[This was originally written in 1996. © Brendan Hodge]
When I was younger I always thought of my grandparents’ house as “The House With Plants In It”. I’m not really sure why. We must have had at least as many, even then, before any of us kids were learning magic. Any family of Walkers has plants coming out of its ears, a fact my sister Lizzy decries loudly whenever it's her turn to water them. But Grandma and Grandpa’s taste finished developing some time in the Fifties and hadn’t changed since; there were at least a dozen large, bulb-shaped bronze pots hanging from large black hooks in the living room ceiling. Our house isn’t like that at all; most of the plants are in the yard, safely out of harm’s and the rug’s way. I always used to imagine I was walking into a jungle when I entered their house. But all that had changed. The plants were dead or dying, and Stepmom always hushed the twins before we knocked on the door, even though they knew better than to disturb anyone.
Grandpa always lay in the back bedroom, half awake and half asleep. Maybe sometimes he was asleep; half the time he never said a word the whole time we were there. Or maybe there isn’t any difference between awake and asleep when you’ve had as many strokes as Grandpa had.
Grandma was always the one to answer our knock; Aunt Catherine, Dad’s youngest sister, always seemed to be taking her turn at Grandpa’s bedside when we got there. Grandma was usually in a pretty bad mood when she answered the door, muttering curses under her breath. Cliche has it that a kid hears the words he isn’t supposed to use from his father, but in my case it was from my grandmother. She could out-swear most of the boys in my high school class, which was saying a lot. You could hardly blame her though. It drove me crazy just to be around the back bedroom for a few hours, and she had to be there all the time. Frankly, I don’t know how she kept as sane as she did.
We usually got there around noon, which meant the first thing we did was go to the dreaded back bedroom to give Grandpa lunch. The only time we could really be sure he was awake was when he was eating, so that’s when we usually made our visit. Grandpa would be lying in the hospital bed they’d bought for him, looking like a thawed out version of the Iceman, and Aunt Catherine would be getting his lunch ready. It was always something that had been mashed into a disgusting looking pulp, but then, Grandpa’s teeth couldn’t handle anything that wasn’t. I’m not sure he could taste things very well anyway. I certainly hope he couldn’t.
So there we’d all be in the back bedroom. I was always over by the window feeling sick and wishing to hell I was somewhere else, anywhere else. Dad would be standing at the head of Grandpa’s bed holding his hand and not saying much, and Stepmom would be standing next to Dad and holding his hand. Then there were the twins. They always rushed around trying to be helpful. Lizzy always wanted to help feed Grandpa, and Patrick told Grandpa endless stories about what had happened recently, in much the same way he spoke to the cat at home. They were not, I suppose, trying to do any harm, but they always sounded incredibly condescending to me, especially when Lizzy was telling Grandpa about each spoonful of food as she gave it to him. “Here’s a spoon of nice peas,” she’d say, lifting a spoonful of grey things that might once have been peas before they were boiled into submission. “Don’t they look good?”
It was natural, I guess. I don’t think they could remember the grandpa who once hung half a dozen large, black, rubber spiders from the ceiling of my room as a birthday surprise; they’re six years younger than I am. Grandpa and I had spent a lot of time together when I was younger, especially after Mom died. He used to take me for long walks up in the hills and tell me stories. Once he took me at night and lighted our way with a witch light. He took me to the very boarders of Faery that night, even though I was years too young to be taught our secrets and allowed to cross alone. But now he only lay in bed; sometimes he wouldn’t say a word for weeks, and when he did, it was only to answer a question with a single word. That, really, was what I hated most: to see someone I had known be so completely helpless and know that there was no hope of his recovering.
After feeding came prayers. It might seem odd to some people for a Walker family to be Catholic, but that would just be because they didn’t understand how our magic works. Our family was Catholic from way back. Grandma and Grandpa were both Irish which made the family about as solidly Catholic as they come. Anyway, as soon as Grandpa was finished eating Grandma would come in bearing rosaries and holy water.
