Interlude

The tires whispered to themselves, a sound of hissing rain.

Beads on a string, cars moved along the highway. Although early, the hard white sun valiantly tried to warm the frozen, rolling landscape and burn away stringy remnants of clinging mist. With shrill squawks, a gaggle of yellow-crested cockatoos flew overhead and settled on massive eucalypt trees beside the carriageway.

Mason adjusted his shades, switched stations to ABC FM Classic, and nodded solemnly to the hypnotic rhythm of Ravel’s Bolero. Not into heavy symphonies, he liked his music light and cheerful. Bolero’s enchanting tempo sent his mind along meandering memory paths. Opera made him wince, but in a quirky way, his heart sang to some of its music. His mom always tuned into 60s and 70s popular stuff, and he inherited her tastes for the oldies. Modern, sharp, acid compositions made him switch stations. When nothing came up on the radio, he replied favorites stored in his mind.

A silver hatchback roared past him. The decibels of its speakers rivaled an A380 taking off, guaranteed to blow out the driver’s eardrums. He shook his head, not understanding any of it.

A green signboard on the shoulder said Mt. Macedon exit, one kilometer. Bolero finished in a crescendo and the familiar ABC news break broke his reflective reverie.

Virginia Trioli came on to present Saturday’s News Breakfast in her cheerful, bubbly voice that nonetheless failed to soften what she said. He paid scant attention, noting the main points. His dose of doom and gloom done, Mason pushed a stiff finger at the display screen and switched off the radio. Peaceful silence descended, broken only by the soft engine hum.

Past Gisborne, he took the off-ramp onto Mt. Macedon Road and motored down the peaceful arterial. Sheets of mist hung low over paddocks and the sun glinted between white-barked eucalypt branches. Frost painted the grass with crystal on both sides of the road, and the air-conditioner whined a little louder to maintain the set temperature.

Before the hill that led into the small township, the local golf course clubhouse stood deserted, although he figured it would fill rapidly with weekend warriors who sought to test their skill against the devilish white ball. Mason liked the small nine-hole course and played when he could tear himself away from the city. Preferably early in the morning during the week when he often had the place to himself, everybody else otherwise at work.

He slowed to sixty, drove past a cluster of old-fashioned houses and stores, and turned right onto the narrow, sleepy Cheniston Road lined with bushy trees that provided shade and tranquility. Cottages and larger, more modern houses nestled on mostly half-hectare lots occupied by old-time residents and newly arrived retirees who sought to escape the city pressure cooker. Some owners used larger plots as do-it-yourself hobby farms or held them as investments.

Mason pulled up before a two-meter steel gate hung on local bluestone columns and gazed with nostalgia at the single-story sandstone dwelling. A chicken wire fence ran around the entire property and gave an uninterrupted view of gently rolling hills falling away behind the house to merge into flatland. He opened the gate expecting Cricket to come bounding toward him in welcome, tail held high. His dad disliked cats and never kept pets, a characteristic Mason shared. In a quirky way, Cricket nevertheless warmed to them and often rubbed himself against their legs as they sat on the veranda, purring loudly with satisfaction, knowing he left a bunch of hairs on their trousers. The black tomcat only a memory now.

He parked the car in front of the double garage and strode up broad sandstone steps to the solid wood doorway. He winced at the chill inside as he disabled the alarm, then busied himself to fire up the wood burner. Chore done, he went to the bathroom to wash up. He put aside the towel and stared at the 176cm slim figure in the mirror. Muddy green eyes inherited from Mom gazed back at him above a square jawline and nicely tapered nose. He passed a hand through charcoal hair and a lighter streak that ran along the top of his head, and pursed his lips. The streak came in for lots of jibes in primary and secondary school, which forced him to fend off a bully or two. In the kitchen, coffee percolator going, he checked the fridge. Apart from bread and milk, no need for a major shopping outing.

