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The Night Brides by Leah Erickson

The Night Brides by Leah Erickson

Fiction, Vol. 4.4, Dec. 2010

Here, brides fell from the sky, drifting silently through the night like wingless white angels.

It happened on certain evenings, lonely evenings, after the dinner dishes were washed, when all the doors were locked and the porch lights turned off. Sarah could tell when they were coming because the sky would go from black to blacker, heavy with clouds, and there was a certain hush in the air, as before a snowfall.

But it wasn’t snow. The sky wept brides. Their faces from the distance could not be made out. They seemed blank and inscrutable, their white veils fluttering up and out like pennants, white flags of distress.

The secret, Sarah quickly came to learn, was not to try too hard to see them. She unfocused her eyes, softened her gaze, and looked only at the edges of things. Then the brides would come in a thick flurry.

The first time she had seen them was when they first moved into the new house, and most of her dolls and books and clothes were still boxed up. She was supposed to have been asleep, not looking out the window. And what she saw outside delighted her, at first. But then she was a little afraid. She had the shameful feeling that this was something she was not supposed to see. Like all magic things. Santa. The tooth fairy. The Easter Bunny. So she ran back to her bed, scrunching her eyes shut, trying to unsee it in her mind’s eye.

But, then it happened again on another night, and she was not afraid. She knew it was safe. She felt a communion, between herself and the night brides. As though between them, they knew a secret truth.

*

The first person she told of this was her father.

“Dad, do you ever see the ladies in the sky?”

Her father had been lying on the couch, as he did a lot ever since he had come home for good. When he had first moved back, her parents had been happy. They’d walk everywhere arm in arm. They whispered jokes and laughed. They would spend long hours together with the bedroom door closed. But things had changed in the new town. Things were quieter. Her father was quieter, and lay on the couch, though he never seemed to sleep.

“What ladies, hon?”

“The brides,” she whispered.

He looked up at her with new alertness. A half-smile played upon his lips and his mouth opened. He was about to say something, but then Sarah’s mother, who had just walked into the room, said, “Shhh.”

She was in her work clothes, her leotard and tights with a wrap skirt over it. Her long hair was in a braid that draped over one shoulder. Her eyes looked tired. She had been teaching people to dance all day.

“But, mom, I was just talking about the…”

“Yes, hon, I know. Just…don’t.”

“Why? Because it’s magic?”

“Because….” She looked to the side, thinking. “Because the people in this town…well. Sometimes it’s okay to see things, to notice things. But you should be careful how you talk about them.”

“Why?”

“Because the people here…well sometimes with people, there are lines you don’t cross.” She looked away for a moment. “And the thing of it is, those lines keep shifting and changing, so it’s kind of hard…

“Angie?” Her father was looking at her mother with a concerned look on his face.

But she wouldn’t look back at him.

“What I meant to say, Sarah, is sometimes it’s just simplest not to bring these things up.”

*

Her new elementary school was a low brick building in the center of a field. The smell of school food wafting from the cafeteria gave her an anxious, empty feeling of homesickness. And the frenetic energy given off by large groups of children always unnerved her. And she was alone. Her brother, Artie, had begun middle school. He had already made new friends on his soccer team.

On the wall of the school’s front foyer was a brightly painted mural featuring settlers in wagons rolling through the plains, along with bright-feathered, friendly looking Indians. All of them grinning pink-cheeked smiles, but not looking at each other. The settlers and Indians were all looking out, at her.

Who are you? a group of girls asked when they approached her as she sat on a bench at recess.

Sarah.

Where are you from?

I come from another town. My mother runs a dance school and my father is an explorer scientist. He works with carbons. But he’s not working now. Now he’s just home. Home for good.

And then she suddenly turned and looked behind her, where a wind picking up across the empty field. She turned as if something were coming up from behind.

*

The paper lantern had a rotating shade that threw out a design of stars and rockets and planets in a soft amber light, spinning over the bedroom walls, making her feel pleasantly dizzy in her bed.

