale with fear, hers and mine, the familiar smells of coffee and quilting fabric replaced with alien smells of the hospice—a service I naively equated with giving up. I held onto the little hope I’d gathered at the hospital, leaned down to kiss my grandmother, doubled over to give her a hug. I fished around for her bare arms and laid both hands on them. I didn’t know what my other grandmother would have done except pray, so I tried. I held that position for a long time, clenching my eyes shut, pushing my borrowed powers out of my palms and onto my grandmother’s yellowing skin. I felt it transfer, spread through her body like the chemo couldn’t. For a moment I thought I could smell her, the way her laundry dried in the sun smelled when she could still fit into her clothes.
Over the next few days her condition worsened and she lapsed into a coma. I found myself avoiding everything, wandering about in my backyard feeling stupid and getting accosted by humming cicadas. It was so hot that day but instead of going inside I just mulled around in the dust thinking about the devil. It was the only other option, since God didn’t have things worked out my way.
But it was just so hot in the two feet of dusty southern soil I had planted my feet on. The sweat rolled off my neck and between my shoulders as if the devil’s gaze was on my back as I weighed my options. What the hell are the pros and cons of dealing with the devil? I had sold a couple paintings, I could offer my career. I thought maybe I could become a spinster and die alone and that would be an acceptable trade. Or did he want me? My life? I didn’t exactly know how to go about this, obviously. It all seemed so dramatic. So I just stood there thinking about it and getting sunburn.
I don’t know if he can hear you get tempted, but if the devil was anywhere then it was in the drowning Alabama air that day.
I began thinking about my grandmothers and how ashamed they’d be. The one with the direct line to God would know, surely, if I made a deal with Satan. It wasn’t proper, but I still wondered if it was possible.
The devil—in the season’s drought, in the sun on my back, in the insects crawling on my legs— seemed to address me briefly.
You know you can’t do this, and here he laughed and the sound of it was the deep drone of cicadas in my ears. You know you couldn’t do a deal with me, he said. What would I want with a little fleshy insect like you?
I looked down at my hands, sweat tracing dark lines of dirt into the creases of my palms and I wondered why I thought I could’ve offered the devil anything.
I suddenly felt very small. The weight of the sunshine, humidity and my own futility seemed to press down heavier than ever. I held my breath and watched as one of the cicadas fell from the sky, as they often do with a lifespan of only a couple weeks. It struggled in the grass but it was too heavy for its own good. It hummed, a deep and shaking sound, and rolled over into the dust. I nudged it with the very edge of my sandal and wondered—if they were crawling out of the ground, having incubated there for years, and flitted around for a few weeks just to drop to the ground and be eaten by my dog— why they even tried. All they left behind of their whole lives was one small, tough little shell to mark where they’d flown off.
It was so hot. I mopped the sweat off of my forehead and went inside.
When I was a young child I was allowed to roam within the confines of the river and my elementary school, as my parents had been allowed. That gnawing worry of children being taken away from their neighborhoods had not yet become widespread and as a seven year old I was living in a little pocket of time-stood-still, had just barely tasted the old times before my own modernity began.
My main companion was the boy next door, Christopher— or Christopher Robin as I called him. Blurred by time-fast-forward, he remains crystallized in my memory as a long-legged, round faced boy with dirt on his face, clenched dark-rimmed eyes and a turned down mouth. He was rough and had cut-off sleeves and almost as boyish as can be, apart from his crippling fear of bugs. I remember fishing around in the sea of ivy that blurred the end of my yard and the beginning of his, crept up trees and wallpapered our houses. I would wait for a scuttle and dive in, usually after some horned beetle, scuttling in my fat fist the very same way Christopher Robin scuttled away from me.
But he’d always come back and we’d turn to one of our games. His house, seemingly always under construction, had a mountain of dirt around back. When it rained it was a mountain of mud, perfect for king-of-the-hill and mud fights. Of course, Christopher Robin always won both of these tournaments and I said I let him, but I didn’t. I was knobbly and even more awkward back then, tripping over my legs and no matter how hard I tried, how hard I ran up the mud hill or threw the clods, I somehow slipped back down. He was much bigger than me and less afraid of mud than beetles.
