My grandmother was a witch.
By saying this I do not mean she was cold-hearted, or evil, or even that she treated me poorly. She was a wonderfully sweet woman, with a mild temper and an adoration for all children; especially me. But, she was a witch. An honest-to-goodness, black cauldron stirring, incantation reciting, spell casting witch.
I did not know this growing up. I heard rumors, and my parents occasionally made comments about her when they thought I wasn’t listening, but I never understood the significance of what they were saying. To me she was just Grandma. Even when I would go visit – which was quite often – she never said or did anything I would consider out of the ordinary. She did typical Grandma stuff. She baked cookies, took me out to movies, and bought me gifts for no reason other than that I was her favorite grandson. To be absolutely honest, I was her only grandson, but that distinction is meaningless to a child. The long and short of it was I loved her, and she spoiled me rotten.
When I stayed with her I always had the most amazing time, and she would let me do just about anything I wanted, short of injuring myself or burning down the house. I went to bed late, got up at noon, ate junk food all day long, and did all the things I could never get away with at home. There were almost no rules to follow. In fact, there were only two rules that mattered. First, I was not permitted to go into the basement. Second, and most importantly, I must never touch my grandmother’s garden.
I thought this a bit odd in the beginning, particularly the fact I could not go into her garden, since she spent a great deal of her time there. But neither of these restrictions were too onerous and, after my initial pangs of curiosity had ebbed, I soon shut both places completely out of my mind. With so many other bits of mischief for me to get into, I could leave the basement and the garden alone if that made her happy and kept me in her good graces.
The first time I truly understood what my grandmother was, and what she could do, was when I was thirteen years old. That year, my parents sent me away to live with my grandmother for the summer. I had never before been away from home for so long, but my mom and dad were in the middle of a personal crisis and needed some time alone to deal with their own problems.
My mom sat me down to talk to me before I left. With a straight face she told me they were having “marital difficulties,” like I hadn’t guessed that already from the constant yelling and arguing, and the fact that dad slept in the living room on the couch more often than he slept in the bedroom with mom. She said that a counselor had recommended they spend some time apart, but they didn’t want me to get caught in the middle or feel like I had to choose sides, so they were sending me to Grandma’s. I guess they figured it would be too hard on my fragile, underdeveloped psyche to see them separated. That, or else having a teenage boy underfoot was an added stress they were not prepared to handle on top of the other issues with which they were wrestling.
I know they had the best of intentions for me, but as much as I normally enjoyed spending time with my grandmother it still felt like I was being banished. So, without any say in the matter, I went to live with Grandma.
The first week away from home passed slowly. My grandmother did everything she could think of to keep me entertained. She cooked my favorite foods, bought me a new MP3 player so I could listen to music, and tried to include me as much as possible in her everyday routine. She even offered to teach me to drive, but all I wanted to do was sulk. I sat around the house for hours watching TV and obsessing over how my parents wanted nothing to do with me. I imagined they must have hated me quite a lot to send me away for the entire summer. It wasn’t true, and deep down I knew that their problems had nothing to do with me, but that did not change how I felt at the time. I continued to mope and ignore every effort my grandmother made to cheer me up.
One morning during the second week of my stay, my grandmother sat down next to me on the couch. She pretended to watch TV with me while she absently stroked the wrinkles out of the hand-crocheted covers draped across the back and arms of the sofa.
“You know, Jason,” she said after a few silent minutes had passed between us, “I need to do some yard work out in the garden today. I know you’re very busy in here, but I was wondering if, perhaps, you would like to give me a hand.”
Well, now this was interesting. I had never before been permitted to go anywhere near her garden. Despite my best efforts to remain depressed and sullen, I was immediately intrigued. I tried to sound nonchalant as I answered. No thirteen-year old wants to admit that he is actually excited about something an adult suggested. “I suppose I could. If you want me to.” My heart beat faster, and I know she heard the excitement in my voice, but she did not let on. She merely stood up and held her hand out to me.
“Thank you. I really could use the help today. I have let the poor thing go much too long without the proper care.”
