Everything seemed obscured in the deepest fog. A frost of numbness and shock enveloped her every sense.
Some type of shapeless void had swallowed her every waking second and she was utterly in the grip of it. It felt as if she was perpetually sat in the kitchen staring at an empty chair, as the world continued to move around her.
Her husband was the type of man who could not hold his emotions inside; he would often explode. A brash firework display of violence as he smashed coffee cups against walls or punched himself.
She could only watch him, silently noting that she should be doing something to help him, ease his suffering somehow, but she couldn’t. All she could do was feel shades of some sort of compression. Time passed. All those moments and days and everything in between seemed to just press together, bound with dreamless sleep.
If she were to describe those first weeks after her daughter died, she would have said that it felt like being trapped in an empty grey room.
Her husband had made all the impossible decisions leading up to the funeral.
What sort of person is prepared to pick the colour of their daughter’s coffin?
It was unthinkable, unfathomable, and she hated him for being able to do it, but she lacked the strength to talk about it.
She barely noted the people around her, figured it for some kind of fever dream as they said her daughter’s name and lowered a pale box into the earth. The permanence of her daughter’s location played strangely across her mind as people wrought their tearful threnody. They broke at the loss of the girl’s impossibly bright future, which had seemingly been written as sure as history.
If she hadn’t drowned in the garden pond, she surely, most definitely, absolutely, would have been one of the world’s great actors. Like so many other dead kids. Despite the fact she had been assigned her mother’s sharp, aquiline features and her father’s slightly beady eyes.
And that’s not to say that she didn’t love her and think her beautiful, but her mother often looked at her daughter and wondered why chance stole upon those particular features. She caught herself at that thought and felt a sharp wave of nauseating guilt.
Near the end of the ceremony, she pulled away from her crying husband’s grasp. She felt at that moment the fragile, trembling thread of their relationship pull so tight she could almost hear the terrible thrumming of it in her heart as it finally snapped, and the irreversible distance between them grew.
She loved him utterly, but hated him absolutely.
It was her daughter’s favourite sort of day. Big gusts of warm air, skipping up the winding suburbs, and bringing with them scudding rainbows of autumn leaves in every dying shade. The shadows of the dwindling trees painted across the uneven lines in the pavement. A bright sun, occasionally dulled by the passing of a cloud. The curved lines of jet trails as planes winked across the angular suburban horizon.
She wanted to disappear more than anything. To just sink, painlessly, through the earth and to never again have to feel the gulf of absolute grief that she knew, right deep into her bones, could never be filled. Instead, she kept walking. Walking towards home, but along streets she had never travelled before. Experiencing something new so that she would not have to live so vividly in the tragic past.
By the time she arrived, her feet burned and ached. She could feel the agony of fresh and burst blisters at her heels. She was at once exhausted and exhilarated. The physical pain mitigating the spiritual, if for only a fleeting moment.
The car was not in the drive and she found herself feeling somewhat thankful. Her husband was most likely at the wake, and she felt that distance between them shift a little more. She could hear the echoes of her love for him clattering like dropped stones in her heart.
Her daughter’s room was painted blue and bore images of dancing fairies and trees and bright yellow stars streaking across the walls. She lay in the small, neatly made bed and screamed until her throat gave in. She shook uncontrollably beneath the unicorn sheets.
Strangely, there came a moment of fragile calm. Her mind seemed to surface soberly from her grief. She warily accepted it and sat up. The house around her felt suddenly changed, even though it was obviously identical.
Along the walls were rows and rows of her daughter’s books. She loved to read and she was good at it, especially for her age. She often spent hours in her room, curled up on the window seat, a book resting on her knees.
She ran a tired finger over the edges of the books, feeling the rough places where her daughter had cracked their spines. There were a couple that hadn’t been opened, probably never would be. The worlds inside those pages would lay dormant and unlived.
Scanning the shelves, she saw one that looked battered. The spine was ruined, and when she plucked it from the bookshelf, she found the front cover was missing. It wasn’t a book she remembered buying for her daughter, but she knew in all likelihood that she had, because her husband had never been a big reader.
