Winner of the 2010 WSFA Small Press Award
Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma
by Alex Shvartsman
I just made the deal of the year and I couldn't wait to tell Grandma.
As soon as the customer left, I locked the front door, flipped the cardboard sign to Closed, and
headed into the back. Clutching my latest acquisition to my blouse, I entered the packed
stockroom, dodged around the bronze naval cannon, nearly caught the hem of my skirt on a rusty
suit of armor, and made my way through a plethora of other items too large or too heavy to be
stored on the shelves. Most of this stuff has been here since before I was born, and will likely
remain in the same place long after my hypothetical future children take over the shop. You
never know when the right buyer might come along, and the family is in it for the long haul.
Grandma Heide was in our office, sitting at the desk. She had moved the keyboard out of the
way to make room for the game of solitaire she was playing with a Thirteenth century Egyptian
Tarot deck. She barely glanced up when I walked in.
"You do know you could play this on the computer, right Grandma?"
She set down a card in one of the columns after a few seconds' thought. "Can your newfangled
gadget fake the feel of shuffling a dog-eared deck of cards? Simulate the pleasure of placing one
in just the right spot to make a perfect play? I didn't think so." She looked at me over her
glasses. "The old ways are almost always best."
"Yes, well, I'm not here to argue about that again. Guess what I just picked up on pawn."
I stepped closer and placed a pocket dimension in front of Grandma. It looked like a pyramid-shaped snow globe the height of a soda can. It was filled with ocean water. In the center floated a
being of scales and tentacles and shapes so unnatural that staring straight at it caused a headache.
When not stored outside of our space/time continuum, it was the size of a cruise liner and must
have weighed as much as a small mountain, which is what made pocket dimensions so darn
Grandma picked up the pyramid, pushed the glasses up her nose and peered inside.
"What is this?" she asked.
"Cthulhu," I said, smug with satisfaction.
"Geshundheit," said Grandma. I couldn't tell for certain if she was kidding or not. Probably not.
"I didn't sneeze," I said. "Its name is Cthulhu. It is an ancient god of anxiety and horror, dead
Grandma didn't appear impressed. "What does it do? Besides dream." She turned the pocket
dimension slowly to examine its contents.
"Do? It's a symbol for the unknowable fathoms of the universe which dwarf humanity's
importance. Besides, it's a god. How long has it been since we had one of those in the shop?"
"1982," she said immediately. "The government of Argentina pawned a few of the Guarani
nature gods to help fund the Falklands conflict. Little good it did them."
I didn't remember this, but I was still in diapers in 1982.
"Pre-Columbian godlings barely count. This," I pointed at the pyramid, "is the real deal."
Grandma finished inspecting the god and placed the pocket dimension on top of the computer,
next to a mug filled with ballpoint pens. She turned her attention back to me.
"And what did you pay out for this rare and unique item?"
I told her.
Grandma pursed her lips and stared me down. Ever since I broke the wing off the stuffed
phoenix when I was a little girl, it had been the withering expression Grandma Heide reserved
for when I screwed up especially badly.
"Whoever pawned it will have taken the money and run," she declared. "They won't be back.
Enjoy it for the next month, and let's hope some fool gets as excited about this overgrown
octopus as you did. If not, then maybe we can sell it off by the pound to the sushi chains."
"You never have any faith in the deals I make." I crossed my arms. "I'm not a little girl anymore,
and I spent my entire life around the shop. When will you begin to trust my judgment? I say we
got a bargain and I'll prove it."
"This shop is full of the mistakes of overeager youth, Sylvia." She pointed toward the stock
room, brimming with stuff. "I made my fair share when I was your age. The pawn shop business
is simple. Stick to quality common items that are easy to move, and pick them up cheap. The
sooner you accept that, the sooner you'll be ready to take over the family enterprise." Then she
drew the next card from her deck, indicating that the conversation was over.
When your family is in the business of running the oldest pawn shop in the world, there are big
shoes to fill. I wondered if Grandma had similar trouble when she became old enough to work at
the shop, back before Gran-Gran Hannelore had retired.
Under the terms of the pawn, the customer had thirty days to come back and claim his item. That
gave me plenty of time to line up potential buyers. There were a number of leads for me to
pursue, but I started with the obvious.
I unlocked the front door, flipped the sign to Open, powered up my laptop, and logged on to
It didn't take a month. The first interested party showed up within days.
