I gently touched the aged face on the hand-painted Tarot card. Tears welled in my eyes.
“Where did you get this?” I asked. My fingers traced the flowing lines of the white beard beneath the smiling eyes on the card.
When no answer came, I glanced up from the painting. My daughter — Sasha, the feisty one, always in trouble — stared back at me, defiant and embarrassed at the same moment. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen that look on her face.
She dropped her gaze. “I found it in your big old trunk in the attic,” she said.
“The one I told you never to open?” I asked, mildly.
She put her finger next to mine on the painting to evade the question. “Momma, was this Grampa?”
“Yes, this is a painting of Grandpa.”
“Was he really a wizard?”
I glanced again at the painting. The artist had painted him in his dark blue robes with the pointy hat perched atop his head.
I smiled. “Yes, Sasha, he was a real wizard.”
Her eyes shone. “He could do real magic?”
“Yes, he could do real magic.”
“I want to do real magic, too!”
A painful twist of sorrow went through my heart. “No, Sasha, you can’t. There are no more wizards. Grandpa was the last.”
Her face fell. “How come? What happened to all the other wizards?”
I studied Sasha’s nine-year-old figure, all angles and elbows and big front teeth. Grandpa had once told me that apprentices were always chosen at the age of nine. Young enough to learn the Art, he said, old enough to begin to learn the difference between right and wrong. Sasha was old enough to hear the truth.
“Grandpa,” I told her, “killed them all.”
I heard Grandpa’s deep voice at the front door. I dropped all the silverware in a pile on the table and ran to give him a hug. He always came on Sunday afternoon for dinner, but today was special — it was my birthday! I rounded the corner, then skidded to a stop. Instead of the old-fashioned gray suit with the dark red vest he always wore on Sunday, he was dressed in a dark blue robe and a pointy blue hat, both covered with moons and stars and strange markings. He looked just like a storybook wizard, but it didn’t look silly on him.
His eyes lit up when he saw me. “Eleanor, my dear child! Where is my hug and kiss?”
I ran to him and hugged him hard. “Are you really a wizard, Grandpa?” I asked.
“That is precisely right, young lady.” He had a deep voice, and a funny accent that Mama said came from the Old Country. “A fierce old wizard of the olden days, I am. Ogres and dragons beware! But lovely young maidens have nothing to fear!”
He waved his arms, and fresh flowers appeared in his hand out of nowhere. I giggled. Grandpa always had the best magic tricks for me.
“Why the robes, Grandpapa?” asked Mama. She smiled at him, but a worry-line creased her forehead.
“It’s her ninth birthday, Claire,” he said, his bushy white eyebrows rising. “Have you forgotten?”
Mama blushed, then got pale. “Oh, Grandpapa. She’s just a little girl. Is it … really necessary?” Grandpa scowled at her without answering. Mama lowered her eyes. “I’ll get it for you, then,” she said, and left the room quickly.
I had never seen Grandpa angry with Mama. It gave me a nasty hollow feeling in my stomach. He stared after her, and I stood perfectly still, afraid to move.
Mama came back carrying a small wooden box. She handed it to Grandpa. I saw tears in her eyes. She wouldn’t look at him or at me. As soon as he took the box, she turned and hurried out of the room.
Grandpa kept staring at the empty doorway, but now he looked terribly sad. Claire, his lips formed my mother’s name. His shoulders slumped.
Then he sighed, made a strange gesture with his hand, and turned to me. He smiled, the same gentle smile he’d given me all my life, but for the first time I was afraid of him.
“Eleanor, this is your ninth birthday. Nine is a sacred number for wizards. In olden days, a wizard would choose his apprentice from children your age. We don’t do things that way any more, but I do have a magical gift for you. I gave it to your mother when she turned nine, and now, I am passing it on to you. Will you accept it?”
Even though I was scared, I was curious. Papa said that Grandpa’s magic tricks were Pure Hokum, all done with mirrors and hidden wires. Grandpa laughed when he said that, like the two of them shared a grown-up joke, but Papa never laughed back. Now Grandpa wanted to give me a Magic Box! I could feel the magic in the room, like static electricity. I wanted to reach out and touch the box. But I remembered Mama’s tears.
“What is it?” I asked, cautiously.
Grandpa’s eyes grew serious. “In this box lies the salvation of the world,” he answered.
