Nechama’s Journey

From the time I was small, the land was dark. Vines grew with nettles, and leaves with fine thorns. Even its flowers lack color, a pallid vibrancy unpleasing to the eye.

My childhood home was dark, full of candles, with shades drawn and shadows painting our walls.

There was mother’s room, too. But mother was gone now, and father forbid me to enter it.

“Why?”

He glared at me in silence that would brook no further insolent questions, and walked out of my room, slamming the door.

But I was only a child, and his glaring authority only turned my childish curiosity to unhealthy obsession. What don’t you want me to see, father?

  He always took the key with him when he left.

He hired a nanny for me, daft as she was strict, but she was prone to drink, and more often than not I’d find her sleeping; not being old enough to take advantage of it, I said nothing to father.

I made attempts to pick the lock when he was gone, and nanny was in her cups; one day she caught me at it.

“Eh, girl. What’s this wickedness?”

I’m ashamed of how easily the lie and tears came to me: “It’s father. He’s mean: he locked my dolls in here, and I can’t play with them now.”

She seemed to be thinking, the glass in her hand sloshing a bit as she watched me cry, then she seemed to make up her mind.

“A girl oughtta have ‘er dolls. I’ll let you in, but it’ll be our secret, eh?”

I smiled, hugging her, almost making her drop her drink. “Thanks, Nan. You’re the best…

She took my arms from her legs. “A’right, child. No need t’get mushy, eh?”

She used a hairpin, and the lock clicked open. Given her addiction, she probably practiced on liquor cabinets and doors in other homes all the time.  I thought she’d go in and see there were no dolls, but she didn’t.

“Come get me when you’re done, girl. Don’t forget.”

“I won’t, Nan.” I made as if to hug her again, and she scooted away.

******************

Inside, more darkness: sparse, dark window shades covered with thick dark curtains, the room furnished in fluted, elegant, black furniture, and planks of dark wood on the walls. It seemed more a cellar bedroom than a part of the rest of the house.

I shuddered. There was absolutely no relief, no break of color or light anywhere to be seen.

Then I saw it, framed in the branches of a long- neglected plant, the glass beginning to shimmer and brighten.

A mirror. As soon as I saw it, I knew that’s why father kept me out of here, but it was a chance for me to see what I looked like, so I mimicked Nan in my head: What’s a girl to do, eh?

As I drew close, I began to cry as soon as I saw what was taking shape inside the glass. Westering sunlight laced through wispy clouds, broken up in spots of yellow and blue, the shadows of distant hills silhouetted in the distance, a calm lake leading to a lonely shore.

That’s where mother went; that’s why she left.

I looked back at the open door, heard father come in. He saw Nan sleeping, and yelled at her as she blubbered her apologies. Fearing the worst, he came running up the stairs.

It’s now or never, Nechama. Surely, he’ll punish you…

I reached out my hand, felt the warm breeze skim over the water, making small ripples,  saw the sunlight on my skin, felt its heat as bright lights burst and laced through the dark branches that held the mirror.

My body was fading, the lights on the branches extending, lacing around me, over my arms and legs, surrounding my head like a halo of stars.

Goodbye father…

      He saw me step through, and I turned at the sound of his voice calling mother’s name as he ran toward me, but it was too late.

The glass began to cloud over.

He sank to his knees, putting his face in his hands, his sobs of grief breaking my heart, breaking the mirror, breaking our bond.

Forever.

 

(MirrorMirroronthewall: Original art by Shadowheart69)

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Lamenting Lullaby

The snow shower was ending, and the moon shone bright, full and high and clear against a sky of black crystal, with shadowy clouds gilded by a silver nimbus, traipsing like gypsy scarves, obscuring and revealing the cold, glittering stars so far away.

On any other night, it was a breathtaking scene, but tonight, my hands gripped the cold balustrade of the balcony rail so tightly that if the moon itself were in them, I would have crushed it to powder.

Her cries reached me through the thick oaken doors, and her screams ripped the winter silence asunder.

They told me this might happen. I prayed that it would not, but now it has.

The midwives, bless their plucky souls, had been efficient in their ministrations, but now, the rest, being up to Jesika, had taken a turn for the worst.

They sent the youngest to tell me. “Mr. Laskin, you’d best come, sir.”

One look at her brimming eyes told me all I needed to know.

They told you…They told you! Be strong, Alexei. Be strong, and see her home.

I followed, biting back the sobs that threatened to burst my jaw.

They stepped back from the door like a parting black curtain, faces somber, eyes downcast and full of tears.

