by Stacey Levine
She did not begin to exist because I needed her. Grandmother first emerged in the clearing near my cabin, between hills of trees. She was warm, lively, and driven. Into the admixture went a cruelty that at times resembled the disinterest of nature. Grandmother was no stereotype, however.
She was hairy. The white strands on her head grew to short, soft peaks, like the meringue fur of a Persian cat. As with cats and everyone, Grandmother’s self-knowledge, though adequate, was far from complete.
Her birth was not a product of forethought or design; it simply happened. Life advertises itself so lushly.
She could laugh insanely, like the wolf of the forest. The wolf really did eat the bedridden old woman—it had to, many times over, to assure itself of its identity, carry itself to completion.
Our fear of the woods is hardwired but we bar it such that it rarely emerges, except in enclosures like elevators that rise through the thickets of office buildings, high up.
Grandmother was born in a tree. A nurse log, of course. In the hollow must have lain another grandmother, an important one, who cannot or does not contemplate her own generosity, but like the wolf simply grinds away at what she does.
Grandmother’s birth process did not require fertilization. This has been done in labs with mice who are fatherless.
It doesn’t always go well during labor—messy as hell. Afterward, Grandmother stood and chimed, “Oh, oh, darling,” pointing herself in the direction of my cabin. She was identical to her mother and left her immediately, not looking back.
Under its layers of wall-dust, my cabin stands against the sunset. The forest with its stored horrors lies to the east. When I cut back the clearing that year I saw the trees had been struck by infestations and lightening. White fungus discs lay puttied on the trunks, resembling curved, sleeping homunculi.
On the day Grandmother was born I was twenty-one and lay flat on my porch, resting, waiting, my cells laboring to turn off the genetic expressions that might have proven aggressive or lethal to the next generation. I breathed, the product of such expressions plus my entire life’s worth of thinking, reasoning, my continual disputes with brother over my lack of generosityIn her flannel nightgown she arrived. Grandmother’s old hand rested on the mailbox. A little yellow sweater over the nightgown. As soon as I saw her I sat up, instantly embedded in love. She worked her way toward me, sleeves and hair littered with termite-dust and the softly pungent shreds of the cedar log’s decaying center.
The old woman smiled for the first time in her life. Her face was that of a lambent alien; the floor of the nightgown dragged. The sweater was unpilly. Slippers clean. Her eyebrows tangled with root hairs. I moved to see if she was real from the side, too. Then the other side. Our relationship had begun.
In the woods beyond the clearing the nurse log remained, fragrantly decomposing, far from death. One end nourished a hemlock seedling, and if the other lay crushed and in crumbles, the smallest particles, with stupendous patience, retained their integrity until dissolving into the famous sweetness of the forest floor.
I dusted off my pants, already imagining the proud note I could write to brother summarizing how I, as the luckiest or best one of the family, was sole witness to Grandmother’s birth event.
She and I sat together on the stairs. She would have looked just as fine wearing a gown-like carapace of dark crystals scraped from the identities of rock and sap. “I’m close to you, darling,” she sang. Her voice pulled memories from me, its timbre melding in a caramelly way with the voices of my long-gone parents, for the structure and size of our family’s vocal membranes always had been identical. I listened closely to the notes and their decay. Surely, I thought, Grandmother is not fully a member of the family, for, born in the forest, she is above it all.
I could not have been further from wrong.
We drank lemonade from stone cups and I returned her smile. Before the smile unwound I smelled an intruder approaching through the long path of the woods. I wanted to tell Grandmother, but stopped; I could not say it, for I was frightened by the prospect of emotional arousal and believed it would render me out of control.
To reassure me, she used spare, comforting, Lutheran phrases that were stingy, I later realized. I was twenty-one and endured well the surprise of her exposed breast beneath the raised white gown, her sudden omnivorous panting. While she slept, I quietly moved my alder chair to the far end of the porch.
She awoke discussing the dry life of the moon. She told how the distance between two cities can alter when the majority of the buildings are on fire. How it is best to break the law on Fridays. I patted a rhythm with my feet on the warm porch planks, ready to hear more. Then Grandmother got up, walked down to the road, and did not return for three days.
