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
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.”
Grampa watched the cats slip off to hunt for their
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.”
mumbling, “Yeah. I know.” He knew, but nobody had said it so
“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.”
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
thing I did was steal this. Long ago.” Grampa untied the
wood knot charm from his guitar strap and handed it to
“You stole a wood
“Look at it,
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.”
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--?”
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
“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.”
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
“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
“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
“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.”
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
“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
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.
“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.
“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
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
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 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.