I had just come to accept that my life would be ordinary when extraordinary things began to happen. The first of these came as a terrible shock and, like anything that changes you forever, split my life into halves: Before and After. Like many of the extraordinary things to come, it involved my grandfather, Abraham Portman.
Growing up, Grandpa Portman was the most fascinating person I knew. He had lived in an orphanage, fought in wars, crossed oceans by steamship and deserts on horseback, performed in circuses, knew everything about guns and self-defense and surviving in the wilderness, and spoke at least three languages that weren’t English. It all seemed unfathomably exotic to a kid who’d never left Florida, and I begged him to regale me with stories whenever I saw him. He always obliged, telling them like secrets that could be entrusted only to me.
When I was six I decided that my only chance of having a life half as exciting as Grandpa Portman’s was to become an explorer. He encouraged me by spending afternoons at my side hunched over maps of the world, plotting imaginary expeditions with trails of red pushpins and telling me about the fantastic places I would discover one day. At home I made my ambitions known by parading around with a cardboard tube held to my eye, shouting, “Land ho!” and “Prepare a landing party!” until my parents shooed me outside. I think they worried that my grand father would infect me with some incurable dreaminess from which I’d never recover—that these fantasies were somehow inoculating me against more practical ambitions—so one day my mother sat me down and explained that I couldn’t become an explorer because everything in the world had already been discovered. I’d been born in the wrong century, and I felt cheated.
I felt even more cheated when I realized that most of Grandpa Portman’s best stories couldn’t possibly be true. The tallest tales were always about his childhood, like how he was born in Poland but at twelve had been shipped off to a children’s home in Wales. When I would ask why he had to leave his parents, his answer was always the same: because the monsters were after him. Poland was simply rotten with them, he said.
“What kind of monsters?” I’d ask, wide-eyed. It became a sort of routine. “Awful hunched-over ones with rotting skin and black eyes,” he’d say. “And they walked like this!” And he’d shamble after me like an old-time movie monster until I ran away laughing.
Every time he described them he’d toss in some lurid new detail: they stank like putrefying trash; they were invisible except for their shadows; a pack of squirming tentacles lurked inside their mouths and could whip out in an instant and pull you into their powerful jaws. It wasn’t long before I had trouble falling asleep, my hyperactive imagination transforming the hiss of tires on wet pavement into labored breathing just outside my window or shadows under the door into twisting gray-black tentacles. I was scared of the monsters but thrilled to imagine my grandfather battling them and surviving to tell the tale.
More fantastic still were his stories about life in the Welsh children’s home. It was an enchanted place, he said, designed to keep kids safe from the monsters, on an island where the sun shined every day and nobody ever got sick or died. Everyone lived together in a big house that was protected by a wise old bird—or so the story went. As I got older, though, I began to have doubts.
“What kind of bird?” I asked him one afternoon at age seven, eyeing him skeptically across the card table where he was letting me win at Monopoly.
“A big hawk who smoked a pipe,” he said.
“You must think I’m pretty dumb, Grandpa.”
He thumbed through his dwindling stack of orange and blue money. “I would never think that about you, Yakob.” I knew I’d offended him because the Polish accent he could never quite shake had come out of hiding, so that would became vood and think became sink. Feeling guilty, I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“But why did the monsters want to hurt you?” I asked.
“Because we weren’t like other people. We were peculiar.”
“Oh, all sorts of ways,” he said. “There was a girl who could fly, a boy who had bees living inside him, a brother and sister who could lift boulders over their heads.”
It was hard to tell if he was being serious. Then again, my grandfather was not known as a teller of jokes. He frowned, reading the doubt on my face.
“Fine, you don’t have to take my word for it,” he said. “I got pictures!” He pushed back his lawn chair and went into the house, leaving me alone on the screened-in lanai. A minute later he came back holding an old cigar box. I leaned in to look as he drew out four wrinkled and yellowing snapshots.
The first was a blurry picture of what looked like a suit of clothes with no person in them. Either that or the person didn’t have a head.
“Sure, he’s got a head!” my grandfather said, grinning. “Only you can’t see it.”
“Why not? Is he invisible?”
“Hey, look at the brain on this one!” He raised his eyebrows as if I’d surprised him with my powers of deduction. “Millard, his name was. Funny kid. Sometimes he’d say, ‘Hey Abe, I know what you did today,’ and he’d tell you where you’d been, what you had to eat, if you picked your nose when you thought nobody was looking. Sometimes he’d follow you, quiet as a mouse, with no clothes on so you couldn’t see him—just watching!” He shook his head. “Of all the things, eh?”
He slipped me another photo. Once I’d had a moment to look at it, he said, “So? What do you see?”
“A little girl?”
“She’s wearing a crown.”
He tapped the bottom of the picture. “What about her feet?”
I held the snapshot closer. The girl’s feet weren’t touching the ground. But she wasn’t jumping—she seemed to be floating in the air. My jaw fell open.
“Close,” my grandfather said. “She’s levitating. Only she couldn’t control herself too well, so sometimes we had to tie a rope around her to keep her from floating away!”
My eyes were glued to her haunting, doll-like face. “Is it real?”
“Of course it is,” he said gruffly, taking the picture and replacing it with another, this one of a scrawny boy lifting a boulder. “Victor and his sister weren’t so smart,” he said, “but boy were they strong!”