Read The secret hum of a daisy Online

Authors: Tracy Holczer

The secret hum of a daisy (page 6)

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Wheel of


As Grandma led methrough the garden, Beauty came up to the fence and gave us a good-natured grunt.

“I don't have any carrots for you,” Grandma said, and Beauty grunted again.

“I'll bring some later!” I called.

The garden led to a path I hadn't seen on my one and only trip through these woods from that first day, which seemed so long ago. The path curved and then ran alongside the river, about ten feet above it, a wide, rocky slope in between. I realized I had one hand clenched into a fist as we walked. It helped, so I left it that way.

We crossed a fast-running stream that came from above and flowed on down into the river, stepping from one enormous flat stone to the next.

“Your grandpa laid these in so we could always get across.”

“Tell me about him,” I said.

Grandma thought for a minute, looking up into the leafy trees. “He smoked a pipe because he thought it made him look smart.” She smiled her crinkle-nosed smile. “He was a whiz with his hands, could fix anything you put in front of him. He was that way with puzzles too.” We reached a curve in the trail and she paused, looking down where the river rushed by. “He was never indoors if he could be outside. I used to think he liked to garden, but he had no eye for it, so after years of watching him pull perfectly good plants and leave the weeds, I realized he just liked to be useful. But he could name every tree in the forest. He always had a book in his hand and a smile on his face.” She shook her head. She went back to walking, turning to see if I was coming along. “Your mama was everything to him.”

Like with Daddy, I'd made up stories about Grandpa too. From the one picture I'd seen, he didn't seem like the kind of man who wore a suit to work and said things like “quarterly reports” or “credit application.” I liked to think that he was a writer, like me, or did something heroic like move cattle across the plains or build hearing aids. And now I found out my ideas of him were not all that wrong.

I let myself imagine him. The white and brown stubble of his chin. How he would smell of pipe tobacco and pine. How he would have taken my hand and walked me through the trees, pointing to this one or that, giving their proper names, like maple or ash or sycamore.

I felt a deep, burning anger at Mama. At her need to move from place to place and drag me with her. Then disloyalty slithered its squeezy fingers around my insides.

Matching breaths to the beat of my footfalls helped the squeezy feeling pass, and eventually, we came to a green meadow where I could feel the warm weather hiding just around the corner. The meadow touched the edge of a large rocky beach, the river beyond. Then I had to take calming breaths all over again as the day Mama died tried to play itself out in my mind. I shook my head and turned away from the river. I had a job to do.

There were no daisies that I could see, but I could tell this was the place where the picture of Mama and Daddy was taken. I'd stared at that picture for hours and I knew every little nook and cranny of it. The trees, although bigger, grew in the same formations. Although you couldn't see the river in the photo, you could see the edge of the rocky beach and the hills beyond, their peaks coming together in the shape of a jagged heart.

“She loved it here,” Grandma said.

In the shade of the trees at the far end of the meadow was a metal sculpture. A crane. It was surrounded by a circle of white river rocks. It had long pipe legs and a ski-pole neck. The wings were made out of spoons, hundreds of them, layered like feathers.

“There's a crane reserve not far, down in Woodbridge,” Grandma said. “Once in a great while, a crane or two would rest here by the river during their migration. Your grandpa told her they were magic, and if you wished on a crane, it would always come true. She believed it for a long time.”

There'd been two sandhill cranes perched on the bank as I sat with Mama the morning she died. So still in the dull morning light. I knew they were sandhills because Mama had pointed them out a few weeks before she'd died, telling me how they were migrating home. I remembered thinking we'd finally found ours.

I walked up to the metal crane and brushed my hand along the spoons. I looked it over from beak to tail feathers, and down in the blown leaves, tucked up against the crane's leg, was another spoon, like the ones used as feathers. I picked it up.

“Your mama used to take those spoons from Lou and Mel. She put them in every one of her pieces. Lou took such pride in the fact that her spoons were such a big part of your mama's art.”

Maybe the next place to look for a clue was Spoons. I laid my ear against the crane's belly. “Did Mama put something inside?”

“I'm not sure. She built it in your grandfather's workshop and wouldn't let me see until it was time to haul it into the meadow. I always thought it was her penance, her way of saying she was sorry. Then I went ahead and sent her off anyway.”

“But it wasn't her fault.”

“No, it wasn't.”

I walked to the edge of the meadow and watched the river, sinking down to my knees. I plucked a blade of long grass and stared at it, hard, willing myself not to cry.

