Old Cricket

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic


A man tells the truth about the death of his grandfather thirty years after losing him in the woods of Ontario.

Submitted: March 30, 2018

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Submitted: March 30, 2018

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Old Cricket

The obituary in the Toronto Sun read that William Watkins, 75, a loving father, husband, and brother, a scarred veteran of the skies during the Second World War, died a hero’s death on August 18th, 1985. While visiting the family cabin in northern Ontario with his wife, Caterina, his son, Henry, his daughter-in-law Veronica, and his grandson, Parker, he and his grandson went for an evening hike through the woods to see a rare midsummer display of the Aurora Borealis. While they sat in a small clearing around a little campfire, they were set upon by an aggressive black bear. William threw himself at the bear and fought it, giving his grandson time to get away. By the time Henry and Veronica arrived, there was no sign of William whatsoever. His body was never found.

For thirty years, I have repeated this lie to each and every person I know, and at long last, I believe I can finally tell the truth.

I loved my Grandpa. He was my best friend, and in many ways I was closer with him than my own parents. My mom was a teacher and dad was an administrator for Bank of Montreal, and their work often meant that they couldn’t stay home and take care of me. Grandpa and Grandma were perfectly happy to look after me for the three hours after school when Mom and Dad were still at work. Grandma—a short, broad-faced lady named Caterina—would pick me up from school, and would always have a can of pop and a couple of her signature chocolate chip cookies waiting for me in the car. I’d tell her about my day as we drove along Queen Street to their house on Woodbine.

The house always had such a rich smell of old books and good cooking. Every time I step into a second-hand book store, I’m swept back to that little post-war abode, which Grandpa supposedly built with his own two hands and a tool kit that to this day sits on a workbench in the basement. They had a beautiful model train set, which Grandpa would always have set up for me in the dining room for when I got there, every day, without fail, the red CN engine idling by the tiny platform. Grandpa would be sitting over the set, tweaking the wires, making sure everything was perfect. He was a tall, lanky man—six-foot-five—with a mane of shoulder-length white hair and a trim beard. Give him a pointy hat and a grey robe and he would be a wizard (fitting, since he often entertained his family with magic tricks). He was a master aviator, and people said that he could figure out any plane in a weekend and be flying circles round the sun on Monday. Didn’t matter how complex the craft was; sooner or later, he’d figure out how she worked. His war buddies called him Cricket, because when he sat in the cockpit of a Spitfire, his legs bunched up the same way a cricket’s does. Sitting at the dining room table did the same thing.

I’d run up to him, give him a quick hug, and then immediately set upon the immense train set. It would fascinate me for about a half hour, and then I’d go and watch TV. Grandma would warm up a box of frozen macaroni and cheese for me. Sometimes we’d throw on the Marx Brothers; Duck Soup and Night at the Opera were my favourites. But the true highlight of my visit was when Grandpa told his war stories.

William Watkins had fought in nearly every major aerial battle that the Canadian Air Force participated in during that great struggle against tyranny, and of all those pilots, he was one of the scarce few who could boast that he’d never suffered so much as a scratch during his service. That fact became all the more incredible when Watkins said he downed a grand total of thirteen German aircraft; one of the highest confirmed kill counts of any Canadian during World War II.

“A lot of my friends weren’t so lucky,” he said to me once. “I seemed to make it out of every scrape we got into clean as a whistle.” When I asked him how that was possible, he’d shrug and say: “Must’ve had a guardian angel watching over me.”

“Hard to understand why it’d pick you,” Grandma threw in with a sly grin.

Most of his service had consisted of escorting bombers to their targets in the skies above Nazi Germany. He told of all the times he’d turned to look out his cockpit window and seen the sky totally filled with Spitfires and Lancasters. “They were like fire-breathing dragons made of metal,” he said of the bombers. “They didn’t look all that dangerous at first—they seemed like big, clumsy green elephants with wings—but then their bomb bay doors would open and everything beneath them would just…vanish…” He snapped his fingers. “…in a flash.”

