Fiction: Grandma Has Magical Powers

By Wayne McCray

“But I have another question.”
Mack was again told to take his butt outside. To go take advantage of the beautiful day. Go get some fresh air. Go play. Go do something. She didn’t care where or what. Just as long as it wasn’t there. She needed a break from him. And at some point, he should cut her some slack. Everyday, he had these questions. She often wondered who on the ancestral tree thought she was best qualified.
These questions usually began as soon as he woke up. Her grandson hadn’t brushed his teeth, combed his hair, nor washed his hands or face yet before a why? How come? A what? Followed a “good morning, Grandma.” After that his mind ran hot and cold all day. But once he had that thing, that topic, or that idea on his mind he would drill down on until it made sense to him.
Today was one of those days. Except, she was the subject under scrutiny. Mack had recently seen and read about a woman who looked like her in National Geographic. She, too, had two long plaits and a feathered spear. Just not as fancy as the one that hung above her bedroom door. So, was she like her? And, he stood there looking as innocent as possible when he wasn’t, pressing for that answer, and working on her last nerve.
“But I have another question?”
“Machiavelli!” she said. 
She unplugged the sink stopper so the dish water could drain. Her wet hands were dried on a nearby kitchen towel. All the while, she gave him a frank look and akimbo stance. Her face and posture said it all. They both conveyed he had better go on somewhere and do it fast. Unless, he wanted a slap upside his head. And it came as swift as it stung. Aware of this, he got out of her face. 
Shortly thereafter, she heard him leave. The concurrent door slams, front and screen, confirmed his departure. Each one had its own distinct sound when it shut. She couldn’t help but shake her head. Her grandson was something else. A loving thorn. She grabbed her can of Prince Albert smoking tobacco and English pipe off the kitchen table, and then went to the living room window to see where he was headed. And based on his direction she knew right off his destination and that he wouldn’t be there long.
Sure, the day was clear and the sun was dazzling. Ideal for fun and play. But he went up the road with a particular place in mind. As the sunshine darkened his skin, Mack knew when she was fed up with him. So he left so she wouldn’t pop him upside his head for being too sassy and find odd things for him to do. Last time, he ended up weeding the garden, picking fruits and vegetables, gathering dandelions, and a plant called Screaming Pussies while she stood over him. He disliked her brand of discipline. It involved work.
Mack spent his summer vacations with his grandmother, Nancy Khoisan Skybird, an indigenous woman born in 1900, who lived in East St. Louis, Illinois. His mother sent him there annually so he could know what he was, is, and where he came from. It was his birthplace. A small rural town, but not the “country, country.” Although it was a place that had an abundance of trees and nature, it had its share of sidewalks. Just not as many. The homes where his grandmother lived lacked them altogether. Their front yards met blacktop roads, not curbs. Even though they were manicured, the lawns never grew sideways.
Each homeowner had their own acre of land with its own shade and fruit trees and garden, but not so far apart to be strangers. It wasn’t heaven, but idyllic. So much so, the children could play in the streets which doubled as the sidewalks for jumping rope, riding bikes, playing catch, and going up and down them. They all knew when cars came along to get out of the way. Playing on the grass wasn’t allowed. Homeowners ran them off without any explanation. They just detested the habit. Maybe, they didn’t want their lawns turned into trodden spots or walking paths.
So when he left the house, Mack walked up the road until he reached Bond Avenue. It had sidewalks and led to his destination. The place was Cap’n Jacks. It was a former train depot now a corner store. At first glance it resembled a rundown shack. When in fact, it was a white stone building. But decades of daily train soot had stained Cap’n Jack’s. East and west of town, there were two massive railroad yards. Each one was linked to the other. Both kept busy moving graffitied box cars, hoppers, tankers, and flatbeds back and forth with goods and merchandise. 
