Nina saw the old man first, just a second before Ollie, standing at the edge of the woods on the far side of the pond. He waved to them, and then beckoned, but they did not move. And then he was there, and then he was gone. The pond was below their yard, at the bottom of the hill, and they weren’t supposed to go down there unless they had an adult with them. Sometimes there were ducks on the pond, and sometime loud geese, and Ollie had seen another bird on there once that she bet was a swan, and one time last spring their father had brought them down there to try and catch frogs with a pink and green net. They did catch one, but as soon as they caught him, he jumped out and back into the water, making a splash. Their father wasn’t home now though—both he and their mother were at work—and Helga the au pair was inside babysitting.
Helga was tall and round and pulled her hair back tight, and she came from a black forest in a place called Germany and she lived with them now and watched Ollie and Nina during the day. It had just been Easter, and today she was busy eating the chocolates the Easter Bunny had brought their mother. “She told me to eat them,” Helga said, “so that she will not get fat.”
Ollie saw her come to the window every once in a while to look out and make sure they were still there: they weren’t supposed to be out in the yard alone, but Helga said it was too cold for her to go outside, and too nice for them to stay in. “You get some fresh air,” she had said, dressing them in boots and scarves and hats and gloves, “and this you do not tell your mother or father. It will be our secret. And when you come in—I give you candy. You must just do one thing,” she said, leaning over and pointing a finger, “you must stay away from the pond, and the woods, and be careful of the Nokken.”
Now Ollie scanned the far edge of the pond, but their grandfather was nowhere in sight. Nina turned to her, a stick in hand—they had been poking the ground looking for moles. “Where did he go?”
“I don’t know,” Ollie said.
None of the trees had leaves back on them yet, but the woods were big, and everything was brown and gray, and their grandfather had been wearing his heavy brown coat, so now Ollie bet he had stepped back into the woods. She had seen a deer drinking from the pond once, and he had disappeared the same way. And once she thought she had seen a horse, but he disappeared, too. It was easy to disappear in the woods, and that was why they couldn’t go in there. They were supposed to stay by the swing set, and the green playhouse, and plastic gray castle, but Nina always wanted to go look down at the pond. Nina loved animals.
Now they turned and the old man was suddenly behind them.
“Papa,” Nina said again. She dropped the stick and ran, grabbing the old man by the legs, and hugging him tight. Their Papa picked her up. Nina hugged him tighter, and the old man kissed her cheek. Then he looked down.
“Hello, Ollie,” he said.
Ollie went over and he picked her up, too.
Their Papa was old, but he wasn’t that old; he wasn’t crooked and all hunched over—like their father’s grandmother—and he didn’t walk with a cane. But he was kind of bald when he didn’t wear his baseball hat, and he had a gray mustache. Ollie and Nina had been going over his house during the day for a long, long time whenever both their mother and father had to work, but now they weren’t going over there anymore, and Helga had come to live with them because everyone said their Papa was old. He didn’t live in his house anymore either, not for a while, because their mother had sent him to a big building to rest.
A lot of people didn’t rest in that place though, and some of them were either crying, or screaming, and Ollie saw one once hurrying down the hall without any clothes on. But some of them just sat in their wheelchairs with their heads tilted over on their shoulders, so she supposed those people were resting. Their Papa didn’t like it there much though, even when their mother bought him bags of butterscotch candy, and he was always telling them so.
“This place is for nitwits,” he would whisper to Ollie and Nina.
“It’s not for nitwits,” their mother would say, “it’s for people your age. It’s good for you to be around people your age. Good for you to have company.”
“I had company,” Ollie heard him say once. “And you took them away.”
The rest place had a nun sitting at the desk when you walked in, and sometimes she would give you a piece of candy, and then you had to walk down a long hall passing pictures of Jesus, and God, and an old man called the Pope. The rest place had a funny smell usually, and a lot of times you would see trays with eaten food on them in the halls.
“Papa.” Nina squeezed his neck again. Nina was always squeezing people she liked, hugging them tight. “I thought you were at the rest place?”
“Oh, I’m still there,” he said. “I just thought I’d come visit. I miss you. I don’t like to be away from you guys.”
“Where’s your car?” Ollie asked, looking towards the driveway.
“It needs a tune up, so I decided to walk.”
“Through the woods?” Nina asked.
