The comfort of silence embraced us as we sat side by side on the double bed. The soft light of the Daffodil Tiffany lamp that sat on the bedside table illuminated the guest room. I allowed my eyes to follow the pattern of the Ushake carpet and was drawn into its luminous gold, cinnamon, and terracotta colors as my mind contemplated the many questions I wanted to ask, but knew that they would be left unanswered because Aunt Rachel would refuse to respond in fear of disrespecting my Dad. Regardless of her unyielding loyalty to her brother, I felt comfortable sitting in the stillness with her, which was unusual for me, not because of who she was, but because I was generally uncomfortable sitting in stillness with anyone – including myself.
“Aunt Rachel,” I said in a volume just above a whisper. “I know you don’t feel that it’s your place to explain things to me and you don’t want to ignore my Dad’s request, but do you think it would be possible to ask you questions about stuff you might be able to talk to me about without violating his trust?”
She considered my suggestion for a moment then nodded. “We can do that.”
We both shifted our positions on the bed so that we were facing each other. Aunt Rachel grabbed one of the fluffy bed pillows and placed it on her lap so that she could lean on it with her arms for support. I crossed my legs under each other and rested my elbows on my knees. As I looked into her eyes I noticed that they were the same light shade of hazel as my Dad’s.
I figured it would be best to begin with asking the simplest questions I had filling the space in my brain.
“Does Mother know about my,” I smiled weakly. “What did you call it? A talent or ability?”
“Honestly, I don’t know,” she shrugged. “She’s heard the family stories. Many times she’s sat in the morning parlor or on the back porch with the Williams’ women, but I don’t think she believed that there was any truth in them. To be fair, if you aren’t part of the family and lived through some of the stories, they do sound fantastical.”
I agreed with my aunt. Mother was logical, practical, factual, and if she didn’t see it then it didn’t exist and even when she did see it there was some sort of scientific explanation for it all.
“Right, I can’t imagine Mother would.” I knew she heard the disappointment in my voice, but I didn’t care. As much as Mother and I were at odds, I still held the tiniest hope that she would someday try to understand me, but maybe it was just beyond her capabilities.
“Angie,” my aunt leaned over and grabbed my hand. “I know that she’s concerned about you. She constantly worries about your well-being, but I think she attributes your unusual behavior,” she indicated quotation marks when she spoke Mother’s phrase, “to mental illness instead of seeing it for what it really is.”
And that was the conundrum, wasn’t it? Aunt Rachel had stated the issue simply. It was the same mystery I continuously pondered about myself. Do I have abilities or am I really just paranoid schizophrenic? Aunt Rachel seemed to be convinced that it was something other than mental illness and I wanted to hear her label it.
“What is it really?”
“What do you think it is?” she asked as she eased back and gestured to me with a nod and open palms.
“I don’t know.” Gah! I just wanted her to tell me. I didn’t want to play guessing games.
“Sometimes I am convinced that Dr. Worth is right, that I am mentally ill, but other times, well, other times I’m not sure.”
Aunt Rachel nodded. I decided that the warm up was complete and we would move to more difficult topics for discussion. I was determined to learn something from my aunt.
“Can I show you something?” I asked, jumping up from the bed.
With distinct apprehension she agreed, “Yeah, sure.”
I hurriedly left the guest room, returning seconds later with my treasured copy of Sacred Magick clutched to my chest. I reclaimed my spot across from her on the bed and handed her the large, heavy book.
She accepted it with eyes that seemed to have grown twice in size and placed it on top of the pillow on her lap. “Where did you get this?”
“I bought it in Bridgeboro. Mother and Dad brought me with them when they went to close up the cottage and on the way home we stopped to visit Aunt Brenda and Uncle Stephen. While they were talking about their usual boring shit, I went for a walk and found this little shop that had all sorts of great stuff. I bought a few things from there.”
“I know that place,” nodded Aunt Rachel as she admired the book in her lap. She slowly caressed the cover with her finger tips, tracing the embossed circles and spirals in the leather. She briefly smiled at me as she opened the book and inhaled deeply. The sweet aroma of the old book drifted up into her nostrils. I knew the scent: a combination of vanilla, almonds, gardenias, tobacco, with a hint of staleness. After a few minutes of basking in the heady aroma, she gently turned the thin pages. When she came upon the title page she studied the scribble of black ink as I had when first spotting it at the shop.
“I think that says: ‘With loving devotion, on this a special day, your mother, Savannah Rae Williams’,” I offered.
“Savannah Rae Williams?” Aunt Rachel squinted her eyes and brought the book closer to her face. She shifted the book into a different angle hoping to gain a better perspective of the penmanship. “Yes, it certainly does look like Savannah Rae Williams. What are the odds of that?”
“Odds of what?”
Aunt Rachel looked up from the page. “Don’t you know who Savannah Rae Williams is?”
“No, but I was going to ask you or Dad if you had records of our genealogy,” I explained. “So that I could check to see if she was someone in our family.”
“She definitely is, Angie. This is your Great-great-grandmother!” She smiled, shaking her head as she gingerly turned the pages. “This is amazing. This book … what a wonderful heirloom you’ve got yourself. Have you shown this to your Dad? He’d love it,” she paused as she considered the text. “Does he know you’re reading this?”
She grunted. “Yeah, he’d probably be concerned if he knew you were reading about the occult. How much of this book have you been able to comprehend? It’s pretty dense.”
“Quite a bit, but yeah, some of it gets confusing,” I admitted.
“Gerald, I mean, Mr. Stokes, could help you with those denser sections. He possesses some impressive occult knowledge,” Aunt Rachel recommended as she continued to flip through the pages.
“I noticed,” I snarled. This was the perfect time to interrogate her about my tutor since she was the one to bring up his name. “So, what do you know about Mr. Stokes? He told me that he was here to give me advice and to ‘heed his warnings’. I mean, I realize that my parents hired him as my tutor, but he seemed to imply something else. Do you know anything about that?”
“Well, he is your mentor, Angie,” she explained, closing the book and resting her hands on it. “He’s a valuable ally for someone like you to have. He can offer you guidance and support, and he might even in time become your friend.”
“My friend?” I laughed. “I highly doubt that, Aunt Rachel. He’s old and creepy. And I just don’t trust him. I feel like he’s hiding something.”
“The trust will come, and when it does you will realize that you can tell him anything, share anything with him without fear of judgment or scorn, unlike what you receive from members of your family who judge you a little too harshly, if you ask me.”
I shrugged. “But he gets paid to be my mentor and teacher; that’s his job. He’s a tutor.”
I was willing to consider her words. I had come to the conclusion on my own that Mr. Stokes had knowledge of the occult far beyond what I had learned on my own and maybe he would be willing to teach me. Perhaps after the events that he witnessed earlier that day he would stop underestimating me and my abilities and treat me with the respect I deserved.
“If what you’re telling me is in fact true and he has more to offer me than just his academic knowledge then what will he ask from me in return? There’s always an exchange to be made, always a price to be paid. Nothing is ever free,” as I spoke I was reminded of the story about the mermaid who paid for a set of legs with her voice.
“That’s true, but sometimes what we experience in our lifetime is the direct result of an exchange that took place years prior to our birth. What we are experiencing is the price paid for a favor or service an ancestor provided,” she pointed out.
What was she trying to tell me?