by Alex Knight
I always thought that my grandmother was crazy. She rocked all day on the front porch, talking to herself and she had a way of looking through a person that unnerved the bravest of souls.
When passers-by spotted her on the porch they would cross to the other side of the street. If they spoke together in hushed tones she would proclaim just loud enough for them to hear, “I can still hear you.” At that they would walk much faster.
Some people called her crazy and some called her a witch. The rest of them called her a crazy old witch, or worse, but never within earshot.
Everyone was afraid of her.
Now… they are afraid of me.
* * *:
I was walking toward the school bus when I heard a voice.
Don’t get on the bus, Anya.
I looked around and didn’t see the speaker or Anya. I tried to remember if we had any new kids on the bus because I didn’t know anyone named Anya.
I caught up with my best friend Kimmie when I heard the voice again. It sounded harsher this time and more insistent.
“Did you hear that?”
“Hear what?” Kimmie asked.
I still didn’t see anyone but suddenly I didn’t want to get on the bus.
“Let’s walk home today.” I suggested.
“No way, it’ll take too long.” Kimmie argued.
“I’m walking,” I announced as I turned away from the bus.
“You can’t walk alone; you know the rules.”
“Then come with me Kimmie, please,” I begged.
“Mom will kill me if I don’t take the bus. Yours will kill you too.”
I almost caved in but then I heard the voice again.
Heed my words, child!
Those last words I heard were spoken in Russian but somehow I understood them clearly enough, I had to listen.
“Don’t get on the bus Kimmie, I’m scared.”
“See you tomorrow,” she called out as the bus door closed.
I didn’t turn around to wave but started walking. Truly frightened I began to run. I knew I wasn’t ever supposed to walk home alone and Mom would skin me alive for not taking the bus, but at that moment I didn’t care.
Catching my foot on an exposed tree root I tripped and fell down the ravine. Now I was really going to catch it because my skirt was torn and my white blouse had mud and blood on it. Both knees and palms were bleeding and my head hurt. I don’t know how long I sat there crying before I found the strength to get up and start walking again. My entire body ached but I continued the journey home and collapsed on the front porch.
My grandmother stopped talking to herself long enough to get out of her rocker and pull me to my feet. She started her incessant chatting again as she led me to the bathroom where she administered to my needs. Then we went to the kitchen, she made strong sweet tea all the while talking in an agitated manner. We sat at the table drinking the calming brew.
Finally she began speaking to me. Strangely enough I understood every word she said and answered her back in Russian.
It was a few minutes before I realized my mother was standing in the doorway taking in the scene. Then she was at my side hugging and scolding me at the same time.
“Are you all right? Why didn’t you stay with the bus? You shouldn’t have wandered away.”
I just stared at her trying to understand what she was saying although I soon realized she was speaking English.
“Terri Jean Anderson, are you listening to me?” She started to cry.
“Do not cry!” Without realizing it I was still speaking in Russian.
“What did you say?” Now she looked frightened.
“I said, do not cry.” I reverted to English.
“Darling as soon as they called us about the accident your father and I went to find you.”
She continued to speak as she checked my wounds.
“You don’t remember? The school bus driver had a heart attack and the bus crashed through the guard rail and rolled down the embankment. You should have stayed with the bus, too many kids wandered off. It will be dark soon and they are bringing in dogs to help find the kids who are still missing. Your father’s still out there searching. I came home to get your jacket for the dogs to sniff. I have to go back and let them know you’re safe. How did you make it home and why did you leave the bus?” Her voice wavered between relief and anger.
“I wasn’t on the bus. I walked home.”
“You what? What do you mean weren’t on the bus; why not?” Her anger was overtaking the relief.
“The lady told me not to get on the bus.”
“What lady, what are you talking about?”
“I don’t know. I couldn’t see her, but she said, ‘Don’t get on the bus, Anya,’ so I didn’t.”
“But your name isn’t Anya.”
Just before my eyes closed I replied in Russian, “My name is Anya.”
* * *
The next morning I didn’t get out of bed to go to school, instinctively knowing my parents would keep me home.
They stood huddled in the doorway of my room, watching me, frightened.
“Are you sure they were speaking Russian?” My stepfather asked.
“I can’t speak Russian, but I know my mother can. They were chatting away.”
“Maybe it only seemed like that; they saw you and were playing a trick on you. Perhaps Terri was just jabbering nonsense with the old lady nodding and making like she was replying. Besides, you said Terri was afraid of your mother, never speaks to her.”
