You took my hand in your own. Your fingers were rough against my nine-year-old skin. I wanted to pull away; you smelt like spoilt milk…but I couldn’t…
Your eyes were shiny and sad. Your lips moved soundlessly as if you’d forgotten how to speak. A bubble of spit gathered at the corner of your mouth. I waited, twitching in my seat and eager to go outside. I saw you swallow; your Adam’s apple bobbed under prickly ripples of skin…and then you spoke…
‘You have to tell your stories while you can,’ you said, ‘before they stop listening.’
We almost caught a bunny yesterday…Rachel and I…We were making daisy chains…splitting holes in the stalks with our fingernails and weaving the daisies together…It was sitting on its back legs…the bunny…front paws pulled into its chest…watching us…perked ears, twitching nose and fluffy candy-floss tail…but we only saw the tail when it ran…and it did run…zigzagging and bouncing through the grass…we were going to make it our pet but it was too fast, and we lost it under the fence by the Poplars…
You were quiet for a while. Were you going to tell me a story? Or should I tell you about the bunny…I was just thinking about the bunny…maybe we should go outside and look for it…
You just sat there gripping my hand; it was beginning to hurt. Your eyes burrowed into mine and I fidgeted some more in my seat. ‘Do you understand?’ you finally asked, but I couldn’t remember what you’d said before. Your eyebrows pitched; two furry white caterpillars…‘You’ll be old one day too, Bunting…’
…Bye, baby bunting
Grandpa’s gone a hunting
To get a little rabbit skin
To wrap his baby bunting in…
‘And when you’re old,’ you said, ‘they all stop listening.’
* * *
You came to live with us some time after Grandma died. You only had one small suitcase. Where was everything else? Mum said this was temporary, but she didn’t say for how long. You could have slept in Jamie’s room; he was away at boarding school. You would have had more space…and a T.V…but Mum put you in the spare room, the smallest in the house. No one ever went in there…it was largely left forgotten.
One little window looked out onto the garden where the apple tree grew. We forgot about the tree too. Sometimes, in summer, I’d remember the tree and it would be bursting with apples…but there would be too many…and the ground turned to mush where they fell and began rotting…sickly-sweet in the heat…but the wasps loved it; they swarmed over it like lunch…and I had to stay away or I’d be stung…I thought maybe I should tell you not to open the window.
There wasn’t much furniture in your room, just a single bed pushed up against the wall, and an old oak dining-chair we sometimes borrowed when we had guests. There was a chest of drawers that used to be my brother’s, and a single built-in closet with a cupboard above too tall to reach. There was barely room for you.
You left your suitcase on the bed, open and still packed. No one was around so I had to take a look. Your clothes were neatly folded in two stacks. The smell of mothballs and old age tickled my nose. A tortoiseshell pocketknife with the blade folded inside, lay on top of one pile. I picked it up and twisted it in my hand, engrossed in its smooth symmetry…until I found the chip, an ugly scar on a pretty face. I put it back down where I’d found it.
You’d left old-man slippers on the floor beside the bed, and I almost tripped as I moved around the space. On the dresser stood a photo of you and Grandma; it was your wedding day…I remember it from that day at the hospital. That man didn’t look like you. He was young. He didn’t have your wrinkles, or your tummy. And he had dark black hair, where now you had almost none. But Grandma told me it was you. And she told me you were happy, but I’d never known you to be happy…so Grandma might have been wrong.
* * *
Mum said Grandma was dying. I overheard her on the phone to Aunty Jean. I was supposed to be in bed but I was thirsty; I knew I’d get a growling if I got caught…so… I’d been so careful creeping down the hallway…and I’d kept my eyes down too. If you can’t see them, then they can’t see you. But I was still aware of them…the monster heads…watching me…following me with their dead glassy eyes. They were only really deer heads…I knew that…in the daytime…Dad’s trophies. But it was nighttime and their antlers looked like ghostly fingers reaching for me in the dark, and even with the hall light on they made scary shadows on the wall. But…if you can’t see them, then they can’t see you…if you can’t see them, then they can’t see you… I knew this way was best. Rachel disagreed. When she stayed over she made us run…as fast as we could, so we wouldn’t be snagged on their antlers as they reached down for us. But Rachel didn’t live here. I think for her it was a game.