Now, you should understand that I don’t have a problem with Catholicism itself; it’s just that the way things usually go at my grandparents’ house makes me uncomfortable in the extreme. That last time started out more or less as usual. Grandma went around with her holy water and made a little cross on everyone’s forehead as she always did, and then we started saying the rosary. Grandma, as usual, continued to bustle around cleaning things up and putting things away, sometimes praying along with us and sometimes interrupting to talk about something completely different and then go on as if nothing had happened.
To this day I’m not really sure what set me off that one final time. Maybe Grandma was interrupting more than usual, or maybe I was already upset about something before we even got there. I remember nothing about that day except the visit to Grandpa. Anyway, at the end of the second decade, well before it was time to stop, I reached a point where something snapped. I said a loud Sign of the Cross, dropped my rosary on the table next to Grandpa’s bed, and left the room.
When Dad came for me an hour later I was sitting under a tree in the farthest corner of the backyard, mindlessly playing with a handful of pebbles. I wasn’t trying to hide, really; I would have known that was futile. I’m not sure, now, why I was back there, and I don’t think I knew then either. I was, I suppose, trying more to escape than to hide. I was trying to clear my mind of a world where someone I had known could become completely incapable of controlling himself.
“We’re leaving now,” Dad said crouching down beside me.
“Do you want to explain?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
Dad nodded. “Well then, be at the car in five minutes. Do you want to drive?”
I had gotten my license only a month before. “No. I couldn’t concentrate.”
“All right.” Dad rose and left me to study my pebbles under the tree.
In the minute before I got up to leave I must have run through every curse I’d ever heard, a rather extensive collection considering some of the friends I had at the time. It was not at Dad or Grandma or anyone who was in the house. It was at pain, death, the world, and the One who made it. In that moment I hated the world generally, and especially the Maker who allowed it to be filled with pain and suffering. Oh, I knew the reason for such things. I understood why they took place. I am not just a born Catholic but a believing one. Yet sometimes understanding has nothing to do with feeling, and at that moment what I felt was hate for all the world.
It was four days later that we got the telephone call. Grandpa’s lungs had begun to fill with fluid; the doctor didn’t expect him to make it through the day. Stepmom picked us kids up from our various schools and took us there immediately. Dad left work early and got there not long after we did.
Most of the family had already gathered. Uncle Robert, our family atheist, was in the living room arguing with the parish priest when we came in. Aunt Mary and her husband were in the back bedroom, as were Grandma, Aunt Catherine, and the doctor. We crowded in as well, Lizzy and Patrick pushing towards the bed so they could see better and I hanging back. It was hot and stuffy; Grandma had closed the windows for fear of drafts. Suffering seemed to fill the air like a stench. Perhaps it was some hospital-like smell that had come in with the doctor, his medicines, and the oxygen tank that hissed away at Grandpa’s side. I don’t know. To me the smell was simply that of suffering.
And in the center of it all was Grandpa, his breath ragged, his eyes closed, oxygen tubes in his nose, and his hand continuously tapping the side of his head. I don’t believe I have ever seen anything so utterly horrible. Like any American I have seen the pictures of war and plague victims on the evening news; I’ve seen the tapes of children shot down in the streets. But none of it ever seemed as grim to me as the private little hell that must exist in the mind of someone in the condition that my grandfather was in.
It was perhaps five minutes before I left the room. Grandma had gone into the living room searching for Lourdes water and Uncle Robert was asking why she couldn’t let a man die without retreating to the superstitions of the Middle Ages. I didn’t want to hear either one and retreated to the backyard and the tree with the pebbles under it. One could, I suppose, say I was praying there. I didn’t think it at the time though, and I’m not sure I would call it that now. Prayer is something I have never felt comfortable with or completely understood. There are those who claim they love the ‘mysticism’ or the ‘spirituality’ of religion but feel uncomfortable with its beliefs; I have always been the opposite. My father says I have a theology but not a religion; perhaps he’s right. Perhaps the feelings of religion are what make it possible to feel faith in the face of death and suffering.
It was almost dark when my father came out to get me. “He’s worse,” he said. “It won’t be long. You’d better come.” I nodded and followed him.
