They were tiny - no bigger than the last joint of my pinky finger – and translucent, their tiny organs visible through their glassine flesh. Sometimes they would flit about my head on papery wings and sometimes they would dance amongst the flower heads, their tiny mouths open as they sang melodies in an octave I couldn’t hear.
Nobody else could see them though; and as I grew older, they either became invisible to me as well – or I grew up enough that my imagination couldn’t sustain the reality of them. In the end I realised that they were just imaginary friends, exactly like the ones other children had.
So I forgot about them.
Being raised by a solo mother wasn’t all bad. While we were excruciatingly poor, my mother devoted her time to me as much as she could. She was the central focus in my life, the person who loved me the most, the person who gave me life.
Why she never re-married after my father left her, I’ll never know. She was beautiful, my mother, in a fragile, ethereal way – as though at any moment a strong wind could blow all the substance out of her and leave only a skeletal web of spider-silk strands behind.
She attracted men, certainly. She was never short of friendly masculine helpers and admirers, but she shyly shunned them all, to spend time with me, her only child.
School wasn’t easy for me, even though I had a good life. I was not a bright child or an eloquent child; I struggled and often fell behind. By the time I was twelve, my only remarkable skills were my ability to endlessly daydream and a decent reading level.
But I was happy enough.
My mother’s death swamped my small island of happiness with a raging tsunami from the deeps, destroying the fragile emotional stability I had and leaving a world of tidewrack and wreckage, chilly and chaotic. The numb wait in the emergency room had ended with a sour-faced doctor explaining that my mother had died of a massive stroke, brought on by an ‘unknown cause’. He advised me to call my nearest relative on the public phone and said they would conduct an autopsy to look further into cause of death.
But I had no relatives to call; I had no aunts, no uncles, not grandparents and no siblings. With the loss of my mother I was sixteen years old and utterly alone in the world.
Lacking anyone else to call, I phoned my English teacher, Mrs Ross, who picked me up in her VW Beetle and drove me home to the tiny house I had shared with my beloved mother.
No one expected me back at school for a long time, so I took my time, going through the small hoard of things my mother had collected over the years. She eschewed jewellery, but had a fine collection of second-hand clothes, all sized for her delicate frame by her own patient needlework, all lovingly folded and pressed with lavender.
I remember holding those dresses to my mouth and breathing in her scent, the tears finally breaching my lingering shock and soaking the fragrant fabrics.
Oh mother, I miss you so much!
It was hard, desperately hard, to go through her possessions – each one stamped so indelibly with her unique character. Little boxes of seashells, feathers from rescued baby birds, saved whiskers from our long dead cat. There was a painted box that contained letters, organised neatly by type and name – most of them from the men who admired her, most of them love letters. Bills and legal documents sat to one side – something I would need to deal with later – but at the bottom of the box was a blue-green envelope addressed to my mother in beautiful golden calligraphy.
Inside was a single card of deep violet paper, the same spidery calligraphy containing a message for my mother,
I am writing to congratulate you on the birth of your first child – it is such a shame I cannot be there for the Christening.
Your Great Aunt Raisa
On the reverse side of the envelope was a return address – the address of my only known living relative, the mysterious Great Aunt Raisa.
Despite the letter being sixteen years old, my aunt was still in residence at the address listed; a curious old stone church that had been converted into an observatory at some point in its life, the onion dome replaced with a genuine dome – from which peeked the verdigrissed cannon of a bronze telescope.
Cats wandered freely in the front yard – fragrant with wildflowers and the strains of a piano tinkled from inside the building. My knock on the door with the heavy brass knocker precipitated a sudden halt to the music and the sound of boots approaching on wooden floorboards.
That Raisa was related to us, I had no doubt. The woman who opened the door was elderly, but her weathered flesh still had the delicate stamp of my mother’s face and the bird-like build I shared with her. She gazed at me with her still-sharp emerald eyes for a long moment, then stepped forward and enveloped me in a lavender-scented hug that tore away the last supports on the emotional dam I had been desperately propping up.
She let me cry until there were no more tears, just ugly gulps and wracking sobs. Then she led me to the neat, pretty kitchen and put a copper kettle on the gas stove.
“How did she die?” my aunt finally asked.
I explained to her the stroke, the lack of underlying cause, my teacher taking me home, then going through my mother’s things and finding the letter. As she placed the steaming tea in front of me, I asked the question that had been burning my tongue since I had got here,
“Why did she never speak of you?”
