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The Clearing : Alex Joseph

My sister and I fly to visit my grandparents. I am 10. My sister, Emma, is 6. It is late at night when we arrive.

A stewardess with long, blonde hair is assigned to guide us out of our seats and down the metal corridor, to the arrival gate. She wears a blue vest, and a pin shaped like an eagle. Silently, she puts one of these pins on my shirt, and one on my sister's, and smiles. Her cheeks and lips are smooth as a marble statue's.

My grandmother is not at the gate. We stand there for a long time. The rest of the passengers get off the plane one by one, and leave.

The stewardess seats us in a pair of black lounge chairs with an airplane coloring book and a packet of crayons. Then she walks behind a massive counter and begins to make phone calls. We hear our names called out over the loudspeaker.

Emma uses the pink crayon to turn everything pink -- sky, clouds, airplanes, birds -- then makes big green "X"s through all of it. I don't color. I look around, waiting.

Finally, I see my grandmother walking toward us, from far away in the terminal. She wanders slowly down the long corridor, moving in and out of pools of fluorescent light. She wears turquoise bedroom slippers that don't match her dress. When she spots us, she lets out a little cry, then rushes over and gathers us both into a hug. "Hello, my nubkins." My grandmother smells like something pulled out of a wooden trunk. Her dress is made of soft, purple material, and a tiny bunch of flowers is pinned over her breast pocket. The blooms look like little white mouths.

"Why are you wearing your slippers, Grandma?" is the first thing I say.

She pinches my chin. "Comfortable," she says, and takes our hands. To the stewardess, who is still behind the counter, she says, "I've got these now; they're mine."

The stewardess frowns.

My grandmother takes us both by the hand and leads us silently out of the gate, down the long airport hallways, past the slow-turning luggage carousel. Soon we are passing through the sliding glass doors, out into the night. This airport is not nearly as large as the one we came from. We keep walking. We pass out of the parking lot, and start down a sidewalk that runs beside a narrow road. Cars zoom by. Their headlights splash over us, then leave, splash and leave, over and over.

"Where's your car, Grandma?" I say.

"Shhh," she says, and points upward. "Look at the stars."

My sister looks up and says, "Ahhh." The stars are not as high here. They are as close as the ceiling of a car. The road turns to the right, and the sound of the airport gradually dies away. The steady stream of cars dwindles to nothing. It is quiet.

My grandmother walks steadily. Her backless slippers make a soft slapping noise against the soles of her feet. Her grip on my hand is gentle but firm. My sister is carrying her stuffed unicorn, Tessy, by its horn. She says, "I'm sleepy." My grandmother picks her up and rests her on her hip. I want my grandmother to carry me, too, but I'm too shy to ask. It's August, and it's cooler than where we came from, but more humid. Air presses against us.

My grandmother takes a left, down a dirt road. Tall grasses shoot up on both sides. Crickets play their music, and the smell is so thick that it seems to drift around our heads like smoke.

"What's that?"

My grandmother knows I mean the smell. "Skunk," she says.

"Where is it?"

"Far away, by now. They're very shy animals."

We keep going. The dirt road becomes a gentle slope. My sister falls asleep against my grandmother's shoulder, and drools. A wet spot appears on the collar of the purple dress. I listen to the dry, skippering sounds of my grandmother's slippers as she kicks aside dirt and gravel.

At the base of a hill, my grandmother sets my sister down. "Wake up, cookie," she says, giving her a little shake. My sister rubs her eyes, wipes her nose on the back of her hand.

My sister doesn't know where she is, and starts to cry.

"It's okay," I say, and take her hand. It's much warmer than mine, and moist. "Grandma," I say, "Emma's crying."

"Here, give her this," my grandmother says. She undoes the clasp on her silver watch, and hands it to me. Its face is the size of a nickel. The hands glow in the dark. "On second thought, give her this, too." I see her wrenching at one of her fingers. Finally, she gets whatever it is off. She takes my hand and rolls a ring up in my palm. "That should keep her happy." She turns and begins to walk again, up the road.

