The wake

Aug 17 2010 Published by under Etc

Grandma pulled open the door to the minivan, ankle wiggling in the wet sod. Her cheeks were flushed when she mumbled “Out,” trying to pull her low heel from the mud. I pushed at my sister’s back, sitting on the edge of my driver’s side bucket seat. She was tangled in her seatbelt, and reached back to slap me before falling out of her seat and stumbling out of the van and up the road. I was close behind her.

There was a small dark lump toward the shoulder side of the lane. Hannah ran quickly ahead. She ducked the low hanging branches from the thick growths of laurel that covered the slopes framing the road. Over my shoulder, grandma was following.

“David Jonathan,” she said, taking a breath. “Get your sister.”

“Hannah, slow down,” I called. She ran a few more steps and stopped abruptly on the gravel buffer, just before the asphalt rise, staring down at the squirrel, low sobs confirming its death. I grabbed her shoulder and pulled her back to the grass, under the sinuous limbs. The tires had rolled the animal on its side and crushed its legs and back. Its eyes were closed softly, head between its tiny hands. The tail was curled gently over its broken body, inadequately covering the blood that was seeping from unseen wounds. I turned her away when she started hiccupping tears, trying to swallow as I held my sister, trying to distract myself, following the twisted roots of the rhododendron in the bare soil, how it burst from the surface in low arcs and plunged back down, resilient, woven between other roots, branches and vines. Working up the slope there was a tiny path, a tunnel through, that disappeared into the matted thicket. I wondered what scrambled through the tangle. I wondered if that was the last thing the squirrel had seen before we killed it.

I heard Grandma before I saw her, favoring her left leg with each step, breathing heavily, mumbling. She clicked her tongue and grabbed us both immediately, squeezing us tight against her, rubbing our backs briskly.

“We’ll take care of it,” she said. “Nana will take care of it.”

From her purse she pulled a handkerchief, plain white with pink cross stitch on the corners, and unfolded it, laying it gently over the squirrel. “Now go get nana the spade from the back and the shoebox from the shoes she bought yesterday.”

I did, as quick as I could, sprinting to the van, dumping her marshmallow white orthopedic shoes, snatching the rusty spade from over the back seat, sprinting back. She used the spade to bundle the squirrel in the handkerchief, tucking the cloth under, grabbing the corners and placing it carefully into the shoebox. She held her hands out in front of her, dangling. “Get nana her wipes, honey,” she said, and Hannah, now somewhat coherent, only sniffling, pulled about five wetnaps from the container and dropped them in grandma’s hand.

We buried the squirrel at the base of the the laurel path, where the soil was soft. It wasn’t like TV, there were no wisecracks or lessons from grandma, no parting words, only the occasional sniffle from Hannah. I had not seen grandma as sad as she was, not even when she stood over my pop-pop at the viewing. She smiled through the tears then, laughed even, petting his cold cheek, smoothing his suit jacket.

As we walked back to the van, another car, a blue station wagon, rattled down the road, tires passing over the blood stain where the squirrel had died, the exact same passage our van had made not fifteen minutes before:

I had only heard it die, felt it. Hannah had seen it dart from the brush.

“He was trying to get across,” Hannah had whispered. “Why? Nana why are you still driving?”

Looking back at us in the mirror, grandma had started to say “Honey, it’s just…“ and stopped. She exhaled slowly.

Hannah was emphatic. “You stop, nana,” she said. “You stop."

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