Fiction, Vol. 5.1, March 2011
Sadie believed in rules, even when she chose not to follow them. Houses, worlds in miniature, should be built according to design. They should not, like the one in front of her, be haphazardly assembled, like an afterthought or an omission. They should not be made of grayed-out wood with blank, doleful windows, sagging steps, and a pig splayed out on the porch. They should not be dwarfed by forest shadows, nearly lost, unreclaimable.
They should not be owned by grandmothers you hardly even knew.
The truck door whined on its hinges as the old woman heaved it shut. She spit tobacco juice in a long, dark stream. Two dogs as big and rangy as wolves slipped from the trees. A chicken cocked its head from the hollow of a tire swing hanging from a frayed rope.
Sadie hunched down in her seat, cursing her father. Instead of lying at the edge of a chlorinated pool, she was exiled to backwater Virginia with her grandmother Elsie, practically a stranger. Ignoring Sadie’s scowl, the old woman pried open her door and handed her a dented tin pail. “C’mon then. Berries won’t pick themselves.” To the growling dogs, she merely said. “Hush’n now,” without looking back.
“I need to call my dad,” Sadie grumbled from the truck cab.
“Can’t,” the old woman replied. “No phone.”
“Seriously? What if there’s an emergency?”
“Make do,” the old woman answered, not slowing her stride.
Sadie stumbled behind, seething.
She hadn’t even gotten kicked out of Sidwell, not in the end. Tenth grade waited for her in September without a hitch – except for the old woman in front of her, striding up and down impossible hills in faded overalls as if she’d never heard of the twenty-first century. Sadie had lost her iPhone on the tarmac when the old bat had tossed it back through the mouth of the air-conditioned jet. “Won’t be needin’ that here,” she’d said, in a faint German accent laced over with sticky southern twang.
“You know you can buy berries in a grocery store?” Sadie shouted as the old woman disappeared between the trees. When there was no reply, she just sat down, right where she was, on a tree stump. The old woman circled back around. Sadie smirked. “Panthers still ‘n this part o’th’woods. Bears too. Rattlers ‘n copperheads. You alright with that?” She didn’t wait for an answer. Sadie followed.
Hours later, scratched and bruised, Sadie clutched a bucket full of blueberries. The old woman, who seemed never to tire, was still several yards ahead of her. Back at the house, there was cornbread, tomatoes, and fat back. Sadie wrinkled her nose and pushed the food from one side of the plate to the other. Much later, the old woman pointed to a small room with a narrow bed, and Sadie fell asleep beneath quilts pieced from faded bits of cloth.
Over the next several weeks, Sadie’s blisters broke and healed and turned to calluses. The old woman never asked her about Sidwell or her grades. She didn’t demand to know if Sadie was doing drugs, or why she had shaved bald the American Girl dolls that her mother had been collecting since Sadie was born. The old woman didn’t say much at all. She woke Sadie up before dawn and prodded her out the door. She showed her how to ferret out the warm, wet eggs of barn hens, how to knead dough and milk a cow, how to pull honey from a hive and bait a fishhook, how to tell squash leaves from tomato plants, hickory from ash. When she butchered a hog and Sadie threw up, the old woman just shook her head and went on with it.
The house, with its three small rooms and root cellar, was as mute as its owner. There were two chairs at the table and two sets of mismatched dishes. Two matchbox bedrooms leaned into one another behind the kitchen. In one, a boy’s slingshot and marbles were scattered, as if Sadie’s father still lived in the house and guests were unimagined.
A single ripple broke the surface, jimmied the tale. On the fireplace mantle perched a delicate china cup, its porcelain nearly translucent in the slanting sun of uncurtained windows. Even on dim and murky afternoons, the cup’s gold rim was a fluttering birdsong of light. Blue and violet flowers climbed the fluted sides, cradled in deep green vines. When Sadie’s father sent her an artist’s pad and pencils, she looked at the cup a long while before shoving the package beneath her bed to go and hurl rocks into the creek.
