My grandmother glares at me not to approach her, despite her being alone in the empty ballroom of the manor. Winter rain pounds against the picture windows, making it seem like God has elected to plunge the earth under a second flood. I shiver, wishing that the windows were double-glazed or Gran had turned the heating up or I’d kept my coat on when I came in, cold and wet, from school.
You wouldn’t believe she was in her sixties. She’s spinning on her feet, leaping to her own height in the air then rolling on the sprung oak floor and rising effortlessly to her feet again. Every movement she makes is accompanied by her razor-sharp katana slicing or stabbing in all directions and if you watch carefully, with your breath held in the spaces between heartbeats, you can see that it is a distinct sequence of moves; a kata; executed one after another with a thirty degree variation from one sequence to the next.
After twelve repetitions she has returned to her starting point and stops, the sword sweeping to the left and swishing into the scabbard. She bows to a statue of Athena at the head of the room, although I don’t think it’s Athena she’s bowing to. Only now does she smile at me and come over.
“Lucy, darling,” she says, kissing me on the forehead. “How good of you to come over. Filthy weather, isn’t it?”
“I live here, Gran,” I said. “It’s you that doesn’t.”
“Sorry, dear.” She puts an arm around my shoulders as if I’m still a little girl but I’m almost as tall as she is now and I go to big school.
“When are you going to teach me how to do all that?” I nod back toward the dance floor and she laughs, her long braid swishing past my cheek.
“When you’re of age I’ll teach you iaido, dear. I’ve told you that before.” She steers me toward the rack where she keeps her swords. There is one, at the very top, that I have never seen her use. It’s wrapped in red silk and she has never even shown it to me. Father won’t touch it. He says it’s cursed. Curses are things people say when they want you to be frightened of something. I’m not frightened of a stupid curse, but I am frightened of Gran. Father says that Gran can be more cutting than a razor blade.
She puts the sword from her belt onto the rack, pats my shoulder and leads me to the kitchen. I’ve just come from there, but between me passing through and coming back Dad and Mr. Jasfoup have decorated the whole place with streamers and balloons and there’s a huge cake in the middle of the kitchen table in the shape of a coffin. Mum couldn’t make it to the party but I know she’s here in spirit.
“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you…” Father starts singing as soon as we open the door. Mr. Jasfoup and Gran join in with the second half and I grin stupidly at them. I thought we weren’t having a party this year. Father said that he’d take me out for a meal at a restaurant instead.
“Blow the candles out.” Gran pushes me forward, looking younger than Father and almost as young as me. Excitement does that to her. It always has. She says it makes up for all the people who look old and tired when they get excited. The cake has fourteen candles in the shape of a number fourteen. I smile at the cleverness as I inhale, then lean forward, careful not to dangle my hair over the flames.
“Make a wish first,” Mr. Jasfoup says, and holds one hand to his ear as if to catch what it is. He nods as I lean forward again, and I can almost believe he heard my thoughts.
Like a dragon in reverse, my breath puts out all the candles and everyone claps. “Cut the cake,” my father says, but although there’s a neat stack of plates and napkins there’s no knife.
“With what?” I ask, though my eyes narrow when they all look around for a knife. It’s all a bit theatrical, if you ask me. They’ve planned this.
“Why not ask your Gran,” Mr. Jasfoup says.
I play along. There’s a script here and I’m the only one who hasn’t read it. “Do you have something to cut the cake with, Gran?”
“I might.” She reaches behind my Uncle Fred’s chair and pulls out a package. Uncle Fred died before I was born but every time we’ve tried to redecorate the kitchen his chair has reappeared in the same place the following morning. That’s not the spookiest thing in the house (you should see my aunty Julie and her spare eyeball) but it was enough to convince us to let it be.
I guess what the present is immediately and my grin is probably as long and as curved as the blade inside that tissue-paper package. My very own katana.
“Careful with it,” Gran says, planting a kiss on my cheek, “it’s as sharp as sunlight.”
I’m not wearing a belt so I grip the saya–that’s the scabbard–in my left hand and draw with my right, the way I’ve watched Gran do a hundred times. She steps hastily backwards as I twist it in a vertical loop and cut the cake lengthwise. I want to say that I’m accurate, but although the cut starts at twelve (if the cake was a clock) it finishes at more like seven than six. Liquid red jam seeps out of the hollow gingerbread man sandwiched between the sponges and Gran hands me a napkin.
“Always clean the blade between kills,” she says. “Happy birthday Lucy.” She pauses then pulls me into a hug. “Happy coming of age.”
Rachel Green is a forty-something writer from the hills of Derbyshire in England. She lives with her two female partners, their two kids and their two dogs, and only occasionally gets them all mixed up. She was the regional winner of the Undiscovered Authors 2007 competition and her book “An Ungodly Child” will be published in 2008. When she’s not writing, Rachel can usually be found with a katana in her hands in the study of Iaido and Ju-jitsu, or else discussing philosophy with her partners. “Darkness and Shadows”, her first book of poetry, and “Jasfoup’s Dribbles”, a book of one hundred 100-word flashes, are available from http://www.leatherdyke.co.uk.