Featured image: Balaam refuses Balak’s request to curse the Israelites, from the The New York Public Library (1908)
“She was, in the end, hysterical,” Mara’s mother sniffed. She was on her third glass of wine and talking about her own mother, Mara’s grandmother, whose funeral they had just returned from.
Mara disliked her mother very much. On the other hand, she had loved her grandmother, who told wild stories about places she had been and people she had met. She called herself a detached observer and had rarely experienced much of anything herself but rather had seemed to Mara, an endless vessel for others’ thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Mara related a great deal to this aspect of her grandmother because she had always found attempting to have a personality tiresome. It was, in her opinion, better to be a blank slate for judging others than to waste precious time trying to be distinctive yourself.
One of Mara’s favorite things about her grandmother had been her penchant for storytelling. Mara’s grandmother would crouch down—agile even in her advanced age—and pull a dusty leather bound book out from under her bed. She would then go downstairs and sit by the fireplace, where Mara would curl up by her feet like a loyal dog and listen to her grandmother read some of the most famous stories from Greek mythology, and some lesser known ones. Everybody knew about Hercules and Achilles, but Mara was more drawn to figures like Medusa and Circe. Her favorite, though, was always Cassandra—the doomed truth teller. Something about that story sent shivers down Mara’s spine; she found it chilling in the way that ghost stories told around a campfire often were.
Now, watching her mother, Mara thought (and not for the first time) that it was far worse to have a terrible personality than no personality at all. Mara’s mother was weepy, prone to hyperbole, and was known to be a terrible gossip. Mara scowled as she watched her mother pull her black shawl tighter around her skinny shoulders and continue to prattle on about all of her mother’s flaws.
“So eccentric, that one. It was awful to grow up with, you know. She couldn’t tell right from wrong or up from down. She was completely detached from reality. It was awful,” Mara’s mother shuddered at the very memory of her own mother, then polished off her glass.
“I’m going to bed,” Mara announced, uninterested in listening to her mother complain about her grandmother for yet another hour. Before she could turn and head upstairs, her mother reached out her bony hand and grabbed Mara by the wrist.
“Wait,” It was an order, not a suggestion. “She left you something.”
This lifted Mara’s spirits considerably. It sounded awful, but she had been hoping to get something out of the passing of her grandmother. She was a high schooler who worked at an ice cream shop, so really, any extra amount of cash would have been greatly appreciated.
Mara’s mother solemnly made her way up the stairs with Mara trailing behind her. When they stopped in front of the black wooden door leading to the primary bedroom, Mara suddenly felt an overwhelming urge to turn and run back downstairs. Better yet, she could run out of the house entirely, into the dark night where she could just keep running and never have to see her mother again.
Instead, Mara forced herself to stand still while her mother shoved the door open with a considerable amount of effort. Nobody had gone in the room since Mara’s grandmother died. The room was dark, the windows blocked by thick deep purple curtains. The centerpiece of the room was a massive carved wooden bed, made up with a giant quilt that was supposedly made by one of Mara’s great-great-grandmothers. The whole room felt like walking into a museum, albeit an abandoned one—already there was a thin layer of dust covering the nightstands, the shelves, and the little statues of angels and crosses scattered across the room.
Mara’s mother approached the vanity with the reverence one would expect of somebody approaching an altar. With shaky hands, she reached for her mother’s jewelry box and lifted the lid. Mara peered over her mother’s shoulder and was overcome by disappointment—the thing was empty, save for a bronze ring on a silver chain.
“Her necklace,” Mara’s mother warbled, holding it out from her body at a distance, like she thought it was radioactive. Mara wrinkled her nose in disgust.
“Why would she leave me that?” There seemed no point in even attempting to be polite about the matter, clearly the necklace disgusted Mara’s mother as much as it disgusted Mara. “It doesn’t even match, a bronze ring and silver chain. And why put a ring on a necklace?”
“I don’t know!” Mara’s mother snapped, shaking the necklace furiously. “Just take it, okay?”
Mara huffed and snatched the necklace from her mother. The ring was cold and heavy in her hand, and had some sort of engraving on the inside she couldn’t make out.