That was a lie and we both knew it. She had the most perfectly tended garden I had ever seen. I am sure she would sooner have allowed the house to collapse around her than to permit the slightest neglect or harm to come to her plants and flowers. But just as she pretended not to notice my own growing eagerness, I could ignore her little white lie for the sake of kindness. I stood up, took her hand and let her lead me into the back yard.
Though I had seen her garden many times before, it still amazed me anew each time I gazed upon the perfect, unspoiled beauty of it. It covered over three thousand square feet of ground, taking up a large part of her yard. Six fruit trees bordered the north edge, lined up along her property at the furthest point away from the house. There were two orange trees, one lemon, one pear and two apple. Currently, the branches of the pear tree hung heavy with almost ripe fruit. The other trees also were heavy laden, but their fruit was still small and green and would not be ready to eat until late into the fall or early winter.
To the east, several dense rows of corn flourished, several feet high already, but not yet topped by the shimmering gold tassels that decorated fully mature plants. Shorter bushes and stalks of various plants such as tomatoes, peas, bell peppers, bush beans, and a dozen others filled out most of the rest of the available space. There were a few bare patches of ground as well that I knew from past experience would soon hold sprawling vines of various winter squash that my grandmother harvested and stored in her root cellar to consume and share with the neighbors throughout the cold months of the year. There would be spaghetti squash, butternut squash, acorn squash, and even a few pumpkin vines, planted to produce their huge orange gourds just in time for Halloween.
Every row of plants had their own wood or plastic markers identifying what grew there, and the entire expanse was interlaced with watering hoses that ran to innumerable sprinkler heads and drip lines. It seemed impossible that one person could maintain such an immense and flawless yard, yet my grandmother was the only person I had ever known to so much as touch a single plant growing in this protected space.
I paused outside the tiny, wooden picket fence that surrounded the garden, savoring the moment. The fence was only three feet high, and the gate was never locked. The fact that no one ever entered the garden was testimony to the respect people had for my grandmother rather than any security protocols she had put into effect. I flipped up the latch on the gate and, with a last glance at my grandmother to make certain she had not changed her mind, I stepped through onto the dark fertile soil.
As excited as I was to finally be in the garden, I was equally nervous. I felt like a child in a shop full of delicate glass figurines. I slipped my hands in my pockets for fear I might touch something I shouldn’t. Staying close to the fence, I stepped out of the way of the gate so my grandmother could follow me in.
“What do I do first?” I asked her. “What does the garden need today?”
“Today, we are pulling weeds. They are starting to grow a bit thick around my artichoke bushes and I don’t want them choking the roots.”
I opened my mouth to protest. I had never seen a weed growing in her garden. I figured that just as my grandmother had never allowed people inside her fence, weeds were equally forbidden. And no weed would dare intrude against my grandmother’s wishes. But I didn’t say anything. I closed my mouth, the words unspoken, and followed her to a raised planting bed on the east side, next to the orderly rows of corn stalks. In the bed were three artichoke plants, each about two feet tall and just as wide. And to my great surprise, surrounding those plants was a carpet of Bermuda grass and flowering weeds.
“Do you know the difference between a weed and an artichoke?” my grandmother asked.
“Uh-huh,” I said, nodding.
“Good. Then get to work.” With that, she knelt down beside the planter box and began to pull at the stubborn grasses that had invaded her yard. After a moment, I dropped onto my knees and joined her.
It was hard work, but I did not shirk my responsibility. I still felt the honor of having been allowed inside the boundaries of the garden fence and I did not want to give my grandmother any excuse to rescind the privilege. I kept my head down and my hands busy.
An hour passed in this manner. When we were done, my grandmother stood up, placing her hands to her back and stretching to work the kinks out. I followed her example. I was sweating, and my back had grown fatigued from the hunched over position we had maintained during our labors. In addition, my hands and fingers had grown cramped and sluggish from the tedious work of grabbing each individual weed and ripping it from the ground, roots and all.
