PROPHETIC JUSTICE by Susan Buffum
Elenora Grimshaw sat at the bare wooden table in the farmhouse kitchen, her slender hands folded around the teacup, staring down into the dregs of sodden tea leaves adhering to the translucent porcelain interior. Having read the leaves, a skill she had inherited from her great-grandmother, she continued to mull over their meaning, seeking the true message being revealed therein. Fortune telling was for gypsies. Witches read the signs and made of them what they would, but there were multiple layers to every reading. She was trying to interpret the deeper meaning of this message.
A slim knife with an elaborate silver handle and an elegantly curved hilt was laid on the table alongside her right arm. The left sleeve of her white peasant blouse was then pushed back to her elbow. She turned her head, tilting it back to look up at the man who had provided the knife and adjusted her sleeve. Her eyes, the color of a storm-tossed sea, met his dark eyes. He said nothing, but his eyes, after a moment, moved from hers to the knife. She returned her attention to the item he was now looking at. Letting go of the still warm cup, she lifted the knife then raised her left hand, upon which she wore a gold ring, turning it palm up, holding it above the cup. Swiftly, she slashed the tip of her ring finger, turning her hand and allowing the ruby red blood to spilling into the bottom of the cup.
A dish towel landed on the table, having been tossed there from behind her. She grabbed it with her right hand and used it to staunch the flow of blood from her fingertip, pulling both of her hands back close to her breast as she gazed down into the cup. Her blood covered the bottom of it, black tea leaves buoyant as miniscule ships upon the surface of the tiny red sea. “A traveler from another place far distant from us approaches,” she said, her voice quiet. “Within the bowels of his ship he carries damnation. He shall arrive here in due time. He shall bring eternal death upon this house. Someone who dwells within these walls shall be taken from us, shall be wrenched from this world and made to suffer for what they have done while living here.” Behind her, the young man made a snorting nose by blowing air through his nose in derision. “The leaves speak of lies that have wounded, a betrayal of love, and a dire end.”
Abruptly, she stood up, pushing past him, going to the sink. She turned on the cold water tap, unwrapped her left hand and held her finger beneath the frigid water. The water ran pink into the deep sink, gurgling down the throat of the drain. “I suppose he’s coming for me,” he said from where he was now leaning against the counter.
She gave him a sidelong glance then pulled her hand back from under the tap to examine the wound. It wept another ruby tear that bled into a droplet of water before spiraling down the length of her finger and into her cupped palm. Blood and water, the liquids of life, she thought before shaking her hand, rinsing it again, then grabbing the towel and wrapping her hand in the cleanest corner of it. “You could get me a bandage if you’ve nothing better to do,” she told him.
“I’m not your servant,” he replied, remaining where he was.
She turned from the sink, flinging the bloodstained towel at him as she began to cross the room. Behind her he cried out and she heard the towel land on the floor. She would pick it up later.
Finger bandaged, she made her way through the house to the front hall, opening the interior door and looking out through the fine mesh of the screen door. Little bits of gossamer insect wings silently twitched in the slight breeze, catching the flat sunlight so they looked as if they were flashing semaphore messages. Messages to the ship, perhaps? He is here! He stands within! Come and fetch him! Carry him away to Death’s shattered shore! A slight smile curved one corner of her mouth.
A flash of red caught her eye—a cardinal sailing past from east to west. Chasing the sun, the thought. But then she heard the strident cries of an angry jay, saw the cardinal circle back. It was protecting a nest she realized. The female must be out foraging for food while her mate kept an eye on the egg nestled in the bottom of the nest. The jay was nothing but a thief come to snatch it away.
“Life and death,” he said from the shadowy hallway behind her, having come from the kitchen. “Death and life.”
“No, from death there is never life renewed,” she replied.
“How do you explain me?” he asked, his voice nearer. A shiver ran down her spine as a glossy black crow fluttered noisily to the lawn at the bottom of the porch steps, wings sounding like bed sheets flapping on the line. It cocked its head, regarding her through one curious, dark eye.
“An anomaly,” she answered, watching the crow that was now looking all around as if expecting company at any moment. But there was nothing else moving outside, the cardinal and the jay having moved far off into the trees to continue their bitter battle over the egg. “You’re just an anomaly, is all.”
