An Eye Out for Ladybugs

by Quinn Theobald

art by Belle McDonald

As far as I can remember, there were three reasons why Gran called her garden a faerie garden.

As for carrots, they were rain food and Saturday morning food. Those were Gran’s favorite times. Faeries’ favorite, too.

Secondly, there was this little brick house in the middle of the garden, about four feet tall. I was small enough to fit inside, but Gran had to crawl on her hands and knees to get in. It was my favorite spot to hide away or escape my parents. The ceiling was covered in cobwebs, and there was a little hidey-hole behind some loose bricks where I would hide books and jelly sandwiches. I showed it to Tom once when he came over to my Gran’s for a playdate. He didn’t think much of the garden, but he liked the house.

“We could turn this into a fort,” he said to me. “Knock out some of the bricks and stick muskets out in every direction.” 

He made shooting motions with his fingers and grinned at me, a large gap between his incisors. We never did that. Tom often forgot his plans, and I was relieved when he didn’t bring that one up again.

Gran said the house was built by faeries long ago. Normally I would have been skeptical, but I did feel some strange stirring inside the house. Some wayward magic left behind. Plus, it was real small, and kids couldn’t construct a whole brick house like that. It even had two rooms! At first, I thought the second room was a study, like my Pa’s study that sat at the top of the stairs. Gran said it used to be the toilet.

Thirdly, the garden was a faerie garden because it had the occasional glasswing butterfly. I knew because I looked it up in a book. There were monarch butterflies in the garden in front of Tom’s house, fluttering from tulip to tulip. But I had never once seen a glasswing there. I wondered if glasswings were faeries in disguise, coming back to get a glimpse of their old home.

In my clearest memory of the garden, it was summer–I don’t remember which year. I was seven, or eight, or maybe nine. I know it was summer because my parents let me go out to Gran’s every day. They would never do that if school was on.

There was a hammock in the garden. It was yellow because Gran said yellow went well with the zinnias. I remember lying in it, staring over the faerie garden like a conqueror. It was hot, but Gran always laid out sheets of ice cubes when I came over, and I had one on my tongue, melting into lemony liquid in my mouth.

I must have known by then that she was selling the house. My parents certainly talked about it in that study at the top of the stairs. But it didn’t seem dire enough for my attention. Or I had forgotten. It’s hard to remember why things like that didn’t bother you at the time.

Gran came into the yard, and her pants had grass stains on them. At least, that’s how I always remember her. She squinted at the sky because it had voluptuous and angry clouds. But it was hot enough that no one would mind getting a little rained on. Besides, then we would get to eat some of her fresh carrots. We always ate carrots when it rained.

“How are you doing, Willie?” she asked. 

No one else called me that. To Mother I was Will, to Pa I was a strict William, and Tom and the others at school called me Teddy. I didn’t answer because I had an ice cube on my tongue, and I slurped noisily so that she knew.

“They must be angry with me,” she murmured, almost to herself.

“Who?” I asked. Gran smiled at me, that mischievous hidden smile of hers.

“Oh, Willie,” she said, “Who else would be angry with me?”

She came by the hammock and sat down, depressing the yellow cloth. I slurped my ice cube. Gran looked down at me with her smile. She had beautiful eyes. They were bright blue and startling, like a chip of smuggled ice or the bottom of a clear pool. Things always seemed more full of color at Gran’s house. Maybe that was part of why I loved going there so much.

“This is the end of it,” she said with a sigh.

End of what? I wondered. But I didn’t ask. With Gran, you just had to wait for answers. As my mother put it: patience is a virtue. As Gran put it: patience is an art.

(I asked her once what she meant by that. She said, “You ever try painting a canvas with patience, Willie?” I said no. She chuckled to herself and said, “Try it.” So I did. After about two and a half hours of staring at the white sheet, a bird flew by and plopped its droppings on it. I went in to tell Gran the painting was ruined, and she hung it above the mantelpiece.)

“I’m gonna miss this old faerie garden,” she said, her eyes roving over the carrot stalks and zinnias. “What do you say we take a piece with us? Keep a zinnia to remind us of this place?”

I thought about this, and then I shook my head. I can’t recall why.

“Hmm. No, you’re right,” said Gran, shaking her head. “It wouldn’t be right to.” 

She was silent for a moment. I swallowed the rest of my ice, melted to a puddle in my mouth.