I hand the ring and watch to my sister. She takes them and sniffles, looking at them.

"You have to walk now," I say.


"Because grandma's tired," I say, though I'm not sure that's the reason.

My grandmother walks ahead of us, taking steady, even steps. A cool breeze blows away the cloud cover and a full moon peers out. Moonlight coats everything -- the dusty road, the tall grasses, my grandmother's gray hair, my sister's black eyes. Everything's glowing. I watch the crease on the back of the purple dress, just below my grandmother's behind, as she lifts her left leg -- the crease switches -- and then the right. This happens over and over. My grandmother seems to be getting smaller as she moves away. I can tell Emma's going to cry again.

I say, "Emma, this is all a dream. Remember how I told you anything can happen in a dream, and it's okay?"

Emma nods.

"Well, this is just a dream. You're going to wake up at Grandma's house in the morning, and we'll have banana pancakes."

Emma squints at me. I want to pick her up and carry her, but I know she's too heavy.

"Come on!" My grandmother is far up the hill, ahead of us.

"Let's run!" I say to Emma, and start to trot away, glancing back at her, hoping she'll take it as a game. After a moment, she follows. Her brown, curly hair bounces around her shoulders. She runs.

My grandmother is standing at the top of the hill, surveying everything around her. "Look at all this!" she says. "Just look at it!" She holds her arms out, as if to embrace something huge and invisible. She turns around several times. The purple dress plateaus around her hips. By the time we reach her, Emma is breathing hard. My grandmother picks her up and holds her high, spinning around, shouting, "Whee!" I can't tell whether my sister likes it or not. She drops her unicorn. It lands in the dirt and rolls over several times. My sister shrieks.

"It's okay -- look!" I say. I run over and retrieve the unicorn and brush it off, showing it to her. My grandmother sets Emma down, and I hand the toy to her. She cradles it tight to her chest.

Next, my grandmother picks me up, and twirls me around. I can see back the way we've come, the airport, and off to the left, a small collection of lights, glittering like paste jewelry, which I guess is the city. Wispy clouds drift across the sky, like lost spirits.

My grandmother says, "Isn't this terrific? I think it's terrific!"

"When are we going home, Grandma?" I ask.

My grandmother looks right at me, but it's like her gaze doesn't reach where I am. She glances around, as if searching for a house. She looks at the two of us standing there, late at night, on a dirt road, my sister with her stuffed animal, her pink shorts and Buster Brown shoes. Me, I'm wearing an Orioles baseball cap that my father gave me, even though I hate baseball. I didn't take it off for the plane ride so my hair is plastered down underneath it. I also have on my new "Star Wars" tee shirt, an old pair of leather moccasins, and a pair of white tube socks with blue stripes around the top. It's like my grandmother doesn't understand the question, or even recognize who we are, exactly.

Then she says, "But we are here! We're here already!"

"Where?" says Emma.

"We are?" I say.

"Yes!" she shouts, and then laughs at herself, sounding pleased. "This is where I live now. This is where we live now."

My sister and I look at each other.

My grandmother says, "What could be better? We have the air, we have the night, we're free."

"But where's Grandpa?" Emma asks.

"Who?" My grandmother says, "Let's go!" and crosses the road, marches over the tiny embankment, and begins to make her way, swiftly and confidently, through the tall grasses.

"C'mon," I say. "We don't want to get lost." Emma and I clamber up the embankment and follow my grandmother. It isn't hard. She leaves a path of stomped-down grass in her wake. We can hear belching frogs, and the cries of strange birds. The ground beneath the grass is damp, marsh-like. I take my sister's hand again. The grass, when it touches us, is brittle and sharp as knives. It is so tall that we can't see more than ten feet ahead of us. I can hear my grandmother up ahead, talking aloud to herself and occasionally whooping with laughter.

