My godparents' ancient house was slope-nosed like a saltbox, and colored ladybug-red. The yard was more moss than grass. The forest crowded close to the house, and made everything shadowy and cool. But over a hill, in a meadow, my ancient godfather kept bees in the open sunshine.
His ancient wife was allergic to their stings.
"So I don't know why he keeps them," disapproved my young mother.
"He keeps them far away from the house," defended my young father.
In the field, my godfather also designed a game. On this particular visit, he taught it my young family. Something to do with wickets and bocce balls. I watched my my father gamely hit the rainbowy balls with his mallet, and my godfather was spritely as a boy, sashaying between the wickets, so earnest about his rules. I felt like my father, little brother, and I were rallying together, feigning interest to be polite. But I liked that the bocce balls looked like giant gumballs in the grass. Or Easter eggs. Because of the honeybees, my godmother stayed in the house with my mother and my baby brother, drinking cold mint tea. Then my younger brother and I slid down the roof of a shed, with mossy ribbed roof tiles, because it tilted so near the ground. And then it was time to go home. I was grateful, as usual.
We said our goodbyes, my family standing in their driveway. My godparents were kissing us, pinning our arms. Their hugs feeling pinchy. And their breath smelled like rotted cauliflower. Their words were over-tender and they were eager for our company again. And then it happened.
"All right, folks," said my mother. "Pile up," indicating the minivan. We had been stalling for too long, in an undecided group. "Time to hustle home. Have to make dinner."
"Oh, do you know what I saw yesterday?" said my godfather dreamily. "I saw two rabbits in the yard, right up close to the house," with poetic eyes so lively they frightened me.
"Phil," protested my godmother, "they just said they have to leave." But her voice sounded mousy. She always talked in a wobbly way, like a thinly-drawn pencil line.
"They're only young ones," said Phil. "Only a few weeks old."
"I like rabbits," said my father. Then, inconsequentially -- "Our neighbor's dog chases them."
"They just nibble on the grass," continued Phil in his dreamy manner. "They're two little friends. I see them every day. I think they live in the bushes over yonder."
His wife insisted, "Janet said she has to make dinner."
"It's all right," said my mother, picking up my toddling baby brother, who was hot and beginning to whine -- in a tone that meant it was not all right if this went on much longer.
"Maybe from the same litter," suggested my father.
"But whenever I try to get close," said Phil, "as soon as they hear my footsteps or the door open, they hop away."
"Aw," I said in false sympathy.
Suddenly Phil zeroed in on me.
"Sarah!" he crooned. "Can you show us how a baby bunny hops?"
"-- Show you what?" I faltered, smiling and pretending I didn't hear him.
"Can you show us how a baby bunny hops?"
I stepped back. "No, I can't," I said.
"Oh, you know how to do it," he said encouragingly. "Go on."
The hackles of my dignity were standing on end. I was in the third grade. "I don't know how to," I dodged.
"Sure you do," said my father.
I looked back at my parents in appeal. "I really don't."
But my father said, "Go on."
And my mother shifted my baby brother up in her arms with an impatient gesture that said more than words.
"Go on," encouraged my godfather. I glanced up at him. His eyes looked like impenetrable black currants, blinking down at me in expectancy, with a smile I couldn't figure out was idiotic or cruel.
"Sarah," said my father suddenly, cheerfully, with a hard glint underneath.
So I paused on an internal threshold, feeling hot. I realized I could stand my ground and be verbally flailed by my parents in the car later. And if I insisted on my dignity, I might also hurt and discomfit my godfather, who was so ancient. I didn't want either outcome.
So I bent down. I put the tips of my fingers on the tar.
"Boing," I said helplessly, and jumped.
I landed and crouched back down on the tar of the driveway. "Boing!" I said again, and bounced again. And once more. Each time, I tossed my head in an exaggerated gesture and jumped clumsily, feeling my long legs barely leave the driveway. (I was froggish even when standing up.) I figured if I looked like a conscious charlatan, I would be visibly laughing at myself and they could not laugh at me first. I finally stood up, regaining my feet, my dignity in shreds. The adults beamed down at me, laughing. My mother, too, had a small smile on her face.
"All right," said my father, as if to release me. "Well done."
"A veritable rabbit," declared Phil.
"Now they'll scoot," said my godmother, asserting herself.
I climbed into the white Toyota minivan with the rest of my family. The doors all banged closed, and when the car started, the air conditioning turned on with a low buzz. I pulled the seat belt across my hips with an angry zip. My father shifted the gear into reverse. My godparents waved to us and I knew they couldn't hear us through the glass.
