December 5, 2019

THE BRIDE by Natalia Cwiklinska

A woman without a shadow
sat in front of her. A shadow
without a man sat behind her...
Ila woke up knowing that she was going to die that day. As many other girls from her village before her, she had dreamed of the white beast and the last winter.

She climbed out of her bed and watched the magnificent mountains that surrounded her home. The snow was everywhere, like it always had been since the humans had angered the gods. They were condemned to live in an eternal winter. Ila herself had never known of a single day without the whiteness of the snow.

Years ago, a forever changing world existed. There was spring, summer, autumn and a gentler and shorter winter. Ila's father had chosen to forget it, but her mother still remembered the beauty of the seasons. A world with colors. Some days, she wanted to tell her youngest children all about it, but most of the times she didn't wish to speak or hear a word about it at all. So Ila had to imagine. In her mind, she painted beautiful flowers for spring, a sun shining like fire for summer and a path covered in golden leaves for autumn.

She loved dreaming of a different world, but Ila also loved winter. She was a child of winter and thus, she belonged to the cold and harsh nature of the season. The cool air blowing her hair. The beauty of the snow. The snowflakes kissing her face. The breathtaking view of her beloved mountains. Sitting by the fire with her siblings, thankful for the warmth of the flames after walking outside in the cold. The silence and the quiet. The secrets resting in her tongue, daring to be whispered in the frozen streets at night, when the world was asleep.

When her mother looked at her that morning, she also knew what was going to happen. She made all the preparations quietly and informed her husband and children. The house felt silent, an odd sensation hung in the air. Their lives stopped.

There were two knocks on the door, the ancient spirits had come for Ila. 

Her eldest brother opened the door and like flying snowflakes, the spirits came in. They circled Ila, shining brightly against her skin, touching her softly, like butterflies. The spirits didn't have a shape. They were like dust, white dust glittering like the most royal snow.

Ila tried to touch them, but she wasn't quick enough. They danced around her fast, recognizing her, studying her, until they suddenly stopped. The girl closed her eyes, knowing what was expected of her.

There were two. The spirit of the people of the east and the spirit of those who died west. Both kissed Ila's eyelids, leaving two beautiful marks. The sun on her right eye, the moon on her left eye. She opened her eyes. Her eyelids felt heavier, like she just woke from a dream. Her brown eyes were still beautiful but of a darker shade.

The spirits circled around her. They would guard her during the journey, her only companions until she reached the beast's domains.

The sound of the drums filled the air. The streets burst with people. Silent people waiting, dreading, hoping. It was a clear day and the fourth time one of their daughters was send to the beast. To save them. To lift the terrible curse. To destroy the eternal winter.

Ila walked out of her house, whispering a goodbye to her village and her life. Everybody followed her, like a silent procession. Only the sound of the drums and the sorrowful song of the wind were heard.

When they reached the beach, the girl stopped and breathed deeply. The village's chief was already there, wearing a solemn face and shouting the same words he shouted for the other girls. Ila didn't listen. No one really listened. They just watched her in silence.

She wore a gorgeous white dress, for her wedding, and a beautiful black cloak, for her funeral. She wasn't a human girl anymore, she was Death's bride. A savior. A symbol. A sacrifice.

Her family would be honored for generations. Her parents would be rich and her siblings would have the brightest future in the land. All because of her. Because of her great fate and the strength of her spirit. But as she got into the boat she didn't feel powerful or prepared at all, she just felt scared and cold.

The boat was small, painted in white and decorated with dried flowers. She remembered the first time she saw a boat like that years ago, the one who carried the first girl of her village visited by the spirits, and how she thought that it was a beautiful moment. She was a silly girl then, a child. She only knew old stories who seemed distant as another world, another life. It was the first time she saw them taking shape in front of her.

Now, standing in the boat, surrounded by petals and bouquets, she failed to see any beauty in the it. That splendid boat was only a dreadful piece of wood, whose only purpose was taking her away, straight to the arms of death. 

Her parents and a few of her siblings were looking at her with anguish in their faces, but she would never know that. Ila kept staring into the gelid ocean. She couldn't bear to look at her family. Even though she was the one meeting death, she felt like they were also dying. They were bleeding and disappearing in her mind because she knew she would never see them again. She didn't cry but she didn't smile either. She couldn't lie to her family or to herself.

The boat left the shore and as all the people glued their eyes to her, Ila stood straight and didn't look back. She kept staring at the ocean til she disappeared from their sight. Then she sat down, for she couldn't bear the tremble in her knees anymore. She shivered and clutched her furs tightly around her.

The wind carried her far away into the ocean. The minutes passed. The hours passed. Ila's stomach hurt. Her body and mind were tired, but the worst was the cold. Her hands were almost blue and she couldn't remember how it was to feel warmth. Yet she didn't reach the beast's mythical island. There was only water. The ocean, the cold and her.
Three days passed.

