BY LIISA KOVALA
Copyright is held by the author.
“WHAT ARE you talking about? I’ve always been there for her.” My mother looked up at my Uncle Rob, her hands placed firmly on her hips. Even from my vantage point a little way down the hall, I could see the crevice between her eyebrows deepening and her thin lips pursing. She was ready to spout venom.
I hovered for a moment, leaning against the stark grey wall, wondering when the storm would pass. In one hand, I held the painting I’d completed for Nana, and in the other I balanced a tray of coffee.
“I’m just saying. You barely visit. You send Tricia instead of checking on her yourself.” Uncle Rob glared at my mother. Didn’t he know I was standing right there? “Who does she call when she needs something? It’s certainly not you.”
“Oh, that’s rich. For your information, Tricia loves spending time with her. You expect she’ll leave you everything because you’re her errand boy? Who pays for that place? Yeah, that’s right. I do.”
“Hey, it’s not my fault my company downsized. And you have your real estate gig. You don’t even need the money. Besides, I’m her favourite.” Uncle Rob leaned in towards my mother. Despite his towering frame, my mother didn’t even flinch. Instead she pointed her manicured nail at his chest and started berating him again. I turned away. I’d heard it all before.
Through the open door, I could see my frail grandmother, tucked beneath a thin blanket, the metal bed railing pulled up. The florescent light above her flickered in time with her breathing. Although her eyes were closed, I wasn’t convinced she was sleeping. How could they bicker when their mother was lying in a hospital bed just a few feet away?
“Um, I got your coffee,” I said, inching towards them. “What’s going on?”
My mother swivelled and turned on a bright smile. “Nothing, Tricia. Uncle Rob and I were just discussing the future.”
Uncle Rob grabbed his coffee. “Thanks, kid. I need a smoke,” he said, turning his back on us. He lumbered down the corridor until he reached the elevator. He hunched over his coffee and scratched his beard until the doors opened with a ding and swallowed him whole.
“Is everything okay with you two?” My mom and Uncle Rob had a long history of arguments. Sometimes, mom wouldn’t talk to him for weeks at a time over some little thing or other, but they always made up eventually. Maybe they were stressed about Nana’s declining health.
“You know him. Nothing to worry about.”
“Oh, I think she’s fine.” My mom took a sip of her coffee. “Same as when you left.”
“Maybe I’ll just check on her,” I said. “And, um, I finished my painting.”
“Suit yourself. I’m going to the lounge for a while. Check my messages.” Without a glance at my artwork, she pulled out her cell phone and started scrolling down the screen. I watched her trim figure retreat, the sound of her high heels resounding down the hall.
“Nana?” I whispered, hoping not to disturb her as I entered her room. “Are you awake?” I’d never seen her so frail before. Her pale skin was more grey than pink and her lips were chapped. I glanced through the window at the skyscrapers obscuring the setting sun. All over the city, lights were flicking on, chasing away the impending darkness.
“Tricia? For you, of course. But if those two come back, I’m asleep. Got it?” Only her eyes maintained their familiar twinkle, despite the fatigue that plagued her features.
“Sure thing,” I laughed. “Did you hear them?”
“Those two may be my children, but they can be monsters, ready to pounce with claws out. Don’t get me wrong, I love them, but I’m not entirely sure they’re mine. Well, they’re only human after all.” Nana smiled weakly. “You, on the other hand . . . .” She reached out. Her wrinkled hand was cool to the touch, the skin hanging loosely from her fingers. A bout of coughing overtook her.
I felt helpless watching her struggle for breath and gripped her hand until the coughing ceased, then held up a Styrofoam cup of water. She sipped it through a bendy straw before noticing the painting I’d leaned against the wall. “You finished it! Let me see.” She picked up her glasses and peered at the images.
The painting was my latest in a series I’d started a year earlier, around the time Nana started getting sick. Every one of them was a scene from the fairy stories she’d told me when I was growing up. At first, it was such a departure from the work I’d been struggling with at art school, but I was compelled to begin and once I started I just couldn’t seem to stop. The images haunted me day and night until I finally uncovered them on my canvas.
“Just as I remember,” Nana said. As a child, I’d been captivated by her vivid stories of fairies and enchanted forests, asking her to share them again and again. I’d never read anything like them in fairy tale books. They were Nana originals. My mother and uncle had heard the same stories growing up, but mom thought they were useless nonsense. Uncle Rob like my paintings, but thought I should try to sell them off on eBay or Kijiji.