Buttery sunshine streamed through tall back veranda windows and made a bright pool on the polished redgum floor. A gaggle of white cockatoos in the yard pecked around the small vegetable garden. He always planted potatoes, onions, carrots, tomatoes, cabbages, and some herbs, preferring genuine flavor in vegetables he ate. Over the last four years, the garden shrank as his interest to maintain it diminished, and overseas work commitments prevented him from coming up. An idyllic weekend retreat, the property nevertheless required regular maintenance. He always cleaned during a visit, and a local man took care of mowing and trimming. It all mounted up, though, when he added council rates and utility charges, and none of it tax deductible. More than once, he thought of selling, but could not bring himself to do it while Grandma lived, and he did not want to rent it out. She might consider it betrayal, seeing how much of her life she and Gramps spent here.

A mug of hot coffee in hand, Mason opened the lounge ceiling-high sliding door and stepped into the enclosed veranda now warm from the sun. He pulled back a chair, back and seat made comfortable with tied-on cushions Grandma made, and placed the mug on the heavy table. The cockatoos looked up from their chore when he emerged and went back to teasing the ground. His gaze drifted past the back fence toward patches of old-growth forest and rested on a distant horizon where the air turned fuzzy. Melbourne lay somewhere over there. He could not see it, too far away, but easily pictured its cluster of skyscrapers clawing upward. Another life, another existence.

As his thoughts tumbled, he imagined Gramps sitting on the other side of the table as he often did, old briar clenched between his teeth, bushy eyebrows drawn together in a frown. Mason lifted his mug in a salute.

“We need to talk, Gramps,” he murmured, then grinned. If someone saw him right then, they’d be right to consider him ready for the funny wagon. No one could see him, of course, and he did not give a damn if somebody did.

A magpie swooped over the cockatoo gaggle and they took flight, screeching as they wheeled toward a stand of trees down the hill.

Perhaps he should latch on the trailer and drive off into the bush to look for fallen logs to top up his supply of firewood. Most easy to get at stuff already taken years ago, lots still remained along lonely forest tracks. Physical work might clear his head and make him forget reality for a while. He took a sip of coffee and decided not to get sweaty. The back shed held enough chopped dry wood to last the winter, and two five-meter-long shoulder-high stacks would see him through at least four more years. Keep today’s visit focused and intellectual, he told himself.

As a teenager, he liked going into the forest with Gramps to cut timber and haul the plunder home. He enjoyed the earthy forest smells—something different from the usual city stinks—listen to the whisper of rustling leaves and the cradling comfort the woods engendered. When he first started work and got a car, an old secondhand Honda hatch, he’d drive up in casual gear and got friendly ribbing from Gramps for looking like a bum. Mason shrugged off the japes.

 “I’m in a white shirt, a strangulation tie, and suit five days a week,” he’d retort, not taking umbrage. “On weekends, I don’t care if I look like a bum.”

Warm air drifted in from the lounge as the burner got into its stride. He relaxed and allowed himself to drift into retrospection, home chores be damned.

The sun higher in the sky, his thoughts jolted when a lone magpie swooped in front of him. Wings pulled up, it flared for a landing, and began to inspect the lawn for available tidbits. Coffee mug in hand, Mason took a sip, back in the real world. The ache in his soul inflicted on him last night still throbbed. He badly needed Gramps to make it all better. The irony of that wish clear to him, he chided himself for avoiding a repeat confrontation with his old man. Instead of dealing with the problem, he sought a soft way out from a ghost, of all things. An easy solution perhaps, he admitted, but he could not confide to anyone else. Any of his three friends would be prepared to console him and offer sage advice, but right now, he felt reluctant to reveal deep personal wounds to them. Instead, he talked to his spectral grandfather, knowing his trust would not be abused when he opened the dark corridors of his mind. To maintain his sanity, he sometimes needed to firmly lock stuff in his memory that prevented him from forgetting. Lots of things he wanted to forget, though. As with everybody, his life contained a deed or two best left buried. That’s why he put an ‘Open at own peril’ lock on them.

