Lena and her grandmother are taking a walk through the yellow hills when the grandmother drops to her knees, rustles her hair in the grass, and begins rolling up the hill. Lena has seen children rolling down hills, but never someone rolling up, especially not an old person.
“Grandmother, you’re doing it backwards,” Lena says. She chases after her. When she catches up, she puts her foot on the grandmother’s back to hold her still. “I said you’re like a backwards child.”
The grandmother looks as if she doesn’t remember what a child is. She often forgets things now, or remembers things incorrectly. She sometimes thinks she is a mermaid, or the widow of a handsome, famous baseball player.
“You remember children,” Lena says. “Those very small people.”
“How small, exactly?”
“Well,” Lena says, looking around for an object the size of a child, but finding nothing but hills, “some are as small as a loaf of bread, even.”
“And just as soft!”
“Maybe,” Lena says. “Some are bigger. Some are more like a toy trunk.”
Lena’s grandmother picks a dandelion and runs her fingers up and down the stem, getting them green and filthy, Lena is sure.
“I’m a child,” Lena says. Lena is eleven, so she is almost not a child, really, and she is a very mature and intelligent child. But she decides not to complicate the issue by explaining all of this to her grandmother.
“Ha!” says the grandmother, now chewing the stem. “I’ve never seen you roll down a hill in my life. That would be far too much fun for you.”
Lena remembers when she was six, and her grandmother took her for walks, not the other way around. It’s true, Lena never rolled down the hills. She didn’t want to get grass stains. Lena wondered if the grass stains would be yellow, since the grass here always seemed to be.
“Grandmother, you really shouldn’t chew on that dandelion.”
“This isn’t a dandelion. It’s a puff globe.”
“There’s no such thing as a puff globe,” Lena says. “That’s called a dandelion.”
“A dandelion my foot! If this is a dandelion, what are those yellow ones?”
Lena ruffles her forehead. “Daffodils,” she says.
“And I’m a child and you’re a potato plant! Rubbish!” says Grandmother.
Lena helps her grandmother up, taking her hand so they may continue their walk. The doctors say it’s important for the grandmother to get exercise, so taking her for walks is one of Lena’s chores now. Lena moved here with her mother last week, just for the summer, probably, to help take care of her. Lena still has to do her normal chores—taking out the trash, feeding the fish, cleaning the windows—but she has to take the grandmother for walks too. While completing only her normal chores, Lena earned seventy-five cents per week allowance. Lena’s mother refused to give her a raise for taking on this additional chore, on the grounds that the grandmother was Lena’s grandmother. Lena found this unfair and noted that when an employee works extra hours, he or she is paid overtime, and so Lena should at least get a quarter for the extra time she would spend taking the grandmother for walks. Her mother told her she was a pain in the neck and stocked off.
Lena decides this walk has gone on long enough and that it’s time to steer her grandmother in the direction of the house. Everything looks the same around here because it’s the countryside. There are no other houses or landmarks in sight, just dried grassy hills, so Lena carries with her a compass she received for her eleventh birthday.
She reaches in her pocket for the compass, but finds nothing.
“Oh no,” Lena says, hands patting down her clothes, “I must have dropped my compass.”
“We don’t need it,” her grandmother says. “You think I don’t know my way back? I’ve lived here my whole life!”
“I need to find it whether or not we need it to get back!” Lena says. “It was a birthday gift from my mother. I love it. I need to find it. And besides, you don’t know your way back.”
“The way back is up,” her grandmother says.
“Up is not a direction,” Lena says. “There’s North, South, East, and West.”
“Not at all! There’s also circles, zigzags, down, and certainly up.”
Lena sighs. She knows her grandmother won’t see reason about this, so she just begins to rustle around in the grass in search of her compass.
“Are you looking for gold?”
“No, I’m looking for my compass.”
“But there’s tons of gold out here! I know your mother won’t pay you an extra quarter for taking me on walks—”
“She told you that?” Lena asks, looking up. She feels a pang just below her sternum.
“But I’ve got tons of gold at the house! I’ll give you a piece when we get back.”
“If we ever get back,” Lena says. “Everything looks the same here. It’s all just dry hills.”
Lena’s grandmother gets the look again, like she doesn’t remember what hills are.
“Oh, Grandmother, you remember hills,” Lena says. “They’re all around us right now.”
The grandmother points to a fly.
“No, not those. Hills are large half-circles coming out of the Earth. Maybe the size of a shed. Or some are bigger, like several tractors put together.”
Grandmother curls up on the ground like a cat. “I’m a hill,” she says.
“No, Grandmother, you’re a woman.”
Grandmother points to herself and says “hill” so quietly Lena can barely hear it. Her eyes stare at nothing.
Lena continues to sift through the grass without moving too far away from Grandmother, who remains still as a barn owl. Lena swats a fly away from her face. She takes a few steps left, pushes the grass around, takes a few more steps left, swats away another fly. She digs and pushes and swats and steps left, needing to find the compass, needing for this walk to be over.
After several minutes Lena looks up and sees what must be hundreds of flies buzzing all around her. She swats one off her knee, then another off her T-shirt, then another off her other knee. As one takes off, another lands, and still another buzzes right up to her ear, so that she can feel the vibrations, as if they were inside her own head. She flails her arms in front of her as she walks forward in search of Grandmother. Could it really be that while searching for one thing, she had lost another?
“Grandmother!” Lena calls. “Grandmother!” But a fly buzzes into her mouth, and Lena bends over and spits onto the grass, wanting water, wanting chewing gum. She spits out the fly and calls to her grandmother again, but she doesn’t answer. Lena begins running straight ahead, her arms knocking the stream of flies sideways and sometimes in zigzags. Then she remembers she took a lot of steps to the left, so she turns to the right and begins running that way, even though she is lost. But soon she hears a voice: “The way back is up!”
Lena turns around to see her grandmother, holding Lena’s compass, which gleams in the sunlight.
“My compass!” Lena says. “You found it.”
“The way back is up,” her grandmother repeats, and begins once again rolling up the hill, the bones in her back and shoulders rattling.
“Grandmother, stop!” Lena says. “You’ll get hurt! Your bones will crack like egg shells!” But another fly buzzes into Lena’s mouth, and she again bends over, coughing and spitting onto the ground. Lena imagines her grandmother’s insides as a network of bobby pins clipped together, threatening to snap apart should she bend a joint too quickly. Flies continue to buzz around Lena, and she swats them, and she can’t get the taste out of her mouth, but she manages to say in a voice the grandmother surely cannot hear, “Grandmother, give me back my compass.”
Caitlin Vance is a poet and fiction writer from the Pacific Northwest. Her work has appeared in Tin House, The Southern Review, ZYZZYVA, The Literary Review, New Ohio Review, and other magazines. Her poetry chapbook, The Little Cloud, is forthcoming from dancing girl press. She received an MFA from Syracuse University, and is currently a PhD student at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette.