The day I saw my death
By Scott Warrender
I study the sap flow until it trickles. Grandpapa lifts the pail of slosh from the spile, and we walk through ice that was, only weeks ago, the soft snow of a Vermont December. The sun’s just up, and sharp air carries smoke from a heap burn someone built in the abandoned paddock of a nearby farm.
Grandpapa sings, “There once was a whore from Kentucky,” and a fog of breath smears my view of him.
A barred owl pulses out its rhythm and startles me. I glance over then blink away to a dancing point of green light, to a fluid that drips inside a plastic tube attached to my arm.
Now I am not myself. The back of my hand is only pale skin: stains and ridges. I am heavy and slow. I am old. How did this happen in a blink? A man sits in a chair at the end of my bed and watches me—his face an atlas of worry. There are others, too. The world smells like overripe apples. “Father?” is what I breathe out but my throat is too dry for sound. Everything I am is used up. Even my thoughts are too slow to think. I want to sleep.
But my Grandpapa’s hand presses into my chest as he leans over me, and there is comfort his smell: chocolate, tobacco, burning leaves.
“I was old,” I tell him, and I lift my arm with happy ease, study my sleeve and both sides of my hand and wiggling wool fingers.
A raspy sigh, then he flicks melting snow from my face. “That means you’re old enough to know,” he says.
I swipe snow and ice from my sleeves, but when I struggle to stand, my legs buckle. He catches me, places one arm around my waist and gives it a squeeze. I shudder, in part because of the cold, but also because he has never before held me.
A heaving lift and his arms become the ribs of a boat that carries me out of the grove and into the meadow.
“You were old?” The pitch of his voice vibrates with every step he takes.
“I was in a hospital!” I say, and then recount everything with wonder like it was my first time at a fair.
He carries me past the river and the fire that is now just muddy ash then towards the split-rail fence his father built when he was a boy.
A groan and then he tosses me up a few inches to shift my weight in his arms.
“How old?” he asks, concerned. “As old as me?”
This seems important to him, but I don’t understand why. The squall is now only a few confused flakes, and he stops for a moment, allows me to stand. His firm hands grip my shoulders, he stares at me, and I look over at the huddle of sweat beads that cling to the space under his nose.
He clear and his throat, and I look away. Maybe because what he is about to say is something too large for a ten-year-old boy to know. From where we stand in the meadow, I twist uncomfortably, strain to see our house, the river, the farm where my friend, Lewis Doyle once lived, the forest we’ve always called The Grove. These are the connections I must make. These are the places I must know are real.
“My grandfather,” he begins. “My father, me, your father, now you. We've each seen our last breath.”
His words make my head ache. But he grins and squeezes my shoulder again before letting go.
“So I was dying,” I ask.
He slides off his cap and pulls his forearm across his face. Somewhere, a dog barks and its yaps are clear and hollow like all sounds after it snows.
He points over to the far pasture. “I found him, tumbling back, too exhausted to stand. I carried him home and put him to bed, like my father did to me. But the older he got, the more he believed he was unbeatable. He lived too hard and tempted God in too many ways. What I’m saying is that he didn’t die his death, Boy. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way. He told me—when I found him—that he saw himself as an old man. Just like me. So somethin’ got switched. Something got switched.”
“Maybe he wasn’t telling you the truth,” I say before considering the full weight of my words. “Maybe he saw himself in that car and maybe he saw my mother in it, too. Maybe he knew all along that they wouldn’t ever be old.”
Someone had packed my clothes in a box labeled with the words “Nichol Kola – 5 cents,” on the side, and I was brought here to Montpelier, to live with my father's father. I brought the memories of dusty air from that graveyard where I said goodbye to my parent’s bodies, a half-painted church steeple, and the lie that was my Mother’s last promise to me—everyone will eventually leave you, won’t they? I knew how to sing, “Why should my heart be lonely and long for heaven and home,” but I didn't know what it meant because my heart was still, is still so lonely for her.
“Maybe,” he says. “When his car skidded across the road, was he sorry, for you, for his wife? Did he have enough time to look over and tell her so? I’ve wondered that. I’ve wondered it every day.”
Now he stares at something: not me, but maybe something he fears I will one day become.
Then he says it again and I know it will be the last time, ever.
“He told me he was old and I believed him.”
His pain is difficult to watch and something I thought I’d earned the right never to have to see again. I’m tired of being sad. It’s time it was done. Not all lies are meant to be cruel and that’s just something I know, right then. I don’t know how.
Now the sense of doom has grown too large, and we give ourselves a few moments to shake it off. It is still early in the day and I feel more like myself. The smoke from our chimney is strong. The house will be warm. We begin to walk again and I put a handful of fresh snow into my mouth. Now our voices are lighter, even lilting.
“It didn’t like being wrinkled and tired,” I say.
He watches me chew then eats a handful of snow, himself. “Did you look like me?”
“Yes,” I say. “I looked like a plucked goose.”
He shoves me and I fall backwards and bonk my head on a fence rail. The loud, woody clunk gets him chuckling and I realize that I have never heard him laugh before.
“That’s what you are!” He accuses me then pauses for another breath.
He lunges and tries to lift me, but I allow my body to go limp and we fall onto the ground, his heavy body on top of mine. He rolls off onto his back and into a stalk of frozen barn grass, and a small clump of snow dislodges and falls into his eye.
I spring up. “Aha! That’s what you get!” Now I am the town crier. I am renewed.
“Grandpapa is a goose,” I shout over and over—to him, to the meadow, to the empty stable by the river, to a patch of blue sky above us, to a long and promised future.
“Grandpapa is a goose!”
He leans back on the fence post, pulls his knees into his chest, and seems to delight in me as I leap and fall, leap and fall.