Jenny leaned into her crouch off second base. One out. Runners on third and first. Play at two.
Crack — a hard hit between first and second. Jenny made the stop, bobbled the pickup. Throw a bit too high to Sandy, now at second.
Sandy jumped, caught it, touched down on base. Blistering, dead eye throw to home plate. Right on the money. Textbook double play.
That was top of the sixth. Jenny kept thinking back to that beautiful wordless play for the rest of the game.
She hit a couple of solid doubles, snagged a fly ball, had the vague impression her team won the game. Legion park tonight, not far from Grampa John’s cottage. When Jenny’s games were at the Legion, sometimes Elizabeth would stop by and watch.
Elizabeth was Grampa John’s long time housekeeper. She lived around the bend from him on Shoreline Road. Jenny didn’t know if she knew, but it gave her such a lift when Elizabeth came to her games.
Sixteen year old Jenny had drifted into the habit of spending the summers at Grandad’s place in Hens & Chickens. Her dad took some holiday time up there with her and his dad, but mainly spent his summers back home in Hungry Hollow. Jenny’s biggest sister Robyn was now a backup girl singer with gigs all around Toronto. Her middle sister Daisy,18, could easily be a model, but seemed happy as a clam in that musty old bookstore where she worked. Their mother had left them when Jenny was four over the great dog incident, where Uncle Ray’s dogs had terrorized the young girls and neither John or their father could did anything to stop it.
Jenny grabbed her gear and crunched over the pebbly sand to where Elizabeth sat in the bleachers. Elizabeth. Just seeing her made Jenny happy. A stunningly beautiful woman in her early sixties. Soft greying walnut wisps escaped from her ball cap. She had long stretchy almond shaped eyes, browny green ones. Her crisp beautiful smile lit up the world. Even more, Elizabeth always knew the right thing to say. She hopped down from the bleachers to greet Jenny.
"You know what I’m thinking — that double play — that was sweet. You’ll be dreaming about that tonight, won’t you?" said Elizabeth. Jenny smiled and nodded.
They walked mainly in quiet toward the water, and mauve closed around them. At the highway, the cool damp shoreline breeze slapped them in the face. Elizabeth had one of those old brick houses with the barn-style roof and porthole upper window. Here she had raised her five children, mostly on her own after her husband died young from a sudden heart attack. The large yard was surrounded by purple lilac bushes, pink spreading peonies and thick patches of big blue morning glories, which had always tastefully hidden the chicken wire fence.
Elizabeth stopped at her path, checked that Jenny was still coming to the knitting guild meeting the next evening, and said goodnight. Jenny went on up the road and around the bend to Grampa John’s place.
Grampa John. That old rogue, monster and villain of family lore. The ogre their dad would not stand up to. Tyrant the entire family loved to hate. He still kept his dingy brown ramshackle shack at Sunset Point — it never looked any better, but never any worse either.
Jenny’s sisters were shocked at the idea of the baby of the family now spending her fourth summer with the old tyrant. How could she stand it — after all, wasn’t he the one who drove their mother away?
But Jenny didn’t find him so terrible when it was just the two of them. Maybe their dad brought out the worst in old John. Anyway, it was just how things had worked out. The summer she was 12, Elizabeth had needed hip replacement surgery and asked Jenny to stay with her. Paid her very well too for being 12 years old. When her dad said okay, she started out at Grampa John’s thinking she’d move in with Elizabeth if things went bad.
But they didn’t. In fact John expanded his diet of coffee, dry toast and bacon to include toasted tomato sandwiches. He really enjoyed the fresh tomatoes he grew in big pots no one knew about in a sunny patch out back. He was a radio man, and she came to appreciate his passion for wartime songs and oldtime bluegrass music.
She pushed through the opening in the high dark cedar hedge around John’s cottage. Up the steps, through the screen door to the porch where she dropped her bag of cleats, balls and gloves. John’s green half-ton was parked out front.
"Grampa, I’m back," she called, lighthearted but not really expecting an answer. "I’ll put the tea on."
"Okay, Jenny," came his voice from the front porch. She filled the kettle and put three bags of Earl Grey decaf in the squat brown pot. They both liked it strong with brown sugar and milk. After it steeped, she set their big warm mugs on the little table between the two twig chairs. This was one of her favourite moments— looking out over the dark water with a mug of hot tea warming her cold palms and fingertips.
"Win or lose?" John asked as usual.
"Not sure," Jenny answered as usual.
