The Grandmother

There was once an old woman whose only joy in the world was her grandson. The old woman’s sons and daughters had all gone their own way, and only the boy stayed behind. He grew up handsome and good-natured. The old woman worked hard to keep him well-fed and well-clothed, and the two were happy. Sometimes, the old woman ached for something – but what it was, she couldn’t say. She looked, at those moments, to the west (why the west? She wasn’t sure), and sighed with a slight rattle in her throat, and went back to the tasks ahead of her.

the old woman

There came a time when the old woman noticed that her grandson no longer smiled as he did before. Most of his free time he now spent looking out across the valley of his birth, as if searching for something. Sometime, he cocked his head to the side and listened intently, although to what, the grandmother couldn’t fathom.

When questioned, the boy told his grandmother of a tale being whispered on the wind. The voice made his insides ache as if he had guzzled down a pot of boiling water, but when it quieted down, he ached even more. The old woman tried to soothe her grandson, but he would not be consoled, and, while she slept one night, slipped out of the door and followed the strange call that only he could hear.

Weeping, the old woman went to the village elder – a woman even older than she. The elder smoked a rolled-up leaf and stared at the old woman with her milky, unseeing eyes. The elder opined that the disappearance looked like the work of a witch that lives on a hill surrounded by a swamp. The witch was rumored to feed on human hearts.

The grandmother ran toward the setting sun, to where the blind woman’s shaking hand had pointed. Soon, she was out of the valley and in a foreign land. At night, she reached the edge of the swamp and searched for a way to get across. There was no path, not even a tree branch to feel her way. The woman was so desperate that she hardly noticed a dark-haired man with eyes like will-o’-wisps watching her, his hands on his hips.

“What did you lose on the other side of that swamp?” He inquired merrily when she began to cry.

“The most precious thing I have,” she said. “As if it isn’t obvious.”

“Perhaps then, you will want to know that whoever wishes to cross should just strip naked, and the swamp won’t suck them in.”

“I don’t believe this!” The woman laughed through her tears. “Young people today are even worse than…”

The man shrugged and, before she could finish berating him, shed his clothes. Trying to avert her eyes, she heard a splash. The man stood waist-deep in the brown swamp-water and even dared to splash some on the woman’s face. “Follow me,” he said.

The old woman was reluctant. Her body had been mashed and stretched by time. Her breasts hung flat and low and her belly sagged and her skin was spotted like a leopard’s. Still, she recalled that it was this body that had once warmed her husband and given birth to her daughters and sons. She stepped out of her clothes and followed the man.

The water was cold and dark and the swamp squelched hungrily all around her, but the man kept her spirits up by telling tales of unfaithful husbands who were turned into goats and bad-tempered children’s toys and all matter of foolishness, his voice reverberating in the fog.

Finally, the woman glimpsed the hill at the heart of the swamp. At its base, the young man said that he could no longer guide her, and kissed her hand. The old woman was about to chide him for taking liberties, when she remembered the state that they both were in.

Naked and exposed to the biting wind, she climbed the hill, holding on by the grassroots and her own blackened nails. Her back ached and a constant wheeze came out of her throat – foreshadowing a bad illness, she supposed. Her bladder gave out with no warning or apology.

Finally, the old woman collapsed, covered in dirt and other substances, near a large nest. The nest appeared abandoned, but the old woman counted at least five whole eggs in it. The witch would be back.

The old woman reflected on the fact that while things were certainly far from pleasant, giving birth to her firstborn, who originally tried to come out sideways, had been worse. With that, she fell asleep.

When she woke up, a slender witch sat on her chest and studied her with her amber eyes. The old woman tried to move, but found the witch to be surprisingly heavy, much heavier than a man.

“Where is my grandson?” She said after managing to get enough air into her aching lungs.

“What grandson?”

“You called to him, I know.”

