I will note: in Beryl days and stories, this cat is called Radar. Here, he is called The Cat.
Kelkyag, please don’t kill me for the future threads I opened in this story.
Also: We seem to have a problem, in that right now the Aunts go Beulah-Zenobia-Elenora-Ruan-Asta-Evangaline and… a) that has to take up almost 2 centuries, b) right now it’s Elenora who kicked out Willard, which seems unlikely, unless she lived a very long time and Ruan only was Aunt a very short time.
Zenobia had found exactly the place behind the Damn Cat’s ears that he enjoyed being petted, and he had found exactly the place on her lap where she liked having the warmth but it wouldn’t hurt bones that were becoming achy with age. It was a pleasant symbiosis, sitting on the porch together in the waning autumn, watching the neighbor kids playing in the yard.
“Did you have kids?” she asked idly. “Sometimes I think what it would have been like – ow!” She threw the Damn Cat off of her lap and examined the claw marks in skin grown thin and tissue-like in the last decade. “You little shit!”
“I am not interested in these discussions,” the cat informed her primly. “It works better for both of us if you do not pry.”
“I am too old for this,” Elenora muttered, before making a warding gesture, pushing off the bad omens that might come with those words. She was forty-two years younger than her Aunt Zenobia had been; that she was also sixty-eight had no bearing on the matter. She wasn’t going to have any children now, that was for sure.
She wasn’t too old for being Aunt. She was, however, a little too old for kneeling on the ground, digging through the mess of her aunt – and the former Aunt’s – life.
Zenobia had been, in a contradiction that fit perfectly with her generally-contrary personality, both tidy and neat. In her office were very careful journals of everything that she had done, sealed with cantrips and incantations – most of which were not documented anywhere. There were also two chests of older journals, each of them indexed, the whole lot wrapped in silk covers and separated by sheets of very fine paper. Everything in the office – a small room off of the kitchen which in Beulah’s day had been a pantry for canned goods (After that first time, nobody came over to Zenobia’s for canning, and so she’d been free to do what she wanted with the space) – was organized, easy to find, and very nicely cataloged.
The rest of the house, save Zenobia’s bedroom, had books and divination decks, amulets and herbs, notes and charms all over it in no apparent order. The clutter was deep and, in some places, nearly horrifying; it took Elenora all of five minutes in the living room to find a mouse nest in hat had been an ancestress’ notes on the releasing of ghosts.
She stared at the house and all of the slightly-more-metaphorical ghosts it held. For several minutes the house seemed to stare back.
The house, family legend said, was an integral part of the power. Thus, it was hers, but at the moment, it was still very much Zenobia’s. She was going to have to claim it.
“I have generally found that urinating in the corners of a place makes it very much mine.”
The cat, who as of yet had not seen fit to provide a name nor to appear appropriate for any name, rubbed against Elenora’s legs. She smirked down at him.
“That is a later stage, and we don’t tell the younger folks about that. No, first we enlist some help of the young and enthusiastic sort – that would be nieces.”
“I don’t remember any of the family being all that enthusiastic about housecleaning.”
“No, of course not. On the other hand, they may – if young women are anything like they were in my day – be interested and almost enthusiastic about learning what bits and pieces – both magic and gossip – I can teach them.”
“And young men?”
“Rarely like gossip, are horrible at house-cleaning, and are not taught magic in this family. A young woman might become the Aunt. A young man will not.”
“Indeed.” The cat, who was most definitely male, looked a little put out for a moment, but then he groomed a paw and the look was gone, just another inscrutable cat-expression. “What corner do we start urinating in?”
“The nearest one, of course. We’re going to have to work our way around, after all.”
Elenora visited her youngest sister and three of her her nieces with teenage daughters and put the word around. By the time she returned to her home, The Cat following her like it had nothing better to do than walk around the neighborhood with an old woman, there were three young women on her porch.
“Come in, come in. Do be careful.” Some perverse urge made Elenora add “I haven’t had a chance to disarm all of Zenobia’s curses and traps yet, so stick to the parts we’re cleaning for now. That woman did have a sense of humor.”
“Sense of humor,” snorted Maisey, her oldest unmarried great-niece. “Dearly departed Aunt Zenobia had a sense of humor made primarily of sharp edges, like all of her senses. Come on, Frances,” she urged her sister, “do watch your step. Have you found anything interesting yet, Aunt Elenora? Aside from traps and curses, I suppose. Oh, hello, a kitty!”
She petted The Cat politely, and, in turn The Cat deigned to lick her fingers and rub against her leg.
“I’ve found some of the old journals, and Aunt Mary’s recipe for ghost-banishing, as well as her raspberry jam recipe we’d all been looking for. Oh, and I believe I found why we needed the recipe for ghost-banishing, and, oh, there were some other things. We’re starting here, with the dining room.” She laid out bins. “Burning rubbish, burying rubbish, garden rubbish, and then this is for paper we we want to keep or copy and this one is for other things that aren’t rubbish. Adelaide, your handwriting is the best. You can copy over the things that are too ruined to keep as they are.”