I blinked. Grandpa loved to play little jokes on me all the time, but this didn’t feel like a joke.
“I don’t understand,” I said in a small voice.
“I know that, little Eleanor,” he said, gently. “It will be years yet before you really understand. But here is what it means: someday, you may be called upon to save the world. I will teach you how — your own heart will tell you when. I trusted your mother with this, and now I trust you.”
“Is … is it dangerous?”
Grandpa looked at the box, and for just a moment, I thought he looked scared. Then his eyes found mine, and he smiled again. “To you — no, it is not dangerous. Not in the least. It is only dangerous to someone who would try to destroy the world.”
Curiosity won. I reached out and took the box. As I touched it, all the magic drained out of the room. I wondered if I’d just imagined it. The box was plain and roughly-made, with brass hinges and a brass latch on the front. The only decoration was a strange mark carved on the top, a circle with three dots and three slashes like sun rays inside it.
“May I open it?” I asked. “Please?”
“Of course, dear Eleanor,” he answered, his eyes twinkling once more. “It is your birthday present, after all.”
I flipped the latch and opened the box.
“It’s empty!” I complained.
He scowled and peeked over the top. “Tarnation!” he grumbled. “Close it and try again.”
I closed it, and when I opened it again, a beautiful necklace lay on a piece of crumpled black velvet inside. I looked up at Grandpa, who gave me a knowing wink. I threw my arms around his neck and buried my face in his bushy white beard.
Grandpa and I sprawled on a checkered blanket in a little clearing in the woods behind his house. I had just turned twelve, and I was proud of making the whole picnic lunch by myself. Grandpa had brought a small bottle of his mead. He let me taste it, once, after making me promise I wouldn’t tell my parents. I liked it — it was sweet. He said it was made from honey.
I loved our summer picnics, especially when Grandpa brought his little bottle of mead, because he’d tell stories. Grand stories, usually, about the olden days of wizards and kings and dragons. This time he’d told me a story about one of his wizard-friends in the Old Country.
“Do you ever get to see your old friends?” I asked.
Grandpa’s face grew sad. “No,” he said, “they’re gone. All gone.”
“What happened to them all?” I asked, surprised.
Grandpa studied me.
“I killed them,” he said, as calmly as if he had said he had eggs for breakfast.
“Why?” I blurted out, shocked. I wondered if he was playing one of his jokes on me.
Grandpa smiled, but he still looked sad. “How old do you think I am?” he asked instead of answering my question.
Grown-ups are funny about getting old. I remember when Mama made a big fuss about turning thirty. “Maybe… sixty?” I said, but I knew he was older. Grandpa shook his head, and pointed up with his thumb.
“Seventy?” I said. Grandpa kept his thumb up. He stopped me at a hundred.
“Eleanor, my dear child, I will truly die of old age before you guess the number at this rate. I am nine hundred and fifty-three years old.”
After a while, I remembered to close my mouth.
“Wizards live a very, very, very long time,” he continued. “No one really knows how long a wizard could live, left to himself. Maybe forever. But like everything else on Earth, we get old, and with age comes … infirmity. Do you know that word?”
“It means like Grandmama, when she was in the wheelchair before she died. They said she was infirm.”
“Yes, exactly. But with wizards, it plays out a little differently. It would be easiest if I showed you. May I show you?”
I nodded. Grandpa breathed on his thumbnail, and then polished it against his vest. “Look at your reflection,” he said, and held out his thumb. His thumbnail was polished to a brilliant shine, so shiny that I really could see my reflection in it. Then my reflection vanished, as well as Grandpa’s thumb and everything else. I was in a different place.
The ground shook. Waves of heat rippled along the stone walls like the inside of a forge. Only wizards still breathed within the fortress. The servants, the guards, the musicians were no more than pale ash.
“Can we do nothing against him?” the youngest asked.
“He was strongest among us,” one of the elders answered.
“But if we combined our powers…?”
Another elder scowled. “You know better than that! Our powers do not combine that way. It would take years to forge a useful weapon from our combined powers. Without a weapon, since no one of us can overpower him, all of us together cannot. He has evaded all of our traps — even in his madness, he is cunning. He has killed his own apprentice and half our number. He will destroy every last one of us, and then his madness will turn upon the mortal world. He will blast armies, burn the fields, boil away the very oceans if he can.”
