HUN­DREDS AND HUN­DREDS

The Simple Things - - BEDTIME STORY - A short story by EMMA HOOPER

The cur­tains were use­less. Thin fab­ric, as trans­par­ent as the win­dow it­self: 5am and al­ready the sun was hot on my eyes, even though they were closed. Down the hall I could hear noises, some­one awake. Al­ready.

I looked over at my bed-mate, my sis­ter. Younger, still asleep. I blew on her face.

She woke, opened her eyes, then squished them closed again. “Ow. Bright.” she said. And then, “What time is it?” “Grandma is crazy,” I said. “She’s al­ready up. It’s 5am.” “It’s too hot,” she said, and tried to roll away from the light. I held her hair, gen­tly, so she couldn’t. “You can’t go back to sleep,” I said. “Why?” “Be­cause I can’t.” I said. “Grandma’s tak­ing us some­where.” “I don’t want to go,” she said. “I’m on strike. We’ve been aban­doned, so I’m on strike.”

Our par­ents were in Italy. Bik­ing on tiny, dusty roads. Drink­ing wine from un­la­belled bot­tles. Eat­ing the most amaz­ing toma­toes.

We were not in Italy. We’d been dumped at Grandma’s, sur­rounded by fields, lit­ter-strewn and over-grown. “We’re not aban­doned,” I said. “It smells weird here,” said my sis­ter. “Still,” I said.”We have to get up.” It was about a mil­lion de­grees out, but Grandma had us put on our wellies. “It’s safer,” she said. “Where are we go­ing?” asked my sis­ter. “Out,” said Grandma. Her own wellies were green and cracked about, way too big. Grandpa’s, I re­alised. They used to be Grandpa’s. “Out where?” “To the dump,” said Grandma. She opened the door and strode off. Grandma didn’t drive, so we walked, hot wellies sticky on sweaty calves, through tall grass and this­tle and dirt, silent un­der burn­ing sun. Grandma was wear­ing a hat, a base­ball cap; I wished I’d thought of that.

The dump is just a ba­sic dump, not the city kind, with staff and re­cy­cling and things, just piles of garbage, mostly old machin­ery, in a fenced-in bit of a field that, other­wise, was just a field. No one else was there.

Grandma stopped walk­ing. “There,” she said. She pointed at some old seats from a car. The rest of the car was gone. She walked over and sat in one.

“Gross,” whis­pered my sis­ter. “Here,” said Grandma. We sat next to her. It smelled of metal and heat and rot. “OK,” said my sis­ter. “That was nice. Time to go home?” “Shh,” said Grandma. My sis­ter was quiet. We watched the trash. And then, a bird flew out from un­der a burnt-out trac­tor. Out, and up. Then another, and another, and another, un­til there were 20, maybe 30 birds, all fly­ing up, ca­reen­ing, swoop­ing, danc­ing.

We watched them, mouths open. They danced for two min­utes, maybe three. And then were gone. We watched the sky where they’d been, not ready for it to be over.

“There used to be more,” said Grandma. “There used to be hun­dreds more.”

“Yeah?” asked my sis­ter. “Yes,” said Grandma. “Hun­dreds and hun­dreds.” “It’s still beau­ti­ful,” said my sis­ter. “Yes,” I said. “Yes,” said Grandma. We walked back with her in front, lead­ing us, through grass high and green and yel­low and longer than our breath, our days.

Author and aca­demic Emma Hooper is also the mu­si­cian be­hind Wait­ress For Bees, in which she takes to the glock­en­spiel and mu­si­cal saw as ac­com­pa­ni­ment to songs about di­nosaurs and in­sects. Her new novel, Our Home­sick Songs, is pub­lished by Fig Tree, and her sim­ple plea­sure is “run­ning, alone, rain or shine.”

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