by Graham B.
A girl visits her ailing grandmother and inherits a heavy burden.
|The last time her shadow had darkened the gate to Grandma Beverly’s property, Natalie had been too small to see over it. Now she surveyed the yard from the spot where the cab left her, resting a hand on the mottled wood.
Gone was the immaculate lawn that surrounded her grandfather’s beautifully trimmed topiary which had greeted eight-year-old Natalie years ago. The hedges had withered, leaving desperate twigs grasping at the air, denuded of the glory of their needles. The grass crouched in the corners of the lawn, their colors faded to that of pus. Ahead, the house slumped in resignation, its once sky-blue paint faded to dull gray. All the windows were covered with lacy curtains, yellowing with age. Eight years since Grandpa had passed on, leaving Grandma alone and absent the tender motions of his hands to care for the yard and the garden.
Taking a deep breath, she pushed the gate open, and its hinges squealed in outrage. Natalie’s feet played a crunching symphony on the unswept leaves as she navigated the walkway, and the wheels of her suitcase beat an uneven tattoo as they bounced over the cracked cement. As she passed the almost unrecognizable hedge sculpture of an angel to her left, she saw that morning glory had begun to climb the twisted branches. To her right, a similarly bare topiary of a unicorn sprawled among a pile of dead leaves. As she mounted the stairs and reached for the doorbell, she was interrupted by the buzz in her purse. She sighed, already knowing who had texted her.
U there yet? the phone’s screen displayed, the cursor insolently blinking and awaiting her reply.
Natalie furiously jabbed the non-existent keys: Not talking to U. Still mad.
Robbie sent her a sad emoji, which Natalie answered by shoving the phone back in her purse. She savagely stabbed the doorbell button.
A deep clanking announced her presence, and a shrill voice pierced the front door to call out, “Come in, Nattie!”
Natalie’s eyes rolled. She hated that nickname, which her brother had brought back from the last visit and teased her with for years. She opened the door and entered a world of musty dimness.
The first thing Natalie noticed after her eyes adjusted was the portrait hanging on the wall near the front door. It was sepia-toned, betraying its age, but Natalie was startled to see a young woman with sparkling, mischievous eyes beneath raven-black hair, and a faint smile which turned up the corners of her lips. She could have been Natalie’s twin.
“My mother, Alice” said the voice.
Natalie looked around the room and saw flower print wallpaper, matching couch and loveseat – both covered in plastic, lamps which would have looked at home in a 1920’s movie set, and a rocking chair.
Beverly almost disappeared into the rocking chair, an ancient, bespectacled scrap of a woman wearing a maroon dress and green shawl. A plastic tube snaked its way up from a hidden oxygen tank and looped under her nose. The liver-spotted hands were folded in Beverly’s lap, but behind the glasses, the brown eyes were bright and penetrating.
“Would you like to hear about her?”
The wrinkled hands gestured at the love seat. Natalie sat, her weight causing an eruption of crinkling from the plastic.
“Hi, Grandma,” she said with forced cheer. Her fingers twitched, already feeling the glass surface of her phone, punching out a message to the boyfriend she wasn’t talking to.
Beverly’s eyes flicked to Natalie’s hands and she smirked.
“Waiting to hear from someone?”
Natalie felt perturbed that she was so transparent. Maybe if she could get Grandma talking, she might stop with the creepy mind reading.
“Nothing! Tell me about your mother!”
Beverly grinned, displaying impossibly white dentures.
“I thought you would never ask! Only sixteen, and already you have grown into the spitting image of her. Look again, Nattie. Isn’t it like looking in a mirror?”
Natalie cast a glance over her shoulder at the faded photo, nodded in agreement, but said nothing.
“Of course, she didn’t grow up among the tellies and cell phones and the endless distractions you youngsters have to pull your minds away from life. She was always focused on what was important!”
Beverly began a rapid manic rock in her chair. Natalie shook her head, while trying to keep up with Beverly’s rocking.
“Oh! Speaking of mothers, how is your mother, dear?”
For a moment, Natalie couldn’t speak. Then, her phone buzzed, breaking the spell.
“Excuse me,” she said, and pulled the phone out.
U+ME, followed by an ice cream emoji glowed on the screen. Exasperated, Natalie put the phone away.
“Won’t leave you alone, will he?” cackled Beverly. “But now, you are the only one fighting. You so remind me of your mother. She won’t stop fighting either.”
“She’s happily married to my dad.”
“I mean fighting her destiny. Do you know what destiny is, Nattie?”
With great effort, Natalie resisted rolling her eyes, though she suspected that Beverly had sensed the urge.
“She would not see,” Beverly continued. “She rejected what she had been put here for.”
Okay, this is getting weird, thought Natalie. Grandma’s losing it.
Beverly’s eyes glinted.
“Think I’m getting touched, dear?”
“Uh, when did you last talk to Mom?”
“Last month. She doesn’t call often enough. I do miss our chats, even if we must tiptoe around the elephants in the room! Tiptoe… tiptoe…”
Beverly’s hands pantomimed a cartoonish tiptoe around some imaginary elephants.
“She resisted her destiny, but it’s not too late for you! Has she told you why you’re here?”
“She said you’re sick, and didn’t have much time left. I was supposed to come here and stay with you a few days.”
