Photography by Leeta Harding
by Adam Skowera
Continuing our spooky stories during October! Enjoy this dark and curious tale about a magic jar by Adam Skowera.
Tom, my third husband, asked about the jar the night after our six-month wedding anniversary. I’ve always thought of him as the best of my late husbands. He was certainly the brightest and among the best looking, and none of the others ever asked about the mason jar that I kept in a place of prominence beneath the mirror of my vanity.
It was late and I was scrubbing off my day’s face when he asked about it. I looked at him, he was really a sight, a strong, statuesque man with the most inviting eyes. He let me be silent for a while as I contemplated what to tell him. Then he asked me again.
“Why do you ask sweetheart?” I said to him.
“It’s sitting there and I’ve never seen anything in it,” he said
“It has sentimental value.”
“Cute. How come?”
“It was my grandmother’s.”
“There’s got to be more to it than that,” he said. “My grandmother made jam in mason jars like that but you don’t see me putting any on display.”
“You wouldn’t want to hear it,” I said.
“Don’t tell me what I want to hear,” he said. He could be a cad sometimes.
Tom looked at me in the hard way he did when he felt I was withholding something. He took it as a personal offense anytime I chose to maintain some privacy. He believed it was a manifestation of distrust and his insistence on total openness was exhausting. I acquiesced and motioned for him to follow me into the living room where I poured two glasses of wine and flipped the switch on the fireplace before sitting down on the couch to tell him my story.
I was seven or eight when my parents were breaking up and they sent me to live with my grandparents while they, quote, worked things out. I was not happy about this. I was taken from my friends at a time when I couldn’t imagine making new ones. I cried when they told me and they repeated platitudes in soft voices. Shipping me off is the only thing I recall them ever agreeing about.
I arrived at my grandparent’s house on an early summer day. It was a country house surrounded by large grassy fields and hidden from prying eyes by distance and a thicket of birch and maple between the fields and the road. It was the type of place that was good at both keeping people out and holding them in. It was very much like a prison in that way and that’s how I saw it.
As we drove up their private dirt drive the crackle and pop of the pebbles under the wheels seemed like a dirge. My parents unloaded my bag and kissed me goodbye and I begged them not to leave me but they said I was overreacting and they drove off in a hurry.
My grandmother took this tacit rejection in typical good humor and showed me to my room. It was my father’s old room but she’d done her best to make it mine by leaving books I liked by the bed and placing a vase of lilies, my favorite flower, on the window sill. Her efforts went completely unappreciated. I did not want to be consoled. I wanted to project maximum indignation so I could force the universe to take me home. I collapsed into the bed and my grandmother was decent enough to leave me be.
By the time the sun set I’d grown impatient waiting on the universe and I threw my bag out the window and climbed down and began walking along the moonlit drive towards the country road while trying to ignore the cackles and hums of the rural night.
It had taken us an hour and a half to drive out there so I figured I’d be back with my friends by morning and they would fill me in on all the rich gossip I missed the previous day.
But it wasn’t that easy. After about a half an hour I abandoned my bag because of its weight and about a half hour after that I was caught in the headlights of my grandfather’s truck. He picked me up and I was so tired I didn’t put up a fight.
My grandfather was a sagging old world man prone to angry, gesticulating rants whenever the mood struck him, and it struck him with a cruel frequency. But not now. He smoked and looked ahead and did not say a word. This worried me more. Was he storing up his anger? He must be planning to let me have it once we were back at the house, which, in my opinion, was a much better place to let someone have it, much better than the cramped cab of the truck.
When we arrived back at the house I hesitated getting out. “What are you waiting for,” my grandfather barked, “go in.”
“I left my bag on the side of the road, we shouldn’t leave it overnight,” I said
“Then you shouldn’t have left it. In with you now,” he said.
I tried to protest again but he took me and carried me in. I tried to writhe from his grasp but he held tight until he dropped me by the kitchen table where my grandmother was sitting and he told me to stay.