“I think that is enough for today,” my grandmother told me, admiring our handiwork. With all the weeds eradicated, the planter box now looked as immaculate as the rest of the garden. “The goal is just do a little bit every day, that way you never fall behind.”
I silently agreed with her. Not necessarily the little bit every day part, but certainly the ‘enough for today’ part. “What are we doing tomorrow?” I asked her. “In the garden, I mean.”
“I think it’s time for the squash to go in,” she told me.
The next day, we attacked the open areas of the garden with shovels, hoes, and rakes, preparing the area for planting. The day after that, my grandmother produced several trays of seedlings she had sprouted in biodegradable cups before I came to visit. We took each seedling in its cup and placed them in neat, careful rows, far enough apart that they would not need to compete with one another for water or sunlight.
On day four, my grandmother brought out a ladder and several buckets. We harvested pairs and placed them in the root cellar to allow them to finish ripening off of the tree.
It was day five when I got into trouble.
We were back in the garden and my grandmother was kneeling beside a row of green beans, repairing one of the watering lines. The black, plastic hose had grown brittle from exposure to sunlight and the heat, and it had finally cracked, causing a sizeable leak. While she worked to replace the damaged portion of hose, I wandered away to see if any of the other hoses looked similarly weathered and in need of repair.
As I reached the center of the garden, an area I had not previously been in, I observed a single rose bush growing by itself. The bush was small, only coming up to my knees, but it was full, green and vibrant. There were several small red buds that I could see growing on the bush, but they were nowhere close to being ready to open. At the very top, however, I saw a single rose growing on a stem that extended several inches above the rest of the bush. It was fully bloomed, perfect in form, and glowing bright crimson in the sunlight. I could find no blemishes of any kind on the petals or the leaves around it. I also noticed there weren’t any thorns on the stem.
I did not want to just walk away from the rose, to let it wither and die unnoticed by anyone. It should be enjoyed by as many people as possible while it was at the height of its fragile beauty, I thought. So, I decided to pick it and bring it to my grandmother.
I broke the rose off as close to the main part of the bush as possible, preserving as much of the stem as I could. Then, pleased with myself for my consideration of others, I carried my prize to my grandmother.
The look of horror on her face as I presented it to her haunts me still.
“Jason, what have you done?” she asked, rising to her feet and dropping the length of dripline she had been holding. “Did you find that on the ground, or did you pick it?”
The smile that had been on my face moments before was gone, replaced by an expression of sick dread. “I found a rose bush in the middle of the garden. I picked this for you.”
“Come with me,” she said. She grabbed my arm and ran with me toward the house.
Her grip around my wrist was painful. At first, I thought it was because she was angry with me, she was taking me inside to punish me. I soon understood it was not anger in her heart, but fear. She muttered to herself as we ran, condemning her carelessness and berating herself for allowing this to happen. Although I did not know exactly what she was referring to, I knew something bad had occurred. With a cold dread in the pit of my stomach, I kept quiet and tried to keep up with her panicked flight.
We entered the house, whereupon my grandmother ran to one of the kitchen cabinets, threw the cupboard door open, and pulled down a baking powder tin where I knew she often kept small amounts of cash. She snapped open the tin and removed a one-dollar bill.
My grandmother turned to face me directly. “Jason, I want you to wish for a dollar.”
“What?” I asked, not understanding what she was asking me to do.
“Hold the rose out in your hands, and wish for a dollar,” she repeated.
I held out both of my hands, holding them together like a bowl with the rose nestled in the middle. The stem protruded downward through the gap between my cupped palms. “Like this?” I asked.
“That’s fine. Now make the wish I told you to make.”
“I wish for a dollar,” I said, solemnly. My grandmother’s panic was infecting me to the point that my hands had begun to shake, but I still felt vaguely foolish as I spoke the wish.
As soon as the words were out of my mouth, the perfect red rose I held in my hands wilted and shriveled until it was a pile of dried, brown petals. Shocked, I stepped back and dropped it to the floor. My grandmother reached down to take my left hand. She placed the dollar bill she held into my palm and closed my fingers around it. Before I could ask what had just happened, she slapped me across the cheek, so hard it caused a ringing in my ear.
