The Guide in Your Grandmother's Closet
Read these pages with caution, my darling. Understand that, in writing this down, I was simply preparing for the inevitable; I knew from the moment I first held him in my arms that he was destined to die young. Understand there was nothing you could have done; eleven is too tender an age to begin meddling with mortality. Understand that I kept this note because I knew you would one day grow old enough to meddle. Feel pity for yourself that it has been made necessary during your lifetime. Know that reading these instructions will change you. Know that following these instructions will change you, and him, even more.
At three minutes before midnight, gather three pieces of red string and put them in your pocket. Wear a sweatshirt. Do not bother bringing anything else; no other tools are needed. Believe me when I say that, on this errand, you will see without a flashlight. Then head outside. Start your journey at the tire swing in the backyard; the one Grandpa strung up for you when you were three. Tie a red string to the branch it hangs on. Walk past the tree and into the woods. Follow the path Grandpa and I took you hiking on in sixth grade; you know the one. Every seven steps, cast a glance over your shoulder. Ignore any shadows you may see; they are a sign things have been properly set in motion. Continue following the path until the soil begins to soften and grow muddy. Stop when your feet begin to squelch in the dirt. Look up and examine the fork in the path you have come to. Turn your head to look at the left fork twice, then thrice at the right fork. Take the left path. Stop looking behind you. Keep your eyes to the ground. Do not speed up or slow down, no matter what you hear. Do not let the murmurings of the moss on the tree trunks distract you; it speaks in riddles you cannot understand. Do not try to understand. Just watch the dirt beneath your feet grow muddier and sloppier. Do not let memories of what the approaching marsh took from you disturb your concentration. Ensure your mind is empty of everything but your goal.
Look up from the ground when you reach the marsh. Do not stay on the path when you enter. Ignore all the signs written by human hands, in human languages; they are of no use to you now. Follow the sound of running water until you are stepping on ancient, mossy stone. Notice this time that the moss is silent; if it isn't, turn around and go home. Forget your errand. Pause for a few moments to ensure there are no whispers. Continue forward only in complete silence.
Climb over the aging pile of stones. Make note of the runes carved into their sides, but do not attempt to read them; they are not relevant to this particular ritual. Take a deep breath of air when you reach the top of the rock formation. Jump off. Land in knee-deep bog water. Bend down and rub your aching ankles; you still have more walking to do. Rest there as long as you need; it will be your last chance for reprieve.
Begin to trudge through the water. Do not follow the dancing lights that soon appear; they are not lightning bugs. Ignore them, lest they lead you to a fate similar to that which you are here to reverse. Avoid stepping on any of the fish that brush against your legs as the water grows deeper. Keep track of how big they are; the bigger the fish become, the closer you are to your destination. Observe the water carefully when it reaches your waist; you are almost there. Relax your legs whenever reeds begin to wrap around your ankles; any struggle and they will pull you under. Catch sight of the red shirt he was last seen in. Know that you have made it. Acknowledge the journey is only half the struggle.
Bend down to dip your hands beneath the surface. Allow your face to dip under as well. Feel blindly for his hiking boots. Approximate where his upper body lays on the murky bottom. Pull your face and arms from the water’s embrace. Move forward slowly. Position yourself to stand over his body, one foot on each side of his waist. Notice the water seems deeper suddenly, rising to caress your ribs, but do not panic. Look down. Squint to see through the ripples in the wake of the water striders. Lock gazes with the eyes of your father’s bloated corpse. Watch him smile at the sight of you. Ignore the kelp in his gums. Pay no mind to the deep yearning building up inside you, waiting to spill out, telling you to take his place. Do not, under any circumstances, take his place. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Dive under, completely submerging your body. Do not open your eyes.
Reach down until you feel the fabric of the remnants of his flannel shirt against your fingertips. Grab onto it. Slide your right hand beneath the cloth. Pluck your second red string from your pocket with your left hand. Feel for his face. Cup his swollen cheek when you find it. Shove the string into his smiling mouth. Meanwhile, mold your right hand into a fist and push it through the gummy flesh of his chest. Feel the beating of his waterlogged heart; the pump and throb of rotting veins. Yank it out.
Swim back to the surface. Stand up. Feel that the water has sunk low again, lying just above your hips. Wipe the algae from your eyelids. Open them. Ignore the way the heart hisses in your hand; it is bluffing. Stuff the still-beating heart, covered in reeds, into your sweatshirt pocket. Continue to ignore its hissing. Cradle your pocket gently as you wade through the marsh. Be soothed by the pulsating beat of your father’s heart; you haven’t felt it in a long time. Remain aware of the speed with which it pumps; it will be your compass to the last location. Use the quickening heartbeat as a guide to shore. Hunt for a stone cairn when your feet touch dry soil for what will feel like the first time. Spot one to your right, in front of a fallen birch tree. Walk over to it. Tap the top stone lightly, being careful not to topple the structure. Wait for the next cairn to appear. Survey your surroundings; you will find it, for you have my blood in you. Continue tapping and following the trail of cairns until you reach the eleventh cairn. You will see a stone altar on your left. Go to it. Feel the heart in your pocket suddenly still; it knows it is home. Stand on the stairs of the altar. Gently pull the heart from your pocket. Tug away the reeds coiled around it. Examine the decay that has built up from sinking into the bottom of the marsh. Blink away the tears that gather in your eyes.
Take out your last piece of red string. Hold up your father’s heart. Tie the string around the heart in a double knot. Place the now-tied heart on the table of the altar. Watch as it begins to glow a soft red. Listen to the sound of its waterlogged beats. Whisper a “Thank you,” and leave.
Head back home knowing you will have a father again by morning. Be prepared to help him relearn how to walk.