Moira clung to traditions like a sailor adrift holding fast to a tattered lifesaver. If traditions weren’t upheld, the world would drown in a sea of indifference, violence and chaos.
She tried to instill this sentiment in her children, fraternal twins Isolde and Ethan, until middle-school when they realized things were very different in their household. No other kids at school celebrated Yule, Hanukah and Christmas, or Passover and Easter, or Halloween and Samhain as well as El Día de los Muertos.
Isolde and Ethan’s dad Paul would simply fade into a semi-transparent state whenever Moira’s rules about tradition were questioned. He enjoyed quiet too much to complain or stand against her.
“I don’t take sides.”
Isolde and Ethan were fourteen when they decided it was time to break with Moira and her traditions. So they started with her self-imposed tradition of wearing Pilgrim costumes to the Thanksgiving table. While Moira was in the kitchen, Ethan and Isolde pleaded, “Dad. Please. Let us take these stupid things off. This isn’t even a real holiday.” But Dad shook his head.
He said, “I want to eat a good meal today kids. If you take the costumes off, your mother will become…disagreeable. You remember what happened on Halloween.”
Moira had tossed out fifty dollars’ worth of Halloween candy because Dad wouldn’t wear the Druid costume for Samhain, carved a down curved mouth on the pumpkin instead of a smile “which was proper and traditional,” and Isolde and Ethan switched Halloween costumes so he was the girl zombie and she was the boy zombie.
Before stomping up to her bedroom Moira, still in her Druid robes whirled on them, her eyes burning with anger, disappointment and betrayal. She screeched, “Halloween and Samhain are ruined!”
Dad, Isolde and Ethan rescued the candy in secret. Dad put on a black suit and a Freddy Kruger mask so the three of them could hang around outside giving Kit-Kats and mini-Snickers to the trick-or-treaters.
Dad was just too good of a guy. The kids found it physically impossible to be angry at him for long, so they settled into the Pilgrim costumes as best they could. The three of them stared silently at the Thanksgiving plates, a line of painted Pilgrims walking around the edges with little hatchets raised.
Isolde said, “She’s crazy Dad. You know that, right?”
Dad scrubbed a hand over his face.
Ethan muttered, “If I had a hatchet, we could–”
Isolde whispered, “Stop it.”
Dad adjusted the big black hat on his head and sighed. He said, “She just needs things to be a certain way. So please, for me, cooperate.”
When the twins were eighteen, both of them prepared to go away to school. Ethan had stopped talking to Moira six months earlier. He entered a place that Moira said was ‘dark and disturbing.’ He didn’t refute her assessment.
He told Dad, “It’s easier. She leaves me alone. No traditions for this dark and disturbed teenager.”
He resorted to twin speak with Isolde whenever Moira was nearby. Isolde tried to convince him to at least say good-bye before he left. He refused. Isolde went to university in Boston, Ethan in Chicago. Isolde returned after graduation. Ethan did not. He remained in Chicago for graduate school and whenever he phoned, he would only talk to Isolde or Dad.
Two years after graduation, Isolde moved out of the house in hysterics when Moira expressed interest in the obscure tradition of exsanguinations of chickens from a culture she couldn’t recall, but was meant to bring prosperity and good things to the household. With the insistence of Ethan and the help of a therapist, Dad agreed to have her admitted to a hospital for thirty days of ‘rest.’
The spring Isolde turned twenty-eight she became engaged. Too much energy was required to dissuade her mother from plunging in, so Isolde let the planning be Moira’s drug of choice. She slept little, talked a lot and seemed to live on the hors d’oeuvres, wine and cake samples alone. They were sitting on the living room sofa after a day of dress-shopping, with stacks of wedding magazines, caterer menus and fabric swatches strewn about them like pastel leaves fallen from a big wedding tree.