“Yes,” he said, “through the woods. I like the woods.”
“And did you see any bears?” Nina asked.
“I saw three. But I growled really loud, and I scared them away.”
“You should be careful around bears, Papa,” said Ollie. They’re wild animals.”
“But they can be nice,” said Nina. “And cute.”
The old man put them down, and Ollie looked back at the window. Still no sign of Helga. Sometimes she fell asleep watching T.V.
“Do you want to come in the house, Papa?” Nina asked him, looking up. “We can ask Helga to make you some cocoa. And then you’ll be warm.”
The old man looked up at the house, and then crouched down. “That’s okay,” he said. “I better stay out here. I wouldn’t want to worry your Mommy.”
“But how are you going to get home?” Ollie asked.
He stood then, and did two jumping jacks. “I can run. I’m very fast.”
“That’s a long way Papa,” Ollie said.
“Well, I found little house out in the woods,” he said. “I can stay there a little while. Build a nice fire.”
“Papa!” said Nina. “You’ll get burned.”
“Not if I’m careful.”
Ollie looked out across the pond, into the trees. She couldn’t see any house out there, and she wondered if he was fooling. There was noise up above them, and then three ducks landed on the pond. One stuck his head in the water, shook his neck.
“And maybe I can cook a duck for supper,” their Papa said, smiling. He took a deep breath. “We could try and catch one. Jump right in the water after them.”
“No, Papa,” Nina said. “Don’t eat the ducks. That would be mean. And the water is too cold.”
The old man smiled. “Okay,” he said. “What if we just visit my house then?”
Ollie looked inside the glass door to check on Helga. The T.V. was on, and Helga was on the couch. Snoring. People on the T.V. were pointing at each other. Angry faces, yelling, and then the T.V. show faded to a commercial.
Their Papa led them through the woods. Ollie was a little worried, but not too worried, because if they were with him, they couldn’t get in trouble for leaving the yard, but she was worried that he might get in trouble, and they might strap him to the bed in his new home like some of the old men she had seen there.
And she was a little worried about the Nokken.
Helga liked to talk about the Nokken, and she knew all about them from her old home in the Black Forest. Helga had said that the Nokken were usually near the water, but they could be anywhere in the woods. And the woods were bigger once you got inside, and there were a lot of places to hide. There was a path that Ollie and Nina sometimes walked on with their father when he took them looking for rabbits. Their Papa took them this way now, but they didn’t see any rabbits—just a squirrel leaping up in the trees—and then he took them off on another path they hadn’t walked on before, and when Ollie looked back she couldn’t see the house anymore, and she hoped Helga was still asleep. Nina was talking to Papa about her little stuffed wolf named Woofie. Woofie had a bow tie and a fancy striped jacket and had been lost since before even Christmas, and their mother thought she had maybe left him at their Papa’s.
Nina still cried sometimes in bed at night about Woofie. She used to squeeze him a lot and say he was her favorite and she took him everywhere—even once to the beach where he got all covered with sand.
“Have you found him, Papa?” Nina asked now.
“Found who?” he asked.
“Yeah, Woofie,” Nina said. “You know? Woofie.”
“Oh, yes, Woofie. No, I still haven’t found him, but once I get home I’m going to look one more. Maybe under the bed.”
“When are you going home?” Ollie asked.
“Maybe tomorrow,” he said. “Maybe the next day.”
“But Mummy says your house is for sale Papa,” Ollie said.
“It’s Papa’s house,” Nina snapped, “And no one can sell it if he doesn’t want them to.”
“But they have a sign, Nina,” said Ollie, “and the sign says “For Sale.”
“Oh, I’ll take that sign and throw it in the pond,” Papa said, “and then I’ll go inside and look for Woofie. I bet he’s under the bed.”
They came to a little river in the woods now, and there were some rocks you could step on to get across, but the rocks were far apart and covered with slippery green stuff so their Papa picked them up and carried them over one at a time. Little rivers like this sometimes had spirits, too, Helga had told them, and if you listened really closely to the water trickling sometimes you could hear them talking or singing.
“What are spirits, Papa?” Nina asked now.
“They’re like ghosts, Nina,” Ollie said, “except they’re not always scary.” She thought about it a minute. “But they can sometimes be scary. Right, Papa?”
