Inside Drops of Crimson

 
 
   
 

In This Issue

 
 
 
  Quiet Haunts - Kristopher Reisz
 
 

Grampa Alton’s house was like him. Both were weather-worn and full of creaks. Fading memories--snapshots and brittle sheet muisc--hid in cupboards and behind the couch.   

     Spencer had only met Grampa Alton twice before that summer. But in May, Spencer’s mom had sat on his bed. She told him they and Jeff, Spencer’s older brother, were flying down to stay with Grampa Alton for awhile. She talked about the French Quarter, the Audubon Zoo, and everything else to see in New Orleans. Then, with her voice starting to shake, she’d explained that Grampa Alton was sick and wouldn’t get better.

     Spencer knew more than that. He didn’t spy, exactly, but if he was quiet, keeping his face hidden behind a book, adults forgot about him. They started talking between themselves and let slip things they didn’t think Spencer was old enough to know.

     Years of drinking had scarred Grampa Alton’s liver. It couldn’t clean toxins out of his body anymore. He was so full of poisons, they’d turned his eyes yellow. Spencer also knew Grampa Alton had gone to City Park in April, even though it took him hard effort to get across the kitchen. He’d collapsed, and a jogger had called 911. Grampa Alton spent two days in the hospital, but wouldn’t tell anybody why he’d gone to the park in the first place. That’s when Spencer’s mom decided to go look after him.

     So far, Spencer’s mom had spent the summer rushing to the pharmacy and buying groceries. She’d been too busy to visit the zoo or any of the other places she’d talked about, and she’d snapped at Spencer to stop asking when they could go.

     Their second day in New Orleans, Jeff had made friends with some kids playing basketball. He was always out with them now; he’d even met a girl named Sarah. That meant Spencer was usually left alone in the house with Grampa Alton, with an almost stranger whose eyes were full of poison.   

     Grampa watched a lot of TV, court shows, game shows, just whatever was on during the day. If Spencer walked into the living room, Grampa would look up, saying, “Hey there, Spencer.” Spencer would nod and say hey back. Then, unable to think of anything to talk about, he’d leave Grampa on the couch and go read, or kick pine cones around the backyard, or poke through those cardboard boxes full of Grampa Alton’s memories.

     Grampa had been a musician. From the dust and dead moths, Spencer pulled out snapshots of him and his friends goofing around on-stage and on tour busses. Women puffed cigarettes and sipped beer from cans, their eyes half-closed like hunting tigers.

     One day, Spencer found an old copy Billboard Magazine. Grampa stared out from an ad in the back. His hair gleamed with some kind of oil. His guitar strap was decorated with rhinestones, and a little charm dangled from it. Usually, Spencer struggled to connect that slyly-smiling man with the one who drifted through the present, watching Everybody Loves Raymond and waiting to die. But sometimes, if Spencer woke up before sunrise, he’d hear Grampa playing his guitar on the porch.

Grampa played beautifully even though he played mostly sad songs. One morning, though, the tune was as steady and bright as the dawn. It was music that nobody could feel lonely while listening to. And Spencer, who’d felt plenty of loneliness that

summer, slipped out of bed and followed the music through the dark house.     

     When Spencer stepped onto the porch, Grampa glanced up just long enough to say, “Hey there, Spencer.” He didn’t seem to mind Spencer being there, and Spencer wasn’t the only one drawn to the music. Stray cats slunk up the steps, jumped onto the railing, and gathered around him. Some of them seemed to twitch their tails in time to the music.

     After Grampa had finished, the final notes fluttering out into the city, Spencer said, “That was really good.”

     “Appreciate it.” Grampa watched the cats slip off to hunt for their breakfast.

     They sat in silence. Grampa toyed with the charm hanging from his guitar strap. It was an ancient wood knot, worn shiny from years of handling, dangling from a piece of waxed string. Spencer recognized it from the magazine ad.

     After a minute, Spencer started fidgeting. He didn’t know if he should say something else or if Grampa wanted to be left alone. Then, Grampa said, “I’m dying, Spencer.”

     Spencer nodded, mumbling, “Yeah. I know.” He knew, but nobody had said it so plain before.

     “Not as scary as people think. Wish I’d done a lot of things different. Wish I’d been around when your mom was little. But I couldn’t make up for that if I lived another hundred years.”

     While Spencer’s grandmother had been raising his mom, Grampa Alton had been making music and raising Cain across the country. Mom didn’t met him until she was in college, and the distance between them had never closed completely. That’s why Spencer had only met Grampa Alton a couple times. It was also another thing grown-ups didn’t think he should know, that Spencer had only woven together from scraps of overheard conversation.

     “Another rotten thing I did was steal this. Long ago.” Grampa untied the wood knot charm from his guitar strap and handed it to Spencer.

