We left the cathedral before sunrise. Ingrid and Golde hurried to tack the horses while everyone was asleep, and then the three of us snuck out of the gate before anyone could rush to tell Lilly we were leaving.
Since Golde was alive this time and couldn’t see me or touch me, I couldn’t ride with her as I had on the way to the cathedral. I thought Ingrid would simply insist on dragging me behind the horses (it wasn’t as if I could tire, after all), but in the end, before we set off, she gave me a long and heavy sigh, and then reached her arm down towards me to help me up behind her in the saddle.
When the first sunlight peeked up above the horizon, the cathedral was already well behind us as we set out on the great road south.
After days of travelling alone in the frozen forest, it was refreshing to be on a well-worn, well-kept road again. As the birds sang with the new morning, we passed farmers on their way to market driving carts laden with produce. They hushed as they passed us, giving both Ingrid and Golde a wide berth.
Everyone’s unease about Ingrid and Golde was more pronounced during the day—it was hard not to be, with a giant barbarian mountain woman and a necromancer who dressed only monochromes riding side by side. Whole carriages of people would stop and pull over to avoid passing beside us. Families made the sign against evil, and one memorable time a mother scolded her misbehaving little boy that she’d give him to Ingrid if he didn’t quiet down.
Inns were no easy affair, either. People would take one look at Ingrid and Golde and refuse to give them a bed.
“This is why I hate travelling,” Ingrid complained as we set up camp in the fast-melting snow.
The days strung out, and the roads narrowed. The forest thinned to fields, and in the fields, the crops became familiar.
As we drew further and further south, I tried harder and harder to think on what punishment my sister should be dealt, but as the trees and hills became more and more familiar, I found it hard to be anything except nostalgic.
When ahead of us I saw the familiar dip in the road and the old, gnarled witch tree—a tree I’d spent my childhood climbing with my cousins!—I felt a flutter where my heart would have been. My home! My people! My—
My heart sank in my would-be chest. My family, now commandeered by my sister. I remembered why I was here.
In the late afternoon sun, I guided Ingrid and Golde to a valley just past our fields with no view of the road so they could tether the horses without drawing any attention. It was so odd to be here again, staring down at the muddy creek. I’d come here to this very place to sulk so often while I was a girl.
“So what have you decided?” Ingrid asked impatiently, setting down her furs on my sulking rock to fix a snapped lace on one of her boots. “May we simply slay your sister and be done with it? I want to go home.”
“No, I don’t want to kill her,” I said. “I want to punish her, but I still can’t think how.”
“Killing is a form of punishment,” Ingrid pointed out. “It’s quick, it’s easy, and it gets rid of this,” she lifted the ethereal chain leading from my shackles and shook it at me, “so I can get back home to Northport as soon as possible.”
Listening to Ingrid’s talk of killing, Golde unsheathed her colossal sword from its scabbard with the same ceremony and adoration as a father lifting his newborn for the first time, and then lovingly set to work on it with a whetstone. The metal rang like a bell.
That sword is taller than my sister, I figured as I considered the length of it. I remained completely unconvinced killing her was the best way to punish her for stealing my husband and my family.
Ingrid ignored Golde’s work on the sword. “I still think cutting out her tongue is the best option,” she told me sagely as I continued trying to decide what was best. “No more singing.”
While we waited in the valley, the sun set to a clear and starry sky, and a gentle north breeze began to blow. It must have been chilly because even Ingrid shivered and pulled her coat around her shoulders again. The wind ruffled the young maize planted in fields around us and tussled the leaves in the trees above, and in the north sky over the vast plains, I could see storm clouds gathering. The air felt heavy with the approach of it.
We waited for all the lights to go out in the village before we moved into it.
The closer we drew to it, the heavier my chains became, dragging at my limbs and rattling on the ground. Ingrid was irritated by the sound of them and kept hoisting them over my shoulders so they didn’t clink on every rock in the road. It was hard for me to mind them very much, though, because I was overcome by how familiar everything was.