On the bed, my Jesika, trembling, the last of her strength fleeing, holding our twins in her thin, shaking arms, and smiling through the sweat that left her spent and sodden on ruined, reddened sheets.

“Alexei…see?”

The tears came, and I couldn’t see.  “I see, my love. They’re beautiful, like you.”

“My crowning achievement.”

“Yes.”

Her breathing hitched, and blood marked her lips as she coughed, reflexes making her hold the strangely silent babes tighter.

The young midwife wiped Jesika’s brow and mouth, and poured a sip of water through her lips.

“I’m leaving, Alexei.”

“I know.”

“They’ll be my legacy, too.”

“Yes, Jesika, and a worthy one.”

“You must name them. Take your time with that…” Her coughing racked her.

The babes began to slip from her arms, and one of the midwives took them while the other again cleaned her face.

“Your violin…” Jesika said, her voice weakening.

“What?”

“Your violin, get it. Play for me, Alexei. One last time.”

I bolted, retrieved it, not bothering to tune it, and ran back.

I heard the midwives crying before I got to the doorway, and stepped aside as they filed out.

The youngest who came to tell me of Jesika was still standing next to the bed, holding my children, looking at me, worry and concern for my sanity and her safety plainly seen in her expression.

“Mr. Laskin, her eyes…?”

“I see, child.”

“Her eyes are still open, sir. Would you…do you want me to…?”

“Place the children beside her.”

“Sir?”

“Place the children beside her, and attend them.”

One of the midwives came back to the door. “Natalya, we must –“

I shut the door in her face. “Attend them, Natalya. Please.”

She did as I requested, though she was uneasy.

“I’ll not harm you, child. I’m going to play for my family. My wife sleeps in death, and my children in life. I will play them a lullaby.”

She turned away from me as I tuned the strings, watching the children, not daring to look at Jesika’s frozen smile.

I began an improvisation, slow and in a major key, happy, but not bright.

The children opened their eyes, and looked at me with those sage stares, rapt, as if they knew what I was doing, and why. Brother and sister, bonded in life, already bereft of a greater fealty than I could give.

Natalya sat, trembling, her hands ready to catch them should they list, or cast themselves off the bed.

But they didn’t move except to blink, and gurgle, raising their little hands toward me.

And then I played for Jesika, a somber, loving dirge that was a testament to her will and strength and beauty, my fingers as sure of her song as my heart had been of her love.

The twins began to cry, as if they knew what I was doing, and why.

And when Jesika’s eyes closed, Natalya retreated to a corner of the room, her mouth open in a silent scream; her tears wouldn’t stop, and her breathing became hiccoughs. She was but a shadow, and time was lost to me as the song caught me up. In my mind, I danced with them in an open field, all of us smiling and laughing, but slowly, they faded from my grasp as I swooned, and fell.

********************

“…lost them all?”

“…wife and twins, on the same night!”

“…on earth happened?”

“…murder…”

“…poison…”

“…went insane…”

I hear the whispers, the gossip, and I see the fear as they pass me, when they have occasion to be around me, which is rare. I rarely go out now. Soon, I won’t go out at all.

I don’t remember much, except a song; something in me remembers a song.

A lullaby, it was.

A lullaby for my family, now sleeping all together in the ground.

I kneel in the hard, hoary grass, and place the parchment of our wedding vows before me. Behind me, weeping angels mark the graves of my little ones, Viktor and Irina.

And by the ivory light of the winter moon, I tune my violin, and play, and play, and play….

Circle of Blood

I stood looking at the carnage, blinking from the sudden, searing flashes of lightning streaking across roiling black clouds.

There was no thunder, which gave the scene an eldritch air.

Swarms of rats moved en masse over the mounds of corpses, taking such treasures as they could find.

The torrential rain cut the edge off the stench, but didn’t stop it.

An armored knight, his bare hands pierced with spikes, hung in the center of the palace door, a circle of blood painted around him. I didn’t know how long he was there, but the crows had taken his eyes.

It’s already started. I’m too late.

A short, hooded figure approached from under a pile of smoldering wood, stealthy, heading for the doomed knight. As he was hung with his weapons, they were going to loot him.

With his hands spiked, there was nothing he could do to stop them.  I think more than anything else it was the cowardice of the pending deed that rankled and made me call out.

“Leave him alone!”

The figure jumped; they hadn’t seen me through the downpour.

They scampered back into their hiding place. The urchins knew this backwater warren better than me. I lived here once, but never called it home.