They'd told me Mama had fallen down and knocked her head before rolling into the water to drown. Just like that. Because I'd been so mad at her about wanting to leave, I didn't let her climb into bed with me that night to read Robert Frost. So she went walking instead.

“You found her,” Grandma said, coming up behind me.

“I don't want to talk about it.”

“Are you sure?”

Grandma kneeled beside me and I wished for a pair of her gardening knee pads so my knees wouldn't get wet and muddy from the grass.

Her hands were right there. Sitting on her lap. I wanted her to take mine and tell me everything would be okay. In this one moment, I might have believed her.

But then the moment passed and I was stuck with the river again. It started to sprinkle.

“Your mama never told you about what happened here, did she? What led to her bus trip to Texas.”

I shook my head, not sure I wanted to know, at the same time not sure I wanted to keep myself from knowing certain things anymore. Because even though Mama had told me about Grandma and why she didn't go home, I always knew there was something else. Some Deep Thing she kept hidden the same way I hid Grandma's letters and my secret wish to stay in one place long enough to see the seasons turn.

“No,” I said.

Grandma stood up with her creaky knees and I stood up with her. “I was angry,” she said. “I had no right to it, but by the time I figured that out, your mama was long gone. I kept waiting to hear from her. I honestly thought she'd come home. And then the months stretched into years and I got angry all over again.”

“Why were you angry to begin with?”

Grandma didn't seem to know what to say. “Because your mother lived and your grandfather died, I suppose. As horrible as that is.”

It took me a minute to put things together. “She was in the car with Grandpa and my dad?”

Grandma nodded. “They were running away. Your mama and Scott.” She picked at a callus on her palm. “There was a big snowstorm that day and things had been tense. When your mama went to bed early, your grandpa had a bad feeling about it. Sure enough, he checked and found her gone, a note saying they were leaving. I tried to tell your grandpa they couldn't get anywhere in the storm, but he wasn't having any of it. He took off and found them huddled under the awning at Lafollette's. Margery had gotten them there. Somehow, Thomas must have talked them into coming home, and then the car went off the road.”

Grandma cleared her throat. “Both your father and grandfather were killed instantly. Your mother didn't have a scratch.”

Those last words were shaped with blame.

I remembered how Mama and I had watchedWheel of Fortuneon her nights off. How we'd crack up because we could never figure out the words on the board. A contestant would call out something like “The Bridge on the River Kwai!” and we'd crack up some more because who could pull “The Bridge on the River Kwai” out of a few random consonants? Then Vanna White would turn the rest of the letters and, sure enough, we'd see it for ourselves, clear as day.

Mama had always been like aWheel of Fortuneboard with only half the letters turned. Now that Grandma turned the rest of them for me, I saw everything. Why Mama didn't talk about her past. Why she always had that little crease between her eyes, even when she laughed. Why she didn't settle anywhere. Like there was some purpose in being uncomfortable.

“Why were they running away?”

But I knew, of course. I'd always known, even if I never wanted to think about it. It was because of me. Mama was pregnant with me and she was only seventeen.

“We felt she needed time away from Scott. That she had some considering to do . . . about her future.”

“You wanted Mama to give me up.”

When I said it, I didn't know if it was true or not, but the fact that Grandma couldn't meet my eyes gave me all the answer I needed.

In a flash, a whole other life washed over me. The life I could have had if Grandma had been the type of mother who loved her daughter through a hard time. If she'd accepted the fact that I was coming, that Mama and Daddy loved each other even though they were young. Then I would have been born here, in this town, with a mother and father, a grandma and grandpa. I wouldn't be coming twelve years late, trying to carve out a place for myself one more time.

A fury came over me thinking I'd almost trusted her. “If you would have just loved her, loved me, they never would have tried to run away. No one would be dead.”

I didn't wait for her to answer. I ran out of the meadow and down the trail, sending birds into the sky as I went.


Too Precious

to Throw Away

Mama wouldn't starta new project until she had every piece. Sometimes it took months of gathering. We'd go to yard sales and junk shops and she'd let her hands run along rows of knobs and buttons and screws that had held other people's lives together in one form or fashion for more years than I'd been alive. She let herself imagine those lives, what kind of bird she might piece together. One time I asked her how she knew what to pick and what to leave behind. She said the right pieces hummed under her hand, like the daisies. I remembered sitting in the tub night after night, for a long time, humming, so she knew not to leave me behind. Then she went ahead and did it anyway.

