By Christina Kapp
Nana’s body had been outside for upwards of fifteen hours and was partially frozen before anyone found her. Her discovery might have taken even longer, but one of her ponies pushed thorugh a cracked top rail in the fence and jumped to freedom in search of his expected dinner. However, when he discovered the barn was closed, he made his way out to the main road where he became something of a horse-in-the-headlights and was hit by a teenager in a minivan on his way back from a high school basketball game. The pony, named Chipmunk, suffered a fractured cannon bone. When the local police arrived at the scene, they thought the best thing to do was put the poor creature out of his misery right then and there. It wasn’t until the officer tasked with the pony-killing job went to my grandmother’s farm tell her that she was in some serious trouble for mismanagement of her animals that he discovered that Nana was already on the Rainbow Bridge.
My mother called at 5:30 in the morning to tell me the whole miserable tale. “They say it looks like a heart attack,” she said, sniffling into the phone. “I knew something like this would happen. It was ridiculous for her to try manage everything by herself.”
We all said as much. With Pop gone there was too much land and too many animals for one woman to manage. Everyone agreed that the right thing to do was sell the farm and buy her a condo in the “55+” community near my mother. The units had vaulted ceilings and gas fireplaces. There was a pool.
“We can take care of you there,” my mother begged.
“Screw that,” Nana said.
My mother wanted me to fly up right away to help with the arrangements so I jammed jeans, pajamas, and every piece of black clothing I owned into one bag, my laptop and all my work files into another, and booked a flight to Buffalo.
Despite the frozen temperatures up north, New York City was having a late winter warm spell. I was wearing my winter coat when I left my apartment, but by the time I hobbled to Third Avenue with my bags, sweat was dripping down my back into my underwear. I took my coat off and felt the chill on my damp skin. Had Nana been cold? Could someone have saved her if she hadn’t been alone? These questions haunted me like ghosts.
The cab that picked me up had seats with no springs and I sank into a hole that made my view so low all I could see were the tops of buildings. Once we got on the FDR, the window was an empty square of blue.
As I stared at the sky, I imagined that the news of her death had been an error. Just a big mistake. Nana had actually run off with the farrier and was vacationing in a cabin on the Finger Lakes. She was taking a trip to Italy. She was visiting an friend in California. Any of these things would have been reasonable retribution for having endured Pop’s funeral eighteen months ago. Pop, her husband of over half a century, had skidded on some ice coming home from his girlfriend’s house and slammed his truck into a tree. Of course we didn’t know Pop had a girlfriend until after he died, but Nana seemed unsurprised when a middle aged woman with short, maroonish hair and big hoop earrings stood in the back of the room at the wake and tried to look like she wasn’t as distraught as she was.
Maybe Nana had a boyfriend who would show up at her funeral, too. Maybe that’s why she wouldn’t even consider moving to a place more appropriate for a septuagenarian widow. It didn’t seem likely, but it was possible.
My mother refused to entertain these questions and occupied herself with excavating the mounds of Nana’s unsorted paperwork and raking together an assortment of people to help keep the farm running. Nana didn’t have much money per se, but the farm and adjoining property was home to five horses (now four with the demise of Chipmunk) that Nana used to give riding lessons to local children (who would be devastated to learn of Chipmunk’s fate). She also had two dogs, several chickens, an aging donkey named Bruce Lee, and an uncatalogued assortment of cats that nobody liked to talk about, all of which were in need of immediate care. Beyond the barn, immediate pastures, and main house, there was also a cluster of cabins and outbuildings that constituted the Tomahawk Hills Summer Camp, which once upon a time Nana and Pop had founded and run. For the last several years the camp had ben leased to another family who only came in for the season. They managed the winter operations from somewhere else.
This arrangement had given Nana and Pop enough income to maintain the farm and retire comfortably. However, with Pop’s death, it also left Nana very much alone.
We hit some traffic in Queens and from my low seat I watched a bird drifting in the high thermals. I leaned toward the window to get a better look and guessed it was a hawk, but it was hard to tell.
