We drove Muffin home. There was still no one from Kitty’s family around, so I did not have to talk to them.
“‘Bye, Muffin.” I patted him on the head, feeling a bit sad again at the sight of his little face at the gate.
I got back into Grandma’s car and she started the engine and began to drive along the back road towards our house.
Grandma sometimes remarked that in another life she might have been a rally driver. She refused to act her age, a thing my conservative mother could not accept. I often thought that Mom was born old, and to be honest, she didn’t have much of a sense of humour. She felt most at ease in her kitchen, away from the turmoil of the world. Grandma, on the other hand, wasn’t the kind of person who would spend her days in the kitchen baking pies for church events. She wanted to see life. And she loved her sports car.
“There’s not much chance of meeting people on your roads, not in the back of beyond where you live,” she had once explained to my mother, who considered her behaviour childish. “I’m always careful when we meet with horse riders and only put my foot down on long clear stretches. And why buy a car like this, if you never have any fun with it?”
“Why indeed…” Mom had muttered through gritted teeth, her fingers gripping the side of the seat, and her butt pressed down hard in it as usual. Fast driving was on top of her list of reckless behavior.
Mom was not a very spontaneous person, I mused as we drove along.
“Have you visited her grave yet?” Grandma asked. Her tone sounded as though she was inquiring if I had been to the beach recently.
“Would you like to? I can take you there right now. We could pick her some flowers from these fields,” her hand drew an arch in the air, covering the blooming fields around us. Early summer really was at its most beautiful.
With Grandma the thing that had seemed so difficult, impossible even, was much easier, and I heard myself saying “OK.”
I hadn’t admitted it to myself, but the thought of going to Kitty’s grave on my own had been too much. And going there with my parents and then breaking down in tears in front of them, was even more of an impossible thing to consider. But Grandma was such a no-nonsense type of a person, and so easy to be with. She was just about the only person with whom I could go to Kitty’s grave.
So she killed the engine, and we got out of the car again. The sun had dried the last of the dew, and it did not take us long to gather a big bouquet of wild flowers. Grandma fished a string out of her pocket – it never ceased to amaze me, the stuff that she carried around in them – and tied it around the stems.
“There. Now we have a nice bouquet. Let’s go!”
And so I found myself sitting in the sports car (why were they always built so low?), holding a big bouquet of fresh flowers. Grandma knew the way to the churchyard well – after all she had lived in our house for a long time before moving to the city permanently. (“I wanted some excitement in my life after all those years in a rural backwater!”)
I knew where the grave was, of course, and walked along the gravel path towards it with dread in my heart.
Much to my surprise Kitty already had a tombstone. It was light grey in color, and her name was written on it in golden letters. Beloved daughter. And the dates of her birth and death, a pitifully short period of time marked by the slash between the dates.
Suddenly I felt clumsy and heavy, and stopped. I didn’t know what to do with the flowers, just stood there holding them awkwardly in front of me, staring at the tombstone.
“Well don’t just stand there – give Kitty her flowers.” Grandma gave me a little nudge.
I stepped forward and stiffly bent to put the flowers on the grave. There was no grass growing on the earth yet. The thought of Kitty buried there made me nauseous.
There were other bouquets as well, all fresh, so either others had only visited her grave in the last two days, or someone had been tending to the grave and taken any withered flowers away. Little angel statues and teddy bears and candles were strewn everywhere. Names of my classmates under “Miss You” notes and poems. A Christmas tree ornament even – a stylized bird made of some glittery red material. Our flowers complemented the little display beautifully. A robin flew to the stone and observed us for a while with before flying off to feed its young.
“How lovely,” Grandma said tilting her head slightly to one side, her hands on her hips. She sounded as though she was commenting on a painting or a piece of decoration. There was a pause while we looked at everything, and suddenly it was real for me. Kitty was dead. But strangely, I didn’t feel like crying any more. It was so peaceful here, and the little – gifts – everyone had brought her were so kind and loving. It was as though in death, we suddenly really knew her as she truly was.
