By Kaitlynn McShea
Grandma Frenchy set the teakettle on her small stove. Everything about the apartment was small: the ceiling, the hallway, the rooms, the counters. It was small because it was subsidized, and it was subsidized because Grandma Frenchy was dying. Not the quick, painless death her son had acquiesced to, a heart attack that came as quickly as the sun goes behind the clouds, but the slow death of an animal with its leg caught in a trap.
Still, it would be her failing heart, just the same.
She turned to her granddaughter, Paige, who was bent over a piece of computer paper. She attacked it with broken crayons and colored pencils half the size they should be, which is all Grandma Frenchy had in her junk drawer. She really needed to buy new art supplies for when Paige came to visit, but they were an unaffordable luxury.
Paige wore a white-tulle dress. Despite its many stains, the white was as crisp as a dove’s feathers. Its prominence made Paige’s lackluster yellow hair stand out even more than usual, gleaming with a sheen of grease. Even though Paige visited her every weekend, Grandma Frenchy couldn’t help but stare at her like this, taking in the weeping, suffering detail of the girl. Her daughter-in-law didn’t do right by her, barely feeding her as evidenced by the circumference of her wrists, but she couldn’t stay with Grandma Frenchy.
When Paige finally looked up from her drawing, her gray eyes caught Grandma Frenchy’s. Wide, with sadness pouring out of them. They reminded her of a sea dog, those seals you see at the zoo.
“Do you like it?” Paige asked, holding up her drawing. There was a man and a girl, holding hands. Paige was never great at art, but she still tried.
“Always, baby. Tell me about it.” Grandma Frenchy hefted herself closer, feeling her wide hips graze the counters on either side of the tiny kitchen. She set her hands on the countertop in front of her to steady her, and she imagined her upper arms were as saggy as the flesh of a cooked eggplant. She hated her body; it was a cage.
“I thought it would be obvious. This is me and this is Dad,” she said, pointing at the girl and the man.
“Yes.” Grandma Frenchy could tell it was her son right away because of his mop of brown hair and those familiar, sea dog eyes.
Contrasting his gray eyes were blue buttons running down his shirt. Buttons like tears.
“I didn’t draw Mom.”
“She’s too busy sleeping in her room like she always does.”
Grandma Frenchy grimaced as Paige picked up a red crayon and began to draw on the top part of her paper. Grandma Frenchy guessed she was attempting a cardinal or a red-breasted robin.
She leaned harder against the counter, feeling nothing but her pounding heart and hearing nothing but the grate of the crayon and her own husky breathing until Paige looked up again. “It sounds like its crying.”
“What’s that, baby?”
“The kettle. It’s ready.”
Now that Paige pointed it out, Grandma Frenchy could hear the kettle singing. Grandma Frenchy often thought that this was a song from deep within her subconscious. After sixty years of drinking and making tea, she couldn’t hear it boil and squeal anymore. She only knew it was ready by the steam that filled the minuscule kitchen.
Her breathing caught as she pivoted to turn off the oven and set the teakettle to the only other burner. She popped a peppermint tea bag into her mug and an instant hot chocolate packet into Paige’s.
Paige pushed aside her drawing to accept the hot chocolate and watched Grandma Frenchy as she plopped herself onto a stool. She wouldn’t be getting up for a while now, and they both knew it.
Her sea dog eyes flitted to her peppermint tea. “It looks like the teakettle cried dark brown tears into your cup.”
Grandma Frenchy glanced down and chuckled. Paige had a habit of saying bizarre, unnerving things, and laughing was all Grandma Frenchy knew to do about it. This time, though, she could see Paige’s point: leaf water had a habit of looking a bit unsettling.
“Maybe the teakettle’s tears will water you like the rain is watering the plants outside. You know, ‘April showers bring May flowers,’” she recited.
“Perhaps,” she replied.
“Maybe they’ll make your heart grow strong.”
“Maybe,” she allowed. Maybe her heart disease wasn’t terminal like the doctors said.
Paige took a sip of her hot chocolate, and it granted her a filmy mustache. She stuck out her tongue. “Look, I got a marshmallow.” Her voice was garbled from trying to speak around her tongue.