“Listen to me, Jason.” My grandmother grabbed me by my upper arms and made sure that I was looking at her. “You must never pick a rose from that bush. If you pick a rose from it, the bloom will stay as red and perfect as the day you picked it, until you make a wish. The rose will die, and your wish will be granted. That sounds wonderful, until you understand that every granted wish comes with a consequence equal to the magnitude of the wish that was made. The magic seeks its own equilibrium.”
She released me and pointed to the dollar in my hand. “A dollar is a tiny wish. It comes with a tiny consequence. When the consequences are tiny, sometimes they can be controlled. That’s why I slapped you. I decided on a consequence so that it would not occur randomly. Look at the rose.”
I glanced at the floor where I had dropped the dead flower. Instead of a brown, shriveled rose, I saw a small scattering of dirt.
“When you make a wish, the rose dies,” my grandmother continued. “When the magic has come back into balance, the rose becomes dust.”
I wish I had never found the rosebush. I understand its power now, but as a child I did not believe in magic, not really. So, I was skeptical. Although I took my grandmother’s warning seriously, I was not experienced enough to be properly afraid. All I knew for certain was that when I made a wish, the rose died. But for the rest of it … well, my grandmother had been the one to give me a dollar. And she was the one who slapped me. So, how was I to know for sure that the flower granted wishes, or that there were consequences if it did? Thirteen-year old boys are not generally known for taking things at their face value.
The next day, we were back in the garden. My grandmother was putting down fertilizer for the young squash plants while I did some weeding around the tomatoes. I was barefoot that day. I had discovered that the dark, fertile soil of the garden was incredibly soft, and it felt wonderful on my bare feet. I wasn’t worried about stepping on anything sharp, since any rocks or thorny weeds had long since been removed, thanks to my grandmother’s diligent care.
I finished my weeding and was making my way through the garden to see if my grandmother needed help with anything else. I passed the rosebush on my way. I saw that there was again one perfect red rose perched on a five-inch stem at the top of the bush. My grandmother was distracted and looking in the other direction as she worked. Without thinking, I plucked the rose from the bush.
“I wish for a bicycle,” I whispered, so I would not be overheard. I had wanted a new bike for some time, but my parents did not see why I needed one since I already had a bicycle that ‘worked perfectly fine.’ They disregarded my arguments that it was rusty, the brakes were bad, and worst of all, it was a girl’s bike. If you could sit on it and get from point A to point B, then they felt it was good enough.
The rose died in my hand, but nothing else happened. I waited a full minute, but a bicycle did not materialize out of the air or drop from the sky. I tossed the dead rose under the bush, not wanting to be seen with it, then, more than a little disappointed, started walking toward my grandmother. Something rough and pointed stabbed deep into my right foot. I hopped back and shouted in surprised pain. Dropping down onto the dirt, I grasped my foot in both hands so I could look at the bottom of it and examine the injury. I was bleeding. It wasn’t a serious cut, but it did hurt.
I glanced at the ground around me to see if I could find what had cut me, and discovered what looked like an orange and black stick protruding from the dirt a few inches from where I sat. I reached over and pulled at it, thinking to throw it away before someone else stepped on it, but as it came free of the ground I realized what it was. I had discovered a plastic bicycle, buried in the garden. It was orange, with black handlebars and black wheels, and the whole thing fit in the palm of my hand.
I didn’t look back, but I guessed that I would find only dirt under the bush where I had thrown the dead rose
“Are you okay,” asked my grandmother. She had heard me yell when I stepped on the toy bicycle and had come over to investigate. I slipped the bike into my pocket so she would not see it.
“Yeah,” I told her, standing back up. “I stepped on a stick and cut my foot a little. I’m okay. I’m just going to go in the house and look for a bandage.”
My grandmother nodded and brushed the dirt from her hands onto her gardening apron. “Alright. I guess we’re about done for today anyway. I’ll come in with you and make sure that cut doesn’t look too bad.”