Nana would have pointed out that the bird was circling because it was looking for a kill—something to eat. She found this kind of thing reassuring, the natural progression of life.
I told her I’d starve to death if I had to kill my food.
“No you wouldn’t. Every creature does what is necessary to survive.”
“I’d be a herbovore. Flight, not fight.”
She laughed, “You only think so.”
The one time Nana came to New York, it was to look for her favorite avian predator, the bald eagle.
“They’ve been reintroduced in Manhattan,” she claimed. “I read a whole article about it in Audobon magazine. The Parks Commission says the DDT and pollutants that used to contaminate the area are pretty much gone so it’s safe for them now.”
“Nana, this is New York City. They might have some kind of experiement going on somewhere, but you don’t just see eagles flying around.”
She didn’t care. She wanted to look.
I asked around to see if anyone knew anything about eagles in the city, but no one did.
“Oh my god,” my friend Krishna said. “Can you imagine? Eagles swooping down over Central Park, plucking little babies out of their strollers and flying away?” She curled her fingers into something resembling talons and bared her teeth.
“I think that’s a tiger,” I said.
She shrugged. “Whatever. You know there are zoos for this sort of thing, right?”
At the airport I checked in and juggled my belongings through security, putting my coat back on just to have one less thing to carry. Walking down the concourse, I called my mom to let her know I was on my way. She didn’t answer, but as I put my phone in my pocket, I heard someone call, “Hello!” from behind me, and for a second everything seemed to tip sideways. I felt a little dizzy. As I slowed down to get my bearings, I heard the voice again.
“Hello! Excuse me! Can you help me?”
I started to turn toward the voice, but caught myself and kept moving foward, picking up my pace.
It wasn’t that I was being cold. Or mean-spirited. It was only that at that moment, in a crowded airport full of people, I desperately wanted solitude. The person calling me was clearly a stranger, and I was grieving and in no position to help anyone, or at least that’s what I told myself as I actively ignored the voice still calling out for me. Despite Nana’s claim that we’re all predators, I have always been a flight rather than a fight animal. I’m a horse rather than a dog. A chipmunk as opposed to a snake. A definite scrurrier. So I scurried faster.
Then I heard a scream, and like a yo-yo hitting the bottom of a string, I whipped around to face the other direction and locked eyes with a woman on the ground.
She was old. That was my first and most intense impression of the woman I was now facing, who had fallen and sat sideways on her hip with one hand on the ground propping her up, and the other reaching out toward me. I will freely admit that the sight of her dented halo of grey hair and thin white lips, which were parted in a dramatic freeze, repulsed me. I wanted to turn and run, but in an instant two kind, concerned men helped her back on her feet. A third man picked up her cane, a medical-grade thing with four small feet. Then the three of them gently and efficiently assisted her in shuffling across the few feet between us. There was nothing to do but watch her approach, wide and oppressive as a summer thunderstorm, and pray that the diversion would not last.
When the men locked her outstretched hand around my wrist, they smiled at each other, their good deed for the day done. Then they wandered away.
The woman looked up at me and said, “Oh, thank god.”
She wore an ashen suit and grey shoes with laces so worn they were fraying at the ends. A red scarf was tied into a lopsided bow around her neck, but it felt less like a fashion statement than an identifying mark, the way people tie red ribbons on suitcases in an effort to spot theirs more easily. With this in mind I searched the faces on the concourse for someone looking for a lost person—she must belong to someone.
“Oh my Goodness,” she said, gripping my wrist. “Thank you.”
I nodded and again I found myself looking upward, this time through the skylights at the blue sky above the concourse, praying for the universe to release me, throw me back into my life like a fish caught for sport.
“Where are we?” she asked, jowls rattling, the whites orbs of her eyes exposed.
No immediate answer came to mind, which threw me as much as the question. I had no idea what she meant. What gate? What terminal? What side of security? I didn’t answer her, however, because my phone rang. It was my mother. She sounded exasperated.
“When does your flight get in? I need you! The PETA people are here. Bruce Lee has a gash on his knee and they’re saying Nana abused these animals because they went without food. But she died, for Christ’s sake. She can’t feed the animals if she’s dead. There’s no reasoning with these people!”
