by J. B. Tilton
Dr. Alec Mason was a professor of Comparative Analysis of Myths and Legends at a prestigious university. He taught about mythical creatures and legends from history and around the world but never believed in the things he taught. Until the day he discovers that they are all too real.
Dr. Alec Mason and Sheriff Patrick Crowley walked out of the cemetery toward their respective cars. Other than the mortician and the pall bearers the county had provided, they were just about the only ones who had attended the funeral. There was a young girl who said she was "Grannies" great-granddaughter but gave little more information than that.
"Thanks for coming, Alec," said Patrick. "Granny Straczynski was well known in town but virtually nothing was known about her."
"Except the rumors that she was a witch?" asked Alec.
"You know how people can be. She lived alone and never associated with anyone so naturally people are going to talk. I think that rumor got started sometime in the 70s. I remember my dad telling me that some of the local high school students snuck out to her place once and claimed they heard and saw some strange things. Someone said she was practicing witchcraft and ever since then people believed she was a witch."
"And she never did anything to dispel the rumors?"
"Not that I'm aware of. She had to have known about them. She'd come into town a couple of times a month to buy groceries and what-not. But I don't think she ever spoke more than a couple of words to anyone when she was here. God knows how she kept that old car of hers running."
"Well, I was glad to come out," said Alec. "No one should have to be buried alone. I didn't know her but everyone deserves someone to mourn their passing. How old was she anyway? I heard someone once say she was in her 80s back when she was labeled a witch."
"No one really knows. Like I said, she kept to herself. I didn't even know she had any relatives until I found that picture of her daughter in her bag. There was a number on the back and I called it to let them know she had died. But it appears her daughter died some years ago and I spoke to her great-granddaughter. I know she was an old bird. The coroner said she had to be in her nineties."
"And she died of a coronary?"
"That's the official cause of death. I don't know of anyone who might want to hurt her and there were no signs of foul play. I guess she just got old."
"It happens to all of us, my old friend. I hope when it's my time to go I'll have more than a couple of well-meaning strangers standing over my grave."
"I don't think you'll have much to worry about in that respect," said Patrick. "Most of your students like you. And you've told me yourself that some of them even keep in touch years after they've graduated. I'm sure at least some of them will turn out when it's time for you to shuffle off this mortal coil."
"Quoting Shakespeare? Now how's that going to look to the good people of this county when you try to claim once again that you're just an ole' country sheriff at reelection time?"
"It won't matter as long as you don't say anything, ole' buddy."
"Well you might be right. Some of my students – or former students – might show up for my funeral. Of course I hope it isn't until I'm as old as Granny Straczynski was: however old that is."
"Excuse me, Sheriff Crowley?"
The young woman who had claimed to be Grannies great-granddaughter walked up to the two men. She was attractive enough. Somewhere in her mid-20s with long red hair, she was dressed in a business suit.
"Yes, Miss Warren, how can I help you?"
"Jennifer, please. I was wondering if you could tell me how to get to my great-grandmother's home? I'll need to go through her things and take care of them. Unfortunately I never visited her so I have no idea where she lived."
"Certainly," said Patrick. "Take the north road out of town for Highway 190. About two miles outside of town you'll see FM 2212 to the left. Take that road about five miles and it will be on your right. It's pretty easy to find. It's a couple hundred yards off the road but you can see it from the road."
"Thank you. I appreciate all the help. I know my great-grandmother wasn't well liked in Mills. It's nice to see she had at least a couple of friends."
"Oh, I wouldn't say she wasn't well liked," said Alec. "People just didn't know her, that's all. She stayed pretty much to herself most of the time. Some people just aren't comfortable around others."
"Yes, I'm sure you're right, Dr. Mason. I still appreciate you showing up for the funeral. She and my grandmother had a falling out many years ago. I don't think any of the family ever spoke to her or visited since then. Not that there are many relatives left. If Sheriff Crowley hadn't called I wouldn't even have known she had died or where she had lived."
"All part of my job," said Patrick.
