A Fair Deal
“But Gramma, there’ve been dignitaries from other countries at our performance.”
“I thought you said you were dancing at the college.”
“I did,” sighed Shelly, rolling her eyes with impatience. “A lot of important performances are held at universities.”
Gramma Utha grumbled something incoherent as she slapped the rump of the goat she had just finished milking. The goat was bony but healthy, just like Gramma Utha who had surprising strength in her stringy sinews. Shelly let go of the goat she had been restraining. It was uncanny how those dumb beasts adored Gramma. They had swollen tits in need of release to be sure, but the way they mobbed her always struck Shelly as odd.
“Gramma, I can’t believe you live so close to civilization, or culture, or whatever you want to call it, and never take advantage of all that goes on — especially at the campus.”
The old woman gave her granddaughter a sidelong glance, her fingers working the goat tits automatically.
“I can’t believe you live so close to a land such as this and have no clue of its secrets. Now go fetch me the second pail.”
Shelly walked off to the goat shed. Well, it wasn’t exactly what most people considered a shed. It was just a good size structure made of wood poles and a corrugated tin roof. The walls were made of rectangular hay bales while the floor was simply a deep bed of wood shavings. To a city girl like Shelly, it was hard to believe the goats could winter in such a shed. Gramma Utha insisted the goats were quite comfortable; something about the hay bales breaking the wind and composting goat shit keeping the temperature up. That was the thing with Gramma’s farm. Understanding the order of the little operation required one to get into the old woman’s head. Like the story Shelly heard about her father (before her parents’ divorce, obviously) when he offered, in a goodwill gesture, to chop down the trees that had grown up in the middle of her largest field. Gramma Utha would hear of no such thing from her son-in-law. Turns out that planting that incongruous clump of trees was one of the first things she had done when taking charge of the farm. She insisted the birds needed a hideout if she was to rely on them to keep her insects under control.
Shelly grabbed the pail and returned, ready to renew her plea.
“But you’ve got to come. It’s so rare that I perform at home and you’ve never seen me dance on stage. We’re doing it five nights a week for three weeks, so you can come whenever it’s good for you.”
Something in the girl’s voice caught Gramma Utha’s attention.
“You want me to watch you ‘celebrate beauty’, is that it?”
Shelly winced, but this was an old, ongoing discussion. “Oh, God. You make it sound so trite, but yeah. Seems like you would be the first to agree with me that all these people living in our mad-paced society could benefit from seeing beauty. Forget all the ulterior motives that bring them to the performance. I want to dance in a way that the beauty will pierce through all that exterior clutter.”
“That’s nice. Very nice. And you see beauty?”
“I’m a dancer, Gramma, not a painter,” came Shelly’s answer, intense and without reflection. “I hear it. I feel it.”
Gramma Utha’s fingers uncharacteristically came to a halt as she looked at her granddaughter. A broad grin slowly spread over her old face.
“Well, it sounds like you haven’t quite given up on your grandma. Perhaps I shouldn’t quite give up on you either.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll come see you dance tomorrow night if you’ll come on an excursion one night with me.”
“But I dance at night — unless its one of my off days.”
“We would go very late. After your performance.”
“I am not sure which day exactly, but it will happen before you leave town.”
“I’m really tired after dancing. And I need good sleep.”
“No deal then?”
Shelly sighed. Then she huffed in defeat.
“All right. It’s on. Starts at seven tomorrow. I’ll have a ticket for you at the front booth.”
Gramma Utha went back to her milking with a grunt.
Shelly stepped back from where she had been peering out at the audience. She grabbed Greg’s arm in her agitation.
“Girlfriend,” said Greg. “You’ve been clutching at me for the last half-hour. You get yourself wound up and you’re gonna pull something out there.”
Shelly answered with a puff through clenched teeth, but she did let go of Greg’s arm. As her dancing partner for the last two years, Greg wasn’t fazed by her antics. It was impossible for Shelly not to admire Greg for his physique, which was impeccable even for his profession, but he was also the only partner she’d had that never got fed up with her. Well, at least it was extremely rare when he did.
“She made a deal,” muttered Shelly, glaring at the clock on the wall.
“My grandmother. I got her a ticket up front, but she hasn’t shown up yet. I told her to be here at least thirty minutes early.”
This time Greg took her arm, though gently. His smile was puckered with amusement and he pointed out towards the audience. Down the right center aisle was a robed figure being led by an usher towards the stage. Shelly’s face turned crimson.
