Fiction: FRACTURED by Tiffany Wall

“Tragedy.”

“Just a wee little thing.”

“And she so young.”

“He’ll burn in hell, he will.”

Their words slither upward through the spiraling snow, wrapping around my consciousness and awakening me from this frozen sleep. I drift along with the bitter wind for a moment as I look down upon the small gathering of faces and forms I once knew. Somewhere in my memory, I know of what they speak, yet, somehow, it doesn’t seem quite right. Parts of the story are missing, I’m sure.

Perhaps it is only human nature to imagine the worst in all people. Given their frame of reference, perhaps that is the only way they can make sense of it all. However, even from my point of view, the images and memories of that time spiral out from my thoughts and hide in a smoky mist of pale gray.

I pull myself downward through the icy wind and move toward them. As if sensing my approach, they tighten their lips and look out across the fields at the gathering snow clouds rolling through the darkening sky. Not a single person looks my way as I pass, though I feel the shifting of bodies as I brush by like a sigh of bitter cold. I keep my eyes lowered to the ground.

A pair of worn boots come into view, bringing me up short. Raising my head, I find myself looking into the wizened eyes of Annie. The old woman chuckles and squints hard at me.

“Get on with you, girl. You’ve no need to be here. Go home.”

I hear the snickers behind me as well as the words “mad” and “witch” mingled in with their scorn for this woman. I should not be surprised by her ability to see me. It’s her way. I glide past her and make my way quickly out of town and onto the wooded path that leads to my home.

The trees and their bare branches reach toward the graying sky as if imploring the snow to stop. The wind tugs at those branches as I travel along the heavy path, and I feel it push its icy breath straight through me. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t cold. So familiar, this sensation, that it has somehow become a part of my very being. It is a feeling that goes hand in hand with this raw sadness that permeates me.

But there was a time when I knew happiness. I search through the clogged and foggy fragments of my memory, grasping for a remembered moment of warmth and joy. Yes, now I recall…a downy soft head of gold and wide blue eyes. But along with that glimpse of true happiness comes a slice of pain that makes me gasp.

For a moment, I stumble along in the snowy path with that pain. Closing my eyes, I inhale deep breaths of icy air, trying to dispel the vision. I shake my head and pull my shoulders back and continue my journey home along the path I have followed time and time again.

I can see the lone cabin in the distance and the glow of firelight from the single window. I shiver in anticipation with the thought of warming my hands by the large stone hearth, and I push my way through the snow.

Beyond the house, I sense the small lake nestled among the dark pines of my home. It’s gentle surface now covered with layers of deep snow and ice, and the fish still swimming round and round below that thickened frosty glass. I feel the still frogs burrowed deep in the mud even farther below, silent in their long winter sleep and oblivious to the snow squalls swirling in the world above. I envy those fish that continue to go on with life regardless of the shrinking world around and above them, and I long for the sleep enjoyed by the frogs in their death-like stupor.

The wind picks up in intensity as I get closer to the cabin, and I can hear it singing through the planked cracks of the door as I finally reach for the tired latch. I fumble with frozen fingers to open the door, jiggling the fastener several times before finally lifting it. As I step into the room, a gust of wind rushes up behind me, pushing me out of the way and slamming the door into the wall with a deafening bang. The wind quickly fills the small room with its icy presence. For a moment, I stand frozen in fear as I spot him sitting silently at the large table. My eyes search frantically about the single room before coming to rest on my grandmother’s quilt stretched across our bed, and I let out a breath I do not remember holding.

He jerks up out of the chair he is sitting in, sending it crashing down upon the wood planks. I force myself to stand my ground as he turns to look my way, reminding myself that he no longer has the power to hurt me. His eyes hold a hint of wildness as he steps toward me, and I wonder briefly if he senses my presence. But he only looks through me as if I am nothing more than the winter wind that now blows freely through the room.

I can’t help but flinch as he reaches past me, grabbing hold of the door. I quickly step from its path as he slams it shut. Without a word, he walks back to the table, righting the discarded chair before returning to his seat. He turns back to his study of the flames that dance wildly in the fireplace. I drift cautiously toward the hearth, yearning to warm myself by the fire.

