Read The secret hum of a daisy Online

Authors: Tracy Holczer

The secret hum of a daisy

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G. P. Putnam's Sons

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Copyright © 2014 by Tracy Holczer.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Holczer, Tracy.

The secret hum of a daisy / Tracy Holczer.

pages cm

Summary: “After 12-year-old Grace's mother's sudden death, Grace is forced tolive with a grandmother she's never met. Then she discovers clues in a mysterious treasure hunt—one that will help her find her true home”—Provided by publisher.

[1. Moving, Household—Fiction. 2. Home—Fiction. 3. Grandmothers—Fiction.4. Treasure hunt (Game)—Fiction. 5. Death—Fiction.] I. Title.

PZ7.H6974Sec 2014

[Fic]—dc23

2013039962

ISBN 978-0-698-15861-0.

Version_1

To Kate, Sara, and Maddyfor showing me what it's all about

Where the bird was before it flew,Where the flower was before it grew,

Where bird and flower were one and the same.

—Robert Frost

Contents

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Epigraph

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Acknowledgments

1

Two Hundred

and Fifty-Six

Mississippis

All I hadto do was walk up to the coffin. That was all. I just had to get there and set the gardenia on the smooth brown wood. Grandma said gardenias were a proper funeral flower. As if there was such a thing.

But my mind kept turning to daisies. The wild ones I'd found and stuck into the cold white funeral wreaths. Mama would have liked that. She'd told me that daisies spoke in a kind of song, a secret humming that birds could feel in their hollow bones, drawing them close. She said I could feel it, too, if I tried, along the fine hairs of my arms and neck. That we all have a little bird in us somewhere.

But there wasn't any bird in me. I could never hear the daisies either. Or any other flower for that matter.

Listen, Grace.Mama's voice seemed to drift near the stained glass windows where wet snow stuck and then slid down the colored panes.

Grandma told me it had been a cold winter and it wasn't over yet, even though it was April. One of the only facts she'd shared with me since we'd met the week before. Of course, it wasn't like I knew how much it snowed here or when, being from just about everywhere else. In all our wandering across the great state of California, Mama had never mentioned the Sierra Nevadas or her hometown, Auburn Valley.

Grandma took my hand in her damp one and squeezed. Hard. “Listen, now,” she said.

I pulled my hand out of hers with a juicyplopand wiped it down my skirt.

“. . . she was a loving mother,” said Pastor Dave, his voice turning from buzzing to words. More words like “free spirit,” “quick to laugh,” “full of life.” Grandma fidgeted in her seat. Other people fidgeted too. I wondered if they'd known Mama years ago.

Then Pastor Dave said God took her for his own reasons.

But it wasn't God; it was the river.

I closed my eyes and pushed those thoughts away. Thoughts about Mama's last night, what I might have done different. Thoughts about Mrs. Greene and Lacey and how they were more of a family to me than Grandma would ever be. I turned around to find them at the back of the church, still fuming at Grandma for not letting them sit here in the front row with us. But just the sight of Mrs. Greene, her quick nod of confidence, gave me the courage to do what I had to do.

Pastor Dave stopped talking when I stood up.

I stared down at my too-tight Mary Janes, skin puffing around the edges like marshmallow. Twelve was too old for those dumb shoes, but they were the only decent ones I owned. They squeaked as I stepped toward the giant sprays of sweet white flowers, eyeing the wild daisies I'd tucked in around the bottom.

There was a gasp. Or maybe it was my shoes.

Pastor Dave cleared his throat and picked up where he'd left off. Pews creaked, nylons hushed. I felt eyes on my back like a heat. I turned around to face those eyes, to look at Grandma, hard as the bench she sat on, daring her to stop me, but she was staring at Jesus in the stained glass window, her unused handkerchief held firmly in both long-fingered hands.

I picked the daisies out of the sprays. One by one by one. Heart thumping, I sat down on the red carpeted steps and made a daisy chain, weaving the stems in and out, in and out, reminding me of the number 8 and how Mama said we were like that, winding around and through each other, not sure where one picked up and the other left off. Pastor Dave must have given up on his speech because he stopped talking again, and after a short silence, the organist started “In the Garden,” which I recognized from one of Mrs. Greene's Elvis records. Everyone stood, a commotion of creaking wood and turning pages, like they were glad for some direction.