Grandma was speaking, and I tuned out my thoughts so that I could hear what she was saying. She repeated it for me, because it was obvious I hadn’t heard the first time.
“I said,” she repeated in a matter-of-fact tone, “has she tried to contact you yet?”
I looked at Grandma, not quite believing my ears.
“What did you say?”
Grandma sighed. “I asked if Kitty has tried to contact you yet,” she repeated yet again, in the same matter-of-fact tone as she had used to pose the question. “They do, you know.”
“Who?” I did not understand.
“The dearly departed, if you will,” she looked slightly amused. “It is quite common. If you know what to look for. And aren’t afraid of the contact, of course.”
It’s OK, I thought to myself. Just Grandma having a temporary fit of weirdness. Or perhaps she’s trying to cheer me up. My Grandma, the medium. Next she’ll be donning a turban and calling herself Velma the Mystic or something.
Her cell phone rang and she took it out of her pocket, checking who was calling. That was just as good as answering, as I could not resist touching the letter tucked under the waist of my jeans. The message from Kitty.
“It’s your dad… Hello, Mike! Yes, not long now. In fact, I met Dana on the road on the way to your house. OK, yes, we’ll be right there.”
She slid the phone back in her pocket. She never had a handbag, just sometimes her ratty old back pack, but mostly she carried all the necessary stuff in her pockets. (“What doesn’t fit in my pockets, I can do without. I’ve always thought handbags get in the way of action.” She never specified what she meant by “action”.)
“Well, the chef is about to make his famous pasta, and would like us to be there when he bears it to the table. Let’s get going.”
I sat quietly next to Grandma while she drove us home. She did not say anything more on the subject of Kitty contacting me. She was like that, never pushing her opinions on others, or continuing a discussion if she noticed the subject made someone feel uncomfortable. My puzzled expression must have convinced her to drop it.
The pasta was delicious, as always. Dad really knew his way around a kitchen. He had been a professional in the hospitality business for many years before we’d come to live in this peaceful rural idyll on the border between England and Wales, where he now focussed on consultancy and teaching. When he was young, he’d worked his way through university in many different kitchens, happy to start at the lowest level every time, because as he always said, you learned more that way. It was a great opportunity to study different cultures – European, Asian, African – he immersed himself in it all. He did most of the cooking at home, leaving only baking to my mother, who happened to love it. I helped them both, and hoped I would learn both their skills – it was like having a private restaurant, living with them.
When I was very small and Dad was building his career, we’d lived in different places – Italy, Greece, Korea and America. I had been so young I didn’t really remember very much about any of them other than the States. Dad, who was American, had met Mom in England years earlier while he was a student travelling around – she and Grandma were originally from a Kentish farming family and now that we were back in a rural area she felt really at home there with her church activities and so on. I loved it too. Apart from anything else, there was a real sense of antiquity and mystery about where we lived and I had become fascinated by history and archaeology. Grandma, though, had kicked back at living the rural life at some point and gone off for adventures.
Mom had made a delicious strawberry cake for coffee, and we discussed ordinary things while we ate. Kitty’s death was not one of the subjects. After the pasta and cake everyone was so full, we practically rolled to the living room and almost dozed off on chairs and sofas. For a while Dad pretended to be reading a magazine, but his eyelids kept on drooping lower and lower, until his head bobbed to the side and he began to snore lightly, all cosy in his favorite armchair.
It was tempting to join my slumbering family, but I did not want to sleep, so I forced myself out of the depths of the comfortable armchair, and went to my room. Exercise, I thought. Work off this meal. My thought was to get the binoculars and go observe nature in the forest so that I could get some quiet time after what had turned out to be a demanding day. I reached for the binocular case on top of my bookshelf. The strap must have been jammed between two books and when I pulled a bit harder than I’d intended, one of them fell on my toes. That was the only explanation for it.