“Put it on,” Mara’s mother said, taking a step closer to her daughter. “Here, I’ll help you.”
Mara decided not to put up a fight and allow her mother to fasten the hideous thing around her neck. She could always take it off as soon as she went to bed; what really mattered to her was now getting this whole silly affair over with. Internally, she was still fuming that her grandmother had left her some stupid necklace instead of something she could’ve really used, like money.
After what felt like a brief eternity, Mara’s mother had finally clasped the necklace and took a step back, smiling sadly at her daughter. “You look beautiful.”
“Thanks,” Mara said, staring at the ground. She couldn’t remember the last time her mother had said that to her.
Mara’s mother gently patted her shoulder and gave her daughter one last mournful look.
“I’m going to bed. I’m exhausted.”
Mara didn’t know what to say to that, so she just remained silent as her mother made her way back downstairs, leaving Mara alone in the cavernous, dark room. Staying made her feel unimaginably claustrophobic, so Mara headed for the stairs, passing photos of her mother in high school along the way.
The photos always made Mara profoundly sad, primarily because the similarities between Mara and her mother were abundantly clear. They had the same thin, dark, brown hair, the same narrow nose, even the same sloped shoulders. Mara often wondered if all the physical similarities between her and her mother had tied them together infinitely, even beyond their physical forms. Was there some intrinsic defect buried in her mother that she had inherited without her even knowing it? One glance at the haunted look in both of their eyes and Mara had a feeling there was something hidden deep inside of her just waiting to be set free. It unnerved her.
All of a sudden, the whole of Mara’s grandmother’s house seemed inhabitable. If she had to spend another second there, Mara was certain she was going to go insane. To avoid such a troublesome outcome, she opened the front door and headed out on the street, half-expecting her mother to come stomping down the stairs after her and demand she return. However, no such thing occurred, so Mara kept walking until she reached the bus stop.
For a second, Mara was at a loss for how to proceed, but then she saw a bus barreling down the street, its headlights illuminating the otherwise shadowy and empty road. After patting her back pocket, Mara was amazed to find her bus pass. She didn’t remember putting it there, but she wasn’t in the mood to question anything. An aimless bus ride seemed like just the thing to cure her restlessness.
As soon as Mara boarded the bus, she realized she should’ve known the bus crowd just before midnight would not be her cup of tea. Nobody looked outright threatening, but they all did nothing to diminish the sense of unease Mara felt building within her. There was an old woman with tangled white hair and rows of plastic bags arranged up and down her arms, looking almost frighteningly alert with her eyes wide open and her eyebrows raised ridiculously high. A couple rows in front of her was a young man dressed in all orange, who was asleep but also holding a Rubik’s cube and gently moving the pieces around as he dozed. Closest to the door was a girl with heavy eyeliner and a spiked collar around her neck whose combat boot-clad foot wouldn’t stop tapping the floor beneath her, the sound of which made Mara’s heart race.
Mara tried to find a spot far from everybody else, but when she finally sat down she was spooked when she looked up and saw a middle-aged man sitting across from her. She didn’t remember seeing him when she boarded the bus, but it was late, and she was tired and technically grieving. Mara opted to stare at her sneakers and pretend she didn’t notice him.
That quickly became quite difficult to do. The man was fidgety, messing with the straps of his dusty overalls and playing with the metal handle on his lunchbox. Based on the hard hat sitting next to him, Mara was willing to bet he was a construction worker. He seemed to be trying to get her attention, looking every which way in an attempt to get Mara to meet his gaze. Finally, he reached out and tapped Mara’s small foot with his massive one, jutting his chin out at her.
It sounded less like a greeting and more like a command to get Mara’s attention. Out of options, Mara sighed deeply and forced herself to look up at the man. She nervously played with the ring on the necklace, running her finger over the engravings repeatedly as an attempt to soothe herself.
