On the third floor of a waterfront house, an old woman stands at the window of a furnished room among the morning sunlight. A deluge of light pours through the dust packed glass that offers a view of the peaks, rooted across the vast divide of water. The water ebbs, and illuminates decadent reflections. Sea birds twirl in a commotion of voluptuous circles, spiraling downwards and falling to rest in the water. They place their bodies among the tottering flow of the tide and pepper the surface like ivory beads. The waterfront house is raised behind a grassy fold that meets the rocky beach that meets the water. And three stories up, an old woman stands at the window of a large furnished room amongst the morning sunlight and looks onwards.
“The maple tree in the grass has grown taller over the years,” She says.
The old woman looks downwards towards the verdant yard where weeds and wildflowers have grown thickly together.
“Must cut those out,” she mutters and looks out at the sea birds in their frenzy. She moves from the sun glazed window and sits at a table cluttered with paper clippings, magazines, files, and a cup of acrid-smelling coffee.
“Whose is this? No one is here. This must be mine.” She sips. It is bitter and lukewarm. “I must have forgotten it.” She sips again.
A moan gurgles from the adjacent room.
“The old man must be waking up,” she says.
The woman turns a stiff neck to look. In the center of the living room sits a bed, covered in thick quilts and pillows, and underneath peaks the gaunt face of a man, white-haired and weathered-skinned. His eyes are closed tightly, but he moves his thin lips. At the edge of the bed, his bony, pale feet lay exposed and display feeble limbs like knotted branches. The woman walks over and covers his feet.
“I wonder if I made the coffee yet,” she says. “He’ll be wanting some soon enough. Look at him. I can hardly recognize him.”
From downstairs sounds a commotion of voices and moving feet.
“Who’s here but me?” she says.
Rapping at the door follows. A few light taps on the door and the click of the handle, and a young man appears through the entrance, hair long, scruffy faced and handsome.
“I recognize him,” she thinks.
“Good morning Grandma,” he says. “How are you this morning?”
She hesitates to answer, thinking, “Grandma? That’s me. My grandson? Yes.”
“I’m fine,” she says.
Her face is perplexed still as the young man strides by her into the living room.
He looks upon the old man and thinks, “Grandpa is still sleeping. Good. Let him get his rest. He doesn’t appear quite as sickly as before. Still skinny though. Good to see his beard’s grown back. He looked strange without it. I wonder if Grandma recognizes me this morning. Maybe. Best let her to herself.”
The old woman retires again to the kitchen to putter and muse over the cup of lukewarm coffee. The young man sits at the couch and watches the old man sleep. He looks around at the home and at the stacks of books, clutter and messes piled upon each other. A spurt of wind surges over the house, and outside, the timbers tremble, their leaves shivering in the breeze. The old man stirs.
“Do you hear that noise?” says the old woman.
“What noise Grandma?”
“That noise. Hear it?”
She is aggravated and her weary face is drooped like a sheet over aged bones. Her messy hair drapes like silver chains over her face.
“Is it the airplane Grandma?” asks the boy. A red sea plane is landing in the center of the bay, it’s engine coughing violently.
“No. It’s not the plane. I heard it before the plane started.”
“I’m not sure then.”
“I guess I imagined it,” she mutters as she fumbles back to her coffee.
From beneath the sheets of the bed, a voice croaks. “What’s the matter darling?” The old man is awake now. His blue eyes are open and he gazes them at his wife, mouth open. Such a small bit of spirit is left inside rusty machinery; that’s the human body. The old woman assumes a kind voice as she kneels by the bedside.
“Nothing is the matter,” she says. “I thought I heard something and I didn’t.”
“Oh, alright then, Gorgeous,” says the man.
From down the stairs, the voices commence again and a thirty-something year old man, short haired, thick bearded, hurries upwards.
“Hi Mom. Morning Pop. How you doing today?”
“Oh,” says the old man faintly. “I’m alright I suppose.”
“Hey Ma,” says the man. “I’m gonna make some coffee. Do you want some?”
“Well, I have this, I think.” Her slender bony fingers are wrapped around the coffee cup in a death grip and she stares coldly.
“Ma, that’s old. I’ll make you a new cup. Simon you want some too?” he yells to the young man in repose on the couch.
“Thank you, James. Yes,” says the boy.
“Now wait,” says the old woman. “I can get my own coffee.”