Mack had a fascination with Cap’n Jack’s. He hung out there more than anywhere else. The place wasn’t anything special. Sure, just like the other corner stores, it supplied the usual necessities. Milk, bread, and eggs. Can goods. General foodstuff. Soda pop. Liquor, beer, cigarettes, pinball machines, and candy galore. Kool-aid flavored pickles. Pickled pig feet. But they weren’t close, which was an important factor since he had a sunset curfew; in that, he had to be home before the sun went down. Aside from that, what made it different from the rest was the large kiosk full of magazines.
Capt. Henry Jackson, the owner, was a WWII veteran. He was big into reading and didn’t care what. Just as long as one reads. He carried Life and Time, Jet and Ebony, The Atlantic and The New Yorker, The Chicago Defender and Final Call, National Geographic and comic books galore. Mack was there for the comics. He followed them. So when the new monthly issues came out, he would read as many as possible. Black Panther. Inhumans. Captain America. Thor. Hulk. Man-Thing. Defenders. Avengers. Fantastic Four. X-Men. Spiderman. Name it? Capt. Jack had it or could get it. Just don’t steal nor ruin them and buy one when done.
Those were Capt. Jack’s kiosk rules. Now when Mack entered he was glad that nobody else was there and had the kiosk for himself, for once. For him, the comics offered up new words and outlooks on life and differences about characters, particularly their magical powers. The ethical and moral viewpoints between celestial and terrestrial beings. From these comics, he used the ideas within them to question his grandmother. Questions about creation, nature and mankind, mythology stories, and how come men more so than women get granted genius and superpowers. It made him wonder how much of it was based on actual events in history. These were the things he thought his grandmother kept tight-lipped about because she had the answers.
He read his last comic. At the bac” were novelty gift ads for all kinds of crazy stuff. X-Ray glasses. Dracula fangs. Onion gum. Stink bombs. Horror masks. Sea horses. Yet the one item that held his attention was the ad for a slingshot. The image spoke to him. Then, it dawned on him. An epiphany. He could use it as a ploy to get one of his questions answered. He would go back home and make one and put his idea to the test. He paid for two comics. Seventy-five cents. He thanked Capt. Jack, waved goodbye, and was out the door.   
She was on the front porch, in her sit-spot chair, when he came running up. Mack had a determined look. The gate and doors opened and shut as fast as when he left. He went straight to his bedroom, threw his comics on the bed, and grabbed two unused wire coat hangers from the closet. After that, he reached for his yellow tool box from under his bed – a gift. It had all the basic tools, including electrical tape, wire cutters, pliers, a bag of rubber bands, paperclips, a pocket knife, a zippo lighter, and fabric scraps. He sat there on the bedroom floor and got to work. 
She knew he was up to something. It was too quiet. But there wasn’t any need for her to go check on him. Anytime he was inside for a considerable length of time he was building something, and she wouldn’t see it until he brought it outside to test it. He always did. Last time it was a box kite. A week earlier, a giant piƱata. He was unsure whether the material he used would burst open when struck violently by a broomstick. He didn’t want the gift for a friend’s birthday party to fail to work right. Just then, the front door burst open. It was Mack holding a slingshot. 
“What are you about to do?”
“Don’t let nothing get you into trouble?”
“It won’t.” 
“Well see.”
The grandmother never rose. She sat there looking on, smoking her pipe, enjoying the sunny day. Her grandson was now on the other side of the fence looking down at the rock driveway, searching. Every now and then, he would stoop to pick up a white rock. Six in all. He then went into the front yard and looked skyward and into the trees. She followed his head and subtle movements; and thus far, his vision hadn’t glued on anything specific. Suddenly, his and her eyes locked onto the same flying object. A large pigeon had landed on the powerline.
She puffed incessantly. Then, she watched him watch it. Admittedly, she took pleasure in watching him put his newfound hunting skills to work, moving stealthy, and staying in its blind spot. His eyes fixed on the target. He loaded his slingshot and pulled the socket and elastic band back. She thought the distance between him and the bird was too far. That slingshot had to be powerful. His vision sharp. Aim pinpoint. She had her doubts. Mack proved her wrong. The rock struck the bird. The pigeon’s wings fluttered, floppy-like. It pooped, then fell. He celebrated his act.
