Published on 2013/09/01

Grimwell

Kelly Ann Jacobson

From behind a curtain of snow comes an old man carrying a heavy bag on his shoulder. Seven street lamps light the block, all black with silver tops like floating ghosts in the blur of snow, and an extended display of white lights chorus behind the lamps in blinks and spurts. The houses, or what can be seen of them by the glow of lights on their windows, are mammoth structures of stucco, brick, and tan siding scattered like grazing buffalo over the streets. On top of each mailbox sits a sloped bookend of six inches of snow, little caps like the adornment of elves, not yet black from the exhaust of one hundred BMWs.

The old man shifts his bag to the other shoulder, adjusts the grey hat perched on his long white hair, and soldiers on through the snow to the cul-de-sac at the end of the street. The wind whips his hair into his face, and the strands are so white he cannot tell the difference between it and the sheets of snowflakes lashing his cheeks. The wind nips at his exposed hands and ankles, but the warmth of his long wool cloak pads his core from freezing. On his feet are two brown clogs that shuffle like jumping rabbits through the twelve inches of white fluff.

Finally, after the last and hardest minutes of his trip come to a close, the old man approaches the largest house on the block. This residence has thirty-seven windows on the front face, not including the guesthouse on the left and the four-car garage on the right. Each window has a sprig of holly tied to a fake candle that glows like a lighthouse beacon, and behind the white shades, he can see the dance of many black shadows against the screen. A five foot sign propped against the garage door says Madeleine’s Tree Farm and gives a phone number.

He traipses over the unplowed walkway to the door, rests his bag with a loud clunk on the concrete step, and leans into the doorbell with a ding-dong-ding that startles him so much he takes a step back and falls off the stoop. Luckily, the snow cushions his fall, and he simply brushes the powder off his wool coat. Then he freezes as the door opens with a slight click and swoosh, his mouth a round O as he takes one last, calming breath.

The woman who opens the door is middle-aged, about sixty, with a clean bob of brown hair. She wears a dark green sweater with a logo he does not recognize on the left shoulder, and each of her wrists has at least three gold bracelets competing with sparkle and shine. One hand is frozen on the doorknob, and the other is propped against the doorway to support her as she stares at the man on the stoop.

“Hello, Madeleine,” he says, his voice hoarse from lack of use and many nights in cold weather.

He had hoped for some kind of warm reception – a kiss on the cheek, a hug, or even a smile – but Madeleine stares at him for what seems like an eternity and then takes two steps back into the warmth of her resplendent home. At least she doesn’t shut the door in his face.

She manages to utter one word: “No.” She says it under her breath, but with his extraordinary hearing abilities and the way she is shaking her head no over and over again, Grimwell gets the point.

“Madeleine, if I could just explain—” he starts.

“No, no, no,” she repeats, louder this time, and then Grimwell hears the patter of feet from all directions: down the stairs, from the left, from the kitchen. In the two feet of space between the door and the frame, he can now see at least twenty people peering at him with faces scrunched in confusion.

One of the men puts his arm around Madeleine.

“Are you okay?” he asks her, but she continues to shake her head. “Do you know this man?”

“Of course I know him,” Madeleine says, and all of the faces, young and old alike, turn to look back at her. “He’s my father.”

Silence. All twenty necks turn slowly like fans on a warm summer day, and he tries to meet each of the forty eyes with a smile though his face is frozen and he cannot feel his lips. He searches each face for some kind of family resemblance, but they look more like his late wife than him. Only the young children smile back from the clutches of their mothers’ arms.

“But I thought you said your father was dead!” the man touching Grimwell’s daughter says.

“No, I didn’t say dead exactly… I said missing. For an extended period. So long that we thought he was dead.”

Madeleine pauses, and Grimwell can see the cogs turning. She looks around at the family, at the cousins and sons and daughters and aunts, and then she realizes what he is doing there.

“Don’t let him in!” she says, but it is too late – her husband, just a few seconds earlier, asks Grimwell to please come in from the cold to sit by their fire.

“I would love to,” Grimwell says as he takes his bag from the stoop and steps into the heat of the house.

The man takes his bag and coat, and some of the other men and women lead him through a well-lit hallway into the family room where the large Christmas tree sits like a plump Santa in a department store. More than fifty presents of varying shapes and sizes lie under the tree like overweight sunbathers, waiting for their owners to rip off their sheets of penguin wrapping paper and red bows and discover their much-anticipated contents.

Grimwell sits in an oversized armchair, blue corduroy with floppy pillows stuffed at his sides, and the adults find places on the sofa, kitchen chairs carried in by the older children, or on the floor around his feet. He forgot to remove his pointy boots on entry, and now the snow melts down the leather sides onto the shaggy white carpet and through the cracks in his boots to his already damp socks.