Enveloped in warm sunshine, Mason realized he must open some of those creaky memory drawers, shake out the contents, and see what they revealed in the light of objective honesty untainted by emotional bias. His father made a point perhaps, when he said Mason harbored a wrong slant on everything. Definitely not everything, he pulled himself up sternly, but perhaps on one or two things, he allowed. Despite the impulse to come to this country retreat and cut himself off from his parents, he acknowledged judiciously that he did not want to cut himself off from them. After all, apart from Grandma, that’s all he had, and children were imprinted from day one to love their parents no matter what, which inflicted a lot of misery and conflicting feelings on some kids later in life. He had a bunch of cousins who lived in Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, and Germany from both sides of his grandparents, but they were distant acquaintances at most, good for a few laughs and sharing a drink when he came to visit, not done in a while…since 2019 to be exact while on leave from his UAE job. Then the Covid thing struck and no one traveled anywhere much. Time to water his family tree with another visit? However, none of his relatives meant enough to him to draw him back there. One day, maybe…

He imagined Gramps nod from across the table, puff out a cloud of aromatic smoke from his worn pipe, and smile in agreement.

“Ti banac,” he often said to emphasize a point, and habitually scratched the right side of his head. “Kako boa, boa,” he’d add philosophically, meaning what will be will be.

A somewhat phlegmatic and fatalistic attitude, but Gramps survived many turbulent years and experienced things Mason hardly found credible. When still alive, the old man did not give a crap what others said or thought, removed from the need to seek approval or acceptance from others, totally confident in himself. Mason admired that outlook and sought to emulate it, but the raw rub, he still wanted acceptance and approval from his parents, especially Dad, and that sucks. Why couldn’t the dick say just once, ‘Well done, son.’ Perhaps he did and Mason locked away the memory as it disturbed the preferred mosaic how he regarded his father.

He so much wanted Dad to be like Gramps. One of life’s imponderables, he decided with a forlorn sigh, knowing it was never possible. The two grew up in totally different environments and social matrix.

Mug cool between his hands, Mason gazed at the rolling fields lost in blue haze as they merged with the horizon, and came to an unpalatable conclusion he’d shied away from admitting for a long time. All his life, he lived under a blanket of pride and conceit in his abilities that blinded him to many things about his parents. Last night, he stormed out because he’d reached a cusp his father triggered over the damned Forester. The car meant nothing, but it did serve to bring his load of emotional baggage to the fore. Overreaction on his part? With all his achievements, did he consider himself so psychologically insecure that he still sought his dad’s approval? It certainly looked like it.

He pictured Gramps sitting on the other side of the table, puff on his pipe, and say, ‘Apologize, mali stroj. You know nothing about your parents.’

Mason bit his lip, admitting that Gramps could have said those words when alive, but they were not his words now. They came from Mason’s psyche. He pondered the conflicting emotions they generated and wondered if they could be right. He did know a lot about his parents! After all, he lived for years with them. Pride and selective memories may have clouded his judgment, but why should he be the one to say, ‘Sorry’? When he walked out last night, his subconscious told him he acted from wounded pride. He came here for answers and apparently got it. Why couldn’t he accept it?

Skits.

He’ll have to have a man-to-man with Dad and come to a workable arrangement acceptable to both that promoted a live-and-let-live relationship. Grandma now in a nursing home with Lord knows how much time left to her, and Gramps gone. Despite everything, Mason did not want to totally alienate his parents, which would really leave him alone.

You wanted to be alone, didn’t you?

Perhaps, but living alone did not turn out exactly fun as anticipated, he mused with a heavy sigh.

Mason remembered one fine weekend—he just turned eight—sitting with Gramps on the back veranda, everybody else amusing themselves in the lounge, when his grandfather chuckled and began a story. Milan had a bagful and found in his young grandson an avid listener. Mason remembered every word, of course, but still loved to be a sounding board and simply be with Gramps. Each telling came with a slight variation, but in essence true. Mason never tried to correct Gramps on a point of inconsistency as changes or additions often provided new detail.

He recalled how the old man took a puff, smiled, and started one of his favorite after-war yarns, still picking up the pieces after discharge from the Partisan army.

He and a friend, he said with a snicker, hid in a cornfield once and watched a crabby, stingy man without a kind bone in his scrawny body, guard a small peach tree. He wore a permanent scowl as he walked the streets and glared at anyone who greeted him. Children gave him a wide birth and tittered as he stomped by. They threw pebbles at him and scampered away with glee as he raged after them, fist held high.

Hidden by tall corn, the smell of ripe peaches made Milan’s mouth water. The awful man guarded the tree all night, shotgun in lap, sometimes nodding off. Too mean to offer any to his neighbors, he feared they might steal the precious fruit before he could harvest it.

