I’m just a bunch of bones, glass bones, connected by sinews and covered with a blanket of flesh. My teeth are made of pearls freshly plucked from oysters, and sometimes I wonder if my heart is made of granite.
The night that my grandma disappeared for good, walking off straight into Wonderland, was the same night that she came over to the house and gave me a colourful, beaded necklace with a wooden elephant pendant.
“Your grandfather gave it to me. He would want you to have it.” She wasn’t as tight-lipped as she usually was, but she was as suspicious as ever, her eyes scanning the neighbourhood for signs of skulduggery. She had trust issues, or at least that’s what Mom said, stemming back from when she was a child and bleeding into the time of her marriage. I never knew the details, though not for lack of trying. However a family like mine hardly appreciated “priers”, and I had learned from experience that the best way to catch snippets of their complex lives was to capture them in a more generous mood and let them talk.
It was evening time, the sun just setting, swirling in candy coloured bursts of peach and pink. I fingered the cool beads in the palm of my hand, made even more mysterious by the colour-splashed sky. Grandma and I sat incarcerated in an uncomfortable silence before she finally spoke up.
“Your grandfather got it when we were in India. For a…for a good deed.” Her face flickered a moment, a bright almost wistful look. I had a sudden memory of a black and white photo of her and grandpa sitting on the ground, surrounded by tall grass and native trees. A snapshot of their elusive adventures that grandma never mentioned, for reasons that were equally unexplained.
Glass bones, glass bones my mind chanted. I put a self-conscious arm around my abdomen, reminded that I would never go on any dazzling adventures like my grandparents. Because, while the anxiety induced stomachaches may have subsided, and the searing attacks of panic had been reduced, there was still an underlying fear bubbling underneath my skin. Women like Grandma went on brave, daring adventures. Emetophobics looked at the world from frosty distances, only safe in their comfort zone, assured that vomiting would not occur.
It was almost as if Grandma sensed my change of mood. She pointed at the necklace, her bony finger trembling slightly. Her lips were pressed firmly together, face set in a tight, pinched look.
“I didn’t give this to you for no reason, Ella. I did not pick you randomly out of my grandchildren.” Then, in an uncharacteristic act of affection, she bent over and kissed my forehead. I remained on the porch steps, stunned, watching as Grandma calmly trotted down the steps to her car.
That was the last time I saw her. Her back turned, her dress blowing slightly in the soft breeze. The car drove away, and after that she could have fallen down the rabbit hole for all I knew. According to the police it wasn’t likely that she was abducted considering she had packed up her possessions. Grandma had disappeared, gone like a puff of smoke and twice as fast.
I didn’t wear the necklace for almost a week after her disappearance. I would sometimes sit on my bed holding it, staring at the vivid colours and the little elephant that remained in an eternal half step to the left. My finger would trace the lines of his trunk, and I would imagine the stories he held, capturing three hearts inside of his wooden frame. My long gone grandfather, my recently absent grandmother, and now mine. A slab of granite wasn‘t much of a heart, but it belonged to me just the same. I imagined that at night the elephant became real in my dreams, traipsing all over the world and carrying my heart in the footsteps of my free spirited grandparents.
“They travelled all over the world, you know,” Mom said, bent over her sandwich and chewing thoughtfully. I picked at my own food, feeling the knots tighten rebelliously at the thought of lunch sliding down my throat. In a pathetic attempt at defiance I took a bite, my pearl teeth sliding and cutting.
“Ten different countries. Most people don’t see even a portion of that in their lifetime.” Outside a dog barked. I swallowed. I could see that Mom was trying, but it wasn’t helping. The necklace felt heavy around my neck, dragging me down closer and closer to the plate. The food smelled funny. I felt an overwhelming sense of terror climb up my throat. Maybe I was sick. Maybe I was going to (the dreaded two words) throw up. It would be so easy to put the fork down. Put the plate in the sink.
I viciously stabbed my fork into another piece of asparagus. I chomped down into it aggressively, irritated by my unwanted thoughts. Glass bones, glass bones.
Mom stared a moment at my mangled asparagus before taking a sip of water. The dog was barking again.
“Do you know?” I asked suddenly. Mom blinked in confusion. “About the necklace, I mean. Did Grandma ever tell you about it?”
Mom frowned a moment. “Your grandparents were very private. I don’t know much about their past.” She paused, and my face fell. It had been a slim chance, and I shouldn’t have been disappointed. Still, I couldn’t keep the burning from forming on the edges of my eyelids.
“However,” she added slowly, eyes peering straight at me. “Your grandfather told me once that he helped a desperate woman and was repaid with the necklace. He gave it to Mama. ‘For my travelling partner. Wherever the winds take us,’ he said, or at least, that’s what he told me.” She looked down a moment. “I don’t know anything besides that. I’m sorry.”
