The road from school to Grandma’s house was treeless and the wind blew my skirt in every fierce direction. But when I got to the forest, it swallowed me. The wind rushed the canopy like the sea but the path was black with leaf mould and still. My skirt behaved. Grandma was the only one that really got me. Mum wasn’t a fan. She said Grandma snatched her independence at the expense of our convenience by living alone in the middle of a forest. Apparently, free childcare should be more geographically amenable. Mum said it was stubbornness and selfishness and self-delusion. I thought it was pretty cool. In the forest, everything slowed in autumn. Light caught in the upper tiers of branches and only occasional spotlight streams cut the dark. Nettles, logs, lichen. Insects drunk with cold, fists of fungus shouldering in stealth umbrella blooms. Yellow decayed to rusted carbon, leaves curled then shattered under school shoes. Rust bleached to slate-clean grey. I chipped fuchsia nail polish from my jagged, bitten nails. It seemed unseasonal, every time of year. I sank my shoes in the mud. I scuffed trips of roots. I followed the path to Grandma’s house. Her house was square and had only two rooms. One was her bedroom that took up a corner. The other three corners connected an L-shaped room that played the parts of both living room and kitchen. I did my homework at the long table that ran down one of the sides. The table was for everything. Homework, peeling potatoes, polishing shoes, skinning rabbits. I once handed a blood-stained essay to my teacher titled The Red Hood: The Role of Menstruation in The Company of Wolves. He thought it was some sort of rebellious statement. I let him believe it. But in reality, it was all Grandma. She’d been gutting a pheasant beside me. I always rushed my homework anyway. Grandma’s house wasn’t really for solving differential equations while she sliced venison steaks. It was a house made for stories. Stories as she butchered. Stories as we drank tea. I could pick up anything in the house and it would have a story. I once found a pair of ruby-red knee-high boots at the back of her cupboard, still in their box from the sixties, the ankles crumpled in folds like wrinkled eyelids. Inside the box, the calf of one bowed to make room for the other. But outside the box, they were sex on three-quarter inch heels. Grandma told me about the first time she wore them to an interview where every other candidate was a man and the interview panel were all men too. They looked at her bare knees and licked nicotine from their fingertips. They didn’t offer her the job but she hung around at the closest pub until knock-off time, waiting for any of them to make a move. They all had wedding rings. She thought she could use it as leverage. ‘So, not one made a move?’ I asked. ‘Not one, no.’ ‘So you had no leverage?’ ‘No, my love, I had plenty. But that’s the thing with leverage. A little points a finger to a bad apple. A lot means the whole damn tree is rotten.’ The whole time she talked, she rubbed dubbin into the leather of the boots. She had plenty of stories about those boots. And with every story, the leather got softer and the ankles straightened. Grandma, on the other hand, slowly turned the shade of lavender milk. When she was too tired to tell stories, I read her books. Every single one of her walls was covered in shelves. And every single shelf was stacked with romance novels. Those pages were my real education. Man plus sex is not congruent to husband. Man plus sex is not congruent to pleasure. Someone else’s husband plus sex might be. Eventually, the boots wouldn’t take any more polishing. She told me of the last time she wore the boots. To my parents’ wedding. She planned to dance all night. But when she got to the church, Mum told her to dress her age. She borrowed a pair of velcro orthopaedics from a nun. She still danced but she regretted not wearing the boots. She twisted the lid onto the tin of dubbin, the waxy paste all gone, just a residue left in the cracks that were starting to rust. The tin creaked in her fingers as she sighed. Or perhaps it was the other way around. ‘Go on, love,’ she said, holding out the boots. ‘Try them on.’ They weren’t my size but they fit. Grandma leaned back into her chair and closed her eyes. ‘Magic.’ I started wearing the boots to school. Without Mum knowing, of course. Mum or Dad would drop me off early before going to work and I would spend the first half-hour alone in the girls’ bathroom, pulling on the boots and folding the top of my skirt over and over until it reached the pleats and the hem barely covered my underwear. I felt grown up. I felt like I finally wore myself on the outside. The boys stared and the girls whispered behind their hands. I felt powerful. I no longer walked to Grandma’s house after school. I strode. In the still sigh of winter, the bare forest was rough bones and scale bunions. The pad of an animal on an unmarked path, parallel to mine, the beats excited, almost humming. Then stomach-pinching silence. I saw quick shadows of birds high in the sky above, soaring, untethered. I thought I could hear the restless cough of spring. One day, I went to Grandma’s house after school, and Uncle Greg was sitting at the kitchen table. He took one look at me and said: ‘You girls these days are just inviting trouble, aren’t you?’ He was sorting the silverware. It took him a good fifteen minutes to remember to tell me Grandma was in hospital and Mum was coming to pick me up. ‘Don’t touch the books,’ I said as I left. He just shrugged, like he didn’t care for their value. It wasn’t Grandma in the hospital bed, not really, just someone with her shape and a pinch of her warmth under the damp, rice paper skin. She made a spooky sound, like someone under a white sheet pretending to be a ghost, then laughed and said: ‘Don’t be afraid of the wolves.’ ‘Jesus, Mum, would you stop encouraging her,’ Mum growled. Grandma didn’t reply. She was gone. It made Mum dumb for a while. She seemed surprised. I wasn’t. There was never any way anyone but Grandma was going to get the last word. When Mum saw my boots she said: ‘Those were supposed to be mine.’ Tears ran down her face. I wondered if that was how adults cried, like it wasn’t really happening. I thought about Uncle Greg, counting the forks. ‘If they were yours, why were they at the back of Grandma’s cupboard?’ Mum tucked the blanket around Grandma’s naked toes then tucked my hair inside my hood. ‘Life gets in the way, I suppose.’ What sort of life is that? I wanted to ask. Because the life I saw for myself was inside those boots, not outside them. But I didn’t ask. I let Mum hold my hand and do her silent adult cry. And I cried too. A sniffling sort of hiccup cry. Because although the boots made me feel grown-up, I just wanted my mum to hug me and tell me it was going to be OK.
About the Author
Kinneson Lalor followed a PhD in Physics from the University of Cambridge with an MSt in Creative Writing from the same institution. She is Australian but lives in the UK. Her work has appeared in various places including Tiny Molecules, Reflex Press, Ghost Parachute, and Ellipsis Zine, and on various shortlists including the BFFA. She was the 2021 winner of the 1000 Word Herd competition. She is currently querying for her novel about time-travelling botanists and beasts in Swedish castles.