After the council meeting ended, Lucille skipped the usual tea and cookies and headed straight home. She made a beeline for the attic where she opened an old coffer, covered with a thick layer of dust. Its contents were arranged with great care, like one would for long term safe-keeping, breakable items interspersed with delicate linen and fabrics protected from moths and mildew with shards of cedar and lavender buds.
She took the contents out, one by one, laying them aside on a round silver platter she had found inside, platter whose patina had dulled the original polish. The objects had no logical connection to each other – a large tortoise shell comb, a cut crystal candlestick, Mary’s favorite baby blanket, her mother’s betrothal gift, a very ornate emerald necklace, her own wedding veil in Chantilly lace, a gilded glass goblet, a single white glove in the softest kidskin.
At the very bottom, tucked inside a folded tablecloth, was the book she was looking for, the original copy of the Fire Maiden prophecy, as it was foretold before the folk stories and village gossips ran it through the sieve of fantasy and rendered it unrecognizable.
Few people in the village remembered the Book of the Prophecy had been bequeathed to Lucille as a family heirloom, and if they knew they didn’t like to talk about it. Between Rosemary and Mrs. Gentry there was enough inference woven from spotty knowledge to rewrite the legend from scratch, and they certainly didn’t want the original to stand in the way of a more expedient story.
“What are you doing, aunt Lucille?” Mary asked from behind her and despite her soft voice she made the lady jump to her feet and get her hair tangled in the rafter ties.
“Good grief, girl! You’re going to be the end of me one of these days! What are you doing snooping around my business?” she mumbled, upset to see Mary and the Book of Prophecy share the same ten square feet.
The book was bound in snake skin, a detail that Lucille hadn’t paid attention to before and which put a shiver down her spine. She looked at Mary, who seemed as bewildered as ever, as if life always took her by surprise.
“I’m sorry, aunt Lucille, I didn’t mean to startle you,” Mary dragged the conversation, stretching her neck at the same time to satisfy her curiosity with regards to the contents of the coffer.
‘That’s all I need,’ Lucille thought, ‘to have you read what your eyes supposedly do to people! Like we don’t have enough trouble managing the mirror gossip already!’ she thought, and then smiled reassuringly and changed the focus of Mary’s attention to the first object she laid her eyes on, the white kid glove.
“Just going down memory lane, dear. I’d forgotten about all of these, aah, how young I was when I lost the pair of this, almost as young as you are now, going to my first dance, years before I even met your uncle,” she waxed nostalgic, with a little too much enthusiasm.
Mary, who was a very smart girl, despite the bewildered appearance she wore to shield herself from well-intentioned advice givers, caught on to the diversion immediately but pretended to follow the cotillion story. She knew full well that her aunt never had a taste for these functions, which she considered pointless and pernicious, because like musty surfaces breed mold, they created a perfect set-up for the village gossip dramas.
Mary listened patiently to Lucille’s first dance story, at the same time trying to inventory the rest of the objects. They all looked quite harmless, not something a person like her aunt would feel the need to conceal, including the snake skin bound scrapbook.
Every household had one, it was a tradition of the village and the pride of the lady of the house. These scrapbooks looked so similar one could almost think that the same family inhabited all of the households, living exactly the same life.
“Can you show me the scrapbook, aunt Lucille? I don’t think I ever saw yours!” Mary asked innocently.
‘How does the green-eyed curse know exactly where to meddle?’ Lucille asked herself, biting her lip to choke a few choice words. ‘Those busy bodies should be more worried about her eyes rummaging for truth inside their souls than the curse of the Prophecy. I swear sometimes I can almost feel that icy stare drill through my skull!’ She sighed, resigned.
“Oh, what’s the use! You always find just the wrong things to get involved in, girl. Suit yourself, but don’t blame me if you don’t like what you read!” The girl grabbed the book, eagerly.
“This is about me!” Mary commented, shocked, while reading the ancestors’ story. “Isn’t it, aunt Lucille?”
“Yes, dear. It’s supposed to be about someone like you. Well, in fact it is about any fair maiden born into the village, but we haven’t had any others. Don’t pay heed to it, it’s just a story.”
“But it says that if I look at cows, their milk dries out!” Mary protested. “I look at our Rosie all the time and she’s just fine!”
“As I said, don’t pay heed,” Lucille appeased her.
“And it says that you should never give me water, because the second I drink a drop, my gaze will be able to turn people into winged snakes whose eyes throw fire. How am I supposed to never drink water?” Mary protested, outraged.
“It’s just a story, dear. Old wives’ tales,” her aunt said.
“And it says that you shouldn’t bear me to live!” Mary continued, more shocked by the second. “Did people really feel it was their responsibility to rid the world of me?”
Lucille looked down, utterly embarrassed, not knowing what to say to her.
“No wonder nobody ever looks me straight in the eyes, apparently my gaze drains people’s souls into eternal darkness!” Mary started sniffling softly. Lucille wrapped her arms around the girl, to comfort her.
“How am I supposed to live my life, aunt? It’s one thing for people to dislike me, quite another for them to think my very existence is an abomination!”
“Sweetheart, don’t give this another thought, you hear me? Not another thought! I wasn’t born yesterday, I can deal with the ladies, don’t you worry. You just mind your own life and give them no heed,” she gently caressed the girl’s fiery hair, rocking her back and forth to soothe her like one would a toddler with a scraped knee.
“But,” Mary managed to utter, between bitter sobs, “this is so wrong! Why doesn’t anybody see that this is wrong? I haven’t done anything to deserve it!”
“I know, dear, nobody said you did. Don’t you worry, aunt Lucille won’t let anybody bother you,” she said softly.
“But you shouldn’t have to defend me for being alive! Nobody else has to justify why they should keep breathing! I’ll go to that she-dragon, Mrs. Gentry, tomorrow at dawn and look her straight in the whites of the eyes, just to see her face!” Mary mumbled through her teeth.
“You will do nothing of the sort!” Lucille regained her authoritative voice. “Every time you have a thought, my life gets more difficult. Just set aside the blasted book and find something useful to occupy your time, I’ll handle the Circle.”
“If only half of the stuff in it were true this village would have ceased to exist a long time ago!” Mary continued, outraged.
“You know what? How about we go to the kitchen and see if there are any cookies left?” aunt Lucille tried to entice her.
“I don’t think cookies are going to make this all better, aunt Lucille. This is not a cookie kind of problem,” Mary said. She looked so hurt that her sorrow made Lucille’s heart sink.