M. M. De Voe
M. M. De Voe has won more than a dozen writing awards for short fiction and poetry. Anthologized in Delirium Corridor (Borda Press), Twisted Book of Shadows (winner of a Shirley Jackson Award for Best Anthology, 2020), and in Stirring up a Storm (Thunder’s Mouth Press), she is proud to have published her first full-length book, Book & Baby: The Complete Guide to Managing Chaos and Becoming a Wildly Successful Writer-Parent in January 2021 with Brooklyn Writers Press. She earned her MFA from Columbia University. She founded the nonprofit Pen Parentis in 2014 and co-hosts the monthly literary salons in Lower Manhattan. Website: mmdevoe.com or Twitter @mmdevoe
The Scissors of Hope and Despair
Granny’s old-world Kazakh accent thickened as her mind unraveled. She had emigrated to Baltimore in early childhood and lived nearly a century in this country among other émigré Kazakhs, harming her own people and harboring grudges. Her brutal life story was a source of pride in my family—had been a source of pride, that is, while the family was still around. I am the only one left to visit. It’s a chore. Family is often a chore.
Mufti Isham tells me it is my beautiful responsibility, not a chore.
I wish I could ask my parents what they think about it.
“We play game in minute,” Granny says, struggling to her feet, “I’m off for second cup tea. Salima, want?”
I dislike Granny’s bitter herbals: what started as a delightful floral tisane of jasmine would soon have a few drops of thyme oil for beauty, a sprig of a passionflower for kindness, and far too much anise. I want a scotch. “No thank you, Granny.”
The door to the kitchen swings shut, leaving only the antique peppery scent of the old woman, masked by the ever-present bowls of lavender-water. Late afternoon sunlight filters through the white curtains and illuminates the panic button, the only indication that the apartment is part of a retirement community. The sunlight also enhances the layer of gray dust on every surface. I suppress an urge to pick up Granny’s lace doilies and shake them out. The sunbeams are already alive with dust. The room looks like a still from a B-grade horror movie, the definition of “seemingly normal.” Any time I spend in this facility seems slow, as if each minute is as burdened as I am by the knowledge Granny is succumbing to senility.
Out of irrepressible habit, I inspect my cellphone: it never works at Granny’s, and today is no different. It won’t even tell the time. Something about Granny’s magic messes with technology.
I have been coming every Tuesday night. Two long years of staring at this chessboard, losing game after game, wondering as I move the ancient pieces if it is true: this chess set holds the last of my family. I can’t push her. I can only wait. She had called me by my mother’s name, Rose, twice this afternoon, and looked dazed when I asked to play our usual game of chess.
“Oh. Do I still know how?” she had asked, much in the tone of someone instructed to juggle three balls after years in a colorless office job.
“In fact, you always beat me,” I’d replied. And this had brought Granny to pull the small brass key from her pocket and unlock the arcane cabinet where she kept the chessboard—never once has this woman been able to eschew a possible victory.
I am finally alone with both the board and Granny’s sewing basket. If Mufti Isham is not completely off his rocker, if all this madness is not just the fanciful storytelling of old people, I might be able to bring my family back. All of them. I find it impossible to believe, even though it is my only hope of ever seeing them again.
“Don’t touch anything!” Granny’s voice pierces the thick kitchen door, travels the dust as if summoned.
My hand hovers in the air above the basket. “I didn’t!” I shout back.
“Mint tea?” my grandmother calls, forgetting that I don’t want any.
“No, but thank you for offering,” I reply.
I remember how my father always smelled of mint and pipe smoke, because he hid in the garden to smoke and would chew the mint in an unsuccessful attempt to hide the smoking from my mother. As a little kid I thought it was hilarious that both he and my mother perpetuated the lie, each fully aware of what the other was doing. At bedtime one night while she was reading me a translated Kazakh folk tale, I asked her about this deception, and instead of brushing my question away, she lowered the book and told me that sometimes, to save someone’s dignity, falsehoods had to be perpetuated. Dignity was important, she had said, then fell to sucking on the earpiece of her reading glasses until, tired of the silence, I demanded to know why. She nodded as if making a bargain with herself. Then she told me this truth: the appearance of civility is what keeps society in order.