     “You stole a wood knot?”

     “Look at it, Spencer.”

     Spencer looked again. He stared at the knot’s age-grimed whorls until he could see a head and beak hidden there. A pressed-down wing. “It’s a bird,” he gasped.

     Grampa smiled. “I hoped you could return it for me.”

     “Me? To who?”

     “To a Houma Indian named Water-Moving-Under-Ice.” Grampa sipped his coffee. “See, the Houma used to be part of a bigger nation called the Choctaw out in Mississippi, and Water-Moving was a pretty girl meant to marry the chief. She fell in love with the chief’s brother, though. I guess he fell in love with her too, because one night they ran off together, along with a dozen or so other families, to start their own tribe.”

     “When?” Spencer asked, his eyebrows creasing together. 

     “Oh, this was all hundreds of years ago.”

     Spencer still held the strange charm. “But then how did you steal--?”

     “Just listen. Water-Moving and her people had to leave everything they knew. They spent years wandering, getting run off one place then another by bigger tribes. Finally, they settled on the Bayou St. John. New Orleans didn’t reach that far north yet. And no other tribe wanted the swamp because it was full of ghosts.

     “They did alright for awhile, but New Orleans kept growing. Settlers flooded in until the city sprawled from the Mississippi to Lake Pontchartrain. Eventually their was a run-in between the Houma and the whites, and Water-Moving’s husband got killed.

     “After that, the Houma knew they ha to move again. They decided to try their luck further down south. But Moving-Water, who was hardly a girl anymore, couldn’t bear moving again. So when her people left, she stayed. She knelt by her husband’s grave and just didn’t move. Finally, she turned into an oak tree, and the birds sent their sweetest singers to perch in her branches to keep her company.

     “When I was your age, a Houma Indian used to work with my daddy. I always liked listening to his stories, especially that one. I also loved to go fishing on the bayou. That was the last little piece of real wilderness left, of Water-Moving’s world left. The last place that kept its secrets. Now, they’ve made it part of City Park. It’s all golf courses, now.”

     At the mention of City Park, Spencer stiffened but said nothing. Grampa’s story held him tight. It squeezed his chest, almost making it hard to breathe.    

     “One day, I was deep, deep back there, looking for a good catfish spot. It was almost winter and getting cold. And I always walked through the water since haunts can’t follow you across flowing water. But I was a lot tougher back then. I didn’t mind the cold or the haunts because I liked how quiet it was back there. Then I came up on a big oak tree full of birds singing the prettiest songs I’d ever heard.”

     “Water-Moving?”

     Grampa Alton nodded. “I crept up on the bank and hid behind some brush and listened to the birds for a long time. Finally, I decided to catch one. Didn’t know what I was going to do with it, just that I couldn’t stand to leave without one. So I climbed up Water-Moving’s trunk slow as anything, slow as Christmas. Most of the birds saw me and flew up to higher branches, but one little sparrow didn’t know any better. He sat there singing his heart out. And while he was singing, I grabbed him.

     “Well, as soon as I snatched her sparrow, Water-Moving tried to snatch me. All her branches reached down and up and across for me.” Spreading his fingers, Grampa made a slow grab for one of the cats lingering on the porch. The cat bolted for the tall grass.  

     “Somehow, I made it to the ground without breaking my neck. I ran all the way home, holding that sparrow tight. When I got home, I’d squeezed that bird so hard, I’d squeezed it down into that charm. And as long as I had that, I could play better than anybody, make music as pretty as that sparrow. No one ever taught me. I just knew. Just like a bird knows.”

     “That’s why you went to the park last April? To give it back?”

     Grampa nodded. “That and apologize. I went looking for Water-Moving, but the place has changed so much since then. The heat got to me and well . . .” His voice drifted off. “Will you return it for me, Spencer?”  

     “Um . . .” It felt strange being pulled into a centuries-long tale of wandering Indians and enchanted music. Spencer was scared of getting into trouble with his mom. “I don’t think Mom will let me.” He tried to give the charm back, saying, “Maybe you could ask her to do it. Or Jeff.”

     Grampa shook his head. “They couldn’t find a quiet haunt like Water-Moving. But you can. If you listen close, you can.”

     “But--”

     “Spencer, please. I’m scared of dying with someone like her mad at me.”

     Grampa sounded so miserable, Spencer couldn’t make himself say no. When he nodded, Grampa sighed with relief. Giving Spencer some money for bus fare, Grampa told him which bus would take him to City Park. Then, stuffing the money and sparrow into his pocket, he walked off through the purple veil of morning. He hoped he could return the charm and get back before mom woke up. 

     Spencer had never been on a bus before. Even when it stopped, it wasn’t still. The seats and rubber floor trembled like an animal breathing. He watched the streets pass, first rows of clapboard houses like Grampa Alton’s, painted cotton candy blues, pinks, and yellows, then brick buildings wreathed in curled iron fences and window grates.