I was utterly enraptured by such stories, and became obsessed with learning about airplanes and flying aces. Grandpa had a box filled with his old stuff from the war. My favourite thing in that box was his collection of silhouette cards. They were the size of playing cards. On one side, they had a front and lateral silhouette of an aircraft and on the other side was a picture of the aircraft proper with its full name. Pilots had to practice identifying enemy and friendly aircraft by silhouette alone. “You never knew when you had to fly night missions or figure out if the plane coming out of the sun was gonna blow you out of the sky or tip its wing to ya as it glided home.” We spent hours quizzing each other on the cards. I got so good that I barely had to glance at the silhouette in order to know which plane it was.

Grandpa rarely talked about the planes he shot down. He talked at length about the missions and the trouble he had with the Luftwaffe, but he sidestepped details about how he shot down the Nazi pilots. As a kid, I thought it was cool; my Grandpa had fought for the good guys, had helped stand up to evil and defeat it. Wasn’t that something to be proud of?

When I pressed him on this subject, he said: “I’m proud that I was able to be a part of something bigger than I was and to make the world a better place…but I’m not proud that I had to shoot at people to do it.”

“Why?” I asked. “They were bad guys—Nazis. They deserved to die.”

A sad, pained look crossed Grandpa’s face when I said that. “Don’t say such things…”

I never asked him about that aspect of his service again. At the time I couldn’t understand why it pained him (things were so black-and-white as a kid, even more so when it came to the Second World War), but I thought of Grandpa as the wisest man in the world, so if saying those kinds of things about shooting bad guys caused him discomfort, I figured there was a very good reason why; even if I wasn’t allowed to know it, I’d respect it.

The house had two bedrooms; a relic from the time when the Watkins’ had three kids still living under their roof. But after the kids had left, one of those bedrooms got converted into a tiny little library filled with all the books my grandparents had held onto over the years. This was where that old paper smell was strongest, and to a kid who had yet to acquire a taste for reading books without pictures, this room was like a vault of secret knowledge. A bookcase occupied every wall, jammed up with paperbacks, and cardboard boxes sat on the floors with heftier titles and reference materials. Every time I walked into the room was a dizzying but enchanting experience, and it remained so even till the day we took that room apart in order to sell the house. Grandma read constantly, and once a week I’d pop into that room to scan the book shelves for the missing title to figure out what it was she was onto next. So packed were the shelves that the space where a paperback had been removed was as obvious as a missing front tooth.

This room was also where Grandma kept her recipes. One of the boxes on the floor was labeled ‘COOKBOOKS’, and every holiday—be it Thanksgiving, Easter, or Christmas—when my parents brought me to the house for dinner, Grandma would send me up to the room in search of one of her recipes for turkey, stuffing, or some fantastical dessert she’d brought over from France. Once I got the word, I’d bolt up to that room like a rocket, inhale deeply of the rich papery smell, and get to work looking through the box. Normally the box sat right under the window sill, but the Christmas of 1984, someone had moved it. I looked all over the room, turning boxes left and right to see if they were the one marked ‘COOKBOOKS’, but I couldn’t find it. I tried the closet. No cigar.

And that was when I looked under the bed.

Sure enough, the squat little box was there, just hidden by the bed skirt, but there was also another box, one which I’d never seen before. This one wasn’t made of cardboard, but of wood, and was about a square foot in size. It sat under the middle of the bed, where no light could touch it.

Propelled by a child’s curiosity, I first removed the cookbook box, and then crawled halfway under the bed to get at the wooden box. I thought it would be hard to move, but it was in fact very light. It had hinges and a latch. I lifted the latch and opened the lid, and what I saw inside was like something out of a fairy tale.

It was a huge book, unmarked, untitled, black as night. Its cover was utterly smooth, like polished obsidian. My imagination danced. It looked almost like an old-fashion Bible, but if that was what it was, why didn’t it say so? I had the overwhelming feeling that I wasn’t supposed to see this book, and yet my curiosity was overpowering.

I pinched the cover between my thumb and forefinger and gently lifted it open. The pages inside were parchment, cut irregularly at the edges. On the very first page was a big circle surrounding a small dot in the centre of the page. The circle was made out of compact writing that looked as if it had been inked on by hand, and yet the circle was pretty much perfect. The lettering used the Alphabet, but the words were in a language I couldn’t understand.

I heard a creak on the steps outside the room. “Parker?” It was Grandpa. “Did you find it?”