“Shit! Shit shitshit!” I hissed to myself and jumped on one leg holding the toes of the other. “Damn book!” Surprising how much something as relatively light as a book could hurt when it fell that far.
I heard a chuckle from the doorway. Grandma was standing there, leaning against the doorframe, laughing quietly.
“Well, excuse me if I don’t share the joke. My toe feels as if it’s broken!” I managed to get out.
“Sorry, dear. I wasn’t laughing at your pain. I was laughing at Kitty.”
“You… what?” I forgot my throbbing toes and stared at Grandma. I was still standing on one leg like a flamingo.
“You just met one of the ways they communicate with us.”
“The dead.” She leaned on the doorframe. “The dearly departed, deceased, passed away, perished. You know.”
I just started to say “Look, Grandma – ” but didn’t get any further.
“What are you talking about?” Mom shouted from the living room. She had the most acute hearing, if someone was talking about “suspect things”. Much like me. It’s like being in a room full of people, everyone talking at the same time. You can’t tell what each individual says, but if they mention your name, you hear it immediately.
“Angels!” Grandma shouted over her shoulder. “Books about angels!”
There was no answer to that. Mom could not really object to angels, even though they were a metaphysical subject, therefore “suspect.” Metaphysics was something she could not tolerate. But angels were mentioned at church, which she frequented. So even though she did not quite believe in angels, they were acceptable in her social circles.
“Well, maybe it’s best we don’t talk about these things in front of your mother. She feels very uncomfortable when anyone talks about death. She is so scared of it. No point in trying to change her opinion, until she is ready for it.” Grandma’s voice was low, as if we were conspiring together.
I wasn’t sure what Grandma meant with the “until she is ready for it” part, and did not ask.
Yes, my grandmother had always been a bit strange, that was true. That was one of the reasons I found her so interesting. But we had never discussed dead people contacting us before. That was stranger that the average strangeness of Grandma.
“What do you mean I met with one of the ways ‘they’ communicate with us?” I couldn’t help but add a sceptical edge to my voice. Grandma ignored it.
“Books are quite popular message deliverers. They drop them off shelves.”
I shook my head.
“No, that’s just coincidence… Has to be.”
“Maybe, maybe not. But keep your eyes open. The world is full of stories about communication from the other side. Surely not all of those stories can be just imagination. Ever considered there might actually BE something on the other side? And that our loved ones might want to let us know they still exist? But we won’t talk about this any more, if it makes you feel uncomfortable. Actually there’s something I want to show you. How about going for a walk in the garden? I need to stretch myself a bit after that big meal.”
She turned with the grace of a dancer and I followed her out of the house.
We walked past Mom’s beautiful flowers, towards a little brook that ran behind the low hedge defining our garden.
“I have something for you.” Grandma put her hand in her jeans pocket. She took something out that glistened pale green in the sunlight, and handed it to me.
A pendant of something that looked like jade.
“It is not jade, if that’s what you are thinking,” Grandma read my thoughts. “It’s glass. But not just any glass – it’s meteorite glass from the Western Desert of Egypt. Millions of years old.”
The piece of glass was in the shape of a teardrop, but not cut or polished, it just seemed to be naturally teardrop-shaped. It was mounted in a golden fitting of the same shape. I saw indentations in the gold. Something was carved on the back of the necklace. I turned it in the light in order to see better.
A female figure, depicted from the side, the hand closest to me pointing down, the other hand straight forward, with wings attached to the underside of the arms. She had something on the top of her head that vaguely resembled a chair. In front of her were two fan-like objects, Her hair and her pose were…
“Egyptian,” Grandma completed the sentence I was thinking. “It is very old. It has been passed down the female family line for at least centuries, always passing to the eldest daughter. It belongs to you.”
“But why doesn’t mother have it then?” I had to ask, as mother was Grandma’s only child.
“Well, I thought that it’s better to give it to someone who appreciates ancient Egypt. Your Mum would probably never wear it. After all it depicts the goddess Isis. Or Aset, as they called her in ancient times. And your Mum is rather strict about matters of faith.”
