“Come,” he said, “we’re almost there.”
The trees overhead, tall ancient things, cast the world in shadow, making the hooded boy in front of me ambiguous in contrast to our surroundings. They were one and the same: shadow, boy, shadow. There was no difference. Hell- excuse me, heck-as far I was concerned he was a shadow, nothing but a phantasm, a product of my imagination.
The sound of snapping limbs and crunching leaves beneath my bare abused feet, the sweet fetor of rot and decay; all were so foreign, so foreboding. They were nothing like smooth cobblestone, or soft carpet. Speaking of solid flooring, if I had a nickel for every indention I stumbled over, I’d be a very rich woman.
A sudden ululation erupted from somewhere out there, in the black swill; the boy froze. His voice was quiet, with a hint of rasp:
“Are you mad? Fox-!”
But with a rustle, he was gone. I experienced a feeling of unease, a cold p***k down my spine, like slender flingers plucking the string of a lute. A bird cry of sorts rose like a siren, wailing, adding its own melancholy touch to the environment. I clasped my arms around myself, hands gripping elbows, nails digging.
I coughed. “Fox?” My voice sounded small and muffled. Inferiority! Why didn’t it echo like the rest of the ghostly cacophony?
There was another howl, this one nearer and even more frightening. I was considering running when I heard a voice, a human voice. It was only a murmur, but it was definitely Fox’s quiet drawl. I planted my feet into the ground, pictured little roots crawling from my heel and snaking down into the wet soil... I would wait a little longer, I supposed.
The dog noises came from relatively the same location, but the chilling howls had been exchanged for high-pitched “ouuuus” and yips. I heard Fox’s voice grow louder to accommodate, sometimes almost to the point of clarity:
“…Tah-rah…report! Wait…you….let. Absolutely not! Either…mah …mih…my point!”
Snapping barks, three in quick bursts, then , “…..my head!”
There was a low growl. The dog let out a snort. Fox materialized in front of me a moment later, birthed from the blackness. His hazel eyes shone like new pennies. He was panting irritably, eyebrows drawn. It occurred to me suddenly that he had been conversing with a canine. What had I gotten myself into, what sort of nutcase had I fallen in with? Maybe I would have been better off back in the fire-
“Quickly. They’re expecting us.”
They? So there were more of…well, who exactly were they? What were they? Dogs?
Dogs! What a ludicrous thought!
But I followed him, despite my growing reservations. The way wasn’t long: all at once the trees parted, showering us in golden streams. I was momentarily blinded; my hands flew up to my eyes, casting their protective shadows. I heard a shrill bark, and a gasp.
A women’s voice: “Hell.”
Curiosity got the better of me: fingers splayed, I peered at the world beyond…
The morning was like all other mornings, I suppose: business was decent, Liza burned the rolls, Herschal was irrevocably, undeniably drunk. Grant was snobby, crabby, rude, arrogant, egotistical, pig-headed, greedy, mean…just to name a few.
Yes, the morning was like all other mornings, but it was the sole exception: after the sun was strung up in the sky, when the temperature was at its max, things spun into insanity. I was almost delusional enough to say a different tangent had sporadically appeared, sucking us all in its wake like a starving man, pulling us into a world rife with irony and tragic ‘might-have-beens’.
With noon came a certain sort of stifling purpose, of begrudging propriety. But I was the only one in the household that felt such heavy, negative feelings. The tone my uncle Grant portrayed was one of sheer pleasure and excitement. I could hear him whistling about the house, and occasionally he’d slip me a wry wink. My cousins shared his warm feelings, the only exception being Herschal, who was too drunk to care that his father was selling me away.
Maybe ‘selling’ wasn’t the right word. ‘Slavery’, perhaps would suffice…?
Regardless of its title, I was leaving, being shoved out of the house of my childhood by a malicious grinning boot. Marriage was such a cruel, sudden thing.
Shortly after the sun began its lengthy descent from atop its throne, a king garbed in golden robes, a carriage came to fetch me. Grant was giddy as he went out to greet the man I would soon call “husband”, skipping as he whistled. I waited indoors, out of the merciless heat, for my knight in shining armor.
I heard Grant utter a booming “hello!”. The return response was much softer and composed, and a moment later the tall door creaked open, beholding my plump uncle, cheeks turning a slight shade of pink from excursion. Behind him was a young man, not incredibly handsome but not an eye-sore, either. His hair was pulled back in a scholarly manner, hands clasped behind his back.
I curtsied stiffly. “Brandon.”
He wore simple brown slacks and a white collared shirt. He acknowledged me with a slight inclination of his head. His brown eyes held a warm sort of animated enthusiasm; I felt slightly guilty that he would not see the same expression mirrored in my own.
