FREE FICTION: “Dancing With My Grandmother” by Bruce McAllister

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“Dancing With My Grandmother”
Bruce McAllister

My grandmother makes beautiful things from the tiny, bleached bones of her children—the fourteen who died in childbirth or while they were still little. So many children died in that country then, and still do.  They die from disease, or hunger, or violence, often at the hands of men and older children and, sometimes, even women, ones who’ve gone insane in a world where fear and rage have taken the place of love.

Half of the children she had were with the men she married, the three.  Two of her husbands died young, and one ran away during a war.  The other babies were from other men—some she knew, and some she didn’t—taking her against her wishes, or in moments where, in her aloneness and despair, she said “Yes.”

Her one baby that survived almost died, too, and more than once, but instead lived, and grew up to be my mother.  Keeping my grandmother with her because leaving her in the village would have meant death for anyone so helpless, my mother found a strangely decent man in the city on one of her trips to buy things she could not buy in the village.  He, in turn, took her away, to a new world.  This one.  The one I was born in.  A world that isn’t so savage, and one that is hard for anyone born in it not to take for granted when they have never known a world like my grandmother’s.

Sometimes I see my grandmother looking at me as if I were one of her dead babies, but somehow alive, growing up year by year, not dying, feeling a joy she could not feel in that other world.

I look away, embarrassed, but I never leave her.  I keep doing what I am doing so that he can watch me, so that I can be what she needs me to be.

I heard my parents talking about it once, how she dug up the little bodies in the village’s cemetery, boiled them clean, bleached them and put them in the softest bags she could find, some made from old clothes she had, some stolen from the house of others or the market, even if it meant she was beaten more than once for it. People thought she was crazy, but so many were, and mothers, they knew, did strange things in their grief.

They are like little wreaths, what she makes. A little skull is at the center, and with a glue my father buys for her she arranges that child’s bones like a knobby halo around it. If they were twins who died, she uses both skulls, and that makes for more bones to use and bigger halos, which she likes.

Sometimes she makes a quiet sound, a little squeal, when she works, and I wonder where it comes from. Did she make that sound when she was a child, when something surprised her, something happy? Or was it the sound she made when a man took her, and she didn’t want to be taken, but was scared to scream and the baby that came from that moment died like the others?

Sometimes she puts the little bones around the skull like an arrangement of flowers.  Finger bones, toe bones, vertebrae.  They’re small, and when she glues them to the skull carefully, tightly, they do look like the whitest flowers, and I wonder if she is remembering flowers in the fields outside that village, and if she went there when she was very young and the world felt just a little safer. 

Sometimes she uses the bigger bones—the arms and legs and ribs—like horns on the skulls, gluing them precisely, and I wonder why. Is she remembering deer from the forest by the village? Did she ever go to that forest to get away from the world, or was that but a daydream without hope?

Or are the horns instead just from the creatures of her nightmares, the ones she brought with her?

When she’s finished with a skull, the bones, the wreath and halo of it, I wait. She will stare at what she’s made for a long time, making a sound now and then that I cannot describe. I wait until it is time for us to dance.

What do we do with them, the things she’s made? What does she want us to do with them? My parents do not know. She cannot tell them. The words she uses, when she uses words, make no sense (except to me, and I would not know how to explain them). So my parents put them on the bare wooden shelves in the garage, where no one but us can see them. 

Sometimes, though, we find that she has, when we’re not watching, moved one of them to the mantle over the fireplace, and another to the little table by the entryway, and another to their bed covers, which she has arranged around it with care. They leave them where she has put them until someone visits or until they must go to bed, and then, not knowing where else to put them, they put them back on the shelves in the garage, which does not upset her, they hope.

My parents never ask me where they should put them, and I know why they don’t. It is all right. They are doing what they can do.

When my grandmother has finished what she wants to make on a day, and my parents haven’t returned from work, I stand in the garage with her, by her bench, by the half-squeezed tubes of glue, by the buckets of little bones, and I dance with her at last. It is a dance she learned as a girl, but I have learned it quickly. The circling as we dance. The circles within circles of the steps we take. The ups and downs of our bodies, the muscle and bone moving so that we might make something beautiful as we move. All that is missing is the costumes, but so often (she remembers) the villagers dancing at night under the stars did not have costumes.  

Sometimes I feel that I learned how to dance my grandmother’s dance when I was young in that village, too, but that isn’t possible. I am twelve, and could not have learned it there, I know.

As we dance, she gazes into my eyes as if she could look at me forever, as if this moment were everything, and she has even forgotten the beautiful bones. To make her laugh, I pretend I do not know the steps, the way someone she remembers once did.

When my parents do return from work—they have just one car—the garage door opens with the device my father holds, and they see my grandmother dancing and laughing.  They smile, watching her from their seats, the car not moving.  Though my grandmother is alone in the garage, how could the sight of her—her dancing and laughing—not make them as happy as it makes me, dancing with her forever?

Bruce McAllister is an award-winning West-Coast-based writing coach, writer in a wide range of genres, consultant in the fields of publishing and Hollywood, workshop leader and an “agent finder” for both new and established writers. As a writing coach, he specializes in all kinds of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and screenplays.

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