Funny, at that moment I realized that I was no longer afraid of my grandmother. I can’t even remember why I ever was.
“It’s true she has always has been afraid of her in the past. My mother isn’t above playing a joke like that but Terri doesn’t have a deceitful bone in her body.”
I silently thanked my mother. I didn’t know what the word deceitful meant, but I knew it wasn’t something good. I also knew that my mother believed me.
“There’s one way we can find out if Terri was speaking Russian or not.”
“How, if you think my mother’s in on it I can hardly ask her to confirm it.”
“No, I was thinking of the Principal at Terri’s school; he’s Russian.”
“Mr. Stadnik? I think someone said he’s Ukrainian.”
“Same difference, he should be able to recognize some of the words.”
“Well he did want to talk to her about Kimmie. Perhaps I can explain what happened and see what he thinks.”
After what seemed like forever they closed my bedroom door again. I wondered why Mr. Stadnik wanted to talk to me about Kimmie. I hoped she wasn’t in trouble because I decided to walk home alone.
My parents left me alone most of the day, which was fine with me. My grandmother and I chatted away and she told me some of the stories her grandmother had told her when she was my age. She told me a lot of things that had yet to make sense and answered a lot of questions that I didn’t even know to ask.
“Heed our advice and our warnings. When you are no longer a child we can no longer guide you.”
“But grandmother, I stopped being a child yesterday.” This terrible truth was confirmed by the gravity of my tone and my solemn expression.
Ignoring my parents who were lurking nearby, we spoke solely in Russian.
* * *
“Honey, Mr. Stadnik wants to talk with you for a few minutes. Your dad and I will be right here.” My mom indicated the visitor’s chairs located outside of the Principal’s office.
I nodded and followed Mr. Stadnik inside. I had never been in the Principal’s office before but like all the other kids I had heard plenty of rumors about it. All of them were greatly exaggerated because there was nothing scary in there at all.
I sat down in the chair as directed and watched Mr. Stadnik lower himself in the chair opposite me. His eyebrows met in the middle and resembled dancing caterpillars as he struggled to find the words he wanted to say.
“How do I tell her that her friend has died?” he wondered aloud in Ukrainian.
“You just say, I’m very sorry but your friend has died.” The answer escaped my lips before I realized what he had actually said. “Kimmie’s dead?” I had spoken Ukrainian as well.
“How could you have understood what I said, I was not speaking Russian?” He appeared shaken.
“I don’t know I just could. What happened to Kimmie?”
“She died in the bus accident. Why didn’t you take the bus that day?”
“The lady told me not to get on the bus. I asked Kimmie to walk with me but she wouldn’t.”
“How could some woman have told you this?”
I didn’t answer for a couple of minutes and that seemed to please him until I opened my mouth and once again words tumbled out.
“Did you think that by switching to French I wouldn’t understand what you said? I don’t know who the woman was, I never saw her I only heard her.”
He blanched then jumped out of his chair. The door was open just a crack as he spoke with my parents.
“I don’t know how she is doing this but I would suggest that you take her to see my colleague Professor Arnold at the university. He could arrange for her to be studied and tested further.”
“She just lost her best friend and is going through something very bizarre. I don’t want her to be alone with strangers.” My mom’s concern was palpable.
“I think we should do this.” My stepfather obviously thought there was some financial gain to be had.
I cleared my throat. “I can still hear you.” I announced.
All conversation ceased. My mom came in and almost suffocated me in her tight embrace. I knew she loved me but I could see the fear in her eyes.
* * *
I walked fast to catch up with Betty. It was going to be hard to sit in class without my best friend sitting beside me. I was thinking about Kimmie when the chanting broke through.
“Look it’s the witch… witch, witch, it’s the witch!” Several of the other kids chimed in.
I turned around to see the witch — there was no one there. When I turned around again I realized they were talking about me.
“I’m not a witch!”
“Are too, you put a spell on Kimmie because she wanted to ride on the bus with Lisa. You put a spell on both of them. You killed them both.”
“Did not, stop saying that.”
The others picked up the taunt again but backed away as I started walking toward Betty. She was the one who had started it all.
“You’re a witch!”
“Take it back,” I demanded.
“Witch – witch – witch!”
As I walked closer she back-pedaled and tripped over a bike. Tangled in the bicycle she continued shrieking only now it was in pain.
Mrs. Winters, the grade-three teacher came running to see what all the fuss was about.
“Terri pushed her,” David said.
“Betty, is it true? Did Terri push you?”