We made the walk down the lane to our fields; a walk I’d made a thousand times before. I remembered my last trip down it so vividly: my steps had been just as heavy as they were now. I’d already been sniffling and achy with the cold that eventually killed me, and my oldest—my Hanna—had been complaining that her legs hurt and that she wanted me to carry her. Little Margit had been asleep in a sling on my chest, congested herself. I was annoyed about that because it meant she would sleep poorly that night, which in turn meant I would sleep poorly. It all seemed like such trivial things to be annoyed about now; If I’d known it was the last time I’d walk down that road alive, I would have appreciated how sweet Margit looked while she was asleep at my chest instead.
As we approached the house, I began to be able to see how the years must have passed. It had already been an old house when we’d received it from Jerrik’s father, but now it looked even more like a patchwork quilt than it used to. The thatching was uneven, and some of the cladding had recently been replaced with a different sort of wood. The gutters sagged like wilted flowers and there was a whole extra room tacked on the back of the house beside the chicken coop.
I wondered about that extra room for a moment, before I remembered: my sister had been heavy with my husband’s child the last time I’d seen her. My jaw tightened.
There was cover behind our barn, and we stopped there for a moment. Ingrid was clearly losing her patience. “Alright,” she said, taking a firm hold of my arm. “This is it: the moment you stop being coy and just tell us what we are to do to your sister. Your sweet and innocent ‘oh, don’t kill her!’ act is beyond tiresome: just tell us what you want. Believe me, Golde and I are no strangers to whatever gore or darkness you have in your heart. Nothing you want will surprise us.”
I—had no idea what to make of that ‘gore and darkness’ comment, so I sidestepped it entirely. “But it’s true, I don’t know what I want to do,” I assured her. “I’m not trying to be difficult, I just can’t think of what punishment God would be happy with me choosing for her.”
Ingrid put her head in her hands for a moment. “I don’t have time for this ‘God’ nonsense, the gods are nothing but trouble,” she said, and then gave me a shove towards my house. “Go in there, look around, and make a decision for yourself. Stop waiting for ‘God’ to do all your dirty work.”
As surprised as ever that God didn’t smite Ingrid every time she committed blasphemy against Him, I let her push me through my garden gate.
Feeling oddly out of place, I walked up to the veranda door. The awnings had sprigs of blossoms hung on them from the tree in our yard. That meant some sort of celebration; usually a birthday. I stopped for a second, tapping my chin and trying to figure out the timing of them. My children didn’t have birthdays in May; neither did Jerrik or Astrid, and she would have had her new baby in Autumn. The only person in our village who had an early May birthday was the priest—
No sooner had that thought touched my mind than I knew that was absolutely something my sister would do: play sycophant to the most beloved man in our village. Of course she would make a big celebration of his birthday! She lived for praise and was always fishing for it.
Lips pressed in a thin, tight line, I passed through the door, dragging my heavy chains with me.
Our main room was much the way I remembered it, except for all the fuss on the dining table. Our humble dining table was plastered from end to end in foods of every imaginable type, all artfully arranged on plates and covered with cloths and lids in preparation for a grand celebration.
With all this food, my sister had obviously decided to have the whole town around for the priest’s birthday and had been baking for days. All week, perhaps.
I could destroy it all, I thought, imagining having Golde come in here and sweep that long sword over the table, turning all the preciously arranged food onto the floor where it belonged.
I almost decided that was what I wanted, before I realised the shortcomings of my plan: if her food was destroyed—especially by a monstrous outsider—surely Astrid would play on everyone’s sympathy and still manage to be the centre of attention. Making a face, I realised I’d have to think of something else.
While I was plotting what that could be (and because Ingrid couldn’t see in through the closed shutters to make sure I was staying on mission), I decided I had time to visit my little girls.
We’d never been rich so the hallway was short, just long enough for two doors. Well, there was three doors now: I assumed my sister’s child lived in the new room at the end. That probably meant he was a boy, because otherwise he’d just be sleeping in the same room as Hanna and Margit. My suspicions were confirmed when I saw a little plaque on the new door with ‘Elias!’ on it.
The other two doors were familiar, though. One room for Jerrik and I—I seethed to think of Astrid sleeping in my place in the bed!—and one for my girls. As if I could wake them, I listened at the door to make sure I couldn’t hear them talking, and then slipped inside.
There were two beds, both empty. For a moment I was confused by that—especially when I saw a woman kneeling by an altar on the far wall. It had food offerings for the dead on it—liquorice! Grape sultanas and pine nuts, too, and from the colour of that wine in the glass, my favourite blend of red.