     As the lumbering bus threaded up narrow streets built for horse-drawn carriages, Spencer took the oak knot out of his pocket again. The longer he stared, the more details how saw, delicately veined feathers, a closed eye. A sparrow trapped within the wood, waiting to be freed.

     The bus hissed to a stop across from City Park. It wasn’t like any park Spencer knew, with some playground equipment and a few baseball diamonds. City Park was miles of grass and water. Giant spiders and men made of pitted iron hung out in a sculpture garden. The Bayou St. John flickered the browns and yellows of beetles wings as it crept toward Lake Pontchartrain.

     Families and couples passed Spencer, heading into the granite-columned art museum or carrying fishing poles toward the bayou. Spencer stared at the trees. The cypress and pines rose straight as soldiers. The oaks, though, were bent like old men. Branches clawed for the sky and for the people walking along pea gravel paths.

     Spencer stepped up to one of the oaks. A squirrel disappeared into its labyrinth of green. Making sure no one could hear him, Spencer mumbled, “Hello? Water-Moving?”

     Dogs yapped, people laughed, and fishing lines whizzed out, arcing to the water. The tree made no sign it had heard him.

     “My grampa took something of yours years ago. I want to give it back.”

     A cell phone rang, a jogger rushed by, breathing hard, but still, the tree stayed silent.

     Spencer started walking again. He whispered to the next oak, then the next, but there were hundreds. They shaded the paths and stood on distant slopes. Realizing how big his errand really was, Spencer started feeling overwhelmed.

     By noon the heat turned cruel, biting Spencer’s shoulders and the back of his head. Clouds of gnats buzzed around his face.

     Spencer didn’t know why Grampa thought he could find Water-Moving when his mom and Jeff couldn’t. He glanced at every oak and listened to the chatter of birds, hoping for something that set one tree apart from all the others. Worry kept Spencer distracted, though. His mom would be awake by now and wondering where he was. She’d be furious that he’d gone across town by himself.   

     Spencer stopped at a drinking fountain near a closed soccer field. A faded map of the park hung on the concession stand wall. Looking, Spencer saw he’d crossed barely a quarter of the park.

     Spencer sat down against the wall. Pulling his knees up, he rested his sweaty face on his arms. Grampa Alton shouldn’t have asked him to do something so important. Spencer couldn’t find Water-Moving, and now, he was in trouble. His mom might even send him home over this. Grampa was dying, and Spencer would never see him again.  

     “Spence--Er!”

     Spencer jerked his head up. It was his mom. He saw her car creeping up the road. She stared around and shouted through the open window. “Spence--Er!”

     Dreading how mad she’d be, Spencer started toward the car. Grampa sat in the passenger seat. Spencer was surprised he’d told Mom where to find him; he’d been so desperate to clear the theft from his soul. Maybe guilt over going missing while Spencer’s mom had been a kid made it impossible for Grampa to let her think her own child was missing now.

     Spencer wondered if he’d told her everything, about Moving-Water and the stolen sparrow. But no, Grampa hadn’t explained why he’d gone out to the park himself, even after they took him to the hospital, even after everybody thought he was a fool and couldn’t be trusted to take care of himself.

     That made Spencer stop. Grampa had kept his secret for decades until he’d told Spencer that morning because most people wouldn’t have believed him. They couldn’t find the quiet haunts.

     He and Grampa Alton were a lot alike. They kept apart from the world’s rush and roar, and when you did that, you heard so many of its whispered secrets. Spencer looked at Grampa and, for the first time, didn’t see a stranger.

     “Spence--Er!”

     Spencer touched the charm in his pocket. Deciding he couldn’t get in any more trouble than he was already in, he turned and dashed into some thick underbrush, dusk-dark even in the afternoon. He didn’t have much time. His mom would talk to the park police if she hadn’t already, and they’d find him soon. If she sent him back home, nobody would be left who could help Grampa.

     Spencer skirted the edges of golf courses, pushing and tugging his way through tangled scrub. The oaks stood draped in gowns of Spanish moss. They wore catkins and acorns like jewelry. Spencer trusted that if he listened close, he could find Moving-Water, just like Grampa had decades earlier.

     The sun peered through the leaves overhead, diamond-bright spots of light sprinkling the wild flowers around him. More than once, the jeweled shadows dimmed, as if something large and silent was approaching from behind. Spencer would turn but never saw anything. Just in case, he’d cross the bayou’s tea-colored water, because haunts couldn’t follow you across flowing water.  

     He was mucking through a lagoon, duckweed clinging to his bare calves, when he heard a bird singing the same happy tune Grampa had played that morning, a tune that could make anyone feel less lonely.

