by A. Osgood, UK
The night before my Bat Mitzvah, slap bang in the middle of the brief Quiet Season, Grandfather Feder appropriates the steambus while the boorish village elders – not one of them younger than fifty – sleep off hunger. They dream – I have no doubt – of legendary gammon, corn, potato, chicken broth; they cling to anachronistic mouthfuls. As they slide from duck-feather pillows and surrender to cold craving sweats, Grandfather meets me by the ruins in the woods beside the only bridge to Island. Waiting beneath an arch of leafless trees, I admire the cold moon shadowed branches, pitiful vagrant stars, the numbness of my hands, and pockets of unlit darkness.
It is the cracking of dead wood and the chewing of the track that heralds his arrival. Long before the omnibus comes into view its sound rattles the coppice. The steambus appears, pushes through low undergrowth, and there in the cab of the iron giant he sits, face lit by a dozen coloured candles, his broad tobacco-dirt hands duelling the steering wheel. The vehicle spews embers high into the night. Smoke-orange cinders light branches with their broiling. The bus toots as its lamps light gloom.
Truth be told? It’s a relief he’s here. His coming is heroic, wrestling the absent noises of night into submission with the promise of warmth. Not that I’m frightened; I wouldn’t dare be scared. I wave at him, and my is heart loud. He pushes open his window, shouts down, “Dare not stop!” so I run alongside before jumping through the back door as the bus slouches toward the bridge.
I race to the open upstairs deck, catch a glimpse of golden moon above dead trees. Having taken my fill of woodsmoke air, I skip down the steps two at a time – ecstatic at being safe, inside – and touching the benches as I pass, imagining them full of living people, I rush to the cab, there to wrap my arms about his fragile chest. The place is deafening, and so warm my flesh stings. We list and roll, shudder a trail of fire through lowland holts.
“You made it!” I yell-tell, reassuring myself of his certain mellow presence.
Grandfather’s constant cough interrupts every word.
“As if,” he rasps, “I’d not,” he chides and barks. I feel him laugh beneath tingling, warming fingers. His long hair smells of smoulder and wax.
It’s important to notice such small wonders. One day marvels cease, that’s what he says. And all that will remain is the shape of their spaces left behind in your head. He taught me that an old person largely comprises what they have lost. This is why they grump, why their eyes are cataracts of ice-bound sorrow, and they slump so when walking. It is due to the weight of what is no longer in front of them – this will rust their insides.
“Will we arrive at Ferris in time for sunrise?” I ask, dancing from foot to foot.
“If you let,” he hacks, “me breathe.” He expectorates his vowels.
“Can I drive?” It’s good to have someone other than myself to ask questions. He’d taken so long to steal the bus, I’d nearly given up, surrendered to the village’s dull future, the subjugation such tomorrow would bring.
“After the crossing.”
“One day I’ll drive around the world–”
“Buckle up!” he shouts. I shriek.
I go back and tie myself to a bench. The steambuslurches. I grip my knees. We are top-heavy, sure to topple as we climb the incline to the bridge. I watch Grandfather slow the bus with care, edge forward. Then we’re on the creaking timber. He pulls levers, speaks to himself, and on we lurch. The weight of the steambus makes the lumber groan. As we cross my mouth dries. The bridge moves and trembles. It feels like our whole world.
Behind us I mark the few fires of Sont Niklus village, square and squat in the violated world. Beneath the bridge our lamps reflect in dark water. Luminescent fish, long as my arm, cut the surface as we approach Plum Pudding Wade, where the water is shallow and narrow enough to permit the bridge. Perhaps sea creatures, not timber, guide us across the Wansum Moat.
I’m excited though yawning. I watch from stained-glass windows as we crawl over water. Only when we are safe on Island does my breathing calm. Grandfather, too, is relieved: his shoulders relax. This place, this little sanctuary, the villagers think of as a graveyard; only a handful know its secret. Here the low-growing plants are not poisoned. Whenever I come to the Island I can breathe. It is the closest I know of an unspoilt sacred place. It’s a model for the future, Grandfather says.