I looked up just as he crossed the threshold of the room. He’d been smiling, but the instant he saw me holding the black book with its cover open, that smile evaporated. He was always a pale-skinned man, but now he turned the stark white of the ghost he would become eight months after the opening of that alien book in that familiar old room. His mouth fell open in a big O.

“I—I didn’t mean to—“ I’d never seen my grandfather look so shocked. I imagined he would have looked less shocked if he’d found me with a dead body in my lap instead of an incomprehensible black book.

He rushed to my side then, his lanky limbs suddenly quick and precise. He knelt beside me and slammed the book shut, nearly crushing my fingers. He tore it out of my lap and thrust it back into the box, then closed the lid and latched it. He breathed a sigh as though he’d just disarmed a bomb.

His lips quivered. He tried to speak, but failed. He licked his lips and tried again. “Tell me…” he said in a rasping voice. “Tell me: did you try to read it?”

“I—I didn’t.” Tears were filling my eyes then. He was scaring me.

He grabbed my shoulders. His fingers dug like claws. “Parker!” he hissed. There was panic in his eyes. “You have to tell me: did you try to read it?

“No, I swear!” I said. And then I broke down and cried.

Grandpa deflated and took me in his arms. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry, buddy. I didn’t mean to scare you…but that book isn’t for you. It’s dangerous.”

I sniffled, and tucked my legs away from the box. “It is?”

“It is.” We pulled apart and he looked me in the eyes. It was the one and only time I’d ever seen tears in them. “It’s not safe to read if you don’t know how to read it.”

“Why?”

He glanced toward the door. My parents must be wondering what was taking so long. “That book kept me safe through the war. It was my guardian angel.” The way he said ‘angel’ made me wonder if he was not in fact thinking of a different word to describe it. “It’s…it’s…” He threw up his hands, unable to say it any other way. “It’s quite simply magic.”

“You mean like your card tricks?”

He shook his head. “No. That’s little magic. This is big magic. Real magic. The kind from the bedtime stories I used to read you.”

I felt a mixture of emotion; I was coming to the age when boys stop believing in that kind of thing, at least in the everyday world, so one part of me said “oh please, that’s ridiculous!”…but there was the other side that knew what a wise and learned man Grandpa was. He’d traveled the world, fought in the biggest war in history, and had a lifetime’s experience of just about everything. If he’d told me the sky was actually red, I’d have believed him, and here he was talking seriously of magic.

Maybe if I’d been older, I’d have dismissed the book as his collection of naked girls and dark secrets from the past, and he’d caught me just before I’d gotten to the really good stuff, but being a child, and ignorant of such things, I was taken by what he’d said about the book. “Really?” I said.

Grandpa bit his lip. “I’ll tell you what: the next time we go to the cabin, I’ll show you how the book works. Okay?”

I wiped my nose on my sleeve and nodded.

“But,” he held up a finger, “you can’t tell your mom and dad about this, okay? There are things about this book that they wouldn’t understand. They’d probably be scared of them, the same way you used to get scared that there are monsters in your closet. Do you understand? Parker, you can’t tell anyone.”

“But…does grandma know about the book?”

“Yes…sort of…she knows I have it, she knows it helped me through the war, but she doesn’t know exactly what it does. If you mention you found the book, that’s fine, but don’t tell her what I told you, alright?”

I swore I’d keep mum.

A weight seemed to leave his shoulders. “Now…” He reached for the box of recipes, and with barely a glance, managed to pull out the yellowed sheet of shortbread cookie baking instructions that Grandma had sent me up to find. “Let’s get this to Grandma,” he said with a smile.

As I mentioned previously, our family had a cabin. Situated on Pimisi Lake, nestled in the woods, it was my second home for all of my childhood. We’d spend a month out of every summer up there, usually in August, and celebrate my birthday on August 15th around a campfire in the silence of the Ontario wilderness. On mid-summer nights, when the air is warm and still, and the moon shines full upon the birch trees, there is tranquility in those woods unlike any you can ever hope to get in the city. In the city, you can feel yourself under pressure; from the smoggy air, the unending sound, and the invisible radio waves, all crushing you. It’s like you can feel your atoms being pressed together. Out there, in those forests, it’s like decompressing; your atoms loosen, find their space again. I think that’s the feeling I remember most about going up to the cabin: in the absence of all that sharp white noise in Toronto, I could almost hear my own thoughts echoing off the trees.