Nina froze, stopped walking, and said she wouldn’t look at the river again, so their Papa went and picked her up. “Oh, they’re not scary. They’re a little like fairies.”
“Like the Nokken, Papa?” Ollie asked.
“Nokken?” said the old man.
“Helga always says stay away from the pond because of the Nokken,” said Ollie.
“And what is a Nokken?”
“I don’t know, Papa,” said Ollie. “Not really anyway. Helga says they had a lot of them where she came from, and it’s like a fairy or a ghost, and they can read your brain and they pretend to be nice, but they’re not, and they try to pull you into the water, or sometimes pull you onto the ice when it’s thin. And then you fall in and can’t get out.”
“And then you drown,” said Nina.
“Well, I’ve never heard of any silly old Nokken,” Papa said, “and most fairies that I know are good. Especially fairies that live in the water. They’re always nice.”
“Does the tooth fairy live in the water?” Nina asked.
“That’s where she hides all the teeth,” he said. “And then they become little white stones on the bed of the river.”
“The bed?” Ollie asked, looking back.
“Where the fairies sleep,” he said. “And stay forever. I like to think about forever.”
He lifted them over a rock wall, and then they came to a small house that looked really old, but the front door was missing and it had a hole in the roof. Their Papa said it was his cabin now, but he didn’t get a chance yet to fix the roof yet, but it didn’t matter much because he liked to lie on the floor at night and look up at the stars.
“But you must get really cold, Papa,” said Ollie.
“Oh, I get a little cold, but when I do, I just build a fire, and that keeps me warm.”
He brought them into the cabin, and there was fireplace built into the wall. The fireplace was made out of round rocks, and there were ashes everywhere. There was a bed in the cabin, but the mattress was dirty, and half of it was touching the floor. There was a pile of white blankets on the floor, and there was a small round table.
“Who lived here before you, Papa?” Nina asked.
“Somebody who wasn’t very neat, and wasn’t very good at fixing holes in the roof. It might have been dwarfs.”
Nina was staring at him again, wide-eyed, but Ollie wasn’t sure she believed him. “But how did you know it was here?” she asked.
“Oh, I saw it one day a long time ago when I was out here walking one day.”
“Papa, if those dwarfs come back, you better run, like this,” Nina said, and she went running across the cabin to show him how. There was a lot of trash on the floor. Cigarette boxes and bear cans. And more old clothes. Something that looked like it might have been a sweater. She tripped on an old shoe and fell, and then she rolled over and sat on her bum, but she didn’t cry.
“Dwarfs wouldn’t hurt him, Nina,” Ollie said, “they just like to dig for gold and sing songs.”
When the old man brought them back to the yard, he kissed them both good-bye and made them promise that it would be their secret that he was living in the woods. Ollie went in for a minute—Helga was still asleep on the couch—and took two bananas, a bottle of water, and a package of crackers, and gave them to him before he went back into the woods. Nina started crying when he left.
Their father got home before their mother that day, and when Ollie asked where she was, he said she was at the rest home. Their father was tall and thin with blue eyes, and whenever he got his hair cut, Nina told Ollie that it made him look bald. “He’s not bald, Nina,” Ollie would whisper, “his hair is just really short.”
“Well, Papa is bald,” Nina would say. “He just has maybe three, or maybe seventeen hairs left, and he’s an old man.”
“Papa is much older than Daddy, Nina,” Ollie would say.
A lot of times their father would be singing—their Mummy hated it when he was singing because she said he sounded like he was in pain—but tonight he was mostly quiet. He said he was going to cook some macaroni and cheese, but then their mother came home, said she would cook supper, and then she was crying. Their fathr said he would just order pizza then, but she said no, and said that she wanted to keep busy. It was better to keep busy, she said, but then even when she did, cutting some onions and celery, she was still crying, and Ollie wondered if it was because Papa had run away, but she was afraid to say anything. Nina went over and hugged her legs, pressing her face tight into them and rubbing it back and forth, but their mother just kissed her head, and told them to go play.