After perusing every detail of the scene, for the first time in days, a smile overtook her face. “You must do something for me,” she said. “I can’t ask my children. Judy and Rob just wouldn’t understand and they’d try to talk me out of it.”
I leaned in. What was she asking me to do? My heart began to race. “Nana, I can’t . . .”
“Oh no, dear. Not that. I’ll go when the time comes. No, I have one desire left and I need your help.”
“What is it?” I asked, my mind searching the possibilities.
“I want to go home.”
“Home? Like, your senior’s residence? I don’t think the doctors will release you just yet,” I said. “The pneumonia is still affecting your lungs.”
“That place isn’t my home. Judy stuck me in there so that she didn’t have to leave the city and Rob just went along with it. You know, they didn’t really care that I was leaving everything I loved. My house. My friends. In fact, they didn’t even ask me, just piled me in a car and drove me to Toronto, extolling the virtues of the senior’s home the whole way. It’s time for me to go back north and see the place I grew up one last time. Can you manage that?”
“Nana, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s allowed. Mom would . . .”
“Nonsense. This is what I want and I’m entrusting you with my last wish. Are you in or are you out?” Nana peered at me from behind her glasses with her grey eyes. I could never say no to her, and she knew it.
Within a few days, I found myself behind the wheel of the old Toyota Nana had given me when I graduated from high school. She no longer drove, so she figured I could make more trails with it than she could. Plus, I’d need it to get to art school, she said. Mom didn’t like the idea of me even attending university to study art, but I’d persisted and Nana had backed me the whole way. Mom had finally relented, telling me I’d need to find a real job when the art thing failed.
Somehow, I’d managed to smuggle Nana out of the hospital in the wee hours of the morning, before the sun chased away the blue hue hovering over the city. She was so light, I had no trouble transporting her to and from the wheelchair and somehow, we managed to slip past the security desk unnoticed and into the parking lot. My heart pounded the whole time, but Nana couldn’t stop smiling.
Now, as we drove out of the city on the 400, past the suburban sprawl of house after identical house, towards the flat fields ready to be harvested, I finally allowed myself to relax. I’d been keeping an eye on my rear-view mirror, hoping no one was following us. My phone kept binging text messages from my mom, each one more worried sounding than the last. Finally, after passing Barrie, I turned it off and threw my phone in the back seat.
I glanced over at Nana slumped in the passenger seat, her head resting on the side window. She’d slept soundly for the first few hours, but eventually I became worried. Her breathing was so quiet, I wondered if she was still alive. When I reached over and touched her cool hand with wrinkled skin like parchment paper, she’d opened her eyes and smiled at me.
“Are you sure you want to do this, Nana?” I stared at the long road of asphalt unfolding before us. “We can go back at any time.”
“Are you kidding? We’re on a road trip, Tricia. There’s no turning back now.” Her grey eyes looked lively and she pulled herself up in her seat. A hint of pink in her cheeks was the most colour she’d had in weeks.
“Fine by me,” I said, relaxing into my seat. “We’ve come this far, we might as well keep going.” We bulleted along the highway, passing windswept pines, rocks, and lakes like scenes from an A. Y. Jackson painting. The morning sun shone on the autumn foliage highlighting the deep red maple leaves and the yellow of the birches. Magical. Atop the ancient rocks unceremoniously carved out by road builders decades ago, motorists had stopped to build inuksuks, small reminders that someone had been here before us. With each passing kilometre, my shoulders eased and my breathing deepened. Nana seemed to come more alive.
“Do you want to tell me what this trip is really about? I mean, I get that you wanted out of the hospital, and seeing your old home is a nice thing to do, but I still don’t understand.”
“You will soon enough,” Nana said. She straightened herself in her seat and clasped her hands on her lap while the sun streamed across her face and illuminated her silver locks.
We pulled off the highway shortly after entering the city limits, and drove for several kilometres on a part of the old highway. Before long, we were alone on the road. Nana opened her window and sniffed at the warm breeze like a hound out for a joy ride.
“Oh, I can just feel it, Tricia. We’re almost there,” Nana said, sounding like an excited school child.
“When’s the last time you were here?”
