Twine wrapped antlers lined the ceiling. Some were old, at least as old as Granddad could remember. It was cool in the basement, dim and smelling of earth and potatoes. I found myself there often, eyes tracing the curves of each tine, letting the hum of the woodstove fan and the creaking of the settling house overtake the storm of thoughts. It was somehow easier that way, to stand under the earth, away from the cold air that tried to push snow under the door, and the grey skies. I was twenty-one and had lost everything.
The little house was on a hill, looking down at the wind-ravaged sea, and I knew I had heard a song about it at one time. Music was an anchor to me in those days, and I would let the melancholy strains of folk and bluegrass sink into the weathered boards of my attic room while the muslin curtains were gradually soaked through and crusted with the salt breezes. It was February in New England and the sun couldn’t find its way through the pale clouds. I was twenty-one and had a hole in my heart and silver rings on my fingers.
Rings that were tight in the mornings and loose in the evenings and became tangled in my waves of pale auburn hair when I twisted it into a knot at the crown of my head. The red came from Granddad. There were still traces of it in his carefully groomed beard, trailing out from sea-weathered skin to mingle with the silver-white.
He had mom’s eyes, that crystal clear between blue and green, and on days when I couldn’t meet his gaze he would open all the windows, and let the fire blaze, and bring in kittens from the woodshed. They were wild, windswept little greylings, but they would sink tiny claws into his woolen trousers to scale him like a tree, and they would settle, curled against his chest, cupped gently in salty, hook-scarred hands.
He would smile, fine lines reaching from the corners of his eyes to the ginger-grey temples, and more often than not I found I could look at him again. I was twenty-one, and had a house full of the elements and a gentle old man and his kittens.
It was a Friday that changed things. I didn’t know it was the fourteenth, and if I did I wouldn’t have cared that it was Valentine’s Day. To me it was just another of those days. The ones that were harder than most. My hands shook when I tried to do careful things, and despite the drafts of wind that drove sheets of rain across the sky I couldn’t stop opening the windows. Granddad kept the stove well stoked, his Wellies a familiar creak on the stairs while I washed dishes and let salt cake on my hair and dry lips from the rain and wind coming in through the open windows.
On days like this we would pry open a jar of home-canned clams and make chowder and corn pone. Lay out the linen napkins, stoneware bowls and pewter spoons as nice as though they were fine china and silver. We wouldn’t know what to do with china and silver anyways, Granddad always reminded me, and I always agreed, relishing the rough edges of the stone under my fingertips.
A storm rolled in, darkening the late afternoon prematurely, but the windows stayed open. At some point I had managed to explain, my words strangling me, that they suffocated me sometimes when they were closed. So open they stayed, and we never needed to talk about it again. I was twenty-one, and felt anxiety from closed windows, yet drew solace from the lashing storms.
Granddad was on his little wooden stool in the corner of the kitchen, peeling potatoes with a paring knife. I set the cast-iron pan of pone on the back of the stove to keep warm, and then faced the storm darkened window over the sink to begin dicing the peeled potatoes. Granddad brushed the back of my neck softly with his knuckles when he leaned past me to set some potatoes in the sink, and that’s when my hands started to tremble almost violently.
He didn’t notice, went back to his quiet stool and the kittens that twined round his wool-wrapped ankles, and I squeezed the blur from my eyes and tried to make the knife in my hands stop shaking. The next thing I knew there was a red-streaked potato in the sink and I was staring down at a slick, crimson smear of opened flesh on my palm. It was a testament to my numbness that I didn’t respond to the instinctual urge to stem the flow of blood and apply pressure to the wound.
I turned then, my breath starting to hitch in my chest as I held my shaking hands out in front of me. Blood slid in sluggish rivulets down my wrist and my other hand fumbled to press on the weeping line, sending a red-stained ring tumbling to the floor with a muffled clink. I watched it roll across the boards, before it finally settled tremulously, leaving droplets of blood in its wake.
A kitten slipped from Granddad’s lap to pounce on the tainted silver, only to shake its paw in annoyance at the viscous liquid that clung to its silken fur, and it was that sudden movement that caught his attention. His gaze rose to me immediately and he tensed on his stool, though he made no move toward me, instead letting a potato roll from his fingers back into the basket. His brow wrinkled with worry, but he just looked at me, and I knew he was waiting for me to ask.
To ask for help, something that had stuck in my throat for months, strangling me with the prospect of frightening vulnerability. I looked at the person who had been just waiting, with open hands, to catch me when I fell, and felt my eyes fill. I cut myself, I whispered, and those hands were suddenly close, cupping my face briefly, catching my elbow gently to turn me back to the sink.
A clean towel found its way into my hand, careful pressure causing a shock of not unpleasant pain to shoot up into my arm, and I let my fingers instinctively curl to grip the worn fabric tight. The tremble had bled from my hands all up through my arms and into my chest, and I could feel myself shaking. I was twenty-one and a cut on my hand was breaking me more thoroughly than the touch of loss.
Granddad was talking, and only when I looked up at him did his words register with me. –not bad. He was saying. It’s not so bad. You’ll be alright. It’s not bad.
Only it was, and I couldn’t escape the fact. My heart had in it a sharper ache than the sting on my hand, and it was only now spilling out, after months of my not knowing what to do with it. Letting it out had never seemed an option until now, and that realization struck a bitter chord within me, forcing a tiny broken sound from my lips.
My grandfather wrapped his arms around me then, trapping my bloody hand firmly against his chest, and I finally let myself give in. The wind lashed no less fiercely at the open window, the elements still inexplicably determined to remove us with no trace that we were ever here. I was vaguely aware of kitten paws on my feet and a tiny, warm body pressed to my ankle, odd details standing out vividly as I gave in and released the pain of loss.
I was twenty-one and was learning to let go.