by Justin Williams
The fading sun held just enough life to line the house in gold. I took a few deep breaths and then crawled out of the rental car. After arching my spine in a long stretch and then dragging my suitcase from the back seat, I went to greet Granddad.
He waited at the weathered iron gate, looking as excited to see me as I was to see him. I didn’t blame him. He knew why I was there as well as I did.
The manicured lawn where I’d learned to throw a baseball now seemed forgotten, the sun-sprinkled grass tall and encroaching even into the garden of little blue forget-me-nots Grandma had once kept so perfectly maintained.
Granddad pushed the gate open with a rusty cry of the hinges and stepped into the gap, blocking the way through.
“I don’t need a babysitter, Ben,” he said, his voice as weathered as the gate.
“I’m not here to babysit, Granddad, just to help you move.” I should have told mom I was busy, I thought. Told her I had finals. Too late now.
“Move,” he said, spitting out the word like a bite of rotted meat. “Forced relocation is what it is. Your mother wants to take everything I have, then stick me in some home to sit, forgotten, counting flowers on faded wallpaper.”
“She wants to make sure you’re taken care of. It’s hard on her, living halfway across the country while you’re out here alone.”
“Then she can move,” he scoffed. “I’m fine right here.” He stomped his foot to make his point.
I stood in front of him, looking down slightly to catch his eyes. They seemed clouded.
“Well, I guess I can’t just send you away.”
Granddad gave the gate a firm push, turning away as it squealed. He walked in a crooked and fragile stride toward the front door.
I caught the gate with the outside of my suitcase and followed. The squeal of those hinges used to fill my childhood heart with excitement, but today the dread of the coming week swelled into a lump in my chest instead.
Inside, the house was something born of a seventies home magazine and an antique shop, or a museum, my grandmother its dedicated curator to the end. The dull coating of dust would never have passed inspection in better days.
“I set up the back room,” said Granddad. “Your usual bed.”
I hesitated in the doorway as the memories flooded back. How long had it been? “I’ll drop off my suitcase,” I said, “and we can go out for dinner. My treat.”
“Least you can do,” he said. “Coming to steal away my life.” His face fell into a sneer as he turned toward the living room.
The lump of dread tightened.
The bedroom greeted me with the same bright yellow comforter forever etched in my memory. Recessed spotlights came on with the switch, shining onto the row of small Japanese statues on the shelf beside the bed—a net maker, a cabbage seller, a mask carver, and the old woman with a smile like Grandma’s—the same serene faces that had guarded so many childhood dreams.
My suitcase bounced slightly on the bed, and after a deep breath and a stop at the restroom, I went out to find Granddad.
He wasn’t in the living room, but I didn’t rush my search. Each corner of the room held a memory, and after four hours in a plane and two more in a car, I was glad to indulge them.
A dark cherry bookshelf covered the north wall with texts in a dozen languages, all carried straight from their native lands. A model of the ship that carried them sailed a frozen sea on the center shelf. With the flip of another switch, the ship was washed in light, and for a moment I thought I might see movement on the deck.
More statues stood sentry among Granddad’s tomes, their sizes and styles as varied as their ports of origin. Scattered between were an assortment of untouched matchbooks and unused ashtrays, and a bronze lighter shaped like a compass.
I slipped my hand along the tops of the twin chairs in the corner of the room, the best corner for reading, or for listening to Granddad’s own tales, those sea stories that never truly grew old. Along the west wall sat the sofa, and Granddad’s leather recliner, the color of a midnight forest.
Beside the recliner stood the geisha doll in her glass case, a woodblock print of a swirling sea pasted behind her. The front of the case was a glass door I’d never seen opened.
Her pose was as timeless as I remembered, caught mid-dance, mid-smile, with her crimson lips and porcelain skin. Her kimono was decorated with delicate pink petals that seemed to eternally flutter along the ink-black silk. A ceiling light shown down upon her with the softness of moonlight. She was once tall enough to look me in the eye, and I knew she was alive, knew I could see her dance. Now she was no higher than my knee, and I knew better of course.
“Hungry?” Granddad called from the kitchen and I noticed the start of an unsteady thump of a knife against a cutting board.