“Once, on Island, like throughout the Kingdom of Kant, thousands of people lived in stone boxes–” he shouts back at me.
“Not huts nor holes?” I ask, slowing his story, sealing his steam, building his pressure.
“No huts, no holes! Tall stone boxes–”
“Why, I don’t believe a word!” With such disbelief I force his story to compress; it will explode from his lungs in a foundation of exclamations. This is my last gift to him.
“Like the past cares what you think!” he bellows – it uses up his strength – and inevitably he coughs; phlegm, black as night, flies from the window in spit. “Listen, shrimp! The olden people did not walk! They each had a small steambus of their own–”
“Your Grandmother built this entire bus! Top to bottom, side to side. From dream to real! Are you claiming all olden people were suchlike Grandmothers?”
“They traded waking hours for their steambuses. In cupboards they kept them!” he hacks, mucus rattling. “I wish I could say,” he wheezes, “we remembered how to build half of what they–”
“We’re not walking,” I point out, “just for old times’ sake.”
“Tonight’s special,” he bellows. Then he grins. “Shut up.”
That’s it. That’s our game. “You shut up!” I scold, half serious, though I’ve seldom felt so eager for a birthday, for time with him.
“You hope! The olden people travelled from place to place not from need but wish.”
“How wasteful!” I say.
“How stupid! Oof! ‘Let us visit the sea,’ they’d say, ‘to eat eels and donks upon warm sand.’ The old days folk were seldom hungry, and so much food grew everywhere, like buggers, and flies and gherkins, all in a round bread, so much they ate they grey round as oaks, could not walk, so replete–”
“Now then! Donks?”
“Huge beasts with human teeth, four legs, grey bellies. They brayed and did not speak. As tall as a lanky child’s shoulder. People rode them across the sand. After, they ate the donks, even though they tasted of houseflies and salt.”
“Not appealing,” I admit, though they sound delicious compared to eel.
“My safta, your great-great Grandmother, god-rest-her-wayward-soul, said they were sweet as ice-cream. Though the tails were mainly gristle,” he spits.
“Don’t diss the hiss, shrimp!” he warns.
“And when you found my mother, god-rest-her-beautiful-soul, when you discovered her beneath a gooseberry bush, did she eat donk with you and Grandmother? Did you chew donk flesh for her to swallow?”
“The donks were gone when I met your safta. We preferred adder stewed with wild apples, and not once felt permitted to complain,” and he looks over his shoulder sadly, as if I am the one thing saved from a burning village. How I’d relish seeing the village crisp and black, and all the nay-sayer oldies baked. I’d do it for his sake. They could not stop me if I tried.
“I wish I could say you look like your mother,” he says, and sighs, watching the track ahead. “Your mother resembled your safta, when she was young.” He seems to grow thinner. “I miss my wife. She was beautiful, mmm-ah, with a honeysuckle smile. Her pearl skin, oh-mmm, and her–”
“Don’t mention breasts else I’ll jump,” I warn him, but he doesn’t hear me over the steam engine, over inundating memory. This memory of love is what drags him low.
“Sweet orange-blossom bosom,” he sings, and when he looks back at me, he is hardly behind his eyes. He is wandering a land forty-years gone, and burying his wife at Ferris, on Island. trying to make himself both a father and a mother to their little tribe, of which my mother was the onlysurvivor. “I wish I could say how beautiful she was. Your mother, too. Comely. You,” he says, sucking his one good tooth, coughing, “not so much. I’m not sure where your features belong.”
“Perhaps only to me?’
“There you go with the heretical wisdom! That is a good thing. To not remind me of anyone. Perhaps your face is a disguise?” He clears his lungs of mucus.
“I’m new for this fresh world,” I say, waving my hands confidently, dismissing his question. “The famine is done. Sickness, too, is a thing of the past.”
