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The Church of the Living God and Rescue Home for Divine and Orphaned Children by Kimberly Lojewski

The Church of the Living God and Rescue Home for Divine and Orphaned Children by Kimberly Lojewski

Fiction, Vol. 7.2, June 2013

My best friend, Milagros, squeezes solid crystals out of her eyes twice a day that are generally semi-precious: beryl, amethyst, emerald, the especially painful rough ruby, watermelon tourmaline, aquamarine, and even sometimes the occasional diamond. Her mother used to sit her on a stool in front of crowds of onlookers and charge admission while she squeezed out crystals on demand. It cut her irises up pretty badly. Milagros is nearly blind now and her eyes are scarred white in places.

She’s still pretty in a tortured kind of way. Most of us are. Milagros has long, dark hair, delicate features, and skin the color of desert sand. We share a room together, since my glowing in the dark at night doesn’t bother her. On one side of the wall we have arranged her various crystals into a rainbow assortment of polished gemstones displayed on old wooden spice racks that someone donated to the orphanage. The citrine is my favorite. It gleams bright gold when I handle it. Milagros does not care if I touch the crystals. She has no interest in them, although they are worth a small fortune. She has given many of them to the nuns, who arrange them on altars and call them gifts from the Lord.

How I came to be born with a sun inside of me is a mystery. Of course the sisters say that it was Jesus-ordained, but I’m not totally convinced. I gave my mother terrible pain and heartburn during her pregnancy, and I emerged burning hot from the womb, covered, not in the traditional afterbirth, but a glowing golden capsule that burst immediately and scalded all of the doctors and nurses in the room. My mother survived the ordeal with a couple of second degree burns, but once I had been examined, it was determined that I had, indeed, been born with a sun inside of me. It caused a tremendous rift between her and my father. He accused her of abominations and infidelities. She sacrificed me to save their marriage and I was sent to here to live. I know all of this, because the nuns told me.

I live in a special sanctuary for girls like me, or rather, girls who are unlike everyone else. We come from hidden places in the world to be saved and brought here to the halls of Jesus. Now we’re the ordained charges of The Church of the Living God and Rescue Home for Divine and Orphaned Children. Despite the name, not all of us are orphans. Plenty of the girls were taken from parents who exploited their gifts or were afraid of their curses. This place is full of sad stories.

“Not everyone can appreciate how truly special you are,” says Sister Annika.

She says the same thing to all of the girls.

In the mornings, Milagros and I wake up early to the ringing of church bells. She loves the feel of the morning breeze at the window, and stands with her face turned into it, sometimes squeezing out a gem or two. I worry that our room is too stifling with the heat I give off while I sleep, but Milagros never complains. She is from somewhere warm and far to the south of here. A place with ripe, green rain and drunken butterflies.

“Girls, girls!” says Sister Annika, swooshing into our rooms and clapping her hands together in a giant rush of excitement. “We have a visitor today! A Prince is coming!”

This is exciting news. We don’t get many visitors, except those who gawk, pretending a deep-rooted religious interest. It doesn’t fool most of us. Especially when we have titles like: “The Girl who Swallowed the Sun,” “The Girl who Cries Blood,” “The Girl with Angel Wings,” “The Girl with the Silver Hands,” and “The Girl who Rains Diamonds from Her Eyes.” They call us divine, but sometimes I doubt the holy intentions. Although to the nuns, we are proof of God, to most people we are anomalies of the human condition.

Annika and I set about our morning chores. We are on breakfast duty with Marta, the silver-handed girl. Marta is the only one of us who doesn’t want to escape. The nuns believe God himself created her arms. Instead of flesh, she has slender filigreed palms and fingers that she grew after having her own hands chopped off by her father and then washing the bloody stumps in a stream. There is a calm sadness that hangs over her all the time. It makes me think that burning hot and glowing is not such a terrible thing after all. It’s only a physical condition. Marta has a sickness of the soul.

Marta has no interest in princes. She was accosted by one while nibbling on pears from a tree when she was still handless. She doesn’t like to talk much, but I get the feeling there was more involved. He wanted to marry her. It would be hard not to. She is perfectly stunning and damaged. Frailty and strength ooze out of her in equal measures. Her prince tried taking credit for her new hands; it was his stream she had dipped them in. Marta says he had nothing to do with it. She declined his offer of marriage and resigned herself to a celibate life. Her prince still appears occasionally, trying to woo her back to his garden of pear trees. But the nuns are like bulldogs. They try as best as they can to protect us in increments from the rest of the outside world. Partially this is because we keep them fat and dressed in silken habits. Our nuns are bejeweled on every finger and sleep in goose feather beds.