She cleared a section of table for her youngest niece by pushing things off to the side and set down her good writing paper and ink and her best dip pen. Then, because her grand-nieces were still looking a bit lost, she started in one corner with a pile of paper. “Hrmph. The local paper, ten years past. Ah, that man Zenobia didn’t like.” She shook the paper to be sure it wasn’t hiding anything important, then dropped it in the “burn” bin. “It’s all right, girls, not everything in an Aunt’s house is sacred and magical or we’d never be able to move for the worn stockings and handkerchiefs.”
Maisey giggled. Her sister, however, was a bit more fearful. “But the curses?”
“Oh, you have enough sense to tell a curse from an angry piece of paper, I’m sure. No don’t tell me you’ve never felt for a curse?” At the blank looks, she realized Zenobia had never taken on teaching the next generations. “Tch. All right, come to the basement door, that’s a good one.” And, aside from the curses she’d made up on the fly, the only one she knew existed. “Right here. Now, close your eyes, careful because you are standing at the top of a stairwell. Think about the way that a home should feel. And then -”
With her eyes closed, Adelaide turned towards The Cat. The other two let their hands hover over the place on the door-frame where the old curse was carved. It couldn’t harm them – they were family – but it was a curse nonetheless.
“Very good,” she told all three of them. “Now that you know what it feels like, you can keep an eye on it.” And wasn’t that interesting? She’d had Adelaide pegged as an early marriage and a triple handful of children, but she’d bear watching. “Now let’s get back to work. Zenobia, may the heavens keep her soul, left us quite a mess to deal with, and it’s not getting any less messy as we sit here.”
The dining room proved more than enough for the four of them in an afternoon, but they made considerable headway. In the piles of paper, Maisey found a list of addresses in Zenobia’s ramshackle handwriting. Consultation between the list and the stack of papers suggested some commonality; they took the mass to the big wood stove in the living room and burned it all rather more quickly than they needed to, as if trying to wash out a blood stain.
“She really was a bit dark, wasn’t she?” whispered Frances. “Mother says she did not like if people crossed her or got in her way. And that Edward Cooper, he was trying to buy up the land we keep as meadow, there, the one that’s too swampy to farm properly.”
And Edward Cooper had fallen off of a ladder and hit his head on a stone. He’d lived, but he’d never be the same.
“The thing someone should have taught you long before,” Elenora began, realizing that as she begun, she was committing herself to continue, “is that the family as a whole – this branch or any other, Zenobia or any Aunt or mother, daughter or sister or god help the souls of those in the way, grandmother – does not like it if people cross us or get in our way. But it also important to remember that we live in this community. The curses Zenobia laid will fall on all of us in one way or another, because people – not all people, not even most people – but clever people are going to notice that Edward Cooper was yelling at Zenobia outside of church and then, just two weeks later, he fell down in such a strange manner.”
Her nieces were shifting uncomfortably; good. The more uncomfortable they were, the more it might stick with them.
“But—” Maisey began. “Aunt Elenora, if the family always doesn’t like people going against our will, then why aren’t there more problems? If people are, indeed, going to put two and two together and come up with things that cause problems, then why, for instance, as Aunt Zenobia still allowed in the church?”
“Would you want to kick her out?” Frances muttered. “She’d just have looked at you. And then your veins would freeze.”
“Because, for the most part, we do a lot of it by social pressure, and even if people want to whisper and hiss those are witches, if we are well-mannered, always go to the church picnics and always tithe slightly more than ten percent, then people find themselves feeling silly when they think that the old maid in the family house might be,” she dropped her voice to a scandalous whisper, “a witch.”
“But Aunt Elenora,” Adelaide said, in her endlessly reasonable voice, “we are witches.”
“Well, yes, of course. We’ve always been witches. But that’s no reason to let anyone know it. Now, let’s spend another fifteen minutes on the sorting and I will show you how to see the truth of the written word with a few household ingredients and absolutely no evil or cursing people.”
In three evenings, they had burned more circumstantial proof of malfeasance than the local police department probably saw in a decade. They had found several notes that Elenora found very interesting, one pile of papers that The Cat had refused to move off of until Elenora had promised to store it and not burn it, three mouse skeletons – one of them looked like it had been part of a ritual, which led to a whole different lecture, one she had learned not from Zenobia but from her aunt, Beulah.
“We do not use death magic. Not a bug, not a mouse, not that really annoying woodchuck. We do not use death to fuel our spells nor our divination nor our charms. If you ever think you need to, go to the cemetery and visit your cousin Hilda. As a matter of fact, we will do that when this cleaning is over. Death magic can be immensely powerful, but it always, always, takes more out of you than it takes out of your sacrifice. Do you understand?”
The chorus of Yes, Aunt Elenora was not as sincere as she’d like. She was going to have to take them to visit Hilda, and perhaps on a trip to a far older cemetery afterwards.
That, however, was a matter for another day. For today, she thanked her nieces and saw them on their way with a few relatively safe trinkets they’d found in their cleaning. She lit the gaslights in the dining room and set three candles in a triangle on the now-sparkling-clean table.
The windows were all open, despite the chill. They would need to be, for this. She sat down in the most comfortable of the chairs – Beaulah’s; she did not think anyone had eaten at this table since Zenobia became Aunt. She closed her eyes and opened herself to the legacy power, to the strength of the house, to the strength of her heartbeat.
