“Samaras” by J. K. Bywaters

I’m the youngest of the cousins. There are five of us. I have two sisters, twins, who are twelve years older than me, and we have two cousins, also twins, born six months to the day after my sisters. Willa and Marilyn lived with our grandparents in Virginia. My sisters grew up spending a month there every summer. I did, too, but by that time the other four were all away at college, and Grandpa was gone.

I remember Grandma always doing laundry, always ironing, always cooking, and often canning. I remember her crocheting, and I remember her writing. She wasn’t an author. I don’t remember her ever reading to me, or telling me a story, or even telling a joke. I have her recipes, and her spelling is rash and unconcerned. Not remembering the distinction between ‘homograph’ and ‘homophone’ sends me to the English dictionary, but Grandma would misspell ‘salad’ in a recipe for blueberry salad and plow on blithely. She wasn’t an author, but she wrote every day. She kept records — she wrote in her diaries.

Seems funny to remember naps, but I do. I stopped having naptime when kindergarten was over but picked it up again the summer after first grade, there at Grandma’s house. I remember her sofa, narrow and tan and firm and scratchy. I remember curling up on my side, and Grandma covering me with an afghan. She wasn’t overly demonstrative, but being covered up like that felt like an embrace. I remember the sound of her ironing beside me as I dozed. And I remember the eggs.

As I slept, Grandma would slip two or three toy eggs under the flat, square pillow beneath my head. When I woke I would reach for them, knowing they were there. I remember the brief croak each made when I pulled apart the halves and much of what I found inside.

Treats from her kitchen — a sweet gherkin or tiny cinnamon braid. One of Grandpa’s marbles — aggies or steelies, cat’s eyes or Tom Bowlers. What I loved most were the wild things — a late-blooming sprig of yellow rocket (“Eat it,” she’d tell me. “Eat the whole thing.”) or one of the gorgeous papery open conical aggregates of samaras that had wintered over on the tulip poplar and finally come down between the green urge of the new leaves and the bluster of the March winds. (“I saved that for you for three months. Don’t put it in your mouth.”) I’d admire my treasures, and her quiet smile as I ran off to resume my play.

I was the only one of the five of us who came back to stay with her for a month every summer even during my four years of college. I loved Vermont, and I loved my time at the College of the Coriolis, but I longed for my month at the summer house with Grandma. She wrote me letters. They read like a compilation of the week’s to-do lists. She told me the high and low temperature for the area near Miles Cross for every day that I was away. Every day. And she’d write about what we’d do when I came home. That’s how she put it.

Grandma took a cab to the station in Culpeper and caught the train to Rutland on the day before my graduation. That night, after the senior dinner, and after my parents, sisters, and cousins had gone to the hotels, Grandma and I sat in the high-backed rocking chairs on the side porch of one of the old colonial houses, drinking applejack neat.

She wore a pair of Grandpa’s overalls. She had the heels of her boots up on the railing. Grandma had been one of the Pioneers, as they became known — an alumna of one of the first graduating classes in the 1930s. Much of the campus was changed, but the stolid old white clapboard colonials with their green shutters were just the same. I’d lived my last two years in Grandma’s old house.

“Is this the first time you’ve been back?” I asked.

“Second,” she said and would say no more about the one other time.

After graduation, she sat beside me in my old Wagoneer and we got on the road for Miles Cross. The rest of our little family trickled in, and we spent a few days together before they began to trickle out again. It was the first time we’d all been together since some forgotten holiday years ago, and the longest ever.

Grandma died three weeks later. Ever practical, ever self-sufficient, she’d gotten up in the night and changed the sheets on her bed and put on a new coverlet. She’d put on a short dress, but instead of her usual athletic socks and hiking shoes, she’d put on stockings, and set a pair of her good shoes by the bed. She’d lied down on the coverlet, pulled the afghan up to her waist, and crossed her hands over her chest.

That was how I found her. She had four bandages on her right hand — two on the back of her hand, and one each on the second knuckle of her second and third fingers. I thought nothing of it. The next day, as I went room-to-room on the upper level, opening the sashes so that the whole house fan could draw air, I saw that the screen on the north-facing window in her room had been raised to the top so that the sash was all that closed the window. I thought nothing of it. The day after that, I found her set of keys under her bedside table, with one key propped up against the baseboard as if she’d meant to drop the keychain onto the table and had instead sent it over the backside between the table and the wall. I thought nothing of it. The day after that was the funeral, and the day after that, all the family left town again.

I found the key the next day. I’d gone out onto the back porch and down the back steps onto the patio for no reason that I could articulate, and I saw it at once. The four-lobed leaves of the tulip poplar are pretty to look out, as is the orange and yellow flower. The samaras, too, are something special, but the poplar is a messy tree. The wood tends to be brittle and will tear in a strong wind in the early part of the year when the leaves are still green. The pollen is thick, dark, and tarry, and will blacken a surface. The patio needed to be power washed, and the old key caught the light of the afternoon sun and stood out against the dark. I found the key before I had any idea about what it opened.

It all sounds perfectly plausible, doesn’t it? I think really, in aggregate, it probably goes one territory beyond plausible into the realm of the genuinely relatable. Even some of the more uncommon details: two sets of twins in one family; me having gone to the same college which my grandmother had attended decades before; her death occurring just after my graduation and her own return to her alma mater and our incidental family reunion. Each detail is like an orange car. Uncommon, and thus unlikely — but they’re there.

