Our Lady of Widdershins

The Pope knew. So did the Knights Templar. They created the lie. But Grandpa Harry figured it out. Armed with the knowledge, Gee-ma is making a break for it, unless Tommy can figure out how to talk her off history’s ledge.

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Gee-ma blew through the house, oak staircase to living room, parlor to kitchen, a tornado juggling a handbag and suitcase. “I love you all,” she announced to the family, “but it’s time for me to go.”

Gee-ma lived in a mother-in-law’s apartment over the garage. Dad, Mom, and their children lived in the house. Gee-ma’s other children, in-laws, and grandchildren all lived around town, apples clustered in the roots of the tree. They were tightly woven, gathering at Gee-ma’s house the second Saturday of every month without fail for a proper family brunch.

Collected as they were that morning, beating batter for French toast, brewing coffee, firing the stove for the sausages resembling short fingers, they were caught unprepared for Gee-ma’s outburst.

“Go where?” Mom asked. The rest turned to each other as if another might already be in the know.

“The summer of 1969,” Gee-ma declared. “The moon landing. Woodstock. VistaVision movies at the Hippodrome. Real Coca-Cola. Your grandfather, before his hair fell out and dentures made his kisses weird. No cellphones or twitchats or facefriends or whatever. I love you all, but I need a change, while there’s still time to make one!”

Before anyone could speak, Gee-ma strode through the kitchen and out the back door. A small motor buzzed. Henry’s scooter zipped past the kitchen windows, an angry fly with Gee-ma on its back, yellow helmet crowning her head.

The family exchanged confused glances and questions like Christmas gifts.

“Has she been upset lately?”

“Was that a suitcase?

“When did she learn to drive a scooter?”

“What did she mean, 1969?”

“We should follow her and find out,” Tommy said. But he was 11, an age of invisibility in a large family. He wearied of not being listened to. The only one who heard him with any regularity had just stolen Henry’s scooter.

On the back porch, the first morning of summer teased a long, hot season. The sun prickled Tommy’s scalp. Behind him, the family continued to chase its own tail while pans sizzled and milk warmed on the counter. He leapt from the steps, mounted his bike like a cowboy taking to his steed. He set out in the direction of the scooter. No one called after him.

He pedaled hard, though he knew he had no chance of catching a 20 horsepower scooter. If Gee-ma was leaving, she’d go to the end of Hill Street, up the main road through town. Whether she turned left or right at the church was a guess. He was still trying to choose one when he spotted Gee-ma stopped in front of the church.

The scooter stood at an angle on the sidewalk. Green bungie cord snakes curled around her suitcase, secured it behind the seat. Helmet still on her head, she considered the steeple of St. Agnes the Divine as if preparing to climb it.

Tommy laid his bike in the grass. Even with the helmet covering her head, the corners of Gee-ma’s eyes were a hawk’s. “Is anyone following you, Tommy?”

“No. They’re in the kitchen trying to figure out what happened.”

“Good.”

“Gee-ma, what did happen?”

She removed the helmet. Her silver hair pointed in seven directions, as if her head couldn’t find north. “I’m taking a trip to before you were born.”

“On a scooter?”

“More or less.”

Curiosity collapsed his face into squints and frowns. The scooter didn’t look like any time machine he’d seen in the movies. “How?”

“You like all that wizards and magic stuff, right?”

“Yeah.”

Gee-ma checked her watch and hunkered down on the church’s stone front steps. “Let me tell you a story.” Tommy joined her in the building’s shadow. “Once there was a knight who fought in the Crusades. History’s forgotten his name, but let’s call him Paul. He lived in Perpignan, France, and left a beautiful maiden behind when he went off to war. Paul fought bravely, but was badly wounded and sent home.”

“What was the maiden’s name?”

Gee-ma gave it a moment’s thought. “Call her Linda. So Paul traveled hundreds of miles home, excited to see Linda again. He arrived at his village on the first day of autumn, only to make a terrible discovery.”

“Linda was dead.”

“How did you know?”

Tommy shrugged. “Someone always dies in these things.”

“She’d died in a fall three months earlier. Paul went to the church to pray. But before he went inside, he walked in circles around the church, thinking about Linda. He did it a dozen times before he went inside to speak to the priest. But when he stepped inside, he walked three months in the past.”

“How did he know he was in the past?”

