January 11, 2021

Night, the Hardest Time to Be Alive, By Melissa Yuan-Innes

Editor's Note: Love in its many forms can uplift or curse those that find themselves under its spell. It is a theme that resonates in fairy tales set in the past and the present. We hope you enjoy this unique tale as much as we did.

His mother never permitted his father to sleep.

She would prod him awake with her elbow or kick him in the backs of the knees.


In fairness, Da never wanted to sleep. He rigged up his own devices to keep his eyes open, including a bed of nails. He shivered under a thin blanket when the snow lay three feet thick outside. He tried not to lie down because if he did, he said, he would never wake up.


"Why?” the boy asked.


Neither mother nor father answered. All their energy seemed devoted to this strange task of keeping Da from sleeping. Ma made a meager living taking in laundry and doing embroidery. Da worked in the fields when he could, but he took a chill more often than not. His hacking cough kept all of them awake for weeks.


Until one day Da fell asleep under thin blanket.


"Da?” Michael said when he came through the door. He forgot the dirt crusted under his nails and the straw in his hair from weeks of harvesting. He saw only his father curled up by the dying embers of the fire. And his mother curled over his Da, weeping silently and saying, "I killed him."


Michael ignored her. He shook Da's shoulder. Da rolled toward him, but his eyes had finally closed. Da's chest lay still, his lips slightly parted.


"Da?” Michael repeated, in a higher voice. He wanted to tell his father about the harvest, that he had made enough money for wood and a bit of meat this winter.


Tears dripped from Ma's face on to Da's blanket. "I killed him. I cursed him," she said.


Michael finally held his mother while she blurted out some story about how she had been a nymph, had given up her immortality when she married his father and bore Michael. But when she caught Da cheating on her, she cursed him. "You promised me you would love me with every waking breath. So be it. When you fall asleep, you will die."


Michael patted her shoulder. Poor Ma Ondine. Raving. In his head, he calculated how much a funeral would cost out of his new earnings. They would only have to feed two mouths this winter, but they could no longer count on Da's small income, either. He would have to take care of the family now.


Generations passed.


Ondines loved and cursed their mates. Michaels grew old before their time, caring for both of them. The cycle repeated without breaking.


Always the Ondines. Always the tragic loves.


And always the Michaels. If they survived their parents, they swore to work and never love anyone except themselves.


The 21st century Michael loved women. He loved the way they ducked their heads and looked sideways up at him through their hair. He loved the way they walked, undulating in front of him. He loved the way they smelled.


And there it ended. His parents had paid too high a price. He would not make the same mistake.


Little did he know that his parents continued watch over him in every incarnation. And with each generation, the power of their combined love and protection grew stronger. They were his guardians. You might call them his seraphim.


If only their power could overcome the curse.

"Abarka. Thank you.” Nina Chowdary flashed the final slide of her presentation, showing herself and the rest of the medical team surrounded by Gambian doctors and nurses and children. Dr. Nina's brown skin contrasted with both the ebony villagers' faces and the rest of the pale Canadian complexions. "From all the children in Gambia who can now smile, Abarka.” Nina massacred the Gambian words, but language wasn't her forte. Surgery was her strength. Microsurgery, to be precise. She'd been the only resident invited on the medical mission and she'd taken up her precious vacation and study time to go.


While everyone applauded, a waiter handed her a glass and she downed it, realizing too late that it was champagne instead of water. She choked on the bubbles. Her microphone picked up the noise, and everyone laughed.


She cleared her throat and croaked, "I'm not worried because if I have any airway trouble, about 90 percent of the people in the room know how to resuscitate me."


The crowd laughed some more.


"Sorry," said the waiter.


She took a closer look at him. Blond guy, young, carefully spiked bangs. Deep blue eyes. A good body hidden under his uniform. But not a good waiter, although the champagne flute would've given the alcohol away if she'd been paying attention. "Don't worry about it--” She glanced at his lapel pin--"Michael."


And that was that, except when she snuck a cigarette at the back door at the end of the night, she spotted the waiter tossing out a garbage bag. When he turned, he called, "Hey. You're a doctor. Don't you know those things are bad for you?"


"Terrible," she called back, waving the cigarette at him. "Don't turn me in."


"Hey, I'll just make you choke on some champagne again."


She took a last drag and stubbed the cigarette out. "Good. That's one way to make people laugh and donate more money."


"Glad to be of service."


Their eyes met across the night air.

What surprised Nina the most was not that he turned out to be nine years younger than her, a barely-legal 21, or the fact that he'd actually read Emmanual Kant, which was more than she could say. It was the way he always closed his eyes in bed, squeezing his eyelids shut as if to block out everything except the sensation roaring inside his body.


