Reads: 117

Funny thing about the family farm, it’s not so much a place of orchards and livestock, but more of a sprawling old estate that houses the coffins of every single family member for six generations.  Rumor has it my grandparents were approached about selling, and the reply was enough that no one save those invited ever drove down the long, winding driveway just outside of the mainstream Willamette Valley.  My finances had been hard pressed to make room for the trip, but one of the small benefits in my life was a car that was a gas saver.  I had tentatively racked up a few more points on my remaining credit card and driven the four hours south in a search for answers. 

The family was one of the first to settle in the Oregon Territory.  They’d been driven to wander, and had stopped when the country did.  Ever since, the deceased had been lining up the family crypt, and if anyone had ever been brave enough to venture back, they probably would have begged to use the sprawling estate for Halloween parties.  As it was, the mist liked to linger, and if I hadn’t been used to it since childhood, I would have felt a shiver as I drove to the grand house.  Assorted family milled about, but no one gave much notice to my arrival.  I didn’t care, I wasn’t there to talk to any of them.  Instead, I got out of my economy vehicle and headed off towards the one person I trusted for answers.

“Hello Morrigan,” my grandmother greeted me calmly.  She appeared to have been expecting me.  Maybe she was, who knew.

“Hey, Grandma.”

“What’s the rush?”  She was an odd offshoot of the main family line and had spent her childhood in the South.  To her dying day she maintained a faint drawl and an air of casual nonchalance that most of  my backwoodsman cousins found annoying.  My father had similarly been from the reaches of the deep South.  I had found her mannerisms comforting.

“Well, you know, time is of the essence.”

“Since when?  Last time I checked, you were the greatest wanderer of us all.”

“Since when?” I ask in surprise.  “Have you looked around lately?”  With a wave, I indicated the expanse of graves she now called home.  A few other relatives, not quite ready to resign to the afterlife, floated around with reproachful looks. 

“Death is hardly a reason to rush, Morrigan,” she replies with a few words to the other ghosts.  Even dead and gone, she knew how to calm the masses.  I am fairly certain the dead have always outnumbered the living at the family farm.

“I’m not dead yet,” I point out. 

“True.”

“And I gave up wandering when you passed on,” I can’t keep the bite out of my words.  I try, the bitterness that has been eroding my soul for years tastes so horrible when it comes out my mouth in large doses.

“Oh, I hadn’t considered that.  You certainly haven’t been here.  I simply thought you’d kept trekking.”

Much I loved the woman, sometimes even I could be driven to exasperated limits.  At the last minute, though, I notice that we’re about to get company, and I hold off on my first response.  It would have taken too long to wind back down.  “Nope, no money to travel any longer.  Decided it was best if I went back to school, maybe do something productive with my life.”

“No money? I left you most of my estate.”

“Yes, and I do thank you, but I don’t want to spend it all and be completely broke before I’m forty.  So, you know, school.”

“I hadn’t even thought about that,” she says, and I realize she hadn’t.  “Well, good for you, my dear, but why the rush back here?”

“Because I finally found what happened to my heart.”

“You found it?” she asks, her whole body shimmering with excitement.  “But where?”

“Chas’s daughter.”

“I beg your pardon?”

I sigh, of course no one would understand.  “She has it on a charm bracelet.  He left it to her before he died.”

“He died?  Dear me, you should have come back and told me sooner.”

“Why?” I can’t help but feel suspicious, and she only answers in low mutters.  I’m doomed, and I know it, especially as my Aunt Ruby arrives.  Grandma looks over at her, and I can tell that there is something terribly wrong, and that they’re still going to treat me like a child whose parents died in a car crash when she was thirteen.

“Morrigan has found her heart, and it’s as we believed.  It’s taken physical form.”

“But then where is her soul?” asks my Aunt Ruby, completely ignoring me.

“It has to be in my belongings,” replies Grandma.  “I never would have thought to look for it.  But it’s the only thing that would make sense.”

“Time out,” I say before they can really get going.  From personal experience, I know how hard it is to get a word in edgewise.  “You said I would be able to find my heart if I was lucky.  No one ever said anything about losing my soul too.”

Aunt Ruby takes pity on me.  She can touch me, so she comes over to place a comforting hand on my shoulder while Grandma looks on.  “It doesn’t always happen, but when it does…these things always happen in pairs.”

“This has happened before?” I ask in growing horror.

“But of course.  We warned you when you when you were a child…”

“Don’t say I told you,” I warn her.  “Or I’m getting back in my car and I’m driving until I run out of gas.”

