Gina Maria Manchego & Richard M. Ankers

Gina Maria Manchego is a poet, writer, and mixed media artist native to Colorado. She has featured DarkWinter Lit, Lothlorien Poetry Journal and Paragraph Planet.

Richard M. Ankers is the English author of The Eternals Series and Britannia Unleashed. Richard has featured in Expanded Field Journal, Love Letters To Poe, Spillwords and feels privileged to have appeared in many more. Richard lives to write.

Gina and Richard love to finish whatever the other starts, and then wonder who has written  what.

The Winter Lily

A bride to the luminescent frost, she moved across the hibernating earth on a bitter midwinter morning. Her white veil flowed as her dress of gossamer leanings danced around her, like snowflake fairies from a children’s tale. She punctuated the dawn like a crisp, white handkerchief, perfectly tucked against the breast of a corpse’s burial suit. Yet, she was not dead, rather the pristine gleam of dawn. She was perfect, untouched, a fragile light.

#

I awoke with a start to desperate scratching at the windowpane. Puzzled, I flung on my soiled clothes from the day before. My bare feet ached at the touch of the near frozen floorboards, as I made my way over to the shutters. Hopping from one foot to the other, a futile attempt at trying to quell the pain of icy toes, I instinctively flung open the shutters as though it were my first glimpsed sunrise.

She was there.

A pearlescent face pressed to the window glass, her eyes frenzied and wide, like a fawn knowingly being hunted. Their ebon depths were a vivid contrast to the delicate white garment falling around her slender silhouette. Her bosom rose and fell rapidly as it pressed into the lace of that gown. The heart underneath fluttered to a staccato rhythm. Our eyes met. She blinked aside a tear as I did the same. A relieved looked washed over her as she crumpled to the cold, hard ground. She was like a fragile, wounded dove. What could I do but help? No man would’ve left her out in the cold.

She weighed next to nothing when I lifted her collapsed frame into my arms and carried her inside. I kicked closed the door and laid her gently in my bed, then busied myself with building a fire. But my eyes never left her, not for a moment, keeping a watchful gaze on the pale beauty resting upon the pillow. She stirred not one iota, her body limp as wet washing tossed across a line.

Soon, a roaring fire warmed the hearthstone. A tangerine glow filled the room as it chased away the frigid air.

She murmured, the faintest trace of a smile brushing her lips. I relaxed, for I thought I’d lost her.

I made a coffee, strong and black, took a seat opposite, and settled in to observe her exhausted slumber. It felt wrong to rouse her, so there I sat in silence. A watchman with only one duty, to keep her safe from any lurking harm, I vowed I’d guard the meagre walls that sheltered her from the dangers of the world.

#

She slept for hours. The sun rose and fell, the days short this time of year, the night having taken ascendency. Occasionally, she twitched, batted at a stray lock which swung across her brow, but this was all. In every other way, my strangest of guests remained catatonic. Only her metronomic breathing, falling so slowly as to stall, signalled her alive.

The moon was high in the sky. Night’s orb shone its milk-white beams like spotlights, filtering in from the gaps in the shutters. It played tag through the keyhole, tickled under the door, glacial and sparkling like a millionaire’s diamonds. She stirred.

“Thank… you…”

It was as if they were the first words she’d ever spoken, as though learned from a book, and only now practised. They escaped her lips in a timid breath.

“You’re safe,” said I.

She instantly fell back to sleep.

Minutes passed into hours, and then into days.

#

By the end of the week, she was well enough to take a few sips of vegetable soup. I made little else, as I hadn’t much. I was no hunter and had no desire to be. Killing was anathema to a man who hated the sight of even his own blood. She seemed not to mind the simple nutrients. What little she ate fuelled her will to sit up on her own. It felt like a new beginning.

“Where is this place?”

“My home.”

“No, this place?” She swept one white-sleeved arm.

“Deep in the wilderness,” I explained.

“Is your wilderness a big place?”

“By its nature, yes.”

“So big and wild that no one can be found upon entering it?” she asked.

The strange question ebbed in the air between us. I frowned my fears away.

“Who are you hiding from, Miss?”

I wasn’t prepared for the affrighted answer she gave.

#

Her name was Lily. She’d known only suffrage from the time of her birth. Having been left an orphan, she’d relied on the pity of others for food and shelter. She’d trudged alone through the cruelties of the world, but claimed she had her freedom, that she belonged to no one and nothing, and that counted for something. This had been her life for eighteen long years. That’s how long it took to realise it wasn’t something, it was nothing, and she’d resolved to end it.

In the dark depths of winter, Lily cried in solitude for what she thought was the last time. Her howls mimicked the wild beasts who watched the sullen scene play out before them. Her tears mimicked the rain. She stood in the thicket by the riverbank, held herself unwaveringly. Time paused. Her tears freezing like crystalline confetti. Swallowing hard, Lily spoke a bitter goodbye before dropping like a rock into the icy water.

