Marie never noticed the musty smell before now, but it was likely always there, hiding beneath the warm smell of roasted ham and marshmallowed yams. The house became yellow and brittle in the months since Nana and Baba passed, only now being brought to life by her family scratching through it like carrion birds.
“Marie? Honey, could you hand me that pan?”
“Sure, Dad.” She answered as she maneuvered though the crowded dining room to the kitchen. Her Dad’s legs splayed across the floor blocking the narrow kitchen as he worked on a troublesome and stinky drain trap.
“Thanks, I’ve almost got this.” He took the plastic pan and slid it under the drain just as putrid black water bubbled out of the elbow joint. “There. That should help. Why don’t you see if there’s anything you want to stick your name on now? J & J will be here any minute to join you.”
“OK – I’ll take a look.”
Her Mom and Dad had been working in the house for a few days and had gotten the clutter down to a point where all the rooms in the small house could be safely navigated. She turned back toward the living room, full of empty cardboard boxes, and looked over the furniture. I don’t have anywhere to put any of this. She thought as she looked at the fancy chairs that her grandmother used to let her stumble around when she was a toddler. In fact, little of her grandparent’s belongings would be useful to a 17-year-old. But, at least she had a few minutes before her brothers and their families arrived.
She found a small green vase in the hallway nook and stuck a post-it note on it. People can accumulate a lot in one hundred years. She wanted to find something that made her remember them as they were. She wove her way through the overstuffed rooms looking for treasures, but it didn’t take too long for her to circle back to the kitchen where her father still struggled with threading a nut.
“You didn’t see her? She might be out at the shop.”
Marie wandered out the side door and between the wilting overgrowth of the garden, skipping from stone to stone. Nana called it her wild-ness preserve. Look at all the plants now. It’s like they are crying.
She found her mother sifting through the garden implements on the side shed of the shop. She was sweaty from moving the tools around and was struggling to free a rather large and rusty pipe wrench.
“Hi honey, Are the twins here yet?”
“Not yet. I think Dad got the pipe off with whatever he was using. He was working on getting it back on when I left.”
“Whew, good.” She said and let the wrench clank to the concrete floor. “How are you doing?”
“Fine, I guess. I just came out to look through the shop.”
“There’s not much left. Go ahead, though. I’m going to get to work in the bedroom.”
Marie stuck her head into the small shack, and quickly ducked back out. “Hey, Mom – what happened to all of them?”
“The art buyers were here earlier. They wanted them all.”
“All of them? You would think we could keep a few.”
“I know, but most of the materials were on commission. Semi-precious stones and all of that. Don’t worry though. There’s still the house. We kept one or two pieces for the family. We will get you into college one way or another.”
Marie’s face darkened. College. God, mom has a one-track mind. “Well, I have to get in first.” She sniffed and turned back into the dim shop. Morning sun splashed through the windows as she skimmed across the practically empty shelves. She ran a finger along the edge of one of them recounting the statuettes that used to live there. Man of the Mountain, Sky Chief, Balloon Man. She recalled the names just like her grandmother would.
She slid into the shop chair and swung her legs back and forth. Her grandparents were so fixed in her memory here that she could almost feel them. They would work in shifts. Her grandmother, short and ruddy faced, would cast and carve. Her grandfather, tall and stoic, would paint, and the statues… well the statues would live.
College didn’t matter to them, did it? They needed to make beautiful things.
More than anywhere else in the house, she felt her grandparents here, as if they were standing just behind her, urging her to create. On impulse, she scribbled out her initials and dropped the post-it-note in the center of the paint and metal encrusted workbench.
“This. This is what I want.”
“Oh yeah? Where are you going to put that? Your bedroom?” a shadowy shape sneered at her from the doorway, startling Marie from her reverie. “It won’t fit.”
“Jesus Jay! What the fuck? Yes it will – and you and my other useless brother will move it for me.” Marie stated with a basalt fire that only a baby sister of twin older brothers can summon. “Or I will tell Mom what actually happened to the roof that Fourth of July.”
“OK, OK fine – It’s good to see you too.” Jay said and opened his arms to give his sister a hug. “I want the toolbox, anyway.” He reached past her to plop a post-it note right on the old Craftsman.
“No! – well fine. Then I’m taking jewelry tools. Who knows? Maybe I’ve got an award winning design or two in me.” Marie scrawled out her name and stuck it on the tools and then another for the center of the work bench.
The day wore on into the evening, treasures were sorted, boxes filled, and as orange light fell through the weeping garden leaves the back door sprang open creaking on unwilling hinges. Jocular Jack sprang out in front, followed by his shuffling brother. “How did you get me roped into this again?” Jack whined at his brother as they crossed the back yard.