“Dad, I missed you when you went away. I don’t want you to go on another research trip.”

“Well, I have no more funding. Things didn’t go as I planned.”

“I don’t care. You were like a real frontiersman! Tell me about your research.”

He shifted on the bed. “I was studying the things that live in that cold, cold water.”

“And you lived in the ice.”

“Yes.”

“And it was beautiful.”

“Yes.”

“And that’s why you got lost.”

He was silent. “I’ll tell you stories about that. Beginning tomorrow night. I promise. Because now, it’s late, little girl.”

“Dad?”

“Yes?”

“Are you happy in this new town?”

There was a pause. “Yes.” Then more emphatically, “Yes, of course.”

“Is mom mad at you?”

“No…”

“Dad? Did you ever think…that everything in the future…is already happening?” She looked at her dolls now lined on her shelf, at her kitty poster, out the window, at the cool harvest moon. She wasn’t sure how to phrase this feeling she’d had. “And everything in the past…is happening still…”

He laughed. “You’re getting awfully metaphysical on me, hon..”

“Meta—”

“Lights out.”

And then it was dark.

*

This was a place full of history. The town square was full of monuments of frontiersmen, and the American flag hung everywhere. There were museums, it seemed, on every block. Many museums, but no churches.

Mother took Sarah and Artie to the biggest museum on a rainy Sunday afternoon. “We may as well learn about where we live. Seeing as we’re here to stay, right?”

The rooms of the museum were huge and eerily empty. Some were filled with American Indian artwork, and Indian music played, all wailing and drumbeats, emanating around them from unseen speakers. Sarah ducked into a replica teepee. Artie did not join her as he would have when he was younger. He stood by a wall playing a handheld computer game.

Then they came to a room full of dioramas behind glass. Miniature scenes of white families drove covered wagons, leading their oxen, cows and mules through the grassy plains.

A voice spoke when you pushed a button, but the audio was faulty and faded in and out, so that there were only broken phrases. New frontier…immigrant families from Germany…Scandinavia.…promise of cheap land

Another diorama showed Indians fighting with white men. And another showed a room with a woman caring for sick people. Death came to many…whether from cholera or simply by being caught up unexpectedly in a winter storm

Sarah was starting to feel unwell very suddenly. Looking at these tiny families from her giant’s perspective was giving her vertigo. They were so small. And the land was so infinite, it seemed dizzying as deep space. She thought of her father, alone in the arctic, lost in that beauty and freezing to death. She imagined a diorama of her family in their blue station wagon, driving alone across a vast unfamiliar plain, with wolves coming after them. Her heart began to beat faster, and there was a buzzing in her ear. She was about to ask her mother for a cold drink when the world grew dark and fuzzy around the edges and she collapsed.

*

Much later, still feeling strange, she lay covered up in her own bed even though the sun was still up, listening to her parents outside her door.

They couldn’t find anything. They did an EKG and everything. They said not to worry, though they did ask me if she was under any stress

Why would they ask a question like that?

I don’t know. She’s started sucking her thumb again, and you know that thing she does with her hands…

Why are you looking at me that way when you say that?

Oh, I don’t know Mike! It just seems maybe your little adventure took more of a toll than you thought! I hope you enjoyed chasing a fantasy. It’s certainly taken its toll on me.

I’m sorry!

I don’t believe you—you’ve lied to me too much already! Footsteps walking away. And I’m keeping her home from school tomorrow. She doesn’t look right. Can I trust you to keep an eye on her?

Angie! She’s my daughter!

That evening, Sarah sat at the window to see that the brides were falling from the sky thicker and heavier than before, but at such a distance that they could have been magnificent white birds. She could forget herself completely, watching the night brides. She wondered what it would be like to drift like that, so light and so pure that no one could even acknowledge that you existed. Because you weren’t of this world.

