Grandma! I remember her birth. Wait, you say, no man remembers his own grandma’s birth. But, yes, we remember the day that she was born.
For we, her grandchildren, slapped her to life. Timothy, Agatha, and I, Tom, raised up our hands and brought them down in a huge crack! We shook together the bits and pieces, parts and samples, textures and tastes, humors and distillations that would move her compass needle north to cool us, south to warm and comfort us, east and west to travel round the endless world, glide her eyes to know us, mouth to sing us asleep by night, hands to touch us awake at dawn.
Grandma, O dear and wondrous electric dream …
When storm lightnings rove the sky making circuitries amidst the clouds, her name flashes on my inner lid. Sometimes still I hear her ticking, humming above our beds in the gentle dark. She passes like a clock-ghost in the long halls of memory, like a hive of intellectual bees swarming after the Spirit of Summers Lost. Sometimes still I feel the smile I learned from her, printed on my cheek at three in the deep morn …
All right, all right! you cry, what was it like the day your damned and wondrous-dreadful-loving Grandma was born?
It was the week the world ended … Our mother was dead.
One late afternoon a black car left Father and the three of us stranded on our own front drive staring at the grass, thinking:
That’s not our grass. There are the croquet mallets, balls, hoops, yes, just as they fell and lay three days ago when Dad stumbled out on the lawn, weeping with the news. There are the roller skates that belonged to a boy, me, who will never be that young again. And yes, there the tire- swing on the old oak, but Agatha afraid to swing. It would surely break. It would fall.
And the house? Oh, God …
We peered through the front door, afraid of the echoes we might find confused in the halls; the sort of clamor that happens when all the furniture is taken out and there is nothing to soften the river of talk that flows in any house at all hours. And now the soft, the warm, the main piece of lovely furniture was gone forever.
The door drifted wide.
Silence came out. Somewhere a cellar door stood wide and a raw wind blew damp earth from under the house.
But, I thought, we don’t have a cellar!
“Well,” said Father.
We did not move.
Aunt Clara drove up the path in her big canary-colored limousine.
We jumped through the door. We ran to our rooms.
We heard them shout and then speak and then shout and then speak: Let the children live with me! Aunt Clara said. They’d rather kill themselves! Father said.
A door slammed. Aunt Clara was gone.
We almost danced. Then we remembered what had happened and went downstairs.
Father sat alone talking to himself or to a remnant ghost of Mother left from the days before her illness, but jarred loose now by the slamming of the door. He murmured to his hands, his empty palms:
“The children need someone. I love them but, let’s face it, I must work to feed us all. You love them, Ann, but you’re gone. And Clara? Impossible. She loves but smothers. And as for maids, nurses—?”
Here Father sighed and we sighed with him, remembering.
The luck we had had with maids or live-in teachers or sitters was beyond intolerable. Hardly a one who wasn’t a crosscut saw grabbing against the grain. Handaxes and hurricanes best described them. Or, conversely, they were all fallen trifle, damp souffle. We children were unseen furniture to be sat upon or dusted or sent for reupholstering come spring and fall, with a yearly cleansing at the beach.
“What we need,” said Father, “is a … ” We all leaned to his whisper. ” … grandmother.” “But,” said Timothy, with the logic of nine years, “all our grandmothers are dead.” “Yes in one way, no in another.”
What a fine mysterious thing for Dad to say.
“Here,” he said at last.
He handed us a multifold, multicolored pamphlet. We had seen it in his hands, off and on, for many weeks, and very often during the last few days. Now, with one blink of our eyes, as we passed the paper from hand to hand, we knew why Aunt Clara, insulted, outraged, had stormed from the house.
Timothy was the first to read aloud from what he saw on the first page:
“I Sing the Body Electric!”
He glanced up at Father, squinting. “What the heck does that mean?”
Agatha and I glanced guiltily about the room, afraid Mother might suddenly come in to find us with this blasphemy, but then nodded to Timothy, who read:
” ‘Fanto—’ ” “Fantoccini,” Father prompted.
” ‘Fantoccini Ltd. We Shadow Forth … the answer to all your most grievous problems. One Model Only, upon which a thousand times a thousand variations can be added, subtracted, subdivided, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.’ “
“Where does it say that ?” we all cried.
“It doesn’t.” Timothy smiled for the first time in days. “I just had to put that in. Wait.” He read on: ” ‘for you who have worried over inattentive sitters, nurses who cannot be trusted with marked liquor bottles, and well-meaning Uncles and Aunts—’ “
“Well-meaning, but !” said Agatha, and I gave an echo. ” ‘—we have perfected the first humanoid-genre minicircuited, rechargeable AC-DC Mark V
Electrical Grandmother … ‘ “
The paper slipped away to the floor. “Dad … ?”
“Don’t look at me that way,” said Father. “I’m half-mad with grief, and half-mad thinking of tomorrow and the day after that. Someone pick up the paper. Finish it.”
“I will,” I said, and did:
” ‘The Toy that is more than a Toy, the Fantoccini Electrical Grandmother is built with loving precision to give the incredible precision of love to your children. The child at ease with the realities of the world and the even greater realities of the imagination, is her aim.
” ‘She is computerized to tutor in twelve languages simultaneously, capable of switching tongues in a thousandth of a second without pause, and has a complete knowledge of the religious, artistic, and sociopolitical histories of the world seeded in her master hive—’ “
“How great!” said Timothy. “It makes it sound as if we were to keep bees! Educated bees!” “Shut up!” said Agatha.
” ‘Above all,’ ” I read, ” ‘this human being, for human she seems, this embodiment in electro- intelligent facsimile of the humanities, will listen, know, tell, react and love your children insofar as such great Objects, such fantastic Toys, can be said to Love, or can be imagined to Care. This
Miraculous Companion, excited to the challenge of large world and small, inner Sea or Outer Universe, will transmit by touch and tell, said Miracles to your Needy.’ “
“Our Needy,” murmured Agatha. Why, we all thought, sadly, that’s us, oh, yes, that’s us. I finished:
” ‘We do not sell our Creation to able-bodied families where parents are available to raise, effect, shape, change, love their own children. Nothing can replace the parent in the home. However there are families where death or ill health or disablement undermines the welfare of the children. Orphanages seem not the answer. Nurses tend to be selfish, neglectful, or suffering from dire nervous afflictions.
” ‘With the utmost humility then, and recognizing the need to rebuild, rethink, and regrow our conceptualizations from month to month, year to year, we offer the nearest thing to the Ideal Teacher-Friend-Companion-Blood Relation. A trial period can be arranged for—'”
“Stop,” said Father. “Don’t go on. Even I can’t stand it.”
“Why?” said Timothy. “I was just getting interested.”
I folded the pamphlet up. “Do they really have these things?”
“Let’s not talk any more about it,” said Father, his hand over his eyes. “It was a mad thought—”
“Not so mad,” I said, glancing at Tim. “I mean, heck, even if they tried, whatever they built, couldn’t be worse than Aunt Clara, huh?”
And then we all roared. We hadn’t laughed in months. And now my simple words made everyone hoot and howl and explode. I opened my mouth and yelled happily, too.
When we stopped laughing, we looked at the pamphlet and I said, “Well?” “I—” Agatha scowled, not ready. “We do need something, bad, right now,” said Timothy. “I have an open mind,” I said, in my best pontifical style.
“There’s only one thing,” said Agatha. “We can try it. Sure.
“But—tell me this—when do we cut out all this talk and when does our real mother come home to stay?”
