In trenches, alleyways, tunnels, bodies of water. Atop mountain ranges, under bridges, tucked into caves.
I come across a pack of uncles in the river. They’re scared shivering. I want to pet them, say There, There, but I worry they might be violent, try to bite, scratch at me.
Hello? I shout.
They swim upstream, fast like fish.
We lost the men way back. I remember my father, even if Mom won’t speak of him. Even if my sister crosses her arms and furrows her brows and asks: What is a man, I don’t understand?
A man is like a woman, but taller sometimes, I tell my sister, With hair on the face.
Ha-ha, she says, spooning cereal. Very funny. She rolls her eyes.
We set up for homeschool at the kitchen table. Mom gives us the materials, tells us it is a Math day, and we sigh and groan, and Mom scrunches up her face like, Stop being difficult, this is how it is, don’t be ungrateful.
I do algebra, my sister does geometry. Then we switch.
How many men can fit in a trapezoid? I ask her.
Shush, she says. You are the most annoying girl who ever lived.
At break, I go walking and find a couple of brothers up in a tree. I can tell they’re brothers by the way they intertwine, like my sister and I used to.
Come down! I say, but they only climb higher.
For dinner, Mom makes liver. I ask whose liver she has cooked us, and she raises her eyebrows and says: Enough, sit down, put your napkin on your lap, use a fork.
Father would never make me use a fork, I say, through clenched teeth.
Mom and my sister blink. Nothing is talked about. Ever. I am insulated in this house. This fishing-cabin-turned-house built by the father of whom we do not speak.
Mom? I stand by her door, swaying in my nightgown.
What is it, dear? she says, not looking up from her book.
Can I go to real school?
With other kids, you know?
I’ll look into it, she says, squinting her eyes and scanning her page.
Soon? I say.
Soon, she says.
I go to bed and dream of a dinner table filled with men. They sniff the air, open their napkins. The wall clock chimes and they begin sawing their steaks, fork and knife, fork and knife. My plate is empty. I am at another table, far away. I am so so hungry.
In the morning, I ask my sister if she wants to skip homeschool and explore.
She laughs. She says: No silly. No stupid. Do you want to be stupid for the rest of your life?
I decide to be stupid for the rest of my life, and leave out the backdoor, with a rucksack of supplies. I set out, on the dirt path, to find them. The hidden men.
Doesn’t have to be my father. Though if my father was hiding, he’d likely be nearby, around the cabin. But it doesn’t have to be him. Maybe the uncles will swim back, or the brothers will tumble from the tree, into my arms.
The dirt path winds around woods, through trees, alongside river. I sniff for unfamiliar scents, unfamiliar sights, sounds, things out of place. There are no men and no women. Only seventeen birds and thousands of fire ants.I find the saddest weeping willow and rest beneath it. I eat bread from my rucksack, then use it as a pillow, and let my eyes close.
When they open, I have to blink several times to be sure of what I’m seeing. I’m surrounded. It’s a herd of grandfathers, I’m almost certain.
Think she’s dangerous? one of them says.
She’s small, says another, poking my boot with his.
I look at their faces, more than a dozen. Hair prickling from the chins, just like I imagined, but little on their heads, their eyes sagging with age and aloneness.
I gather the courage to speak, loudly in case their hearing has deteriorated: Do you need a granddaughter?
The grandfathers laugh, from their bellies, ho-ho-hoing like Santa Clause, lungs wheezing, torsos collapsing. I worry I’ve hurt them, these rare, delicate creatures.
The largest one reaches out a hand and pulls me up. His fingers are wrinkly but his grip is strong.
Do you need a grandfather? he challenges. He grips my hand tighter and I worry he’ll pull it clean off, but I’m too excited to care.
After relations are established, I enjoy a day of unparalleled bliss. We collect walking sticks, we trek through woodland. The grandfathers take turns holding my hand, each grip tighter than the last. The largest grandfather tells me about plantlife, which berries to eat, which to ingest when I’m ready to die. He asks me if I think about death. I smile, shake my head and ask, What is death? The largest grandfather strokes my head, pulls my hair. A little grandfather whistles a tune like a bird. A hunched pair stares at me, smiling, toothless gummy grins. They lick their lips. A flimsy grandfather pats my head, using me for balance.
They admire my dress, my hair clips, my fluttery eyelashes, my rose-colored cheeks. Perhaps they want to eat me. They must be hungry.
Come home with me! I beg. I know I’m not supposed to, but I can’t resist.
They shrug, scruff my hair, squeeze my nose.
Please? I ask.
Pretty please? I ask again.
I fluff my dress and flutter my eyelashes and pout my lips. Grandfathers cannot resist a granddaughter’s plea. We veer towards home. I lead the way, looking back every few paces to make sure they’re still there.
The sky darkens as we approach the house. The house is a gleaming moon in the dead of night, its windows lit, chimney smoking. The civilization makes the grandfather’s eyes sparkle. My grandfathers!
My grandfathers huff and puff as we get closer. They have walked a long way. Mom peeks out the front door to check on all the commotion.
What is this? Mom says, gesticulating wildly with her arms.
I found grandfathers! I bounce up and down on my toes.
Excuse me? she says, getting louder, angrier.
Grandfathers? I say softly.
Shoo! Mom says to them, as if they’re racoons scavenging in our trash bins. Get away, get!
The grandfathers look at one another, then my mom. They hunch and scowl and narrow their eyes, their sparkling eyes.
Shoo or I’ll call the authorities!
The grandfathers lunge like they’re going to advance, but my mother lunges back, and they disperse, scurrying fast as their walking sticks allow.
We have a silent dinner. My sister plays with her peas, hurls a few at me. I blink away tears. Each tear is a grandfather, sliding down my face, melting forever.
Mom clears her throat. There are no men for a reason, she says. She goes on about rules and order and history, about disobedience, about souls, about the massacres.
Mom shakes her head, closes her eyes, massages her temples. Go to your room, she says. I don’t know what to do with you.
I go to my room. I don’t know what to do with myself. I lay on my bed and imagine a father, seated at the foot of it. A sturdy man, not a grandfather. Fearless, unlike the uncles. Friendly, unlike the tangled brothers.
Outside my window, I hear howls. Deep and vast and piercing. The men, hungry, longing. I slip into my slippers and tiptoe to the backdoor. I leave my rucksack behind.
Skyler Melnick is an MFA candidate for fiction at Columbia University. She writes about sisters playing catch with their grandfather’s skull, headless towns, and mildewing mothers. Her work has appeared in Vestal Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, Moon City, and Corvid Queen, forthcoming in Pinch and Terrain.
Image By: https://unsplash.com/photos/worms-eye-view-of-forest-during-day-time-19SC2oaVZW0