The light, fresh scent of sliced tomatoes and lettuce greeted me in the kitchen. “I thought we were going out?”
“Why would we go out? I ran out this morning and got everything we need for sandwiches. You’re probably tired of being in a car.”
I stood silent.
Mom had warned me of course, said he was getting forgetful. But, still… his mind, once as sharp as the knife in his hand now seemed as rusted as the gate. I could see why she was sending him to a home.
“Sounds great, Granddad.”
He plated dinner, the sandwiches joined by potato chips and sodas, and we sat to eat.
“When do the vultures come?” he asked.
“The movers will be here first thing in the morning. They’re just taking a few things to storage. You don’t have room in the new apartment for everything.”
“There’s no room for anything. None of my souvenirs, Ben. None of my memories. Just enough space for a bed to die on.”
“Maybe you’ll make some new friends.”
“Old people with their minds gone. Can’t even wipe themselves I bet. No place for me.”
“You’ll have a private apartment, and they’ve got a great dining hall. Mom said there’s even a library.” I glanced back at the bookshelf. “Maybe they have some of your favorites.”
“I don’t read anymore,” he said. “Don’t have the time.”
“Really? You love reading.”
“Not anymore,” he snapped.
I stopped myself from asking why. “Great sandwiches. Meat from the Depot?”
“You remember.” His eyes lit up.
“Sandwiches at the Depot and picnicking in the park are some of my best memories. Do they still have the big train out front? Climbing on that thing was a blast.”
The lights in his eyes went out. “Enjoy those memories while you can,” he said, popping a chip into his mouth.
We sat and ate in silence for a few minutes as I stared out the window. The streetlight cast a faded yellow glow on the chipped blue paint of the house next door. The McCormicks had lived there when I was a kid, but they were old even then. I wondered if their family had so much difficulty convincing them to move on when it was time.
Granddad interrupted my thought. “Do you remember those picnics we used to take with you?”
“I…” The words left me. I wanted to tell him we just talked about it, tell him he must have forgotten, but Mom told me to be patient. “Definitely. Those are some of my favorite memories with you and Grandma.”
“I miss her very much,” he said. “She still visits me sometimes.”
He stared out the window, a distant look in his eyes, like he was trying to see something an ocean away.
After the last few bites I stood, taking his plate, and stacking it with mine.
“Thanks, Benny,” he said, not looking up.
I washed the plates and set them in the rack to dry, then lingered a moment in the kitchen, waiting for the breaking of whatever spell held Granddad’s gaze. Yawning, I decided to just leave him with his memories.
With my teeth brushed and face washed, I wandered back out to say goodnight, expecting to find Granddad still at the table, dreaming. Instead, we collided turning the corner in the hall. He grabbed my shoulders.
“Don’t let them take my memories, Benny,” he said, his voice weak.
“They aren’t taking anything, just moving everything somewhere safe.”
“They’ll steal it all,” he said, a jagged urgency in his voice now. “Sell everything. All my memories.”
“They won’t steal anything. That’s why I’m here. To make sure things go smoothly.”
But I shouldn’t be here. I should be in the dorms, with friends, and making new memories, not wallowing in old ones. Just a few days, I thought, then back to my own life.
His grip on my shoulders eased, and he put his sea-worn hands softly against my cheeks. “You’re a good boy, Benny. Always have been.”
My cheeks threatened to flush with guilt as he patted them and turned back down the hall, shuffling his way to a bedroom built for two, the room where he taught me morse code with a flashlight and a mirror.
Every inch of the house held a memory for me. I couldn’t imagine how hard this was for him.
And then Sunday was a memory itself.
Most of it.
Just before midnight, a chill blew over the bed. Half asleep, I snatched my watch from the nightstand, fumbling for the button to make it glow. I pulled the blanket higher to my neck, but couldn’t ignore the chill, like a cold ocean breeze at night. A faint taste of salt seemed to lie on my lips.
I got up and went to check the thermostat, finding Granddad in the living room. The light above the geisha doll shown down like a soft white pillar in the darkness.
