A Handful of Earth

by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

He left, crates filled with earth, bound for England. Left us behind, promising to send for us. We believed him. But as the days went by, I realized he’d lied.

Live forever. Love forever.

#

Anca and Ioana looked to me for guidance, as they always did. Technically, they were older than me. I was the last one to be brought to the castle. Mentally, they were younger. Frozen in their teenage years, letting me mother them and lead. I’d had five sisters and watched over them. Authority came naturally.

My sisters and I had shared a single, cramped room. Some days, when I was tired of doing the washing and watching over the others – our mother died birthing the youngest child, our father was a strict man who filled my days with endless household tasks – I’d look out the window, towards the distant silhouette of the castle. It had no name. We simply called it “the castle.” High upon a cliff, edging towards the sky, while we lived beneath its shadow. I pictured myself going up its hundreds of steps, rushing through the hallways and dancing in rooms decorated with rich tapestries.

When he swooped from the towers, a piece of night detaching from the sky, why would I resist?

I had five sisters, but disease took them from us. Tiny little graves marked their passing, though I did not recall their precise location afterwards.

My father and I sat alone at the table. He was quiet, staring at a distant point.

We were already half-dead. The air stank, everyone rotting and melting away. So why not live forever?

#

I stood in the highest tower of the castle and tried to pierce the night with my eyes, to see beyond the mountains and the forests and gaze upon the distant shores he’d escaped to. I wondered if he thought of us or if the memory had been ripped apart.

#

Anca and Ioana were not twins. But they might have been. So close in looks and mannerisms, with the same glossy black hair and knowing eyes. Something about them always made me think of birds of prey. They flew easily, bodies light and bone-thin, their laughter streaming from the rafters.

Flight did not come naturally to me. My other shape was of a massive white wolf. Smaller than his own wolf body had been, but still a sight to see.

Anca and Ioana feared the outside; they spoke of arrows raining over a castle. There had been a great battle, though they could not recall if it had taken place in this fortress or another one. Either way, they would not venture with me.

I rushed through the forest, seeing all manner of things in the dark as I hunted for us.

He had kept us in our rooms, like the women in a Turkish harem I spied in the etchings of books, before the books were ravaged by moths and time. There we were to patiently wait for him, never stepping outside the walls of the castle.

There is death outside, he’d warned us.

Yet he’d gone out, beyond the safe limits of our home and aboard a ship.

I’d been right. He had never loved. He never loves.

Not that it mattered now.

There were Anca and Ioana to look after.

I ran through the forest, sometimes naked in my woman-shape, sometimes in the wolf’s pelt. I sometimes chanced upon a traveler or sneaked into a small house, creeping through the windows. Then I’d drink upon a sleeper, compel him to follow me through the night, and back to the castle. I’d let him ride upon my back, my wolf legs taking us swiftly through the darkness. Up, up. Towards Anca and Ioana.

#

In the daytime we slept in the old chapel, inside carved sarcophagi much more ornate than the graves my sisters had been given. Ioana once told me the castle was built upon an older castle and I thought this might be true, for the sarcophagi seemed of a style that did not entirely correspond to the ruined chapel, images of women holding garlands of flowers upon the lids. But even Ioana could not say how long ago the previous castle had stood, or who had been its master.

Not that it mattered. Now we were its mistresses, laughing as we swirled inside the empty chambers, decked in clothes of ladies who had long turned to dust, ravaged by worms.

He had not liked our liquid laughter, the way it bounced against the ancient walls. Hating it as though it might peel the bricks away revealing an older layer of stones. He was gone, and we laughed.

I braided tiny flowers into Anca’s hair while Ioana told us fairy tales from her childhood. Sometimes, she forgot the endings and we invented our own.

I was careful with my looks and attire. I’d compel Anca and Ioana to bathe with me under the cold rain. Or to pull water from an old well and fill a great copper tub. Anca always said I was the vainest of us all. Ioana said I was the fairest.

I knew I’d been his favourite and the constant ablutions, the ribbons in the hair and the heavy, old pieces of gold against my skin had been meant all for him. His absence had not altered my routine. I was still prim and careful with my clothes, my hair. Through the years, I had noticed that Anca and Ioana sometimes ignored such niceties, nails caked with dirt and blood. As though they had forgotten, or did not care, to keep any semblance of life.

When they were in this state – and they sank into this miasma, deeply upon his departure  – they might remain still for several days. Not a muscle twitching. Nothing. Just a deep silence interrupted by bouts of terrible ferocity. They sometimes gnawed at each other, not a pup’s nipping, but a full-blown attack.