I stood there crying and waiting for my scolding, imagining my grandfather behind me working himself up, turning red and puffing smoke from his nostrils like a wild bull ready to charge.
But then my grandmother said, “Thank you Harold, let me talk with her now.” Then he quietly departed to his basement workshop.
My grandmother gave the impression that she was a soft woman. She had a quiet voice and manner and her features seemed strangely undefined. It sometimes seemed that if you weren’t looking right at her she would fade away. But despite this, or perhaps because of this, she was gifted at navigating my grandfather’s moods.
We sat in silence for a time while she waited for me to be ready to listen. I didn’t look at her but I could feel her smiling at me. “I want to show you something” she said finally, “I think it will make you feel better.” And then she leaned in towards me and lowered her voice and said “but you must promise not to tell your grandfather.”
“Nothing can make me feel better,” I sniffed.
“Oh, it can’t hurt to try, plus, come on, it’s a secret for just us girls,” she said.
I was skeptical, but she piqued my interest. I promised her I wouldn’t tell and she led me upstairs to her bedroom.
There, she opened the bottom drawer of her vanity and slowly pulled out a simple mason jar and held it up for me and said, with great ceremony and import, “Here it is.”
A jar, I thought, a jar was going to make me feel better? What a silly old woman. I didn’t call her that though, not out loud, I just said “A jar?”
“Yes, a jar,” she said, “but this isn’t an ordinary jar. It’s a magic one.”
I almost laughed. “There’s no such thing as a magic jar,” I said.
“Sure there is,” she said.
“Grandma,” I said “I’m too old to believe in magic, I’m not a kid anymore.”
“Humor me then,” she said “it will warm your old grandma’s heart.” She placed the jar on the corner of the vanity and found a pen and a scrap of paper and she instructed me to write that I didn’t want to be homesick anymore on the paper, then to fold it up and drop it in the jar. I played along and did it.
“Watch this,” my grandmother said. She motioned for me to lean in closer and I did. I stared at the paper at the bottom of the jar and waited. And waited. And waited. Nothing happened. Not a goddamn thing.
I turned back to my grandmother and she still looked convinced that something was about to occur. She noticed that I had looked away from it and told me to keep looking.
“But nothing’s happening.”
“But it will.”
“Soon. You have to learn some patience.”
I sighed and turned back and then, to my amazement, the paper began to crumple as though someone had taken it in their fist. It happened slow at first, around the edges, but then it sped up over the whole thing. It kept crumpling into a smaller and smaller ball suspended in the air. Smaller and smaller until it was so small that it disappeared.
I didn’t know what to say.
“How do you like that?” my grandmother said, beaming with pride.
“How did you do that?” I asked.
“I didn’t. It’s the spirit attached to it. It’s always done it. It did it for my mother and it did it for her mother and now it’s doing it for you.”
This is about when Tom interrupted me. “Wait,” he said, “that jar can make paper disappear. That’s a hell of a parlor trick. You need to show me.” He was always so damn impatient.
“Wait, wait, wait, darling, be patient,” I said. “I’m not finished yet. All things come in time.”
He nodded and sipped his wine and I continued.
So, I saw the paper disappear and I ooed and ahhed over it for a while and I wanted to do it again. My grandmother stopped me and told me it was not to be abused and that if I was good she’d let me use it again very soon and then she shooed me off to bed and reminded me to never, ever, ever, tell my grandfather about this.
It took me sometime to fall asleep that night but when I did I slept like a stone until the afternoon.
That day I helped my grandmother in the garden. At first I harassed her about the jar but she deferred for the day and she promised that we would use it again soon. Then we hoed the rocky New England soil as she joked that stones were the only things that grew in it naturally, and then she showed me how best to plant the seeds and the bulbs. When she thought I was looking too serious she threw little clumps of dirt at me and I threw some back at her, and then she chased me and caught me and we rolled around and had a laugh and then we laid there watching the clouds move across the sky and argued over what shapes we saw and we laughed and she got up and started dancing. She moved with such grace and the way the warm breeze caught her billowing skirt she seemed to float over the ground like a spirit waiting to be set free. That is the image I choose to remember her by.