“The autumn leaves were green again. The horrible wound he received in battle had vanished. Realizing he’d gone back in time, Paul rushed from the church to Linda’s home, and arrived just in time to save her from falling.”

“I didn’t know churches could send you back in time.”

“They can’t. The Pope ordered the Knights Templar to investigate. They discovered walking around a consecrated place counter-clockwise during certain celestial events allowed you to bend time. One week for every trip around. You know celestial events, right?”

“Sure. Eclipses, solstices, equinoxes.”

“Smart boy. But the Pope realized he couldn’t have everyone bending time for whatever reason. It would create chaos. So he ordered the knights to promote a superstition: It was bad luck to walk counterclockwise around a church. They called it ‘turning widdershins.’ It had to do with bad luck or evil or the devil, depending on who you asked, but it was a ploy to hide the secret. Over time, the lie became the truth. The secret remained for many years until one day, your grandfather put the pieces together.”

Tommy was a baby when Gee-pa Harry died. The man’s library consumed an entire room of the house, big books with dark leather bindings, some of them in other languages, all shelved on dark oak cases stretching to the ceiling. You needed a ladder for the top shelf. “It was in his books?”

“Scattered across dozens of them. A fact here, a legend there. Your Grandpa Harry was pretty smart. He pieced it all together, but died before he could test his theory. So I’m going to test it for him.” Her smile was warm but far away. “What’s today, Tommy?”

“The first day of summer.”

“That’s right. The summer solstice. One of those time-bending celestial events. I’ve got gas cans behind the bushes, and Father Doyle’s permission to drive in circles around the church, once for every week between here and summer of 1969: 2,392 weeks! Fifteen seconds per lap, ten hours to bend time between here and there!” She glanced at her watch and gave Tommy a hug. “Time to ride, Tommy. Behave! Grow up strong!”

He opened his mouth, but his question died in the scooter’s exhaust. Gee-ma zoomed up the sidewalk, curved onto the concrete walk beside the church, and was gone. Fifteen seconds later, she passed again. The third time, she gave him a toot on the horn. At the start of her fourth lap, Tommy retrieved his bike and pedaled for home.

* * *

“Gee-ma’s at the church,” Tommy told them.

His words were sticks against the armor of their conversation. Mom, Dad, Uncle Ernie, Aunt Kate, the in-laws, and two of the oldest kids crowded around the kitchen island. Aunt Kate called people in Gee-ma’s address book. Everyone talked over each other.

“… maybe to the park to feed …”

“… her friend Gladys at the nursing home …”

“… always liked to go to matinees …”

“She’s at the church,” Tommy repeated.

Aunt Kate lamented that every third person in Gee-ma’s address book was dead or disconnected. Uncle Ernie asked Henry the range of the scooter, so he could determine how far she could ride before gassing up. Dad wondered aloud if they needed to call a Silver alert in with the highway patrol.

Tommy finally climbed atop one of the wooden stools and shouted. “Gee-ma is going in circles at the church!”

They stared at him, confused. Voices from above were usually Gee-ma calling from her apartment. Mom scowled. “Are you supposed to stand on furniture?”

“No.”

“Then get down.”

“Not until you listen! Gee-ma’s at Saint Agnes!”

Mom studied Tommy like she did when he had a fever. “Are you sure?”

“I just talked to her.” He abandoned the stool.

Mom turned relieved eyes on Dad. “She’s just acting out.”

“Give her some time,” Dad said. “Whatever it is will boil off.”

The family chorus joined in, nodding at one another.

“She’ll be back.”

“That’s what, a mile away?”

“She’s just trying to prove some point.”

Tommy felt it more urgent. “She says she’s going to 1969. She even has a suitcase.”

Mom hunched down. “She can’t go to 1969. She’s making up stories, Tommy.”

“Why would she do that?”

“To get attention. She’s unhappy about something. Sometimes when people get old, they do this. You don’t understand yet, but when you grow up, you will. Don’t worry, okay?”

He understood what Mom thought. Nodded despite his disbelief. It felt like a thin blade of betrayal, cutting Gee-ma from afar as she rode.

The knot of family dissolved without further concern or curiosity. Tommy went upstairs and closed his door. Disembodied voices rattled up the heating duct, laughing, relaxed.

Tommy booted his computer. Woodstock, Gee-ma had said. The moon landing. Whatever a hippo drone was. Well-read was well-armed, she always told him, so Tommy began to read. He needed a lot of bullets in his gun.

