Listen to this story, narrated by C. S. E. Cooney:
I always knew my grandmother was friends with the gods. I often came home from school to find them sitting around the kitchen table, muscular and athletic in their baggy gym clothes and plain white t-shirts.
My gran was a small woman who always dressed in skirts and blouses in various drab shades of green or brown. She loved to feed guests, so I mostly remember her standing at the sink or the stove, unless she was sat at the table complaining about how the neighbour’s smoking was setting off her asthma again.
I remember asking the gods how they knew her. They told me they had met before the war. “I was at a Nazi rally in a Chicago beer hall with a gun to my head,” my Uncle Thunder said. My grandmother had gone to America to work as an au pair when she was young. “She raced across the room, overtook the bullet, and deflected it with a shield.”
Across the room, my gran was smiling. “It’s a big exaggeration,” she said. “I wasn’t that far away.”
“We wield the weapons and tools of legend,” Uncle Thunder said to me. “Few mortals could ever have used that shield. She is a very special woman, your grandmother.”
I told him I was surprised that the gods had been fighting the Nazis instead of a fire-breathing dragon or a giant with a big stone club.
“Sometimes we fight monsters from your realm,” he said, “and sometimes monsters from our own.” This seemed to remind him and the others of something unpleasant, and they exchanged glances and lapsed into silence.
I am not sure how my grandfather felt about the gods. He was cordial when they visited, but he never took much interest in them, or they in him. Mostly he waved greetings from the back garden, where he worked on his vegetable patches. I did not often spend much time speaking with the gods either, since I was usually in the other room watching television.
Unfortunately there came a time when the BBC broadcast a three-week long chess tournament and I spent most of every afternoon lying on the living room sofa in agonies of boredom waiting for something better to come on. It was during this time that I truly came to understand how my grandmother and the gods belonged together. Staring out of the window during one particularly long and boring match, I noticed a huge figure opening the garden gate.
“What’s that?” I shouted with enough alarm that the gods rushed in to find out what was wrong.
There was a giant flame-headed creature, easily 20 feet tall, standing in my grandparents’ front garden. The gods huddled out of view of the window, discussing what to do. I heard, “He has found us,” and “We can’t battle him here,” and suggestions for how to lure the creature away to somewhere less populated.
My grandmother, meanwhile, took one look, pursed her lips, picked up a shield that had been put in the closet with the other weapons and tools of legend, and strode out into the garden. The gods and I froze in horror as we heard her say, “I am June shield-bearer, June bullet-racer. How dare you come to my home and bother my guests?”
She was normally a soft-spoken woman but no one ever enjoyed feeling the sharp edge of her tongue. The creature took a step back towards the garden gate but at exactly that moment the smoke from its flaming head caught my grandmother’s throat and she began to have a coughing fit.
All at once, the gods grabbed their weapons and rushed out into the garden. They lined up alongside my grandmother, shouting and waving their weapons. On the other side of the street one of the neighbours hurried by, not wanting to get involved in a dispute. The flame-headed creature, confronted by an additional warrior it had not expected, retreated out of the garden and slunk off down the street.
When it was gone, the gods cheered. They crowded around my gran, admiring and congratulating her. She let them do this for a few seconds, then said, “We need to get back inside or those scones in the oven will start burning.”
The next day after school, my grandmother was out running errands and I was suffering through another televised chess match when the doorbell rang. It took me a moment to recognise the figure on the doorstep as the flame-headed creature from the day before. It had reduced itself to human size and its head was extinguished, covered in hair that had been lacquered and combed back in a way I had seen in old photographs. It was wearing a suit and carrying a bouquet of flowers and a box of chocolates.
“Is June home?” it asked.
Not knowing what to say, I stammered out that her husband was in the back garden, or that I could take a message.
At the mention of my grandfather, the creature slumped dejectedly, said, “No, it doesn’t matter,” and wandered away.
When Thunder came in, a little while later, I told him what had happened. His eyes widened when I mentioned the fire demon, but when I described the suit and the flowers and chocolate he broke out in a huge grin and clapped me on the back. “It is just as I told you,” he said, “she is a very special woman.”