I couldn’t believe it when Betty answered yes through her tears. I hadn’t touched her. I looked at the faces of my former friends. The fear mirrored in their eyes told me that not one of them would speak up for me.
I heard the unspoken words and took perverse pleasure in what I said next.
“Your legs are broken. If I was a witch you’d be dead.”
When I got home I sat in the backyard and cried.
“Stop making noise and stop feeling sorry for yourself.”
“I’m not,” I retorted.
“You’re not what, making noise or feeling sorry for yourself?”
“I’m not doing either.”
Her sigh was long and drawn out.
“You better tell me what happened.”
The words tumbled out between sobs.
“They were not your friends, stop crying for them.”
“I’m not. I’m crying because they said it’s my fault Kimmie is dead. My only friend is dead and I’m never going to have another friend as long as I live.”
She opened her mouth to reply but obviously thought better of it. After a couple of minutes she tried again.
“You’re probably right. It will take you a long time to learn how to control your gift. Until you do, it is better that you don’t let others get too close.”
“Great!” I stomped back into the yard, stretched out in the grass and watched the clouds drift by. After a few minutes I felt something on my arm. I turned my head and was face to face with a snake.
“Grandmother,” I bellowed. “There’s a snake beside me come kill it.” I was too terrified to move.
“Just ask him nicely to go away.”
“Pulleeeeeeze Grandmother, come kill it.”
“Anya he only wants a little space, just like everyone else. Tell him very nicely that you were there first. Ask him to choose a different spot now and tomorrow he can have your spot.”
“He’ll bite me.”
“No, he won’t.”
I felt like an idiot, a scared idiot. Obviously Grandmother wasn’t going to come help me.
“Mr. Snake or is it Mrs. I’m really sorry but I don’t know how to tell the difference, could you move away a little please? I know I’m much bigger than you, but as a human I’m really rather young and small still.” I giggled a little and resumed my speech. “Actually I am very much afraid of you even though I know you don’t mean to harm me.”
The snake moved closer.
Please, I thought, please go.
It slithered over my arm and onto my chest. My heart was thumping so hard I thought the snake would bounce off. Just before the snake slithered off into the tall grass I could have sworn it smiled at me.
I sprang up and ran to my Grandmother.
“Why didn’t you help me?” I demanded.
“I did, child. I gave you all the help you needed. Some day you’ll thank me for it – you’ll see.”
I turned away to go inside.
“Right, thanks,” I muttered, “and stop calling me child. I know… you can still hear me.” I spun around faster than she could close her mouth. I caught her and she knew I knew it.
Opening her mouth again she roared with laughter. I had never heard her laugh before. Soon I was laughing too and I climbed onto her lap. We hugged hard and laughed until tears rolled down our cheeks. Aware that my mother was watching us, I stopped laughing.
“Terri, I just got off the phone with Mr. Stadnik. What on earth did you do today?”
Grandmother answered before I could say a word.
“She did nothing wrong. The other children were cruelly taunting Terri. The bully who started it didn’t watch where she was going and fell over a bike. Terri never touched her.”
I wondered how Grandmother knew about the bike. All I said was she had fallen backward. I would soon learn that just because you didn’t see something firsthand, there were others who did and who would tell you about it.
“Oh Terri honey, I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay; I’m not going back there.”
“You have to Terri; it’s the only school in the area.”
“I don’t care. I’m not going back!”
“I could home school her until we move,” Grandmother offered.
“We’re not moving,” my mom said, “whatever gave you such an idea?”
“Of course we’re moving,” Grandmother insisted.
The three of us sat there in silence, not one of us daring to speak first.
The uncharacteristic sound of gravel churning told me that my stepfather was in a hurry to get home. I wondered if Mr. Stadnik had called him too.
“Where is everybody? I have some great news.”
We remained silent, glued to our chairs.
“Well, isn’t anyone going to ask me what it is?” Not waiting for a response, which was just as well as none was forthcoming, he continued. “I finally got that promotion. I’m going to be District Sales Manager. We’re moving to California.”
My mom looked at my Grandmother then at me. She started to cry.
“It’s okay honey. We don’t have to leave right away. I’ll have to fly out next week for some meetings. While I’m there I’ll get a realtor to start looking for a place for us. There’ll be plenty of time for packing and saying goodbye to friends and family.” He looked pointedly at my Grandmother, who smiled sweetly.
“I’m sure we’ll all love San Francisco.”
He was so taken aback by her subtle announcement that she would be coming with us that he never realized he hadn’t specifically mentioned the city.
