10 November 2005 | Vol. 5, No. 3
When Alethea came over after school she wanted to know if my grandmother was a witch. Alethea lived less than a mile up the road but hers was the only other house for days. Her father, Jim, would come get her in an old pickup truck with big fenders and sometimes there would be a black dog in the back the size of a wolf.
Alethea knew my grandmother lived just across the pond, and we were standing at the road where you could see my house on one side and my grandparents on the other. At that point you could go either way without the pond getting in your path. I suppose now, thinking back about twenty years believe it or not, that Alethea needed to know before she set foot off that road and wandered into what could have been, to her, a witch's den, the whole truth and nothing but.
I took her hand and we walked to the saw grass and cat o' nines at the edge of the pond. I showed her a little burrow that me and my sisters had built by getting inside and pressing our backs against the grass until it was flat and comfortable and hidden from sight. The grass swayed and curled above us like clouds. It was warm and we could hear the ducks swishing through the water to get away from us.
Alethea let go of my hand, sighed quietly, and told me how the other girls at school, especially the ones in Troop 326 of which I was the only white girl, thought my grandmother was a witch and that I was a witch baby.
But how, I asked her. What made them think that? Alethea said it was her clothes, the crow, and grandpa. It was true my grandmother wore funny clothes. After her favorite tennis shoes with the colored laces, there were her stockings that she rolled into a ring just below her knees. And of course she always wore a plain old housedress that somebody must have sewed sometime long before I was born. And then there was just her. She was a full-blooded Cherokee with high cheekbones and jet-black hair that sometimes stuck out from the sides of her head and her fingers were long, strong as a man's—except grandpa's—and quick. She could snatch a candy bar from your hand faster than a snake could strike. She didn't talk much like old people sometimes do so maybe that made her kind of mysterious to the other kids. But I had never really known much different. To me, what Alethea might have believed was as big a surprise as I had ever had.
Alethea took up my hand again and looked at me with her gray eyes, imploring me gently to answer. But I was just a child and I loved my grandma more than any other adult in the whole world and Alethea made me mad. She was supposed to be my best friend. I joined the Scouts to be with her. I helped her with math, taught her how to fish, how to throw a baseball. How could she believe anything the other girls told her?
So I looked straight into her gray eyes and said, with as much snuff as I could muster, that my grandma was not a witch, but a Cherokee.
A what, Alethea cried.
A Cherokee, I said again slowly then waited.
As far as the crow went, his name was Charlie and he was as black as night and nasty. His beak was gnarly and covered with little scars and splotches of blue-gray from what I don't know, but it was absolutely true that crow could talk.
I have yet in my life either seen or heard of another crow like Charlie. And sometimes when I remember Charlie, it's still hard to believe, but I can still hear its scratchy, super-loud voice saying, get me out, Momma, get me out and the roof's on fire, and morning sugar. These were all things my grandfather said. Why Charlie picked up his words instead of grandma's is pretty easy to figure because, as I've said, Grandma was quiet. She talked with her hands more than her mouth. And grandpa could talk enough for three people. And you know what? You'd listen. He was the tallest man in Baxter County, Maryland with leather-tan skin wrinkled like a baby bird and waves of snow-white hair. Grandpa had retired from the airport where he'd repaired airplanes and helicopters and in the house he kept old props and widgets and things on the wall, some hanging from fishing line nailed to the ceiling like plants. We were not allowed to touch any of it. When he was in the garden of the famous, that's what he called it and I'll tell you why later, we'd ask grandma what this or that was and she nodded, saying, silly toys for little boys. And we'd laugh because she'd say the same thing every time we asked so we asked often knowing she'd smile, push her hair back and peek into the oven.
She's no witch, I said to Alethea, and Charlie's just an old crow. Alethea laughed then we both looked into the sky as the ducks exploded from the water and flew up like little planes full of dynamite. I fell to my back to watch, through the grass and cattails, the ducks disappearing at my feet as slow as syrup on a winter day; those ducks never did fly fast; wet wings and full bellies slowed them down.
When the ducks had gone, Alethea sat up and leaned over me, her breath like garlic with flowers.
What about the carrots, she asked.
So about the carrots, Alethea, I'll just tell it straight. My grandpa believed he'd made the world's most famous carrot. I don't know why he picked out a carrot to be so famous because there were peas and beans and onions and sometimes watermelon, tomatoes, scallions, and jalapeno peppers. And why it was so famous was because they were big. Grandpa believed that no living vegetable should be plucked, pulled or shucked till it had spent its full life growing. So everything he grew was big. Carrots were twice the size of regular ones, and then at school I'd always be amazed at how small the vegetables were, turning to Alethea or anyone else at those long white tables that could hear: what happened to this bean? Holding it at the end of my fork, up in the air for all to see, for anyone to answer, but no one could. And then I'd tell them about the vegetables at my house and they'd laugh or just stare and me not really understand what was going on so I just gave it up and ate. They tasted so much better at school, and I think that's why I needed to know so bad why they were different. And I never did get an answer from anybody.