“I certainly didn’t call any boring grandson.” The witch was amused. “You on the other hand are a different catch altogether. Your heart is full of blood and warmth and righteousness. And you also have little use left for it. Give it to me. I’ve been calling you for a long time, but you were busy then. Now it is time for you to take your rest. ”

“I will not rest until my grandson is free of you,” the old woman said through clenched yellow teeth, though she was beginning to have her doubts.

The witch fluttered her long green eyelashes. “Your grandson is not mine to set free. Don’t worry about him. He will have a wife, and name his daughter with your name. It will come to pass, or I am not a witch.”

“He will be happy?” Her own question hurt, but it was a temporary hurt, like on the first night with her husband. The old woman closed her eyes and smiled. How simple everything was! And the plucking of her heart she felt less than her question to herself. When she opened her eyes, she expected to be now drenched with blood on top of everything else, but her body was clean and soft, light as a bird’s feather and new as the hatchlings pecking at the old muscle that used to pump her good old blood.

She walked easily off the hill, and saw the dark-haired man waiting for her, and, recognizing him, started to run.

    copyright: Natalia Antonova

21 thoughts on “The Grandmother

  1. I’d like to ask some questions about this story which need not be answered, since they probably sound rather fatuous. But I’m just trying to make sense of the story. Is the “witch” in the story a stand-in for Natalia Antonova as a writer, with the “eggs” as Natalia’s work-in-progress? And is the “grandson,” who goes through so much emotional turmoil and disappears, but who, in the plot, is dismissed by the “witch” as not interesting enough to have his heart eaten, simply one of Natalia’s future fictional characters who needs further development? And is the “grandmother” a stand-in for Natalia’s memories or received stories about her own grandmother, making both the “witch” and the “grandmother” different aspects of Natalia’s mind? And who is the blind elder-woman who points the “grandmother” to the witch? Is that a stand-in for one of Natalia’s professors? Why is the elder-woman blind? Has she seen something forbidden for which she has been punished with blindness, like Teiresias? Teiresias saw a goddess (Athena? Artemis?) naked and was punished was punished with blindness but then compensated with the gift of prophecy. And who is the dark-haired individual who guides the “grandmother” through the swamp? Is that the individual who is now close to Natalia in Kiev? Or is that one of her professors? I noted that this dark-haired individual didn’t claim that he had had his own heart eaten by the “witch,” but, after the “grandmother” has her heart eaten out by the “chicks” from the “eggs,” the grandmother alights, as if in a new existence, and recognizes the dark-haired individual and runs to him. Does that mean that Natalia’s writing is a means of processing her own memories in a way that enables Natalia to use those memories to get closer to the issues in her present (and future) real-world life? I know that these are incredibly stupid questions on my part and show how little experience I have as a reader, and perhaps the only accurate answer is that each reader is free to read whatever he wants to in a story, or at least will probably do that no matter what. But that’s the only sense that I can get out of the story, because writing inspired by folklore or fairy-tale is otherwise opaque to me. Sorry for these rather uninspired questions. I just wanted to see how other commenters read the story.

  2. I got a kick out of that, JS!

    None of these characters represent anyone I know, I don’t think… I’m sure if we paged Dr. Freud and strapped me down in the hypnotist’s chair for good measure – we could unearth some interesting connections, but that’s a given with pretty much anyone, no?

    I’ll give you one thing – I definitely think this isn’t the last we’ve seen of that grandson of hers.

    Thanks for reading! And thanks to MK too.

  3. I feel sorry for the grandmother, Natalia. You do not allow her to keep her dignity.

    what do you mean, “dignity”?

  4. This story does not sit right with me. I fear that it uses an old woman’s body as an object of ridicule.

  5. I don’t think so at all! Any body is, in a sense, an object of ridicule, but here an old body is given it’s dignity: not by being covered up, but by remembering all of the amazing things it has accomplished and endured. Modesty and dignity aren’t the same thing.