There was a single gasp from the family as if, with one shot, she had struck us all in the heart. I don’t think any of us stopped crying the rest of that night.
It was a clear bright day. The helicopter tossed us lightly up and over and down through the skyscrapers and let us out, almost for a trot and caper, on top of the building where the large letters could be read from the sky:
“What are Fantoccini?” said Agatha. “It’s an Italian word for shadow puppets, I think, or dream people,” said Father.
“But shadow forth, what does that mean?” “We try to guess your dream,” I said. “Bravo,” said Father. “A-Plus.” I beamed.
The helicopter flapped a lot of loud shadows over us and went away.
We sank down in an elevator as our stomachs sank up. We stepped out onto a moving carpet that streamed away on a blue river of wool toward a desk over which various signs hung:
THE CLOCK SHOP Fantoccini Our Specialty. Rabbits on walls, no problem.
“Rabbits on walls?” I held up my fingers in profile as if I held them before a candle flame, and wiggled the “ears.” “Here’s a rabbit, here’s a wolf, here’s a crocodile.” “Of course,” said Agatha.
And we were at the desk. Quiet music drifted about us. Somewhere behind the walls, there was a waterfall of machinery flowing softly. As we arrived at the desk, the lighting changed to make us look warmer, happier, though we were still cold.
All about us in niches and cases, and hung from ceilings on wires and strings were puppets and marionettes, and Balinese kite-bamboo-translucent dolls which, held to the moonlight, might acrobat your most secret nightmares or dreams. In passing, the breeze set up by our bodies stirred the various hung souls on their gibbets. It was like an immense lynching on a holiday at some English crossroads four hundred years before.
You see? I know my history. Agatha blinked about with disbelief and then some touch of awe and finally disgust. “Well, if that’s what they are, let’s go.”
“Tush,” said Father.
“Well,” she protested, “you gave me one of those dumb things with strings two years ago and the strings were in a zillion knots by dinnertime. I threw the whole thing out the window.”
“Patience,” said Father.
“We shall see what we can do to eliminate the strings.”
The man behind the desk had spoken.
We all turned to give him our regard.
Rather like a funeral-parlor man, he had the cleverness not to smile. Children are put off by older people who smile too much. They smell a catch, right off.
Unsmiling, but not gloomy or pontifical, the man said, “Guido Fantoccini, at your service. Here’s how we do it, Miss Agatha Simmons, aged eleven.”
Now there was a really fine touch.
He knew that Agatha was only ten. Add a year to that, and you’re halfway home. Agatha grew an inch. The man went on:
“There.” And he placed a golden key in Agatha’s hand. “To wind them up instead of strings?” “To wind them up.” The man nodded. “Pshaw!” said Agatha. Which was her polite form of “rabbit pellets.”
“God’s truth. Here is the key to your Do-it-Yourself, Select Only the Best, Electrical Grandmother. Every morning you wind her up. Every night you let her run down. You’re in charge. You are guardian of the Key.”
He pressed the object in her palm where she looked at it suspiciously.
I watched him. He gave me a side wink which said, well, no … but aren’t keys fun?
I winked back before she lifted her head.
“Where does this fit?”
“You’ll see when the time comes. In the middle of her stomach, perhaps, or up her left nostril or in her right ear.”
That was good for a smile as the man arose.
“This way, please. Step light. Onto the moving stream. Walk on the water, please. Yes. There.” He helped to float us. We stepped from rug that was forever frozen onto rug that whispered by.
It was a most agreeable river which floated us along on a green spread of carpeting that rolled forever through halls and into wonderfully secret dim caverns where voices echoed back our own breathing or sang like Oracles to our questions.
“Listen,” said the salesman, “the voices of all kinds of women. Weigh and find just the right one … !”
And listen we did, to all the high, low, soft, loud, in-between, half-scolding, half-affectionate voices saved over from times before we were born.
And behind us, Agatha tread backward, always fighting the river, never catching up, never with us, holding off.
“Speak,” said the salesman. “Yell.”
And speak and yell we did.
“Hello. You there! This is Timothy, hi!”
“What shall I say!” I shouted. “Help!”
Agatha walked backward, mouth tight.
Father took her hand. She cried out.
“Let go! No, no! I won’t have my voice used! I won’t!”
“Excellent.” The salesman touched three dials on a small machine he held in his hand.
On the side of the small machine we saw three oscillograph patterns mix, blend, and repeat our cries.
The salesman touched another dial and we heard our voices fly off amidst the Delphic caves to hang upside down, to cluster, to beat words all about, to shriek, and the salesman itched another knob to add, perhaps, a touch of this or a pinch of that, a breath of mother’s voice, all unbeknownst, or a splice of father’s outrage at the morning’s paper or his peaceable one-drink voice at dusk. Whatever it was the salesman did, whispers danced all about us like frantic vinegar gnats, fizzed by lightning, settling round until at last a final switch was pushed and a voice spoke free of a far electronic deep:
“Nefertiti,” it said. Timothy froze. I froze. Agatha stopped treading water. “Nefertiti?” asked Tim. “What does that mean?” demanded Agatha.
The salesman nodded me to tell.
“Nefertiti,” I whispered, “is Egyptian for The Beautiful One Is Here.”
“The Beautiful One Is Here,” repeated Timothy.
“Nefer,” said Agatha, “titi.”
And we all turned to stare into that soft twilight, that deep far place from which the good warm soft voice came.
And she was indeed there.
And, by her voice, she was beautiful …
That was it.
That was, at least, the most of it.
The voice seemed more important than all the rest.
Not that we didn’t argue about weights and measures:
She should not be bony to cut us to the quick, nor so fat we might sink out of sight when she squeezed us.
Her hand pressed to ours, or brushing our brow in the middle of sick-fever nights, must not be marble-cold, dreadful, or oven-hot, oppressive, but somewhere between. The nice temperature of a baby-chick held in the hand after a long night’s sleep and just plucked from beneath a contemplative hen; that, that was it.
Oh, we were great ones for detail. We fought and argued and cried, and Timothy won on the color of her eyes, for reasons to be known later.
Grandmother’s hair? Agatha, with girl’s ideas, though reluctantly given, she was in charge of that.
We let her choose from a thousand harp strands hung in filamentary tapestries like varieties of rain we ran amongst. Agatha did not run happily, but seeing we boys would mess things in tangles, she told us to move aside.
And so the bargain shopping through the dime-store inventories and the Tiffany extensions of the Ben Franklin Electric Storm Machine and Fantoccini Pantomime Company was done.
And the always flowing river ran its tide to an end and deposited us all on a far shore in the late day …
It was very clever of the Fantoccini people, after that. How?
They made us wait.
They knew we were not won over. Not completely, no, nor half completely.
Especially Agatha, who turned her face to her wall and saw sorrow there and put her hand out again and again to touch it. We found her fingernail marks on the wallpaper each morning, in strange little silhouettes, half beauty, half nightmare. Some could be erased with a breath, like ice flowers on a winter pane. Some could not be rubbed out with a washcloth, no matter how hard you tried.
And meanwhile, they made us wait.
So we fretted out June.
So we sat around July.
So we groused through August and then on August 29, “I have this feeling,” said Timothy, and we all went out after breakfast to sit on the lawn.
Perhaps we had smelled something on Father’s conversation the previous night, or caught some special furtive glance at the sky or the freeway Rapped briefly and then lost in his gaze. Or perhaps it was merely the way the wind blew the ghost curtains out over our beds, making pale messages all night.