I want to see the carrots, Alethea said.
I thought it might be the best thing to do so Alethea could tell the others what she'd seen and maybe then I'd have an ally against them.
We walked up the grass wedge that grew in the middle of the road where the truck tires didn't roll as a yellow Cessna lifted into the sky and flew above our heads. I told Alethea that the plane had two prop engines and could carry five people.
I know that, she said and turned away.
But I didn't believe her. There were skylarks in the oak tree at the edge of the yard and nests bundled in the moss. A rain barrel, filled to the tip, was crusted over with green scum, and we stopped to watch the invisible bugs trace lines and wakes across it. The house was just behind us with the boards on the porch curled up like winter leaves and the tin roof was covered with moss. A dry patch of sand spread from the porch steps to the laundry line where there were six, no seven white sheets hung out to dry. I remember how my sisters and I would lie on our backs in the furrows between the lines—the lines were side by side tied once to an aluminum pole and once to a beam on the porch—and how, if there was a good breeze, the sheets would snap and sway, the sky as blue as paint, planes bumping clouds in the distance, warm grass beneath us. The sheets smelled of blue iris and trees and that smell was my grandmother. Grandfather smelled more like fresh dirt and vinegar.
And when the bugs in the barrel finally bored us, I turned to the garden and wondered where grandpa was. Most likely he was in the grapes where he spent most of his days tending the vines or just walking through the rows with his hands behind his back like a soldier.
I saw Alethea's eyes darting over the porch and the curtained windows, the log pile where snakes made their homes all winter, and the broken hutch at the side of the house, and Charlie's perch. I don't know if she realized that was Charlie's silver ring and post, but I was glad the old crow was gone. And since he was gone, Grandma was too. They had to be in the basement. Because whenever she disappeared, it was the basement she went to.
My sisters and I were forbidden to go down there, and always had been forbidden, even when an adult was around. My oldest sister thought it was due to the animals. Because when Charlie was down there you could hear him caw like he does when a raccoon or a possum came close to the porch to steal food. But I didn't believe my sister. I had to find things out for myself. That's the kind of girl I was. Besides, my sister was always telling me lies, saying I didn't understand anything, that I was a baby for God's sake....
So Alethea and I went around the side of the house, Alethea coming closer to my side as the garden of the famous appeared before her. She may have been disappointed because, as far as I can remember, it was just a regular-sized garden that may have been in need of weeding. But it was square and the snap beans wove up a balsam trellis. The tomatoes were in ceramic pots on the far side and then there were maybe five rows of ground vegetables.
We have to be quiet, I said and put a finger to my lips.
Alethea nodded and we crept toward the plants, me fearing grandma, Alethea fearing giant carrots and being turned into a toad.
The carrots were in the middle and we were careful not to crunch any plants, though my foot may have crushed a bean pod. Crouching over the tangle of plant stems and leaves and dirt clods and swirls of color, we looked for a carrot. Alethea, I felt her thigh against mine and her chest lift and fall with her breath, pointed a shaky finger without saying a word. A carrot top, as thick as an arm, poked out of the dirt as if it were struggling free. Reaching for it I felt a sting of fear because I knew this was not allowed, but did not look up for fear of seeing grandpa's bony legs and grape-stained shorts in front of me. So I yanked, then tugged, tightened my grip and crouched lower. The carrot came out a little. Alethea brushed the dirt away from it and stared. I pulled again, but that carrot kept coming. It seemed to be forty-feet long and tied to an anchor somewhere deep in the earth. And I could hear grandpa, not the words exactly, but something about growing and growing till there was no more water nor sun nor dirt that could quench that carrot's thirst. And then, me falling backwards, smashing plants beneath me, I felt the bumps and curls of the plants beneath my back, with a monster carrot clenched between my dirty hands.
Oh my God, Alethea squealed.
It was the biggest carrot even I had ever seen.
Taking the carrot from my hand, Alethea held it up as if to catch the sunlight. I brushed the dirt from its grooves and wondered at it too. I forgot grandpa. I forgot we sat in the middle of his famous garden like two wild and foolish rabbits.
Let's eat it, Alethea said, her wild gray eyes as wide as ponds.
OK, I said with surprising enthusiasm for I'd been caught up in Alethea's excitement.
The carrot had warts as big as knuckles and where it tapered like a pencil at the bottom, a knot with three or four rounded knobs clung to the thin shaft. And it wasn't exactly orange. Maybe it was the afternoon sun, so bright and hot in my hair and on my skin, I squinted and thought I saw it streaked with yellow and red veins. The veins strived upward to the tangled bush of green stem and leaf that curled up and flopped over like a wild head of woman's hair.