Milan and his friend sneaked into the corn before dawn broke and watched the old sod guard his tree. As the sun came up, golden light filled the open, rolling meadow and the world became a bright, cheerful place, perfect for some devilment.

The old coot stood, looked around warily, and hurried off for a quick breakfast, a familiar routine by now. With no idea when he might return, not wanting to be on the receiving end of a shotgun, Milan and his friend rushed to the peach tree and quickly sawed off two limbs heavy with fruit. The plunder slung over their shoulder, they disappeared into the corn and made for their hiding place.

Minutes later, they heard a frantic bellow of rage and a torrent of profanity. The old buzzard had returned and vented outrage when he spied the damaged tree. Later that morning, a mighty uproar swept through Varazdin as the scandalized man sought to find who took his peaches. The incident generated a lot of local hilarity, everybody figuring the old sod deserved what he got. Nobody admitted anything, of course.

Milan and his friend gorged on delicious peaches, sharing some with neighbors who did not care where they came from. They merely nodded their thanks with a faint smile of understanding.

The tale finished, Mason laughed softly and shook his head, clearly picturing the outraged man rampaging through town searching for the miscreants. The story always generated a warm glow of deserved justice.

“I tell you, mali stroj, although we never regretted what we did, I somehow felt a little remorseful for the old devil,” Milan reflected pensively.

The peach tree episode not the only tale in Gramp’s bag of adventures. Like the one when he and two friends caught a stray cat. They halved two walnuts, cleaned them, and proceeded to fill the shells with tar. They stuck the shells to the cat’s paws and let it go. The poor thing tried to gnaw off the annoying shells as it clanged its way along the sidewalk to disappear under a fence. Mason always chuckled when Milan finished, although he felt a little sorry for the poor cat.

One of Gramps’ favorites was how, fresh after the grape harvest, he and three friends managed to break into a barrel of new wine.

Several streets from Milan’s house, a neighbor stored four large barrels in a backyard barn. Not predisposed to share any of the old stock, he sold the stuff to local bars and supplied parties and wedding functions.

Milan and his buddies often contemplated how to get at the wine. Come late fall, the man would decant the barrels and move the wine to his cellar beyond reach. After much debate and rejection of several ideas, they came up with what everybody agreed to be a devilishly cunning plan. They drove a nail into a long pole, filed the end to a point, and tied a rubber hose to the pole that left a meter or so to hang from the end to serve as their instrument of dark deed.

The barn clad with old boards, enough gaps existed to push the pole through to the closest barrel. With patience and determination, they drove the nail into a large cork that plugged the barrel and gently worked it loose. The barrel open, they lowered the rubber hose and sucked until the young wine began to pour out. With no time to waste, they sampled their prize, nudging each other to be next. Head swimming, Milan suggested it would be far too dangerous to linger behind the barn where the old coot could catch them. Everybody clearly pictured the disastrous consequences that might ensue. A hurried retreat to their homes produced several bottles and jugs to be filled and enjoyed at leisure. Plunder safely stored, they replaced the cork and tapped it down.

For some two weeks until the rubber hose could not reach farther into the barrel, Milan and his pals enjoyed a happy time.

When the man eventually came to inspect his barrels, he found one only half full. This naturally set off a cascade of accusations and arguments, everybody denying knowledge of the stolen wine. Some suggested the codger drank it himself and forgot he did it, which generated nasty amusement. If the neighbors saw four youths wandering the streets looking slightly inebriated, no one said anything, figuring the stingy man deserved it.

Other stories Gramps told were more serious.

“Like kids everywhere,” he reflected once, “I liked to listen to my own paternal grandfather regale me with tales of witches and strange goings on. True or not, I found them entertaining. Kolarovec only twenty kilometers from Varazdin where we lived, my parents often visited on a weekend to scrounge a free Sunday lunch from my grandparents. We’d take an old, creaking bus and stop at Jamnik’s Tavern on the road to Maribor, and walk the rest of the way. Allowed to run wild with other kids, I roamed the open fields, played games in the forest, and swam in the nearby Drava. Tired from all the action, I’d sit with Grandpa on the front veranda and bug him to tell me a tale. The way you bug me,” Milan added with a disarming grin. “Anyhow, more often than not, the old man obliged. I remember one particular story…”