"I'm Keldmo, the Grand Prophet of the Deep Ones," announced the enormously fat man. He was
wearing some sort of a toga or bathrobe getup, probably because no one made pants in his size.
"I understand that you've recently come into possession of the great Cthulhu?"
"We did. Or we will, if the previous owner doesn't pay back the loan in three weeks' time. How
much are you prepared to pay?"
"Is the undying gratitude of thousands of worshippers not enough?"
"I don't have a lot of money." Keldmo wiped the sweat off his ample chins with a handkerchief.
"The congregation hasn't been quite as devout in recent years. The collection plate brings barely
enough to keep food on the table."
I bit back the obvious retort. Besides, Keldmo wouldn't have appreciated the barb. If he ever had
a sense of humor, he probably ate it a long time ago.
"Having the actual Cthulhu to display at services, I'm sure that would turn things around," he
said. "Reinvigorate the worshippers, help with the recruitment drive, that sort of thing."
"You aren't planning to wake it up and unleash it upon the world, are you?"
"Heavens, no," said Keldmo. "A living god can be dangerous and unpredictable. What if it has
different ideas and plans for its followers than I do? No, it's best to let sleeping horrors lie."
"Good," I said. "Now what are you willing to pay, really?"
Keldmo made his offer. It was significantly less than the amount I had invested, but it was a
start. I told the cult leader that I'd be in touch and sent him on his merry way.
A week later a group of beings from a parallel universe showed up. They looked a lot like the
alien grays on TV, if alien grays had fins and gills. I stared, perhaps beyond the point of
politeness. Visitors from a parallel universe were a rare sight indeed, even in an establishment
such as ours.
"We seek the services of your underwater god," said the leader of the group.
"What kind of services?" I just had to know.
"We are aquatic beings," said the leader, whom I mentally dubbed Nemo. "Our waters have
recently become infested with sea serpents. Being that we are pacifists, we can't handle this
calamity on our own. But it is well known that the Deep Ones are the ocean's natural predators.
We wish to awaken Cthulhu and release it into the wild, so it can eat all the sea serpents."
I had my reservations about this plan, and about what Cthulhu might do to Nemo's people once
it ran out of sea serpents. But at least they weren't planning to awaken Cthulhu in this universe.
That was a big plus.
"How much can you pay?"
The aliens huddled.
"In addition to being pacifists," said Nemo, "we're also a moneyless society. We don't mine, or
fish, or produce artwork. We live in harmony with nature and eat algae. I'm afraid we possess
nothing you would find of value. However," he added brightly, "we don't want to buy your god.
We only want to borrow it. We'll be happy to return it to you, in perfect condition, after it
I frowned. The idea of getting Cthulhu back, awake and nourished, wasn't appealing.
"You'd be helping to save an entire civilization," said Nemo. "Surely the concept of compassion
exists in this universe?"
I felt bad for the naïve pacifists, but I was also fairly certain that I wouldn't be doing them any
favors by unleashing Cthulhu on a society that couldn't even cope with a few sea serpents. Also,
I was running a business, not an Interdimensional Wetlands Conservation Society.
I told Nemo that I'd think about it, and ushered him and his friends out of the shop.
"No one is going to give you any money," Grandma called out from the stock room once the
door closed behind them. "But I'm sure you can find plenty of folks who'd be willing to take it
off your hands for free."
I gritted my teeth and went back to sorting and labeling the rack of love potions. Thanks to that
song we were perpetually sold out of Number Nine. Despite the fact that, from what I heard, it
tasted like troll vomit.
Nearly two weeks had passed and I was beginning to worry, when another interested party
arrived. This time it was a tall, lean man who wore a mantle decorated with a lion's mane draped
over his shoulder. He seemed unperturbed by the balmy August weather outside. His broad chest
was adorned with several rows of teeth hanging on strings from around his neck. I could've
sworn a few of the teeth were human, but I'm no dentist. A long sword dangled off his belt.
"I'm Sir Barnabas, the Grand Knight of the Order of Saint George," he announced, more loudly
than was absolutely necessary.
"Welcome," said Grandma. Sir Barnabas' bulging muscles and deep baritone summoned her
from the back as if by magic. "I'm Heide. And that's my granddaughter Sylvia. She's single."
"Madame." Sir Barnabas bent down to kiss Grandma's hand. "My lady," he gallantly bowed to
me next. I could swear that I heard Grandma swoon.
