I am sitting cross-legged on the cold, wooden staircase landing inside my grandparents’ mountain cabin. A common perch for me. It is long past my bedtime. The creek outside never wants me to sleep. Even when I wrap a pillow around my head tight as a drum, I still hear her. She never shuts up.
I want to go home. Back to my red Schwinn bike, the smell of chlorine in my hair from the community pool, buildings, lawn mowers, traffic lights. I miss being surrounded by man made things. We are outnumbered by everything here. Dirt, trees, rocks, birds, rabbits, ferns. Moss and white-tailed deer. Snakes.
The adults are sitting on the screened in front porch drinking Schlitz beer. I can see into the porch through an open window above a table with a shiny black phone. White beer cans with cranberry-colored letters. Some men smoking cigars. The orange tips flare up when I peek around the corner. Why doesn’t the fire race down their windpipes and burn up their lungs. Something has happened. Someone is dead.
She was a seasoned lumberjack. She knew how to handle the ropes.
My god, how old was she again? Maybe thirty-two?
Sometimes you just misread it, that’s all.
She made a good run for it he said.
Too bad he had to be the one to see it.
I know who they are talking about. A husband who now has a dead wife. Distant relatives like mostly everyone around here. They have a little girl. Younger than me. I went inside their house once with my grandfather. No one was home. The door was unlocked. We went in and left a box of tomatoes, snap peas, and sweet corn on their kitchen table. In the paneled living room, coloring books and a basket of naked Barbies on a braided rug. The house smelled like a damp fireplace. I wanted to wait for the bird to pop out of the cuckoo clock over the mantle, but my grandfather said it wasn’t polite to stay when no one was home.
When I hear footsteps coming in from the porch, I hurry up the staircase, placing my feet on the parts that don’t creak. The bedroom I use has one window and a sharply sloped ceiling like a tent. The lowest part of the ceiling ends just above my pillow. Tonight, the bed feels like a coffin, so I yank the covers off and lie on the floor.
There are so many stars in the black sky outside. I know the dark is struggling to survive out there, but I am glad for starlight because there is enough brightness to see everything inside the room which isn’t much. The bed, a small, straight-backed chair, a trunk full of quilts, and a floor lamp with a glass globe shaped like drooping, dying tulip. The peak of the mountain behind the cabin is almost tall enough to clobber the moon. Massive trees a stone’s throw away from this window, these walls, these furnishings, my makeshift bed on the floor. This cabin is nothing but a rowboat.
I wake in predawn when the front porch door bangs shut. My grandfather is off to his garden. I tiptoe downstairs and crawl into bed with my grandmother. She rolls over to face me. Her hair is as dark and shiny as a crow. Her eyes are the pale grey of this morning’s light.
“Were you listening again?” She whispers.
I nod. I feel bad because my tears are going to make my grandfather’s pillow wet, but my grandmother will change the bed. He’ll never know.
“Why didn’t she just run faster? Can’t people run faster than falling trees?”
“It’s a terrible thing. I know she really tried. We must learn to accept things we can’t change. Even terrible things.”
“I don’t know. I haven’t figured that part out yet.”
Although we shouldn’t have. Although it didn’t seem right. That made us laugh. We got up, padded into the kitchen and somehow the day began.
Virginia Watts is the author of poetry and stories found in Illuminations, The Florida Review, CRAFT, Hawaii Pacific Review, Sky Island Journal, Permafrost Magazine, Wisconsin Review, Dark Lane Anthology Series among others. Winner of the 2019 Florida Review Meek Award in nonfiction, her poetry chapbook “The Werewolves of Elk Creek” is available from Moonstone Press and a short story collection is upcoming from The Devil’s Party Press in spring 2023. She has been nominated three times for a Pushcart Prize and three times for Best of the Net.