*

She lay propped up on pillows, surrounded by books and sketchpads and crayons. The late morning light burned stripes through the window blinds.

“Dad, can you tell me some stories now? About your trip?”

He set a glass of orange juice on her bedside table, then settled beside her on the bed. He wore his pajama pants and a holey T-shirt. “Well. I’ll tell you about the arctic light. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The colors of that sky were all very, very intense pastels—pinks and blues and greens and yellow, The colors just glowed. The sky was iridescent.”

“Wow. I want to see that someday.”

He gave her hand a pat, and smiled dreamily. “And these boulders of blue ice! They were tall and jagged as castle turrets.”

“Take me! It’s not fair!”

“Darling, you’re young. That place was beautiful, but dangerous. Maybe someday when you’re more grown up.”

“I bet Mom would like to go there, too. She never goes anyplace.”

“Well. I don’t know if she would want to go there. She doesn’t like the cold. I almost turned into a snowman. Like Frosty.”

“And then we would never see you again, because if you came home you would melt!”

“Yes. But I didn’t freeze. Here I am…” He trailed off and lay his head next to hers on her pillow, and after a long time began to snore. He always stayed up at night, and then fell asleep at the oddest times during the day.

Sarah got out of bed. She wasn’t tired. And now she had the whole house to herself.

She went downstairs, where she ate maraschino cherries from a jar and watched a cartoon about talking puppies with oversized heads and large rolling eyes. They played nothing but shows for babies this time on a school day.

She got down her parents’ wedding album, a fat white leather-bound book kept high up on the bookshelf in the den.

Her mother didn’t look like most of the brides in books or on television. She wore a plain white dress with skinny straps that looked like a long silky slip, and her hair was down in lots of teeny, tiny braids. She was not even wearing shoes. She had a pierced nose. Her body was tiny and muscled and compact. She had been a real dancer, but not in shows like Swan Lake. She did what she called “modern ballet,” and toured the whole country with her troupe.

Her father was in graduate school for geoengineering. In the photo he seemed taller and stronger and more awake than he did now. Her parents used to tell stories of what a wild party the wedding had been, a mix of artists and scientists. No one could believe that two such different people could find each other and marry. We were young, wild-eyed dreamers, her mother said. We thought we would both be famous. It was very romantic. Everyone said they couldn’t wait to see what kind of children they made.

Her favorite photo in the album was of her parents sitting at a long, white-draped table. Her mother was sitting in the middle and she was swallowing fire. She actually had a little torch, and she had her head leaned back so that her delicate white throat was arched forward, and she was swallowing flame! The guests were all leaning back from her, afraid of getting burned, but her father was grinning. He looked delighted, like he was the luckiest groom on earth. In the next photo, her mother held the torch aloft, smiling widely, enjoying the applause.

*

“How are you feeling?”

“Fine.”

Her mother’s eyes scanned her face, queerly intense. They were a pale, washed-out grey, as though they had been bleached from staring into the sun, looking out onto vast horizons. There were pale lines at the corners of her eyes from squinting. “You have dark circles. Did you drink a lot like I told you?”

“Um…”

“Was your father watching you, or was he sleeping?”

“Um…” Sarah was silent. Her mother was often tired when she came home from work, and only wanted good news. Running a dance school, even one in a midwestern strip mall, required long hours almost every day. Plus the business end, the endless paperwork…

Her father made spaghetti for diner, as he did most nights. The table was quiet. Her mother looked strained, as though something was hurting her inside. Her brother was listening to something through his ear buds, something with a tinny electronic beat, barely perceptible. Her father looked hollow-eyed and haunted.

The silence lasted until both kids were in bed. Then the house came alive again.

Mike, you’ve got to work your way through this. I can’t do this alone. I can barely keep it together in front of the kids.

I’m fine.

You’re not. You’re a shell. Ever since you got back from the…You know what? I can’t have this discussion again. I’m so angry! You’ve completely checked out on me. And now our child is ill. I’ve made an appointment with a neurologist…

Let her be! She says she’s fine!

