The End of the Road
They stand, entranced, before the bright, licking fingers of the flames. Grief has driven them to distraction, and I am about to call out to them, tell them that the fire is too large, too close. Then I remember why they stand before the flames in the middle of a godforsaken forest, why grief has tracked trails down their pale cheeks. What the flames signify.
Their hands are cold and tentative as they reach for each other, needing comfort but not knowing how to touch without other hands between them. Eventually the frightened hands meet, and clutch each other desperately. They are afraid, but I am pleased. The hands between them have not bound them, haven't separated them or hurt them.
They can live without the hands, but their eyes are blank and filled with bloody tears, the fire tattooed on their irises. I hurt for them, even as I know that they will live. They will pass the fire, and live to see many more, but none will kill them. Only make them stronger.
Until, of course, one day when they clasp their hands ever tighter, and stride unafraid into the dark. There I shall meet them, and we will be whole and together again.
I shift my weightless feet in the dry grass. Any other day, the blades would crackle under me, but not this day. Even the birds are silent, the burn of the fire the only noise in the deafening quiet.
Finally, the shorter, darker of the two speaks, her voice molten gold beneath the sound of the snap and sputter of the devouring flames.
"Do you remember…" she begins, but the words are unnecessary. We all remember, as if it were yesterday. "Do you remember when you met her?"
The taller one, a willowy blonde, makes a noise of assent.
"It was night," she starts, her eyes – a bright silver, even in the almost total darkness – focusing on something beyond the fire. "…and it was raining."
In a moment, the scene flashes in my mind's eye. A storm is beginning, lightening flickering on the horizon. The sea sloshes against the piers that run like the spines of a porcupine along the shore.
One shadow is silhouetted at the end of an empty dock, cowled and hooded in a heavy coat to keep out the sheeting rain. Behind it, another materialises, surprise and curiosity and fear in its silence.
A fork of lightening – particularly bright – crashes against the dark, angry sky, illuminating both figure's faces in an impossibly short moment. The second figure, closer to the shore and away from the salty attack of the waves, is the taller girl from the fire; eyes alight with wonder and a burning need.
The other figure smiles, teeth flashing in the violent night, and the scene collapses. I am back with the girls and the fire. The taller one has the shadow of a smile on her face. The other's eyes are sad, but they are focused now, watching the dancing flames instead of something beyond them.
"And when you first met her…" the blonde begins gently, her low voice like scarlet silk. "…tell me again."
The shorter one nods, her chin moving a fraction of a millimetre – up, then down.
"She had been fighting," she whispers. A sharp breath rattles in her empty chest before she continues. "…and I was frightened."
With the soft explanation, barely a murmur on the illusion of a breath, the situation unfolds before me.
The sun is beginning to rise, tainting the perfect darkness of the east with pink, like the cheeks of a laughing child. The sky is dangerously clear, and a figure cowers in the shadows. Young in more ways than one, vulnerable and bloody, she presses into the wall of an agrestic stone building. Lower lip caught between shining teeth, she waits diligently for the one who promised they would be back for her.
They are late, and she is afraid.
But another figure slinks from shadow to shadow, easily avoiding the questing fingers of light as they search for purchase on her tightly-woven clothes. Blood follows the second figure in a trail of red-tinged life.
She is very close before the first figure notices her, and when she does she freezes, terrified. She sees something that others do not in the fluid, predatory grace and is afraid.
The second figure approaches the first, her confident walk suggesting a stately courtier in their best finery approaching a monarch, but as poised and coiled as a bird a moment from spreading its wings and soaring into the sun.
A gloved hand reaches down and offers itself to the cringing, wide-eyed youngling. At first she shrinks back, but as the hand makes no move to strike – a snake upon a mouse – she timidly reaches up.
In that moment the sun breaks the horizon and casts its cancerous rays upon both figures. The cowering one is the shorter girl from the flames, and there is something familiar about the smiling mouth of the other, her old eyes and gentle brows, something warm and safe.
The sun's lecherous, binding rays finally fall upon the reaching hands, the distance between them shrinking with every passing, useless breath. When at last their palms softly touch, the landscape folds in on itself, and my eyes once again fall only on the girls and the flames beneath the dark, starry sky. They are standing a little closer together now, their shoulders touching. The fire is burning town, its fuel hardly able to sustain it anymore.
"And… remember when she told us… how it happened to her?" asks the shorter, finally tearing her spellbound eyes from the hungry fingers of flame.
"Yes," breathes the blonde. "I remember."
"November, 1732." The words float from the brunette's lips like smoke.
"It was night," adds the blonde, breathing in the smoke – of the fire, and of her companion.
"And she was frightened." Their voices fall from their hearts and onto the dry earth like snowflakes, softly dissolving under a breath.
The melt water from their remembrances drips into my eyes, and once again the scene unfolds before me:
The moonlit Hungarian farms seem to stretch on forever. A feral shadow stalks through the peaceful night, past sleeping cattle, sheep, pigs, hens, striding through fields, its heavy feet crushing the shooting crops that squirm and wail in its presence.
Even the plants fear this shadow.
But, inside an old and sturdy hut, a family sleeps unawares. The hungry wraith glides through the rooms, ignoring the mother, the father, the brothers, and enters the room of the last member of the slumbering family: a teenage girl, smiling as she dreams of futures and sunsets and true love.
The phantom stops in its tracks, feeling the vitality of the girl-child, her brightness, her joy at life itself. Welling up inside, an insidious thought coils in the wraith's gut: murder. Murder of an innocent, a child. Her life-force flowing into his, her heart faltering and stopping and ultimately beating in time with his.
He eyes her speculatively, then lets the whim melt into his veins, swimming in his blood until it reaches his fingertips, his teeth, the crown of his head and the soles of his feet.
The phantom falls upon her, and for a moment she is in shock, unable to fight back. But, as his fingers close around her neck and her eyes fly open, her mouth opens in a distended "o" of horror and a scream issues from between her lips and rushes from room to room, awakening siblings, parents, animals.
Bloody with her terror and her tears, the apparition flees the scene, leaving the girl-child clutching her neck, wailing and choking on air.
Though her heart still beats, it is stuttering and weak. Soon, she will become as hungry as her predecessor. But for now, she sweats and chills and aches, a body fighting a life-sucking virus.
For days she languishes, and before dawn-break of the fourth day, her faithful, laughing, cursed heart has ceased to tattoo its incessant staccato beat on the inside of her chest. Her last breath leaves her lips, and a deadly silent chill spreads through her veins.
Her body is dead, but her mind lives on. Trapped in an un-living, un-dead body. Her angular, young, untouched face opens its eyes and is confronted with a sudden, devastating truth. The dark, mysterious eyes focus, suddenly old, and the scene flickers to a close.
I blink and return to the world of the dying fire and the two girls holding hands, frightened and alone.
So very alone.
"Goodbye, Jovitzo Stanoska," intones Ever from under her protective veil of dark hair.
"We won't forget you," assures Pandora, her silver eyes thankfully clear of unshed tears.
"Because that's what family's for," they murmur together, their words blossoming like spring flowers in the sudden silence: the fire has finally burnt out, and is silent forevermore.
They turn their backs on the glowing embers, arms encircling each other. I do not fear for them, for I know that together, they will be safe. They will walk through a thousand fires and exit unscathed, and that is what I always wanted.
In the funeral pyre, my ashes crumble in a soft gust of wind.
My two precious angels walk away, their heads held high, and do not look back.