* * *

Gee-ma was still orbiting Saint Agnes when Tommy returned. He noticed the gray line on the sidewalk, the overlapping footprint of the scooter’s tires. Tommy left his bike among the empty gas cans behind the rectory bushes. He sat on the church steps and waited.

It was 20 minutes before Gee-ma braked to a stop before the steps. She removed the helmet. Sweat plastered bangs to her forehead. Heavy eyelids drooped, though she seemed excited. “Come to see me off?”

“Sort of.”

She cocked her head. “Speak your piece, soldier.”

“You must have liked 1969 a lot.”

“There’s no point in going someplace you don’t like.”

“Why do you want to go back?”

She shrugged. “I like it more than I like now.”

“Is it because you’re old?”

She stopped, water bottle halfway to her lips. The intensity of her gaze made Tommy feel he might burst into flame. “Maybe. Today is less sociable than yesterday. More uncivil. Everyone’s in everyone else’s business. They’re willfully cruel. They add their two cents like it’s worth two dollars. Even if 1969 wasn’t really better, I remember it that way.”

“Did you see the moon landing when it happened? When Neil Armstrong said the ‘one small step’ thing?”

“I did. Jeanie Barlow had a party. Her dad had the biggest color TV on the block. We grilled hot dogs and played records and watched Walter Cronkite’s live reports.”

“What about the Woodstock concert? It looks crazy.”

“We didn’t actually have tickets. Your grandfather and I sneaked in. It was in such chaos, they abandoned the gates. They called it three days of peace and music. More like three days of mud and insanity. Plus a lot of things you’ll understand when you’re older. But the music was amazing.”

“Like Jimi Henrix.”

Hendrix. I’m more of a Janis Joplin girl.”

“Okay, but … if you did all this before, why do it again?”

“To relive it! Fresh! New!”

“Aren’t you reliving it when you talk about it?”

“If I talked about it, maybe.” Gee-ma glanced up the street, toward home. “You know how hard it is to get a word in edgewise. It’s worse when you’re old. You become wallpaper, mauve and flat. No one listens, even if you ride off half-cocked on a scooter.” She sighed as she freed her suitcase from the seat. “I miss the conversations your grandfather and I had. We spoke. Not this chat stuff, where you read a conversation. He listened. He laughed. He heard me.”

“I can hear you, Gee-ma.”

“You’re a wonderful exception to the rule, Tommy.” She lifted her suitcase and started up the church steps. “And I already know you’re going to grow into a fine young man. Don’t ever lose the ability to listen. Someday, girls will love that.”

Gee-ma was halfway up the steps when Tommy called after her. He saw a weird, fuzzy glow around the edges of the church door, like someone put the sun inside the building. He shivered. “Why not stick around and make sure?”

“Make sure?”

“That I grow into a fine man. If you go back to 1969, it’s just the same things all over again. Watch Neil Armstrong. Listen to Janis Joplin. Drink the same Coke, see the same movies, root for the same Mets in the World Series.”

“Thomas Peter Kincaid, I will swallow poison before I root for the New York Mets.”

“I’m saying there are new things here. Me and Belinda and Henry and Andy and Mae, all of us growing up. And Brad — who knows what will happen to Brad? He could be epic.”

“You all pick on Brad too much.”

“What if we land on Mars? Or aliens discover us? Or we finally invent flying cars? You’ll always have the stuff you did before, Gee-ma. But if you go to 1969, you’ll miss all the cool stuff that still hasn’t happened.”

She stilled on the steps. Tommy knew she also saw the glow. There were sounds too now from behind the old oak doors: the different pitch of car horns, the tune of an ice cream truck, music from a band in the old gazebo, long gone from the corner opposite the church.

When Gee-ma faced him, Tommy saw tear streaks on her ride-dusty face. “I’m lonely for the way things used to be.”

Tommy had prepared for 1969. He had nothing in his bag of tricks for an old woman’s sadness. It stopped him cold, and she galvanized in the opening he left. “Be good!” she called. Suitcase in hand, she started up the last half-dozen steps.

Words intended to halt her were peanut butter on Tommy’s tongue. He chased after her. She would have eluded him, except the church door swung wide as she reached the top step. The brilliance of the past, coalesced in a golden glow, brought Gee-ma to a sudden stop.

Tommy watched an elderly man limp from the center of the glow, sandpaper stubble on his cheeks, his clothes a combination of wrinkles and long wear. He leaned on a cane and stood in Gee-ma’s way. For a moment, Tommy thought it was his grandfather.