Down by the water, she gathered stones, tossing them into a pile. Her father hadn’t skimped on the supplies, Bristol and Prismacolor tied together with a velvet bow. A peace offering. Sadie flexed her hands through the air, watching the shifting pattern of light and shadow on her skin. She couldn’t imagine calling up color now, a slim stick of vibrance between her fingers, trying to capture what, exactly, in a world that knew nothing but shades of green? Even her memories of home were muted, stretched behind her in a thin band of colors frayed. Here, in exile, there was nothing but dogged silence and inscrutable chores. Worse of all, there was that china cup with its strange, delicate beauty untouched by desolation.
By now, her mother would have cleaned up the mess, rebuilt the picture-perfect frill of a room that had crowded in on Sadie for as long as she could remember. Sadie had cracked the loveliness along its seams, strewn doll hair in the gaps. On her knees, undaunted, her mother would reconstruct the miniature world of elfin beds and tables and chairs, lamps and vanities and kitchenware, dolls posed artfully, dutifully, in suitable arrangements. She would have removed the art prints that Sadie had ruthlessly tacked through delicate, flowered wallpaper, the echoes of tea parties ruined by Sadie’s fidgeting, shadows of debutantes she would never be. Everything would be refashioned, pristine.
Sadie’s pile of rocks grew along the creek bed. She tried to imagine her father here, his suit pants rolled up, his tie draped across the branch of an elm. She tried to imagine him collecting rocks by this stream. Throwing them. She tried to call him up beneath the canopy that wasn’t – she knew it – any one color, but a mixture of emerald shot through with yellow, gray, blue, and violet. She couldn’t imagine him here at all, in the hollows, ringed by the same mountains that had framed his childhood, beside the strange old woman he must have, once upon a time, loved, and maybe still did.
Sadie picked up a smooth gray stone, roughly oval and as large as her palm. It was warm from the sun and from her anger, its curves a sizzling invitation. She launched it, envisioning first the face of the teacher who’d caught her aimless cheating, and then, with the splash, the impenetrable solidity of the grandmother who didn’t seem to know what cheating was. Rock after rock pelted the stream, stilling the birds overhead and sending more than one invisible creature skittering across the forest floor. Sadie threw again and again, driven by the force of impotent knowing. Her mother would still be her mother, her father her father, when she came home. Sadie would be nothing more or less than she’d always been. By twilight, her hands were coiled.
That night, the temperature dropped softly into a cool, middling chill, and Sadie’s grandmother lit the fire, stretching her feet toward the warmth. Sadie paced the worn lines of the boards, hands itching for the colors that she would not allow herself to claim. On the mantle, the cup took firelight inside itself like liquid, like something gracious and alive. Sadie traced its whorls of petals and leaves undimmed, memorizing every twist, shade, and hue. She ran her finger lightly along the rim, lingering at a spot near the handle where a fleck of gold had been lost. The cup was cool to the touch, as if impervious to the heat of the fire beneath it. When Sadie pulled her hand away, her finger retained a sliver of resilient chill, a dusting of fine gold paint.
She plucked the cup from its perch, settling its weight in the cradle of her palm.
“You know, there must be a reason he never comes back here,” she said, looking at the cup in her hand. “Prob’ly sev’ral,” the old woman answered. The fire crackled and hissed.
Sadie tossed the cup in the air, catching it lightly, watching her grandmother’s eyes track the precarious movement, the tenuous arc. “What’s with this thing anyway?” she asked, tossing the cup higher still. “It doesn’t belong here, stuck in this mess.” The cup seemed to hang in the air, suspended, before Sadie caught it again, neatly, in her palm. As the old woman shifted her eyes to look full in her granddaughter’s face, Sadie tossed the cup higher still, so that it spun in light and shadow equally, defying hope and fear in even measures.
Sadie crossed her arms.
Time hung, slowed, in a smooth, descending arc. The shattering that followed was like an implosion. Slivers of china refracted the red glow of burning wood. The old woman sighed so quietly that Sadie nearly missed it as she stood there, defiant, shaking, knowing suddenly that there are moments so fractured they can never be reclaimed. She turned and bolted out the door, out into the darkness of the woods.
