Last week I attended an event called “Wine & Words,” an annual event that supports Theatre By The River. For the last three years, I’ve been asked to submit a new piece of writing as one of the event’s featured writers. The last two years I submitted excerpts from “The Evolution of Alice,” my first novel. This year, I allowed myself to play and wrote something brand new. The piece had to work in concert with the theme of the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s exhibit “Olympus.” So, it needed to be based in greek mythology or touch on the themes of death, religion, or the afterlife. My story, “Dust to Dust,” does just that. It’s a scene familiar to parents: a child asking about death and what happens after it. Read the story after the jump (it has to be 2-3 minutes long for the performer). Oh, and just to get all “greek mythology” with it, Maia is the daughter of Atlas.
Dust to Dust by David A. Robertson
Maia stopped him while he was picking up his grandmother’s picture to dust underneath the frame. She’d been playing a grade-two version of Symphony No. 5 in C Minor for him, but stopped when she saw him lift the photograph.
“Who’s that?” she said.
He looked down to see her pointing at his grandma’s portrait.
“Oh,” he said, “my grandma, your great-grandma.”
“Did she die?” she said.
“Yes, she died,” he said.
“Did I know her?” she said.
He placed the frame back in its place, the dust now cleared from underneath it, and reached behind the picture. He took out an unframed photograph of his grandma and Maia sharing an ice cream cone in the living room of his grandma’s place in Melita. He still remembered stealing peas from the garden when he was a kid, hiding the shells under the couch in the living room, sure his grandma would never find them. The couch was photobombing in the background of the picture. It had been taken a few months before his grandma died. He handed the photo to Maia. She took it and held it up to her face with both hands as though she needed reading glasses.
“You were her favourite little girl,” he said.
“Was she sad when she died?” she said.
“No sweetie, she was happy,” he said.
“Why?” she said.
“Well, your sister was born right before she died, and your other great-grandma, mommy’s grandma, took a picture of your sister to the hospital,” he said.
“So she saw it?” she said.
“She saw it. She kept it right by her bed,” he said.
Maia handed the picture back and said, “Is she in heaven now?”
He looked over to the couch in the living room where his wife was reading a story to Maia’s sister. His wife had heard and met his eyes, and he asked her with a cocked eyebrow what he should say, if grandma was in heaven or not, as though his wife was Peter standing at the gates of eternity. After a moment, she nodded to him. Grandma was in. He looked back at Maia.
“Yeah, she’s in heaven,” he said.
“Good,” she said.
He placed the photograph of Maia and his grandma beside his grandma’s framed portrait and gingerly dusted around the area in places where he’d already dusted, then picked up the next frame and lifted it and dusted underneath it. The piano hadn’t restarted, and almost as soon as he’d picked up the frame Maia said, “Who’s that?”
“Your great-grandpa,” he said. “My grandpa. He’s dead too.”
“Did I know him?” she said.
He finished dusting and placed the picture back. He wiped around the frame’s perimeter.
“No, you didn’t know him,” he said.
“Oh,” she said. “Did you know him?”
He picked up the next picture over and handed it to Maia and she held the frame the same way as before, almost right up to her nose. He could see her hot breath create a thin film over the glass. She looked at the picture, to him, and back to the picture.
“Who’s that little boy?” she said.
“That’s me at the skating rink in Melita, skating with your great-grandpa. I was about your age,” he said.
“You did know him,” she said.
“I did,” he said.
“So he’s in heaven too?” she said.
He took the picture from Maia and held it in his hands and his focus rested on his tiny seven-year old hand. It was dressed in a wool mitt and wrapped within his grandpa’s gloved hand. He remembered feeling like he could never fall if he was holding his grandpa’s hand.
Years later, he’d be sitting with his grandpa in the living room of his parent’s house. They’d be watching a game show, it didn’t matter which one; they weren’t watching it. He’d turn to his grandpa and ask, “Are you scared, you know, about where you’re going?” and his grandpa would write back on his yellow notepad, “No. If you remember me then I’ll still be here,” and it all seemed so simple at the time. That’s kind of what was written on grandpa’s headstone, too—that memories held the secret to the afterlife.
There was a bench by the tee box on the fifth hole of the Melita golf course that was dedicated to his grandpa, Mickey. When he sat on it, sometimes he felt like he was sitting with the old man. But what did that mean, and what did that do to heaven? He looked over at Maia. She was waiting for an answer, her fingers hovering over the ebony and ivory keys, ready to play again once her world was set right.
“Sure he is,” he said. “I mean, if your great-grandma is there, he has to be, right?”
And as he placed the picture of himself and his grandpa back on the shelf and continued to dust under and around the remaining objects – a feathered talking stick, two porcelain angels positioned to face each other, a carved duck, a bonsai tree, crystal candle holders they’d inherited from his grandma – Symphony No. 5 in C Minor clumsily, beautifully, played for him once more.