Uncle Pete tells the story about his mother, my grandma, how when she was a kid, she climbed through her bedroom window with her little brother in tow to escape their father as he held a knife to their mother’s throat. Pete tells the story while grazing through the pickle tray at Christmas, while lighting the kids’ sparklers on the Fourth, while crossing his arms over his full belly after pie at Thanksgiving.
Uncle Pete provides no details. The house Grandma Donna and Great-Uncle Warren live in is not a gray cabin. It is not small and drafty. There are no spaces between the floorboards. There are no threadbare, once cheerful curtains hanging in Donna’s bedroom window. She does not squint at them to see the finch printed on the fabric perched in the only tree behind the house. There’s no mention of her maneuvering her body inches away from Warren’s warm, small back, stretching her arms above her head, grasping the white, cold metal bed frame, and wondering if tonight her mother will part the hair on her forehead and kiss it, or if the night air will part it as she runs.
Uncle Pete never asked about the children’s hygienic state. Donna’s fingernails, is there dirt underneath them? Are they left to grow long and sharp? Warren’s nose, small and bulbous, whose task is it to keep clean? What is the snot to dirt ratio on his face? Donna begrudgingly wipes his nose with the hem of her skirt, or the handkerchief with the pink embroidery floss coming loose around the edges, and stands, half-aware, biting at the hangnail on her thumb. Or, has Great-grandma Myrna set the routine? A good wash three times a day: morning, lunch, and bedtime. Noses are to be wiped, faces wiped, hair is to be combed and re-combed. The rags are to be rinsed out at the hand pump in the back.
Uncle Pete doesn’t consider the season of the year. It makes sense, doesn’t it, that it would happen more often in the swampy summer months, the air thick with gnats and moisture, the haze of pollen and sweat and heat threatening a kind of drowning that doesn’t come. Inside is stifling; outside is sweltering. The compromise, to sit underneath the tree in the shade with a pencil and paper, or a picnic of soda crackers and chokecherry jam, or the paper cut-out animals at the elaborately imagined zoo. The monkey rides the tiger again, to visit the penguin who’s called out to them from atop his snowy, snowy hill, through the jungle filled with giant beetles and worms, across the desert with the giant ants, until they reach each other and jump and dance excitedly.
The mosquitoes take off from the small, muddy puddles in the back field. The horsemint Donna had crushed and rubbed onto their skin wears off. A mosquito lands on Warren’s sweaty forearm, Donna careful not to slap, instead presses down with her thumb to flick it away. They dash for the back door of the house, up the wooden steps and over the narrow threshold.
Uncle Pete doesn’t know that once inside, Donna, Warren and Myrna play a game with the peelings of the potatoes Myrna is thinking of yet another way to prepare. What does this one look like? A snake. What about this one? A worm. Myrna notices the boring consistency in the shapes, and carves out a hammer, a rock, a lumpy heart. Her children smiling, excited, ask for a dog, a horse, a tree, and she tries knowing she’ll fail to get the nuances of the tail, the legs, the branches, and she decides that she’ll mash the potatoes, so that Donna and Warren can continue imagining throughout supper. She teaches them to form a craggy mountain, the likes of which she’s only seen in drawings. She’s impressed when Donna slowly slices off the mountain peak and declares the sculpture now the tree trunk next to their front step. In a flurry, Myrna fetches a small jam jar full of the left-over potato water and forms the bed of the creek with the sharp turn at its end. It cannot be mistaken for any other creek than the one in which Warren splashed around naked. The creek from which Donna plucked a scuttling crawfish without getting pinched. She pours the water into the bed with a flourish. Do you see the crawfish? Do you see the rocks? Do you remember? Yes, Mama.
Uncle Pete doesn’t say that Great-grandpa Charles comes home late, after his own day of imagining that he can outsmart, he can outwork, he can out-drink. He’s forlorn swaying at the front door–the last point of consciousness the gin had not yet washed over telling him no, of course he can’t. The kitchen table is wiped clean. They hadn’t waited for him again. He’s only gone on with his buddies for an hour, maybe two. He wasn’t the last to leave. Not this time. This time he thought he’d even stop by Mac’s place. Pick up the butter she’s been wanting to make those cookies she goes on and on about. She wanted something sweet from him, and he’d thought about giving it to her. He thought about it. But, on account of his hard work, his good friend Tim bought the whole crew another round, and then another, and why shouldn’t he take it? Nothing’s left for him at the end of the day. Why can’t he take it? We have supper at six, she says. We have supper when I come home, he says. She won’t listen to him. She can’t see him. The children slink to their room on their mother’s quiet orders.
Uncle Pete doesn’t understand the significance of the knife. It’s the chef’s knife Myrna uses every day to cube potatoes and chop onions. Carbon steel, and wooden handle, she wipes it clean after every task, massaging mineral oil into the blade to protect it from rust. A family heirloom, brought over by her grandmother from France. The only thing of value in the house. If they had the means, Myrna could quarter a chicken in seven swift slices and four breaks as she’d done so many times under her mother’s tutelage; the chickens roamed underneath the pear tree in her mother’s backyard, unfettered. If they had the means, she could play a piano. Hymns mostly, but as a girl she had taught herself the beginning twelve bars of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. She used to relish pounding the keys from the low end of the piano to the high end; no one had a choice but to listen. Now, in quiet moments, she finds her fingers remembering the chord structures on the dining room table.
Uncle Pete doesn’t know how Charles holds the knife. How he presses it against her skin each time she tries to explain herself in ways that can’t be explained. How he uses it to coax answers from her throat to questions that make no sense. What’s it worth to you?
Uncle Pete doesn’t mention his rotten breath in her ear.
Uncle Pete doesn’t know how Charles holds Myrna. Does he hold her close to himself, intimately, knowing that her body will stiffen and falter with each threat of the knife? Or does he pull the hair on the back of her head, to bare her throat, her arms flailing and flapping? A mourning dove’s wings.
Uncle Pete doesn’t describe Grandma hoisting her butt up onto the windowsill, thankfully worn, with no splinters or paint chips, calling to her brother with her arms. She claps at Warren. It’s a trick! A magic trick for her baby brother, who toddles over. All he knows, she hopes, is that they disappear.
Uncle Pete doesn’t mention the heat in Grandma’s chest, as she clutches Warren to it, as she scoots to the edge and falls to the dirt below.
Uncle Pete doesn’t know she’s cool-headed. She looks to the tree in the back. It’s too close. She thinks of the flimsiness of the sheets and pillowcases strung on the low-hanging clothesline; the wind blowing the fabric back and forth, a constant betrayal of she and Warren’s location. She decides to run across the road, her bangs blown away from her forehead, to the neighbor’s porch, where the small, yellow mutt is tied, who will share his space as long as she and Warren scratch behind his ears.
Uncle Pete doesn’t know that the need to shelter Donna and Warren, the want to huddle with them on the porch, to caress their cheeks, to pull their small bodies close to mine, transmits back across time. Uncle Pete doesn’t know that the urge to pluck them up and pull them over the arc of generations is electric, stunning. No matter the impossibility. No matter that I didn’t exist then. No matter that they don’t exist now. They’re still there.