"May I remind you all," I suddenly exclaimed, in a shrill voice like a high-toned bell, trying to keep the teetering out of my voice, "that I am eight years old." My pride had been ravaged. Sometimes I stammered when emotional, but I had gotten the words out.
The car was silent.
"Well!" I shot out again, crossing my arms across my bony chest. "Does he think I am in preschool?"
"It didn't hurt you to do it," my father said, putting his nubby hand on my mother's head rest. "At least not too much." He turned around, and started backing up. "He's an old man." Then he insisted again, in a rougher voice: "They're old people, Sarah," -- as if there was some deeper meaning to those words.
I scoffed and flung my head towards the window. My mother was saying nothing. My baby brother was whining.
* * *
When Phil, my godfather, was taken ill, my father did not go to visit him.
But my mother and I did. I was fifteen and nervous, as we waited in the carpeted lobby.
The carpet was pink.
And the nursing home smelled stale, but also like disinfectant. The proprietors had tried to brighten it, with brass pots of false flowers that sat by the automatic doors.
"Be prepared," my mother warned me, dramatically. "He's probably changed a lot."
We waited a very long time. Finally frail Jean wheeled him out, and my godfather looked like an over-sized turtle. That was the image that assaulted my imagination. His purplish top lip drooped, like an antediluvian creature. His body looked like it had gained fifty pounds, and had melted into the wheelchair. Everything sagged. His head was lolling to one side, almost resting on his shoulder.
My mother ran over and took the wheelchair from Jean -- "Wasn't there an attendant?" she huffed, and then, "Phil," with an air of perky warmth, and put her arms around him, though a hug was impossible. I myself pecked his cheek. He tried to move his head and was gumming some inaudible words.
"Phil," wailed his wife, pinching his shirt and shaking him, feebly. "Janet and Sarah are here to visit you."
"What. . . did. . . you. . . say, dear?"
"Janet and Sarah are here to visit you."
"Oh," he murmured into his shirt. "Who, dear?"
"Janet and Sarah," she almost shouted.
My mother leaned down to his ear. "It's Janet -- and -- Sarah," she said firmly.
Phil lifted his head with difficulty and looked at us. His lips smacked once, twice. Then he spoke in a syrupy way.
"Oh," he gummed. "Didsha see the irish?"
"The who, dear?" squawked Jean. "The Irish?"
My mom massaged his shoulder. "The who, Phil?"
Phil opened his mouth wider, a string of saliva stretching between his lips. He lifted his head with effort, and swiveled on his neck to look at the three of us. Then he leveled his gaze at me. "Did you see the iris?" he asked, clearly, with a beautiful smile. His eyes lost their opaqueness, and became as vibrant as a cedar log, felled and split open, revealing its rotting red-browness to the sun. Pulpy and wet and rich.
"No, we didn't see any irises," I said indulgently, as if talking to a child. "Where are they?"
"Over in the -- over in the back garden." Phil lifted his arm slowly, slowly. "Only one." He moved his thumb over his shoulder. "I woke, and the sun was coming down just so. Just so. And I saw the iris."
So I deliberately went over to a glass slider and looked out at the bleak back garden, burning up in the sun. The garden was a square of grass in the middle of connecting buildings. The sun was pushing against the walls so hard, I could almost see the individual craters in the pink brick. I planned on saying the flower was beautiful whether I saw it or not.
But I did see it. There it was: one slender stem, rising against the wall of the opposing building.
The iris was sweeping upwards, in a relevé, ending in a frill of purple-blue.
I returned and said it was a purple flame.
Phil nodded as if I had said something deep and wise. "That's just so." He raised a finger. "If a person sees that kind of beauty. . . then everything. . . is right. . . in the world."
Then my mother wheeled him out of the lobby, to a semi-living room with scattered couches. "Shall we pray together?" she suggested. She was never very religious, and these occasional sacred moments that she attempted to create were uncomfortable for me. In this living room, we all joined hands. We bent our heads and closed our eyes, but I peeked at everyone. Jean was knitting her eyebrows, her scrawny eyebrows. My mother was, too, though hers were black -- almost sternly, as if she could wrench a miracle out of God. But I mainly watched Phil. He was buttoning his eyes up, as if he was a baby. He screwed his lids together so tightly, so innocent-looking, that they became all wrinkly. He was holding my hand. And he kept squeezing it. Releasing it, then pinching it, then releasing it. Then holding me hard again.
* * *
Eight months earlier, in mid-autumn, I had found my father sitting on the hearth in our living room.
"Hi, daddy," I hailed him cheerily.
