Short Story - Iron Rose
When Sofie asked her mother why she had to give Alice a present, the response was; even when you don’t get along with people, it’s important to show generosity and kindness. Sofie frowned at what sounded like nonsense.
‘A doll isn’t going to make her like me, Mamma.’
Elsa bent to the same height as her twelve-year-old daughter. ‘Let’s see after this party, shall we?’
Sofie groaned. ‘Why do I even have to go?’
‘Because they invited you.’
Sofie muttered a curse under her breath.
‘I heard that! Now, off you go! You have ten minutes, and you aren’t wearing your pyjamas to the party.’
Back in her upstairs bedroom, Sofie chose a plain dress that was her least favourite, and sensible shoes she liked to wear in the garden. Before returning downstairs, she collected a black object from a bowl on her bedside table.
Elsa noticed her daughter’s clenched fist as she stepped off the stairs. ‘And what’s that, might I ask?’
Sofie raised her chin as she held out a small, pale hand. A dark stone, fashioned in the shape of overlapping petals, rested in the middle of her palm. ‘Mormor calls it iron rose. I’m giving it to Alice.’ Sofie said as her fingers locked away the gift.
‘Oh, let me guess. Another of your grandmother’s ideas. And what does this one do?’
‘Mormor says it makes bad feelings go away.’ Sofie said with the conviction of a child, repeating words she’d heard from the highest authority she knew. Her mother sighed.
‘Crystals work, Mamma! I know because the one under my pillow gives me nice dreams.’
Elsa smiled gently. ‘Well, then … you’d better give this one to Alice, hadn’t you! First, you need to wrap the present I bought.’
Traditions exist for a good reason. They’re difficult to shake because they are important and help define who we are. It was deeply appealing to Sofie how her grandmother held onto habits from the old country. Elsa had resisted her own mother’s superstitions when she was growing up and didn’t appreciate the old woman now influencing her granddaughter. The grandmother’s ideas were dated. Some would even say, unhealthy, for the twenty-first century.
The Iversdatter family had emigrated from Norway to America a year earlier, when Sofie’s father was promoted to a senior position in his company. Elsa Iversdatter was anxious about moving because she and her daughter could not speak English well and they had to bring their grandmother with them because no other relatives back in Norway would have her. Elsa worried that Mormor, as the old woman was called, would become even more difficult than she already was if she were forced to live in a foreign country.
Thankfully, with Erik Iversdatter’s new job came a pay rise so the family could afford a large house for the three of them, and a cottage at the back of the garden for the grandmother. It was far more pleasant with the old woman under her own roof. Furthermore, the sprawling garden gave Mormor room to grow vegetables and herbs not normally available in American stores.
Sofie was an only child, with silver blonde hair like her mother’s, and pronounced cheek bones beneath oak-brown eyes. Combining these looks with a strong Nordic accent and a tendency to be shy, Sofie drew the attention of a girl in her class called Alice. As evidence that apples never fall far from the tree; Alice was in every way the product of her uncouth and unsophisticated parents. To add insult to injury, Alice’s father worked for Erik Iversdatter, which was why Elsa was now making Sofie go to the birthday party at Alice’s house.
‘I’m much too old for Barbies.’ Alice sniffed when she opened Sofie’s present.
A ripple of giggling had passed through the assembly behind Alice. Sofie was more angered with her mother than upset by the response. After this reaction to her forced generosity, Sofie chose not to give Alice the crystal. Instead, she kept it in her hand until the stone became warm, then placed it on a table with the discarded gift, just as Alice was calling for the other girls who had been invited for the day to follow her to her room.
Alice’s bedroom had too many objects in it. Not in the nice way of too many books or pieces of furniture. It was a room of indulgence. The bedroom of a twelve-year-old trying to be twenty. On the walls were posters of boy bands and her dressing table was a jumble of garish nail polishes, teenage magazines, and false eyelashes. A fug of microwave popcorn and sweet-scented candles hung in the air. This was where Alice expected her visitors to now gather and colour their eyelids in bright pastels and glue acrylic nails to their fingers. Sofie sat patiently on the floor watching them and the girls ignored her as they chattered over each other. Before long, it was clear to Sofie that the others were tiring of Alice bossing everyone. Sofie stayed out of it and waited until finally Alice called out to her mother, demanding it was time for lunch and a movie. Sofie didn’t like the way Alice addressed her mother. If she had spoken that way at home, she would have suffered a look from Mormor that made even grownups squirm.
