My grandfather called me at college three weeks before the summer semester ended to say he’d stopped sleeping. “No need to any more, Rob, my head’s clear as ever, but maybe we should think about seeing each other before too long.”
He didn’t ask me to come right away, but by the following midmorning, I was creating a dust cloud on the long driveway to the dozen or so acres at the heart of the farm. On either side, fields leased to neighbors were high with corn having a good year.
Though my father grew up here, farm life never got into his blood. Manufacturing close tolerance jet engine parts for the military and the money that brought appealed to him more. As for me, well, the road to my eventual future in neurological research was already mapped out in some detail.
I’d driven all night without sleep, but going sleepless wasn’t anything new for me. With finals close, I habitually shambled around campus, bleary eyed, grunting at friends and getting no better response back. We were a serious, career fixated lot, little more than academic zombies by the end of a term, too obsessed with stuffing our own brains with the knowledge to think about eating anyone else’s. Still, if knowledge were transferrable that way, who knows how safe our professors’ brains would have been?
The barn, with cows and milking apparatus sold off and used now only for storage, was freshly painted. Gramps still kept a small flock of alert, intelligent brown and white goats who kept the grass cropped close and gave a milk rich with six percent butterfat. As I crunched onto the gravel turnaround, laying hens in the poultry yard looked up and immediately lost interest in me. This all felt perfectly familiar, wonderfully warm, better even than going back to my parents’ home.
Gramps was rocking in the porch swing.
I used the moments climbing the steps to size him up posture, muscle tone, expression. His grey eyes were clear. He looked fit, healthy, tanned. A lifetime of hard work will do that for a man.
“You really don’t sleep?” I asked after our hug.
“Not a wink for eight days now. I don’t get tired. I work in the gardens during the day, eat, then read all night. Occasionally, I’ll close my eyes for a few minutes listening to music, usually recordings of your grandmother playing Bach. Before, the days were always too short. Now, I have time for things I never did before. I’ve even given up coffee.”
That summer, I’d been studying my tail off trying to master the intricacies of cell biology and organic chemistry as I strove to graduate my premed program a year early. I was often so exhausted I hardly knew what I was reading, but so long as enough stuck, I couldn’t let myself sleep. I could envy this man who didn’t need to. Life without coffee was unimaginable.
“Everybody needs sleep, Gramps,” I said. “You can’t stay awake forever. It’s got to catch up with you sometime.” In a neuropsychology course, I’d read about an Eskimo shot in the head by a harpoon who’d lost a teacup of brain material but survived. Along with personality changes, his sleep cycle changed, six weeks of wakefulness alternating with six dead to the world.
Gramps shrugged. “When that happens, I expect to be asleep a good long while.” He saw the way I was nodding and made his intention unmistakable. “At least until the last trump sounds and graves open up.”
I wondered at this from a lifelong unrepentant atheist. He’d never been shy about sharing opinions which, often enough, appalled more traditional family members. Not my father though who was only devout about getting his share of federal defense dollars.
I was still figuring out my own answers to questions seemingly long settled in my grandfather’s mind. Gramps had always said that once the fluorescent bulb stops flickering, the bathroom stays dark until we get a new one. When I’d tease, “So now you believe in reincarnation?” my grandfather just chuckled.
“On the phone, you mentioned a small stroke. That’s what the doctors think?”
“I don’t need a doctor to tell me my time is short. I hoped you’d come after exams. I’m selfish enough to want to spend some time with you however much you can spare, but I never wanted you to take off when you need to be studying.”
“You’ve never asked much of me, Gramps. I’d have come even if it meant missing finals.”
“I appreciate that. I haven’t said anything to your father yet. He’s so busy, I hardly ever remember the sound of his voice.”
We were a driven family, but we handled the demands of hectic schedules differently. “A couple weeks ago when I called Mom and Jan, Dad picked up. I got a ‘Good to hear your voice, Rob’, before he passed the phone.”
We spent the rest of the morning outside drinking iced tea with sprigs of garden mint. After lunch, I looked around the immaculate yard, the well tended house and buildings.