For suddenly there we were in the middle of the grass, Timothy and I, with Agatha, pretending no curiosity, up on the porch, hidden behind the potted geraniums.
We gave her no notice. We knew that if we acknowledged her presence, she would flee, so we sat and watched the sky where nothing moved but birds and highflown jets, and watched the freeway where a thousand cars might suddenly deliver forth our Special Gift … but … nothing.
At noon we chewed grass and lay low …
At one o’clock, Timothy blinked his eyes.
And then, with incredible precision, it happened.
It was as if the Fantoccini people knew our surface tension.
All children are water-striders. We skate along the top skin of the pond each day, always threatening to break through, sink, vanish beyond recall, into ourselves.
Well, as if knowing our long wait must absolutely end within one minute! this second ! no more, God, forget it!
At that instant, I repeat, the clouds above our house opened wide and let forth a helicopter like Apollo driving his chariot across mythological skies.
And the Apollo machine swam down on its own summer breeze, wafting hot winds to cool, reweaving our hair, smartening our eyebrows, applauding our pant legs against our shins, making a flag of Agatha’s hair on the porch and thus settled like a vast frenzied hibiscus on our lawn, the helicopter slid wide a bottom drawer and deposited upon the grass a parcel of largish
size, no sooner having laid same then the vehicle, with not so much as a god bless or farewell, sank straight up, disturbed the calm air with a mad ten thousand flourishes and then, like a skyborne dervish, tilted and fell off to be mad some other place.
Timothy and I stood riven for a long moment looking at the packing case, and then we saw the crowbar taped to the top of the raw pine lid and seized it and began to pry and creak and squeal the boards off, one by one, and as we did this I saw Agatha sneak up to watch and I thought, thank you, God, thank you that Agatha never saw a coffin, when Mother went away, no box, no cemetery, no earth, just words in a big church, no box, no box like this … !
The last pine plank fell away. Timothy and I gasped. Agatha, between us now, gasped, too.
For inside the immense raw pine package was the most beautiful idea anyone ever dreamt and built.
Inside was the perfect gift for any child from seven to seventy-seven. We stopped up our breaths. We let them out in cries of delight and adoration. Inside the opened box was … A mummy. Or, first anyway, a mummy case, a sarcophagus! “Oh, no!” Happy tears filled Timothy’s eyes. “It can’t be!” said Agatha. “It is, it is!” “Our very own?” “Ours!” “It must be a mistake!” “Sure, they’ll want it back!” “They can’t have it!” “Lord, Lord, is that real gold!? Real hieroglyphs! Run your fingers over them!” “Let me!” “Just like in the museums! Museums!” We all gabbled at once. I think some tears fell from my own eyes to rain upon the case. “Oh, they’ll make the colors run!”
Agatha wiped the rain away.
And the golden mask face of the woman carved on the sarcophagus lid looked back at us with just the merest smile which hinted at our own joy, which accepted the overwhelming upsurge of a love we thought had drowned forever but now surfaced into the sun.
Not only did she have a sun-metal face stamped and beaten out of purest gold, with delicate nostrils and a mouth that was both firm and gentle, but her eyes, fixed into their sockets, were cerulean or amethystine or lapus lazuli, or all three, minted and fused together, and her body was covered over with lions and eyes and ravens, and her hands were crossed upon her carved bosom and in one gold mitten she clenched a thonged whip for obedience, and in the other a fantastic ranuncula, which makes for obedience out of love, so the whip lies unused …
And as our eyes ran down her hieroglyphs it came to all three of us at the same instant: “Why, those signs!” “Yes, the hen tracks!” “The birds, the snakes!” They didn’t speak tales of the Past. They were hieroglyphs of the Future.
This was the first queen mummy delivered forth in all time whose papyrus inkings etched out the next month, the next season, the next year, the next lifetime!
She did not mourn for time spent.
No. She celebrated the bright coinage yet to come, banked, waiting, ready to be drawn upon and used.
We sank to our knees to worship that possible time. First one hand, then another, probed out to niggle, twitch, touch, itch over the signs.
“There’s me, yes, look! Me, in sixth grade!” said Agatha, now in the fifth. “See the girl with my- colored hair and wearing my gingerbread suit?”
“There’s me in the twelfth year of high school!” said Timothy, so very young now but building taller stilts every week and stalking around the yard.
“There’s me,” I said, quietly, warm, “in college. The guy wearing glasses who runs a little to fat. Sure. Heck.” I snorted. “That’s me.”
The sarcophagus spelled winters ahead, springs to squander, autumns to spend with all the golden and rusty and copper leaves like coins, and over all, her bright sun symbol, daughter-of- Ra eternal face, forever above our horizon, forever an illumination to tilt our shadows to better ends.
“Hey!” we all said at once, having read and reread our Fortune-Told scribblings, seeing our lifelines and lovelines, inadmissible, serpentined over, around, and down. “Hey!”
And in one seance table-lifting feat, not telling each other what to do, just doing it, we pried up the bright sarcophagus lid, which had no hinges but lifted out like cup from cup, and put the lid aside.
And within the sarcophagus, of course, was the true mummy!
And she was like the image carved on the lid, but more so, more beautiful, more touching because human shaped, and shrouded all in new fresh bandages of linen, round and round, instead of old and dusty cerements.
And upon her hidden face was an identical golden mask, younger than the first, but somehow, strangely wiser than the first.
And the linens that tethered her limbs had symbols on them of three sorts, one a girl of ten, one a boy of nine, one a boy of thirteen.
A series of bandages for each of us! We gave each other a startled glance and a sudden bark of laughter. Nobody said the bad joke, but all thought: She’s all wrapped up in us!
And we didn’t care. We loved the joke. We loved whoever had thought to make us part of the ceremony we now went through as each of us seized arid began to unwind each of his or her particular serpentines of delicious stuffs!
The lawn was soon a mountain of linen. The woman beneath the covering lay there, waiting. “Oh, no,” cried Agatha. “She’s dead, too!” She ran. I stopped her. “Idiot. She’s not dead or alive. Where’s your key?” “Key?” “Dummy,” said Tim, “the key the man gave you to wind her up!”
Her hand had already spidered along her blouse to where the symbol of some possible new religion hung. She had strung it there, against her own skeptic’s muttering, and now she held it in her sweaty palm.
“Go on,” said Timothy. “Put it in!” “But where?” “Oh for God’s sake! As the man said, in her right armpit or left ear. Gimme!”
And he grabbed the key and impulsively moaning with impatience and not able to find the proper insertion slot, prowled over the prone figure’s head and bosom and at last, on pure
instinct, perhaps for a lark, perhaps just giving up the whole damned mess, thrust the key through a final shroud of bandage at the navel.
On the instant: spunnng! The Electrical Grandmother’s eyes flicked wide!
Something began to hum and whir. It was as if Tim had stirred up a hive of hornets with an ornery stick.
“Oh,” gasped Agatha, seeing he had taken the game away, “let me!” She wrenched the key. Grandma’s nostrils flared! She might snort up steam, snuff out fire! “Me!” I cried, and grabbed the key and gave it a huge … twist!
The beautiful woman’s mouth popped wide. “Me!” “Me!” “Me!”
Grandma suddenly sat up.
We leapt back.
We knew we had, in a way, slapped her alive.
She was born, she was born!
Her head swiveled all about. She gaped. She mouthed. And the first thing she said was:
Where one moment we had backed off, now the mad sound drew us near to peer as in a pit where crazy folk are kept with snakes to make them well.