There’s no use waiting and not marrying, her mother had said, twenty years ago. Zenobia will never give up the power. She hadn’t bothered explaining then, or twenty years before that, or twenty years before that, that she had no interest in marriage. The magic had always been all that drew her.
“Tell me a story,” she told the magic. “Tell me about the legacy.”
Her divination deck was forty years old at this point. It had been painted by her Great-Aunt Beulah and her brother Abram, one of ten they had painted together.
They’d buried Zenobia’s with her. That was not always the tradition, but nobody wanted to touch one that Zenobia had been using. And they’d buried Beulah’s with her out of respect. That left eight sets – and one of them, nobody was going to talk about where it had gone. Men in their family did not use magic, after all.
But they did often make beautiful cards. She laid out a simple story pattern: The core; what the story was about. The heading; where the story was going. The bearing: where it wanted to end up. The block: what got between one and the other.
This, too, she had learned from Beulah.
She flipped the cards over.
The Magus. He was never of the family, never part of them, but he showed up in their stories far too often, frequently as an antagonist.
The Fire. She considered that one for a long moment, and decided she needed more information.
The Crow Cage.
Her hands shook. That card had been painted by Abram on a bad night. He had been up all night painting ten of the nasty thing, and when he was done, he had gone to his room and refused to come out for days.
Each of them had one, but Elenora had lost hers years ago, along with several other cards she did not like the feel of. And here it was.
She flipped over the last card hurriedly, as if to get it over with.
The witch. She snorted a little at the card that could mean her, or Zenobia, Beulah or any woman in the family.
“Look at her.” The Cat hopped up onto the table and paced in a circle around the cards. “Look at this Witch. Is she you?”
“She’s dark where I’m not. She is young — where I’m not.” She studied the picture thoughtfully. “She doesn’t look like Beulah.”
“That is because she is not. This one is interesting. Several of the cards were all the same — and several were not. Go to bed, Elenora. You cannot put together a puzzle with only two pieces.”
“Even for a cat, you’re bossy,” she complained without heat.
“Then feed me first, and I will warm your feet all night.”
“Definitely a cat.” She fed the cat, then several others who lived around the property and didn’t seem inclined to talk to her in anything other than meows, and settled in to her pro tem bed.
The Aunt lived in the house. The Aunt always lived in the house.
Since the rest of the house was currently unlivable, Elenora had made up her room in the Florida room off the kitchen. It had a daybed, curtains for the windows if one wished, and, because some family traditions were too much even for Zenobia to overcome, it had been kept in tidy state for any visitors — visitors which, of course, had not come while Zenobia was in residence.
“And if you get visitors?” The Cat had a way of reading her mind or, at least, asking questions that seemed to suggest mind-reading. Elenora found she neither liked it nor felt too strongly against it.
‘Then they can either cozy up with me, or I’ll sleep in the room over the stables and they can sleep here. We’ll be to a bedroom soon enough. Hopefully, before the winter gets too cold, or you’ll have to convince all your barn cousins to come sleep here as well.”
“Fleas,” the Cat complained disdainfully. “You are a witch. You will be as warm as you need to be.”
Still, she stacked the blankets on the bed and he slept on her feet. And, she noticed, the queen cat he favoured the most often, a pretty black cat with bright green eyes, made her way inside somehow, and slept on Elenora’s pillow, curled against the top of her head. She cast a simple cantrip against vermin, just in case, but she had little concern. Despite The Cat’s complaints, Family cats did not have such problems.
Her nieces continued to visit, and Elenora continued to teach them both the practicalities of their family trade and the things one should or shouldn’t do. The parlour came second, and took nearly twice as long as the dining room — in part because there was a lovely vestibule to the unused front door, and that was full to the windows with a variety of Zenobia’s old experiments. Quite a bit of caution was called for in moving everything in that area, not in the least because Zenobia had used some of the detritus to discourage those who might try coming in the front door.
Family never came in the front door, not their family.
Then again, right now family didn’t come in any door at all, and nobody else was coming to the front door.
Nobody except the nieces she’d invited was visiting Elenora at all. She was going to have to do something about that. Zenobia had held on to the power with an iron grip, but in the process, she’d lost control of the family — more than control, lost the love and regard and respect. Elenora was not the sort of woman who could rule by fear and she wasn’t quite strong enough to hold on to the power with nothing but the house.
First, she needed to make the rest of the house her own.
The second time, she let her nieces watch, because there was a good chance the house would fall to them in due time.
She lit the gaslights and the candles, opened windows until they were all shivering and drew three sigils on the table in madder-based paint with a brush made from The Cat’s hair, which he’d submitted to giving with surprising grace.
“This spread,” she told the girls, “is a simple one, not because we’re looking for something simple but because we’re looking for something big that we need to encompass in long, uncomplicated lines to understand. First, I asked for the framework. Now, I’m beginning to ask for more details.”
She closed her eyes and regarded her deck, then lay the Magus to one side. “Tell me a story about the legacy,” she told the magic. “Tell me about him, and the legacy.”
In the other room, The Cat spat and hissed. He’d told her to look for answers. She wondered if this was hurting him, and if so, why? She wondered if she could afford to stop. Four cards.