Moira was in overdrive. “First, we need something old…something new… something borrowed…and something blue, and true to English tradition, a sixpence in your shoe. Isolde, honey, those things are imperative. I spoke to Mr. Cooper…you know, the antique guy?” gradually, Moira’s voice went up several octaves. “He got me an authentic silver sixpence for you to put in your shoe!! When your father and I got married…”
At this point Isolde went into aural shutdown so her mother looked like a silent movie actress going through the motions of speaking. A beep on her phone. Ethan. She read the text while Moira seemed to be talking about doves with ribbons tied to their ankles to be carried like a balloon bouquet.
Iz! Tell your mother I said tie tin cans to the wedding car. Luv u much. E.
The next day Isolde settled into the chair behind her desk at work. All the cubicles had short walls, so when the mail guy pushed his cart up to her cube and handed her a FedEx box, her cube neighbor leaned up from his chair.
“Oooo…a mystery box.”
The box was from Ethan, and she made a little squeal before reaching for her letter opener. Tucked inside a cushion of Egyptian newspaper were two small lacquered wooden boxes, one black, and one red.
She whispered, “How lovely.”
Beneath the tiny boxes was a reading copy of Ethan’s latest book, “Odynophobia, Fear of Pain” the next chapter in his bestselling series about victims’ phobias that turn out to be horrifically justified. She flipped to the dedication page. ‘To I and P, who weathered the fear of madness and tradition.’ The small red card enclosed was covered in Ethan’s square cramped hand. She noticed he didn’t capitalize Moira’s name as if she was no longer a unique entity.
Iz, sorry I can’t make it. I’ll be in Hong Kong for two weeks for the book tour. Tell Dad I luv him. The red box is yours and the black box, moira’s. As tradition dictates, it’s something old. One for each of you. Luv u much. E.
Dad beamed when Isolde handed him the book. She thought his
face would break when he read the book’s dedication. Moira flipped a derisive hand at them. If she was hurt that Ethan didn’t include her in the dedication, she didn’t show it.
She called over her shoulder as she headed down the hall to the kitchen, “Ethan’s books are not traditional literature, just a means to pander to the hoi polloi.”
Dad whispered, “Hoi Polloi?”
Isolde and Dad sat on the sofa and she took the boxes out of her purse. First she opened the tiny red box and on a small square of white velvet was a gold brooch. The symbol looked like a staircase that was large at its top and tapered at its lower end. Engraved on the back was a tiny word–“Djed.”
Isolde said, “Ethan told me about this. It’s the Egyptian symbol for the human backbone and represents stability and strength.”
She opened the tiny black box and sitting on red velvet, was a hand carved brooch of white stone. Dad adjusted his glasses.
“What is that? Alabaster?”
“I don’t know. This is Mom’s gift. Looks like a vase with a bouquet of curved flowers. And I think that’s a bird. Look.”
She turned the brooch so he could see. There was a note stuck into the top of the box that she picked at with her pinky until it popped out. Written in beautifully formed letters was ‘The Two Ladies.’ Ethan didn’t write this.
Dad shrugged. “Don’t give it to your mom now. Wait until she can’t…you know, react.”
Moira called from the kitchen, “Lasagna’s ready.”
Isolde remembered Ethan’s earlier note and called back, “Ethan told me to tell you that he really, really wants us to tie tin cans to the wedding car!”
There was silence for nearly a minute before Moira called back.
“Oh I am sorry dear. Shoes are better traditionally. They represent good luck.”
The morning of the wedding Isolde, her bridesmaids and Moira were in Isolde’s old bedroom, fussing over her hair, make-up and dress. She carefully pinned the gold brooch from Ethan right below her bodice. After asking the girls to give them a moment, she took the other brooch from its box and pinned it to Moira’s yellow dress, near her heart.
“Oh…” Moira whispered, “How lovely…”
“It’s from Ethan Mom. He said, ‘as tradition dictates.’ We both have something old.”
Reflexively, Moira reached for the pin to remove it, but stopped. The white stone was smooth and milky and warm to the touch, as if alive. Moira was briefly transfixed.
Isolde said, “The figures on it are called The Two Ladies.”
Moira admired the brooch in the mirror and murmured, “Finally. He understands tradition is vital to the balance of things.”