Before the bird fell to the Earth, she moved at a breakneck pace. The pipe was set down. She left the porch and fast. She held up her long skirt so as not to impede her running so her short legs could reach him quickly. And once there, without any sign of fatigue, she delivered a sharp whack right upside his noggin. The blow caught him by surprise. “Owww,” he said, looking at her then back at the house. He rubbed his head, but then realized the old woman had effortlessly ran a considerable distance in a short span.
“Machiavelli! What’s wrong with you?”
“What I do?” 
“You shot a bird.”
“Okay? It’s just a bird.” 
“It’s not just a bird.”
She took his slingshot and examined it, then congratulated him on his ingenuity and craftsmanship, but kept hold of it as she snatched him by the arm and the two crossed the street to where it had fallen – a grass lot. There it laid on its side with a hole in its chest. She told him to pick it up. Mack protested. Again, she went upside his head. 
“Everything has a soul,” she told him. “Pick it up!”
Mack bent down to pick up the carcass. Bloody feathers moistened his fingers. Now the bird required a ceremonial burial. He was told that he had separated it from nature not for food but as sport. She also informed him that his entitlement as a human being was a myth. The bird just like all other lifeforms had a greater right to life than he had. Nature and all its creatures would flourish without him. While in comparison, his life was seen by nature as the most insignificant.
He heard this as he carried the large and heavy pigeon. Mack held it like it was dead, with his arms stretched out, and far from his body. He tried to lighten his grip to lessen the blood. She made him hold it up so he could look it in its eyes and know what dead eyes saw. Even lifeless eyes spoke. The two were back on their property. She told Mack where to bury it, to go underneath the Willow tree. 
“Just wait there and hold it,” she said. “Don’t move nor drop it.” 
To do otherwise, guaranteed him her wrath. So when she finally came back, Mack still held it. She had the feathered spear and a tin pail containing his slingshot, a bottle of turpentine, a box of matches, dried kindling and newspaper, some wild purple and yellow flowers, the colorful moss she grew around the backyard, and a garden hand shovel. She stabbed the Earth with her spear and then handed him the tool so he could dig a deep grave.
He set the dead bird aside. Now on his hands and knees, he began digging. It took a while and some effort, but eventually a square pit was dug out. The earthworms he encountered were thrown onto the dirt pile beside him. She then gave him the bright-colored flowers and moss so he could layer the grave’s bottom. The bird was lowered next, followed by his slingshot which he reluctantly added. 
The kindling of dried tree branches and twigs and strips of newspaper went next. They were laid on top of the bird and weapon. With the makeshift pyre done, he stood up, slightly sweaty, and doing his best to keep his dirty and bloodied hands off his face and clothes. She then doused the grave thoroughly with turpentine. Two wood stick matches were struck and thrown into the pit. Soon the grave crackled and flickered. A tiny flame grew into a fierce fire.
“Did I have to put my slingshot in there?” he asked.
“Yes. The bird must have it when he sees you on the other side.”
“It might want to shoot you. So I suggest that you seek its mercy and forgiveness and tell it why you did what you did.”
“The bird and I aren’t the same.”
“Really? You really think that?” 
She went inside her apron to pull out a green and white Beech-Nut tobacco bag. Mack had heard about it from his mother. It was where she kept folk medicine. That pouch supposedly contained crushed up shrubs, berries, flowers, and herbs she often scavenged for from the grass fields, wooded areas, and animal pastures. She inserted two fingers and pinched off something dark and fibrous.
“Open up and chew!”
Mack grimaced, but consumed it. It was quite sweet and tasty and strong. It made his jaws tightened. He felt an instant energy boost. Below him, the grave glowed hot. Smoke billowed. The scent of fried flesh, plant, plastic, and metal went up into the tree and through the canopy. He soon noticed a whole bunch of incoming birds. They all landed somewhere in the tree top. Robins. Bluejays. Cardinals. Sparrows and Blackbirds. None of them chirped or tweeted. They all in unison behaved weird and unnatural.
