John B. Mahaffie
The whole Slacum clan knew it was there in the top left drawer of Great Grandpa’s desk, with all the keys that don't go to anything. Just an old penknife. It looked ordinary enough, but if a Slacum forgot the story, they tended to see a nasty red gash appear across their hand, or like once, with Uncle Bill, get it right between two ribs when trying to peel fruit, just missing vital organs somehow. Just so’s you know, nobody’s ever died.
Things just went wrong using the old knife. It used to be, any Slacum could tell you the stories. But I doubt my boy Jason could come up with one. He's hardly spent any time out at the old place, doesn't know the traditions. I suppose that's my fault. That's maybe why I'm telling all this now, plus what happened the other day.
Even with its reputation, all those years Slacums, wandering around the old homeplace, would still call out: “Get that knife for me, will ya? Pass me that old knife, it's in the drawer there.” Knowing, all along, what it was capable of.
Our wiseacre uncles would say, “Get me the little knife and a pack a Band-Aids while you're at it,” or, “Don't use that thing unless you're over tile.”
Aunt Kathy tells how it dropped on her bare pinky toe once. Wasn't even opened, and drew Slacum blood.
“Believe me, it's trying for the arteries, the big ones,” I think it was Aunt Charlene said once. Various Slacum aunts were in the kitchen at that time, probably Thanksgiving.
“Femoral or brachial,” my big sister Janice called in from the sofa. Janice studied to be a phlebotomist and knew something about bleeding. A job like that makes all kinds of sense for a Slacum.
Ma would always say, “That thing is fixin' to kill a Slacum dead. Someone will be home alone, slice an artery, and pfft! They'll bleed out. Probably it'll be me.”
I'd had my own share of cuts and nicks, all the way back to boyhood. But I was never sure this wasn't just all about us Slacums being accident-prone. We've driven an above-average share of vehicles into culverts, for example.
Anyhow, a half dozen Christmases could pass, and no blood. You always knew it was just biding its time. The idea of sudden laceration stays with a Slacum.
“Ma's right, it's gonna kill someday,” my sister Beth Ann got in the habit of saying. She would not use it. Wouldn't even fetch it out of the drawer for somebody. She'd sooner take a chance on a butcher knife, a plain razor blade, a machete, or a Husqvarna with a loose chain. Despite the presence of this household menace, Beth Ann moved home after Ricky, her common-law husband, two-timed her for the third time.
“Kenny, just you throw it away,” Ma has kept saying to me. “Get rid of the thing.” Of course, she still would use it when a package came.
Ma has taken to talking about getting rid of everything in the old place. I keep things working around her house as best as I can, but it's only a matter of time before we have to close the place up for good.
The house is so quiet now. Hasn't had the whole family there for some years. Except for Beth Ann, we're all busy raising our kids. Ma and Joe Russell—her current husband, she calls him—come to my house or Janice's for holidays. Seems like we don't even share the old stories when we aren't at Ma's.
Anyhow, reason I'm telling you all this
: It was too early the other Saturday, but I got Jason up out of bed. I'd volunteered him to pitch in at Ma's.
In the truck, Jason reached out for his earbuds to tune me out. I caught his eye and wiggled a finger at him, “leave those out right now.”
He sighed. I was in a certain mood. I was tired of the kids not caring about their grandma and the old homeplace. I held forth on the ride over. Worked to give him some too-late understanding of Slacum things.
At Ma's, we set to pulling the kitchen faucet apart to sort out a stuck handle.
We needed to loose a seal from the base of the thing.
“Hey Jas, get me that knife.”
I got that vacant look they all have.
“I was just telling you. Jesus, you never listen. Go to Great Grandpa . . . That old desk in the front room. Top left drawer. It's a penknife. Get it out for me.”
Jason's generation has not had a laceration. The general consensus among the youngsters, if anyone even rested a thought on it, was that the old story is Dad and uncle nonsense.
Well, anyhow, sticking the knife in to prize up the seal, Jason twisted it and broke the blade clean off. Surprised himself and all of us. He held a piece in each hand, not knowing what to think.
Ma's mouth gaped open. She sucked in a breath. She set her Dr Pepper down. Beth Ann started a giggle then swallowed it back. You could have heard a pin drop, or in the case of the old Slacum place, a blood drop.
“Jesus God, he's broke the Blood Knife,” Ma said, kinda quiet.
But I was looking at Jason's fingers. Blood welled up across them.
Then Ma saw and kicked into action. Got a good dishtowel from the drawer and set to nursing Jason. She'd never do that for the rest of us. Used to tell us not to bleed on her floors.
“Oh Lord,” Beth Ann said, but she was still just about giggling.
“Typical Slacum,” Ma was saying, as she worked to stop the bleeding.
I put my hand on Jason's shoulder. “You know, I reckon we can fix that thing,” I said. I meant the knife.
Then Beth Ann says, “Know what? We should have a barbecue. Get everyone together.”
So it looks like some of the old ways'll continue a bit longer. Oh, we're fighting for sure against time. But in that old house, we're still carried back, back into our Slacum past. Makes me want to keep the old place going, best as I can. I'll get Jason to help. Maybe we’ll use the old knife.
About the Author
John B. Mahaffie is a futurist with a love of the past. He writes flash and short fiction and is at work on a historical novel. Meanwhile, future-focused storytelling, via scenarios, are the backbone of his consulting work. John lives and works in Washington, DC.