Monday, February 26, 2018

Short Story: The Missing Grandfather

Here is a short story I wrote recently and also drew illustrations to go along with it.

The Missing Grandfather

The house is gone now. Marigold’s family was the last to live in it. The old house had sand splattered against the sides. Some of the roof shingles had been blown off by incoming wind from the sea. Marigold would sleep with her windows open even during winter because nothing helped her fall asleep like the sound of waves tumbling and toiling. Sometimes, she’d find sand in her hair in the morning because of some strong gust of midnight wind carrying in the tiny particles. Once she found a hermit crab curled up next to her head on her pillow.

Marigold lived with her mother, father and the family cat in the second story of the house. The first story was empty except for Marigold’s seashell collection and her father’s fishing kit. The first story was unreliable. It flooded during storms or when the earth moved in a strange way. Moss was growing on the floor boards and salt caked every surface.

When Marigold was still little, she had a handheld radio she kept on her dresser. Whenever she heard reports of bad weather clambering their way, Marigold would bring an inflatable raft to the first floor. She would fill it with blankets and books. Then she would wait. The rain would start and the sea would thrash. Soon, water seeped into the house. Marigold would curl up in the raft and read about adventures while the water slowly raised her higher. When she was close enough to reach the ceiling, she would pull a pencil from behind her ears and draw pictures on a bare spot on the ceiling.

In the living room, there was a hole in the floorboards. Salty sea water drained down through the hole, filling the basement so it was never dry. During one spring storm, the sea brought in a baby shark. The shark swam into the hole in the floor and into the basement. After the sea receded, back toward the murky unfathomable fathoms, the shark remained. Marigold brought the shark fish every day, dropping the wriggling scaled animals into the hole for the shark to gobble up. “Goodbye.” She said to the fish sadly, feeling their betrayal sting the tips of her fingers as she released them and they plummeted down toward the hungry shark. It was a solemn duty, but Marigold knew what the shark thirsted for.

The shark lived in the basement for three months when Marigold’s grandfather Vitus came to live with the family on the first floor. When he arrived, he peered through the hole at the skinny shark thrashing around the basement. He grabbed Marigold’s hand and enlisted her in a mission to free the creature.

“He’s my pet. I like him down there. I tell him about my day.” She said halfheartedly, feeling the guilt of his neglect. That morning after catching a fish for the shark’s breakfast, she had decided to release it back into the sea instead of bringing him back to her pet. The fish had looked at her with opal eyes and suddenly Marigold was reminded of a classmate with bulbous eyes and a furrowed brow who had moved to Indiana the previous year. “Newton,” she whispered to the fish. I must set you free. He had slipped from her hands and hit the water with a joyful splash.

Vitus had responded to Marigold’s protest with a very serious frown. His brow furrowed, the sides of his cheeks tightened, his eyes grew small with disapproval. Marigold let out a defeated breath. 


They started near the sea. With shovels gripped in their hands and wide brimmed hats on their heads, they started digging. It took a week to complete the escape route. They waited for the high tide to fill the tunnel. Just as the water reached the family home, Vitus used an ax to chop a hole in the side of the shark’s basement enclosure. The scowling creature swam toward freedom. But when the shark saw Marigold’s grandfather, still in the water with the ax shimmering in his hand, the shark lost all notion of freedom and gratitude. Instead, the predator hunger inside him took over. He whipped his body around, opened his toothy mouth and bit off Vitus’s leg.

The leg was gone, or it was somewhere else. It was somewhere in the sea inside the shark’s stomach. So there was nothing the doctors could do for Vitus except for fashion a wooden leg to his healing stump.

“I miss that leg.” Vitus said while still in the hospital. “I’ve lost something grand and irreplaceable.”
Marigold reached out her small hand and gripped her grandfather’s slumped shoulder. He was staring wistfully at a lump of gleaming jello on a food tray balanced on his lap.

Vitus spent three months living in the abandoned first story of his daughter’s house. They dragged an old couch into the empty living room. It was a dingy old thing that they found on the side of the road with a free sign tapped to the middle cushion.

His daughter, Zelda was nervous that her father was in such constant close proximity. But it was her family’s pet shark that had led to her father’s incapacitated condition.