The playroom was down the hall. The room was a mess, and all their pots and pans and knives and forks from their play kitchen were on the floor. So were their Beanie Babies, their car, and Kermit the Frog. Nina was wearing her baker’s hat, and pretending to make some brownies, and Ollie was helping, but she was also trying to listen. Their mother started crying again, and she could hear their father whispering, and then their mother said something about “it’s like he’s not even there,” and Ollie knew she had to be talking about Papa. She wanted to ask Nina if they should tell them that he was out in the woods, but then she was afraid Nina might get scared, and then she might cry. And then if they told, Papa might be mad. He didn’t usually get mad, but she had seen him mad once when he was watching football and his team was losing. He yelled at the T.V.
The next day he was back in the yard when Ollie looked out the window. Helga was in the living room again, but today she was wearing tights and lying on her back on the floor. When Ollie asked her what she was doing, she said she was stretching.
“Exercising is very good for the heart, young lady,” she said. “You must take care of the heart.” She sat up and took a bite of her doughnut. She helped them get their hats and coats on—it was a little colder today, she said—and she went to the back door to let them out, Ollie couldn’t see her Papa anymore, and she thought he might have gone back in the woods.
Nina ran towards the hill above the pond, and Ollie scanned the yard. Looked at the shed. It was dark inside the shed, but she thought she saw something moving in the window. She was taking slow careful steps to get a better look when her Papa was suddenly beside her.
“I thought you might be in the shed,” she said.
“No,” he said, “this time of year there are only mice in the shed.”
“That’s why my Mummy won’t go in there,” she said.
Nina saw them then, and she came, running.
“Oh, your Mummy has always been afraid of silly things,” the old man said to Ollie, “like mice, and dark sheds, and the pond. She’s a silly woman.”
He took them back to his house in the woods, but it looked better than it had the day before. He had swept the floor, and it looked like he had had a fire in the fireplace because there was a big pile of gray ashes in there now, some still glowing red.
“Where did you get the logs for the fire, Papa?” Ollie asked.
“Oh, some friends of mine.” Their Papa had made a table out of a board and a big tree stump, and surrounding it were more tree stumps, standing up right. “I had some company last night,” he said, “so I needed to make sure I had a table and everybody had a place to sit.” He went to the fire place, broke some twigs and threw them on, and then once it was going, he put on another log. The fire crackled, and sparks and ash floated across the room.
“Who did you have for company, Papa?” Ollie sat down at the table.
“Oh, just a fox, a wolf, a dwarf and some elves. The dwarf wouldn’t sit at the table though because he didn’t trust the elves, but he was nice enough to cut the wood.”
“A wolf, Papa?” Nina said, her eyes wide. “In the house?”
“Oh, he wasn’t a bad wolf, and he is old now, so he doesn’t have much energy to go chasing people or the other animals. And besides, he can’t see very well, so he wears a pair of little glasses. I just gave him some chicken broth, and then a little tea.”
“What about bunnies?” Nina asked.
“Oh, a couple of the bunnies were looking in the window, but even though the wolf was old, they still weren’t sure if they should trust him—he still has very big teeth. And they knew they couldn’t trust the fox even though he swore to me he was a gentlemen, and would never cause trouble as a guest in my house. But foxes are foxes and you can never be sure. The dwarf of course drank too much beer, and then I was afraid he might not find his way back through the woods, so I let him sleep by the fire.”
“Where does he live, Papa?” Nina asked.
“He said he lives in a small cave not very far from here.”
“Can we see him?”
“Not during the day. He would never come out during the day, and if we tried to wake him, I’m afraid he might get grumpy. He isn’t a bad dwarf, but he has a temper if you wake him up when he’s trying to sleep.”
Ollie looked around the room, trying to picture the scene her grandfather was depicting, scanning for the signs that the event had actually happened. “Were you cold last night, Papa?” she asked.
“Not too cold,” he said, “The dwarf snored a lot though, as dwarfs are apt to do, so I didn’t sleep very well.”
The old man smiled at her, and Ollie listened for sounds in the woods. Footsteps. Possibilities. The wolf or the fox approaching, coming back. Slowly. Sneaking. She wondered if they walked on two legs like the ones she saw in the books her mother read to them, or if they ran around on four legs like regular foxes and wolves. Either way the wolf’s tongue would be hanging out, wet, and he would look hungry. A bird called out in the trees above them, and then something shook in the branches. She looked out into the woods. The sky was cloudy today, and the woods were very dark.
“Mummy is worried about you, Papa,” she said at last.
“Me?” she said. “She doesn’t have to worry about me. I’m her father.”