As we carried the carrot to the house, I hesitated, struck to my senses like a dinner bell at dusk, by Charlie's raucous cackle. Then I saw my grandmother in the doorway, her hair filling up the space, Charlie staring down at us, like a black cone of fresh coal perched dangerously against my grandmother's black hair. Charlie fixed me with his yellow stare like a specimen on a dish. Alethea squeaked a strange note and froze.
What have you girls been doing in my garden?
Grandma squared her arms to her chest and stuck one leg out which only served to highlight her purple stockings and a hard, tanned knee with little ribbons of white scars.
I couldn't speak. My skin crawled with the thought of Charlie swooping down from Grandma's shoulder and pinching my hair, which was long and curled like spun cotton at the tips, in his gnarly claws.
Maybe she was a witch, I thought, looking at her then, the light basking her dark skin, cheeks, eyes, hair, the silky worn housedress, and that crow who could cast a spell or hex if anyone could. And then, as I stood there wondering the fate of my mother's mother, I realized that even if she was a witch she loved me, and would protect us (my sisters and I) with whatever magic she could muster.
But there was still the question of the carrot. I held it up for her to see.
It's big, grandma, I said while my heart pumped.
And then the shots went off as fast as the spastic sputters of a prop engine cranked to life after a cold night. The explosions came from the house, more from the bottom of the house, the porch, the stone pillars, the basement.
Grandma turned and Charlie flew from her shoulder to his perch, fanning his wings, and lost a huge black feather, which floated toward us. Alethea turned to run, but I grabbed her arm. I needed someone to hold, so I pulled her with me before she could resist. I felt her arm shiver and the goosebumps rising beneath a light coat of summer sweat. No, she whimpered.
Come on, Alethea. Now you're really gonna know for sure.
Grandmother had already disappeared into the house so I took Alethea past the stairs and over the threadbare rugs to the side door that led down to the basement. I could still hear the pops and cracks coming from there as they echoed around the room.
We went beneath the stairs where the half-door with a fan of fresh pine guarded the entrance to the basement. The door was open. At first I peeked in, but the noises were loud, the gurgling and popping as loud as gunshots. I took the first step gingerly, ready to hear grandmother yelling at me, but she was not to be seen on the slippery wooden stairs or in the shadows that leapt up the slick, plaster wall. It was a tight corner and I could not see into the basement, so I walked in further. The barrels, as round as the bellies of horses, stood in two neat rows on the sandy floor. As I realized what had happened: the corks had exploded from the barrels, and the wine, as red as blood, sprayed out like rain covering grandma who stood in the middle of the room. She was covered with wine, her dress stained, the juice streaming down her thin legs, her hair a wad of sticky wine-jelly and both arms in the air, laughing like she was crazy.
I felt Alethea bolt from my hand. I ran up the stairs reaching out for her trailing skirt, but could not grab it though the wine had stained her too and her mother would kill her when she got home.
Finally at the top of the stairs, I felt I was close enough to grab her. Alethea, I yelled. But she did not stop. Disoriented by the house, she stood there for a moment wondering which way was out. And when she saw the front door, I was only inches away. She bolted like a deer and ran, headfirst, into grandpa.
He was like a great, living bear, a giant with white hair and bushy, thick arms, and his clothes lay about him like sacks of wheat. Alethea burst out crying.
What's going on here? His voice boomed with anger and confusion.
Which made Alethea start to cry.
The wine, sir, the wine, I yelled in Alethea's defense.
He did not listen. He only lifted Alethea's tiny body, held her in the air like a squirming bear cub and looked into her face. Don't cry sugar; it's only wine, he said. Then he set her to the side, walked slowly toward the stairs as if there was no emergency, as if there was nothing he could do, and disappeared down them.
Alethea was in shock. Her wild, gray eyes were wider than I had ever seen them, and she did not move. Her desire to run seemed to have drained from her. Drops of wine fell from her hair onto her shoulders. I tried to brush it away, but it was sticky. So I walked past her to the porch where I saw the carrot between the stairs and the rail. And I took it to her. By the shoulder I guided her back through the yard, past the rain barrel filled with mosquitoes, past Charlie who flapped his wings and danced like a pirate's parrot, and on to the side of the road where her father, Jim, and his big, black dog would soon arrive. In fact, I thought I could hear them traveling up the dusty road just then. For Alethea would not speak, but only stare ahead at the great sky, unchanged above us, though I felt it should have changed, it should have opened up and taken me into its blueness. For I was ashamed. I did not know what to say.
About the author:
Erich R. Sysak grew up in Florida and New Orleans, but now lives part of the year in the northeast of Thailand. He works a small mango farm, reads and writes crime novels, and teaches. His novels, Dog Catcher and Stage IV, are both available through Monsoon Books, Singapore. You can visit his website at ersbooks.net. He joined 42opus.com as an Assistant Editor in June 2010.