The Will-o-wisp, things we should not want. It danced into the swamp down the road,though it meant this will take you places you don’t want to go. Elenora had spent much of her life harvesting that swamp, and had always found that a bit funny.
The library, knowledge easy enough to get to .
Everyone hissed as the third card was flipped over. The empty vessel. Elenora frowned. It could mean many things, but none of them were good.
And then the thief.
“I don’t understand,” Maisey complained in a whisper. “You asked about a Magus. About a Magus and our legacy?”
“It’s not like there aren’t men who reach too far in our legacy,” Frances huffed. “Or women. Someone who wants to suck up all the power for themself, not share it with the family.”
They shared a look, her nieces. Elenora wondered what their mothers and grandmothers had been telling them.
“Is this telling you…” Adelaide was a cautious girl. She steepled her fingers carefully, as if lining up her question, “that the legacy came to you tainted by stolen power?”
“She doesn’t need a card spread for that,” Frances scoffed.
No, but she might need to hold a family picnic. Too bad it was coming into winter and the house was not yet ready for visitors.
“Right now, all the cards are telling me is that the Dark One’s connection to the legacy is stolen power. There are a lot of ways to go dark,” she reminded them, over Frances’ unladylike snort, “and stealing power is one of them. And there are many ways to steal power, as well, and no, I will not teach them to you.”
“Do you know them?” Maisey was growing as impertinent as her sister.
Almost as impertinent. “OF course she does. Zenobia taught her, didn’t she?”
“Ahem.” She was going to have to have a conversation with Maisy and Frances’ mother, among other things. Elenora needed a notebook in which to write this all down, or perhaps an assistant.
“Meet with Maisy’s mother. Talk to the three oldest who still have children around about a family visit, and invite over at least one of your older relatives each week for tea. They won’t turn you down if you invite them.” The Cat jumped into her lap and headbutted her.
“Oh, what a kitty!” Maisey reached out to pet The Cat’s ears; he indulged her by headbutting her hand. “Is he one of the barn cats Aunt Zenobia had around? I always thought they were feral.”
“Feral,” snorted The Cat. He batted at cards still spread on the table. Elenora wondered if anyone else noticed the sparks. “You have power and the will to use it. Good. And the legacy is trying to warn you”. As much as a voice in her mind could sound amused, Elenora thought The Cat sounded it. Laughing at her? No, laughing at the legacy.
She couldn’t very well ask him questions while the girls were there. She petted his ears instead. “Cards aren’t for you, kitty,” she scolded. “He is one of the barn cats, but I’ve found he’s quite friendly. It may be they soak up the magic of the place – there’s enough generations of them born here, after all – and now that Zenobia has passed on, they are taking on the character of the new Aunt.”
Friendly, she hoped she was projecting.
“I can do friendly,” The Cat agreed. “I am very good at friendly.”
Nobody else seemed to hear him. She had assumed that was the case. She was pleased and worried to see that it was so. She petted him right where he liked and smiled at her nieces. “Do you know about magic taking on a character?”
“Oh, yes.” Frances leaned forward. “It has a tendency towards preferring spells and other magics that match its own feel, and it takes on the feel of the spells it is used for. And, in turn, it takes on the feeling of the person using it. So the magic of the family might have felt like Aunt Beulah, a long, long time ago, and it feels sort of dark and angry recently. Because Aunt Zenobia was rather dark and angry…” She trailed off uncomfortably.
“We’ll see what it becomes now,” Maisey ended firmly. “Because you are definitely not Aunt Zenobia. So, ah…” it was her turn to trail off.
Elenora smiled at them and resolved to do those visits as soon as possible. “I am reading the cards as we clean the rooms, because we’re tuning the rooms to the current feel of the magic. And, as we do so, the power will respond differently – in theory. I’ve never had this particular power or project before.”
“Neither have we.” Adelaide graced her with a particularly sweet smile. “But wait – we? Aunt Zenobia never-”
“No. There are a great number things Aunt Zenobia did not do, but I do not plan to be her. I may be a little bit older than an Aunt typically is, but I have no intention to be anything but a full Aunt. And part of that, my nieces, is making sure as many young unmarried women in the family – scratch that, as many childless women in the family attune themselves to the legacy as possible.”
They were staring at her. Elenora decided that was a good place to end for the night. “I’ll see you in a couple days – say, Wednesday. Stop by the kitchen before you leave; I have some trinkets and a couple pies for your mothers.”
She worked on the stairs herself. The stairs were a complicated situation, holding far too much symbology simply as a structure and too much history and meaning in this house. Upstairs, downstairs; it all had meaning and it divided the house up into allowed and not allowed.
The girls came by while she was sitting on the scrubbed staircase with The Cat, studying the faint reflection of a very old ghost. “You can stay,” she told him. He’d been there a long time, after all.
“Who are you talking to, Aunt Elenora?” Adelaide used a voice Elenora recognized as one she’d used on her own older relatives, back when she had many of those to speak to.
“Oh, let’s see you can see him. There’s not much left to him anymore – come here, carefully, and sit around me if you can.”