“Trust me, Hermano – you do -not- want to go there. We need to get this thing around the side of the house for Marie.” Jay had a way smoothing things over that neither smoothed nor reassured. “There’s just a thing I’d rather Mom and Dad not find out about. Ever.”
Marie sidled out of the back door just in time to see the twins squawk about something near the workshop door. Later one would say the other turned the bench the wrong way for a high-side. The other would apologize and confess that the bench was too heavy. What she saw was her workbench, the altar of her grandparent’s vast creativity, slide sideways in slow motion and fall, towards the stone walk. Neither Jack nor Jay, one falling backwards, the other dancing to save his toes, saw what happened next.
Marie screamed, but her voice could not stop gravity. Where the workbench top struck stone, liquid gold lightening sprang from the earth and spread across its surface in a frenetic dance. It cracked in a whip shot, and Marie felt her knees tingle like she was next to a jackhammer ripping up a street. For a second she thought it was a trick of the setting sun – but the workshop had by that time fallen completely into shadow. The table top fell away from the leg frame and shattered on the second step stone, with a rainbow sheen dancing across its surface disintegrating into a pile of dusty shards.
Marie swept mechanically under the cold white shop light, her brothers, their spouses and their kids gone home after quick but weepy goodbyes. Her Baba’s rough work gloves made it hard for her to handle the broom but kept her hands uncut from the shards of the table. She swept it as best she could into a pile and then used a garden shovel to move the shifting obsidian chips into a garbage bin. She could barely see through tear starred eyes as she scooped into the pile, but it looked like the rainbows in her eyes were coalescing around -something- in the early evening dew.
One solid chunk sat in the bottom of her shovel. She picked it up with three fingers of her rough leather glove and dusted it off. It was a smooth oval, like a river rock, but covered in rough black gunk and dust.
She sniffled “At least I have this.” And pocketed the stone before finishing her work and shuffling back inside.
Marie crashed through her parent’s house as only a college sophomore could, ripping open the fridge between her fifth and sixth load of laundry. She had her tongue firmly stuffed in the spoon, sponging off the last remnants of yogurt when she finally hit upon her real problem. Her art practical was due in less than a week and she had “no – I mean, like, none – really” ideas on what kind of “unique statement” she could make in the class.
Finally, she slammed herself down on her bed. Lying on her back she surfed Pinterest for ideas. “Maybe I could do something with that old 70’s lamp in the garage, but Dad loves that thing. Mom would thank me though.” First her phone, and then her eyes became too heavy and then she drifted.
She felt a vibration, at first like buzzing far away, and then louder and stronger like the deep oscillations of a pounding surf. She awoke to a room shaded in darkness.
Except – she could still feel the vibrations. From across the room she could hear the small chest on her dresser, just not when she turned right toward it. So she turned her head and listened, and it retreated again. It was more that she could feel it rather than hear it.
Through sleep-clad eyes she looked and thought she saw a golden light streaming around the edges of the chest’s drawers. When she looked closer, it disappeared. “What the hell is that? Is there like, an old clock in there?” Having given herself a plausible explanation she forced herself to be fully awake.
“Maybe an old cell phone? But why would it still have battery?” She was up and jumped across the room, ripping open the jewelry chest. “There’s nothing in here but old hair ties and…” This time she felt the buzzing in her hand. She jumped and her reflexes caused the chest to fly into the air, its contents pinwheeling across the room.
There it was, a black rift gently cradled in the pillow right where her head had been. The round stone, the last remnants of her Nana and Baba’s workbench, lay still.
“What. the. hell?” She exclaimed to no one in particular and picked up the stone for the first time in over two years. It was not vibrating, but felt rather warm to the touch. Marie overtopped with a desire – more than that – a compulsion to protect the stone. She shoved it deep into the pocket of her stylishly ripped jeans and went into the kitchen for another snack.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do, Janine! The project is, like, due next Friday. This sucks.”
Her roommate had been painting now for over a week on her own mixed-media piece and looked up with sympathetic eyes. “Just get into something. I didn’t know what I was going to call this until I was in the middle of it.”
Marie turned away, rolled her eyes, and whispered to herself. “It looks like desperation.”
“I think I’ll call it Desperation.” Janine stated after a beat.
“What? You’re kidding me? Is this about you not getting laid?” Marie teased.
“Well – of course. You’ve got to use what you have.” Marie sat down in front of Nana’s jeweler’s kit and groaned. With no other ideas, she picked up her 16-gauge silver wire and cut out 1-inch segments. Once she had a few, she picked up the round nosed pliers and twisted, joining the links. Her fingers tired quickly from the work, but she finished enough to get the chain around her neck before turning to Janine and exclaiming – “How’s this?”