Our cabin was on the lake proper. We had to take a boat across to get to it. On a clear sunny day, I would wake up every morning to the sight of golden fire dancing on the surface of the glassy water. In the evening, Grandpa and I would sit on the jetty and watch the sun set while Dad barbecued dinner, and the sky would turn orange, then magenta, then purple. If there were a few scattered clouds, it would look like a giant campfire was blazing on the horizon. After dark, on a full moon, the lake would calm and become a mirror, reflecting the moon, the treetops, and the rocks on the shore.

The cabin was our place, but there was another place, half a kilometre north of the cabin, deeper in the woods. It was a close circle of birch trees ringing a tiny clearing. Grandpa had found it years and years ago, and he’d taken Dad out there when Dad was little, and Dad had taken me when I was old enough to walk. Every few nights during the month spent at the cabin, when the weather was perfect, our whole family might go up to that place, have a campfire, and fall asleep under the stars. Most times, we didn’t even need sleeping bags.

On the evening of August 17th, around nine-o-clock, Grandpa and I said that we were taking a short walk up to see the old place, maybe have a campfire. Mom and Dad were happy to let us go; they’d had precious little time alone with each other over the last six months. Grandpa and I, wearing headlamps, went to the head of the game trail that led to the birch circle and started walking. Grandpa was wearing a big hiking pack. Even at 75, he seemed as spry and strong as he had when he’d fought a war to protect his homeland.

The walk up always seemed to take three times as long as the walk back. No reason why; the ground was flat and even most of the way. Most nights the mosquitoes would swarm us, but that night I don’t think I was bitten once. Come to think of it, there wasn’t a single cricket chirping that night. No breeze blew, either. It was just like Lightfoot wrote: “…the green dark forest was too silent to be real…”

We came to the birch circle. It was exactly as we’d left it last year, with the stone ring of the fire pit in the dead centre of the clearing. A circle within a circle; a symbol that represented the very order of nature; electrons orbiting atomic nuclei, planets orbiting stars, stars orbiting galactic cores, but the connection my mind made was with the very first page of that mysterious book: a circle of words in an impenetrable language ringing a dot composed of only seven phrases.

Grandpa set the hiking backpack on the ground against a tree and stretched. “Alrighty,” he said to me, “start gathering some kindling, and I’ll get the firewood.” We kept a collection of chopped logs in a big hollow at the base of a nearby tree. We renewed the cache every year; Dad had been up a few days ago with newly-chopped firewood. The wood stayed dry and we could burn it whenever we wanted, and after I’d cast about for some sticks to use as kindling, we had a little teepee of wood erected in the centre of that stone ring. I went to put a match to it, but Grandpa stayed my hand. I asked him why, and his response was to dig the black book out of his bag.

Then finally, after eight months of waiting, we finally addressed the issue of the book.

Grandpa told the story beginning from the day he was to begin pilot’s school. “Back in those days, going off to war was something to be proud of. I’ve told you what ‘patriotism’ is, haven’t I?”

I nodded. “The love of your country.”

“Right. Well, when your country goes to war, that feeling of patriotism swells inside you. It’s like getting caught by a tidal wave, or catching a sudden, strong fever. You feel an incredible sense of pride at doing your duty for King and Country. That first night, before we were due to start training, my friends and I all got together and we got blind, stupid drunk.”

I burst out giggling.

“Oh you can laugh, but we were a mess.” He smiled, seeing the past before him. “We were all so darned eager. We thought we were invincible, that nothing could stop us. Well, thirteen boys from my street went over the ocean, and only one came back: me. And it was all because of that night we got ourselves drunk.

“We were at some pub down on Yonge street—crummy little place, I cannot for the life of me recall the name—and after it came time to go home, I left the pub and strolled down Yonge by myself, still singing my heart out. Somehow I found myself in this little alley where a couple of shops were set up. Bunch of Poles who didn’t keep regular business hours, by which I mean…” and here Grandpa’s look grew stern, “…they weren’t selling things that good and honest folks would ever buy.”

