by Cheyenne Brown
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
We left town, eager to play outside. Our farmhouse was across the way from Grandma’s. The wheat field had started shooting up with grains swaying in the breeze that reminded me of tiny waving hands.
Grandma dropped us off, and we hightailed it to the woodshed, pulling out fishing rods, and tangled lines, and the grubby jar of silicone crawlers and stabbed them through our hooks. We ran to the narrow brook by our house, casting reels, pulling back too quick.
Jake’s line got stuck on the overhanging branches still crimped with ice. We pulled, and the line snapped. We were done anyway, so we leaned the rods against the house and raced back to the trailer.
Hours passed, and Mom and Dad were still gone. Evelyn crowded us into Grandma’s living room. It was story time. We nested pillows on the carpet in a circle. She pointed to the floor below us, rasping in a low voice, “Sadie died in Grandma’s cellar.”
Jake huddled closer to me, and I pushed him away, but not roughly. Sadie was a boarder Grandma had taken in a few years before. An old distant cousin of ours. She died in the hospital, but I believed Evelyn’s account. “She waits for children to go into the root cellar, then she snatches you!” She reached for Jake and me. She tickled us, and we laughed until we couldn’t breathe.
It was getting late, and still no Mom and Dad, but I was too busy thinking about Grandma’s card night with her friends.
Four of them would parade through her trailer, carrying dishes for their night of potluck and lie-telling. There was Mary Kate, Grandma’s cousin who wore a shapeless smock and a set of drawn-in eyebrows with the left one arched like a cartoon pirate. She never brought a dish without beans and cat hair in it.
There was Sandra, the hospital cook who made lasagna better than the Italians, according to my dad. Isabelle, the sweets maker, who’d pat Evelyn’s tiny belly and tell her she’d gotten fat; a backhanded compliment, then she’d offer Evelyn one of her famous rocky road squares.
Finally, the mysterious Agnes Fitzgerald, a World War II nurse with the Canadian Army. Grandma called her a feminist. Evelyn explained the term as someone who hated dresses, and Agnes’s dowdy khakis seemed to confirm this. She brought rolls, biscuits, scones, all store-bought.
Evelyn helped me get Jake ready for bed, and we got into our pajamas, playing Boggle in the spare room. We heard the women arrive, laughing, clicking open soda cans, clattering dishes on Grandma’s counter. The smell of casseroles drifted under our door, and Evelyn’s stomach growled.
We kept our ears to the thin walls listening until they left. We heard Grandmas checkerboard slippers tramping the carpet, her cane thumping in uneven beats, coming to check on us. We jumped in the twin bed, huddling with our eyes shut tight, stirring when the rectangle of light flowed in.
“You kids want some squares?” Of course, we did! We climbed off the bed, stealing down the narrow passage to the kitchen, seeing the half-drunk cups of tea and the fan of cards and the crock pot still simmering on the counter.
I helped Grandma with the dishes and Evelyn plucked out each caramel-coated marshmallow from her brownie, waiting for Grandma to tell us a funny story about one of the women who had just left. She always did. She couldn’t help it.
This time, it was, “Oooh, Agnes is hard on the nerves. She’s obsessed with coyotes now. Thinks they’re going to bite her in the screech.” Evelyn and I tore up, tears in our eyes.
Grandma towered over Evelyn. She pinched her butt and Evelyn squealed to get away. “Okay, Agnes,” she said to her, “if you don’t go to bed, those coyotes are going to tear you a new screech.” Evelyn clasped her butt cheeks, running down the hall to our bed. I shrieked with Grandma over the teasing. A minute later, Evelyn poked her head out, expecting me to follow.
“Get to bed, gommach!” I shouted. Evelyn was twelve, two years older than I, and my authority was overreaching, but she always crawled under the covers and waited for me to join her so we could tell our own Agnes stories, even though we knew very little about her.
I took my time finishing the dishes, pushing my bedtime hour. Grandma drew the curtains, squinting out into the darkness.
“Well, Joe and Lynn better come home millionaires,” she said, drawing the string on a bag of trash to take outside. “I think it’s time you say goodnight, gearbox.” I kissed Grandma on the cheek, before heading into the spare room.
Evelyn was sulking in the cot, still sore at me for getting smart with her earlier. I slid carefully into bed, aware she had all the cards now. She could punch-buggy my arm, or refuse to share my half of the bed.
“Did you see the bread Agnes brought?” I whispered. “Hard as a bullet!”