I set the daisy crown right on top of the closed coffin lid, where Mama's head rested underneath, and then walked past Grandma, past all those other people who were studying their hymnals, singing for dear life. Right past Mrs. Greene, who reached out her hand so that I could brush mine against it, palm to palm.

The singing quieted as the door shut behind me. I sat down on the cold concrete steps under the eaves and watched the slush come down. “One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi . . .” Drowning out the never-ending hymn.

Lacey followed and sat next to me, quiet. She took my hand in hers, our fingers intertwined like a chocolate-and-vanilla swirl. I leaned my head on her shoulder.

“Sisters forever,” she said.

I couldn't make a sound, so I just nodded.

It took Grandma two hundred and fifty-six Mississippis to come outside. I didn't care it took her so long, though. Because I had a mama who never would have let me get past ten. We knew how to save each other.

2

Birds of

Sorrow

Mamasaidshe started living the day I was born, and when I was little, I took that as the literal truth. It was only ever the two of us, so I figured the stork dropped us down as a pair. The very first picture in our family photo album was of her, sitting up straight in the white sheets of a hospital bed, looking down at my little pink face and curly brown hair like she couldn't quite figure out where I came from but she was happy just the same. No childhood pictures of her. None of her pregnant. Just her and me in that hospital bed, dropped down together from some kind of heaven.

When I got to school, of course, I saw that most people had all manner of relatives. I didn't have to change my theory much, though. I decided that me and Mama were alone because the other pieces of our family broke off somewhere on the way down, and if Mama kept moving us around like she did, we'd run into them somewhere.

By that time I was seven and had been telling anyone who asked about my theories on the stork and my lost family. But it wasn't until second grade, when I gave Christopher Wales a black eye for telling me I was bonkers, that Mama finally cleared things up.

She was working on a junk-art bird at the kitchenette table in our tiny apartment, her long blond hair held back with a clip. Where I always managed to hang out my tongue or squinch my eyes when I was concentrating, Mama's face was still and pretty. She'd been building junk-art birds, mostly cranes, since before I was born. Making those birds was a cross between pure love and a nervous habit, the way some might do crossword puzzles or needlepoint. She sold them in the restaurants where she worked or at small flea markets and coffee shops for a little extra money. I thought they were the most beautiful creatures I'd ever seen and always felt a twinge when they flew away to their forever home, wishing we'd find ours.

She patted the metal folding chair next to her and smiled at me, a closed-lipped smile that hid a crooked tooth. As she went back to work inserting the rivets that closed the small metal body of the bird, she tried to explain a little about how babies come and that I'd had a daddy and grandparents once. I didn't want to believe her. My Stork Theory had been with me so long, it was almost like a friend.

But curiosity about the rest of my family won out.

“Where are they?” I said.

“Your daddy and grandpa died before you were born.”

She stopped her riveting and swallowed a bunch of times, like their dying was caught in her throat. It stopped me, too, having to give up the idea of them so soon.

Mama toyed with the pile of spoons she always found a way to work into her birds. The late-afternoon sun shone its slanted light through the window, the winter dirt on the outside stealing some of its shine.

She went on to tell me they'd died together in a car accident, that my daddy had loved me every bit as much as she did. She walked to her dresser and brought out a small framed photo of her sitting in a patch of wild daisies next to a young man who had my high forehead and lopsided smile. His name was Scott. Then she picked up the slim volume of Robert Frost poetry she'd been reading to me every night since I was born.A Boy's Will,it was called.

“This is all I have left of him.” He didn't have a family, she said. They'd died in a house fire when he was sixteen.

“What about Grandma?” I said, hopeful.

Mama sighed. She told me they had always fought like cats and dogs, and that her being young and pregnant was just too much for Grandma. She wasn't one to face things, Mama said, and so Grandma sent Mama on a bus to live with another family in Texas, “until they could figure out what to do next.” Mama got off the bus in San Diego, California, and she'd been looking for the perfect home for us ever since.

It didn't occur to me right away that Grandma must be a horrible person, someone I wouldn't want to know. All I thought about was the idea that there was someone out there connected to me by blood. Someone we might belong to besides each other.

So I fired questions at Mama. Did you ever get along with Grandma? Where does she live? What did you and Grandma fight about? Do you think we'll ever see her? Why doesn't she come find us?

Mama took my face in her small hands and told me that thinking about where she came from was painful for her, even still. And I didn't want to be paining her, now, did I? “Because we take care of each other, right?” she said.

“But Grandma's still out there somewhere?”

“Yes.”

