by ANNA LEA JANCEWICZ
Grandmother lived in the woods and brought us meat. We three sisters washed and swept, and every night took turns saying to each other If you should die upon this mattress, I will cover your bones with earth. Grandmother taught us that. She wore the pelts of foxes and wolves. Winters she would sleep in our house, curled on the floor by the stove. She folded her long limbs up under her heavy blanket, her body crimping around her rifle. She ate at our table. Summers she kept to her camp at our grandfather’s grave. Grandmother told us Your granddaddy was a big old crow, with ragged black feathers. An Auntie came up the mountain to keep us in whiskey and birdseed. Grandmother said that was what kept his ghost behaving sweet. We were told never to go seeking him. Off the footpath between camp and house, the chassis of a pick-up truck rusted quiet on cinder blocks. We three had never seen an automobile in motion. We had never been down the mountain.
The youngest of us was Tasha, round-cheeked and sullen. Iris came in the middle with her black eyes and whispery laugh. I was oldest, a head taller than both. None of us had ever met our fathers, but I was old enough to remember our mother. In my mind, she crouched bare by the light of the stove, pushing Tasha out into Grandmother’s scrubbed-clean hands. Our mother’s body was like a starry night, freckled from head to toe. We three sisters waited for her to return with another heavy belly, but she was tarrying.
A man came up the mountain on a cold March afternoon and told us we could call him Uncle Silas. It was the first time we saw a man. He left his muddy boots at the door and ate our stew. He washed his hands and face in the basin after supper and slept on our mattress until Grandmother returned for the night. She carried a limp rabbit by the ears. They spoke plainly as I skinned the rabbit. He’d come to make me his bride.
We three sisters wept and moaned. We tangled ourselves together, our fingers digging into each other’s shoulders. We swore loudly that we would never part. Uncle Silas told Grandmother that he would come back for me in three days, bringing a sum of money. He said to have me pack my dresses, but Grandmother fought him on that. She’d sewn those dresses for our mother, and my sisters would yet grow into them. They were not mine to keep.
That night we three huddled on our mattress pooling our clevernesses between us. We crept out into the dark of night on the tips of our toes and fingers. Grandmother didn’t wake, or else she let us go. The moon was wearing a crown and we ran to our grandfather’s grave. We brought him whiskey and birdseed, and begged for his help. It was then we heard the possum crying in the thorn bush.
On the third day, I was hidden in the top cabinet of the kitchen, breathing shallow. Tasha and Iris tore their hair up by the roots and made hideous faces. They told Grandmother and Uncle Silas that I had turned into a possum. They presented the creature, cradled in Tasha’s arms like a baby. I peered from a chink in the cabinet, watching Uncle Silas stomp and holler. Grandmother just cackled.
She stroked her rifle and said Silas Mulvey, you best keep to our bargain.
Uncle Silas spit at her feet and replied You old witch. You must reckon I’m a fool.
You know nothing about the magic of this mountain she said. Then she turned, looking right at my spying eye in the chink. None of you do she said.
She held her rifle and said again Silas Mulvey, you best keep to our bargain.
I’ll pay you for your possum, witch. But these girls are going to skin it and cook it right here, and we’ll all eat it at your table.
Grandmother nodded, and my sisters pitched fine fits of mourning for me as they did their work. As they snapped the possum’s neck, I felt a bolt down my spine. Pure lightning. As they peeled off its hide, I could feel the hair sprouting from my skin, first the soft white undercoat, and then the coarse storm-silver guard hairs. The possum boiled in our pot and I scrabbled against the inside of the cabinet door with my sharp-tipped little paws.
What’s that racket? Uncle Silas bellowed.
Oh, it’s surely birds on the roof Iris said, poking in the stove.
Put the heart in those coals to roast he said. We’ll save that for your Granny.
They sat down and ate silent. When Grandmother bit into the possum heart, I tumbled from the cabinet, keening with my possum tongue. My sisters leapt from the table and shouted my name. Uncle Silas roared My bride!
My head swam with fearfulness, but I rallied and shot across the floor. I scrambled out the window with Uncle Silas hot on my pink tail. I climbed up the hemlock and trembled so, clinging to the roof. It was then I heard the thresh of great wings. The crow lifted me from the shingles and flew.
His claws pierced between my ribs. Grandfather ate my spying eye first. It was the last thing I saw, a dark bead pinched in his beak, catching a shine from the moonlight. My heart he saved for Grandmother. She gathered my scattered bones and wrapped them with the heart in my favorite of our mother’s dresses. The one blue as sky. She dug deep, and covered it with earth. She started to tell a new story.
Your sister had a possum heart, and so she became a possum, pelt white as a bride.
I bring her wild honey and robin eggs.
ANNA LEA JANCEWICZ lives in Norfolk, Virginia, where she homeschools her children and haunts the public libraries. She is an editor for Cease, Cows and her writing has appeared or is forthcoming at Atticus Review, Lockjaw, Necessary Fiction, Split Lip, and many other venues. Her flash fiction “Marriage” was chosen for The Best Small Fictions 2015. Yes, you CAN say Jancewicz: Yahnt-SEV-ich. More at: http://annajancewicz.wordpress.com/