Madeleine sits across the room in a wooden rocking chair that used to be her mother’s, about as far from him as she can get without leaving the house. Once everyone settles in with pillows behind their backs and warm cocoa at their lips, the rest of the family calls out questions: Where have you been this whole time? Why are you wearing those shoes? What’s that stick?

He has been alone too long in the forest, and he soon gets lost in the voices like the competing birdcalls of early morning. He stares back, mute.

“I’m John. What’s your name?” the nice man who took his jacket finally asks.

“Grimwell.”

“Grimwell? Is that Scottish?”

“No, it’s—”

“Don’t say it!” Madeleine rises from her chair, and when she speaks, the whole family goes quiet. The only sound is the tick of a clock on the mantle above the fireplace, and the crack of burning wood. “I won’t hear any of that talk in my house.”

“Madeleine—”

“No, I won’t hear of it. And his given name is Frank, not Grimwell, for the record. At least it used to be.”

The name carries across the room like the dive of a brown pelican from flight, FRANK, into his memory like the rustle of wet wings and their muddy descent.

“Yes, that was my name, wasn’t it? I had almost forgotten!”

“I’m sure you did,” Madeleine says as she sits back down, rocking back like a queen on her throne. “But it was different for the rest of us. I know what you’re here to do, but before you ask, why don’t I tell the story from my perspective. For me, it’s still as vivid as yesterday. Then you can do your display, ask the question, and go home.”

This will be a bit harder than he thought.

“Very well, Madeleine, tell your story.”

* * *

Madeleine is eight, and though her mother Aida finally broke down and told her there is no Santa Claus, she still leaves a plate of gingerbread cookies on a folding chair with a note. In scribbled, half-cursive handwriting, she requests a scooter with pink handlebars and silver streamers like spaghetti; a set of colored pencils and artist’s pad; a computer game where she gets to dress her dolls in high top sneakers and miniskirts. If there is no Santa Claus she will get school notebooks and mechanical pencils and books, but if he does exist…

On Christmas Eve, her parents take her to the Lutheran church they attend once a year. She wears her new Christmas dress, a red velvet thing with white lace around the collar and hemline, and Aida braids Madeleine’s hair in two French braid pigtails that go halfway down her back. After her mother slides white stockings onto her little legs, she fastens black-buckled shoes onto her daughter’s bouncing feet.

In Rochester there is already six inches of snow on the ground by December 25. The snow gets in Madeleine’s plastic shoes and licks her stockings, but her fake fur coat keeps her warm until they reach the narthex and her father hangs it up. Before they enter the sanctuary, the pastor takes her hand and stares into her eyes, perhaps reading her like an x-ray for any naughty behavior to report to God or Santa Claus or whoever is in charge.

Her family, just the three of them, sits close together in the very last pew. There are many empty seats closer to the pulpit, but her father hates crowds and her mother feels guilty for not knowing any of the other congregants. Aida looks beautiful in the candlelight, like the women on the soap operas she watches during the day – she wears a black dress with lace sleeves, and around her neck and wrist are strings of small red and green plastic flowers. Madeleine keeps running her fingers over the tiny buds, so Aida takes the bracelet off and doubles it around Maddie’s wrist.

Frank is the most attentive during the service. He reads the prayers with gusto and sings louder than anyone else in the back three rows, which helps since he is the only one on key. She only sees him in a suit on Christmas, and without his beard and long hair, he looks like a stranger. As a tree farmer there is usually no need for him to shave or groom his hair, and Madeleine likes him better that way.

The ushers pass out candles, and for the first time her parents let her take one too. Her father’s candle is lit first by one of the men in the aisle, then her mother’s, and lastly hers. She is mesmerized by the heat of the flame, which dances in front of her face to the last verses of Silent Night. She makes a wish: let something amazing happen this Christmas.

On Christmas morning, she wakes up in her room and listens to the quiet of the house. The princess clock on the wall says 8:00 AM, already an hour after the 7:00 AM minimum wake-up time her parents gave her the night before. She scrambles from under the covers, footie pajamas tripping up in the sheet, and then half-falls the last few feet out of bed. Her parents’ room is next to hers, and she tiptoes to their bedroom and turns the gold handle slowly. Inside, her mom and dad are asleep in a half-moon position: her father with one arm over her mother in a protective embrace, her mother with both arms under her head. Madeleine creeps in, the pads of her footies sticking to the wood floor like a slow-moving iguana, until she finds her father’s back. With one flying move, she vaults over him, slips between the two sleeping bodies, and yells “Christmas!”