A small, pudgy girl came racing down the stairs; sweaty, fleshy palms engulfed my hand. Large blue eyes glinted from a curtain of wiry black hair up at me.
“Your bags are on your bed.” Liza said in a voice less than a whisper. I squeezed her hand.
“Do not worry, dear Liza.” Tall Brandon smiled. “I shan’t be taking your cousin away before dark. Rites, m’dear, the ceremony.”
Liza nodded, eyes downcast.
Uncle coughed into his hand. Liza buried her face in my hem. He coughed again, louder, forced; she stiffened, and took a step away from me, rising to her full height. Golden moisture droplets flowed in rivulets down her pale cheeks.
There was a moment of awkward silence, broken by a long strand of curses that wafted down the stairs.
Grant snuffled, and let out another cough, “My eldest son. He is…ill.”
Brandon’s brow rose. “Ah, I see.”
Liza and Grant exchanged glances, and she, turning to Brandon, whimpered a deplorable: “Come in.”
Brandon emitted a warm grin. “Indeed, child.” When he proffered his arm to me I considered brushing past him and feinting carelessness, but Grant, sensing my intentions, shot me a glare cold enough to stop a charging rabid dog. With a chagrin smile I took the arm, looping mine about his own, and followed Liza into the sitting room located in the back of the house.
The sitting room, or lounge, was a small, tidy room which housed a few thread-bare chairs – blankets had been draped over them, cheap things to make them look a little less cheerless – and a coffee table in desperate need of a paint job, or a replacement. The table was already set: a flowering teapot and matching cups were lined up in little rows around the circular table.
Brandon deposited me in a chair and took one of his own across from me. Liza claimed the chair next to Brandon, and Grant sat next to me.
“Weather’s fair.” Offered Grant. “Unusually warm, though.”
“Indeed,” replied Brandon, “calm and fair.” He turned to me. “And what say you, my love?”
I had to suppress a sneer of revulsion. “Too hot for my liking.”
Uncle chortled, “Women! Weak, lovely creatures they are. Good thing we found you a good man, eh, Danica?”
I forced a smile. “Yes, Uncle.”
Brandon cleared his throat. “So,” he said, smiling earnestly, “tell me about yourself, my love. What sort of literature do you like, what people to you consort with? Do you like children?”
…Children? So soon?
“I prefer books on nature, plant names and such. I…” I swallowed hard, “children are good.” I forced a chuckle. “Little people! How sweet.”
A crash came from upstairs, followed by a muffled shout. Grant excused himself and his daughter. The room went silent.
Eyes downcast, I let out an unintelligible murmur.
“So, I bought a house. Small, but I’d hoped you wouldn’t mind. My estate is small, but your handsome dowry should satisfy more than a few debts. And I figured you could work at home, upkeep and such.” A brief pause, “Take care of the children.”
Another forced tight-lipped smile: “Please, I mean…so soon?”
His laughter was light. “Ah, dear, we will have many children! They will have my cunning and your face…ah, too soon to think such things, indeed.”
My face was hot; I wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed and never wake again. Or slap Brandon.
“When your Uncle gets back, what say you we take a look at those papers? This can’t be easy for you.” He licked his lips, eyes creeping down past my face. “Get you home…”
My teeth took hold of my bottom lip.
“I digress, my dear. Thoughts for another time." He gave me a wink. The chair creaked as he reclined, hands clasped behind his head. "I can't believe this is all happening. It all seems so soon."
His face darkened suddenly. "Danica, when did we grow up?"
I said nothing.
"So fast life charges, its all I can do to keep up." He let out a little laugh, and closewd his eyes.
I heard Grant let out a yell. Heavy thuds rang out from the stairs, and in the doorway appeared gangly, red-faced Herschal, white knuckles gripping the doorframe. I heard sound slip out of Brandon’s mouth, a tiny syllable before hell broke loose. Herschal was on him, fists flying.
At first, I sat in my chair, stunned, not becoming aroused until the men’s scuffle upset the table, thrusting hot, sweet-smelling liquid onto the front of my legs. I was on my feet then, hands around Herschal’s waist, tugging and grunting, trying to avoid the rebound of his elbows as his hands slammed into Brandon’s face. I was too slow, however: his left elbow caught me in the stomach, forcing air out in a tiny “Huuuuuuuh…” My arms weakened, and I slumped to the floor as the sound of Liza’s shouts entered the room. I heard Brandon shriek, and a heavy weight fell onto my back. I felt the load as it wheezed heavily, the air about me smelling of alcohol and sweat.