It was when I saw my prayer locket amongst them—something I’d worn every single day since my adulthood, filled with little prayer strips people had written out for me—that I realised this was my altar.
This food was for me, this wine was for me, and, when I crouched down so I could see the face of the woman, I recognised her immediately: my little Hanna! With her tan skin and rolling curls, and those lovely hazel eyes I’d gazed into while she was suckling as a babe, it was her! God, she was so beautiful now, she’d grown in the most beautiful woman, with a long neck like my mother’s, a solid body like mine and dainty hands like my—
When my eyes rested on her hands, I saw there was a ring on her finger. A single solitaire ring but no wedding band beneath it.
I knew what that meant: my baby girl—my first beautiful little baby girl—was about to be married.
When I looked around her, I could see things I hadn’t noticed at first: the posy of flowers tied to each of the four posters of her bed to bless her Wedding Eve Vigil, and the beautiful white dress hanging in waiting on the wardrobe, pressed, neat, and ready to be worn. Her own prayer locket around her neck was tied shut with ribbons lest it burst open and spill those well-wishes and prayers people had written for her wedding day.
It was the eve of my little girl’s wedding, and here she was before me: beautiful. So, so beautiful, more than I could possibly have imagined she’d become. I wanted to touch her face and stroke her hair and tell her how proud of her I was, how happy I was for her, and how excited I was that she was about to cross the threshold into wifehood and motherhood. I remembered simply overflowing with joy and excitement on my own wedding night: I’d longed to be married to Jerrik almost my entire life. I remembered gazing out the window on my Vigil, thinking that from tomorrow night and the rest of my life, I would be sleeping beside the man I loved forever.
I looked to my Hanna, expecting to see excitement in her eyes. Expecting to see joy and hope and happiness in her.
But I saw none of that.
I didn’t understand.
Not until she spoke. “Mama,” she murmured. For just a moment I thought she’d somehow seen me, but then I realised she was talking to the altar. She was praying to me. “Mama, I wish you were here.”
A knot formed in my stomach.
“I know your mother is supposed to begin the Maiden’s Vigil by telling a daughter all the secrets of marriage, but Astrid won’t do it.” ‘Astrid’? She didn’t insist they called her ‘Mama’? “She said she’s not my mother, that you’re my mother, and that I should begin my Vigil by talking to you since she’s not even married.”
That… was a lot to take in.
I didn’t have time to process it because she kept speaking. “All I have of you are these tiny snippets of memories.” She closed her eyes as she spoke. “Like your pilaf for breakfast. I wouldn’t eat anything else for years, would I? And I remember your angel cake, and how much you loved the apple blossoms, and how beautiful everyone said you looked in your choir robes.” Now she was smiling. “But most of all, I remember how you were always singing. When you were baking, when you were out in the fields, even when you were feeding the chickens. You were always singing. Even now, sometimes I catch myself singing a song I don’t really know, and when I ask Papa about it, he says it’s one of yours.”
Hearing her say those things made me remember, too: dancing in the kitchen with my children while the pot boiled and listening to their infectious giggles. Teaching them songs of prayer, or traditional songs about the seasons and the weather. Hanna had always loved the song about the Sun and the Bird, and how the Bird followed the Sun around the world looking for her when it was cold. I could still remember her little voice pressing me, “Sing it again, Mama! Sing it again!”
I remembered my mother’s songs, too—most of my songs were my mother’s. She hadn’t sung as often as I did, but I loved to listen to her. I remembered her story songs, and I remembered her lullabies, but most of all, I remembered her Wishing Prayer for me.
The last song I heard as a maiden and the first song I heard as a married woman: my mother holding my hands at the threshold in the church and singing to me. Standing before God, before my husband and before the village just as all mothers do, she sang me her own personal Wishing Prayer. All her hopes for me, all her wishes and dreams for future, laid out in song to me and my husband.
With tears streaming down my face I’d listened, and when her Wishing Prayer ended, she’d released my hands and invited Jerrik to take them. When I took Jerrik’s hands, it had been as his wife. And as my new husband, he would help me build those dreams my mother had for me.
“Papa says you used to love to sing in the church, too,” Hanna continued, interrupting my reverie and reminding me where I was. Words full of emotion, she stumbled over them. “Mama, I wish you could sing me your Wishing Prayer. It won’t be the same without one.”
