This story is by Susan Foster and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
If I’d known what I know now, I would never have agreed to marry anyone.
My mother insists I sit. Without any preamble, she says, “Now that you’re engaged, I need to tell you a legend concerning the married women in our family.”
“Legend? That sounds dramatic.” I’m only half listening, still miffed at Mom for asking me to visit without Jonathan, just one day after he proposed. “Where’s Dad?”
“He doesn’t need to know the details of this conversation.”
This sounds foreboding, but even Mom can’t dampen my good mood today.
She hands me a mug of coffee and folds herself into a chair alongside mine. “The trouble began with your, oh, let me think…” Mom closes her eyes and counts on her fingers, “great, great, great…” She blinks. “I give up. Too many greats to count. It all began with your great-something-grandmother Maria winning the lottery in the 1800s in Spain.”
“Sure. The Powerball was big back then.”
Silencing my snark with a look, Mom lifts a document from a side table and passes it to me.
It summarizes the origin of El Gordo, Spain’s National Christmas lottery. I read the highlighted text aloud, “In 1812, Spain began their Christmas edition of the lottery. Thousands of numbered wooden balls were made and sold as tickets.” I put the paper down. “What does this have to do with us?”
Mom frowns. “Mary, please! Let me tell the story.”
I know how long-winded she can get. I sigh. “Okay, but make it quick. Jonathan’s waiting for me.”
“To raise funds for a new school, Maria’s town organized a lottery, like El Gordo but on a smaller scale. Each time they sold a numbered wooden ball, they recorded its digits on a piece of paper, rolled it up, and threw it into a sack. As a wedding gift, Maria’s husband gave her one of these chances to win the lottery.”
This fact snags my attention. My gift to Jonathan will probably be an expensive watch.
“Before they left home to attend the drawing, Maria’s husband reminded her to bring the ball. Maria, adept at lying, claimed she’d hidden it for safekeeping, but she had not. Disappointed by what seemed a worthless wedding gift, in a fit of temper she’d thrown it away.
“Maria’s husband had memorized the numbers on their ball, so when the officiant announced the winning numbers, he shouted, ‘We won!’ But they needed proof of ownership to claim the prize.”
“Knowing her husband expected her to get it, Maria raced home without hope, afraid her lie would destroy her marriage. In an open field, with only a scarecrow to hear her words, she shouted a plea, ‘Please––gods, witches, or whoever may be listening, if somehow I can find the ball, I promise I’ll never lie again.’ To strengthen the bargain, she added, ‘and neither will any of my married female descendants. If they do, you can make the opposite of their lie come true.’”
I snort, nearly spewing the coffee I’ve just sipped. I’m glad my mother insisted Jonathan not join us. This ludicrous legend, told as fact, would have convinced him he’d married into a deranged family. The rest of my mother’s story would have confirmed that notion.
“Maria burned their trash in a barrel every evening, and six days had passed since she’d thrown the lottery ball away. Nonetheless, she dug deep into the cooled, powdery ashes and miraculously pulled out the unscathed precious wooden orb. Her husband never learned what she had done, and they lived comfortably off the winnings. But the legend’s curse persists. Married women in our family always regret any lie they tell.”
Mom grabs my hands. “You must never tell lies, not even white ones.”
I recall our family history, replete with female misfortunes. My scalp prickles. “Surely you don’t believe this old wives’ tale.”
“Lying several times convinced me. That’s why I’ve always been brutally honest, and you must be now, too.”
No way would I become like her, filterless, never sugar-coating anything. I stand and bend over to kiss my mother’s cheek. “I need to go.”
“Okay, dear, but please be wary. One more thing–I tried making lying work to my advantage, saying the opposite of something I wanted to occur. That never worked. Don’t bother trying that.”
My hand is on the door handle. “Thanks for telling me, but you know I don’t believe this sort of stuff.”
Seven months after our wedding, alone in our bedroom, I prop my enormous belly and swollen ankles with pillows. On the bed beside me is a ledger, open to a record of all my lies and their consequences. I didn’t start keeping track until I became convinced the curse was real, so I may have forgotten a few.
I study my notes, hoping for a clue:
- On our wedding night, too embarrassed to admit I’d missed some birth control pills, I lied, implying Jonathan could forgo the condom. I became pregnant with twins that night.
- I told my friend her pimple wasn’t noticeable. That same day, she developed full-blown acne.
- I complimented my mother-in-law, saying the carb-heavy, overcooked, tasteless meal she served was nutritious and delicious. We all got food poisoning.
- It was supposed to rain, but not wanting to delay our trip to the beach, I told my husband the weatherman predicted sunshine. It didn’t just rain–there was a hurricane.
The list goes on and on.
At first, I’d chalked these events up to coincidence. Misuse of birth control would, of course, result in pregnancy. Acne and hurricanes sometimes just happen. But, eventually, the cause and effect of my untruthfulness became impossible to deny. No matter how small, all my lies have manifested in opposite ways.
Telling the unvarnished truth hasn’t worked out any better. Whether I lie or tell the truth, my relationships are in jeopardy. Like yesterday, when Jonathan had an important meeting and asked me how he looked. I gave him my honest opinion. “Your suit is too tight and your hair is too long.” He left in a huff and didn’t come home last night.
For months, I’ve scoured dozens of myths, legends, and fairy tales and I think I’ve learned the formula to reverse the curse. But doing it will require all my great-something-grandmother Maria’s luck and for me to remain resolute.
For my plan to work, I need to be lucky enough to win a lottery. I’ve been playing lotteries for weeks with no success, using our wedding date and my due date as the numbers. This week’s Powerball ticket rests on my bed. For its number, I combined Maria’s birthday and her wedding date, which I learned after extensive ancestral research.
I open my computer, check the winning numbers, and stare at the screen, barely believing what I see.
I won thirty million dollars before taxes.
I feel relief. Not joy.
I must break the curse! Swearing, I grab the lottery ticket, waddle to the kitchen, and turn on a gas burner. My hand trembles. Thirty million dollars.
I can’t do this. I turn off the burner.
But I must.
I relight the stove and chant, “Gods, witches, anyone––I’m forfeiting my lottery winnings, so please undo the curse Maria invoked when she wanted to claim her prize. Lift it from all the women in my family, now and forevermore.” Gathering courage, I shove the winning ticket into the yellowish-blue flame, pinching it tightly with my fingertips. With a whimper, I let go as the last corner of the paper incinerates.
The acrid smell from the charred ticket stub remains in my nostrils; my eyes are watery from the smoke. Or perhaps from tears. We could have been rich but, surely, giving up thirty million dollars will end the curse.
Jonathan comes home. Even though he’s not, I say, “You’re more handsome than ever.” White lies hold relationships together.
He hugs me.
“I played the lottery but we didn’t win.” Another lie.
“Maybe next time,” he says. I will never play again.
The next morning, I call in sick to work, although I’m not. I do it to test another lie. Two days pass without repercussions. Convinced we’re no longer cursed, I tell Jonathan I need to call my mom.
“I thought you just talked with her.”
Without thinking, I say, “I want her to know her life will be okay.”
“Wasn’t it already?”
Rather than explain the thwarted curse, I lie. “You know what a hypochondriac she is. She had routine lab work done but was too afraid to check the results, so I did. Fortunately, they confirmed she’s healthy.”
“That’s good.” Jonathan goes to another room.
Happier than I’ve been in months, I dial Mom’s number. As I do, I see a missed call from my boss. I swallow, and my throat feels sore. Oh, NO!
Dad picks up. He stutters, “Your mother… she-–she just died.”