Granddad crouched down, closing the door to the geisha’s case, moving as if he was afraid to break it. I waited until he stood before speaking.
“Couldn’t sleep?” I asked.
He started. “Ben. Sorry. Did I wake you?”
“The cold did. What do you set the house at for the night?” I looked at the thermostat on the wall, but even before I could make out the seventy-two on its display, I was warming up.
“The house is showing its age,” said Granddad. “Sometimes a draft sneaks in.”
“I guess you’re right,” I said, glancing at the doll behind him. The child inside me saw it move, just a little.
“A shipmate of mine helped me barter for her. Mifune.” Granddad stared down at the geisha. “I didn’t speak enough Japanese, but I had to have her, a gift for your grandmother.”
“I think you’ve told me stories about him.” I picked up a pillow that had fallen from the sofa.
“He was a great man.” Granddad rested his fingers on the top of the case. “We sailed together for years until he…” He trailed off a moment, then, “I don’t want to move, Benny. I can’t move.”
“You can’t stay here alone, Granddad. You need help, and Mom and I both, well, we have our own lives to build. I wish we could be the ones to take care of you, but we just… I’m sorry.”
“But I can’t do it. I won’t be able to see the bay from there.” Granddad looked up at me, tears glistening in the geisha’s light.
I glanced over his shoulder, past him and through the window, to the chipped paint of the old McCormick house. “You can’t see the bay from here, either.”
He looked back toward the window. His shoulders sunk. “I guess you’re right, Ben.”
I hated what we were doing to him, hated coming here in the first place, or maybe not coming enough. But it was the right thing. He needed help, and we needed him cared for. Moving him to a home was the only option. Granddad sulked passed me and to his bedroom, tapping the door closed behind him.
I went back to bed wishing I was in the dorms instead.
The hammering at the front door woke me the next morning and grabbing my watch, I realized I’d turned off the alarm in my confusion the night before. Flinging my feet to the floor, I stood and took a deep breath before confronting the day.
“The vultures are here,” Granddad said when I met him in the hall. “Like I’m already dead.”
I sighed. He wasn’t going to make this easy. “Why don’t you make your coffee. I’ll handle these guys.”
Granddad shook his head as he walked away toward the kitchen. It wasn’t the fight I’d expected, and I felt almost hopeful opening the door.
“Lewis and Sons Movers.” The man at the door was somewhere in his mid-twenties, thin, but with a kind of wiry-looking strength to him.
“You must be one of the sons,” I said. “Come on in.”
“Thanks. Pops will be along soon,” he said. He put out his hand. “William Lewis.”
I shook it. “Ben. My granddad is in the kitchen. I’d stick with Mr. Carson for him. He’s not entirely thrilled you guys are here.”
“Pops warned me. We’re just here to pack up and pick up. We’ll stay out of his way as best we can.”
“I appreciate it. You can start in the spare room there. Shouldn’t cause much conflict. It’s mostly in boxes already. Has been as long as I remember.”
“Sounds good to me.” William stepped through the door followed by another man, a bit shorter, but with a clear family resemblance.
“Jack,” said the other son with a quick nod before following his brother down the hall.
“Good luck in there. Some of those boxes haven’t been opened in over twenty years.”
William pushed open the door. Dust rose as the alien breeze floated in from the hall. “I’m not sure this door‘s been opened in twenty years,” he said with a laugh.
I went to the kitchen.
“I guess this is it,” Granddad said as I walked in.
“They seem good,” I said. “Definitely not thieves.”
“They’re stealing my memories, and I can’t do a thing to stop them.”
He slumped into the dining chair and lifted his old green mug in both hands. He blew on it, then sipped it as if he might spill it, as if he’d spilled it several times already. I still saw him as the confident and capable man I knew as a child, but the cracks now lining his armor were many. I wish Mom had come. Not me.
I grabbed a mug from the cabinet and turned to pour a cup for myself. Behind me, ceramic shattered, and I jumped. The movers. Damn it.
But it wasn’t the movers.
The sound was too close. I didn’t want to look, but I did.
Granddad stood in the kitchen, eyes wide, not in surprise, but more confusion. At his feet, green and white shards of ceramic lay like islands in a caramel-colored sea.