“What kinds of things?” I asked him.

“Bad things. Guns, knives, and drugs—but not the kind of drugs your Mom and Dad get at the pharmacy when you’ve got a cold—these kinds of drugs are just bad for you. Oh, they’ll make you feel good for a little while, like you’re on top of the world, but they’ll also suck the life out of you. They’re a bit like the One Ring from the The Lord of the Rings.”

“But why did you go there if they only sold bad things?”

A complex sequence of emotions crossed Grandpa’s face, too quickly for my young eye to follow, but none of them looked happy. “The beer was making me act funny. I never would’ve gone there if I hadn’t been drinking. But I did, and it probably saved my life.

“I walked past most of the stalls, only glancing at the things around me, but then I came to a stall that was a strange sight to see in a dark place like that: it was a stall selling books. And the man selling those books was an ugly sight to see; he looked like he’d been chewed up and spat out by an angry bear; he had one arm, one eye, no hair, and he was covered in these big long scars all over. They looked like lightning racing across his skin. When he smiled, he only had two teeth in his mouth, and the one eye he had was all red and bloodshot.

“I was about to walk on past him when he looked at me and whispered something that only I could hear.” And here Grandpa made his voice all raspy in his imitation of the one-armed Pole. “ ‘You need this.’ I stopped and turned to look at him. ‘Huh, mister?’ I said. He was holding this book out to me…” And Granpa held out the book to me. “…and all the muscles in his arm were bulging and shaking, as though the book were scorching hot and he couldn’t bear to hold it.

“’What’s this?’ I said to him. And he said to me ‘You need it to get home. You really do.’ And then the funniest thing…I just took the book from him.”

“Just like that?” I said.

“Just like that.” Grandpa shook his head, as amazed as I was. “I couldn’t tell you why other than that I was drunk and…and the book had this weird…gravity to it. Like it was begging to be picked up. And somehow I walked out of there without ever even paying the man—I don’t think he even wanted payment for it. I walked on home with the book under my arm. It was so light—it’s always been that way—so light for its size; you’d think a book that size would weigh a ton.”

I nodded my head, remembering the feel of the black book in my hands. It was so…cooperative.

“Well, I went home and snuck up to my room, and even though I was blind, stupid drunk, I found I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about that book, until finally I decided to open it.” And here, Grandpa opened the book to the first page; the page with the word-circle-and-dot. “I figured the language must’ve been Polish. I turned the page…” Grandpa turned the page, and I saw what looked like a huge ink blot. My brain interpreted it as a bat, but even as I looked I beheld a bird, a dragon, a snake, a worm, a caterpillar, and a moth. I saw faces, towers, tunnels, maps of nations, and yet the ink blot remained the same shape. “And I turned it again…” Again he turned, and this time there was a series of five rhomboidal symbols drawn across the pages. They were joined with lines. “…and again…” Two pages of solid, crammed writing tinier than any pen could ever craft. “…and again.” The next page depicted a drawing of a campfire. The tongues of flame seemed to move. They were made out of words.

As Grandpa told more of his story, he turned the pages, though I don’t remember what was on them; trying to remember is like trying to recall the details of a dream; they are at once one thing, and many things, and nothing at all. But I clearly remember the voice of my grandfather as he told the story.

“I came to this page [I don’t remember what was on it at all, but I have this idea that it looked like a spiral of some kind] and my drunk-brain was just thinking ‘Read it. Why not? It’ll be good for a laugh.’ I couldn’t understand the language but I found that if I started reading, the words came as easily as English…like the book was putting the words in my mouth. Took me about five minutes to finish reading, and the moment I did, I got this funny feeling. The house was completely quiet, and yet I got the feeling that suddenly…I wasn’t alone in my own room.”

Grandpa stopped and ran a hand through his hair. After a long pause, he continued.

“I got scared. I put the book down, buried deep at the bottom of my closet, in a mould-eaten shoe box, and crawled into bed. That night…that night I woke up. At the time I thought I was dreaming, but I know now that I woke up. In my room, there were these little lights. They looked like fireflies or…or the little sparks that drift up out of a fire and into the sky.”