I saw her game. Even the forest mouse, descended of large families, knows in his deep brain’s refinement the peril of abandonment. The mouse’s nose quivers. The frank pain of the upper lip. The snake is vulnerable at the neck and between the ribs and in early spring requires her sisters’ wrapping bodies for the edge of warmth their shivering brings.
Grandmother returned but did not explain herself. At night in my chair, I heard her deep laugh. From beneath my blanket I glimpsed her flat, scuffing slippers, her toe joints bent over the soles, curled. “You’d better get ready for winter,” she warned, as if I were an incompetent. Then the rain came and the cabin was no longer fully waterproof.
I missed brother and dreamed of our horseplay but with Grandmother present, I developed a new lens through which to observe the forest and I trained it on her as my anger grew.
Over the days she had enough time to drop the innocent act, to stop saying “Oh, really? I had no idea,” so as to lure me, as well as others—the mailman—but she did not bother. She knew far more than she let on. She could have stopped her scoffing attitude, become less unpredictable, more mature; she could have changed.
“You’re only loved as much as you believe you are,” she said arrogantly, standing at the top of the stairs.
From the deep grammar of our genes, our family color, snow, on tree-filled hills of rage emerged. Like many people, I did not know the points at which I could apply leverage. I could describe the forest but I could not detail its workings. I knew the forest’s clues and signs but I was unlearned as to what these precisely meant.
The game took another edge. She stopped talking to me for periods of time that only she chose. Sharp and manipulative, she needed to depend on me for such interactions and needed me to be dependent, too.
The intruder was still en route. He had been for days, carrying a shovel or radio. I heard his insane breathing in my mind at a distance of miles. Intuition told me he was a stranger, but intuition is blunted by character, even on good days, and so is ever incomplete.
“Now you owe me,” Grandmother said unbelievably, as if she had the right, her head burgeoning, turning in the doorway. She hid a pot of coffee so I could not have it, absurdly. The mailman stopped delivering letters because Grandmother told him I hated him and wanted no mail.
It stank. The cabin whirled and events occurred too quickly. Grandmother made it clear she wanted to have some special tie to me based on the small capricious favors that would leave me indebted or obligated to her. She hinted this tie would be illicit in some way and tried to tantalize me with promises of future gentleness and even money while being unreliable. I was twenty-one and had fewer rights than she.
Later the mailman returned, smiling anxiously, bringing a load of letters from the family; these had been piling up in his vehicle, he said. The mailman chatted. His route, he said, was a good one. “My union is strong,” he said, while Grandmother stood behind the door and I willed her to disappear.
The forest’s layers of fruits and branches begin their growth on the command of a clock. I had grown fuller also, to more potential, and scarcely knew I was sharpening for the spring’s months.
I thrashed the letters around on the floor, kicking, scattering them. I sat on the floor and read the letters. The first was from brother, a hello. Then two notes from a cousin, to whom I had written in the first place at Grandmother’s urging; he lived in the region and had a thought disorder. He explained in his letter that he was now unemployed. The last part of his letter was lewd.
Grandmother was waiting.
“You told him to write this way to me,” I accused.
She put two fingers of her left hand inside her mouth to say yes. A gesture she often used. Standing in the clearing, she held her cigarette in the sun.
My cousin’s letter lingered in my mind and against my will I was warm. The prospect of an incompetent male causing my insides to jump up like saliva. It was Grandmother’s doing.
“Seems like,” Grandmother said, watching me, “you’d want to try him.”
“Bullshit, Grandmother,” I said. I hated knowing her. She had created a dilemma in which she would offer, then deny me, what she herself wanted, while provoking me so it was impossible for me to relate to her at all. I hated how, at first, I had solicited her with my puddly questions, my peon’s search for reassurance. I had placated her. Now I had the pathogen-like belief that my anger would destroy us both.
I swept the floor clean and tightened the cabin door’s hinges. The intruder was still approaching, always, getting closer. He was faceless in a white shirt. He would thump through the cedars, closer, tearing the ferns. When he burst from the forest and into the clearing, Grandmother would run to join him and I would scream.