“Your mother and I had a falling out many years ago over an unpaid debt. I forgave her, but her pride wouldn’t allow her to acknowledge me. But that’s all in the past; you’re here now and I’ll do everything I can to help you.”
Relieved, wrung out and deathly tired, I simply nodded.
The first problem that aunt Raisa helped me with was my mother’s outstanding debts. Pressing a thick gold chain into my hand, my new aunt instructed me to sell the gold and settle mother’s debts with the money.
I refused initially, but she insisted, saying, “I am your guardian now, it is my lot to provide for you and see you live a good, fulfilling life. I won’t take no for an answer.” So I took the chain, on the condition I would pay her back somehow.
“You can pay me back by making me a promise,” she had said, “promise me that you will always light a beeswax candle on your mother’s birthday.”
The money from the gold was considerable and it more than paid off the debts my mother had owed. Aunt Raisa put the remainder in an investment fund for me and promised I would get the money back when I turned twenty one.
Although I am ashamed to admit it, Raisa was a better mother to me. She was a hard task mistress at times; tutoring me late in the evenings to bring my grades up at school and pushing me out of my natural predilection to be lazy and to daydream.
Independently wealthy and owning the church and surrounding acres of property, Raisa was able to provide a lifestyle that saw my acne vanish within months and my flabby middle tighten up with yard work and farm chores.
I thanked her for everything she had done for me, asking how I could ever repay her.
As she often did when I raised the issue of my debt to her, she would brush it off by making up some nebulous payment on the spot, like “always wish on a dandelion” or “never raise your voice to an animal.” I never thought she was particularly serious.
After she set me up with a paid internship at a law firm, I met a young man of the same age as me named Liam. From a desperately poor urchin with failing grades and the aesthetic appeal of a toad, I had bloomed into a pretty, intelligent, focused young woman with a bright future.
On my twenty first birthday, Raisa gifted me the matured investment fund – which had seen a runaway success and now totalled well over fifty thousand dollars. Liam proposed – with an heirloom ring provided by my aunt – and we eventually married at the church, amongst the cats, the flowers and the scent of lavender.
Three months and three days after the wedding, Liam fell ill.
The doctors were baffled; he was dropping weight at an alarming rate and a constant lethargy afflicted him. The sickly-sweet smell of ‘Ensure’ plagued my days at the hospital and I had to take an extended leave of absence from work.
Aunt Raisa seemed distant during this time, even slightly off in some intangible way. Pressing her on the matter of Liam, I asked her why she never visited him, why she didn’t seem to care.
But nothing was forthcoming.
On life support now, my beloved husband – the most precious person in my life since my mother – would only rouse now for a few hours a day, spending the rest comatose and barely breathing.
“Is aunt Raisa here?” he would often ask. When I told him that she never visited, he would say, “Oh, I thought I could hear her.”
The day that Liam died he gripped my hand in his skeletal digits with a sudden and feverish strength.
“I love you Caelin,” he whispered, stroking the emerald and gold wedding band on my ring finger, “it’s silly, but I feel this strangely heavy regret for not keeping my promise to your aunt.”
As the afternoon wore on, his vital signs deteriorated and I was taken from the room.
Just before midnight Liam was proclaimed dead.
For the second time in my brief existence, the love of my life had been taken from me.
Raisa never attended the funeral and when I returned to the church, I began packing my belongings in a grieving fury, angry beyond belief that she had been so callous, so inhuman in the face of my husband’s death.
When I pulled my suitcase out into the hall, Raisa was there, as prim and authoritative as ever.
“Yesterday was your mother’s birthday,” she said, pacing toward me.
“It was also my husband’s funeral!” I spat back at her.
“You didn’t light a candle.”
“Didn’t you hear me? I was busy burying my husband!”
Raisa’s bird-boned fingers snapped out and grabbed my wrist, her strength terrifying for someone so old and small.
“You broke a promise.”
“I don’t care!”
Wresting my arm from her grip, I hauled the suitcase to the door and called a cab on my phone.
After a miserable half hour wait in a miserable grey drizzle, the cab arrived and I left my aunt Raisa, vowing to never return.
The money was gone.
How Raisa had managed to repossess the investment money I couldn’t fathom. The banks couldn’t explain it; they said the money had never existed and in fact I was desperately in arears on a loan payment.
