December 24, 1930
Park Ridge, Illinois
When the year turns, there are bells on the wind. All the old years fall on the ground in lights. When you walk across those lights, it sounds like walking on all the piled-up leaves of giant trees. But up high the bells are ringing for everyone alive. There are silver and gold and glass bells you can see through, and sleigh bells a hundred years old. My grandmother said there was a whisper for each one dead that year, and a feather drifting for each one waiting to be born.
My mother says that's just a story, but I always do hear the bells, even in my sleep, and everything in front of me is all white and open like a field. Then I start dreaming.
The trees in my dream sparkle. It's quiet in the dark, and I'm indoors, on a stage. The trees are behind me but they are alive, touching limbs and stirred just so. A silent spirit seems to move among them, and the light has found me. It's a large theater, rows and rows before me, and a balcony I glimpse through a gleam that dazzles me. The audience is quiet, waiting for me to speak. Perhaps they are watching a play, my play, or a play in which I perform. I can't make out faces beyond the footlights, but I see the tilt of heads and the shapes of ladies' hats, and a glow seems to float amongst them. There's a hum of admiration or excitement, and a swell of whisper like applause. Then the lights on the stage darken. I hear people weeping, so moved are they by the production.
Grandmother used to say that I might find myself upon a stage one day, as an actor ("don't say 'actress,'" she told me, "the word garners no respect"), or the author of a play. Grandmother admired the suffragettes and said they would open all fields of endeavor to women. If she were younger, she said, and not required at the bosom of her family, she would have joined their movement, to help them fight their war of argument and reason. She was required because Heinrich died. Her "beloved Heinrich" was my father, an only child. We called him Papa. He called Grethe "Miss" or "Missy," and he called me "little Nell," though my name is Annabel. I try very hard to remember him, but I don't, not really. Papa is his portrait, in the gold frame over the parlor mantel ("That is not a photograph, my dear, that is a portrait in oils"), and he is the man in the wedding picture with Mother. One day he didn't come home. I was four years old. Nothing was said that evening to alarm the children. Betty, our nursemaid, sat with us at dinner and put us to bed, for the police had summoned Mother and Grandmother.
Papa was struck by a streetcar in the Loop, just after dusk. He was walking from his club to the station.
I believe there was a crowd, jostling and shoving, distracted by the siren of a passing fire truck, or startled by sudden rain. He was a fine designer of silver in our own backyard workshop, and an actuary for Metropolitan Insurance and Casualty Company of Chicago. He advised on odds and probabilities. This was the irony, Grandmother said, for no one could ever have predicted the sudden death of a man so strong and healthy, who never smoked or drank and was well liked and much respected. He did business at his club because that was where business was done, and was an artist at evenings and weekends, a man known for his talent and easeful charm. He performed in theatricals at university and sang a fine tenor, but pursued mathematics. One job his entire working life, Grandmother says, and head of actuaries when he died, as well as Mother's adviser and manager in the art of silver design. One home from the time Grethe was born, and Grandmother sold their Chicago apartment to relocate with the family. Papa wanted fresh air for the children, and fine schools, and a garden with a barn for his workshop, and a stable for a pony, and the park nearby, where we float our boats and walk through forest paths to the meadow. The meadow is high in spring and mown in summer, and Papa helped us fly kites.
I think I do remember the kites.
Grethe was eight then, and he told her to take off her glasses and run, run straight out and follow the tug of the string; there was no one in the meadow but us and the wind was high. I was little and he held me on his shoulders, clasping my knees, while the kite went up and up. The string played out in his hand against my leg.
I felt so tall, with the grass so far below me, and the kite so far above, dipping and bounding. I was holding on to Papa's hair, which was dark and thick and combed straight back, but blowing that day, blown up like the wide collar of my dress and the ribbons on the kites. I can't see Papa's face, or his eyes near mine, but sometimes, when I'm alone and I think hard, I can feel his hair in my fingers, cold and coarse, and I clinch my fists to hold on.
I know all of Grandmother's stories about Papa, but the kites are not her story. Her stories are in the photograph box that she kept on her dressing table. It's a tall wooden box and the sides are four glass frames: the photographs slide right in. Heinrich, a baby in a blousy dress. Heinrich, ten years old, with Grandmother and Grandfather Eicher ("Like you, Annabel, he read the dictionary, and wrote out new words"). Heinrich in his graduation portrait. Heinrich in military uniform ("To have survived the Great War, and be killed by a streetcar in his prime"). The carved top of the box lifts up, and the other photos fit neatly, each thick card snug in the velvet-lined inside.