Mum said Grandma was dying. She choked the words in a troubled whisper into the handset of the phone. She told Aunty Jean she had to come and say goodbye as if Grandma was going somewhere…and I had to think for a moment where Grandma would be going to…
Dad took me hunting once. Mum thought I was too small but Dad thought it would be good for me…We took the four-wheeler all the way to the boundary line where we met with Dad’s friend Barry…then we walked for forever…weaving our way upward through pine and bush…and it was cold…and it was damp… and I didn’t really want to be there…And then we had to wait…hidden in the brush…and I ate cheese sandwiches while Dad and Barry talked in whispers and fiddled with their rifles. They lay on their bellies…aiming, readjusting, peering through their scopes…until Bambi wandered into sight…and I forgot that we were hunting…and it came into the clearing…lifting its delicate neck and sniffing at the breeze. I saw its body go rigid…it flicked its little tail…its ears half turned…
….a ricochet through the trees. The deer dropped, hind legs kicking as if it were still running…my cheeks were wet and I closed my eyes…and I wanted Mum…
She was going to be dead. Death was the destination. I thought of the monster heads I’d tip-toed past in the hallway, and I imagined Grandma’s head being one of them, leering at me in the dark…and my hands got really sweaty and I began to shake, and I held onto the doorjamb with both hands…but Mum still didn’t notice me.
'What are we going to do about Dad?’ Mum asked. For a moment I thought she was talking to me but her back was to the door. She hmmm-ed and haaa-ed into the phone. Her shoulders slumped as a sigh heaved though her body, then she shook with belly-aching mouse-like sniffles, and I knew that she was crying…but I didn’t know what that had to do with my Dad…
* * *
You were there at the hospital. You were slumped in a chair by the window looking at your hands, twisting them palm up, palm down, as if you’d never seen them before. As if they didn’t belong to you.
Grandma was sitting upright in the hospital bed. She didn’t look like she was dying. She had a tube that went up her nose, and another one in her hand, taped so it wouldn’t move. I tried not to look at that one for long; I don’t like needles…
Screens around her beeped and lights flashed but she didn’t seem to mind. She was chatting to Aunty Jean when we arrived.
‘Bridget! Jamie!’ Grandma cried on seeing us. I flung myself into her arms and pressed my face into her flannel nightgown, you know the one…with little yellow daisies…
Jamie barely moved. He shuffled his feet a little towards the bed then stood there, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. We’d picked him up from boarding school. He was still wearing his uniform. He didn’t want to come to the hospital. He said they smelt bad; they had a hospital smell…bleach and belches and bodies-in-closed-spaces stuffiness. He was right. It made my nose crinkle.
You still hadn’t looked up.
Mum shook and started sniffling at the end of the bed. I nestled into the crook of Grandma’s arm being careful not to touch the tubes. I really didn’t like the tubes… Mum’s nose went red and blotchy and she started dabbing at her eyes. Aunty Jean gave her a hug. ‘Why don’t you kids stay here with Grandma a moment, and we’ll take Grandpa for a coffee?’ I think Jamie tried to argue with Mum.
There were some tense murmurs. I traced the daisies with my fingers…like a daisy chain. Grandma kissed the top of my head. You still didn’t look up. Mum won. Jamie had to stay.