“We can come back,” I offered. I know now it was a foolish thing to say, but the realization that we would never see the place again had not hit me. But Gran didn’t think it was silly. That was the thing about Gran. While most adults dismissed me out of hand, Gran always stopped to think. It wasn’t because she was daft. Gran liked to keep an open mind. She said ideas were like ladybugs. They’re all around if you keep your eye out – but it’s easy to focus straight ahead and let them all fly by.

“Okay,” Gran said at length. “We’ll come back.” 

I’m convinced she meant it, too. If she had lived long enough, the two of us would have been creeping through this stranger’s yard, hiding in the small brick faerie house. She wasn’t that old as grandmas go, and she wasn’t scared of anything.

It started to rain. It wasn’t a lot, but the drops that did fall were huge. One plopped on my forehead, scattering across my face. Gran looked up at the sky. I wasn’t sad yet, not then, but I could tell Gran was. It was strange because I’d never seen her sad. She told me once she had a spat with Sadness, and he was banned from the house.

“They’re not angry with you, Gran,” I said. 

I felt droplets splatter on my bare arms. I cast about for something reassuring to say, something to prove to her that nobody was angry.

Gran once confided in me that partings were her favorite part in books. She liked when people realized they were losing something they never knew they had. You always see things clearly over your shoulder. Her words, not mine.

“They’re saying goodbye,” I said.

Gran smiled at that. She turned her face up toward the sky and let those big droplets fall on her cheeks and on her chin and above her bushy eyebrows. Her arms were outstretched, like a scarecrow. Or like that moment just before a hug.

After a minute, I stood up off the hammock. I went next to her, my head reaching just below her shoulder. Then I threw my arms wide and closed my eyes, lifting my face toward those tearful clouds.

Goodbye, clouds, I thought. I stuck out my tongue to see if I could catch any droplets in my mouth.

That moment is so vivid in my memory, even when the faerie garden itself has begun to fade into the past. But that moment, I know I’ll never forget: droplets hitting my face and arms like water balloons, my tongue sticking out, my senses alert to hear if the clouds or any other creature or presence in the air that day would answer me. I didn’t want to let any ladybugs fly by.

When I finally opened my eyes, I looked at Gran. Her hair was plastered to her forehead. Her clothes were wet, too, and sticking to her skin. I’m sure I was just as soaked. It reminded me of when Tom had us play Wax Museum in the middle of a storm.

“Help me pick carrots?” Gran asked. I nodded. The two of us walked into the faerie garden, the ground muddy and slick beneath our feet. I dug my hands into the mud, relishing the feeling between fingers as I tugged on a root.

We took as many as we could carry in our arms. Usually we didn’t disturb so many, but I suppose it was a going-away present. We headed to the house, our arms muddy to the elbows and our shirts soaked against our bodies. I don’t remember feeling any discomfort – I know Gran never did. She didn’t believe in discomfort.

I don’t even remember eating the carrots. All I can recall is that moment with my head held high and rain splattering my face and Gran’s. It’s my favorite memory of Gran.

I wonder if that was her favorite memory of me, too. She always had a favorite. She thought everyone ought to have a favorite of everything. A favorite food, a favorite movie. A favorite feeling.

My favorite is remembering, if that counts.

No one remembers Gran much nowadays. My little sister hadn’t learned to speak before Gran passed. And Pa’s lost a lot of his memories in the last few years. Sometimes he sits in his study at the top of the stairs, talking to my mother as if she’s still in the room. Maybe she is.

I remember Gran every time I see a ladybug crawling across my window at my office. Her face is hazy; so is the garden and that little brick house. I missed it painfully for a while. A piece of my childhood torn away. Sometimes I wonder if the faerie garden is still there. Is that yard still filled with gaudy purple zinnias? Or did someone tear them up to plant rose bushes? Or maybe the weeds and bracken crawled their way in and overgrew it.

I mentioned it to Tom once when I bumped into him at a gas station (of all places). I almost didn’t recognise him, even though we had seen each other at the high school reunion. He didn’t remember the brick house. I didn’t bother asking if he remembered his plan with the muskets.

I try not to forget Gran. But I’ll be honest, I forget sometimes too. It was a long time ago, and I didn’t know her very long in the grand scheme of life. I was too young then to really understand that it was the end. Too young to be sad at her funeral. Although I did refuse to look in the casket – Pa was annoyed at me, but I’m glad I did that. I like Gran better the way I remember her. I have a feeling the funeral directors forgot to put grass stains on her pants.

But even if I forget her sometimes, I know Gran wouldn’t be mad at me. She knows I’m looking at her over my shoulder. And, in part, she’s still here with me in the little drawer in my fridge. It’s full of carrots – for Saturday mornings and when it rains. 

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