“I wish I could say the past is done,” he says, and he groans from trying to keep the steambus on course. “But it rises like a flood. Regular as the crushing storms of summer.”
He should, he says each winter, work to stop the bus pulling to the left, and then the right, and sometimes both at once. As if reading my thoughts, he tells me, “If I were to let go the wheel, shrimp, we’d be safe. The machine would scarper a lazy circle. We’d end where we began!” (He doesn’t try it when I ask.) “What I wish I could say is I miss your mother as much as your safta–”
“And my father?”
“Less him than her. A dog of a fool–”
“Stop interrupting!” He barks. He gathers what remains of himself. “I wish I could say I miss them both more than I miss your safta. She only had to wake for me to become consumed by fierce craving,” he confides through cough and tender shout. “I am a bitter leftover. The pit on the plate once the olive has gone.”
“Watch where you’re driving,” I tell Grandfather. “You tell me not to crush saplings. They are tomorrow’s precious fuel. Then you go and squash–”
“Maybe we should let them grow for their own pleasure,” he says, seems mournful, as the steambusrocks side to side, and sometimes up and down. When the track is finally level, and my teeth don’t bite my cheek, the bus sways us gentle as a mother, but soon it shakes in rage, steam fading.
“How would we travel our world without wood?”
“Maybe we shouldn’t be here,” and his voice drips with desolate guilt. “She sailed on, leaving me on shore. That’s what I deserve, too. Trees merit life more than people–”
“I deserve to be here!” I remind him, for one has to speak to old people as if they are children.
He stretches his back before speaking. “We’ll stop to feed fuel to the machine.”
He turns in his seat to face me, and his long face is a ruin semaphoring archaeology. “I wish I could say I miss your parents enough to claim bereft for my own tongue, but I cannot. I have been happy seeing you grow. And working the farm. Nurturing lentils is a skill. Encouraging tobacco plants an honour! Even if they grow only so high. Poor earth, poor soil. I’ve welcomed taking us for spins despite the elders bickering like sandpipers. I am happy to see a new world settle about you. I wish I could say I am sorry your parents are not here to see you twelve. I cannot; I’m a selfish Grandfather–”
“I wish I could say I was. I am too pleased to be the only one to remember the old ways, and the old words, all their meanings. I am happy to be your only witness.”
“Soon I’ll drive the steambus all the way to Loudown. Leave Kant behind, reach can-do! I’ll meet strangers. We’ll change the face of the earth! We’ll mend the world. You can come, too, Grandfather.”
“I wish I could say I will,” he says, gobbing phlegmy words. His cough is as ever present as his lost wife; both are constant interruptions to his waterfall words. This last month, as we huddled from a storm and planned my Bat Mitzvah, he has become consumed by hack and memory. This birthday as much for him as me.
We fall silent as we parade slowly through a dark world. It is lit by moon and our own flames scorching the blue night. I untie myself from the bench, rush from side to side. Upstairs I run the length of the top deck that glows from lanterns made of wire and green bottles. So many moths to see, a hundred glimpses of a moonlit landscape softened by cloud. Downstairs, leaning out the back door, I swing my legs, watch the weaving of our ember-thread rising overhead. We are a carnival. (I saw a picture when I was small in what was once a book.) We are clockwork hope, pre-steam and tocking, moving across the tired land, our faces lit by candles.
“I also wish I could say,” he croaks, “I wasn’t hungry.”
We stop once we escape Mimi’s Forest, to eat a meagre meal – the last of the dried eel, stale cornbread, dandelion greens drizzled in walnut oil. He laughs as I shudder at swallowing such food.
“Shrimp! Don’t squeal at eel!”
Then he ceases his gentle mockery, suddenly serious, as if struck. He seems to stand aside from me and himself. We eat in silence, both suffering, unable to give shape to fear. Must final meals always turn to ashes?
