A short story by Pamela Eason
Dedicated to Sam and his Great-Grandmama
After the frogs started croaking, and the crickets started chirping, and the stars came out, and, as the gold pendulum on the grandfather clock was striking twelve, Great-Grandmama’s head rose from her cozy bed, like a full white moon rising in the sky. She lobbed her legs to the floor and squeezed her swollen feet into her pink and gray walking shoes.
Even though Great-Grandpawpaw was snoring loudly and didn’t hear as good as he used to, she began her nightly pilgrimage as silently as she could. She lifted and set each foot down cautiously, careful not to disturb any object Great-Grandpawpaw had left lying in her path. As she crept from the bedroom to backdoor, here and there, her shadow appeared on the wall like a helmeted iguana walking on two legs.
When the backdoor shut silently behind her, she gently pulled her spikes and strap from the hook she had hidden behind the painted planter on the porch. It was overflowing with Purple Night Sky petunias. Great-Grandmama rubbed her fingers over one, enjoying the feel of its velvety petals, before padding to the grand, old, pecan tree beside her house like a determined pigeon toward a slice of bread.
To get the spikes strapped to her shoes, she had to lean her tender back against the tree’s strong rutty truck and stretch each foot to stiff knee so that her legs formed, first, a crooked number four and, then, a contorted number nine. She stood straight for a minute to get her balance then carefully turned to face the tree. She looked up, rolled her shoulders up, back, and down, and stretched the stiffness out of her arms and hands before whipping the climbing strap around the wide trunk. Great-Grandmama grabbed the strap with the other hand on the first try. She sighed with relief. Tonight, just like last night and the night before, she would need all the strength she had left for the climb.
She grabbed the strap and pushed the spikes attached to her right shoe securely into the trunk. She pulled with her arms, and pushed with her feet, moving the strap then each spiked shoe. She climbed like a fly struggling to free itself from sticky syrup. Every now and then, she stopped her ascent to catch her breath and take in the view. She peered up through the leaves at blazing stars. Once in awhile, she looked around, first, at her dark bedroom window, then, further up, at the shingled roof, and finally down at her chimney and the growing gardens scattered ‘round the yard below.
Tonight the moon was full and she could see for quite aways, so, if she could make it to the third limb, she would stop there. She had been stopping at the third limb, gasping for breath after breath, more and more lately, and, anyhow, it was high enough and she liked it. The arch of her back fit perfectly into the curve the third branch made as it sloped from the thick trunk to its tip that hung above a bed of proud orange and yellow irises. The irises peered expectantly up at Great-Grandmama, like a pack of dogs with perked ears, as she scooted her back close to the trunk and stretched out her legs. She wouldn’t let them down.
She was already listening intently, trying to catch the rhythm. When she almost had it, her upper body began to sway, side-to-side, her back softly scratching against the rough tree trunk, until she felt in sync with the downbeat croaked out by a thousand tree frogs. The irises picked up a breeze and swayed too, following Great-Grandmama’s lead. Her toes began to move rhythmically, up and down, pointing skyward to each upbeat chirped out by a hundred groups of crickets, rubbing their wings together in unison like great ensembles of stringed instruments. Clusters of figs hung heavy and still on their own branches, full and lazy and reluctant to join in, ’till an updraft of night air started them bouncing up and down to the beat.
Great-Grandmama kept moving, body side-to-side, toes up and down, to the steady pulse of the croaks and chirps for a minute or two till her body came alive, like a sparkler lit on the Fourth of July. Melodic soprano notes suddenly sprang from her parted lips and filled the night air with a toe-tapping song. It was as lively and rhythmic as a whip-poor-will’s call, and it linked her with all that was awake and singing in the night.
My, oh my.
Climb so high.
Climb or die
Toward night sky.
Souls soon fly,
By and by,
‘bove night sky.
My, oh my.
After the song, frogs and crickets hopped higher and higher in long, resplendent applause before silencing, and stilling, and bending themselves ’till they looked as if they were in a grand prayer meeting. As expected, her next song began – slow and soft. It was a song that was, all at once, filled with thanksgiving, and wonder, and a sweet, sad longing that hung heavy between stars and string beans. When it ended, Great-Grandmama snuggled against the tree studying her folded hands, and waited patiently for the call of her old rival.
She was almost snoozing when, the two-foot-tall barred owl, standing stately above her, squeezed out a familiar two-lined stanza:
Wh wh, wh, ew.
Wh wh, wh, ewwwww.
Great-Grandmama scanned the branches above her ‘til she found the owl’s ancient eyes – two dark pools, each surrounded by a circle of fine white and brown feathers and outlined by thick, dark-feathered brows. The owl locked her black eyes with Great-Grandmama’s blue ones as if to challenge her. Then she filled her lungs with warm night air, ‘till her chest rose and spread out double-wide. The old owl squeezed out a screech that crescendoed until it pierced the darkness for half a mile or more.
Great-Grandmama accepted the grand ole owl’s dare as she did every night. She sucked in her own great breath of warm night air that expanded her own chest double-wide. And just like every other night, Great-Grandmama’s lingering screech released some pent-up something in her, something like a soul, that took flight with the owl. Freely, that part of her flew, unburdened, from the tree and soared over her yard, over farmer’s fields dotted with sleeping cows, over rows of rooftops until dawn began spreading pink and yellow fingers across the sky and old familiar aches once again surged through her body still propped, now heavy with sleepiness and damp with dew, on the third limb.
Great-Grandmama thought of Great-Grandpawpaw as she did every morning. He would be stirring soon, ready for his big bowl of steamy grits and scrambled eggs crumbled with crisp bacon. She wouldn’t let him down. She stretched her legs and arms and readied herself for the downward climb. Oh, how she already longed for the coming night.
Photo attributed to Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) available @ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Barred_Owl_(33795815188).jpg