“Morrigan…” she pauses.  “Very well.  Mother?  Can you make it to the house?”

“Of course I can make it to the house.  I’m dead, but I’m not gone.”  She huffs and leads the way, her feet never once touching the ground.  As we reach the front steps, I can quite help but groan as I count no less than four cousins.  They finally decide to acknowledge my presence with calls in varying degrees.

“If it isn’t Wednesday,” says the nearest one, Paris – Ruby’s youngest.  “What brings you to our end of the world, cuz?”

“Dinner,” I reply sarcastically.  He pauses, and his brother, Hector stops his own greeting to stare at me.

“Seriously?”

“No, not seriously,” I reply.  “But if you’re offering.”

“Go check on your dad,” says Aunt Ruby before we can instigate any further.  While it had been my grandmother who had the majority of the responsibilities of raising me as a teen, the times hadn’t been without the formation of sibling issues between me and my cousins.  The boys were the easy targets, and we all knew it was done in fun – the girls…at least Juno didn’t take herself too seriously.  Hecate on the other hand…Hector and Paris ran off to do as they were bid, both throwing glances over their shoulders at me – clearly telling me we weren’t done yet.

Grandma continued to lead the way to her old room.  From the looks of it, one of my cousins had moved in, and from the looks on my grandmother’s face, she was less than pleased by this development.  Still, there were cardinal rules never to be breached in our family, and we all knew that if something was in a black box, we didn’t touch it.  I’m not talking metaphorical either, each family member for generations carried a black box around with them.  Mine was still here, in the attic no doubt collecting cobwebs and dust.  Grandma pointed regally at it, and Aunt Ruby moved to drag it into the center of the room. 

“Morrigan, open it,” Grandma commanded.  No one argued with her, even dead as she was, when she used that tone.  I was no different.  Getting down on hands and knees, I spun the little knob that kept it locked until the combo lined up with an audible click.  Glancing at her, I waited for her nod before pushing it open.  My first thought had to be along the lines of what a collection – there was a wealth of jewels, deeds, and other forms of monetary stability.  I suppose, as her main heir, it was largely mine, but since the family didn’t like to talk about the fact that I had jumped the line in the inheritance game, I didn’t touch anything that looked like it could add to my retirement plan.  Instead, I let myself be drawn to the shimmering bracelet at the very bottom.  Pulling it up, I marveled at the glow, and my fingers found four charms, linked together that made me remember my childhood.

“Your parents,” supplied Grandma.  “Your mother gave your father everything, and he in return. When they died, they didn’t want to leave you with nothing – and that thought became tangible.”

“Their hearts and souls?” I ask, trying for sarcasm but failing miserably.

“Yes.  This was your charm bracelet once, Morrigan.”

“I remember,” I whisper, but even as I do, my fingers continue to wander until I find the charm that calls me the most.  “But I have my soul,” I say aloud.

“Whenever the heart is lost, the soul must be protected.  Take it with you, there is bound to be a chain in there to wear.  You cannot lose both, but you’ll need one to reunite with the other.”

I cross my legs, tongue between my teeth as I wiggle with the clasps of various bits of jewelry until I have my soul on its own chain.  I chose a long chain, and I slip it over my head before tucking it away.  I’d have preferred if Aunt Ruby hadn’t stayed around, but beggars can’t be choosers.  “So what now?” I ask them both.

“Are you willing to listen?” asks my aunt.

Grandma wisely decides to just tell me.  “You know where your heart is, yes?”

“Yeah, it’s on the wrist of a five year old in Olympia.”

“It cannot be taken by force,” cautions my grandmother.  “It has to be given back.”

“But it’s mine,” I argue.

“It was freely given.”

“Damn.  So, I need Emily to give me my heart back. Then what?”

“Then you have to make sure you never lose them again.”

“That’s it?  After all these years of telling me about the family ‘tradition’, and suddenly you’re going to just clam up?”

“You never listened before.” My aunt just can’t give this up.

“Because it was a load of crap to be told to a thirteen year old!” I shout, bounding to my feet in a surprisingly graceful move. “It was something you told me right after I’d just lost my parents – whom I loved – as a way to make me understand that the world was not always a beautiful place.  I thought you were just lying to make me sleep at night.”

“Was that before or after your parents started reading to you?” Damn my grandmother for always knowing how to cut into my diatribes.