After, we cut dead wood for the engine. Grandfather tells me the secrets of the steambus, though honestly, I know them from long practice. He speaks, we chop. I try not to belittle him. Of the history of the steambus he speaks, and how the elders of Sont Niklus embezzled it from our family, how taking it back is rightful. My inheritance, he gags, he coughs, he chokes. He gasps in time with each axe stroke. When my blade bites into the fossil wood, it feels as if I’m freeing myself of his history. Frost shines a scribbled language on the timber. He tells me that at Ferris we’ll eat honeyspuds, fresh pulled and baked.
“We’ll lick chewy orange sweetness from the pan!” he promises.
Grandfather lets me drive. He indulges me as I do him. He says he is too tired from coughing, but I know he wants to see me smile. He adjusts the steambusnumber by turning a crank, until we’re showing as Five. Should any traveller hail us, they’ll know our goal is Margit, he says (“All the fun of the – a thing I have no word for’). Should a traveller spy us between slender dead pines, she would hear a piston-creature bellow, smell our lumber fire kindle her wonder. She’d see our lamps extinguish cold, ignite fear.
We stoke the fire and wait. I release the brake gently and open the valves; pistons dance as steam pulses through vein-like pipes, driving metal tracks onward. The whole bus reels when I steer.
The steambus is made of wire and iron. Its eyes are lamps fashioned from blue seaglass. Rare red railway beacons at the rear warn strangers to steer clear. Its upper deck is shrouded by green light. We are metal and modern, followed by a cloud of moths. Grandfather and I ride within a creature of fire and water.
We’re two of one kind, Grandfather and I, and we’re off to Ferris for my birthday. We’ll sing and dance the D’var Torah, and I’ll be grown, become both woman and driver. Grandfather says there’s no holier place on Island than Ferris, but I think any such glen would serve. The elders think Ferris is for the dead, but it glows, how it grows, how it blooms. But there’s no telling old people anything. The knack is to ask, stand back, then think your own thoughts in the quiet of their prattle.
“Tell me the weight of your days,” I ask him. If he’s talking, he won’t complain of my driving.
“The forgetfulness of time has overlooked me,” he wheezes. “Of the solitude of today, or the sadness arising from a thousand crowded yesterdays, or a dozen uncertain tomorrows – who can say?”
I wish he’d speak, not ask.
He looks at me. “The bus steers you,” he observes.
“Old people are rude,” I inform him, and his eyes brim with joy.
“Rude as argute granddaughters.” I hear his fingers rap his scrawny chest. “There are more of you than us.” Then quietly, he tells me, “I am, in all my frailty, your future,” though I don’t know what he means. He stares from the cab window, as if wishing he were steering someplace else, fearful of our destination.
“Tell me of my safta,” I say, given I am kind while he is frightened.
“Well then! If only you’d known her!” he says, clapping his hands. “I miss her long songs and endless kisses, her summer smile dripping with sadness. I am a spark kicked loose from her fire.” Then he stops, fights for breath; air migrates from his lungs. He struggles to breathe when he speaks of her, so I offer a different question.
“Then tell of the fall of the old world,” I ask, struggling with the wheel. We slog through an avenue of trees. Branches scrape the steambus.
“During the fifth sickness, when tribes fought, this avenue of trees we follow – they were all alive in those days; can you imagine such green?”
“You say! That was when you met mysafta? When trees lived?”
“The steambuswas a neutral place for the tribes. We wore uniforms, sky blue with gold buttons, and we had white breathing apparatus, and we cleansed the whole bus between journeys,” Grandfather says, unable to distinguish the fall of the world from his toppling into love.
“This is when you were old enough to know better?” I ask, keeping the story alive for him.
“She stole my senses! Your safta! What a driver! What a mechanic. I was only her fifth conductor–”
“What a woman! The earlier conductors barely escaping with their lives,” I say, because this is a well-known tale.
“And when she saw me, she said, she knew I’d be her last conductor!” he says, puffed up with that daft smile of his. It warms me when he glows.