“She’s worried because you’re not at that place anymore,” Ollie said, “and they don’t know where you went.”
“They don’t?” he said. “I thought I left them a note.”
“Maybe you should tell them you’re living in the woods,” Ollie said quietly.
“Well, hopefully I won’t be living here long,” he said.
“But where will you go?”
“You know, I’m not sure. Maybe Texas. Help with the cows.”
“I like cows, Papa,” Nina said.
The old man leaned over and patted her head. “We all like cows.”
That night, in their bedroom, Ollie went to their window, and looked out to see if she could see a fire in the woods, but it was very dark out, and she could barely even see the trees. Nina was playing with their Barbies. She thought if she saw Papa down there in the yard, maybe she could sneak him into the cellar. But she couldn’t see him. And then she pictured him in the woods with Wolf, the Fox, the Dwarf, and the Elves, all drinking mugs of beer, and she wondered if the dwarf was sleeping by the fire again. She hoped they had a fire because they had gone to the store with their mother when she got home from work, and it had been cold.
They were in the car, buckled in their car seats, when their mother told them that Papa wasn’t doing well. She looked into the mirror on the windshield as she talked them, her chin raised a little. Their mother had blonde hair, and she usually wore it up unless she was going out somewhere with their father. Her eyes were blue, and she had small scar on her chin; she told Ollie and Nina she had got the scar when she fell off her bike when she was little.
Nina had her second stuffed wolf—“Woofie’s Cousin”—that Papa had bought her when they couldn’t find Woofie last fall, but his cousin was a little bigger, had a longer tail, and he didn’t wear fancy clothes like Woofie. Nina was talking to him though, and sometimes when she got excited she would clench him tight in her hands and shake him a little. Then she would pull him close and hug him.
“So, I want you girls to say a prayer for him that he’ll be okay,” their mother said.
“I think he’ll be okay, Mummy,” Ollie said now. She wondered why her mother wouldn’t just tell them that they couldn’t find him, and then she wondered if maybe he did stop back at the rest place and check in. She felt something by not telling their mother what they knew, but she wasn’t sure what that something was. If she did tell, she thought Papa might get mad, and then they’d make him go back, but if she didn’t tell and her mother and father found out, then they would be mad, too.
“He’s really old,” Ollie added now. “So, he’s been taking care of himself for a long time. He told me and Nina he even had to take care of himself when he was little. And sometimes he had to take care of his little brothers and sisters—cooking spaghetti for them, and hot dogs. Back then they didn’t even have T.V. so if they wanted to watch a show they had to stick socks on their hands and make them talk, like puppets.”
“He is really old, honey,” their mother said. “That’s the problem. Sometimes when people get that old, they can’t take care of themselves anymore. Papa forgets to do things—like shut off the stove, or drain the water in the tub, or to shut all the windows before going to bed. And he forgets to take his medicine, and to call people back, and sometimes he even forgets to eat, so it’s dangerous for him to be alone.”
The next day both their mother and father went to the rest home again
Helga fixed them lunch. Chicken noodle soup, and peanut butter and crackers. Helga was wearing an apron, and talking about how tired she was.
“Just exhausted,” she said. “Work, work, work. I tell you girls, you get older, you marry a rich man, and then you be all set. I was all set to marry, back in Germany, but then he joined the Navy, and boom! I never see him again.”
“Do you think the Nokkens got him?” Ollie asked.
“On the ocean? No. I don’t think so. The Nokken do not like salt water. Just fresh water. And this is why I tell you girls to stay away from the pond. If I there, fine, I see them, and shoe them away. But alone, never.”
“Would they run from you?” Ollie asked.
“Oh, yes, I make them run very fast.”
“What do they look like?” Ollie asked.
“Oh, they can look many different things. Sometimes they may look like a very handsome man in very fancy clothes, and at other times, a kind old lady. Or sometimes an ugly old lady, like a witch. Or sometimes a small child, like you. But usually if they look like a child they are Myling, and not a Nokken.” Helga licked the spoon. “I have even heard that they sometimes look like a horse. A beautiful white horse. The thing is, they really don’t look like anything, and so they can trick you by making you see something you are not. They are very clever, but you must never listen to them, even when they play beautiful music and try to enchant you. I read much about them in the Folkesagn when I was a girl. There is also the Huldra—she is very beautiful but you can tell it is her because she has a long cow’s tail she hides under her skirt. And of course the Myling and Fosegrimen. But here I think, we just worry about the Nokken.”
