With only the round moon of nearly midnight as a witness, I lit a timid flame under the pile of deadwood I had gathered in the afternoon. The flame licked the twigs, started eating them, then crawled onto the thicker branches with maddening slowness. The wind toyed with it for a few seconds, spreading sparks, but the fire finally took. In the orange glow, new shadows rose to dance with the emaciated silhouettes of the trees, drawn by the cold moon.
I couldn’t believe I was there, behaving like a naïve teenager in my old age, instead of nesting in the quietness of my room. But I was doing it as a farewell to my aunt, and I used that thought to somehow warm my bones.
The instructions had been simple and I followed them dutifully, although emotion made my left hand even clumsier than usual. I spread the powder over the fire, hardly avoiding the sudden burst of flames. Then, in the foul smell that rose, I read aloud the text on the side of the box. I had glimpsed at it earlier, just to make sure I could decipher it, but still the guttural words of the dead language – in a voice that barely sounded as my own - brushed my heart with a strange foreboding.
It was an ancient Egyptian funeral incantation, written in hieratics, though not one that I had ever seen in the Spells of Going. A reversed, twisted utterance, meant to call forth the soul into another existence, not to ease its journey into the realm of the blessed dead. I have always laughed at superstition, but the thought that my aunt had in secret entertained such ideas was particularly disturbing.
When I finished, my mouth dry as if filled with sand, a grey smoke stirred in the flames. The wind played with it, allowing it to gain shape only to scatter it again shortly.
Almost deafened by my own heartbeat, I took the miniature coffer from my bag and managed to steady my fingers long enough to open it. For a stretched moment, I forgot to breathe.
Inside, on a white velvet cushion, there was a small hand, a child-sized hand, a gold ring with a tiny ruby on the index finger, the wrist bloodied as if freshly severed. Surely only a rubber moulding, the macabre prop of a prankster.
Under my rounded eyes, the hand twitched.
I almost dropped the chest.
Surely, only a trick of the flames.
Despite myself, I looked at my old stump, then at the child’s hand in the coffer, helpless before the tangled memory that rushed at me and threw me whole in the pit that had opened in my stomach. The county fair. The fortune teller Gipsy. The smiles and the money exchanged between her and Aunt Lilith. The ring the Gipsy offered the five-year old I was then. The car accident. My parents’ death. My crushed right hand that could not be recovered from the burnt wreckage. My tears for the lost ring. The recurring nightmare of my troubled sleep.
What strange, unwanted thoughts. I had no use of them.
I had a mind to throw the chest with its hideous content in the fire, when the hand twitched again. I gasped, intrigued, disgusted, scared. It couldn’t be. What was I doing there? Better to go home.
But in the moment I tried to snap the lid closed, the twitching hand jumped from the coffer. A shriek rose from the shadow in the fire, or maybe from my lips. I dropped the box and stumbled backwards, my eyes frantically searching for the hand on the ground, when I realized that it was on me, that it had somehow attached itself to my stump.
Oh, the terror when I shook my arm and couldn’t loose that child’s hand, that foreign hand! The numbing coldness of the iron tendrils piercing my wrist, holding it in a metal vice.
I pulled. I pushed. I scratched. I turned, seeking a tool to help me. A stick broke on it. In desperation, I started striking a boulder. Nothing. Nothing.
Nothing but the suffocation from the panicked struggle, from the thickening smoke.
Under my eyes, it started growing, a beautiful white hand, with silky skin, no longer a child’s hand but a young woman’s, the one I could’ve had, the ring, already too small, cutting deep into the index finger.
And then, a whisper whirred from the fire, from the wind “…dear girl…” the howling of a ghostly wolf over the moor “I’m returning your gift…” a fluttering of soft wings “we’ll always be together… I’ll be your talisman now…” a shuffling of leaves “… as you were mine…” the drumming of my blood “dear girl…” growing, twisting whispers “pull me out, dear girl… dear girl… pull me out…”
Against my battered will, I approached the fire, leaning closer, my right hand extended as if to caress the flames.
“dear girl… pull me out…”
The heat was painful on my eyes yet I didn’t lower my eyelids. There was something in the smoke, a distorted face, with miniature features. “pull me out…” Was it only my hallucination? Was it really the dark soul of my aunt balancing on the brink of hell, struggling to avoid an eternal damnation?
“pull me out…”
An arm of smoke extended from the fire, long, shaky fingers seeking the unnatural hand. One final usage of the talisman, to pull her out of Hell.
Her fortune to be passed onto me. Has she meant good fortune in addition to material one? A few more years, better years for me, luckier years for me, with Aunt Lilith always there… at an arm’s length… So tempting…
As I reached into the fire, I realized I could move the hand, that I could control the fingers that hadn’t been mine for sixty years. I made a fist and plunged it into the flames. The shadow-smoke contorted violently, perhaps from the pain I could not feel, perhaps from trying to grasp the hand that I would not open, and an inhuman shriek pierced the night, reverberating in my heart. I endured it, until there was nothing left but the charred bones, even beyond that, until the pain took my consciousness away.
No handshake, Aunt Lilith.
* * *
For some more Halloween fictional tricks and treats take a look at:
Bernard's Return of Demon
Charles Gramlich's Hunter's Moon
Fireblossom's Five Wolves
K.Lawson Gilbert's Once We Were Cats
Laughingwolf's H-5... 1, H-5... 2, H-5... 3, H-5... 4 and H-5... 5
And my older Little Halloween Triptych:
The Flying Dutchman
A Mother's Gift