The yellowed, dog-eared pages revealed nothing of the title, so she sat down on the edge of the bed and leafed through it, glancing over the words. The story, it seemed, was about a girl who became friends with a fairy. Her daughter had drawn clusters of hearts at the bottom of the pages and underlined passages.
She read it aloud to herself.
Emelia sat in the bright, sunlit garden and waited for Nymphaea to appear. It was later than normal and the young girl was starting to feel restless. All of a sudden, the fairy appeared. She darted up out of the water and danced this way and that. Emelia, her frustration forgotten, clapped and whooped at the wonderful show her friend performed.
Something familiar and terrible about the words began to hum in her. She scoured beautiful, painful memories to locate the source, but came up short.
Under a vault of bright, tourmaline sky, the fairy Nymphaea showed Emelia the way to Tír na nÓg. She circled the slimy green surface of the pond widdershins three good times, and then she shot up, and up, into the sky like a beautiful firework. Then she turned and dived for the earth, and with her wings spread behind her, she shot straight towards the pond. Emelia gasped, thinking the worst. But instead of splashing into the shallow pond, Nymphaea ripped through the shallow barrier between our world and that of Tír na nÓg, the land of the young.
Emelia clapped and whooped again, for in front of her, like a wondrous, magical mirror, lay a golden-edged picture of the most beautiful place she had ever seen. There was no place like it, not in any of the books that lined her walls.
Downstairs, a door slammed shut and she panicked. She replaced the book carefully and left. As she pulled the door shut, she glanced at the bookshelf, caught in a blade of light from the hallway. The terrible hum of grief began to creep back.
This story was originally published by Bandit Fiction as part of the Bandit Fiction Presents… series of digital issues. These issues remain freely available, and by purchasing one, you’ll be supporting us to continue doing what we love doing: bringing the best works from new and emerging writers to the masses.
“It’s not fair on us. It’s not fair on me,” her husband said, anger cracking the last word as he broke his gaze. He stood by the kitchen window. Somehow, it was evening. The day was wounded. Dying even. The sun bleeding into a lavender night sky.
The fog had returned again and time had begun to slip. There had been the blur of an argument. Her husband had admonished her for leaving, for running off halfway through the funeral, as if she missed out on some sort of prize for being able to stomach watching her daughter being lowered into a hole.
She felt the layers of insulated numbness roll over her again. She didn’t care. Felt the chasm between them widen again.
Counselling. The word seemed to ring out too loud. It was the answer to a question she hadn’t asked.
“No,” she said. She bit her lip and stared out at nowhere, maybe into the past at some point when she wasn’t this person.
She mourned for all the dull normal hours and moments and years that she took for granted before a simple point in time. A singularity of absolute pain.
Her husband disappeared and she sat there at the table like an expectant guest. All she could think about was the book that her daughter seemed to have loved so. It called to her like a lighthouse in the dark.
Nymphaea, Nymphaea. She rolled the name around, searching for it like something stuck in her teeth.
Her husband went to bed and she stayed seated in the kitchen. Clinical white light frosted her features and the sharp edges of things. Milky moonlight lay in a puddle on the cold tiles, cut to pieces by the shadow of the window blinds.
She walked slowly to the window. She stood in the moonlight, watching the place where her daughter had died. A beautiful place, ringed with sweet smelling flowers and soft grass. She felt its pull as her daughter must have.
A firefly lit upon the edge of a bright pond flower and then darted away into the dark beyond the garden. Without looking away, her hands found the key to the back door, and she unlocked it and pulled the door open. A blast of cold air hit her and she closed her eyes, let it rush over her skin.
She stepped down onto the lawn and the cool grass cushioned her bare feet. The hum of the kitchen light had been replaced by the rhythmic trilling of cicadas.
It took a few moments for her eyes to adjust, but soon the stars began to reveal themselves to the west in glittering points of light.
The question of why she was outside played somewhere in the back of her mind, but she couldn’t reconcile it with any kind of rational answer. She just needed to be outside, and it felt good. She felt a notion of realness and connectedness to being outside, close to where her daughter had been.
She knelt at the edge of the pond and watched the bright dial of the moon slowly ripple in the night breeze.