The Aunt house was a very old house, with narrow stairs, but none of the four of them were large women. They gathered around her. “Good, good. Now close your eyes-”
“Aunt Elenora,” Adelaide spoke quietly, “the stairway feels – odd.”
“It ought to, my dear; it’s part of the house. But what sort of odd are you feeling?”
“There’s something of …oh, that feeling when your ears pop? And it’s like the temperature is different on either side of me.”
“Interesting. Good, good.” Now how was she going to keep this girl unmarried long enough to be the next Aunt? “And do you feel -”
“Oh!” Maisey sounded delighted. “Oh, hello.” She made a clumsy sitting curtsy. “You look like a photo my mother has at home.”
And wasn’t that interesting. The specter, barely more than an outline in white and grey, bowed back at the girls.
“How long has be been here?” Frances’ voice was quiet, reverent. The girl was often soft-spoken, but something about this was different – she was being respectful.
“I’m not sure, but if he is who Maisey thinks he is, my best guess is about a hundred and ten years. We, the family, we hold on to things. And sometimes we hold on to people, as well.”
“You said something about using death-” Frances was pale.
“Smart girl. I did. No, I don’t think that’s what happened to him. I think that he loved someone very much, and this, well.” She knew her smile was crooked. They were young women, at the height of such things, and she was long past them and had never cared to begin with. “The stairs of the Aunt House have some peculiar symbolism. The upstairs is the bedrooms, you see-”
Adelaide blushed first. After a moment, Maisey breathed, “oh. Oh, he loved her. And he couldn’t have her. He loved her so much his longing kept him stuck here? That’s so romantic and so sad!” She attempted – Elenora had never seen this attempted before – to hug the ghost.
And the ghost hugged her back! He patted Maisey’s back with translucent hands and patted her cheek when she stepped back, and bowed as he faded back into the woodwork.
“Is he…?” Frances as nearly frozen in place.
“He’s not gone, no. But it takes energy to stay visible, and he hasn’t all that much energy anymore. All right. While you’re here, we might as well start to work on the Quilting Room.”
Like canning, quilting in the Aunt Family had not been an activity in quite some time. But the room in the back of the house, behind the parlour and somewhat under the staircase and above the basement stairs, was still called the Quilting Room. It might have been a drawing room or a formal sitting-room in another family or in another time, but in their family, women gathered to quilt and knit and spin and tat and, of course, to gossip.
Maisey made a face. Elenora didn’t blame her. “It smells just walking by there. Can’t we do one of the bedrooms first? If you’re still sleeping out in the Florida Room, you should really have a proper place to sleep-”
It wasn’t that Elenora didn’t agree with her, but – “Let’s get the first floor done first. The kitchen was fine, and Zenobia’s office is going to have to be absolutely last. So first we do the quilting room. I’ll show you three every-day tricks and one magical one for dealing with the smell.”
The windows open, the scent-sticks lit and placed in appropriate places, bandannas over their noses and every place they could draw the small charm of let-this-be-nice – a charm every family woman ought to have already known – the stench in the room as made bearable. The mess, however, was awful. The other rooms at least had been walked through. This one, it looked like Zenobia had just tossed things into.
To make matters stranger, there were two areas The Cat would not allow them into – the outside-most corner and under the great old desk that sat, shellac peeling, under stacks of old quilting tools and piles of papers.
“What has gotten into you?” she asked the cat, a question that would have been rhetorical in other circumstances.
“They are young,” he informed her. “Some things they do not need to see.”
Gallantry from The Cat was not what she’d expected but, she realized, she had little idea what to expect. “Let’s let him have his little fit,” she told the girls. “I’ll get those areas later, after he’s has some cream and is resting peacefully out in the barn.”
“He seems awfully determined for a ‘fit’.” Adelaide studied The Cat curiously. “If he was a queen, I’d say he had kittens hiding back there, but he’s definitely a tom, isn’t he?”
“Definitely.” The smell in the room, at least, had nothing of cat spray to it. “If it turns out to be kittens, I promise I’ll let you girls know first.”
If not mollified, the girls at least knew when they were being put off and were smart enough not to push matters. Maisey picked a corner and, with a great deal of complaining that Elenora did not begrudge them one bit, they began cleaning the room.
This room had both more “burn” or “bury” things than the other rooms and more interesting pieces, as well as a couple actual or accidental traps. Adelaide had quite a bit of sense and more than a bit of Sense and pulled her cousin out of one of the more dangerous ones; Elenora noticed the moment the girl decided to let Maisey, on the other hand, get hit with a tumbling bin of dead insects.
It took a good twenty minutes for Frances and Maisey to pick every insect out of Maisey’s hair and clothing, time which Elenora spent sorting through some of the stranger things hidden in the box under the insects – tiny animal figurines, little carved designs that seemed half plant and half animal, and sketches of several neighbors – and which Adelaide spent calmly moving books into curated stacks .
Finally, as it grew close to dark, Elenora dismissed them. “All right, I’ll see you tomorrow. Have a good night, and Frances, put back those figurines I saw you slipping into your pocket. Maisey, you may pick one. Adelaide, you remember that clear-sight clear-night spell I taught you?”
Still scolding and instructing them, she bustled them out the door. None had far to go, and nobody would bother a family daughter around here, but she could use the setting sun as an excuse to hustle them out.
