“There will be a Blood Moon tonight, Grandma. Mother told me.”
Frederick Fallon announced this with the assurance his eleven-year-old self attached to most things his mother told him. His grandmother, Gloria Cole, was kneading what appeared to be pastry when Frederick had taken the seat across from her, tired of the game he had been playing on his tablet. Gloria was a slight woman in all aspects except her hands. They were large and out of proportion to the rest of her, marring what otherwise would have been called “the complete package.” They worked the dough as she weighed her response.
“Did she? Well, yes, that's true. The moon will turn red tonight. Did your mother tell you why the Blood Moon is important?”
Frederick squirmed and felt his face redden.
“She didn't really tell me. I overhead her talking to Loretta last night when she thought I was asleep.”
Gloria added some pungent herbs to the mixture from the glass jars above the window. Her eyes on her grandson were stern. “Some things are not meant for young ears,” she said her thick fingers threading the new ingredients throughout her dough. “Your mother meant only for your sister to know.”
Frederick ignored that and arrived almost breathlessly at his point.
“Loretta asked Mother if she should stay with you to help. Why would you need help? If you do, Grandma, I could help you. I help a lot around the house with all kinds of chores and Mother says I'm a good helper.”
“And so, you are. But there's no need. I'll be fine. I am prepared.”
Those were the same words Gloria had spoken to her daughter and all she ever said about the times when a Blood Moon was forecast. Frederick had no idea what “being prepared” meant and his grandmother didn't offer any further explanation. Frederick decided not to ask.
For as far back as his memories went, his grandmother had been an intimidating figure. Her back was straighter then, her hair raven black, not streaked with silver and gray as it was now. The only thing time had not altered were her eyes. They were dark blue, almost navy, but unlike the placid surface of a pool of water, they snapped with energy, eclipsing her other features. He had only recently learned that her legal name was Gloria, but she didn't seem like a Gloria to him. Maybe she wasn't Gloria, at all, he had thought. Maybe it was just a name she was hiding behind to prevent her past from being uncovered. Fredrick's imagination conjured up images of a dark secret which, if revealed, would have devastating effects on his family. Something somehow connected to the Blood Moon. He had settled on this theory as he moved out of childhood into the outskirts of puberty. He had no facts to suggest that he was right, just a feeling in his bones. He didn't yet have the courage to ask his mother, but he knew that he would. Some day, maybe soon.
“Grandma, can I ask you a question?”
“You just did, Frederick,” she said as she cut the dough into strips and set them on the cookie sheet. “Is there something you need advice about that you don't want your mother to know?”
Frederick half-smiled, aware of his grandmother's tone and not sure if a smile was appropriate or if he had crossed into a no man's land, littered with landmines, just below the surface of his next words.
“Nothing like that.”
Gloria put the tray into the oven and poured a cup of tea. She brought the decanter of whiskey to the table, setting it down next to her tea and waited. She poured a dram of bourbon onto her spoon back, allowing it to disperse evenly in her cup. Still Frederick remained silent, rubbing his chin, trying to find the right words to launch his opening gambit. But they eluded him, and his discomfort grew with his silence.
“Well? What is it? Out with it then. We don't have all day. What do you want to ask?”
“Can you tell me why everyone is worried about the Blood Moon?”
Gloria looked at her grandson and weighed her words before she spoke. “Do you know what a legend is, Frederick?”
“Yes, kinda. It’s like a story about something that everybody knows, but nobody can prove, and everybody believes might be true anyway.”
Gloria smiled. “Yes, that’s about right. When early humans saw things in nature that they couldn’t understand, they made up stories to explain them. The Blood Moon frightened them because it was so different. Some believed that a giant animal had devoured the moon and would try to devour the earth as well. It’s always been the belief that while the moon is red, the powers of evil are stronger and must be confronted before they can do harm.”
Frederick didn’t ask who would confront them. He suspected it was his grandmother.
“Can’t I stay here with you tonight, when the Blood Moon comes? I can help with whatever you need. I'm nearly twelve and I'm not afraid of anything.”
Gloria looked at him over her teacup. She breathed in slowly, closed her eyes for a moment, listening to a voice only she could hear. “I know you're not,” she told him, omitting the second half of her thought: but you should be. She looked out the window at the blazing sun making its steady decent towards the horizon. “I appreciate your offer, Frederick, but I am nearly done. And I won’t need help. I told your mother and sister the same thing. Now let me ask you a question. Do you doubt my abilities? or do you think that if I required help, I would choose someone who has no knowledge of what is to occur and cannot be taught at the eleventh hour?”
Although Gloria had not raised her voice, Frederick felt the rebuke, each word smarting as if it were the lash of a whip. He was near tears as he tried to explain.
“No! No! I'm sorry, Grandma. I love you and I was worried because Loretta said this one is the longest Blood Moon ever and I didn't want you to have to be alone. Nobody who knows you doubts what you can do. Nobody. You can beat the pants off anybody who messes with you. Everybody knows it.”
“Don't fret, child. Your heart was in the right place and your intentions were good. These responsibilities have been mine for a very long time. There will come a day when I will relinquish them to someone younger. But whoever is chosen will be schooled, as I was.”