“I could use some exercise. What can I do?”
All afternoon, I weeded dense flowerbeds on my knees while Gramps tilled the vegetables and aerated my grandmother’s magnificent flower garden. We washed off in the cold water of the hand pump toward evening, then switched to fresh-made lemonade with some limes thrown in for good measure as we did more catching-up.
The farm was stiller without my grandmother’s lively presence. She’d died of heatstroke in her garden eight years before. After that, my grandfather’s life shrank. That’s when my solo visits started, and we’d become so close. Now, visits took more planning and were necessarily shorter.
With nothing needing to be done except things he loved, he had no one to talk to about them, either, except during rare phone calls. A lot of untold stories had gotten stored up. As the sun was close to setting, I sat on the back porch swing listening again to that strong, familiar Midwestern accent.
When the mosquitoes became too fierce, we went inside and fixed dinner to television news.
He cooked the way he did everything. Simple, efficient movements made hardly any mess to clean up. In biology labs, I’d taken the way he used his hands deboning a chicken as my model for performing dissections, but when I realized I’d never have his dexterity, I quietly put aside thoughts of an eventual surgical specialty. After dinner, Gramps allowed himself to be persuaded to sit down to his mystery novel while I washed and towel-dried the dishes.
This wasn’t a traditional farmhouse. My grandmother had brought a fat dowry from her wealthy Eastern family. My grandparents used some of the money to increase the productivity of the milk cows and to strengthen bloodlines with a new prize bull. The rest was used to replace the original, ramshackle house on the top of the hill with an elegant Victorian that recalled the one she’d grown up in and loved. With numerous windows to catch breezes no matter how the wind blew, days in which light curtains over the windows failed to billow constantly were rare.
This was a house I could live in forever. It had changed subtly since the years when my grandmother’s spirit filled it. Now, her presence was most strongly marked by the painting over the Steinway memorializing her last concert in Philadelphia, her birthplace. She sat at the keyboard draped in an elegant dress of lovingly rendered blue silk, but it was her beatific expression that held the eyes, the expression of one transported to places knowable only by those who could hear the actual notes she was playing. Although early arthritis was already interfering with the fluid dexterity of her fingers, only those who knew her playing intimately could sense the loss.
Memories of her were everywhere about the rooms, but there was no doubt that my grandfather’s spirit had now made this place his own.
After midnight, he caught me stifling a yawn. “You don’t have to sit up with me, Rob. I’m the one who doesn’t sleep any more. You might as well get some rest.” I did sit up a bit longer, but eventually I stopped fighting nature, said goodnight, and went upstairs.
My room hadn’t changed. There were fresh flowers on the dresser, just as there had always been when my grandmother picked bouquets to brighten up visits. I could see the flower beds from the window and, just past, the large greenhouse Gramps build for her fiftieth birthday from wood and plastic sheeting that he still had to replace every few years. With hardly any moon, the whole yard lay in deep, mysterious shadow.
I’d always been susceptible to eerily beautiful atmospheric moods. I indulged my half-wish that this lovely night could be of forever. That my grandfather would be able to aerate his garden and prune his bushes and trees until he chose to lay down his tools and lie down in his rope hammock for one final rocking by the wind.
For the first time in months, nothing demanded my attention, leaving me unanchored with thoughts roving in odd directions.
If he’d stopped sleeping, I thought uncritically, perhaps other miracles could happen here as well. A part of me willed this existence to detach from the world, for time to pace itself differently, to flow more slowly because it had become so infinitely precious. No wonder my grandfather found sleeping such a wasteful intrusion. Although tired, looking out the window had somehow taken the edge off my sleepiness.
I turned the light off, pulled the wicker chair up to the window, and sat back with feet resting on the sill. Through the wide-open window, the breeze brought an elusive scent, floral and slightly musky. Did it came from something specific, unfamiliar to me, or was that tantalizing aroma a natural blending of everything outside in simultaneous bloom?