“It’s bitter cold out there,” I whisper, stretching my form toward the orange glow, “snowing again as well.” I do not expect him to respond, for I know my words are beyond him, but I find myself going on. “I can’t remember a time when it was this cold. No matter how many seasons I travel though, I can’t seem to get warm again.” Still no response from the silent solid figure behind me. I wonder if he is angry, and I stand stone still and listen to the silence stretch between us as I try to gauge his mood.

I feel another stab of pain as something from the foggy depths of my memory reaches out toward me, but I will not allow it to come for me again. Not yet. I close my eyes tight and push the pain back into the deep well of sadness that envelops me.

“Damn wind,” he grumbles, and I jump at the sound of his voice. I turn to look at him, but he continues to stare into the flames that pop and crack into the quiet around us. He drops his head into his hands. “It’s driving me mad.”

I wait for him to say more, but he simply sits there holding his head as if he, too, feels a pain like the one that murmurs within my own mind. Something begins niggling at my thoughts again. I swallow hard and turn back to the flames that dance in the fireplace.

My memory no longer trails behind me in neat little rows. Instead, I struggle to grab hold of the pictures, but they only swirl away from me in small jagged bits of color like pieces in a kaleidoscope. My mind tries to sort them into a pattern that makes sense. I twist and turn them about, and they snap quickly into place for a brief moment of crystal-clear symmetry before tumbling on to the next image. It’s an unending child’s game of hide-and-go-seek.

Breathing deep, I blur into the orange and red flames, melt into smoke, and travel upwards through the chimney and out into the heavy sky above. I turn, flurry, and swirl through the night sky, watching the colors wash from deep gray to smooth pebble stone before opening up to a swatch of cornflower blue. Between the breeze and the billowing cotton curtain of a window, I whisper into a room of my childhood home.

My mother sits still and straight as if she were part of the hard wooden chair. At the other end of the table, I recognize a bent head and small shoulders shaking in silent sobs. I am drawn into the sadness of that young girl, becoming the tears that roll down her pale cheeks.

“Ellie, pull yourself together now,” my mother says. “What’s done is done.”

“I can’t do this. I don’t know this man, and I can’t leave this place.” I reach out, placing my hand along her arm, longing to feel the comfort of flesh. “It’s the only place I have in this world.”

My mother shifts slightly so I am no longer touching her. She pulls herself up even tighter and further away from me. “You’ll make a new place for yourself.”

“But I don’t love him.”

“You’ll get along well enough, the both of you, and you’ll make a fine life together.”

“I can’t.”

My mother rises from her chair and moves toward the window, turning her back on me. “You’re of marrying age, Ellie. We can’t provide for you with another year of failing crops hanging over our heads. Besides, he seems a fine man, and your father likes him well enough.”

“I’m scared, Mother.”

She spins around quickly, arms folded tight, and stares back at me with hard eyes. “Listen up, child. You come from a long line of strong women. We’ve all had our hardships to bear. You will bear this out.”

“I can’t.”

A shuddering sob pushes me though a swirl of light, color, and sound. I lose track of myself for a moment before finding my center again perched atop the wagon seat, my belongings stacked behind me and a stranger sitting beside me. His large calloused hands hold the reins as we travel across the green stretch of land that no longer belongs to me.

A lone butterfly flutters along beside us in the hot summer air as the cicada’s farewell tune hangs about me. I shift my eyes to the left of the butterfly, continuing to see the wisp of yellow wing to the right of my gaze. I pretend it is the yellow corner of my mother’s apron flapping as she runs along beside the wagon, out of breath and crying.

Goodbye! Goodbye, Child. Write soon. We will miss you. Goodbye.

For this mother—this sad and nervous mother of my dreams, I straighten my shoulders and hold my head high. For her, I will be strong, and I will bear this out.