Even worse, the payments to the funeral home had bounced and a debt collection agency had left several nasty messaged on my phone. I quickly contacted my new in-laws for assistance – they had paid half the costs of the service – but instead of the sympathy and understanding I expected, Liam’s mother seemed distant, asking where I was staying and making hurried promises to settle the debts.
Three hours later I was taken into custody by a pair of police officers, under arrest on suspicion of the death of Liam Harrington.
It was, of course, my aunt Raisa who was my first visitor.
She was uncomfortable outside of her home, her domain, but she was still as in control as ever.
“Caelin dear,” she began, “come home with me. I can make all of this,” she waved her hand disdainfully at the surrounding police station, “go away.”
“I don’t understand,” I replied, angry, confused.
“Come now child. You don’t think your good fortune up until now had been the result of hard work, do you?”
I didn’t answer. I didn’t want to think about it.
“If that stupid boy had kept his promise for the ring, none of this would have happened.”
Cold needles flooded my stomach, then slithered up my spine and into the base of my skull:
”What did you do to Liam?”
Raisa’s green eyes shone peculiarly in the fluorescent light of the interview room,
“I did nothing. The man himself broke the bargain; I do not enforce the consequences.”
Realisation dawned on me, a rising bloodmoon on the dark landscape of my thoughts:
“The money, the candle on my mother’s birthday.”
The light in Raisa’s eyes was not natural now; eldritch fire – the likes of which I hadn’t seen since I was a child – burned deep in her dilated pupils.
“I our family, dear Caelin, promises are law, and pacts are for life!”
Choking on fear, I pushed back the chair to escape.
Leaning forward with predatory speed, she trapped my hands on the table top,
“There is new life inside you, dear niece. Promise me the child and this will all go away.”
Weeping, terrified, alone and grieving, I promised her my unborn child then and there.
The charges were dropped with alarming alacrity, with an apology from the chief of staff and from Liam’s family. Pathology had mixed up the lab results which had pointed to me poisoning Liam, and I had been cleared of all wrongdoing.
For Raisa, it was a return to the ebb and flow of life in the old stone church, of cats and herbs, chores and blossoms. He niece was home, pregnant with child, and that child would eventually belong to her. “Are you really my family?” I had asked her, cats winding through my swollen ankles.
“Oh yes,” she replied, “though several measures more ancient than you suspect.”
“The fairies I saw when I was a child, they were real, weren’t they?”
“Of course they were, dear niece.”
That was the last we spoke on that matter.
It was the copper kettle, the brass knocker, the bronze-legged furniture and the polished silverware that tipped the balance of power in my favour. I knew now that my aunt was something fey, something faerie and ancient.
The lack of iron in the house had escaped my notice until now, but alerted to the lack of it, I had the upper hand.
The iron cross had cost me next to nothing in the second hand store, but it was more precious than any gemstone or trinket made of gold. Heavily pregnant now, I waited for Raisa in the exquisitely tidy kitchen of copper and brass.
She smelled the iron immediately, her ageless face white with rage.
“Get rid of that now!” she ordered.
Fishing the crude necklace out from under my sweater, I thrust it in her face.
“Renounce your claim on my child!”
“That’s not how it works!” Holding the iron cross like a sword, I advanced on her,
“What do you mean?”
“Promises can only be made or broken; they cannot be amended!”
Smoke was rising from Raisa’s skin – from proximity to the base metal, her skin darkening and blistering.
“Promise me you will never follow me then! Promise me you will leave me alone forever!”
Backing away from the creature that was my aunt, I turned and fled from the house as fast as my strained legs would allow.
True to her word, my aunt never followed.
What would happen if she broke that promise, I do not know, but I suspect that whatever heritage we had in common meant that I would be the final arbiter of her ‘punishment’.
Every night I repeat the litany of little promises I made to her over the years – always wish on dandelions, never raise your voice to an animal, never name the messiah on Samhain, never view your reflection wearing red, always pick up a fallen chrysalis, always be in bed before midnight...
For if I ever breach one of my promises, she will know and she will exact her vengeance on me.
Three days ago my daughter was born and I took her home to the tiny flat I had rented with the small amount of money I have left.
Lying on the formica kitchen table was a blue-green envelope, addressed to me in beautiful golden handwriting.
And inside was a card of darkest violet, bearing a message in spidery silver script:
I am writing to congratulate you on the birth of your first child – it is such a shame I cannot be there for the christening.
Your Great Aunt Raisa