I didn’t try too hard to tease an analysis from the aromas. Back at school, I had access to labs that could tell me what that aroma contained but never what it was. One unknown flower or many familiar ones–did it really matter? Even if my mind solved the mystery, what would really have been accomplished? A helluva attitude for a science major, I thought.
An hour ticked by and still I remained awake, more so even than when I came upstairs. I found it impossible to hold onto any thought for more than a few seconds. This should have bothered me intensely, but it didn’t. My mind flowed and sometime merely oozed. When thought stalled completely, I sometimes reheard my grandfather’s uncommonly deep voice making commonplace observations over the years.
In this quietness, this tranquility that I hadn’t felt for a long time, anything, miracles even, seemed possible. Perhaps something, some spirit, of my grandfather’s house, had slowly, unnoticed, infused into my own. Perhaps I too had lost my need for sleep simply by being here?
With every shift in night breezes, the floral intensity varied in an ever-shifting crescendo and diminuendo.
When my grandmother had to give up performing, she’d given her creative energy over to her gardens and especially the greenhouse. Creative gifts can come singly, but more often they cluster. Just as she had always been able to coax an arresting reading from a familiar musical phrase, she had a knack for persuading flowers to do interesting things, Her last developed flower was the crimson, full-fragranced Janica Rose named for my older sister that embodied perfectly her deeply passionate nature.
After Grandmother died, Gramps took me into a greenhouse filled with trays and racks of plants she’d been encouraging to grow in ways no plant had ever thought to on its own. “The first time I stood here alone and realized they were all my responsibility now, I was overwhelmed until I felt Helen close. ‘Just keep everything watered and fertilized, John. Keep the greenhouse heated in winter. My plants know what they need to do. So do you.'”
Left on their own, the plants followed their own natures, producing rank growths as they fought each other for sun and nourishment.
Occasionally, when storms shredded the sheeting, seeds and even uprooted plants escaped the greenhouse. The garden was full of wild blooms from years of fugitives that had established themselves among the domesticated plants. I’d mentioned once that maybe he should weed them out, or else they might take over Grandma’s flower garden completely, but he would hear none of that. They were all her plants, he’d argued, those domesticated and those wild. “Your grandmother knows what she’s doing. Always has, always will.”
Inhaling deeply in my chair, I thought, maybe something new had escaped, taken up residence this summer in the flowerbeds, some new type of bloom whose fragrance dispelled the need for sleep altogether. Unlikely as it seemed, for the moment, I found myself hoping it might be true, just as I hoped it might make my grandfather eternally youthful and vital.
Toward morning, I caught a glimpse of motion in the yard. In deep shadow, my grandfather was picking cherry tomatoes into a small basket. Not infrequently, one found its way into his mouth. A few minutes after he came back inside, the sprinklers turned on, throwing arcs of water back and forth over vegetable and flower leaves with soothing whispers of gentle rain. It seemed like only the next moment that the sprinklers were off again. I had no idea how long I’d dozed off.
I lay down on the bed without undressing. Of course, I still needed sleep, just not too much. If this was one of the last times I’d have with my grandfather, then I didn’t want to waste any more of it than I could help.
In the morning, about ten, I woke, ashamed of my sloth. There was orange juice already on the kitchen table. A pile of crisp bacon lay on a towel by the stove. The smell of home-made bread toasting was almost unbearably intense. My grandfather was taking a colorful garden omelette off the stove.
“Sorry, Gramps. I didn’t mean to sleep so late.”
“I really didn’t think you’d stay awake all night in a dark, quiet room. I saw you at the window. Don’t worry, you haven’t missed anything.”
“Except time with you.”
He set our plates on the table without saying anything. But when we’d started eating, he glanced up. “We’ve had a lot of time together over the years. A long lifetime of memories. Don’t worry overmuch about those few that won’t get made.”
The rest of my time there, a few days, we talked, we worked in the garden, we drank iced tea and lemonade and, occasionally, home brewed beer made with hops he’d grown himself. When I needed to, I slept. When I woke up we picked up conversations left off and worked some more.