“Go relax in your chair,” I said, snapping more than I meant. “I’ll clean this up.”
I grabbed the towel by the sink, then felt a tug. Granddad pulled the towel from my hands. “I’ve got this,” he said.
“No,” I said, almost yelling this time. “You don’t. That’s why I’m stuck here doing it.”
Granddad looked me in the eye and for a moment, I could almost feel his desperation.
“I, I’m sorry, Granddad. Just go sit. Please.”
He dropped the towel in my hand and walked away. I cleaned the floor.
There was a knock at the door as I dropped the shattered remains of the coffee mug in the trash. I tossed the towel into the sink and went to answer.
Granddad sat in his recliner, resting his hand on the geisha’s case. He looked away from me as I walked past.
I opened the door to a man large enough to fill the gap. “Al Lewis,” he said in a voice like a foghorn. “My boys working good? Thought I heard a crash walking up.”
William emerged with several boxes stacked on a hand truck. “Heya, Pops.”
“Nothing to worry about,” I said. “So far, so good.”
Al walked in and I showed him around the house, delaying the living room for as long as I could.
“He did a lot of travelin’, huh?” asked Al. “Bet he’s got a ton of stories.”
“More than I can remember,” I said. “All this stuff is really important to Granddad. Valuable in more ways than one.”
“My granddaddy was a ball player. So many stories to tell. Man, I’d give anything to have him around for just one more,” he said. “It’s good to spend time with that older generation, you know. They’ve got the wisdom. We need to—” He laughed. “Sorry. When I have to do one of these moves I can’t help think about when my boys might send me off.”
Hand truck wheels squeaked behind us. “Not gonna happen, Pops. If Willie won’t take you, I will.”
“Thanks, Jackie. Good to know I’ll be welcome.”
Al turned back to me and patted my shoulder. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll give his things the utmost respect.”
I wished Granddad could be reassured so easily.
The afternoon rolled by right along with the hand trucks going in and out the front door, taking out tower after tower of boxes. Several hours later, every room in the back hall was empty, save for the sun-bright bed and my suitcase. Granddad remained in his chair.
“It’s past lunch, Granddad,” I said. The movers were outside, taking a lunch break of their own. “Can I get you something?”
“My memories back,” he said.
There was a polite knock at the front door and Al walked in, his sons close behind. “That side of the house is in the truck.” He studied the living room. “I’d like to get in here next so I can plan the furniture out right. If that’s ok with you, sir.” He looked at Granddad.
Granddad glanced down at the geisha doll, saying nothing. Al waited in the doorway. Finally, Granddad sighed. “If it’s not too much trouble, I’d rather leave this room for last.”
Al looked around the room again, then nodded. “We’ll figure it out,” he said. He directed his sons to the kitchen instead, and soon the scraping sounds of cardboard boxes being assembled drifted out.
Granddad leaned over, elbows on his knees and face in his hands.
“How about a picnic?” I asked.
Granddad looked up at me, eyes wet. He cracked the slightest smile and nodded.
I bought sandwiches at the Depot then stood outside a minute, listening to the old crooner on the deli’s speakers while I watched kids climb on the old steam engine forever stationed outside. The sun bounced off the headlamp, and the old locomotive looked ready to run. We walked the path into the park, passing the swings where Granddad once pushed me all the way to the moon and the monkey bars I’d fallen from the summer I broke my arm.
Granddad sat on a bench and I handed him his sandwich, then sat beside him, leaning back against the sun-warmed wood. The sandwiches were everything I remembered, juicy and layered in flavor, somehow even better than making them at home.
We ate without speaking as clouds ambled overhead. On the breeze floated white puffs of dandelion seeds and the laughter of the children playing in the endless field before us. A dog bark echoed among the scattered trees.
“I’m going to forget all this, aren’t I?” asked Granddad.
I swallowed, but I had no words.
“Why do I have to move, Ben? Why do things have to change?”
There was a child-like innocence in the questions. “We want you to have help when you need it, that’s all. We don’t want you living alone.” I paused for a moment. “I’m sorry I snapped at you, Granddad.”
