The Keeper

Bridget scrunched up her chubby nose as she pushed open the door to his room and waited for the creak she knew would follow. She walked on the exaggerated tiptoes of a four-year-old until she reached the big chair. Then she waited. It wouldn’t be long until the bleary blue eyes would welcome her. She never looked away from the old man slumped in the overstuffed chair, the green fabric worn to shiny threads on the arms. She listened to the raspy wheeze that puffed past his lips.

The eyes snapped open and this was her cue. She climbed onto his bony lap and settled in. A tangy smell of shaving cream clung to his cheeks, mixed with the sweet aroma of the peppermint candy that perpetually tumbled around his mouth. The gray sweater was furry-soft against her arms. Spindly fingers gently brushed the wayward auburn curls from her forehead. He whispered a tale to her in a strange tongue. Her plump mouth moved almost imperceptibly, mimicking his words, until she slept in the cot of his arms.

* * *

“It makes me nervous.” Annie lifted her hand holding the knife and brushed an unruly ginger curl from her eyes. She dropped the peeled potato into the pan on the table. “Twelve grandchildren and sixteen other great-grandchildren. Not one of them will go near him.” A slight breeze blew across the screened porch and mussed her hair again. “Nobody even calls him grandfather; he’s always The Old Man. If I were Maureen I wouldn’t let Bridget go anywhere near him. God forgive me, he’s my grandfather but he gives me the creeps.”

The older woman stopped peeling the potato she held and looked at her daughter. “Ownie wouldn’t hurt her – or anybody.” She pursed her lips. “He never has. He’s always been gentle despite himself. You shouldn’t say those things, Annie.”

“Maybe not, but you can’t tell me you don’t feel it too.” Annie grabbed another potato from the basket. “I’ve seen the look on your face when he calls and you have to go into that room.” She waved the knife in her mother’s direction. “And he’s never paid any attention to any of the other kids, only Bridget.” She pitched the peeled potato into the pot for emphasis.

“I don’t know why, either. Maybe because she’s the youngest. He knows he doesn’t have much time left. He’s ninety-three after all.” Mary sighed and remembered the man her father had been in his younger years. He never was one to show affection to his children, no hugs or kisses for sure. Paddy and Tom left home as soon as they could find a way to keep themselves, their way of giving their due to the man who sired them. Otherwise there might have been hell to pay, and no son wanted to be known for disrespecting his father. Even her sisters moved away as soon as they could, Annie got married and Breda worked as a tavern cook in the city. When their mother died, she was the one left behind to care for him.

“But you’re right, the others don’t exist for him,” she conceded as a ribbon of parings dropped onto the paper in her lap. “It’s strange, though. When the babies were born, your grandfather was right there for his turn to hold each one.” She tossed the potato into the pot. “He looked them over. Not checking for ten fingers or toes like anyone might, mind you, but something…” Mary sighed and picked another potato.

“I remember,” Annie offered. “I saw it too, but couldn’t put a finger on it. What do you think he was looking for?”

“Something special, something only he could know.” Mary looked at her daughter. Annie stopped peeling and stared at her mother expectantly, waiting for her to go on.

“It was different when Bridget was born,” she continued. “I can remember that day like it was yesterday, it surprised me so.” She paused as she recalled the incident. “All the other babies he held for a minute and then handed them right back to their mother. Even Jason, the first great-grandson to carry on the family name. I thought Ownie would cry when he handed him back to Kathleen.” Mary stared unfocused at the opposite wall. “Bridget was different. He held her to his cheek, a faint whisper in her wee ear. He got up from his chair and looked like he dared anyone to take her away. He brought her out here to the porch and I thought Maureen would have a fit, she was so scared.” Mary stopped, lost again in her memory of the day.

“Then what?” Annie verbally nudged her mother. “He didn’t hurt the baby, right?”

“Good heavens, no!” Mary went back to peeling. “After about ten minutes, I got a little nervous myself and came out to see. He was sitting in this very chair with the baby still against his cheek. He never said a word, just looked at me with the oddest expression, like I interrupted something important. He held the baby out to me and I gathered her in my arms. He went directly to his room, shut the door and never came out again for the rest of the day.”

Annie pondered for a minute. “But then he forgot her too, didn’t he? She was as invisible as the other kids, until that day.”

“Until that day,” repeated Mary, again pausing while the memory played itself out in her mind. “I was scared to death. I looked high and low but I couldn’t find her anywhere. I prayed to the Blessed Mother to keep her safe.” She stopped and sighed. “Then I heard Ownie’s voice through the door. I opened it just a crack and peeked in. She was cradled on his lap and he was telling her a story. It wasn’t a tale I’d ever heard him tell before. And that’s where she goes every afternoon, after her nap. He tells her the old stories. That’s all.”