I let that settle on me for a moment: my mother’s Wishing Prayer had been such a defining moment for me that I could scarcely accept my Hanna was going to pass into marriage without one. The village would sing the generic one if a mother couldn’t – but it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t the same as holding the hands of the woman who’d raised you and loved you and wished the world for you with all her heart.
On one hand I was horrified about it – maybe Ingrid could do something to make me visible and present to the living so I could sing the Wishing Prayer for Hanna?—but then I realised how silly a wish that was. A dead mother appearing at a daughter’s wedding would not be a cause for celebration, it would curse her wedding day forever.
On the other hand, I was also mildly surprised Astrid hadn’t simply inserted herself into that role, since she was so clearly able to insert herself into every other aspect of my life. I was glad she hadn’t, though. I was Hanna’s mother; the Wishing Prayer was mine to sing. She had her own child.
While I was bitterly stewing over it all, Hanna lifted my locket from the altar and kissed it, before standing and returning to bed. Slowly, tiredly, she climbed under the covers and closed her eyes to sleep.
I watched her, troubled by her lack of excitement. Maybe she doesn’t love him, I thought, hoping that was it. In my heart, I knew it wasn’t. I felt uneasy.
In my life, I’d always gone to Jerrik for comfort, and he’d always been there for me with his soft voice and open arms. Even in death, the uneasiness that settled on me sent me creeping out of Hanna and Margit’s room and moving towards our bedroom.
I stopped at the doorway, my fingers resting on the handle as if I could turn it.
Jerrik and my sister are laying together in there, I realised, and found myself unable to open the door. I doubted they’d be intimate during Hanna’s Vigil, but—I still couldn’t open the door.
While I stood in the doorway, frozen against the handle, I heard a voice; Astrid’s. “I think I should check the pilaf one more time,” she said, sounding anxious. “Perhaps I didn’t salt it enough.”
“It’s fine, Astrid,” another woman’s voice said—much younger than my sister. I knew my husband to be a man of simple tastes, so for a moment I wondered if perhaps my sister had invited another woman into the bedroom (I had clearly spent far too long around women such as Ingrid and Golde), because I certainly wouldn’t have put it past my sister to—
“Go to sleep, Margit,” that was my Jerrik’s gentle voice and—heavens!—my youngest’s name. That young woman was my little Margit! “You too, my love. The pilaf is perfect. Everything will be fine.”
There was another silence. “No,” my sister said finally. “No. I think I will check it. I won’t be able to sleep otherwise.”
There was the creak of a bed and then suddenly the door opened in my face and my sister erupted through it and through me. I only caught a glimpse of her before she was down the hallway into the kitchen; she was less slender now. Less beautiful—finally—but still rosy-cheeked. I was recovering from suddenly seeing her when another face appeared in the doorway. I nearly fell before it.
How he’d changed—his black hair was greying at the temples and his short beard was greying at his cheeks. His lovely warm eyes had tiny lines at their crease but, God, he was still so handsome! He was as handsome as the day I’d taken his hands in church. As handsome as the day he’d taken me out into the field where he’d spelt out ‘Marry me’ in red marigolds planted in the soft soil, his eyes swimming with tears as I’d said yes. As handsome as the day I’d handed my tiny, squirming Hanna to him and watched those beautiful brown eyes light up in wonder. He looked softer now; older. I’d missed so many years of his life in my death. Despite that, I felt like I hadn’t been apart from him for a single day. I loved him every single bit as much as I always had.
I wanted to throw my arms around him and sob into his big shoulders but he walked straight through me, too. As if I wasn’t even here.
“Astrid? Astrid!” he called, headed away from me down the hall. “Come back to bed, my love!”
I stood for a moment in the empty doorway, a lump in my throat. Then, I followed him.
In the kitchen, Astrid was fussing over a dish of food. “It’s not going to taste the way Orla’s did.”
Orla’s…? Why was she…?
“Nonsense,” Jerrik told her, ever lovely. “You make it just as well as Orla.”
No you don’t, I thought bitterly, looking at the pilaf. It was flat and, yes, it needed more salt.
She lifted the shaker and a stream of salt flowed from it, but it must have been more than she intended (although not more than it needed), because she shrieked and held back the shaker. “I’m so horribly clumsy!” she said, panic creeping into her voice. “I’m going to ruin it all! It’s going to taste awful!”
