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The Killing Word
It was my grandmother who told me the killing word. I was fourteen and she was in her seventies, an old and weather-beaten woman as wrinkled as a winter apple.
She lived alone in the cottage which she had stayed all of her life, watching the seasons slowly revolve and marking the names of the dead in the back of the family bible. Not that she was a religious woman – not in the regular sense of the word – but she had her own beliefs and they were old and strong, like hardy seasoned oak that had withstood many a winter storm. She called it the craft, those beliefs, and they were handed down from one generation to the next, always amongst the women.
“Some called them witches,” she explained, “as if that was something bad.” She took a puff of her cigarette then tossed it into the peat fire, watching as it caught and blackened to ash.
“It was the men that didn’t like them. Didn’t like women folk having the power,” she said. “It wasn’t enough that they had the land, the crops, the homes and the animals. No, they had to take the mystery too. Make their own gods. Sun gods and sons of gods, driving away the goddess and the moon, branding her priestesses monsters and whores.”
She coughed a racking, liquid cough that came from somewhere deep inside her chest. It sounded ominous, the loose rattle of dice in a cup, the devil wagering for her soul.
“Words,” she said, looking at me in the dim light from the fire. “Intentions are thoughts and thoughts become words. If you know the right word, then they can work for you, make your intentions real.”
She must have seen I wasn’t paying attention. I was staring at the flames in the fireplace and thinking of Connor, the boy I had a crush on. I felt grandmother grab my wrist and squeeze, her liver-spotted hands brittle and twisted with arthritis.
“You need to hear this, Mary,” she said. “This is important.”
I tore my gaze away from the fire and looked at her. “Sorry, gran, I was miles away.”
“Aye, I know you were. Thinking about boys and school, weren’t you? Some things never change – I was the same at your age, though you probably won’t believe it.”
My face reddened, but I said nothing, only nodded for her to continue.
“When I was nineteen, my gran sat me down and told me what I’m telling you now. The knowledge is always passed on from grandmother to granddaughter, always to the youngest daughter. Don’t ask me why, I don’t know. The knowledge is old, and it has rules of its own, geas they call it – rules that can’t be broken unless you want to bring disaster on your head.”
She fumbled in her apron pocket and took out her tobacco, rolling another cigarette with trembling fingers. “Once there were many words,” she said. “There was the cutting word, the laughing word, the word to still a wagging tongue, words for fighting and flying, for loving and hating – a million words with a million uses, some wonderful and some terrible.” She looked up and placed the cigarette in the corner of her wrinkled lips. “Now there’s only the killing word,” she said. “The most powerful word of all. The only word that’s not been forgotten.”
I smiled at her. I remembered the stories she used to tell me when I was younger, those wonderful tales of Cuchulain and the cattle raid of Cooley, of Crom Cruach, the god that demanded the blood of Ireland’s children. She was a wonderful story teller and it was one of the reasons I still visited even at an age when most girls would be distancing themselves. But I saw that she was not smiling back. She held my gaze and it did not waver, she looked more grim and determined than I had ever seen her before.
“This is no joke, child,” she said. “I would never hurt you, Mary, but I’d sooner see you dead than to treat this as a joke.”
She couldn’t be serious, could she? One look at her face told me that she believed it. Believed it absolutely. She was old, but she was no fool and I felt the tiny hairs stand upright on my arms, dancing in the air.
“I can see you’re frightened,” she said, “I’m glad. It shows respect. If you weren’t frightened then I wouldn’t tell you the word. If you weren’t frightened then you’d be a fool, and the killing word isn’t a fool’s weapon.”
She stopped momentarily and bowed her head. I could see her shoulders
shake slightly and knew she was crying. I got up and put my hand on her head.
“It’s okay gran. You can trust me, you know you can. I…I didn’t mean to smile, it’s just…strange. Not the kind of thing you expect to hear from your grandmother.”
She wiped her face with her apron and straightened up in the chair. The crying had stopped, gone suddenly in the manner of old people and children.
“I’m sorry, Mary. I shouldn’t have snapped at you, but I’m scared too. It’s a big responsibility, carrying this knowledge. You can never tell anyone. Not your father or any man. Not your mother or your sisters. When the time comes you may pass it to your own youngest granddaughter, or else die and let the word die with you. Do you understand? It can get awfully lonely, Mary. They’ll be times you’ll want to tell – that’s the way of people – but you can never, it’ll be your secret alone.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. I loved my father and my mother, shared everything with Catherine and Jean, my sisters. I had the uncomfortable notion that they would see through me, see the secret which I would be carrying, like some invisible burden. They would be worried about me, but also curious, chipping away at my resolve until I unburdened myself to them. And what of the future? I was young, but fully expected to marry some day, have my own children. How could I not share the word with them? Wouldn’t I, in some obscure way, be betraying them?
“If you don’t want to know then tell me now,” said grandmother. “I haven’t got much time left, Mary, I can feel it. If this thing is to be passed-on then it has to be now.”
Did I want to know? The doubts were there but also the curiosity. Most of all there was excitement, a tiny, writhing knot deep in my stomach. I suppose I felt honoured, privileged to be trusted with such a responsibility.
“I want to know,” I said, “If you want to tell me.”
“Come closer then. Come closer and I’ll tell you.”
I bent forward until we were almost touching. I could smell smoke and the sweet scent of lavender – old women smells. She reached forward and cupped her hand, leaning in to whisper in my ear.
Three short syllables. An old and delicate word, almost flowing and elegant, yet it made my pulse race. I could feel my heart up tempo, thump rhythmically in my chest.
“Never use it in anger,” said my grandmother, “only to preserve life.”
I nodded and sat down again. The word seemed to reverberate in my head, echoing down the passageway to my soul, until my whole being was ringing with it.
I watched, numb, as my grandmother rummaged in her apron pocket and produced the stub of a pencil. She reached over to the nearby bookcase and took down a book.
I wasn’t sure what it was at first. It was leather bound and old, the binding
creaked as she opened it. As she flicked to the back I caught sight of the lavish colour plates and suddenly knew what it was. The family bible.
She reached the back and ran her finger down the list of names. Her grandfather and grandmother, her mother and father, two brothers, dead in the Great war, and three sisters, not long gone. Her husband was there and a cousin, a tiny, barely formed daughter which had died at birth.
She took the pencil and wrote her own name at the bottom of the list. She
did not waver or dwell over it, only closed the book with a final clump.
Three days later she was dead.