Cousin Josephina

She stole it.

Cousin Josephina was a thief.

I poured tea into mother’s mug, eyes unable to meet Aunt Carol’s gaze from the doorway. Instead, I stared at the wilting peacock feather in her felt hat. Josephina sat on a stool, surrounded by the family. There was no bottom to the depth of emotion that I felt for her — condemned by her mother to the family court.

We all waited for Grandmama to speak. Grandmama waited for me to deliver her tea. If this was a court, then Grandmama was the judge and jury. Uncle Franklin looked furious; half of his tea was gone despite it being scalding hot. Under his tense brow, there was a hint of ease. I guessed he was happy not to be the family disappointment for once, still unmarried at 40.

Josephina’s hands were fidgeting on her lap, the evidence of her crime on her finger: the ring she said she’d just “found”. Grandmama’s hands shook as I emptied the teapot into her cup, my movements matching hers so that it did not spill. She always liked over-brewed tea — it was something about her tastebuds not working well anymore.

“Give it to me,” Grandmama said, stretching out a plump hand.

Josephina slid the ring off her finger and gave it to Grandmama, diamonds catching the light.

“How flamboyant,” Uncle Franklin said.

“It must be worth a small fortune,” Father said.

Grandmama inspected it.

I stared at Josephina’s hands which wouldn’t stop moving.

N-O-T-S-T-O-L-E-N

When we were little, Josephina had trouble speaking. We taught ourselves to sign so that we could talk at the dinner table, without Josephina’s nerves cutting off her voice, especially in front of Grandmama who saw it as a great weakness of character. We’d have secret conversations with each other and it was as if we weren’t at a family gathering at all.

G-I-F-T

“Sit down, Carol,” Grandmama barked. Josephina’s mother scurried and joined the circle. She adjusted her skirts.

I met Josephina’s eyes — the eyes of a young woman I hadn’t seen in over two years, whose interests had drifted away from my own. Whose crime had brought the whole family together for the first time in years. Grandmama had given up on the gatherings after Poppy passed away but must have felt it necessary in Josephina’s case.

“Elena, get your Aunt some tea,” Grandmama said.

“I don’t want any,” Carol said.

“Elena?”

“Yes, Grandmama,” I said. The teapot had only just begun to cool in my hands. I took it into the kitchen, Josephina’s eyes pleading with me.

“Enough is enough Josephina, we cannot protect you anymore.” Grandmama’s voice was strong and firm through the solid door. She was right that Josephina had a problem: trinkets and chocolate bars and tacky costume jewellery she had stolen. But Josephina had never been a liar. We needed to talk.

I refilled the kettle and set it on the stovetop to boil. From the tea chest, I choose Aunt Carol’s favourite flavour of tea: chamomile.

While it heated I rushed upstairs to Grandmama’s bedroom, hesitating slightly as I tipped five sleeping pills into my palm. I crushed them, and in the kitchen, tipped them into a teacup. It wouldn’t hurt Aunt Carol, but it would cause enough of a distraction that Josephina and I could properly speak. It would be too late if we signed the story. I couldn’t trust Aunt Carol either, for what women would sell out her own daughter and expose her to Grandmama’s wrath?

The kettle squealed, and I made Carol’s tea. The grains of sleeping pills dissolved away and the smell obscured.

The air in the living room was tense; Josephina was close to teary.

“We should call the police,” Uncle Franklin said.

I presented the tea to Carol, but Grandmama snatched it and handed me her empty cup. There was no time to protest. Gone in one swallow. The second teacup was thrust upon me and I put them on the mantle behind me.

“Not until we know more,” Grandmama said, “I’d rather solve this without the police. Think things through Frank.” Uncle Franklin sipped on his tea to avoid having to speak again. “Now, Josephina, tell me where you got this ring from? Who did you steal it from?”

“I found it. I didn’t steal it. Someone lost it at the park and it’s their own stupid fault.”

The speed with which Grandmama stood was as if a fire was crackling beneath her.

“Josephina —”

Grandmama collapsed. Carol shrieked, reaching to protect her head from hitting the chair. I hid my surprise, my shock, retreating away from the scene. My stomach rippled with guilt. I hoped that Grandmama would be okay.

The ring dropped from her fist and I collected it discreetly in the chaos. Mother called an ambulance, voice frantic while Aunt Carol cradled her head. Father and Franklin picked up Grandmama and carried her upstairs; the family horde followed.

Except for me and Josephina.

“This is yours?” I gave it back to her, before asking: “who gave it to you?”
She put it on. Josephina then let her thoughts tumble around in her mind. Her face was pale and her distress for Grandmama apparent.

“What did you do to Grandmama?”

“You first.”

“It’s an engagement ring.” She twisted it momentarily, but set it back in place.

“Oh.”

“You?”

“Sleeping pills — but it was meant for Aunt Car-”, I said. “Sorry.”

“It’s fine, Elena. She probably deserved it for her monumental reaction.” Her reaction shouldn’t have been as surprising as it was.

“He better be worth it,” I said, “for Grandmama’s sake.” I thought of how I had risked so much for this conversation.

Josephina shook her head. “She is.”

“You better go then. I’m sure your new family will be better,” I said.

Josephina pulled me into a hug. “Thank you Elena.”

She didn’t bother with the front door as Grandmama had locked it, jumping instead from the window. As she ran down the street in one direction, the ambulance arrived from the other.

I cleaned up the mess in the living room, anticipating demands from the family. I put the chairs back where they belonged and took cups to the sink. I rinsed out the teacup that had held the crushed sleeping pills and put it in the dishwasher with the others.

The younger cousins played in the yard beyond the kitchen window. I doubted any of them would have come to my defence as I had done for Josephina, but I was resolved that it was not my place to judge — for the only thing that Josephina had stolen was a woman’s heart.