Grant, I suppose, pulled Herschal off me. I caught only a glimpse of Brandon’s face, his form slumped into the chair, and I saw red. Lots of red, crimson stains across his shirt, in his hair. I was escorted with haste out of the room by a panicked Liza, who took me all the way outside to the front of the house.
There was a sort of calm outside, stillness. It was the way I felt whenever I overslept and awoke to an empty bed beside me, the satisfaction of knowing Liza wasn’t there to harass me out from under the sheets. It was refreshing, like a cold glass of water, or a shower. A couple of children sat on the golden cobblestone, rolling a ball between them; a bum sucked on a bottle of cheap wine across the street. So ordinary. This was the way things were yesterday, a year ago, the way things were supposed to be.
For once, as I stood there in a daze, Liza wrapped up in my drenched skirts, I felt distanced from the rest, from normalcy. I was a stranger, an alien in a foreign land. Trapped within a clear cage that was felt rather than seen. Surely this wasn’t the way normal brides felt on their wedding day, or no one would ever marry. I wanted to cry, but it was easier to sit still. Sit and think of thinking nothingness.
Brandon was taken home, barely conscious and swollen. Herschal was locked in the washroom for the remainder of the night. Liza and I were ushered to our room to clean up and recuperate.
I lay in a stupor on my bed for a while before being washed out to black, merciless seas. I could hear the cries of seabirds above the roaring winds, but could not see them: dark purple clouds hung heavy above, rankled with static. Thunder screamed overhead. I was tossed back and forth, as if caught in a game of 'hot potato'. The dark water surged up, myself at the apex. I hung, suspended for just a moment; momentum pushed forward, and the waves engulfed me like a thick blanket. Water filled my mouth, tasteless stuff. I felt myself collide with something hard- a large, jagged rock jutting from the water like a splinter. I scrabbled; my fingers found purchase and I clung for a second, a brief moment: another wave grabbed at my ankles, tore me away and plunged me under…
The dream changed. I was little, as was Liza. We were in our room, much unchanged, dolls scattered haphazardly across the floor. Liza was laughing, a doll held between in her hands. She was laughing, and her fingers were working at the base of the doll’s neck, shoving and tugging.
“The flowers are always so much more beautiful in the winter”, she was saying, “because they’re unexpected. It’s such a shame to pick them, though, because you always wonder if it will be your last flower to ever see.”
With a pop, the head came free in her hands. She looked down at it, eyes wide with astonishment.
The colors: the bright sunlight, the red and green of Liza’s dress, the white of the walls; all morphed together into a spiral, turning the unique, brilliant shades into a blend, guttural and harsh. They turned an off purplish black, a solid wall of spinning and confusion. Through the mess came the long, drawn-out howl of a wolf.
I awoke tangled in the blankets, sweating. The sun had gone completely down. What a shame I’d missed my last sunset at home.
“You’re hogging the blankets. And moaning.” Her eyes were milky. “Are you okay?”
Freeing myself, I draped the side of the blankets over her. She snuggled unexpectedly into me. “I’m sorry. That that happened to Brandon. He’ll be okay, though.”
“Do you ever feel bad, but you can’t explain why?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well…” She licked her lips. “Have you ever had a bad feeling about a situation? But you don’t know why you feel that way.”
She laid her head on my shoulder, black hair scratching lightly upon bare skin as she tilted her head up to look at me. “I feel that way now.”
My brain was foggy: what in the world did I say to that? “It’ll pass.” Was all I could manage; she seemed satisfied enough with that, though, and I could hear her breathing begin to slow. It calmed me like a lullaby, a song sung by a mother, babe tucked safely in arm. I felt as if being pulled, guided to a temporary, yet guaranteed salvation.
A red glow danced about the room, infecting and spreading and dancing. Sometimes it was flashes of light, orange silhouettes. Warm and playful.
Other times it was Brandon’s crimson stains. And the red was everywhere: on the walls, soaked into the carpet. I saw his still from in the center of the room, head bent at a strange, unnatural angle.
I blinked, disturbed and stressed; the body disappeared, but the glow did not. The covers were about my feet; the room was filled with sweltering heat. A distant scream resounded from somewhere outside.
For a moment, I thought it was another product of my anxiety: I rolled over and closed my eyes. But the heat was real, as was the sudden, prominent smell of burning things.
I sprang from the bed and sprinted to the window, not pausing when my foot caught on a bed table. My hands gripped the window frame, my face pressed against the glass in perverse fascination at the red outside, at the rooftops blazing, at the people wailing in the streets. A tree three buildings down let out a crack as it fell to the ground, sending a rain of sparks, igniting bushes and plants and anything else it could touch.
I backed away from the window, hand coming to my mouth.
Wake the others.
A shudder, and a low moan escaped my throat.
Wake the others!