“No,” I felt a small smile tug at my lips. “That’s enough, I think.”
That night as I lay wrapped in my sheets, I listened to the cicadas croon in lullaby whispers, one to another. I closed my eyes, a deep ache spreading up in my heart and washing up and over me like a wave. I was stranded alone on a foreign beach, and only night-time cicadas could keep my company.
“Please, God,” I choked in a hoarse whisper. “Help me.”
Outside my window the wind whistled, and I thought I heard an elephant shriek, but it wasn’t there, not really, and that night I did not dream. Not a glimmer of silken streets with vendors all around, not a single woman handing my grandfather her necklace, darkness piled under her eyes in pain.
Always be kind to people, Mary, even if they’re nasty. It was a line from one of Grandma’s various letters she’d written to Great Aunt Mary, this one from France. Mom had found them in a box, tucked away in a dark corner of Grandma’s closet, with a couple of postcards and pictures. Despite their smeared dates I was still unable to make much of a timeline, my grandparents past remaining an enigma to me.
And remember that verse in the Bible, dear. The one we talked about. “Let not your heart be troubled.”
A peculiar feeling struggled inside of me. Some small part that wouldn’t let go continued to chant glass bones, glass bones. But another part shoved it to the ground repeating the words that my grandmother had scribbled for her sister.
Soon the box of letters became another prised treasure, much like the necklace. I found myself returning to them for advice, like one would an old friend, familiarising myself with their contents, tracing inked lines. Never before had I been given such a wealth of information concerning the various adventures of my grandparents.
I sent this picture with the letter. I hope you like it, it’s of me and George on the airplane.
I flipped the letter and the picture fell on my lap. It was one of the old airplanes, the kind you thought of when you envisioned the 1930s. Grandma and Grandpa sat under its wings, grinning at the camera like a couple of kids which, I realised as I looked more closely at the photo, they were. Just a couple of wild, young, stupid kids.
It was just heartbreaking, Mary, how poor the people were. And there was a woman begging for food for her children. George couldn’t stand to look at it, so he gave her every last cent in his pockets. And I’ll never forget this, but afterward she removed a beaded elephant necklace from her neck, and insisted that he have it.
I stopped reading a moment, simply savouring the words. They melted on my tongue like candy, and I couldn’t understand why they were so very important. Everyone had an heirloom of some kind.
Yes, I thought, but they know where their heirlooms came from. Mine is a mystery. Mine comes from the layers of time and obscurity.
He told me to have it. He bent over and whispered in my ear “For my travelling partner. Wherever the winds take us.” It’s such a simple gift, but I’m telling you that to me it’s one of the most precious things in the world.
I stared at the necklace, wondering and marvelling at it. How many hands had it passed through? How many years had it been worn? I had never seen Grandma wear it, but I couldn’t help but theorise that perhaps she didn’t want it to be hurt. Some things were just worth keeping.
“Oh, Grandma,” I sighed into the air. Nobody was there to answer. “Did you leave these letters for me to find?” I received no answer, nor did I expect one.
That night I did dream, but it was different to the others. That night I dreamed that I was out in a wild field surrounded by an emerald Indian landscape, and the sun blazing above me. I watched as my wooden elephant, now life sized, lumbered across the land. Then in a brilliant show of metamorphosis he became my grandparents airplane.
“Hey, kid, you want a ride?” I knew that voice. It was a low gravel tone, almost like velvet to me. I could smell him too, like leather and peppermint. Beside him sat Grandma, an aviator’s hat on her head, a cheery grin spread across her face.
“You’re coming, aren’t you Ella?” She asked. She looked like she did in her picture, and I noticed that Grandpa had been thrown back into his youth.
Let not your heart be troubled. I could almost hear the words, the wind bringing them softly to my remembrance.
“Of course I’m coming!” I yelled. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world!” The cicadas buzzed in a symphony of encouragement and support from all around.
Go Ella! Do it Ella! We believe in you!
I hopped into the airplane, surprised to find that I was not alone with my grandparents.
“Great Aunt Mary?”
“You can’t always leave me out of the fun,” Mary pouted. Then she changed her face to a smile.
The plane began to take off, gaining speed. I watched as the other elephants disappeared behind us. We didn’t go up too high, just high enough to taste the wind, just high enough to kiss right above the treetops.
I waved to everything below us, the wind whipping my hair into a tangled mess behind me. The cicadas continued to chant their words of encouragement from down under, their tiny voices piercing upwards into the clouds.
Go Ella! Do it Ella! We believe in you!
I spread my arms out like a bird. My fingers cutting the swift air in two, my heart hammering to the point where I thought it would pump itself out of my chest. My blood pounding in my ears, drowning out all sounds of fear.
The girl of glass was flying. The girl of glass was soaring.