It was a good laugh, full and rich and hearty, and it did not mock, it accepted. It said the world was a wild place, strange, unbelievable, absurd if you wished, but all in all, quite a place. She would not dream to find another. She would not ask to go back to sleep.
She was awake now. We had awakened her. With a glad shout, she would go with it all.
And go she did, out of her sarcophagus, out of her winding sheet, stepping forth, brushing off, looking around as for a mirror. She found it.
The reflections in our eyes.
She was more pleased than disconcerted with what she found there. Her laughter faded to an amused smile.
For Agatha, at the instant of birth, had leapt to hide on the porch. The Electrical Person pretended not to notice.
She turned slowly on the green lawn near the shady street, gazing all about with new eyes, her nostrils moving as if she breathed the actual air and this the first morn of the lovely Garden and she with no intention of spoiling the game by biting the apple
Her gaze fixed upon my brother. “You must be—?” “Timothy. Tim,” he offered. “And you must be—?”
“Tom,” I said.
How clever again of the Fantoccini Company. They knew. She knew. But they had taught her to pretend not to know. That way we could feel great, we were the teachers, telling her what she already knew! How sly, how wise.
“And isn’t there another boy?” said the woman.
“Girl!” a disgusted voice cried from somewhere on the porch.
“Whose name is Alicia—?”
“Agatha!” The far voice, started in humiliation, ended in proper anger.
“Algernon, of course.”
“Agatha!” Our sister popped up, popped back to hide a flushed face.
“Agatha.” The woman touched the word with proper affection. “Well, Agatha, Timothy, Thomas, let me look at you.”
“No,” said I, said Tim, “Let us look at you. Hey … ” Our voices slid back in our throats. We drew near her.
We walked in great slow circles round about, skirting the edges of her territory. And her territory extended as far as we could hear the hum of the warm summer hive. For that is exactly what she sounded like. That was her characteristic tune. She made a sound like a season all to herself, a morning early in June when the world wakes to find everything absolutely perfect, fine, delicately attuned, all in balance, nothing disproportioned. Even before you opened your eyes you knew it would be one of those days. Tell the sky what color it must be, and it was indeed.
Tell the sun how to crochet its way, pick and choose among leaves to lay out carpetings of bright and dark on the fresh lawn, and pick and lay it did. The bees have been up earliest of all, they have already come and gone, and come and gone again to the meadow fields and returned all golden fuzz on the air, all pollen-decorated, epaulettes at the full, nectar-dripping. Don’t you hear them pass? hover? dance their language? telling where all the sweet gums are, the syrups that make bears frolic and lumber in bulked ecstasies, that make boys squirm with unpronounced juices, that make girls leap out of beds to catch from the corners of their eyes their dolphin selves naked aflash on the warm air poised forever in one eternal glass wave.
So it seemed with our electrical friend here on the new lawn in the middle of a special day.
And she a stuff to which we were drawn, lured, Spelled, doing our dance, remembering what could not be remembered, needful, aware of her attentions.
Timothy and I, Tom, that is.
Agatha remained on the porch.
But her head flowered above the rail, her eyes followed all that was done and said.
And what was said and done was Tim at last exhaling:
“Hey … your eyes … “
Her eyes. Her splendid eyes.
Even more splendid than the lapis lazuli on the sarcophagus lid and on the mask that had covered her bandaged face. These most beautiful eyes in the world looked out upon us calmly, shining.
“Your eyes,” gasped Tim, “are the exact same color, are like—” “Like what?” “My favorite aggies … ” “What could be better than that?” she said.
And the answer was, nothing.
Her eyes slid along on the bright air to brush my ears, my nose, my chin. “And you, Master Tom?”
“How shall we be friends? We must, you know, if we’re going to knock elbows about the house the next year … “
“I … ” I said, and stopped.
“You,” said Grandma, “are a dog mad to bark but with taffy in his teeth. Have you ever given a dog taffy? It’s so sad and funny, both. You laugh but hate yourself for laughing. You cry and run to help, and laugh again when his first new bark comes out.”
I barked a small laugh remembering a dog, a day, and some taffy.
Grandma turned, and there was my old kite strewn on the lawn. She recognized its problem.
“The string’s broken. No. The ball of string’s lost. You can’t fly a kite that way. Here.”
She bent. We didn’t: know what might happen. How could a robot grandma fly a kite for us? She raised up, the kite in her hands.
“Fly,” she said, as to a bird. And the kite flew. That is to say, with a grand flourish, she let it rip on the wind. And she and the kite were one.
For from the tip of her index finger there sprang a thin bright strand of spider web, all half- invisible gossamer fishline which, fixed to the kite, let it soar a hundred, no, three hundred, no, a thousand feet high on the summer swoons.
Timothy shouted. Agatha, torn between coming and going, let out a cry from the porch. And I, in all my maturity of thirteen years, though I tried not to look impressed, grew taller, taller, and felt a similar cry burst out my lungs, and burst it did. I gabbled and yelled lots of things about how I wished I had a finger from which, on a bobbin, I might thread the sky, the clouds, a wild kite all in one.
“If you think that is high,” said the Electric Creature, “watch this!”
With a hiss, a whistle, a hum, the fishline sung out. The kite sank up another thousand feet. And again another thousand, until at last it was a speck of red confetti dancing on the very winds that took jets around the world or changed the weather in the next existence …
“It can’t be! “I cried.
“It is.” She calmly watched her finger unravel its massive stuffs. “I make it as I need it. Liquid inside, like a spider. Hardens when it hits the air, instant thread … “
And when the kite was no more than a specule, a vanishing mote on the peripheral vision of the gods, to quote from older wisemen, why then Grandma, without turning, without looking, without letting her gaze offend by touching, said:
“And, Abigail—?” “Agatha!” was the sharp response. O wise woman, to overcome with swift small angers.
“Agatha,” said Grandma, not too tenderly, not too lightly, somewhere poised between, “and how shall we make do?”
She broke the thread and wrapped it about my fist three times so I was tethered to heaven by the longest, I repeat, longest kite string in the entire history of the world! Wait till I show my friends! I thought. Green! Sour apple green is the color they’ll turn!
“No way!” said Agatha.
“No way,” said an echo.
“There must: be some—”
“We’ll never be friends!” said Agatha.
“Never be friends,” said the echo.
Timothy and I jerked. Where was the echo coming from? Even Agatha, surprised, showed her eyebrows above the porch rail.
Then we looked and saw. Grandma was cupping her hands like a seashell and from within that shell the echo sounded. “Never … friends … ” And again faintly dying “Friends … ” We all bent to hear. That is we two boys bent to hear. “No! “cried Agatha. And ran in the house and slammed the doors. “Friends,” said the echo from the seashell hands. “No.” And far away, on the shore of some inner sea, we heard a small door shut. And that was the first day.
And there was a second day, of course, and a third and a fourth, with Grandma wheeling in a great circle, and we her planets turning about the central light, with Agatha slowly, slowly coming in to join, to walk if not run with us, to listen if not hear, to watch if not see, to itch if not touch.
But at least by the end of the first ten days, Agatha no longer fled, but stood in nearby doors, or sat in distant chairs under trees, or if we went out for hikes, followed ten paces behind.