A beautiful maiden, his grandpa began as he puffed on his cherry wood pipe, rocking in a favorite rickety chair, often frequented a nearby forest filled with all sorts of wildlife. Long, corn-colored hair fell to her slim waist. Large blue eyes sparkled with laughter and the joy of being alive. Youths from nearby villages came to court her, but the tall, willowy maid repulsed them all, much to the lament of the youths. Of course, this raised all sorts of gossip, and mothers wanting their son marry the maid speculated what might be wrong with her. Some even considered her a witch. When the women demanded to know why the maid never wed, her mother paid them no never mind, which only fueled further speculation. The maid ignored the gossip, the barbed innuendos, and lived a carefree life, preferring the company of her forest friends.

No one knew where the maid went when she disappeared into the forest or what she did there, and those who followed her often got lost. She sometimes came home with scratches on her long, supple legs and slim arms, and her parents scolded her. How can she hope to attract a boy looking like that, they said. The scratches came from branches and shrubs, she explained cheerfully, eyes dancing with inner fire.

Milan’s grandfather said he loved to hunt, an old, battered rifle cradled in his arms. He regularly brought home a hare, wild boar, or a deer, always welcomed at the farmhouse by his wife.

One sunny autumn afternoon, his worn Jager percussion rifle slung across the shoulder, a large leather rucksack to hold any game he might catch, he pecked his plump wife on the cheek and declared he would be back in time for dinner. His wife did not mind her husband’s wanderings, knowing he never left chores undone.

He took a familiar worn trail into the forest, and after some time, the warm sun flickering between old birch, oak, and poplar, he took a meandering track that led to a meadow with a small lake tucked against a hillside. He liked the place, one of his favorites, as animals came to graze on the lush grass and drink, and generally managed to shoot something. Even when he did not, he enjoyed sitting at the forest edge, take an occasional swig of wine from a flask, and listen contentedly to the soft buzz of insects as swallows swooped low over the sleepy meadow.

Suddenly, a graceful doe emerged from the trees some forty meters on his right. She paused, lifted her graceful neck, sniffed the air, and slowly made her way toward the lake. Every now and then, she stopped and turned her head on lookout for possible danger. Satisfied, she walked through the tall grass with small, mincing steps.

Grandpa never saw such a beautiful deer, and watched the doe in rapt fascination as she approached the lake. At possibly fifty kilos, she would provide welcomed fresh venison for the table. He picked up the rifle and aimed at the doe’s chest. A quick kill, the animal would not suffer. As he took up the trigger slack, the doe turned and looked directly at him. Even from some 150 meters, he saw her large blue eyes, something most unusual. He took a deep breath, held it, and squeezed the trigger.

The sharp crack caused startled birds into flight, and two hares bounded into thickets across the meadow. Without a sound, the doe dropped to the ground. Milan’s grandfather raced through the grass to inspect his kill.

Chest heaving, he slowed and gaped in shock at what he saw, color draining from his face. He dropped the rifle and stared in startled wonder as the graceful doe turned into a naked young woman, golden hair spilled across full breasts. Bright blood oozed from a wound in the center of her chest. He thought she looked at him then, not with accusation, but resigned acceptance. Then the light faded from her eyes. As he stared at the village maid, her form shimmered, became transparent, and faded. Gradually, the flattened grass rose where she had lain.

Milan’s grandfather said he felt his eyes sting and hot tears warmed his cheeks from deep loss and regret. He knelt beside the spot where the woman laid and sobbed, his heart tearing with pain. He begged forgiveness, knowing the forest had claimed the strange maid. Whether she heard him or not, he thought he saw her enchanting young face, eyes alive with laughter, rosy lips open in a broad smile. Perhaps she did forgive him, because he felt the load of guilt roll off his chest and he stood up with a lighter heart. He took a deep breath and let it out with a soft hiss as he wiped his face with a calloused hand.

He cradled the worn rifle and wearily made his way toward the forest and home, the years heavy on his shoulders. For a long time afterward, the villagers often talked about the strange young maid and wondered what happened to her. A search of the forest revealed an ankle-long green dress the maid used to wear neatly draped across a low branch. Some said she ran away with a youth from another village, but nobody knew for certain.