The static of the cicadas marked time’s passing, occasionally punctuated by the buzz of a mosquito or the distant barking of a dog. She couldn’t have said how long she sat there, imagining, over and over again, her daughter slipping under the surface of the water. The curve of her pale face smothered by the ugly, pitted globe of the ghastly moon.
She awoke with a start. Soft, thin daylight had begun to bleach the canvas of night, and the stars were in retreat. She itched from mosquito bites and she shivered violently as she painfully collected herself.
Inside, she made herself tea. An operation that didn’t require any kind of thought, so she tried to work through why and how she had fallen asleep outside in the backyard. As she poured the water, she remembered something of a dream she had had. It had the texture of fine powder and as she tried to reassemble the images, parts of it blew away, leaving an incomplete picture. The colours of the broken image were gold and grey, electric blue and fiery orange. She remembered the smell of lavender and vanilla.
Her husband appeared at the doorway. His eyes were puffy and red and his skin seemed grey like the grey from her dream.
He spoke, but the words were lost in the static roar of the space between them. Suddenly fatigued, she left the tea on the countertop and left.
Their bed was still warm and she slipped into it and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
She awoke at midday and slowly explored the top level of the house. Each room felt as if it had just been vacated a few seconds before she entered. It made her feel like a ghost.
Peering through the blinds over the upstairs bedroom window, she noted that the car, along with her husband, had gone, and she relaxed a little. In the kitchen, her untouched tea remained where she had left it. She went about making a fresh cup, glancing occasionally over to the table and the empty chairs around it.
Memories of them at the start of their relationship came. She tried to analyse how deep the roots of her doubts must have lain. How it couldn’t have been the loss of their daughter alone that had prised them apart.
The sound of the water boiling dragged her from her malaise. She snapped to and finished making her tea, then went upstairs to her daughter’s room.
The book was waiting for her. When she folded the pages open to where she had left off, they felt warm against her skin. As she settled into her daughter’s bed and began reading, she felt the same clear-headedness that she had felt before, as if her daughter’s room offered some kind of respite from the pain.
Emelia gasped. Her parents had arrived home early!
“Nymphaea,” she cried. “My parents.” The fairy darted back to the golden surface of the pond, where the fantastical doorway into the magical realm of Tír na nÓg shimmered.
“Come with me now,” Nymphaea said, and reached out a hand to Emelia.
“Emelia.” Her stepfather called her name.
Emelia glanced back and forth, torn. She wanted to go to Tír na nÓg, but knew that one day she would have to return and she feared the violence of her stepfather.
“Emelia,” said Nymphaea, who was now standing on Emelia’s shoulder. “You can come with me and stay forever. You don’t have to live with him anymore.”
“Really?” Emelia exclaimed, then felt ashamed. “But, what about my mother?” she asked.
“The doorway to Tír na nÓg won’t stay open for much longer. You must make a decision, and I am forbidden to make it for you.”
Emelia strained to find an answer, but before one could be found, her stepfather flung open the backdoor. His face was twisted in horrible anger.
“EMELIA!” he screamed at the top of his voice.
Emelia turned to the beautiful Nymphaea and smiled.
The thought hit her now, familiar but far away, as if waking from a dream that seemed to span a hundred years. Her daughter had an imaginary friend when she was a toddler. She recalled that her daughter would call for her—“Mimfy, Mimfy”—and giggle, and right then, something sparked in the dark of her mind.
“What? You’ve barely said a word since . . .” Her husband struggled, breathed a sigh. “The funeral,” he continued. “And now you are asking me about a book we got her when she was two? This is crazy.”
It had been three weeks since the funeral. Three weeks since she had discovered the book. Three weeks of dead air between them, like dead air on the lines of their hearts. They sat together in the same rooms and she had barely noticed him. At night, she listened to him crying in the bathroom and still she would lie there, staring out the window at the moon.
He lay his hands expectantly on the table and sighed, slowly. His fingers shook and he nervously touched the tips of them against his thumb one at a time. He bit his lip. She noted the rough, bruised knuckles, the nails eaten down to the skin. His hands were poor liars. He somehow failed to see the connection between the story in the book and what had happened.
“I’m worried about you,” he said, looked away to some memory. “Worried about us.”
