a short story by Neal Dorenbosch
About the Author
Neal Dorenbosch earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Utah State University ages ago. A mediocre Golden Gloves boxer at one time, Neal eventually discovered beer a less painful way of achieving altered states of consciousness. His poetry and fiction is forthcoming or has mysteriously appeared in The Crucible, The Dead Mule, Literary Potpourri, New Era, The Blue Moon Review, Lily Literary Review and Fiction Warehouse.
Ellis Johnson came to live with his daughter on account of burning his own house down. He had put a skillet of oil on for fiddlehead ferns and then had fallen asleep watching his favorite evangelist on the 24-hour preacher channel. The oil had become so hot that it ignited a roll of paper towels on the counter nearby — at least that’s what the fire department said. All Ellis could remember was waking up to a house full of smoke. He also remembered how hot it had been and how he couldn’t find his way out.
“Only the washed shall be taken into the Kingdom of Heaven!” a voice had boomed from the television while Ellis clawed for a window. Eventually he passed out. When he woke, he thought he had been taken up to Jesus — his hospital room was so white and clean and bright.
The doctors released him into Elizabeth’s care. Ellis would have preferred to go anywhere other than to the city with her, but he had no other options. The fire had destroyed everything he owned except the clothes on his back and the family bible he had been clutching. His entire life had gone up in the blaze. Elizabeth was his only living relative, and she had offered to take him in as long as he promised there would be no bible stumping and as long as he stayed clear of her stove. Ellis agreed to both conditions, begrudgingly, because he couldn’t stand the thought of being dropped off at that awful rest home she had shown him in the brochure.
Once home, his daughter led him up the walkway and through her front door. She steered him into the front room and deposited him on the sofa. “Stay here,” she instructed as if he were a dog just from the pound. “I’ve got to put on dinner. April will be home shortly.”
Ellis was still on the sofa when his granddaughter came home from school. He was clutching his bible and staring absently at a spot on the wall. It took him a moment to realize she had even come into the room. He had never seen his granddaughter before, and, at first, he wasn’t sure who the girl standing in front of him was. Then his dead face became animated, as if a mannequin at a department store had suddenly come to life. His gray eyes appeared magnified behind two thick lenses set in black-rimmed bifocals, and his white crew cut seemed to bristle. A clear plastic hose looped over each of his ears and met just under his nostrils. Another hose dangled down his shirt-front and was connected to an apparatus resting on the sofa. The machine made little clicking noises every few seconds, metering out the oxygen he depended on since his lungs had been damaged by the smoke. He looked like an old owl that had just escaped a forest fire.
“Well, who’s this half-pint?” Ellis hooted, setting his bible down and leaning forward to place his hands on his knees. His hands were bumpy and covered with large purple spots where he had been burned in the fire.
April stared but didn’t answer. Her own eyes were magnified behind a pair of glasses. She’d been told that morning that her grandfather would be coming to live with them. If you considered only their eyes, the two of them could have been twins.
“Either you’re little April, or you’re the housemaid,” Ellis smirked, “and from what I seen of this place so far, I half hope you’re the housemaid.”
April set her book bag down and folded her hands in front of her yellow dress. “I’m just April,” she announced. The words carried too much air behind them because her front teeth were missing.
“Well, that’s too bad,” Ellis said, feigning disappointment. “I suppose the housemaid will be in shortly.”
April said nothing.
“Cat got your tongue, girl?” Ellis clucked suddenly.
April jumped like someone had just slammed a heavy book shut in the room.
“You’re quite the little conversationalist, ain’t you?” Ellis noted. “Don’t you talk?”
“What’s that?” April said, finally, pointing to the oxygen canister.
“Oh, that’s just some silly device that helps me breathe. See these tubes here? The air comes from that contraption. Must look a might frightening to you, huh?”
She had already lost interest and was staring at his bible. “What’s that?” she asked.
“This? Why that’s the Holy Bible!” Ellis whooped.
“What’s a holy bible?”
“Why, you never seen the Holy Bible?” Ellis picked up the book and turned it over in his hands. It had a worn, black cover with a gold cross on the front.
“I like Green Eggs and Ham,” April declared.