“Doesn't she want to know where we are?” I swallowed hard. “Or who I am?”

Mama pulled me into her lap and her yellow chair creaked under our weight. “You have to trust me, Grace. We don't need anyone else.”

So I believed her. Plus, I didn't want to add to her pains by bringing it up all the time. It seemed to me that Grandma must have been a pretty terrible mother to send her own daughter packing while she was so young and pregnant. That made her mean. Small-minded. I decided right then and there she wasn't worth a speck of love.

Mama set me back on my chair. Then she went to the same dresser where she kept the picture of my father and took out a black-and-white-checked notebook. She set it on top of the Robert Frost book.

“Here,” she said. “Sometimes it helps to write about things that make you sad.”

I eyed her skeptically. “You're just trying to trick me into writing practice.”

She laughed and the dark mood lifted.

“You caught me.”

But I figured it couldn't hurt. So I wrote down some wobbly seven-year-old words.

Fly away sad feelings.

• • •

Each of her birds held a sorrow or a wish—all her sleepless nights and worries, all her hopes for the future—formed into words and sketches tucked deep inside those birds and meant to fly away. Before that day, I didn't know what she might be worried about, what might have made her feel sorrowful. I only understood my own sorrows, the way they would settle into the empty spaces meant to be filled by other things—a father, a place to call home—and I didn't know how to scrape them out.

Mama offered to let me tuck my words into the bird she was working on. But I wanted to keep them. They were mine. I wrote down more words that day, and most days since.

That was how I saved myself.

3

Just Like

That

The sheriff's carled the funeral procession—patrol lights flashing against the world—turned left, and climbed a winding road to a small, unfenced cemetery. The cars parked around us, closing us in. People walked in small groups under giant black umbrellas.

Grandma informed me there wouldn't be a gathering afterward. One by one, the people who had attended stopped and gave a kind word but moved along quickly, as though they didn't know her any better than I did. There was one exception: an older lady in a worn straw cowboy hat, a faded leather jacket with fringe, and a black muumuu. She gave Grandma a long, fierce hug. Grandma surprised me by returning it. Margery was her name.

“You come visit me in town,” she said to me. “I've got the hosiery shop. It's called Threads.”

Before I could say a word, she'd walked away, dabbing her eyes with a red bandana.

Mrs. Greene and Lacey hung back and waited until everyone else had left. The four of us all faced one another.

“We'll come visit in a couple of weeks, before you go back to school,” Mrs. Greene said. The black dress looked all wrong. Her usual choice of colors tended to compete with fire hydrants or October leaves.

Lacey squeezed my hand again and gave me a quick hug, her damp cheek pressing against mine.

After they left, I watched the coffin lower, forever it lowered, the crown of daisies balanced on top. Something in me needed to see it through even though the rest of me pulsedrun, run, run.I looked up into the sky and wondered about heaven. If it was a big empty space or if there were all kinds of comfy chairs placed in small groups so new people wouldn't be overwhelmed. I pictured Mama sipping Earl Grey, stirring honey with one of her beloved spoons, her pale hair glowing in heaven's light, planning her next bird. I wondered if her back ached where her wings were coming in the way my legs ached when I'd had that growth spurt in fifth grade. If she might feel my thoughts and send some back.

“I'm sorry, Mama,” I whispered.

I reached under the tarp covering all that dug-up earth around the hole, took a handful, and put it in the pocket of the peacoat of Mama's I'd taken to wearing. Then I took another handful for good measure. It started to slush again, and my outsides turned as numb as my insides. Grandma stood beside me, our black umbrellas tapping each other.

“Why did you want a crane on her headstone?” Grandma asked.

Mama used to leave me treasure hunts. She'd always start with a junk-art crane, where she'd tuck something safely inside, maybe a paper clip, which would lead me to the desk, where I'd find a key ring to the laundry room, and so on. Along the way I'd meet the people in her new job, the librarian, someone at the nearest market or video store. She'd have me going for a good three hours every time we moved. Her way of showing me around the new town and introducing the people in it. My very own treasure hunt where the final clue would always lead back to our new front porch, where Mama would wrap me in her arms and say we were each other's treasure.

I wasn't going to tell Grandma about the birds Mama used to make, or how the crane was her happiest bird, the one she always used for treasure-hunt clues. She could just stand there and wonder.

Eventually I figured there was no use dragging things out, so without a word to Grandma or the men standing by with their shovels, I turned and headed for the truck. Grandma followed close behind.