“No,” says Marta, dipping her hands into the pot of gruel to give it a swirl. She has no sensation all the way up into her shoulders. “I won’t be attending. I don’t care for princes. They are a self-righteous and condescending bunch.”

We are all a little in awe of Marta. She is distant and uninterested, while the rest of us still go through the emotions of teenage girls.

“I don’t stand a chance,” says Milagros. “My eyes are a horror. No matter how much wealth I produce, I get uglier and uglier.”

Marta gives her a one-shouldered hug. “And as soon as you stop caring, the better off you’ll be.”

I remain silent through this exchange. I am not the most beautiful or dainty girl at the home. When I drink water it sizzles in my belly and smoke comes out of my nose and ears. I am embarrassed for wanting a prince. I help blaze the fire under Marta’s pot with a touch of my fingers. I have never felt holy. I say the Sister’s chants and prayers but I don’t really believe them. I am a great fraud. The girl who swallowed the sun.

*

Milagros and I pretend that we are not in direct competition with each other. We help each other get dressed in our rooms. I put flowers in her hair, and she tries to do the same for me, but they wilt immediately. She dusts a fine, glimmery powder over my face that melts into puddles. I leave sticky golden fingerprints on everything that I touch. My dress is paper thin to stop me from overheating, and I carry a golden fan with peacock feathers on it. When I am excited I burn much hotter than usual.

Sister Annika calls up, “Girls, come down. It is a proper holy ball we are having. The Prince wants to see all of you. And there are other guests, besides.”

Milagros and I giggle, holding each other’s trains. We live in the top of a tower, and the ballroom, along with the chapel, is on the bottom floor. Our slippers make delicate clickety-clicks that echo off the stone walls and set hummingbird rhythms for our heartbeats.

Already assembled are Flora, Juniper, Cressida, and Gabriella. All the girls look excited and awkward, except for Gabriella, who lives in perpetual slumber inside a glass case. She washed ashore somewhere a few years ago and was immediately sent to the nuns. They de-barnacled the glass case and set right to work giving her beauty treatments. Her pale face is perfectly composed and her silk dress is adorned with wildflowers. She always has the advantage.

We are all dressed in our finest to capture the attention of the Prince. There is crinoline, lace, and tulle everywhere. The nuns have also done the place up right. Candles and incense are burning and harpists are playing soothing and sacred songs. I see dukes and duchesses standing off to the side and staring. The Prince has brought an entourage. He is standing regally in the center of the room with the sisters fawning over him.

Milagros and I descend together. I know that my glow reflects beautifully on her.

“Here they are,” says Sister Annika, and then introduces us by our holy titles.

I watch the Prince’s eyes glide over Milagros and I. He smiles and takes both of our hands in turn. When he raises mine to his lips, blisters form. But he is a prince. He doesn’t drop it quickly or act surprised.

Instead, he stares at me as if trying to pinpoint where exactly the light is coming from. It’s everywhere. I have sunshine flowing through my veins.

Sister Annika sweeps over and bustles us across to stand with the rest of the girls.

“Now,” she says, “Juniper plays a beautiful minuet. And Flora dances like a winged angel.”  She looks at Milagros and I as if trying to determine how to explain our finest traits. She asks Juniper to play a sad song and I know it’s because she’s hoping the girls will be moved to tears. When Juniper cries, blood gushes from her eyes. Milagros starts squeezing out gems uncontrollably. There is no better crowd-pleaser than blood and jewels. Juniper strikes up a melody and the assorted guests look on.

I take a seat at the window while the dukes and duchesses peer at me. A few ladies are waving paper fans at their faces. It’s true that I heat up a room. The sisters are always complaining that I cause undue wear and tear on the fine wooden floors and make burn marks on the furniture. Still, I must haul in a good bit of coin for them because they keep me around. Even now, the sisters pull the heavy drapes closed and trust me to fill the room with a golden-soft glow.

The prince is watching us all.

Milagros has her eyes cast down toward her feet so that her scarred irises are obscured beneath heavy sweeps of lashes. Cressida is hiding her webbed hands behind her back and trying her best to look like an ordinary girl. I know how much she longs to get out of here. The ocean calls to her with a gentle but endless persistence. Although we have been saved, the doors to our rooms are locked tightly at night. The prince is an obvious escape route. Marta says this one has enough gold that even the sisters wouldn’t forbid a union with one of us girls.