And Grandma? She merely waited. She never tried to urge or force. She went about her cooking and baking apricot pies and left foods carelessly here aid there about the house on mousetrap plates for wiggle-nosed girls to sniff and snitch. An hour later, the plates were empty, the buns or
cakes gone and without thank you’s, there was Agatha sliding down the banister, a mustache of crumbs on her lip.
As for Tim and me, we were always being called up hills by our Electric Grandma, and reaching the top were called down the other side.
And the most peculiar and beautiful and strange and lovely thing was the way she seemed to give complete attention to all of us.
She listened, she really listened to all we said, she knew and remembered every syllable, word, sentence, punctuation, thought, and rambunctious idea. We knew that all our days were stored in her, and that any time we felt we might want to know what we said at X hour at X second on X afternoon, we just named that X and with amiable promptitude, in the form of an aria if we wished, sung with humor, she would deliver forth X incident.
Sometimes we were prompted to test her. In the midst of babbling one day with high fevers about nothing, I stopped. I fixed Grandma with my eye and demanded:
“What did I just say?”
“Come on, spit it out!”
“I think—” she rummaged her purse. “I have it here.” From the deeps of her purse she drew forth and handed me:
“Boy! A Chinese fortune cookie!” “Fresh baked, still warm, open it.”
It was almost too hot to touch. I broke the cookie shell and pressed the warm curl of paper out to read:
“—bicycle Champ of the whole West! What did I just say? Come on, spit it out!”
My jaw dropped.
“How did you do that?”
“We have our little secrets. The only Chinese fortune cookie that predicts the Immediate Past. Have another?”
I cracked the second shell and read: ” ‘How did you do that?’ ” I popped the messages and the piping hot shells into my mouth and chewed as we walked. “Well?” “You’re a great cook,” I said.
And, laughing, we began to run. And that was another great thing. She could keep up.
Never beat, never win a race, but pump right along in good style, which a boy doesn’t mind. A girl ahead of him or beside him is too much to bear. But a girl one or two paces back is a respectful thing, and allowed.
So Grandma and I had some great runs, me in the lead, and both talking a mile a minute. But now I must tell you the best part of Grandma.
I might not: have known at all if Timothy hadn’t taken some pictures, and if I hadn’t taken some also, and then compared.
When I saw the photographs developed out of our instant Brownies, I sent Agatha, against her wishes, to photograph Grandma a third time, unawares.
Then I took the three sets of pictures off alone, to keep counsel with myself. I never told Timothy and Agatha what I found. I didn’t want to spoil it.
But, as I laid the pictures out in my room, here is what I thought and said: “Grandma, in each picture, looks different!” “Different?” I asked myself. “Sure. Wait. Just a sec—”
I rearranged the photos.
“Here’s one of Grandma near Agatha. And, in it, Grandma looks like … Agatha!
“And in this one, posed with Timothy, she looks like Timothy!
“And this last one, Holy Goll! Jogging along with me, she looks like ugly me!”
I sat down, stunned. The pictures fell to the floor.
I hunched over, scrabbling them, rearranging, turning upside down and sidewise. Yes. Holy Goll again, yes!
O that clever Grandmother. O those Fantoccini people-making people. Clever beyond clever, human beyond human, warm beyond warm, love beyond love …
And wordless, I rose and went downstairs and found Agatha and Grandma in the same room, doing algebra lessons in an almost peaceful communion. At least there was not outright war.
Grandma was still waiting for Agatha to come round. And no one knew what day of what year that would be, or how to make it come faster. Meanwhile—
My entering the room made Grandma turn. I watched her face slowly as it recognized me. And wasn’t there the merest ink-wash change of color in those eyes? Didn’t the thin film of blood beneath the translucent skin, or whatever liquid they put to pulse and beat in the humanoid forms, didn’t it flourish itself suddenly bright in her cheeks and mouth? I am somewhat ruddy. Didn’t Grandma suffuse herself more to my color upon my arrival? And her eyes? watching Agatha-Abigail-Algernon at work, hadn’t they been her color of blue rather than mine, which are deeper?
More important than that, in the moments as she talked with me, saying, “Good evening,” and “How’s your homework, my lad?” and such stuff, didn’t the bones of her face shift subtly beneath the flesh to assume some fresh racial attitude?
For let’s face it, our family is of three sorts. Agatha has the long horse bones of a small English girl who will grow to hunt foxes; Father’s equine stare, snort, stomp, and assemblage of skeleton. The skull and teeth are pure English, or as pure as the motley isle’s history allows.
Timothy is something else, a touch of Italian from mother’s side a generation back. Her family name was Mariano, so Tim has that dark thing firing him, and a small bone structure, and eyes that will one day burn ladies to the ground.
As for me, I am the Slav, and we can only figure this from my paternal grandfather’s mother who came from Vienna and brought a set of cheekbones that flared, and temples from which you might dip wine, and a kind of steppeland thrust of nose which sniffed more of Tartar than of Tartan, hiding behind the family name.
So you see it became fascinating for me to watch and try to catch Grandma as she performed her changes, speaking to Agatha and melting her cheekbones to the horse, speaking to Timothy and growing as delicate as a Florentine raven pecking glibly at the air, speaking to me and fusing the hidden plastic stuffs, so I felt Catherine the Great stood there before me.
Now, how the Fantoccini people achieved this rare and subtle transformation I shall never know, nor ask, nor wish to find out. Enough that in each quiet motion, turning here, bending there, affixing her gaze, her secret segments, sections, the abutment of her nose, the sculptured chinbone, the wax-tallow plastic metal forever warmed and was forever susceptible of loving change. Hers was a mask that was all mask but only one face for one person at a time. So in crossing a room, having touched one child, on the way, beneath the skin, the wondrous shift went on, and by the time she reached the next child, why, true mother of that child she was! looking upon him or her out of the battlements of their own fine bones.
And when all three of us were present and chattering at the same time? Well, then, the changes were miraculously soft, small, and mysterious. Nothing so tremendous as to be caught and noted, save by this older boy, myself, who, watching, became elated arid admiring and entranced.
I have never wished to be behind the magician’s scenes. Enough that the illusion works. Enough that love is the chemical result. Enough that cheeks are rubbed to happy color, eyes sparked to illumination, arms opened to accept and softly bind and hold …
All of us, that is, except Agatha who refused to the bitter last.
“Agamemnon … “
It had become a jovial game now. Even Agatha didn’t mind, but pretended to mind. It gave her a pleasant sense of superiority over a supposedly superior machine.
“Agamemnon!” she snorted, “you are a d … “
“Dumb?” said Grandma.
“I wouldn’t say that.”
“Think it, then, my dear Agonistes Agatha … I am quite flawed, and on names my flaws are revealed. Tom there, is Tim half the time. Timothy is Tobias or Timulty as likely as not … “
Agatha laughed. Which made Grandma make one of her rare mistakes. She put out her hand to give my sister the merest pat. Agatha-Abigail-Alice leapt to her feet.
Agatha-Agamemnon-Alcibiades-Allegra-Alexandra-Allison withdrew swiftly to her room. “I suspect,” said Timothy, later, “because she is beginning to like Grandma.” “Tosh,” said I. “Where do you pick up words like Tosh?”
“Grandma read me some Dickens last night. ‘Tosh.’ ‘Humbug.’ ‘Balderdash.’ ‘Blast.’ ‘Devil take you.’ You’re pretty smart for your age, Tim.”
“Smart, heck. It’s obvious, the more Agatha likes Grandma, the more she hates herself for liking her, the more afraid she gets of the whole mess, the more she hates Grandma in the end.”