"Well, it was nice to meet both of you. I'm sure I'll be around town for a few days while I sort through her belongings. Maybe I'll see you both around."
"I'm sure you will," said Patrick.
"A falling out?" questioned Alec as Jennifer walked to her car.
"That's news to me. I do remember my dad telling me she had a daughter. But her daughter left sometime in the 80s. Just after a girl died in a car accident just outside of town."
"I remember hearing about that once. There was talk of a cover up wasn't there? That some of the local prominent boys had been involved or something?"
"That's all it was was talk. My dad was still sheriff back then. He checked it out and didn't find anything suspicious. Apparently the girl was driving home from a party or something and lost control of the car. She'd been drinking and the coroner said she must have been impaired. She missed a curve in the road and drove straight into a tree. She died on impact. But there wasn't any evidence of anyone else being there."
"Well, I need to get home and work on my lesson for Monday."
"So what are you teaching those impressionable young minds this time? Vampires? Werewolves? Maybe Bigfoot?"
"Actually this week's lesson is about skinwalkers," replied Alec with a smile.
"Skinwalkers? Aren't werewolves considered skinwalkers?"
"Yes, they are a form of skinwalker. They're what you might call a sub-classification of skinwalkers. But skinwalkers are a whole separate class by themselves. You'd be surprised how many cultures around the world have legends about them."
"I'll take your word on that. That kind of stuff never interested me much. I can't believe college students are actually studying that stuff. Aren't there enough movies about them?"
"Most movies don't get all the facts straight," said Alec. "A lot of dramatization goes into make a movie. And not all legends match up with others. Different cultures might have similar legends and myths but each is based on that specific culture. What might be appropriate in one may not be applicable in another."
"I'd rather enjoy a good football game myself."
"Spoken like a true Texican," said Alec, smiling at his friend. "I'd better get going. Lesson plans don't write themselves."
"I'll see you around, Alec. Call me and we'll have dinner sometime this week."
"I'll do that. Take care, Pat."
The two men got into their cars and drove away from the cemetery. As they did, two men began to fill in the grave of Grannie Straczynski.
Alec collected his papers from the desk and began to put them into his briefcase. It was Tuesday and his classes were finally over for the day. He was planning on pulling a pop quiz tomorrow and he wanted to get back to his office and put the finishing touches on the quiz.
The University of West Texas wasn't as large as most other schools of higher learning. Its annual enrollment only averaged about 18,000, well below most other colleges and universities. But it was also considered one of the best universities in the United States, ranking well in the top percentile. And like many college towns, it was the main employer for the relatively small permanent population for Mills, Texas.
He could have gotten a lot more money teaching at a larger institution. But not all universities offered a course in Comparative Analysis of Myths and Legends. Analyzing myths and legends from the various cultures around the world and at different times. Besides, he preferred living in a small town. He had grown up in a town not far from Mills that was not unlike Mills.
As he was putting his papers into his briefcase Patrick came into the classroom. Jennifer was with him and she seemed to be carrying a book. Alec looked up and smiled as they walked up to his desk.
"Hi," said Alec, smiling at them. "Jennifer, how are you enjoying your stay here in our sleepy little town?"
"It's fine," she said. "A lot different from Philadelphia where I live."
"I'm sure of that. I was in Philadelphia once. Just long enough to change planes, I'm afraid. Never made it out of the airport. Pat, what brings the two of you by here today?"
"Jennifer has been going through her great-grandmother's things. She came to me because she didn't know where else to turn. She brought a book to me." He nodded to her and she laid the book on the desk. "I couldn't make hide nor hair out of it. I figured since you dealt with different cultures you might be able tell us what it is. It's written in some kind of language I've never seen before."
Alec picked up the book and looked it over. He could tell even at a glance that it was very old. The cover felt strange; not like leather. But then many cultures used different material than leather for book bindings. There were some strange symbols inscribed on the front of the book. He didn't recognize them but they didn't look like a language to him.