Unhappy with the literal interpretation of my wish, I spent most of the rest of my afternoon thinking about how I should have phrased the request. I began to plan how I might get another opportunity to try. That night, after dinner, I offered to take the trash outside to the garbage cans. My grandmother, thinking only how considerate I was being, handed me the white plastic garbage bag from under the sink.
I ran outside, knowing my time was limited before she would start to wonder what was taking me so long. I tossed the bag into the garbage bin next to the house, then sprinted into the garden. I ran directly to the rose bush. Another perfect red rose awaited me, as if the bush knew I would be coming back to try again. I plucked the rose and held it up in my hands.
“I wish for a brand-new bicycle. A real bicycle that I can sit on and ride around wherever I want to go.” Then as an afterthought, I added, “A boy’s bike.”
The rose died in my hands. Nothing happened right away, and I couldn’t remain in the garden indefinitely, waiting for … I didn’t know what. I did not have the time. I tossed the dead flower under the bush, like I had done before, then raced back to the house.
The next morning, I woke, showered, dressed, and went outside to check the yard. I was disappointed to discover there was no brand-new bicycle waiting for me. I checked the garage and walked the entire perimeter of the house. I found nothing. Utterly dejected, I moped back into the house.
“I don’t have anything planned for today,” my grandmother told me when she saw me on the couch, halfheartedly watching one of the morning news shows on TV. “Why don’t you walk into town and see what’s going on? I’ll give you a little spending money so you can get something to eat while you’re there.”
I agreed. There wasn’t much point in hanging around the house. My grandmother lived pretty much in the middle of nowhere. She owned a five-acre plot of land, surrounded by a bunch of other people who owned similar plots. The ‘town’ she referred to was two blocks of buildings clustered together about four miles from her house. It was an hour on foot in each direction. Unless someone wanted to drive thirty miles out of their way, whatever stores, restaurants, or entertainments were available to the people in this community were found there.
“It would be a lot faster on a bike,” I muttered to myself.
I accepted my grandmother’s cash offering, and set off.
The walk was as uneventful as I expected and, an hour later, I pushed through the glass door of one of the two diners in town. I figured while I was here I would get myself a nice big breakfast since I hadn’t eaten anything before leaving my grandmother’s house. The first thing I noticed as I entered the diner was that there was a larger crowd inside than usual. All of the tables were occupied, and several people were standing around on the main floor chatting with one another. It appeared that most of the town had squeezed into the tiny restaurant that day.
The next thing that grabbed my attention was a shiny, red, cross-country bicycle set up on a table against the back wall. Above the bicycle was a sign that read:
GUESS HOW MANY JELLY BEANS IN THE JAR AND WIN A BICYCLE
No purchase necessary to play
I ran to the table. There was a one-gallon mason jar sealed with a metal lid and placed on the table beside the bike. The jar was full to the top with multi-colored jellybeans. Next to the jar was a cardboard box with a roughly cut slot on top and a handwritten note taped to the side that advised a winner would be announced at 10:00 AM on July 2.
Today was July second!
I looked at my watch. The digital display told me I had five minutes before the contest ended. Snatching one of the square sheets of paper provided for the purpose, I grabbed a snubby, golf-sized pencil off the table and wrote down a number. I then added my name and my grandmother’s address as contact information.
I folded the paper with my guess written on it and dropped it into the box. I stepped back just as a heavyset waitress in a pink apron brushed passed me and, with a wink in my direction, plucked up the box from the table. She carried it behind the diner’s main counter.
“Okay everyone, it’s time to take a look at the guesses and give away the bike.” The waitress smiled at the gathered crowd, popped the lid off of the box and dumped a mound of papers onto the counter. I could see this wasn’t exactly a formal process. “I happen to know that there are nine hundred and thirty-six jelly beans in that jar. Whoever gets closest to that number is walking out of here with that bicycle.’
She started sorting through the papers, setting one down in front of her and tossing aside others. Occasionally the paper in front of her would be swapped out as one with a closer guess took its place. At one point she held up a slip and shook it at the crowd.
