Excerpt from novel A Woman of Heart by Marcy Alancraig.
Guardians & Shadows – Conclusion (Part II)
Who are you? I asked, trembling so much I was worried I’d fall over. I grabbed Davy, sure I would never let him go again, and squeezed him against my legs. But your uncle wiggled away, unafraid to face that whole group of strangers. A grin, even, he had on his brave face. Are you wondering, Shoshie, what that smart boy knew that I didn’t? Me too, even after all these years.
We are Guardians, said the oldest. A wrinkled woman, blue tattoos on her chin. Only a skirt of reeds she wore. A shell necklace. Let me tell you, it didn’t cover much.
Oy vey, I gasped and quick put my hand over Davy’s eyes. I didn’t want he should see her bare breasts.
But then, like the priest spirit, she made a motion with her hand and started to grow solid. Stop, I cried out. Enough changing already! She nodded, but not before I saw her legs grow still and root into the dirt. And for a second, all that age in her, it seemed like rings wrapped around her middle. Then she got ghosty again. Thank you, I whispered. Better, I thought, Davy should see breasts than watch her turn into a tree.
She laughed, as if she could hear me, and it sounded like the breeze in the gum grove. A friendly noise it was, a purr, like what a cat makes to show love.
We are Guardians, she said again, with a wink and nod at Davy. When I was alive, my people were known as Winamabakeya, People Who Belong to the Land.
Okay, okay, so maybe you think your grandma is making this up, or like your mother, you want it should be the Alzheimer’s. Poor Gram, you think, in her old age she’s lost whatever sense she ever had. Listen bubee, the comfort in pretending this whole business is some kind of fancy story I understand. Back in 1929, I kept pinching myself, hoping to wake up from this meshuggeneh dream.
But no such luck, because no matter how hard I worked my skin, the Guardians just kept smiling. The eight of them, the two of us, quiet and still on that hill.
Davy’s Guardian smiled and the old one hmphed, her eyes like sun on leaves, shining. Please forgive our interruption, the priest one said.
And then they began to fade, like dew in the morning. In a minute, the hill would be empty, back to the safe place it’d been before they came.
Except not if your uncle could help it. “No! Don’t leave,” he cried. To me he turned. “Make them stay.”
“But bubee, they have to go.” I tried to hold him, but he wouldn’t let me.
“No,” he sobbed. “Come back! You promised to play with me.”
“Shadows have business,” I tried to explain. “You can’t keep them.”
“No, no, no!” he yelled, his fists pounding the dirt. Then from his mouth, a truth so strong it made me lose my breath. He looked up. “You’re the one sending them away.”
I was. Or at least, letting them leave, and glad I was about it. But what about this boy who, I had bragged earlier, should come first, no matter what, when it came to a ghost business? It hadn’t been more than a couple of hours, but already I was breaking my vow? Oy, what kind of mother was I? For the first time, I started to wonder. How much, how many people, had I stopped myself from knowing because I was afraid?
I mean, these Guardians — so all right, yes, they were scary, but who couldn’t see, with their wind and grasses and leaves, that they belonged here? And in how they spoke and treated us, so quiet and polite, there was nothing close to harm. So what was I worried, Davy should want to play with them a little? A piggyback with the Irish girl, what could be so bad?
Wait, I called out and they stopped fading. In a blink, there they were again, strong and glowing on the hill.
Then I bent to Davy, who had stopped crying and was watching the Guardians, his bright face smiling. “One piggyback and then we have to get home to fix supper. When I call and say it’s over, you promise to come?”
“Yes,” he yelled, running with eager feet. With a swing and a yelp, as if all the grasses on the hill had started laughing, his piggyback ride began.
Plenty of time I had for thinking as the Irish ghost carried Davy across the hill on her back like he was the king of the grasses. Such gladness in his face, the whole story he would have to tell. And yes, there would be yells and slaps, tears when the family thought he was lying. “Davy’s usual fairy tales,” Nate would shrug. Mimi would sniff, “Just a dream.” And that poor boy would wipe his eyes, “Mama will tell you. She saw them.” And what could I say, without giving away this ghost business? Oy, such a pickle.
So I looked at the old one, the tree, because she seemed the smartest. Straight out, with all the courage I had in me, I asked her: What should I do?
The old one, Wina she said I could call her, beckoned, and the Irish girl came over.
“So soon?” Davy whined.
The spirit put him down on the grass in front of the old lady. Wina smiled at him, so warm, so knowing. Then she reached out and put her hand on his head.
On Davy’s face — such a sweetness, like I had never seen. He closed his eyes and stood quiet, almost dreaming maybe. Her hand patted his curly hair.
And then, the patting stopped and the sun got brighter. That light, all gold, filled up the hill. I blinked at it, so shiny — and when I was done no more Wina. All the Guardians , they’d disappeared.
I looked around, sad a little to miss them. And yes, I’ll be honest, Shoshie. Also, I was relieved.
Davy opened his eyes. “Mama, I’m hungry. Let’s go home.”
“You’ve had enough playing?” I asked, looking at him closely. All right he seemed, nothing strange or bothered. “Enough you’ve had with the piggybacks for now?”
“What piggyback?” he asked, rubbing a scratched knee. Then he cocked his head, like a pullet trying to coax a little more feed, and sighed. “I’m tired. Will you carry me?”
All the way home, he got a ride, that boychik, such a wheeler-dealer. I carried as much as he asked, amazed about the Guardians he didn’t remember a thing. That Wina, she made a magic on him what made for peace in the house when we got back for supper. But you know, Shoshie, even then for Davy I felt a little bad.
Think about it. My boy I’d cheated of his first experience with a wild magic. Much later, after the war and his two years in that prison camp, I spent nights wondering — would he be any better if that piggyback ride, it had stayed close to his heart? But how could a little piggyback make better what he suffered — forced labor, the beatings — from those Nazis? Still, I wonder about it — every time I look into his sad eyes.
And that’s why, my dearest girl, when you were nine and Wina came down from the hills to meet you, I asked she should make it so you remember. Like a tree in the wind, she nodded, and put her hand on your head. “Yes,” you said, looking up at her and then you smiled, so bright and happy. I was there. I saw it. Wina, the oldest of the Guardians, she leaned forward and kissed the top of your braids.
PART ONE (Yesterday)
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