We sit at my grandmother’s low kitchen table, knees touching beneath heavy cypress wood. Long fingers of steam curl from matching cups of chamomile tea. Outside the wind is rushing through narrow, close streets, shutters banging hollow. A late summer storm just off the gulf, bringing the night early in the city of New Orleans. My grandmother, holding silence over her tea, startles us both when she jumps in her chair at a crack of thunder, clutching the lip of the table, eyes shifting in their sockets. I’m surprised to see tear tracks on her papery cheeks.
She looks at me, holds my gaze but says nothing.
“Mhamó? What’s wrong?”
She squeezes my hand. I’m struck by how young she looks, 20 years gone with the fading light. Her eyes, these days so cloudy with forgetfulness, are now stormy with emotion. They snap at me, hold me still.
“Why did you come, daor amháin? Why today?”
“I come every week, Mhamó. I come to visit and we have tea. Remember?”
“Of course, Rose, I remember.” She says, exasperated. “But never this day, I always make sure of it. Never today. Every year I’m sure.”
I stare at her, lost for words. She sits ramrod straight in her chair, nothing of the old, hunching woman about her. There’s something new going on here, something fierce, and a little desperate too. I lean in, teacup forgotten. I have no idea what I’m going to say, only that I feel a little desperate myself. The air is charged. Shadows pool on my grandmother’s face in the hollow places beneath her eyes and cheekbones.
“Honestly Mhamó, I have no idea what you mean. But if something’s on your mind, you can tell me.” I grin, add a little levity. “Especially if it has to do with your famous bread recipe. Don’t you think I’m old enough to take it home with me?”
She leans forward too, smiling. I catch a whiff of her rosewater perfume and am instantly a child again.
“Perhaps you are old enough dearheart. After all, you’re here today of all days, and maybe that’s a sign.”
My grandmother was a young woman in the summer of 1914, when Ireland found itself on the cusp of the Great War. There was a young man, Arnold, who was like a war unto himself. He and grandmother grew up together in the same tenement flats in Dublin city. Arnold was not a big man, according to Mhamó, but he had a force to his psyche that made him larger than life. He was gregarious and hard-working. He drank too much and wanted to be a minister in Ireland’s Protestant minority before the war spoke for him, as it did all young men. Apparently he was quite fervent. He was prone to fevers, and the old mas that gathered daily around someone’s wood stove whispered that it was the lord’s fire burned so hot in him. He asked for my grandmother’s hand that very winter.
“I knew I had to marry, of course, and Arnie was as good as any. But I was raised Catholic. Da would have taken some convincing to let me go with him. And there was Annie of course. There was always Annie.”
Annie was a childhood friend, another good Catholic girl living nearby, and as close as a sister. Her parents owned a bakery and the two families got on well. They’d played together, and gone to school together, and all the while the world never knew.
On this same late summer day in 1914, one of the last good days before the war, Annie was struck down and killed in the cobblestone street. They had been on their way to the market. No one saw what happened. There were many people out that day: drunks, children, vendors and cars crowded the walkways. I can see it so vividly. The sunlight reflecting on the pageboy caps of the men, the steaming old-world cobblestones of a street built hundreds of years earlier. I hear the smart rap of buckled shoes and smell the oddly comforting mix of hay and manure, fried oil and fresh earth. Most of all, I see the soft curl of Annie’s head and her smile as she turns to cross the street. I even see Arnold in the background, with red hair and a ruddy face blooming with burst capillaries. I do not see my grandmother, but she is alive after all, and this is a vision of the dead.
“It happened so fast. No one saw, even though it was crowded and I was looking right at her. But in my memory it’s slow, so slow. I can still reach out and grab the hem of her dress.” Her searching hand reaches, falls impotently to the table. “Everything after is a blur. I screamed. The crowd gathered. I never got to touch her again.”
They buried Annie in Glasnevin Cemetery, and my grandmother went to sleep for the next four years. That’s how she describes it, anyway. And wasn’t it the same the whole country over? The lost years, she calls them. She tells me only one thing pulled her from the fog. In 1918 she married my grandfather, war-hardened but still just a boy, and eager to leave the whole godforsaken country behind. They came to America, the port of New Orleans, and had my father the very same year.
“I was just as eager to leave as he was. I had my own reasons of course. We brought only the clothes on our backs and a few loaves of bread. I used the same recipe that you’re always after, my legacy, what Annie left to me.” She smiles, a little watery around the edges. “I thought I’d never tell a soul, but time has a way of undoing all the passionate vows of youth.”
I smile back at her, indulgent, a little sad. Is this what she was so afraid to share? A sapphic love story in her youth? I feel a deep sadness crowd my soul.
“Oh Mhamó, you know I love you no matter what. And I’m sorry I never knew. I promise I’ll carry on your legacy, um, Annie’s legacy. I’d be honored to.” I wait for her response, but she is silent again. She stares at the table, shoulders hunched, hands clasped together. Suddenly she rises, unfolding herself in faded brown gingham. She walks to her small pantry, covered by a checked curtain similar to her dress, and pulls it aside. On a shelf surrounded by dusty books and heaps of haphazard vegetables is a heavy wood cabinet. It’s almost an armoire, thick and knotted and glistening with the oil of age. I think I know it, somewhere in the hazy recesses of my girlhood. It conjures up feelings of must and cobwebs.
“Your grandfather gifted this to me as a wedding present, and it was the nicest thing we took with us from the old country. You’ve probably never seen me use it, right? Your grandfather was perplexed when I stuck it in the attic with the storage. Oh I told him it was just too nice for everyday use. And of course, I was the only one with a key.” She fumbles briefly at her bosom, pulling out a small brassy key on a long chain. “But now I live alone, I keep it here with the onions and cookbooks.”
She busies herself over the lock, inserting the key with an old-woman’s careful movement. The two doors swing open, creaking balefully.
“I told you about that day, this day, the 50th anniversary of Annie’s death. But I lied, daor amháin. I lied when I said I did not see what happened. The truth is, I never took my eyes off her. I rarely did when we were together, because I knew our time was coming. The war was upon us, we were grown up, we would both have to be married soon. But I wasn’t ready. And Arnold wasn’t the first boy I’d turned down, but he was the only one who knew the truth. Or at least suspected it.” She sighs, long and heavy. “Maybe his stone was meant for me, I’ll never know.” She fixes me with her gaze, hard, proud, and suddenly it twists, pulling down hideously at the corners of her mouth, and in a flash of lightning her eyes gleam with cold fire, and my heart turns to stone. “But I’ll tell you one thing I know, it wasn’t my marriage or the ship to America or even the birth of your father that pulled me from the fog of my soul. It was killing the sodden bastard that thought a woman he wanted was a woman he owned. And he thought he had me, right before he drank my witch’s brew of sweet barley tea and hemlock.”
I look away, back into the cabinet. I remember it now, in the attic where I sometimes explored on rainy days. It sat in shadow, squat and mute, never giving up its secrets until today. There are the killing hands and the still grinning skull. There are the bones, twisted with age, slick in the moist heat of another rainy Louisiana day.
Ruth Brown is a native of Louisiana and can’t stop writing about the South. She has four dogs and one lovely wife.