Let me clarify, though, that I didn’t mean to imply at the outset that my Grandpa had died. I said he was gone. That’s much more uncommon, isn’t it? Sometimes, even now, two decades after my Grandma’s death, there are times when I’m a little ways past the patio, keeping order amongst the flowers and herbs and beloved weeds, and something ripples across me if I happen to look out over the fields. It’s an area that my family always called “the back forty,” though it is far shy of forty acres. “It used to be a farm,” my Grandpa used to say in his oblique humor, “before we mowed the lawn.” I know, if I’m going to stay here — and I suppose that I am, as I’ve been here this long — that I ought to put that land in timothy, at least, if not winter wheat, or I ought to let it out as pasture. But then comes the ripple, and I half-expect to see him, awkward and halting, coming across the fields toward the house.

The key unlocked an old suitcase, ivory-colored and wider than it was tall, like a hard-sided hatbox with a handle. In it, years’ worth of my grandmother’s diaries. She preferred hardback books, not the spiral-bound notebooks that most people of her age in that part of the country still called “tablets,” though she did like them lined. No dates, though — no preset dictum that each date should have the gauche indulgence of an entire page.

Her diaries account for most of the years of her life (and of those years, I would bet that there are fewer than ninety days missing), but on many of those days present, the entire entry consists only of a high and low temperature and perhaps some brief skimmer about the weather. Many other days begin by setting to rights what would otherwise be another lapse by first recording a string of high and low temperatures for two or three days, or even more.

If her letters to me in college were her to-do lists in the past tense, her own diaries were the stripped-down version of those letters. The days’ events were stripped of all but the most salient points, and the occasional terse acknowledgment of feeling. But there are a few dates whose entries stand apart, where my grandmother’s hurried scrawl gives away more of the feeling while keeping close more of the day’s events. I’ve read them all. Don’t call me a voyeur. It’s true that I missed my Grandma, and wanted to know more about her life, her mind, her heart, and I hoped that her pages might reveal some of that. But there was no pleasure there, in the long run. Any satisfaction over some brief anecdote was fast covered over and obscured.

9/1/82 80/68 B taking the girls to college, one entry begins. Gone through all old books. Cannot believe no mention of it. No notion of when it came to me.

“B” is Bod, my Grandpa. Willa and Marilyn attended Carleton College, and Grandpa would’ve been gone a week, give or take, and it would’ve taken Grandma nearly that long to re-read all her diaries, looking for a mention of whatever it is that she doesn’t name.

10/8/82 78/59 It is a plaig (sic) to me, says another, a month later. Then, nothing more until:
1/3/83 46/32 First time I tried to destroy it as far as I remember. I can tell it has not worked. No recourse if I can’t otherwise ruin the thing as I surely cannot just set it down and go away.

Later, I found this:
3/9/83 46/39 Hate that I am so afraid of fire or would try that way. Was it always so? My feelings or _________?

The blank is hers. No hints, no obfuscations until this, written about a month before she reported my grandpa missing:
4/16/83 57/43 Well broke down and told B all I could and showed it to him. Took it bad but better than I expected. Slept on it both of us. B has some thought he could “intercede” as he said and that I have to let him. Know he can’t but hope he can anyway.

Then twenty-two days go unmentioned. The days and all their contents. There’s no mention of his disappearance, and no details on this apparent attempt at intercession, no mention of the arrival of the family, the police, the questions. Her diary resumes with only a high and low, then goes on more or less as before. Close to a year later, there’s the glib

2/29/84 39/29 Leap Year day. Absolutely foolish to have thought that might mean anything. Time is ours, not an idea of anyone else.

There are only two other cryptic entries, the first arriving four months later.
6/30/84 80/66 Rain. Had an idea of how I could be shut of the thing and set off to go into the woods to just do it. Swear it knew. Got met with gray 1 and warded off. Even after all this time and my intent was afraid.

These last two are the closest that she came to any kind of clarity, and they are indecipherable. Paradoxically, it’s their cryptic obscurity that offers an out and keeps them from sounding wholly delusional. I think she knew that. Natural reticence is the best keeper of secrets. She had hers, and I have mine. I read her diaries, but I have nothing to tell my family. I have no idea what she meant, and it would be easy to say that she didn’t either. There’s no evidence of any “thing,” as she obliquely names it, and its absence is evidence enough that she fabricated the whole thing, even if unintentionally so. But there’s this — the last mention:

7/11/85 87/64 Rain. Bad storm and I swear it’s worse in the storms. Storms let it come thru more. Got so bad I went out into the rain. Thought I’d burst. Lost about 10 minutes out there — fell out. Came around totally soaked and knew it was gone, thank God gone. Remembered R asleep on the couch. Had 2 eggs in a pocket and filled them quick and came in front door and down stairs quiet. R still asleep, thank God asleep.

Seems funny to remember naps, but I do. I know I fought naps as a toddler, but maybe it was because they were a vestige of an earlier childhood that I took them up again so readily in that first summer at Grandma’s house. I remember one so clearly, though it’s almost forty years gone. I woke up, reaching for the eggs as I rolled over and sat up. Grandma was at her ironing, sprinkling water to get the wrinkles out of some heavy curtain. The door going out onto the patio stood open, and through the glass storm door the light was queer, the sky and practically the very air looking bruised, lilac and smoke, but still beautiful in the way that summer sun shining through dark clouds makes some colors muted and others so rich, so saturated, and soft and poignant. I croaked open my eggs — orange and yellow, like the flowers from the tulip poplars — and, for the first time ever, I found them empty.

“Grandma,” I said, not thinking it a joke, because my grandmother didn’t tell jokes, but thinking, implausibly, she’d forgotten. “There’s nothing in here.”

She half-turned toward me, catching me with one hazel eye. “Look again,” she replied. “It rained while you were asleep. There’s a raindrop in there.”

Publisher note: J.K. Bywaters was the winner of Tell Fredericksburg’s (VA) 2016 Shorties Competition. Bywaters’ story “How the Sun Came Up Over the River” was published in an anthology entitled “The Far-Shining One”.