The grandfather’s nose whistles. The sound makes Emmi think of a train too far away to be seen, moving away from her, sounding fainter and fainter as it disappears.
Cotton gauze curtains obscure the rhododendrons planted outside and admit only a diffuse, pale light into the room. The light meanders and tries feebly to spread, only to be blocked by the door, snug tight in its jamb.
On the other side of the door, down the hall and in the kitchen with the green linoleum floor, Grandmother hums. She is washing the dishes from lunch, scraping at bits of stuck-on food with a fingernail.
Emmi’s mother has seen too many stories on the news, so she leaves Emmi with her grandparents when she has to travel for work instead of with a babysitter that is a stranger to the family. Emmi is six and quiet, usually compliant unless she is very hungry, so she is an easy child.
There are few amusements for a six-year old at her grandparents’ house, only a handful of toys salvaged from garage sales, many riddled with the indentations of previous owners’ budding teeth. The toys are crowded on the bottom of a shelf in a far corner, so in order to reach them Emmi must maneuver around the grandfather’s things. He is a collector. Old books, cigar boxes, lanterns and newspapers jumble together in piles and on shelves that stretch from floor to ceiling. The shelves loom over Emmi as she tiptoes past, threatening to fall and crush her under their weight.
Emmi only braves the basement when it rains or when Grandmother deems it is too cold for her to play outside. On sunny, warm days she stays outdoors in the yard for hours, hidden beneath the rhododendrons where the earth is hard and packed. She sits cross-legged under the bony elbow-like branches and flat, elongated leaves that look like tongues. Scattered sunlight pierces the cover of the leaves and she lingers in the speckled cover, using a stick to draw secret pictures in the dirt.
Her grandparents go to church every Sunday, so if Emmi stays over a weekend they take her with them. In the morning Grandmother will rifle through Emmi’s suitcase, shaking her head. Emmi is secretly pleased. She prefers jeans and dark colors to the pink colors she knows Grandmother is seeking.
Grandmother changes into one of her two good blouses and a pair of clean, ironed slacks. The only day she wears new knee-high stockings is Sunday. She winds her grayed hair into a ruthless bun, then covers her head with a green scarf that she knots tightly under her chin.
Then Grandmother takes a comb to Emmi’s hair. Emmi fidgets with stray hair pins as the fine-toothed comb jerks through tangles, pressing the end of a pin into her finger to distract from the hurt. Once she pressed too hard and her finger began to bleed. She put her finger in her mouth and didn’t say a word about it to Grandmother, though she suspects Grandmother saw everything.
The grandfather likes to smoke a cigar as he drives to church. The smell of the smoke, pungent like a salt marsh, coupled with the car’s sloshy suspension makes Emmi think she will throw up. The church is close to her grandparents’ home but the grandfather drives slowly, savoring his cigar, and even though Emmi finds church boring she looks forward to arriving just to get out of the car. Emmi’s mother doesn’t go to church, but Emmi has gone with her grandparents enough to know she must kneel before sitting in the pew, and that she must stay in her seat while her grandparents receive communion. Once she asked Grandmother if she could go up with her once, to see what happened, but Grandmother told her it wasn’t allowed and Emmi did not ask again. She waits patiently for her grandparents, her eyes drifting to the blood red and royal blue stained glass windows glowing with the sun’s late morning light.
After church is over, Emmi knows they will have lunch at the buffet restaurant and later will walk to the grocery store, once her grandparents have changed back into their regular clothes.
The walk to the grocery store takes them on plain sidewalks past houses without trees, and cars speed by and spit dust at their legs. Once, to distract her, the grandfather told her that she might find a diamond ring in the gutter if she looked hard enough. He explained women always dropped their rings because the diamonds were too heavy to stay on their fingers. Emmi was skeptical, but she kept her eyes glued to the sidewalk.
She searches for diamonds on every walk after that. She is often fooled by the allure of a flash in the sunlight, but these are usually bits of shattered glass. Once she finds a nickel, its dull gleam overshadowed by a jagged slice of mica. Her grandparents walk behind her in silence.
If she has stayed on a Sunday, Emmi’s mother will pick her up after dinner. It is not uncommon for Emmi to have a headache when her mother arrives and to be squeezing her eyes closed, trying to block out the light that threatens to split her eyeballs into pieces. Emmi’s mother simply can’t understand. Emmi is too young for headaches.
Emmi’s mother will press a hand to Emmi’s forehead while she asks how everything went. Grandmother will shrug and proffer a boxed coffee cake she purchased with coupons at the grocery store earlier. She says Emmi is too skinny, all elbows and knees. Emmi doesn’t tell Grandmother that when they get home, Emmi’s mother will throw the coffee cake into the trash bin.
At ease on the dirt under the rhododendrons, Emmi draws horses and cats, dragons and princesses. The princesses are beautiful and smiling, but Emmi knows their secret: They have no tongues.
She can see the grandfather’s feet through the flat rhododendron leaves as he holds the garden hose and directs a stream of water onto the roses beside the garage. He is wearing his slippers. Grandmother will be upset when he tracks grass onto her kitchen floor. He will keep going down the hall to the television room and will leave grassy clumps all the way.
Grandmother will call Emmi into the house. She is afraid to leave Emmi outside once the day begins to wane. She tells Emmi that it isn’t safe to be out there, alone.
When Emmi finally crawls out from under the rhododendrons, the day will be ebbing into deep turquoise blue and the grandfather will have turned on the evening news. Grandmother will shoo her down to the television because otherwise Emmi will be in her hair.
Emmi will walk slowly down the hall, following stray chunks of grass, and will hesitate by the door until the grandfather sees her. He will gesture at her to shut the door and then pats his lap. She will climb into his lap as always, resting her head gingerly against his shoulder. His lap is hard and uncomfortable. No matter how hard she tries to fall asleep the staccato voices of the newscasters will nag at her, and her nose will fill with the scent of the grandfather, stale marshy smoke laced with spearmint chewing gum. Years later Emmi will still be able to smell the tweedy smoke that permeated the fibers of the grandfather’s clothes, the mint of the chevron patterned slice of gum extracted from a folded square of foil.
In the kitchen Grandmother hums her favorite hymn. The water sluices soap suds from the grandfather’s coffee cup and scalds her skin, but she has washed dishes in hot water for so many years she no longer pays it any mind.
Katherine Mikk is a writer living in Massachusetts.