He had built a fire, and he was cracking hickory nuts -- which we called pignuts -- with a hammer against the bricks. A pad of paper was lying on his knee. He was wearing jeans and a plaid flannel shirt, hunter-green.
"Whatcha writing?" I sat down next to him.
"Oh, just scribbling. Sort of a poem."
I clasped my thin legs together with my arms. "May I see it?"
"Sure." He handed it over to me. "It's no good."
"What's it called?"
"Oh, it doesn't really have a title yet. It's about Phil," my father said, as if suddenly shy. The fire cast a rosy glow on his face. His eyes were jumping, like a sea in thrall. "I was thinking of calling it 'The Death of the Beekeeper'."
I took the yellow legal pad. "Except Phil's alive."
He squashed a nut with the hammer. "He won't be for long."
"Morbid," I laughed. "He is not even sick."
"But he's old. Death is a natural part of life, Sary." He opened the nut, almost delicately, with his two stubby thumbs. "You need to accept that."
"I accept it," I said with slight annoyance. I picked up his pencil and chewed on the eraser end. The taste of metal filled my mouth. It often seemed that my father believed death was more artistic than life.
He said, "Sorry: my handwriting is terrible."
"No, I can read it," I relented.
"And the thing needs a lot of editing," my father added humbly. "So maybe you can help me." He pulled out the whitest, oiliest piece of the pignut, and handed it to me.
I took the meat. I had the same stubby thumb as my father. But just one -- my left elegant thumb (or normal-looking one) was my mother's. But my father had given me my right thumb, my brachydactyly type D thumb.
"I can't do that," I said.
"Why not? You're a writer."
I asked, "You want me to mess around with your art?"
"Sure." He cracked another pignut with the hammer. "It's nothing anyway."
* * *
The eyes that in their sockets grew.
-- I can't remember, now, if that was a line written by Robert Frost, or my father, or my godfather.
The eyes that in their sockets grew,
of a New Englander,
-- deep. I had always been disconcerted by my godfather's eyes. They were thick-lidded, the eyeballs bulging between crepey hulls. But what unnerved me was that the color was still like a boy's: brown, and limpid. Their vibrancy was so distinct from the rest of his wizened face, such an anachronism underneath his woodcock-egg skull. Additionally (or consequentially), his gaze was high-wire-alive, and sank straight down to principled rock. Unsearchable.
* * *
Irises bloom in May. It was my mother who decided we would visit him that spring, when he had fallen ill so suddenly.
She had grabbed her keys off the hook in the kitchen, on a Saturday morning.
"Are you coming with?" she asked my father.
He had looked at her, scared, for a moment. "No," he said.
He was leaning against the kitchen counter, holding bills that made him look important.
"Fine," my mother said.
She turned her back.
My father lowered the bills. "I don't like decay, Janet," he begged. "I don't like it. I don't like old age and sickness and death."
But she was digging through her purse, in a stroking and distracted way.
"You're so much better at it than I am," he pleaded.
"Ah --!" She pulled out a pen and wrote Jean's name on the back of a card. Then she turned to me. "Sarah, can you get the strawberries in the fridge?" sweetly. "I'll carry the cake."
"Yes," I said, appalled.
"You are coming with me, Sarah, right?" she asked.
I glanced over at my father. I thought he looked like a boy, his hands gripping the counter ledge, with hunched shoulders. Shaking blue eyes, that meant he might have been drinking.
I answered, "Of course I am." Thinking -- please leave him alone.
I opened the fridge with a suctioning sound. I took out the bowl of strawberries, covered with saran wrap.
My heart twisted for my father. But I sailed by, with a straight head and tough spine, holding the strawberries high, thinking --
also -- "Coward." I couldn't help it. And I went out the door.
* * *
Phil's funeral was a year later, when the bees were filling the sky like needles in a pincushion. It was spring again.
Phil's kind of spring. It was a frilly frigid day -- though the sun pooled around our house.
My father was dressed in a slender suit, wearing a tie. He stood in my bedroom doorway and was generous enough, sympathetic enough to ask --
"Do you want to go, Sary?" -- rather than touting my duty.
I looked out my bedroom window. I lifted my foot and scratched my ankle. I was still leggy, now a coltish teenager.
It was such a simple conversation that I felt the sudden need to dress it up, prolong it. But there was nothing more to say. I had never been overly attached to my godparents. I felt no desire, no drive to go.
So he walked out of the house alone, in his slim black suit. My father always did what was right, in matters of great occasion. He had a solid sense of social duty. But I still felt justified, with a cool conscience. I had visited Phil while he was alive.
* * *
Part I of II