Fiction by Audra McNamee
My grandmother’s house is in a hundred acre wood, snuggled between a meadow, a forest, and a small creek. Going slow up the driveway, we stop for quail and an imposing black iron fence, and put a quick foot on the brakes for the deer that have hopped over it. We move past the carved owl with solemn plastic eyes, the basketball hoop that has rusted, the two splintered chairs that are turning green at the edges, and the picnic table held up by a metal frame, wooden chunks fallen off the bench mulching the grass around it.
There’s a raccoon trap behind that tree. The bluejays and chickadees and finches and squirrels cluster by the kitchen window, stealing seeds out of feeders set on poles. Behind Papa’s locked tool shed there’s a dusty enclosure where he kept his hunting dog years ago. The wild turkeys are absent, but they’ll be back. Something’s been burrowing in the soft green lawn Papa was so proud of. The sky is cloudy; the sun is setting in blue, reflecting off our car and landing on the cement. The air smells like snow but it rains, little drops like stars on the windshield. When the car stops, I can find only one of my shoes so I hop out on the pavement, grit clinging to my socks, through the garage, between the two big black cars idling in the night, past the dusty children’s sports set. It’s lonely and cold before the weathered green door opens and holds off the dusk with smells of cranberry biscotti.
Mutti gives us all tight hugs, her hair frizzing at the ends. The ceramic frog cookie jar has a ceramic red hat, and the Christmas clock is on the wall. I pull off my gritty socks, leave them by the cat scratcher that’s been long abandoned by the cat who’s sitting on the kitchen counter – a diabetic black and white longhair who sits tall though she’s been reduced to skeletal proportions by disease and age. She has her original matted fur around her face and tail, but her stomach and back are shaved close. She considers us with big green eyes, and I pet her twice before she makes a pained noise.
While my parents make small talk, my brother and I gravitate toward the living room, with a warm fire in a gigantic stone fireplace. A gargoyle statue hunches on the hearth next to stockings ready to be hung next to a worn black leather couch and Papa’s reclining chair. The desk that used to have Papa’s computer is bare. My brother pulls open the gigantic New Yorker cartoon book, flipping to the spot he’s last read. The Christmas tree is up, and I search for the pickle ornament, burying my face in the pine and wood. I find it past a ribbon, low down, masked by the thick branches.
I slide over the wood floor through the dining room where the Mutti Goose centerpiece is leading her parade of candlewax quails. The grandfather clock in the corner chimes nine, and from the kitchen the Christmas clock chimes “Silent Night.” I pause to look at the case of frog sculptures, collected over a lifetime. Mutti and the parents are still talking; they agree we’ll be sleeping in the upstairs craft room, because the Demings are flying in later tonight: my Aunt Jen, Uncle Bart, and my two cousins. I run outside in the thickening rain, grabbing my canvas bag of clothes and my heavy backpack of art supplies and books and maybe some homework, anxious to claim my sleeping spot before the cousins arrive.
Upstairs, past the crooked landing, there’s the craft room, stocked with yarn piled tall enough to warrant the big oak ladder. On a single lower shelf, a small collection of yellowing books and sketchpads war for place, a nicely aged mouse Cinderella story, a brushstroke tale – The Boy Who Drew Cats – and the first Captain Underpants. My parents are sleeping in the bed while my brother and I curl around the desk in goose feather comforters and pillows that swallow our heads when we sink into them. The fireplace is stifling, burning without break through the night.
Mutti is awake first, and I’m second, padding down squealing staircases to the scent of Earl Grey and toast. I hug her. She asks what I want and I shrug, glancing at the kitchen table. She says she’ll be getting the mail soon, and we’ll have a Christmas Eve brunch. I smile as I float off to my book and my clothes to prepare for the day.
Natalie is up next. She’s four, and shy, and has forgotten me again, and I try to jog her memory, saying that I’ve not brought my stuffed animal, Brave. I tell her Brave misses her but she looks at the floor, and turns away. Her older brother, Brodie, looks at me, and I think he knows who I am, but he isn’t a morning person so his sulky child self stumbles off, mumbling about football. Mom wakes up and tries to feed us, despite our rational explanation we’ll be eating a real meal soon. Everyone moves towards the kitchen, nine people clustered around, and Dad says something about our great uncles and aunts, driving through the rain, so the kids move back towards the living room. My brother stops to play the piano that perches in another secluded corner.
As my cousins perk up, they start bouncing around my ankles, and I chase them, shrieking, up the stairs. Brother joins in with a growl and stiff arms, and we become the undead. Heavy footfalls, just a second too slow, and they’ve escaped again. They’re feeling the reward of beating someone at their own game. We run through the house, outside in the frosty air, until we’re all gasping for breath. Natalie smiles at me, and Brodie growls, and now we’re the ones running.
The day slips on. It’s time for brunch. I’m delegated to the kid table, watching my cousins stuff their faces with sausage and french toast. Mutti’s sisters arrive, and Mutti is at the head of the table, making a toast before she rushes back to the kitchen for the next course. Papa isn’t here, and something is missing in the air around us – the counterpoint of his voice in the music of the conversation. Without him there isn’t a schedule. We stand around the kitchen center table scattered with quiz cards and poker chips and magazines, not knowing what to do next.