Most everything I had left in the world sat under a tarp in the back of the pickup. Until we got to Mrs. Greene's, Mama had treated our moves like we were climbing into a hot air balloon, and we had to leave most everything behind in order to be light enough to float away.

The nylon rope was wet and splintery as I made sure the tarp was still tight over the bed of the truck. A broken plastic thread from the rope stabbed the palm of my hand. It bled.

Grandma unlocked the rusted handle on the passenger side, and then dug two handkerchiefs out of her giant black purse, giving one to me. The other she used to blow her nose. I waited for her to move before climbing in, holding the handkerchief tight in my fist.

When she got into the truck, she fished around in her purse again and came up with a Safeway plastic grocery bag. She nodded toward my pockets and set the bag on the seat between us.

“For the dirt,” she said.

• • •

Mama died six days ago, and Grandma had tried to pick me up twice before, but I'd hidden from her. The threat of missing Mama's funeral was what finally made me get into her truck. At least twenty times per day, I'd begged Mrs. Greene to let me stay. But Mrs. Greene had said the same thing each time. “She's your grandma, Grace. You have to give it time. Everyone deserves a bit of time.”

“What about what I deserve?”

“You deserve to be loved. But sometimes, you can't see what that looks like for yourself. You've got too much mad mixed up in there. Too much sorrow. After a few months, things will be different.” Mrs. Greene had put her hand on my leg and squeezed, holding tight longer than was necessary.

Mama and I had lived with Mrs. Greene and Lacey for nine months, the longest we'd lived anywhere, and by the time we got there, I was tired. Tired of this adventure Mama said we were on, trying to find the perfect place to call home. For Mama, there was always a better job or a better place to live, better schools or less crime. A place with trees or, when she was sick of trees, a place with open fields or water or whatever it was that Mama needed to keep her spirits up. Mama told me that when we finally found home, it would hum. Like the daisies.

I thought we'd finally found that place when we found Mrs. Greene. The wide and slow movement of the Sacramento River was a quick walk from Mrs. Greene's back steps. The mountains were an hour's drive, and the beach was just a little farther in the other direction. Mrs. Greene had taken us under her wing, both me and Mama, into a safe place that felt like home. But things always seemed to happen at some point or another to make Mama want to leave, and Mrs. Greene's ended up being no different.

Grandma drove down Main Street, past the small church we'd just left and the public school next to it. As we drove past the snow-globe storefronts, I saw a giant spoon hanging from a pole in front of a restaurant called the Spoons Souperie. I spun around in my seat and watched the spoon swing in the wind.

“What is it?” Grandma said.

“Nothing.”

Mama had used spoons in all of her birds, claiming that a spoon was the utensil of comfort. She said it brought you soup on a cold day and stirred honey in your tea. Without spoons we couldn't eat pudding or ice cream, and you could never hang a fork from your nose or ears.

It confused me to think she might have been using them because they reminded her of home. Home being a place she never talked about.

Thinking that was a question I couldn't answer, I let it go as we came to a four-way stop where the land opened to rolling fields and cedars. There was a sign welcoming us to Gold Country, California. One of the only other pieces of information Grandma had shared with me was that Auburn Valley was on the National Register of Historic Places because of how much gold had been discovered here. She explained it was an even smaller town now than it was then because of some fires that had burned the place down a long time ago.

After a short distance, she made a left on Ridge Road. She drove so slow, I almost could have walked faster.

Try as I might to picture the house where Mama had lived, the only picture I came up with was the witch's cottage from “Hansel and Gretel.” As much as I'd like to see Grandma as the witch in that cottage, she was actually pretty ordinary looking. No tinge of green or warts. Instead, she had silver hair with streaks the same blond as Mama's pulled back into a loose knot, and she wore long gray skirts and tall black boots with flat heels, which didn't do anything to hide the length of her legs. She had a tiny silver cross at her neck, the only delicate part of her, it seemed, and a habit of touching it, like it was a raft floating in the middle of our wide and deep silences.

I'd written letters to Grandma when I was eight. Forbidden letters. The only thing in my life I kept secret from Mama. The letters started from a school assignment where we had to write to our grandparents. I asked questions you might ask a grandmother. How to make pie, for instance. Or knit. I was forever seeing grandmas out there making pie and knitting, and figured I had a right to know. There were plenty of angry letters too. I asked how she could turn her back on her own child, pregnant at seventeen.