The butterfly shoots across the muscled backs of the horses, and I take refuge on a wing as I fly across time once more. The air thickens with sounds of humanity. Horse carts, wooden planked boardwalks, and chattering neighbors fill my senses. I stand beside the counter, fingering a soft muslin of cream and roses. Too fancy for me, but I envision a dress made out of it all the same.

“Morning, Ellie. How much do you need cut?”

I jerk out of my reverie and look into the kind eyes of Will who stands behind the counter.

“Oh, no. Not this. It’s too lovely. I need something more solid and stable. A bit of this linsey-woolsey , I think.”

As he reaches across to pull the dark bolt of fabric from the counter, I continue to stroke the fine muslin material above. He freezes in his movements, causing me to look up. His eyes travel the bare flesh of my outstretched arm, and I feel the brush of his glance on each perfect purple bruise that encircles my wrist like the vise grip hold of a large calloused hand. I snatch my arm to my side and fall back into the depths of my shame, rolling with the currents of despair and through a tunnel dark as night. Rolling, rolling as whispers of pity and concern follow me out the door and into the dusty streets of town.

“It isn’t right.”

“She’s too young.”

“It’s not our concern.”

“And I say it’s not right.”

I ride the waves of their conversation, settling into the currents that carry me above shaking heads and huddled gossips. I long to stay in the arms of this moment, but a yanking on my skirt brings me back down to the wheel-rutted roads at the edge of town. Annie stands before me pushing a small muslin pouch into my hand.

“Chamomile, comfrey, and fennel. Boil it up good, skim it out of the pot, and make a compress. It’ll pull the bruising out.”

I peer inside seeing dried leaves, flowers, and stems tied up in bundles with cotton string. Each group wears a tag scrawled with its name in Annie’s own hand.

“There’s a bit of raspberry leaves and nettle too. You drink a cup of raspberry tea each morning until about the eighth month, and then switch to a weak tea of nettle leaves. That should do the trick,” she says with a wink. Too startled to respond, I simply stare blankly at the old woman, causing Annie to chuckle.

“And just what did you think that morning illness was about, child? Surely you felt it. Every mother knows.” Annie reaches up and pats my cheek with a smile, “You’ll be fine.”

And for this new discovery—for the possibilities stretching before me, I pull my shoulders back and hold my head high. For this, I will bear it out.

I feel the warmth of that new life nudging me gently—Hello, hello, I’m here—and that warmth spreads through my bones in waves of perfect pink light, wrapping around my heart and singing through my soul. I became one with that light, mingling my own bluish white with soft pink, and together we travel above trees of rippling green, through the pastels of spring, the brightness of summer, and the faded glory of autumn. Orange, red, and gold swirl before me, but his words pierce through the expanding colors, pulling me back through heavy air and dark sky, before exploding into early morning sunlight, streaming down upon a gathering of people below.

“ I don’t s’pose I got any more than I deserved in this life.” He stands beside Annie, holding his hat by the brim, turning it round and round with his large hands.

“We’re not given any more than we can bear, son.” Annie says.

“But I ain’t never counted on carrying such a heavy load.” In the distance, a crowd gathers, and I can feel the heat of hostility and unspoken accusations shimmering between them and my husband. Annie looks over her shoulder and then turns back to him.

“Pay no mind to what they say.”

“I didn’t kill her, Annie.”

“I know.”

“I didn’t touch that baby girl.”

“I know that too.”

“Why’d she do it? She loved Lilly. Lord, did she love that child. It just don’t make any sense.” He wipes across his eyes with a heavy hand and stares ahead to a spot just beyond me.

“It’s not for us to know.” Annie replies. “It’s between her and God now.”

Gentle pink at first feathers and lingers soft around me, but then begins slowly spinning away. With its absence comes a certainty I do not want to remember. Slowly I turn to see what lies just behind us all. My vision blurs, mists, then clears, and I see freshly turned soil mounded atop two graves. His words thunder through me as I take in the sight of one grave too small and tiny for a grown man or woman. Why did she do it? She loved Lilly.

The cold begins creeping up through my arms. A sob catches in my heart then bubbles up and over into my mouth. Unable to hold it in, I gasp out this pain as words crack like lightening through my soul.