They are used to her morning stunts: neither parent reacts for a minute, and then her father withdraws his arm like a marionette and her mother turns around to face her with her eyes still closed.

“Is it past 7:00?” Aida asks in a whisper.

“It’s 8:00! We’re already an hour behind!”

“The presents aren’t going anywhere,” Frank adds, his voice husky after the previous night’s singing.

“I know, but I can’t wait any longer!”

Madeleine shakes from excitement, and though she is small for her age, she still manages to quake the whole bed.

“Alright, alright!” Frank says, pulling himself upright and grabbing her in his arms. “Let’s go see what you got.”

Their tiny living room is decked in garlands, three Christmas wreaths Aida made out of branches Frank brought back from work, and a plastic Christmas tree with silver balls on it. All of the ornaments Madeleine made over the past few years also adorn the tree, from a pair of plaster handprints to a clay penguin. Under the tree, there are ten presents with her name on them, plus one for each of her parents.

Aida makes them each a cup of hot cocoa, a family tradition, and brings a tray of sugar cookies with red and green sprinkles to munch on. Afterwards her father will make blueberry pancakes, and they will sit at the wooden table Frank made and listen to Madeleine discuss her new toys.

“This one first,” Frank says as he hands Madeleine the biggest present.

It is almost her size, and she has to stand to pull the paper off the top. Aida helps her with the tape using a large kitchen knife, then reaches down from her adult height and takes out the pot, soil, seeds, watering can, and tool kit and places them around Madeleine like a mandala.

“Wow,” she says, trying to touch all the parts at once. “Now I can grow trees just like you, Dad!”

“Not exactly like me… just for fun.”

She doesn’t hear him; she is too busy planning her watering schedule for the next month, and checking that Aida will water her plants during the day if they ever need water while she’s in school.

Suddenly over her chatter, she hears a loud noise coming from the front door: knock knock knock.

Aida and Frank look at each other, silently asking the other if whoever at the door is a planned visitor, and then they both shake their heads no.

“I’ll get it,” Frank says. He gets up, adjusts his jeans and old flannel shirt as though straightening them will make them more presentable, and clears his throat. Then the door swings open, and an old man in a brown cloak and pointy leather shoes comes into view.

Frank steps away from the entrance. “It can’t be… how… Dad?”

The old man brushes the snow from his shoulders, steps into the room, and looks around at the modest decorations.

“Lovely home,” he tells Aida as though they know each other. “Very understated, natural, the best way.”

“But I thought…?” Aida tries to ask Frank, and he looks back at her in amazement.

“You thought I was dead? Well, Frank was too young to remember the day I left, and his mother wasn’t about to tell him… Well, you’ll see. And who is this darling child?”

Madeleine has been quiet for the first time all morning, and only now does the strange old man see her behind the big clay pot and mountain of toys.

“Are you Santa?” she asks, prepared to run in the kitchen and get him cookies and milk if he says yes.

The old man chuckles. “Most certainly not. I’m your grandfather, Brimbell.”

She stands up to get a better look at him – she has just noticed the beetle necklace dangling on his chest, and she wants a better look. “Brimbell isn’t a name.”

“It must be, because it’s mine.”

She has to think about that. Brimbell sits on their sofa, sinks into the grey fabric hug, and removes his pointy hat. He has long white hair, like the old man in The Sword in the Stone, which her mother reads her, and come to think of it, his cloak looks familiar too.

“I know it’s inconvenient timing,” Brimbell says, “but unfortunately Christmas happens to fall on my fifty year anniversary, and if I don’t do it now, I’ll have to wait another ten years. And by then… well, I am getting quite old as you can see. I may not make it.”

“Do what?” Frank asks, but Aida hands the old man a fresh cup of hot chocolate at the same time and Brimbell occupies himself with sipping it for a few minutes as he eyes the family over the ceramic edge. Then he speaks again:

“When my father walked in one Christmas night after forty years and told me all about the powers endowed to him by his father and his father’s father before that, I didn’t believe him. It wasn’t until I saw it with my own eyes that I understood. We might as well just leave the family history for another time and skip right to the good stuff.”

“What powers?” Madeleine asks as she inches closer to Brimbell though her father tries to grab her first. Her supposed grandfather smells like pine needles and dirt, a scent that is not unpleasant though it is foreign.

“Watch, little one.”

The old man takes a finger as bent as a twig and raises it towards the Christmas tree. He waves it at the bag of organic soil, and in just a few seconds, the bag lifts off the ground as though attached to the hook of a floating crane, the top splits, a generous portion tips into the pot, and then the bag drops with a whump and spews a puff of dirt. Next he whistles and a seed packet rises, opens, and a single seed floats out like an angel. As the seed drops and burrows deep into the loam, Brimbell keeps muttering under his breath. Then he rubs his hands together, says some kind of incantation, and claps.