“Why, that sounds disgusting. If your mother’s cooking is anything like her house cleaning, then I can imagine you’ve grown up used to eating such things. Green eggs and ham! I don’t suppose you’ve ever had fiddlehead ferns, have you? That’s my favorite.”
April crinkled her nose. “No. It’s a book, not food,” she said when her face returned to normal. “It’s one of my favorites.”
“A book, huh? What kind of dribble is your mother trying to put in your head, child? The only book you ever need is this one. It’s the only book I ever read in my life, and I’ll be damned if I need to read another. How old are you?”
“Seven, huh? And you never heard of the Holy Bible?
“Never heard of Cane and Able?”
“Never heard of Sodom and Gomorrah? The tower of Babel?”
Ellis grew perplexed. “King Solomon? Abraham and Isaac?” he tried again.
“Nope.” April’s blonde ponytail swished against the shoulders of her blue school dress.
“Well, I’ll be jiggered,” Ellis croaked. “Seven years old and no knowledge of the word of God whatsoever. Seven years old and all you know of the world is green eggs and ham. Never even tasted fiddlehead ferns, for heaven’s sake.”
Ellis sat back in the sofa suddenly. He scrunched shut his eyes and considered the promise he had made his daughter as a condition of his boarding. He sat there, looking like an old buzzard with a crew cut who might be waiting for a sign from God. Then he suddenly clasped the bible in front of him and snapped open his eyes. He bolted forward and held the book out to April. “Here, take a look!”
April moved forward, cautiously.
“Why, when I was seven, I had nearly that whole book memorized,” Ellis boasted, “at least most of the New Testament.”
April had no idea what the New Testament was, so this accomplishment appeared lost on her.
“You can’t get to Jesus without you reading this here book,” Ellis stumped.’
“Laws! Don’t even know Jesus. Jesus is the one who died for us all, half pint. All you have to do is accept Jesus in your life and you’re saved.”
“Saved from what, grandpa?”
For a moment all Ellis could do was roll his eyes up into his head. He couldn’t believe the child’s ignorance. He realized Elizabeth hadn’t changed her ways one bit since running off from home all those years ago.
“Saved from an eternity in the fiery pits, little one. Why without Jesus, we’d all end up in hell, burning and burning forever.”
“Where’s . . .” April started, but Ellis anticipated her next question and added, quickly: “Hell is a deep pit where you go when you die, and you can never get out and the devil and his hordes torment you and burn you and flay you open forever.”
April appeared disturbed but, after a moment of reflection, she asked, “Where does Jesus live?”
“Why, child, he lives in heaven, seated on the right hand of God. If you accept him in your life, that’s where you go instead of hell. Heaven is a wonderful place where there ain’t no sin and no murder and no pain. You live in peace and luxury forever.”
“Is my mother going to hell?” April asked, suddenly.
The question struck Ellis like a jolt of electricity. Elizabeth had forsaken Jesus long ago, and he felt an old anger rising in his chest.
“Why if she don’t ever accept Jesus in her life, I suppose she will. Lord knows how I tried to bring her around.”
“Am I going there too?”
“Well, not if grandpa Ellis can help it! All you have to do is learn your bible and accept Jesus in your heart. And I’ll be damned if I leave this house before that’s done.”
“I want to go to heaven, grandpa,” April said.
“Well, then you’re going there with me.”
At dinner, Ellis grew more confident in his new surroundings. He wasted no time letting everyone know how unsatisfactory he found the food by way of various grunts and groans he had picked up during a lifetime of living among farm animals. Elizabeth sat like a wooden statue at the head of the table, unable to eat. April shoveled bread into her mouth and watched her grandfather intently.
“After this dinner,” Ellis groused, “I swear I could get used to green eggs and ham!”
He wiped Alfredo sauce from his chin and spit a half-chewed piece of calamari into his napkin to examine it. When he saw that it had legs, he screamed and pitched his napkin across the table. He bolted from his chair and upset his dinner plate in the process. Calamari scattered across the kitchen tiles, tiny legs splayed this way and that, as though the squids might come to life and scuttle off to find the ocean if they could.
“What in tarnation are those things?” Ellis demanded. He held up one foot and was prepared to bring it down swiftly on any of the creatures if they dared move.
April giggled. Elizabeth slammed her fork down, knocking her water glass over.
“Those are just squids, grandpa!” April cried. “They’re good.”