Before that summer, Marigold had little opportunity to spend time with her grandfather. He would come to visit in bursts, knocking on the door with a bag on his shoulder and a smile on his face. For three days, he slept in a sleeping bag on their empty living room or if it was summer he would sleep on the beach. For every visit, he would devote one day to spending time with his granddaughter. He’d take Marigold to the park to feed the ducks. He would buy her an ice-cream cone. But the rest of the time would be spent in mysterious endeavors. He’d be gone all night. Sometimes, strange men would come knocking on his door in search of him. Once marigold woke up to noises coming from downstairs. When he went to investigate, she found the whole house full of strangers laughing and throwing things in the air.

Vitus’ absent leg forced him to stay still. Marigold finally got to know her grandfather beyond ice cream and ducks. He told her stories of his life. They played checkers together. Marigold read him books while he stared at the pictures drawn on the ceiling. Marigold loved that her grandfather was around. She loved that they were doing the sort of things her schoolmates did with their grandparents. But one day, Marigold woke up and walked down the stairs with Moby Dick under her arm only to find an empty living room. They read the book together every morning while sipping coffee. But that day, when they were about to pick up reading on page 445 of Moby Dick, her grandfather was gone. In his place was an envelope with her name printed on it. The letter inside said, “I have left to travel the world again.”

Marigold read the letter one hundred times, looking for clues she may have missed during her first reading. Where did he go? Would he come back? Would he miss her?

Zelda was relieved. She loved her father, but there was so much he didn’t understand. Vitus had broken her own heart many times during her own childhood.

Marigold didn’t see her grandfather again until she was twenty three. After he left, he sent her postcards from different places around the world. But soon the postcards stopped and no one in her family knew where he was.

Marigold was at a coffee shop when she saw him. He was sitting by the window doing a crossword puzzle and drinking black coffee. At first, he just looked like a normal old man. But the features of his face and even his slouched yet confident posture started to arrange in her mind and she was shocked with the burst of familiarity.

“Grandfather!” She said from across the room. She waved at him when he glanced her way.

“Ahhh, little Marigold!”

Marigold didn’t live by the sea anymore. She had grown up after all, and left her parents to tend to the house and the sea themselves. Sometimes she missed the small seaside town of her childhood. But after years of living somewhere small and familiar, she knew she wanted to live somewhere large and mysterious. She chose this city, she chose it because it was beautiful, and it was full of interesting people. It was a place she knew she could keep exploring.

“Why did you move to this city of all places, grandfather?”

“Well, why not, I’ve never lived here before!” He went on to tell Marigold of all the interesting places he had lived since they last saw each other when Marigold was still a child. He told her about the time he had lived in Finland and learned to cook Finnish stews to keep warm in the winter. He told her a story about living in Russia where he was engaged to an acrobat until they had an argument about the morality of keeping a dancing bear tied to a pole in the middle of the circus tent. The story he was most excited to tell was about when he lived in Egypt where he gave tours on camels to tourists with deep pockets.

Vitus and Marigold spent the rest of the evening telling each other stories about their lives. A lot had happened since they had seen each other last. They went back and forth and back and forth telling each other stories while drinking coffee at the fateful coffee shop. They told more stories as they wandered down the city streets past glowing windows. They walked past spray painted walls and told stories about the art they had seen and the art they had made. They walked past record shops blaring music through the open doors and told stories of the music they had heard and the songs that were the themes to their own lives. They walked past sad men and happy women and told stories about all the people who had made them sad and happy. They walked past the clutter of a well lived in city and felt their own hearts declutter with the relief of a shared connection, a confidant who they could tell all too even if only in that moment. They told each other stories as they found bars to stumble into where they met strangers who told stories of their own. By the end of the evening, Marigold was enchanted by the whirlwind of whimsy and adventure that clung to her grandfather.

Vitus had only been in the city for three days. On the first day, he never went to sleep and spent the day drifting from wine bar to wine bar telling stories to strangers till his cheeks were red and voice was hoarse. The next day, he fell asleep at the library, his face on the open page of a book about war generals, a pile of drool slowly blurring the image of a young civil war veteran with a serious expression. He had been awoken by a young librarian just before closing. When he walked out of the library, the wind had blown in his face and was refreshed for a new evening of adventure. On the third day, he looked at his granddaughter with hopeful eyes as he casually mentioned his homeless state.