The wedding car drove slowly away from the church dragging old boots and shoes behind it. The couple turned around so they could be seen in the back window waving at the crowd still tossing rice in their direction. After the reception, Dad and Moira returned home, exhausted. Moira kicked off her dressy sandals, and Dad waved off a cup of tea to go to bed.
She stood at the kitchen counter and sipped her tea, but her insides were buzzing too much. Still in her mother-of-the-bride dress, she made her way through the dark to the den so she could e-mail people about the success of her wedding planning. She frowned at the screen. There was an email from Ethan with the subject “Something Old.” She stared for several seconds, deciding. Read, or delete. Read, or delete. She sighed and clicked on the email.
“I assume you’re wearing my little gift. I got it from an antiquities dealer in Cairo. Believe it not, it was carved nearly a thousand years ago. The images represent The Two Ladies Wadjet the snake goddess and Nekhbet the white vulture goddess, protectors of ancient Egypt.”
Moira looked down at the brooch. She looked back at the screen.
“Unlike Egypt, we—me, Dad, and Isolde—didn’t have the snake goddess or the white vulture goddess to protect us from you and your xenophobia or those fucking over-the-top traditions. Chicken blood, moira? Remember that? But I’m making fucking sure Isolde’s kids will be protected.”
The message ended that way.
She whispered, “On drugs.”
Suddenly, another email from Ethan popped up on the list. She clicked on it.
“I almost forgot. When I said to tie tin cans to the wedding car, I knew you’d choose shoes. But the tradition of tin cans tied to the wedding car was originally to ward off evil spirits. And I couldn’t have that. I had to be sure The Two Ladies were free to do their job. You’ll see.”
Moira tish-toshed and deleted the emails, shut down the computer and headed to the stairs. She looked down at the polished parquet steps and decided she would run a dust mop over the stairs in the morning. She was humming as she ascended slowly, but on the third step she felt a pin prick above her left breast. Thinking the fastener on the brooch came loose, she squeezed the thing to close it, went up another step.
There was another pin prick but deeper, enough to draw a tiny bead of blood. Moira grabbed the brooch, tried to unfasten it to pull it off her dress but the thing wouldn’t budge. Five more pin pricks followed. She attempted to call her husband, but fear constricted the muscles in her throat.
That’s when her gaze skirted past the blood trickling down her chest, to the brooch. The fastener wasn’t pricking her. It was secured. The ten tiny carved flowers were moving. They were making holes in her skin. Sudden realization screamed at Moira that they were not flowers at all but ten cobras fanned out like a bouquet. She thought, the brooch won’t come off, the dress will. She tried frantically to rip the material but couldn’t. Ten pin pricks, then twenty, then thirty, each deeper than the last.
The cobras grew larger as they undulated from the confines of the brooch. Their hooded heads snapped back and forth, perforating her skin until it looked as if there was a zipper in her chest. Moira wanted…needed…to scream as gradually, her skin split open to reveal the muscle beneath which in turn split open to expose the bone. Her mouth stretched wide but no sound escaped.
A spray of red-black blood jetted from her chest, saturated her dress, dripped from its hem, and pooled on the bottom three steps. Panic and the excruciating pain were shutting down coherent thought, but Moira, operating on instinct alone, wrapped her hands around the rail to her right. Her bare feet made a high-pitched skirling over the blood-slick parquet as she attempted to get up the stairs.
She couldn’t get a sufficient grip on the rail to go farther, the blood having coated her hands to her fingertips. She slid backward while scrabbling to hold on to anything, and fell flat on the floor at the foot of the staircase. The back of her head slammed against the parquet causing her consciousness to blink in and out.
In slow motion a tiny white eagle, no…god no…a white vulture flew from the brooch, its body expanding, growing.
When it reached the ceiling, it circled once above her, its huge wings extended, its body tilted at an angle, ready to strike. The vulture waited, turning its head so its yellow T-Rex eyes held hers. It waited, watching her open chest gradually slow. It waited as a last flicker of coherence flashed through Moira’s fading consciousness.
Vultures feed on the dead…they feed on the dead…on the dead…dead…