Sarah realized that she was hugging herself under the covers, gripping her own body so hard that her arms were tingling, full of pulses and sparks.

*

It was tiny. Small enough to keep on her nightstand. Something just to start out with. But it was real. A real portable telescope. Her father had bought it for her, put it together and showed her how to put in the eyepiece and adjust the finder scope.

Sarah had asked for a telescope, but was surprised to receive one so quickly when it wasn’t her birthday. He had asked her what she wanted to look at with it. Usually she always told the truth. But something in her said not to talk about the brides in the sky. So she told him she wanted to look at the stars. So that first night, she, her father, and brother took it outside in the backyard to find the constellations.

She was allowed to go back to school, but was told she was still recovering so she had to “take it easy.” So as soon as she came home, she would sit at the window, looking through the telescope. It startled her, just how far of a distance she could see. Such mundane things in such sudden, sharp detail. A nest of hatchlings in a tree a block away. A neighbor’s cat, licking itself. A woman at her kitchen window, washing dishes, pausing for just a moment to stare straight ahead into space.

“Lucky,” said her brother, who’d come into her room and flicked her on the side of her head with his fingers. “Why did you get a new telescope?”

“Because I’m sick.”

“Faker.”

“If a grownup says I’m sick, then it must be the truth.”

*

Tell me a story.

Real or magic?

Magic!

I’ll tell you the story of my Great Arctic Dive. Umm…you see…it was all white, all around me. Sometimes the glittering ice could reflect back that pastel neon sky and make me confused. Disoriented. Like I was having a fever dream. And I had no one to describe it to. I had been isolated too long. In my head was a high, awful screeching, like the sound of someone driving a metal spike into an ice block.

I came to feel delirious, like I was in imminent danger. Like I was being chased. I went back to the research base, to my small aquarium cut into the ice. I stared down into it, that square of water teeming with life. I was thinking of all the good I wanted to do if people would just let me. I stared down into that hole, into the water. And something was looking back at me.

Something was under there. A creature of light and emotion.. We were in awe, looking at each other. Soon, it was trying to talk to me. It was communicating with a type of light and sound code. Somehow, I understood it. And it made me feel so good all of a sudden. I felt good and worthy. And do you know what I did? I stood up, raised my arms, and plunged head first into the hole in the ice. And I was swimming with the creature. I was one with it. I swam and swam, weightless. I was stunned by the beauty. You can’t…you can’t even… I was swimming in a sea of euphoria. I was radiant. And I think I drowned.

Dad? I don’t really like this story. It’s scaring me.

Then aren’t you glad it isn’t really true?

He turned his face away as though he were suddenly embarrassed.

*

“The other kids at school are making fun of me. They call me weird. I hate it there.”

“Well, hon, ignore them, and they’ll get bored an leave you alone.” Her mother was at the computer, watching a live stream of a hummingbird. She was watching it more and more, every day. Hypnotized “Isn’t this amazing? Look at it, Sarah. It’s so fragile. So delicate. And we can watch it from so close.”

“But it’s not even real.”

“It’s a live stream. What do you mean it isn’t real? It’s close enough!”

“Nevermind.”

“Sarah! Let me have my small pleasures, okay? You don’t know what it’s like to be a grownup. It can be a real drag sometimes, when you don’t grow up to be what you wanted. You won’t know what it’s like until you grow up yourself.”

Her mother turned to give her a stern glance. Sarah thought she looked careworn and weak. Just like her father.

Her parents had been different around each other lately. There was no more fighting. They whispered together again, like two children. When her mother looked at her father, a hopeful, hesitant smile played upon her lips. A pleading sort of look. Her father sometimes took her in her arms and held her without saying anything. But he just looked tired. Like he was hanging onto her to keep from falling over.

For the first time in her life, Sarah looked at her parents and thought, I never want to be like them. Ever. I would rather die than be like that.

