Carry Home by Elizabeth Stokes

Elizabeth Stokes - Elizabeth Stokes earned her B.A. from Vanderbilt University in Art and Art History, and now living in Richmond, VA, she continues to pursue her writing and photography.

  Case walked beside his grandfather, holding the old man's hand. He knew when they reached the concrete stairs by the lake and he pulled his hand away, the tar smell of his grandfather's cigar would come with him. The smell hung around his grandfather like tinsel on a Christmas tree, caught even under the straw boater he wore on walks and to feed the little flock of chickens he kept tucked in the back of the sloping yard, hidden from the neighbors. Case dropped his grandfather's hand, knowing his grandfather would call after him as he did.

“Keesje, wait.”

Case could guess at the words, all rolling in the old man’s heavily accented voice thick like smoke, but the sounds were lost in the underbelly of a plane that appeared over Case's head and turned at an angle out over the lake. Case chased the plane to the railing, climbing onto the first metal rung and leaning out over the water as far as he dared.

“Keesje, I told you to wait for me. You know to wait.”

He felt his grandfather's hand grab a knot at the back of his jacket and the smoke from the old man’s cigar swirled over his shoulder, sudden and loud the way the plane had. Case climbed off the railing, but did not turn away from the water. He crossed his arms along the top of the railing and rested his chin.

“When I was just your age, I carried eggs every morning to the shop in the center of Aalsmeer. On one side of the road, I had the canal, and on the other, across the lake, Schiphol and all the planes. Until I moved to Canada, I was certain that planes came from the water.”

Case looked up at his grandfather and curved his mouth into a laugh. His grandfather opened his eyes wide in response and drew deep on his cigar. His grandfather moved away from the railing and began to walk around the lake's edge, his free hand tucked behind him, against the small of his back.

“I remember one winter, the cold set in early, and we worried over the hens. My mother heated bricks to keep them laying, and I snuck the rooster into my bedroom and kept him wrapped in a quilt. We had lots of hens, but only one rooster.”

Case trailed after him, listening the way he did each day, and mouthing the words.

“The canal froze that year, and I skated into Aalsmeer with fresh eggs.”

Case ran to catch up, and his grandfather dropped a hand onto the crown of his head. Case’s father needed him to translate the old man’s stories, but Case caught every word. His mother only spoke Dutch when she was angry.

Another plane circled above them, lower this time, and blew their unzipped jackets open. Case looked up with squinted eyes as his grandfather cupped a hand around his cigar to keep the embers from flying.

“They built it like a ship, Keesje. The airport in Holland.”

“They build everything like a ship, Grandpa.”

The old man nodded.

“That’s what the name means. A ship’s hull.”

The sunlight flashed against the surface of the water, and the lake puckered like the tin sides of the chicken coop in the old man’s back yard. The Bantams had the run of the rear yard under cover of the tall pines. Case stood beside his grandfather when he fed the brood in the mornings and afternoons, helping to scatter seed in the dirt as the hens dipped their heads and pecked. The rooster walked the yard the way his grandfather did, at his own steady pace, his red feathers tinged silver with swinging teal tips that reminded Case of the beads strung as a curtain in the Dutch grocery. The rooster walked to his grandfather’s feet and waited for the old man to bend with a soft groan and lift him to his hip.

“You have done well for yourself, old Admiraal.”

As the sun passed behind a cloud and the lake dropped its metal, Case reached for his grandfather’s hand, the fingers thick and creased, his knuckles circled in lines. His grandfather held onto him loosely, quiet but firm, the way he held the Admiraal.

The pair turned away from the lake toward home, climbing the steps with heavier legs. His grandfather fished in his pocket as they passed the Dutch grocery, handing Case a clanking collection of loonies and pointing toward the store’s front door.

“Give the list to the woman behind the counter. And a koekje for you.”

Case walked into the store, and though he knew it well, felt as he always did that he had entered a foreign land. The hand-written signs tacked onto the wooden shelves, over and around the meat counter and the rounds of wax-covered cheese, all the labels on the packages, everything was in Dutch. Case stood behind the counter and waited for the woman in the apron to greet him, lean over and pat his head, slinging words toward him that he could not understand. He smiled and handed her the list.

Through the window, he could see his grandfather, staring back toward the lake, the brim of his boater low over his eyebrows. Case asked him once why he refused to go into the store. The old man had stopped him and dropped one knee to the pavement.

“Same as I told your mother when we first came here. I told her that would not be us.”

He pointed a finger, nearly touching the tip of it to Case’s nose.

“I watched the plane pull out from Schiphol, the empty set of stairs left on the tarmac, like a forgotten egg. We   don’t live there any more, I said. And we mustn’t pretend that we do.”

     His grandfather stood, reaching for his cigar, and Case heard the creak in his knee.

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