A Family Trait
(c) 2012 Dani Jansen
Phenelope unearthed her grandmother’s grave just before summer faded into fall. She didn’t really expect to find what she was looking for there, but she’d already searched every corner of her grandmother’s overstuffed house. She’d discovered some disturbing artifacts, including a pile of surprisingly dirty letters to a man who most definitely hadn’t been her grandfather, but not what she needed to find. She’d pulled aside every stick of ugly furniture and rifled through every book, even as the dust and grit stuck to her sweat-soaked arms. Nothing. In desperation, she had even braved her grandmother’s store of herbs, charms, and other supernatural odds and ends. Phenelope had respected her grandmother’s devotion to witchcraft, but she’d also worked hard to distance herself from that part of her grandmother’s life. It was hard for her to reconcile the image of Grandmamma baking chewy peanut butter cookies with the memory of that same woman butchering a chicken in front of her so she could use its still-warm heart to curse a man who’d hurt her.
Phenelope looked down now at her grandmother’s casket and was tempted to let the whole thing go. She’d already disturbed the earth, but she hadn’t necessarily disturbed the dead. She could cleanse herself of the grave dirt easily enough. But if she lifted the casket lid, she wasn’t even sure what kinds of sacrifices she’d have to make to allay her grandmother’s spirit. She may not have paid much attention to her grandmother’s attempts to tutor her in witchcraft, but she knew this much: you did not mess with a witch’s grave.
Phenelope hesitated, but she needed to know if it was there. It was the last possible place her grandmother might have hidden it. Knowing Phenelope’s aversion to witchcraft, Grandmamma would have guessed that she would balk at digging up a grave. And to burn something of that power would have been difficult, perhaps impossible, for her grandmother. Yet Phenelope could not let herself hope too much. Her grandmother had been clever, and, though loving in her own way, she had hoarded any source of power. Perhaps it came from outliving an abusive father and a weak husband. Perhaps it was just a part of her character. Perhaps, Phenelope shuddered as she thought this, it was a family trait.
If she was going to do this, it should be now. Midsummer was long passed, and they had yet to enter the season of the dead when her grandmother’s spirit might grow stronger. It was after the witching hour yet still dark enough that no one would spot Phenelope as she became a grave robber.
Phenelope took a deep breath and tried to reason with her grandmother in death as she hadn’t been able to do in life: “Grandmamma, I know you wanted to protect me. I know you thought you were doing the right thing. But I need to know. I… I….” A cold wind whipped at her face and scattered some of the earth she’d dug up. Phenelope knew then what she had to offer to find what she wanted. “Oh, Grandmamma, I don’t think I can. Please don’t ask me to.” The wind grew into a howl. Phenelope sobbed and fell to her knees. She yelled into the dark night, “Fine! Fine! You’ve finally done it. You win.”
The wind did not subside just yet. Phenelope hadn’t thought it would, though she’d hoped that she might just once outwit her grandmother. From her pants pocket, she retrieved a simple kitchen knife. She brought the blade across her palm, wincing as she drew blood. “I, Phenelope, granddaughter of Anya, pledge myself to the service of the great goddess, Mother Moon. I so swear with blood.” Phenelope expected to feel different then, but the pain in her palm was just as sharp and the tears kept falling from her eyes. The wind died down, though, so she knew she’d said the right thing. And she knew this wasn’t the kind of promise you could break.
Phenelope rose to her feet and sighed. She lifted the casket lid and there, clutched in her grandmother’s hand, was the thing she had come here for: a birth certificate with a first name, Phenelope, and, at long, long last, a family name, Poder.
Dani Jansen is a high school English teacher. When she isn’t haranguing teenagers into loving literature, she spends her time dancing and baking. She lives in Montreal with her two cats, Ampersand and Dash, as well as her husband, a librarian and fellow-geek.