I could feel Evelyn’s stare, her eyes as large and dark as two cups of black tea. “Leave her alone,” she said and rolled over.
I was about to give up and apologize when I heard a howl outside.
Evelyn shot up. “It’s an Inverness dog!”
I huddled next to her, her arms shaking, then she pushed me to my feet.
“You better go out there and feed it, or it’ll whine all night.”
“You go,” I said.
She chanted “SCARDY CAT! SCARDY CAT!” so loud I climbed out of bed, proving I was far from it, although I heard my heart beating in my ears.
I crept out of the bedroom, looking out the picture window. The porch light was on now, and Evelyn grinned. “Watch out for Sadie!” I pulled on my jacket, mustering all the bravery I had. Sandra had left behind a plate of ham from the card game. I took it from the fridge and went outside.
Evelyn said she had counted the steps to the trash shed from Grandma’s house. One hundred and twenty-six steps of her own feet. I ran, losing count after ten, Sadie playing in my mind over and over again, wondering if spooks had some honor system with each other. They must have. How else would they get along, organizing themselves to terrorize us kids?
I imagined they led otherwise normal lives when we weren’t forced into their shadowy dwellings. Drinking spook tea, listening to spook music, dancing like mummies. Then, they’d hear child footsteps trespassing. A cow bell would go off. “It’s crazy time!” They’d say to each other. “Keep still. Let her think we’re busy. Wait until she’s out of safety’s reach, then follow her, whisper to her, send chills down her spine. Drive her mad with fear.”
Grandma’s porch light beckoned the way. She was outside. Her metal trashcan lid clattered to the ground. Something growled ahead of her. “You get back!” she hissed. The shadow ahead drew the shape of a dog. His head lowered, focused on Grandma. Another figure stood behind it.
“Get out of here, Inverness dogs!” I chirped, expecting Grandma to turn around and laugh. I was puzzled, running through the cartography of these dog’s journey. They never came this far from town. Never more than one of them was seen, either. She was still and said something in her provincial version of Gaelic. I knew she was telling me to run.
I angled my knee towards her porch, but one of the things came out of the shadows, and I froze. It looked nothing like an Inverness dog, as transmute as they could appear. Its fur was thick and wild. Its body was large, and its teeth were long and jagged. I had seen coyotes only in pictures. Eastern coyotes were larger and more aggressive than the American kind due to their interbreeding with wolves. This one was real, and his eyes settled on me as if he could see behind my eyeballs. The other one waited in the dark.
It lunged at me, and I whirled around towards our house in a panic. Its growls grew into a yip. I turned around. Its skull caught the edge of Grandma’s trash can lid, and it collapsed in a daze. She held the lid like a mighty shield.
Grandma was standing over the other one, beating its back with her cane. Her eyes were huge behind her glasses, and the frames sparkled under the light like gems. It lowered itself to the ground, then came up and gripped its teeth into her arm. Her cane flew overhead, cracked the window behind her and slumped into the open trash bin. Her other arm jabbed at the beast with the lid.
All her oldness and decrepit posture disappeared. I saw what may have caught my grandfather’s eye, whom she had outlived years before I could remember him.
My hand shook, reaching out to the thing, trying to coax it into focusing on the ham plate, but it was still gnashing at Grandma’s arm and at her concave chest, and her ribs. Again, she told me to run, and I did, dropping the plate in the dirt and it shattered into shards of porcelain.
In the distance, car lights spread out down the road. I stood in the middle, waving my hands. The car quickened its pace, then stopped feet in front of me. Mom and dad. Dad beat on the horn. The coyotes looked back, then skulked away into the darkness.
Dad opened the car door, and I muttered through snot and tears, “Grandma.” He left the car idling and bolted to Grandma’s lawn. He picked her up as easily as if she were a bag of potting soil and carried her into the trailer. Mom and I followed inside, Mom holding a fancy envelope thick with bills.
We waited for the ambulance. Her chest raised and lowered in labored rhythms. Blood and dirt stained her billowy shirt and green elastic waist pants.
I glanced at Mom’s envelope. “A thousand,” she mouthed silently.
“What took you so long?” I asked.
“We visited Agnes. Too much traffic to head back.” We both looked at Grandma. Her finger curled at me, and I came close.
“You take care of your brother and sister, especially Jake. He’s got the diabhel in him.” That was Gaelic for the devil, meant to make me laugh, but tears stung my eyes, rolled onto her shirt.
“You saved me, Grandma.”
“You’d do the same, Jessie. You’ll see when you’re older.”
