Mother-dearest poured the hot chocolate with the powder into the boiling water and the water stopped boiling. It was her trick that she wanted the children to see. Magic, illumination, and reverence. She intoned, “See? Grandmother stopped the water from boiling.” Mother-dearest had mixed Grandmother’s ashes into the hot cocoa mix, so you really couldn’t see the grays from the browns and wouldn’t want to anyway.
Grandmother wasn’t pretty when she was so far dead. She looked like dirt. But it was only polite to wave into the pan and say, “Grandmother, how lovely to see you again,” and blow her a kiss (better than her puffy old cheek any day).
The table, chrome edged with a yellow top, soon held six cups, like when they dyed Easter eggs. One for each color, one for each child, one for each spirit, one for each egg, one for Jesus crying, one for Jesus kissing, one for Jesus carrying his cross, one for the blood of Jesus, one for Jesus climbing the cross of his own accord, one for Jesus behind the rock playing hide and seek with Mary, leaving his shroud. There were six special cups. There was no cup for praying; the praying came from Mother-dearest, standing over her brood, telling them when to be grateful and when to ask for mercy. And when to drink. “Drink, children, drink now, while she’s hot and properly mixed.” If you waited too long, the cocoa would settle, with Grandmother’s ashes, into the bottom of the cup, and you’d have to scrape her out with a spoon. It was sweet and gritty then. That’s why they drank Grandmother’s ashes. A pill, coated in peanut butter.
All five children reached for their cups, and Mother-dearest as well. Papa wouldn’t drink. It wasn’t his mother. He didn’t much care for her.
Prudence took the pink Easter egg cup with the top-hat bunny, her long hair pulled back in a bow and her I’m a Good Helper apron over her funeral dress. Horace took the blue cup with the squiggles and the tiny worm-like crack and his eyes kept darting at his brother and sisters, just in case. He’d never drank anyone before. And if he didn’t have to, he’d rather not start. Petunia and Lucinda took their cups (orange and yellow, butterflies and flowers, and Big Foot in a forest) without questioning; they just wanted the melted chocolate and wouldn’t remember Grandmother by the end of the week. There were thousands of imaginary fairies and talking twigs to take her place. Littlest Nathaniel reached for the black cup and Mother-dearest took gold.
But where was the silver cup? Papa’s special cup. The cup that said Papa in glittering letters as if he were the most special man in this known world.
Papa would not get Grandmother’s special care, from deep inside, if he didn’t drink. She might even hex him, from the beyond, for not sucking up his pettiness.
Of course, Grandmother (though no one would ever dare slander her aloud) was the one who poked him and said rude things. She had quite the tongue. It was fat and faintly purple, with thousands of bumps and one smooth ridge. No matter what Papa did, she always went contrary. Papa was the one who had tried. Grandmother, dearest. She smacked him for trying to Dearest her. He built her house, tended her chickens, cut the heads from her turkeys, sired her grandchildren, and dug her grave.
But, you know, it’s how you act after someone has passed (like drinking their ashes) that’s most important, not how you are to their face. Face to face, you don’t call your mother-in-law a hag; that would upset the wife. It’s tougher, once the dead are buried, to make time to visit the grave and dig out the parasites, pull the weeds, particularly the witchweed that always sprung up from the graves of difficult women.
Witchweed, dearest, and a missing silver Easter egg cup. It didn’t take a saint to count to seven, to see the missing bits of the rainbow, and to open a mouth. The littlest child was always the stupidest, and this one asked, “What about Papa?”
“There’s not enough to share with Papa,” Mother-dearest said. She said it like he was halfway to Hell and strewing his seeds along the way.
“Then I’ll share mine.” Nathaniel hopped off his vinyl chair to force his own father to drink the bitterness of pride.
Mother-dearest panicked. “Sit!” It didn’t take a woman five children to see her mother’s wicked nature. Drink the woman; do not cross her.
“But if Papa’s already going to Hell when he dies, I don’t want him to go there while he’s alive, too, and you know what Grandmama will do to him.”
Mother-dearest raised her face to the cross nailed over the kitchen door: Protect My Family. “There’s nothing to be done for him.”