Grandma Frenchy laughed. She took a sip of her tea and glanced back at the girl’s drawing. A few red and brown birds decorated the top of the page.
“What type of birds are those?”
“What do you think they are?”
“Hmm. A robin, maybe? And this one is a cardinal,” she said, pointing to one and then another.
Paige shook her head. “The first one’s a sparrow, not a robin.”
Grandma Frenchy cocked her head and squinted. “I see it now.”
“Can we bird watch on your balcony while we finish our drinks?”
“After, princess. Let’s finish these first.”
Paige nodded but looked longingly towards her sliding glass door. April rains lashed at it. “Maybe the rain will stop if we wait, too.”
“I hope so.” The rain wasn’t good for her breathing or her heart.
Paige dove into the backpack on the floor next to her, pulling out another dress and crumpled up pieces of paper until she stood with only a folded one. Unfolding it, she smoothed it against her body and then on the counter until it could lay relatively flat.
“Guess what we’re doing at school for the next few weeks?”
“That’s great, baby.” Paige was much better at writing than drawing.
“Have you heard of blackout poetry before?”
“No, I haven’t. Tell me about it.”
“It’s when you take a page filled with words, like a newspaper article or a page in a book, and then you make a poem from only a few of the words, and you black out all the others. Wanna see?”
“Of course.” Grandma Frenchy wasn’t sure what Paige meant exactly but figured she’d understand soon enough.
Once again, Paige worked away while Grandma Frenchy’s breathing filled the apartment. She was done with her tea by the time Paige looked up, the paper in front of her more black than white.
“Can I read it to you?”
She cleared her throat and held the paper with both hands in front of her.
By: Paige Williams
Mrs. Price was understanding
That in all the ages:
9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4
She went to school.
Like she was three.
She just wanted
Grandma Frenchy couldn’t describe the feeling the poem gave her besides unsettled. She knew Paige still peed her pants occasionally and that she cried a lot, but to see this ten-year-old girl create such an emotive poem, full of so many sorrows, right in front of her, made her feel…strange. She loved Paige, but she also sometimes forgot she was an actual person, a whole universe full of celebrations and defeats, just like Grandma Frenchy. Just like everyone else.
“That was beautiful, baby. You’re a talented writer.”
Paige grinned. For a moment, her sea dog eyes disappeared and she looked like any other ten-year-old. But when she looked back outside, the smile slipped away, and those eyes reappeared.
Grandma Frenchy wiped her eyes. She didn’t realize that she was crying. She heaved herself up, washing their mugs before Paige could see her tears.
“Ready to go outside?” Paige asked her back.
“Let’s wait a few minutes, princess.”
“Okay. Let’s read some bird facts, then?”
She set the mugs in the drying rack and turned to the kitchen shelf upon which the book in question rested. It hovered, birdlike, with its spine cracked and pages face-down from the last time they read from it.
The Bird Almanac contained secrets and truths and more information than Grandma Frenchy ever needed to know about birds. She bought it at some garage sale twenty years ago, and somehow, Paige couldn’t get enough of it.
“Shall I read first or do you want to, dear?”
“Okay.” She ran her finger over the page’s ink until she settled on a small article. “‘Plants That Attract Hummingbirds.’ Any guesses before I read?”
Paige scrunched up her face like she sucked on a sour lemon and then shook her head. “No. Sweet plants, maybe?”
“Good guess. Let’s find out.” She took a deep breath, hoping her heart could handle the simple act of reading. While she read about the annuals and perennials that would attract birds, her breathing faltered. Luckily, Paige didn’t notice.
“Ooh,” Paige squealed, “We should plant a garden on your patio!”
“Maybe,” said Grandma Frenchy. Her tone must have deflated Paige because her shoulders fell and her eyes grew even wider. Grandma Frenchy continued, “How about a hummingbird feeder instead? We can start small.”
Paige grinned. “Good idea. You could probably order that online, too.”
“Very true.” They nodded at each other for a moment. Grandma Frenchy’s heart spasmed, and she resisted the urge to clutch her chest. She wondered how much use she would get out of this hypothetical hummingbird feeder.
“My turn.” Paige wiggled her fingers until they clutched the almanac.