“Mother and I lived on the old farm until I was about 13, then we moved into the city so I could finish school. But I missed our life on the farm terribly. I had nightmares of dragons and monsters and all sorts of terrible creatures for weeks after. Mother was worried, I think. I was ill for quite some time after we moved.”
“Wasn’t it hard work, living on the farm, I mean?” I could barely picture Nana milking cows or feeding chickens.
“The work was work, but everyone had a job and we just got on with it. But what I really loved was the time I had to myself when my chores were done. I’d sneak into the forest and wander to my heart’s content. Tricia, turn here,” Nana said. The eagerness in her voice escalated.
I turned from the old highway onto a dirt road. It wound through the bush until it opened to a large clearing. In the distance, I picked out a small white farmhouse and large red barn. The house looked in tact, but the barn was in ruins. Sunlight streamed through the gaps in the wall and part of the roof had collapsed. “Is this it, Nana?”
We crept down the long driveway, the wheels crunching the leaves on the gravel. As we pulled up toward the house, I realized there was no sign of anyone living here, not for many years. By the time I walked around to the passenger side, Nana had already pulled herself out of car. She looked taller and stronger than when we’d left the hospital. I suggested the walker, then offered my arm, but she refused.
“Follow me, Tricia,” Nana said, picking her way carefully along a cobblestone path that led away from the house. When the path ended, we created our own through the long grasses toward the woods.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” I asked. “Let me help you.”
Nana ignored me and seemed to gain speed. She took longer strides and her shoulders straightened. As we stepped into the forest, I felt the warmth of the midday sun retreat, as the canopy of richly coloured trees enclosed us. The only sounds were the hushing of the pines and the crackle of leaves beneath our feet.
Eventually, Nana stopped by a fallen log near a small creek. She placed her finger to her lips. We stood in silence for several minutes, listening to the gurgle of the brook and the constant bird song. To my great surprise, a flock of winged creatures rose from the forest floor and swirled around before flapping their wings and floating away. They were like no birds I had ever seen with multicoloured wings that shimmered in the sunlight.
“What was that?” I whispered, but Nana just beamed. “Where are we?”
Nana held her arms out. “Look around, Tricia. Don’t you recognize it?”
I surveyed the forest, touching the bark on the trees and inhaling the scent of pine needles and forest flowers. Light filtered through the interwoven branches, thick foliage covered the ground, clear water trickled along the rocks, moss covered tree stumps. “My paintings!” I gasped. I’d created every detail of my artwork from Nana’s stories and my own imagination. Or so I thought. “I don’t understand . . .”
“This was my home,” Nana said. “I lived here in the forest with my mother and my father until, one day, my mother took me away. I was only a young child, but she said she wanted me to have a normal life. Even when we lived on the farm, I came back here everyday, until she finally took me away for good.”
I couldn’t understand what Nana was trying to tell me. They lived here? In the forest? “So, the stories . . .?”
“All true.” Nana reached out and embraced me. Her grip was firm and her body felt solid and strong. “Thank you for bringing me home, Tricia.” Nana’s silver hair began to shimmer. Her body was luminescent. A spectacle of tiny white lights rose around us, hovering and dancing between the sunbeams.
Suddenly, I understood. There was no need for words. I was overcome by the warmth and love of the forest and its creatures, those same beings I’d been drawing since I was a child and who’d taken over my canvas as an adult. She was one of them. And by extension, so was I.
“What about mom? Uncle Rob? What will I tell?”
“Tell them the truth, if they care to believe it. Paint them a picture, Tricia. But they’ll see only what their little hearts will allow them to see.”
“But you can’t leave me. What will I do without you?” I sunk into her arms, trying to hold back the panic that suddenly overwhelmed me. She held me tightly until my body relaxed. “Will I ever see you again?”
“You see me now. You always will.” My grandmother glowed. She looked both aged and childlike. Slowly, she disappeared into a tiny point of light, drifting and floating away through the forest.
I don’t know how long I spent there, mystified and at somehow at peace, but eventually I found my way through the bush to the abandoned farm and my grandmother’s car, reluctant to leave. As I drove down the highway, the sun setting behind me, I caught a glimpse of the most spectacular sky I’d ever seen. I drove into the darkness, dreading my return to the high walls of the city and sharing the news with my family, but before long the images of that enchanted place swarmed my imagination in Technicolor. Someday, I vowed, I would return. Until then, my canvas would be the portal to my grandmother’s world. I knew I would always find her there.