Notch by Notch / by Chase Boisjolie

By the time Robby’s parents arrived at the school most of the heavier rain clouds had been pushed to the horizon, encircling the world like the rim of a fishbowl. It was the end of Robby’s first week at the new school and it had rained every day straight since Monday. He sat alone on the wet ground outside Lewis and Clark Public School, idly kicking his soiled white tennis shoes in a curbside puddle. He had just brought both feet down into the murky water when an airy man’s voice called out to him:

“Hey buddy. How was school?”

He looked up. The man had one firm hand on the steering wheel of a purple minivan. The two had the same hooked nose and sharp cheekbones; in fact, just about every contour of the boy’s face was a smaller, softened reflection of the man’s. The only features which seemed to set them apart were Robby’s tan skin where the man’s was pink, and dark hair where the man’s was blond.

“Good,” Robby murmured. He clambered into the backseat of the minivan and pulled the door until it clicked shut.

“Hey there champ,” his mother said from the passenger seat. She turned to look at him. Her face was olive like Robby’s, framed by a pair of almost-black braids that hung halfway down her torso. “What’d you do in class today?”

Robby avoided her gaze. He unzipped his backpack and produced a metal ring the circumference of his face. Three colorful feathers dangled from beaded strands tied to the ring. Woven in the middle was an asymmetrical web of frayed twine. They drove over a speedbump and the sudden jerk caused the loosely constructed knots to slink slightly towards the bottom of the ring.

“Oh!” his mother exclaimed. “It’s beautiful. Did you make that?”

Robby nodded. “A Indian came to our class today and taught us how.”

“An Indian?” his mother asked. She raised an eyebrow. “From India?”

“No.” He shook his head, trying to remember what the woman in class had told them.

“Native American,” his mother corrected. She winked, then impulsively cupped the boy’s chin. Robby shuddered as her hands touched him. “That tooth out yet? Open up.”

He recoiled, breaking her hold. “Your hands are cold,” he said.

“So they are.” She dropped it and rested her fingers on Robby’s knee. “Maybe this weekend.” She giggled and turned back around.

Robby faced forward. He laid the dreamcatcher on the seat next to him. With his left hand he pinched the tooth in question, giving it a delicate twist between his thumb and index finger. His father peeked at him through the rearview mirror.

“Stop that,” he scolded. “Just think about everything you touched today, mister.”

The boy let go of the tooth and momentarily considered the comment. But as his father’s stare returned to the road he absentmindedly went back to working it. They stopped at a light and a cluster of raindrops freed themselves from the car roof and streaked across the windshield like a shower of shooting stars. The wipers were flicked on, scattering the droplets to the edge of the glass with a hollow screech.

“We’re gonna go visit Mama Anna for a bit,” his mother said.

“Again?” Robby moaned.

“Yes, again.” She looked at Robby once more, locking eyes with the boy. “I really wish that I had had the chance to know my grandmother—you’re a very lucky young man.” She pinched his cheek with her right hand.

“Ouch!” Robby said, pulling away.

“Oops, I’m so sorry baby.” She retracted the hand.

Robby caressed the cheek over the pained tooth. “But Mama Anna doesn’t even remember me,” he said.

“Of course she remembers you,” his father chimed in. “She just…has a little trouble sometimes, that’s all.”

“And besides,” his mother added. “She’s the whole reason we moved out here. You may have been too young to remember, but she used to live with us. The two of you were best friends when you were a baby.”

“If we were best friends, then why did she have to go?” Robby’s question was innocent, earnest and unassuming as a child’s mind tends to be.

His mother and father exchanged a worried look, unsure as to how they would give an answer that the child could grasp; he had no frame of reference, had never experienced death or loss, no real pain outside that of a scraped knee. Finally his father spoke up: “It wasn’t Mama Anna’s home. She’s old. This is where she grew up. She needed to come home.”

Robby stayed silent and seemed to accept the answer. He stared out the window. The streets were lined on either side with tall oak trees, their bushy green branches reaching out in all directions as though thrown in a fixed state of rapture.

The town was small, even to Robby’s eight-year-old mind. It was one of those towns where anyone passing through would stop only to top off their tanks with gasoline or grab a cup of coffee. Aside from the school building, which housed all students from kindergarten through high school, there was a small main street along which was a simple grocery market, a hardware store, a bicycle shop, two dreary cafes, and a coin laundry that was almost always empty.

Though itself drab and unremarkable, Algonquin Ridge Nursing Home was the largest and perhaps the most notable building in the town. At the end of the town furthest from the central highway, it sprawled over two blocks, a squat two stories of pale salmon-pink set against a verdant forest backdrop. The look of the structure on a post-rainy afternoon oozed a tangible, syrupy neglect.

It did not take them long to arrive. Robby’s father pulled into the nearest spot in the deserted parking lot of the home, and they got out of the car.

“Honey,” said his mother to Robby. “Why don’t you bring your dreamcatcher? I’m sure Mama Anna would love to see it.”