Once they were gone, she returned to the Quilt room, to the area The Cat had been guarding. “Well?”
“It’s not kittens. Those, by the way, are above the stables in the corner it’s hard for humans to get to. I can show you tomorrow.”
“Thank you. The girls will like that. So—”
“So. There are secrets and secrets. This one doesn’t look like so much.”
He stepped out of the way. Elenora moved carefully, as if the pile of papers could hold a live snake or an irritable skunk — or a skeleton.
Instead, she found three empty canning jars, sealed with wax over what looked like normal wax and rings. Not empty, she realized, as her fingers brushed over them — something or someone was sealed within.
She picked up a piece of silk scarf and used it to move the jars into an old shoe-box. “And under the desk?”
“Just an old dead possum. I didn’t kill it, or there wouldn’t be anything left.”
“Thank you for the warnings.” She carried the shoe-box carefully. She could put it in Zenobia’s office — but they would have to clean it out eventually. It was going to have to go upstairs for now.
“This way. The second bedroom she left untouched. I think she hoped the family would forgive her for surviving eventually.” The Cat led the way upstairs, nodding at the ghost, to the nicest guest room in a house full of such rooms. And, indeed, if a bit dusty, it was clean.
Elenora put the jars away on the top shelf of the closet, dealt with what was left of the possum, cleaned that corner of the floor thoroughly, and then sat down to look at what the cards had given her for the stairway, just before the girls had arrived.
Tell me about the fire and our legacy, she’d said.
She’d meant to lay down four cards. She’d planned to do the same spread for each of the original four cards.
Instead three cards had practically fallen out of the deck in the arrangement Past, Present, Future.
The Crow Cage
She lay the cards out again, studying them.
The fire was a change or a transformation: What it left behind was often new life, but was sometimes just destruction.
The crow cage again. Someone had been trapped. Someone had been horribly trapped. Or their power was trapped? She thought about Frances’ thoughtless comments, about the way Zenobia had held onto the power with clawed, crabbed hands, refusing to share.
I think she hoped the family would forgive her for surviving eventually.
But what if there had been a reason she had been so greedy with the power, so angry with everyone?
What if she hadn’t been the thief after all?
Elenora’s mind went back to a few overheard conversations when she’d been much younger, when Zenobia had just taken over the house and the legacy. There had been muttering. Beulah wasn’t dead, not as far as anyone knew. But the power had moved on. Had Zenobia done something? She’d always been such a dark child….
She stacked up her cards, shuffled them twice, and put them away in a silk bag in the Florida room. She would find out what was happening eventually. She hadn’t gotten to this point by being impatient, after all.
The cleaning of the Quilt Room went faster without The Cat looming and threatening them, although it was sidetracked by nearly half a day by the “discovery” of the kittens in the hayloft. Three days later — three days which included tea with two separate cousins and a rather peaceful baking session with her oldest niece — she knew more about Zenobia, and about the family’s perception of Zenobia — than she had, but she knew no more about the legacy, or why it might be tainted with stolen magic, or why the blasted crow cage kept coming up.
She sent another polite note to her oldest surviving aunt, asking her to tea, and paced around the house. She was uncertain about doing another reading in front of the girls, not when the cards seemed to have an agenda of their own. And they needed one more room after the Quilt room.
It wouldn’t be the kitchen or the Florida room; neither had enough of Zenobia in them. That meant it was either going to be the basement or Zenobia’s office.
She would have to check the basement before she allowed the girls down there. Wednesday morning, she headed for the basement door.
The Cat hissed at her.
“I beg your pardon?” She opened the door. “This is my house and I am the Aunt.”
“Not until the house is sure it is yours. Do not go down there yet.” He was standing between her and the stairs. His ears were down and he was not looking her in the eye. “I beg of you, not yet.”
“I didn’t know that you knew how to beg.” She looked down at The Cat. He definitely looked like he was begging. “All right, all right. Not until the house is sure it’s mine. And then you’re coming down there with me.” She reached over him and closed the door firmly. “So that means the office.” She huffed. “I did not want to clean the office.”
“Of course you didn’t. Do you think Zenobia wanted anyone going in there? Doorway, top, corners, then the window on all four corners. The runes are hard to see unless you know what you’re looking for, but they’re there.”
“That…” She struggled for an appropriate word that was sufficiently ladylike, then decided to let ladylike hang. “That bitch! It wasn’t as if she didn’t know she was dying.”
“It was, however, as if she did not know if she would die without putting her affairs in order. And in the end, she died without everything complete. There’s nothing that can hurt you in that office, but there are things that may upset you”
“Is it safe for the girls?”
“It is as safe as anywhere else in this family. If one of them is to be the Aunt after you, they will have to learn to handle such things.”
“But not mystery jars.”
“No. Not mystery jars, and not dark curses, and not the power of using death magic or of stealing someone else’s power. Zenobia did far less of that then people believe, but it was still far too much. Of course, your family drove her to it.” He sat back on his haunches and cleaned himself, as if the matter was now solved and he had greater things, like a dirty whisker, to worry about. “There was far too much distrust of her, right from the beginning. Hope that they underestimate you. That will lead them to trust you, even if for the wrong reasons. And that, in turn, will let you do what is needful”.