If the back bedroom had been full before, it was packed now. The priest was giving Grandpa last rites. The doctor was trying to tell Grandma something about hospitals and experimental operations. Grandma was loudly telling the doctor to “shut up and go to hell”. Uncle Robert was standing silently in one corner. And Aunt Julia had arrived, sans husband but with four of her five children. Yet it somehow did not seem as painful as the first time I had entered the room that day. Grandpa lay motionless now, and his breathing, though shallow, was not as labored. It was, for me, as if he had already died, and we were now assembled for some last pre-funeral parting.
It was only a moment after the priest had made the Sign of the Cross over my grandfather that he breathed his last. It happened so quietly and so suddenly that for a moment we noticed nothing. Then the doctor rushed to his side and began frantically to adjust the valves on the oxygen tank and search for my grandfather’s pulse. After a moment he stopped, muttering something under his breath. When he spoke he said but a single word. “Dead.” He disconnected the oxygen tubes and left the room so that we could be alone together.
For some time none of us spoke. After seeing him struggle so long, like a drowning man floundering to remain above water, it seemed impossible that he could slip away so quietly and so suddenly.
Uncle Robert was the first to speak. “Damn world,” he growled and left the room. It was then that Lizzy began sobbing. A moment later rosaries appeared, and Grandma, Aunt Catherine, and Aunt Julia began to murmur Our Fathers and Hail Marys.
“Dad,” I said after a moment.
I glanced again at my grandfather’s lifeless body. “Keys. I need to go.”
He reached into his pocket and drew out the keys to his car. “We’ll take the other car home.”
“I may be late.” It was an understatement. I intended to lose myself in Faery for a time. Faery is not a gentle place, but death is not a part of its nature.
“I know.” I took the keys and left the room.
It was late by the time I left. The yard was almost completely dark, but a dull red glow, which did not come from the porch lights, lit the yard. The plants were burning.
No flames had appeared. No smoke was rising. The plants from which my grandfather had drawn his power glowed as if they were the last embers of a dying fire. And as the glow left them, they crumbled away into a black powder which drifted away on the wind.
I got into the car and slammed the door. For a moment I sat there watching the glow of the burning. Then I started the engine and left.
It was at least an hour later that I pulled over to the side of an empty two lane highway that twisted through the foothills of the San Gabriels. I left the car and set off across the scrub on foot. The moon was setting, and it was both dark and cold. I hadn’t thought to bring a jacket, but I didn’t care if I felt cold. I didn’t care if I came down with the whole lot of diseases Grandma threatened me with whenever she saw me without a jacket.
Damn them. Damn and blast the whole lot of them with their rapidly murmured and frequently interrupted prayers. Blast them for having no better response to a man’s death than to go on muttering the same prayers, in the same way, again and again and again. Blast the little plastic crucifixes, sometimes broken and held together by rubber bands, that Grandma was always carrying around to give to people. Blast the holy water sprinkled on Grandma’s door every night to keep burglars away, and blast Grandma’s shelf full of books by ‘mystics’ and pamphlets supposedly dictated by God. Blast all the superstitious add-ons that could make a logical theology seem like utter nonsense. Blast everything and everyone.
I don’t know when the boundaries between the worlds blurred, and I entered Faery. The change is hard to see under ordinary circumstances, and that night my mind was on other things. All I do know is that, after what seemed an unending length of time, I awakened from my thoughts and saw that I was walking not through the dry, brown scrub of the foothills but the green grass of the plains that were the borders of Faery.
When I saw where I was, I put all my previous thoughts from my mind. It was but a short way to the place that I had come to visit, Grandpa’s tree.
Grandpa first showed me the tree on that trip ten years before when he first took me into Faery. He had planted it when he was a boy. It was the tree that allowed him to draw upon the fay powers as a Walker. The plants that filled his house and yard were necessary too, but they could have done nothing if they had not been linked to that one tree that grew on the plains of Faery.
Time runs strangely in Faery. And its plants can be very strange indeed, for they never die or wither. Thus, the tree had not been much taller than my grandfather when he first showed it to me, even though it had been growing for sixty years.
