This story is by Andrew Hill and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Russell stood on the living room armchair with his back to his PopPop, staring out at Chestnut Street through the window. The foliage had begun its transformation from vivid summer green to autumn arrays of yellow and red. It was mid-morning, and Russell had just finished his mid-morning snack. PopPop sipped his iced tea and read the Asheville Gazette at the kitchen table, looking up periodically to make sure Russell was not misbehaving.
“PopPop, who lives in the blue house across the street?” Russell asked without turning around.
“Mrs. Holter lives there.” PopPop put his finger on the line of the the sports section article he was reading and looked up.
“Come down off of that chair, Russell. Remember how we don’t stand on PopPop and GamGam’s furniture?”
Russell did as he was told, threatening the seams of the old armchair as he bounced onto the floor, then turned and walked over to the table. PopPop set the paper down as he knew Russell was about to interrupt him, and he wasn’t paying much attention to the words anyway.
“PopPop, where do animals come from?”
PopPop peered down at Russell over his spectacles. “From other animals having babies. Just like how your mother went to have your baby sister.”
PopPop had answered what seemed like a thousand questions in the last two days from Russell. Russell’s mother – PopPop’s daughter – had gone to the hospital to deliver her second child, and PopPop’s wife had gone with her. This left Russell and PopPop alone in the house for a few days. Russell had asked questions nonstop since he walked in the door.
“Can animals grow from the ground like flowers?”
“No, Russell. Only plants can do that.”
“Can an animal be a plant and an animal?”
PopPop smiled a small smile and shook his head. “No, sir.”
“What if you planted a cat? Would a cat plant grow new cats?” PopPop could not remember Russell’s mother asking even half this many questions when she was his age. But that was so long ago, and it was hard to be certain. PopPop remembered how old he felt back when Russell was born five years ago. Now, as grandchild number two neared, he felt ancient.
“There are no cat plants. Where did you get that idea?”
“From Mrs. Holter, across the street in her garden.”
“When did you talk to Mrs. Holter?” PopPop hadn’t let Russell out of his sight at all during the past two days.
“No, PopPop,” Russell whined, clearly frustrated by how thick his grandfather was, “I mean from what she’s doing in her garden outside.”
“What is Mrs. Holter doing in her garden?”
“She’s planting cats!”
“Russell, what do you mean she’s planting cats?”
“She walked outside holding her cat, who was asleep I think, then she dug a hole, and put it in the hole!” Russell was bouncing up and down with excitement. “I bet she waters it next!”
PopPop didn’t respond. He did not quite know how. He had never explained the concept of death and burial to a grandchild. It was not his place to explain it to Russell – that was the parent’s job. The grandparent’s job is to give out candy and go to the park.
“Do you think more cats will grow when she waters the cat plant?” Russell persisted.
PopPop sighed. “No, Russell.”
“I bet they do.”
Russell scurried back to the window. He watched Mrs. Holter with supreme interest. PopPop turned back to the Gazette, not paying attention to what he was reading. He wondered whether his granddaughter would look like GamGam. Russell looked like his PopPop, or at least that’s what everyone told the both of them.
Mid-morning turned into late afternoon, and the color of the setting sun matched the hue of the autumn leaves on the oak tree in the backyard. PopPop cooked dinner for Russell and himself, right on time according to the schedule that his daughter had stuck to the refrigerator. At five years old, PopPop thought that Russell was a bit too old for an eating schedule, but he followed it anyway.
At the table, Russell scarfed his food down.
“May I be excused, PopPop?” PopPop taught Russell the appropriate time to use that question yesterday at lunch. His mother had never taught him. In addition to giving out candy and going to the park, occasionally, it was the grandparents job to teach manners.
Russell scooted out of his chair and ran over to the armchair, stood on it with his back toward the kitchen table, and stared out the window. PopPop opened up the Asheville Gazette, glancing up over his spectacles every few minutes.
“We don’t stand on the furniture, Russell.”
Russell walked back over to the table. PopPop saw his daughter’s blue eyes on Russell’s face, and he wondered what color his granddaughter’s eyes would be.
“Can I go outside?”
“May I go outside?” Russell rushed the words out, frustrated at his PopPop’s insistence on using manners.
“Yes. Stay in the backyard.”
Russell went outside to the backyard, then he came back a few minutes later, smelling like kid sweat and the outdoors.
“Do we have any shovels?”
PopPop put his finger on the line of the editorial section he was reading as he set it aside. “What do you need a shovel for?”
“I’m going to make a bird plant. There’s birds in the trees outside and when one falls asleep, I’m going to use it for planting.”
PopPop closed his eyes for a moment, thinking. He knew he couldn’t have Russell telling his mother that they had talked about planting animals. Yet, he couldn’t bring himself to have such a heavy discussion with his grandson, either. Better to just wait until his mother could sit down with Russell, PopPop decided.
“Animals don’t grow that way, Russell. Only plants do.”
“Have you ever tried planting a cat though, PopPop?”
PopPop smiled. “No, I haven’t.”
“Because people don’t plant animals, kiddo.”
“But Mrs. Holter was planting cats, PopPop. I saw her.”
PopPop let out the heavy sigh of the elderly practicing patience with the young. “That’s not what Mrs. Holter was doing.”
“Then what was she doing?”
“You, me, and your mom will talk about what Mrs. Holter was doing when she comes back with your new baby sister.”
“Okay…But can I still dig some holes?”
“You bet. The shovel is in the garage.”
Russell darted to the garage, walked back through the kitchen with a small garden shovel, then rushed back outside. PopPop turned in his chair so he faced the backyard instead of the living room. He opened up the Gazette and read for a few minutes. He glanced outside at Russell digging a large hole under the backyard porch light, but his mind was elsewhere. PopPop thought about his daughter in the hospital. He thought about his new granddaughter, sure to arrive any moment. He thought about his wife watching the process. He thought about how quickly Russell was growing up. But mostly, PopPop thought about planting cats.