I was five the first time Grandpa invited me into the basement to see his safe. It was massive. Apparently, the original owners told him the house had to be built around it; there was no way it could’ve been brought in afterward. When I asked him what was inside, he just smiled and said, “maybe I’ll tell you when you’re older.” I remember being frightened by that smile. Everything about my grandfather frightened me, to be honest. I was never able to put a finger on why, but the feeling was real. I dreaded whenever Mom said we were going to visit.
Every time Mom and I were there, his housekeepers would wait on us hand and foot. Even at an early age, I noticed how they seemed intimidated by my grandfather and were quiet, timid, and unwilling to speak unless they were spoken to. It was almost like they’d been traumatized.
When I was 13, I learned an unsettling fact about the housekeepers: they were, in fact, his wives. The grandmother I’d known, who died when I was very young, was merely one of nine. Mom didn’t want to explain the whole thing to me. I could tell she was afraid of him, too. When I asked why she’d chosen to keep in touch with him after Dad died, she told me I needed a male figure in my life. It sounded strange to me, but I never pressed the issue.
On the day before my 16th birthday, Mom said Grandpa wanted to take me hunting. I absolutely hated the idea. Being alone with my grandfather on his sprawling property which comprised countless acres of deep, dark woods was one thing, but the addition of guns to that already-unpalatable scenario basically made it the last thing I’d ever want to do. I protested and argued and whined. Mom wouldn’t have any of it. “He’s done a lot for you over the years,” she insisted. “You’ll go and you’ll be polite.”
And that was that.
Mom woke me up before dawn on my birthday and drove me the two hours it took to reach Grandpa’s home. She didn’t get out of the car. I knocked on the door and one of his wives, Gert, ushered me into the kitchen where there was a hearty breakfast waiting for me. Despite not being even remotely hungry, I gnawed on some bacon and shoveled some eggs into my mouth. I didn’t want Grandpa to get angry at Gert for making food I didn’t want to eat.
As I was finishing up, my grandfather came down the stairs. Despite being in his 70s, he was strong and enormous. His 6’6” frame dwarfed me; at over 300lbs, he was more than twice my weight, too. As usual, he grinned and exposed teeth that were too straight and too perfect for a man his age. I tried and failed to prevent gooseflesh from rising along my spine.
He greeted me with a cheery rendition of “Happy Birthday,” his deep voice resonating throughout the cavernous kitchen. I smiled at him and did my best to make it look like I was deeply appreciative. He asked if I was finished eating. I nodded. After instructing Gert to clean the place up, he put his massive right hand on my shoulder and told me to follow him.
I trudged along as he walked across the house to the basement door. He flipped the lightswitch and we walked down the thick, wooden stairs. He turned the corner at the bottom of the stairs and I immediately knew what he was going to show me. We stopped in front of the colossal, iron safe.
“I think you’re ready to see what I’ve got in here,” Grandpa informed me.
Excitement and fear churned in my breakfast-stuffed stomach. I’d wondered what was in that safe for as long as I could remember. Now that I was about to find out, I was borderline terrified. What did he have in there that had needed to stay secret? I’d learned he was a polygamist, and probably an abusive one, but he and my mother acted like it was a normal fact of life. What was so bad that he had to keep actively hidden from the world inside a safe the size of a small car?
Grandpa turned the old, chrome-plated combination lock a few times. I heard something unlatch from deep inside the iron bowels of the thing. With a grunt of effort, my grandfather pulled open the heavy door.
I let out the breath I’d been unconsciously holding in one, long sigh. Inside was an arsenal of firearms. Rifles, shotguns, pistols, and countless boxes of ammunition.
“John,” he said, staring intently at my face, “some of these guns aren’t legal anymore. I’m showing them to you because you’re family, I trust you, and these will be yours someday. I don’t want you to tell anyone about what’s in here because I could get in a lot of trouble.”
I nodded my understanding and promised him I wouldn’t say anything to anyone.