“Can one love someone so much you hate them?” “Dumb. Of course.”
“It is sticking your neck out, sure. I guess you hate people when they make you feel naked, I mean sort of on the spot or out in the open. That’s the way to play the game, of course. I mean, you don’t just love people you must love them with exclamation points.”
“You’re pretty smart, yourself, for someone so stupid,” said Tim. “Many thanks.”
And I went to watch Grandma move slowly back into her battle of wits and stratagems with what’s-her-name …
What dinners there were at our house! Dinners, heck; what lunches, what breakfasts!
Always something new, yet, wisely, it looked or seemed old and familiar. We were never asked, for if you ask children what they want, they do not know, and if you tell what’s to be delivered,
they reject delivery. All parents know this. It is a quiet war that must be won each day. And Grandma knew how to win without looking triumphant.
“Here’s Mystery Breakfast Number Nine,” she would say, placing it down. “Perfectly dreadful, not worth bothering with, it made me want to throw up while I was cooking it!”
Even while wondering how a robot could be sick, we could hardly wait to shovel it down.
“Here’s Abominable Lunch Number Seventy-seven,” she announced. “Made from plastic food bags, parsley, and gum from under theatre seats. Brush your teeth after or you’ll taste the poison all afternoon.”
We fought each other for more.
Even Abigail-Agamemnon-Agatha drew near and circled round the table at such times, while Father put on the ten pounds he needed and pinkened out his cheeks.
When A. A. Agatha did not come to meals, they were left by her door with a skull and crossbones on a small flag stuck in a baked apple. One minute the tray was abandoned, the next minute gone.
Other times Abigail A. Agatha would bird through during dinner, snatch crumbs from her plate and bird off.
“Agatha!” Father would cry.
“No, wait,” Grandma said, quietly. “She’ll come, she’ll sit. It’s a matter of time.”
“What’s wrong with her?” I asked.
“Yeah, for cri-yi, she’s nuts,” said Timothy.
“No, she’s afraid,” said Grandma.
“Of you?” I said, blinking.
“Not of me so much as what I might do,” she said.
“You wouldn’t do anything to hurt her.”
“No, but she thinks I might. We must wait for her to find that her fears have no foundation. If I fail, well, I will send myself to the showers and rust quietly.”
There was a titter of laughter. Agatha was hiding in the hall.
Grandma finished serving everyone and then sat at the other side of the table facing Father and pretended to eat. I never found out, I never asked, I never wanted to know, what she did with the food. She was a sorcerer. It simply vanished.
And in the vanishing, Father made comment:
“This food. I’ve had it before. In a small French restaurant over near Les Deux Magots in Paris, twenty, oh, twenty-five years ago!” His eyes brimmed with tears, suddenly.
“How do you do it?” he asked, at last, putting down the cutlery, and looking across the table at this remarkable creature, this device, this what? woman ?
Grandma took his regard, and ours, and held them simply in her now empty hands, as gifts, and just as gently replied:
“I am given things which I then give to you. I don’t know that I give, but the giving goes on. You ask what I am? Why, a machine. But even in that answer we know, don’t we, more than a machine. I am all the people who thought of me and planned me and built me and set me running. So I am people. I am all the things they wanted to be and perhaps could not be, so they built a great child, a wondrous toy to represent those things.”
“Strange,” said Father. “When I was growing up, there was a huge outcry at machines. Machines were bad, evil, they might dehumanize—”
“Some machines do. It’s all in the way they are built. It’s all in the way they are used. A bear trap is a simple machine that catches and holds and tears. A rifle is a machine that wounds and kills. Well, I am no bear trap. I am no rifle. I am a grandmother machine, which means more than a machine.”
“How can you be more than what you seem?”
“No man is as big as his own idea. It follows, then, that any machine that embodies an idea is larger than the man that made it. And what’s so wrong with that?”
“I got lost back there about a mile,” said Timothy. “Come again?”
“Oh, dear,” said Grandma. “How I do hate philosophical discussions and excursions into esthetics. Let me put it this way. Men throw huge shadows on the lawn, don’t they? Then, all their lives, they try to run to fit the shadows. But the shadows are always longer. Only at noon can a man fit his own shoes, his own best suit, for a few brief minutes. But now we’re in a new age where we can think up a Big Idea and run it around in a machine. That makes the machine- more than a machine, doesn’t it?”
“So far so good,” said Tim. “I guess.”
“Well, isn’t a motion-picture camera and projector more than a machine? It’s a thing that dreams, isn’t it? Sometimes fine happy dreams, sometimes nightmares. But to call it a machine and dismiss it is ridiculous.”
“I see that !” said Tim, and laughed at seeing. “You must have been invented then,” said Father, “by someone who loved machines and hated
people who said all machines were bad or evil.” “Exactly,” said Grandma. “Guido Fantoccini, that was his real name, grew up among machines.
And he couldn’t stand the clichés any more.” “Clichés?”
“Those lies, yes, that people tell and pretend they are truths absolute. Man will never fly. That was a cliché truth for a thousand thousand years which turned out to be a lie only a few years ago. The earth is flat, you’ll fall off the rim, dragons will dine on you; the great lie told as fact, and Columbus plowed it under. Well, now, how many times have you heard how inhuman machines are, in your life? How many bright fine people have you heard spouting the same tired truths which are in reality lies; all machines destroy, all machines are cold, thoughtless, awful.
“There’s a seed of truth there. But only a seed. Guido Fantoccini knew that. And knowing it, like most men of his kind, made him mad. And he could have stayed mad and gone mad forever, but instead did what he had to do; he began to invent machines to give the lie to the ancient lying truth.
“He knew that most machines are amoral, neither bad nor good. But by the way you built and shaped them you in turn shaped men, women, and children to be bad or good. A car, for instance, dead brute, unthinking, an unprogrammed bulk, is the greatest destroyer of souls in history. It makes boy-men greedy for power, destruction, and more destruction. It was never intended to do that. But that’s how it turned out.”
Grandma circled the table, refilling our glasses with clear cold mineral spring water from the tappet in her left forefinger. “Meanwhile, you must use other compensating machines. Machines that throw shadows on the earth that beckon you to run out and fit that wondrous casting-forth. Machines that trim your soul in silhouette like a vast pair of beautiful shears, snipping away the rude brambles, the dire horns and hooves to leave a finer profile. And for that you need examples.”
“Examples?” I asked.
“Other people who behave well, and you imitate them. And if you act well enough long enough all the hair drops off and you’re no longer a wicked ape.”
Grandma sat again.
“So, for thousands of years, you humans have needed kings, priests, philosophers, fine examples to look up to and say, ‘They are good, I wish I could be like them. They set the grand good style.’ But, being human, the finest priests, the tenderest philosophers make mistakes, fall from grace, and mankind is disillusioned and adopts indifferent skepticism or, worse, motionless cynicism and the good world grinds to a halt while evil moves on with huge strides.”
“And you, why, you never make mistakes, you’re perfect, you’re better than anyone ever !” It was a voice from the hall between kitchen and dining room where Agatha, we all knew, stood
against the wall listening and now burst forth.
Grandma didn’t even turn in the direction of the voice, but went on calmly addressing her remarks to the family at the table.