Some nights when that tantalizing fragrance rose up out of the flower beds to permeate my bedroom so intensely, I wondered if it could be some new kind of narcotic drugging my thoughts. Even when I could barely smell it, it was never completely gone. I never asked Gramps about it–too afraid, perhaps, he might give me a name and spoil the magic.
The night before returning to college, I sat at the window thinking that though my father would never willingly live here, even in retirement, a part of me very much longed to. If Gramps could still sensed his wife’s spirit, might I his? How could I allow this place so full of intimate memories to pass into the hands of strangers? How could I keep it from happening until I retired here myself, most of a lifetime away?
A breeze suddenly filled the room with that heady scent, as if the garden itself were urging me to reconsider with the only voice it had. What miracles might be awaiting discovery in that greenhouse? I imagined it suggesting. What about a lifetime of scientific research dedicated to the plants in the greenhouse? Who knows what such luxurious growths might produce? A few novelty varieties appealing only to amateur gardeners? Miracle drugs?
Ridiculous to dedicate the next decade to study only to become a rural GP or mad scientist obsessed with his grandmother’s greenhouse. I had no choice but to give up this place. I had no choice but to cling to it. Any choice I made could only result in surrendering something intensely precious.
From someplace deep in me came a whisper, “This scent is nothing more than your grandfather’s essence that will survive only until his light flickers off for the last time.”
And from another came one of my grandmother’s favorite sayings, “Everything unfolds naturally when you find the right tempo.”
As the breezes shifted again, I could only sit back bewildered in my chair, feet on sill, wishing there was nothing to decide, that everything could remain unchanged. Forever. Indefinitely… for as long as it possibly could.
Finals over, my drive up to the house was leisurely. It had rained, and I stirred up no dust. At the turnaround, I pulled in alongside Martha Svenson’s muddy pickup. Her three boys waved as they put out chicken feed and gathered eggs. The goats were nowhere in sight.
I was the first to arrive. Jan and our parents would be getting in separately later that afternoon. We had a lot to talk about but then decisions would come quickly and efficiently. Individually and as a family we were good at deciding things.
When I came into the kitchen, Martha was putting a dinner casserole into the refrigerator. A platter of assorted film-wrapped sandwiches, dishes of potato and macaroni salad, and a large bowl of fruit sat on the counter next to the hamper. A chocolate cake waited in a covered dish. The kitchen was filled with the welcoming aroma of strong coffee.
Martha put a thick tuna sandwich in front of me and set two full coffee mugs down between us.
“The boys come over every day to take care of the chickens and make sure things are secure,” she said. “In case you’re wondering, the goats are over at our place until you folks decide what to do with them. The kids want to buy the herd. Ted and I are willing if they’re for sale–we all like goat milk…”
I didn’t have to ask how she got in. Gramps had no reason to lock the door, especially once he stopped sleeping. Anyway, it was still common custom to exchange keys with neighbors because…well, you never know.
Two days before, at the end of August, she’d come over in late morning to buy goat milk for baking.
“When John didn’t answer the door and wasn’t in the garden, I let myself in and found him slumped in his chair. The reading light was still on despite the bright morning sun streaming in. At first, I thought the body’s need for sleep had finally caught up with him. Then I noticed his chest wasn’t moving, and when I touched his cheek, it was cold.”
“On the phone, you said he looked peaceful. That he didn’t seem to have died in pain.”
“Peaceful?” She laughed. “Did I say that?… Actually, he looked mostly surprised.”
Surprised was the last word I’d expected, but it suddenly made sense. I laughed with her, but for my own reasons. When I arrived, I’d noticed Gramps’ book neatly closed on the reading table with bookmark lying alongside. Like all the family, Gramps took pride in finishing whatever he started. At surprised, I figured he hadn’t guessed the killer before the detective’s reveal.
“That’s funny?” she asked after I explained.
“There’s a family joke Jan made up. Gramps loves mystery stories, but, a farmer at heart, he’s a sucker for any well planted red herring.”
