The Inheritance of Willie Glover
The old man took down from the top shelf a hardwood box, stained dark and aged almost to blackness, and covered with the dust of years. Willie sat waiting and rapt as children get at such times as long, pale fingers slid off the lid, revealing a pale oval in a sea of newspaper, a shallow bowl wider across than Willie’s outstretched fingers and marked with curious brown lines were the segments looked to have grown together. The old man did not take it out immediately, but the two sat there for a while looking at it, stealing glances at each other’s expression as certain inexpressible sentiments passed between them.
Finally, the old man scooped out the thing and set it before Willie. Here was the original model of the Jolly Roger staring back at him, down to the empty sockets and few remaining teeth, the bones of the nose all gone or fallen away to leave a gaping triangular hole, the cheek bones notched and damaged—but the great bowl of the skull was pristine and whole, save for where the cranium had been nicely sliced off with some skill, and the top half inverted and set to form a wide cup in the brain-case. The squat handle and base that stuck out of the bottom were wooden, and Willie tilted his head but could not quite see how they had been attached. The old man sucked his teeth and chewed on his lip a bit as the boy examined the cup from every angle, tiny fingers not quite daring to touch it yet.
“I can’t say where it’s come from.” The old man said, bony hands clasping bony knees. “Or how long ago. When my grandfather Theseus was dying, he called my father and I into his bedroom and sent the women out. I was younger even than you then, when he passed it on to us, and he couldn’t tell us any more about the thing than that it had come from his grandfather through his uncle—that would be your Great-great-granduncle Apollo—and he told us the same thing Apollo had told him: ‘το αιμα αυτου εφ ημας και επι τα τεκνα ημων.’”
The old man’s eyes cast downward, somewhat embarassed. “Anyways, it’s yours now.”
His mother’s hand shook Willie out of his reverie, and he made his way up to the coffin, the other mourners parting like the waters of the Red Sea. Nothing of his grandfather was visible save the neck, with even the hands hidden by the great coffin that had reminded Willie so much of the box with the skull-cup. The boy had wondered at the funeral home the first time he had gone through with his mother: a house with nothing but hallways and parlors, no bedrooms, kitchens, or study that he could see, and now he knew why. Alone in his thoughts Willie’s hands went to the coins in his pocket, and slowly drew them out as he followed his mother up to the cloth-covered dais where his grandfather lay, surrounded by the sickly-sweet blossoms to mask the smell.
Willie murmured his mother’s prayers, but when she had done and left Willie stayed and whispered those other words his grandfather had asked him to recite, and standing up on his tip-toes reached up and over the flowers to lay the coins at his eyes. His mother said nothing, but waited for him to finish. Willie saw her face then, neither smiling nor sad, but it seemed to him filled with a terrible pride.
The funeral director came when they were done, and closed the lid. Willie’s last sight of his grandfather was the light reflecting off the drummer boys, the celebration of two centuries on each eye.
Alone in the attic bedroom, with its strange sloping ceiling where the roof came down, Willie yawned and shivered a little at night, letting the colored chalk fall from a cold-numbed hand, and the drooping cap slide down on his head. In the center of the circle something dark blazed, resting on its haunches, chewing at the tiny bones of the offering. Flames licked out where its black skin split, but did nothing to warm Willie. He stared idly into the darkness, the swirling half-lights there resolving themselves into the daemon’s form. So black and still was the night, if Willie forgot to look for it he would forget his eyes were open, or that he was seeing anything at all.
The demon spoke is an almost silent whisper, the sounds the creep up on the edge of sleep when all else lies quiet—the rustle in the house, the half-heard memories of songs that are as clear at night as if they played in a distant room, so that Willie did not know if he truly heard them or was simply recalling them so well it was if they played again in his ears. But it spoke of a boy that had found a strange warm cave, and in the great cavity there was a giant or dragon who had long ago drawn up the earth around it as a blanket while it slept, and the heat of its body and its breath warmed the vast, dark chamber just as Willie’s own breath might do on cold nights, when he drew the great heavy quilt from his grandfather’s bed up over his own head.
So well did the tiny voice tell the story that Willie saw in the rafters of the attic the outlines of the great beast on its side, the shape and curve of its ribs and sternum, and the strange smell of its breath made him woozy so that he sank to the floor, hands grasping at the cracks in the stone. Willie looked down at the cracks, through which came a light that was bright and painful to his dark-accustomed eyes, and it went dark again to leave light-shadows on his vision—but he had seen, it that second of brightness, two pale naked shapes on the bed below, and even as he listened he could hear faint creaking and sounds which did not come from the duplicitous demon, and the faint pneuma of his mother’s perfume and something else drifted up from the crack. Willie stared long into the crack in the darkness, listening to the demon spin his story, and though again of his grandfather’s cup. He was tired, and dismissing the demon and his stories went over to his own bed, dreaming of the blood of enemies he might drink, and the words he must repeat to his own son or grandson one day.