“Sit down, Ellis,” Elizabeth demanded, scurrying to sop up the spilled water.
“You eat what we eat now. This isn’t the backwoods.”
“You expect me to eat those bugs?” Ellis squawked, taking his seat again.
“Squids,” April corrected. “They’re squids.”
“Sea bugs,” Ellis screeched. “They’re nothing but sea bugs, and I’ll be damned if I eat sea bugs. I’ll starve first.”
“Suit yourself,” Elizabeth said. “Less time I’ve got to put up with you.”
“Still as mean as ever, I see,” Ellis continued. Then, turning to his granddaughter, “you know your mother grew up on good country food. She didn’t always used to be so high and mighty, but she ran off first chance she got to find an easy life in the city. Ran off from country life with that no-good boy and ran off from Jesus just as fast. Now she’s even too good for the food she grew up on. Eats seabugs now.”
“I couldn’t get away from you fast enough!” Elizabeth seethed. “And for me, getting away from Jesus and getting away from you were one in the same.”
“Well. And where is Mr. Moneybags now?” Ellis mocked.
“Grandpa says you’re going to hell to be burned and burned alive forever and him and me are going up to heaven with Jesus,” April announced suddenly.
Elizabeth’s mouth fell open.
“All I have to do is accept Jesus and learn the bible,” April continued.
“I told you I don’t want her exposed to that rubbish,” Elizabeth snarled. Her hands were clenched into hard balls, and the veins stood out in her neck like little purple ropes. “You were specifically forbidden to bring your bible stumping into this house. I had enough of that garbage growing up!”
“You should educate this young child from this here book, not teach her silly nonsense like Green Eggs and Ham!” Ellis shot back, waving his bible in the air.
“Don’t start it, Ellis. That was one condition that you agreed to, and that I want followed, if you’re going to stay here. The other: you eat what I cook and stay away from my goddamn stove.”
“Fine,” Ellis grumbled, fighting to get out of his chair. His arms became tangled in his air hose, and he wrestled with it like a snake. When he managed to get the nosepiece firmly back in place, he shouted, “I’ll leave now. A man knows when he ain’t wanted, and this ain’t no Christian home. Good Christians wouldn’t think of eating that garbage. Jesus never ate no sea bugs.”
“Sit down, you old galoot!” Elizabeth shouted. “You have nowhere to go, and you know it. After all these years and now having to come crawling here with nothing but the clothes on your back and your stupid bible, I’d think the least you could do is keep your silly religious notions to yourself.”
“God will not be mocked, Elizabeth,” Ellis offered, punctuating his warning with an extended index finger.
“Neither will I,” his daughter countered with a flourish of her fork.
“Especially not in my own house. And I haven’t been so stupid as to burn my own house down. So let’s not forget who’s the guest here. OK? ”
Ellis sat down heavily and fumed. He knew better than to have come here. If he had had anywhere else to go he surely wouldn’t have come here among these heathens, not even for an afternoon visit. “Remember the time you got shocked with that cattle prod?” he asked suddenly. Ellis knew Elizabeth hated reminders of that day because that was the day he had taught her a lesson. That was the day he had put the fear of god into her.
“You mean the day you nearly electrocuted me?” Elizabeth said.
“You was only ten, I think,” Ellis grinned. “I asked you to help me in the milking barn. Remember?”
Elizabeth glared but said nothing.
“What’s a cattle prod?” April asked.
“That’s a long stick with electricity at the end,” he explained. “You poke a cow with it and it gives a shock that gets them moving.”
“Does it hurt them?”
“Why, I don’t suppose too much. These are big animals. It’s probably only a little sting, but it gets them moving.”
“It hurts like hell,” Elizabeth interrupted, “and you didn’t use the prod on the cow, did you?”
“Well, now. There’s the thing, isn’t it? I thought to myself: Ellis, here’s a good time to teach sassy Elizabeth a lesson. Elizabeth’s always so headstrong and always so full of herself. Here’s a good time for a lesson. She’s a caterwauling and boo-hooing about having to do this and having to do that. I stick out the prod, and she takes hold of it without thinking. The thing goes live and shocks her until her hair is standing on end and her arms are shaking like this.” Ellis held out his arms and shook them back and forth. He laughed like it was just yesterday. April stared at her mother, amazed, as though she were being electrocuted all over again.