Later on, she cooked a big meal and my grandfather fed me sweets, and still later as I laid my head back down to rest I thought about what a good day it had been and I realized that I was not homesick anymore.
It was the next afternoon, when my grandfather went into to town, that my grandmother took the jar out again and then every time he went into town after. The fading rumble of my grandfather’s departing truck became for me the sound of wonder and possibility. Together, my grandmother and I, we cured my sniffles, stubbed toes, toothaches and headaches. We added a bit of flavor to dishes that didn’t turn out right and when something in the garden did not grow we gave it a little prodding. My imagination for the possibilities of the jar was not as grand as it would become and my grandmother did not encourage its growth.
We maintained this routine for several weeks, until my grandfather decided to teach me how to fly a kite. He took me out to the field beside the house. The grass in the field was tall, up past my knees. It was a blustering day and the field danced and waved. My grandfather got the kite up and told me a few things and passed it to me. The kite was really bucking and pulling and I decided to let it take me. I ran and watched it float against the gray sky. I ran faster and faster. My grandfather yelled something but I couldn’t understand it over the wind in my ears. Then I tripped. I flew forward and landed on a rock that snapped my leg just below the knee so that the bone cut through the skin.
I rolled over onto my back and I could see the kite, untethered to the ground, caught in an updraft, climbing and flying off. Then my grandfather was above me, he pulled off his shirt and tied it around my leg to stop the bleeding and he picked me up and carried me across the field and into the house.
He laid me down on the sofa and yelled to my grandmother to get his jacket and keys and when she came in and saw my leg she cried out and ran. She must have run upstairs for the jar because I heard the footsteps above me and my grandfather yelling and pounding on the wall and I heard my grandmother cry out and a door slam. I passed out soon after that.
It was night when I awoke in my bed and found him sitting on the foot of it. The moon cast the only light in the room and it gave my grandfather a frightening glow. I felt my leg and the smooth, unharmed skin.
He told me that he knew I’d been messing with the jar. He asked me what kind of thing feeds off all the bad you give it. A demon, he said, a no good one and that if we play with it too long it will get us, all of us. He said he would have destroyed it long ago if it weren’t for the special place my grandmother had for it and her promise not to use it. But this was it, he said, next sign of trouble he would smash it up and all the crying in the world wouldn’t stop him.
The next day he went into town and I asked my grandmother why she didn’t ask the jar to make him okay with everything. She said she loved him and that she wouldn’t want him to be anything other than what he is and that it wasn’t right to do that to someone you love. I told her I didn’t understand and she said I would someday but I think she was wrong about that.
For the next couple of weeks we did not use the jar but my grandfather still kept near us, guarding us, and his presence chilled me.
Then, on a day in early August when my grandfather was busy in his workshop, he gave my grandmother the keys to the truck to go into town for groceries. On the way home a drunk driver ran my grandmother off the road and into a ditch. She slammed her head on the steering wheel and they took her to the hospital and called us. My grandfather, in a panic, called a neighbor who lent us a truck and we rushed off to her. The doctor said she was fine except for a bruise on the forehead and a mild concussion but they wanted to keep her overnight as a precaution.
We went into her room and she insisted she was okay but the vision of her in the hospital bed was too much for my grandfather. He collapsed at her bedside and began to weep. “My little birdie,” he said, “my little birdie. What would I do without you? I’ll never let you go again my little birdie.” My grandmother looked down at him and I saw the shine of welling tear in her eyes. It was a pathetic display.
“It sounds sweet,” Tom said, interrupting again.
“There was nothing sweet about it,” I said. I told him to stop interrupting and I continued.
