Every year my parents would wave their goodbyes in the damp summer heat of late July and send me off on a train from Pittsburgh to Boalsburg. I was picked up at the station by Grandma and Grandpa Greenway, who drove me to their lodge deep within Rothrock Forest, where I spent two weeks under their supervision.
I remember the small pond that nested in a bed of tall grass on their property. Grandpa and I kneeled next to it and watched the tadpoles swim around in the mucky water. I remember when Grandma and I took a bike ride to the old limestone quarry. I remember dinner time on the porch, when we looked over the towering pine trees as their shadows grew and the sun set. I remember the laughter-filled evenings with card games and charades and homemade kettle corn.
But there is one memory that stands out like a razor blade in a box of cereal.
Around supper time, on that particular day, I was reading a comic book at the kitchen table, when Grandpa called my name and pointed to a steaming bowl on the countertop, filled to the brim with a red-and-green soup.
”Will you bring that out to your Grandmother?” he said. “I bet she’s mighty hungry right about now.”
“What is it?“ I said, eyeing the bowl with a wrinkled nose.
“Curry lentil soup,” said Grandpa.
My whole face scrunched up like crinkled paper.
“I know you don’t like curry,” said Grandpa with a chuckle, “so I’m making you tomato soup with a side of cheese toast.”
My facial muscles relaxed again.
“Go on now,” said Grandpa. “And be careful.”
When I stepped onto the porch, I noticed that Grandma had fallen asleep in a sun chair. I didn’t want to let go of the bowl with either one of my hands, so I nudged her cheek with my nose. She blinked and looked at me.
“Hey,” she said.
“I brought you dinner,” I said.
Grandma smiled. She cupped her hands around the curry lentil soup bowl and leaned forward, letting the steams envelop her face.
“My, oh my,” she mumbled.
Grandma took a deep breath, inhaling the aromas. Then she sort of jerked back as if taken by surprise. Without another word, she raised the soup above her head and tossed it into the yard—bowl and spoon and everything.
I stared at Grandma, slack-jawed and shell-shocked.
“Aconite!” she shrieked, jumping out of the sun chair like a scorched wildcat. “You’re trying to poison me with fucking aconite!”
She stormed back into the house, and I followed at a distance.
“You didn’t think I could smell the wolfsbane with all that curry?” Grandma screamed as she pounced into the kitchen. “You pathetic old bastard! How dare you drag Eliza into this?”
Grandpa whipped around, armed with a slice of toast in one hand and a block of cheese in the other.
“Be quiet, you old crone,” he hissed with fiery contempt. “Spare me your righteousness! You know damn well the promise that I made: in sickness and in health, ’til…”
“Shut your mouth!” said Grandma, and she made her fists into little balls. “You never knew how to play fair, Oswald, did you? It’s just like that time you tried to push me off a cliff in the quarry!”
“Oh, yeah?” said Grandpa. “Well, Petunia, dear, what about the time you knocked me into the pond and tried to drown me?”
“You think that’s bad?” roared Grandma. “How about the time when you gave me an overdose of sedatives and tried to bury me alive in a coffin beneath the apple tree?”
“So what?” snorted Grandpa. “Remember when you tricked me into picking up your wedding ring from the kitchen sink while you turned on the garbage disposal? You were gonna bleed me dry, you witch!”
“Bah!” said Grandma, and her body shook with rage. “This has gone on for far too long.”
Grandpa let go of the toast and the cheese, letting them tumble to the counter. “I couldn’t agree more.”
“I say we settle this, right now, once and for all.”
“Fine by me,” said Grandpa with a shrug.
Grandma Greenway stomped forward and reached for an 8-inch cleaver from a stainless steel knife rack. She turned to her husband with a feline grin.
“This here is my weapon of choice,” she said with a snarl. “Now pick yours, old man, and let’s fight ’til death do us part.”
Grandpa paused and produced a hard stare that settled first on Grandma, then drifted toward me.
He lifted his hand and wagged his crooked finger in my direction, “The girl. She’s my weapon.”
“You’re sick! I told you to leave her out of this!” Grandma belted back the cat within her growing more savage.