I searched through my memory bank of fairytale stories, thinking of last words Grandma deserved to hear. “Grandma, if I’m ever afraid, I’ll think of you. You are queen, a knight, and a savior.”
We huddled around Grandma, waiting for the ambulance. When they finally came, she closed her eyes for the last time and Dad slowly walked to the door, letting them in without haste. Their needful services were no longer needed.
Grandma had her funeral the day after Easter. The priest said it would be best not to share her celebration of life with the Lord’s resurrection. His words. To me, Grandma was a God too. She deserved her own day. A day when the ice melted off the mountains into the streams, and the baby birds cracked from their eggs and their tiny wings fluttered in front of them for the first time.
We got home afterward, and my aunts and uncles and cousins followed. Not one of them lived nearby. All in the cities only to come home to Grandma’s in the late summer for swimming and lobster bakes and taking in the spectacular views that surrounded us that my family took for granted.
Grandma’s friends crowded into our house. I had made a loaf of bread the night before, and I put it in the wood stove to warm it the way Grandma taught me. Mom didn’t complain when I demanded Magic baking powder. It smelled like Grandma’s trailer when I was young, and she was healthy, and I swore that I never had a loaf of bread like hers ever.
Agnes stood alone in the kitchen. She came closer to me, started to whisper, “I told your grandmother...”
I waited for the smug, judgmental shoe to drop. She was right all along. Coyotes stormed the street wild and loose, and no one listened to her ravings until it was too late. She finished with “to get you kids bikes so you can see why she wanted to die here. Why this village is so special to all of us. Why it is you who needs to keep Grandma alive in your heart. You promised me you’d show me how to make her bread, and I’m going to hold you to that. You’re so much like her.”
Agnes and her bucolic legend Evelyn and I created. Agnes who plans for an animal apocalypse. Agnes who waits on her porch for coyotes with a gun. Agnes who keeps a coyote head above her bed. Agnes, who’ll die alone with no one who loves her. I loved Agnes. I loved her right then.
She took my hand and led me down the driveway to Grandma’s trailer. Her silver medical bracelet jangled on her wrist.
Agnes rummaged through Grandma’s things as if she were kin. Her jewelry box with zirconium stones she kept above the fridge, her china hutch with the Celtic men on teacups and saucers blowing into bagpipes. Her worn padded rocking chair with a cigarette burn on the seat from one of her card night friends. Not one thing of any money value. Then she went to the bedroom and said, “What’s this?”
She rolled out a pink bike. The streamers on the ends colored red, white, and blue. The plastic basket in the front with a wide smiling daisy. The same one I worshiped through the window at Harold’s Hardware. She tapped the little bell on the handlebar, and it rang through the hall. She stuck her hand in the basket. She pulled out a card and studied it. “This is for you, Jessie.”
I took the note from her. It read, “Jessie. Tell Mom and Dad to loosen the purse strings and get Evelyn and Jake a couple of these for your adventures. Love, Grandma.”
I tore past Agnes into Grandma’s room. Her bed sheets still twisted in white knots from when she slept. I collapsed into her narrow closet, yanking out shoes and empty shopping bags. I found her tam hanging on a hook and stuck it in my coat.
I pulled out her pair of checkered slippers. I buried my face in their stretched-out wool. I had hurled them at Evelyn before and she back at me. It was a game when Grandma was on the phone, and we were playing. They were like hot potatoes. We aimed for each other’s faces. The goal was to have it reach our mouths so we could tumble on the floor, pretending we got some of Grandma’s ancientness on ourselves. Infecting us with ointments and scales from her eczema all concentrated inside the slippers. I kicked off my shoes and slipped them on.
I grabbed the bike by the handlebars and steadied it outside. I sailed down the road to the church, the slippers flapping under my heels. I held on to the tam that I hadn’t taken off since she died, its twin belonging to her in my pocket.
I cut through the cemetery to the path by Grandma’s grave. The headstones all looked the same, and I became disoriented forgetting where hers was. I saw the freshly upturned earth, and I stopped the bike, careful to set it down away from the other plots as to not disturb the dead. I placed her tam over her headstone.
I lay on my side next to her plot. The new grass fluttered in my nostrils. I tore a lily petal from the arrangements, plucked its head off, and painted the orange stamen on my hands. I kicked out my legs at the dirt; the slippers sprinkled with soil. I rolled on my back over Grandma’s grave and stared at the sky.
Copyright © 2016 by Cheyenne Brown