Jerrik walked slowly and tiredly over towards her to take the shaker out of her hand, place it on the table, and give her a big hug. She accepted it, sighing into his shoulder the way I used to. I briefly entertained a fantasy about Golde charging in and wrenching them from each other.
No sooner had I clenched my teeth, Astrid laughed once, darkly. “You know, as I was drifting off to sleep before, I suddenly had an awful thought about this food just all…” She paused, as if she were trying to explain herself. “As if all the food just suddenly flew off the table and onto the floor. I have no idea where that thought came from but…”
Feeling more uneasy, I remembered wanting Golde to come in and do exactly that.
“The food will be fine,” Jerrik murmured into her hair, kissing the crown of her head. He was always so patient. “I promise you, Hanna will cross the threshold and then we’ll come back here and your food will still be in one piece. Everything will be perfect.”
“Everything will be perfect,” my sister repeated as if she were trying to drum it into her head. She didn’t look convinced, though. In her eyes, I could see there was one specific thing she thought wouldn’t be perfect. I didn’t think it was the pilaf at all.
Jerrik didn’t notice. He kissed her forehead and then pulled away from her, heading back towards the hall. “Come,” he said. “Let’s get at least some rest so we can stay awake for the ceremony.” He gave her a wry smile.
My sister nodded at him with at least an attempt at returning that smile, but as soon as he was gone, she leant heavily against the table. After a few minutes lost in thought, she went to retrieve a small bowl from the cupboard.
She’s going to eat Hanna’s wedding food now?! I thought, sort of horrified that she’d do something as selfish. However, instead of taking a mouthful of it once she’d filled the bowl, she walked over to the corner of the room and placed it on a small bench. When she lit a candle on it, I saw more liquorice, more sultana grapes, pine nuts and more wine set out for me.
“I hope you like it,” she murmured to the altar, placing the bowl amongst my offerings and carefully turning it so the pretty side faced us. Then, she sighed again. “But most likely you’ll hate it, since I’m the one who made it.” She closed her eyes and, to my astonishment, I could see pain there. The moment passed quickly, and she followed Jerrik’s footsteps back to the bedroom.
A little dazed, I followed her.
This time, I managed to gather the courage to follow her into our bedroom. Fortunately, there was nothing profane awaiting me; my Margit and a boy of about ten or so who I supposed was Elias were asleep together on the trundle bed by the window, and my sister was still climbing into bed as I entered. “It has to be a day she’ll remember fondly for the rest of her life,” she was whispering to him.
He cuddled her close under the blankets. “It will be.”
“I just wish Orla was here to see it,” Astrid said in a tiny voice that only he could hear. “I wonder if she’d finally be proud of me.”
I stood there hearing those words echoing around my head.
Why would I be proud of you? I silently asked her, looking at her arms around my husband as she planned the wedding of my daughter. You stole my family! You stole everything from me! You always wanted everything that was mine—everything—you left nothing for me at all!
And yet, even as I told myself that, I remembered the altar in my daughters’ bedroom. The altar in the kitchen. She hadn’t just reluctantly allowed those in ‘her’ house, she’d placed pilaf on one and asked for my blessing, even though it must have been a good 20 years since I’d been alive.
As if doubting my memory—my sister giving offerings to me??—I went back out to the kitchen and stood by the altar with the gently burning candle. Was this really an altar for me? Had she really been speaking to me and not—well, our mother? Or our father?
The food choice answered my question for me: everyone else in my family despised liquorice; my sister specifically hated it. The grape sultanas were the ones I always begged my Papa to bring back from market, and now, the pilaf was there, something everyone had known to be my signature dish. There were flowers there, too, of course—it was an altar. While I was staring at them with a deep frown on my face, unable to deny this altar was indeed mine, I realised what sort of flowers they were: red marigolds.
The Marry Me marigolds.
But they couldn’t be—Jerrik had proposed to me more than 20 years ago. Surely after my death they’d have tilled the field and sown maize in their place?
Suddenly, it seemed very important to me that I make sure they were the Marry Me marigolds. I went outside and made towards the field Jerrik had proposed to me in, but my heavy shackles tethered me. I pulled on them but to no avail.
Rounding the house, I went to find Ingrid and Golde.