The box is mine now. Grethe never looks at photographs. The faces are too small for her to see, and she doesn't care for stories. She had measles and a high fever when she was two. They nearly lost her, Grandmother said, and the crisis affected her eyes and concentration ("Due to her limitations, it's best she's not imaginative. Grethe can learn to run a home and she will marry. Until then we must protect her"). Grethe doesn't go to school any longer; she is quite as tall as Mother and goes with her to the shops and the bank. She helps plan meals, and Mother instructs her on etiquette.
Grethe is delicate. Her hair is dark like Papa's. If she doesn't remember things, I must remember for her. She plays the princess or the pilgrim in my plays and dioramas. I say the lines and she acts them out, for she has a calm slow way of moving and can hold quite still. Hart ruins the dioramas and rouses Duty to barking and running about. My brother Hart is very quick and I must give him long speeches and grave actions. He must be the hero or the villain, and lay flowers at Mother's feet by the end.
Duty is our Boston terrier that follows Hart everywhere and sleeps on our beds by turns. Betty brought him from the pound and Mother let him stay. The pony had been sold by then, to a family on a farm. Duty was already trained, Betty said, because he'd lost his family in a tornado, and a boy needed a dog. Hart wanted to call him Topper because he has a white spot around one eye like a gentleman with a monocle. But Duty wore a collar with letters sewn on and wouldn't answer to any other name. Just as well, Mother said. A pet needs walking and feeding, and his name will serve to instruct. Duty knows to sit, and Hart taught him to fetch and dance. When Grandmother was sick, Duty lay at her door. The nurse was coming and going with trays and said that dog would trip her, he must be shut up.
Duty is in my dream. I stand upon the stage before the trees and Duty is there, sitting just at the edge of the light. His little legs are stubby and his chest is broad and his short brown coat shines like a mirror. Duty's eyes are wide apart and he can seem to gaze in two directions, but he only looks off toward the wings, to where no one can see.
Grandmother always told me that our dreams are wishes or fancies, gifts of the dream fairies that guide and care for us in our sleep. She said that poems and stories are the whisperings of angels we cannot see, beings once like you and me, who know more than we can know while we are here. "Address me in your mind when I am gone," Grandmother told me. "I will hear you always, and will send a reply in the sounds of the grass and the wind, and other little signs, for we no longer speak in words when we have slipped away."
The nurse didn't come on Thanksgiving. I think Grandmother was glad. Mr. Charles O'Boyle, our former roomer, would come for dinner, and the Verbergs from next door, who were bringing the turkey and the chestnut dressing. Mother was making the vegetables and her gelatin surprise, and Charles would bring the pies. Charles is a great one for making pies. He baked them every Sunday, the years he roomed with us, before the Dunnegan Company posted him back to Chicago. Grethe was setting table with the Haviland china and Hart was to lay fires in the dining room and parlor grates. We roast marshmallows on the long forks at Thanksgiving, and figs with chocolate. It was my turn to sit with Grandmother. I brought up tea for one.
"My dear," she said. "You gladden every heart."
I fed her with the teaspoon. She could not hold the cup.
She talked about the silken cord that binds her soul to mine. She slept and woke and slept and woke.
The cord is a real cord and I keep it under my pillow. Not all of it. Once it was very long, the last of the silk braid Mother used on the sofa pillows and parlor drapes, and Grandmother made a game of it for walking through the park. She invented games for us after Papa died, and took us everywhere, to the circus and the moving pictures, but always to the park ("So near it is like our own backyard"). Betty was seeing to Mother and Mother was settling accounts. We children went, afternoons, with Grandmother, single file, holding to the cord. She used to say there was one of her and three of us, we children must hold to the cord just so. She fashioned one large knot for each right hand, and I was first behind her. Then came Grethe, and then Hart, our gentleman protector, with Duty at his heels. We walked two blocks to the park and the arched gates, past the fountain and the pools, into the woods where the trees grow close. We held to the cord in silence, for Grandmother liked us to hear small sounds — the cricket and the mantis, and grasses moving in the meadow beyond the pines. Sound travels even in the cord we hold, Grandmother said, for the heart beats in the hand.
