This story is by Jacy Richardson and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Gram hunches over the kitchen table, peeling garlic, her yellow thumbnail sliding under wisps of papery skin. Two small potatoes sit on the edge of the sink, scrubbed and ready for slicing. When she comes in from the washtub, my mother will make a thin, watery soup that’ll leave us hungrier than we started. In years past, I would have thought that two potatoes and a few cloves of shrivelled garlic weren’t enough for one person, let alone a family of four.
Gram sighs, pushing back from the table. Without speaking, she crosses the kitchen and starts on the potatoes. She sways, using the counter to steady herself.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
“I’m absolutely fine.” She winks.
I sit in the living room chair, attempting to read from the history textbook we’re using at “school”. It’s about something called globalization. Apparently, a century or so ago, it was commonplace to travel from one side of the earth to the other by airplane. People bought food from all over the world in local grocery stores. “Obesity” was also a growing problem—though I can’t find its definition.
We’re lucky, in my school, to have two of these textbooks. They are relics, very rare, and most places of learning get by without any books at all. Bringing one home is a privilege only given to those most trustworthy.
A thump jerks me from my reverie.
Her bony frame is slumped on the floor in front of the sink. I rush to her. She still clutches the knife between her knobby fingers.
“It’s okay,” she says, voice wobbly. “I’m okay.”
I take her elbow and help her stand.
“I . . . I’m not sure,” she says. “But I’m fine.”
“Gram, you don’t have to lie to protect me.”
“Lying is a sin. I’d never lie to my only granddaughter. Pass me my rosary.”
Settled in a kitchen chair, her voice is stronger now. She’s had fainting spells all her life, but lately, they’ve been happening more frequently. I pass her the string of worn wooden beads.
“What’s going on?”
My mother stands in the doorway, hands on her hips.
“Gram fainted,” I say at the same time Gram declares, “I’m fine!”
My mother shakes her head.
“That’s the third time this week,” she says. “You can’t go on like this.”
Sliding the knife from Gram’s white-knuckled fist, I take over the potato cutting.
Gram and I are tucked under heavy a quilt on the sofa bed. My parents are talking quietly in their bedroom. I can’t make out words, but it sounds serious—probably about Gram. When my mother told my father about her latest fainting spell, his whole mood changed. He’d been silent throughout dinner.
I hope Gram can’t hear them. Knowing they’re worrying about her will make her worry about them.
“Yes, sugar pie?”
“Tell me something from when you were a kid.”
“Did you know that when I was eight, there was a coronavirus pandemic?”
“Well, it was something else, let me tell you . . .”
The following afternoon, Sunday, my mother announces that she and Gram are going for a walk.
“Maybe it’ll help her strength,” my mother says.
“Take this,” I say, passing her a roll of string. “Just in case.”
She gives me a funny look but pockets it anyway.
Our cottage sits on the edge of the densest forest on earth. Its trees and foliage are so stiflingly thick that wind cannot pass through. It’s so quiet you can almost hear the moss growing, creeping over every surface. That is, if you are not already distracted by the sound of your own breath. In a forest that thick, getting irrevocably lost is effortless.
When I was little, my mother warned, “Go in there and I’ll tan your hide . . . you’ll never make it out alive.”
The roll of string is so that, if they do need to go in, they’ll have a way to get back out.
My mother comes back from the walk, tears streaming down her face. “Stupid,” she says. “So stupid . . .”
“What happened?” I demand.
“Gram . . . she fell again . . . she hit her head.”
My heart thumps in my chest. “Where is she?”
“She . . . passed away.”
My mother is full-on sobbing, hands covering her eyes.
“Are you sure?” I grab my mother’s sleeves. “Where is she?”
“Officer Patrick was there . . . they’re taking care of her.”
“I want to see her!”
“You can’t . . . she’s gone . . .”
My stomach churns. I push past my mother and onto the deck, vomiting over the railing into the scrubby grass below.
My mother pats my back. I turn and bury my face in her dress, knowing I’ve got vomit on my mouth and not caring.
“It was her time,” she murmurs.
I jerk away.
“How can you say that?”
She’s still crying, but her sobs have quieted.
The rest of the day passes in a blur.
That night, I press my ear to my parents’ bedroom door.
“I know it feels wrong . . . these are hard times . . .” my father is saying.
“I just can’t stop picturing it—her face as I walked away.”
My mother’s voice is squeaky.
I picture Gram’s face, pale and twisted in death, and I swallow the urge to vomit again.
“Everything happens for a reason,” my father says.
“But don’t you think we pushed fate? How will I ever live with myself?”
What is she talking about?
“Honey, she lived a long life . . . we can’t feed four mouths anymore . . . it was only a matter of time, anyway . . .”
I back away from the door, a chilling thought creeping over me. I let myself out the back door and tiptoe across the deck to the pile of washing my mother set out for tomorrow. The vomit-crusted dress she’d been wearing earlier today is on top. In one pocket, I find the roll of string I’d given her earlier. I try the other pocket. In it is more string, and it’s not rolled neatly but tangled into a ball, almost like she’d shoved it there in a hurry . . .
It dawns on me suddenly. My mother was in the forest today. She used the string to find her way back out. The face she cannot stop seeing isn’t Gram’s face in death, but her face in horror as she realized that my mother was leaving her.
I grab a flashlight from inside and then I am running. Running down the path from our house. Running past the main road and off the trail into the forest.
“Gram?” I call.
It’s almost completely dark save for my flashlight beam bouncing wildly with each stride.
Where is she now? How far had they gone in? Far enough for my mother to need the string.
I stop, contemplate going back. A faint light glows behind me, a light I could follow . . . but Gram is in here, likely still alive and all alone.
I keep going, more slowly now, into the forest. I slide the beam up each tree and across the path again and again, looking for any clue. Each time I call her name, the impenetrable woodland swallows it whole.
How could my mother do such a thing? I would have given up my share of food for Gram. I would have worked harder, earned more, tried to be better.
Have they noticed I am gone?
The flashlight beam flickers, dims.
I can never go back, not now I know what they’ve done.
My legs ache from the exertion of picking my way over fallen logs and gnarled tree roots.
Gram, please forgive me. I didn’t know their plan.
The flashlight dies. The darkness consumes me. My foot catches and my ankle cracks. Pain shoots up my leg and I sink to the ground. I will never get out alive.
Now they can keep living, without Gram or me—their own twisted happily ever after.
After many hours, dawn comes. It may be hunger, or gnawing grief, or shock, or the chill in the air, but I catch sight of something on the ground several feet from me. I scramble up on my broken ankle and rush forward, grabbing for it—a string of beads, worn smooth from prayer. In the dull morning light, I can’t quite tell what colour they are. But either way, I know they are a sign.