Clearly impatient and done waiting for Mara to respond, the man cleared his throat and began speaking in a tone that was somehow both halting and arrogant. “I got something to tell you, kid. You know I killed a guy once? Yeah, that’s right. Killed him. He was my girlfriend’s ex, and I got so paranoid and jealous, I thought she was sneaking around behind my back and seeing him. So I killed him, and buried him under the hotel downtown I helped build last year. My supervisor thought I was doing overtime, can you believe that? I’m married to her now, too. What cinched it was me helping her grieve the loss of her ex-boyfriend.”
The man guffawed loudly while Mara stared at him, gobsmacked. She was shaking uncontrollably now, her nerves officially shot. Did this man really just confess that he murdered someone?
Mara looked around wildly, particularly at the other two women on the bus. She hoped that somebody else had heard something, but neither of them would look in her direction. Mara scrambled to stand up and approached the bus driver cautiously. She had to tell somebody what this man had just told her, and the police seemed like the best bet, but she didn’t know how to communicate to the bus driver that she needed to get to the police station immediately without alarming the man, who was clearly a threat.
“Excuse me,” Mara began, clearing her throat and nervously glancing over her shoulder at the construction worker. She dropped her voice to barely a whisper. “Would you be able to tell me where the police station is?”
“What?” The bus driver yelled, a guy with a buzzcut and a tattoo of a rose on his neck.
Mara frantically shushed him and looked back at the construction worker, but as far as she could tell, he hadn’t heard a thing. In fact, he was calmly rifling through his lunch box for a midnight snack.
“The police station!” Mara hissed, and the bus driver nodded.
“Oh, sure. Two stops from here,” Mara nodded but was unwilling to go back to sitting across from a literal murderer. She held onto the railing right by the door and counted the seconds until she could see the glowing sign for the police station.
“Thank you!” Mara hollered over her shoulder as she darted off of the bus, eager to put as much distance as possible between her and the construction worker. Her grandmother’s necklace banged against her sternum as she ran all the way to the door of the police station.
By the time she reached the front desk, Mara was gasping for breath, both from exertion and anxiety. The woman behind the desk, who had dyed purple hair and wore a pin that said “Happy to Help” but looked anything but, had clearly seen worse.
“Can I help you?” The woman asked in a bored voice. A quick glance at the nameplate on the desk told Mara the woman’s name was Gwen. Just knowing she was talking to another real, solid human being with a name helped Mara feel a little more grounded, a little less like she was losing her mind.
“Gwen,” Mara began, breathing a sigh of relief, then collecting herself to try to relay which she just heard. “A man just confessed a murder to me. And I know where the body is and everything—he said it’s under a hotel he built downtown.”
Gwen looked decidedly unimpressed, with a single eyebrow raised and one hand impatiently tapping a pencil rapidly against her desk. “Really? I hate to ask, miss, but are you having some sort of psychotic episode?”
“No!” Mara exclaimed, distraught. “I’m telling you, this random guy just sat across from me and the bus and told me all about how he killed his wife’s ex-boyfriend and—”
“Did you get a name?” Gwen asked, still looking bored.
“Well, no,” Mara said, staring down at her feet. Gwen’s intense gaze, plus the rattling experience she had just been through and the fact that she was standing in a police station, was starting to really get to her.
“Do you know when this occurred? The day, the month, even the year?”
“No,” Mara said, her face growing red. She was quickly realizing how stupid this whole thing must seem to an outsider. It had happened, though. She was sure of it.
“Tell you what,” Gwen said, pressing on the keys of her computer keyboard. “Let me enter your information in case anything related to what you’re talking about comes up, and then we can ask you for more information. Okay?”
Mara nodded. It was better than nothing, and at this point, she just wanted to get out of there.
“Mara Heathrow,” Mara replied. Gwen abruptly stopped typing and looked at Mara again with that same disbelieving gaze.
“Heathrow, you said? Any relation to Sharon?” Mara was confused. Why would this random woman know her grandmother?
“Yes, she’s my grandmother. My mother kept her maiden name and gave it to me as part of some, I don’t know, feminist statement, or whatever,” Mara said. Gwen kept staring blankly at her, which made Mara nervous, so she kept talking. “She’s dead now, by the way. My grandmother, not my mother. I don’t know if that’s helpful information to have.”
