Gone Fishing

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    I have been visiting Grandma every Saturday since Grandpa died. Today is the third Saturday. As I walk along the creek, I hear the splash of frogs jumping into the water trying to escape the danger of approaching steps. I make a left at the weeping willow and up the hill to where the cottage sits. Wood shingles on the roof are covered in moss. Some areas near the edge have enough green to support little sprouts of plants stretching their necks towards the sun. Old red shutters, with hearts cut out in the middle, offset the dark brown stain on the house. A white fence that Grandpa nailed together when I was six surrounds the gardens of flowers, bushes, and birdbaths. Skinny rose bushes cling on to the weathered wood hiding the paint that has long faded with their pale yellow pedals.

           The gate creaks and wobbles, as it swings open. The morning doves scatter from the ground as I approach, and as they fly into the tree, their soft cooing fills the air. Before I reach the door, Grandma opens it. She is three inches smaller than my five foot four inch frame. Her crystal-blue eyes are enhanced by hair that has long lost its color. The housedress she is wearing is faded. So faded I can almost see through it.  Each Christmas she delights in the new dresses we buy her, but its always the faded ones she wears.

           The house is still and empty inside, but the smell of fresh baked muffins makes it feel warm. The furniture is covered with slipcovers, which are then covered with crocheted blankets and lace dollies. Green curtains fill each window hiding shades that turn a different shade yellow each year. I hear the whistle of the teapot from the kitchen and follow Grandma inside.

           Small white tiles line the bottom half of the wall to the kitchen. Above them is wallpaper. Roosters and hens wandering in front of a big red barn and every foot or so, there is a hen with six babies surrounding her. Grandpa used to tell me to count the chicks when he was trying to keep me busy.  Grandma has picked up the red in the rooster’s comb in her curtains, tablecloth, and throw rugs. The small white cage sitting in the corner is quiet. I walk over to it and see a single parakeet sleeping in the corner. The cage is decorated with sprays of food, two water bottles, a swing decorated with colored beads, and a little mirror with bells.

           “Where’s the other two?” I ask.

           “There is a very special story to those parakeets,” Grandma pours boiling water into a cup with hot coco mix.

           “They were here last week,” I continue to inspect the cage as if they will magically reappear.

           Grandma nodded, “Your father bought me two parakeets for our 60th wedding anniversary. He said it was getting too quiet in the house.”

           “My father?”

           “Ah, your grandfather.”

           She often made that mistake. It wasn’t she ever thought my grandfather was my father, it was more that she often forgot I wasn’t her child.

           “You never saw two birds more in love. They sat together. Played together.  We had them about a year when one day, on the bottom of the cage, I saw an egg. Grandpa said to take it out but I didn’t. The green bird sat and sat on the egg, while the blue one fluttered all around, bringing her food and keeping her company.”

           Grandma wiped her eye with a tissue from her dress pocket that was nearly as see-thru as her dress and sat the hot coco in front of me. As she cut the blueberry muffin in half, the doorbell rang. Grandma wiped her hands on her apron and shuffled to the door.

I watch a pair of blue jays fighting over the last peanut in the feeder outside the window. Then my eyes catch a photo of grandma and grandpa in front of a stream. They’re both wearing high boots. Grandpa has on his old blue flannel shirt with a big smile on his face. In his left hand he is holding a fish half the size of his arm. Behind them is their old aluminum-folding table with a plaid thermos and matching plastic box. Grandpa used to brag they got it with green stamps. I was never really sure what green stamps were, but they always brought it along on fishing trips. My favorite part was finding the cookies that grandma would hide at the bottom of the box.

           I heard Grandma bid someone goodbye and when she came back she set a box on the table. It was addressed to Grandpa.

           “What’s in the package?”

           Grandma half smiled but looked sad as she did, “Flies.”

           “Flies?”

           “Grandpa orders them from a man in Michigan. He said he never saw anyone make more realistic flies than this man. He would order them right after the New Year as it took six months to get them. Right in time for fishing season.”

           I washed down the last of the muffin with the hot chocolate, which always tasted better here than at home.

           “So what happened to the parakeets?”

           “Oh yes. Well one morning I came in the kitchen, and there on the floor of the cage, was the baby. It was as naked as could be with eyes four times the size of its body. You never saw two birds take such good care of a little one. In a week’s time, tiny spear-like points started growing out of its body. In another week it was twice the size and full of feathers. Those parents sang every morning and the three of them were as happy as could be.”

           “Then what?”

           “Well that was some time ago, about five years. Then last week the mother became ill. She began sitting on the floor and not eating. That father, well he was something else. He sat with her day and night. He wrapped his wing around her keeping her warm, not moving from her side.”

           Grandma opened her bedroom door and took a sweater from the hook.

I couldn’t help noticing the hospital bed was still inside. Long steel bars ran down either side. The maple furniture and green calico curtains made the white sheets look stark and out of place. Grandma put one arm in the sweater and then struggled with her other. I hopped up and eased her arm into the sleeve, noticing the familiar smell of her sweater as I did. Not anything you can find anywhere else. It’s not a perfume, and it’s not unpleasant. It’s a mixture of old, lilac, dust, cooking, rubbing ointment, and life all in one smell.

           “The mother died?”

           Grandma nodded, “Yesterday I came in. The mother was dead on the floor.”

           “What happened to the father?” I stretched my neck around to see if I missed him in the cage.

           My Grandma’s face grew tight, like the next words were going to hurt as they came out, “Well you won’t believe it dear. The father hung himself in one of the toys. There he was, dead as the other one on the floor. The poor baby was just sitting in the corner.”

           “Hung himself? That can’t be Grandma,” I slid my chair back and went over to the cage. “With what?”

           “It was the toy with long pieces of string. I buried it with the two of them outside in the yard.”

           “It must have been an accident,” I mumbled.

           “That toy has been in the cage for over a year. You think he happened have an accident the same day his loved one died?”

           I looked up at Grandma’s wet eyes. She shook her head and handed me the package. Inside were a dozen tiny flies. There were green ones, purples ones, orange ones and brown ones. Some had eyes, others had long tails, but none of them were alike. Grandma opened the door to the back porch and picked out a fishing pole.

           “This was your father’s, I mean your Grandpa’s. Take the flies, he would have liked you to have them.”

           When I reached the creek, I sat on the side and tied the small orange fly with big eyes on to the hook. Grandpa had taken me fishing since I was big enough to sit in a chair. He told me one day I would be as good as he was. The air was warm and for the next hour I cast the line into the water while I thought about the parakeets. On what I promised would be my last cast, I felt a hard tug. I pulled back and reeled my line in. There, on the end, was a foot-long rainbow trout.

I grabbed the package of flies and ran as fast as my feet would carry me. When I arrived at the house, Grandma didn’t hear the bell.  I turned the knob, which opened without resistance.

           “Grandma! Look what I caught!” I yelled into the house.

           No answer came back, so I laid the fish on the porch and went inside. The smell of the muffins had disappeared, and the chill of the evening air had begun to settle in. The kitchen was quiet except for the baby playing with the bells on the mirror in his cage. I peeked into the bedroom. Grandma was under the white sheets. I called out softly, and as I reached out to touch her, she didn’t move. I slid the sheets away. Next to her still body was the photo of her and Grandpa fishing. I looked at her face, quiet and content and heard the parakeet whistle from the kitchen.