“Ooh, this one’s about bird feeders.” Paige read the article, almost as well as Grandma Frenchy could read. They learned about what kind of seed to buy, what birds to expect at what part of the year, and how to stave off squirrels. At this part of the article, Paige paused, a crease forming between her eyebrows. “Why would you want to keep squirrels away?”
“Because they eat all the birdseed and scare away the birds.”
“But they need to eat, too, don’t they?”
“Have you seen the squirrels around here? They’re huge!”
“They can’t be that big.”
“They are, baby, and guess what? I even saw one steal an overripe avocado out of the dumpster a few weeks ago!”
Her mouth made a small oval. “Woah,” she said, softly.
They both stared out of the sliding glass door, watching the April rain fade from a lashing to a misting.
“Time to go outside?” asked Grandma Frenchy.
Paige jumped up and pumped her arms. “Yay, yay, yay!” She grabbed the bird almanac off the counter and ran to the door. She was out on the patio, already wearing her binoculars and looking for birds before Grandma Frenchy could fully exhale.
When Grandma Frenchy joined her a few minutes later, Paige pointed to a few house crows on the edge of the parking lot. “Look. Crows. Or are they ravens?”
She shook her head. “I can never remember the difference.”
The crows, or ravens, squawked and hopped about, approximating the arguments Grandma Frenchy used to have with her late husband. They took flight, looking like black smoke fading on the horizon.
Paige looked back into her binoculars. She leaned over the balcony railing, so far that Grandma Frenchy put a hand on her back to steady her. Without removing the binoculars, she breathed, “I see a sparrow.”
Grandma Frenchy put her other hand on the railing and leaned down, closer to Paige’s head. “Where?”
“In that poplar tree by the green car,” she whispered.
Grandma Frenchy stood back up, swiveling her head until she spotted it–no, them. A sparrow rested on the branch of the poplar tree, and another hopped across the parking lot.
“There’s two of them, princess.”
“Oh, I see them now.”
They stayed quiet as they watched. The sparrow in the tree called out and flapped its wings, settling onto the branch. The other sparrow took flight and dove to the parking lot, only to skid on the wet asphalt.
“I think the one that’s flying is the male. It has black around its eyes and on its chin.”
“Those binoculars sure make your eyes sharp.”
He flew down a second, third, fourth time, but every time he landed, he skidded against the wet ground. On the fifth attempt, he seemed to capture a crumb or a tiny worm. He flew up to the bird in the tree.
Grandma Frenchy wasn’t sure why, but she held her breath.
The other bird fluttered her wings. He fluttered back.
They both flew higher into the tree, lost behind budding foliage.
Paige lowered her binoculars and wiped them on her shirt. Sometime during that event, it started misting again. “Wow, that was cool.”
“But what was happening? I don’t get it all the way.”
“It was a courting ceremony. I think he needed to present her with food in order for her to accept him.”
“Kind of like an engagement ring?”
“Yes, kind of. Most, if not all, animals have courting ceremonies. I saw a nature documentary about it.”
“Like what?” she asked, peering at her.
“Okay,” said Grandma Frenchy, slowly. She took the memory of the documentary from a file in her mind, trying to remember its details. “Let’s see…bowerbirds decorate their ground nests. Male mice sing, but humans can’t hear it. Pufferfish create patterns on the ocean floor. I think that’s all I can remember right now.”
“How did Grandpa propose to you?”
She smiled at the memory. “In an ice cream shop.”
Paige stuck out her tongue. “I think I’d rather get sung to.”
She chuckled. “It’s where we went on our first date.”
“Okay, I guess that’s kind of cute.”
She nodded. “It was.”
Paige played with the strings of her binoculars for a minute before speaking again. When she did, she didn’t look up from her hands. “And how did Dad propose to Mom?”
Grandma Frenchy couldn’t help but smile again. Her son had always been so sweet, almost too sweet. She used to joke that she got toothaches from just hugging him. “They went stargazing one night. When the sun had fully set, he told her that he had bought a star and named it after her. Then he proposed and said that the only star he needed was her.”
Paige had one hand on her chest. “That’s so cute. Why didn’t Mom ever tell me?”