“Yeah – Guggenheim material for sure. – What are you going to put on it? Maybe drill a couple of holes in the biscuits from the cafeteria and string a bunch of Cheerios on it? You could call it ‘Freshman 15’?
“Oh just shut it, Janine. I’m late for Literature.”
Marie grabbed her bag, pulled her keys and student id off the desk – because dammit I am hungry. As an afterthought, she grabbed her stone. She carried it around constantly and rubbed on it like a prehistoric fidget spinner whenever her mind wandered in class. (Which was all the time.)
“The horror! The horror! What do you think Kurtz was referring to with his final words?” Her mind had wandered just so in that moment and she was contemplating how to capture the blue of the sky when she heard her name. “Marie?”
“I think he was just tired of the heat.” She answered, impressing no one in the class.
“That’s an oversimplifica- uh, what’s wrong with your hand?” Her teacher stopped and looked closer. “Are you bleeding?”
“Oh – what? I don’t understand…” She looked down and her thumb was indeed bright red and felt numb. “Phew – no. I think it’s just paint,” she said and held up her hand for her teacher to see. “I think it came off this rock I’ve been toying with…”
Marie looked closer at the stone. There was a bright red stripe where her thumb had been, and below that a spot of yellow. In the center was a spot of the precise shade of blue she was dreaming of capturing.
“I’m sorry – I’ll put it away.” She blurted, trying to remember the details of Kurtz.
Her teacher continued. “That’s Ok – I just wanted to make sure you were all right. James, what is your take on his last words?”
“It could have been worse. “Janine quipped while picking at her chipped and stained fingernails. “I mean, at least she said she could understand what you were going for…”
Marie sobbed again. “Lacking in artistic merit? Common design? Ahhh! I just don’t have it. I will never have it.”
“She said good things too. She said your execution was good, and that the stone was beautiful. Don’t quit now.”
“I spent hours on this thing. I worked on it until my fingers were numb. Of course it is beautiful! I’ll try again, I’m sure. But I think I just need to heal a bit. There’s a lot of pressure on me, and this really hurt.” Maria clutched at the necklace around her neck. The stone was beautiful, the colors oscillating in rings, exposed by Maria’s careful rubbing and encircled by her wire-work. “Every second I spent made me feel like I was really doing something great for myself.”
Janine let silence fall between them for a few moments. “You know, they got one of your Grandparents’ pieces down at the museum. It’s on loan or something. Maybe you should go look at that.”
Marie recoiled at the suggestion. “You don’t understand. But – fine. Whatever. I need to do something.” She grabbed her coat and huffed out the door.
The museum wasn’t far off campus and graciously allowed art students from the University to have free access on most days. Marie paused at the entry desk, flashing her student ID and leaving behind the helpfully offered map. She wandered purposefully trying to avoid the installation she knew she would ultimately find. But, the museum was not large enough to hide it from her forever.
Prominently featured in a local artist section, she could see the bright colors and identified the piece from across the room. She sidled up on it like she was trying to catch a skittish cat. From the back, she could see that the statue featured two figures seated on a park bench. She slipped around the front and forced herself to read the card before looking at the sculpture. The first said:
Courtesy of the Artist’s Family collection
The second contained an artist bio of her grandparents she had read one hundred times before – except this time there was an end date on there for both. She didn’t want to read that, and she felt her eyes misting as they floated up and beheld the piece. The two figures on the park bench were her grandparents, hands clenched in love, gemstone eyes forever fixed on the horizon.
She felt a throbbing in her chest, but it wasn’t her heart. The stone was pulsing – and not just that – the figure of her Baba lifted off his glasses and cleaned them in the characteristic maneuver he did just before digging into detailed work. That job done, he replaced them on his nose, tilted back his head and furrowed his tiny brows.
Then, he spoke. How Marie could hear him through the plexiglass, she didn’t know. “Look there Nana, It’s Marie. She’s finally come to visit us.”
Her Nana waved her tiny metal hand. “Oh, how you have grown – and what a beautiful necklace! I always knew you had the gift, dear girl! Never quite know how or when you’re gonna see it, though. What is that there Baba?”
“Let me take a look. Do you mind getting a little closer M?”
Marie finally unfroze when she heard her pet name, and leaned in. “Yes – I suppose… but how?”
He squinted his tiny sapphire eyes. “Ah – of course! It’s us Nana. Every drop of magic and love we poured into our creations drained into that one spot – and Marie coaxed it out! Made a necklace out of it! How clever!”
“Yes, yes. How about that!” Nana smiled and added with a wink. “Well dear – now that you know – I hope we are going to be your favorite spirits to visit. Although we all have things to teach you…”