“And there she stood, a cattle prod sending juice through her like she was a Christmas bulb,” Ellis finished with a grunt.
“What happened?” April demanded.
“Yes, Ellis. Tell her what happened next. Tell her how intelligent you are, and how you didn’t count on the fact that my muscles would contract so I couldn’t let go of the damned thing no matter how hard I tried.”
“Well, yes. Things did get a little out of hand,” Ellis admitted. “But you was all right. No permanent damage.”
“No permanent damage?” Elizabeth shrieked, standing now. “ No permanent damage! You left a ten-year-old child holding a live cattle prod while you sat back and laughed. And that’s only one example of the abuse I suffered from you. Well look at you now. You’re just a harmless old man. And to think I spent so much of my life afraid of you.”
“It was a lesson!” Ellis cried. “I wanted to teach you how it might feel in hell. That hot surge through your body was just a little taste of what you are gonna feel forever because you can’t accept Jesus in your life!”
Ellis puffed loudly now and his face had developed red patches. “Well, you have chosen your path, Elizabeth!” he continued. “You have made your bed and you can lie in it, but you will not deprive this little girl of her chance at salvation. April will not be joining you in an eternity of torment. April and I will be sitting on the right hand of God when you and all the other sinners are cast to the devil.”
“You stupid old man!” Elizabeth cried. “You high-and-mighty pathetic little hypocrite. If that cattle prod was a lesson for me, then I guess Jesus done taught you a better one when he helped you to burn your own house down. How did it feel, Ellis? How did it feel to be surrounded by all those hot flames? Did you get a little taste of what’s in store for you? Jesus sure gave you a good lesson, didn’t he? He wanted a mean and stupid old man to see what’s in store for him when it’s his time. And from the looks of you, it’s gonna be time pretty soon.”
Elizabeth took her daughter by the arm and led her from the kitchen. Ellis plunked down at the table and stared at his bible with exaggerated eyes blinking behind his bifocals. After a while he could hear the television blaring from the other room. Someone was rapidly changing the channels. Suddenly a strange feeling came over him. It was a feeling he couldn’t recognize. Ellis gazed at his own hands and remembered the excruciating pain he’d endured in the hospital and fear gripped his heart. But there was something else there, too. He couldn’t make out what it was because he had never in his life felt doubt.
From the living room, he heard a desperate voice cry, “and the sinful shall be razed to the ground and shall be as stubble in the field,” before his daughter screamed: “Change that goddamn channel, April. Now!”
Ellis thought he might cry soon, and this was absurd because he couldn’t remember the last time he had cried.
Ellis crept into his granddaughter’s room later that night. He made certain Elizabeth was asleep before sneaking in. He hovered over the child’s bed like a patriarchal night owl, watching her, while the contraption in his hand clacked and hissed like some sinister metronome counting time. He listened to her breathe and tried to remember back to when he had been a child, but all that came was a sense of dread that his own life was nearly over. He wondered how he had come to this point. The years had just slipped away unnoticed and he had nothing to show for any of it. He had come full circle and was now completely dependent on the good graces of his own daughter, a heathen.
“Why don’t you like my mother?” April asked, suddenly.
This startled Ellis. He hadn’t realized she was awake, staring at him in the darkness. “Your mother don’t like me,” he countered, quickly.
“She says you’re just a mean old man. She says you never wanted to visit before your house burned down.”
“She did, did she?”
“She said we were better off that way, though. She said you just ruin everything you touch.”
“Well your mother’s been nasty as long as I can remember,” Ellis said. “She’s been stubborn and nasty.”
“Will you teach me the bible like you said you would?”
“If I could, child, I would. Your momma won’t allow it, though. She’ll throw me right out in the street if I so much as read you one word.”
“She wouldn’t do that, grandpa.”
“She most certainly would,” Ellis asserted. “You don’t know how mean your momma can be.”
“But how am I going to get into heaven if you don’t teach me?”
Ellis frowned under his air hose. After a minute he threw up his hands. “I guess you’ll just have to wait until you can figure it out on your own.”
“But what if I die before then?” April pressed.
“Well, child, then that’ll be on your momma’s head.”