The youngest scowled back. “I will not die like a rat in a hole. I will face him.”
“You will die.”
“That will happen, anyway.”
He turned, his blue robes swirling, and strode to the heavy iron door, which glowed almost white with heat. A swift incantation passed him through the portal. The walls began to shudder in the violence that suddenly erupted outside.
I felt a moment of dizziness, and then I was somewhere else.
Wizards sat around the outer curve of the annular table that inscribed the high-ceilinged room. Pale light streamed from a miniature sun that floated high above the center of the space. Half the seats around the table were empty. Faces were grim. The eldest stood.
“Are we agreed, then?”
A murmur of assent swept the room.
“This must be unanimous. If any of you feels this is the wrong course, speak now.”
No one stirred.
“Then let it be so. The line of wizards is ended. There will be no more apprentices. Our youngest, who has proven himself our mightiest, will carry the burden for us all.”
The young wizard in the blue robes stood and bowed to the assembly.
“But who will carry the burden for him?” asked one of the wizards.
Grandpa’s thumb slowly came back into focus in front of me. I studied his lined face, and recognized the young wizard in blue.
“You see what happens when a wizard becomes infirm of mind,” Grandpa said.
I struggled to understand the terrible vision. “He went crazy. He started to destroy everything. But you fought him and killed him. So when you said you killed all the other wizards….”
He nodded. “It was my sacred duty. They were my friends, my brothers, my kind. One by one, they aged and lost their minds, and it was my burden to end their suffering. Now, I am the last of the wizards, and I am also growing old.”
I suddenly understood what he was saying. “NO!” I cried, clutching his hand. “No, no, no!”
Sasha sat on the floor in her cross-legged story-pose and listened raptly as I told her of the unbreakable cycle of wizard and apprentice. A wizard could die only by another’s magic. Each wizard knew he would eventually become a threat to the world, so he chose and trained an apprentice whose duty was to watch for signs of madness and end his master’s life before the madness took hold. The apprentice then took the master’s place and trained another apprentice to watch for his own eventual madness. So it had been from the misty beginnings of humankind, when the first wizards appeared.
With Grandpa, they had chosen to end the cycle forever. They had given him the responsibility to end each of their lives as madness overtook them. One by one, he had done so. Finally, he was the last of the wizards.
I could see Sasha ponder the obvious question. With a nine-year-old’s candor, she asked.
“So who killed Grampa?”
I was changing Sasha’s diaper when the phone rang. I answered, juggling diapers and safety pins. Grandpa was on the other end, panic in his voice.
“Claire!” he cried, calling me by my dead mother’s name. “Help me! I’m lost! I’m lost in my own house!”
I left Sasha with our neighbor and drove straight over. By the time I arrived, he had recovered from his fright.
“Come on, Grandpa, let’s go for a walk,” I said. “It will do you good.”
“Yes,” he replied. “Yes, Eleanor, that would be wonderful. I’ve been cooped up in this house too long.”
We visited all our favorite places: the little picnic clearing behind his house; the bare hill where he had taught me the names of all the constellations; the Dairy Queen on the far side of the woods, where we had shared sundaes and root beer floats on hot Saturday afternoons.
As we walked, we laughed. We bought ice cream, and wandered the streets of the small town. We stopped at the tiny church where Grandpa had given me away in marriage, and spent a quiet moment at my parents’ graves. He told me briefly, for the first time, of the three women he had truly loved in all his centuries of life; he spoke of them with such longing in his voice that I wept.
At last the sun began to set, and we turned to go home. As we passed the old Johnson house, Grandpa suddenly stopped. The house had been an eyesore when I was a child, when Mr. Johnson had lived in it. Abandoned years ago when Mr. Johnson died, it had sat on the market, year after year, slowly falling into ruin. Grandpa glared at the house, muttering to himself.
“You were a cheap, small-souled man, Elmer Johnson, and your house shows it. An eyesore like that should not be allowed to stand.” He made a small gesture with his hand. I watched in shock as the entire house fell in on itself and vanished into the ground. Not even a mound of earth showed where it had been buried. Shock turned to horror as I noticed the realtor’s car parked in the driveway.
“Grandpa….” I pointed to the car, unable to continue.