In those moments I did not know them and I wondered if this was a sign of their true age. Or simply the vast melancholy that clothed them.

Either way, I reeled them out of this state. Reeled them into little dances and the clapping of hands. The castle vibrated with our voices.

And whenever I’d catch myself thinking of him again, my hands running over the maps he had left behind, I’d seek their comfort and their smiles.

#

It happened as it was meant to happen. The spell shattering abruptly, as it must.

Ioana dreamt the castle crashed into the river far below. I held her in my arms as she wept, speaking of a terrible omen. I convinced Ioana and Anca to play hide-and-seek with me, like I’d done with my sisters when we were little. We rushed through long corridors, sneaking beneath archways and laying still, as lizards and slugs crawled besides us. Night creatures, the lot of us, out to play.

The wind and rain whipped the castle, lightning striking nearby, and we giggled.

I raced up to the tallest tower of the castle, wolves howling, wind screeching, and stopped in my tracks feeling a tug and a pull inside my skull.

I knew he was returning home.

#

Emboldened by his nearness, Ioana and Anca  agreed to step out of the fortress some nights later. We looked for him in the coldness, in the dark, hoping we might encounter his carriage. Instead, we found the woman and the strange man. The woman bore his mark upon her, glowing like an ember. Another sister for our tribe.

The man was untainted. Strongly-built and blue-eyed. He reminded me vaguely of my stern and resolute father and I stared at him for a long time. I thought of the night I slipped out of my house, headed up to the old castle, and the distant cry of surprise I must have imagined – I must have – springing from my father’s lips, escaping the desolate, little white house.

We can never look back or we will be turned into pillars of salt. I suppose that is why Anca and Ioana remembered very little of their youth. Perhaps that is why they forgot themselves some days, growing fierce and empty.

I stared at the man and he stared back at me while Anca and Ioana laughed.

I think my silence, my eyes upon him, were my salvation.

#

I do not know why he did not kill me. Though he tried. He did try. But the stake did not lodge firm against the heart. Distraction? Weariness? Perhaps my own power over mortal minds, woven in that long look, shielded me. Perhaps he felt pity.

Whatever it was, I woke to the icy knowledge of Anca and Ioana’s death. I did not even have to look at their sarcophagi to know. But I did look. Empty. Not a bit of hair, not a speck of bone. Nothing but dust.

I knew he was dead too. I felt his absence. I had not been this alone in years upon years. Centuries even. The loneliness reverberated through my body.

My shift was stained with my own blood upon the breast, where the stake or a knife bit the flesh before he pulled away. I let my usual sense of cleanliness escape me and did not change my dress, eating millipedes and insects for three whole days.

Without Anca and Ioana my sense of purpose disappeared. I feared leaving the chapel. I thought his enemies might return. On the third day there was a great murmur through the fortress, a rumble that startled me and had me pressed against the wall in terror. When I ventured out of the chapel I realized a section of the castle had collapsed. The old bricks had finally given away, groaning and plunging into the river below.

The sight roused me. I no longer felt safe in the chapel.

I turned into a wolf and leapt beyond the castle walls, not knowing where I’d go. The icy night air cut my hands, my feet.

#

It was easy to find my sisters’ graves. I had not forgotten the location. I had merely buried it away, and now dug through layers of memory until I arrived at the plot of earth that kept their bones. My father’s remains might be there too, though I did not know for sure.

I curled upon the ground and crossed my arms upon my chest.

He had never loved. But I had. I’d loved Anca and Ioana. Their little smiles and their games. Their sweetness and their cruelty, and the way their black eyes shone in the darkness, as if burnished. It was all gone and I couldn’t even muster the energy to crave revenge.

My fingers dug into the earth and I thought I might bury myself with my sisters. Rest my bones against their bones. Cradle them once more. I would not be alone then, for their ghosts would keep me company.

I lay like this for a very long time and then, finally, I stood up and ripped my shift off. I fashioned a simple pouch out of it, scooping earth into it and tying it close. I thought of returning to the castle for some of the valuables there. Perhaps one of the maps. I discarded the idea.

Years later, I wonder if I shouldn’t have returned and scooped a trinket, a map, after all. My memories of those days have grown dimmer and dimmer. I sometimes wake up with a vision of two dark-haired women, but their names escape me. I wonder if a memento might help pin the thoughts in place. Or perhaps it would not make a difference. Perhaps we are all meant to wander with nothing but a handful of earth in our hands, never looking over our shoulders.

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