This is why I perpetuate the lie that my grandmother is independent. I feel uncomfortable about that, but it doesn’t stop me from visiting. Granny always wins at chess, but I always agree to play another round. It makes me feel closer to my family.
Over the last month, a second sadness has been growing unmentioned (like a sorrowful Spanish moss) over our weekly games as I watch Granny’s wickedness fade. Nowadays the old dear generally thinks she’s just another normal senior citizen. More often than not, she watches cooking shows and grouses at the evening news instead of casting spells to ruin skin or cause hearing loss. The nurses that come by every morning and leave at noon all think that Granny is the sweetest thing in the world. Sure—when she isn’t ending lives, prolonging pain, and entrapping people within inanimate objects.
To try to get my pulse back to normal, I fiddle with my phone again. Nothing. Random letters appear and move around on the screen as if trying to tell me something, but I can’t make heads or tails of the message. I tuck the useless technology into my backpack and look hard again at the chess set on the low coffee table. Granny frequently reminds me she brought it over from the old country at great personal peril. She has also said the board is now populated by my mother, my father, and Granny’s myriad brothers and cousins and uncles and aunts. And others. People I don’t know. I lift a pawn and scrutinize it, but all pawns look the same. White and red bone. It could be my baby brother, it could be the dog, it could be that horrible uncle who cut our lawn and who wouldn’t stop whistling at me whenever I went to my car. He was awful. I’d sacrifice him without remorse, if only I knew which piece he was.
“You sure I can’t fix some tea? Perhaps a bite to eat?” Granny calls. The squeal of the kettle makes me wince. One of the pawns trembles. Ah. So that’s the dog. I make mental note of it.
“I’m fine, Granny. Thank you.”
It dawns on me that the whistle also means the tea will be served soon.
“Actually, Granny? If you have a little milk? I’d love a bit of warm milk and honey. And maybe a cookie?”
Clattering, rattling teacups. It’s now or never.
I dig a hand deep into the sewing basket, assured of at least a few more seconds of privacy. My fingers nudge past hard spools of thread, lace trim, and many, many thimbles, some of which seemed designed to entrap exploring fingers. Keeping my eyes fixed on the kitchen door, I allow my fingertips to dance across the prick of needles, tumble through the seabed of lost buttons—there! The velvet parcel! My fingers sink softly around the promise it holds. The packet twitches, startling me a little. The gold-tipped scissors are in there, wrapped up tight. A whisper of melody thrums from inside the wrapping, like bells played with feathers. Beyond the kitchen door, Granny’s voice hums in perfect harmony.
I assure myself that it’s probably just coincidence.
Granny’s things from the old country often seem attuned to her physical being even when they are not proximal to her. It’s the ancient way. When I turned eighteen, I had only just started to notice glimmers of the family gift, when Granny began showing real signs of senility. Losing recipes and keys was one thing, but the paranoid fits—! I couldn’t trust her to teach me without turning against me as she had with the rest of the family. I’d sworn off the old ways entirely after moving away; my mother assured Granny I was subsumed in my education and too busy to visit. This pacified her for a time, because she’d liked the idea that I was using my brain.
On my part, I made diminishing efforts to visit and frequently skipped family events, so I wasn’t surprised when no one showed up for my college graduation. I wrote them off, feeling justified and valiant in surrounding myself with educated friends instead. But several months after the last time I ever spoke with my mother, Mufti Isham called out of nowhere and begged me to attend to the responsibilities of my swiftly deteriorating Granny. There wasn’t anybody else, he’d explained; it had to be a blood relative. He convinced me to rekindle my relationship with my grandmother, told me about the scissors. He’d explained to my flat disbelief that I had to bring them all back before she smashed the whole set.
In typical ornery fashion, Granny demanded that I play chess with her.
She could be vicious that way.