The man turned his head in my direction, and I worked through the mounds of bodies to take him down.

“I’ll get you out of here.”

“No!”

I stopped, taken aback by his refusal.

“No. They’ll know it was you, and they’ll find you. I’ve nothing to go back to. Better I die here. Leave! Leave while you still can, while there’s still a chance you can—”

The serrated blade of a knife buried itself in his chest with such force that his body jerked, making a muffled thump against the door, and he went still.

A different hooded urchin stood there, smiling at its handiwork.

That could’ve been me.

I sighed, still looking at the knight, but speaking to the urchin. “What do you want?”

They answered me, retrieving the knife. “I remember you. You should leave, priest. There’ve been changes since you were exiled, and your Order is no longer welcome here.”

“Where do I know you from?”

They removed the hood: a girl with smooth brown skin, large, dark brown doe -shaped eyes that held an intelligence beyond her years, her form on the cusp of womanhood, but hidden beneath the soaked black cloak she wore.

“I’m your daughter; you took my mother, Sharrika, against her will.”

“Sharrika…?”

She came toward me. “I see you remember her name.”

“She was supposed to kill me.”

“Yes, and you did something to make her stop. She fell in love with you instead. What did you do, father?” She spat the word out like snake venom. “Rape her with a spell?”

I had no answer she would find acceptable.

“What became of Sharrika? What is your name?”

She spat on my robe, and I reacted, backhanding her across the face.

She sprawled over some bodies, sending the rats scurrying, then pushed off the pile, running back to me with the knife in her hand.

I didn’t want to hurt her, but I didn’t know what she was going to do; I tried casting, and felt a jolt to my own body that almost made me lose my footing.

She has powers. The bloody knife was at my throat, tilting my chin up.

Her breathing was raspy and harsh. “If you ever hit me again—!”

    “Tafari!”

The rain had intensified, but the figure that approached was only in a long red dress, clinging to the very curves my hands explored in better times.

Tafari took the knife from my throat. “This isn’t over, priest.”

Sharrika walked up to her, took the knife, and apologized, her eyes downcast. “Please forgive my daughter, sir. She isn’t married, and so has not yet been–“

“That’s none of his concern, mother!”

I was surprised at Sharrika’s candor; it wasn’t her way.

“Sharrika.”

She gave me a blank stare, tilted her head. “Do I know you? Have we met before?”

Emotions warred within me, but I nodded. “We have. I’ll tell you later. Let’s get out of the rain.”

A crow had landed on the knight’s soaked corpse, looking for fresh pickings. The rats persisted in their foraging among the mounds of rotting flesh.

She nodded and beckoned me to follow.

The rain fell harder, but she and Tafari took their time; it was a moment before I realized the rain was falling around them, not on them.

“Witches.”

I don’t know whether Tafari heard me, but she turned to give me a mirthless smile.

I ignored the threat, put my head down to keep the rain out of my eyes, and walked back into the eye of the malevolent hurricane that would shake my life to its core. It would have been easier if I’d turned and walked back through the broken gates, as Tafari commanded, never to return.

When all was said and done, I was glad I didn’t, but I wished I had.

 

 

M is for Mortal

I knocked, like I always do, respecting her privacy, but there was no answer.
“Baby? Kora? Are you there?” I went to check the bathroom, but heard no water, so I went back to the door and turned the knob.
He was there, holding her in his arms as she whimpered, answering with a soft snarling purr muffled by the tender flesh of my daughter’s neck. I don’t remember what happened next, but I do know that I smashed his head until it was pulped, and held my daughter as the blood pumped out of her.
She was a pallid bust of herself by the time it was over.
You’ve taken your revenge, Kharis. Now I will take mine.
****************
In the morning, I waited until the fire collapsed the house, and carried my daughter’s body to the old church cemetery. There were no tools to bury her, so I put her in a large toolbox, and locked it.
“I’ll come back for you, angel.”
The scent of her blood was on me, the scent of the lemon shampoo in her hair lingered with it, a coppery sweetness that jumbled my feelings, but not enough to wash them both away.
They would scent my child’s blood, and come after me.  I would smell her lemon shampoo, and remember who she’d been, and what she meant to me.
*******************
I found the lair just before the sun went down, and waited in the darkness, sword in hand.
I heard the slide of heavy stone and the creak of ancient hinges as various coffins and doors were opened.
Kharis’ widow approached. “You killed him.”
The sword was already in my hand, and made her stop. “I did. He claimed my daughter.”
“That is not our way.”
“I know, but now, blood cries out for blood.”
“I’m not giving you mine, priest.” She smiled in amusement when she said it; I’d fallen, not bothering to get back up.
“Someone has to.”
Her soft laughter reverberated. “I like your confidence.”
The others were behind her, eyes shining, skin translucent and white-veined in the thickening shadows; that would fill in as they fed, but they wouldn’t be feeding tonight, if I had my way.
She turned her back on me, and walked out while the others came toward me, baring fangs and laughing.