“Don’t mention laybys!” I frown.
“They should erect memorials in each layby!”
“Don’t say erect!” I plead, smiling.
“The ground shook!”
“Grandfather, I’m trying to steer!” and I raise both eyebrows in mock shock as I laugh.
“Follow the track,” Grandfather whispers in my ear. He knows I’d prefer to crash through bushes. He is standing behind my seat, reaching over my shoulders to help turn the heavy wheel. He allows me to waste steam by letting the whistle scream for anguished seconds.
“Some routes, why, we barely returned before first light–”
“Good grief! You agreed to not mention laybys,” I say.
“Oh, I doubt that!’ he leers then his face grows still, eyes distant. “This very avenue of trunks. Right here. I remember when it was young. Each tree was alive with leaf but full of death. If a stranger was found by a different tribe, this is where they were brought for execution. The branches hung thick with people, like a washing line of socks they swung in the wind. As your safta drove the steambus, the dead would tap dance on the windows. I imagined them begging entry or a ticket, for us to take them away. Their shoes, quick-stepping on the open deck. It was like walking beneath the pirouetting fruit of apple trees.”
He falls silent. After ragged moments, he says, “What I wish I could say is that the good survive.” I hear him tap his chest. “They don’t.”
We break through trees, smash the ruins of a village as we drive to Wesgit beach – there’s too much debris to take any other route – and as we descend the slope, I say we might tip. We ease our way to the shore – the dark sea is calm and soft-sings us shanties. We hug the cliff.
“People once swam here,” he tells me. This is how he always asks me to beg him to tell stories of his past. I know my cue.
“In the poisoned water?” I pretend astonishment else his joy is circumvented. No matter how old human civilisation is, there’s no accounting for Grandfathers.
“You can’t swim sand,” he says, mysteriously. “It’s not only oily black water on which we float–” then his tongue is glued to the roof of his red mouth.
He disappears upstairs to smell the tide and curse the birds for their knowledge of flying. They are like memories, he says, heard but untouchable; this is their cruelty – their causing him weariness. I hear his cough worsening. I grip the wheel.
“How long until–” I ask, when he returns. I yawn.
His answer is like a cup of water when you are thirsty from bending to dusty pointless fields. “We’ve time. Keep as you are. Avoid rockpools.” Grandfather flicks my ear for good measure. Had he kissed me, I’d be close to slumber.
“If we’ve time, after, let’s drive to Brodsteps. You can tell me of icicle scream.”
“Ice cream,” Grandfather corrects me. “Keep a little more to the right.”
“I know!” I protest, turning right. It is hard to see ahead. The lamps are fading as the cobalt morning hints of sunrise. Our lights glisten on white cliff.
“The daft woman had a trolley. Each day she’d stand, serving ice cream–”
“Only there was none!”
“In her mind there was plenty! We’d queue for non-existent ice cream. The daft woman, god-rest-her-delusional-soul, would smile and ask which flavour we yearned for: red, pink, yellow or green?”
“You’d always ask for green.”
“The green of the old world. Pistachio. She’d lift the lid of her trolley and dole out invisible spoons of imperceptible ice cream–”
“That still tasted better than anything!”
He is laughter, filling the bus.
“Sweeter than honeyspuds!”
“Until one afternoon she walked into the sea–” I prompt.
“Singing Besides the Seaside. Weeping for a lost world–”
“Not a soul was able to make a spoonful of air taste so fine,” he concludes.
We sit silently, imagining such a spectacle.
“Not long now,” I announce, after minutes of silence.
“Keep closer to the cliff.”
“Tell me of the broken world.”
“My safta told me–”
“Your grandmother. The mechanic?”
“Yes, your great-greatsafta. She told me, when I was old and full fit to burst with wisdom as you, that the great fall–”
“The terrible fall–”
“Will you drive or speak?’ and he reaches over my shoulders, to adjust my grip on the wheel. He clutters my hair with his fingers.