My grandfather did not speak on the way home and I could sense that I should not try to speak to him. As we came closer to the house his driving became faster and more erratic. We raced up the dirt road and slid to a stop in front of the house and he jumped out leaving the door open and the truck running. As he pushed through the front door the truck began to creep backwards. I slid over to the driver side and took out the keys and stomped on the parking brake.
I ran inside in time to hear my grandfather barreling down the stairs. He turned the corner and I saw him carrying the jar. He grabbed me by the arm and pulled me outside with him and I screamed at him that he was hurting me. He pulled me through the tall grass towards the tree line. I remember the sound of the insect’s steady hum and my grandfather’s heavy gait through the grass. The sky was clear and the moon was full and larger than I’d ever seen.
When we came to the tree line we stopped and my grandfather turned back to me and held the jar in front of my eyes.
“This thing did that to your grandmother,” he said. “You can’t ask things from demons without them taking something in return. This was a warning to end our sinfulness. This is not something men or women or little girls should play with. I don’t even want the shards of this goddamned thing in the house. This is a curse on us. I do this for you.”
And then he threw the jar against the trunk of the nearest maple. He expected it to shatter but instead it hit the trunk and fell to the ground unharmed.
He stared at it for a long time. It rested in the grass, the glint of moonlight reflected on its side, looking, as it was, harmless, but to him there was nothing more sinister.
He picked up the jar and began slamming it into the trunk again and again and again but it did not break and he screamed with frustration that echoed through the night.
Finally, he stopped. He breathed deep and let the jar fall from his hands and roll to a stop on the ground in front of him. The way the moonlight pushed through the gnarled branches and the way the shadows filled the creases and craters of his face made him look like a monster in that moment.
And then, refusing to accept his defeat against the jar and whatever demon he imagined inhabited it, he lifted his leg and brought his foot down on it. Again, it did not break, but it rolled out from under his foot. My grandfather lost his balance and fell backwards. As he hit the ground I heard the wet crack of his skull hitting stone. I ran up to him and knelt beside him and shook him in hopes of waking him but when I felt the warm mud around his head I knew he was dead.
I picked up the jar and brought it inside and returned it to the drawer in my grandmother’s vanity and then I called the police and told them my grandfather had fallen.
My grandmother mourned desperately and completely for several months. There was an expectation that once she settled down she would sell the house and the land and move closer to the city where I lived. But once she reached a kind of equilibrium with her grief she made no move to sell the house and when asked about it she categorically refused. She received help from some locals with keeping up the house but mostly she interred herself there.
I’d visit her in the summers and together we still used the jar. Our little rituals around it were our greatest connection. I hated to see her trapped at that house and I would ask her why she stayed when she could have so much more away from there. She said things about the quiet of the country life, about memories, about the value of the past and about love. She recited them wistfully like a philosopher speaking a great truth to a student, but I thought she sounded like a fool.
By the time I was a teenager her continued presence there offended me to my core. During one visit I yelled at her about embracing life and releasing herself from the shackles of that place. She tried not to fight me but I insisted and I said things to her and did things I shouldn’t have.
That night she passed away. Her funeral was the only funeral I’ve ever really cried at.
“I’m sorry,” Tom said to me with deep caring in his voice.
“It’s okay,” I said. “It’s all in what you learn from it.” We were both quiet for a time. He looked at me with great affection, like a sad little puppy. I couldn’t stand him like that so I turned away.
“I suppose you want to see the jar now,” I said. Tom nodded and I finished my wine. I stood and found a pen and paper. I wrote on it, folded it and dropped it in the jar.
“What did you write?” He asked.
“Watch the jar,” I told him, “watch it close and be patient, you’ll find out soon enough.” It took its time, as it tends to do, but soon the paper balled and disappeared.
Adam Skowera is a writer currently living in Hartford, Connecticut. During the day he works at the Connecticut General Assembly where he co-authored Public Act 19-6, An Act Concerning Ghost Guns.