I remember the spatter of the muddy soup on my legs, the crack of a good wet-on-the-outside, dry-on-the-inside dirt clod on my cheek and the welt it left. I remember the feeling of trying as hard as I could to knock down the king of the hill, throwing myself, in my little swimsuit and once white tennis shoes at him and as much as I willed to be the boy king, I just loved the feeling of sliding down the mud mountain too much. Defeated, rolling down on my belly, on my back and little sticks in my hair, gravel cutting my arms, and I was smiling because it just felt so good to have worn myself out trying.
But most of the days of my childhood in Alabama we spent in drought. The mud hill was a special treat. Most days it was just dog hot outside and we would just be trying to get somewhere cooler to play. On the edge of my yard was the Little House, which was really my father’s tool shed but was a right abode to a seven year old. Christopher Robin and I would spend the morning chasing the carpenter bees that lived in its roof out and hitting them out of the air with sticks. This remains one of my most regrettable memories. Carpenter bees don’t sting—but I didn’t know that.
When the big afternoon roiled in everyday it burned away cool dew and cushy morning clouds and replaced everything with bright patches of violent, searing light that was avoided at all costs at high noon. Inside the Little House it was damp and cool and smelled rich of sawdust and oil. It was piled high with shelves and unused timber that made for the perfect indoor jungle gym. This was Christopher Robin’s favorite activity and he proved to be the king of climbing. All I did was try and keep up and every once in a while throw a nail or small block of wood at him. When we reached the top, the darkest, furthermost corner of the shed, we would lounge on the precarious boards there and point out at the dark walls and say oh I can see my house! I can see for miles! Because it felt, despite the roof over our heads, that we had been climbing all day. Curling up in the dark on the top shelf was the most treasured spot in our neighborhood and we often had visitors, other little boys or girls that we thought were mean or annoying, poking their heads in and promptly leaving once the first handful of sawdust was thrown down at them.
One little neighbor girl by the name of Lindy was more persistent than the others. If we were too loud during the summer she would find us right away and beg to play with us. She was younger than even myself and was too young even to realize she wasn’t wanted. She would stand in the door of our Little House and sob and cry, tears caked up with sawdust and wiping the mixture around her scrunched up face as we sat on our thrones shouting get out of here baby! Little girl! Because that was the worst combination of things one kid could say to another, the ultimate sardonic insult—to be called little and a girl.
But Lindy never left. If she managed to find us during the day she would stand sucking up tears and threatening to tell her mother. And anyway we knew she’d lie and say something much worse than throwing sawdust, so we let her come along, but drowned her out and walked faster than her baby legs could take her.
There was a time when Christopher Robin went away. I spent some time wandering around his yard, standing on the big pile of dry dirt and trying to look through the windows, then back around my yard. Little there interested me. Even the Little House, the makeshift fort, sat gray and uninviting. I tried to climb inside it but the once inviting smells of sawdust and grease seemed scary and the climb too high this time. So I settled with kicking stones around in the dust and waiting for him to come back.
I wouldn’t have told him this, but I was glad to see Lindy’s pink creased up face expecting me to turn her away. And there she was one afternoon, wringing up a pink-checked baby doll dress that her mother always made her wear and which we usually taunted her to no end about. She was crying already but I told her to shut up. And I knew she would still follow me. And I just marched right over to Christopher Robin’s house, through the sea of ivy that divided our houses, through the construction boards and back up to the top of the dirt mountain, except this time I had an agenda other than being king of the hill. And oh I certainly was king of the hill now, by default at least, I thought as I watched Lindy try to not dirty her hem in the yellow dirt. I looked around from our mountain. Oh, I can see my house from here, oh I can see for miles, miles!
It was Christopher Robin’s house I was interested in. There was no van in the drive. The construction was halted as it always was but it seemed to mean something now. Did the yard need mowing? It looped still, green and soft, around the driveway, around the sidewalk and down the hill on the other side, under the carport. His bike, where was it? It usually lived by the back door, on the deck. I held my breath and looked at that door with its slightly askew storm door. Lindy at the base of the mountain wept shrilly, consumed in her own futility.
I took in the house as a whole for a moment before I charged up to the deck. I stood for a moment; I thought I could smell him. That oaky dirty smell that I later realized was the smell of our dirt mountain itself, idling, eroding in the yard. I looked at the door past the dulling silver of the storm door and past to the newer, painted white like a wedding dress. I opened the storm, looked through the window but just darkness. Quickly I turned the handle and it opened.