***************
I spent the night in their stink, lifting their cold guts in my fingers, trying on their gold, admiring their sprawled out, open-eyed, red-streaked beauty.
There would be no pyre; I would not have them in peace. I half wanted them to rise, so I could kill them again, but the sword had done its work; there would be no pursuit, and no second chance at revenge.
No one left to kill meant no reason to stay.
I only had one left to hunt.
Your turn, Narkissa.

*************
She’d set my daughter free, and the two of them looked at me as I entered.
“Hi, Daddy.”
I wiped the tears and sweat from my eyes, but they returned as if I hadn’t. “My daughter’s dead.”
She smiled. “Good. That will make this easier.”
She looked at Narkissa for approval.
“Go ahead, darling.”
She ran toward me.
My sword came up.
***************
Slumped against the wall, my hands held Kora’s hair like a bundle of flowers; it was almost over.
Narkissa was enjoying herself, sipping slow at my neck and wrists; my veins were on fire from the bites, even as my body shivered from the cold. I heard the crunch of fangs popping, and felt the coursing venom sting.
I don’t know how long she took, but a languor washed over me that sapped my strength.
She was granting me the final mocking mercy of smelling Kora’s lemon shampoo for the last time.
The stink of my corrupted blood pecked at it like crows on the battlefield.
My vision grew dark, and the scent of lemons faded.
Then it was gone.

 

Come Play

I decided to run from my parents that day, wanting to explore the mist inside the forest, tendrils hovering over the leaves and branches, like arms waiting to catch something.

I bolted.

My mother gasped, and called my name.

My father cursed and gave chase, so I went into the underbrush where he would stumble and thrash.

The thorns and branches snagged my clothes and nicked my skin with small cuts, but I ignored the pain.

The mist came slowly down to shroud me, concealing me from my father’s sight.

He called, and threatened, but his voice held a note of desperation and fear. A pang of guilt interrupted my guilty pleasure, and I started back.

It was after some moments that though I heard his voice, I couldn’t tell what direction it came from.

I was now as lost as he, and when I went to call him, the mist muffled my voice. It came back to me as if I’d put my hands over my ears; it was dull and flat, lacking resonance, little more than a croak.

I kept calling, my own voice giving rise to my own fear.

“Hush, boy. Come play.”

I whirled to see who’d come so silently behind me.

A girl, leached of all color, but pretty all the same, was looking at me with a pleased fascination, as if she’d found something shiny and new.

“Where am I? Can you take me to my dad?”

She giggled. “You’re in the mist, silly. There’s no returning from it.”

“What do you mean? That’s stupid. I know this forest–” I turned, looking into it, but there was nothing to see but grey-white vapor, slowly roiling through the air.

“Then find your own way, boy. But if you like, you can come play.”

“Play? Play where? Play what? Why do you have no colors at all?”

She laughed again. “So many questions…”

I grew angry. “Take me back.”

She grew serious. “There is no going back. Can you hear?”

“I heard you just fine, but I don’t believe you.” I didn’t hear my dad calling anymore, but I could hear my mother crying.

I smothered my anger. “Please, you have to take me back. They’re worried.”

“You were the one who ran away.”

“I was only joking with them; I didn’t know all…this …would happen.”

“But now it has, boy. And there is no going back. Come play.”

“Stop saying that!”

She stared at me in patient silence; I turned and stared some more into the forest.

The mist grew thicker, and soon the sound of my mother’s crying was gone too.

When I turned back, she was standing closer. “Come play.”

I tried to hit her with everything I had, to knock her flat. To knock her out.

But my hand ended up holding hers, and I saw the color begin to fade, no sign of blood or pigment.

I felt my veins harden, my heart slow to almost nothing, and it seemed that the mist slipped into my nostrils when I remembered to breathe again.

I heard the sound of children singing a rhyming song.

There was laughter, and music, and all hue was drained from me as she smiled, looking at me with those shadowy, beautiful, colorless eyes.

“Come play.” She caressed my face with her pale, bloodless hand.

“Let’s go,” I said, following her through the mist we breathed, the sound of children’s laughter echoing in my ears.