This story is by Sandy Juker and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
In my dream, Mom plucked two slices of sizzling bacon from the frying pan, crisscrossed them over my egg, and leaned toward me. She peered into my eyes as though probing my mind.
“Miranda, according to Scottish myth, our minds and our spirits walk hand in hand while we sleep. Grandma Coyle explained that within our dreams, every desire, good or bad, is free to conjure scenarios and solutions that may not be justified in life.” She strummed fingernails on the granite countertop.
“Huh? What does that mean?” Mom’s unsolicited remark and piercing focus creeped me out. Almost as much as the tick, tick, tick of her nails.
She laughed. Not a motherly chuckle, but a throaty cackle that lifted the hair on my arms. “I’ll tell you what it means. Just like Mama told me when I turned thirteen.” I followed her gaze. My birthday cake, a black and purple concoction, bore a single blazing candle.
I turned to my mom, expecting … I’m not sure what I was expecting, but definitely not flames. The frying pan burst into a grease fueled inferno. My larynx constricted, stifling a scream. I raised my arms against the anticipation of heat.
But there was no heat. A luminous red and orange halo framed my mother’s silhouette. Her hair, writhing like Medusa’s locks, danced with the flames. The candle’s pulsing flicker reflected from her gleaming eyes.
I opened my mouth, but I could not speak. Through clenched teeth, I sucked thick, swirling air across my lips. My nostrils twinged and burned.
From my mother’s mouth, my Scottish grandmother’s voice intoned. “Dreams o’ those who inherit Scotland’s rare gift shall enter th’spirit world on th’dawn o’ their therteenth year.” As though beseeching the gods, Mom raised her hands and spoke in a rising crescendo. “Scot blood flows thek an’ true from me mither tae me, from me tae you.”
I jolted up in bed, rubbed my eyes, and huffed bitterness from my lungs. My diaphragm seized, compressing my heart as I struggled for air. I inhaled a restoring breath.
The savory aroma of bacon flooded my senses, and I turned toward my mother’s sweet voice. “Rise and shine, birthday girl. Your pancakes are almost ready.” No flames, no snakes, just Mom, calling me to breakfast.
Padding through the dining room to the kitchen, I passed a chocolate cake embellished with pink and white scallops. Thirteen candles waited to be lit.
A melding of bacon, maple, and vanilla fumes wafted from the plate that clinked on polished granite as my mother set it in front of me. She swiped a finger through syrup on the plate’s rim and stuck it in her mouth. I shuddered as the nails of her other hand ticked on the countertop.
I bit my lip. “Mom, why do we dream?” My mother, the perfect traditional “Mom of the Year” would flip out if I told her why I was asking.
“Hmmm?” She swiped another drip from my plate and twirled the finger as she spoke. “There are lots of explanations about unresolved issues or desires beyond our reach.” She licked the syrup, savoring it for a thoughtful moment. “Your grandma Coyle was an expert on dreams. Maybe she’ll show up in one of yours and explain it to you.”
Mom laughed and leaned across the counter. “Why? Did you have a juicy dream I should know about?” She raised her eyebrows and grinned.
Unsure whether I detected a knowing twinkle, I shook my head and began cutting my pancakes. “No. Nothing like that.” I licked my fork. “Is this a new brand of syrup? It’s really good.” No way was I going to tell her about my creepy dream.
Mom assured me it was the same ol’ brand she always bought, then pointed toward the dining room. “Did you see your birthday cake?” I nodded. “The family will be here at five for dinner. We’re having your favorite. Scottish sausage rolls.”
I savored a bite of my breakfast. “Maple syrup always reminds me of Nana scolding us for drowning her Scottish tattie scones, like American pancakes.” My breath caught. “She won’t be at my party this year.”
At the party, aunts and uncles and cousins paraded in, bearing brightly colored gifts. My best friend, Callie, arrived with her mother. She handed me a pink envelope. “This is from my grandma. She’s not been feeling well since Grandpa died.” I hugged her, thinking she must miss him as much as I miss Nana.
Mom nudged my father, and he dutifully announced, “Dinner is ready.” He waved everyone toward the dining room.
For the first time, Mom and Dad guided me to the adults’ table. As I sat in the chair on my mother’s right, the thrill of claiming my right as a teen waned. I visualized Grandma Coyle, sitting in that same chair a year ago, laughing and telling stories.
I leaned close to Mom. “I wish Nana was still alive.”
She squeezed me around the shoulders. “Don’t worry. She wouldn’t dream of missing yer therteenth birthday, wherever she is.”
The family’s chatter and laughter filled the room. I kept up a good face, but I couldn’t stop thinking about my Scottish grandmother. She missed my birthday party. She was not there to see when I blew out all but one of thirteen candles.
Mesmerized by a spiral of smoke circling that one blazing candle, I closed my eyes. My mother’s dream chant played in my head. “Scot blood flows thek an’ true from me mither tae me, from me tae you.”
A hand squeezing mine shook me from the daze. Grandma Coyle, her eyes gleaming with the candle’s flickering reflection, stood beside me. The herbaceous scent of her Scottish Heather oil tickled my nose. A fiery vermillion aura framed her presence. I followed her gaze around the room, where faces, distorted by wavering shadows, appeared frozen in time.
She turned to me, her eyes penetrating mine, and rolling every r, she said, “Miranda, wee’un, from this day forward, yer dreams, lek yer mither’s dreams, shall guide yer path.” She reached for Mom’s hand, layered it on mine, and clasped them between her own. “Aye, Scot blood flows thek an’ true. Oblige th’spirits and th’spirits shall exalt ye wi’ wisdom, kindness, and understandin.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but she raised a hand to my lips. “Haud yer wheesht. Speak no o’ this day. This truth courses through yer veins as it does me own, and as it was wi’ me mither afore me.” The aura faded and her image dimmed. The candle’s flame surged and died.
A cacophony of voices blared around me. I blinked and looked at Mom, who nodded and pressed a hand to my cheek. She closed her eyes and raised her chin, inhaling deeply. I turned, hoping. But Grandma’s essence was gone. Only the faint scent of Heather lingered.
That next week, my dreams were vivid and I awoke every day, pondering their meaning. What could two wet and dirty kittens in a culvert have to do with my new path? What were the spirits telling me?
I told Mom about the kittens. She said, “Only you can find meaning in your dreams. You must listen to the world around you.”
I wanted to tell my best friend about my spirit enhanced dreams, but I couldn’t betray Nana’s bequest.
On our way home from school, Callie stopped in front of her grandmother’s house. “Mom asked me to visit Grandma. Will you come in with me?” I shrugged and followed her to the door.
Her grandmother, wearing a tattered bathrobe, let us in. “Callie dear, I would’ve dressed up if I’d known you were coming.” She raked arthritic fingers through dirty tangled hair.
After our visit, I hurried home. “Mom, I think I know what the kittens mean. Since Callie’s grandpa died, her grandma has no purpose. She needs someone to care for.”
We hurried to the animal shelter, but arrived just as the neon OPEN sign went dark. A young woman holding a cardboard box pounded on the locked door. “Please, open up. I can’t take these kittens home. My son is allergic.”
The mewing from my dreams drew me to the woman. I peeked in the box, knowing there would be two. “Where did you find them?” A pair of dirty calico kittens pawed at my hand.
Callie’s grandmother regained her spark. The two kittens, abandoned in a culvert, became her new purpose. My best friend’s gratitude made me wonder.
Was it the Scottish myth and the spirits in my dreams, or did I wake up and begin listening to the world around me?
My nostrils flared. I lifted my chin, inhaling a subtle herbal aroma. Scottish Heather!