12Grandmother. Ten years old and I’m kneeling on the carpet next to her.
She smells like flowers with English Garden names:
peony, jasmine, narcissus;
she smells like black and white movies,
where heroines smoke PallMalls like they mean it.
She grips the pins between smudged red lips, her breath coming in emphysematic wheezes, moving on her knees around the fabric on the floor of her bedroom, cutting away a pattern only she can see. Your great-great-grandmother, she says, was a Russian Princess, (ice like diamonds shining in the not-water glass on her dressing table). A different day and the great-great-grandmother might be a Prussian princess, or German, or Austrian, or
Romanian, I ask thinking of gypsies,
No silly, she says.
I thought my mother was mean to steal all her bottles from their hiding places.
She loops her stories around herself,
Grandfather. Leather straps creak against the stump below his knee. He lowers himself into his chair, surveying his battlefield, the small table between us where I have laid out the chessboard the way he taught me. He uses both hands to lift and stretch out his wooden leg to one side. Only the first wooden leg had actually been wood. Its successors were named wooden legs like new generations of some recalcitrant family pet. This one is made of pale-peach plastic, swooping gracelessly down to mannequin toes. This one creaks and groans in new places since the time years ago when he saved me from drowning in the swimming pool. He tells me the secret of the Laird of Drumblair, our great-grandfather, while plucking my chess pieces from the board. I watch the massacre and learn the secret history of faithless great-great-great-grandfather, the Laird. Scotland, he concludes with a sigh, and probably a checkmate or at least a check—that’s where people speak proper English.
He loops his stories around himself,
pulling tighter with every year,
Father. He spent months in Scotland and never found a trace of Drumblair. He brought back a tam o’shanter and kilt in the family tartan that faded from memory in the kist.
Tell me about your mother, I ask him.
I don’t remember her, he says, turning away with a shake of his head.
Let the grief-fire run and it will burn down the damn house.
Tell me about your wife, my mother,
tell me about us, your children,
tell me about me,
tell me, please,
tell me anything at all.
It got so even his happiness was like anger—laughter that was a shout or a joke that made someone else wince—then the anger was just a fathomless weariness with tumour-shaped teeth eating him from the inside out.
I loop and loop and loop,
Mother. Tell me about your father.
I don’t talk about him, says my mother turning away, her lips thin.
Let the anger-fire run and it will burn down the damn house,
and all of us with it.
We loop our stories around ourselves,
into a life shape
pulling tighter with every year
A skein from which I try to weave another story.
I come from a family of
drunks and artists and drunken artists
I come from a line of
wanderers and nomads
lamenting that they don’t belong,
refusing to belong.
My family is as real as its storytellers. My family is as real as the empty boxes on our family tree. My family is as real as stick figures,
A skein from which one of us will weave another story.
Kerry Anderson is presently a Singapore-based writer and programmer. She holds an MFA from Hong Kong University. Her stories have been appeared in Itch Online Creative Periodical, Nova Short Story Competition and Sad Girls Literary Blog (upcoming, June 4).