Annie stared at her mother, potato poised in mid-air with her mouth open. “I still don’t think it’s right,” was all she could think of to say.

* * *

The little one opened her eyes slowly and looked up into the old man’s face. His knobby hand dropped back to his knee. She reached up her own plump hand and patted his cheek.

“We’re almost done, right Ownie?” she asked.

“Yes, pet, we are almost done,” he whispered back hoarsely and kissed her forehead.

He was tired. These lessons were necessary, but exhausted him. He knew his time was near and he had given her almost all now. She knew too. She was next in the line that stretched back to the ancient ones. He had waited a long time for her, but he knew there had to be another to take his place. The line would not be broken. He was content his burden was almost done and now she would be The Keeper. She would preserve the old stories, safeguarding them as he had, as all those before them had done. He adored this childas he had no other in his life, save one. His time with each of them had been so short, yet filled with such intense love.

“I will miss you, Ownie,” she said so sadly he wanted to fold her in his arms and hold her to him forever. She climbed down from his lap and walked slowly to the door. She turned and looked, put her pudgy little hand to her mouth and blew him a kiss. Then she left, closing the door softly behind her.

He sighed and knuckled a tear that threatened to spill down his cheek. He remembered the other one, his grandmother. He knew now what she must have felt those many years ago, when he had been the one who curled into her lap. He knew, too, what the little one felt now. He didn’t envy her the obligation she must carry for so many years to come, as he had lived with it himself. It had not been easy, but it had been necessary. She would be the one apart, because she was the chosen one, never because she chose for herself. He sighed deeply and closed his eyes.

Bridget stepped onto the porch. Her aunt and grandmother started, looking at her uneasily. She walked to the edge of the stairs and nudged open the door while she turned to face them.

“Ownie’s almost through,” she said in a voice that sounded far wiser than a four-year-old should have. Then she walked down the steps and across the lawn.

“What was that supposed to mean?” Annie asked, her mouth a puzzled frown.

“I’m not sure,” Mary answered her daughter. “I’m not quite sure.”

* * *

When she opened the door this day, the old man was wide awake and his blue eyes, as bright as her own, sparkled down at her. She thought he looked happy and sad at the same time. She climbed into his lap.

“This is the last story, isn’t it, Ownie?”

“Yes, pet, today is the last one.” He stroked her hair. “This is the story of Owen. The others I have told you as my grandmother told me, and as her father told her. I tell you now of my own days as you will speak your own tale when it is your time and the next one has come to you…”

When he finished the story, he inhaled sharply and his hand slipped from her curls. She sat patiently for a moment and watched. His eyes closed, the lids like thin crinkled paper stretched across the darkened hollows. She reached up a hand to each side of his face and gently stroked his cheeks. When she kissed his thin lips, she thought he smiled.

“I love you so much, Ownie,” she whispered as she gazed at the familiar furrows of his worn face. “Have a good sleep.”

Bridget climbed down and tiptoed out of the room. This time she left the door open. She walked through the kitchen, pushed open the screen door and stepped onto the porch where her aunt and grandmother were sitting. When they turned to look, her wide blue eyes glistened with tears.

“You better go see, Nana,” she said to her grandmother. “Ownie’s all through now.”

* * *

The day of the funeral was fittingly overcast with an occasional drip of rain. The family gathered at the grave, open and waiting for the old man’s casket to be lowered. Bridget looked up at her mother, Maureen, as she held her hand. They stood at the very front of the crowd gathered to pay respects, next to her grandmother Mary, waiting for the ceremony to begin.

“The angels are crying for Ownie,” the little girl said as she looked up at her mother’s face.

“Yes, pet, I suppose they are.” Maureen’s forehead creased with surprise at her daughter’s comment.

“Mammy, I’m going to miss Ownie an awful lot.” Bridget pouted and her eyes glistened with tears. “Do you think he’ll ever come back to visit?”

Maureen gasped but composed herself before she answered. “I don’t think so, pet. Ownie’s gone for a good long sleep up in heaven now, with the angels.”

“That’s good,” Bridget sighed. “He was very tired.”

Maureen turned to whisper to her mother. Bridget looked at the scene around her. She saw the priest coming around the side of the tent over the grave. Everyone else must have seen him too, as their murmurings dwindled to silence. The priest made the sign of the cross and began to recite the prayers for the dead. The mourners answered by rote, responses ingrained from years of repetition.