*

She knew it would be one of those evenings, because the sky was like wet cotton, and the air was almost too heavy to breathe.

She told her parents good night. When her father offered to tell her a bedtime story, she said no thank you.

When the house settled down into silence, Sarah got up and quietly pulled the curtains aside. And then she concentrated on absolute stillness. She would be so quiet and so still. She would not move, and barely even think. Because when her head was empty of thoughts, and her gaze went soft and unfocused, that was when they would come.

And sure enough, there soon came a glimmer, and a delicate white flutter high in the sky. Finally. She bent and put her eye to the telescope, slowly moving it back and forth.

It was difficult to track just one all the way through. She was still new with the telescope and she had a hard time with it. The smallest movement and the bride would be lost. But what she was able to see was amazing. She saw one wearing a dress that was strapless with a full, swishy skirt of dotted tulle. Her hair was arranged in stiff, tight curls and her lips were red. As she glided down through the night, her hands were folded, and her eyes were downcast, as if in prayer.

And then the view jerked to the right, and Sarah lost her. She took her eye away from the telescope, but then she was unable to tell which bride she had been looking at. They looked sort of the same now.

Then again. This time one with long, full hair, and a long tight dress with largely padded shoulders, but she disappeared behind a tree.

She tried again, this time picking out one who was a little away from the rest. Through the finder scope she saw that this one was wearing a dress that was shorter than any of the others. The dress was knee length and trimmed in…feathers? This time Sarah would not be distracted by details. She had to concentrate to the very end, to see where the bride would land. Because she had made up her mind, this very evening. She was tired of sitting in her room like a prisoner. She was going to have an adventure for once. She was going to scope out a bride, and go out and find her. Because it wasn’t only grownups who deserved to go chasing beautiful things that weren’t real.

Her hand and her eye were steady, tracking the bride as she drifted down, and this time she knew where she was: in a vacant lot at the end of the street.

*

Sarah had her very own Hello Kitty flashlight with a new battery in it. She put a down coat on over her pajamas and a pair of sneakers. Then she crept down the stairs and out the side door.

Even though there was no moon out, the heavy night sky seemed to radiate a diffuse light, like a silvery moonstone. The air was cold and damp, but Sarah felt overheated with excitement as she made her way to that area of overgrown grass and rusted chain link fence, where sometimes kids would come to play games of kickball and freeze tag. It looked so strange and solemn and quiet now.

Hardly daring to breathe, Sarah stood on the edge of the lot and listened. There was nothing but the chirping of bugs and the rattle of someone’s flagpole in the wind. She turned on her flashlight and walked around. The vacant lot was at the dead end of a street, before the woods began. It was a bit of a scary place, actually. Her beam of light caught shards of broken beer bottles, like shards of amber.

At last, she heard something faint. A mewing, like a cat or a puppy. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up. It was coming from the woods. She wanted to run, but she did not. She couldn’t. It felt as though she were being pulled against her will.

She almost stepped right on her. It was her bride, sitting on the ground, propped up against a large tree root. Her face was in her arms. Since she wasn’t looking at Sarah, she felt free to stare as much as she wanted. Her heart was beating wildly with excitement. And Sarah felt a strange, stiff smile on her own lips. But she didn’t know if it was because she was about to laugh or cry.

This bride was different from any she had ever seen. For one thing, her headpiece was different. It wasn’t a tiara or a ring of flowers. It was a type of ruffled cap, like a shower cap, or those types of things little girls wore to bed a long, long time ago. It was a ruffled cap decorated with flowers, with a veil attached to the back. The dress had long full sleeves with a dropped waist. The skirt came down to her knees and was trimmed not with feathers—now Sarah could see it was trimmed in soft, white fur.

Then, again, the bride let out a little sob, sort of a little bray like a sheep or a lamb.

“Are you okay?”

The bride did not answer. She was acting as though Sarah were not there.