“I won’t remember it anyway,” he said.
My gut twisted.
“It wasn’t my choice, you know. Being alone. I did all the right things, Ben. We did. Ate healthy. Stayed active. All of it. But here I am without her, being packed up into a box and forgotten.”
“You’re not going to be forgotten, Granddad. We’ll come and visit plenty.” I knew it wasn’t true. So did he.
“You haven’t been here in years, Ben. Your mother calls, but…” He took the last bite of his sandwich, chewed it, thoughtfully, then said, “Who wants to visit an old man waiting to die?”
I tried to think of something to say and, failing, just looked out over the park, etching it into my memory anew.
“Let’s just go back,” he said. “Get it over with.”
Jack was in the living room when we walked in, crouched beside the geisha doll, the glass door hanging open. A doll-sized box waited next to him.
Granddad pushed past me. “Get your damn hands off of her!”
Hearing Granddad curse for the first time in my life was a shock, but not as much as his speed as he shot toward Jack like a torpedo. I feared Jack would drop the doll, and God what would have happened then.
Instead, Jack held the doll out, pulling the rest of his body back at the same time. “Sorry, sir,” he said, looking like he expected to be tackled.
“Give her to me,” Granddad said, but he already had the doll in his hands. Jack apologized several more times as Granddad turned away, his face as red as her lips, and marched toward his room holding the geisha like a newborn.
I moved out of the way as he flew past me, then I turned toward Jack. “This is really hard on him,” I said. “I hope you guys can understand. You’re doing a fine—”
Jack’s eyes shot wide open and he lunged past me, outstretched hand grasping at the air. In his eyes I caught a glimpse of Granddad, falling. And then… a snap, and the sound of a thousand tiny wind chimes in an ocean breeze.
I jerked around and ran to Granddad. “Are you ok?” I knelt next to him. “Don’t move. I’ll call for help.” I pulled the phone from my pocket. Granddad shoved it away with a trembling hand.
“I’m fine.” He pushed himself to his knees and reached for the geisha. Most of her.
The doll lay half on the thick shag of the living room and half on the entryway tile. Most of her remained intact, saved by the carpet and her kimono, but her right leg…
“Let me help,” I said, reaching to collect the scattered pieces of porcelain. Granddad pushed me away.
“Leave me alone,” he said. “Can’t everyone just leave me alone?”
Granddad grabbed the doll and the fragments, and stumbled off to his room. The door slammed shut.
I chased after him, knocking on the door. “We need to get you to the hospital. We should get you checked out, just in case.”
“I’m fine, Ben. I landed on the carpet. I’m fine, but she’s not.” He sounded on the verge of tears. “She’s not.”
A nervous voice spoke behind me. “I was just trying to see how to pack it best,” said Jack. “The doll.”
“It’s ok, Jack. I just wish—” I looked back at the floor, searching for pieces left behind. “Is your dad around?”
“He’s out front with Willie.”
I went out the front door, closing the broken time capsule behind me. Al stood leaning against the moving truck, wiping sweat from his face with a bright red handkerchief.
“Any way I can get you guys to pause until tomorrow?”
Al tucked the handkerchief in his pocket. “Something happen?”
“Just an accident,” I said, “But I don’t think it’s a great idea to keep pushing today.”
The front door opened and closed, and I was relieved to see Jack, not Granddad.
“I’m sorry, Pops,” he said, walking toward us.
“What’d you do, Jackie? You break something? I told—”
I put up my hands. “He didn’t break anything. He was getting the doll ready and Granddad grabbed it. But he, Granddad, fell walking away. Nobody did anything wrong.” Nobody but me. I just didn’t know how to fix it.
“Is the old man ok?”
“I think so, yeah. But he could use a rest.”
Al pulled out his phone and slid his finger across the screen. “I was hoping to wrap up tomorrow. This’ll push us to Wednesday,” he said. “It’ll add another day to the cost.”
“That’s fine,” I said.
“Your mom ok with this?” he asked. She was the one paying the bill, of course.
“I’ll call her this evening. I’ll figure how to pay the difference if I have to.”