“Who’s the Einstein that wrote, five?” She took another look at the paper. “Mitch, honey, if you’re here right now, you should be ashamed of yourself.” A ripple of laughter went through the crowd.
The waitress continued to sort and the pile of guesses yet to be checked grew smaller. “Barry? You guessed nine hundred and thirty-four. That might be a winner, honey.” She flipped through the last few slips and held one up. “Whoops! Nine hundred thirty-six on the button. Jason? Jason Rickard, are you here, baby? You just won yourself a bicycle!”
I won the bike. I was shocked, but then again, I wasn’t. As soon as she said the winning number, I knew I had won. But even before that, when I dropped the paper into the box, in the deepest part of my heart I knew that I would win. It was my wish, after all.
I showed the waitress my school ID card to prove to her that I was who I claimed to be, and she pulled the bicycle down from the table and presented it to me. It was that simple. Wish granted.
But as my grandmother had warned, magic comes with consequences. My victory was short lived.
I had only walked my new bike a few hundred feet down the street. I did not want to ride it on the sidewalk in town for fear of running into a pedestrian, and because I did not have a bike lock for it, I did not want to leave it outside while I was inside any of the stores. My plan was to walk it the couple blocks out of town, then ride home.
A hand I had not seen coming grabbed my shirt and jerked me into a recessed patio between two buildings. An older boy with blond hair, and an angry expression screwed onto his face, pushed me to the wall and pinned me there with his forearm. I guessed he was about seventeen. He was taller than I was and he outweighed me by at least thirty pounds.
“That’s my bike,” he said to me. “My dad told me how many beans he put in the jar, then told me to guess a couple off so it didn’t look suspicious. How did you know how many there were?”
“Are you Barry?” I asked.
Barry answered with his fists. I felt the first punch when it broke my nose. After that, the initial pain subsided into a throbbing numbness as he continued to rain blows into my face. I think he hit me five or six times. I can’t be certain as I believe I partially lost consciousness. The next thing I remember clearly was sitting on the ground, bleeding onto my shirt, and watching Barry ride away on the bicycle I had owned for all of three minutes.
Wish granted. Consequences done.
I ran home to my grandmother’s house, crying like a child half my age. Several times I sniffed and spat blood, trying to clear my nose enough to breathe, but it was useless. I was hurt, embarrassed, and angry. I hated that town and everyone in it. I hated Barry and I wished him dead a dozen times over as I ran. For most young teenagers, the rage is enough. It burns itself out even as they plot revenge against those that have wronged them. The child eventually realizes that as much as they wish for doom to fall on the head of their enemy, wishing will never accomplish anything.
This was not true for me. I knew how to make a wish real, and the knowledge of that fueled my hatred. It drove me to run faster to the new goal I set for myself. I was no longer running home to safety, I was running toward redemption.
I turned onto the path that led up to my grandmother’s property. I bypassed the house and raced directly for the garden. In an instant, I was through the gate and skidding to a stop at the rosebush.
A single rose waited for me. A solitary, perfect blaze of red, ready to grant my deepest desire.
Without allowing myself to think about what I was doing, I snatched at the rose, pulling it free of its stem. I crushed it tight in my fist and yelled, “I wish Barry was dead!”
I opened my hand and gazed in horror. The rose was black.
It remained fully intact and still looked alive. It had not wilted and died as the others had, but instead had turned an oily, midnight black.
“Jason, what have you done?” My grandmother’s voice came from behind me. She had seen me running up the driveway, bloody and crying, and had bolted out of the house to check on me. She saw the black rose in my hand. “This is bad, Jason. A wish of death only carries one consequence. It can only bring more death.”
My grandmother approached the rose bush and passed her hands over it. “One more,” she said, speaking directly to the bush. “Grant one more today for the sake of my grandson.”
I watched in fascination as one of the smaller, closed buds wriggled free of its companions. It stretched upward as its stem elongated to accommodate its effort to rise. Next, the bud began to warp and fatten, like some type of massive, red tick, gorged on blood. It pulsed, round and oddly menacing on its perch, before finally popping open and unfolding into a vibrant, crimson bloom.
