The path along the riverbank was muddy from a morning rainstorm. Jillian trudged the half-mile walk to Grandfather’s house, past the farmlands, the old rancher’s grain silo, and the tattered wood fencing that needed repairs.
She stopped briefly by an ancient tree with gnarled roots, sticking out of the hillside as if threatening to fall. Whenever she walked near this place, she heard sounds she couldn’t quite place. A hum or a growl — nearly inaudible above the gurgling river water.
After a moment, she moved on, as always with the sense that she was not alone.
Grandfather’s house was stately, sitting at the end of a poplar-lined drive. When Grandmother was alive, there had been a garden, chickens, and an Australian Shepherd named Tulip who was trained to herd the chickens into the hen house whenever a fox or a hawk came around.
These days the place was quiet, and Grandfather spent his time sipping mint tea and resting in his favorite chair.
Jillian knocked and entered the house, for the door was never locked. “Grandfather?” The house was cool, and the air still as a tomb. Jillian shivered. The clock ticked in its steady cadence on the mantle.
He was not in his easy chair. She continued on. “Grandfather?”
She found him in his room, propped up in bed. “Jillian, darling. Good morning.”
“Why aren’t you up, Grandpa?” She pulled a chair over, alarmed by the loud sound in this quiet room, and rested her hands on his.
He smiled. “Just lazy, I guess. My old bones don’t always cooperate.”
Jillian smoothed the covers. “How about if I bring some tea?”
“No, I’d best get up, like a proper old man.” He grinned, and she saw the old fire in him for a minute. He had been someone who loved to joke around, play little pranks, make people laugh. He looked at the floor, as if it was a long way down. “You go ahead and heat the water for tea. I’ll be out in a bit.”
Waiting for the water to boil, Jillian looked at family pictures. Her favorite was a photo they took in the Black Hills on a trip with her parents, her Aunt Rose and Uncle Ted, her cousins Frank and Christie, and Grandmother and Grandfather. And her brother. Richie. How she missed him.
She was oddly drawn to the picture, though it wasn’t very good. Everyone was looking away, as if they had posed just a moment before, and the photographer caught them when they had lost interest and looked away. But they were together, alive, in one place.
Right after that day, everything changed. This time capsule picture captured her family in its pristine state. Like the baby photo of someone who grew up to have a wretched personality or become a criminal.
“Here I am. Fresh as a spring morning!” Grandfather had put on clean clothes. He walked slowly, shuffling in his slippers. But he seemed energized. Would he simply have stayed in bed all day if she had not come?
“Yes, Grandpa, you do look refreshed.”
He shuffled to the kitchen table and sat down.
Jillian put a cup of tea in front of him and set down a plate of buttered toast. “Grandpa?”
He sipped his tea and looked up at her. There was such love in those eyes. How could she ever do without him? He motioned for her to sit. “What can I do for you?”
She picked up the family photograph from the shelf. “Grandpa, do you remember when we went on that trip?”
His cup clattered into its saucer, spilling tea. Then he gathered himself. “Clumsy me!”
“I’m sorry. Did I upset you?”
“No, no.” He mopped up the spilled tea with the kitchen towel she handed him, and seemed to be thinking. “Jillian. Maybe it’s time I told you.”
“About that time. We’ve never spoken of it amongst the family. But something happened in the Black Hills.”
She waited, realizing there had always been something she didn’t know. In that cool and silent morning, it seemed the past, and whatever it was that set her family’s devastation in motion, would be revealed.
“You mustn’t talk about it with your mother, okay? It would upset her.”
He reached for the family photo, holding it like lost treasure. “We took something that wasn’t ours. On a tour of a dinosaur dig. Your father found what looked like a small deformed fossil, unrecognizable as any known creature. Your mother said to notify the tour guide, but instead he put it in his backpack.”
She shook her head, speechless.
“I don’t have time to tell you the whole story. Your mother will be here any minute to give me my medication. But… things happened quickly after that. Your father noticed that the fossil was warm. We all felt it. Still he wouldn’t tell anyone with authority. ‘They will just take it, and we’ll never hear about it again,’ he said. He put it in his suitcase and we strapped it onto the car.”