Grandpa’s gaze followed my pointing finger, and his face went almost as white as his beard. He held out his hand, and I saw the earth ripple, then settle again. Grandpa’s face turned sickly gray. He clutched his hand into a fist and shouted a strange word; a few broken floorboards and splinters of siding churned up from the ground, and threw clods of earth all the way to the sidewalk where we stood. I felt the hairs on my arms stir. A wild anger shone in Grandpa’s face, and I thought I heard the sound of a thousand bees swarming around my head.
“I command the elements,” he growled, “and you shall bend to my will.”
“Grandpa!” I shouted. He glanced at me, saw my face, recognized me.
“Eleanor?” he said. His anger collapsed into confusion. The sound of bees vanished. “Where am I?”
I heard a door open. My knees grew weak as the realtor and her client emerged from the detached garage at the rear of the property. They stopped and gaped at the roiled earth where the house had stood only a moment before. I took Grandpa’s arm firmly and walked him away from the newly-vacant lot and unanswerable questions, my heart pounding.
When we reached Grandpa’s house, he was as calm as if the incident had never happened.
“Claire, will you come see me again tomorrow?” he asked, his face open and hopeful.
“Grandpa, I’m Eleanor.”
“Eleanor? Who is Eleanor?”
“Grandpa, I’m Eleanor, Claire’s daughter.”
A sly expression crossed Grandpa’s face. “Ah, Claire, now you’re having fun with me. You’re not old enough to have a daughter.”
I stared at him silently in the deepening twilight. Uncertainty fluttered across his face.
“Where are we?” he asked, a quaver in his strong voice. “Where are you taking me, Claire?”
“Home, Grandpa,” I answered, my voice husky. “I’ll stay with you tonight.”
“Will you take care of me?” he asked. He searched my eyes, pleading.
“Yes, Grandpa. I’ll take care of you.” His eyes brimmed with tears, and he smiled. His face was that of a child, full of trust. We went inside.
I sat in a chair at his bedside and watched him all night as he slept fitfully. It was a warm summer night, but I felt cold. I could not erase from my mind’s eye the image of jagged timbers protruding from violated earth. Grandpa fell into a deeper sleep just before dawn, and I slipped out. I returned as the eastern sky began to glow rose-pink.
As the pale morning sun lit the wall opposite the lace curtains in his bedroom, Grandpa woke with a start.
“Who’s there?” he shouted. “Claire, is that you?”
“I’m right here, Grandpa.”
He stared at me in alarm. “Who are you? I don’t know you!”
“I know, Grandpa,” I said. “You’ve forgotten. But I have a present for you, one that you wanted me to give you. You told me I’d know when the time was right.”
His old eyes lit up. “A present? Is it my birthday?”
I could not speak around the lump in my throat. I handed the present to him wordlessly, the rough wooden box with the symbol carved on the top. His brow knotted as if he were trying to remember something. Then he shook his head in annoyance and opened the box.
“It’s empty!” he complained.
“Look again, Grandpa,” I said in a broken voice. As he looked into the empty box, I drew a deep breath and spoke the word of release, the meaningless syllables he had made me practice again and again until my pronunciation was perfect.
Who will carry the burden for him? the wizard in the council chamber had asked. I knew the answer, as had my mother, and her mother, and her grandmother before her. We had all carried it: the granddaughters — generation upon generation of us, each bound magically on our ninth birthday to the wooden box, each adding to its deadly spell the power of our love for the man we called Grandfather. I could hear in my mind the whispers of all my forebears as our love was forged by the spell into a cruelly sharp weapon that slipped past Grandpa’s every defense and pierced his soul.
Grandpa trembled. He looked up in surprise and our eyes locked. I saw clarity and sudden understanding in his gaze.
“I love you, Grandpa,” I whispered.
A tender smile flickered on his lips. Then the life drained from his eyes, and he was gone. The last wizard. My beloved grandfather.
“Who killed Grampa, Momma?”
My cheeks were wet. Sasha had crossed her arms and now stared at me impatiently, demanding that I finish the story. She’s just a little girl. I heard my mother’s voice in my mind, saw her tears. For the first time, I understood what Mama had felt at that moment, passing the burden to her own daughter.
The wizards were gone; the granddaughters’ curse had ended as well. Sasha could keep her innocence a little longer.
“Later, Sasha. When you’re older,” was all I told her.
I really love this story.
LikeLiked by 1 person
*wipes away tears* You’re entirely too good at inducing those.
This was beautiful. Thank you.