“He’s handsome but he’s a cold one,” she says. Her knowledge of princes impresses us all.

The prince is staring at me. Juniper’s piano playing has not produced any topaz or aquamarine tears, but he doesn’t seem to mind. He crosses the room. He is handsome. He is wearing layers of rich velvet that look sweltering.

“Would you care to dance?”

I feel Milagros quivering beside me, but it is my eyes he is looking into. His are a frosty blue. The air between us eddies in hot and cold swells.

I look to the sisters for approval. Sister Annika nods her head, seeming pleased. We begin to waltz. His hands are gloved so I don’t worry about burning them.

We dance for a while. He examines my arms. My skin. My face. I am trying to get used to the feeling of dancing with someone who produces such sensations in me. Marta is right. He is cold. His touch leaves a feather-light frost burn across my skin. I am so disoriented I feel panicky.

“What’s your real name?” asks the prince.

“Eliana,” I say. I feel as if I have given up a secret. I don’t flush. My cheeks really burn.

Some of the dukes and duchesses have joined us on the dance floor. A few of the girls are invited to dance. Flora’s angel wings are scattering downy feathers throughout the room. I notice Milagros is still alone. She stands by the glass box containing Gabriella in her peaceful repose. I want to go to her but it would be rude to stop dancing with a prince. I wait for him to grow uncomfortably warm but he seems to be enjoying himself.

“Do you want to know my name?” he asks. His blistered lips are curved into a small smile.

“Yes,” I say.

We do some swirly move that I vaguely remember learning in class. The air behind us curls into ribbons.

“I’m North,” he says, and I love that name as he says it. I imagine falling snowflakes, dripping icicles, and frozen seas.

“North.” I turn the word over my tongue and it seems to sizzle. I am fevered and fluttery.

Just then Sister Annika swoops in. We have gotten closer to each other while we were dancing. Our bodies are almost touching now.

“Your Highness, I must insist that she rest,” she says. “She is frail and she overheats easily.”

The prince lets me go, and I am enveloped into a circle of nuns who fan me and pat cold compresses of wet moss clumps onto my skin. I can’t see the dance floor around their plump and bustling bodies. It is a strategic maneuver, I’m sure of that. They form a wide-hipped obstruction between me and the rest of the room. It’s only later, after testimonials have been given, people have been saved, and miracles have been witnessed…long after the prince and his guests have  said goodbye, filling the sisters’ coffers with tokens of their appreciation, that I am released along with the other girls. We adjourn to the room that Gabriella and Juniper share. Since Gabriella sleeps in her glass box, there is an extra bed for us to gather on.

Flora unbraids Cressida’s lovely golden hair while I change Gabriella from her ball finery into a soft dressing gown. It’s like undressing a doll. I lay a blanket over her and close the lid of the glass case. On second thought, I decide to open it enough for her to listen. She must get awfully bored in there. The room is warm with all of us crammed in together.

“We each got to dance with him,” Juniper says. She opens the window of the bedroom and a bird flies in. It follows her around everywhere. Its plumage is bright in the moonlight. “Nobody as long as you, Eliana, but he danced with Milagros second longest.”

The bird flutters over to her shoulder, head cocked inquisitively. Juniper is the youngest of all of us. Freckles dust her pale skin and her face is girlish and sweet. It makes it all the more surprising when her eyes fill with blood. The bird has been here just as long as she has. The sisters found her grief-stricken in the forest, covered in her own crimson tears. There is a secret inside her that hasn’t unraveled yet. Until then she is proof of the Holy Ghost. When visitors come, the sisters shoo the little bird out the windows. They chase it around with brooms until it flies far enough away. As soon as they’re gone it returns.

“What did he say to you?” Cressida asks. She sniffs at the breeze for the smell of salted waters. Her green-tinted, webbed fingers stretch reflexively. “He was quiet when he danced with me.”

I shrug. I don’t want to give them his name. It sits close to my heart like a secret. “Nothing really. Only pleasantries.”

“Milagros?”

Milagros is beside the window as usual. Her expression is dreamy. “Just some questions about our…conditions.”

“Our divinity,” Juniper corrects. She is still young enough that she believes whatever the sisters say.

“Our divinity,” agrees Milagros. “And he asked me how the nuns treated us. How we lived. If we had enough to eat or knew how to read.”

My jealousy flares up so quickly I can’t control it. All of the other girls turn to look at me. Flora inspects her wings to make sure they aren’t singed.