Golde was peacefully asleep behind the barn, and Ingrid was sitting miserably beside her, looking bored and annoyed. She looked up when I approached. “You’ve been gone for ages,” she complained. “I’ve half a mind to slay your sister myself to save us all the trouble.”
Rather than answer her, I said, “I need you to come with me.” Ingrid frowned, and then looked down at sleeping Golde. “She’s safe,” I promised.
Ingrid was suspicious, but with much grumbling allowed me to lead her out into the field.
It was the crest of our highest paddock, the spot the sun first touched in the morning. It was too dark to see very far just now, but as we drew closer to it, I could see something that wasn’t maize in silhouette against the sky.
When we reached it, I could scarcely believe my eyes: twenty years later, the Marry Me marigolds weren’t just alive, several feet around them had been cordoned off with rocks, and a beautiful flowerbed had been planted. It was well-tended without a single weed, and it was flowering with the new spring.
“’Marry me’,” Ingrid read in the flowers, and then looked quizzically at me.
Feeling sick to my stomach, I didn’t know how to respond to her.
She watched me thoughtfully. “Doesn’t look like the garden of someone who’s forgotten he’s married.”
I stared at the flowers, feeling that deep uneasiness settle across me. “It’s not,” I realised.
I stood there for a minute staring dumbly at this beautiful garden before I could take no more of the knots in my stomach and had to walk away from it. None of this was as I expected to find it—none of it at all.
As I delivered Ingrid back to sleeping Golde, I gave her an apologetic look and went to go back inside.
She made a very frustrated noise and then more of those awful profanities came pouring out of her mouth. “If this isn’t over soon, I will just tell Golde to go in there and kill whoever’s in the bed with your husband!”
I wasn’t worried about the likelihood of that. “I won’t be much longer,” I told her, and then left her outside to go back in.
The household was sleeping now. Hanna was tucked in her bed and hopefully dreaming of the beautiful wedding day she deserved, Margit and Elias were quiet and Jerrik and Astrid had fallen asleep in each other’s arms, exhausted. Probably dreaming about my daughter’s wedding day too, I realised.
Restless with discomfort, I went to go and look at Hanna’s beautiful dress again. It was so lovely, with fine stitching and beautiful embroidery. My sister enjoyed sewing.
Just like the flowers, I couldn’t look very long upon the dress either; I paced between it and the altar, between it and our bed, and from the laden dining table and back again, wringing my hands so the chains rattled. I trailed my chains around the house as I did laps of it, feeling a chill in my bones and disquiet in my soul.
I’d gone to look upon my eldest again, thinking that her face might calm me, when I noticed she was still holding my prayer locket. She’d turned over in her sleep and it had snapped open in her hand, spilling little curled prayer papers out onto the blankets where they slowly unspooled.
Curious about what people had wished me, I leant closer to read them.
Some of them were old—faded ink on fraying paper. ‘Be at peace, Mama’, a little girl had written; it looked as if she might have traced the letters. There were others, too: ‘Taken from us so soon—may our loss be God’s gain’, ‘May you eat and drink your fill at peace for all eternity’, ‘You can breathe freely now, dear Orla. Be at peace’, and ‘Godspeed for your Last Journey’. Some of them I recognised the handwriting, some of them I didn’t.
There was familiar handwriting missing from the ones on top of the blanket; so I searched through Hanna’s covers seeking what I desperately hoped I would find.
When I found it, I almost wished I hadn’t. It was old; the paper was soft with age and the ink had bled, but the gentle lines and soft curves were more familiar to me than my own face. Taking a deep breath, I read it.
‘I don’t know how I shall live without you, my love,’ it began in shaky hand. ‘I can’t eat or drink at all. Hanna and Margit ask for you, and they ask me why I’m sad. What shall I tell them? I can’t tell them the truth: that when I kissed your lips one last time I prayed God would afflict me with what stole you from us so I could lie down with you and never get up. But I must. For our daughters, I must.’
That day… I stood at the foot of my own bed, watching Jerrik desperately clutch my empty body as he begged me to keep fighting. He knew I’d already lost my battle.
‘Two days ago, I felt so sure of my future, so thankful God had granted me my path. I looked upon my beautiful family and thanked God for giving me such a life… but now? Now, I am lost. I am so lost. I pray God will send something to steer me from the rocks, for without you, I am lost at sea in this world’.