“When we got home, the suitcase was ripped open from the inside. It was gone.”
“Are you saying it was alive? And what does that have to do with our family, and all that happened?”
Grandfather sipped his tea. “Shortly after that, your father developed his terrible depression. It was only a few months before he took his life.”
Jillian nodded. “Poor Papa.”
“And Grandma. Her short illness came next. Then your cousin Frank enlisted and was killed in the Iraq war. Christie moved away and we lost touch with her. And your brother… a derelict, somewhere on the streets of Chicago. Do you see? There was a demarcation. A shift. Because of your father’s choice. And the creature is out there somewhere.”
The door opened and they heard Jillian’s mother. “Hello?”
Jillian leaned forward to whisper. “Grandpa, I think I know where.”
“Good morning!” Mother’s voice was pleasant, practiced. Yet underneath, as always, was an air of depthless sadness.
“Morning, Greta.” Grandfather allowed himself to be kissed on the forehead. But he was looking at Jillian.
Mother shook pills from a collection of bottles and brought them with a glass of water.
He smiled and took the first pill. “You are too good to me.”
Mother patted Jillian on the back. “Will you come shopping with me? You can drive. You’re almost ready for your license test.”
“I’ll stay with Grandpa, if that’s okay.”
Soon, they were driving over bumpy roads in Grandfather’s truck, Jillian at the wheel. Then they walked down the footpath to the riverbank. Grandfather made use of his cane for support as they approached the gnarled tree. “Here,” she said. “I always hear something strange... here in this spot.”
There was that sound. The low hum.
Grandfather cupped a hand to his ear. “What is that?”
“You hear it too?”
Just then there was movement. These were not tree roots at all. A creature moved and twisted, showing itself. It had two heads, a bony frill like a triceratops on the back of its neck, and the forearms of a T-rex. But it’s body crouched low, like a giant toad.
They stepped back. Jillian grabbed Grandfather’s arm, whispering, “What is it?”
“I don’t know. But it doesn’t belong here. It needs to go home.”
Though she had never been so frightened, Jillian stepped forward, tentatively.
The creature backed into the base of the tree, shaking its heads back and forth.
She smiled. “You’re safe with us.” Inch by inch, she stepped closer, as it watched, until she was able to hold out her hand. The creature sniffed, and seemed to relax.
Somehow they coaxed it into the back of the truck. It was magnificent, like a mythical creature — a unicorn or centaur. Jillian patted its scaled flesh and it made its odd hum. Then they secured a tarp over the top.
In the hour drive from Spearfish into the heart of the Black Hills, they never stopped. Grandfather dozed. Jillian continued to glance backward, but the tarp remained still.
Finally, the map led them down a remote road near the dinosaur dig they had visited as a family, six years before.
When they removed the tarp, the creature looked out warily. They stood back, motioning for it to go. Slowly, it clambered out, looked around, and moved off into the scrub brush. At that moment, the past seemed to be released, like riverwood on a current, and float away.
Jillian put her arm around Grandfather. “Let’s go, Grandpa.”
Weeks later, as she and her mother baked bread in the kitchen, Jillian heard Mother hum a tune for the first time she could remember. They looked at each other, smiling.
The phone rang and Mother rushed to clean off her hands and answer it. “Hello?” She listened for a moment and sat down. She looked at Jillian. “It’s your brother Richie. He wants to come home.”
Thank you so much for reading my story. This is my entry for The Writers Block Art Prompt Contest #14. Our challenge was to use the picture of the tree (the last one in this post) as inspiration for a short story. When I looked at the picture, I immediately saw a creature in the wood. Once I saw it, I could not look at the picture any other way. And so my mythical creature was born.
Image credits: The first two pictures are from Pixabay, the third is from Unsplash, and the fourth (the "art prompt" picture) is by the lovely and talented Ms. @pyemoney.
Posted from my blog with SteemPress : https://jaynalocke.com/2018/12/01/gnarled-wood-a-short-story/