"C'mon, kids!" my grandmother yells, from somewhere in front of us. My sister and I clear the grass and enter a grove of blue spruce. It's like the trees are swallowing us, it's so dark. Our feet sink into the soft ground. Spruce needles climb over the sides of my shoe and jab my foot. My sister's hand is still in mine when I trip over a root, nearly bringing us both down.

"Careful!" I say.

"You fell, not me!" says Emma. "Don't you know where you're going?"

"Of course," I say. Then I yell, "Grandma!"

"C'mon!" Her voice sounds distant, off to my left. It is followed by several thrashing noises.

"This way," I say to Emma, and tug her hand.

Finally, we spot my grandmother's purple dress, outlined in pale, dappled moonlight, moving about. There's a small clearing in the trees, and she's moving swiftly around it, bent over, tucking things into the crook of her left elbow.

"You kids help me," she says.

But we don't know what she's doing.

"We have to make a fire."

She dumps all the dead branches and leaves and whatever else she's gathered into a pile. "We'll put it here." She stands, looking in our direction. "Move it!" Her voice prods us like a switch. My sister sets her unicorn down at the base of a tree and starts to gather leaves in her hands. She doesn't get too many before dropping them on top of our grandmother's pile.

"Like that?" Emma says.

"Yes, yes."

I start to gather twigs and branches, careful not to get my "Star Wars" shirt dirty. There is, I discover, a tiny pond -- hardly more than a big puddle -- on the far side of the clearing. I toss a little rock in it, to hear the "sploosh." Maybe it is three or four feet deep.

I don't know how long we gather sticks. It might only be twenty minutes. It seems like five hours. We don't talk. My sister doesn't cry, though, and I am brave for her sake. At one moment, she gets caught on the branch of a tree, and then tugs her shirt loose.

"Look, it's torn."

"That's all right," I say.

"It's just a dream?"

"Of course," I say, and force myself to laugh, to prove it.

My grandmother dumps whatever she's got in her hands onto the pile at the center of the clearing. "There," she says to herself, and slaps her hands together. The white flowers are still clinging to the lapel of her dress, but just barely. "Now." She pats the pockets of her dress. "What I need is..." My grandmother pulls out an old-fashioned, silver lighter. I can hear the hinge as she opens it. A tiny bud of flame springs up.

"Grandma," I say. "When are we going to your house?"

"Yeah," says Emma. "We're sleepy."

My grandmother says, "We're going to stay right here."

"But grandma," says Emma, "there's nothing to eat here. What about your famous brownies, or your famous popcorn balls?"

My grandmother does not respond. She bends over, as if in slow motion, and holds the lighter close to the ground. Dry leaves instantly smolder, then crackle and burn. It takes a while for the leaves to catch the twigs, though. Some of them are green. A dense, horrible smoke swoops out at us.

I have been on camping trips before, but my sister never has. She has only seen fires in the grate, at Christmas time. She stares intently at this one, her face a blank. My grandmother has closed her eyes. Her fists are crossed in front of her chest. Her lips move, but I can't hear what she's saying.

Emma says, "Let's make the fire bigger!" She stoops over and grabs another branch, and throws it in.

My grandmother opens her eyes, and says, quietly, "That's not a bad idea."

My sister dashes off, into the woods, and returns in less than a minute, grunting, holding a piece of wood that's almost as large as she is.

"That's good!" says my grandmother.

"I know!" says Emma.

My grandmother helps my sister haul the branch onto the fire. The two of them go tearing off again, to look for more.

"C'mon!" my grandmother calls to me.

They take several trips, back and forth to the fire. Sparks snake their way upward, toward the heavens. Knots explode. My sister and my grandmother shout appreciatively. After a few trips, they loiter by the fire, panting. My sister does a pirouette, and a few other moves she's learned in ballerina class. My grandmother copies her. I watch them.