Mouth clamped on a pipe, Milan’s grandfather declared roughly that he never went hunting again, and his old rifle remained mounted above the fireplace. On long winter days, he sat before the flickering flames and stare at the gun. His wife often asked why he never hunted, sensing something unusual happened on that fateful autumn day, but he refused to say.

Finished, Milan sat in his chair and quietly puffed on his pipe.

“The way my grandfather told it, I never doubted its truth. Ti banac.”

After a time, he’d clear his throat and start again.

“My grandmother also used to spin yarns about witches and strange happenings in Kolarovec and nearby villages around Zagorje. I often sat beside her as she rocked back and forth in her own squeaky rocking chair, eyes dreamy, lost in a time that no longer existed.”

Wearing a wry smile, Milan told Mason he wondered from time to time if Grandma invented those fanciful fairytales for his entertainment or they actually happened. She left that for him to decide, he said.

“Real or not, I listened as she opened a magical world from an enchanted past. Take it from me, mali stroj, something wonderful left the world when people stopped believing in magic.” He nodded and puffed.

“On one visit, I sat beside my grandmother munching a slice of cornbread smothered with homemade blackberry jam, and listened to her tales of bygone days. You know, I often wondered if she pulled my leg.”

During a hot, humid summer night, Grandma began, a powerful, handsome youth from nearby Lovrečan, unable to sleep, went down to the Drava for a refreshing swim. As he broke through the thicket along the bank, he spotted four naked maidens dancing around a cairn of stones. The full moon made it seem like day. The youth froze in his tracks and stared mesmerized at the beautiful women, unable to move.

Suddenly, they stopped dancing and turned as one to look at him. Something in their dark eyes broke the youth’s stare. He turned and ran back toward the village. Behind him, he heard soft footfalls and knew the girls were after him. Gasping for breath, lungs burning, he ran faster, knowing something bad would happen if they caught him. Before he reached his house, they did catch him. One by one, they rode him and left him senseless by the roadside. In the morning, an old woman going to the local store found him and demanded he tell her what happened. Reluctantly, intensely embarrassed, he told her. Instead of laughing at him, or dismissing the story as a product of a drunken imagination, she revealed in a rasping voice that the four maids were sisters who lived in nearby Babinec, and everybody suspected them to be witches. She also said he should never go to the Drava after midnight or they would possess him.

That night, despite the warning, afraid but excited, the youth went to the river and spied on the dancing girls. This time, he stayed put when they dashed toward him. They rode him, smiling all the time, whispering soothing words, and left him at the water’s edge when they finished.

The next day, something screamed inside him never go to the Drava again, feeling the women somehow drained him of something, but he could not help himself. They clearly enchanted him, captivating him with their beauty and bodies.

For seven nights, he went to the river where the maidens rode him. Each morning, he felt older, depleted of energy, hair graying, muscles wasting. On the eighth morning, wandering children found an old, shriveled man by the river. No one knew him or how he came to be there. The youth’s distraught mother claimed him to be her son, recognizing the clothing he wore, but the villagers did not believe her and scoffed. They said her son was a vigorous youth of twenty-two years.

Two days later, someone said the four sisters left Babinec and moved to Cestica. The mother always insisted they bewitched her son, but no one could prove anything against the sisters. The villagers laughed at her, saying her son probably ran off with some maid and never returned. One year to the day after her son’s disappearance, a neighbor found her dead in her bedroom, a wooden stake driven through her heart.

“Make of that what you will,” Gramps told Mason. “I’m a believer. There is more to this world than just physics and engineering,” he added sagely with a grave nod. “One story my grandma liked to tell that always stuck with me was about a wandering old woman and a rich miser. A small detail here and there changed with the telling, but the story remained true in essence, and she always started the tale in the same way.”

One blustery evening with cold drizzle coming down, an old woman, a crooked cane held in a gnarled hand, stooped after carrying a lifetime of burdens, hobbled wearily toward an iron-wrought gate. Dressed in black, a dark scarf covered a surprisingly youthful face. She opened the creaking gate and made her way along the gravel roadway toward a stately mansion. Bright light came from tall windows. Gray smoke drifted up from two red brick chimneys, instantly whipped away by a frigid wind. The woman clutched her meager garments tight around her chest and shuddered from a sudden chill spasm that raced through her. She ambled to the grand entrance guarded by four white columns that held up the portico. Enticing aroma of roasting meat and hot broth drifted toward her and her stomach rumbled in anticipation.