Again with the stupid child who believed good about everyone, including his own father, the man who could split logs with one chop and wore a belt with a vicious buckle. “Then I’ll lay down my life for him.”
“Someone’s gotta do it, Mama.”
What do you tell a kid who’s being sweetness itself? Nothing. Not when you’d want him to lay down his life for you, too.
Nathaniel ran off with his little black cup to find Papa out by the barn killing something for dinner and licking the splattered blood off his lips. The screen door slammed definitively. The separation of good and evil.
“Stupid Wart,” Horace muttered after his brother, and Prudence took it upon her young maternal instincts to smack him.
Mother-dearest got out the spoons and handed them around to the children who had waited until the drink was cool and the silt had settled. “Stir. Stir and stir, and if that’s not enough, you’ll have to scoop her out. Don’t waste her. You know what will happen if you pour even one iota of your grandmother down the drain.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Children in chorus. They knew all too well. Grandmother wasn’t easy to please, but she was easy to annoy, be it spinning tops, the clack of marbles, or the mud left over from a water fight—a fight that always started off so clean. Too bad nothing ever stayed that way.
In the barn, Papa wept, as if he had something in his eye, and Nathaniel felt a peace that came only when the wicked had been swept off the game board and all was right in the world.
It only took two weeks for peace to break. Nathaniel, known as Wart when the parents weren’t there to eavesdrop manners, clutched his stomach and fell off the bed he shared with his brother. “She’s got me!” he screamed. He rolled around on the floor. “She’s eating me from the inside!”
“No, she’s not, stupid!” Horace yelled, throwing things off the bed.
The three girls ran over from the room they shared across the hall. Petunia started to scream, her chore as youngest girl. Prudence went to fetch a garbage can, just in case, and middle Lucinda hopped from foot to foot.
Horace backed away from the bed into the deepest part of the corner. He pressed himself back against the rough wood of the paneled closet door, almost like he could see his grandmother, returned to them, swirling around. She’d been the type to laugh when people died and say she’d been praying for it for years.
Nathaniel kicked around on the floor and finally Prudence threw her head back and let out a long howl.
Mother-dearest and Papa stopped by to say, “What’s with the noise?” and to offer their two cents. Horace ducked. The air went hot and cold. With seven people yelling, whimpering, sniffling, and vomiting in the small attic bedroom, there would have been no room for any other except a ghost.
“Don’t touch the bed.”
“Get some rags.”
“Fetch the ice.”
You just didn’t say things, in that family, like: Don’t worry, darling, it’ll be all right. You hopped to, you got stuff done, and when the youngest child died in your arms, you did not cry. After all, you were blessed with four others.
But that was how they all found out that Papa, his head bowed against the low slant of the ceiling, was going straight to Hell, and that there was nothing anyone could do about it. Grandmother would make sure it was so, no matter what.
They kept Nathaniel’s ashes until what would have been his sixth birthday. He’d been too young to drink at five, and there was only enough of him to share between his parents. The weeds grew extra strong that summer, higher than a mule and with a kick twice as hard. Mother-dearest poured the instant coffee into the little black mug her youngest had favored and she mixed his ashes into it. It was harder to hide the ashes in coffee, so smooth they floated around in a whirl and got caught in the teeth on the way down. But it was pleasant to drink on the back porch with the setting sun, hot enough to bring out a second sweat while the first still dripped into the collar.
Papa came up the back porch stairs, kicking mud and weeds from his boots, shaking it through the slats in the porch floor. “Make me a cup, will you?” It was only the second time he’d agreed to drink someone’s essence, and his son gave him heartburn. He sat on the porch swing with Mother-dearest and took the silver mug. A cup of coffee with a sprinkle of Wart, witchweed clinging to Papa’s socks, they would do what they could, as a family, to protect each other, the living, the dead, and the ashes of the in between.
* * * * *
Dawn Wilson dabbles inside the (relatively) dark forest of kitsch, surrealism, and espieglerie while wearing various pieces of the kitchen silverware. A recent graduate of the Bath Spa University MA in Creative Writing in Bath, England, she is at work on a madcap novel. Her work is forthcoming in Rabbit Catastrophe Review and Liquid Imagination, and has already appeared in Shoots and Some of Its Parts. Her contributions to Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.