At lunch, Sofie found comfort in the hot dogs and ate three with all the extras on offer. When one girl asked her if Sofie would like her hair plaited as they sat watching the movie, Sofie politely declined to which Alice said to the other girl that Sofie probably just wanted to keep eating. Sofie had muttered in Norwegian under her breath. Just loud enough for Alice to hear. She knew Alice did not know what it meant, but it still felt good to say.
Sofie had learnt the phrase and other colourful words from her Mormor when they were together in her cottage. Removed from her daughter, and son-in-law, the old woman would whisper to herself, and Sofie listened. The little girl was in awe of the knowledge concentrated in this ancient member of the family. In turn, the grandmother saw in Sofie the future and was determined to share with her everything she knew about the past to help the young girl in her life ahead. Mormor feared that the old knowledge would be lost when she died.
When Sofie returned home after the tedious party at Alice’s, she told her mother she would like to draw Alice a thank you note, so went straight to her room to rip a large sheet of paper from a sketching pad. Next, she opened the top draw to her desk and took out a tin of colouring pencils. She needed a red pencil and a black pencil. Next, Sofie went to her bedside table and dug around in a bowl of highly polished stones of assorted colours until she found another piece of iron rose, larger than the one she had left at Alice’s house. All she needed now was string. In the downstairs kitchen on a shelf near the cooking utensils, Sofie found the ball of twine her mother used to tie up chickens for roasting. She cut a piece twice the length of her hand and returned to her room. This time she locked the door, turned off the ceiling light and drew her curtains until they were nearly closed. The room was now suitably dark, yet there remained enough light to see what she was doing. Satisfied she had everything she needed, Sofie sat back down with the materials before her.
She began by drawing a circle in the centre of the sheet. From there, lines radiated out, connecting with smaller circles, and inside each of these smaller ones she drew pretty shapes that looked like a mix between geometry lessons and stick figures. Some were larger than others and were drawn in black, except one that was done with the red pencil. That one was a figure sitting on a throne. All the while, Sofie talked to herself in her parent tongue. Musical poems filled the room with strange words learnt from her grandmother.
Along the lines connecting the circles, Sofie drew Old Norse letters she remembered from a book in her grandmother’s room. Finally, for the line leading to the red symbol, she wrote the Viking words in red. Once every line had words against it, Sofie placed one end of the string in the centre and the other end on the red symbol in its red circle. But the string was too long, so she cut it until it was right because it had to be the correct length. Finally, she placed the polished black stone in the middle of the arrangement, then shut her eyes to say the last part of the poem. Looking down at her drawing, Sofie felt sure it was finished. Without thinking, she slapped her palm down on the black stone.
Away in the cottage, the old woman stirred on her bed. She cleared her mind of the daydream she had been having; images of swimming in a river, catching minnows in her mouth and snuffling into the riverbed stones for dragonfly larvae. Mormor rose and went to the window to draw aside the curtain. She gazed with rheumy eyes at the second story of the main house, sucking at her remaining tooth and grinning. From deep inside the building, a woman screamed.
Sofie ran her finger over the blood on her palm. Beneath the red, her hand was unscratched. She was making circles of red with her fingertip when her mother opened the bedroom door.
‘Why is it dark in here?’ Elsa said as she turned on the light. ‘Are you okay, Sofie? I felt you hurt yourself!’
Sofie shook her head as she continued to make petal shaped swirls on her skin.
‘What’s wrong with your hand?!’
‘Nothing, Mamma.’ Sofie grinned. ‘It’s not my blood.’
Elsa’s eyes flicked to the arrangement on the desk, with its symbols and ancient words surrounding the black stone flower. She saw the red figure on a throne.
‘Oh God, she’s taught you to scry!’
Across the city, Alice’s mother was stacking the dishwasher when a call came from near the living room. Before she could put down the last plate, Alice appeared in the kitchen with her hands cupped beneath a copiously bleeding nose.
‘If that’s on the carpet, I’ll be furious! What were you doing?’
Tears streamed down Alice’s face as her trembling hands continued to fill with blood. ‘I was only playing with that silly rock on the hall table.’
Alice’s mother saw her daughter’s face turn white. The flow from the girl's nose was unnatural. It wasn’t seeping as it should. It was pale, watery, and flowing free like a tap.
‘Please help me.’ Alice pleaded as the blood overflowed. ‘I can’t make it stop!’