Grandmother winked at me and I laughed. On cue we both started singing California Here I Come.
Mr. Stadnik came to our house the next morning and spoke with my Grandmother and mom for a couple of hours. When leaving he smiled sadly at me.
“Terri, considering what happened and the fact that you’ll be moving out of State soon, it will probably be better for you if your Grandmother tutors you at home until the move. I’ll bring some lessons and books for her to use.”
“It’s okay, thank you. What I need to learn cannot be found in those books.” I looked into his eyes; the profound sadness I saw moved me to tears. “She wants you to be happy. She said it’s time for you to move on.”
“What? What do you mean? Who said that?”
“Helen. Helen said you have her blessing.”
He sat down on the steps, rested his head in his hands and wept. I’d never seen a grown man cry before. I wasn’t sure what to do so I hugged his neck.
“Go with God,” I whispered.
It took him several minutes to pull himself together.
“You too, dear child. I don’t know how you do what you do, but if you ever need my help just phone me. You can call me collect if you have to.” He removed the pen from his lapel pocket and felt around in his pockets. Finally finding an old business card he hastily wrote a number on the back. He thrust it into my hand. As he walked to his car he whistled a happy tune.
Grandmother was an excellent teacher. I learned the easiest way to remember important dates and facts.
“Remember Anya, everything you ever learn is stored in a special place in your brain. Think of it as a filing cabinet, you just have to remember which file it’s in. You retrieve the right file and everything you need to know is waiting for you.”
I wondered how I would ever remember which file things were in, but I didn’t have to worry. Every time I needed to remember something it was like a voice whispered in my brain, telling me where to find it.
It didn’t take long for me to learn just how unfair life could be. I kept my head down while I scurried to and from school. I didn’t volunteer for anything, never answered in class and yet there was always someone waiting to prove something. I never started a thing but I finished it and anyone who ever gave me a moment of grief regretted it for a very long time.
No doubt there was a long line of Grandmothers helping me to mark paid on every account, but the credit or in most cases blame, was always laid at my feet,
“Grandmother, I’m not bothering them. Why won’t they all just leave me along?”
“They can’t, child. They don’t understand you so they want to show that they are better than you are.”
“But it never works,” I sighed, “and please…”
“I know, stop calling you child.”
“If you know, why do you do it?”
“Because I can.”
Her eyes were twinkling and I hugged her. That’s when I felt it.
“Don’t ask,” she cautioned as I opened my mouth to speak.
I knew that whatever it was it was bad, but she would tell me when I needed to know.
“In the meantime, we are back to home schooling until we move next month.”
“It’s already happening?” I knew Grandmother was always happiest when I stayed home with her all day. I was too, regardless of where we moved I never fit in. I truly believed that I never would.
“Yes, we’re moving to the desert so we might just as well start learning about the area now.”
“What happens when his company runs out of branch offices?”
“We have four years to worry about it. Let’s just take it a day at a time.”
“Can you see the future?” I wondered what would happen when and if we stopped moving.
“Not exactly,” her tone implied otherwise.
“Can you teach me the things that you can do?”
“Most of it is know how things are connected, how one thing affects another. And of course the Others see everything.”
“And they help?”
“They do when they have a mind to. Sometimes they think it’s more important to learn a lesson the hard way.”
“How do I know how one thing will affect another?”
“You always have to plan several steps ahead by looking at the bigger picture.”
Grandmother’s eyes closed and I knew the conversation was over. As I got up to leave she spoke again.
“Stay, sit here, listen and learn.”
“I can’t hear anything.”
“Be silent and you will.”
While Grandmother softly snored, the voices of the ages whispered secrets some would kill to learn and others would die to protect.
It wasn’t fair. I wanted to play with dolls and skip rope. I wanted to have and to go to birthday parties.
“Those things won’t protect you; heed your elders.”
I couldn’t believe it and yet somehow I wasn’t surprised. Grandmother had been sleeping and I hadn’t uttered a single word. Not only that but she was already snoring again.
I wondered if I would ever have a private thought again. Grandmother didn’t answer but she didn’t have to; I already knew.
As much as my mother hated Elko and my stepfather thought he was being punished by being transferred there, I loved it. It was hot and sunny; the land was flat and you could see for miles.
You can see trouble long before it finds you! I don’t know why that thought sprang to mind but once there it wouldn’t leave.
I knew trouble would find me, somehow it always did. For once I was just glad I would have an opportunity to see it coming.
(I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from the soon to be released, Cover Story. Date and Time Agreed will resume in February. Happy New Year, Alex)