Marigold took Vitus back to her home. It was not at all an ordinary place to live. She worked as the caretaker at the local botanical garden and lived in the caretaker’s quarters. She yawned as she pulled a blanket from the closet and set up her grandfather to sleep on the old couch. The living quarters were small and her own bed was up a ladder to a loft. Marigold always opened the windows as she had done as a child sleeping in her oceanside home. But instead of hearing the sounds of water, she heard the wind rustle through the trees and the birds in the morning.

Marigold’s life was one of comfortable habit. She tended to plants in the morning. She walked to the city center in the evening where she read books in the coffee shop. She went home where she ended her night curled up in bed, falling to sleep to the sound of wind in the trees. Vitus’s reentry into her life brought with it a surge of adventures. They explored parts of the city Marigold had never been to before. Vitus’s rabble rousing, adrenaline fueled gusto for fun was infections. Marigold found herself doing things she would never imagine doing. She learned to ride a motorcycle. She sneaked onto the roof of a 100 story building and saw the city in a way she had never before seen it. One night, Vitus and Marigold took shots of whiskey and square danced on tabletops together while a man played a banjo on a stage behind them. Marigold was impressed by Vitus's ease of movement, knowing that underneath his left pant leg was not a leg of flesh but a leg of wood.

Sometimes though, they had calm days together. They played board games in the botanical garden or wandered through the aquarium or one of the museums. Sometimes her grandfather would stop his stories to listen to her talk about the plants she cared for. She told him about how bamboo can grow 35 inches in a day and about how once a long time ago tulip bulbs were worth more than gold.

Two months and twelve days after Vitus and Marigold ran into each other at the coffee shop, Vitus left Marigold’s home in the middle of the night without saying good bye. The evening before, they had been sitting on the grass together eating sandwiches for dinner when Marigold said, “Tomorrow, I’ll tell you how Moby Dick ended!”

“He didn’t want to know.” Marigold said when she found the couch empty of her sleeping grandfather. A week later she found that the tin box where she kept her money was empty, and a silver charm bracelet her mother gave her was gone.

A year and a half after Vitus abruptly left, he woke up in a hostel in Italy screaming. The man who was sleeping in the bed next to him said Vitus was hollering “Where is my leg?” over and over again.
When Zelda picked him up from the airport, Vitus claimed he knew all along about his leg. But soon after, Vitus began calling Zelda by her mother’s name. Zelda knew that one day she would wake up and her father would no longer know who she was at all. It made her sad, but it didn’t break her heart and she felt guilty at her intact heart. But Vitus had never known her very well. She always thought he didn’t like her very much. She was always so practical and cautious. As a teenager she realized these qualities made her boring, but they also made her happy, and they made her strong to face whatever life through her way. So, her practicality could never make her father happy, but it made her feel more at ease in the world.

When Marigold was young, she had been enthralled by Vitus’s tales, but Zelda knew his stories came at an expense. She had seen her mother grow weaker and more drained of life as her father seemed to greedily horde it to himself, glowing as her mother seemed to flicker away. She scowled at her father as she tried to charm little Marigold with a tale of adventure traveling to Paris with artists. And soon the story he told tumbled away into mutual scowls between father and daughter. Zelda felt a battle brewing as they both fought and fumbled and bristled over Marigold. They both wanted Marigold’s heart. Zelda wanted to shield it and Vitus wanted to ignite it with adventure. But it hadn’t started out as a battle. Marigold’s affection was once a rickety bridge between Vitus and Zelda.  

Vitus met Marigold for the first time when she was three. She had been sitting on Zelda’s lap and Vitus started to tell a story about a time he had been living in Brazil and he fought a forty foot snake. Marigold had clapped her pudgy hands and cheered him on. She was full of glee and admiration. Vitus had smiled proudly and glanced at Zelda, giving her an approving look. It was the first time she had ever felt her father was proud of her. And Zelda was filled with joy and dread at the same time. Her daughter had a glow of life she wanted to protect from her father. But even at three, Marigold seemed to understand her own father better than she or her own mother ever did. Maybe this understanding would protect Marigold.