I'd written a total of twenty-seven letters and bundled them with string like a miniature stack of newspapers. I still carried them from place to place in my army duffel.

“There'll be some house rules, of course,” Grandma said as we drove. Her voice was low and husky like Mama's.

I continued to look out the foggy window.

“Certain rooms are off-limits. Your Grandpa's office right off the kitchen, my room. The kitchen is free to use as long as you clean up after yourself.”

We passed a large wooden sign with letters branded into it that readBRANNIGAN. In the distance beyond the fence were two horses, one dark brown and the other whitish gray with darker gray splotches, like a stormy sky. They grazed, tails flapping. The gray one lifted her head and looked at us. She was beautiful, with a big round belly. Endless amounts of grass will do that to a horse, I figured.

Just past the horses, Grandma slowed and turned into a curved gravel driveway. Along the left edge, sun-bleached fence posts strung with rusted wire kept tall weeds from escaping a pasture, and the house sat at the top of a slight hill up ahead. There was a broken-down barn in the pasture, and a sturdy shed sitting off to the right. A thin metal smokestack poked out the top. Mama's and my car, Daisy, was parked beside it.

“Your sofa is in there,” Grandma said.

“Is that your garage?”

“Used to be your grandfather's workshop.”

I'd found a picture of Grandpa once, in one of Mama's dresser drawers. He had silver and black hair, a big smile, and clearly loved the little girl who sat on his lap. Mama came into the room as I was looking at it, and took it carefully out of my hands. She told me three things before she put it away.

She loved Grandpa almost as much as she loved me.He could build anything from a birdhouse to a skyscraper.He was a birder and took her everywhere he went in search of rare birds.

She said that putting her junk-art birds together was her way of remembering.

Mama never told me anything about Grandma except the fact that she'd sent her away when Mama had needed her most. I supposed she figured that was enough.

Grandma drove up the gentle climb of the driveway and stopped in front of the house. There were two stories with attic windows on top, peeling sky-blue paint with white trim, also peeling, and a wood porch with two chairs covered in yellowed plastic and pine needles. Brass numbers hung on the front porch post, the middle number missing. I could tell from the tarnished outline that it had been the number 4. Piles of Tupperware and glass dishes covered in foil were set neatly beside the front door, a stack of firewood next to that.

Grandma sighed. I climbed out of the truck, thinking about the impossibility of eating, when I heard it. It was coming from behind the house. Distant and soft.

I couldn't help but follow the sound, through the backyard garden, which looked like something from a magazine with its rock walls and graceful trees. I walked fast, then ran toward the thick forest at the back. The gray horse I'd seen in the front pasture was running along the fence line beside me and stopped as I went into the trees.

“Where in heaven's name . . . ,” Grandma called from somewhere behind me.

Her words faded as the sound of water got louder. I moved through the thick trees, ankle deep in pine needles, their sharp points biting through my tights. There was a clearing. Then the river.

It moved fast, sticks and torn branches rushing by. As I edged closer to the slippery rocks, I saw blond hair floating. Mermaid hair. Then gone. I sat down in a heap on the sand, trying to force the pictures out of my mind, but they played like a movie.

A policeman putting a wool blanket around my shoulders, trying to take Mama's hand from mine. How it took two of them to get me away from her. My hair dripping onto the scratchy wool of the blanket as I finally slumped against the policeman, resting my head on his shoulder. The edge of his badge in my ribs. How they asked me so many questions about what happened, and I couldn't answer. Then I wouldn't. I would never talk about that day.

Grandma crouched beside me. Words tumbled around my mind, and I itched for my notebook and pencil, but they were in the duffel in the bed of Grandma's truck.

“It must have been . . . awful.”

“Is this the Sacramento River?” I said.

“It's called the Bear up here.”

There was nothing else to do but stand up on wobbly legs and get away from the river, wet branches slapping me in the face and neck as I ran back through the woods.

Eventually, Grandma came around the house behind me, white mist puffing from her nose and mouth. She reached out a leather-gloved hand, but settled it on the rusted edge of the truck bed for support. She touched the cross at her neck.

Mama had spent my lifetime staying away from this person. She'd gotten herself off a bus in a place she didn't know and trusted a world of strangers could take better care of her than her own mother. I wasn't about to do anything different.

I paced beside the truck. “Mama said you sent her away, that you turned your back on us a long time ago.”

Silence.

“I know it's true. I want to hear you say it.”