“Before.  You told me the day they died.  My dad showed up three days after, my mom a week later.”  I can’t look at either.  Instead, I go to the window and stare out at the vast expanse of tombs. Somewhere out there, and I know exactly wehre, my parents heart and souls are at peace.  When I was fifteen, they had left – knowing I was as balanced as I was going to be.  That thought triggers something in me, and I turn back to my grandmother.  “Why are you still here?”

“Morrigan!” admonishes my aunt, but I’m an adult, and I’ve never been great at listening to her anyway.  Instead, I keep steady eye contact of the pearly figure in front of me.

“I would think that would be quite obvious.”

“Because of me.”

“Because of you.”

“Alright, you have my attention.  Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?  Should I sit?  Get comfortable?”

“Morrigan,” warns my grandmother.  “No one has to tell you anything.”

“True,” I agree.  “My bad.”  As far as apologies go, it’s nothing, but both women share a glance and decide to let it slide.  They wait patiently, no doubt expecting more, but for a change, I actually am willing to listen.  I can’t let the surprise show, and I bury it beneath three decades of well practiced sarcasm.  “Ready when you are.”

Aunty Ruby sighs, and turns to Grandma. “do you want the honors?

“Why don’t you go down and have someone find her black box?  She’ll be wanting to take it back, and I think I know how long her attention will last.”

“Better than the rest of us,” mutters Aunt Ruby.  She can’t quite help but frown at me, shaking her head all the way back out of the room.

“Why do you do that? Still?” she asks me as the door closes behind my aunt.

“Do what?” I ask, making myself comfortable on the floor.

“Antagonize.  You’re still a teenager in so many ways.”

I shrug, even though the words sting.  “What do you want me to say?  She used to tell me that it was a good thing you got me when my parents died.  Who tells a kid that?”

I can tell I’ve surprised her.  She looks at the now closed door with something like frustration.  “Who does?” she echoes.  “Are you truly willing to listen to me?”

“Yes – but just out of curiosity, did anyone try and tell me after I was thirteen?”

She frowns at me, as if considering the last eighteen years of our lives.  “I don’t know,” she says slowly.  “Surely…at some point.”

“Well, let’s just go on faith that someone tried, but let’s also establish that telling a grieving teenager is a really terrible time.”

“So it was.  Now do me a favor, Morrigan, and shut up, or I’m never going to get this through your obstinate head.”

“Ouch,” I mutter, but I hold up my hands to let her know I’m done.  She waits me out, and I have to cave.  “Sorry.”

“Well, it’s as much an apology as anyone ever gets from you these days.  But we have all been a little harsh, I think, in forgetting our own past…As far back as anyone in our family can remember, we have always been connected to the afterlife.  Our ancestors, especially the women, were often mistaken for witches for their ability to speak to the dead.”

“But I don’t speak to the dead.”

“Am I living?”

“I meant outside the family.”

“That’s because you won’t listen.  Now, stop interrupting.  The first known case of a heart being lost was in my great-great-great grandmother, and, in a way, your namesake.  Morgana was one of seven children, and the first to find happiness in the New World, but when her husband died shortly after the birth of their first child, she was devastated.  She left home, with her son, and started out west.  My great-great grandfather continued to the trend, moving when she did, but he, too, lost his wife young.  It seems that when a loved one is lost, the need to travel is increased, until only the edge of the world can satisfy us.  My great-great grandfather was the one who made it to Oregon before the rush.  He and his three children built this house, and each, in turn loved and lost.  The heart, when it was lost, could not be regained, but my great-aunt lost the man she loved – or thought she did – in World War I.  when he returned, he bore a charm that held her heart in it.  She was one of the few cases of a happy ending.”

“So…the first case of an actual charm was in the 20s?”

“Family lore traces them back to the Old World.  There are tales that speak of our connection to the afterlife being through our hearts.  But it was my great-aunt who gave us all the proof that a scientific mind needs to finally accept what has long been known as fact.”

“So, my great-great aunt is who turned myth into something the rest of you believe?”

“Don’t you now?”

I thought of the feeling I’d had when Emily put her hand in mine, and even my own doubts crumbled.  “You told me when you took me to Europe that it was time I wandered.  You knew, didn’t you?”

“Yes.  I recognized the wild light in your eyes that I had when your grandfather vanished.  Our family has always been driven to travel to the furthest reaches when we lose our hearts, and we are left will little else until we can find it again.”

“But you managed twenty years without him.”

“Because I had you.  I cared for more than just your grandfather, and so my entire heart was not lost to him.  Enough of it was lost that I was forced to wander, but not enough that I was lost.”