“Pick it,” my grandmother told me. Her voice harsh with urgency.
“Now wish away your first wish. Ask for it to be stopped.”
I did not argue. I was now more scared than angry, and although I was not thinking any more clearly, I was willing to do as she said. “I wish to cancel my wish to kill Barry.”
The second rose wilted and turned brown. I watched with relief as the first rose did the same. I thought it was over, but my grandmother still looked grave. She collected the dead flowers from me and placed them in the front pocket of her blouse.
“Come with me. You stopped the death wish, but you still must face the consequences of two powerful wishes. I need to do what I can to control the outcome, but I can’t protect you outside.”
When my grandmother had allowed me into her garden for the very first time, I had been thrilled. I was not so ecstatic when I found out that I was about to have my first excursion into the basement. When she turned the knob and pulled the door open to reveal a flight of wooden steps leading down, I did not want to go. She did not allow me to refuse, however. She led and, with great trepidation, I followed.
I half expected some kind of gloomy, dank, and heavily cobwebbed dungeon. Instead, as I descended the stairs, I was greeted by a large, perfectly square room with a bare concrete floor and concrete walls on all sides. Six exposed lightbulbs, recessed into the drywalled ceiling, provided enough light to see everything in the room easily, except … there was nothing to see. The basement was almost completely empty. There was no furniture, no shelving on the walls, and no clutter of any kind. The only item breaking up that completely empty space was a single rectangular table made of marble or some other polished stone, placed in the very middle of the room.
With nothing else in the room to focus on, my eyes were drawn to that stone table dominating the center of the basement. It was grey, streaked with darker lines of black or brown, and it appeared to have been carved from a single block of stone. The surface was glossy smooth, but odd etchings covered the top and all four sides of it. The word ‘altar’ came unbidden to my mind, and all the dark connotations that went with it.
“Strip,” my grandmother commanded. “Everything off. Hurry.”
“What?” I protested. “Please tell me your kidding.”
“Strip. Everything. Now!”
I hesitated a heartbeat longer, then did as I was told. I removed everything, including my socks, letting the items of clothing drop to the floor one by one as they came off. When I was done I turned, naked as the day I entered this world, to face my grandmother. Clothing is a poor defense against anything, but it is still a defense. I realized this for the first time at that moment. Without my clothes I felt more than just embarrassed, I felt small. I felt scared and utterly helpless. Initially, I tried to cover myself with my hands, but I soon realized it did not help. It only emphasized my condition. So, defeated, I let my hands fall to my sides.
For the second time that day, I began to cry. My cheeks glistened with fat tears of shame; shame at my nakedness and shame at what I had done.
“On the table,” my grandmother said.
I was too humiliated and emotionally beaten to offer any further resistance. I did as she said. As I lay down, I felt the cold stone surface pressing against my back, my buttocks, and my legs. I shivered as the chill of it leeched the warmth from my body.
Reaching down to the floor, my grandmother grabbed a leather strap I had not noticed before. It lay on the floor pinned under the table and extending out to both sides. She brought both ends up, walking from one side of the stone to the other, and fastened them together. They synched down tightly over my ankles. She repeated this process once more at my waist.
When I was secured to her satisfaction, my grandmother stood at the end of the table closest to my head. She looked down at my face and smiled, trying to be reassuring even then.
“I’m sorry for this,” she told me. “I brought you down here because there is less here that random chance can use to harm you. I needed you undressed so there is nothing between your skin and the altar.”
I sniffed. I tasted blood in the back of my throat as it trickled down from my broken nose. The taste made me cough and wretch. I wanted to vomit.
“Try to relax,” my grandmother told me.
One of the light bulbs in the basement ceiling suddenly buzzed and popped. Glass from the shattered bulb rained to the ground. The table where I lay was far enough away that the glass did not touch me.
As if the light had been a signal, my grandmother placed her palms flat on the stone surface, one to either side of my head. She began to speak in a low murmur. I did not understand her words, but the tone of her speech was urgent. It sounded like she was praying. Or perhaps pleading.