He took her hand and smiled. He patted her head as if she were a puppy. Then he floundered off to bed, the metronome ticking at his side.
The next morning Elizabeth poked her head into the guest room and woke him.
“You stay away from that stove,” she ordered. “There’s plenty of boxed food in the pantry. And keep that damn bible out of sight when April comes home from school. I’m trusting you only this once, Ellis. I get off work around six.”
Ellis sat up in bed and flapped his mouth open and closed to mock her but she had shut the door already.
After he had the house to himself, Ellis tottered downstairs. He poured himself a bowl of Frankenberries from the pantry, but he couldn’t gag them down dry. The milk was in the refrigerator near the stove. He was forbidden in that part of the kitchen, but he decided his daughter had no right to keep him cornered like some animal. He shuffled to the refrigerator and set his oxygen canister on the table nearby. His air hose kept getting in the way as he poured the milk, and Ellis pretended he was an astronaut tethered to some space capsule’s life-support system. Without the tether, he fantasized, he’d just float off into space until God discovered him and scooped him into heaven.
After breakfast he settled on the couch to watch the evangelists on television. A few minutes later he heard the postman drive by. Ellis decided to wander outside and fetch the mail. He clattered out the front door and lurched up the walk. He carried his oxygen canister in one hand and retrieved a small bundle from the mailbox with the other. Then he held the envelopes up to the sunlight, one by one, to make out what was in them as he shuffled back to the house. He considered steaming them open when he got back inside but decided against it.
Later that morning Ellis developed a series of strange chest pains. He had never had heart trouble before so he attributed it to indigestion from dinner the night before. After a while he got to thinking about April and the pains grew worse. Her words sounded in his ears, will you teach me the bible like you said you would? and he felt like a cow had just kicked him in the chest. Ellis felt perplexed and didn’t know what to make of it for a while. Then a particular evangelist came on the television.
“Do not hide your candle under a bushel!” the preacher admonished. He had worked up a sweat stamping back and forth across a vast stage. An enormous velvet cross towered behind him. “Let your light shine like a beacon from the hilltops!”
“Amen,” Ellis crowed.
“Now is the time to gather the flock!” the preacher barked.
“Amen,” Ellis crooned again.
“It is time to assemble the chosen!”
Ellis decided right away that he’d had enough of his daughter’s nonsense. He realized the sudden chest pains were only a symptom of his guilty conscience. He had tried to convince himself that April’s soul was Elizabeth’s business, but it was clear he’d have to take her salvation into his own hands.
Suddenly an idea came to him. The idea required a small amount of money, and Ellis remembered he was completely broke. He wondered if Elizabeth kept any money hidden around the house, and he struck out on an expedition to find out.
First he searched the kitchen but found only two pennies stuck at the back of a junk drawer. Next, he crept into Elizabeth’s room and searched her dresser. He found nothing but piles of underwear that no decent Christian would be caught dead wearing. He couldn’t believe how far his own daughter had fallen from the tree. Eventually, Ellis stumbled on April’s piggybank. It was a ceramic likeness of a circus clown that sat on her nightstand, and he was relieved to find he wouldn’t have to smash it to bits to get at the contents. A little plastic plug had been fitted in the bottom from where he could empty it. Inside he found a handful of change. He counted out a total of four dollars and thirty-five cents. He figured that would do.
It was spring and the afternoon was clear and bright. It was just the right time of year for fresh fiddleheads. Ellis toted his oxygen in one hand and clutched the loose change in the other. He got to thinking about his granddaughter as he shuffled along in search of a market. Suddenly he wished April had been his daughter instead of the heartless one he had raised. His life might have been completely different if she had been. Suddenly he remembered Elizabeth’s awful words from the night before, her horrible accusation that god had burned his house down to teach him a lesson. He could only laugh now. God had not burned his house down to teach him any lesson. God had brought him to April. It was obvious she had been in desperate need of him, and Ellis felt foolish for having ever doubted himself.
He bought a bag of fiddlehead ferns at the first market he stumbled on. Then he bought himself a soda from a machine outside the store. He sat on a nearby bench to catch his breath until a couple of teenagers clattered up on skateboards and stopped to gawk.
“Take a picture; it lasts longer!” Ellis whooped. Then he snatched up his groceries and scurried away. He found April in front of the television when he got home.