I pick up the bishop, search the empty frown across his face for some sign of familiarity, some feeling that this is Uncle Mac or Aunt Mel, maybe his mischievous eye twinkle, or something to indicate her love of melodrama, but of course nothing stands out. Not even a glimmer of warmth to show that a living being is trapped inside the bone. I rub the nub that makes the bishop’s hat. Thirty-two people ticked off Granny in her life. Enough to make a perfect set. I examine each piece for my baby brother’s jolly smile, a sign of his kindness, his sweet, simple wisdom, any hint of his ability to accept chaos as a meaningful part of life.
He’s the one I miss the most.
Over the past two years, as Granny’s mind softened, she had started to speak without caution. She told stories of how powerful it made her feel to restore a broken marriage, and how lovely it was to sweep the clouds from a graduation day, a pimple from a bride’s forehead, or leukemia from a beloved cat… Listening to her ramble, I had started to wonder whether magic were less of a family curse and more of a family tradition—like cooking, something you didn’t appreciate when forced to learn it, but if you had approached it at whim and for no personal gain, you could become devoted. When Granny boasted she had been the cause of the sudden rainstorm that had saved me from a probable mugging when I was secretly visiting a boyfriend in DC, I had to believe her. I had never shared that story with anyone. Maybe, as Mufti Isham insisted, Granny did own a pair of magic scissors with the ability to bring back the past.
It is true that my family vanished more than two years ago. Perhaps they just packed up and returned to the old country, leaving me behind. It is possible. The political climate—as it was. People did run. The schoolteacher. The librarian. But my family loved this country; they had dug in, had bought a business, grown roots. A Kazakh neighbor insisted demons carried them off. My liberal college friends blamed the government. ICE. Deportations. They offered legal help, advice, the websites of fringe groups questioning the disappearances of dissidents.
When it seemed that my family might not be alone, I felt comforted and hopeful. It seemed less like magic and more like politics.
Still. There were no paper trails. No witnesses. I spent a frantic year searching. All the while, Granny maintained that she had trapped them in the chess set with the others.
Mufti Isham said the same.
Ultimately, I’ve started to believe them both. Because that way, I can believe I might possibly get my family back. It would be nice to show my father my diploma. I would like to hug my mother again, to stay up all night eating ice cream out of a carton with my baby brother. I need them. At least I know about the scissors, and it is only a matter of getting to them when Granny isn’t looking.
You’d think, in a year, I might have managed—but Granny is a sharp old thing, as nutty as she is, and she senses things. Playing chess reminds her to protect the pieces, to guard the sewing basket. Her nurses say she’s crazy, the way she carries it everywhere.
If only the scissors could really bring them all back. I untie the silky blue ribbon, and it slips away from the velvet like a dream at daybreak, vanishing before it touches the wooden floor. The scissors are prettier than I remember, and their melody is soft and haunting. Shaped like a pair of herons with emerald eyes, their pointed beaks kiss the sky, the bright blades gleaming as though recently sharpened.
One bird is named Hope. The other Despair. I do not know which is which, nor how to tell them apart. They always appeared together in the old books, and Granny said they always arrive together in life as well. To separate them is to create havoc.
Each individual feather caresses my fingers with real warmth. It is not me who is petting the birds, it is the scissors competing for my affection like a pair of puppies wanting their heads scratched.
“It’s too quiet. Are you in my basket?” Granny calls from the kitchen.
I look down. “No, Granny! I’m not!”
“Stay out,” Granny says. “Some things there, you will not predict.”
I hold the scissors high and snip the air. An old man shuffles into the room.
My breath catches. Is this Grandfather? It looks just like him. Sixteen years have passed since I’ve seen him. Was his face always so gray, his chin this bristly, his nose this leaky? His watery eyes look at me without recognition. Grampa settles into the leather recliner near the bookshelves and puts his feet up. He does not speak to me, does not react to me at all. He stares at his feet, as if lost in memory.
A moment passes while I stare at him. He digs a finger around in his ear like he used to at the dinner table, causing all the women to groan and the men to laugh. No one is here to react but me. I do not know what this means. Is he real? What will Gran say when she sees him? Will she be able to see him at all? Will she trap me in the chess piece in his place? I drop the scissors in the basket, not bothering with the velvet bag, then hold one hand with the other to stop the trembling.