He looked unsure, but Al went with it. “Alright, then. We’ll be back bright and early. I feel for the old man, but I gotta get this job done, too.”
“I understand.” I nodded and turned back to the house. The truck engine roared to life behind me.
Granddad’s door was still closed when I went back in, so I just stood outside his room a minute. The moving truck pulled away, leaving mostly silence and the softest sound of weeping. I raised my hand to knock but pulled back.
I walked into the living room and to the window through which you could definitely not see the bay. Granddad might not have been all there, but what remained was hurting. And I was playing a bigger part in his pain than I wanted to admit.
I turned on the lamp and lay down on the couch, on my side, imagining Grandma’s fingers petting my hair while Granddad laughed at a late show. Through the lens of my memory, and then in my dreams, the geisha danced in the empty glass case.
The lamp was the only light left in the room when I woke. I swung my legs to the floor and sat up, listening for a moment. The house was silent. I went to his door.
It remained shut.
“Hey, Granddad.” I tapped on the door, “It’s getting late. Do you want some dinner?”
“Granddad, you’ve got to answer me.” I checked the doorknob. Still locked, of course.
“Just give me some time, Benny. I’ll come out when I’m ready.”
I sighed and turned back for the couch, sliding the phone from my pocket.
The old rotary phone sat on the table between Granddad’s chair and the couch. I’d used it to call Mom a hundred times. I thought about doing it again.
I used my cell instead.
“Why the hell aren’t you the one doing this?” I asked as soon as she picked up.
“Easy, Benny,” she said. “What’s wrong?”
“Everything. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to do this.” I fell back into the couch. “You’ve got to come out here.”
“I have to work, Benny, and you’re on break. I thought it would go well with you there. He respects you.”
“Not after today, he doesn’t. He fell earlier, and broke the geisha doll.”
“Is he ok?”
“He got up on his own, but he’s locked himself in his room. He’s talking, and sounds ok, so I think—”
“He loves that doll.”
“That’s what I mean. We’re just packing up everything he loves and taking it away.”
“Can the doll be fixed? Maybe he can take it with him.”
“Maybe? I don’t know. He needs more than just a few souvenirs to take with him. He just wants to stay home, Mom. Why can’t he do that?”
“His falling is a perfect example. What if he’d gotten hurt? And you weren’t there to help?”
I knew she was right and I hated it. “Fine.”
“Look, I’ll call the home and see if I can get him into a bigger room. Maybe if he can bring more of his things—”
Granddad’s door creaked open. Footsteps shuffled down the hall.
“I’ll call you back, Mom,” I said. I slid the phone back in my pocket and stood. “Hey, Granddad.”
He said nothing. He cradled the doll in his hands and walked it to the empty glass case. Granddad eased the doll onto its platform and stepped back, leaving the door open. He smiled.
“You fixed her.”
He didn’t seem to hear me. He seemed in another world altogether. “You don’t understand, Benny, but it’s not your fault.”
Granddad pulled four throw pillows from the couch and set them on the floor, crafting a semicircle centered around the geisha doll. Then he turned off the lamp, leaving the room in darkness. I heard his feet shuffle away, then a soft click, and the recessed spotlight shown down on the geisha like a gentle moon.
Granddad knelt on one pillow, facing the doll, and leaving two empty places to his right. Then he patted the one on his left. “Come sit.”
I knelt beside him, like he had done. “What are we—”
“Just wait,” he whispered.
So I did.
My whole life I felt like the geisha doll was just about to smile, her face frozen midway there, like she would if only she could move.
Then she did.
Her crimson lips curved into a delicate smile, the porcelain wrinkling just slightly at the edges of her eyes. The geisha doll limped slightly as she stepped out from her case and stood before us. She bowed her head, then knelt to face us on a cushion I would have sworn wasn’t there a second before.
She reached into her kimono and, with movements every bit as smooth as her porcelain skin, she pulled out a cast iron kettle, a bamboo whisk, and a small ceramic jar. A soft cloud of steam flowed from the kettle.
She pulled out a bowl next, its design matching the kimono itself. A crack ran up the side, now filled with gold, and I couldn’t help but think of her leg.
