This story is by Pam Earls and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
GG’s crocheted shawl brushes against my face as she leans forward in her ancient rocker. The scent of lavender engulfs me as she places one of her gnarled hands on my cheek. She leans closer still and places her other hand on top of my head. A soft pat on my head touches me before her hand slides down the side of my face to cup my chin. She lifts my head with her gnarled hands so I can look her in the eyes. Her eyes are weary brown and tired of life. A faint glimmer of light enters her eyes as she holds my head in her hands.
I try to hide my eagerness from her but can’t look away. She stares into my eyes for a few more seconds before letting go of my chin. Her listless hands fall back into her lap with a thud as she sits back in her chair. Silence and darkness surround us except for the light from the crackling fire.
The old rocker begins to move back and forth and creaks from age as it always does. She rocks slow at first but picks up speed as her mind wanders back in time to a different day. The day I want to hear about. I settle myself at her feet, rest my head on her knee, and wait for her to speak.
“Where are you, Little One?”
“I’m sitting on the floor right next to you, GG.”
I lift her hand from her lap and hold it next to my cheek as I look into her eyes. Her fingers fold around mine and her grip becomes strong as I wait for her to speak again.
GG begins to chant in a language I don’t understand. Her grasp on my hand loosens and drops back into her lap. The old rocker creaks louder as she rocks faster. Her dull-brown eyes open wide and change to the brightest sky blue I’ve ever seen. She raises one of her hands and places it on top of my head and begins her story.
At first, I didn’t understand why Papa led us away from our home. He had us gather as many of our belongings we could carry and led us northwest.
The stockade came into view on the fifth day of our walk. I watched as Papa stood on the hill and watched the sun set in the western sky. He held his head high as he watched the sun set on our new home. Papa said one more day of walking will find us at our final destination. Or would it? Papa stared at the setting sun until it disappeared from sight and darkness engulfed us. He turned back in the direction of our land and hung his head.
Two soldiers opened the doors when Papa called for entry. The walk into the stockade couldn’t be described. The stench of waste and rotting flesh made me gag, and Baby Boy started coughing. People huddled together on the ground in their own filth. Their clothes were mere bits of rags, and many of them looked to be starving to death. How could I be so fortunate and them so sad? Baby Boy tugged on my braid and reminded me of better days. But, Papa said better days are gone because brotherly love no longer existed.
The small amount of food we could carry on our trip disappeared quickly. Papa felt sorry for the other prisoners and gave food to the ones who looked to need it the most. Grandfather refused to eat and died during the first month of our captivity. We lost Baby Boy to malnutrition during the third month. I saw the leaves on the trees change color and fall to the ground in the fourth month.
The fresh air of fall enters my lungs when the soldiers open the stockade doors. After four months of incarceration, the stench of the stockade finally left my nostrils. Orange and red leaves crunch under my bare feet as Papa and I take our first steps into the unknown.
Fall didn’t last long that year. Two weeks after we began our walk west, snow started to fall. My bare feet were sore and cold, so Papa made me a pair of shoes from a few rags we salvaged from the stockade. He continued on without shoes. About a week later, we arrived at a fort. We were given a small ration of food, two blankets, and a pair of shoes for each of us.
Our journey was slow because many of the people were sick. We only traveled about ten miles each day. On good days, we traveled a few miles farther but usually a few miles less.
One day, our walk came to a stop in the middle of the day. Word traveled back that we had to turn back. The person who owned the land ahead of us wouldn’t let us use the road. We turned around and walked back to where we started the day. A whole day wasted.
Winter soon settled on us in full force. Papa said he couldn’t remember a colder one. The snow made it impossible for us to find food along the trail. We and our fellow travelers suffered from frostbite and hunger. Too many people died during that winter.
Arrival at our destination wasn’t any easier than the walk. None of us had a place to live, and winter lingered later than usual. The groups that went before ours managed to build makeshift shelters. One family made room for Papa and me. We were warm for the first time in three months. Food was still scarce and hunger was a way of life.
Winter finally gave way to spring. Papa built us a small house on a piece of land large enough to sustain the two of us.
GG’s hand fell from my head when she ended her story. I looked up to see her sky blue eyes were once again dull brown.
“Now you know the Caretaker’s story, Little One. It started eighty-six-years ago when I was fourteen. You are the Caretaker now.”
“What do I do with the story?”
“Don’t let the memory of our people’s journey die. Protect it your whole life and choose the next Caretaker as carefully as I chose you.”