The trick was figuring out what to take and what to leave behind. Moving so many times, we should have had it down to a science, but Mama wasn't one for science or anything else that might require making lists and putting things in proper order. She'd throw this or that into the boxes we kept with us always, the ones that fit perfectly in Daisy's hatchback, and that was that. From one move to the next, there were additions and subtractions based on Mama's art, what she might need for her birds. Once she'd left behind our bedding because she needed the space for a bunch of old watering cans and a box of hand-painted tiles she'd collected. Bedding was easy to replace.

But I always felt a sadness for those things that were left, like they had proper feelings or something. Being left behind was like a shadow that never went away.

Unlike Mama's boxes, my canvas duffel always had the same stuff. Clothes. The photo album. A needlepoint pillow that I'd made with our landlord in Hanford, Mrs. Smithson, when I was six. There was a pack of strawberry seeds from kindergarten, a small bag of beach sand, a few more odds and ends. At the very bottom was the packet of unsent letters I'd written to Grandma when I was eight years old.

She banged on the shed door. “Grace, let me in. We need to talk about this.”

“Go away!”

“I will not go away. I will stand here in the rain until you open this door.”

Leave it to Grandma to ruin my plan. I opened the door a crack. “I'm sorry for yelling at you. I'm tired. I just want to take a nap. Can we please talk about this later?”

Grandma narrowed her eyes, skeptical, and tried to look around me and into the shed. “Are you sure?” she finally said.

I nodded and then closed the door, leaning against it until I heard her boots squishing through the mud back up the trail.

Once she was good and gone, I took her letters out of my duffel and threw them across the shed. I made sure all my cranes and things were in the Kerr jar, along with Mama's bird poem.A solitary bird, hollow it flew.It was as though she'd written it for me.

Whatever didn't fit in the duffel, I packed into Mama's toolbox. Daddy's book of Robert Frost poems, all the extra flyers, and Archer's Ladle Boy picture.

I curled up in my sleeping bag and pulled Mama's quilt around my shoulders. When Jo knocked at the door some time later that afternoon to try and find the meadow, I ignored her. She knocked a few more times, calling my name, but I just shoved the pillow over my head and waited for it to get dark.

I pushed Mummy Max and Jo out of my mind. I tried not to think of Beauty and what her baby might look like. Then I pushed away the meadow, and the fact that Mama's next clue was probably the spoons that made up the crane's wings. It was just the sort of clever thing she'd expect me to pick up. Since I was sure she was eventually leading me to Mrs. Greene's anyway, I supposed it didn't really matter.

• • •

I didn't worry as I climbed in the car because Mama had taught me how to drive when I was nine, declaring that if there were ever an emergency and she keeled over in the middle of nowhere, she wasn't about to have me starving to death because I hadn't learned such a simple thing as driving. Just before I turned the ignition, I said a little prayer that starting Daisy wouldn't wake this half of the mountainside.

But I didn't need the prayer. She was quiet, as though she might understand my need for it, and I drove off that mountain and down through the darkened windows of town, thinking I should have done this sooner. After I was good and far away, I pulled over and took Mama's map of California out of my duffel, the pinholes reminding me of where I'd been. Mama had always put up the map before we'd leave a place, pacing back and forth in front of it for a good week or so. She'd go to the library and research towns with lakes or hills or what have you, or she'd pick a random city newspaper online and read the For Rent listings. When she was satisfied with her newly discovered town, she'd thumbtack it on the map, and off we'd go.

Once we'd gotten to Mrs. Greene's, even Mama had said it was where we were supposed to be. We'd found her house because we'd been driving around, going to garage and yard sales, and drove right by Mrs. Greene's big old farmhouse with this giant plastic pink flamingo mailbox in the front yard, which Mama took as a signpost.

They didn't even have a For Rent sign in front of the house, but Mama knocked on the door and said this crazy thing anyway. “I think we're supposed to be here.”

Instead of shying away like we were a couple of loons, Mrs. Greene got this ginormous smile and invited us in for tea and cookies.

It turned out Mrs. Greene was just finishing up this little one-bedroom cottage in the back of her property that she'd always used for storage and was about to list it for rent. Mama wrote her a deposit check that day, asked her to wait to cash it until the next Friday, when she got paid, and we were off and moving again, but this time I didn't mind. Even that first day, meeting Lacey and Mrs. Greene, I felt things would be different. Mrs. Greene didn't mind her own business, always putting her two cents in, even going as far as to chastise Mama for dragging me around to kingdom come, and for not living up to her God-given potential. I worried that might drive Mama away, but it seemed to draw her closer. She ate up what Mrs. Greene said like Snickerdoodles. So did I. “Grace, you sign up for school politics. You hear? You can think something through like nobody's business, and always come up on the logical side of things.” It felt like she was giving me the wide-open world in a way Mama hadn't. I was convinced that Mrs. Greene and Lacey were the missing pieces of our family and it didn't matter one lick that we weren't related by blood. After all that moving, we'd finally found them, and I wasn't about to give them up.