“Good!,” he exclaimed. “Now pick one for yourself. We’re going hunting.”
I didn’t know anything about guns. I thought back to the television show’s I’d watched and tried to remember what hunters used in them. I selected a long rifle-looking thing.
“M1 Garand,” Grandpa announced. “Excellent!”
He pulled the gun from the safe, loaded it with ammunition, and handed it to me.
“Keep it pointed at the ground and don’t touch the trigger until you’re ready to shoot something,” he warned. He pulled another, similar-looking rifle from the safe, loaded it for himself, and picked out a small revolver, which he loaded and stuffed into his front pocket.
“Come on,” he boomed cheerily, “let’s go for a walk.”
The morning was cold and the sun had barely started to rise. It was overcast and every so often, a flake or two of snow would float to the ground in front of my face. I stared at the ground while my grandfather walked ahead of me.
We walked at a brisk pace for what felt like an hour. The sun rose behind an overcast curtain and its light barely penetrated the dense, coniferous canopy above us. The longer we walked, the more unnerved I became. It seemed like the day was getting darker, not brighter, as the density of the forest swallowed nearly everything the shrouded sky could produce. I noticed animals as we walked, but they were all ignored by Grandpa. I wondered what it was we were hunting.
We passed deer, squirrels, rabbits, and raccoons. Eventually, growing tired of walking in silence and becoming increasingly aware we’d have to walk the whole way back, too, I spoke up and asked where we were going and what we were hunting.
Without turning around, Grandpa replied. “I’ll be honest with you, John; we’re not hunting anything. Bears like to roam around these woods and I’ve seen a lot of them over the years. They never bothered me, but I want us to be prepared in case today’s any different.”
I just said, “okay,” but I wondered why the hell we were out here in the first place if we weren’t actually going hunting. I didn’t want to say it just like that to my grandfather, though, so I just asked, “are we near where we’re going?”
Grandpa stopped walking and turned around. That same, unnerving smile was plastered across his lined face. “Just on the other side of that rock formation,” he said, pointing. “Come on.”
Instead of going ahead, Grandpa slowed down and walked next to me.
“You’re a man now, John. Your father should be the one walking with you, not me. The good Lord saw it fit to take him when you were a baby, though, and I knew I had to step up and show you what that means.”
We stopped at the rock formation. “We’ll have to climb over.”
Grandpa climbed next to me. It wasn’t steep and the footing was solid. We moved easily. He kept talking.
“Your mom told me a few years ago that you knew my housekeepers were actually my wives. And that’s okay. I worried you might be confused, but you always surprised me by your maturity. That’s what’s important to me. Not age.”
We reached the top of the rock formation. I looked down at the forest below and started to climb down with him.
“It’s your job as a man to claim as many women as you want.”
I thought about protesting, but I didn’t dare interrupt. I let him continue.
“They’re yours. It’s their duty to be there for you, to bear your children, and to take care of your needs, whatever they may be.”
We climbed down in silence for a few minutes, as if he wanted to make sure I had time to reflect on the importance of what he’d just said. A little while later, we reached the forest floor.
“When your Dad died,” he started, his voice breaking with emotion that he quickly swallowed, “I was put in a difficult position. He was my son, and my son embraced the tradition of all the men in our family; me, my father, his father, his father, and so on.”
The trees seemed much taller than before. The forest on the other side of the rock formation was older than what we’d been walking through, and even darker. I had to squint to see, even though, when I snuck a look at my phone, it was almost 10am.
“You have a unique family tree, John. Remember, your father respected the tradition of the family. That means your mother was not his only wife.”
This news made my head spin. I didn’t remember much about Dad, but I always thought he was a decent, caring person. Hearing he was anything like my grandfather was a terrible revelation.
“Like I said, I was put in a difficult situation. Your father had 12 wives. For whatever reason, despite him impregnating all of them, only one gave birth to a boy. Your mother.”
I felt mildly dizzy. “You mean I have sisters?” I asked, hating that my voice cracked an octave higher on the last syllable of the sentence.