“You summoned me,” he said, his voice quiet.
“I did no such thing,” she responded, which was true enough. How he had returned she did not know. But she knew how to remove him from the house. “Your master is on his way here at this very moment to claim you once more.”
“He is not the master of me!”
“So you think. So you say. So you believe.” She looked away from the crow toward the road as if a black coach and four would be arriving at any moment. She would throw open the door and welcome the black shrouded figure that descended to the road and strode up the brick walkway, wielding a flashing blade.
“Hush!” She started as something jabbed her shoulder. Twisting herself around, she found him standing just behind her, the silver-handled knife in his hand held at the height of her shoulder. “Put that down!” she said, her voice sharp with both anger and alarm.
“Til Death do us part,” he said. “Curious phrase, that, don’t you think?” His dark eyes met hers as he cocked a dark brow, quirked a half smile. Still trying to charm her, was he?
“I was errant in thinking burial would set me free. I should have paid stricter attention to the ashes to ashes, dust to dust advice of the elderly priest who saw fit to attend the funeral and murmur his pious mumbo-jumbo within earshot of us all.” Cremation, in hindsight, may have been the better choice for this one. “The earth, obviously, could not hold you.”
His smile widened. He was a handsome devil, she had to give him that. With a quick move he stabbed the blade of the knife deeply into the door frame close to where her ear was at present. It made her jump because it had been unexpected. She thought he may have been better served by plunging it into her breast, if it was revenge that he was after. Instead, he took her left hand in his two hands with surprising gentleness. There was still a faint bloodstain in her palm that he rubbed with the pad of his left thumb. His eyes were now focused on that bloodstain. It resolutely remained despite his rubbing at it. “I can’t believe you killed me, although I probably deserved it.”
“You did deserve it,” she acknowledged, her voice quiet.
“I could kill you for that.” She was silent. His eyes rose from their hands to meet hers again. “But, it turns out that I’m a much better person than people thought I was.” He shook his head with a look of incredulity upon his face now. “It turns out that I really did love you.”
“You had a peculiar way of showing that.”
“I thought I’d have plenty of time to make it all up to you. But you punched my ticket before we reached Happily Ever After and I was thrown off the train in Dearly Departed.”
“Newly Departed,” she amended. “You had hardly endeared yourself to me.”
“But you married me.”
“Love had nothing to do with that.” She felt the tremor in his hands that still held her hand. “I wanted this land.” All traces of wry mirth, boyish charm, and professed love abruptly dissipated from his countenance. A dark fury was brewing, like a thunderhead, in his eyes. Behind her, she heard the flapping of a multitude of wings as the crow was joined by others. A murder of crows, that’s what they called it. She leaned back against the screen door as if unaware that she was standing so close to it. “This land is powerful, Rowan. This land is deeply imbued with magic, but it takes the right sort of witch to summon that power and command it.” His eyes shifted to the knife protruding from the door frame. She thought he was now contemplating freeing the blade and plunging it into her breast. More than likely, she deserved that from him. But, as he reached for the silver handle, she stepped backwards out onto the porch, holding the door open with her body as she made an odd clicking sound low in her throat. “He’s yours!” she cried as the first crow launched itself from the lawn and soared onto the porch and then through the open door.
Elenora was buffeted by the rush of flapping wings and solid bodies that flew past her. In the hallway, Rowan screamed, first in outrage, then in terror, and finally in agony as the crows tore apart and devoured his soul. She moved around behind the door, continuing to hold it open so the crows, when finished with their dreadful labor, could depart. Her face felt hot from the brush of so many wings against her skin. Later, when she went into town, she would explain the redness away as sunburn, say that she had been gardening and had forgotten to wear her hat.
When the last crow had departed the hall, she stepped back into the house. There were six glossy black feathers lying on the wide plank floor. She bent down to pick them up, gathering them in her right fist like a bouquet. Turning back to the screen door, she saw a solitary crow standing on the brick walkway observing her. She nodded to it as she grasped the silver handle of the knife, tugging it free of the wood. “And that is how one removes a bothersome spirit from this house,” she told the crow. It gave a raucous caw, like the laugh of a demented elderly man, before bowing its head to acknowledge her, and then raising its wings, taking a few quick steps, and launching itself into the air.