“What’s that about?” she says, huffily, moving away from me on the bed. “You know how quickly I catch fire?”

Exactly for this reason, Flora usually keeps a good distance from me.

“Sorry,” I say. “I must be coming down with something.”

But really I am envious of Milagros with her spill of dark hair and the gentle smile on her face.

“Did he tell you his name?” I ask.

Milagros blinks. “No.”

I feel vindicated. Triumphant. Only for a moment before being overwhelmingly ashamed. Milagros is my best friend. Practically my sister. We’ve shared a room since we were little girls. We’ve shared every part of our lives. Only Milagros knows about my parents, my lack of faith, my dreams and desires.

“Marta will tell us his name,” Juniper says.

Cressida lets out a deep sea sigh. “I’ll never get out of here,” she says. “I’ll be a dry-skinned, web-fingered old maid before I know it. The nuns will probably keep even my old bones on display. Let’s make a pact, that whoever gets out of here first will come back for the others.”

“Cressida,” Juniper says sternly.

But most of us have thoughts that parallel Cressida’s. You can only fool yourself into believing you are a divine miracle for so long. It’s all smoke and mirrors around here. The nuns assure us that we’re better off being sheltered from a world that would use us to cruel advantage. Perhaps we are. They go to great lengths teaching us to fear the outside world.

“There’s a difference between being saved and being free,” Flora tries to explain to Juniper. The nuns clip her wings regularly. They say it’s for grooming purposes. They say flying is dangerous. She was given her gift to turn blasphemers into believers. Not for selfishly navigating the perils of the sky. Any way you look at it, Flora can no longer fly.

We put our hands together, all except for Juniper and Gabriella, and agree that we are in this together. Then the church bells begin ringing, signaling lights out for all of us. I close the lid of Gabriella’s glass box and say goodnight to the other girls. Milagros and I walk back to our room together. Something has shifted. We walk together but the corridor feels filled up with empty space. While she stands at our window staring out at a sliver of moon, I toss and turn, hot in my bed. I eye up the collection of jewels that line our walls and ugly, nagging thoughts creep into my mind.

I have hardly slept by the time morning comes. Bells. It’s constant bells here. Enough to drive anyone crazy. I’m unusually annoyed by the chirruping birds and rainbow prisms from Milagros’s gemstones. My skin is warmer than usual. Outside, the sky is the color of blue eggshells cracked apart by the sun. Milagros is still smiling.

We go downstairs together to help Marta in the kitchen.

“How was the ball?” she inquires politely.

“Wonderful,” says Milagros.

Marta narrows her eyes. “I know that look.”

Milagros holds out her hand. On her palm is a single gemstone. It is an opaque shimmery blue that conjures images of flowering vines of morning glory, summer stars, and bird song. It is smooth and polished already.

“That’s different,” I say, wondering why she didn’t show it to me when we were alone together.

Marta examines it.

“I found it on my pillow this morning,” says Milagros. “I didn’t even feel it.”

“Happiness,” says Marta. “There a million different ways to cry.”

I try to keep my composure by checking the bread in the oven. A true friend would be delighted. I try to be delighted.

Milagros goes out to serve the nuns their breakfast and I’m alone with Marta.

“Does that gem look like love?” I ask.

“No,” she says abruptly. Then she looks at me as closely as she did the stone. “Why do you ask?”

I shrug. “I was just wondering what it’s like.”

Marta stops cutting onions long enough to stare at me. “What do you think it’s like?”

“I don’t know.” I try to sound casual. “Maybe like ripples of hot and cold. Breathlessness. Heart palpitations.”

“That’s pure animal instinct,” says Marta. “It’s called fight or flight. That’s what happens when animals face predators. If you ever feel like that, your body is telling you to run.”

Marta knows a lot but she doesn’t know everything. I’ve read plenty of books. I’ve listened to enough stories. She goes back to chopping onions and her eyes don’t even water up. Marta’s made of stone and silver. What does she really know about love?

During our studies, we are all distracted. Sister Annika can tell.

“Let’s take a constitutional,” she says, and leads us outside into the gated gardens of the chapel grounds. Each girl has her own statue except for Juniper. She’ll get hers soon. The nuns are waiting for her to blossom into adolescent glory. Sometimes we joke about them. Cressida’s statue has the tail of a fish and wears a pious expression that looks completely out of place on the wilderness of her face. Marta is poised armless and nibbling at a pear. My own statue has slatted golden sunbeams haloing it and I’m touching my stomach as if I just wolfed something down. Milagros’s is woeful and crusted with rivers of jeweled tears.