  6. This story does not sit right with me. I fear that it uses an old woman’s body as an object of ridicule.

    I didn’t find it so.

    honi soit qui mal y pense, man.

  7. Great story. I have to ask, is the witch some kind of metaphor for death, telling the grandmother to give up what is left of her life for it has served it’s purpose well?

  8. I think you can read her that way, yes. I started with just an image of her (yes, I am well aware of how pretentious I sound right now). And then I wondered – “Why is this in my head, and where does it go from here?”

  9. the grandmother alights, as if in a new existence, and recognizes the dark-haired individual and runs to him.

    Interesting, my first assumption was that she was running away from him.

    Great stories, by the way.

  10. I loved this story, It spoke to me as a grandmother; whose life is far from over. I liked how she shed first her fears in searching for her grandson, who could have left a note, then facing the old blind crone, willing to hear bad news. On learning that he has gone to the swamp of the local witch she heads right off.

    This woman is a dynamo! Stripping her clothes off to swim with handsome and charming strangers, and she still wants to put him in his place when he kisses her hand in farewell. I wonder whose son he is?

    And what are the hatchlings? More handsome young men? What now will the Grandmother do? I read it as she is young as smooth and light as a feather.

    Witches don’t generally like other witches hanging about their territory unless they are related or for pretty good reasons. But I could be wrong. But what will grandmother do and do with her side kick, the handsome young gallant, who escorted her to the island.?

    And her Grandson will have to come back one day to bring gifts and bring back her namesake and to apologise and to show off all his goats and chickens and his new wife and suchlike.

    I did enjoy this story very much. Just the sort of thing that get me going on my keyboard when I should be in bed. You should read when I rewrite the news:)

    I should tell you that I stumbled on you through “A Creative Revolution” and there was a link leading to your article “Rape and Prejudice”, which I read and I thought, “what a chopped off story, there is so much more to tell there.” The father’s guilt, the grandmother’s crime, the young woman’s ultimate survival?
    It’s all so sad, it’s all so bloody common.

    I will be back. It’s a great site with wonderful writers and readers! Is Milo for local colour?

    Cheers, Geo

  11. Thanks Georgine, for your lovely words. I have no idea who Milo is or why he stalked my blog? People are so strange.

    I don’t really know what the future of the Grandmother is, now that she is dead and more alive than ever. I see her as being happy though. I think the young man is her husband, whom she recognizes when she dies too. But feel free to read it any way you like. 😉

  12. It’s a fairy’s story!

    The character of the grandmother has been portrayed with a sting. She would have loved her age.

    Is the family structure nuclearized just for the sake of showing conflict.

    The archteype of the ‘witch’ has no new themes of newness.

    Has the conclusion about the whereabouts of the grandson been created to put the story at rest?

    How would you put this story in terms being with age of the writer.

  13. Wow, that was such a joy to read. Its so wonderful to find by chance such shockingly beautiful writing. I’ve been reading lots of Joyce Carol Oates( I love short fiction) & those stories honestly seem quite meager in comparison:Antonova’s stories leave me dazed(at the authors “giftedness”) & embarrased(at feeling so small next to such huge talent). I hope so much to see a book of your writing some day. For now I’ll try to just read one a day so they last.

  14. Thanks Jon! I’m a huge Joyce Carol Oates fan (I actually had the opportunity to be in the same room with her while attending a panel, but was too shy to speak her afterward), so that means a lot. I seriously doubt I’m anywhere close to Oates, but one day, maybe… 😉

    I noticed you donated. I kindly thank you. I was just thinking about how my monthly budget does not include new sneakers – while the old ones are falling apart! Don’t need to worry about that anymore.

    Thank you for your kindness.

  15. Beautiful story, Natalia. Ihave read some of these posts, and I have to laugh. Sometime in a story, a tree is simply a tree. Enjoy the story, what it evokes in you, and stop trying to pull it apart and examine every “tree.” Nice work, Natalia.

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