He did as he was told and retrieved the crude craft. The family were hand in hand as they approached the entrance to Mama Anna’s first floor suite. His mother knocked gently at the door. “Remember, Robby. Mama Anna is old and very tired. Sometimes you might need to repeat things once or twice for her—but she is listening.” She reached out and twisted the doorknob.

The room was bleak. Soft orange light filtered in through narrow crevices between slatted wooden blinds; on the opposite wall an old television blared an advertisement for clinical trials of a new heart medication. An antique lamp shed an unflattering, chalky glow over everything, exposing an eclectic array of knick-knacks; there were several dozen unopened Furby boxes, a withered old spinning wheel, four massive framed trays of collectable milk caps, at least five hand-knit quilts that could be seen, and a grandfather clock—the hands of which had long since stopped ticking. Mama Anna sat in the far corner, swaying in a creaky rocking chair and staring vacantly at the frozen pendulum.

“Hello?” she said. “Who’s there?”

“Just us, Mom,” Robby’s mother said. “Alice, Jim, and Robby too.”

Mama Anna had a dark and wrinkled complexion. Her hair was a short peppered gray and her cheeks droopy like a bulldog’s jowls. She was wearing a yellow sundress patterned with white milkweed flowers. She placed her leathery hands on either arm of the rocker in an attempt to hoist herself up. But as if having forgotten her intention, she leaned again into her seat, sitting back comfortably with her fingers laced over her lap. “Alice?” She said, excited. “It’s so lovely to see you. It’s been so long.”

“Oh, Mom,” Alice said. “We were here yesterday.”

“Has it really only been that?” Mama Anna laughed. “Well even so it’s too long.” She reached for a bowl on the nightstand that was overflowing with brightly-wrapped chocolate eggs. She took one and deftly peeled away the crisp foil wrapper. She popped the candy into her mouth; her tongue smacked wetly around her dry lips as the chocolate melted. She lifted the bowl and offered it to Robby, who selected three blue eggs.

Robby sat down beside the spinning wheel and ate two of the eggs. Carefully, so as not to disturb his tooth, he pressed the chocolate to the roof of his mouth until it had become a sweet pulp. Then with both hands he began to pump the cracked treadle. The drive wheel swung in smooth oscillations, and as it gathered momentum Robby made believe that the wheel was like that of a race car. When its speed had reached such a point that the empty spool had begun to shake, Jim put his hand on his son’s shoulder. “Cut that out,” he said.

“So how was your day, Mom?” Alice crossed to Mama Anna and knelt in front of the rocker.

“Not too bad,” she said. “Just been watching my show.” She smiled and took a sip from a mug that was sitting on the nightstand, ice cubes clattered noisily inside. Now on the screen a man in a hockey mask chased a group of teenagers with a machete. They screamed.

“Do you mind if I?” Alice motioned her head to Robby, then the remote controller on the nightstand.

Mama Anna blinked at it, a blank look across her face. After a moment she realized what her daughter had meant and smiled. “I honestly couldn’t tell you what’s happening anyway,” she said. She took another chocolate. This time as she unwrapped it some of the foil broke off and drifted down to the carpet.

“Good Lord, Mom,” Alice said. She had returned the remote to its place and was examining the tips of her thumb and forefinger, where a thin veil of grime had rubbed off. She ran her palm over the surface of the nightstand, inciting a dusty fog to rise up and scatter across the dim air. “When was the last time you cleaned around here?”

Pensive, Mama Anna rubbed her chin. She had been considering the question well enough when suddenly a thought struck her: “I’ve got it!” She sat up, clutching tight to the knobs of the rocker.

“Eleven down, ‘albatross’—nine across…” She paused. “‘The jaws that bite, the claws that catch…”

“Jabberwocky?” Jim stirred in the corner. He had been leaning against the closed door with his arms crossed, soberly watching as Robby had gone back to the spinning wheel.

“I need a pencil,” Mama Anna said. “Get me a pencil.” She twisted to her right and opened the nightstand drawer, but just as soon froze. Puzzled, she rummaged around before closing it. She stuck her face in the crook of her elbow and sneezed three times in quick succession.

“Bless you,” Robby called automatically.

“Thank you.” She squinted at the boy, then smiled at Alice. “And just who is this handsome young man?”

“It’s your grandson, Mom,” Alice said. “Come say hello to your nana. You know, he’s quite the craftsman. Robby, show her what you made in school today.”

Robby unzipped his backpack and retrieved the dreamcatcher. He padded across the carpet and extended it to Mama Anna. “Hi Nana,” he said.

“Hello dear,” she said. She took the dreamcatcher in her gnarled hands and held it up. Just then Alice drew open the blinds and a dreamy white glare flooded through the exposed window; tiny particles floated in the light rays, frantic like dancers about a fire. “What’s this?” Mama Anna said inspecting it.

Robby was about to explain but was abruptly cut off:

“I’ll tell you what,” Alice said. “Why don’t you and Robby go out for a little walk?” She caressed her mother’s shoulder, her voice was soft and high. “Wouldn’t that be nice?”