Ollie looked at her. “How come?”
Helga raised her eyebrows a bit. “Well,” she said, “because of the pond.”
She was sleeping again on the exercise mats, when their grandfather appeared at the sliding glass door. He tapped a little to get their attention. Ollie was watching The Wiggles. Greg was singing about Fruit Salad, Yummy, Yummy.
Nina was upstairs playing.
Ollie looked at Helga, and then she snuck out onto the back porch, sliding the door shut quietly behind her.
“Mummy went to the rest place to talk to them again about you, Papa,” she said. “What if they go to the police?”
“The police?” the old man said. “Well, what are they going to do? Arrest me? ” He made his hand look like gun. “Hands up Mac! You’re under arrest!”
“It’s not funny, Papa.” Ollie looked at him closely. He looked a little more white, and his hair was sticking up like he just got out of bed. You must be cold at night. You can’t stay in the woods forever, Papa.”
The old man patted her head. “Not forever. Just for now. I don’t like being far away from you guys.”
“You must be hungry. Do you have any crackers left?”
He smiled. “I had a little but the dwarf ate them—right after he drank the rest of my beer. I have to get some more. But now, I was thinking maybe I can catch a fish. Do you want to help me catch a fish?”
Ollie looked back in at Helga to see if she were still asleep. “We can’t be gone long. Do you want me to get Nina? She’s upstairs, and she’ll be sad if she doesn’t see you. ” She looked back to her Papa but when she did she was on the porch alone. The old man was gone. Inside Helga had sat up on the matt and was looking her way.
It was a few days later, that their mother got a call from the nursing home, telling her that she had to come. Ollie hadn’t seen their Papa since that day on the porch. She looked out the window. The leaves were starting to come out on the trees, and everything was turning green, making it hard to see very far into the woods now. The sky was really cloudy, and it looked like it was going to rain again.
“Maybe if Papa built a boat, he escaped down the river,” Nina said to her. Nina was beside her at the window, still in her Winnie the Pooh pajamas. The same as Ollie’s.
“How would he build a boat, Nina, if he can’t cut down any trees?”
“He could use an axe, or the wolf could chop them down with his teeth, like this,” she said, chomping.
“He doesn’t have an axe.”
“Daddy has one, so maybe Papa stole it from the shed.”
“Papa wouldn’t steal anything, Nina. And the river isn’t big enough for a boat.”
Now the rain had started. Ollie could see the drops hitting the pond. Circles growing, bigger and bigger.
When their parents finally got home, Ollie and Nina were in their fort in their bedroom. The fort was made of blankets and pillows, and Nina had taken their Winnie the Pooh Light and put it on the floor inside, so they could see their dolls—Baby Pousie, the twin clowns Lovey and Lovey’s Sister, the Panda Bear named Boo Boo, and the doll with the Red Hair. Claudia. Six of the Barbies. And Woofie’s cousin. They were all having a tea party inside the fort.
Claudia was fighting with Lovey’s Sister, when Ollie looked over and saw their mother laying on the floor, her head resting on her arm, as she peeked inside, watching them. Her face was very white, and she looked like she had been crying again, but she also looked like she was trying hard to smile. Ollie heard their father talking to someone on the phone in their bedroom across the hall, and then their mother told them that once he was off the phone, she and their father had to talk to them.
Nina was crying again. “Ollie, if Papa has gone to the angels that means he’s dead, and we’re never going to see him again.” Nina’s face was all red, and she was hugging Woofie’s Cousin tight.
“Yes, we will Nina,” Ollie said. “Just not for a long time.”
Nina shook her head. “But I don’t want to wait a long time.”
“You have to. Once we’re old, we’ll see him. That’s how it goes. Just like Daddy said.” Ollie had been crying, too, but now she had stopped. Their mother and father were downstairs. They said the girls could sleep in their bed if they wanted. Just a little later.
“But we should tell them he was living in the woods,” Nina said again now. She had already said it like five times. “And then maybe they can do something.”
“He already died, Nina. They can’t do anything.”
“But maybe it wasn’t him that was dead. Maybe they don’t know that. And maybe they can save him.”