“I just took your queen,” I call to the kitchen, making the move after I speak. The board had shuffled itself—Granny would never have left herself open like this. I feel the winning streak coming on, but I don’t feel proud. I feel like I cheated. “En garde.”
“Leave scissor, girl. You are too young for understand things.”
“I’m twenty-four, Gran,” I retort. “An adult. Who do you think pays for all this?”
Granny’s sigh blows through the apartment in wisps of purple and gold. Dust is disturbed from the knickknacks, from the books, from the tablecloths and curtains. The multicolored sigh curls around Granny’s old husband, enveloping him in magic while the dust in the air swirls thick. I sneeze. When my eyes reopen, the old man has frozen in an attitude of expectation. He doesn’t appear to breathe; he’s just waiting.
The bone queen has not budged. The rook with which I’d threatened her is missing. I search the floor, but it has vanished.
Granny’s slippers hush closer. “I’m not crazy, girl. I have my whole mind.”
“No one said you were crazy, Granny!”
“I can see it. I can see how you look, like I don’t know you hate my good teas. I see you question my judgment, question my mind. You think I old lady, with blind eyes?”
I press my lips together, considering. I recall the vapid blue of Granny’s eyes as they accepted the ugly accusations of the day-nurse. The sigh of pleasure as the condescending Ecuadoran doctor urged her to up her dose of Mobic; he’d be happy to prescribe more, because what did it really matter at her age? The unchecked line of drool from Granny’s lips as the handsome Dominican night-nurse gently groomed and called her guapa, even as the brush in his hand clumped thick with her white hairs. No, Granny is not herself. She was wicked once— evil, even. Now she is soft. I search for the missing rook.
“He was bad man,” Granny clucks as she sets down her tray of cookies and tea. “Your grandfather. I was wicked, but he? Was cruel. I took revenge, only. He hurt people. No reason. Me, he liked to make suffer. He deserved… ” Her voice trails as she takes in the new state of the board, the scissors, the guilt heating my cheeks. The old man remains seated in the corner, immobile. She does not look his way. I’m dying to ask her if she sees him, but I’m afraid of either answer.
Granny lowers herself into her chair. I wring my hands. I know the look in her eyes.
“The rook.” Her words are little more than puff in the air. Her gnarled hand digs between the cushions of the sofa. Her husband stands and leaves the room. She fishes out the rook, returns it to the side of the chessboard. “Salima. You can take over whole board. You know enough. But you have no strategy. No young persons do. Young persons are thinking of winning only. Is not enough.” Her fingertips caress the air and for a split second, I feel the agony of all the imprisoned souls on the board. When the air stills, the feeling ebbs away—it’s like being grabbed in a dreadful, crushing hug and then released. I gasp for air.
“Winning. Losing. No real meaning,“ Granny mutters.
I scowl. Of course winning has meaning. The whole point of chess is to win. I think longingly of that scotch again. Or at least a glass of wine. Anything to ease the thrumming that has begun in my head, that always begins after staying too long with Granny.
“You’re just saying that,” I tell her.
“Take that warm milk, dear,” she says. “Still hot.” Yet a stronger heat rises in my neck. She is so dismissive. Always so dismissive.
“I don’t think I will, thanks,” I reply. “Also, I should let you know that I’m not sure I’ll be visiting as often in the coming months. It’s coming up on Fall; I’ll be busy with grad school.”
Granny looks sadly over the chessboard. “But middle of game.”
I decide to throw caution to the wind. “You should let them all go, Gran.”
“Young persons. So rash. If you knew everything, you’d know why they must stay.”
I can’t believe it. This is almost an admission. I push forward, on the attack. “Granny, tell me or don’t tell me. You always toy with me like this. I’m tired of it. I’m twenty-four years old. I have a master’s degree in comparative religion. I start classes for my PhD in September. I’m not a child.”
Granny slurps her tea. White mist steams up her little round glasses. “That study you take. It is—what is word? Goofy.”
I pick up the rook. I put it down. Pick it up again.
“Then tell me just one of them, Gran. Tell me this one.”