“But…” I frown as my mind tries to come to grips with the affirmation of what I’ve been slowly coming to believe over the last few years.  “I care for you.  I guess, in a way, I care for the rest of my family.”

“You lost me too, darling.  And I think, more than anything, that is why your soul is now a trinket too.  You put so much store on so few people, that to lose so many at once…I was lucky.  I had you, your mother and father for a few years, your aunt and her massive brood, that I was never completely alone.  Tell me, Rigan, who do you have?”

I startle at her use of my nickname.  No one in my family called me Rigan.  My mother had been dead set against anything similar to Reagan, and even though it was pronounced oddly, Ree-gan, and besides the fact that it had been my dad to coin it, the family simply used my entire name or called me Wednesday.  “I don’t know,” I say at last. 

She nods, as if she was expecting my answer.  “You have your soul now, take it with you back to Olympia and see if this child will part with your heart.”

Even though she’s telling me a perfectly logical course of action, I’m suddenly overwhelmed by the emptiness that is my life.  I want to cry, but tears have been absent for years.  I look up to see her watching me with concern.  “What if I don’t want to be on this plane any longer?” I whisper.  “Didn’t you once say there was a way to cross over?”

“You remember that?” she asks, but there is fear in her tone. 

“Isn’t there?” I press, suddenly filled with burning hot purpose that makes me tingle.  “If my heart and soul are combined, and the veil is lifted, can’t I cross?”

“Morrigan, there is no way back from that.”

“I don’t care.  You’re gone!  My parents are gone. And now I find out that Chas is too.  Everyone I have ever truly loved has left me.  Why can’t I be with the rest of you? Why can’t I be happy?”

But I have clearly crossed over to a level that she’s not prepared to follow.  The fear is palpable, even I can feel it and I’m the one proposing the crazy idea.  I suppose it must be akin to suicide, but I’m not ending my life.  I’m simply taking myself to another plane of existence.  The afterlife is hardly a warm and inviting place, but I know my parents are there.  I know that if I cross over, my grandmother would follow.  And if I could only find Chas…

“Morrigan, I want you to promise me something.” I look up, nearly jumping out of my skin to find my grandmother right in front of me.  Her pale hands come to frame my face and it feels like ice.  I can’t breathe, and fear has stopped my heart, but she certainly has my attention. 

“What?”

“You are not to cross over until you know, without a shred of doubt, that there is nothing for you here.  The afterlife is not a better place, and you only exist there for as long as someone remembers you.  If you leave here, your existence is not guaranteed there.  Your happiness is not guaranteed.  Do you understand me?”

Slowly, I nod, and she releases me.  My breathing comes in gulps, and I’m shaking like a leaf.  “Would I become a ghost? Or would every bit of contact feel like that?” I ask.

“I don’t know.  To be honest, so few have every chosen to cross over, I’ve only ever known one.”

“Who?”

But she shakes her head emphatically, and when she looks back at me there is a fire in her eyes that keeps me silent.  “Do not think for a second that we are the only ones who can speak to the dead.  You may be rare, but you are not alone.  And to flaunt such a gift is to bring those who would use it unwisely.  Promise me, Morrigan.”

“I promise,” I reply, still mildly terrified by the last few seconds of my life.  She seems to accept my words, hell, I did too.  I had never given consideration to much of anything, but at that exact moment my mind was torn.  The promise of being with those I loved was enough to eat away at my crumbling soul.  Absently, I touch my chain that now holds me.  But I can’t shake the terror of my grandmother, either, and as I slowly get to my feet, I have to think that maybe I don’t want to die at all.  She looks over at me, and her whole being shimmers.

“I think dinner is ready.”

It’s all she says for over a minute, as I continue to struggle to come to grips with my life.  But slowly, feeling returns, and slower still, I go down for whatever my uncle has prepared.  As I sit down with my family, I watch as she floats back to her gravestone, and the twin desires at war in my mind flare to life again.  I loved her – more than nearly anyone – she had been friend and family for over half my life.  I could be with her again, but then I remember what it felt like to be touched, and I can’t stop the shiver of fear.  For the first time in a very long while, I have to wonder just what I’m willing to do for love.  What is anyone willing to do?  Without a heart to call upon, though, I’m left with the sound of crickets mocking me.  Or that could be the fact that I left the window open before going to bed. 

 

 


Submitted: March 11, 2021

© Copyright 2023 L.E. Gibler. All rights reserved.

Chapters