I did nothing. I remember that quite clearly. I was waiting for them to have a good laugh. For Grandpa to pinch my shoulder, and Grandma to poke fun at how frightened I looked. What a stunt! We’d all reminisce about it when we were with my parents for the winter holidays.
“Gah! Have it your way you wretch. You always have.” Grandpa dropped his finger and gaze and picked up the cast iron skillet he had just browned my toast on. The pan seemed to give off a quiet cackle, it must have been the butter and crumbs sliding over it’s hot surface.
They circled each other for a moment, like wild dogs approaching one another in a abandoned parking lot. They we’re moving clockwise, Grandma nearing me as Grandpa tried to maintain North to her South.
“Out of the way Eliza!” Grandma Greenway pushed me hard with her free hand, never once taking her eyes of Grandpa.
I fell backward onto my butt and hands. My body forgot to take a breath. I choked for a minute, then gasped and swallowed all the oxygen I could.
When I stood I saw Grandma inhale a deep breath and upon releasing it explode at Grandpa, lunging at a speed I’d never seen her approach. She held the knife out directly over her head.
Grandpa blocked her attack, using the skillet like a shield. I heard the blade screech down the surface of the cast iron. I set of chills crawled over my skin and creeped into my ears, tickling me in the most disgusting way.
With a forceful grunt Grandpa swung the skillet from one side of his body to the other, just barely missing the side of Grandma’s face. As Grandma flung her body back to dodge the swing her arms had lurched forward, and though unintentional, Grandma made her first cut just above Grandpa’s knee.
“You fucking HAG!” The words fell from Grandpa’s mouth, but hey didn’t sound quite like him. It almost sounded like a younger man. Then I saw the blood gathering in his khaki colored pants. It colonized the fabric then moved on, dripping to the floor.
The three of us were watching the blood for what felt like a small eternity. Then Grandpa sprang forward, but he must of over estimated the strength of his newly wounded leg. It collapsed under his weight and he tumbled on top of Grandma, pinning her to the ground under his body.
The cleaver had fallen from her grip and spun out on the tiled kitchen floor.
Grandma stretched her arm out in a desperate reach for her weapon. She was sweating and heaving under Grandpa.
Straddling her, he lifted his torso with the skillet still in hand. The skillet that made my toast. He pulled it back over his shoulder, winding up again, this time for a blow that would surely make contact.
I jerked forward as if hooked on a line controlled by Grandpa’s flailing cast iron arm. I plowed into him just as he made a sharp wince, dropped the skillet and grabbed his left shoulder. He collapsed onto his side, legs still draped over Grandma, my body draped over his.
Grandma shimmied out from under us with a rodents urgency. She grabbed the cleaver and held it up over her head again, waiting, threatening.
“Get up you sonuvabitch!” She was half way between a screech and a dry pant. “Get away from him, Eliza! Back up girl!”
I scrambled away, in a kind of crab walk, falling over my own feet and Grandpa Greenway’s.
He wasn’t moving.
I felt my stomach tighten up like a massive fist had suddenly taken hold of my organs and squeezed hard. I wretched for a moment, or forever. This part is what’s kind of unclear.
Grandma nudged Grandpa with the bottom of her slipper. He still didn’t move. She kneeled, and I couldn’t quite see what she was doing, but it seemed like she was poking and prodding at his face and eyes and neck.
She stood. Her shoulders dropped, as did the cleaver. “Good riddance.” She sounded sweet again, like she did on our bike rides, and ushered me into the sitting room.
“What a gift Eliza. You’re such a help.” She touched my hair and squeezed the top of my knee.
It took time for the ambulance and the police to arrive. We were so deep in the woods. All that time in the house with the man Grandma and I killed.
“The poor girl,” Grandma told the handsome officer, “She was in the kitchen when it happened. I just heard the ruckus. He must have collapse when he had the heart attack and tried to grab onto to knife rack to steady himself. OH, THE BLOOD. Poor Eliza, hasn’t said a thing since it all happened.”
The medics wheeled Grandpa out to the narrow, pebbled driveway under the sublime white of a sheet. Grandma and I watched from the doorway, the pond water to our left dancing under the setting sun.
“How about that soup and cheese toast?” Grandma asked as the flashing cars pulled away, the pebbles crunching and grumbling under their wheels.
I nodded and we went back inside.