No one knew her in the village, her age, where she came from, or where she went. She appeared, and as mysteriously, vanished. Kindly people fed her and sometimes gave her a bed. She did not mind where she slept. Before a warm hearth or barn beside cows who sent their warm breath on her and nuzzled her. The old woman appreciated the kindness extended her and always thanked everyone profusely. Some said, and it might be simple idle village gossip, those who helped her enjoyed a change of fortune in their lives. They were either happier, their luck turned, or found lost love. Just talk, Grandma rumbled thoughtfully as she rocked, pipe stuck between stained teeth.

Anyhow, the woman stopped in front of the elaborately carved door and twice banged the iron clacker shaped like a lion’s head. Footsteps sounded inside and the door soundlessly opened. She saw an elderly man wearing a butler’s regalia and warm air wafted around her from inside. Yellow light danced from candles mounted on a crystal chandelier hung from a dark wooden ceiling crossed with heavy black beams.

In a labored breath, she asked for shelter from the inclement weather outside. A rough voice demanded who stood at the door. The butler winced and declared that some poor woman wanted refuge for the night.

A middle-aged man in maroon trousers and evening jacket appeared and glared at her. The butler politely stepped back. Everyone in the area knew the miserly, mean, self-centered coot who lived in the stately home. The selfish thing never gave anybody the time of day or a moldy crust of bread, preferring to throw it to the hogs. Nobody loved him, and he regarded the villagers with equal scorn.

One look at the woman and the man’s mouth curved up in a sneer.

“Begone, you old hag. I have no time for you. Find work and you’ll have shelter. I’m tired of all your kind, wanting everything for nothing. Begone, I say!”

The woman studied him, then straightened. “I hope you found everything in your life and are enjoying the rewards of your labors, sour sir,” she declared in a surprisingly strong voice. “May lightning strike your grave if you don’t mend your ways.”

Back bent, she slowly walked toward the gate as the heavy door slammed shut behind her.

Nobody knew what happened to the old woman or where she went. Tales filtered from nearby villages who said they saw her and benefited by showing her kindness.

The miserable rich man never changed, became even meaner, and turned into a recluse. Shaking their heads, people often prayed for some misfortune to overtake him.

“Grandma always paused at that point, gray aromatic smoke rising from her pipe as she rocked back and forth. A darker cloud of smoke shot from her mouth as she puffed,” Milan said and smiled at the memory. “Although I knew what happened next, I always asked. Three years later, she said in a soft growl, the miserly rich man took ill and suddenly died, to the delight of nearby villagers. The funeral procession had only a handful of mourners, mainly household staff. They came because they genuinely cared, or more likely, Grandma added with a dry cackle, they celebrated the miserable man’s demise.

“As the procession neared the cemetery, dark clouds gathered overhead. The priest looked up and scowled, urging the procession to hurry. When they reached the gravesite, two men waited to lower the polished, carved casket into the ground. By then, it became quite dark and a rumble of ominous thunder marched across the sky.

“The priest grew frantic, demanding the casket be lowered right away, not bothering with the usual prayers. Hardly in the ground, the priest shouted to everyone to stand back. Seconds later, a bolt of light crashed into the open grave and the air trembled from the sharp crack that followed. Everybody looked at each other in wonder, then approached the smoking grave. They peered into the hole and gaped at the shattered, empty casket inside. The devil claimed his own, they whispered solemnly and nodded wisely. As rapidly as the clouds gathered, they scattered and warm sunshine bathed the countryside, dispelling the air of evil in the air.”

Milan nodded. “I once asked Grandma if she ever met the old woman. After some time, lost in contemplation, she denied ever meeting her. The way she said it, though, prompted me to think otherwise, certain that more lay behind the story than she said, and I chose to believe their paths did cross, as she and her family always enjoyed a good life, health, and a modicum of prosperity.”

Lost in his youthful yesterdays, Mason also wondered.

Gramps…

 

 

 

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