“And what is that?” She did not snap it, but the Cat’s ears went back nonetheless. She did not wish to be the puppet of a feline, after all.
“You have been considering it since you began cleaning the house. You wish to bring the family back together and to spread the power, the legacy, back out. And you should.”
“Well, thank you,” she huffed. “I’m glad it meets with your approval.”
“The family… bad things will happen”. He rolled over and showed his belly. “Very bad things will happen if the family is not mended, or split properly and then mended in two. I tried to warn Zenobia, but it was not something she could do. There were too many forces working against her.”
“Forces? Against the Aunt?”
“Think about what you know and tell me it is not true. They tried to kill her. They tried to remove her. They tried to cut her off from the power. But all they did was sever the family in ways that cannot heal on their own”. He gave her a kittenish look. “I’m not telling you what you must do or attempting to dictate your actions. I’m no longer that stupid. I’m telling you what I can see”.
“All right.” She took pity on him, bent down and petted him between the ears. “You’re right. I need to bring the family back together. I need to make this place my own. I need to learn what the cards are trying to tell me. And I have to do it all before I croak and hand this mess over to someone else.”
“You will not die soon. But you should do this sooner than that.”
“Thank you. You’re quite the font of advice today.”
“I live to serve.”
Once she had cleared out the runes, the office seemed much brighter, much safer, and much more entertaining to clean out. She set Maisey and Adelaide to clean it out and work through the catalogs while Frances, who was still sulking, helped Elenora with the last of the work in the Quilt room.
“I would ask you to read the cards here in another situation,” she told her niece. “I think you will have the power in full when you are a bit older. But since I am attuning the house at the moment -”
“I understand.” She nodded solemnly. “Besides, we’re still cleaning up all of Aunt Zenobia’s residue, aren’t we? I don’t want to get entangled in something I can’t handle.”
“Smart girl.” Elenora nodded her approval. “So we’re going to see what the cards want to do this time, because last time, they had their own opinions on matters.” She opened the windows and lit the candles and the gas-lights. She sat down on the floor and ran her hand over the cards.
She set the Crow Cage out to one side. “This card means punishment. But it means more than punishment. It means-”
“Captivity.” The cat touched the card with one paw. “Captivity and punishment that lasts unto death, and torment.”
“I don’t think he likes that card, Aunt Elenora.”
“I think you’re right.” She spoke slowly, looking at the cat and then back at the card. “It means the harshest of punishments, self- or outward-inflicted. This card – it’s a bad card.” She frowned at it. “And it’s not likely to come up much in your life, or, at least, I hope it doesn’t.”
“Tell me a story,” she asked the cards. “Tell me about the Crow Cage.”
Three card flipped out of the deck, landing as if the Crow Cage was the core of this story.
And perhaps it was after all.
The angel, inverted, presented itself for the heading. No, this was a different layout. She frowned at the cards.
“This,” she tapped at the Crow Cage, “this is the answer to the question. This,” she tapped the inverted Hero, “this is the answer to why. This,” she flipped a card below and to the left, “this tells us what, although the what should be – oh.” She stared at the empty vessel in dismay. “Oh. And then this should either be where or when. The cards don’t seem to want to give us all five answers.”
“Aunt Elenora…” Frances’ voice shook. “What does this mean?”
“It means that someone or something was trapped. It means that the trapping was because of a faithless hero. And it means,” she flipped over. “Hrmm. The Sky, the Void, the ever-going horizon. This means opportunity, but it can also mean eternity: what was and is and forever will be.”
“That… that is rather distressing.” Frances frowned at the cards. “Did Aunt Zenobia do that?”
The Witch card fell out of the deck and landed to the left of everything. Once again, it was an old Aunt, not Beulah nor Zenobia nor, of course, Elenora.
“That’s enough questions.” She packed the deck up carefully. “Always beware of what you ask, Frances, for you will almost always get an answer.”
“But-” Frances fell quiet for a moment, helping Elenora close the windows and blow out the candles. “Don’t you want answers?” she asked later. “My mother says that Zenobia probably didn’t train you at all.”
“Your mother is, on this point, very incorrect. Zenobia trained me – and only me, which was a gross oversight on her part, considering my age. No, I know what I’m doing, young lady.”
“I’m sorry. I just – I’ve never seen the cards do that. I thought at first that your hands were shaking, but they weren’t. They just wanted to be in a particular layout. Is that the house, or is that the legacy, or is that the cards? Or is it something else?”
“It is me. And it is the legacy. And it’s the cards, and the house. Because those are all, to some degree or another, the same thing. They might behave differently for you, but I don’t think we have someone in the family right now who knows how to paint the cards.” She was going to have to find someone, or that knowledge would be lost forever.
Somebody needs to know, or the information is going to get lost. If you do not know, to tell the one who comes after, then it will be lost forever – and that could be rather bad.
The Cat had said that. He’d said he was going to teach her. She wondered if there was some sort of Tit for Tat going on, or if she was imagining that. Either way, she was going to have to teach these nieces, and it seemed at least one nephew or male cousin as well.
“The cards are painted for an individual, then?”