“They’re ready,” she said, holding the spear. “Now, close your eyes and say your peace.”
Mack shut his eyes. His head lowered. A strange feeling overcame him. His spirit had departed. It left his hollow body planted. Mack felt free and airborne. He was a bird in flight. In the sky, gliding on the wind. He heard this clicking-like language being spoken. He flew about then landed on a powerline. The view was breathtaking. Then he saw himself taking aim. Pain then darkness followed. His down head snapped up. Tears ran down his face. Mack clutched and felt his chest, smearing blood and dirt. In chorus, all the birds whistled tunes of joy. Droplets soon fell. He thought it was tree sap and leaves until he saw it was bird poop and feathers.
“Relax,” his grandmother told him. “It will pass.”
The birds flew off. Mack’s chest hurt. His heart pounded. He gasped for air. The world around him was blurry. As soon as things cleared, he saw that his grandmother was as she always was her eyes glinting in the light, impeccable. “It appears you’ve been forgiven. Now put the dirt back, worms too. Bring the hand shovel and tin pail back with you.” She pulled the spear up, turned, and went back to the house. “And make sure you take off your clothes. You’re not going back inside looking like that.”
He watched her go Indoors, then she reappeared, but spearlesson the side of the house carrying a large towel and pulling the garden hose. She sat in her sit-spot, towel nearby, and smoked a relit pipe. Mack tried to make it make sense, but couldn’t. He completed the backfill, packed it down. He stood up, woozy. He moved slowly toward the house, coated in bird feces and feathers, when he saw the outstretched wingspan of a giant bird shadow on the ground. He looked up but it was gone. The birds he saw couldn’t make a shadow that big. 
“Grandma? Did you see that?” 
“See what?” 
“You do have magical powers, don’t you? Like that lady. Are you a mutant? An angel? A witch?”
“A what? No. I’m just an old woman.”
“I don’t think so.”
“First off, promise me you’ll respect nature for now on.” 
“Good. Now take those clothes off.”
“But Grandma…”
She let him know she won’t dwell on today. Just get rid of the clothes she repeated. So he got to it until he was fully naked. He threw his bloodied and dirty clothes in the tin bucket. He was unsure what was next and feared the worst. She stood up, garden hose in hand. The nozzle was twisted and she hosed him down. He danced and circled in place. Bird droppings, blood, and feathers were washed away, from head to hands to toe. And, after a thorough cleaning, the agony and dizziness subsided.
His teeth chattered even though It was warm. She tossed him the oversize towel and told him to dry himself off and come sit beside her. And he did. He wondered if what he did was worth it. Would he find out what he had been seeking for the longest? Did she possess some kind of magical powers? Besides this bird incident, what else could she do? No ordinary person could make nature do its bidding. In his mind, he figured Grandma was likely an ancient superhero. An alien; and then, right there, while in a towel robe, he couldn’t help himself. He had questions. 
She heard him but spent time relighting her pipe. And, after a few puffs, she sat back. And when he asked about the spear and why hers had decorative carvings, she replied: “Mack, hush up. Give it a rest. I’m tired now. Haven’t you done enough for one day. Just sit there and be quiet. Enjoy what’s left of the day.”

Wayne McCray is a Pushcart Prize nominee for 2022 and 2024, and a 2023 Best of the Net nominee. His fiction has appeared in SusurrusThe Hooghly ReviewAfro Literary Magazine, Alien Buddha Magazine, Ariel Chart International Journal, Bandit Fiction, The Bookends Review, Chitro Magazine, The Dillydoun Review, Drunk Monkeys, The Green Hills Literary Lantern, Ilinix Magazine, Isele Magazine, Lolwe, Malarkey Books, Mythaxis Magazine, The Ocotillo Review, Ogma Magazine, Pigeon Review, Roi Faineant, The Rush Magazine, Sangam Literary Magazine, Swim Press, and Wingless Dreamer. He works diligently from his book-laden junk room.