by Denise Kelly LeBlanc
part 1 of 2
In the weeks since Erin’s grandmother had died there had been phone calls full of hysterical crying, self-pity and responsibility shirking. She’d always known that her mother could not handle, well, much of anything, so her recent behaviour was too predictable to be disappointing.
Now as she walked down forested roads around Gran Clara’s ocean-front home, Erin was exhausted. Most 21-year olds didn’t have to sort out their deceased loved-ones’ things. Once again her own life had been put on hold, explanations given to professors and friends, so that she could do work that would normally fall to an older relative.
As an only child with a sole uncle working in Europe and no cousins, there was no other viable option. She’d always wanted a mother that she didn’t have to parent, but never more than at that moment as she avoided going back to the small home to start the work that lay ahead. She’d always been strong but was now questioning her ability to cope.
But the walking helped, she thought, feeling the roughness of the hardened dirt road through her thin-soled sandals. The small, cottage-like home had been overwhelming. It was as though time were suspended and her grandmother was going to walk through the door. Dishes had been left to dry in the rack, a basket of clean clothes were waiting to be folded and put away. The smell of jasmine hung heavy in the air as it always had in Clara’s presence. The scent reminded her of hours spent snuggled in her grandmother’s lap and having her favorite stories read.
She forced herself not to imagine where her grandmother had fallen dead.
The scent had been what pushed her over the edge. Too many memories in a home her Gran had just recently purchased.. She thought the fact that she’d never been there would make it easier but had underestimated the degree to which Clara’s spirit filled every room she’d inhabited. Erin could sense Clara in every decorative detail and in the very energy of the space.
So she’d decided to escape by walking. The spring sun burned the tension away. Erin’s attention was caught by a lilac bush in full bloom, its branches hung heavily overburdened with their fragrant bundles. Maybe some flowers would cheer things up back at the cottage. She went to the side of the road, tying back her long blonde hair with an elastic she had in the pocket of her jeans.
With each bloom pulled from its mooring she began to feel a little lighter, a little more like herself. Something proactive to do. She’d inherited none of her mother’s wallowing tendencies and it felt good to remind herself of that.
It was as she reached deep into the foliage to grab a particular cluster that she touched something odd, something man-made. Feeling along the edge she made her way a few feet from where she started and realized that hidden in the overgrowth was an elaborate wrought iron fence.
Once she realized that it was there she could not believe that she had missed it. She stood back and examined the spots where the structure was visible poking through the leaves. There appeared to be a pattern of ornate curves, but she could not see enough to establish the details. Adjusting her funky, dark-framed glasses she scanned and...
A startled cry escaped Erin’s lips. The voice seemed to come from nowhere, but as she looked around Erin finally found its source. The tiny face of a little girl was pressed between two spokes of the fence a few yards away. She was almost hidden amongst the foliage.
“Hi,” Erin said, walking towards the girl. “What are you doing back there? “
As she neared the child she could see that she was dressed in a very pretty, girly dress. Not at all what one should wear when playing in the woods, more what you’d expect at a child’s beauty pageant.
“I live here, silly,” the girl giggled, covering her mouth with both hands. Erin couldn’t imagine there was a house behind all those trees. The forest was almost impassably dense. The contrast between the immaculately groomed child and the overgrown, uncared-for property were difficult to reconcile.
“Is your house behind all the trees?” asked Erin, stepping closer and crouching down to the girl’s level. She could see that the child stood in a small, cleared enclosure created by the lower branches of two ancient trees.
“Yes. I come out here to hide sometimes. Why are you here?” The child sat on the ground, settling cross-legged on the cold earth.
Erin reflexively put out her hand in a fruitless effort to stop the child from reaching the ground. “Careful! You’ll get your dress dirty.”
“Oh, that doesn’t matter. I have more. But you just have jeans on; you can sit and hide with me. Is that why you’re here? Are you hiding? “
All children put Erin immediately at ease. She sat across from the girl and felt the damp cold of the earth seep through the seat of her jeans. It was oddly comforting, feeling the strength of the ground beneath her.
“No, I’m not hiding. I just needed a break from some family stuff,” Erin replied. “Why are you hiding?” she asked, beginning to wonder if the child was in some kind of trouble.