The geisha prepared each item with measured movements and set them before us, a doll-sized display as perfect as any shop window. With a bamboo ladle, long and narrow, she took two scoops of green powder from the small jar, tilting them into the bowl with the gilded crack. She followed the powder with a steaming stream of water from the kettle.
The geisha held up the whisk, then began to stir the tea. I stared deeply into the cup, trapped in the swirl of the tea, foam building on the surface like the sea coming to shore. Behind the geisha, the wall began to do the same.
The wall and the window, even the old McCormick house, swirled like mixing paint and faded into a vast starry night sky spread over a wide-open bay.
A thousand lights hovered like fireflies above the rolling surface of the water, a city of ships along the horizon, their beacons cutting through the darkness between us. The sky steadied, and the world of the bay smoothed itself out as if it had always been there. The moon, the real moon, hung high over the geisha doll, washing her in a wave of white light.
I turned to look at Granddad, but he just stared off across the sea, squinting, like he was looking for something.
From within her kimono, the geisha pulled out a flute, long and slender and carved from deep cherry wood, every bit of its surface etched with elegant swirls and arcs like rolling waves. Lifting it softly to her painted lips, she began to play.
A low and haunting note flowed from the flute, and for a moment I expected to see it floating in the air like a cherry blossom. But the unseen note simply drifted on, filling the room with its vibration. She moved to another note, and another, her melody moving with the swells of the bay itself.
I watched, entranced, as the geisha’s delicate fingers danced along the flute to the rhythm of the waves crashing behind her. And then, over her shoulder, I saw why Granddad had set out four pillows.
From the distant city of ships, two ghostly figures slipped across the surface of the bay, bright as the moon. Granddad smiled, light glistening in his eyes.
The first to arrive was a man, his lean figure no more solid than sea mist. He wore a uniform like the one Granddad had shown me one summer long ago, the same uniform likely packed up now for the move. My chest tightened at the thought of reality, but the song of the geisha pulled me quickly back.
When the man reached the geisha, he bowed. She lowered her head to him, still playing her song, and the mist of his body coalesced. He wore a rainbow of ribbons on one side of his chest, and a name on the other: Mifune.
Mifune stepped closer and bowed to Granddad, their faces washed with joy like long-lost brothers reunited. Granddad motioned toward me, and the spirit turned. His body had become solid, but sea mist still danced in his eyes.
He said nothing, but bowed to me next, and I felt a wave of happiness and satisfaction that almost seemed to drift to me from him. I bowed back, and he went to the far pillow and knelt, settling back onto the heels of his feet, waiting.
The second spirit emerged from the breaking waves just past the geisha, the misty form floating toward us, and in the light of the moon, a light that now seemed cast down for her and her alone, I recognized her.
My grandmother drifted toward us.
I had only ever seen her so young in photographs, in those small snapshots of yellowed whites and faded blacks that captured the fleeting joys amidst hard years of war. Grandad’s eyes shined. After so many decades together, this was the way he remembered her.
She drew near and bowed to the geisha, and as her form was made material, she came to us. She bowed to Mifune and then to my grandfather. Turning to me she smiled, and I thought I could see tears in her eyes. I felt them welling in mine. She reached down and ran her fingers through my hair like she’d always done, and I felt a cool breeze of sea air flow down my back. She bowed, then took her place next to Granddad, slipping her hand along his shoulders as she went.
The geisha lowered her flute, leaving only the sound of waves breaking behind her. She lifted the bowl of tea, the light green foam dancing atop, and as she gave it to Mifune, the doll-sized bowl swelled and grew to fill his outreached hands.
Mifune took the bowl and turned it in his left palm. He sipped the tea, eyes closed and face at rest, as if letting the tea itself be the only thing in the world. He lowered the bowl and studied it a moment, then passed it to Grandma with a slight bow.
She did the same, then handed the tea to Granddad, their hands lingering together for just a moment. Granddad went through the ceremonial steps while I studied his movements, knowing it would come to me next.
Granddad turned to me and I took the bowl, afraid to drop it, but enjoying the warmth on my hands against cool breeze from the bay. Granddad bowed his head. I did the same.
