The vanishing act (Freewrite)
Nobody knew how old Grandma was. Not even she. If you listened to her, she had been found by some gypsies wandering in a corn field when she was two or three, four at most. Grandpa, however, believed she had been stolen because of her pretty golden locks, her best feature really. Her only good feature, as she was rather plain as a young woman when Grandpa met her at a sort of fair the gypsies were putting up wherever they thought they might make a penny or two. Quite literally, because they stayed away from larger cities, where there were things like authorities who asked too many questions. They’d put up their washed-up red tent in remote villages where the arrival of the rather pompously self-titled travelling circus was big news. A penny to have your future read, a penny to watch the old arthritic monkey ride a bicycle with a wheel that kept falling. The gypsies supplemented their meagre earnings by sending scouts to raid the deserted village and make off with whatever they could carry while the owners were being entertained by the rest of the quite extended family. ‘I can see great sorrow in your future, your very near future’, the fat fortune-teller could sometimes be heard saying. A prophecy her many grandchildren took care of fulfilling. If you’ve never been to such places you wouldn’t understand the feeling of loss that swept over the poor villager coming home rather tipsy to discover his other pair of trousers, the good one, has gone missing from the line where his good woman had unthinkingly left out to dry. Or waking up to the unfamiliar silence hanging over the yard, awfully quiet now with the rooster missing, his crowing days now in the past, his feathers scattered in the dust left behind by the speeding away caravan.
Grandpa met Grandma under the red tent. She was performing a very clumsy card trick and the only reason nobody noticed the King of Hearts vanishing in her bra was that the patrons were all staring at her grotesque make-up, something in between a really sad clown and a pissed off scare-crow. Melinda, Grandma that is, was both. Sad, because she hated her people who were not her people at all, and pissed at her adoptive father who was determined to make an acrobat out of her. The moment Grandpa came up to her after the show and said ‘Hi’ she knew that was the man she was going to spend the rest of her life with, whether he liked it or not. Her options were pretty limited at that point, but then Grandpa didn’t have much to look forward to either and his marriage prospects were rather poor. The house he’d inherited was still standing up only by force of habit and the shaky support of a couple of wooden beams propping up the roof. And his father had been a first-class drunk, undisputed champion of the county, and everybody thought it was just a matter of time until he’d take to the bottle, too.
Grandma would have none of this in her house, which, six months after they were married, already had sturdy new brick walls and Grandpa had been made to swear a solemn oath there was going to be brand new roof, a proper one made of real tiles before the baby was due. Nine months almost to the day after their marriage.
Almost to the day, as nobody knew for sure when the baby was actually born. When she felt her time had come, Melinda disappeared for a whole week, not before telling her husband he needn’t worry. She’d be fine, she said. Now, Grandpa was sick with worry, but he couldn’t exactly go around the village asking for help. Melinda was quite nice when she wanted to, but people still thought she was a bit weird. She had to after living all her life with those people. What would they say if they heard his wife had gone into hiding to give birth, like a damn cat you find nursing its new litter in your linen cabinet.
She came back a week later, her beautiful hair all matted with sweat and dead leaves, cradling in her arms a fine-looking baby boy swathed in a piece of white cloth. And she had a very strange look in her eyes. Grandpa put it on what he imagined must have been a harrowing experience, but it was not that. She voice was as steady and firm as ever, but her eyes had a soft glow in them. Calm as if all the mysteries of the universe had been revealed to her during the week she’d been away. Not only when she looked at her baby, she had the same deep understanding in her eyes all the time, as if she saw the sense of everything in this world. Grandpa learned to defer to her better judgment in all matters, be they big or small. If she told him it was time to put the hay in the barn, he did not question the sky to see if it was going to rain. She must have her reasons.
There was just one thing he couldn’t agree with. When baby Tom was weaned she announced they were not to have another baby and she’ll let him know when it was safe for them to lie together as husband and wife, but Grandpa would not hear of it. Now that things were looking up for them, of course he wanted more sons, to help around. And he somehow manged to get her with child again, much to his satisfaction. Grandma carried on with her pregnancy like all peasant women do, without making a fuss, tending to the garden which was her domain, milking the cows, feeding the chicken and, of course, carrying the boy wherever she went.
When the time came once again, she packed a few things in a basket and went away, warning her husband to keep the boy under his eye at all times. She did not say anything else, but there was no need. Grandpa could see the fear in her eyes and it made him sick and miserable and he cursed himself for not listening to her.
All his fears melted away one week later when he saw her walking down the dirt road with a baby in her arms. He had another son, but it was a sickly little thing who kept his mother awake most nights with his desperate wails. Melinda never complained about anything and she never spoke an angry word to her husband.
She did what she had to do. She fought for the baby’s life with all her formidable might. She fed him furiously, pushing her tit in his mouth as if he could suckle some strength along with her milk. There were special potions and concoctions she rubbed on the baby’s weak chest, and even spells. Grandpa heard her murmuring strange words over the cot when she thought no one could hear her. When he was close to his first birthday and he’d mastered the art of walking, with slow deliberate steps, the baby developed a fever that killed him within three days.
Her worst fears had come true, but she never said it. Grandpa was every bit as heartbroken as she was and, in many ways, he never recovered after the loss of that child, whom they had called Gabriel. That’s all that the next generation ever knew of him, a name painted on the cross under the oak at the back of the house. For as long as he lived, Grandpa would repaint the name on the cross every spring. Sometimes he’d spend the whole morning painting those few letters and nobody dared bother him. Not even Grandma. She spied on him from afar, her eyes dark with pain. His pain, not hers. Whatever she felt in her heart, it pained her more to see her husband like that, every year more bent, his hands more unsteady, an old man still paying for that old mistake.
(To be continued)
Story written for @mariannewest's freewrite challenge. Today's prompt was '100 years old donkey'. The prompt didn't make it into the story (yet), so you'll have to take my word for it that the Grandma in the story feels as old as the donkey in the prompt.
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Thanks for reading!