On the day my grandmother died, she put a hex of despair on our house, a bad one she’d been working on for months. Both her eyes and her spirit of civility failed her towards the end, and one of the few things she still seemed to enjoy was threatening my parents with the hex. “I know you,” she would whisper to my father while he fed her mashed up olives, “You’d dance on the day I die. You’d like to kick my body into the street, but the hex will fix you.” It wouldn’t be just the ordinary malaise one expects around a death, either– the hex would curse us with a huge, enduring anguish. She wanted the whole family dragged together in its net of grief, the cousins gnashing their teeth dangerously close to each other’s faces. My father had little to say to this as he fed her the olive paste.
I had always been her favorite, the only one who would listen to her hum the old songs or let her win at Chinese rummy. She would braid my hair in the strange, knotted way that infuriated my mother and whisper to me about the hex, as if it were a pet or a tomato plant she’d raised from seed. All that month, she smelled like cinnamon rubbed over something rotten, and an hour before she died I was balled up in her lap in the rocking chair, moving my fingers in the fringe of her skirt while she rocked us to the mournful dirge of an accordion record. My grandmother loved accordion records. She loved salted fish and orange peel and rouge, and, when my parents weren’t listening, telling me stories about the moon-lit orgies of her youth. That morning, she had put her hand around mine as I drew the painted wagons she described moving across the mountains of her old country, framing them in skeleton trees and five-pointed stars.
(My father swore up and down that she had been born in Detroit. She had graduated first in her class from secretarial school and she was not by any stretch of imagination a gypsy. Still, I believed her.)
“My cabbage,” she whispered to me, and in the closeness and salt of her breath I smelled something of my own end generations in the future, how I would rattle words like these at the child of a child I hadn’t met yet. “Dumpling,” she whispered, “Bring me my satchel.” I did, a paisley bag tied at the neck with cord, full of quarters and string, and I curled myself into her lap again. She shook the bag three times over my head. “Spit in your hand,” she said, “My mouth is too dry.” I did that too and she let her thin spotted finger rest in my palm while she hummed to herself. Then she drew a circle around my scalp that began and ended at my widow’s peak. “That should be good enough,” she said, “But you’d better leave the house anyway. The hex is coming.” My hair fell back into place as she pulled her hand away. I knew better than to argue. I was crying as the rocking chair slowed and stopped, crying as I backed through the thick red curtains she had hung in the door of her room.
It was a Saturday afternoon and both of my parents were downstairs, my mother making sandwiches and mashing up olives for my dead grandmother’s lunch. The air in the house was starting to change and as I pushed the back door open I felt the hex fall hard behind me like back of a hand, like something you could see if you knew the right way to look at it. I didn’t stop. Spitting every three steps to ward off the evil eye the way she’d taught me, I found my way into the grove of blighted ash trees that my father had warned me not to climb. The trees stood in a woeful circle around the thin stream that cut across our property, their yellow-fingered branches pointing into the sky like an accusation.The edges of the hex brushed up against me where I stood and despite her charm I felt a ragged misery rising inside my throat. Maybe, I thought, it would be less sad up high. I started to climb.
From the tallest of the trees, I could see into her bedroom window. Her chin was in her chest but otherwise she looked the way she had when I’d left her. I wanted her to be asleep in her rocker but the wild unhappiness the hex was throwing off was impossible to ignore. I knew what it meant. When my father walked into her room he knew too.
I saw him bend over her, saw the way his movement set her chair rocking again. The hex caught him tight and worked him over until he turned to see my mother, her one hand on the doorframe and the other around the bowl of olives. Under the power of the hex, the hard distance that defined their postures was broken open and they lurched together like two x’s meeting in the middle of a cat’s cradle. Watching them felt like watching a movie, like people I’d never met acting out something that never really happened. The glass bowl spun wildly on the wood floor and the spoon clattered away where I couldn’t see it.
I looked away. A front of tall grey clouds was moving slowly towards our house. When I wiped my eyes on my shoulder the tree groaned against my shifting weight. A few inches of branch snapped off against my elbow and the sound of the break made me realize how cold I was. Down the block, someone was burning leaves. I had school tomorrow.
In my grandmother’s room, the chair slowed and everything was still. Then, hexed surely, my father started to cry. My mother lifted her head from his shoulder and saw me through the window. Her face didn’t change as we watched each other, as my father’s wailing wrapped itself around me in the dead ash– thin at first and then opening up, like the bellows of an accordion.
Jess Lacher’s plays have been produced in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, among other places, and her writing has been published in the Random House collection Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers, Dramatics Magazine, Prism Magazine, and The Kenyon Review. She lives in Brooklyn, but it’s pretty easy to tell that she’s from the Midwest. She is working on an MFA in fiction at Hunter College.