I sprang in a single stride back to the bed. Liza’s eyes were rolling under their lids, but the corners of her mouth were turned up in a smile. One side sparkled with moisture. I shook her, screaming whatever words my mouth bothered to form.
Liza's eyes blinked once, drowsily, then shot open.
“Please, please get up! Fire! Fire…” I heard myself crying. She said nothing, but followed me to the next room. We roused Grant , who ran immediately down to the water closet.
“Get out!” He shrieked at us. “Get out!”
I tugged Liza’s arm.
I pulled harder.
She fought me, and I grabbed her under the arms and dragged her out of the house.
The heat outside was intense, sweltering. People ran, screamed, and called to one another in desperation. The houses across the way were ablaze. Several had collapsed, and others were following suit, groaning and popping and moaning.
I ran. Blindly, without direction, fueled by panic and thoughts of self-preservation. Liza ran with me, legs in perfect sync, face blank. Past rows of screaming flames, of melting houses we fled.
The experience was surreal, short, the over-active imagination of a tormented soul, nothing more. It all seemed to move in slow motion, movement blurred and slowed to an almost sleep-like pace. I do not know how long we ran, how many streets we surpassed. I do not know how many people lost their lives that night, incinerated in their beds.
I do not know when Liza and I became separated.
That was when I woke up, when reality became reality, when her sweaty hand was no longer safe in mine. I retraced my steps, as far back as memory would allow, which wasn’t much.
“Liza!” My throat burned, felt torn, as if I had swallowed a handful of nails. I coughed. “Liza!” Houses were on either side of me, at least, that’s what they used to be. They were mere carcasses now, glowing, adding more heat to the atmosphere. “Liza!”
I choked. My legs felt like wooden poles, splintering, weak. The flames wanted them, wanted to eat them. A woman rushed past me, eyes wide and unseeing, a basket gripped tightly to her breast. Her hair flowed like brown water behind her.
As she passed me, my foot struck something, and I fell. A sob was wrenched from my body, painful and loud. I shut my eyes for just a moment, felt the rough ground beneath me.
I’m okay. I’m okay.
I opened my eyes, pushing up with rubbery, uncooperative limbs. The ground suddenly seemed so soft. To fall asleep now…
I saw then, in the slight window formed under my arm, around my leg, my roadblock: twin sets of lids, wrenched tight, a mouth hanging openly, a hand obscuring the middle of the face. The mask of death. Defeat. Exhaustion. A dead man.
Utter revulsion; I retched on the spot. I shut my eyes again, clenching my jaw. The smell of roasting meat suddenly dominated all else. Roasting. Baking. Burning.
And what could be cooking, do you think? Certainly not ham: not sweet enough to be ham. So what could it be?
I launched myself forward off the ground, let out a yell; I would not be like the rest, I would not cook. Suddenly my hands, my swinging arms, seemed so precious to me. They urged me forward, each movement a word of encouragement, each stride an inspiration.
Smoke billowed like black regret, offering itself to the hungry night. Where were the glittering sentinels, the sparkling kings? Shirking their duties. Who cares what happens to us little people? Not I, the glittering North Star, the brightest of all!
I ran on, breath coming in painful bursts, legs screaming agony. But I could see it! A break in the smoke! All I had to do was run a little farther, struggle a little harder. The goal seemed attainable, just past my fingertips. I ran past the last house, which was just starting to ignite. It never crossed my mind that there might have been people in there, people who could have been saved. Self-preservation is a vile, traitorous thing.
The air smelled cleaner, the smoke gray instead of dark black. There was grass, too, rather than cobblestone.
Grass burns. Rock does not.
So I would keep running, then. There were trees in the distance; f I could reach them, I felt I’d be safe.
Safe. Safe. Safe.
The trees grew closer. I was going to make it! I was-!
My legs tangled, and I fell, slipping down a grassy hill, scrambling for purchase as I felt the ground give way beneath me. I didn’t have time to react: I landed heavily on my side, and I felt the bite of something sharp on the side of my stomach, a rock, perhaps. But none of that mattered. I knew in my heart then I was safe.
As the cool water slipped over me, I opened my mouth and drank, celebrating. The nightmare was over!
Water seemed so strong to me suddenly, more powerful than fire, which brought down a whole town that night. Fire had the terrible power of destruction, a red, live thing that hungered to burn. But water had the power of life. That was something fire could never hope to have.
Water brought on the first buds of spring. Water fed our crops, our food source. Water washed the filth off our bodies, satisfied the pangs of our thirst.
But above all, water had the power to smother fire. Where water was fire could not go. It ruled red with a silver sceptor, with a crown of blue diamond.
I closed my eyes.
To be continued...
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