I looked at the teepee of wood in the stone ring. It remained unlit.

“Little sparks dancing at the foot of my bed, and across my ceiling. So faint, yet so hot. There was a voice. It spoke to me. It said ‘Do you know where you are going?’ And my head, Parker, my head was pounding with a hangover, and every word that voice uttered was like shards of glass wriggling inside my brain. I asked the voice what it meant, and it only repeated ‘Do you know where you are going?’ And then maybe I did dream, but all I know is that I started to see things. Battles—great, fiery, terrible battles—from all over the world. I saw good boys dying horribly. I saw women and children—” He stopped. “Well, I saw War. I saw what it was and I saw the terrible things it did to people. And I knew right then and there that I wanted no part of it, patriotism or no, and yet…I saw the people making the war. The people in power, I mean. I saw Hitler, and Churchill, and Roosevelt, and Stalin. Mostly I saw Hitler; probably because he was the one everybody was scared of, including me. I saw what kind of man he was, the things he was willing to do, and I knew deep down we had to stop him, even if it meant losing my own life in an explosion or being shot down into the ground.

“So I told the voice that I had to go, I had to fight. I was scared; I wanted to come home. But I had to fight. Parker…” He took my hand. His was old and wrinkled but still strong. “I pray you never have to see something like what we saw in those days. The kinds of men we were fighting, not all of them were evil. Not all of them were even bad men. In fact I think a good many were no different than you or I. But the ones who were making the war, they were something else, something beyond evil, something we barely understand, even now. If they had the chance, they would have taken over the world. Some folks are saying now that that’s an exaggeration, but me and my friends? We saw what those men really were. We saw it up close and it was ugly, ugly, ugly. That voice and all that dying wasn’t so frightening when I thought about what’d happen if I didn’t go…but all the same…I wanted to come back in one piece.

“I told the voice that. And it said one thing, and I remembered what it said every day I was in that war. It said ‘You will live.’ And the sparks vanished.”

Grandpa turned the pages of the book, going back towards the front. “I took the book with me to flight school, to Europe, and all the battles we had. There were a million times when I thought a bullet was gonna get me or a flak gun was gonna blow me to smithereens, but the bullet would always just miss me and the flak gun would get my wingman instead. One by one, everyone else died, got shot down, but it was never me. Never me. I began to realize I was protected, by the thing to which that voice belonged. I called it my guardian angel…but I don’t think it was an angel. Least it wasn’t like an angel ought to be.

“Over time, I also started reading more from the book. I’d take it with me when I got leave from the base and try reading different passages, never knowing what they did. Most of them, in fact, don’t seem to do anything at all, but a couple are handy in a pinch. Like this one.”

Grandpa read something from the book. He spoke in a weird, guttural, earthy voice that was mostly his, but had hints of something different. The best way I can describe it is that he was lending his voice to something else, and that something else was lending its voice to him.

And then, quite suddenly, the wood in the fire pit caught fire and burned. The flame was sudden and hot, like a barbecue igniting, but the flame quickly stabilized and burned steadily.

My eyes went wide.

Grandpa was looking at me gravely. “The book can do other things as well. It can put out the fire, drag water up from deep in the ground, and make a tree grow and bear fruit in minutes instead of years. But it can do a lot of bad things too.”

I looked at him. “Like what?”

Grandpa shook his head. “Very bad things. Cruel things. If this book fell into the hands of an evil person, like Hitler, or even a very foolish person, they could do so much damage to the world and take so many good things out of it. That’s why I’m burying it in the morning. Gonna take it good and deep into the forest and bury it, and I won’t tell a soul where. Not even you, Parker. Do you understand why I need to do that?”

“But if the book can do good things, why do we have to--?”

“Because the bad things it can do outweigh the good things, and most people can’t be trusted not to give in to temptation. Even me.” His look became tired, distant, but it possessed conviction. “This strange book helped me survive a war. That’s enough for me. I don’t want it around long enough to make me wish I hadn’t.” And then he looked at me and smiled. “I’m happy with everything I have. I don’t need a thing more.”

I was puzzled, but once again I was able to trust my Grandpa. I looked at the fire, and asked him the key question. “Why not just burn it?” I asked.