"Open your eyes," she coaxed him the third time, the tenth time, the twentieth time, until she finally gave up and figured there were worse things, like premature ejaculation. At least this way she could make whatever faces she wanted and he'd never know.

Until he left her ten months later. "No offence," he said. "I just don't do this.” He gestured around her sky blue bedroom, ending at her window, left ajar to permit the May breeze inside.


"You don't do windows?" she said, even though her heart cracked in her chest.


"I don't do love. Sorry.” He closed the bedroom door softly behind himself. Two weeks later, she heard he'd taken up with a high school student who catered with him. Young. Not too bright. But with big tits and a tinkly laugh, someone who might not do love, either. Or, if she did, he'd saw the heart right out of her chest.


Well. Nina was a surgeon. She knew how to put things back together. She hoped.


For weeks, she wrestled with strange dreams. A man who commanded her not to give up, that she and Michael were so close to “the beginning.” A dark-haired beauty who warned Nina that she was in danger of sealing over her own heart. “Forgive, start anew. Love.”


Both the man and woman looked so majestic and yet hauntingly familiar in the shape of their eyes, the lift of their chins, or the twist of their lips.


Sometimes, in Nina’s dreams, she heard a rush of wings.

Twenty years on, a blond man in a tuxedo offered Nina a flute of champagne at a fundraising dinner. She held up her glass of water, barely glancing at him. "I've got a drink, thank you."


"Plus ca change," he said, and gave a crooked smile that tugged at her memory.


"Michael?” she said, sloshing her water in its glass. She examined his broadened cheekbones, the looser jaw, the threads of white mixed at the temples, and his filled-in build. He still looked hot, damn it. But then, he'd only be about 42. Prime time for men. Unfortunately.


He bowed his head. "Dr. Chowdary."


She held out her hand as if he were an old acquaintance. Which he was.


He shook it, holding on a little too long. His palm felt cool. "You look great."


She shrugged and pulled her hand away. "I do all right.” Plenty of her colleagues had opted for Botox, filler, or a face lift or two, but Nina had resisted everything except laser therapy so far. "How are your wife and kidlets?"


"I don't have any.” He swallowed the champagne she'd refused and dropped the flute on the tray of a passing server. "Are you wondering why I'm attending the reception instead of catering it?"


She sipped her water. It seemed to hang in her throat before she swallowed it. Somehow, she was always choking around this man. "You were a lousy waiter."


He laughed. "Yeah, you're right. Okay, I'll tell you why. I wanted to see you and make a donation to your foundation."


"Thanks. You'll get a tax receipt.” She signaled the organizers that she was coming.


He paused. "I guess I deserve that. Can I call you?"


She adjusted the strap on her scarlet gown. "Sure. The foundation knows how to reach me.” And then she crossed to the podium with a practiced smile stretching across her face.


He wasn't the only one who had learned to live without loving.


But when she slipped out the back door and saw him leaning against a maple tree, silhouetted in the moonlight, she stared at him.


He raised his head. "Sneaking a cigarette?"


"No, actually. I gave it up ages ago."


"Good for you.” He patted his front pocket with a rueful smile. "I was going to offer you a light."


Just like that, she crossed to his side. Because although she had learned not to love, she also knew how to heal. And she was willing to try one more time. Because everyone knows that once in a great while, a curse, instead of a true heart, may be broken.


Ondine and her lover spread their wings around Michael and Nina—wings too far and to ephemeral to be felt by mere human flesh.


And yet, in that precise moment, all four of them smiled.

Melissa Yuan-Innes is a doctor who loves fairy tales. As Melissa Yi, she writes werewolf thrillers (Wolf Ice), teenagers who save the world by talking to animals (High School Hit List), and the critically-acclaimed Hope Sze medical mysteries. Find Melissa Yi Yuan-Innes on Facebook, @dr_sassy on Twitter, and www.melissayuaninnes.com.

Cover Design: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff

6 comments:

Kelly Jarvis said...

I love the wide scope of this story and the beautiful way the curse breaks at the end. Wonderful!

Melissa Yuan-Innes said...

Thanks so much, Kelly. I thought we needed a happy ending right now. ;)

Victoria Dixon said...

I love the wider world aspect. It's nice to see stuff set outside of Europe and America.

Katew said...

Agreed. We like seeing those, but get few.

Melissa Yuan-Innes said...

Yes, diversity is beautiful and realistic (and I say that knowing that my own tales could be more diverse). Thank you, Victoria. <3

Leah Lindeman said...

Very unique! I enjoyed the span of time between the first time Michael and Nina met and when they reunited. It was realistic:)

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