It’s unlocked, I said to Lindy, who was right behind me now and for once was silent. I knew it wasn’t locked.
We went in and I remember the smell of shiny lacquered floors, of nice clean white walls. It was dark inside after being blinded with sunlight for the last few years, so I placed a hand lightly on the wall so smooth and so different from the textured blue ones in my house. They were cool here like in the Little House. I felt my way through the dark hallway with the washing machine to the left and the heavily curtained window with the light seeping in around the edges, soaking the fabric in blues and orange and gold and pinpointing in bright white-yellow. It was one of two places in the house that I saw color.
Down past the hall, around a corner to the right, too afraid to let go of the walls. I walked so quietly even though I had no fear of Christopher Robin or his family returning. They were gone to me and I was left with this huge house to explore and it was cool and gray and silent like the bones of a whale on the ocean floor. Undisturbed, and I felt like a little picker fish winding in between the bare rib bones of the hallways. Lindy, a fat little grouper, followed silently, scared to death of being in this house, but not scared enough to be left alone outside.
I wound my way down a few steps and into the hardwood kitchen. This was the only room I had been in to eat ham and lettuce sandwiches with him and his mother. In fact, I had never been anywhere else in the house. I passed through the kitchens and clung to the walls of a different dark hallway, going the opposite way. Here there was white carpet and wooden banisters on a flight of stairs that went up and down. I chose up because I figured down was the basement, and I’d seen through its windows enough to know what that was like. Up the stairs and to the left and down a ways and I was in Christopher Robin’s room. It had a slanted ceiling. There were hot-wheels scattered about like barnacles on the floor, on the desk and the windowsill, and though I felt as though I was in the heart of the house, I remember very little about this room.
I heard a creak and a snap behind me and jumped. Lindy was in a closet in the hallway. I bounded there in a few steps and ridiculed her for touching anything. She jumped out at me shouting boo! Her fear melted away by all of the bright Christmas decorations strewn around and looped around her arms and her neck, dripping in shiny tinsel.
Put it back! I said but I was already peering into the darkness of the closet. She had tipped over a big box of the decorations. She danced around behind me on the landing of the stairs and I forgot her. The darkness was drawing me into the closet. I looked closer; let my eyes adjust to the dark cool depth.
There in the back on a shelf made to hold them was a row of hunting rifles bigger than me, some camouflaged, some gleaming in lusty blue steel. I counted them to five and on the fifth I realized what I had done. I turned and the gust of my movement chilled the sweat on my brow, I yanked the Christmas decorations off of the baby and delicately placed them back in the box, perfectly the way I imagined they had been before she tipped them out. I put the box back, pushing it lightly up against the guns to conceal them. I closed the closet and with Lindy by the arm, slipped down the hallways remembering the way I had come. Back to the landing, down the carpet stairs, through the kitchen and down the winding hallways until I found the curtain lit up with light and the washing machine. Out of the back door and I told her to go home little girl. And so did I.
A few days went by and Christopher Robin and his family returned to the house next door. They had been on vacation in Florida and they knew I had been in the house. A box of Christmas decorations was out of place. Who takes note of the placement of their storage boxes on returning home from the beach? It occurred to me later that maybe I hadn’t actually put the box back right. They didn’t care, really, except the guns were there in that closet they told my mother. And boy, did I get it big time. I never went in that house again, invited or no.
Slowly we grew apart, the houses, the boy and I. I had had my first real lesson in boundaries and now they were all slipping. The weather got cooler and the ivy was cut back, unwanted—a pest. I had liked it— it had been my jungle. Things became barer. The pile of dirt was used or carted off somewhere and rain became something that just kept a kid inside. Trees were cut down and the sun came through and bleached out my yard. Wasps invaded the Little House pushing us and the bees out. Christopher Robin, a little older than myself, found new friends, other boy kings. We played fewer and fewer times after I went into his house and his family moved a few blocks away because the house was too much for them, too much to keep up. The distance was too much. New neighbors moved in and I sometimes played with their dog, but I stayed on my side. They asked my parents eventually if they could take down the fence. The fence was punctuated with a gate from my backyard to his. Our fathers had put it in so that we didn’t go wading through ivy and get snake bit. The fence came down.I saw Christopher Robin about five years later. He was mowing the yard, sweating and bigger now, still with the turned down mouth and dark eyes but now with a Walkman tucked into his shorts. I was in my mother’s car leaving our house. I waved to him but I don’t think he saw me.