“If you speak sense, I’ll drive without interrupting,” I say.
“That’ll be the day that I die,” he says flatly. His eyes grow distant, his voice faint. “So bye-bye–”
“Is that from a thing?”
“It’s not important. My Grandmother,” he huffs, “said the fall began with a sniffle and a cough. ‘It was not so much a fall as a stumble on stairs,’ she said. Safta Frankl said, ‘People shouldn’t even have been on such steep stairs at their age, especially seeing they were only searching for a red handkerchief in a pile of white laundry.’ Head for that bush. A little to the left. Better. Not great, but okay. I, of course, listening to my elders – I’ll explain listening to you one day–”
“I know, Grandfather,” I tell him, and over my shoulder I give his long face a short look of disbelief, causing him to tweak my other ear. “You’ll make us crash!”
“You’ll make us crash not looking. Allow for the tilt of the shore.”
“I know!” I adjust direction. The steambus seems determined to take us paddling.
“My safta cursed God. To this day I remember her howl. ‘You jester! You betrayer of your creatures! You have torn the atlas of the world into a thousand pieces. Come back and raise us to life!’ My, how she hollered–”
“And then she promptly dropped dead!” I say, reminding him to not miss out a word.
“Soon as she shut her mouth, He shut her eyes!”
“I doubt good comes into it. You know, shrimp, I’m homesick for people. Turn right a tad. My safta, to whom I listened a good deal, even when she was cursing, said to me, ‘We stumbled on the top step! One sneeze led to the death of a million. We’d no sooner recovered our balance when the second step was upon us! Ten years after the first sniffle, the second arrived! Four times the death, five-fold the hunger! You’d have thought we’d learn,’ she told me. I, being a good grandson, being a sound listener–”
“Left, or right?” I ask, because I know what he means, even if I don’t know the way.
“Now you listen?” he asks. “It matters not. Both take us along the beach.”
“I choose right.”
“Right is nearly as safe as left,” he says.
“Left is what I meant,” I say, rotating the giant wheel. The steambus sounds as if it is crushing the land. We trample the morning.
“Though not as scenic–”
“Not too left. The middle left? Then to the cliff after. My saftasaid it was as if nature was tripping us, and no matter how often we’d catch our balance on the step, the world would push us in the back! ‘By the time the fourth step appeared,’ she said–”
“What happened on the third step?”
“More of the same. Aren’t you listening?”
“For shame, grandfather!”
“I’m a Grandfather and surrendered shame during my eightieth winter.”
“How many died on each step?” I ask, though I know his story as if it were a litany.
“One million, the next sneeze four, the third sniffle eighteen! The fourth–”
“Don’t sound so cheerful,” he scolds. “Not enough living to count the dead! Each step coming quicker than the last!”
“Second sniffle ten years after the first sneeze, the third five years after the second, the fourth three years after the last–”
“Yes, yes, we all know the song,” Grandfather says, but I sing it regardless.
“We all fall down!”
“You can’t sing but your safta could. Quicker, the sicknesses came, carry posies of herbs, leaving no time to recover, a-tissue, a-ticket, a death-certificate, more perished each step, ring-a-wrong of roses,” Grandfather recites.
“And at the fifth sickness,” I say, and wait. He takes what passes for a deep breath amongst Grandfathers, which is a small lungful of aching.
“My safta said then the sky burned and the sand turned to glass. People refused to be sped to their graves by God, so decided to end themselves! Keep close to the cliff, the beach–”
“Then drive! A few survived.”
“Thank people,” he says.
“And from where did the sniffles come?” For this is the greatest sin, he says, the mystery every storyteller whispers. Grandfather Feder not only taught me who not to be, how not to live my little life, but secrets, too: that an illness is a symptom of a body out of balance. That if we curse the earth, it hurts us back. It is less personal, more inevitable. “Tell me from where the sickness came.”