Gwen sighed and for the first time since Mara had walked in, placed her pencil down on her desk and folded her hands together. The whole shift gave the impression that Gwen was an impatient teacher with a class full of unruly eight-year-olds that she was finally at her wits’ end with.
“You know, we used to get tips from your grandma. A lot. She called in here all the time about how this person told her he did this and this guy confessed to this crime just randomly, out of the blue. So missy, if you think it’s funny to come in here and waste my time doing the same thing, I’m gonna tell you the same thing I told your grandma: get lost, crazy.”
Mara was about to insist she had no clue what Gwen was talking about, but then she realized she sort of did. Those calls must have been the type of ‘hysterical behavior’ she would hear her mother whispering about on the phone, the reason why Mara had seen her grandmother less and less in recent years.
She wasn’t sure where to go from there, so Mara turned and was walking briskly out of the police station when she practically collided with a young man about her age leaving some mysterious room way in the back of the building. He had a slanted smile and his hands slung low in his pockets, and the second he saw Mara, he began to whisper in her ear conspiratorially like they were old friends. Mara wanted nothing more than to run all the way back home, but she found herself frozen to the spot, the stranger’s breath hot on her ear.
“I did it, you know. I helped plan the robbery. I was the mastermind behind the whole thing, in fact. Nobody buys that because I’m so young, but to tell you the truth, I’m probably the most dangerous one out of our whole crew. I held a gun to a crying woman’s head while my buddy grabbed everything he could from the cash register, the cashier sobbing silently behind him with her hands zip-tied together. But they let me off because they just don’t think that’s possible, a nice upstanding boy like me doing something heinous like that. And I’ll tell you what: I’ve got something even crazier planned for next time.”
In the blink of an eye, the guy stepped away from Mara, flashed his crooked smile one more time, and was on his way out the door, a gust of cool night air entering the building as he went. Mara stood there slack-jawed, eyes darting back and forth wildly between the man’s retreating figure and Gwen, now unwrapping a piece of gum in a painstakingly slow fashion.
“Gwen!” Mara shrieked. “Did you hear what that guy said? He just told me he did it, some robbery with a cashier and a sobbing woman with a gun to her head. And he said he’s gonna do it again, he’s gonna do something even worse if you guys don’t stop him!”
Gwen looked blankly at Mara, then sighed deeply again and rose from her chair. She walked over to Mara, put her arm firmly on Mara’s, and spoke in a low, serious tone.
“I don’t want to get you in trouble, Miss Heathrow, but if you keep up these accusations you will be charged with libel. Do I need to make a call to Tilldale and have them come get you, or can you collect yourself?”
Mara gulped, her arm shaking underneath Gwen’s iron grip. Tilldale was the mental hospital just a few miles from here. Her grandmother had spent several stints there throughout her mother’s childhood.
“No,” Mara said, prying herself free. “No, you don’t. I’m leaving.”
Gwen smiled, satisfied, but she didn’t retreat back to the comfort of her chair until Mara was outside on the street, left alone with nothing but her swirling thoughts.
All the way back home, Mara’s mind raced with theories about what was happening and what had happened to her grandmother. Apparently, her grandmother had spent a good portion of her life pointing out crimes to the police that they didn’t seem to care about, and now Mara was doing the same thing. Mara felt sorry her grandmother had gone through such a hellish experience for most of her life, but she had had enough of being seen as a crazy person to last her a lifetime. She was determined to get back to the house, get to the bottom of what was going on, and put everything back to normal again. The ring on her grandmother’s necklace bounced against her chest as she walked quickly back home.
Mara had expected her mother to be up waiting with an angry look on her face, armed with a lecture about the dangers of going out alone late at night, especially as a girl. But the house was quiet and still, leaving Mara complete freedom to go upstairs and search through her grandmother’s things for clues as to what was happening to her.
There was nothing of any use in the nightstands and nothing but dust underneath the hood of the old writing desk. However, Mara felt a twinge of hope in her chest when she found a thick journal shoved into her grandmother’s sock drawer. The cover was leather, cracked, and looked just as ancient as everything else in the house.
