The short story «Grandma’s Tricks» is one of my more literary stories. It was published in the lovely In-flight Literary Magazine in July 2015. Sadly it looks like this online magazine doesn’t exist online anymore. So I decided to publish my story here on my blog instead. Enjoy!
The picture is taken by me in the Gustav Vigeland Park in Oslo this winter.
by Margrét Helgadóttir
Your grandma is a magician. Remember that time when you fell off your bicycle and she lifted you up onto the kitchen counter? She cleaned your bloody knees, washed the tears and snot off your face, told you funny stories and tickled your stomach until you giggled so hard it made you hiccup. The tears, the blood, the pain, your mum’s closed bedroom door—all vanished, as if your grandma had waved a wand—sim sala bim! Hard to keep your smile off your face now, no? She did such things. Still does. A trickster, she is. Always full of pranks and laughter. Like now, looking so wrinkled and pale in her bed, not responding. Bet she opens her eyes any moment now with that mischievous grin of hers, pleased she fooled you. You’ll both double over in laughing fits. Any moment now.
The drive here took longer than usual, even though you left home the same time as every Sunday. But an accident on King’s Road slowed down the traffic. The ambulance had already left when you passed the site. One of the cars had its front pushed inwards. Three grim-faced firemen stood by the car. The moment you turned onto the narrow gravel road to your grandma’s, you switched off the engine and sat watching the boundless fields of tall wheat grass that surround her house, while your heart hammered in your chest. The sun was high when you finally started the engine.
You don’t know how long you’ve been standing here. Dark clouds obscure the sky on the other side of the lace curtains. A storm is brewing; it will hit soon. The old maple tree slams its branches down on the roof. Better check the loft windows before heading home, even though the thought of the rickety ladder and the overflowing attic makes you shudder.
Remember that summer holiday when you spent a whole day up there? When you found that box full of black and white pictures and letters: stacked envelopes with a velvet band around them, foreign stamps, and inside, onion skin paper covered in a neat, curvy handwriting? They whispered adventure and secrets, didn’t they? Time disappeared, the only sound the hammering rain on the loft windows. You can’t recall what the letters said or who they were from, but you still remember one picture: five gaunt naked men standing in a line, behind them another line of equally gaunt men, but in weird striped clothing that looked like pyjamas. In front of them, uniformed men holding raised rifles. Today you know it was a picture from the war camps and it makes you uncomfortable to remember the strange excitement, the way you couldn’t put the picture down; you’d never seen naked men before.
At first you didn’t recognise your mother when she came searching for you and saw the open box and the picture in your hand. It wasn’t the first time you saw that face, nor the last: a face twisted in a grotesque grimace as if possessed by an evil spirit. Today you know it was the booze she drank in her bedroom that made things snap inside her; at least that’s what your psychiatrist claims. But a little child voice inside you insists it was an evil spirit.
Your mother beat you with her flat hand, then forced you to stand in the rain for hours with chattering teeth until your skin was numb and finally your grandma came home and put you in the bath tub and filled it with hot water, rubbing your stiff legs until they burned. She mended your wounds, all the time telling you funny stories about the fluffy cats she’d seen at work that day, how they’d played in the backyard. She never mentioned the box, but it was gone the next time you climbed up.
You wonder where it is now.
Her skin is drawn tight over her cheekbones. It looks thin and oddly dry, almost like vellum paper. Her closed eyes look sunken. She must be tired. Maybe you should go home and come back tomorrow. But in the distance you hear a low rumble. Thunder. You hesitate. You’re a little bit afraid of thunder and lightning. Your grandma isn’t. She’ll smile and put on the radio when she wakes. Turn the switch to 94, where they play jazz music from the old days. “Nothing like some good music to keep the storm clouds away,” she’ll say and swing her body a little from side to side. And she’ll insist you stay. “Of course you’re not driving home in this weather. Are you nuts, girl?”
Maybe you should go downstairs and check the old clock? You can hear it—tick-tock—even though the wind howls around the corners now. It could be that Barcelona Nights is on: your grandma’s favourite soap. She’s bound to wake up for sure. Every day she watches it twice: the episode from the day before and the new episode. On Sundays, when you’re there, she keeps glancing at you to see if you like it. So if you pretend to watch, even though your mind wanders, and also ask questions about the characters, it’s as if you’re giving her a shiny gift. She explains it all to you in detail: That dark-haired business man is not to be trusted, and that doctor has an evil twin, and that beautiful lady has amnesia. Her commentary always makes you laugh, and your grandma beams.