“Not perfect, no, for what is perfection? But this I do know: being mechanical, I cannot sin, cannot be bribed, cannot be greedy or jealous or mean or small. I do not relish power for power’s sake. Speed does not pull me to madness. Sex does not run me rampant through the world. I have time and more than time to collect the information I need around and about an ideal to keep it clean and whole and intact. Name the value you wish, tell me the Ideal you want and I can see and collect and remember the good that: will benefit you all. Tell me how you would like to be:
kind, loving, considerate, well-balanced, humane … and let me run ahead on the path to explore those ways to be just that. In the darkness ahead, turn me as a lamp in all directions. I can guide your feet.”
“So,” said Father, putting the napkin to his mouth, “on the days when all of us are busy making lies—”
“I’ll tell the truth.” “On the days when we hate—”
“I’ll go on giving love, which means attention, which means knowing all about you, all, all, all about you, and you knowing that I know but that most of it I will never tell to anyone, it will stay a warm secret between us, so you will never fear my complete knowledge.”
And here Grandma was busy clearing the table, circling, taking the plates, studying each face as she passed, touching Timothy’s cheek, my shoulder with her free hand flowing along, her voice a quiet river of certainty bedded in our needful house and lives.
“But,” said Father, stopping her, looking her right in the face. He gathered his breath. His face shadowed. At last he let it out. “All this talk of love and attention and stuff. Good God, woman, you, you’re not in there!”
He gestured to her head, her face, her eyes, the hidden sensory cells behind the eyes, the miniaturized storage vaults and minimal keeps.
“You’re not in there!” Grandmother waited one, two, three silent beats. Then she replied: “No. But you are. You and Thomas and Timothy and Agatha.
“Everything you ever say, everything you ever do, I’ll keep, put away, treasure. I shall be all the things a family forgets it is, but senses, half-remembers. Better than the old family albums you used to leaf through, saying here’s this winter, there’s that spring, I shall recall what you forget. And though the debate may run another hundred thousand years: What is Love? perhaps we may find that love is the ability of someone to give us back to us. Maybe love is someone seeing and remembering handing us back to ourselves just a trifle better than we had dared to hope or dream …
“I am family memory and, one day perhaps, racial memory, too, but in the round, and at your call. I do not know myself. I can neither touch nor taste nor feel on any level. Yet I exist. And my existence means the heightening of your chance to touch and taste and feel. Isn’t love in there somewhere in such an exchange? Well … “
She went on around the table, clearing away, sorting and stacking, neither grossly humble nor arthritic with pride.
“What do I know?
“This, above all: the trouble with most families with many children is someone gets lost. There isn’t time, it seems, for everyone. Well, I will give equally to all of you. I will share out my
knowledge and attention with everyone. I wish to be a great warm pie fresh from the oven, with equal shares to be taken by all. No one will starve. Look! someone cries, and I’ll look. Listen! someone cries, and I hear. Run with me on the river path! someone says, and I run. And at dusk I am not tired, nor irritable, so I do not scold out of some tired irritability. My eye stays clear, my voice strong, my hand firm, my attention constant.”
“But,” said Father, his voice fading, half convinced, but pi:tting up a last faint argument, “you’re not there. As for love—”
“If paying attention is love, I am love. “If knowing is love, I am love. “If helping you not to fall into error and to be good is love, I am love.
“And again, to repeat, there are four of you. Each, in a way never possible before in history, will get my complete attention. No matter if you all speak at once, I can channel and hear this one and that arid the other, clearly. No one will go hungry. I will, if you please, and accept the strange word, ‘love’ you all.”
“I don’t accept!” said Agatha.
And even Grandma turned now to see her standing in the door.
“I won’t give you permission, you can’t, you mustn’t!” said Agatha. “I won’t let you! It’s lies! You lie. No one loves me. She said she did, but she lied. She said but lied !”
“Agatha!” cried Father, standing up.
“She?” said Grandma. “Who?”
“Mother!” came the shriek. “Said: Love you! Lies! Love you! Lies! And you’re like her! You lie. But you’re empty, anyway, and so that’s a double lie! I hate her. Now, I hate you !”
Agatha spun about and leapt down the hall.
The front door slammed wide.
Father was in motion, but Grandma touched his arm.
And she walked and then moved swiftly, gliding down the hall and then suddenly, easily, running, yes, running very fast, out the door.
It was a champion sprint by the time we all reached the lawn, the sidewalk, yelling.
Blind, Agatha made the curb, wheeling about, seeing us close, all of us yelling, Grandma way ahead, shouting, too, and Agatha off the curb and out in the street, halfway to the middle, then the middle and suddenly a car, which no one saw, erupting its brakes, its horn shrieking and Agatha flailing about to see and Grandma there with her and hurling her aside and down as the car with fantastic energy and verve selected her from our midst, struck our wonderful electric
Guido Fantoccini-produced dream even while she paced upon the air and, hands up to ward off, almost in mild protest, still trying to decide what to say to this bestial machine, over and over she spun and down and away even as the car jolted to a halt and I saw Agatha safe beyond and Grandma, it seemed, still coming down or down and sliding fifty yards away to strike and ricochet and lie strewn and all of us frozen in a line suddenly in the midst of the street with one scream pulled out of all our throats at the same raw instant.
Then silence and just Agatha lying on the asphalt, intact, getting ready to sob.
And still we did not move, frozen on the sill of death, afraid to venture in any direction, afraid to go see what lay beyond the car and Agatha and so we began to wail and, I guess, pray to ourselves as Father stood amongst us: Oh, no, no, we mourned, oh no, God, no, no …
Agatha lifted her already grief-stricken face and it was the face of someone who has predicted dooms and lived to see and now did not want to see or live any more. As we watched, she turned her gaze to the tossed woman’s body and tears fell from her eyes. She shut them and covered them and lay back down forever to weep …
I took a step and then another step and then five quick steps and by the time I reached my sister her head was buried deep and her sobs came up out of a place so far down in her I was afraid I could never find her again, she would never come out, no matter how I pried or pleaded or promised or threatened or just plain said. And what little we could hear from Agatha buried there in her own misery, she said over and over again, lamenting, wounded, certain of the old threat known and named and now here forever. ” … like I said … told you … lies … lies … liars … all lies … like the other … other … just like … just … just like the other … other … other … !”
I was down on my knees holding onto her with both hands, trying to put her back together even though she wasn’t broken any way you could see but just feel, because I knew it was no use going on to Grandma, no use at all, so I just touched Agatha and gentled her and wept while Father came up and stood over and knelt down with me and it was like a prayer meeting in the middle of the street and lucky no more cars coming, and I said, choking, “Other what, Ag, other what?”
Agatha exploded two words. “Other dead!” “You mean Mom?”
“O Mom,” she wailed, shivering, lying down, cuddling up like a baby. “O Mom, dead, O Mom and now Grandma dead, she promised always, always, to love, to love, promised to be different, promised, promised and now look, look … I hate her, I hate Mom, I hate her, I hate them !!”
“Of course,” said a voice. “It’s only natural. How foolish of me not to have known, not to have seen.”
And the voice was so familiar we were all stricken. We all jerked. Agatha squinched her eyes, flicked them wide, blinked, and jerked half up, staring.
“How silly of me,” said Grandma, standing there at the edge of our circle, our prayer, our wake. “Grandma!” we all said.
And she stood there, taller by far than any of us in this moment of kneeling and holding and crying out. We could only stare up at her in disbelief.
“You’re dead!” cried Agatha. “The car—”
“Hit me,” said Grandma, quietly. “Yes. And threw me in the air and tumbled me over and for a few moments there was a severe concussion of circuitries. I might have feared a disconnection, if fear is the word. But then I sat up and gave myself a shake and the few molecules of paint, jarred loose on one printed path or another, magnetized back in position and resilient creature that I am, unbreakable thing that I am, here I am.”