I started sweating under my coat again and the woman’s grip on my wrist grew tighter. With the weight of my bags and the woman on my arm, I was starting to hunch.
“Mom, I’m coming. My flight’s in half an hour. I’ll be there soon.”
I slid the phone into my pocket, trying to dispel the images of frenzied hippies crawling like dreadlocked rats through the Nana’s barnyard. It wasn’t necessarily bad that PETA was there. The animals did need to be cared for, and if PETA people were going to show up and complain, they might as well get on with the barn work. I stretched my body upright, trying to break free of the woman weighing me down. My work bag slipped from my shoulder and hit the ground hard. I looked down, worried about my laptop.
“Where are we?” the woman said again, more slowly this time, as if I had been ignoring her.
“This is the Delta terminal,” I said.
She laughed. “Well of course it is, dear. I mean what city is this? Is this New York?”
I nodded and scanned the concourse again for some sign that this woman was attached to someone. However, everything looked normal. She seemed to be alone.
“Oh good,” she said, grinning up at me, adoring as a cut flower. “Isn’t it exciting! New York City!” Then she pulled me closer and in a hot, composty breath she whispered, “I think I may have had a bit of an accident.”
“Can you take me to the ladies’?”
I have heard that closing your eyes for thirty seconds can relieve stress and anxiety by removing the need for your brain to process vision. Like in summer, when you keep the lights out so you won’t lose power and the air conditioning will continue to work. Sometimes it works for me. But today when I closed my eyes all I saw was Nana in her overalls and camp sweatshirt, old work gloves on her hands, long grey braids falling over her shoulders. What would she think of all this? I imagined her hiding her face behind a People magazine in the Hudson News, laughing at me. I imagined the PETA people cradling her chickens like babies, clucking at them.
“Are you all right?” the old woman asked.
“I can’t,” I said.
“I really need to go!” she said, tugging harder. I opened my eyes. She was clawing at the hem of her skirt.
“Okay, fast,” I said. “I’ve got a flight.”
When we got to the ladies’ room, She handed me her purse and cane. I juggled them in my arms.
“Thank you, dear,” she said, and closed the stall door.
I turned around to look in the mirror. There were bags under my eyes—my mother would comment on these. Again, I felt myself starting to sweat and considered putting everything down, but I didn’t want my bags to touch anything. I tried to reimagine the weight as water buckets pulling on my shoulders. Tried to twist the smell of airport bathrooms into the smell of box stalls, turn the pink handsoap into the little pots of saddle soap that lined the windowsills of Nana’s tack room. All I wanted was to remember Nana properly: among hay bales and bottles of fly spray and bridles hanging from the wall. I wanted to hear the sound of her voice echoing through the rafters above the stalls. I wanted to watch her rub her hands with Bag Balm from the green tin. How many times had she done this? How was it possible that that number was now fixed, finite? It was too soon. There should have been more.
I heard a shuffling noise behind me. When I turned around, worried that the woman was taking too long, I saw the red scarf creeping out from under the stall door.
“Oh my God.” I cried, falling to my knees, bags crashing to the floor. “Are you all right?”
There was no sound. The woman didn’t seem to be moving. I pulled the scarf and it came away without resistance.
She didn’t respond. There were other women coming and going, using the toilets, washing their hands. “I need to go get someone,” I said through the stall door, frantic. A couple of women looked at me, nodded, and headed for the exit as though going to get help. I crouched down reached under the door for the woman’s hand. It was limp, but seemed to be moving; I realized I didn’t know her name.
“Can you get up?”
“Oh, dear,” she said.
“You have to open the door. Can you open the door?”
“Ma’am, my name is Abigail. What’s your name? Someone is coming to help.”
The woman squeezed my hand. “No,” she said. “No help.”
Her feet began moving as she tried to push herself up inside the stall. Another woman asked if she could get someone to help us, and I said “please.”
“You have to try to get up,” I said through the door.
The woman shuffled her feet again, straightening her legs so they extended into the stall to her left.
“I don’t know what to do,” I said.