I remembered after they’d taken my body for the wake, he’d lay on my side of the bed and sobbed into my pillow, alone. Alone, and lost.
What a memory. God, how I loved him, and how my heart ached for him. I ached remembering the rawness, the anguish of his pain—how I was unable to comfort him no matter how I tried. I ached remembering how alone he’d been for so many months, until—
Until Astrid had started keeping him company.
Perfectly still on the edge of Hanna’s bed, I let that thought sit with me. It sat heavy on my shoulders, and tight like the chains on my wrists.
My gut feeling was to immediately reject that idea—how dare she move in on my husband?!—but—But—the alternative was him crying on my pillow, night after night, lost at sea in this world.
Was that—what I wanted for him?
Was that what I wanted for any of them? My daughters with no mother to care for them, my husband crying alone on my pillow?
Part of me fought to say yes; yes!I was Jerrik’s wife! I was Hanna and Margit’s mother, and this was my family! But—
Twenty years later, would I have been happy to come here and find Jerrik still sleeping alone on my pillow? Would I have felt better if Hanna had needed to cook her own food and make her own dress for her wedding? Would that have made me happy?
I didn’t need to answer myself. I already knew what my answer was.
I looked down at the bed around me, littered with prayers wishing me luck on my Last Journey, and wishing me peace. Leaving the papers there with Hanna, I went to visit with Jerrik again.
Before I did, I spent a few minutes with Margit, too; looking on her lovely face that was so much like Hanna’s. Even after all these years, she and Hanna were still two peas in a pod. My two girls, all grown up, and one of them about to embark on the exciting and terrifying adventure of marriage and children.
I turned to Jerrik once more: my husband, no longer crying into my pillow but sleeping peacefully wrapped in Astrid’s arms.
Even Astrid. I didn’t know what to think of her. I didn’t know how to feel about her, but her arms had brought Jerrik love and peace for these twenty years I’d been gone.
They look happy together, I realised, looking upon them. They were happy. And in my heart of hearts, in my soul and deep in the roots of my being, that’s what I wanted for Jerrik. That’s what I wanted for my girls. I wanted them to be happy, even if I wasn’t. I wanted them to have a mother, even if it couldn’t be me. My Hanna should have a mother on her wedding day, even if it couldn’t be me who sung her the Wishing Prayer. There was someone else waiting in the wings with her hands and heart outstretched.
Unable to cry in this wretched form, I stood there, feeling tears I couldn’t shed and sorrow I couldn’t express build within me. No one could comfort me; I didn’t have arms to hug anyone with.
I climbed into bed behind Jerrik anyway—I knew I shouldn’t. I knew my time was past. But I wanted to imagine I could have just one more comforting hug from the man I loved. One last hug, one last quiet moment together on our marital bed. As he slept, I lay before him and memorised the new shape of his face, the new shape of his beard. His greying hair, the laughter lines beside his eyes. I drank in his handsome face—the face of my soulmate, the man who was my life and who I had thought was my future—I held it my heart, I nurtured it like a tiny baby bird who would soon fly the nest.
And then, finally, I let it go.
I let go of dream of growing old with him, that dream of ushering our girls into motherhood together, and that dream of holding our grandchildren while our girls stole a few precious hours of sleep.
I let go of my beautiful life and I let go of my beautiful family. I loved them so very, very much, but I couldn’t hold onto them like I was. Jerrik’s path and my path met a forked road and diverged—we walked apart now. I found myself thankful he didn’t walk alone and that he’d found someone to help him navigate the rocky path ahead.
It hurt—God, it hurt! It burnt a fire in my soul to look upon the man I was so very, very in love with in the arms of my sister—but I loved him, I wished only the best for him, and I was happy he’d been able to somehow find happiness without me.
On this last night, I let go of all of it, and let the bitterness spill out of me, wishing my husband and my family only well.
I didn’t stay for long after that—I’d promised Ingrid I wouldn’t.
Climbing from my bed one last time, I spent a moment with Astrid before I left. I found myself touching her cheek as if she could feel it. My sister; my husband’s guiding light against the stormy seas he felt lost in. “Take care of my husband and my girls,” I asked her. In her sleep, she stirred.
The path out of my house was dark, and the chains dragged heavily behind me. I felt oddly unaffected by them, though. I felt oddly unbothered by anything anymore.