“What is she wearing?!” she exclaimed as if cursing.
Greg grinned and shrugged.
An odd suspicion dawned on Shelly.
“How d’you know that was my grandmother?”
Greg raised an eyebrow.
“I think I’ve spent enough time with you to be able to spot your kin.”
Shelly returned to her staring. There were a lot more faces than just hers turning towards Gramma Utha’s direction. She was wearing what could almost have been considered a bathrobe, only there were several different layers of sheer fabric draped all along her sleeves. Around her waist, where a sash would be expected, was a golden chain clasped by a large golden leaf. But above all, catching the eyes of nearly the entire auditorium, was the mix of brilliant magentas and deep blues that ran in thick vertical stripes. Transfixed, Shelly had to be dragged away to take her position.
Shelly and Greg had a part in all the larger dances, but just after the intermission was their brief duo, where the stage was solely theirs. The music was partly composed and arranged by a friend of Greg’s who had this love affair with Tchaikovsky. Their choreography also played with several themes from the nutcracker suite, which wove them together in a strange but rather striking symmetry.
Once dancing, Shelly was in her zone. She was a stronger dancer than many women performers, making her a good choice for this duo. Twice she fully supported Greg, his feet not touching ground for a full measure. And once she sent him spinning in a three-quarters lift. There was no way she could have truly thrown Greg, but he was not shy in using her like a springboard, helping him reach a height impossible on his own. The piece was relatively short because of its acrobatics. The two repeatedly leapt away from each other and returned, one climbing the other as they stretched in muscular arches to entwine limbs and torsos. Both Greg and Shelly’s chests were heaving for breath when the piece was over and the audience’s response was a good deal more robust than it had been all night.
Shelly stole a glance at Gramma Utha. The old lady was not clapping like those around her, but she was sporting a great big grin. The couple bowed and pranced off the stage.
“Well?” said Shelly some time later, dressed in her normal jeans and tank top. She had brought Gramma Utha with her to the back room where there was coffee and some munchies for the performers.
“Thanks for coming. It was a good night, too. Greg and I were solid.”
“You’re welcome,” smiled Gramma Utha.
“And you are solid,” she added grabbing hold of Shelly’s bare bicep.
Shelly ignored her.
“But Gramma, did you have to come dressed up like that?”
“Well…like a clown with wings,” she blurted, pulling at a piece of sheer fabric and holding it out lengthwise.”
Gramma Utha huffed.
“Your partner wears pants that show the outline of his genitals and the contours of your tits protrude for all to see, and you complain about how I dress?”
“Gramma!” Shelly exclaimed through clenched teeth.
“I came to watch dancing and so was attired accordingly.”
Gramma Utha accompanied her last statement with a twirl, waving her sheer wings out for a spin. Shelly stared, paralyzed in the perfect balance of her temper and sense of hilarity. The rest of the room seemed to sense the tension and quieted. Gramma Utha came to a standstill, taking in her surroundings.
“I better go now,” she said wrinkling her nose.
The old woman headed straight for the door before Shelly could decide how to react, and was gone.
It was about a week later when Gramma Utha showed up again; in the very room Shelly had last seen her. The performances were blurred together in the girl’s mind and, for the way she felt, it could have been the same night her grandmother had attended. Only now the old woman was dressed in black from head to toe.
“Tonight’s the night,” grinned Gramma Utha.
“Oh, Gramma, I’m so tired. Can’t we do it tomorrow night? We have two days off after that.”
“Nope,” came the firm answer. “It’s happening tonight.”
“Deal’s a deal,” was all the old woman said.
Shelly rolled her eyes.
“Has anybody ever told you you’re weird, Gramma?”
Gramma Utha shrugged.
“Look at the way you dress. It’s beyond hippie. I mean, it’s like fairy-elf, or something.”
Gramma Utha’s chin went up, but her smile was thin. “Well, that’s a compliment.”
“That’s a way to end up in the insane asylum pronto,” snorted Shelly.
Before the girl knew it, Gramma Utha was right in her face.
“Might as well tell me to go to hell, girl,” said the old woman.
Her eyes bore into Shelly’s and the girl could have sworn her grandma’s ears were pulled back. Shelly retreated to relieve the pressure of proximity.
“Take it easy, Gramma. Don’t get so edgy about that asylum bit. You just have your way of being abnormal.”
Gramma Utha closed the gap between them, eyes bristling.
“What gives you the idea that you can look down at the world from your pedestal?” she said, each word sharp and enunciated as if she were holding back a volcanic eruption.