The cord that's left is but a curl wrapped round a knot and tied in double bows. Now if we go to the park, I tie it round Mrs. Pomeroy, who is only a rag doll, no bigger than my two hands, so the cord goes round her waist four times like a golden belt. She was a gift from Papa. We all have our beloved companions, Grandmother said. Where I found such a name she did not know, as I could barely lisp the words when I was two.
Hart says Papa brought him to the park to ride the pony on winter Sundays, and led him all around the meadow. Grethe has asthma and the air was too cold, but Papa and Hart dressed warmly, like explorers on an expedition. Their breath was white as smoke and the afternoons were blue.
I was too young to ride. I don't remember the pony, but he was dear to Grethe, to Hart, and all his friends. A Shetland, Hart says, small as a big dog, with his mane in his eyes, and long eyelashes like Mrs. Pomeroy's, though hers are sewn in thread. One could lead him about the yard with a carrot ("A farmer's son brought hay and feed, cleaned the stall, exercised the animal in bad weather. Your father would have that pony, but the expense was too much, you see, after he died"). There were fine parties at birthdays and May Day, with mimes and jugglers, pony rides and rolling hoops.
Now we have balloons and Mother makes ice cream.
There wasn't ice cream on Thanksgiving.
It was understood I would sit for the blessing. Then Charles carried my plate upstairs. Mother brought a clear broth for Grandmother, but Grandmother was asleep.
"You are not like others," Grandmother liked to tell me. "Your dreams see past us."
Once she bade me close my eyes and touch my forehead to her cool, dry mouth. She kissed me and blessed me and said, whispering, not to ponder the pictures I see, but to hear and see and feel them. Their stories are truths, she told me, for each foretells the eternal garden in which we'll all walk together.
I wonder if that garden is earth or air, if one hungers there, or feeds on nurture that renews itself, like the dew and the wind, like the bells, ringing the old year into the dark, snow swelling every sound.
I asked Grandmother, did she remember Denmark. Min lille svale, she said, and slept.
I ate my dinner. Snow fell past the windows like a picture in a book.
Duty does not really dance. Hart calls it dancing and taught him with bits of meat. Duty stands and moves forward, then back, holding his front paws up before him. Like a suitor at a soiree, Grandmother said. Not such an old dog, Mother said, if he can learn new tricks.
The trees in my dream shine like trees on a glittery valentine. The sparkle looks like snow, catching light, or drops of rain held fast. It is a wonderful effect. Living trees could stand upon a stage in pots of earth, and the limbs might move on wires, gently, as though stirred by a breath.
Grandmother woke and said, "I fear your mother has not been entirely provident."
Then she slept.
Betty has been gone some time now, as we are too old for a nurse. Mrs. Abernathy was a medical nurse, and very strict. She wore a uniform and kept me out of the room. Grandmother told everyone I was the only nurse she needed, but I was not allowed. I could hold her hand at certain times, or read aloud the speeches from my plays.
Mrs. Pomeroy is old and soft. Her arms and legs are mended. She will wear the silken cord in my Christmas play and I will voice her words. She will be Grandmother and speak as Grandmother speaks.
We took turns at Grandmother's bedside on Thanksgiving. I stayed longest, and scarcely left her side. Grandmother told me, when she was still up and sitting in her chair, that she would sleep longer and longer, and then not wake up. She said her death would be a blessed death and one she wished for me when I am very old. She told me a poem to write down, and I wrote each line exactly. I read the poem out for her two times. Then she told me to put the paper in her bedside table, and to open it again when she was gone ("Death is not sad if one has lived a long life, and been of service").
I wanted to look at the poem, but I knew the words.
What lies behind is not myself
But a shell or carapace
Cast off, an earthly taste.
I have gone on you see
To make a place for thee.
Grandmother can hear me. I do believe so. And I hear her voice in the words of her poem, and in other words that come to me.
Perhaps she has sent me the dream about the trees. I could hear a sigh in the branches, a bare whisper. No doubt there was a fan offstage, blowing a breath of motion.
Grandmother used to say, so little can move so much.
Excerpted from QUIET DELL by Jayne Anne Phillips. Copyright 2013 by Jayne Anne Phillips. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.