“Are you okay? Why are you crying? Did you get hurt when you landed?”

The bride did not look hurt, though. Only a little dirty. Sarah went over closer to her, knelt down, and softly touched her arm.

The bride looked up. She was very pretty, even though her eyes were drawn in with dark, dark makeup. Her lips were a blackish red and painted into a tiny bow. Her eyebrows were long, straight lines. And her blonde hair was chin length with soft waves in it. The moonlight made her skin look a little blue, like a newborn baby she had seen once on a baby show.

She looked up, but not at Sarah. She did not seem to be looking at anything; her gaze seemed turned inward. Mend der er jeg” she asked quietly. Mend der er jeg? Whatever this meant, she seemed to be asking only herself. And then she covered her face.

“I only speak English. Do you know any English?”

The woman’s shoulders began to shake again.

Sarah thought of a time, long ago, when she got lost at the department store, and what a relief it was when a woman shopper noticed her crying, and took her by the hand to the service desk. What a relief it was to be led somewhere. Maybe if she could just get the bride moving, somewhere, she would begin to feel better.

She put an arm around her shoulder and gave her a pat. “It’s going to be okay. Really. You don’t have to cry. Here. Stand up and we’ll go walking.”

The woman’s hand was dry and ice cold, but it was small, almost as small as Sarah’s. She pulled her up and led her forward.

After they walked for a few moments, the bride seemed to notice Sarah for the first time. She smiled down at her hesitantly. “Heisann,” she whispered. “Skjann pilan.”

Sarah gave her hand a squeeze. Maybe everything would be okay. She was going to help this woman. She would be strong and sure, not weak. Not afraid. Perhaps this bride had been sent to her for just this purpose. She would help her, and then they would be very special friends. Best friends.

They ended up wandering in circles around the neighborhood. Because it slowly dawned on Sarah that she could not bring her home. Because how would she explain it? What kind of trouble would she be in? Would they let the bride stay in Sarah’s room?

The bride began humming and singing a tune in her own language. But she seemed anxious, and kept looking around her, searching for something. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” Sarah cooed. When they got close enough to the little neighborhood playground, Sarah led her to a bench and they sat down.

Some of the swings were moving in a lifting breeze, making a creaking, whining sound. Like a haunted house. The jungle gym looked like something made of spindly bones. Sarah began to feel afraid, and moved closer to her friend on the bench.

After a long quiet moment the bride held up her left hand. There was a wedding band on her finger. She slipped it off and handed it to Sarah.

The band was thick and heavy in her fingers. Sarah held it up to the streetlight. An engraving read: Arin and William 1927.

The woman was looking at her expectantly, as though she was waiting for Sarah to tell her something. To give her some kind of answer. But Sarah only shook her head. It just didn’t mean anything to her. Except that she now knew her friend’s name. She said, “Arin. I like that name.”

Arin again started to become agitated, rocking back and forth and wringing her hands. But the longer they sat, the more quiet and muffled her noises became. She was beginning to turn transparent, like a wisp of smoke. Before long, all that was left of the night bride was a whisper that hung in the night air. Mend der er jeg. Where am I.

Sarah was left alone, still holding the wedding band, though she did not want it. Feeling its weight in her hand gave her a heaviness in her chest. The weight of responsibility. It made her tired.

She walked alone back to her house, relieved to see that the lights were still out. No one had missed her. She would not be in trouble.

On her way to her own bed, she stood for a moment at the door of her parents’ bedroom, looking in. They slept holding each other, but in a frantic way, as though they had fallen onto the bed from a great distance and had clutched at each other in terror.

She took the heavy gold ring and placed it on their bedside table with a heavy clink. If they asked in the morning where it had come from, she would say nothing.

In her own room, she felt a little airier, a little bit lighter, as though she could be a night bride herself. As if she could drift weightlessly up, defying gravity. It was a feeling that was pure, if difficult to name. And when she looked out the window from her bed that night, nothing fell out of it at all.

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