No. No. That’s not right. That’s not how the story ends.

Roughly, I am pulled through light and dark, hot and cold before coiling down through the chimney and back into heated flames. He remains seated at the table, head in hands, still muttering on about the madness of the wind, and I, completely isolated from the reality of the winter storm that blows beyond the window, am flooded with the images of that late summer day.

And I remember.

I tumble through those memories, and slam into flesh and bone. The brightness of a fire blinds me and the smell of wood smoke stings my nostrils. I feel drops of sweat beading along my forehead and dripping between my breasts.

Wiping the moisture from my face, I finish preparing a meal for his return from a long day of working in the fields. The potatoes are scrubbed, the carrots peeled, and they are bobbing and dancing in the boiling water over crackling flames. I turn from the fire and hum the same lullaby I used earlier to sing her sweet asleep. I tiptoe toward the bed to check on her bundled form below the quilt.

My hand reaches for the cover of burgundy, black, yellow, and gold, and as I lift it, I see her tiny silent body. Too silent and too still. What is this? My hand brushes soft against her mouth, asking, yet I feel no answering breath blow against my fingertips.

I feel the shock of my knees slamming into wooden floor planks, and a part of me sinks deeper into those floors, through grained fibers, and into the earth below as I recognize the gray pall of death circling her tiny soul and stretching its foggy tendrils out and around my own spirit.

Lilly is gone. She is gone.

As I kneel upon the floor, my hand cradling Lilly’s downy head, I allow the sound of my grief to fill the empty room—an ancient keening—a sound that curls its way through the cracks and crevices of the cabin walls and out into the early evening air.

I cling to the quilt with one hand and stroke her lifeless body with the other, and the darkness comes. And in that moment of pure black despair, I grasp onto the light of a deep certainty: I surrender. I choose to let go of my hold on this earth, for I no longer have the strength to bear out this pain. I will not bear the punishment of his harsh words and his heavy hand day after day. And I will not bear a life without Lilly.

With a calmness settling deep into my bones, I gather her still form in my arms and make my way out the door and back to the lake behind our home. The August sun’s rays spill through the pine boughs, dappling the surface of summer stagnant waters. I stumble briefly with grief and madness. Quiet sobs tremor through my small frame, as I clutch her head to my chest.

Pulling myself from this physical form, I spiral upwards into the sky through time, seasons, and space, grateful now for the icy winds that wrap tight around me. I will not watch this woman’s struggle into the lake that late summer day. I will not feel the murky liquid lapping at her feet and pulling at her long skirts as the cicadas’ farewell tune hangs about her. It is all too much to bear.

I continue to float up and up as the snow swirls around me, and I lose myself for a moment in this frosted mist. Gray, white, and purple night sky surrounds me, and then becomes a part of me. I feel the Hand, beckoning me forward once again. Come, Home, child. Come Home. It is time. Let it all go and come Home. Briefly I allow that Touch to soothe my bitter soul, and I can feel the loosening of pain like the crust of an old scab breaking off. But I pull myself up short.

No. It is too much. This grief is mine. I will wear it like a shroud. I will wrap myself in it for all days until the End of Time. This grief belongs to me. It is my place in this world. It is mine to bear.

I am dropping, drifting down from space and time, through the clouds and sky, and back into the swirling snow that blows along the landscape of a life I once knew. I sink past bare limbed trees and land softly on the winter lidded lake before sinking through the depths of drifted snow and thick ice into darkened waters where the fish swim round and round and the silent still frogs burrow deep in their sleep.

*****

I am a thirty-something writer, artist, and day to day miracle seeker living in Ohio. I enjoy writing poetry and short stories as a way to express so many of the ideas and images that play upon my mind everyday. I have always been drawn to tales of mysticism and the supernatural, and my own poems and stories often reflect this infatuation with all things magical. I am intrigued with the notion of ghosts and why these spirits choose to linger on this earth. Fractured is but my human attempt to possibly explain one such haunting.

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