Grandpa and I had gone to Faery together perhaps ten times. After that first time, he did not take me again until after I had reached the traditional age of ten and been taught to travel between the worlds myself. He was with me four years ago when I planted my own tree, but that was the last time he came to Faery with me. Indeed, it may have been the last time he came to Faery at all. He was beginning to slow down then, though it was before the strokes began. Yet almost every time I went to Faery I visited his tree, and at that time I went very frequently. I could never and can never make the crossing without thinking of that one, magical first trip we made when it was not yet six months after my mother had died.
Thus it was that on the night of Grandpa’s death I made my way to the little dell where his tree stood and saw it in the light of the stars of Faery.
I have seldom been more shocked than I was at that moment. The tree which had been planted in undying realm was dead and bare. No leaves covered the ground at its foot. It was as if there had been some great wind which had stripped both leaves and life from it, leaving behind no trace of either.
I sat with my back against the dead tree, and for the first time I felt the full force of my loss. Not only was my grandfather dead, but every last trace of him had been wiped from the earth. Death had taken even this last token of his existence.
“Kevin,” a voice sounding much like my father’s said from somewhere behind me.
“I thought you were going to leave me alone,” I replied without looking up.
“I don’t remember any such agreement.”
“Ah, how convenient,” I said, sarcasticly
“You left your father’s survival pack in the car. You might at least have brought that with you.” I heard the heavy bag drop at my side.
“My father’s? Then who--” For the first time I looked up. He looked familiar, but I couldn’t think who he was.
“Ah, now I see.” The man chuckled. “You appear to have mistaken me for my son.”
It was my grandfather, but not as I had last seen him. Not, indeed, as I could remember ever having seen him. I would almost say he looked younger, but that would be inaccurate. If it had been in our world perhaps he would have looked younger, but things appear different in Faery.
It is, I am sure, understandable that I was not at my most expressive in the moment when I first recognized him. My first words were, I fear, terribly cliched. “But,” I said. “I thought you were dead.”
Grandpa laughed. “And you were right. Have you ever heard the saying that there are three roads, one leading to heaven, one to hell, and one to Faery?”
“Well it’s wrong. Our world and Faery are both roads that lead, though at different speeds, to the same fork. And at that fork you must choose your way, to heaven or to hell.”
“And you’re taking the fay road to the fork?”
“Oh no, that’s hardly an option for us. No, this is merely a minor detour on a much longer journey. And you?” he asked.
“Are here. Why?”
Again I was staring at the ground. “I wanted to be alone, I guess.”
“There are no other places to be alone but Faery? The world must be becoming a crowded place.”
“Well . . .”
“But you wanted to see my tree?”
“I guess I . . .”
“Wanted to escape death?”
I sighed and pulled nervously at the grass. “Yeah. I suppose I did.”
“It is a hard thing to understand.”
“It’s not that,” I said. The “death and suffering cannot be understood” line was something I had heard many times and had no sympathy for. Understanding death and suffering, I thought, was easy. It was dealing with it that was hard.
“Ah, so it’s not a hard thing to understand?”
“And you do understand why there is death in the world?”
“Then why were you hiding from them?”
“And why would you hide from something if you understood it, eh? Perhaps, you do not understand? Mmm?”
“Understanding doesn’t help. Yeah, there’s death and suffering in the world because we fell. Yeah, I see why that is. And no, I don’t think it’s particularly unfair. Heck, I even think an unfallen world would be pretty dull. But I don’t see how that’s supposed to help.”
“Then why did you say--”
“Because that’s not understanding; that’s knowing. I could have you memorize the annual rain fall of every city in the world, but that wouldn’t mean you would understand why rain fell. Would it?”
“I guess not.”
“Well I don’t guess; I know. It wouldn’t.”
“Knowing won’t help you deal with things, except to the extent that you know there is a reason for them, even if you don’t understand it.”
“So what I should do is . . . ?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe there is no way to understand these things. I’ve never known anyone who did.”
“Then what was the point of--”
“Don’t lie to yourself, Kevin. The only person who’s going to be fooled is you.”
