“Go out,” she said. His protector, his champion. Old Granny: mother of none; keeper of all. He glanced up at her over the faded cloth of the table, watching her peel a potato, the sharp edge of the blade coming up soft against her thumb, over and over again, never going farther than the peel. The brown petals of skin fell into an enamel pan on her lap.
“Go out and find me something to fix with these taters.”
His heart skipped once in his chest, a pang that drew his hand up to touch the spot. He glanced away from her, thinking two thoughts at once. Where had he put his boots? And: if Baizie came to supper, she’d tell about what happened at the creek.
“You left them by the door,” she said.
He rose, moving heavily to take up the boots. His feet took their place in the familiar leather, pushing air up his pant legs, an earthy breath that smelled like him and animal and uncounted weeks of working in the sun and the rain, sliding on muddy hillsides, crackling the floor of the forest.
When he was little, Daddy took him hunting. It was a foggy morning, warm and cool colliding. When the first shot met its mark, he was sent into the trees to find the squirrel. The soft fur was warm in his hands, the animal holdings it heat, though its breath was stolen for good. It hurt him to think of the little thing dying. He put it in the crook of his arm and walked back slowly, gentle like he was holding a baby.
“Put it there,” his father said.
When he didn’t want to let it go, the man who was almost a stranger, if as much to himself as his son, turned away with darkening eyes. He fished a cigarette out of his pocket and smoked it slowly, squinting into the depth of the forest. Then he shifted the weight of his gun, peered through the sights, and lifted it again to kill another squirrel.
“That ought to keep your hands full,” he said, his voice a coarse rasp, like the shovel scraping the stove when they took out the ashes. And he chuckled with the cigarette in his lips, though maybe he hadn’t meant to sound cruel.
It had been a long time since that morning in the forest, though the memory came back at queer moments. He could see his feet, small as they were then, landing carefully in the leaves underneath as he walked to get the second squirrel. When he cozied it next to the first one, he saw the cradle of his arm was filled with blood. When they got home, Granny eyed the stain, cocked her head at an angle.
“Did you like hunting with your Daddy?”
He shook his head, then thought better of it. Maybe Daddy would mind.
“It was okay.”
But when he looked over at his father, the man was pulling off his socks with eyes seeing another room. As was the case most often, his father was there and not there. Like the dead squirrel giving off warmth, yet no longer in the world of living things.
“Well, take Casper’s coat, the long grey one on my door, and get me some eggs,” Granny said. “And when you get back, go out and run around a while, till you’re good and tired.”
She knew he was tangled up inside better than he knew it himself.
He shook off the memory of that day and stepped out into the spring evening. A breeze was stirring the forsythia, yellow arms waving with joy that he did not feel in his own heart. He dug a cigarette out of his shirt pocket and smoked it slowly as the light shifted, the sky over the meadow turning violet and lemonade.
When he came back into the house later, carrying a hen with a broken neck, Granny was pouring water and broth over beans for soaking. She had the ham hock sizzling in a skillet with some onions and grease from the morning bacon. She glanced up at him.
“Put her on the table,” she said. “So I can clean her.”
As she took the bird in hand, she told him about a peddler who used to come around with catfish and trout for sale. He’d heard the story before, but it calmed him when she talked about the past. “The best catfish you ever saw. He was a born fisher, that one. Tall. He always walked a little bent in the middle, like to bring himself down closer to the rest of us. Kind of a gentleman type, like Ray Burke at the grocery store. The pinkest cheeks, pinker than a bride’s bouquet.”
She shrugged, “He smelled like hair tonic and, if you got real close, like booze. I guess he liked to take a nip now and again. Maybe that’s what made him so mild and gentle. Never cut in when you were talking, always asked what you thought you wanted to pay.”
“He fell on hard times, came one day to sell me watermelon. Said he’d lost his luck for fishing. His hands shook so bad, I guess I knew what I had to do. So I gave him a little whisky, put him to bed in the barn, and sat out under the biggest moon you ever saw and ate a whole watermelon instead of dinner. Figured that squared us up.”
Her laughter came up out of her like the sound of a hundred eggs cracking. It was like that when she was happy: breakfast for everyone and some more left over just in case. They were quiet for a while, she pulling feathers slow, ignoring the little fluffs that clung to her hands. Then, as he though to take off his boots again and bent forward to do it, she looked across at him with soft eyes.
“Baizie stopped me in the yard this morning. She’d come up through the woods so quick, she could hardly catch her breath.”
He felt himself freeze slowly, like the pond come winter, the cold starting at his head, taking his heart and slowly covering every inch of him. He was probably grey like ice, he thought. If you threw a stone at him now, he’d crack into shards. The stone would sink out of sight.
“When I was your age, there was a boy I loved. He was prettier than most girls. Curls all over his head, light brown that turned to gold the first day of haying. I watched him like a hawk, every minute, wished he’d look up and find me looking. Wished he’d know what was in my heart. And terrified lest he figured it out, too.”
Granny was done with stripping the hen. She grabbed up her knife and took off the head, drawing it away from the neck with the side of the blade. She dropped the bird into a bowl to let it bleed out. Then she went to the tap and washed her hands.
He felt a cramp in his side, realized he was still bent forward with one boot half off his foot. He shook it off abruptly, as if it offended him, as if it were a bee or a horse fly. “What’d Baizie tell you?”
Granny smiled as she moved a cloth over her hands. “Baizie said a lot of things, most of them ugly. But when she was done, I reckon all I heard was that you were in love. Not that she ever used that word.”
“She’ll tell everyone.”
“Not after what I said back to her.”
He frowned, unable to read her.
“Aren’t you upset with me?”
“Aren’t you disgusted? Ashamed?”
“I think maybe you are.”
He lowered his eyes to the floor.
“But you shouldn’t be,” she said. “I’ve known men and women just like you. Plenty of them. Don’t despise your nature, boy. Just know it as best you can. Measure it for itself, not against the world. Keep yourself safe, travel wise, but never hate yourself.”
He licked his lips. “He wants us to leave together. But I told him I couldn’t leave you alone. You took me and Daddy in when we didn’t have no place to go. You’re my only friend in the world. We need each other.”
“You told this boy that?”
“And what’d he say?”
“He cried. If his folks hear what Baizie’s got to say, they’ll kill him themselves. You know how Sunder is, Granny. I think he would.”
“I took you and your father in because you needed me, not because I needed you. I love you, boy, of course I do. But that was then. This is now.”
“Find your young man and you two go find someplace else.”
He stared at her for a long while, hoping he’d never forget her face, the creases around her eyes, the silver cloud of hair her braids could never wrangle. “Is it time?”
“Go out, boy. Go out.”