The spirits were still with her. She had tried to talk to them on the first day, but gave up when all her jaw could do was clatter. She didn't cry or scream for help. Her voice was gone. Instead of that, she just curled against herself and waited. She waited for two days. She waited until the only thing in the world that mattered to her was arriving somewhere.

Then, on the second night, she realized something. Her heartbeat was getting quieter and quieter. She was going to die.

She thought of her home.

There had been three other brides from her village before Ila. Girls all across the land were summoned by the beast, but no place had lost as many girls as her hometown. They thought it was because of the ocean. The lakes and rivers where all cursed. Frozen. The big and cold ocean was the only water left and crossing it was the only way to the beast.

Ila remembered them all. She dreamed about them. As the hours passed, their shared fate had transformed them into shadows of beloved friends. She didn't remember her family or how much she loved tasting snowflakes right from the sky into her tongue, only the three girls who had died before her. The only ones who had felt the same as her. The ones that she would never meet. 

The first girl had been an orphan. Ugly and always dirty. Her hair was like a nest of crows. Her tongue was sharp and her eyes clever. She was fifteen and nobody noticed her, but no one could forget her after the spirits came to take her away.

The second girl had been Ila's neighbor. She was fat and pretty. The prettiest girl of her village. She was sixteen and always had the best luck when she played board games. Her parents hid her in their basement but the spirits found her anyway.

The third girl had been a descendant of kings and queens. A princess. She was thirteen and slowly dying. She never said a word, yet everybody talked about her. She cried the most when the spirits came for her, but still didn't utter a word.

The beast killed them all.

It was a monster, a terrible and cruel creature. Like death, it didn't care about anyone.

As life slipped out of her, Ila cried for herself. For the alive Ila and her life. She was fourteen, so close to fifteen, yet she would never reach that age. She would be fourteen forever.

She couldn't remember the look in the eyes of the girls sent to death and that thought haunted her. They appeared dark, boring and dull in her memories. Unreal. Ila wondered if hers were the same, but was too scared to find out. It didn't matter anymore. No one would look into her eyes ever again.

And still, she wanted to be remembered. She wanted the beast to remember the look in her eyes. Even if her parents would forget that look, she wanted someone to remember, to remember her at her very last moment. Even if the only one to remember her was a heartless monster.

But the beast wasn't there. She was alone.

Ila imagined meeting the beast in her dead dreams. Maybe it wouldn't even look at her. Maybe the beast wouldn't have eyes at all. A part of her wanted it to have them, wanted the beast looking into her eyes before tearing her to pieces.

Then, a terrible thought surprised her. Maybe the beast didn't even exist. Maybe the monster was just fear. The nightmare of scared and selfish people. A superstition. The darker side of the everlasting winter.

Ila surrendered and closed her eyes. The moon and the sun in her eyelids looked at the quiet and icy world, and she welcomed sweet death.
A woman without a shadow sat on the boat, in front of Ila. Pale and dressed in grey, with a long silver braid and eyes as black as onyx. Her feet were inside the frigid water of the ocean, but she didn't seem to feel the cold.

She was looking into Ila's eyes.

A shadow without a man sat on the boat, behind Ila. Dark and dressed in grey, with short silver hair and eyes as black as onyx. His feet were inside the frigid water of the ocean, but he didn't seem to feel the cold.

He wasn't looking into Ila's eyes.

They looked like siblings and their presence didn't startle the girl. She knew them. They were always with her. Old and bright. Spirits.

Ila tried to talk to them. She wanted to thank them. She felt safe. She didn't feel hungry, tired or cold anymore. The cool wind against her skin was soft and almost like a caress.

She opened her mouth to talk and then learned the truth.

She wasn't breathing.

She was dead.

The girl looked at her hands. They were so much like they used to be, but they weren't as they should. She couldn't place what it was, but something bothered her while she looked at them.

She caught her reflection in the water and stared at the stranger she'd become. Her long black hair and her olive skin had turned white. Her lovely brown eyes were now a sad grey. She was colorless. A figure without a shadow. A ghost. A spirit. A soul.

The bride stood up and threw her black cloak into the cold ocean water, for she was dead now and the dead never mourned.
Natalia Cwiklinska is a half Spanish, half Polish writer. She loves fairy tales, mythology, slavic folklore and dogs and likes spending her days weaving tales about monsters, hearts and death. She lives mostly in her head and sometimes in Madrid, Spain. You can follow her on Twitter @natalianoir_ or on 

Cover: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff
Follow him on Twitter @GuyRicketts
Check out Guy's "Night Walking" Book
and vote for it HERE

1 comment:

Guy S. Ricketts said...

Whoa! So much depth and detail to this story. Not only do we get such satisfying character development in Ila, but also so much back story into her culture and the event in which she participates. And all that contained perfectly in this short story! Very impressive and quite enjoyable. Kudos, Natalia!