Once Mara started reading, she immediately wished she hadn’t. It was obvious her grandmother had been unwell for most of her life, or at least, for as long as she had been writing—none of the entries reflected the mentality of a person of sound mind. The entries were long and rambling, filled with her grandmother talking about how everybody thought she was crazy, but she really, really wasn’t crazy, and she could prove it if only people would just listen to her. Mara felt a chill when she realized the very same thoughts had crossed her mind less than an hour ago.
There was one entry, written in the form of a letter, that changed the trajectory of Mara’s life as soon as she read it. Eyes wide with terror, Mara’s eyes raced down the page as she realized that without her even knowing it, she had been doomed to spend the rest of her life in her own personal hell, isolated from everybody else she had ever known or would ever know.
I have to put this down on paper because I know my snooping daughter will read this whole thing as soon as I am gone, and with each passing day I feel more and more certain that my time on this Earth is coming to an end. Thank God for that. My life has been nothing but hell ever since my own mother passed and gifted me this necklace, the very same one I am including instructions for you to find below.
Mara skimmed down the page.
I know you do not want to know the things that I know and live the life I’ve lived, my darling, but you have no other choice. Believe me, knowing I must subject my own daughter to the torture I have struggled through for decades shreds my soul and eats away at my insides. However, there is no alternative. Should no one wear this necklace, terrible things will happen to our family, until one by one, we shall all drop dead of sickness or be killed by seemingly ‘random’ accidents. This terrible curse will affect our friends and other loved ones, too, if somebody in our maternal line does not take up the burden of wearing this necklace and take on Cassandra’s curse.
You remember Cassandra, don’t you, sweetheart? The woman doomed to prophesize the truth and have nobody believe her? There was a reason I made you study Greek mythology when you were young—I wanted to subtly let you know what you were eventually in for. It is a rotten life, my dear, but there is no way out of it. Best to grin and bear it. Be prepared for random people to confess their worst sins to you, randomly, out of the blue. I learned to forget about the robberies, the affairs, and any petty crimes. But I could never let the murders or assaults or war crimes slide, and that was when I’d always break down, tell somebody, and end up back at Tilldale again. I’m sorry I was a terrible mother and ruined just about everything, but that’s the way things have shaped up for us Heathrow women. May you grin and bear Cassandra’s curse better than I have.
Before she really knew what she was doing, Mara was marching into her mother’s room, journal still in hand.
“You were supposed to get the necklace!” Mara cried, throwing the journal as hard as she could at her mother’s sleeping form. Her mother sat up with a gasp, the journal bouncing off her chest and landing open on her lap.
“You found it,” Mara’s mother said simply, understanding dawning on her face. “Well, you must’ve gone out and had somebody already tell you all about some horrendous experience they’ve had, or else you wouldn’t have gone snooping in the first place.”
“Who cares about snooping!” Mara screamed, hysterical. “You gave the curse to me, Mom! You passed over yourself and gave it to me, your daughter. You’re a selfish, awful person.”
Mara’s mother started to cry, which only made Mara angrier. “I’m sorry, Mara. I’m really, truly sorry. It’s just that I saw the nightmare that was my mother’s life, and even from an outsider’s perspective I knew I couldn’t handle that. You’re stronger than me, you always have been—you’re more like her than you are like me, anyways. It will be terrible, I won’t sugarcoat it, but you’ll be able to get through it simply because you are you, Mara. You’re resilient.”
“I don’t want to have to be resilient!” Mara screeched, pacing around the room. “You are supposed to be my mother. You’re supposed to make the sacrifices for me, not the other way around.”
“Don’t you think I know that, Mara?” Mara’s mother sobbed. Her face was red and splotchy, and her tears were running the ink on the pages of the journal. “I wish I were strong enough to protect you, but I’m not. Maybe the strongest thing I’ve ever done is admit that to myself.”