“They can’t save him if he already died.”
“You don’t know that Ollie!” yelled Nina. “They might be able to do something!”
Baby Poussie was lying on her back on the floor, staring at the ceiling. The fort had fallen down, and they hadn’t fixed it. But their father had taken the Pooh Light and put it back on the bookcase before it got broken or caused a fire. It was dark now, and it was quiet downstairs. Helga had brought them up some chicken noodle soup and Goldfish crackers on a tray, and then she had hugged them both, and kissed their heads before she went back downstairs. Ollie went to the window, and looked out on the woods, hoping that she might see the fire going out there somewhere. The Wolf, and the Dwarf, and the Fox. Waiting for her Papa.
The next day their mother and father got all dressed up and went to the place where people would come to visit their Papa even though he was dead. Nina said that that meant he wasn’t really dead, like not in the ground dead, because other people could still visit with him, and pray that he wakes up, but Ollie wasn’t so sure. They had wanted to go, too, and she had cried a little, and Nina had cried a lot, but their father said no—said they were too little.
“But they might need closure,” their mother said. She didn’t know they were listening in the next room. “Otherwise, they won’t understand.”
“Of course, they’re not going to understand,” their father said. “They’re not even four.”
The phone had been ringing all day, and Mrs. Clark had come by with lasagna, some bread, and more macaroni and cheese. Helga ate most of the lasagna while their mother and father were arguing about whether Ollie and Nina could go, and as she was licking her fork, she said, “You know girls, I must agree with your father. Things like this are no places for small children. It could give you nightmares for a very long time. My grandfather, he was your age during the War, and he saw some terrible, terrible things. And now he still has nightmares. And sometimes, he wets his pants. You don’t want to wet your pants or your Mum will make you start wearing diapers again.”
Ollie didn’t want to wear diapers again—Billy Tudor who lived down the street still wore diapers and he was going into kindergarten next year, but their mother said he “had problems.” Ollie didn’t want people thinking they “had problems.” But Nina said she didn’t mind if it meant she got to see Papa again.
Helga put on the Wiggles for them once their parents were gone.
There were flowers in the yard. Small purple flowers with white and yellow middles, and the grass was suddenly all green, but it was still a little cold today, so Helga put their winter hats on them. Nina had found a little frog, and they were scared that their cat Ralph might eat him so they put him in a pail with grass, dirt, rocks and twigs. The frog looked like he wanted to get out of there though and was sitting on top of the rock, staring up at them. They had him in their play house, and the frog had already escaped twice. Then he peed in Ollie’s hand. Now Ollie was working in the kitchen, making mud pies, and Nina said she was going to bring the frog to the pond so he could be free again.
“We’re not supposed to go down there alone, Nina,” Ollie said. “If Helga sees, we’ll be in trouble.”
“Helga’s not going to see, Ollie. She’s probably busy eating all the Fruit Loops. And I’ll run really quick. I’m really fast.”
Ollie watched her sister hurry across the lawn holding the bucket out straight in front of her. Ollie sifted some sand into a pie plate, getting out the twigs and small stones, and then once it was full, she patted it flat. She listened for Nina, but all she heard was a duck call out. More ducks had come back to the pond, and the Lilly pads were growing again. Their grandfather had been in heaven for almost four days now, and Ollie had stopped looking for the fire at night in the woods. He had probably made up the story about the wolf and the dwarf, she thought now, just doing make believe, but that was okay, because it was fun. Stories were like that.
Their mother had promised to take them to the graveyard to visit him, but their Dad said she wasn’t ready yet. They had gone to the church, wearing yellow dresses with white sweaters, but they didn’t see him then. Just his coffin, covered in a white sheet with an American flag draped over it. And then in the graveyard, his coffin was covered with flowers but it wasn’t in the ground. Nina had looked at the coffin and whispered in Ollie’s ear. “I don’t think he’s in there.”
Now Ollie left the play house, and looked up at their real one. Helga wasn’t at the door, or in the windows. Ollie called out to Nina, but Nina didn’t answer, and she didn’t think she had come back from the pond. Ollie put down her mud pie and went to the top of the hill. Ralph galloped by, and then ran halfway up a tree, and stopped, clinging to the bark, hanging their and staring at her.