I turned the bowl, noticing the gilded crack, and the almost-dancing petals along the sides. The steam warmed my face as I lifted it to my lips, and the soothing aroma replaced the salty sea air in my lungs.
The thick tea coated my mouth and throat as I sipped, warmth flowing deep into my core. My mind drifted back to the park, the endless field and the summer days spend there with my grandparents.
Bitterness hit my tongue, and I thought of all the years since Grandma had passed, all the years Granddad had spent alone. And now losing his home, his memories.
Then a savory taste replaced the bitterness, bringing to mind those little moments never fully forgotten as long as some last glowing ember remains to reignite the flame.
And finally, sweetness, however faint, lingering gently after the rest had gone. The bowl had held a lifetime, all the sorrows and joys of age and memory and lost love.
And I understood.
I handed the bowl to the geisha and bowed. The bowl shrunk back to fit her hands and became empty, and she bowed her head. After wiping each tool clean, she hid them back within her kimono, never changing her flawless silhouette.
Granddad took Grandma’s hand in his. Tears curved along his face. Grandma leaned near and kissed them away, leaving behind no trace of her lipstick. She caressed his cheek.
The geisha began to play once more, the melody flowing over the bay and back again. Granddad stood and pulled Grandma closer. I had never seen them wrapped in such a tight embrace.
Mifune stood and smiled. He shook Granddad’s hand and hugged him, then walked off toward the bay. With a bow to the geisha his form lightened, fading back into sea mist. He drifted back among the waves, disappearing into the night and the city of ship lights in the distance.
Grandma turned to me and reached out, taking me into her arms. I could feel her there, as real as she had ever been, squeezing me until I could barely breathe. Then she let go and stepped back, smiling deep within her eyes, and nodded. It felt like approval, satisfaction of the man I was becoming. I suddenly felt the same.
She put a hand on Granddad’s right cheek and kissed the other softly. Then she took his hand and they lingered a moment, gazing into each other’s eyes as if there was nothing else to be seen in the world. Finally, with a smile as bittersweet as the tea, she turned to the bay, letting Granddad’s hand drop behind her.
Grandma bowed to the geisha, and vanished back into the waves.
Granddad’s head hung low. His hand drifted against his cheek, and a tear fell to the thick carpet of the living room. I started to reach for him but pulled back.
He was smiling.
The geisha slipped the flute back into the endless magic hidden within her kimono. She bowed and smiled, then stood. As she stepped back up to her pedestal, I saw the limp in her walk. I realized now why Granddad had been so protective, and my heart ached at the part I was playing in his loss.
I had to make things right.
I called the movers in the morning, and asked them just to bring the boxes back. I’d handle the unpacking myself. I apologized and assured them they’d still get paid. Somehow.
Then I called Mom.
“What’s wrong now?” she asked after picking up the phone.
“I’m moving in,” I said.
“I can’t do this to him,” I said. “We can’t make him move.” I knew if I tried to explain, if I told her everything I’d seen, told her about Grandma, she’d have both of us moved to a home, mine with padded walls.
“Not going to happen. What about college? You’re just not going back?”
“I’ll transfer. Cal Poly isn’t far, and if I can’t get in, I’ll go smaller until I can. I’m not quitting on my degree, Mom. But I’m also not quitting on Granddad.”
“I don’t like it…” She paused a moment. “What about his health?”
“We can get a nurse to come. They don’t have to be here all the time. A few times a week, maybe, just to check in on him.”
“You’ve really thought this through?”
I smiled. “It just kind of came to me last night.”
She sighed. “Well, it’s not like I can really tell you what to do anymore.”
“This is the move we should be making. I’m sure of it.”
She chuckled. “Ok, then. As long as you’re sure. Let me know what Granddad says.”
I slid the phone in my pocket and looked out the window toward the McCormick house, imagining the bay instead. I smiled at the geisha, frozen in time once more. “Thank you,” I whispered.
I sat down to wait on one of the twin chairs by the old ship, chairs thick and padded with years of memories. Then Granddad came down the hall.
“Hey, Granddad.” I motioned to the other chair. “There’s something I want to talk to you about.”
The morning sun cast the museum in gold.