“Excuse me,” she said, and tried to move around the old man.

He blocked her way with the length of the cane. “Gee-ma, you can’t.”

The familiar name from the stranger’s lips froze her in place. She studied his face, seeking clues and finding none.

The old man smiled. “It’s me, Gee-ma. Brad.” He took a breath. “But you couldn’t know that. You never saw me like this.”

Tommy stared into geriatric eyes, felt his heart thudding. Beside him, Gee-ma shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

“After you left, Tommy told his wild story to everyone, but nobody believed him. Nobody but me. Little weirdo sounded crazy enough to be telling the truth. So the year after you went missing, I tried slipping time for myself. I went back three weeks and aced all of my finals because I’d already taken them once.”

“That’s cheating,” Tommy said.

“It was 60 years ago. You gonna tell on me, midget?”

Gee-ma put a hand on Brad’s shoulder. “So it works!”

“Yes. Just like you said.”

“But why are you here?”

Brad shifted his weight and redirected the cane. “Because everything went to shit after you left.”

“Language, Bradley.”

“Mom and Dad split up. He drank himself into a hospital. Mom blamed herself. I never amounted to what you thought I would. Belinda got knocked up at prom. And this one —” he pointed a bony finger at Tommy “— ran away six months after you were gone. It all went to tatters without you.”

Beside Tommy, Gee-ma shivered. “You’re here to tell me not to go.”

“To try. It turns out we always heard you, even if we didn’t seem to be listening. The past already had you, Gee-ma. The present needs you here.” He rapped the cane on the stone step for emphasis.

Fresh tears pooled in the old woman’s eyes. She embraced old Brad, drew Tommy into the hug. “I’m sorry, Brad. If I’d known—”

“Shh. None of it matters if you don’t go. It’ll all be different.”

She stilled, conjured a smile for him. She tussled Tommy’s hair. “I suppose two smart grandsons can’t be wrong. I think it’s time we went home, Tommy.”

“Let me carry your suitcase.” Tommy took the case from her hand. The pretext sped the woman to her descent. When she was out of earshot, he looked at the old man. “You’re not Brad. You’re me.”

The man smiled. “How did you know?”

“No matter how old he was, Brad would never curse around Gee-ma. But if I did? I’d sure blame it on Brad.”

“I always was a bright kid.”

“Did she really go? Back then?”

Tommy’s older self nodded.

“Was it really bad?”

Old Tommy’s eyes were dark wells. He shrugged. “I may have embellished. But I never stopped wondering if I could have done more. I tried hard that day to get her to stop. She wouldn’t. It took time to realize she needed to hear it from two directions.”

Tommy watched Gee-ma reach the bottom of the steps. “Will everything really change if she stays?”

He turned back. His older self was gone, the glow and sounds from the church with him, the vestibule door closed.

Tommy hoisted the suitcase and stole down the stairs. Gee-ma hugged him when he reached the bottom. “Thank you, Tommy.”

“Tell you what. Anytime you want, you can tell me all about the past. It’ll be like having your own time machine.”

Tommy tied the suitcase to the scooter once more. He gathered empty gas cans on his handlebars. They made him wobbly. Gee-ma gave a last look at the church doors. “See? You all pick on Brad too much.”

Tommy said nothing, unwilling to upset time’s apple cart.

Gee-ma pulled on her yellow helmet, new fire in her eye. “Race you home, soldier!”

Tommy won by a country mile. Halfway to the house, the scooter ran out of gas.

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Comments

  1. That was an enjoyable short story. I love to read and that was different enough to be a good read.

  2. I love time-travel books, and I’m old enough to be G-ma in this scenario. I remember 1969; Woodstock and the moon landing. My 1st child (Laura) was 1 year old and we were just buying our 1st house. Lots of fond memories. Now in my 70’s, I do sometimes long for the good-old-days. But, this story gave me a lot to think about. And, I’ve decided that I am right where I should be. And these ARE my good-days. And, 1969 will stay a cherished memory. Thanks for the story. You never disappoint.

  3. This is one heck of a wild ride you’ve taken us on with G–ma here, Doug. I enjoyed visualizing your descriptive story going along. In the end it’s about a memorable adventure and bond she created with 11 year old Tommy, who’s going to know a lot more about LONG gone 1969 than any of his friends ever will!

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