From the living room we hear that the football game is on television. Bart sits in Papa’s reclining chair, Brodie on his lap, cheering. I run my fingers over the dusty spines of movies. Wakko’s Wish. The Princess Bride. Meet The Robinsons. I stare at the ship on the wall, three feet long and ornately detailed. There are bare shelves scattered around the house where other boats used to be.
My dad is getting bored cooped up in the house as much as me. He asks if we want to go on a walk, a stroll through the forest. It’s raining again, but softly, dew that clings to cotton, shimmering, not heavy enough to penetrate to the skin. I say I’m missing my shoe. Mutti pulls out a pair of sneakers from a closet. They might have been Aunt Jen’s. I pull the white shoes on whining, but they fit. We’re off.
In the miniature wildlife preserve we wander through dripping fronds, naming the native plants. There’s a wizened thimbleberry, lady fern, moss. Tiny mushrooms sprout, unaware of the season. Blackberries prick us when we brush by. We pass two green plastic lawn chairs, neglected. Toppled over, an animatronic owl, its batteries drained, cocks its frozen head to one side and stares with deep yellow eyes. It looks lonely. We leave it on the path, moving forward as the trail disappears from beneath us. Maybe we’re on another trail and maybe it’s an old deer path, because we see hoofmarks and scat on the soft ground around us, on top of the fallen leaves and blackberry vines that get longer and thicker the further we go. Dad hears the creek, a small burble, and the sound’s all around us. Flowing water magnified by slow, steady rain, all ears turned towards it. My brother and I start running. Dad calls to us not to slip, to be careful. The mud is slick, but we’re part of the forest, fast as the rain, and we practically jump over the tiny creek before we’ve noticed it’s there.
The creek takes the silence and embraces it, the sound of water mimicking birdsongs, and hoof beats and the rustle of wind. My heartbeat relaxes for the moments needed to embrace the lack of noise. Our breath comes out in steam, but our cheeks are too rosy to feel the chill. Brother and I laugh together, until our family crests the hill, walks down the slope, and we all hug again, tight.
I don’t remember ever hiking with Papa. He was a scout leader when my dad was a kid, but I never saw him in the woods.
We find the real trail, and meander back to the house, around the Wedding Glade, where mom and dad were married in the sun. It’s overgrown, more blackberries barring entrance from any angle; but it’s beautiful, more green than anything I’ve ever seen, shimmering in the light. We come to gentle incline, the pet cemetery, names of dogs and cats unknown to me on wooden plaques. I think about the cat on the kitchen counter. She’s older than I am, and soon she’ll rest here. Her wooden stake will say “Keiko,” and someday it’ll adopt the lush green coating everything in this forest has, moss – slimy in the rain, cold in the winter, but regal as velvet. I sit down on a big log. Mutti hugs everyone again. We walk back to the house.
Evening, we watch the Princess Bride. I catch biscotti crumbs in one hand, while my brother eats chocolate chips. I show Mutti I’ve found the pickle, and she runs upstairs to bring me the prize – a glass orb with twisting colors inside, perfectly smooth and round. We all smile at the movie, and at each other; even Brodie and Natalie sit almost still. The parents grin and produce pajamas out of thin air, pre-Christmas presents. Mine are mint green and have monkeys on them. We walk upstairs and I change in the small bathroom. A shiny black cotton ball holder shaped like a bunny props open the door when I leave. I read late into the night.
I wake to the sound of more rain on the roof. Christmas morning. My brother looks at me and makes a sleepy smile, blonde hair glowing in the dark. We run downstairs tripping over our own feet, as sneaky as elephants. There’s a note from Santa by the fireplace covered in half-eaten cookies. The fire’s barely glowing and the air chilled. We pull our stockings off the mantel, small grins on our faces. I tear bits of tissue paper down to the knit toes of the sock. Carefully, methodically, we arrange a pile of our presents and candy. I balance a chocolate shaped like a hedgehog with brown sprinkles for quills on the top of the pile. My brother and I sit together on the couch, knees tucked up to our chins, eating two oranges, half asleep and content, until the rest of the house wakes up.
First order of business, a small breakfast of buttered toast and scrambled eggs. I try to help, floating around the kitchen and bumping into elbows. We eat in the living room, five people squished onto the couch, Bart stopping Brodie from ripping into the presents. Then, we start.
As we’re pulling at bows and snipping packing tape from boxes that have been shipped halfway around the world, I look at Mutti. She’s in the middle of the couch – serene, queen of the moment – as mom and dad, Bart and Jen squeeze around her, laughing and chatting and maybe making enough noise to mask Papa’s absence.
I can remember Papa. He’d come downstairs to say hello to us when we piled out of the car, and then go back up, to sleep, to be alone. He’d been very sick for a very long time. He didn’t tell us; they didn’t tell us until it was sure he would be gone, and he wanted to say goodbye.
And then he was gone, on the fourth of July, to the sound of fireworks, in my grandmother’s arms, twenty, thirty years too early.
Back in the kitchen, I drink a ginger-lemon tea and help load the dishwasher. Mutti hugs me tight. I know we’ll be back next year and I hug her back. We watch the rain disappearing into the grass in the dawn light.