"Why are you just standing there?" calls my grandmother.

"Yeah, c'mon! Dance with us!"

I don't want to dance. It is the middle of the night. I'm not sure where I am. My sister and my grandmother are burning things.

Suddenly my sister says, "Tess!" She returns to the tree where she stashed her unicorn, and brings it back to where we're standing.

"Who is this?" says my grandmother, extending her palm.

"This is Tessy."

My grandmother takes the stuffed animal. "How very nice to meet you." She hands it back to Emma and says, "Burn it."

Emma is quiet for a few moments. Then she says, "Do I have to?"

My grandmother doesn't think about it. "Yes."

Emma looks at the animal, looks hard at the fire. She tosses it in. The fire is huge. The animal goes up in a big, "WHOOSH," instantly.

"It's all cotton," is what I think. "That's why it did that."

My sister, watching my grandmother carefully, says, "What now?"

"Now," my grandmother says, "we swim."

She slips off her turquoise slippers, and lines them up, neatly, beside the fire. Then she crosses her arms at the bottom hem of her purple dress, and in one motion, pulls it off and flings it into the fire. She is wearing a tan brassiere, which she unhooks behind her back, while her dress turns black and then bursts into flame. Her breasts are long and dangling, pale things. They wobble, full of blue veins, below her ribs. I once saw a pair of plucked, bluish chickens at a butcher shop; her breasts remind me of them. She coils the brassiere neatly beside her slippers, and pulls off a pair of white cotton underpants with a line of lace across the top. Gray, matted hair forms a triangle between her legs.

"Well?" she says, looking at us with her hands on her hips. "It's your turn."

I am ten years old. In the past year, I have grown skittish about being naked. In the locker room at the public pool, I tie a towel around my hips and pull my underwear off and bathing suit on underneath.

My sister takes off her shirt, and starts to yank off her underpants and shorts at the same time. She can't get them over her shoes, though, so I help her out. My sister's chest is perfectly flat. Her nipples are like little drops of chocolate. The skin around her hairless vagina looks red and chafed. I unbuckle her shoes, and she kicks them off, then peels off the socks on her own. Her clothes are spread all over the clearing.

"Now you," she says. "C'mon."

"No," I say.

My grandmother shrugs. "All right. It's just us girls, then." She takes Emma's hand. The two of them canter off together, into the tiny pond. I can't see them clearly from where I'm standing, but I can hear them, shouting joyfully to each other.

I sit for a while, looking at the fire. Then I get up and retrieve my sister's clothing. I fold up her pants and underwear and shirt, brush them off, and set them down on top of her shoes. She has managed to lose the eagle pin that the stewardess gave her. Mine is still attached to my shirt. Wind disturbs the tops of nearby trees. Their branches rub together, making a groaning sound. I sit down again and watch my grandmother and my sister. They don't exactly swim. They splash each other. They run in and out of the dark water. They approach the fire and then run back, just to rinse the dirt off their feet, and end up getting back in all the way. After a while, I start to hear noises from behind me, as though something is moving toward us from the woods.

I don't believe in ghosts and monsters any more, but I do get up and move away from the fire, ducking a little ways into the forest so I can't be seen. I hear a clopping noise, and a high pitched whinny, and eventually a trio of horses comes out of the dark. They watch me standing on the other side of the clearing, clutching at the eagle pin as though it were a talisman. They look at the remnants of the fire, at the dying embers and the charred bits of leaves disappearing into the soft breeze. They gaze with black eyes toward my grandmother and sister, who are smearing each other's bodies with mud, oblivious. The horses' hide is brown and the fire casts flickering shadows against their long manes. They move gingerly around the fire, nibbling at grasses, sniffing at my sister's clothes, at my grandmother's slippers. They look at each other and back at me, their opposite ears twitching. They stay in the clearing for a long time, while the sun begins to rise, until my grandmother finally spots them, and begins to scream.


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