They shared a smile over this little ritual. It had the effect of a hug, and both were so pleased no more words were required. Lights flickered on the black water.
Tea cup down. Peck for John. "Night, Grampa," she said.
She climbed the narrow stairs to the loft and all her treasures — her guitar, her favourite CDs and the small round chair with the green and blue forget-me-not cover.
And her books. She preferred thick classics like Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice. Also of course on the shelf was ‘the notebook.’ Their mother had left the same farewell letter for each of the girls. Jenny’s had been left in the boring blank pages of an ordinary coil bound steno book. It was such a gesture of nothingness to her that Jenny had rarely even bothered to take it out and read it.
And her knitting basket. Jenny had tagged along to guild meetings since she was 12. The fact that she was the youngest person there by several decades didn’t matter. She felt such rapture being in a room full of so many mothers.
Head phones on. Few rows of knitting. Slip under the cozy old comforter from Elizabeth, then to sleep.
The next day passed pleasantly as all her summer days. She pedalled across town to work, doing odd jobs with a local eccentric named Brad Blackstock. Brad owned several rental properties around town and hired Jenny to touch up paint, cut grass, weed flower beds and pick up garbage. By evening she had had almost no time to think about the guild meeting before she heard Elizabeth call in at the door, "Ready, Jenny?"
"Almost," she called back. Jenny squeezed John’s shoulders goodbye. Horn blast and the ladies were off.
The guild met in Shirley’s sunroom, nestled in the lowlands south of town by the Batteau. Shirley had an L-shaped ranch house. Tucked away in the south-facing bow of the L was the sunroom, a very large space enclosed in glass. It had room for 10 or 12 big easy chairs. As they walked up to the sliding glass doors of the sunroom, all Jenny could see was green. The room throbbed with plant life — huge broad green ferns hung from the ceiling, ivy climbed up the sides, mock orange, flowering maple and Rose of Sharon stood in pots on the floor, Christmas cactus, pink cyclamen and African violets rested on plant stands and step ladders around the room. A big climate-controlled space, the sunroom easily absorbed all this. It was alive and green and bright like nowhere else Jenny had ever been, cradled in the arms of the blue hills rising to the west and south.
As Elizabeth slid the door open, Shirley bellowed, "Elizabeth! Jenny! Good to see you!" Their host dropped her yarnwork, rushed over and hugged them all in one swift move.
"Are you playing ball yet, Jenny dear?"
"Yep, just started."
"Good. And how about a summer job?"
"Umm hmm. Odd jobs with Brad Blackstock."
"Well, that sounds challenging. Dad and the girls are okay?"
"Yep. As far as I know. We talk on Fridays."
"Now what about Grandad? Is he behaving himself?"
"Yes, Shirley. He’s fine. I think he’s mellowing."
"If you say so. Look, dear, take the green chair over there. Now Elizabeth, what’s this I hear about your Frank down at the distillery...?"
Jenny settled into the green chair. She pulled out her project. "What are you working on, pet?" Eighty three year old Agnes, small as a bird, leaned over the neighbouring chair.
"Kind of a mess, isn’t it?" said Jenny, holding up the small patch of cream coloured yarn tangled with crisscrossing cables. "I’m trying a Celtic plait. Guess I haven’t been concentrating."
"It’s coming, I can see that."
"Gee, thanks." Jenny looked around the room. There was a big grey blue Fair Isle sweater in the round, grey and pink work socks, a foamy black mohair shawl, the click and tick of steel and wooden needles, the soft murmur of various private conversations.
The guild had met in the sunroom for the past 15 years. Jenny had always been welcomed wholeheartedly. Guild meetings never really had a topic. Mainly the group, which had a strong core from Elizabeth’s church, just knitted and traded advice on craftsmanship and life. Someone, usually Marjorie, could be counted on to spark discussion.
"Now what do you make of all this hoof and mouth disease in Britain?" began Marjorie as predicted when Shirley and Elizabeth found their seats.
"It certainly is upsetting to see all those burnt up animal bodies in the news," said Marilyn. "And all because eating the meat will make humans go crazy."
"Oh Marilyn, don’t be dense," snapped Helen. "You’re thinking of mad cow disease. This is hoof and mouth. Humans can’t catch it."
"Then why are all the animals being killed?" asked Marilyn.
"Because the animals catch it from one another, then the farmers can’t sell their livestock. It’s pure economics."