“That one. Rook.”
“This one story, Granny, and I’ll leave you alone.”
Granny removes her glasses and wipes the lenses in careful triangles, almost as if she is drawing a ward.
“No,” she finally says. “No, I don’t think I will.”
I rise to go. “I’m done.”
“I tell you your story instead.”
“Oh.” The sound escapes my lips entirely by accident. I want to punish her for treating me with such condescension, but I can’t help it. I’m curious. Is Granny going to tell me that I used to be a doll, or a mouse, or a toy piano once upon a time? Will she explain why my family was never emotionally present, even before they were trapped in the chess set? I am ten, and no one cares if my homework is done. I am thirteen, and no one asks if I got home safely from the party. I am sixteen, and no one notices my brief pregnancy, either before or after. I am twenty, and they all ignore my well-paying but demeaning “modeling” career—at least the photographers never show my face; sometimes that seems like a blessing, sometimes it makes me think my face wasn’t even pretty enough for that. Then, I am suddenly twenty-two and everyone vanishes, leaving me behind with Granny.
She stares at me, waiting. I sink back onto the sofa cushions, cowed by possibilities. What is “my story,” exactly? Do I even have one?
“Okay,” I whisper.
Granny’s head tilts as if appraising me. She would have looked at home in a psychic shop dripping with scarves and tassels. “Mmm. Okay. Here it is: You don’t know what you want.”
I want a stiff drink, I think. I don’t say it aloud.
I am afraid of being punished for touching the scissors.
I am still afraid of Gran.
I really am still a child. Or rather, I’m a child whenever I enter this room. Is it an enchantment? A curse? Or just an ordinary psychological burden that I bring with me when I come to visit, like those little kids at the church daycare where I work weekends, the ones who won’t leave home without their stinky old stuffies then wonder why they can’t make normal friends?
Granny continues without pause. “You want me to bring all these peoples back so you can ask them for advice. You don’t trust self. You never have. You rely on others to see for you. To make choice for you. You don’t need them.”
“That’s ridiculous. I just miss them.”
“Oh?” Granny scoffed. “Tell me. After bringing the peoples back, what would you do with extra snip?”
“What extra snip?”
“So. The mufti did not explain, when he was blabbing about my powers? Yes, I see. He told you things. Thinking he is helping. But never the whole story. Men, always this way. Always ignore what must come. See only now-things. Not future. Not unraveling of fate. Not the possible threads of time. Not the finished tapestry. Only now now now. You are too much like men. This country makes everyone a man.”
I bite back my retort. Granny is always accusing people of being too male or too female. It is as if in her definitions the words are indicative, not of inborn or learned gender roles, but of arcane innate qualities that the old-world Kazakhs use other, more accurate, words to describe. A great deal of Granny’s wisdom is likely lost in translation. And this ridiculous magic! I’m not able to decide if it is real or idiotic. Like prayer: everyone says it works, but then they add that it’s your own fault if it does not. So, how am I supposed to believe in old-world magic, even if the mufti explained that it was real? Was Grampa here? Was that a delusion? A vision? A ghost? Did I really see him? Did Gran? Where is the science in all of this? I want answers. I have always wanted answers. I got a whole Masters’ degree searching for answers. Grampa showing up raised more questions than he answered, and this makes me angry, but the anger is wrapped around my mother and father who failed to teach me more than a few words of the Russian they spoke fluently, leaving me with only a single lousy tongue: English, which has power over nothing. My anger is pulled even tighter knowing that even my parents could not speak a word of Kazakh, which Granny insists is the only true language of magic. The fierce anger is tied with a bow of secret shame: at the age of nineteen, I had actually been offered a scholarship to learn Kazakh at a summer program, but I had decided to rent a beach house with some friends instead; other American Kazakhs my age who had also stubbornly fought learning any language other than English. We thought we were clever to lie around drinking and getting high and doing everything possible to avoid learning the language of our grandparents. In other words, I made myself this ignorant. My ineptitude and impotence were self-inflicted. My anger lights on fire.