In response, Grandpa snatched up the book and tossed it one-handed onto the flame. I waited for it to catch fire, but it merely lounged there, looking comfortable against the scorching coals. It didn’t even smoulder.

Grandpa picked up a stick and dragged the book from the fire. He picked it up easily. “Exactly like the One Ring.”

We stayed up a while, feeding the fire, talking of planes and of the things Grandpa and Grandma had done after the war. We never spoke again of the book. Time passed and at some point the two of us lay back and looked up at the sky. It’s a rare thing to see, but sometimes the Aurora Borealis lights up the skies of northern Ontario. Usually they’re nothing more than a few pale, ghostly streaks on a half-moon night. That night, there was no moon, and the sky was aglow with bright green ribbons. Through the hole in the treetops, it felt like we were peering into an ethereal world.

And then we fell asleep.

We weren’t out more than a couple of hours, I think, but it was time enough for me to dream. It was so vivid: I dreamed the entire world was on fire and the people had gone crazy. I dreamed that Grandpa and Grandma were dead and Mom and Dad were old and decrepit. Somebody had chopped my legs off and I couldn’t walk.

Near where I lay was the book, just within arm’s reach. I reached for it, opened to a random page, and started reading. My legs slid across the ground toward me and reattached themselves. Mom and Dad were young and healthy again. Grandpa and Grandma popped up out of their graves like jack-in-the-boxes and gave each other a big hug. A wind blew across the world and put out all the fires. The crazy, rioting people suddenly stopped, scratched their heads, and turned toward my voice, listening. They started rebuilding what the fires had destroyed, and all around me the Earth went from being black and charred to green and lush. It looked just like the image of Eden I had in my head from when Grandma first told me the story of Adam and Eve.

I awoke with a start. It was nighttime still. Grandpa was asleep beside me, hands folded over his breast, breathing steadily.

The book was right next to me.

I felt this intense feeling rise within me; not of panic per se, but rather the sense that there was a job that needed doing and quickly; that a deadline was fast approaching. Still groggy, I reached for the book and opened it up to a random page, as in the dream. I read words that I’m not sure were even there, and my voice flawlessly pronounced the vowels and consonants of a language that I’d never learned. What I remember most of all was the feeling of speaking those words: something white-hot, like a cinder, was resting on my vocal cords and heating them, squirming against them.

A breeze blew in the trees, and I felt that our party had increased from two to three.

I looked up; overtop the column of smoke from the fire. The shadows had thickened between the birches, congealing. And then I saw the sparks. They looked exactly as Grandpa had described them: as cinders from a campfire bouncing and sliding on the thermal updrafts, but each seemed to possess the muted intensity of a whole star.

“You have chosen to repay…” the voice said. It spoke with a tone that was mildly surprised…but eager. “…how thoughtful.”

The sparks danced toward me. I felt a deep animal terror and screamed.

Grandpa jumped to his feet and looked around. His face went ashen when he saw the sparks. He scrambled over to where the book lay and surveyed the pages I’d read from. His face was a mask of horror. “No…” he said, looking at me. “Why that page? Why that page?!

“Give the boy to me,” said the voice. “Give. The Boy. To Me.”

“No!” Grandpa bellowed at the sparks. “No, I will not!”

“The words are spoken, the sentence is read. I will take him.”

“You’ll take nothing!”

We backed up. Grandpa between me and the sparks. He pushed me back towards the edge of the trees, towards the path.

The big shadow spread like the wings of Lucifer and the sparks within blazed angrily.

“Give him to me!”

The voice ripped through me, threatened to split my atoms.

“Take—take me instead!” Grandpa said. “If you want something, take me!”

The Earth, the galaxy, the whole universe quaked as a laugh boomed forth out of the sparks. “You are not the one who read.”

Grandpa turned to me and embraced me tightly. “I love you, Parker,” he whispered in my ear. “Forever.” Then he stood and faced the sparks. They were passing over the fire now, indistinguishable from the cinders. “You’ll take me all the same!” Grandpa ran at the sparks, book in hand, and leaped into them. There was a blaze of orange from within them, and then…

I heard screams. Explosions. Bullets flying, bone breaking, fires roaring. Grandpa’s body twisted and turned in mid-air, enveloped in orange light; a gruesome collage of snapshots. The sparks danced and weaved around him. On some level, in the same way you instantly perceive and understand an image or occurrence in your dreams, I understood what was happening to Grandpa: he was experiencing every death and wound he’d ever dodged while his ‘guardian angel’ had looked after him, and he was doing it to protect me.