Ingrid stood as I approached, considering my expression. “You’ve a decision.” I nodded. “What shall we do, then?”
My mouth opened for a moment; it was a while before I could speak. When I finally could, I felt the weight in my answer. “Nothing.”
Ingrid gave me a startled look. “Nothing? Didn’t your own sister have a child with your husband after your death?” She shook her head incredulously. “And you’re forgiving her for that?”
I let that word sit inside me for a moment. “Yes,” I realised. “I suppose I am.”
No sooner had I said that, a great chiming like a clock striking 12 sounded. There were no clocktowers in our village.
It was ethereal, ringing and humming a crescendo around us. My wrists began to burn with each strike of it and when I raised them, I realised the shackled were glowing white hot. The chain glowed with the same fire and began to jump from the ground between us, coiling and writhing like a wounded snake, and when it reached my wrists the shackles shuddered on my arms and snapped their jaws wide open.
They hovered in the air for a moment, glowing like burning metal, and then simply dissolved into the wind like ash.
The effect was immediate: I felt the slipping again—the quicksand under me. Like I was losing my grip on ‘now’, and ‘here’, and like everything was rushing around me in a hurricane.
Ingrid, the only solid presence around me, touched her chest where the chains had dissolved, and when she looked back up at me, there was relief on her face. I could see it in her eyes: her God-sent errand was over, she was free to finally go home.
‘Over’ meant over for me, too—and I clutched at the slipping visage of my house and my old life, desperately wanting not to leave Hanna hanging on her wedding day. “Please,” I begged Ingrid, reaching out to her like the desperate spirits clawing at her clothes on the battlefield had. “Please tell Astrid to sing Hanna’s Wishing Prayer.”
Ingrid listened to me, her eyes flickering between mine. Finally, she nodded. As my reality slipped around me, I saw her lips move even if I couldn’t hear her. “Godspeed, Orla,” she told me. “Be at peace now.”
When I released her, the world started disappearing like water gurgling down a drain.
Even without Ingrid I wasn’t alone, though; I felt another presence behind me. When I turned, I found myself face to face with someone as familiar to me as this house: my mother.
She was young again, with her full curls no longer grey but black once more, her skin supple and full. Her smile was the same gentle one I remembered, and when she took long steps towards me and swept me into her arms I remembered every hug and every song she’d ever sung.
“Orla,” she murmured. “My Orla, how I’ve missed you!”
I couldn’t speak. My throat was too tight.
When she released me, she stepped back, touching my hair, my cheek, my shoulder, as if reminding herself of details she hadn’t seen in a thousand years. I felt warmed by her glow, and loved by her touch. “I’ve been waiting for you at the banquet table,” she told me. “I set your place years ago, and your family has filled your plate with all your most favourite foods.” She smiled at me; a smile that made me feel five years old again and safe in her arms. “It’s time, Orla. It’s time for you to come and take your seat with us.”
I looked back over my shoulder where my old house was—my Hanna, my Margit and my Jerrik. Dawn had come while I slipped through time, and I could see snippets of their life: of Astrid, lovingly plaiting Hanna’s hair with flowers, a peaceful smile on her face as she hummed the Wishing Prayer she was going to shortly sing. My Jerrik, trimming his beard with a smile in the mirror, and my Margit, looking wistfully at Hanna in her beautiful dress, imagining her own wedding.
I longed to be there and see my girls as they married; I longed to witness the church doors open to my girls in their white dresses, and then close again behind them as they left with their new husbands. I wanted to see their bellies swell and my grandchildren grow. I wanted to see how handsome Jerrik would be as a grandfather, and I wished that I were beside him. But I wasn’t.
I wasn’t, and he was happy. They were happy. And even though I yearned to still be there with them, holding them, loving them, and walking their paths together with them, I wasn’t. I was gone, and it was time for me to let my family have their future. They would be happy, and it gave me peace to know their lives would be full of joy.
I turned and took my mother’s hands, just as I had when she’d sung her Wishing Prayer to me to help me cross from maidenhood into marriage. Once again, she was going to help me cross another threshold in my life: my death, into the eternity beyond that awaited me. It was time for me to take my seat at the eternal banquet.
It was time for me to finish my Last Journey.
~ FIN ~