“Stick to the point, Granny. What’s this extra snip?” I hear how shrill my voice is, and I grip the arm of Granny’s floral sofa to calm myself. It wouldn’t do to lose one’s temper in here. I glance at the chess pieces. Am I safe because the set is full? Would she release the dog to capture me, instead?
But Granny is actually speaking: her soft eye focus is kindly, and she giggles as though she is a teenager confiding in a friend.
“The scissors cut threads of reality, huh? One thing is here, one thing goes away. One thing comes back. Extra snip cuts off something dear from your own life. Severs you from a thing that makes you human. Like payment for the work. Bill is due. And expensive always. So? What was to be for you, Salima? Would you hope scissor choose? Because it choose very random. Very dangerous to let scissor choose. Leads to despair.”
“I… But… Mufti Isham didn’t say anything about any extra snip. I didn’t know! What’s it going to do to me?” I said, too loud. “Can it do something without my knowing the rules? How can I stop it? Granny! What should I choose? How does this work?”
“Well-well. Surprise, surprise, young person,” Granny takes another sip of tea. She smiles as if hot tea is the best thing in life. “Know this: scissor doesn’t care you did not know. Scissor take. You pay. Moon rise, you must decide. If you do not choose, scissor makes the choice. What will it be? Tasting of the sweets? Enjoying of music? Remembering of friends? Understanding of books? Of the poetry? Maybe you lose of art, the deep thinking, you want? Maybe you don’t need sports?”
“But the scissors didn’t even do anything permanent! You just put everything back the way it was.” I could not control the panic in my rising voice. “Grampa’s gone! How can that even count?” I am behaving like a child. Gran was right.
“I know nothing,” Granny says. Her voice betrays some sadness, as if she wishes it could be otherwise. “I did tell you put down, don’t touch. I did warn. No one listens to old lady. Old, old Granny. I was great witch, once in a time. Used to be some special thing, peoples afraid, listened to Granny, came far far far to listen me, but now…?”
“Well, sure you told me to stop it, but…”
Granny’s teacup clicks sharply onto the saucer and she stares into the cup.
“Give me peace. My medicine, I need this thing,” Granny says. Then she shouts it. “Medicine! Nurse! Nurse! Come!” She stares at me, and her expression changes to a frown, “Why you here, Rose? Why didn’t you bring cake! I want cake! Cake!”
I rush to fetch the day-nurse from the office near the lobby. The hefty woman is reading a glossy magazine. She sighs, rises, and follows me back to the elevators, clucking, stinking of onions and garlic, her tiny silver cross glinting like hope in the middle of a broad expanse of age-spotted chest. The cross’s extremities end in tumorous bulges, echoing the woman’s enormous fingers and swollen ankles; but when she gets to Granny’s rooms, she cleans the tea efficiently from Granny’s housedress and locks the chess set deftly into its cabinet, pocketing the key before shooing me out of the room. “You young pipples are never any help to ze old pipples,” she says, “Respect nussink. Care for nussink. Working old pipples nerves. Get out. Go be young somewheres else.”
When moonrise comes, I am deep into a fifth of scotch, laughing with my grad school friends about the man-bun our professor had attempted. My mind is far from Granny’s warnings, and I don’t notice when my cellphone rings an alert from the senior center. It isn’t until morning, through a foggy hangover, that I discover that my grandmother has passed away.
All of Granny’s possessions, including one antique chess set, have been bequeathed to the Senior Center. The Center kindly lets me reclaim the valuable set since I promise to replace it with a more durable model. The sewing basket, however, has vanished. It’s possible that the Bulgarian day nurse stole it, but no one at the facility seems to care. No amount of cajoling or cash on my part has been able to recover it.
Until I can find the sewing kit, the chess set only sits on a glass coffee table in my studio apartment and gathers dust, waiting for me to grow old enough to forget what it means. In the meantime, I am taking a course in Kazakh and hoping for a miracle.
“ John Waters once told me I ran like a gazelle. Reality is frequently weird and more beautiful for it. I love it when realistic fiction takes you to places that make your eyes widen. I love it when any artist makes me reexamine reality. I hope these scissors feel real to you; if you find them, please return them. ”