“I know you can,” says the man, “I’m just making it for you.”
“This is my house, I don’t want you to… I’ll get my own coffee.”
The middle aged man speaks harshly now. From the couch, the boy listens, agitated, to the garbled voices in the kitchen. The gulls yell as they careen over the water and mix with the sound of the two arguing in the kitchen, an irrational son and a mad woman. The commotion escalates to curses of the man and the boy on the couch shrinks until the man leaves, harshly shutting the door, deadening his voice, and filling the room with the vacancy of noise.
“That idiot’s put her in a bad mood now,” thinks the boy. “I’ll just hope she forgets in a few minutes.”
With a groan, the old man in the bed sits up and slowly draws the sheets off of his body, displaying his decrepit limbs.
“Poor man,” the boy thinks.
With difficulty, the man moves his legs to the floor, staring at his feet. Not quite lucid, his head shakes from side to side. Arms quaver as he lifts himself upwards to stand. He stands nearly on bones alone, fossils, ivory and brittle. The boy darts from the couch to attend to the old man, snatching his arm as he totters backwards. The fool will kill himself. Steady on, old man.
“Careful, Grandpa,” says the boy, and the old woman gazes with a frown from the adjacent room.
“Thank you, Michael,” says the old man.
“Michael is my brother, Grandpa. I’m Simon,” says the boy. “Michael is gone. He’s left for school already.”
“Oh, of course,” says the old man. “I’d forgot. I meant Simon.”
The old man stands limply, bare in his undergarments and a shirt. The boy helps him to sit again on the bed and pulls pants over his bony limbs, covering his knobby toes with socks.
“Grandpa, would you like some coffee? Lets sit at the table. It’s beautiful today.”
“Well, yes. That sounds good.”
They rise again, the boy helping the old man to stumble across the floor to the table. The old man sits and the boy moves quickly to pour two cups of coffee, steam swirling and spitting upwards in plumes. From across the room, the old woman mutters audibly, “I’m going to stand on the porch. It’s far too warm in here.”
The boy and his grandfather sit in silence in the room. The boy sips at his coffee. The old man stares blithely at the dark liquid as if he has forgotten how to drink.
“Grandpa,” says the boy, “you should drink your coffee. It’ll get cold.”
“Drink your coffee.”
“Oh yes, Michael, I mean Simon. Hehe.” He laughs at his mistake, laughs to alleviate the severity of his condition, laughs at his idiocy.
The old man slurps and sputters a cough, and sets down the mug. Methodically, he places his hands upon his forehead in frustration. His hair is seldom and grey, bristled like tufts of grass. He lifts his gaze again, blue eyed fire, a shrouded flicker that has lasted so many years.
“Now remind me, Michael, when does the boat leave?”
“There is no boat, Grandpa. This is your home and we’re staying here.”
“Now wait, this is my home? Oh yes, that’s right. And there’s no boat?”
The door hinge creaks as the old woman returns inside. She appears refreshed. Time heals all wounds when mingling with forgetfulness.
“Oh hello,” she says pleasantly. “You are having your coffee without me.”
“We’re just enjoying the sights,” says the boy. “It’s beautiful today.”
“Yes it is,” replies the old woman.
The boy smiles, looking at her, and says, “I was just looking at the maple tree near the beach. It’s grown so much, I can hardly believe it. I remember when it was first planted.
“Oh yes. It is, uh. It’s gotten, well.” The woman moves her hands vehemently to construct the words that elude her. “Bigger. Yes. It has gotten bigger.”
“Now,” says the old man. “When do we have to return to the boat?”
“What boat, Honey,” says the old woman.
“Well, the one we came on.”
“Grandpa,” says the boy. “There is no boat. This is your house. You’ve lived here for over forty years.”
“Oh, of course.” says the man. He sips again at his coffee.
As the old man raises his head, the shroud is lifted from his deep, blue eyes. His gaze becomes precise and coherent as he fixes it upon the boy who feigns a smile. The old man’s thin lips purse to a grin as recognition begins to set in and he strokes his balding head.
“Now, boy, look what a mess I am, Simon. I’m breaking apart like rusted out parts. My mind at least.”
He gazes long over the ebbing bay and the birds fluttering about and the smile dissipates though the eyes continue to glow.
“Simon, has the fishing begun yet? Have you gone yet?”