“From the chopping of wood. From the digging deep in earth. From the darkening of the skies. From the murder of the animals–” and given this is our litany, I join him in saying, “From too much of everything. From too many weakening comforts. From crossing the skies without thought. From the lack of gratitude. From the deserts our elders crafted.”
“From eating what should not have been swallowed,” he finishes, alone. “Amen.”
The steambus keeps pulling toward the shore, away from the cliff. It’s hard to keep the bus steady, even with two pairs of hands on the wheel.
“But this is all ancient,’ I tell Grandfather, because a twelve-year-old knows all there is of the acrid world.
“Well, ignore me,” he says, “find your own route.”
He lets go the wheel. The steambus lurches, begins to crawl to the waves. No matter how I heave, the trundling bus will not deviate.
“I’ll be upstairs, admiring the view,” he says, though he waits by the cab, unable to abandon me.
“I wish I could say how easy life is, how nimble, on your own,” he wheezes.
“What I wish you could say is you’ll help! The fire will drown!”
“You wish for a little ancient help?” Before I can answer, he reaches over, grips the steering wheel. His liver-spot hands cover mine. Together we turn the bus.
“What I wish I could say is that power steering is to be discovered around the corner,” Grandfather huffs, “and diesel! And rubber wheels! And your safta–”
“This is a new world,” I tell him. “Stop imposing the old on the new.”
“Old hands help,” he says, and kisses my head, then sneezes. “Sometimes.”
“God bless you!”
“God bless you.”
“If God’s so clever, we can both be blessed!”
“Or we can just bless one another, and keep steering together,” Grandfather says. “You have it?”
He lets go. I know to allow for the beach’s incline, though I feel safer with his hands over mine. He says, “Up the Norland slope. To the right of the sea searcher statue. It’s almost dawn.”
My white hands, that I fancy belong to a woman with the coming of dawn, disappear in his brown grip as he once more helps pull the wheel. “What was I saying?” he asks.
“You said, ‘Sweet child, though the birds fled from us for decades, though Island wore us like dark garments, and the children’s pallid faces waited at dust covered tables for unfamiliar meals, despite the vastness of uncertainty, we hid woe in song and tradition’.”
“That sounds poetic like me,” he admits, laughs, and I am happy to hear his happiness, even if it is sardonic.
I cannot tell when his laughter turns to weeping.
There comes a time, Grandfather says, when tears become happiness; in such a space we discover family finely balanced over a great fissure. “The world grew still as we became few,” he says, helping me steer, “drivers and conductors were rare, more beautiful than food. Crops grew only a little. Animals fled. The Storm Season became most of the year. The world settled, stilled; plentiful harvests of time weighed down our days while our bellies grew hungry, and with each spring the woods grew thicker with dead trees.”
When we leave the beach, climb the little cliff, there ahead of us is the holy land and Ferris. Grandfather says Ferris is the nearest Island boasts to standing stones, which were what the ancients built to count seasons. “When we had seasons!” Grandfather says people like the elders have forgotten how to build anything, let alone standing stones, certainly not steambuses, definitely not sense, and instead they worship artefacts. “They’d rather build dreams than things,” he says, and coughs, sounding of rubble. “They’d rather live old than new.”
Sunrise begins; we could not have timed it better. At the heart of the holy land, glinting in sun, the giant half-rust miracle of the wheel greets us. We stop the steambusin the filigree shadow of Ferris, and we step upon holy earth.
The ground around Ferris has been cultivated for generations, a secret farm for whomever; it is humans that made this place. It belongs to all. Today squat crops run wild. Emerald spleenwich grow to the knee, honeyspud blossom covers the soil, and feathery leaves of crabrots wave like flags. The earth here is rust-red, rich and dark, and anything grows. Grandfather says, “You could bury a steambus and you’d dig out two come spring.”
There are so few people, most crops remain undug. Grandfather and I alone harvest what has been sown by grandmothers for decades, as fathers and grandfathers sit idle, speaking of the past.