I shook my head, feeling both exasperated and amused. “Would it be rude to ask if all dead people are like this?”
“Yes, changing the subject is always rude.” Grandpa smiled. “Besides, I’ve never met a dead person socially; I wouldn’t know.”
For a moment we just looked at each other, and that one moment seemed to make up for all the talks we’d missed over that last few years. It seemed a very long time, but it could only have been a moment. Then Grandpa shook his head and looked away.
“Well, I should be going.”
“Yes, I’ve a long road before me.”
“Where is the fork, the one which leads to heaven and hell?”
“The fork? Well, the fork isn’t really a place, as such. It just sort of is. I’m sorry, this must sound like utter nonsense. It’s rather hard to explain, really.”
“But, if you don’t know where it is, how can you go there?”
“Go there?” Grandpa gave me a puzzled look. “Oh, I see what you’re getting at. But I’m not traveling to the crossroads. I’m coming from it.”
“But didn’t you say--”
“The gates of hell stand at the crossroads itself, but the road to heaven can be very long indeed.”
“Can be very long?”
“Well, it rather depends on the person.”
“Oh.” I paused, there were so many things I wanted to say that I didn’t know where to begin. But Grandpa was obviously pressed for time.
“Goodbye, Kevin,” he said and started off.
For a moment I just watched him. Then I called after him, “What should I do with your tree?”
“Whatever you want,” he replied. “It’s dead and always will be, but I doubt it will ever fall, being here in Faery. You can keep it for consolation if you want to.” For a moment there was silence. Then he called back one last time. “Goodbye!”
It was the last word I ever heard from him, and a moment later he disappeared into the starlit night of Faery.
“It’s dead and always will be,” he’d said. “You can keep it for consolation, if you want to.” I reached up to touch a small branch above me, and it broke off in my hand. Completely dry, as if it had been dead for years. No, I could not keep it. It would be like a child prodding the lifeless body of his kitten hoping that life would return to the cold, stiff body. The tree, like Grandpa, was lifeless, and I had to bury my dead.
The branches were dry and brittle. I was able to break off all but the largest limbs by hand. I made them into a pile at the base of the tree and lit them with the cigarette lighter from my father’s pack. The dry wood caught quickly. Soon the tree was a great column of fire, and the sound of burning filled the air.
As the flames grew hotter I retreated to the rim of the dell. I sat down there, dropping the pack on the grass beside me. I knew I could not leave till the fire had died out.
When I dropped the pack I heard a rattle and saw something roll a few feet down the slope. I picked it up and saw it was a small plastic canister such as rolls of film come in. I grimaced and started to put it back in the bag; I knew what was in the canister and had no great wish to see it. Then I stopped.
Because that’s not understanding; that’s knowing. . . . Maybe there is no way to understand these things. . . .
I opened the canister and poured the small rosary I’d known was there into the palm of my hand. It was, perhaps, an ugly little thing. I think the reason Dad kept it with him was that it was the only one he wouldn’t have minded losing. Its black plastic beads felt rubbery rather than smooth, and in several places the chain had broken and been fixed with bits of wire. The little crucifix was badly cast, and a thin plating of silvery looking metal was flaking off to reveal a dull grey metal underneath. Even in firelight it looked unattractive; in the full light of day it must have been thoroughly ugly.
Yet somehow that is not what I thought as I held it that night in Faery, looking at it by the light of the burning tree. The tiny figure hanging on the cross seemed to have a majesty that cannot have come from the badly cast crucifix itself. Perhaps grief could not be wholly understood.
Perhaps Grandma’s pieties were next door to superstition. Yet perhaps there was still more to religion than mere philosophy. Perhaps there was more than creeds and doctrines. Perhaps there were other things, not more important, but as important as logic and reason.
Reluctantly, for I was not and am still not completely comfortable with such things, I brought the crucifix to my lips and kissed it. For a moment I sat staring at the little piece of metal I had kissed. Then I made a slow Sign of the Cross with it.
“The first joyful mystery: the Annunciation,” I began, feeling embarrassed at first but gaining confidence as I spoke. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. . . .”