But it hadn’t protected her after all, at least not fully. Zelda tried to subdue her own rage as she listened to her daughter recount the story of the lost money and the sudden disappearance from her life. Marigold was crying on the phone, just as she had many years prior when Vitus had left the beach house to continue his travels.

On the phone again a year later, Marigold begrudgingly agreed to come home after hearing the news of her grandfather’s decline.

“I don’t believe it. He is probably just pretending,” Marigold said. “You know, I’m coming mainly to support you, mom.” And Zelda’s heart filled to the brim at her sweet and loyal daughter.

Marigold took the bus from the airport. She walked from the bust stop down the beach, with a back pack stuffed with some clothes and a couple of yellow paged books. She was thinking about how one of the characters in the book reminded her of her mom when she approached her house. She saw her mom on the patio looking out to sea. Zelda wore a pale dress with stains on the collar and a missing button by her belly button. Her hair was pulled in a ponytail. Her face was blotted with rosy pink. Her eyes were round but dragged down.

“Mom!” Marigold said and hugged Zelda tightly.

Her father was upstairs. She could see the top of his head from the window. His once black hair was now gray but glowed blue in the dim lamp light.

“Where is grandpa Vitus?” Marigold asked.

“He’s at the wharf, fishing.” But as her mother was speaking, Marigold noticed her grandfather. He was looking out the downstairs window. He was looking at them.

“He’s right there, Mom.”

“Yes, well he wanted to go fishing. But he can’t anymore. He’s old now. Officially old. I never thought he would be old.” Zelda said. She kept quiet about his fragileness and his confusion. She didn’t mention the time a couple of days ago when she woke up in the middle of the night and looked out the window where she saw her father wearing only his underwear as he walked toward the crashing sea.  “If you tell him a story, he listens and he really believes it. So I say, ‘You are at the wharf. The air smells of sea salt. The sky is blue with only clouds shaped like ponies and other barn animals. You have already caught five fish. You feel the wiggle of the fish line. You are going to catch more. You are fishing, you are fishing, you are fishing.'" Zelda stops talking and looks behind her to see her father’s face. It looks round and drained. She sighs and looks at her daughter. Zelda links her arm through Marigold’s. “let’s go!”

“Where are we going? I just got here!” Marigold protests.

“We are running away to join one of my father’s circus’s. We are leaving our life behind to star in one of his stories.” Zelda looked toward her daughter who had a concerned expression. “Just kidding my dear. We are going to the market to get some fish. After all, your grandfather has caught at least five, he should have something to show for it at dinner tonight.”

Marigold put her backpack on the patio and left with her mother. They were quiet on the short walk to the market, but on the way back, Marigold learned of her grandfather. He had been living with Zelda and her father for a couple of months. He started with vague confusions. But soon it changed. Instead of mainly being himself and sometimes lapsing into forgetfulness, Vitus became mostly forgetful with occasional lapses to his old self.

When they walked into the house, Vitus was leaning on the couch with a book open on his lap. His eyes were closed.

“Dad, you caught so many fish today. I’m going to fry them up for dinner tonight!”

Vitus opened his eyes.

“Marigold!” He said, “My dear girl Marigold.”

“Hey Grandpa.” Marigold said nervously. Marigold didn’t know which grandfather she was talking to. The one who told her stories of his travels, the one who stole her money and charm bracelet or the one her mother had been telling her about.

Zelda took the fish to the kitchen Marigold sat next to her grandfather on the couch. She heard the click of the stove being turned on. Vitus smelled like sweat and cloves. He never use to smell like that.

“How long has it been? Two, three years since I last saw you. You are still growing taller, I believe.” Vitus said and tapped the top of Marigold’s head.

“I’m all grown now. This is as tall as I’ll ever be.”

“That reminds me of my latest travels. I was in Latvian village where all the townsfolk were at least seven feet tall. Anything below six feet was considered short and puny. All the town folk were master silversmiths. I fell in love with the tallest woman in town and we spent a year living together. While we lived together, she taught me her trade. I thought about building sculptures out of silver or constructing something practical such as silverware. Instead, I made something for you.” Vitus reached his hand into his shirt’s pocket. He pulled out the silver charm bracelet he had stolen from Marigold. “What do you think?”