I remember this morning in the summer.
I was staying with my grandmother, something I did often. I woke up, with that sublime comfort of feeling a handmade quilt on my cheek and the humidity of my state seeping in through windows in the morning. The smell of linens, soft wooden paneling in the attic room. I sat up and just pulled all these things together, closed my eyes for a moment before rising and going on my way to the bathroom.
I passed the blank section of wooden paneling on my way and like always, I wonder what is behind it. I have a distinct memory of being an infant and crawling into a small, hexagon-like door on this wall. The inside was soft, a sheepskin that my aunt, my grandmother’s daughter owned. I remember my aunt had a camera and was playing with me. I remember how dark it was inside compared to the light of the room at night. It smelled like soft wood paneling.
After a few minutes washing my face I proceeded downstairs where my grandmother, soft and smiling in a blue shirt, greeted me warmly. Her smile is one of the things that I hold inside for days when nothing else will lift me. I remember how soft the skin on her arms was, the shape of her shoulders. I remember the blue tumor, an angeoma that she had on her left arm and how she would let me push it like a button when I was a child. I didn’t realize it was the same as the marks on my own body that ached when touched. My mother has a cluster, like a cosmic explosion on her wrist. Some of it had to be removed. Mine are lesser, faint dying stars beneath my eye, on the back of my neck, my collarbones, my arms, my knee. The one I think about most, when it does enter my mind, is the faintest. A distant, faint dwarf on my left arm.
My grandmother asked me how I slept. She was sitting in the rocker where long ago I was lulled to sleep, my fat fist on her tumor, when I was a baby. She looked out of her bay window with the white paint chipping just barely in its corners. She showed me a pair of cardinals feeding on her birdfeeder beyond the window and I watched them with her. She mentioned how she loves to take it slow in the morning, a habit we shared. She said there was coffee in the kitchen. I thanked her and went after it.
It the kitchen, the lovely loved kitchen that my uncle renovated for her, there was the small percolator and one glossy white mug with green leaves etched on its side. I hadn’t seen her own mug in her hand or on the bay window. I asked if she would like me to pour her some as well. I knew just how she liked it, it was nothing at all, she wouldn’t even have to get up. She hesitated.
“That’s alright, I’m okay,” This was different. “I don’t have much of a taste for it anymore.”
Now I am ashamed. Ashamed that I stood, knowing somewhere deep within me that not being able to taste meant cancer. The notion, no the actual thought of this was there, sitting in my mind kicking its feet gently and I let it fool me. I don’t remember what stopped me from voicing this concern, but something did.
I just stood there stirring my coffee quietly. I didn’t make her go to the doctor, like she hated. My grandmother, the self-taught health expert, knew what not desiring her favorite morning ritual meant.
I paused in the doorway and thought about making her, forcing her to go to a doctor.
Instead I went back to the bay window and watched the two cardinals, one bold breasted bright red and orange and the other a dulling grey brown. They flew off together and the conversation turned to distant relatives she’d seen recently.
I much prefer riding the light-rail with another person.
To me the light-rail is the emblem of Baltimore. Not that I really care about Baltimore. It’s just I’ve worked a very long time to get where I am today, going to school in this city. So I’m proud, but I won’t be here long.
The only times I get to ride with other people is when I pick someone up from the airport. If someone comes to visit me from home I like to give them that entrance into Baltimore that one can only achieve through the greasy windows of that light-rail. It’s real, I think to myself, more real than struggling in my car and getting parking tickets. I liked the skyline of the harbor; all lit up like nothing back home in Alabama is ever lit up. I liked the blur of neon in front of the market, I loved pointing out the street artist and oh I know him, he’s famous now. I like to show my guest that I’ve found a way.
It’s not quite as enjoyable taking someone back to the airport and it proves a little miserable when I have to take Chris back. My love, the summer Bama boy that lasted. I feel a great many things about him and, like a little girl, don’t want our weekend to end. He has become my best friend.