She peered at me. “That’s a joke? What do herring of any color have to do with farming?”
I bit into the sandwich. “The herring isn’t the joke part; the well-planted is– because he’s a farmer.” She still didn’t get it. “Family jokes don’t translate well, I guess.”
I took another thoughtful bite. “What’s different about this?”
Dill and a hint of anise, the way my kids demand it now. It’s the only way I know how to make it anymore.”
I swallowed. “How is Grams’ garden?”
“As lush as ever. I’ve been picking flowers, but a lot of vegetables and fruit are going to go to waste.”
“Take as much as you can use,” I said. “If you put up any pickles or relish, Jan and I’d appreciate a jar or two.”
I took a breath. “Have you been in the garden at night?”
“Sure. Ted and I made it our business to drop in on John regularly, especially after that sleeplessness thing started. Why?”
“Have you noticed an unusual aroma, sweet and slightly musky?”
“Can’t say I did. That doesn’t mean much, though. With so many different flowers, the smell of a garden is always changing. If you smell it tonight, let me know tomorrow at the funeral. I’ll come over in the evening to see if I can identify it.”
I finished the sandwich while Martha heated up our coffee.
“It doesn’t feel the same here without John,” she said. “It was the same after Helen died…”
John. Oh, yes, my grandfather had a name besides Gramps.
While Martha was cutting flowers to fill the bedrooms with bouquets, I went into the greenhouse. The plants were drooping, so I turned on the root irrigator. There was too much sun to risk burning the leaves with the mister.
I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply. Something hung in the air, but it wasn’t the smell I was interested in.
An hour later, Jan arrived. When she reached up to kiss my cheek, I froze. She pulled back. “I showered this morning. I can’t be that bad!”
“What are you wearing?”
“Don’t your eyes work?”
“I’m not wearing perfume.”
“Kiss me again.”
She laughed. “You really need to find yourself a proper girl friend.”
I leaned down and smelled her neck. “You’re wearing something.”
She extended her arm. “How about here?”
There it was on her wrist. “That’s it, almost. What is it?”
“Some cream Grams gave me years ago. It’s all but gone now. I’ll wear the last of it to the funeral. I think he might like being reminded of her at such a time. Now, what’s all this sudden interest in how I smell?”
I explained as I carried her overnight bag inside. Martha had another sandwich out and a third cup for coffee. I took Jan’s hand and held the wrist out to Martha. “Do you recognize that?” I asked.
She sniffed. “Spirosa,” she said at once. “With the rain we’ve had this summer, it’s all over. Pretty flower and smell, but a persistent weed that’s hard to get rid of when it digs in. You usually have to burn it out. That’s the smell you were wondering about?” I nodded. “I don’t smell any muskiness, though. It’s no wonder you only smelled it once the sun goes down. The flowers close up during the day and reopen in the dark. In the old days, girls made a fragrant cream from the flowers to wear for a beaux and later to soothe baby rash.”
That simple. I didn’t wonder at her not smelling muskiness. People do smell things differently.
“Have you all decided what to do with the farm? If you need to break the lease on the fields to sell it, we can, but I’ll be sorry losing use of that land. The corn’s amazing. We’re actually facing a decent profit for the first time in years.”
I’d been thinking about this. “Do me a big favor, Martha. Don’t tell my father that. If it comes up, insist we live up to the original term, ten years. Dad may grumble, but he won’t try to break the lease.”
She peered at me. “Family skullduggery? That’s always fun. What do you have in mind?”
“I need to buy time. I can’t bear to lose Gramps’ place, and I’m not in a position to do anything with it yet.”
“It would be a shame to leave it idle. A farm can go to hell in a hurry if it isn’t kept working.”
I had an answer if the Svensons would go along. Finals over and well-rested, things didn’t seem nearly as muddled or desperate as they had that last night upstairs. I laid my cards on the table–always a good strategy dealing with honest, well-intentioned folks–ending with the question upon which everything hung. “Would you be willing to lease the rest of the farm for the duration of your lease on the fields? For a nominal rent. Just enough to cover upkeep?”