Ollie stopped at the top. Nina was crouched down at the edge of the pond, looking into her reflection in the water. The reflection of Nina looked a lot bigger than the real Nina and was kind of blurry and dark. Nina lifted the frog from the bucket, and he jumped from her hand, all four legs spread, and landed with splash. He scrambled a little in the water, making ripples in Nina’s reflection and then he lay still. Just floating. Nina stood, and poked the water with a stick, sending more ripples, and then when the water was still again, her reflection was back in the water, but now there was another reflection there. Papa was there, too. Standing right behind her.
Nina leaned over to touch him, and the old man’s reflection began to drift. Separating from Nina’s. Ollie started down the hill. The old man in the water was moving away, out towards the center of the pond, and his image was growing bigger, thinner, as he did, breaking in the ripples. Nina leaned over again, and then she jumped, hitting with a splash. Ollie tripped, and slid a little down the hill. She almost stopped, started to cry, but she couldn’t stop, couldn’t cry—Nina was in the pond. Nina tried to stand up, but she was spitting water, a leaf stuck to her cheek. Their Papa’s image was gone now, spread so big that she couldn’t even see him. A noise escaped Nina’s lips, and then the ducks all quacked at once, and flew up and out of the water. Ollie watched them go, disappearing over the trees; she had never seen them fly so high. But Nina had to get out of the water—Nina couldn’t swim, and it was too cold. And they weren’t supposed to go near the water. Trouble, Ollie thought. It was going to be a lot of trouble.
When she reached the water’s edge, she found a long stick, and held it out.
“You have to grab it,” she said, but Nina didn’t look like she could hear her. She had turned away from Ollie, turned so she was again facing the middle of the pond, and now there was a man out there, looking as if he was trying to swim. Soaking wet, and what little hair he had left plastered to his bald head. Papa. Again. But now not just a reflection in the water. But really there. Trying to swim.
Nina called out to him, and he raised his arms straight up into the air, and then he went under. Nina took a step forward, and Ollie yelled for her to stop. Their grandfather broke the surface again, sending rippling rings across the pond. He opened his mouth to call out help, but no sound came out of his mouth. But there was something. It hadn’t been there before. But now it was. Music. It sounded like music their father sometimes listened to in his den at night, the lights low while he read a book or did something on the computer. Soft and distant, and almost making her want to sleep. Violins.
Nina was now up to her neck, and their Papa again went under. He stayed under for longer this time, and once he did, Nina jumped forward again and tried to swim. The dog paddle. It was the only thing she knew how to do, only thing Ollie knew how to do, too, but Nina wasn’t very good at it. Ollie called out for Nina to stop, but she didn’t. And then Papa was in the middle of the pond again, but Nina went under.
Nina’s head popped up. Ollie held out the stick one more time, but Nina was still facing away from her, and now the music was louder. Ollie called out one more time, and when Nina still wouldn’t turn, Ollie took a step forward, and then she jumped.
The splash made Nina turn, but Nina’s head was barely above the surface. The water was freezing. Ollie kicked her feet, heading towards her, but their Papa was still moving backwards, further across the pond. Ollie could only see the top of his head.
Nina started to cry, her face scared, and as Ollie tried to get hold of her arm, she went all the way under, too, her hat coming off. Ollie kicked her feet, pulling Nina as she did, and then her feet touched something, the rock or the bottom. She pressed her foot against it, and pushed off, kicking again, but Nina was crying louder, and fighting against her. Ollie swallowed a mouthful of water, raised her face to the surface, spit and then coughed, splashing again, reaching for the shore.
When the water was shallow enough, she tried to stand, but stumbled backwards. A frog sat on a rock, staring at her, just a few feet away. Nina sat up, soaked and shivering, and staring across the pond. She was still crying.
Ollie looked out at the middle of the pond. Now there were only bubbles, ripples, in the spot where their Papa had been, but the water was quieting. She could still hear the music, but that was fading, too, and then it was gone. The only noise, Nina’s sobs. Ollie looked up at the sky, solid gray, and then the breeze picked up, and a few of last year’s leaves blew out upon the water. She looked across the pond again, and now there was person standing there, staring at them, having just climbed from the water. A man, but a younger man with longish hair, not Papa. Dressed in a cloak. His face dark, and his eyes like black holes. He stared at the girls a moment longer. And then he turned and walked into the woods.