“Of course. Always in denial, but deep down, she knew. But did she tell you about your inheritance?”
Surprised, Natalie looked around at the dilapidated house.
“Not this house, not exactly. It’s going into trust. I would not have Manny’s grave disturbed!”
Natalie’s jaw dropped.
“Grandpa Manuel? Isn’t he buried at the cemetery downtown?”
“His memorial is there,” said Beverly, leaning forward. Her dark eyes burrowed into Natalie’s. “But he is not buried there. Manny rests beneath the angel.”
“The hedge? Grandpa’s buried in the front yard?”
“There’s no more fitting a place.”
She really has lost it!
Natalie was getting more uncomfortable by the minute. It was all she could do not to fidget in her seat, but she suspected that such movements were windows into her thoughts. She gripped the arms of the chair and stared back at Grandma.
“Grandma, why is Grandpa buried in the front yard?”
“Because, this is where he belongs, dear. And my place is beneath the unicorn. Some day you will find your place, and it might not be where you expect.”
Beverly leaned forward and heaved herself to her feet. Automatically, Natalie stood, ready to help, but she was waved away.
“Now, I will tell you what your inheritance is.”
The ancient woman tottered over to a nearby table. A wooden box sat on the table. It bore carvings of strange symbols which looked foreign to Natalie, yet were somehow familiar. The script had jagged lines and loops, almost like runes. Beverly opened the box and took out a small object, about the size of a quarter.
“Come here,” said Beverly.
Natalie complied, but her head was whirling. Only a foot away, Beverly’s eyes seemed luminous. Natalie was distantly aware of her phone buzzing again, but she ignored it. There were only her grandmother’s eyes, and wrinkled hands as they took hold of hers and put a warm metal disk attached to a delicate chain into her palm.
“This is yours. In time, you will know what it’s for. But if you lose it, it might take some time for it to find its way back to you!”
Beverly began shuffling back to her chair, and Natalie looked down at the object in her hand. An image of a dragonfly circumscribed by a circle pressed against her palm, unnaturally heavy. It was a pendant made of wrought iron.
“What is this?”
Beverly’s voice seemed to come from somewhere far away, as if the room had become much larger. Natalie saw the exquisite craftsmanship that had gone into the pendant; the antenna which sprouted from between huge eyes, the fine tracery of veins within the wings, looking like shattered glass.
The phone buzzed again.
“Your boyfriend must really want your forgiveness,” said Beverly, chuckling. “Very soon, you will have him dancing around your finger! Just be careful what you do with your inheritance! Oh yes! Be careful…”
Beverly’s voice almost faded to nothing, and Natalie looked up for the first time and saw that she was alone in the room.
“Grandma?” she said breathlessly, clutching the pendant as she looked around.
The rocking chair was covered, both in old yellowed plastic beneath a layer of dust. Beverly was nowhere to be seen.
Natalie hurried from one room to another, calling her grandmother’s name, but her only answer were muffled echoes of her own voice. Mystified, she returned to the living room and looked once more at the rocking chair, not quite believing her eyes. Then she turned and once more noticed the portrait of Alice, who looked demurely backed at Natalie, the slight smile curling her lips, her eyes staring back at her across ages.
Natalie shivered. She grabbed her suitcase and hurried from the house, swirls of dust chasing in her wake. As she passed the hedges, she risked a glance at the unicorn and noticed a single vine of morning glory just getting a foothold on one of the hooves.
Natalie pushed through the gate and then pulled her phone from her purse. She noticed five texts from Robbie, each one more pleading than the last. She smiled. It was about time to forgive him, but not yet time to end his suffering. Shuddering at her own thoughts, she wondered why such a thing would occur to her.
A dragonfly buzzed past her head and alighted on a fencepost.
Dragonflies, this late in the year? Natalie thought.
Then she felt the pendant in her hand become suddenly heavier, and thoughts rose unbidden in her mind, like the first rays of a rising sun.
This is our legacy, she heard. It was Beverly’s voice, but it was also that of a thousand other women.
They burned our ancestors as witches at Navarre and Würzburg. They hung our sisters from trees at Andover and Salem. But they could not kill our legacy.
Natalie’s eyes clouded over and she saw a vision. Angry mobs, women torn and bloodied, tied atop massive pyres. The flames rose and she heard the sizzle of burning flesh beneath the screams. She squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head back and forth, trying to escape the horror.
We were the first to grasp the wisdom of the gods, passing it from mother to daughter since the very beginning.
The vision changed. Now it was of a young woman, nude, pulling a fruit from the branch of a tree. A snake twisted around the branch, its eyes not reptilian, but bright and intelligent.
We will be your strength, and you will be our life. We live through you. Never forget our legacy.
The visions came faster and kept growing, threatening to split her head, yet Natalie welcomed it. She staggered and put her hand out.
Natalie’s hand rested on the gate’s sturdy wood. The visions stopped and the glow in her head subsided.
That is enough for now. But we will always be there to give you strength. Make us proud, young sister.
The dragonfly lifted off, circled Natalie once, then wafted away in the breeze, becoming lost in the sky. Natalie smiled at it as it disappeared. She lifted the pendant and fastened it around her neck.
Word count: 1990