The winner of our 2022 competition is Amber Fenik! Read her entry, "Foretold", below.
2022: Foretold, Amber Fenik
"You're going to die young, you know. Just like your mother."
I pop the last bite of sugar cookie into my mouth and wipe the crumbs off on the back of my velvet dress.
I place one hand gently on my great-grandmother's shoulder and crouch down until I am at her eye level. Always a petite woman, old age seemed to shrink and shrivel her to minute proportions, like peeled granny apples left in the sun.
"Are you all right? Do you want something to drink?"
She looks at me warily, as if I were a stranger accosting her in a dark alleyway, not her great-granddaughter attempting to safeguard her comfort. I wasn't sure if she recognized me or perhaps mistook me for one of my aunts or cousins. Her vision was cloudy, her mind a perpetual fog that rarely lifted.
"It's too loud here." She glances around, uneasy, agitated.
I nod, feigning acquiescence in an attempt to appease her. My Nan and I had strung holiday lights up across the basement's low ceiling. The mercury glass behind the bar along the back wall reflected and refracted the tiny glowing bulbs, making it appear as though they stretched out through an endless corridor, like millions of fireflies trapped in a mirrored box. The room was crowded with the movement of bodies while the record player warbled away in the background, blissfully unaware of the crush of humanity surrounding it. Endless festive chattering, sudden exclamations of recognition, bursts of laughter, and long-winded half-true stories vibrated from every corner.
I understood how overwhelming it was for an elderly woman who could no longer remember her own name. Sitting in an uncomfortable chair tucked along the periphery, beleaguered by nameless faces, unaware that she was the guest of honour. Wondering silently in the recesses of her labyrinthine mind why she had come to this strange party, who these noisy merrymakers were, or how she had even gotten here in the first place.
I hadn't wanted to see her when I was younger, but my Nan insisted, pulling my tiny unwilling body along behind her as we made our way through the woods. I dragged my shiny new shoes through the dirt in protest. It was important for the younger girls of the family, Nan solemnly explained to me. Life was difficult – especially so for women – and it was far better to face the looming prospect of an uncertain future with some matriarchal guidance. At least that was the advice espoused by my elders. At the time, I remained unconvinced of the worth of such wisdom.
I sat dutifully at my great-grandmother's worn kitchen table while my Nan waited in the parlour, wrinkling my nose up at the stale smell of the old woman's house: curdled milk and potpourri and some unknown bitter concoction simmering on the stove behind us. Silver needles pierced patchwork quilts and half-finished piles of mending that were flung over the backs and heaped on the seats of the hard wooden chairs around us. I swallowed my scalding cup of oolong tea as quickly as possible, burning my tongue in a futile attempt to hasten this inevitable discomfort and regain my freedom. As soon as the last few drops passed my lips she pulled the delicate porcelain cup from my grasp with her crooked arthritic fingers and with surprising strength turned it over and over again in the palms of her weathered, wrinkled hands. Studying the last drowned dredges of my tea leaves she sighed, reluctant to share what fate she read for me there.
Staring at me with her grey marble-like eyes, my great-grandmother betrayed no emotion as she revealed my destined future.
"You'll have a short life full of misfortune."
I nodded, silently.
The china clattered as she brusquely set the cup aside, onto its saucer, and stared impassively at the cuckoo clock mounted on the wall, waiting for the cheerfully disruptive birds to emerge from their mechanical hiding place and clamorously announce the passage of time.
What could I do? Even at that tender age I knew you could not escape the path that life had laid ahead for you. Love, happiness, success; these things were not guaranteed for any of us. I may as well have been trying to catch wisps of steam as they rose curling from my tea cup, slipping effortlessly through my fingers and evaporating into the air above. I was descended from a pragmatic bloodline. I understood that there was no point mourning something you were never promised in the first place.
On the way home, reserved and obedient, I asked Nan why great-grandmother's hands looked twisted and gnarled like the roots of a tree. Her prominent blue-green veins, bulging from beneath her thin paper-like skin had unsettled me for reasons I could not at the time find the words to convey. The barriers to communication between child and adult worlds remained firmly entrenched, like the towering stone walls of a medieval castle.
"It's the reflection of a hard life." Nan replied, as if that answered my question.
The divining of one's fate was a private revelation. Over the decades, many members of my family entered through those doors and sat alone at the table across from my great-grandmother. Her fragile body, failing eyesight and swift hands deftly unravelled the tangled threads of our futures.
That moment still connected my great-grandmother and I through generations. Like a strand of the finest gossamer silk a spider ever spun, it floated there in the air between us whenever we shared a room. I felt it, always. I wondered if she did too.
I bring her a glass of water, holding it carefully up to her age-spotted lips as she drinks greedily.
With her memory gone I couldn't know for certain whose fate she had just disclosed to me in the midst of this crowded room, full of our relatives.
In my family, there were many motherless children.