It was a closed-casket funeral, and no one would tell me exactly how he’d died. Cancer? Heart attack? A fall from scaffolding?
Earlier that week my father had come into my room and sat at the edge of my bed.
“Your grandpa has died,” he said and then paused for a long time, his body shaking, his voice scratchy.
“What do you mean?” I asked, “I just saw him.”
He put his hand on my arm.
“He is gone,” he said. “I know you will miss him — we will all miss him — but know that he loved you so very much.”
My father gave me a long hug and then left to tell the others.
I lay back down in the pre-dawn light. Dead? Gone? Did he step through some secret door, into a place where I couldn’t follow?
I pulled the covers over my head and reached my arm over the edge of my bed, searching for what I had hidden between my mattresses. When I found it I brought it to my chest and held it tight. Then my body convulsed and tears streamed down my cheeks, no sound coming from my opened mouth.
Months prior my grandfather and I had sat on his living room floor with our backs to the couch, which was his way. He had reached into his pocket and pulled out a 6-inch shiny black stone that had been carved into a sharpened taper at one end.
A broad grin spread across his face as his eyebrows lifted into wrinkly arches.
“You know what this is, don’t you?” he asked.
“An arrowhead,” I said proudly, “but I’ve never seen one like that before.”
His smile grew even wider and his green eyes flashed.
“That’s cuz this here is a rare specimen,” he said, elongating each letter in the word rare. “It’s not just an arrowhead — this one here is a spear tip.”
He held it up to the light, poised between his thumb and forefinger. It was difficult to tell the difference between his gnarled fingers and the chiseled stone.
“The warriors who made this were both artists and craftsmen — they had a job and they did it well,” he said.
He twisted the stone in the light, highlighting a silvery glow that ringed its paper-thin edge.
“See how even after all these years they’ve left something that tells the story of who they were and what was important to them: That they made things that lasted and were beautiful.”
From the nearby kitchen the smell of frying chicken and freshly baked biscuits drifted in along with the sound of my grandmother’s softly humming a tune I didn’t recognize.
“I am giving this to you,” he said, lowering the rock into my open hand.
It felt lighter than I had imagined.
“Take very good care of it, and maybe one day you can give it to your own grandson,” he said.
I smiled and rubbed my finger over the glass-like surface that had been worn smooth with time.
“But you might want to keep it out of sight for now,” he said and then winked and nodded toward the kitchen.
I quickly covered the stone with my other hand and my grandfather laughed a deep, rolling laugh. He then reached into his other pocket for a pack of cigarettes, pulling one out and placing it between his lips.
“Do you think they killed deer with it?” I asked.
He nodded slowly as he lit his cigarette, pulling in the smoke and then blowing out a misty blue stream.
“More than one I suppose,” he said, his voice tight. “Maybe a few bears, too.”
“A bear,” I repeated slowly, picturing what it might have been like to be that close to a bear that had claws and teeth not much smaller than the single spear point I held in my hand.
He laid his cigarette into an already-full ashtray that sat in the middle of the coffee table and pulled a harmonica from some unseen pocket.
Tapping the metallic instrument on his thigh he then started to play, the singsong melody one I’d heard many times before.
I lay down on the carpet and put my head on his thigh, holding up the stone to the light.
This really is a fine piece of work, I thought, and I wondered if the person who made it also had a grandpa who played music and smoked.
As I lay there, the sweet sound of his harmonica blending together with my grandmother’s humming, I closed my eyes.
Minutes later her voice called from the kitchen.
“Almost time for dinner. Better get washed up,”
My grandfather made no move to get up. After a few seconds he resumed playing, softening the tune a bit and lengthening the notes.
To my surprise my grandmother didn’t repeat her call to dinner but instead began to hum, adjusting her pitch so as to find harmony with his music.
Originally published in the St. Helena Star, August 2018