Ms. Cleary was still in the kitchen, where I had left her. She was gathering up all sorts of things in her great beige tote bag on the counter. I saw her put in candles, the jar that held the heartstone, and a sharp knife that she drew from the drawer. The blade was long, and it had ragged teeth that ran down its edge. She turned, still holding the knife, and saw me standing there in the doorway.
She smiled sweetly. “You need a little bit of everything to call out Owd Hob,” she said, dropping the knife in, and reaching for a jar of olives. “That’s the trick. We’re going to be short a few things though. Breath of wind and morning dew won’t be possible with our time frame. But more than anything, it’s the thought that counts. It’s all a matter of confidence, really. You’ve got to mean it.” She clucked her tongue, opened the freezer, and threw a handful of ice cubes in a jar, then put the jar in the bag as well.
“Ms. Cleary,” I said. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Yes child, go right ahead.”
“Why are you a ‘Ms.’, and not a ‘Mrs.’ If Clara’s your granddaughter, wasn’t there a Mr. Cleary?”
Ms. Cleary fell silent, and stopped putting things into the big tote. She inclined her head as if thinking, deciding how best to answer. Then she said, “That’s quite a rude question, you know, asking an old, grown woman a thing like that.” She paused, waiting for a response.
“Sorry,” I eventually said. I thought it was a perfectly reasonable question to ask. I didn’t see what the problem was.
She nodded curtly. “As you should be,” she said. Then she went back to putting random things into her tote. Another candle, and a jar of fireflies, which had been sitting on the counter, glowing faintly. They both disappeared behind the canvas bag.
“That should do it,” Ms. Cleary said, and scooped the whole tote up and onto her shoulder. “Let’s go.”
We went out to Ms. Cleary’s car, a silver Buick. I sat up front, and she handed me the tote bag to hold onto while she drove. It was heavy, and I set it on the floor between my legs. I resisted the impulse to check the armrest between us. It was the same kind my grandmother used to have, where she would hide sweets underneath, in a secret place for me.
“You can check it if you want,” Ms. Cleary said. “But you won’t find anything except empty candy wrappers. Clara cleaned me out before she left.”
I wondered then if that was some requirement, or standard of grandmothers everywhere, to leave hidden sweets in the car to be found and enjoyed later.
As we drove down and out of the lane, turning past the big brown steeple at the corner, a warm spot began to grow in my heart. There was something there, a tiny flame of hope, that was growing, and gaining strength. I had faith in Ms. Cleary, that she would deliver me from the evil that threatened to engulf my family, and my life. I had hope that I would sleep in my bed tonight, and that my dreams would be peaceful and my sleep deep.
When Ms. Cleary turned down the winding road that led to the little chapel and the graveyard, I started thinking about my father again, and then I started talking out loud, without even realizing it, telling Ms. Cleary everything that happened with Clara that night in the graveyard. I was still curious about what had happened, when I had seen him as that pale green light above his grave. I was sure that he had shown me the night he died, when he was in the car accident that took his life. What I didn’t know was why. Why had he wanted to show me that, and not talk with me, or ask how my mother was doing? It didn’t seem right.
I stopped as soon as I realized that I was speaking my thoughts out loud. I had ended with that same question. Why?
Ms. Cleary was quiet as she parked the car. She gestured for me to hand her the tote bag, and I did. Then she opened her door, got out, and shut it, leaving me in there. I followed suit, and then together, we began walking through the graveyard. It was still daytime. There were no little pale green lights, and no disembodied whispering cries. It was a pleasant day, but I could see tall clouds on the horizon, moving toward us, with shapes like anvils.
Then Ms. Cleary spoke, and her voice was low, and somber.
“That wasn’t your father you saw that night, only a fragment. Only a shell of what he once was. All that part of him wanted to do, was share his pain with his family, and the world. It’s what they all want, when they go, to some extent. It isn’t always just how they died,” she added, noticing my questioning look. “It’s what they hold on to, before they go. The things they just can’t let go, that keep pieces of them lingering here. Clara should never have taken you. She can be foolish, and headstrong at times, but she only thought she was helping. You’d do best not to come back here the way you did.”
We were way out in the field now, and making our way toward the line of trees. Ms. Cleary walked with purpose, as if she knew exactly where she was going, and the shortest way to get there. Wind ruffled my hair and made the branches on the trees sway, and I heard a distant rumble of thunder, as we moved forward and into the trees.
I was following Ms. Cleary through the forest, following a path I do not remember seeing. It was completely clear of any thorns or brambles or underbrush, and the going was easy. I tried to hold a picture in my head of where the fairy ring was in relation to us, but kept getting turned around. The path curved and doubled back on itself at times, and I thought we must be going in circles.
Then, suddenly, the path ended, and we came out into the clearing. The fairy ring was there, as it had always been. The circle of ancient stones looked older, and more weathered, though it had only been several days since the last time I had seen them. Without one moment’s hesitation, Ms. Cleary walked right into the middle of the ring, and began unloading her bag.
She took out three candles, and shoved each of them into the ground, making a triangle around the center stone. Then lit them with a match, and blew it out. She took out the jar of olives, opened it, and grabbed one, then smashing it on top of the smooth rock. Then the jar of fireflies came out, and they did not fly away as she opened the jar. Ms. Cleary cooed to them, in a low, crooning voice, and stuck out her hand. Three fireflies landed on her outstretched palm, and down they went, joining the olive in a neon, yellow-green smear on the stone. The ice cubes had melted, and she dribbled the water on top, then sprinkled it with dirt from the ground. Crushed flower petals joined them. Then she brought out the knife, and turned to me.
“Come here, and hold out your hand,” she said.
I hesitated. I did not want to get cut by the knife. I knew that that’s what would happen.
Ms. Cleary gave me a soft smile. “It’ll only hurt for a second, one small drop is all we need.”
I stepped into the ring of stones, and stuck my hand over the one in the middle, with the dust and flowers and firefly guts already on it. The knife flashed, and there was a moment of sharp pain in my hand. Blood dripped on the crushed flower petals. Then it was over, and the pain faded quickly. When I looked at the cut, I saw that it was only about an inch across, in the center of my palm.
Ms. Cleary reached into her bag again, brought out a bandaid, and handed it to me with a wink. I put it on, and stuffed the wrapper into my pocket.
Then, she went back into the big tote one last time, and brought out the glass jar with the heartstone in it. She opened it, and placed the heartstone on the very top of everything, balanced it there. Scooping up the bag, she grabbed my hand, and we both walked to stand on the outside of the fairy ring.
Still holding onto my hand, Ms. Cleary began to speak. Her voice was soft, and came in a harsh whisper, but I could hear the power behind it, and everything in the forest stopped while she spoke, and the clouds rose above us, and darkened.
In candlelight and open flame,
Fruit of earth, and fire’s bane;
Breath of wind, and stuff of light,
Dust of men, and blood from knife;
A taste of all, that is what you want.
I give to you now, as a father to son.
Death you bring and sleep you’ll rob,
Come here to us now, King Owd Hob.
Her words hung in the air, and made the hair stand up on the back of my neck, and the flesh on my arms prickle. There was nothing after she spoke, and I thought at first that it hadn’t worked, that we had failed.
And then the air around the fairy ring became hazy and distorted, and I heard a high-pitched, whine, as a piece of the sky above the ring of stones was ripped open. It was like someone had taken a knife to the fabric of the world, and shown what was behind. Inside the hole that opened up was a gray, formless void, like the static screen of a television.
A hand reached out from the void, and grabbed hold of the other side. It was gnarled and hairy, with long, yellow-tinged fingers, and I knew it to be the hand of Owd Hob.