From the dark of the pot comes a careful green tendril, like the cautious head of a bear after hibernation, and it grows slowly up up up until it is taller than Madeleine would be if she could stand at that moment.

“This is what we do, Frank. We help the earth grow; we protect it when we can. This is our duty, our curse, and our gift. Accept it, and your life will make a difference in not just human history but in the universe. Decline, and… well, there will be no one left with the gift to pass the powers on to.”

“What gift? My daddy is just my daddy,” Madeleine says.

“We’ll see about that, young one.” Brimbell turns to his son. “Frank, have you ever thought a plant was dead and brought it back to life?”

“Actually, yes, I—”

“And did you ever wish it were sunny and then, as if by magic, the sky cleared? Or raining, and drops fell on your palm at that exact moment?”

“Yes, it has—”

“You have the gift, my son, as we all do. And seeing as you have just one child, Madeleine will inherit them when you’re gone. One day, when you are as old and grey as I am, you will come knocking on her door to pass this staff on to her the way I will pass it on to you today.”

“But I haven’t said I’ll do it—”

Until this point, Aida has been silent, but finally she speaks out: “He means he won’t do it. I won’t have you break up our family just because of a few magic tricks.”

“Dear, dear Aida,” Brimbell says, pointing his hand at her and muttering until she quiets. “There won’t be a family to break up. If Frank doesn’t take my place, the world as we know it will perish.”

“Don’t point that thing at my wife,” her father says, and Brimbell stops. Frank puts his head in his hand for a minute, like he always does when he’s thinking or has been drinking after a long shift at work. Then he looks up and asks Brimbell, “What do I have to do?”

“Come with me. I will teach you everything you need to know.”

Frank looks at his wife, and then at Madeleine.

“Very well,” he says finally. “I’ll do it.”

Brimbell smiles a gap-toothed smile, but there is something sad in the downturned wrinkles around his eyes. He looks at Madeleine and says quickly in a low tone, “Be strong, Maddy-Pie. It is unbearable.” Then he snaps his fingers, and both men disappear.

* * *

The family stares at their matriarch, though she seems too exhausted from storytelling to comfort them. Her youngest grandson sits with his mouth open and a half-licked lolly still in his hand, and her husband looks between Grimwell and Madeleine like one of them will burst into flames. Grimwell must have let his mind wander: the plants in the living room have grown more than two feet since he walked in the door.

“So you know why I’m here,” Grimwell says. “It is time for you to make your choice.” He doesn’t know what Madeleine will say – her memory is strong, and she was not as young as he was when his father disappeared – but he knows he must convince her. The forests need a caretaker, and as far as he knows, they are the only family line left with the gift.

“I will not abandon my family, Frank or Grimwell or whoever you are.”

Grimwell thinks of the trees, the sunlight through the filter of leaves like the twinkle of stars in a clear night sky; the flit of a butterfly’s wings; the flower as it greets the morning with a hug. The plants will shrivel and die, the airborne will fall like overripe fruit, and worst of all he may still be alive to see his work collapse. Unbearable.

John walks over to the plants and inspects their stems and new flowers. Then he goes back to Madeleine and puts a hand on her shoulder.

“Could you take us all?” John asks.

“John, no!” Madeleine says. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Neither do you, Maddie. If it means death anyway, then we might as well try. I won’t let you go alone.”

“Me too!” chimes in the little grandson, and the rest of the family choruses their agreement.

“An interesting idea…” Grimwell says, rubbing his chin. “It has never been done… but it could be possible.”

“Try,” John tells him over Madeleine’s protests. “Do it now.”

Grimwell stands, closes his eyes and concentrates on the lives in front of him, their essences glowing in front of his eyelids like large fireflies. His staff is heavy in his hand, a comforting weight, and one by one he points at the glows of their heartbeats and mutters the only transportation spell he knows. Then he extends his arms in a T, brings his palms together in a clap, and everything goes dark. He hears the familiar whirl of wind, the spin of the earth echoed in his own revolutions, and then his feet hit solid ground.

In the empty Rochester house, the plants continue their rapid growth.


Kelly Ann Jacobson is currently pursuing her MA in Fiction at Johns Hopkins University, and she is the Poetry Editor for Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine. In 2013, her novella was named a finalist in the Iron Horse Literary Review novella contest. Kelly has had or will have stories published in The Exhibitionist Magazine and The Writing Disorder. Her poems, fiction, and nonfiction can be found at www.kellyannjacobson.com.