Born into a realm of great expanse and mighty mountains, I spent my safe and happy childhood free and awake to all possibilities, believing in nothing but a hopeful world. To the south rose my great guardians, strong and beautiful and blue, while to the east and north and west lay miles of hills and plains. Room for me to run, to wonder and to grow, but protected from the peril of my future. I used to think of these mountains as a wall, though lovingly, that kept me from a more exciting place. I appreciated my refuge for a time, but I grew to crave what lay beyond. Now I realize the error in my vision, that my merry barricade was more like mother’s arms, stretched out open for an embrace, if ever I should need. Never meaning to hinder me, only hoping to hold.
Only eight years old, I screamed great battle cries to the sky. Cursing at God, I suppose, because there was no one else, no one else to tell me lies. Home alone and holding my own, I had no way to know the answer to my question. Why me, I asked. Why me, why now, why her, why this.
I loved my sixteen-year-old, kind and rebel brother and he loved me, but my parents still could not trust him enough to leave me in his care. So they went away and left me with my sweet and simple Grandma Helen. Not bound by blood, but by bold benevolence, she took me in whenever my parents were out of town. This visit began like all the others. A greeting at her door, kisses on my head and a wave goodbye. Her husband, Wally, used to frighten me with his stiff old snake-rimmed cowboy hat and his wheezy grumpy coughs. He was known to shoot at songbirds and grumble when he talked.
Mostly I remember her through her traditions. Besides the warm baths and bedtime stories, she had me help outside, feeding the sheep in the barn and visiting the chickens to carefully collect their eggs. For a treat, she used to make me toast and sprinkle cinnamon on top and every time she returned from errands, she would merrily mutter, “Home, sweet, home.”
But this was the last time. All warmth and content was wrapped around me when I woke to the morning. Sunlight filled the room and I quickly dressed and made the bed to surprise Grandma Helen with my preparedness. I had never woken up before her call. I sat for a while upon the bed, delighting in how shocked she would be. After a while, my pride could not contain me and I noticed the sun seemed high in the sky. I slowly opened the door, but did not hear any noise in the kitchen. Quietly through the hall I crept, still hoping to surprise her.
Silent and vacant. No one in the kitchen, no one in the living room. Grandma Helen…Grandma Helen? Completely baffled, I sat to wait at the kitchen table, where I usually went for my breakfast. Strange, the clock said 10:15, it must be wrong. But then I remembered Wally. I crept again around the corner to his bedroom, quietly this time because he scared me. The door was open and I thought perhaps he was still sleeping, I ran away fast. Grandma Helen?
Time passed somehow, slowly then, but swiftly in my memory. Then the empty house suddenly burst forth in flight. Tossed around by unbalanced wings, people storming in and out, noise and noisier. It couldn’t take flight. Crowds compared to what just was me. A familiar face said my name. Where’s my Grandma Helen? Oh… Where’s Grandma Helen? She’s in the barn. What? There was Wally cutting through to the bedroom, but I thought he was asleep. Why is she in the barn? She’s out with the sheep. But why? Why is she in the barn?
“Grace,” she said with her arm over the front seat, peering at me in the back. We were riding in the school suburban over bumpy gravel roads. Why was my Principal, Mrs. Modell, here taking me to school? Grace. What?
Your Grandma Helen died.
But it’s beautiful, you see. The way she died. That’s what they told me, sitting in the Principal’s office, crying, gasping. A poetic end. Drawn by the sound of a birthing sheep through the monitor in her bedroom, she rushed to the barn in the middle of the night. As she pried the lamb from its mother’s womb, her heart seized, she fell to the floor. A life for a life.
“What do you want to do?” they asked. “Do you want to stay here or would you like to go home?” What? “We can take you to your brother or you can wait here until your parents can get you.” My brother! I want to see my brother. They drove me in the school suburban and I went to see my brother. “Home, sweet, home,” I thought.
He must have hugged or kissed me, but I don’t remember that. I just remember short-lived relief, before he left me alone. He had to go, he said, he would be back soon. Would I be okay? What, me? Sure, of course. Anything to prove myself to him.
Silent and vacant. No one in the kitchen, no one in the dining room. Up the stairs, down. Along the walls, against the windows. Running, pounding, screaming great battle cries to the sky. Cursing at God, because there was no one else, no one else to tell me lies.
The landscape of my youth, forever built into the surface of my skin, could not prepare me for what waited in the murky years ahead. I dreamed of fairytales and ideal forms, bright light and simple joy, though the corners of my consciousness grew dark after Grandma Helen died. But sometimes hope sprang up, like when Grandmommy announced that she would take me to the City for the occasion of my twelfth birthday. New York City, said the mother of my father and my imagination ran wild.
I cannot quite recall the exact content of my visions, but I know they brought great thrill. Blurry sunshine and pretty dresses, green trees in Central Park and fancy hotels. So we flew over the mountains, across great land and then as we began our descent, the lights of Manhattan struck me too stark. Amid the piercing lights, the darkness seemed so sound. Sharp edges falling off into what I could not see.
Our luggage retrieved, my father, mother, Grandmommy and I all crammed into a dirty taxi. Fun at first, but something seemed quite different from the visions I had seen. So strange, the plastic smell and shiny seats, the gruff and chilly air. Earth was buried in a grave of metal, noise, and glaring light and man had laid down flattened rock to cover up her soil.
Out of the taxi, into the street, we stood in front of our hotel. It was pretty, I could see, but something still was odd. Up in our suite, the adults poured themselves drinks and I settled into my room. The faded wallpaper and the weary, worn furniture drew tears into my eyes. I ran into the bathroom, sinking to the floor and I cried and cried on pristine curvy tiles, worn away by strenuous scrubbing. Outside my window I saw the lights of a lonely world, suspended in starless space.
I returned, happy to be home, though more aware of what might wait for me. The feeling recurred sometimes in a hasty flourish of tiny fright, so I tried not to think about the future. My ignorance was broken, but I could still pretend. In different moments, I imagined being wrapped up tight in bliss again. When snow falls for long days and clouds come down and close around, sweet snowflakes dawdling downward, my conscience goes all quiet. Then night falls and pink illuminates the world’s new soft ceiling, capping off and calming down this planet’s peaceful tenants.
And once when summer’s heat was on, I walked along through lush green grass. Working as a groundskeeper, I reached to rake up pinecones. But then—I stopped. Straight and thick, gleaming in the sun, stretched out long and longer; a snake. Quiet, at attention he was and made me too. A moment struck and he recognized me, my fear, my face. I realized then, it was a bull snake, harmless. With the handle of my rake, I poked at him to move along—he stayed. I scooped him then from underneath and his body sprung to life, twisting and swinging. He slid right up and over the rake, winding wildly, disappearing into the stone wall. I would have liked to watch him move some more, but he had no want to humor me. He slipped away, but the sensation stayed like an old fine friend had paid a visit.