     He followed the song into a gully. There by the water, she’d grown ancient watching over her husband. Branches sprouted from her bowed spine. Birds fluttered through her leaves. Kneeling near the bank, Water-Moving-Under-Ice stretched one pollen-dripping hand over the lagoon’s murky surface. If she still had a face, it was hidden by Spanish moss and odd yellow blossoms.

     Grampa had been right; the birds that kept Water-Moving company were the most beautiful singers Spencer ever heard.

     As Spencer stepped onto the bank, the birds stopped singing. The only sounds were the drilling buzz of insects and distant, muffled voices beyond the gully. Pulling the charm from his pocket, Spencer held it out. “Water-Moving? My grampa stole this from you a long time ago.”

     The great tree didn’t move.

     “He’s really sorry. He sent me to give it back.” Spencer started to worry this was just another tree, but he raised the charm higher, yelling, “Please. All he wants--”

     A high branch dipped from the cloudless sky. Sap-sticky wood creaked. Acorns rained down around Spencer. It took all of his courage to stand still as the canvas of wide-lobed leaves surrounded him.

     A twig finger hooked the charm’s waxed string and lifted it up. Spencer lost sight of it among the Water-Moving’s rustling body. Then a single sparrow called out. After a few notes, all of Water-Moving’s companions joined in. The string that had held the sparrow fell to the mud.

     Spencer picked it up and craned his head back again. “Grampa’s really sorry. Okay?”

     Water-Moving ignored him.

     “He tried to come himself, but he’s sick. He’s dying,” Spencer said, finally speaking the words out loud. “And he just doesn’t want you to be mad at him anymore.”

     The top of the tree made a slight bow. It might have just been the wind, but Spencer decided to take it as his answer.

     “Thank you,” he whispered, and stood there for another minute, letting the birds’ happy song fill his chest. Then he began picking his way out of the gully. Spencer was covered with thin scratches. Mud caked his sneakers. When he emerged from the underbrush, a hardy-looking woman came loping up the path. She wore a uniform with a badge embroidered on the front. 

     “Spencer?” the policewoman asked.

     “Yes?”

     “Your momma’s been looking for you. Why don’t you come with me?”

     Spencer got to ride on her ATV to the tiny police station near the tennis courts. His mom hugged him, then demanded, “What were you thinking? I told you not to leave the house without telling me.”

     Grampa Alton stood up from one of the plastic chairs lining the wall. “Don’t blame him, Honey. I was the one who told him he needed some fresh air.”

     Spencer’s mom was mad, but she wasn’t going to shout in a police station. On the way to the car, she walked with quick, angry strides, not noticing Grampa shuffling behind and unable to keep up. Walking beside him, Spencer pressed the loop of string into Grampa’s palm. Grampa felt it was empty, squeezed Spencer’s hand, and said nothing. Spencer was exhausted and filthy, but he smiled. 

     Grampa took all the blame for Spencer’s adventure, never trying to explain what he’d really asked Spencer to do. Mom and Jeff both would think he’d gone insane. Spencer got scolded and warned never to run off like that again, but he wasn’t sent home.

     Spencer got a few more weeks of sitting on the porch with the ragged cats, listening to Grampa play. He was never as amazing without his magic charm, but still, he was pretty good. Those mornings, neither of them spoke much or had to.

     Then, one evening after supper, Grampa asked Spencer’s mom to call an ambulance. The next day, laying unconscious in the hospital bed with tubes sunk into his thin body, he slipped away.

     Spencer’s dad flew down. He and Spencer’s mom gathered the stray pieces of Grampa’s life. The music department of a university in Baton Rouge wanted all of his old photos for their archives. That made Spencer’s mom a little happier, that somebody would remember her dad.

     Without Grampa, without the dusty boxes of memories shoved everywhere, there wasn’t much left in the old house except sadness. Spencer grew sullen. He spent a lot of time trying to imagine how many other wonders like Water-Moving Grampa might have shown him if they’d had more time. Wiping his eyes, Spencer told himself the wonders were still out there. Generation after generation of human voices faded to silence, but the quiet haunts endured, waiting to be discovered all over again.   

     In New Orleans, musicians formed a “second line” that follow funeral processions, walking behind the mourners in black clothes and eyes red from crying. Spencer and his family scattered Grampa Alton’s ashes in the Mississippi River. As they floated toward sunset, just as the days of mourning felt too heavy to bear any more, all his old friends raised a wild, bounding song. Trumpets and French horns frightened off heartbreak and swept mourners back into the loud, laughing world of the living. 

 
 

About the Author

 
Kristopher Reisz


Kristopher Reisz lives in north Alabama. His latest novel, a werewolf love story called Unleashed, came out in 2008 from Simon & Schuster.

   
Copyright (c) 2008 Drops of Crimson. All rights reserved.