I didn’t know Nana Marin was dead until my seventh birthday.
It wasn’t a great shock, though I realize now that it should have been. I asked my dad when she would arrive and whether or not she’d wear a pointed hat for the party – I had it in my head that nanas were given to wearing pointed hats at parties. Dad gave me a strange look and told me that she’d passed away when I was just a baby, but Mom took me by the hand and said, “Don’t tell stories, Sophie.”
That made a sort of sense to me so I nodded and never mentioned Nana visiting again. It was easier to go to her.
She lived in a slouching old shack in the steep hills behind my house at the end of a little trail that forked off of a bigger one that forked off of an even bigger one. I don’t remember how I found it the first time, but by the time I was eight I could get there in my sleep. Once a month I visited and on every birthday after the seventh.
Nana was always dressed in layers of wool and flannel, her hair was pinned up in a bun that looked like a pastry rested on the top of her head, and she smelled like lemons and honey. Her house was warm despite the way light seeped in around the logs and autumn winds snaked down from holes in the roof. When I visited, we would sit on the dusty ground and weave together ropes of pine needles I’d collected or little bits of yarn she produced from somewhere in the house. She taught me songs I’d never heard and when we sang them together, the wind whistled through the trees in harmony.
When I turned twelve, I brought her a deck of playing cards because I overheard Mom telling Mrs. Gallow how much Nana Marin loved a game called Gin Rummy.
“Ah!” She said, snapping them apart and back together again. “Shall I tell you your future?”
I was suspicious that magic could be done with an ordinary deck of cards, but I nodded and said, “Please, Nana.”
The cards said, sssssnick.
She flipped over the first card and pressed it into the dirt between us. I remember it was the eight of clubs and the corner was bent. She didn’t say anything, but she nodded, took a small breath and laid down every single card in that deck. She piled them in rows, all climbing toward my shins, and then sat back to examine them.
“Mmm,” she said and pressed her fingers together so that they pointed like the tip of her house. “Mmm.”
“What does it say?” I was not feeling patient and not enjoying the fact that these very unmagical cards were doing magical things. “Nana!”
“Oh, Sophie,” she said with a laugh. “You will never have trouble getting the things you want out of life. You are far too stubborn. This is a good thing because the cards are telling me a story. About you. And on your sixteenth birthday, they will tell you, too.”
“But I want to know now.” I protested, careful not to whine.
“Now is not the time.” She swept up the cards and returned them to me. “Cards like these have many stories to tell, but they will not be pressed. They hold tightly to them until the time is right.”
I never brought her cards again.
I asked Mom once, around my fourteenth birthday, if Nana had ever read her future. Mom’s face sort of emptied out until all that was left behind were the pieces of it: eyes, lips, nose, and the same pointy chin I carried on my own face.
Her only response was, “Where do you get such silly questions?” Then she pushed a bag of green beans into my hands and said, “Snap.”
Nana never mentioned the cards again and neither did I, both of us looking ahead to my sixteenth birthday as though it were nothing special. The closest she came to saying anything about it was on my fifteenth birthday.
“Feel any different today?” This question was a tradition and she asked it with playful smile. Or, she usually did. Today her mouth was serious.
“No, Nana,” I said. “I feel like the same old Sophie.”
She pressed her hands to my cheeks; they were no warmer than the cool dirt we sat on, but far more forgiving. “Next year. That’ll be the one. You watch.”
I was used to setting aside the strange things Nana said because when it came down to it, everything she said was strange. She was dead and I knew by now that the dead don’t talk. At least not to most people.
The night before my sixteenth I woke in the middle of the night. I was hopeful that this was the change Nana mentioned and I would feel it. It wasn’t, and I made an indifferent trip to the bathroom.
When I returned to my bedroom, annoyingly awake for so early in the morning, I reached for a book to pull the waking from my eyes and knocked over a small jewelry box. Two green, plastic bracelets and the entire deck of playing cards spilled to the floor. I sat to collect them, but ended up shuffling them.
The cards said sssssnick.
I shuffled until my hands felt warm and then laid them out on the carpet as Nana had done, in long rows of eight and nine. The first I recognized immediately; the eight of clubs with one corner turned. The second also looked familiar and the third and the fourth.
“They’re exactly the same,” I said, breaking the silence that suddenly felt too close.
Silence rushed in again, holding the house hostage. My breath, too, became thin as I considered the cards before me. I thought of all the words I could use to describe what was happening; eerie, unlikely, coincidence, impossible. And as I stared at the rows of cards, laid exactly as they’d been four years ago, a story began to unfold in my mind.
It started with a young girl who lived at the bottom of a hill who considered things that were not in any way ordinary to be ordinary. She saw things others did not, could do things others could not, and it was all because of one, very unordinary thing.
She was a witch.
Valerie's up on Wednesday with Part 2!
Photo by Striking Photography by Bo via Flickr Creative Commons