“Help me,” she replied.
The sweat was soaking through my shirt, so I took off my coat and lay it over my bags. My heart was pounding so hard it hurt. I stood up and pressed my hands flat against the door, wishing I had the will to walk away. Someone would find her. Someone would help her. I was no hero. I didn’t do this sort of thing.
“Help me,” she said again, and it was as though someone else took over my body. I took both our purses and shoved them under the partition into the stall. I woudn’t fit under, but I thought I could make it over, so I went into the empty stall next door, grabbed the top, and lurched myself up, hoping I wouldn’t kill either of us in the process. “I’m coming.”
Even before Pop died, Nana slept in a chair in the living room. It was one of those things no one ever talked about. Nana claimed she slept lightly, like the horses, and she was happy there, so we let her be. When she came to visit me to see the eagles, she insisted that she do the same and slept in the chair next to my bed.
“We need to get up early anyway,” she said.
The next morning we took A train to the end of the line at 206th Street. I’d never been that far north before so the city was unfamilar and I was nervous, as if I were the stranger to the city. Nana shamelessly read her Audobon guide and consulted her map on the subway, plotting our course.
“The park has a salt marsh,” she said, and although I glanced nervously at the homeless man with an old shopping bag between his feet sitting across from us, she continued her lesson. “It’s a tidal basin that fills with salt water, then drains again. The ecosystems around it are incredible. You find species that you would never expect in a city like this.”
The homeless man tore open a packet of ketchup and sucked on it. “I thought we were going to see the eagles,” I said.
“Well of course that is the big prize, but it looks like there are lots of other interesting things to see. We could see an egret, or maybe a falcon. So many possibilities.”
I was worried that we might get lost when we got off the train, but Inwood Hill Park wasn’t hard to find. It looked a lot like Central Park, with the usual playgrounds, paths and baseball fields. Nana followed her map around the salt marsh, which was a large, muddy expanse partially filled with water. At the edge, children were throwing bits of bread to a cluster of ducks. In the nature center, Nana found a park ranger.
“We want to see an eagle,” she said.
The ranger chuckled. “Well, you’re welcome to go look. There are a few of them around, but they can be hard to spot.”
He gave us a map and sent us on a trail that wound up a hill through the woods.
“Look for them out over the river,” he advised.
We hiked through the woods, Nana finding a long branch that she used as a walking stick. Not that she needed help walking. I think she just liked the feel of the bark in her hands, the swing of its weight as she moved. We searched the trees and sky, but couldn’t find an eagle. As the sun moved across the sky, I grew bored, tired, and frustrated that on Nana’s only trip to New York we were going to spend the day traipsing around in the woods in the fringes of a park no one had ever heard of.
“We could go to Soho after this,” I suggested. “I’ll take you out to lunch and we can go to the Earth Room. You’ll love it.”
“What’s the earth room?”
“It’s an art installment. A whole apartment full of earth. It’s really cool.”
The wrinkles around her eyes seemed to deepen like she was going to laugh, but she didn’t. She looked sad.
“Why would a person do that?”
I had no idea.
On the way back down the hill, she stopped and held her walking stick across the path in front of me. She put a finger to her lips.
“Look,” she whispered, and pointed up.
I didn’t see what she was looking at right away. The bird blended into the spotty light coming through the leaves on the trees, but as my eyes adjusted I saw a white and grey bird with patches of rust in its wings. Not an eagle, but a hawk roughtly the size of a football. It sat on a branch stretching across the path looking at us, twitching slightly. I had to admit that it was beautiful, majestic really, and conceded that I would have walked right under it had Nana not pointed it out. Then she giggled. Something had dropped onto the path. I thought the bird had relieved itself, but Nana said, “Ouch,” and snickered. Clearly I had missed something. She pointed again. “Bird’s gotta eat.”
That’s when I saw it: pinned to the branch with one talon the hawk had a creature—a mouse or a small rat—and he was dismembering it piece by piece, dropping the bloody bits he didn’t want on the path below.