Shrugging her shoulders, the girl answered simply, “Nothing really. Sometimes I just like to be alone. But if you aren’t hiding, then why are you here? People don’t usually walk out this way. And what does ‘family stuff’ mean?”
Erin couldn’t help but smile. “That’s a lot of questions for a little girl. In my case family stuff means that I have to take care of my grandmother‘s things because she’s... um... gone for a while.” She only realized after she’d said too much that she shouldn’t talk about death to one so young.
“You mean she’s dead.”
She was surprised by the child’s response. The bluntness of children was part of what Erin loved, but it never ceased to amaze her.
“Yeah, she passed away a few weeks ago.” She wasn’t sure what else to say. It was difficult to speak this particular truth.
“It’s OK. My Granny died a year ago, and at first everyone was really sad, but it got better. We still miss her but it doesn’t hurt as much.”
Erin pulled her cardigan tightly around her. “You’re pretty smart. What’s your name anyway?”
The child did not answer; she continued her questioning and twirled a long blonde ringlet as she spoke. “Granny was sick for a long time. Was your grandmother sick, too? My mom says that when people are suffering it’s a blessing when they die because then they are at peace. Do you think that’s true?” Her large blue eyes were narrowed quizzically, the child showing genuine interest in the answer.
“No, it was very sudden. She wasn’t sick at all.” Erin averted her eyes as she spoke, wanting to hide the welling tears from the young girl. Her memories of her grandmother were of such a vibrant, energetic woman it was hard to believe that she would never see her again. Shaking her head to dismiss the memory and fidgeting with her glasses as she did when uncomfortable, Erin made an effort at a slight change of subject.
“Maybe you knew my grandmother. She moved here about a year ago, lived at the end of this dirt road. Her name was...”
The child cut her off, unconsciously leaning backwards as she asked “They said she died of a heart attack, didn’t they?” She stiffened and Erin noticed her hands frantically folding the lace folds of her dress.
Confused at the child’s change of demeanor she said “Yes, it was a heart attack. Did you know her, sweetie? Don’t be upset.” She instinctively tried to soothe the child, feeling guilty at the morbidity of the conversation.
“Listen to me,” the girl said, scrambling to her feet. “It’s a lie. It wasn’t a heart attack. You need to know.”
Erin shook her head as though shaking off the words. “What do you mean? The doctor said it was a heart attack. I think you’re making a mistake.”
“No, he’s lying! You have to know. I heard grown-ups talking. He killed her because he was mad...” she turned as though hearing something behind her. “I have to go. They’re looking for me. But I don’t ever lie. He does though. You need to know.” She turned again, looking nervous. “I have to go now, before they get here.” And with that she rushed into the trees.
Erin used the fence to pull herself up and peered through the trees, trying to find the girl. She paced sideways along the fence frustrated that she couldn’t follow and find out more of what the child was trying to say. What did she mean by ‘You need to know?’ None of what she said could be true, could it?
Stumbling backward onto the dirt road she was reluctant to take her eyes from the trees lest the girl return. Eventually she had to give up. Walking back towards the cottage she decided to go into town and get something to eat . Maybe she could ask about her Gran and gauge people’s reactions. Or maybe, she thought, she was still procrastinating.
As she moved over the rough ground, she knew she didn’t care. She was moving along at a pace she felt someone else was setting.
* * *
The coffee shop was the generic, one on every corner, ‘double-double’ variety. Ordinarily, Erin found these places depressing, but this one was comforting, a sign of continuity in her world where everything felt like it had been turned on its head.
There was an empty stool at the counter, and conversations overlapped and bounced throughout the room. As she made her way to the empty seat she noticed the buzz of voices waver. Small-town curiosity, she thought to herself as she wedged between a large sixtyish-year old man and an immaculately attired soccer mom. Settling in she realized that there was just slightly less space than was necessary for comfort. This could be a shorter visit than she’d planned.
True to her usual grace, Erin immediately spilled coffee on the counter. Shaking her head and smirking to herself she looked around for a napkin dispenser. The man beside her pushed one in her direction before she had a chance to ask. “Thank you,” she said while swiping at her mess.
He examined her for a moment with a grin that would have been creepy in the city. Here in a small town it was genuine, warm and predictable. “You aren’t from here,” he stated, no question necessary as he already knew the answer.
Copyright © 2006 by Denise Kelly Leblanc