Then, all at once, the shadow folded in on itself. There was a sucking sound, like a suction cup being peeled off a wall. The sparks folded with it, collapsing on Grandpa and the book, and then all of it vanished into nothing, leaving only empty space behind.

And then I ran. I ran screaming and crying all the way back to the cabin.

Mom and Dad searched for hours while I stayed with Grandma. Even then, my child’s brain knew I couldn’t tell the truth; my parents were good people, but they were adults, and as adults they were obligated to subscribe to logic and order. If I told the truth they’d send me to weird head doctors only to conclude that I was just a boy trying to come to terms with a terrible reality. Plus I made a promise that I’d tell no one of the book, and therefore I couldn’t tell anyone what it had done. It was easier for everybody that I lie and say a bear ate my Grandpa.

In later years, I thought that actually might have been what happened, and that this whole thing about a black book with a magic language was just my child’s brain trying to compensate for witnessing something horrifying and ugly. Maybe I even convinced myself that that was the case. But there have been times when I’ve woken up in the night, thrown on the lights, and surprised Nancy out of a restful sleep. I’d get the feeling something else was in the room, but by the time the lights came on, the feeling had gone.

For three decades, this experience has lain on the floor of my mind like a dead whale; slowly picked apart by the crabs of logic, life, psychology, dreams and responsibilities.

So now you’re going to ask again the question that’s been burning on your tongue since the beginning of this story: ‘Why are you telling the truth now?’

Because yesterday, my daughter was almost hit and killed by a car.

Almost.

It was in the evening. She was playing a late night game of jump rope with our neighbours’ kids in the street. The speed limit is forty kilometres-per-hour. The car came around the corner at a speed half again as high as that limit. I don’t know what the story was with the driver; maybe he had a body to hide, maybe he was running from something, or maybe he was just, as William Watkins was on that fateful night so many decades ago, blind, stupid drunk. At any rate, he came round the corner and barreled straight for my little girl.

Frieda and Brittney—our neighbours’ kids—were holding the rope while Patricia was jumping. They saw the car coming and panicked; they dropped the rope and ran. The rope got tangled on Patricia’s feet and tripped her.

There was only milliseconds. I could never get to her in time.

And then, he came. I saw the sparks flash into existence, and Patricia slid out of the way of the oncoming car. The sparks were different. There were more of them, and they formed a shape...

Since I was a little boy, I’d mastered the art of identifying friends or foes by silhouette, and I knew the silhouette of my Grandpa…I’d know it anywhere.

And just as quickly as he was there, he was gone.

Do you know what it’s like? To hold onto a lie until it becomes the truth, to wear it like armour until it fuses to your skin, to live with it so long that you forget a time when it was not there? What if one day, that armour cracked, peeling away from you completely and you recall that time, so long ago, when you were right and the world was wrong? What would you think? How would you look at the last three decades of your life, when the lie was the truth and the truth was the lie?

I’ve thought about it and thought about it. Why was he there? What had the sparks done to him? Or more precisely, what had he done to them? And what I keep coming back to is what he told me about the very first time he’d spoken the words from that strange black book—a book which now lies somewhere outside the world we call home—“I was lending my voice to it, and it was lending its voice to me.”

The squadron-mates of William Watkins had always said that old Cricket was a master aviator; that given a weekend, he could figure out any plane and be flying circles round the sun on Monday.

Didn’t matter how complicated the plane was; he would figure it out in time.

I’d like to amend the obituary that the Sun wrote for my Grandpa. I don’t know how they’d react to the details I’ve shared with you, so to protect people’s sanity, I’ll keep it simple: William “Cricket” Watkins was a man who didn’t let Death stop him from serving his country, and he certainly didn’t let it stop him from saving his family from a monster in the dark.

I know in my heart that he wouldn’t let Death stop him from doing it one more time.

 

THE END


© Copyright 2019 James Patrick Dick. All rights reserved.

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