“12 of them. One of your father’s wives had twin girls.”
“Can I meet them?” My voice was back to its normal pitch. I sounded calm and oddly hopeful, despite the intense discomfort I felt.
“A woman’s duty is to serve the men in her life, John. Your mom had you, and it became her duty to serve you. When your father died, the other wives couldn’t serve anyone. They no longer had any purpose. It’s not like the daughters could have carried the family name.”
“I understand,” I said, not understanding. “So I’ll never get to meet them?”
“John. They lost their only purpose in life. The daughters couldn’t carry the family name. What purpose could they have had?”
I stared into Grandpa’s eyes. Their intense blue was startlingly bright against the gloom of the forest. As we’d stood and talked, the clouds had given way to partial sunshine. It was still dark, but I could see more than 10 feet in front of me.
“I asked you a question, John. What purpose could they have had?”
I shifted in place with acute awareness of how uneasy and timid I must have looked to the giant man in front of me. It was obvious I needed to tell him what he needed to hear.
“They didn’t have any purpose at all, Grandpa.” The words felt disgusting as they came out of my mouth.
The smile returned to his face. “Good boy, John.” He paused before he spoke again. “Good boy.”
We stared out at the endless forest ahead of us. I got ready to ask if we could start heading back before Grandpa spoke again.
“I had to make things right after your father died.” He pointed up, over his head. “No waste.”
I started to shake as a feeling of dread suffused throughout my body. Grandpa kept his hand raised with his finger pointing up. Despite not wanting to look, I craned my neck and stared into the shadowy canopy. It didn’t take long before I realized what he was pointing at. I gasped with such force I began to choke.
Skeletal bodies in ragged clothing hung from the branches above. Some were big, some were small. Some were tiny. All were dead. Long, long dead.
“Meet your stepmothers and your stepsisters, John. I know you don’t remember them, but they all loved you and your father very much.”
Tears streamed down my face as rage began to replace my fear. “Did you -”
“I did,” he declared. There was pride in his voice.
He watched as I raised my rifle and pointed it at his barrel chest. “You don’t need to, John. I’ll take care of it so you don’t have to.” He produced the pistol from his jacket pocket and held it against his temple.
“I’ve done my part, John. I know you won’t actually shoot me, but you’ll report what happened here and I’ll be arrested. I’m going to make it easy for you and take care of the ugly part myself.”
He tightened his grip on the pistol. “Let what I told you sink in, John. Talk to your mother about it. She knows all about this. She’ll help you. It’s her job to help you. You’ll see it my way when you’re a little older.”
A breeze whistled through the trees. Above us, I heard the ragged dresses on the bodies rippling in the wind. My mind wandered to the poor women back at grandpa’s house; women who’d been abused for decades by a man who thought they were nothing but property. The thought of how they’d been so conditioned over that time to buy into the hideous tradition of the awful man in their lives prompted a terrifying realization.
“Your…your wives,” I choked out. “What will happen to them?”
That repulsive smile gashed my grandfather face as he spoke. “They knew why we were coming out here, John. And they knew only you were coming back. I’m sure they did what they needed to while we’ve been away.”
A sob burst from my lips as I thought about Gert’s sad smile while she watched me eat the birthday breakfast she’d made for me.
The clicking of the gun’s hammer being cocked caused me to look back up at my grandfather. He stared into my eyes with an intensity I’d only seen from animals about to maul their prey.
“Happy Birthday, John. Don’t ever forget the day you became a man. And don’t forget what it means to be one. Tradition over all, John. Tradition over all.”
He took the gun from the side of his head and placed it in his mouth. He squeezed the trigger and dropped heavily to the soft blanket of pine needles on the forest floor. Blood gushed from his mouth and nose.
I stood, motionless, watching the blood drain out of his head. Sounds of the forest gradually replaced the ringing in my ears. Birds chirped. Squirrels chittered. Branches clattered. Dresses fluttered.