My boy cousins and I are hunkered down around a see-through grate in the floor of our bedroom at my grandmother Josephine’s. We are on a daring mission. You have to know my grandmother to understand why we are trembling. We are about to be wicked, and impossibly brave.
We are upstairs in the small, white clapboard cottage Josephine lives in all summer because she won’t use a cabin at the fishing lodge she owns. It’s just a short hop down the road. But she says too many guests walk right up to her door in the middle of the night with some complaint or other if she stays on property.
I’ve always thought it’s because she doesn’t like the paying customers to see her unbound hair.
Every morning, before she’s out of bed, my grandmother puts on a head scarf, Rosie the Riveter style. She has some beautiful ones made of thick, coarse cotton in what my mother says are garish colors. She thinks they’re typical of Josephine’s unrefined ways. I like the head scarves my grandmother wears. They keep the sweat from running down her face when she’s screaming at staff in the overheated kitchen of the lodge. When she guts fish, she wipes her fingers impatiently on her head. Bits of gore accumulate on the fabric as she raises her hands from the slitting and slicing it takes to fillet pike, pickerel and perch. Josephine always changes the head scarf when the fish are done.
Really, though, she wraps her head to stop her dry, old, ugly corkscrew curls from springing out like a Medusa. That’s what my two boy cousins and my brother call her. “Medusa Head,” they snarkle, always behind her back, because if you make Josephine angry, you’re in for it. It’s my fault, actually. I stumbled across Medusa in a book of Greek mythology. Snakes for hair. Hideous face. She could turn you to stone. Stupidly, I showed the boys.
I don’t think my grandmother knows they call her that. She wouldn’t take it well.
Josephine is a menace when she’s in a temper, which she almost always is. Her eyes go to slits and her body tenses as she turns toward you like one of those cobras that snake charmers lure. It’s hopeless to anticipate what will make her strike. Once, she threw a big iron doorstop at my grandfather when he was late for dinner. The aunts and uncles say it would have killed him if she’d had better aim. The story is embedded in the family as a cautionary tale. I think we don’t need to hear that story any more. We’ve all had personal experience with how Josephine is made.
At the moment, my cousins and my brother and I are kneeling around the floor grate in the hot little bedroom where she’s crammed our narrow cots. When we settle in each night, the room resonates with snorts, burps and muttering that make it hard to go to sleep. Sometimes, we give up and find something to do.
Often, we lie face down at the ventilation grate, as we are doing now. The curlicue openings in its wrought-iron surface are wide enough for a clear view of the long kitchen table below. The adults sit there most evenings, talking or playing cards. They drink gin from the thick kitchen glasses my grandmother bought 10 years ago, along with Fiesta ware dishes in bright colors, stacked on open shelves.
Josephine came three hours north of the city we all live in to purchase the fishing lodge, and then this cottage, after my grandfather died. That was just before I was born. She had to make a living somehow, she says. The lodge is open May to September, and we spend many weeks each summer on this lake.
We are water children. My uncle has made sure of that. We all swim well and can operate boats. I like it better to be in the musty village library, stacking up books to read on the porch. I’m also required to help in the kitchen – setting tables, folding napkins, stirring soup – as the boys must help with maintenance around the lodge. When our chores are done, and Josephine is elsewhere, we always have a good time.
At this time of night, around the grate in the floor of our little bedroom, we like to eavesdrop on what’s being said below.
We like dirty jokes especially, and the gossip we’re not supposed to hear. We catch every word if we stay very still. In a few minutes, though, we will abandon this routine.
Tonight, my cousin Peter has had a brainstorm. As he explains it, the backs of my hands begin to tingle. These frissons occur when I know there’s trouble coming, as is often the case when our grandmother is near. Tonight, the torment will not be of her making. We are the troublemakers here.
Peter has gone from the room, down the narrow stairs, along the short sitting room wall and out through the screened porch without the adults seeing. He is back quickly, carrying a skinny, flapping pickerel, about a foot long. It is hooked through one gill onto a metal stringer, the kind we use to anchor live fish together in an outdoor trough. This one is still very alive. Peter also holds a length of rope. The fish flaps against the floor, loud and alarming. Surely someone below will hear.
Wickedly, my brother John and cousin Paul join Peter. They establish with hand signals that it’s possible to slip the narrow fish vertically through the grate. The rope is quickly attached to the chain. Peter stands on a cot, lifts the rope and chain above his head and dangles the writhing fish just above the floor. Paul and John help its tail end through an opening in the grate, and then Peter lets the whole contraption drop.
We slam our bodies to the floor and watch.
In that terrifying moment, the fish is the only thing that moves.
It is flopping along the table, sending anything it touches onto laps. My grandmother’s mouth is open in horror, clearly about to scream. My father leans awkwardly, chest against the table, doused by a river of gin. My uncle’s strong hands are pointed at the rope, but he’s clearly going to miss. My aunt’s head is tilted up toward us, understanding dawning on her face. My mother, God love her, has cracked the familiar smile that precedes her helpless laughter.
Peter, Paul and John boot it downstairs and into the moonless night. I can hear my grandmother’s shrill voice. It is so loud and violent you can barely understand her words. I think she’s shouting Stop Stop Stop. I sprint across the hall to the other bedroom and lean out the window over the road. Peter and Paul have vanished into the light-vaccumed shrubbery that leads to the lake.
Josephine is running, screaming something new. She is shaking a long wooden spoon. It is pointed at my brother who – unbelievably – has stopped.
John turns to face her, pulls each hand up into his armpits, elbows out, and begins jumping up and down in place, making noises like a monkey. Josephine bellows louder, and tries to grab him, abandoning the spoon. Oh, this will be bad. My brother is eight. My cousins are nine and 11. Maybe all three will make it to the water, submerge, and hide behind one of the boats anchored in the bay. She doesn’t swim. They would be safe.
But now my uncle has arrived at Josephine’s side, and even though he is the son-in-law, and not the son, my uncle has the most power to bring her to heel. I can’t hear what he’s saying but Josephine has stopped running, although she’s still muttering in an awfully loud voice. No lights in the other cottages on the narrow village road go on. Everyone is used to Josephine here. Tomorrow, we will be given free Cokes at the general store, and affectionate pats on the head from neighbors, I am sure.
A car starts. Clearly, that’s my father off to find the boys. But in one of the defensive moves that everyone employs around Josephine, he has pointed his car the other way, not toward the lake where the boys were headed. My father will drive almost a mile out of his way to approach the water from a different route, one that does not intersect with my grandmother standing in the road. My aunt is motionless at the edge of the property, intently watching, the way she often reacts. My mother is bent double beside her, laughing and laughing and laughing.