It stood on the mantle in Grandma’s drawing room for as long as I can remember and for many years before that. The precious egg with its brass stand and hand-painted scene of a person of indeterminate sex trying to catch a phoenix in flight was strictly off limits to us kids. We were under pain of death if it even crossed our minds to touch it, so we would stand on the hearth with our hands clasped firmly behind our backs and stare at it.
My sister, Lindsay, thought it was beautiful. But she thought everything was beautiful. “Look at the beautiful spider,” she would say. Then she’d cry when I stomped on it. It was not beautiful to me. It was the stuff of nightmares and stomping on it kept the bad dreams at bay. Lindsay didn’t understand that any more than I understood how she thought an eight-legged creature could possibly be beautiful.
The egg wasn’t beautiful either. The figure chasing the phoenix was creepy and the A-frame cabin in the back ground reminded me of the witch’s cabin in Hansel and Gretel. I was sure that the egg was cursed and the reason we were not allowed to touch it was because it was cursed. I was sure that the figure was some other poor kid that got sucked into the scene when he/she touched it and was forever stuck trying to catch the phoenix, because that was the only way he/she would ever get out of the egg. My hands were more firmly clamped behind my back than Lindsay’s ever were and I secretly kept hoping that she would touch it and get sucked into it like the other kid.
“When I grow up,” Lindsay would say to me, “I’m going to have that egg on my mantle.”
“You can’t,” I would say. “It’s Grandma’s egg.”
“Grandma isn’t going to live forever,” Lindsay would tell me. And that made me cry.
I never knew how she was going to get the egg onto her mantle when it was cursed and we were not allowed to touch it. I never asked either. There were some things that I just didn’t want to know when I was six years old.
Time passed and so, eventually, did Grandma. I got the call the night before my English Lit. final in my senior year at college. It had been years since I thought about the egg, but when my tearful mother broke the news to me over the phone that Grandma was dead, the egg was all I could think about. Twenty-two years of fear came flooding back over me and I knew that I had to destroy the egg before Lindsay touched it and got sucked into it.
It was silly, I know. I was not a kid anymore and I knew that the egg was harmless. But I couldn’t shake the notion that I had to get rid of the egg to save my sister who thought everything was beautiful.
I managed to get through my final exam and earn my degree in English Literature. The moment I put my pen down, I bolted out of the room and sped to Grandma’s house. I had no plan. I just thought that when the moment presented itself, I would ‘accidentally’ knock the egg off the mantle. All the way there my rational brain kept telling me not to be stupid, but my six-year-old brain kept insisting that the egg had to go.
When I arrived at Grandma’s house there were relatives everywhere. Uncles, aunts and cousins milled about in the drawing room, the hall and even up the staircase. I squeezed my way inside, looking for Mother and Lindsay, and dodging hugs and handshakes.
Mother was in the kitchen cooking, of course. Her way of dealing with Grandma’s death appeared to be an urgent exercise in ensuring that every recipe she ever learned from the old lady was remembered and prepared exactly the way Grandma had taught her. Grandma wasn’t dead as long as her strudel was alive. I hugged my mother.
“Oh, John,” she said with a rueful smile. “I’m so glad you’re here. Help me get this turkey out of the oven. You can do the honours and carve it for me.”
Carving the family dinner turkey or roast was indeed an honour in my mother’s eyes. It was traditional that the man of the house do the carving. I wasn’t sure why Uncle Joe wasn’t doing it, since he was the oldest surviving male in the family. It might have had something to do with the fact that he was half-blind and probably would have carved himself instead of the turkey, which was enormous, by the way.
Before I made a show out of honing the carving knife, an ancient piece of cutlery that, I’m sure, was forged in a smithy sometime in the dark ages - probably about the same time that the egg was being cursed by some wretched hag - I needed to take off me coat.
“Um, sure, Mother. I’ll just put my coat in the closet and I’ll get right to it. Where’s Lindsay?”
“She hasn’t arrived yet. She’ll be here tomorrow with the kids. Ted had to take care of some things at the office before they could get away.” Ted was Lindsay’s husband; another curse I had tried to save her from, but that’s just me being petty, as Mother would always say.
Plenty of time to break the egg, I thought as I manoeuvred back through the throng of relatives to hang up my coat. I noted that none of them were helping with the food. Mother probably wouldn’t have let them anyway. But still...
I detoured into the drawing room. I needed to check on the egg, to see if it was still on the mantle. The obsession with the egg was getting ridiculous, but for some reason I could not suppress the need to smash the damned thing. I was hoping that it would be gone already, snatched up by one of the milling relatives who thought it was worth a small fortune. Alas, it was still there, standing as it always had on its brass stand. And standing before it were two young cousins with their hands firmly clamped behind their backs.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” asked the eight-year-old Julia.
“It’s scary,” said the six-year-old Tristan.
“No, it’s not,” said Julia. “One day it’s going to be on my mantle.”
“But Mommy said that Aunty Carla was going to take it home with her.” Tristan sounded relieved to know that it was going to be far, far away from him and his big sister soon. Tristan and Julia lived two hundred miles away and they understood from the drive in that morning that was a long way from Grandma’s house.
“Well, I’m going to ask Aunty Carla to give it to me.”
“You can’t,” cried Tristan.
“Why not?” asked Julia.
“Because it’s cursed. If you touch it, you’ll get sucked into it like that guy.” Tristan pointed up at the figure on the egg chasing the phoenix. In an effort to stop her younger brother from touching the egg, Julia tried to pull his hand back. Somehow, in the process, they managed to knock it off the mantle.
In slow motion I saw the egg leap into the air. It seemed to hang for a long moment before it began its descent toward the stone hearth. Without thinking, I jumped forward, reached out and caught the egg before it smashed. A collective gasp rose from the throats of all the gathered relatives. Little Tristan vaulted off the mantle, giving me and the cursed egg plenty of room. “Oh, no!” he shouted. “Don’t touch it!”
I looked at the egg in my hand. Not a crack.
I looked up at young Tristan. His eyes were closed tight behind his hands. He trembled with fear.
I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. The poor little thing thought I was going to be sucked into the cursed egg.
“It’s okay, Tristan. Look,” I said as I pried his hands away from his terrified face. “It’s just an egg. It can’t hurt anyone.”
Tristan peeked out at me, opening one blue eye. Seeing that I was safe – even with the egg in my hand – he sighed in relief.
“It’s not cursed?” he asked.
“No, it’s not. It’s perfectly safe.” I placed the delicate ornament in his small hands.
“It’s still not beautiful,” he said and handed it back.
There was a twinge of disappointment in his voice. I returned the egg to the mantle and it occurred to me that I was a little disappointed, too. Thankful, but disappointed nonetheless.
As it turned out, I was something of a hero that night. The egg, it seemed was a bit of a legend in the family, it’s ‘curse’ going back at least two generations to Uncle Joe who believed that the reason no one could touch it was because it would suck you into the scene and trap you there when he was six.
“Nonsense!” Mother admonished. “It’s just an egg. If you touch it, it will break.”
Mother hadn’t witnessed the near miss and no one felt compelled to tell her about it.
I no longer have the urge to break the egg. I think that its curse is going to be keeping little hands from touching it for a long while yet. Maybe even after it does end up on Lindsay’s mantle one day.