“Your dancing ability?”
Her black, leather boot knocked Shelly’s striped, running shoe.
Gramma Utha grabbed Shelly’s bare arm in a vice grip. Shelly yelped in fear and pain, still retreating as the old woman advanced.
Gramma Utha thumped the girl on the temple with a dirt-encrusted forefinger and Shelly finally was brought to a halt by a wall. The old woman looked the girl up and down with disdain and then, shaking her head as if regretting what she had to do, spat. Shelly looked down and could not believe it when she saw phlegm dribbling down her shirt. Something popped inside and she drew in a sharp breath. Her eyes narrowed to slits and her fingers curled into fists. She was practically yelling when she found her voice.
“I don’t care who you are. You can’t…”
She never saw it coming, but Gramma Utha’s left hook caught her square in the nose. Both blood and vertigo came at once and she slid down the wall till she was squatting on the floor. The entire room had frozen, enrapt in the small, soft moan that escaped from Shelly. Even Gramma Utha seemed frozen, staring at the crumpled figure at her feet. But she was the first to recover. Pulling out a red bandanna from her pocket, she thrust it at Shelly’s nose. Her other hand reached down and grabbed the girl’s wrist. Shelly could not believe the strength in those old arms and found herself being forcefully pulled to her feet.
“A deal’s a deal,” muttered Gramma Utha loudly and hurriedly shuffled her granddaughter out the building.
Minutes later Shelly found herself in the passenger’s seat of an ancient pickup that had once been khaki green. Now, between the mud and rust, it was several shades of brown. She was silent and sullen as she held the bandanna tightly to her nose. Her grandmother really was a freak. What was twice as infuriating was thinking of all the times she had defended Gramma Utha to the others in her family. Even mother considered Gramma as an old breed of country folk, incurably out of touch with the modern world. And a bloody nose was all the thanks she had gotten. Why had she even bothered to bridge the gap with this stupid deal? I mean, hell! She’ll look just splendid tomorrow night dancing with a swollen cherry for a nose. And where the fuck was Gramma taking her now? she thought as the pickup pulled off onto a dirt road that bounced its way into a forest.
They drove for a while as the road gradually began looking more like two footpaths side by side. Small brush and patches of grass strummed against the grid that protected the radiator on the front of the pickup. Gramma Utha slowed at one point and geared in the four-wheel drive. This solicited a roll of the eyes from Shelly who shivered, realizing how cold she was in just her tank top.
“There’s a dark sweatshirt tucked behind your seat, sweetie.”
Shelly scowled. Gramma Utha never called her sweetie. If that was a form of apology it wasn’t near enough. All the same, she pulled out the sweatshirt from behind her seat and put it on.
“Where are we going?” she asked in a muffled, nasal twang.
Gramma Utha turned her head to answer, but a large dip in the nearly extinct road recalled her attention.
“Broker’s hill,” she said finally.
“Never heard of it.”
About ten minutes later they had climbed to the top of a hill where the trees thinned out. The pickup was making its own path now and Gramma Utha followed a strip of bare rock till it leveled out. Turning the car off, Gramma Utha got out and began fumbling with a box that sat in the back corner of the pickup bed. Shelly came over to take the headlamp that was being thrust at her. The flashlight looked like it had come straight out of an REI catalog. Gramma Utha was already wearing hers and its beam was shining on a backpack she was filling with numerous cylinder-shaped objects.
“What are those?” asked Shelly.
“Flares,” came the answer.
“Spelunking gear and flares?! I swear, Gramma, I thought you were a luddite.”
“Well, you thought wrong.”
“What about the whole fiasco when Dad was trying to buy you a tractor? You totally refused his offer.”
“You can reject a machine for many reasons other than that of a Unabomber. With a small operation like mine, I would rather not deal with soil compaction.”
“If that’s the truth, why didn’t you tell them? Mom still thinks you’re ungrateful and stubborn.”
“Well, I am stubborn — that’s an old woman’s right. But I did tell them. They just choose to forget — or probably just don’t believe me.”
Then she added with a touch of glee. “Come, let’s go.”
The old woman led Shelly down the hill a ways where only a few trees grew between the protruding rocks. Gramma Utha’s headlamp was directed at one rock in particular that stuck out like some giant nose. She clambered down next to it and beneath the stone outcrop her light illuminated the entrance to a shallow cave. With her characteristic roll of the eyes, Shelly shook her head as Gramma Utha got down on hands and knees and proceeded to crawl into the hole. But the girl said nothing and followed behind, her headlamp lighting up the movements of the old, scrawny buttocks in front of her. The cave descended quickly, and before long Gramma Utha lit a flare, setting it to the side of their path. As the floor of the tunnel dropped there was soon plenty enough room to walk upright. The two progressed in silence, Gramma Utha lighting a flare every twenty feet or so.
