"That Cold Winter's Day"
By: Ariane Moore
It was a day deep in December as a lone woman traveled the dirt road to her hometown. She usually made this trip in the comfortable air of Spring, but her stock of fish had gone bad prematurely this year so she was forced to go to the port town early.
She didn't like the winter cold, and as she traveled silently with the exception of the crunching snow under her feet, she let her mind drift to the warm fires and faces of home. Her two sisters would be at the door to greet her with hugs and kisses, maybe even honey-bread or meat, and then together the three of them would go fishing after a good night's rest.
She hadn't ever wanted to be a fishmonger, she thought to herself; she had actually been trained to work as a scribe in the Royal Palace; but after her parents had died in a storm at sea she had no one to pay for her training and she was forced to learn the trade of her younger sisters.
After being that close to success and fortune, Vinca couldn't stand living in that city any longer. It was a constant reminder to her of what she had almost had… The huge spires of the Royal Palace mocked her through her window as she rose from bed every morning; the other scribes in their rich robes taunted her as she passed them on the roads. When the opening to sell Atlantean seafood opened in the nearby town of Cainamreg, she had all but jumped on the opportunity.
Vinca's unpleasant thoughts had caused her steps to quicken and her brow to furrow. As she came out of and suppressed her memories, she slowed her pace and turned her head to the sun. The evening was beginning to approach, and the soft orange tint to the sky told Vinca that she had about three hours before she should start worrying about making a camp for the night. She sighed, the journey momentarily overwhelming her, and then retreated back into her thoughts.
The sun arose too early the next morning for Vinca. She didn't get as far as she had wanted to – she was forced to make a camp inside the forest as opposed to on the beach which was a few hours walk away. She groggily stretched, smothered the embers of the dying fire in snow, packed her things and went on her way.
As she had supposed, she broke through the forest and reached the beach. It was a nice change of scenery for Vinca as the cool, sea air refreshed and vitalized her senses. The fine white sand crept in through her shoes and nestled in her toes as she walked. It was only another day's walk from here and Vinca smiled at the thought of her sisters whom she was soon to see.
"Vinca, I have some bad news."
By now her sisters had gathered around the door, curious as to why a royal messenger had arrived.
"It's about your parents…" his voice trailed off.
It didn't take a genius to realize what he hadn't said, and as tears welled up in Vinca's eyes and as her youngest sister began to wail and run to her room, the messenger spoke again.
"And, I'm so sorry – I know this is a bad time – but you won't be able to attend anymore lessons at the palace. There isn't enough money, you know this…" His voice was gentle, and Vinca knew he meant well, but she needed an outlet and this messenger had become it. After pummeling him with a few choice words, she slammed the door in his face and collapsed, sobbing, onto the frame. The middle child was about to come over to console her oldest sister, but suddenly a giant horse ran through the building…
Vinca was jerked from sleep by the sound of horse hooves. Her adrenaline pumping, she jumped to her feet preparing to defend herself as the horseman passed her by.
"That looked like the robe of a royal messenger…" she thought, calming down and watching the rider into the distance. After a few short moments of pondering, she began gathering and packing her things. Not thirty seconds had passed, and Vinca could again hear the hooves of an approaching horseman. She moved herself into the front of his path, now positive it was a messenger from the robes, and waved her arms for him to stop. The horse drew near her and decelerated to her surprise, but before she could get a word in he spoke.
"I hope you're not going to the city, my friend."
Her stomach turned.
"Haven't you heard?" he said, searching her eyes. "There was an earthquake and tidal wave this morning in the city."
"Atlantis… Atlantis is sinking."