He carefully opened the book and began to turn the pages. It was obviously hand-written in a flowing calligraphic-style of writing. This was very common, especially in ancient civilizations. The writing looked familiar but he couldn't be sure what language it was. Along with the writing were pictures and symbols, many of which he recognized.
"Where did you get this?" he asked. "It's very old. Several hundred years at least. I think it's a book of magic. See these symbols? They look like charms or protection circles. The pentagram figures prominently in many of them."
"My great-grandmother had it under her bed," said Jennifer. "It was carefully wrapped in a small cloth and placed inside a box."
"Pentagram?" questioned Patrick. "Isn't that a symbol for black magic? Witches and devil worship and things like that?"
"Today it is," said Alec, continuing to look through the book. "It wasn't always so. Centuries ago the pentagram was used by the early Christians to represent the five wounds of Jesus during the crucifixion."
"So maybe the old woman was a witch," said Patrick. "If she's using the pentagram maybe she was practicing black magic or something."
"I hardly doubt it," said Alec, smiling. "The idea of a witch worshipping the devil was made up by Hollywood. Witches were – are – worshippers of nature. Their power supposedly comes from the elements. In addition, they don't believe in the devil. You're not likely to worship something you don't even believe in."
"But she could still have been practicing some kind of dark magic," suggested Jennifer. "I know some people still believe in that kind of stuff. Especially people from countries that have been around a lot longer than the United States. My grandmother once told me we were descended from Gypsies. Her ancestors apparently came from Hungary."
"I suppose that's not out of the realm of possibility," said Alec. "It's also possible this is a book of protection spells and the like. What might be called white magic. I think it's what's called a grimoire. A book used to catalogue the spells and incantations used by various cultures. Not all grimoires hold evil magic. Many were written to hold good magic as well."
"You don't believe any of these spells actually work, do you?" Patrick asked. "Magic isn't real. How can burning a candle and reciting some old words make something happen?"
"I didn't say I believed it," said Alec. "But clearly Jennifer's great-grandmother did. Like she said, some of the older generation actually did believe in such things. Even today in places like Haiti and Africa there are people our age and younger that believe in it. Simply because we don't believe in it doesn't invalidate someone else's belief that it's real."
"I know, I know," said Patrick. "It's just hard to imagine that someone living in the United States today would put any stock in this kind of stuff."
"Did you great-grandmother have any other things?" Alec asked Jennifer. "Some crystals, different colored candles, maybe jars of powders or liquids you may not have been able to identify?"
"Her place is full of that kind of stuff," said Jennifer. "It reminds me of some old movies about witchcraft and demon worship. She's got all kinds of stuff. I was planning on getting rid of most of it."
"Would you mind if I had a look at it before you did? I might be able to find out what kind of magic she was involved in. At the very least it could be a fascinating look at something that could be centuries old."
"Yeah, I guess that would be okay," said Jennifer. "It's going to take me a few days to sort through everything anyway. You can come out to the house whenever you want. Maybe some of the stuff might actually be worth something."
"That's possible. In the mean time, if you don't mind, I'll hold onto this book and see if I can decipher any of it. I'll take very good care of it and I'll return it just as soon as I'm finished with it."
"You can keep it," said Jennifer. "My great-grandmother and I weren't exactly what you would call close. I'll probably end up getting rid of all of her stuff anyway. And one of the real estate agents has made a very nice offer on her house and property. Sheriff Crowley tells me that even though she died without a will I'll probably inherit everything since I'm her only known living relative. And to be honest I don't have a whole lot of use for some rundown old shack in the middle of Texas."
"Ronald Decker," said Pat. "He's been after her place for years. Says it's worth a fortune but she would never sell."
"Well, I suppose it is yours now," said Alec. "I'll come out tomorrow. I only have a couple of classes tomorrow and should be free by 1:00. If that's okay."
"That's fine," said Jennifer. "I should be there. I don't go out there at night, though. The place gives me the creeps."
Alec said his good-byes and then turned back to the book as Patrick and Jennifer left the classroom.