Shelly suddenly grabbed Gramma Utha’s arm in spite of herself as an involuntary yelp escaped her. Her headlamp chased the fleeting slithering of a shadow.
“Snake,” she whispered, her light turning to land on her grandmother’s face.
The old woman squinted and looked away.
“Yes, child. But we won’t be so well received if you go on shrieking like that.”
A horrible suspicion dawned on Shelly.
“You’ve brought me to see snakes?” she demanded, wide-eyed.
“I brought you to see beauty.”
“Gramma!” Shelly whispered hoarsely, terrified of disturbing any more reptiles. “This is not a fair deal. I mean, there’s probably poisonous snakes in here.”
“They all are. But don’t you go ‘unfair-ing’ me. You made me sit in front of an entire auditorium of vipers.”
“Oh please,” rolled the eyes.
“I’ll tell you what’s poison.” Gramma Utha’s voice seem to drop an octave. “Gypsy slut. Loony Utha. Grammy Whore,” she intoned.
Before Shelly could respond Gramma Utha was walking again. The further they went in, the more snakes they came upon and the tighter the pressure Shelly felt in her chest. How infuriating her grandmother could be. She could not believe this insane woman had the audacity to bring her into such an awful place. This would certainly be the last thing she ever did with her grandma, she swore — even if they did come out of here alive.
The tunnel was now rapidly closing in to the point where Gramma Utha and Shelly were forced to crawl once more. Past the bony rump in her way, Shelly caught a glimpse of a large room, whose floor seemed to be shimmering. There was no way she was going in there. But if Gramma went on, she’d be left alone. And no matter how she hated Loony Utha at this moment, she had no intention of leaving her side.
“No way, Gramma,” she whispered. “NO WAY!”
Gramma Utha stopped and turned around on her hands and knees. To Shelly’s shock the old woman looked sad.
“You remember how I was one of the last people to be seated the other night. You were probably annoyed at how late I was.”
Shelly said nothing.
“Well, I was nearly a half hour early, child. I stood outside of those great, swinging doors, scared to the bone of all those people inside. I tried a hundred ways to justify my leaving there. ‘But a deal’s a deal,’ I told myself.”
Despite how angry Shelly was, she saw an image of her grandmother trying to gather her courage as people walked by, snickering and rolling their eyes. And it didn’t make her feel any better that the only thing she remembered saying to her grandmother after the performance was that she looked like a flying clown. Not that all that even remotely made this a fair transaction.
“Fortunately,” Gramma Utha’s voice broke into her thoughts. “We can’t spare a half hour deliberating here.”
The two were just about to crawl through the tight passage into the large cavern when a snake reared up in front of them, its head high off the floor and cocked back as if to strike. Shelly muffled a scream, but Gramma Utha didn’t flinch. It was guarding the room, thought Shelly. Like some demonic sentry before hell. The snake was now swaying right in front of Gramaa Utha’s face. Shelly had an image of her dragging her grandmother’s bloated body out of the cave. Then slowly, with the silky speed of a snake, Gramma Utha’s arm came up, her wrist cocked back, palm curved forward, and fingers jutting out menacingly. The silhouette of the arm was a convincing imitation of a snake and the guard at the entrance fell back and slithered away. Shelly’s jaw fell open. She was not sure if what she had witnessed was Gramma Utha charming the snake or saluting it. The old woman lit another flare and crawled through the threshold.
Well, I’m gonna die, thought Shelly.
She crawled in.
“Raiders of the Lost Ark,” she muttered as she found herself standing up again, surveying a sea of snakes. “But without the protective glass.”
She was almost getting used to the fear, like a runner who first sets out at too quick a pace, and whose heart and lungs flounder to accustom themselves. Gramma was lighting flares a good deal more frequently, providing them with a corridor to a large boulder that she scrambled up on all fours. Shelly was right behind her, cursing under her breath to keep herself from whimpering. Gramma Utha lit three more flares and set them in a protective triangle around the boulder.
Shelly spoke up gruffly, not trusting her voice. “We’re going to sit and watch?”
“Front row seats,” grinned the old woman. “Try to think of it as a dance.”