"Well, I think it’s such a shame, all those lovely little lambs getting burned up," Marilyn continued.
"Makes you realize how much we take for granted," said Marjorie. "Look at the trouble with the water in Walkerton. Such a tragedy. There but for the grace of God…. Did we not have bugs in the water right here in Hens & Chickens?"
"We certainly have the same good old boys running the town," said Helen.
"Throw in the melting polar ice cap and the thinning ozone layer. Something's definitely going to get you," said Shirley.
"The rider on the pale horse," said Dorothy.
"What’s that?" Jenny whispered to Elizabeth.
"One of the four horsemen of the apocalypse," Elizabeth whispered back. Jenny looked puzzled.
" ‘Its rider was named Death and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth,’ " Dorothy continued.
"Oh, lighten up, Dorothy. Why do you have to scare the child?" said Maime.
"The book of Revelation, dear. In the Bible," Dorothy explained.
"Sisters," Elizabeth murmured to Jenny.
"Why do you have to go on like that?" said Maime quite irritated. "I am so sick of your Bible quotations. It’s all so oppressive to women."
" ‘For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’ "
Jenny started to tear up and Maime lost it, bouncing her knitting needles off the floor.
"Oh. You make me so mad. Why are you doing this? Because there’s a youngster in the room?"
Elizabeth stepped in firmly. "Ladies. Maime. Dorothy. Time to take a breath." Maime picked up her needles.
Just the sound of clicking now. Elderly Agnes quietly spoke up. "There is beautiful poetry in Revelation. Those verses about tears can be very powerful."
"I agree, Agnes," said Elizabeth.
"In the city of light, everyone wears a wedding gown. Men and women," said Agnes. "And the temple, which is nowhere and everywhere, is the groom."
"I’m sorry, Agnes," said Maime, "but I have come to think heaven is a dangerous illusion."
"Only if you can’t catch the glints of it around you," said Agnes.
More quiet. Just clicking and breathing. And the sky turning purple between the green leaves.
"I could use a cup of tea," Shirley announced. "Anyone else?" Several people nodded, said yes, stood up and stretched.
Elizabeth, Jenny and Agnes remained sitting. Elizabeth asked the older woman, "How do keep so steady, Agnes? You’ve seen so much."
"That’s exactly why, dear. There has always been something— hoof and mouth, trench foot, Spanish influenza. The only sure thing is that people always say things they don’t mean and never say the things they really mean. "
"You lost your mom to the great flu, didn’t you, Agnes? Did you know her at all?" Elizabeth asked.
"No. I was a babe in arms when she died. My grandmother raised me. We moved in with Uncle Henry when Granny became older."
"Not having a mother — did you always feel something was missing?" Jenny asked.
"Not really, dear. Those were the times. As I grew up, I learned every family had lost someone. The war years took so many young men abroad. But then the flu swept into Canada at the war’s end. And in a matter of weeks, here at home almost as many young mothers and fathers were taken by that terrible epidemic. We all became family to each other."
Jenny knitted. As Agnes and Elizabeth talked on, she studied this curious old creature. Her eyes were aqua. And the old hands wrapped around the needles were small and delicate and knotted with veins. But strong. That was the main feeling she gave Jenny. Strength. It made her compelling to look at and listen to. Jenny had so many questions for her.
Jenny told Elizabeth she had a headache, so they soon went home. The minute she was dropped off, Jenny sprinted upstairs and flicked on the light in the loft. She took down the blank notebook with her mother’s letter. She had always hated that notebook. Robyn’s letter had been left in a little Bible, Daisy’s in a small collection of Shakespeare plays. At least they’d been able to dream up some further personal hidden message their mother had left them or make believe it showed she knew some utterly rare thing about them only a mother could know. All Jenny the youngest had was the blank book. Perhaps, though, her mother had known something about her four year old baby daughter after all.
Jenny took the letter out and stuck it in the nearest book, Wuthering Heights. She raced down to the kitchen and tossed through John’s junk drawer until she found what she was looking for.
Then she fell into her chair, turned back the cover of the notebook and started to scribble. No ink came out and the dry pen tip tore through the clean new paper. She turned to the back cover and circled and circled to start the ink running. Then it flowed out in a thin dark blue stream and she began,
"Granny’s eyes blurred with tears. Her daughter lay dying on the bed in front of her. Her granddaughter wriggled in the blankets in her arms. What was she going to do now?"
? 2005, sutter or mckenzie
at 7:27 AM EDT