“Oh, shut up,” Mara said, thoroughly done with her mother’s antics. Suddenly, a thought occurred to her: “Why didn’t the necklace work on you? I mean, why weren’t you compelled to come chasing after me confessing what you’ve done the second you put this awful thing on me?”
“I’m immune,” Mara’s mother replied, sniffing and smiling sadly. “Everyone in the maternal line is immune to the necklace’s powers, and therefore, are the only ones fit to wear it. You’re immune, too, technically. The only reason you’re telling people what others have told you is because you’re a good person, Mara. A good person who believes in a better world.”
“Give me a break,” Mara huffed, yanking at the ring on the necklace. She’d deal with her mother’s insanity in a second, but right now, she really needed to get this wretched necklace off.
“The least you can do is help me take this thing off so I can go throw it off a cliff or something,” Mara said, throwing herself down on her mother’s bed, but her mother made no move to help her unclasp it. In fact, she shrunk back away from it in fear.
“Mara, darling, you read the journal. If you take that off, there’s nobody else to wear it. You’ll die. I’ll die.”
Mara paused, considering. If she had to live her life the way she had just lived for under an hour, death didn’t seem like such an unfortunate alternative. Neither did the fact her mother would be going down with her.
But could she live with that on her conscience? Knowing she had killed the woman who gave her life, who, despite all her shortcomings, did love her and genuinely believe she was a good person? Mara pictured her grandmother’s devastation when she learned her own granddaughter wasn’t strong enough to endure what she had for so many years. She pictured her grandmother sobbing as Mara’s weakness destroyed the rest of the familial line, including the daughter Mara’s grandmother had nurtured and loved, no matter how much of a monster she turned out to be.
“You’re going to pay for this, you know,” Mara said, standing up and glaring down at her mother.
“But…you’ll keep the necklace on?” Mara’s mother asked, her eyes watering and her voice barely a whisper. She held out her arms shakily, outstretched towards Mara. “You’ll keep this family line alive?”
“I didn’t say that,” Mara scoffed, turning and going into the closet. She started tugging a large traveling trunk out towards the bed. “I don’t think I could do this monstrous thing you’ve done, passing such a horrific thing onto my daughter.”
“Mara—” Her mother said, weeping again, but Mara cut her off, raising her hand to silence her.
“I will never forgive you, you know. Never,” Mara’s mother let out a stifled sob. “But it looks like I can’t end the curse, and I want to be strong like Grandmother would’ve wanted me to be, so for better or for worse, we’re both going to have to stay alive.”
“So what are you going to do then?” Mara’s mother asked, pulling her knobby knees to her chest like a timid child. Mara, her back to her mother, started pulling open dresser drawers and tossing random sweaters and socks inside the trunk.
“We are going to travel the world, and you are going to pay for every cent of our expenses,” Mara said. “And wherever we go, people will confess to me every awful thing they’ve ever done, and you will have to witness my unraveling. You will be the only one who knows the truth when everyone else will doubt me, and you will have to live with the knowledge that you are the cause of my suffering.”
Mara’s mother whimpered, and Mara opted to ignore her. Instead, she raced upstairs back to her grandmother’s room, dropped to the carpet, and reached under the bed. She pulled out the heavy book of Greek mythology, went back downstairs, and tossed it into the trunk as well, where it bounced off the bed of soft clothes beneath it. Then she closed the heavy trunk lid with a resounding thud and started dragging the gargantuan thing towards her room so she could grab her own things.
“Come on, up and at ‘em,” Mara said, grinning devilishly at her mother, who was still sitting up in bed in shock. “You know, this thing is awfully heavy. I think I’ll make you carry it from continent to continent.”
After a few more frozen moments, Mara’s mother got out of bed wordlessly, her face eerily calm. She smoothed down her hair and nightgown and followed silently after her daughter, seemingly resigned to her fate.
Emilee Gregory is currently an undergraduate student at Marquette majoring in Writing-Intensive English and minoring in Marketing. She enjoys reading, writing, baking, and spending time with friends.
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Balaam refuses Balak’s request to curse the Israelites” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1908. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/c89b9eb0-c5bd-012f-c86a-58d385a7bc34.