"On behalf of the Order of Saint George, I seek the monster Cthulhu that is said to be in your
possession. Will you aid me in my quest?"
"Is your quest dedicated to any Lady?" asked Grandma.
"What do you want it for?" I asked before Grandma could get up to any of her matchmaking.
"We're the Order of Saint George," said Barnabas. "Isn't it obvious?"
"We hunt and slay dragons."
"Dragons are extinct," said Grandma.
"You're welcome!" said Barnabas. "We shall hunt this Cthulhu and kill it, too. It will be
glorious. Songs will be composed about . . ."
"Cthulhu isn't a dragon," I interrupted.
"Strictly speaking, you're right," said Barnabas. "But it's got scales and wings, and it's a vile
beast. That's as close as we can hope for, these days."
"I see." The idea of a bunch of knights trying to defeat an elder god by poking spears at it was
amusing, but only until I remembered that I shared the same planet with them. And that those
spears would probably make Cthulhu mad. Madder. "What is your order prepared to pay for the
"The Knights of St. George take a vow of poverty. But your assistance in this quest shall be
immortalized in the annals of our order. That's better than mere money."
Grandma frowned. "Poverty is the stupidest vow a knight could take. However is one supposed
to come up with a proper dowry then?"
For an excruciating fifteen minutes, Sir Barnabas kept trying to convince us to hand over
Cthulhu to him, gratis. I promised to consider it, just to get him out the door.
"Told you no one will pay money for this thing," Grandma said, checking out the knight's
posterior as he walked down the street.
She was wrong.
Two days before Cthulhu officially became the property of the shop, the next and final potential
customer had arrived. It was a nondescript middle-aged man of medium height wearing a dark
blue suit, the sort of person you would never look at twice in a crowd. The only distinguishing
characteristic about him was an aluminum attaché case, which he plunked onto the counter in
front of me.
"I'd like one Cthulhu, please," he said as he opened the case. It was full of money.
Grandma appeared out of nowhere again. The only thing capable of summoning her faster than a
set of perfect pecs was a briefcase full of cash.
"It's a deal," she said. "But you'll have to come back on Wednesday. The original owner has
until then to claim his property. Rules and regulations, you understand."
"I'm from the government, ma'am. I assure you that you won't get into any trouble for handing
over the creature a few days early."
"What do you want with it?" I didn't trust the government. Who does? "Is it the whole 'why
settle for a lesser evil' thing? But the elections aren't for another two years."
"Very funny," he said, but his tone and eyes did not agree. "My department is charged with
destroying dangerous items and beings, before they get the chance to break free and bite
everyone in the ass. Your operation is always on our radar." He turned to Grandma. "You should
make things easy for yourself and take the money. I could've just as easily classified Cthulhu as
a weapon of mass destruction and confiscated it with no compensation for you at all."
Grandma stood up straighter and glared at the government agent, fire in her eyes. "No. You
couldn't have. This is an ancient place of power, and there are wards and protections layered
upon it by a hundred generations of my ancestors. It is much too tough a nut for the likes of you
"Go." Grandma pointed at the front door. "I don't appreciate being threatened in my own
establishment. Come back in two days' time and we will think about accepting your offer."
Without another word, he went.
On Wednesday, Grandma and I were awakened well before business hours by the loud noises
coming from the street. Both of us got dressed and came down to the shop to investigate.
Outside, there was pandemonium.
Hundreds of the Deep Ones' worshippers faced off against an equally impressive force of
soldiers who had a pair of helicopters and a tank. In the middle of the street, a dozen knights
stood shoulder to shoulder and sneered at anyone who came too close. And all around, small
clusters of gray-skinned, gilled aliens milled about, getting underfoot of everyone else.
"This is madness," I said. "They're going to begin killing each other any minute now."
"I knew this Cthulhu was nothing but trouble," said Grandma. "I've half a mind to let them fight
it out." But I knew she didn't mean it.
We were perfectly safe inside. The shop is protected by a collection of charms, spells, and
enchantments laboriously assembled by the family over the centuries. An intruder would have an
easier time getting into Buckingham Palace or the White House.
But that didn't stop them from brawling with each other in the street. And, Grandma's offhand
comment aside, we couldn't let that happen.
"I know you like to do things the traditional way," I told Grandma, "but I'm responsible for
causing this mess, and I have to set things straight. This situation calls for a forward-thinking,
unorthodox approach. Will you please trust me to handle it?"