Vinca, shocked beyond reprieve, subconsciously took a few steps backwards to make room for the horse. She heard neither the "Heeyah!" of the rider, nor the sound she made as she fell to her knees on the beach. Her mind was swimming with so many horrible scenarios she didn't know which one to start crying over first. Her boat and supplies – worth hundreds – undeniably gone or destroyed. Her house – her sisters – Oh God, her sisters! Her sisters were probably hurt or dead. She had to get to them, she had to find out for sure, had to have closure…
She left her backpack and belongings right there at the beach. They had become obsolete. All that mattered to Vinca now was her family. Tears began to stream down her face as she thought of her baby sister, cold, wet, and alone, possibly dead, and as the sobs began she broke into a full scale run. Strength, endurance, these words meant nothing to her now. She was overcome by emotion, and she did indeed run the rest of the distance to the city.
What used to be the city skyline was now noticeably shorter than it had been before. The once-familiar golden and sapphire circular spires of the Royal Palace were now cracked and broken, if not completely fallen down. She could hear from a distance a soft, dull roar coming from the city. She slowed down, the horror overwhelming her, and the effects of her half-hour run finally began to take effect. She gasped for breath, doubled over, but was still unable to take her eyes from the city. There was a stream of people heading for the hills to the south (she was approaching from the west) and as she caught her breath she searched for any kind of entrance to Atlantis that wasn't already swarmed with fleeing people. There wasn't time to check the other entrances, so she stumbled forward, still gasping and clutching her side, determined to push her way through the crowd.
She got closer, and what had been the dull roar was now a medley of shrieks, wails, and overall chaos. The Palace guards were trying to maintain some sort of order, but it was all in vain. The gargantuan mass of humans completely overwhelmed the security forces once envied by other cities. It was going to be a difficult task getting in. There was not a soul facing her direction as she heaved against the flow of people. They were unforgiving in their strength, and already weakened from her run she futilely tried to get past the gates. Again and again she was hurled or pushed from the crowd, bruised and defeated. After taking many blows to her body, she eventually didn't have the strength to continue fighting. She slammed herself backwards into the city wall, collapsing as she did the day her parents died. She put her face in her hands, bawling, mourning what might be, when she felt a hand take hers.
"You want in the city?"
Vinca looked up to meet the eyes of the messenger that had been at her door that very day. She stared at him with her red splotchy face, and without an answer he pulled her up to stand.
"I can help you in. People will move for horses."
She gave her tacit consent and followed the young man to his horse. He helped her up, and before she could give any kind of thanks he slapped the horse on the haunches and she was on her way through the gates.
As he had said, the people did move for the horse. Within moments she was through the crowd, past the gate, and on her way down the once familiar roads.
There was debris and trash covering the streets. Some buildings had completely collapsed, forcing Vinca to detour or backtrack through the confusion. Eventually, coming closer to her home, she noticed the ground was getting wetter and wetter. Puddles turned to small streams which in turn gave way to deep water with ice chunks that even the horse had trouble wading through. The creaks and moans of the wooden houses surrounded her, and some actually gave way right as she passed them; but Vinca was undaunted. Only a few blocks from her home, the horse would go no further and Vinca was forced to dismount and send the horse back to the gate. The water was deep and swift, but with her house in sight Vinca gained strength. Her feet were unable to touch the bottom, and the water had risen so much that she had to swim underwater through her front door to enter.
Surfacing on the inside, her teeth chattering from the intense cold, she looked around at what used to be her house. Apparently, the earthquake had knocked down most of the rafters and some of the hallways were impassable. To her dismay, she realized that she would have to dive under the treacherous beams to navigate through her residence, and due to the height of the water and the ice crystals forming she couldn't see if the other side was clear. She had to be sure…
"K-k-k-Krystal!" she yelled. "M-Mona!" She was sputtering in the water, and trying to listen for any sign of life. Again, she called their names.
"Krystal! M-m-m-Mona!" she stuttered. The cold was really starting to get to her. Suddenly she heard a moan coming from behind her. She swirled around in the water, her maroon hair spinning about her. The sound came again.
"V-v-v-i-i-nca?" the voice was weak, but definitely belonging to her middle sister Krystal. It was coming from a room blocked by wooden beams, and she swam over to it although her body was unwilling. Vinca heard a splash, some strokes, and then finally her sister came into view. She was bleeding heavily from her head, and her face was very swollen. Vinca burst into tears yet again.
