You ran your old weathered hand across the stone walls. I watched you contently as I rubbed my small fingers over the surface of a smooth speckled rock you had given me earlier that day. “Grandpa,” I asked. “Where do we go when we die?” You looked at me and smiled thoughtfully.
“Let me show you something, Sage,” you said, taking my hand. I dropped the stone into the pile of small treasures. Our bare feet were silent against the soft floor of dirt and leaves. The small light in the distance was gradually magnified until we reached the mouth of the cave, the place we’d been going ever since I was a young girl.
We came to a clearing dotted with wildflowers of every color and lush green grass. You sat down and beckoned me to join you. “When we die, Sage, we become part of nature. We become the trees, the grass, the wildflowers. When we die we become the animals, we become the deer. When we die, Sage, we are never forgotten. Maybe by man, but we are forever in the forest.” I looked up at your deep, brown, knowing eyes, awe glistening in my hazel ones. You just smiled and lay down, and I lay beside you. I would’ve done anything by your side. We watched the trees swaying high above, and I drifted off to sleep.
“Sage, the granddaughter of the deceased, would you like to say a few words?” asked the funeral der bringing me back to reality. I ran my hands over the pleats of my black dress and slowly walked up to the podium.
“ My grandfather was an amazing person. He taught me so much, he always listened, and he was very special to me and to all of us gathered here today. Most of all he was my friend, and he’ll be missed greatly.” I said.
“Thank you.” The woman leading the funeral said. I smiled grimly and nodded. I had only said what people wanted to hear. You did teach me, you did listen to me, and you were special to me. But you were more than that. More than they understood. I walked home barefoot imagining a soft floor of dirt and leaves under my feet, and you by my side.
I frantically ran around my room throwing everything into a weathered brown leather trunk. I change out of my simple black dress and into a soft flowing one that tumbled to my ankles. It was made of dark blue fabric, covered with pink and yellow flowers. I gingerly ran my fingers over the seam of its plunging v-neckline and thought of the time you gave it to me.
I was older now, nine or ten and I tore open the gift box wrapped with black and blue paper and looked down at the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. “I won’t fit into this dress. I love it, but it won’t fit.” I said tears welling up in my eyes. I realize now it was a silly thing to cry over, but the dress was so beautiful I yearned to wear it right then.
“Not now, Sage,” you said, wiping a tear from my cheek. “This is a dress for the future. You’ll remember this day when you wear this dress. Let’s make it a happy memory.” I blinked the tears away.
“Grandpa? Can we go to the forest?” I asked sniffling looking up at you.
“Of course, my dear,” you responded, taking my hand, and smile wrinkles surrounded your deep brown eyes. We walked through the village and into the trees.
I blinked, wishing I could go back to those simple times, when all there was to cry over was a dress that didn’t fit. I lifted a ceramic vase and noticed a small seemingly old box made of dark unfinished wood with my initials carved into its side. I opened the box skeptically and emptied its contents on the bed.
I poured six smooth speckled pebbles onto the crochet blanket, each clinking against the next. I think of my pile of stones in our cave and what joy they brought me as a girl, what joy they bring me now.
Then out came a crumpled and creased old photograph of you and I when I was just a baby. I pictured you showing it to me and squeezing my hand, reminding me that I was not always so big, and that I was always growing. Maybe not my body, but always my mind.
Next a necklace, strung with vibrantly painted wooden beads, the kind you liked to make in the cave. You would sell them in town, and all the women and men of the village would sport them proudly.
Finally, what I’d wanted so badly but never thought I’d get: a note.
“Sage,” it read, “I am old and frail, and soon I’ll be joining your mother, your father, your grandmother, and our many ancestors in the afterlife. I suppose I’m already gone if you’re reading this. Life may be hard without me, but you are more independent than you think, and I trust you’ll know what to do. Remember, Sage, I will always love you and even if you don’t see me. I’m always watching out for you.
I felt tears cutting like running rivers through the blush I almost never wore. I wiped them away with my dirty hands, padded over the rusty sink and washed my face of remaining makeup. I stared in my reflection, looking how I always did, large hazel eyes, delicate lips, ski slope nose. All my features were beautiful, but mashed together in a way far from perfect. I didn’t mind. Flaws give you character, that’s what you always told me. I put everything back into the precious box, stuck it in my satchel, and left the house. With only my bag, the box, and my trunk I set off to the forest with confidence, because you were right. I knew what to do next.
I was well into the forest, feet weary from walking, when I came across a large oak tree. I touched the cool moss that covered it’s bark and thought of you.
“Grandpa?” I had asked without looking up for my hands were busy at work, balancing sticks atop one another, lodging them into cool mud that caked under my stubby child like fingernails and finally roofing the structures with green lush moss. I was far too old to be making homes for the pixie spirits that I knew didn’t exist, but I knew you liked it, and that was enough for me.
“Yes, Sage?” you asked, fiddling with a smooth twig, crouching in the dirt, our knees touching.
“Where are my mother and father?” I asked pretending to focus hard on the twigs.
“I’ve told you, they are in the forest,” you said. “In the leaves, in the rain, in the very twigs we use to build homes for the pixie spirits.” I grunted and rolled my eyes. “It may feel like they are gone, but if you look closely you can see them everywhere,” you went on. “Your mother in the willows, your father in the fields.” I was growing increasingly frustrated with you. You said she was in the willows and he in the fields, but where were they when I had questions that couldn’t be answered by an old man. I regretted thinking that the instant it popped into my brain.
“Pass me some more moss.” I said, never looking up at his deep brown knowing eyes.
That was the last home we ever built. I finally reached the mouth of our cave, my bare feet silent against the floor of dirt and leaves. I sat, exhausted from my travels, next to my pile of treasures, worthless if they had not been given to me by you. I perked up, hearing a rustling noise, and seemingly out of nowhere appears a deer fawn. I don’t remember seeing any sort of animal in here, and look at the creature surprised. “Are you lost?” I asked the young deer, but it just stared at me with deep brown knowing eyes.