Drowning Karma

The gift arrived on Deva’s sixteenth birthday even though the sender had been dead for twenty years. There was a note. Happy Birthday, bright light. It’s time for you to have this. Remember, your mother loves you. Love from here, Grandmother. “Mom,” she said, holding out the card, “I don’t understand.”

Her mother focused on her task of folding napkins into perfect triangles. “She died last month.” Fold. Press. Stack. Another napkin. Fold. Press. Stack.

“But I thought she died years ago. The same year you married dad. That’s what you said.” All the grandparents died before Deva, the oldest, was born. That’s what her parents had said, and who was ever wrong about something like that?

Fold. Press. Stack. “She’s been dead to me and that’s what matters, and I’ve nothing else to say on the subject.”

Deva wasn’t about to risk making her mother angry. The lying itself held no shock. Her mother had already told her father half a dozen lies about the elaborate birthday party, the first lie being that Deva had wanted it. Perhaps later, in the quiet before bedtime, her dad would answer questions about this dead grandmother. He’d answer if Anelle couldn’t overhear.

In the meantime, why would a woman she’d never known send her a gift? Why now after sixteen years?

“Nothing,” Anelle said, cutting into Deva’s thoughts, “comes by accident, especially from the dead. Ignore an omen or a symbol at one’s own risk.”

Jay, Deva’s father, entered the kitchen. “What’s that?” He nodded at the package in Deva’s hands, walking over to the oven to check on the cake. It was almost the perfect golden shade.

“It’s a birthday present,” Deva replied. She moved to see his expression when she told him who’d sent it.

“Yeah? Who from?” He opened a box of toothpicks and leaned against the counter.

“My grandmother,” she said smoothly. “Mom’s mom.” Her words had the effect she expected. He paused with the toothpick between his fingers. The timer went off and he didn’t move.

“Who?” His eyes darted to his wife.

“I guess she wasn’t dead all these years,” Deva replied.

Anelle folded the last bright white napkin. “I said we aren’t going to talk about that woman, a witch by any measure. Talking about her gives her power. So stop.”

Jay shivered and opened the oven. Pulling out the cake, waves of heat hit his face. He pushed in the toothpick. “It’s normal to have questions.” The toothpick came out clean. He turned off the oven and put on an oven mitt, without looking at his oldest child.

“A birthday party is no time for questions that don’t need to be asked,” Anelle said.

The smell of sweet, rich cake filled the room. The pan landed on the stove top with a clatter. When Jay turned around to face Deva, he wore his most cheerfully forced smile. “I know there’s the other cake for the party,” he said. Indeed, a beautiful, expensive cake from the best bakery in town waited in the dining room. “This is for later. From me to you.”

Deva hugged her dad as if magic would carry him off. He gave her one soft sound of laughter in return and she let him go. “This will be the best cake yet,” he said. He’d baked her one every year since she was born. “For good luck,” he always said.

There would be no more questions about the dead grandmother. With the kitchen scissors, Deva cautiously cut the package open. Inside she found a box of watercolor paints. Smooth ovals of color slipped out onto the table. She’d expected something different, something antique, heirloom, not something you could buy at the dollar store.

“You will throw that away,” Anelle said. “Nothing from that woman stays in this house.”
“But Mom…” It may have been a cheap paint set, but Deva wanted it. She had something from a grandparent! Throwing it away was a waste or maybe even a curse.

Anelle grabbed the paint set and pitched it into the kitchen trash. “You know damn well I mean what I say.” She turned around, her elbow angled behind her. Her elbow hit the cooling cake pan. The pan slid, pitching down to the open dishwasher door, the yellow cake popping out and breaking apart, pieces in the dishwasher and on the floor. “That’s a shame,” she said. “So sorry.”

Deva and her father stared at the cake ruins. “I’ll make you another,” Jay said.

“We’re out of eggs, and there’s no time,” Anelle replied, walking over to her stack of napkins on the kitchen table. “Just clean that mess up before the guests arrive. And Deva, please, do something about your hair.”

Deva avoided her father’s eyes. His disappointed look would compel her to say something, which would only make Anelle worse. She was glad for the excuse to escape to her room, where her mother rarely ventured.

Trying not to think about the cake, she sat down on her bed, the gift’s packaging still in her hands. Somehow her mother had allowed the padded, manila envelope to remain.

Her sisters appeared in the doorway. “What’s that?” asked Claire.

“Presents!” shouted Sylvie. “Is it a good one?” She was the youngest.

“Who’s it from?” Claire crossed into the room. “Who’d mail you a present?” The girls’ family circle contained only the five of them. Potential gift-givers should be at the party.

“Grandmother.” Deva tilted the package for them to see.

“What grandmother?” Claire crossed her arms over her chest. She was thirteen but easily passed for older when she wanted. “Don’t lie.”

“I’m not lying. Ask mom if you want.” Deva held up the packaging. “See the return address?”

“Grandma? We have a grandma?” Sylvie asked, clapping her hands together. She and Claire crowded around their sister. They three of them wore new party dresses, though only Claire looked as if she’d traipsed out of a fashion magazine.

Deva stared down at the envelope. “Not really. She’s dead. For real this time, apparently.”

Claire rolled her eyes. “I’m supposed to believe she sent you a package? Really?”

Deva wished she’d shut the door to her bedroom. “Yes, really.”

“Let me see it!” Sylvie exclaimed, unfazed by the sudden discovery and loss of a grandparent. Few things fazed the eleven-year-old, a child of the moment.

Deva handed the envelope over with a slight shrug. “But it’s empty. Mom threw the gift away.”

Sylvie gasped. “You can’t throw away a birthday present!”

Deva guessed Sylvie’s real concern. “Don’t worry. I’m sure she won’t do the same to you.” They knew this was likely true.

Reassured, Sylvie twirled to make her skirt flair. “Maybe grandma will send me a present on my birthday, too.”

“She’s dead,” Claire pointed out.


“Girls!” Their mother’s voice darted down the hall. “Guests are here.”

“Yay! Party!” Sylvie shouted and bounded out the door.

“What was the gift?” Claire asked.

“One of those plastic paint sets.” Her grandmother had to have had a reason for sending it. Had she been an artist? She knew nothing about any of their grandparents.

Claire raised an eyebrow. “Cheap,” she said. “No wonder Mom threw it out. After sixteen years of silence, you’d think the woman could do better.”

“Maybe it’s what she could afford,” Deva argued.

“Whatever. Hope your friends bring better gifts.” Claire stopped at the mirror to check her hair and dress. She posed one way and then the other, placing a hand on her hip like their mother would do. A smile played at the corner of her mouth. She must have liked the way the new dress flattered her. Everyone would say how pretty she was. A remarkable beauty, people often said.

“Don’t be a snob.” Deva placed the empty package on her dresser.

“Don’t be an idiot.” Claire sniffed. “And you never did fix your hair.”

“Wait. How did you know…” But Deva left her question hanging in the air. Claire had strolled out of the room. Deva glanced in her mirror. Her hair looked fine to her. How much had Claire overheard of her conversation with their mother? Her sister possessed an astounding ability to overhear everything, but Deva overlooked her sister’s eavesdropping. She was used to it, and her party was beginning.


a brief description of this tale