“That was mine a long time ago. ‘Marigold replied.

“It is yours now.” Vitus replied and smiled. “Look at the charms, they all represent something about you. My favorite is the shark. Remember the shark, Marigold?’

Marigold looked at the charms. There were a bunch of little charms that looked familiar: The little house, the dog with one ear up, the tiny boat. But there in between the four leaf clover and the sun was a shark that she had never seen before. She touched the little silver shark, holding it between the tips of her fingers.

“Thanks grandpa.” Marigold said quietly.

During dinner, Vitus talked about the fish he caught. Marigold couldn’t concentrate. Her mind kept drifting. She would try to focus on her grandfather, but as soon as she did, he would flicker in and out of focus. He would be her grandfather Vitus, telling stories of travels, his eyes glimmering with a playful knowingness. Then he would drift into a dazed stranger. By the end of the meal, he was slouched in his chair with a blank expression on his face. Marigold’s palms felt sweaty. She looked at her grandfather and her heart started to beat rapidly in her chest. She cleared her throat and stood up. Her napkin tumbled off her lap onto the ground. “I’ve had a long day, I am going to bed early.” Her mother stared at her with a quizzical expression. Marigold half smiled, turned and darted up the stairs to her old bedroom.

The room was the same as she had left it as a teenager. There were glow-in-the-dark stars stuck to the ceiling and several colorful posters with bent corners taped to the wall. Marigold opened the window, turned off the lights, laid on her bed and looked at the glowing plastic stars forming make-believe constellations on her ceiling. She thought about her grandfather. He wasn’t really there anymore. Or at least, not all the way. Marigold fell asleep and had dreams about sharks.

She woke up to a voice. “Marigold!” It said, loudly.

“Grmmph.” Marigold mumbled in-between dreams.

“Marigold, I’m not me.” Grandpa Vitus said. “I mean, I’m not me anymore. I’m missing.”

Marigold sits up groggily and sees her grandfather sitting on the edge of her bed.

“Something happened. I lost a part of my soul and now here I am living with an incomplete soul. And I think I know what happened. When that shark took my leg, he took a part of my soul too. For a while, the other part of my soul was able to keep it together, but now it has been too long and I’m a man without a full soul and I’m a man without his full mind. Marigold, we have to get my leg back.”

“Grandfather, you still have a full soul. Nothing happened to it.”

“No. I know that part of it is gone. Part of me is living in a shark. Alone. We’ve got to get my leg.”

“It’s gone. It’s been twenty years. It’s gone. The shark is probably gone too. But you are still here.”

“You’re going to help me. Get up Marigold. It is time to find my leg!” Vitus tugged at her arm gently and she tumbled out of bed. “It’s time for another one of our adventures!”

His words triggered something in Marigolds memory that happened a long time ago. She was a kid in school when her friend told her about the weekend she spent with her grandfather. “We went to the zoo and saw the orangutan!” her friend exclaimed. “Grandpop and I have the best adventures!”

Marigold followed her grandfather down stairs and out the front door. The sand pushed between her toes and her pale night gown flapped in the nigh wind. She shivered without actually feeling the cold.

Marigold was still dreaming as she walked with her grandfather. She saw animals glowing as they stood on the sand. They were the animals that only visited Marigold in her sleep. Some of them were short and stout and covered with fur and some were tall with leathery skin that gleamed dully in the moonlight. Marigold reached out to pet one but the pudgy thing pursed its round lips and squawked, “You’ve got more important things to focus on now, Marigold.”

Marigold followed her grandfather who was tugging a raft toward the ocean. Vitus pulled the raft into the water and as it sat bobbing, he climbed into the raft. Marigold’s dream creatures began to fade away. “Grandfather, what are you doing?” Marigold ran after him.

Vitus had already started paddling further to sea. As he paddled, he yelled, “Come on Marigold! Let’s go find my soul!” By the time Marigold reached him, the water was already up to her waist. A wave had crashed over her so her hair dripped with salt water ad her nightgown clung to her skin. She grabbed the edge of the boat and hoisted herself in. The boat shook back and forth as she plopped herself in, falling backwards and landing on her back in the boat. She stared up. She saw in her grandfather’s nostrils. She saw the stars and the full moon.