Mum straightened her shoulders, walked over to the window… ‘Come on Dad, let’s go for a walk,’ and she reached down and took one of your hands in hers, and you looked up then…and I saw your eyes…they were pink…and your face was broken somehow…and you stood up…slowly…carefully…wobbling…and you tugged at your belt with your free hand, pulling your pants higher up your belly…
Do you remember that belt, Grandpa? Of course you do! I remember it too… You always wore it…but you didn’t always wear it right. It was brown leather. Faded. Worn. You use to wear it under your belly…tightly cinched. Your tummy would spill over so that I never saw the buckle until you started to wear it higher…higher…higher…almost on top of your belly. I don’t know why you started doing this. It didn’t look comfy…but I could see the holes then…and the brass buckle…and the hole where the tongue slipped through. Sometimes you had to make new holes…you could have just brought a new belt…but you’d take out your polished pocket knife, flicking the blade out from the handle, working the leather with the tip of the knife until a hole was made…and you’d thread the belt back through your pant hoops…But, you didn’t always wear it right. In the end you wore it wrong.
* * *
Grandma said she wanted to tell us a story. You have to tell your stories while you can, so Grandma wanted to tell hers. She made Jamie fetch a book from the bottom of the closet. It was a great big book with a dark green cover. He plonked it down on my lap, and I had to wriggle around so my legs wouldn’t fall asleep. I thought it must’ve been a really special story to be written in such a big book.
It wasn’t a real story, not like the books Mum reads to me at night. There were photos, lots of photos, full of faces peering back. And the photos were old and black and white, or faded brown with yellowed edges. The tape that had held their corners had curled or come off, leaving dusty marks and making my fingers feel dirty. I had to keep wiping them on my skirt, but Grandma never told me off. And I didn’t know any of the people, even when Grandma pointed them out; this was Uncle Robin, Aunty Jean, this was Mum as a little girl. She showed me a picture of herself as a child, and I looked real close. But I couldn’t find her face behind the one in the picture. There were too many lines and too much time, and the child with the porcelain skin was some other child.
There were pictures of you too. At least, she said they were of you. There was the one of your wedding, if it really was your wedding. And one where you were holding a baby, and you were smiling, and you were happy, and so I just can’t be sure that you were you.
There was the bunny one. The bunny one…
You were smiling in this one too but I could almost make you out. I recognized you in the brown leather belt that circled your waist. You wore it low back then, when you didn’t have a belly. And you had your knife in your hand, the pretty one you’d brought with you and put inside your suitcase.
And I knew you for the bunnies. The long rows of bunny skins you’d hung along the fence. You were smiling. You were proud. Your shotgun lay forgotten beside you. Your pocketknife had done the real work
…Bye, baby bunting
Grandpa’s gone a hunting
To get a little rabbit skin
To wrap his baby bunting in…
These were your trophies.
* * *
You came to live with us after Grandma died, you and your belt and your pocketknife. It was a temporary thing, Mum had said, before you went to live in an old-folks home.
I almost told you about the bunny that day…the one Rachel and I had seen… twitchy nose and candy-floss tail…we couldn’t have got to it in time, it was too fast…we lost it under the fence by the Poplars…I had wanted to…tell you about the bunny…but you looked funny, like your face was about to splinter into a thousand pieces, and then you said you had a story for me, or at least, that’s what I thought you said…And I liked your stories, Grandpa…so I was good…and I waited, even though now I was feeling funny, and I wanted to go outside…see if I could find the bunny again…But then you said that when you’re old, they all stop listening…and I guess I had stopped listening too…because I never heard it happen.
* * *
If you can’t see them, then they can’t see you. If you can’t see them, then they can’t see you. It is your fault, Grandpa, that I can see them, and they do see me, and I can’t run fast enough, like Rachel says I should, because I am always seeing them, those dead, glassy eyes, only they don’t belong to the deer any more, they’re not Dad’s trophies…those eyes belong to you.
It is your fault, Grandpa…
You wore your belt too high…it slipped around your neck…
I had wanted to tell you about the bunny…my story…I wanted to tell you my story…that’s why I opened the door. Your knife lay open on the floor. A wasp buzzed against the window…I should have told you about the apple tree, never open the window…but in the end it didn’t matter…a belt was all you needed…hung up like a rabbit skin against the closet door…
You never finished your story, Grandpa…you quit before the end.