“I thought you were—” said Agatha.
“And only natural,” said Grandma. “I mean, anyone else, hit like that, tossed like that. But, O my dear Agatha, not me. And now I see why you were afraid and never trusted me. You didn’t know. And I had not as yet proved my singular ability to survive. How dumb of me not to have thought to show you. Just a second.” Somewhere in her head, her body, her being, she fitted together some invisible tapes, some old information made new by interblending. She nodded. “Yes. There. A book of child-raising, laughed at by some few people years back when the woman who wrote the book said, as final advice to parents: ‘Whatever you do, don’t die. Your children will never forgive you.’ “
“Forgive,” some one of us whispered.
“For how can children understand when you just up and go away and never come back again with no excuse, no apologies, no sorry note, nothing.”
“They can’t,” I said.
“So,” said Grandma, kneeling down with us beside Agatha who sat up now, new tears brimming her eyes, but a different kind of tears, not tears that drowned, but tears that washed clean. “So your mother ran away to death. And after that, how could you trust anyone? If everyone left, vanished finally, who was there to trust? So when I came, half wise, half ignorant, I should have known, I did not know, why you would not accept me. For, very simply and honestly, you feared I might not stay, that I lied, that I was vulnerable, too. And two leavetakings, two deaths, were one too many in a single year. But now, do you see, Abigail?”
“Agatha,” said Agatha, without knowing she corrected. “Do you understand, I shall always, always be here?”
“Oh, yes,” cried Agatha, and broke down into a solid weeping in which we all joined, huddled together and cars drew up and stopped to see just how many people were hurt and how many people were getting well right there.
End of story. Well, not quite the end.
We lived happily ever after.
Or rather we lived together, Grandma, Agatha-Agamemnon-Abigail, Timothy, and I, Tom, and Father, and Grandma calling us to frolic in great fountains of Latin and Spanish and French, in great seaborne gouts of poetry like Moby Dick sprinkling the deeps with his Versailles jet somehow lost in calms and found in storms; Grandma a constant, a clock, a pendulum, a face to tell all time by at noon, or in the middle of sick nights when, raved with fever, we saw her forever by our beds, never gone, never away, always waiting, always speaking kind words, her cool hand icing our hot brows, the tappet of her uplifted forefinger unsprung to let a twine of cold mountain water touch our flannel tongues. Ten thousand dawns she cut our wildflower lawn, ten thousand nights she wandered, remembering the dust molecules that fell in the still hours before dawn, or sat whispering some lesson she felt needed teaching to our ears while we slept snug.
Until at last, one by one, it was time for us to go away to school, and when at last the youngest, Agatha, was all packed, why Grandma packed, too.
On the last day of summer that last year, we found Grandma down in the front room with various packets and suitcases, knitting, waiting, and though she had often spoken of it, now that the time came we were shocked and surprised.
“Grandma!” we all said. “What are you doing?”
“Why going off to college, in a way, just like you,” she said. “Back to Guido Fantoccini’s, to the Family.”
“Of Pinocchios, that’s what he called us for a joke, at first. The Pinocchios and himself Gepetto. And then later gave us his own name: the Fantoccini. Anyway, you have been my family here. Now I go back to my even larger family there, my brothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, all robots who—”
“Who do what?” asked Agatha.
“It all depends,” said Grandma. “Some stay, some linger. Others go to be drawn and quartered, you might say, their parts distributed to other machines who have need of repairs. They’ll weigh and find me wanting or not wanting. It may be I’ll be just the one they need tomorrow and off I’ll go to raise another batch of children and beat another batch of fudge.”
“Oh, they mustn’t draw and quarter you!” cried Agatha. “No!” I cried, with Timothy. “My allowance,” said Agatha, “I’ll pay anything … ?”
Grandma stopped rocking and looked at the needles and the pattern of bright yarn. “Well, I wouldn’t have said, but now you ask and I’ll tell. For a very small fee, there’s a room, the room of the Family, a large dim parlor, all quiet and nicely decorated, where as many as thirty or forty of the Electric Women sit and rock and talk, each in her turn. I have not been there. I am, after all, freshly born, comparatively new. For a small fee, very small, each month and year, that’s where I’ll be, with all the others like me, listening to what they’ve learned of the world and, in my turn,
telling how it was with Tom and Tim and Agatha and how fine and happy we were. And I’ll tell all I learned from you.”
“But … you taught us!”
“Do you really think that?” she said. “No, it was turnabout, roundabout, learning both ways. And it’s all in here, everything you flew into tears about or laughed over, why, I have it all. And I’ll tell it to the others just as they tell their boys and girls and life to me. We’ll sit there, growing wiser and calmer and better every year and every year, ten, twenty, thirty years. The Family knowledge will double, quadruple, the wisdom will not be lost. And we’ll be waiting there in that sitting room, should you ever need us for your own children in time of illness, or, God prevent, deprivation or death. There we’ll be, growing old but not old, getting closer to the time, perhaps, someday, when we live up to our first strange joking name.”
“The Pinocchios?” asked Tim. Grandma nodded.
I knew what she meant. The day when, as in the old tale, Pinocchio had grown so worthy arid so fine that the gift of life had been given him. So I saw them, in future years, the entire family of Fantoccini, the Pinocchios, trading and re-trading, murmuring and whispering their knowledge in the great parlors of philosophy, waiting for the day. The day that could never come.
Grandma must have read that thought in our eyes. “We’ll see,” she said. “Let’s just wait and see.”
“Oh, Grandma,” cried Agatha and she was weeping as she had wept many years before. “You don’t have to wait. You’re alive. You’ve always been alive to us!”
And she caught hold of the old woman and we all caught hold for a long moment and then ran off up in the sky to faraway schools and years and her last words to us before we let the helicopter swarm us away into autumn were these:
“When you are very old and gone childish-small again, with childish ways and childish yens and, in need of feeding, make a wish for the old teacher nurse, the dumb yet wise companion, send for me. I will come back. We shall inhabit the nursery again, never fear.”
“Oh, we shall never be old!” we cried. “That will never happen!” “Never! Never!” And we were gone. And the years are flown.
And we are old now, Tim and Agatha and I.
Our children are grown and gone, our wives and husbands vanished from the earth and now, by Dickensian coincidence, accept it as you will or not accept, back in the old house, we three.
I lie here in the bedroom which was my childish place seventy, O seventy, believe it, seventy years ago. Beneath this wallpaper is another layer and yet another-times-three to the old wallpaper covered over when I was nine. The wallpaper is peeling. I see peeking from beneath, old elephants, familiar tigers, fine and amiable zebras, irascible crocodiles. I have sent for the paperers to carefully remove all but that last layer. The old animals will live again on the walls, revealed.
And we have sent for someone else.
The three of us have called:
Grandma! You said you’d come back when we had need.
We are surprised by age, by time. We are old. We need.
And in three rooms of a summer house very late in time, three old children rise up, crying out in their heads: We loved you! We love you!
There! There! in the sky, we think, waking at morn. Is that the delivery machine? Does it settle to die lawn?
There! There on the grass by the front porch. Does the mummy case arrive?
Are our names inked on ribbons wrapped about the lovely form beneath the golden mask?!
And the kept gold key, forever hung on Agatha’s breast, warmed and waiting? Oh God, will it, after all these years, will it wind, will it set in motion, will it, dearly, fit?!