“Grandfather,” She said and lifted herself up, “We have to go back.”

They were both quiet. The sea rocked them back and forth. Marigold could see the things swimming below them. A jellyfish, an octopus, a one eyed seal that popped its head up from the water. Marigold patted the top of its head before a wave lapped over the seal and it disappeared back downward.

Vitus stopped paddling. “It’s here,” He said, “I can sense it. The shark is near. I just need to dive into the water and find the shark and demand for my leg back.”

“Grandfather, stop!” Marigold said.

“I have to find my soul.”

“You will.” Marigold said. “You see the shark right now.”

Vitus looked at Marigold as she began the story.

He has been waiting for you. He never went far from where he last saw you. He spent his days swimming in circles. He was never comfortable since the day he ate your leg. He has a shark soul and doesn’t know what to do with this human soul. He doesn’t want it in him, he never has. But he still knows he has to keep it safe. He keeps all souls safe, fish and seal souls. Souls of small creatures we have never heard of before.”

Vitus let out a sigh of relief.

“The shark senses your presence. He can feel the bit of your soul pulling to connect with the rest of you. He breaches his head and you both stare at one another. You remember each other. He remembers your eyes. You remember his determined expression. He opens his mouth. You can see all his teeth glimmering in the moonlight. Past the teeth in a pit of darkness. But you start to see lightness in the dark, a faint glimmer, a shutter of effervescence. It gets closer and closer and springs from the shark’s mouth. It is the rest of your missing soul!”

Vitus gasps, “Oh how I have missed you!”

“It is in you now.” Marigold says and gently grabs the paddles away from her grandfather. She starts to paddle back to shore as she continues the story, “The missing piece of your soul gets reacquainted with the rest of you. It has been gone a long time. A lot has happened. But you start to feel complete again. You are you again. You close your eyes and let the wind push your boat back to shore. You think about what you will do next. You think about the travels you will take. You think about your old friends and how you will see them all again someday. You keep your eyes closed and just think and remember.”

Marigold stops speaking. She can hear the paddles slap against the sea water as she rows back to shore. She can hear the swirl and whoosh of the sea around them. She can’t hear her grandfather breathing, but she can see the inhale and exhale of breath as his chest rises and falls, and she imagines the sound of his breathing all around them.

The next morning, Marigolds father makes pancakes for breakfast. Vitus lifts his fork and just before taking a bite he says, “I had the most beautiful dream last night.” He looks at Marigold and winks and smiles. Marigold smiles back and feels light for a moment.

In twenty years, Marigold will tell the story of Vitus to her own daughter. She will tell her about the day at sea, how he almost jumped in and swam away. How he would have been swallowed by the water. How he would never have survived. But after that night, he was himself again, but only for a week. He had his wit back, his spark of curiosity, his enthusiasm for adventure. Marigold had thought he was cured. That somehow, the night at sea had reunited him with his soul. But the next week, Zelda found her father standing at the edge of the sea singing sea shanties at the water lapping around his feet. When Zelda shuffled to her father and reached her hand to touch his shoulder, he had turned around and called her by her mother’s name.

After that, he went to live at an assisted living home. He wandered the halls like a ghost.

Sometimes, Marigold wished she had let him go that day. He could have been a ghost at sea instead of a ghost in life.

At his funeral, there were people there Marigold had never met before. She wondered if they were the people from his stories.

When Marigold told her own daughter about Vitus, she would tell her daughter that the two were kindred spirits. Marigold's grandfather lived on within her own daughter. Her daughter was adventurous and creative and curious about the world, all the best things about her grandfather.

Marigold would tell her daughter also about the scattering Vitus's ashes. Zelda and Marigold took Vitus’s ashes to the sea. They rowed out in an old boat and scattered the ashes in the water splashing around them. They watched as the ashes swirled around and sunk. Marigold saw the outlines of sharks swimming deep in the sea. She saw her grandfather’s ghost, complete with two arms and two legs, swimming alongside the sharks.

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