The hinges of the music box creak, the first sound from the oaken object. As the lid rises, a dancing horse appears. Dressed as a ballerina, its front legs take opposing angles: one hoof-hand is near its head, the other at its waist, each leg-arm bowed out, forming two semi-circles. A faded pink tutu surrounds the animal’s waist, a doughnut of frill atop cotton-candy clad legs that belong more to a French prima ballerina than a common equine. The mechanism allowing the horse to dance makes no sound, but a song at once familiar and foreign emanates from an unseen portion of the box.
A crown of clover frames a mirror reflecting the spinning horse and the face of Mariah, the newest owner of the box.
“Are you certain, Gramma?” Mariah speaks, not needing assurance from her grandmother, but asking for it anyway. “Are you certain the box can be mine?”
“I am quite certain. My grandmother made it mine and said someday it would belong to my own granddaughter.”
Mariah’s eyes widen in her reflection, picturing a person old enough to be Gramma’s grandmother. She has seen pictures of Great-Gramma, Gramma’s mother, but cannot fathom time before then. “Is she… dead?”
“Oh, yes, dear. Long ago, soon after coming here from across the ocean, when your mother had not yet met your father.”
At the mention of Mama and Dad, Mariah closes her eyes. She refuses to cry. She refuses to remember. Gramma’s hand touches, then caresses, her back. She opens her eyes again; only Gramma’s arm is visible in the small music box mirror, the horse still spinning, dancing to the tune Mariah feels she should recognize.
“My grandmother and your mother barely knew each other, but look….” Gramma reaches out and closes the lid of the box, hiding the dancing horse and the mirror, silencing the melody Mariah almost had hold of. Gramma taps the carved center of the lid in the middle of a filigreed meadow. She whispers, “Mystical music box mirror, show Mariah her mother.”
As Gramma begins to open the box again, Mariah freezes. She knows Gramma is magic—Gramma had her favorite special macaroni and cheese ready before the men with guns told them her parents had suffered a tragedy—and some magic is scary.
The lid rises, and the dancing horse begins to spin again. In the clover-framed mirror, Mariah sees the face of her mother. “Mama,” she screams and turns away from the box, anticipating comfort from Gramma.
Gramma isn’t there.
The arms of her mother, one dangling precariously from her shoulder with white bone and dark black blood exposed, are open for an embrace. The face from the mirror is only half there, the other half burnt and bubbling, a smell like when Dad used too much fluid on the charcoal grill wafting off her.
“Let me sing you a lullaby,” Mariah’s mother says. She steps closer to her screaming girl, who can now not help but cry, too. “Let me hold you, my pretty little horse.”
T.J. Tranchell was born on Halloween and grew up in Utah. He has published the novella Cry Down Dark and the collections Asleep in the Nightmare Room and The Private Lives of Nightmares with Blysster Press and Tell No Man, a novella with Last Days Books. He has been a grocery store janitor, a college English and journalism instructor, an essential oils warehouse worker, a reporter, and a fast food grunt. He holds a Master's degree in Literature from Central Washington University and attended the Borderlands Press Writers Boot Camp in 2017. He currently lives in Washington State with his wife and son. Follow him at www.tjtranchell.net.