I turned on the overhead light in the car as it started to rain, and found where I was on the map, tracing a line to the nearest pinhole. It was a straight shot down Highway 80 to the 193, past Sacramento, and on to Hood and Mrs. Greene. I knew how to get to Mrs. Greene's from there.

As I put the car in drive and wiped at my eyes, headlights came up behind me. They were coming fast, so I waited to let them pass. Instead, they slowed. Blue and red lights flashed, ableepof siren coming next.

I rested my head against the steering wheel. Eventually, a gloved knuckle knocked on the window. Sheriff Bergum. When I didn't move to open the door, he did it for me.

“What in the world?” he demanded. He was wearing regular clothes, boots, and a plastic cover over his cowboy hat. When I didn't answer, he took hold of my elbow and helped me out. The rain came down hard. I was soaked through in seconds.

Without another word, Sheriff Bergum loaded me into the back of his squad car and we were off in a swirl of lights.

• • •

Sheriff Bergum drove through town, with me in the back like a criminal. Maybe I was. It couldn't be legal to drive a car at twelve. Even in an emergency. I wondered if he was arresting me. If they'd send me away on a bus to someone I didn't know, like Grandma did to Mama. I wondered if I cared. That last pinball thought bounced around my head and couldn't find an answer. Not even a measly one worth five points. I was smack out of energy and my shoes were wet.

Sheriff Bergum led me into the station, turning on lights as he went, and walked me into the back cell, past the little origami crane perched behind the family photo, and sat me down. Then he actually took out a giant set of old-fashioned keys and locked me in.

“Are you kidding?” I said, unbelieving.

Even though it had been covered with a hat, his bald head was a little drippy and he took a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped it down, like a table. Then he put his hat back on.

“Do you have any idea what you've done to your grandma? And me! I was just sitting down to watch the news and have my hot cocoa when your grandma called, frantic.” He went to the phone and dialed. After murmuring for a while, he hung up with a bang.

“Can't you just take me back to her house?”

“No. She'll be here in a few minutes.”

“How did she even know where I went?”

“She went out to check on you again and found you and the car gone. She called me in a panic.”

With that, he hung up his plaid jacket and sat at his multidrawered desk with his back to me. Every few minutes he'd take off his cowboy hat and run a giant hand over his bald head, then put his hat back on with ahumph.He turned to his Scrabble game.

“Can I ask you something?”

He grunted.

“Did you make that crane?” If they were going to send me away, I at least had to know where it came from.

He turned and looked at me as though I had asked the dumbest question in the history of dumb questions. “You've got bigger things to worry about,” he said.

“I have to know.”

Maybe it was the desperation in my voice that made him answer. Maybe it was the fact that I was shivering and my wet hair and clothes had dripped into a puddle at my feet.

He took a deep, lumbering breath, reached into the drawer behind his desk, and took out a large wool blanket. It was exactly the same as the one they'd wrapped me in the morning Mama died. He held it through the bars. I shook my head.

“Fine.” He looked at the crane. “I don't know who made it. I found it beside my front left tire after a particularly bad day at work. Some things are too precious to throw away. But you wouldn't know about that.”

Sheriff Bergum knocked back a container of Tums and pointed a thick finger at me. “No more talking. You sit there and think.”

Fifteen minutes later, Grandma showed up with my duffel, wearing her usual prune face and lumberjack costume. I was glad when she did. I was tired of watching Sheriff Bergum huff and puff and mumble to himself about my ingratitude and general twelve-year-old nincompoopery as though I wasn't right there listening.

“Let her on out,” Grandma said.

“You should leave her. She might see things different in the morning,” Sheriff Bergum said.

“I have a better idea.” Grandma eyeballed me up and down. Past experience with authority figures had told me that eyeballing never amounted to anything good.

“So I'm not arrested?” I said as Sheriff Bergum let me out.

He narrowed his eyes. “You're lucky your grandma has some influence over me.”

Fine. I just wanted to get out of my wet shoes and into bed anyway, where maybe I could sleep for a change.

Grandma had other plans.

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