She reached across the table, capturing his hands in her larger ones and squeezed them lightly. Frederick saw the long silver scar on Grandma’s arm and wondered what had caused it. It wasn’t quite straight, but it wasn’t jagged either. She ran a finger absently over it as she released Frederick’s hands. “Now, it's time for you to hurry home. Your mother wanted you home before sunset and you don't have much time. Off you go.”
She released her grip and walked him to the door. He went reluctantly, then turned quickly to kiss her cheek and breathed in her smell, an earthy perfume that reminded him of burning leaves. Then he hurried down the steps and turned toward home, his mind filled with unanswered questions about his grandmother and the Blood Moon.
Frederick knew Grandma would watch him until she was certain he had turned the corner, before she would close the door and resume her unfinished tasks. What she wouldn’t know was that Frederick was doubling back, cutting through the yard next door. He crept along the side of his grandmother's house, crouching under the window so she wouldn't see him, then hid himself under the canopy of the maple tree in the yard. He would wait and watch. If Grandma needed him, he would be close enough to help. He could see her moving around in the kitchen. He watched as his Grandma unlocked the corner cabinet and withdrew a polished blue bowl, an ornate ebony jar, and a pewter flask. She set them on the table between two blue candles and began to croon a song whose words Frederick didn’t understand as she uncorked the flask and poured something green into the bowl. Her melody continued as she stirred herbs from the jar into the bowl before lifting it to her lips and drinking deeply.
As the sky darkened, the air took on a different smell: heavy, and hyper-charged with energy, like an impending thunderstorm, although the sky was clear. Frederick tried to imagine what might transpire when the full moon turned red. Grandma had almost confirmed those whispered tales of a battle between good and evil. He envisioned spirits rising from their graves, pounding on his grandmother's door. He envisioned a slimy, giant behemoth emerging from the depths of the sea, thrashing and snarling outside his grandmother's door. He scanned the ground and found two sharp stones and put them in his pocket. He would use them against such a creature. He next envisioned a solitary figure dressed in black, carrying a black satchel climbing the steps of his grandmother's porch, the moonlight revealing an ancient dagger. The stones could take care of him, too. Frederick would be a hero and celebrated for his bravery.
The ground around the tree was coated in a sheen of dew, a glistening carpet of green and brown. Everything shimmered in a silvery mist as the moon rose and bestowed its magical light. Frederick felt drowsy as the evening insects began to whisper to one another. Then the change began. The full moon was larger than any Frederick had ever seen. And it was no longer white. It was deep scarlet, casting an otherworldly quality over the house, the lawn, and Frederick.
The ground began to tremble all around him with an undulating carpet of fur. The scampering mass of red-eyed rodents bolted towards the house. Rats. Legions of rats. His two stones would be useless. Frederick held his breath as the wave of rats sniffed the air anxiously. His lungs were about to burst when the door to Grandma’s house opened and a figure stepped out, throwing freshly baked thin loaves into the center of confusion. The melee intensified as the rats fought among themselves for the offering. The snarls were accompanied by yelps, and blood began to flow freely from unstaunched wounds, coating the grass.
The figure in the doorway opened its mouth and a high-pitched keening echoed against the ground and sky. Frederick reached for the nearest branch and pulled himself up, first to one, then to another until he felt safe and unseen. The figure who had emerged from his grandmother's house couldn't be anyone other than Grandma. But this woman was dressed in the remnants of the grave, a tattered white shroud. Her hair was loose about her shoulders, streaming behind her as if caught up by the wind. Her eyes were no longer blue, but deep red, no remnant of white remaining. Her mouth was wider and longer, revealing rows of razor-sharp teeth and her hands had doubled in size, ebony talons at the tip of every finger.
When the keening stopped, it was answered by a booming, guttural snarl. The ground shook as the snarls grew closer and more enraged. The woman on the porch stood her ground and opened her arms wide in what could be taken as surrender. Frederick was sure he was going to watch his grandmother die and that he was powerless to stop it. He tried to close his eyes against the scene unfolding but he was transfixed, forced to bear witness. Sleek black fur streaked past him as the creature leaped against his grandmother, its fetid breath making his eyes water. She took the blow full on and it drove her against the wall. Her arms tightened around the head of the beast and twisted it as she drove her teeth into the underside of its throat. It cried out in surprise, then pain, before one anguished cry escaped it lungs when its neck snapped. The creature sagged limp in his grandmother’s arms as she tore pieces of its flesh with her mouth and her hands. Frederick watched as she threw them to the rats. She wiped her mouth on her sleeve, closed her eyes, and slowed her breathing. The Blood Moon was over. She had vanquished the threat to existence once more. She had been prepared. She threw her head back, releasing an otherworldly, triumphant yowl. Then she rose and reentered the house.
The moon was no longer crimson and the world around him had resumed a semblance of normality, but Frederick remained in the tree. He had survived the Blood Moon and witnessed its secret threats and secret cures. He had seen what his grandmother's preparations had produced. Burying his face in the comforting trunk of the tree, Frederick wept.