Huddled near a chestnut stump, Sadie imagined skulking creatures watching from the shadows. They would take the old woman’s retribution, make it their own through tooth and claw, a vicious rendering. A branch snapped and Sadie lifted her face toward the sound, toward her own hard expectations. She found nothing but an old woman in overalls, her white hair straggling loose from the morning’s neat bun, her gnarled hands stilled beneath the moonlight.
“T’was a gift from the dead. That cup.” Elsie’s voice filled the darkness like a deepening of faith.
“My family had a small farm, near Weimar. Near Buchenwald. I was thirteen when Hitler started buildin’ there in ‘37. We could see th’smoke from our fields, hangin’.” As the story slipped its knot of silence, waiting, the wind picked up.
“We had a secret room’n our cellar, handfuls o’ dirt carried and scattered ever’ night. It wasn’t much more’n a grave in th’end, dug inta the wall. Door hinged outw’rd, but my father attached a set o’ shelves and we lined ‘em with canned goods, old rags, brok’n tools. Janek used t’ joke that we’d hidden ‘im in a junkyard o’ useless things.”
“My oldest brother was dead, lyin’ unburied outside Leningrad. Janek was his age, a few years older than I. He was a fright when we found ‘im, caked with mud’n grief. T’was months before he could conjure up those cattle cars goin’ west from Prague, moanin’ on the tracks. Lots of folks died standin’ up, packed in. Janek looked dead enough t’ land in a shallow grave. He crawled out, walked on.”
“My mother had a single piece o’ Dresden china left from her Nana’s set. That one cup. She gave it t’ Janek soon after he came, told him he needed som’thin beautiful in th’ dark. He made his own light, though, Janek did.”
“It took awhile to know I loved ‘im. Ever’thin was pared down then, little bits gathered t’gether, held tight. Janek was . . . som’thin else entire. Bright and full, his hand on mine, th’veins and muscles right there, livin’, alive.”
“We kept ‘im hid for three years, and the German soldiers never found ‘im, though they took near ever’thin else. We were starvin’ by the time the Russians came.”
She paused in the darkness, and the wind thrashed the leaves in the trees. “We planned t’marry at the end o’ the war, and then the end o’ the war came. The Russians came. We stumbled out t’ meet ‘em, so happy, so proud t’ have lived.”
Elsie’s voice sank to a steel whisper, rasping. “No one talks o’ this, o’ the women in Germany, at th’end o’ the war. Pr’haps folks felt we got what we deserved. For bein’ German. For spawnin’ das Fuehrer. Pr’haps we no longer mattered in th’world.”
“Those Russians made my father and Janek watch while they did what they did. My father wept, but Janek, he roared like a bull. He fought. I saw ‘im shot, flung back against the dirt. Later, they shot my father too. My mother, she died with a soldier a’top her. But I lived. I lived.”
“Weren’t nothing left in the house, all looted and smashed, ‘cept for that little dirt hole, Janek’s room. I took the cup along wi’the few bits of jewelry we’d hid there. My mother’s weddin’ ring was enough to book my passage. Buy this land. I kept the cup, holdin’ on.”
Sadie closed her eyes and saw the shards, scattered. A panther cried out, its voice like a woman’s scream. “Took me a’long time t’ put life t’gether agin’, in the bowl o’ these hills.” The old woman spoke above the wind, above the echoing cry, untrembling. “But I did. Little bits, held tight. Tis’all we’ve got in th’end. Tis enough. Tis ever’thin.”
The night air shivered in a wave, as Sadie wrapped her arms tighter around her knees, burying her face in the familiarity of her own scent, the absolute there of it. She saw the shattering repeat, an endless loop, and wondered how Elsie had done it, how she’d raised the child of her own perfect loss. As she lifted her face to the wind, to the echo of the panther’s cry, Elsie held out a calloused hand, bridging the space between them. Sadie hesitated, saw the living pulse, reached forward and took it. Together, they walked back inside, through a slim rectangle of lamp light in the wide, deep dark where the wind still howled, relentless.