Grandma hesitated for only the briefest of moments, then smiled at me and nodded. I unlocked
the shop's front door and stepped outside.
A few minutes later I had gathered the leaders of each group inside the shop. Keldmo, Sir
Barnabas, Nemo, and the agent whose name - unsurprisingly - turned out to be Smith scowled at
each other. The tension was so thick you probably couldn't cut it with Sir Barnabas' sword.
"I can resolve the issue at hand to everyone's satisfaction," I said. The four of them paid close
"Sir Barnabas, meet the interdimensional alien. His world is suffering from a terrible sea serpent
"Oh?" The knight was practically salivating at the thought of hunting sea serpents.
"Would you agree that sea serpents are phylogenetically much closer to dragons than a dead
"Most assuredly, my lady," said Sir Barnabas.
"Will you undertake the noble quest of hunting them down and, in exchange, abandon any future
claim on stalking the Cthulhu?"
"Gladly, my lady." He pumped an oversized fist on the breast plate over his heart.
I addressed Nemo: "And will you accept the help of the knights and give up on the foolish idea
of releasing an even more dangerous predator into your eco-system?"
"They seem bloodthirsty enough," said Nemo, "and yet honorable. It appears to be a great
The two left the shop to break the news to their people. They were already discussing logistics,
munitions, and the songs to be composed in the knights' honor.
"Well, that was the easy part," I turned my attention to the remaining parties.
"I won't let a dangerous creature fall into the hands of a cult," said Smith.
"I won't let them murder my god," said Keldmo.
"You can't stop me. I have the entire military at my disposal."
"My disciples are everywhere. If you dare to harm a single tentacle on our god's head, they will
exact a bloody revenge. My people are willing to kill and die for me." Keldmo sighed. "Well
some of them, anyway."
"No dying. No killing. I already told you, I have a solution. Wait here," I dashed for the stock
I returned with a large silver plate under my arm.
"Keldmo, you told me that you don't want to wake up Cthulhu, you just need an impression of
him to rally your followers."
Keldmo looked at me, waiting to see where this was going, but made no protest.
"This is an enchanted plate, part of a matching set. It will display an exact replica of whatever
item is placed on the other plate, for as long as it remains there." I tapped the side of the plate
gently and the pyramid pocket dimension appeared on it. I offered the plate to Keldmo, who
grabbed for it greedily. "You can see it, touch it, and verify that it's safe and sound on the other
plate, which is at the back of our shop. Just don't remove the replica from the plate's surface or
you'll break the spell."
"As for you," I turned to Smith, "killing Cthulhu isn't an option. You don't need the trouble with
Keldmo's followers, and I seriously doubt you could kill it anyway. So instead, I will offer our
shop's services to store it for you permanently." Smith looked dubious, but I pressed on. "There
are few locations in the entire world more secure than our shop. You know this, or you would
have come in guns blazing, trying to take Cthulhu by force. No one will get at it here, and
anyone who might want to try will believe that Keldmo's people have it anyway. Keldmo will
make sure of that, won't he?"
Keldmo nodded, with a huge grin on his meaty face. Smith thought about this and finally
"We will, of course, require payment for our services. That bag of money will cover rent for the
first hundred years. Our descendants can renegotiate after that."
Smith mulled this over a while longer, but he could find no obvious flaw in my plan.
Several hours later the contracts were drawn up (in triplicate - that's how the government rolls)
and signed, and everyone finally left. The briefcase full of money sat in the office next to the
silver plate housing Cthulhu. Smith wanted the case back, but Grandma got peevish at the last
moment and insisted we keep it as part of the deal. She must've been still punishing Smith for
his bullying earlier.
"Did you like how I managed to make everyone happy and sell a silver plate for a giant wad of
money in the process?" I did good, and deserved a chance to brag. "And we even get to keep
Cthulhu. Governments and cults come and go, and who knows what it will be worth a few
generations down the line? And are you convinced I'm ready to take over the shop now?"
"Not yet," said Grandma. "If only you didn't pick up this beastie in the first place, we could've
avoided all this nonsense altogether."
I frowned, but didn't argue. Expecting too much and complaining regardless of outcome is the
prerogative of family.
"Not yet," Grandma said again, "but you're getting closer."
I came over and hugged her. She pursed her lips, but in her eyes I caught a hint of a smile.