by Nate Ragolia
Grandma June stands on the back porch, picking at peeling white paint on the railing. Hearing the tired jingle of the kitchen timer, she opens the screen door to the kitchen. A pair of small animal skulls, bleached white, on the windowsill. Loose bones awaiting a stew. White tile countertops are lined with mason jars. Preserves and pickles. Snouts, eggs, feet, eyes, tripe, tongue, and gizzards. The children love the kitchen. It reminds them of a science museum.
She silences the timer, takes the cookies from the oven, and soaks up the scent of fresh ginger and molasses. Pleased, Grandma June calls out toward the porch:
“Mary! Henry! Come in, please.”
Like approaching sharks, the children’s headtops give away their positions as they sprint toward the house from the field. Tall grasses part and sway around them; their own terrestrial wake.
Henry, age five, hits the porch first, and wraps his arms around Grandma June. Mary, age seven, arrives next, enveloping Henry’s hug, and smashing him into Grandma June’s stockinged legs.
“Be gentle,” Grandma June says. “I’m an old lady.”
Mary loosens her grip. Henry frees his face and gazes up.
“How old are you?” Henry asks.
“You’re not supposed to ask a lady her age,” Mary scolds.
“That is true, dear,” Grandma June says. “But no one likes a know-it-all.”
Mary hangs her head.
“Hank, would you believe that I’m 178 years old?” Grandma June says, straight-faced.
The boy stares, his mouth agape.
“No,” Mary yells. “That’s too old to be alive!”
A smirk emerges on Grandma June’s lips. It quickly evolves into a smile.
“Well, aren’t you precocious?” Grandma June says. “Like your mother.”
She tousles Mary’s hair, weaving it with static.
“Now, you two dearies go sit with your grandpa in the living room, and I’ll bring out a treat.”
The children look at each other with glee and sprint to the front room where Grandpa Morris sits in his recliner watching the television and drinking chicory from a tin mug.
“Grandpa,” Henry says, standing between the man and his screen. “Is Grandma 178 years old?”
The old man harrumphs. “Where’d you hear that?”
“Grandma,” Mary inserts. “Just now in the kitchen.”
“You believe her?” Grandpa Morris asks.
“No,” Mary protests. “People can’t get that old.”
“You never really know what people can do,” he mutters.
Grandma June enters the living room carrying a silver tray embellished with triangle and eye symbols. The tray hosts a plate of cookies, and two small tumblers of milk.
“Morris, turn off that contraption, and join the us for some warm ginger cakes.”
Without argument, Grandpa Morris complies.
“When I was a girl, we didn’t have televisions, so we had to busy ourselves by telling stories, and that’s what we’re going to do now,” Grandma June says.
“I want dinosaurs,” Henry yells.
“Tell us a story about a princess,” Mary retorts.
“Well, I don’t know about dinosaurs, Henry. I’m sorry,” she says. “And I don’t have any stories about a princess, Mary. But I can tell you a love story.”
She hands the children a glass of milk and two ginger cakes each. Grandpa Morris, secured in his recliner, looks on like a hungry stray.
“June, may I please?” he asks.
“And enflame your diabetes? I think not.”
Grandma June sits down on the triangle-quilted settee. She takes a ginger cake and bites into it, locking eyes with Grandpa Morris as she chews the doughy bread, releasing its sharp sweetness.
Grandma June clears her throat. “Now, this is a story about two young lovers. And it’s a true story, you see, because it’s the story of how I met your Grandpa.”
Henry is lost in his ginger cake. Mary looks on, excited.
“Many years ago, there was a big war, and your Grandpa Morris was in the army,” Grandma June begins. “He and I hadn’t met yet. We lived on opposite sides of the country then.
“One day, Grandpa Morris and his unit were traveling through a marsh when they were ambushed by enemy soldiers. Those soldiers killed most of Grandpa’s friends, but not him. No, your grandfather fought hard and he killed sixteen men all by himself, including the enemy soldiers’ leader, a lieutenant who was fairly well known.”
The children stare at Grandma June; enraptured.
“Your grandfather didn’t feel good about all that killing, though, so as soon as the war ended he went to that lieutenant’s house to apologize to his widow. Grandpa wore his dress uniform, and brought a bouquet of magnolia, hoping to impress her with his consideration for her culture.
“What he didn’t know is that the widow knew exactly who he was even before he arrived.”
“How did she know?” Mary demands. “Was it magic?”
“Yes,” Grandma June replies. “It was magic. And when Grandpa Morris came to call on the lieutenant’s widow, she had a surprise for him brewing in a pot on the fire.”
“Like a potion?” Henry asks.
“It was a potion. That’s exactly right,” Grandma June replies.
“So Grandpa sits down in the parlor with the widow, holding a cup of that potion in his hands. Of course, he doesn’t know it’s a potion. He believes it to be chicory,” she continues. “And he starts in on apologizing and fretting about how the war turned brothers against each other, and that he hoped somehow that the widow would forgive him for taking her husband.
“Now, the widow raises her glass, and proposes a toast, ‘To eternal forgiveness,’ and both Grandpa and the widow drink. But before long, Grandpa Morris feels like something isn’t quite right with his chicory.
“Then he realizes he can’t move his legs. And that something is controlling him; puppeteering his body.
“He starts hollering about the widow being a witch. The widow just smiles, and says ‘This is the beginning of our long, long life together, dear. It’ll be easier if you don’t struggle.’”
“And we’ve been together ever since,” Grandma June says. “Haven’t we, Morris?”
Grandpa Morris nods vacantly from his recliner. Something unseen forces a smile across his lips.