Mama Anna handed the dreamcatcher back to Robby and slurped from her mug, exhaling with apparent satisfaction after she had taken a deep drink. “That sounds lovely,” she said. “Who’s Robby?” Perplexed, she scanned the room. “Oh, right. Of course.” She placed her hand on his head and ruffled the nest of dark hair.

“What do you say, son?” Alice asked. “You two get some fresh air, it’ll be good for you both. Then maybe afterwards we can all go out for dinner.”

“Okay,” Robby said. They both stood up and Mama Anna took his hand. They had reached the door and were taking the first step outside when Alice stopped them.

“Mom, your oxygen.”

“I know, I know.” Mama Anna turned around and sat on the edge of the bed. Alice wheeled over a short metal canister on a dolly. She helped Mama Anna with the rubber hose, looping it around either of her ears and delicately inserting the breathing tubes in her nostrils. Alice opened the valve and a fragile whir of air emanated from the canister as Mama Anna inhaled.

They walked out into the open air. Robby had taken the handle of the dolly and was trailing it behind him as the two plodded along. He was walking at a faster pace than Mama Anna so that she followed slowly beside the oxygen tank. By this time the clouds had closed the sky; they blanketed the world like a massive white and gray tapestry. There was looming in the middle a solitary dark cloud; Robby imagined that it was a spider poised perfectly in the middle of a heavenly web.

As they reached the corner Mama Anna stopped. Her breaths had gotten closer together and now came in short gasps. The cannister hissed. They could not have gone more than fifty feet from the home but she was clearly winded. Up ahead was a park. They crossed the street and Mama Anna leaned against a wooden bench. “I just need to rest a moment,” she said. The seat was still wet from the rain; she bent over and wiped away what water she could with her hand before smoothing her dress and lowering herself. Robby threw his head back and sighed.

The day was quiet, kept only from total silence by a faint breeze that ruffled the trees and nudged the swings in the playground, their metal chains chiming in the evident loneliness of the park. Robby was still holding the dreamcatcher. One of the feathers was dangling precariously on its string.

“Let’s see that,” Mama Anna said. Robby passed it to her. She caressed the ring and steadied the beaded strands which had also begun to loosen. She pinched one and gave it a gentle twist. “No good,” she said at last.

“What?” Robby said. “What’s wrong with it?”

“Everything,” Mama Anna said, disgusted. “Where’d you get this? I can’t stand these gift shop things. Make a mockery of—…”

“But I made it,” Robby said. There was a hint of hurt surprise in his voice. Mama Anna circled the ring with her fingers, steadily undoing the knotted twine notch by notch. “What are you doing?”

She now had the thread entirely unravelled. “Sit,” she said, patting the open space beside her. “I want to teach you.” Her voice had taken a stern and commanding quality that captivated the boy.

Robby did as he was told and sat down. A chill ran up his spine as the seat of his pants were wet by the bench. He watched the deft movements of Mama Anna’s hands as she formed the first knot and pulled the slack taut across the center of the ring. Suddenly his mind was clear, transfixed. Mama Anna spoke:

“Long ago,” she began. “The world was full of darkness. No one knew or saw anything.” She stopped weaving and coughed into her hand. When the fit had passed she continued. “Grandmother Spider rescued the world by bringing the sun to the people. It is a great marvel one can see each day at dawn in the dew of her web.” She pinched a blue bead, considering its color and shape before working it up its string. “Grandmother Spider has always loved her people and looked out for us—but as the family grew and grew we became separated.” She had gone around the ring once, connecting the string at eight points to the hoop. “Watch,” she said. Her fingers prepared to weave a new pattern between the first, tying the twine smoothly over and under in an intricate web. “Now you try.” She offered it to Robby, but his attention was solely on Mama Anna’s voice and the story.

“What happened next?” Robby had slid to the edge of the bench and was nearly hanging off the side.

“She always took care of her children, but with the great distance between them the work became to tiring for her to complete alone. And so she taught the women of the world to weave.” She had nearly completed the pattern, an open circle remained in the center. “In the web the bad things are caught and erased by the morning sun—only that which is good and pure may pass through it.” They sat in silence for some minutes as Mama Anna completed the task. “Now when we see her, we should not fear Grandmother Spider. She will always be there to look after you, whether you realize her presence or not. She will always be…” Mama Anna trailed off. For a long moment they sat in silence as she stared at a great oak beyond the park.

“She will always be what, Nana?”

“What’s that, dear?”

“You were telling me the story of Grandmother Spider.”

“Who? I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She looked down and saw the dreamcatcher. “It’s beautiful, grandson. You really did a great job with it.”

“But I—”

“Come,” she said. Mama Anna took Robby’s hand and slowly stood up. The sky had darkened and the wind began to pick up. She steadied herself and took hold of the oxygen tank. A drizzle had begun to fall over the town.  “We should get back inside.”

She gave the dreamcatcher back to Robby. Miles away the clouds parted for a moment and the sun’s rays gleamed through the blue opening.

Dedicated to the memory of Darlene Lynn

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