The old, wrinkled face lay on the pillow, a stark contrast to the white, starched linen of the hospital pillow. “She does look peaceful” Kim thought, even though she was almost afraid to touch her Gran Gran. The face looked like the skin was made from a paper thin coating of a mixture of porcelain and parchment. She has also been developing severe bruises from the merest touch as of late and Kim wanted nothing less than to hurt her Gran Gran. “Way too peaceful to be afraid of that Devil Apparition of hers.” It is not often a 16 year old even has a great grandmother these days, much less one that she spends so much time with.
The old lady had been ancient ever since Kim could remember. She had moved in with Kim’s parents before Kim’s birth. After her husband had died she felt lonely and her house was too big and too big a reminder of the marriage. Kim knew all that, of course. Her Gran Gran had often told her about it. Gran Gran had often talked with Kim, during those long summer evenings on the verandah, those cold, dark winter nights in the kitchen, huddled into blankets in front of the oven. Talking, watching the rolls getting baked. Kim had kneaded the dough under Gran Gran’s ‘watchful eyes’ as she would always say. Kim used to call it ‘supervision’. Gran Gran’s recipes had come down to her from god knows when, and she was very particular about sticking to them, whether she could do the kneading herself or not did not matter. “Old recipes for an old gal” Gran Gran would say with a little twinkle of her eye.
And so the ancient woman and the young girl sat in front of an oven, or on a verandah, or on a park bench or any old place and talked. At times Kim would talk about her life, school or crushes or troubles with her parents. Gran Gran would dispense wise words of wisdom which usually amounted to ‘I think such-and-such, but I am sure whatever you end up doing, it will be the right thing to do.’ Kim usually did the such-and-such and usually that turned out to have been the right thing.
More often than not, however, Gran Gran would tell Kim stories from her life. It was was those moments that held a magic for Kim. And if you had been able to look only at the two pairs of eyes and nothing else, you would have had no way of telling who was the woman with a three-digit age and who was the teenager.
Gran Gran told of the war, the hardships, the loss of her husband. She told of country fairs, family weddings and weekends at the beach. She told of falling in love with her husband, about being in love with her husband and silly, embarrassing stories about Kim’s parents. Maybe the stories had become grossly embellished after decades of telling and re-telling, but there was something about the way Gran Gran told them that made Kim doubt that. They laughed, they were sad together (Gran Gran’s aged detachment always firmly anchoring Kim’s more emotional dolefulness) and Gran Gran’s eyes, without fail, would out-shine Kim’s for sheer enthusiasm.
Except, that is, for the one time she told of the Apparition. She only ever referred to it as Apparition and then she only ever talked about it once. “I used to be a sickly girl, you know” Gran Gran had started one day, prompted by Kim’s having the flu. Back in the days after the war. “It was the first world war, can you believe it?” Kim remembered thinking.
“What with all the destruction and the bad food we had. Bread with sawdust, would you believe it? I had been sickly for years, and when the Spanish flu came, I thought I would die. Everybody did, really. They even got the priest to give me the last rites. Such a nice man he was. He later married your great-grand-uncle to his wife, you know?
“Anyway, everybody told me how much they loved me and said their last goodbyes. I think your great-great-grandmother stayed with me all night, but I don’t really know; I had a terribly high fever, dear. I can’t tell whether I was sleeping or waking, but that night I saw it.
“Don’t laugh at your silly old Gran Gran, but a figure was hanging over my bed. It was only a shadow, but it had piercing eyes and it looked at me with a devilish interest. I was so afraid! I was only a little girl, you see. I couldn’t bear that figure hanging there, examining me. I was sure it must be death, come to take me with him. But it was just hanging there, so I said to him, I said: ‘Have you come to take me?’ and I heard a voice saying ‘I want your life.’ At that I crawled under my blanket, pulled it all the way up over my eyes, but I could still see that… that Apparition. ‘Do you want to give me your life?’ it said. Oh I remember it like it was on one of those new-fangled cassette tapes (Gran Gran had stopped keeping up with technology in the 80s, and who is to fault her?)
“’If you are Death, I pretty much have to’ I said in my fever. Of course, normally I would never have been so pertly” At that remark Kim had grinned an inward grin. Beneath her prim and proper façade Gran Gran was very pert indeed. Even more so as a girl, Kim was sure.
“And would you believe it, the Apparition… I quite like the sound of that. Well, the Apparition said ‘I am not Death. Will you give me your life?’
“For some reason, I can’t for the life of me remember why, I answered him ‘Oh, take it, then, won’t you?’”
“There is that pertness again” Kim had thought.
“The Apparition disappeared the very moment I had finished and I swear to… well you know who, it smiled as it vanished!
“The next morning I awoke to everybody’s surprise and over the next days my health improved. And a good thing it was, too, or I would never have had my adorable, little Kim!” At that, she stroked Kim’s cheek with the back of her hand as she sometimes did when Kim needed some encouragement. Only this time it seemed Gran Gran was the one who needed encouraging. Or reassuring at the very least.
“Anyway, for years I was afraid I was about to die any moment. It wasn’t until I met your great-grandfather, bless his soul, that I really, finally put that fear at ease.”
Her Great-Grandpa has long been dead, and now it looked like Gran Gran was to follow him shortly. Kim was terribly sad yet at the same time she was glad she had had the chance to get to know her Gran Gran as well as she did, and that her mind had only started to fog not a month ago. Even though she had seemed as sharp as ever today.
For a moment Kim stood there, watching her great-grandmother’s peaceful face. “If only half her stories were true” she thought “Gran Gran has led a great life.” All of a sudden a thought forced itself into her mind again. Maybe the Apparition has finally returned? She watched the shadows in the room and involuntarily chuckled.
The old woman lay on what she began to think of as her death-bed. Her body had started to give out some weeks ago and she knew it. She did not know how or why exactly she had come to be in this hospital, but now at least she was clear enough to know where she was and that she had her family around her. “Why have you come back?” she asked into one of the shadows in one of the corners of the room. She thought it more than she said it; actually moving her mouth was too big a strain on her frail body. Nonetheless, she got an answer
“I want your life You gave it to me.”
“Now you want my life? As I lie dying? For years and year I lived in fear, thinking I might have to die at any moment, and no you come to me to ‘take my life’?”
“Why should I have come any earlier than I did? It was you life I wanted. You had to live it first! What good is the life of a child? We want rich lives, lives lived. Children’s lives are short and incomplete. We are lonely here and need excitement. Your life is long. Once it is over, I will take it to my kind. Your life will not be forgotten.”
Kim finished examining the shadows and her gaze returned to her Gran Gran just in time to see a smile creep onto her face. With that, the old lady died.