Well, that was true. I just couldn’t imagine Mom ever wearing an ancient goddess around her neck. She might even have thrown a necklace like that away, or had the gold melted down for a new ring.
“How old is this?” I wondered, turning the pendant so that the sun’s rays hit it from different angles.
“Ancient, I think it may be even be thousands of years old… If you look at the work it doesn’t seem modern. And so – well, perhaps you’d better keep it hidden, since we don’t know its full history. And even if you told someone with an interest in it that it had been passed down for generations in your family, it might be difficult to explain to officialdom that it hadn’t been stolen from some ancient tomb or something.”
“Why are you giving this to me now?”
“I thought it might cheer you up after Kitty’s death.”
The sun reflected softly from inside the green glass. I looked at the carving in the gold again.
“What do these two fans mean?” I pointed to the fans with long handles in the space between the outstretched arms of the winged goddess. “I mean, they are fans, aren’t they?”
“Yes, they are. They read shuet. It means shadow. It does not make much sense. The placement in front of Isis would suggest you read it ‘the shadow of Isis’. It may be this came originally from a priestess who called herself that. We will probably never know. Shuet certainly was not a real name as far as we… I know. The ancient Egyptians believed the soul consisted of many parts, and shuet was the ‘shadow self’ if you will. No parent would have named their child Shuet.”
For a fleeting moment I wondered who the “we” were, but did not ask. Probably some of Grandma’s Bohemian friends.
The pendant felt surprisingly heavy in my hand, and it was as if it made me feel the pulse in my wrist beat much more strongly than before. I felt a slight tingling sensation, or so I thought. Perhaps it was just Grandma’s story.
Suddenly I thought I saw some shadowy movement at the edge of the forest not far off. Grandma must have seen it too, because she turned to stare intently in the direction of the movement.
Nothing was moving there now, and after a while we walked back towards the house. When we came closer to the porch, we could hear my parents discussing something. Or rather, someone.
“Why has she turned up now?” I heard Mom ask Dad in the living room. She was trying to keep her voice down.
“Why not?” Dad laughed so loudly that Mom shushed him.
Dad had always liked Grandma, just like I had. No talk about any difficult mother-in-law relationship there. It was as if they were chips off the same block. They understood each other’s jokes and spent a long time chatting and laughing on the phone as well. Mom, on the other hand, almost never called her mother, and if Dad gave her the phone after talking to Grandma, she usually took it with a long sigh (which I am sure Grandma always heard), and her words always sounded awkward.
“She is so strange!” Mom complained. “We’re just not on the same wavelength, never have been…”
“It’s a good thing that she doesn’t hold your differences against you then, eh? She’s always cheerful, always the same,” Dad chuckled. “Come on, Hun, you’ll get along fine. If not, I’ll keep her busy so she won’t make you lose your cool. Besides, it will do Dana good. She needs cheering up. She has no close friends now that Kitty is gone. Maybe she’ll get new friends in the fall, when school begins again, but right now she is pretty lonely.”
Mom mumbled something under her breath.
I glanced at Grandma, wondering if she was upset by what was being said. She just grinned back at me and gave me a wink.
“You wouldn’t believe we are from the same family, would you?” she whispered. “To tell you the truth, I sometimes find it hard to believe as well.”
I couldn’t help but grin back.
I had always wondered what my Mom really held against Grandma. She didn’t hate her, but there always seemed to be something unspoken bubbling under the surface, as if Mom was somehow indebted to Grandma. I wondered if she had lent my parents some money in the past, to help them over a rough patch. That would explain it. Mom did not want to be indebted to anyone, about anything.
“Well, let’s get inside before they wonder if we’ve disappeared,” Grandma smiled, now digging in her jacket pockets – the contents of which never ceased to amaze me. “Anyone for a game of cards?” she asked with a loud voice and stepped on the porch, waving a worn packet of playing cards in the air.
Previous Chapter 3: Shadow on the Trail