“These cards are. Other cards are different. Other sets are different. But this set is unique to the way we tell the story, the way we see things.” She pulled the Aunt card from the deck, checked to be sure it was still the same Aunt, and handed it to Frances. “You and Adelaide take this and go through the old portraits and photographs. I believe Constance is holding on to them.”
“Sometimes we have to look at the world around us to see what we’re learning from the cards. There’s nothing more to learn from this room until we start quilting in it again, so go learn something from the card.” She shooed Frances on with a friendly gesture.
Adelaide, as much as she seemed to enjoy cataloging, was glad enough for the break. Elenora took pity on Maisey and brought her into the kitchen to teach her one of the family recipes, a good cookie recipe women in the church had been trying to get their mitts on since Elenora had been Maisey’s age.
When she left, hours later, with a basket of cookies, Maisey kissed Elenora’s cheek. “I had a great time today. We’ll be back tomorrow to help you, of course.”
“Of course. Now get on with you, or you’ll be late to help your mama with dinner.”
“You should have dinner with us, Aunt Elenora. You should come! You’re family, after all.”
“You check with your mother and maybe I’ll come by tomorrow. But not with no warning. Go on with you.” She gave Maisey another hug and sent her on her way.
“You’re going to look for the answers tonight, aren’t you?” The Cat bumped up against her legs, but something about the gesture looked worried.
“You know the answers already, don’t you?” She looked down at him. “You know everything about this family already.”
“Not everything. Not by far. But I know what your answer is. And I cannot tell you.”
“Am I looking in the right place?”
“If you’re going to look in her office, yes. If you look there, and light the right scents, and that I CAN tell you, then you are looking in the right place. But I can’t say you’re going to like the answers”.
“The Magus. The Crow Cage. The Witch – and I already know who that is, it’s Beaulah’s great-Aunt, isn’t it? The dark one.”
“You say ‘dark,’ who trained under Zenobia?”
“I say ‘dark’, who knows the difference between a little bit bitchy and a lot of evil, yes.”
“You’re smarter than many and more willing to see problems in your own house than most. I like that.”
“Comes of being old enough to have little to lose and having outlived many of the worst biddies. So, are you going to help me?”
“This is the Aunt reading, is it not? And you sent the Aunt card out with your nieces.”
“Do you really think that will stop this reading?”
“No. No, of course not. The question was if you thought that it would.”
“Testing me. You’re an arrogant cat, you know.”
“ am a cat. And thus I am arrogant. Read the cards.”
“Tell me what to do one more time and I’m putting you in a crate.”
“You ARE the Aunt” He sat down and waited, watching her, still.
Elenora counted to ten in her head. She could win a staring contest with a cat. She was the Aunt; she could win a staring contest with a glacier if need be.
At seven he looked away. “You are the Aunt.”
She lit the candles and the gaslights once again, the incense sticks in the corners. She left the door open and sat at the desk her nieces had cleared.
“I am the Aunt,” she told the cards. “Tell me what happened.”
She watched as the cards fell out of the deck.
The Hero, reversed.
The crow cage.
The empty vessel.
A painting of a cat, not, as she knew it, part of any family divination deck.
And the Aunt card once again.
“Oh,” she hissed quietly. “Oh.”
And as if making sure she understood, three more cards fell out.
The goblet — the full goblet.
The cat card seemed to move to sit with those three.
Elenora leaned back and stared at the cards. “Well,” she grumbled, “you could have said.” After a moment, she chuckled.
“So,” she looked down at the cat. “You are the legacy of stolen power and cages. You are the Magus and the untrue Hero; you’re the Thief and, most importantly, you’re the scorpion.
“And when I asked the cards about the Legacy, they decided I needed to know about you instead of about the house.”
“That was them. That was the power. After all, you already know what your power is. You can find everything you need to know about Zenobia from the house itself. But the legacy, it’s…” He shook himself and started grooming a paw intently.
“The legacy is the power and the house and the title. It’s the family and the knowledge and the junk and the artifacts.” She considered that. “Everything we get passed down. So.” She pet the cat between the ears. “A long time ago, you transgressed and they punished you.”
“Unto death.” He scratched an itch behind one ear with his hind leg.
“And yet you transgressed again.”
“It has nothing to do with logic,” he quoted.“It’s just my character.”
“The scorpion.” She sighed. “And so they trapped you even further, locked you up in this body that, I presume, does not die easily.”
“Cats have nine lives.” He turned around a few times and sat down, tail over his nose.
“So.” She looked around. “My legacy is a mess of a house, the residue of dark magics, the after-effects of a long-lived Aunt who hated everyone-”
“With cause.” He looked at her with one eye over his tail. “With more than due cause.”
“-and the magic hoarded so closely that it is likely to be acting strangely.” She hrrmed. “And you. Well, come on, legacy cat.” She leaned down and scooped him onto her lap. “You make me feel young, in comparison, and for that alone I’m going to keep you in cream and meat. But we have a lot of work to do, and only the stars know how long we have to do it in.” She petted him behind the ears until he purred.
The crow cage. She wanted to burn the card, but she was afraid she’d need that, that and the empty goblet, again. There was a lot of cleaning up to do, and they had only barely begun.