Bridget’s mind wandered. She remembered random bits of Ownie’s stories. She had her favorites, but she remembered all of them, even the ones that were not so nice. She had to remember, it was what she had been chosen for. She didn’t really understand why, but she knew she would when she was older. There was a very important thing she had to do today, though, of that she was certain, and it was almost time. She turned her attention back to the service. The priest waved his hands in the air above the casket.

“That’s the box where Ownie’s sleeping,” Bridget whispered and secretly pointed.

The priest finished the prayers and the last Amen echoed across the cemetery. The crowd broke into smaller groups as the immediate family gathered at the side of the tent. Nobody seemed in much of a hurry. The priest stepped away to a knot of men who had known the old man in his younger days. Bridget took advantage of her mother’s conversation with a cousin she hadn’t seen in years to break away from her grip. Her short legs trotted over to where her grandmother was talking to her sister while they waited for the other siblings to pray over the coffin. She tilted her head and looked up at their faces. Nobody was paying attention to the little girl.

Bridget walked to the back side of the coffin, carefully avoiding the edge of the deep hole. She peeked around the side but nobody looked her way, all involved in their own business. The coffin looked huge to her, made of shiny dark wood. A wide decorative molding bordered the edge of the lid with three brass handles spaced beneath it. The little girl grabbed hold of the center handle and hoisted herself up on her toes to a narrow ledge around the bottom of the casket. She peered over the top. Nobody noticed as she climbed on top of the coffin. She carefully stood up to her full height on the rounded lid and spread her arms wide as she gazed at the sky.

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” Mary cried out as she spotted her granddaughter standing on top of the coffin.

“Oh my God!” Maureen yelled as she spied her daughter at the same time.

Cries and shouts went up from the crowd. Several women started to run toward the coffin but were pulled up short before they reached the tent. Mary got there first and tried to grab Bridget but was prevented from reaching the little girl. Maureen cried hysterically, rooted to the ground where she stood. Aunts and uncles and cousins gathered around the scene but no one was able to get close to Bridget. As one, they fell silent and stopped wherever they were.

A fresh breeze lifted the flaps of the tent and played with the flowers that had been placed around the grave, tossing loose petals into the air around the little girl. Frozen in place, every eye was focused on her face. Bridget’s voice pealed loud and clear, with the innocent tone of a four-year-old, yet ancient in its timbre. There wasn’t another sound. No one there would have seen or heard the likes of it, nor had it been heard for eighty years, since the young Owen had spoken the words in his turn.

“Eoin Mac Brigid has returned to the old ones, passing the words on to Brigid Ní Eoin. Is mise coimeádaí an scéil! I am The Keeper!”

Thunder cracked overhead. One brilliant flash engulfed the bronze curls and innocent expression, casting the child’s visage with fiery gold for one instant. Another flash embraced the casket and a golden orb ascended to the sky in front of her. Her blue eyes gleamed as she watched the image of her beloved grandfather soar into the procession of his waiting ancestors. Another rumble and the light was gone, returning the day as it was.

Bridget blinked and looked out over her family gathered around her. They were her responsibility now. The stories had been entrusted to her, to protect with diligence and ruthlessness, though it would not be the challenge it was for those who had come before her long ago. In those ancient times, they defended from those who would try to seize the words, steal them for their own gain against the tribe, but that was not the case anymore. These days, most weren’t even aware the stories existed. Still, she would do what was required of her, and when the time was right, she would pass the stories to the one who would come after her, another yet to be born. It was the way and as it should be. The little girl knew that Ownie would be waiting for her when her time had come. She lowered her arms, and in an instant, the spell that had been raised was released. Mary took one long step and reached out for her granddaughter, grabbing her around the waist and pulling the child against her.

“Mother Mary, what were you thinking, child?” The grandmother was breathing as hard as if she had run a mile to get there. “Are you all right, pet?”

Maureen reached them next and threw her arms around both her mother and daughter at the same time. “What were you doing, Bridget? You’re near to being the death of me.”

Both women cried as they hugged the little girl as she squirmed to release their hold. All around them, the relatives pressed to know if she was all right, called her a little monkey and a bold one. The younger cousins pointed, sure that a spanking would be in order. The priest was pale as if he had seen a ghost. But there was no memory of what they had witnessed, the rite of passage from one Keeper to the next. Only Bridget knew. She broke free of her mother and grandmother and stood looking up at the sky.

“I love you, Ownie. I promise I will do good.”