The mother arranges stalks of celery and crackers spread with peanut butter on a bright blue ceramic plate, which she leaves on the floor outside the child’s bedroom. She doesn’t want to interrupt. They’ll find the plate when they’re hungry. She presses her ear to the closed door to listen to the child’s voice. She smiles.
The father looks after the child in his study while he writes his dissertation and takes her to work with him, where his group of graduate students dote on her. He wants to yell at her when she soaks her clothes playing in the snow while he meets with his department head. He pulls her onto his lap and smiles.
The great-grandmother plays with the child in a long, long closet with a ceiling sloped so that even the child has to sit down under the low end. The child talks a lot in a language the great-grandmother has forgotten. The child makes up all the rules and tells the great-grandmother what to do, and blows past her like a zephyr while she sits smiling, surrounded by soft things in the closet.
The child walks into the bathroom in the middle of the night. The great-grandmother stands at the sink rubbing the bristles of her toothbrush against the cake of soap. Before the toothbrush enters the great-grandmother’s mouth, the child climbs onto her little stool and strokes the back of the great-grandmother’s hand.
Ish, says the child. Ish, Gingie. Not with soap.
The child smiles at the great-grandmother until she can take away the toothbrush without yanking it.
In the morning the great-grandmother walks into the child’s bedroom and touches warm pink cheeks until the eyes above them open.
It’s Christmas, says the child.
In the living room they discover a small trampoline and the child pulls the great-grandmother onto it with her. They are jumping on it when the mother and the father walk into the room. The father plugs in the Christmas tree lights. Outside it is snowing. The mother goes into the music room and plays Oh Come all Ye Faithful on the piano. The great-grandmother remembers the song and sings. The father hums while he builds a fire. The child bounces.
On New Year’s Eve the mother and the father let the child sip from their cups of Cold Duck until she is tipsy. She bounces on the trampoline and says Wow-ow-whee until just before ten o’clock, when they all go into the den and surround the television set to watch the ball slide down the pole in Times Square. The great-grandmother smiles at the screen and at the child, who has fallen asleep across her lap. The great-grandmother smiles at everything now, but these smiles are particular.
The mother and the father do not see how they can send the great-grandmother back to Pray and the nurse they’ve hired to stay with her in the log house.
She doesn’t know us, says the father, but at least we know her.
They can hear the child explaining an elaborate game to the great-grandmother.
And those two have such fun together, says the mother.
They’re on exactly the same level, says the father.
The great-grandmother is dead. She lies in bed waiting for her death to be discovered. The child lies in bed and pretends to sleep, waiting for the great-grandmother to come into the room and touch her cheeks so she can open her eyes. The mother and the father listen out for the sound of the great-grandmother’s steps travelling down the hall from her room to the child’s room. The house is quiet.
The child stares at the pair of eyes in the mirror on the back of the music room door. She turns her head back and forth and watches the irises slide along between the eyelids. The house is quiet. The mother and the father lie in bed.
The father says, Gingie.
The child turns her head back and forth and watches her irises slide along between her eyelids. She thinks, This is me.
The mother and the father lie in bed. The child cries and asks them when they will get out of bed and tells them to get out of bed now. The mother tells the child they are very sad, that the father is so sad he can’t get out of bed, that he needs the mother to stay with him. The mother pulls back the covers and invites the child into bed. The child accepts this invitation. She lies with her parents for a while and then she gets up and pads out of their room.
The child plays on the sidewalk. She likes to run up and down in front of the chain link fence that surrounds the yard where the big black dog lives. The dog runs with her, his tongue out. He doesn’t bark. When the child trips and skins her knees and the palms of her hands she almost cries. The dog stops running and looks at her, his ears held up. She waits for the stinging to stop and then runs with him again. Blood blooms along the front of her white knee socks.
The child plays on the sidewalk. She feeds out an inch of the tape measure she found in her Christmas stocking and bends it against the plastic case. The inch snaps off in her fingers. She likes the feeling of the metal breaking and the crisp sound of it. She breaks the tape measure into sixty inch-long pieces. She will show them to her father when he gets out of bed.
The father gets out of bed. He goes back to his dissertation and he goes back to work. He takes the child to work with him and on the weekend, to the tobacconist’s. The tobacconist’s smells like the father and is dark in the middle of the day and the carpet there is red and green and blue and black. The same old man is always at the counter and always hands the child the same flavour of lollypop. Nowhere else has root beer flavour, but here that’s all there is. Every time she visits, the child tells the old man she likes root beer.
The father and the child walk home between piles of grey snow. The father is quiet, but he holds the child’s hand and swings it in his. When they come inside through the back door into the kitchen the mother looks up from the book she is pressing open against kitchen table.
Hello you two, she says. You both have very pink cheeks.
The mother, the father and the child play together in the long, long closet with the sloped ceiling. The child leads the game but the mother keeps trying to change the rules. The great-grandmother never tried to change things.
Where’s Gingie? asks the child.
In heaven, says the mother. Remember what I told you about heaven?
She’s dead, says the father. She’s dead and buried next to Grampy in Lindley Park.
The child walks into the bathroom in the middle of the night. She climbs onto her little stool and looks in the mirror. She turns her head back and forth and watches her irises slide along between her eyelids. She thinks, This is me.