As I swung my hips across the partition between the stalls and passed the point of no return, I thought of the hawk and his lunch. The woman sprawled on the floor below looked looked wide-eyed and terrified, and I felt strangely predatory, even though I was only trying to help. My arms trembled from the exertion of holding on, but good or ill, I was overwhelmed by an unfamiliar sense of determination. I had had enough. All I knew was that I had to get this woman up, out of this stall, and out of my life one way or another.
“No!” the woman screamed at me as I lowered myself down. As my feet hit the toilet seat, she began to move wildly, banging on the stall doors and making a terrible racket. Her yelling seemed to attract women from everywhere, and they knocked on the stall, asking if she was okay, wanting to know what was going on. I stepped off the toilet seat and managed to turn around and straddle her. Then I hooked my arms under hers and lifted. She screamed again, letting her arms go limp like an infant. I lost my balance and tipped forward. She smacked her head on the partition and slipped back down to the floor. I was a fury of adrenaline, sweating failure, but there was no choice other than to try again. This time I succeeded in hauling her to her feet, where she started swinging her arms at me, hitting me in the chest, in the face, and howling that she was being attacked.
“Get out!” she roared. I reached down and picked up her purse, thinking that would calm her down, but that only made her more hysterical.
“Thief! Thief!” she bellowed, and I felt her spit on my face as her hands drummed my body.
When airport security arrived, it was like an explosion, with fists on metal doors, orders barked, and accusations cast. With her pinned between me and the partition, I got the door open and the the woman and I spilled out, hitting the floor together as voices hammered like bullets against the walls around me.
As far as I knew, Nana never knew the the rest of the story about the eagles because I never told her. I thought it was too sad. Of the original batch of birds that were brought to Inwood Hill Park, one got hit by an Amtrak train, breaking a leg. A couple of the others took off for the Palisades across the river and disappeared. One died. The rest I had no idea about, although, as the ranger said, they were probably around. For all I knew they could have been circling the airport as I sat in the security office staring out the window, wondering what the officers would decide to do with me.
I had missed my flight. Apparently attacking an old lady in a locked toilet stall makes you look suspicious. It also doesn’t help your case if the lady starts going on about how you were trying to steal her purse.
My mother, for one, didn’t understand. It was impossible to explain.
The whole situation got sorted out once a nursing home aide claimed her. Apparently the aide had lost her in the shuffle when they disembarked from a flight from Columbus.
“I just turned my back for a second. I was talking to the attendant,” he said, sticking his chin out defensively.
Delta customer service had been about as slow to re-book me on a new flight as the security officers were in determining whether I was fit to re-enter the general population. While I waited, a man wearing a rumpled Coors t-shirt and a thick shadow of beard approached me.
“You’re the woman from the bathroom?” he asked, standing back, as if he wasn’t sure it was wise to come too close. “I’m Louise’s nephew. She’s been asking where you are. She wants to see you.” Before he had finished speaking, he was already starting to walk away, and it was clear that he expected me to stand up and follow him. When I didn’t, he added, “She’s in the next room.”
I imagined her sitting in a chair, her head hanging, hands folded in her lap. I could see her eyelashes twitching, her lips damp. The color in her cheeks would be faded. The scarf around her neck would be replaced, but untied. I would suspect she had been sedated and worry about her, telling the man in the Coors t-shirt that she’d hit her head, asking if someone had taken a look at it. I would want someone to make sure she was all right.
The nephew would nod and shrug at the same time. He would say, “She’s a tough old bird. A real fighter.”
And then I would lean in to Louise, poor Louise, and say, “I have a secret. There are eagles. In the sky. Bald eagles, with wingspans as long as dining room tables and nests you could park a Volkswagon in. When they take you out, look for them, because if you keep your eyes up, you just might see one.”
But I only imagined all of this, because when I stood up and gathered my things, I turned the other way down the concourse, heading for my flight.
About the Author:
Christina Kapp‘s short fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in numerous publications including Limestone, Passages North, Gargoyle, DOGZPLOT, Storyscape Journal, PANK, Anderbo.com, and apt. She teaches at The Writers Circle Workshops in Summit, NJ. Follow her on Twitter @ChristinaKapp.