“I think it’s hard for her to talk about.” It had been five years since her son died.
Paige nodded, her sea dog eyes as prominent as ever. They looked back over the parking lot and the trees that dotted it. The mist turned into a sprinkle, and Grandma Frenchy imagined the water coating her lungs. Every inhale was gravelly, every exhale audible.
“There’s a baby robin in a nest over there. In that maple tree.” Paige had brought the binoculars back to her eyes.
Grandma Frenchy squinted. “I can’t see it.”
“Here,” said Paige. She handed her the binoculars. Grandma spotted the naked baby bird, its beak open and ready.
“Good eyes,” she said, handing the binoculars back.
Paige latched them back on. “Why is it alone?”
“The mama bird is probably looking for food right now.”
“So she’ll come back?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“How does she know to come back?”
“Call it a mother’s instinct.”
Paige played with the string of the binoculars again as she stared at the baby bird. She wound the string around her finger then released it, repeating the process until her finger turned a bluish purple. When she finally spoke, she released the question more than asked it. “Do mothers always have an instinct like that? A ‘mother’s instinct?’”
Grandma Frenchy clutched the railing with both of her hands until her knuckles turned white. How could she answer a question like that? After a time, she said, “I think everyone has an instinct to take care of people. Some people more than others.”
She didn’t put down those binoculars and asked, “Are there some people that shouldn’t be mothers?”
Grandma Frenchy clutched the railing even harder and felt a lurch in her chest. Her breathing felt raspy. She knew that an absence was not a presence and that she really needed to do something about Paige’s mom. A girl could only be raised on microwave dinners for so long before people started to notice. But, once again, she couldn’t stay here. It took Grandma Frenchy the rest of the week to recover before Paige came back the following weekend.
She decided to avoid the question. “There are some people who don’t want to be mothers.”
Paige didn’t reply, still winding and unwinding the string on her finger. “The mama bird came back,” she whispered. When she took the binoculars away from her face, Grandma Frenchy could see that tears coated the lenses.
Both minutes and a lifetime too late, Grandma Frenchy realized that she didn’t avoid the question, but instead answered it in the worst way possible. She realized fully, now, that you can’t lie when you’re making things up. Your subconscious will tell the truth in the end.
There were no amounts of Band-aids or hot beverages that would make her granddaughter hurt any less. She looked away from her. A spider web existed in between two of the grates in the railing. Gnats and other small, dead bugs stuck to it. The spider wasn’t visible, but she knew it lurked close by. Grandma Frenchy felt as if her memory was this spider web. Big moments passed through, but the small ones stuck.
She knew she’d be thinking about this one for the rest of her life.
“Let’s go inside. Want another cup of hot chocolate?”
Paige whipped around, slipping into the house instead of answering.
She left the bird almanac book, now coated in a film of rainwater. The drops collected on the plastic-coated cover, and she couldn’t help but think of them as tears. She leaned down, clutching onto the railing with her right hand as she bent over. The movement sent a spasm of pain through her left arm, and as she stood with the book in hand, the world trembled and faded a bit at the edges.
She clutched the book to her chest as she walked inside. The rainwater darkened her pink cotton shirt. It looked like she was bleeding.
At the counter, Paige drew another inscrutable house.
“Whose house is that you’re drawing, now?”
“This is your apartment. See, I drew you a hummingbird feeder!”
Grandma Frenchy chuckled. Paige really was a terrible drawer.
She set the bird almanac back onto the shelf, this time right-side up and fully closed. She had a feeling she would never buy that hummingbird feeder, but it was a nice thought just the same. Seeing the book’s title in big, block letters made Grandma Frenchy wish she had a whole collection of almanacs. Maybe one on families.
A wave of nausea hit her, and she collapsed onto her stool. She coughed, and when she pulled away her hand, it was red with blood.
She wiped it onto her jeans before Paige could notice. She was already drawing another house on the other side of her paper.
“And what’s this house?”
“This is where I’m going to live when I’m older.”
“When you’re a grown-up?”
“No, maybe when I’m eleven.”
Grandma Frenchy’s heart throbbed. She really needed to do something about Paige’s mother.