Her crooked fingers have dark spots and yellowed nails. The veins travel blue over her white hands. When she wakes up, you must help her with her nails. Polish them in that dark pink colour she loves, just like her climbing roses outside: her pride. Her wedding ring has slid down and hangs loose on her knuckle. It puzzles you why she still wears it. People in this town think highly of your grandfather. “A righteous man,” they say. “Old school. No doubts about which side to take when the occupation came. Wish we had more men like him today. Too bad he was killed by the occupation forces.”
You’ve never met your grandpa but you loathe him, even though he’s dead.
That Sunday last month when you found your grandma at the kitchen table, her breath whispering of the scotch from the bottle in front of her and her clear eyes brimming with heavy thoughts—your breath still hitches at the memory. She looked up, confused, when you entered. “Is it Sunday?” Then she burst into tears. Awkwardly, you patted her hand and poured her another glass of scotch. You’ve never been good at showing affection. She wiped her eyes with an embroidered napkin, blew her nose. “Today’s the day your grandfather died,” she said. Unsure about how to respond, you murmured something in sympathy, but she waved her small hand in the air to stop you and maybe it was the scotch that made her speak frankly: “I hated him. I’m glad he’s dead.”
That was the only time you’ve drunk scotch. Your stomach can’t take strong liquors. But the situation seemed to require scotch. Good thing she had another bottle.
“He had such a temper,” she said. “I don’t know how many times I found her hiding in the attic, crying, shaking with fear. That poor little thing. I tried to shield her, you know. Took a few blows myself.” At this, it was your turn to cry. Your grandma handed you a napkin. She seemed relieved to have a listener. “We had peace from him during the occupation, your mother and I. Because he was so busy with the resistance movement and because he got himself a mistress. Friends of ours were arrested and brought to the camps.” She stared into the distance and you thought of the picture in the attic. Your cheeks burned with shame.
“He left it to us to tend the fields and manage as best we could during winter. I hid the ration cards from him, or he would have spent it all on his mistress. I knew where she lived. Often I thought I’d go and yell at them, make a scene, but then I’d look at your mother and I didn’t.”
Thunder and lightning lit the bedroom in white flashes. Your grandma looks so pale and fragile in her sleep. Innocent, even. You wonder if she lied to you or if you remember it all wrong. There was a lot of scotch after all. But at some point, you’re sure she slurred: “I killed him. Out there in the fields, I killed him.” Surely you heard it wrong, you think. An unknown man killed your grandfather. At least that’s what the occupation officers said. Local people thought that the occupation forces were responsible, that they’d somehow found out he was involved in the resistance activities. He was shot in the head.
Your mother suffered the same destiny. You were at a classmate’s birthday party on the other side of the fields. Police officers came to pick you up and drive you home. Something lay on the ground in front of the house, covered with a blanket. And you knew. Your grandma reached her arms out towards you, gave you a fierce hug. “It’s just you and me now.”
“Such an unfortunate family,” they say when you walk through the streets.
You are tired. The leg cramps force you to sit down on the edge of the bed. Your grandma doesn’t move. Her face looks ancient and white in the flashes of distant lightning. The storm has passed and it’s heading towards town. The rain taps on the window frames. It’s dark now. The bedside lamp’s red shade casts a warm glow when you switch it on. Your grandma’s face softens in the pool of yellow light, but her eyes are closed. Strong, you think. She looks strong. She takes care of you, always has.
It’s impossible to stop yawning. The yawns bring tears to your eyes. You consider taking a nap. Your grandma will think it’s funny when she wakes up and finds you here. It’s too late to drive home anyway. Exhausted, you lay down next to her. The blankets are cold and you shudder. The last thing you see before you fall asleep is the profile of your grandma’s nose and chin against the lamp. Her hair is ruffled. “In the morning I’ll comb it, Grandma,” you whisper. Smiling, you close your eyes. She’s fooled you well this time, the old trickster.