Just to the left of them, two snakes suddenly rose up out of the slithering mass. There was a brief moment of suspended tension and then the two struck at each other, their bodies following and entwining themselves in a thick spiral. They pushed back and forth, vying for dominance till they fell over and were lost in the mass again.
“Dance?” said Shelly. “That’s called wrestling, Gramma.”
“Yes. Those were two males. I’m looking for a mating pair, male and female, like you and Greg.”
“Gramma! Greg is gay as they get. There’s nothing between us.”
“I’m not talking about your personal lives, silly girl. Think yin and yang. Greg is a masculine gay. Fine ass, at that.”
Shelly wrinkled her nose, not sure what to think.
“There!” said Gramma Utha, grabbing her granddaughter’s arm.
Shelly looked and saw two snakes rise up like the ones before. Only this time they swayed and circled each other for a good while longer. When they struck it was much less violent and Shelly could actually see the process of how their bodies entwined. Higher and higher they rose off the ground, their heads circling each other, creating a longer and longer spiral to support themselves. They also swayed back and forth, but it was hard to tell if it was a matter of catching their balance or a struggle for dominance. Then the bodies uncurled from each other yet remained upright, swaying separately in their own patterns. They struck again and recoiled, repeating the pattern all over again.
All right, admitted Shelly. It’s a dance. I’ve seen it and I’m ready to go.
She turned to Gramma Utha and was about to speak her thoughts when she noticed the old woman had fallen asleep with her chin to her chest. It could not have been all that comfortable and Shelly watched the head bob up and float down, all the while the eyes remaining shut. Then she noticed the old lips swell outwards till they broke apart and a small puff of breath escaped. Shelly stared. That sleeping idiosyncrasy was a shock of the familiar. Her mother always slept like that. Again Gramma Utha’s lips swelled and puffed. In fact, her last boyfriend had chided Shelly on the fact that she slept with the same dramatic exhale. She had been in a mood and had taken offense. The whole thing had cascaded into one of their biggest fights. Strange thoughts filled her head as she sat amidst the snakes in the dark cave, lost in the belly of the earth. She was from the womb that had come from this old creature’s womb. She knew herself to be as ornery as her grandmother, and she could not help feeling a slight, though reluctant, respect. Didn’t change the fact that she most certainly did not want to be alone in this god-forsaken cave.
“Wake up, you old fart,” Shelly said, shaking a bony arm.
Gramma Utha’s lids opened slowly.
“Sorry, sweetheart,” she said sleepily.
Sorry for what? thought Shelly. For falling asleep? For bringing me here? For busting my nose?
But Gramma’s attention was back on the snakes. There was no pattern, as far as Shelly could tell. Just random spurts of pairs rising up out of the swirling mass.
“Gramma?” she ventured after a long while.
“I’m a lot like you, but I’m also very different.”
Shelly huffed, but she pushed on. “What I’m trying to say is, I sort of get how this is beautiful, but I don’t get why you are showing this to me.”
Gramma was no longer looking at the snakes, but held Shelly in her gaze. She seemed to be lost in memory at the same time.
“Someone has to remember, child. Someone has to. Your mother certainly can’t hear anymore; not after marrying your father. You’re still young.”
“But remember what Gramma? Where this cave is? That we’re all snakes rising out of the chaos of civilization or something?”
Gramma chuckled, low and long. “That we’re part of this,” she said at last. “That we aren’t here to take care of it like some orphaned pet we take pity on. That this is us. These snakes are what runs in our blood. Not machines. Not oil. Not even grand thoughts of religion. Earth, water, nighttime, snakes. That’s our blood. That’s us; even more than all the great wonders we’ve built with our hands and minds.”
Shelly was stunned. She’d never heard Gramma talk this way — almost like chanting.
“I have no clue what you’re saying, but I sure as hell won’t ever forget this.” Then as an afterthought. “That felt like a prayer — what you just said.”
A smirk played on the old lips. Then she nodded slowly as if conceded a point. “What makes you say that?”
“’Cause I feel it in my gut — like when someone tells you a deep, heartfelt secret. Maybe it’s just because I’m scared shitless, but my gut tells me you feel things I wish I could feel.”
“That’s the nicest compliment I’ve heard in years. I’m glad I brought you here.”
“Well, you don’t have to be smug, you old hag,” retorted Shelly, but there was no venom in her voice. In fact she felt giddy, like she was about to giggle. “And can we go before I puke all over the both of us?”
Gramma Utha smiled. “Fair enough, child. Fair enough.”