“I’ve got a surprise for you,” he announced when he banged through the door.
“I’m gonna cook you the best snack you ever wrapped your lips around, girl. Fiddlehead ferns. Your tongue’s gonna pop out your mouth and slap the back of your head.”
“But mom says you’re not supposed to use the stove,” April reminded him.
He ignored her and lurched into the kitchen. April followed and sat at the table where he had set the grocery bag down. His oxygen clicked and wheezed nearby. He had un-tethered himself for the first time since leaving the hospital, and the hose, still doling out air, dangled safely over the table’s edge.
First Ellis found a colander in one of the cupboards. He dumped the fiddlehead ferns into it and then rinsed them under the tap. They had already been trimmed back properly at the market, so he left them in the sink to drain and found a skillet the proper size. He turned on the gas to the front burner and set the skillet over the little blue flame. April watched intently, all eyes, as he poured vegetable oil into it.
“Your momma don’t know a thing, child,” Ellis said, finally. “Your momma would just as soon feed you all kinds of heathen junk and fill your head with the same.”
“What’s a heathen?”
“Why, a heathen is someone who turns their back on Jesus when they should know better. A heathen is someone who chooses hell over heaven.”
“Do you think my mom will ever go to heaven?”
“I don’t know, half-pint. I think something mighty drastic has to happen before your momma will open her eyes, but I can’t help her. I can help you, though. Jesus sent Grandpa Ellis to this house for that very reason.”
“I’m not sure I want to go to heaven without my momma,” April mused, doubtfully. She rested her elbows on the table and cradled her chin in her hands.
“Nonsense,” Ellis wheezed. He was out of breath without his oxygen already, but he had been instructed to never wear it when cooking. He carried the fiddlehead ferns to the stove. “Your momma has to make her own choice. But you have a chance to be counted among the saved.”
He dumped the ferns into the skillet and then used a spatula to stir them. He made sure all of them got a good coating of oil. Then he shuffled to the table.
“I’m gonna get you to heaven, child. Don’t you worry. I’m gonna get you to Jesus.”
He stooped down to kiss the top of her head, and April threw her arms around his neck. “I love you, grandpa,” she whispered.
Ellis bolted upright then. He felt as though someone had shoved a cattle prod into the small of his back. April had sounded exactly like her mother at that age, and the recognition of it had shocked him. That part of his life had been buried. It had seemed so insignificant and far away that it could have been another life. It might not have even happened at all. But hearing those words now wrenched forgotten memories from the past. He and Elizabeth had been close. Elizabeth had put her arms around him in the very same way. He realized he had once loved his daughter so much he couldn’t imagine anything tearing them apart. But something had happened. At some point, Elizabeth had started hating him.
Ellis shook off the past and said, in the most stoic voice possible, “now where does your mother keep the hot sauce?”
He scuttled into the pantry to collect himself while April sat at the table, waiting. His oxygen canister hissed nearby. Ellis was still bumping around in the pantry when April took up the air hose and handled it. She attempted to loop it over her ears in imitation of her grandfather. When the fiddleheads began sputtering in the skillet, she dragged the canister with her to the stove. She was tethered to the machine now like some junior space traveler. It marked time on the floor near her feet.
April took up the spatula with one hand to stir. With the other, she attempted to fit the hose properly on her face. She had just got the nosepiece in place when Ellis bounded from the pantry.
“Found it!” he exclaimed.
His sudden reappearance startled her, and April whirled around and flung the hose away, reflexively. Ellis had only a split second to note the embarrassment on her face before the hose fell, still hissing, across the stove.
She offered him a sheepish smile just before the explosion. It was the most beautiful thing Ellis had seen in his life. The afternoon light streaming from the windows illuminated her from behind, and he could have sworn she had just been translated. Her golden hair was radiant in that celestial light, and her half-smile almost broke his heart.
In that instant Ellis realized how much she looked like her mother. It could have been Elizabeth at seven years old standing there in the soft light, smiling, before the firestorm ripped her away.
“Fiddlehead Ferns” Copyright ©2005 by Neal Dorenbosch.
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations for the purposes of critical reviews or articles. Educators who wish to print or photocopy in part or whole this story for classroom use, or publishers who wish to include this story in an anthology should send inquiries by email to the author.