The old man continues to look outwards, sees a large heron chased about and tormented by the flock of smaller seabirds. In a revery, he mutters, “I’m glad.”
“I’ve caught nothing yet on the grasslands, but it’s early still. You always could catch them before I could though.”
The old man looks back at the boy, smiling generously now. “And I always will. I’m the best damn fisherman this family’s ever known. I’ve got salt in my blood.”
“I’m sure you have. Somehow, it must have gotten into your system from all that time on the boat.”
“What boat?” The old man’s face is perplexed.
“Something you were saying earlier. You were talking about a boat.”
The old man assumes a stern and gloomy expression. The briefly felt vigor in his limbs declines to weariness.
“I guess I must’ve been speaking. I don’t remember now though. I must’ve remembered the boat we arrived on. We never planned on staying here, you know?” a slight smile curls around the edges of the old man’s lips. “We never planned on staying here. Two years. We would leave after two years. But the land wouldn’t let me go. The ground snatched at my feet, the forest, the flats; it swallowed me.”
“I’m glad you stayed.”
“So am I, boy. It feels like I’m leaving though, now.”
The boy is silent. What does one say when silence pervades the fibers of a moment? He looks at the man who looks out to see the heron alighting upon the stony beach. Outside, the wind has wrenched the sallow maple leaves from their limbs, scattering them obliquely until they lay to rest upon the October ground.”
“I had fished the flat lands for so many years before the others arrived, or before your father was old enough to cast a fly rod. That yellow grass and the muck and the crud. The mire. I must hardly have been older than you then. How old are you? You’re twenty now. I could’ve died there once, you know?”
“You’re a lier.” The boy smiles slightly, feigning disbelief.
“Yes, I could’ve. I was your age then, and one day, I was fishing, and when I had fished several hours and caught several fish, I cleaned them and I began to walk through the muck and grass back the path where I’d come. And half way there, I had to piss. There was no one around to mind me, so I set down my fish and did my business like anyone would’ve. And when I finished, I picked up my fish, turned again to the trail I was following, right there lay a great, black bear, bigger than any I’d ever set my eyes upon. He was sitting on all fours, sitting like one of those sphinx, the dead eyed demon. Here I was, carrying fish in my hands and totally helpless. He could’ve gutted me like one my fish. I don’t know how long we stood there, but finally he set himself up and lumbered off through the tall grass. That bastard could’ve ripped me open and left me in the sun, festering. It’s peculiar how we are allowed to be the regulators of the death of others, but somehow, we’ve got, ultimately, no dominion over our own demise.”
“I don’t like this story, Grandpa. Let’s talk about something else now.”
“I don’t like this story either. This one I’m in now. We’re all just stories. It’s like there’s someone inside our heads writing it all down and storing it up. Someone set fire to bits of my story. I’m a fool most the time, withering away to skin and bones, and all the while, you get to watch it happen, Simon. You’ll watch me die, and you’ll see plenty of death, and you’ll attribute it to something such as everyone does, like deity or fate or the natural progression of life, but somehow, no answer will ever seem to suffice.”
The old man pauses, and the boy stares deeply at him, lovingly and pitying, but he stares fearfully too, terrified of the ostensible descent and inevitable loss forthcoming. He imagines the black furred, dead eyed beast, stationed amongst the tall grass and he could envision the blanket of dull, grey clouds, and the frigid wind on naked skin. He feels the cold and felt the warmth of tears growing along his eyelids.
The shroud is lowered again over the glowing, blue eyes of the old man, and the bright color is filled with murkiness. The old man turns suddenly to the boy, and he asks, “Now Michael, when does the boat leave?”
The boy raises himself and places himself at the window that overlooks the deep water. The birds cackle and careen in the midst of the bay. Laugh at the wind that carries you. Wind lingers and rises into torrents or storms or calms, and wings wither to dust. The boy gazes from the window towards the bay and he sees the cold wind spreading waves. He envisions the shape of his grandfather, young, fishing in the channels between the flats. Somewhere, the shadow of a black bear is reposed between a curtain of grass. The impalpable image dissipates, the ebbing flow of the channel, the vastness of the earthy plains. The boy gazes, observing the dispersing leaves of a maple tree over an untended garden, over the stones of the lapping beach, over the boggy flatlands, and observes the dispersing leaves across all the frozen floor of earth.
When does the boat leave?
The boat is leaving soon grandfather.