She felt sorry for him then. He didn’t yet know that the distance was too great. The old connections that lay broken and draped into the abyss between them. He didn’t see the importance of the book. Failed to see that connection too.
“The book,” she said, holding it up hopefully. Holding the pages, marked in pencil and pen and crayon by their daughter. “I know what happened.”
“Stop. Please, just stop. I don’t want to hear it. The doctor already told us how.” her husband said, withdrawing his hands from the table.
“But,” she cried, trying her best to make space so that she could explain.
“No. I am done. I’m sorry, but I am done,” he said. The end was flat, accepting. There was no fight anymore.
“I need,” he said, fixing her with a wounded look, “I need time.”
“What does that even mean?” she replied, knowing what it meant.
“I mean, I need time for myself. I can’t do this. I can’t worry about you and all of this book nonsense as well as grieve for our daughter.”
“Can’t or won’t?” The impulse to preserve what they had was automatic. It was based on their history, even though she knew she saw no road ahead. She turned her wedding ring slowly on her finger, a thing that had once made her so happy.
“I don’t want to,” he said and got up. “It was supposed to be us working through this together. I need you. We need you to get through this, but it’s just too hard. I’m too tired.” He was crying. Not racking sobs or heaving cries. Just a few silent tears.
“I still love you,” he said just before he left. The words were empty and yet loaded with sad finality.
The house felt different. Colder now. Every nook haunted by the memory of love. Every shadow possessed by the spirit of grief. She felt it in every corner, in every empty drawer. Memories of a life she no longer recognised. She felt like a vessel for someone else’s memories. Someone happy. It made her feel old. Not just older, but frail. She wondered if this is how people really age. If tree rings of sadness marked her age in the core of her bones.
She ignored calls. Calls from work, calls from friends. Her phone rang and buzzed until the battery died and she left it on the kitchen table.
Upstairs in her daughter’s room things were different. She was different. She felt something like being awake. Something like being alive.
She held the fairy book in her hands. The book her daughter must have loved and read and read over and again, memorising the words. Ever since she had made the connection that her daughter’s friend Mimfy was Nymphaea from the story, she had pored over every syllable and every handwritten annotation her daughter had made.
She had sat on the bedroom floor with her laptop across her knees, feverishly researching the book’s publishers, who had put the book out in 1917, but could find no such company. She looked up the author, but could find only a vague reference to other books she had written. She even copied passages of the book into a search engine, but nothing about the book came up. She had no memory of buying the book and the book itself had no history to be found.
She researched Tír na nÓg, and learnt about the Leanan Sidhe, creatures that lured children to the otherworld.
But the book had no unhappy ending. Emelia escaped to Tír na nÓg and lived out her infinite days in the company of Nymphaea. She married a fairy prince and raised ten generations of children before returning home.
In the dark, she found her place by the edge of the water. The full moon played across the pond. In the candle light it seemed edged in gold, just like in the book.
A firefly lit upon the centre of the white hydrangeas that encircled the opposite edge of the pond, but she knew who it really was, and said her name.
Nymphaea lifted from the plant with a benign smile on her lips. She looked utterly beautiful as she darted here and there.
“My daughter . . .” she said, and the fairy raised a finger to her tiny lips.
“We don’t have much time,” Nymphaea said. She hovered above the water and then circled the shape of the reflected moon widdershins three good times, and shot into the sky.
Emelia’s mother clapped and whooped as she watched the iridescent fairy, moving up and up like a firework. Then, just like the book, Nymphaea turned and darted down and down, speeding towards the pond. Emelia’s mother, knowing what was next, followed her into the place where the moon had been, her heart full of hope.
About The Author
Joe Butler lives and works in London, but dreams of living and working elsewhere. His writing has been featured in Pilcrow & Dagger, Story Bits, Bandit Fiction, New Orbit, and the Corvid Review. He also won the 2018 Six Word Story competition run by Bandit Fiction, and Maura Yzmore’s Quarantine Quanta competition in 2020. He is currently seeking representation for his first novel, Of All Possibilities. You can find more of his work, including The Haunted Hotel project, which is an ongoing ghost story project, as well as audio versions of his short stories at www.writelikeashark.wordpress.com. You can also find him on twitter @writelikeashark
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