"N-n-no, no, Vinca." She said weakly. "You muh, muh," she swallowed. "You must get M-M-Mona. She's upstairs. The stairs were de-destroyed during the earthquake, but there's a beam you can cl-c-climb to get there." The sisters were now face to face, only a few inches of immovable wood separating them.
"What about you, Krystal?" Vinca asked, dreading the answer. But Krystal avoided the question.
"Just get Mona," She said, coughing up a bit of blood. Vinca started to cry again, but Krystal stuck her hands through the jail-like rafters. "You don't have much time, sister!" her voice was urgent, although slurred. "The house could fall any mo-mo-moment, and it's obvious that I'm not going to make it…" more blood was pouring from her head.
"I will… Krystal." Her eyes were blurry with tears and her eyelashes were starting to freeze together so she began to blink furiously. "I'll see you soon." Her face contorted and she forced herself to turn away.
"Yes, V-Vinca." Krystal smiled. "Take care."
Painfully, Vinca tore herself from the hallway and looked for the beam Krystal had spoken of. Looking up and sputtering in the water, Vinca did indeed see a rafter. Hand by hand, foot by foot, Vinca shimmied up the rafter and to the second floor. Poking her shivering head through a hole in the floor, Vinca caught sight of an unconscious bundle in the corner of the room. With new hope and strength, she lifted herself from the beam and stumbled to the lump of cloth.
"Mona? Mona!" she shook the bundle. "Mona! Wake up!" It stirred in her hands.
"Vinca…?" her voice was almost a whisper.
"Yes, yes dear, it's m-m-me. I'm going to help you get out but you have to stand up." The bundle moved and dropped its covers. A three foot girl, almost a mirror image of Vinca, stood up and hugged herself for warmth. Vinca smiled despite herself.
"Okay, now, I'm going to put you on my shoulders so you stay as dry as possible." The girl nodded. "Alright… hop up."
Obediently, the small child put her legs around her older sister's neck and held on tightly. Vinca made the treacherous climb down the icy beam, and once in the water struggled violently to keep her shoulders and head above water. Mona was sobbing a little, but not as much as she had been now that her sister, her only family, was with her.
Grabbing the door frame and hoisting herself up with a groan, Vinca gave Mona instructions.
"Sit here on this ledge; I need to make a hole."
Without question the girl stepped up and straddled a solid, fallen beam. Vinca then started looking underwater for something to destroy part of the house. Through the clear water, she managed to catch sight of a hammer she had used on her boat to help with repairs. She dove, grabbed it in her numb hands, then resurfaced and made her way to the door.
"Watch out, Mona." She said, taking aim at a small window above the door. With a single stroke and a shattering of glass, the window gave way, but it was still not big enough for Mona. Vinca started pounding away the wall, racking the whole house with her beating, making the hole a little wider with every stroke. Eventually, peeling away the sharp edges, Vinca again spoke to Mona.
"Step on my shoulders and lift yourself out of the hole. From there you can climb the siding of the house to dry land, okay?" Mona nodded.
With her dainty feet Mona carefully placed herself on her sister's shoulders and lifted herself out of the window with a grunt. Once Vinca was sure Mona wasn't going to fall back inwards, she made to swim under the door – but at that moment, more beams collapsed, loosened by the hammer's pounding. Heavy wood and furniture from upstairs collapsed on and around Vinca, trapping her underwater. She struggled at first, instinctually, but it was very clear to her that she would not make it out. She let the cold of the water embrace her – let it cradle and caress her – until she became still and tranquil. This was her fate, the very reason she had been born. And, with a smile on her face, she gave way to nature.
Outside, Mona had heard the collapse and knew intuitively that Vinca was never coming out. She wasn't going to let this kill her as well, though, so she carefully jumped off the side of the house and into a very small puddle of water. Her tiny heels clicked against the ground, and as she regained her balance and made her way out towards the gate, Mona knew that she would never forget her sister's sacrifice… or this cold winter's day.