We sit on the chipped bench at the Mount Royal station on the southbound side. He has my hand in his and was repeatedly massaging the soft skin between my thumb and pointer finger, the way he always does to say I’m nervous, but I can’t tell you that. The freight train pounds away down the tracks underneath the light-rail station, the sound like an unseen tornado (at least that’s what I understand that a tornado sounds like as per multiple descriptions from worked-up trailer-dwellers standing in front of news cameras back at home.)
“I don’t want you to go.” I said, indulging in the teenager-love-storm screaming through my ideas of everything with the severity of something like a tornado or a freight train. Both are bad to get in the way of.
He says something like he would. I love you or I don’t want to go either or some other comforting scrap. I don’t know exactly what he said, but I savor it surely. Then I hear the terrible piglet noise of the oncoming BWI bound light-rail and I stand, pulling Chris along with me. We take a small row to ourselves, myself by the window and he holding his canvas travel bag next to me.
For a long while I stare out of the window and watch the city darken and neon signs start flicking on. The Lexington Market area holds little interest for me tonight: What I’m really doing is keeping track of how many stops we make and how many are left until we reach the airport and how incredibly comforting the smell of him is, the way his arm feels in mine. I let myself adjust into the repose of this glamour and his last few moments here with me. I rest my head on his shoulder, my nose behind his ear the way ponies in the fields of my home sometimes rest on me. And I imagine that he likes it too.
Our train neared the little moment, having passed Camden Yards and the stadium, where it begins its slight ascent over the backwater of the harbor. To shake off the irrational (Baltimore rational, perhaps) fear that I will one day look down into this city soup and find a bloated corpse staring back at me, I look quickly up at Chris and hold my arms straight up in the air, shout:
“It’s like a real slow roller coaster!” And he laughs, which is the sound of a bear with laryngitis coupled with the image of him clasping both hands over his mouth in embarrassment. I need this every day— this sound, the sight of him hiding his pleasure behind his hands.
“Thank you for laughing,” I say as I quickly pull my arms back to my side because I am on the light-rail after all, and people take behavior quite seriously around here. “No one ever laughs at that.”
He pulls my hair, gently kisses me. He quickly becomes quiet, though. The kind of quiet when a person is trying not to think about something they have to do. For him it was leaving, maybe. I noticed his eyes get shiny. He seems to shake it off though and as our train passes the bridges and harbor he says suddenly:
“What will you do tonight?”
“Write, probably,” And he asks me what about. The piglet noise peals again as the train turns a corner. “Memoirs and things. I don’t know,” I think about a worry that’s been growing inside me. I fear naïveté in my work. I know how I feel about my story and I feel as though everyone owns one thing—their story—and they have the right to tell it. I tell Chris this; I look back out the window at the brush and trash rushing by. I tell him I don’t know if my story is important. I know people who escaped wars, abuse. A little pause passes by with the next station.
“Can you promise me something?” He says softly. I look at him and nod. “Write this story like you were never going to let anyone read it.”
The light-rail, jolting across an intersection sounds its horn, carrying with it the longing I needed and the understanding I craved, all the freight of my worries. Beyond the window night falls and the flashing lights of the airport tarmac pulses in the distance. I think about the ponies nuzzling me when I was seven; about my father raking leaves, about how somewhere along the way I stopped believing in love. I think about losing my grandmother and I think about running and screaming through a hundred confused geese by the river with Chris and as the travelers on the train begin gathering their bags and standing I figure at least I’m trying.
I thought about making a deal with the devil.
The idea came to me when I was standing, slumped over, panting in my patchy grassed backyard, nasty kamikaze cicada bullets hurling themselves at me all at once. Their eyes all round and red, like droplets of condensation magnifying tea in a pitcher. I thought this meant they had to be little agents of the devil.
That’s what gave me the idea.
It was so hot that day and everything was falling, crashing, shattering from where I’d placed it so carefully over the last 21 years. But I imagined it was cool in the empty third of that apartment in Chelsea.
But it was so hot in two feet of dusty southern soil I stood on. The sweat rolled off my neck and between my shoulders as if the devil’s gaze was on my back as I weighed my options. I don’t know if he can hear you get tempted, but if the devil was anywhere then it was in the drowning Alabama air that day.
You know you can’t do this, and here he laughed and the sound of it was the deep drone of cicadas in my ears.
You know you couldn’t do a deal with me, he said. What would I want with a little fleshy insect like you?
And after that I didn’t hear from the devil—directly, at least— for some time.