I waited, my eyes switching back and forth across the ceiling, searching for whatever might come next. I did not see anything. Instead, I felt the cold table beneath me begin to warm. I thought at first it was just my body heat bringing the table to an equilibrium with me, but the temperature continued to rise.
“Grandma,” I whimpered. “It’s getting hot. The table. I think it’s getting hot.”
She brushed the fingers of one hand through my hair in reassurance. “It’s alright. Try to relax. You need to remain on the table, and you need to stay as still as you possibly can.”
She lay her hand back on the table top and resumed her chanting. I took several deep breaths, attempting to calm myself, but panic had too strong of grip on my racing heart.
The heat under me continued to build. It reminded me of an electric stove top building to maximum temperature, but in this particular metaphor I was the pot being set to boil. Pain flared along my back. My skin was being scorched where it touched the surface of the table. I tried to sit up, to escape the burning sensation. My grandmother grasped my shoulders and pushed me back down, holding me in place. She was stronger than I expected; stronger than I would have earlier believed. I screamed as the pain increased, and twisted against the straps holding my legs in place.
I was on fire. I felt my skin blacken and tear, leaving the pink flesh beneath to hiss and spit as it cooked in the intense heat. I knew I was dying. There was no way I could feel this much pain and not be moments from death.
Under the pitched wail of my own voice, I heard a rumbling. The table vibrated, accompanied by a loud crack like a gunshot being discharged from directly beneath me. In the same instant, the burning sensation fled. Not gradually, but all at once. The pain was gone. My grandmother released my shoulders tentatively to reach into her pocket. With a smile of relief, she held her hand out where I could see it. I watched a trickle of dust sift between her fingers and fall to the floor.
“It’s over,” she said.
She removed the straps from around my body and I scrambled down from the table, desperate to be away from it. I ran my hands along my shoulders and legs, checking for burns, but to my amazement I found only intact skin. I was completely uninjured. The pain and burning had all been in my mind. I gazed at the massive table in wonder, then with a start, I realized it was damaged. At some point during the ordeal the stone had broken. A single jagged crack about an inch wide ran the length of its surface. One corner, near where my head had been, had completely broken off and tumbled to the floor.
“Jason, I think you owe me a new altar,” my grandmother said, frowning at the debris. She flicked a hand in my direction. “Grab your clothes and get dressed. Lunch will be ready in a few minutes.”
That was over fifteen years ago.
I went back home at the end of the summer. My parents divorced a few months later and I ended up living with my mom. After that, I still went to visit my grandmother as I had so often before, although never for such a long period of time. She continued to spoil me. I was still her favorite grandson. She even gave me permission to go back into the garden.
But I never did.
I’m twenty-nine years old, an adult by all definitions that matter, yet at this moment, I am remembering everything as if it had only just happened. I feel like I am still that child, naked and crying, clutching a ball of wadded clothing to my chest as though it is my only remaining tether to reality.
The memory is so clear because, for the first time since I was thirteen years old, I’m standing in the middle of her garden. Nothing has changed. Everything looks perfect, as if my grandmother is still tending it. But I know, in time, without her caring guidance, it will all go to weed and ruin. As all things must eventually do.
My grandmother died last week. My mom asked me to come with her to sort through her mother’s things. I agreed. I wanted to support my mother, but I also wanted to come here one last time for my own reasons. I miss my grandmother, and I wanted to say goodbye to her in the place she loved the most.
I looked for the rosebush, but it is gone. There is no sign that it ever existed. I don’t know if it died with my grandmother, or if perhaps she knew that her time was growing short and she removed it. Regardless of how it happened, I am glad it is gone. It means that I don’t have to pull it out myself. It means that I don’t have to touch it again.
Most of all, it means that I will never be tempted to make one last wish.
G. Allen Wilbanks is a member of the HWA, and has published over 40 short stories in Daily Science Fiction, The Talisman, Deep Magic, and other venues. He has published two short story collections, and his first novel, When Darkness Comes, was released in October, 2017.