As death does, he lurked about that river bank the night Lily would have given herself to the netherworld. He watched and waited, salivating at the thought of adding another sad soul to his collection. He moved as a shadow, slipped into the water, became part of the current that would bring the girl to the sediment beneath.

Death was ready for Lily’s soul when something peculiar happened. He was unused to such disturbances, for Death was ever a focused being: He glimpsed her lovely face. His arctic heart melted in her incandescent glow. The inky tresses of her hair curled around him in the water. Obsidian eyes blinked away tears too focused on eternity. Her pulse slowed, slowed, almost stopped.

In the evermore of infinity, Death never once expected to desire a living creature until that night when he met the weeping Lily. In that instant, she became his paramour. Beauty had come to the darkness eternal.

And Death knew obsession, then. His desire overwhelmed him. It was too much to leave her in the purgatories of the hereafter. Selfishly, he wanted Lily to be his bride, to have her flesh. His decision was clear. He plucked her near dead body from the river and whispered, “At dawn, you shall be mine.”

#

Lily had awoken to a lightness she’d never experienced before. Her skin shone a porcelain translucence. Her eyes saw things they ought not, ears heard everything, heart felt more. She travelled across the wilderness like a youngling witnessing life for the first time, never realising she was a newborn ghost. Death followed. Death would always follow.

He wore at her, though she hadn’t known it him. His yearnings drained what energy she possessed. His want was more than she could take. Desperate, she had searched for something, someone. That someone was me.

Mine was the only home in the wilderness, the one Lily had found. Mine was the shack in the middle of a dream. I had never expected company, nor asked for it, but now the winter Lily was here…

I, too, was a ghost, just of a different sort. Long ago, I had said my goodbyes to the outside world and all its hardships. Flesh and bone I remained, but I roamed the forest like a lonely spectre. I was a hollow memory of the man I used to be before time, loss, and heartbreak drove me to disappear deep into the woods. Deeper still, into the solitude of my troubled mind.

Now, we talked together as though old friends. Fate was supposed to be a solitary business.

“What are you saying, Lily? That Death will come for you?” I stammered even at the utterances of the question.

She replied with grim reckoning. “It’s but a matter of time.”

Even with such an ominous warning, I insisted she stayed.

#

Death was quiet and, most of all, wise. He laid in wait in the days that followed while I nursed Lily back to a place of soundness. Although she walked with one foot in this waking world and one in endlessness, she remained nebulous and delicate. Perpetually floating like a silk shawl lifted by the breeze, she wavered in my vision. I would confess that during those days I understood Death’s need for her. Every flutter of an eyelash, every word from her gentle lips, found me growing fonder of Lily. By the second week, I was certain that I loved her more than life itself. I dreaded what was to come and prayed silently that Death had found another muse. Of course, he hadn’t.

#

Sunday began ordinarily. The winter sun shone bright and bold. We went about our daily cohabitations, she flitting like a hummingbird, and me tending the fire.

That’s when it began. I couldn’t have anticipated the magnitude of his introduction.

You got used to the constant sounds of the wild when it’s your home. The birdsong and rustling of every beast’s roaming became ingrained in your mind. The noises were constant from dusk to dawn. We knew Death’s entrance at that moment, for the wilderness went mute. The trees were too frightened to drop a last brittle leaf. Not even a mouse dared titter in its burrow. The air weighted upon the world like lead.

Lily’s dark eyes met mine as I grasped at her hand. At that moment, a torrent of wind engulfed the four walls of our shelter, tearing off the door and shutters, splitting the floorboard at our feet. A plume of violent wind sucked into the chimney and burst forth as flames from the hearth. Malevolent heat whipped around us. Death’s vengeance licked at our bodies. The embers made easy work of the bridal lace Lily still wore.

My heart broke a thousand times, seeing her engulfed in the blaze of his rage. I screamed into the turbulence.

“I’ll give you my soul if you set hers free.”

Death puzzled over the gesture. Most mortals talk of love’s sacrifice, but few kept such promises when faced with certain death. The hurricane and brimstone waned as his voice crackled through the inferno.

You’d take her place? A trade for true love?” He hissed the words like vaporous steam, malevolent and disbelieving.

I looked into the gaping mouth of eternity and screamed. “Please, give her back her life. Her beauty and light belong on earth, not down there. Not down there,” I said again, my head shaking at such an injustice.

I held Lily’s hand as long as I could before Death took me. Or was it reclaimed? Her tears sparkled like radiant stars, lighting the way as I transcended into the ether of my ending. It was a silent demise. Gone were the flames. Gone was the winter. All that remained was a vision of my Lily dressed in her always white, reflecting in Death’s wet, abyssal eyes.

End

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