“And what do you propose we do with it?”
“All the plowing, tilling, and harvesting equipment in the sheds is still in good condition. Gramps never got around to selling it or couldn’t bear to. You wouldn’t have to haul your own all the way over and back again every time. The last I saw, your barn was at capacity with cows. Milk prices are pretty good now. You could bring in more and increase production. The milking equipment’s gone, but terms of the lease could include replacement. Used milkers in decent condition are cheap enough with farms getting bought up for development.”
“And who’s to run things? Separated property is often more trouble than it’s worth.”
“How old is Donald?” Donald was nearly my age, and Gramps always said he had a good head on his shoulders.
“My Donald? Eighteen… Oh, I see! He’s a bit young.” She smiled. “But he’s steady and works cheap….
Mom and Dad arrived close to sunset, the first time we’d all been together in ages. Mom was drawn to a picture of my grandfather, young and dressed to kill. “It’s no mystery to me how a talented, attractive woman of good family could have fallen in love with John at first sight,” she said and smiled at Dad, “because that’s precisely what happened to me with your father.” Physically, my father resembled his own closely, even if in other ways the apple had fallen rather far from the tree. “I’m glad you were the one to be with him,” she said. “I’m proud of you for leaving school that way.”
Dad shook my hand. “We both are. And congratulations on finals.”
“How long can you stay?” I asked.
“We’re leaving tomorrow right after the funeral,” he said. “I don’t know what Jan has in mind.”
“Jan can answer for herself. I’ll stay over tomorrow night so Rob and I can catch up and head back the next morning. With his fall semester coming up, and me about to be buried by a new project for a few months, we talk now or not until Christmas.”
At the family meeting after dinner dishes were cleared, Dad made notes while I laid out my plan for the farm. I’d brought along a recent price list for surplus used milking equipment. Gramps had gotten a good price when he’d sold his. There were detailed records showing farm maintenance expenses that I’d only had a chance to skim, but my gut still told me we could make this lease work. There were still issues to resolve–use of the house, the buildings, the gardens, storage of my grandfather’s and grandmother’s personal effects. In the end, Dad said he’d look it all over and took the account books upstairs when he and Mom went to bed.
Jan came up to my room with me. In darkness, I pulled the wicker chair over to the window so she could experience the backyard the way I had, with feet up on the windowsill. A strong breeze filled the air with that familiar smell.
“It’s close but not identical” my sister said. “Different variety of Spirosa, I suppose.”
“Or a new one.” I told her about my theory of greenhouse plants crossbreeding with wild and producing… Who knows what?
The funeral was uneventful. After our folks left, Jan and I walked the farm then sat drinking Gramps’ homemade beer as we caught up. I’d have the house to myself for a couple days longer waiting for Dad to overnight the lease agreement for signing. The Svensons and I were delighted by the terms, everybody else seemed merely satisfied.
In the morning, Jan looked closely at me before getting into her car. “You know, Rob, you take after both of them. In twenty-five years, I could imagine you looking just like Dad. In fifty, you might be the spitting image of Gramps.”
“So much for my personal uniqueness,” I grumbled, secretly pleased.
“You know what else that suggests?” When I only shrugged, she continued, “Think of Grams and Mom, two elegant, lovely, talented women. You could have one hell of a girl in store of you, Little Brother, if you put yourself out there to meet the good ones.”
“How long might that take?” I wondered aloud. Jan, I knew, was still looking, waiting.
“Hard to say. It doesn’t happen overnight, but you’ve got ten years to find yours before you have to make your big lifestyle decision.” When I only shrugged, she added, “However you choose, I’m guessing she’ll be content.”
Russell Adams is an American writer who has written short stories, novels, and plays, speculative and otherwise, most of his life. Russell is presently retired and treating writing as a full time challenge. His stone age fantasy-farce “I Need a Story” appeared in The Adventure of Creation: With a Foreword by Holly Lisle (Think Sideways Writers Anthology) (Volume 1)  available from Amazon.com.