“Here’s where I leapt upon the steambusfor the first time,” he says wistfully.
“You waited by Ferris for her,” I add, after a pause of two breaths.
“There were one hundred people waiting,” Grandfather says, after three. “Survivors gathered together for human warmth.”
“And she chose you,” I say, waiting four.
“Of all men, she blessed me,” Grandfather says, his eyes awash with salt and hurting joyful memory, like a tooth cavity he cannot help but probe.
“My saftachose you,” I chant.
“Because she knew we would begat a daughter,” he sings. “She knew.”
“Who would begat me,” I whisper. “She knew.”
“I am here because of Grandmother.”
“You’re her defiant revenge upon that jester God,” he murmurs. “And man, unkind.”
“You were our conductor,” I chant.
“She chose me!” He coughs and spits into the plants, and he falls to his knees, and through tears and tumbling years, across decades of yearning, cries, “I remain her conductor! We keep the engine fired even now.”
“She chose you.”
“I jumped upon her steambus. We smiled at one another. And off we drove! Never–” he purrs.
“Looking–” I warble.
“Back!” we shout, ending together.
“And now the bus is yours,” he says, and all is silent.
Grandfather looks so small. His dirt-stained hands are too big for what remains of his body. It is as if his memories are escaping the confines of his shrunken shape, oozing from his mouth, from his ears, from the cataract of his eyes. He is deflating. The world has caught up with him.
Later, when the sun has reached its peak, after we have spoken the holy words, after I have climbed Ferris, we dig honeyspuds and cook them on iron plates in the heat of the steambus fire. And after his voice becomes weak, while mine becomes strong. I am made The Driver. Grandfather sleeps. Bees accompany his snores, fill my ears with summer-sounds.
I discover wild strawberries, and I wet his mouth with their juice until his smile and his tooth are red as safta’s lips. I fetch him stream water, and make him swallow. I lift his head, which is heavy as the world, before I help him cough up disgust, and regret, and, “Half a blessed lung.”
We sleep a little side by side beneath the warming sun. Margit’s Ferris chequers the breeze, shades us like the wings of moths. My lungs burst from longing when I wake. I feel I am guillotined from yesterday.
Grandfather has woken while I slept. He has settled himself with his back to Ferris, his face to the shore, as if watching a yellow sun set beyond green waves of yesterday. I wonder whether he spoke to the old world while I slept. Did he sing to his long-gone wife? I choose to imagine he made himself light by shrugging off the years.
Here he is: old, and no longer full of tales. Here am I: new to storytelling, now The Driver. Grandfather leans against Ferris, and though he always claims he wishes he could say this, and that he yearns to mutter that, even when his mouth is closed, and his coughing up of darkness is stopped, and his eyes are beautiful in their unmoving, unblinking clarity, even as he slumps soundlessly upon my shoulder, Grandfather Feder will never stop speaking to me.
In a moment I will dig a warm hole. He will rest beneath his beloved honeyspuds, and he will sleep beside my beautiful safta, on top of all his family. Here, in the holy land of Island, Grandfather Feder need never again cough.
What is the value of a family tree if nothing grows taller than a child?
Soon the respite of this short Quiet Season will be over. What remains of the world will then return to its regular self, nine tenths storm and flooding, but he’ll be safely dead and deep, like all the people he loved but could not save, their bodies being good only for the fertilising of scarce low-growing crops in this calm little Island refuge, this strip of holy land. And I will be travelling, seeking to craft something from the ashes I have inherited. Because we each face a choice: to live in the dark past, or craft a bright future where our world can grow.
I will go drive the steambus,brave the bridge while he dreams endlessly of safta’s pearl skin and forever kisses. Here he will never cease remembering things only he recalls, that made him the man he was. Grandfather Feder, god-rest-his-tale-telling-soul, will find at last all the time in the world to rest while I will speak of the things he wishes he could say.