Our statues are kept company by birds and flowers. Mine is adorned with brilliant yellow riots of star-shaped Clematis helios. The flower of the sun. The nuns charge visitors entry into the gardens most days. It’s only on special occasions like this that we are allowed to come outside. Flora and Milagros both have flowers that attract butterflies like crazy. For a while, we make a game out of catching them and setting them free. I urge mine up over the tall hedges and out into the world.

After a while we disperse. I lounge in a pile of soft grass, breathing in the smell of it beneath my skin. I doze a little and dream of castles hung with icicles. Frost on my lips. Gemstones that pierce hearts. I wake to Sister Annika shaking me.

“Eliana,” she says. “You have a visitor.”

It’s the prince. I know this so surely that I am not surprised when I see a white horse with colored velvet drapings waiting outside the chapel.

The fluttering starts as soon as I see him. The bouts of hot and cold. He is drinking up the sight of my glowing skin greedily.

“North,” I say. Sister Annika looks surprised.

“Eliana.” He smiles and bows. Cool air ripples past me and I shiver.

“I’ve asked the sisters for your hand in marriage,” he says. His face is smooth as glass. His features are composed and perfect. It’s his eyes that excite me. I don’t care what Marta says. This is love. I don’t care what Milagros’s dream tears look like. This is love. Love makes water freeze and planets crash. Love feels like frost covering the sun.

I never cry. Not even tears of joy. My body evaporates moisture too quickly. But if I could I’m sure I would be weeping jewels of happiness that rival any Milagros ever produced. Juniper’s bird begins dive bombing my head, snatching up bits of my hair and ruining the moment. I am jarred enough to realize my thoughts are horrible. The sisters try to chase it away.

“Come on,” says Sister Annika. “Let’s get you ready.”

I’ve said yes without even realizing it.

My room is empty except for the nuns. Milagros has moved into Juniper’s temporarily. I’m kept apart from the other girls.

“You’ll see them at the wedding,” says Sister Annika. Until then I am kept on twenty-four hour watch. No princes. No divine orphans. The sisters play rummy and chant prayers around the clock. The little bird pecks at the closed window.

This should give me plenty of time to ruminate over betraying Milagros, but I don’t. Neither one of us fully confided in the other. I danced with the prince first. I see-saw back and forth about whether or not I am guilty of anything.

“I want to see Milagros,” I say, but the nuns shake their heads over their cards. They are betting on gold coins and precious gems from the coffer.

The next morning, the gardens are filled with visitors. Word has travelled far and fast. My wedding is a spectacle: royal, divine, and bizarre. It will keep the sisters fat for years afterwards. They’ve insisted it be held in our chapel. For a fee, it is open to anyone. From my window I can see that my statue is bedecked in flowered wreaths and streamers. I am similarly festooned by the nuns with swathes of silk, lace, and ribbon.

Juniper is my flower girl. The other orphans stand off to the side—divine bridesmaids wearing gowns that reflect the colors of the sun streaming in through the stained glass ceilings. The chapel, always opulent, is full of colored light, harpsichords, crowds of eager onlookers, and the heady combination of incense and flowers. The rooms and gardens are packed to bursting. I am hot and dizzy beneath thousands of curious stares. Everything seems to swirl around me. I try to keep myself focused on North, who is standing calmly at the altar. I barely notice when things start to go awry.

The first is Juniper’s bird. One of the nuns hits it with a wooden plank when it tries to interrupt the ceremony. She carries it off, unconscious, to put it in a cage, and this is what starts Juniper crying. Not a sprinkling of bloody tears, but torrents. They gush down her face as if the floodgates of hell have just lifted. The crowd becomes even more excited. The blood splashes all over Flora’s angel wings and flows in rivulets through the chapel. The sisters proclaim this a divine blessing of the Lord, and carry on with the service. I’m concerned enough that I want to join my own sisters. Comfort Juniper. Check on Milagros. Make sure they’re okay.

North takes my chin between my fingers and directs my gaze to his eyes. I’m trapped and delirious. Love, I think. This is love.

We exchange our vows before the streams of blood, the horrified and fascinated crowd, and the fat, smiling nuns. Sister Annika herself pronounces us man and wife. There is a large crash just as our lips meet and a pain that is so fierce I feel it inside my belly. Milagros has fainted into Gabriella’s glass box. They are both lying among the shattered glass. The floor is covered with jewels and blood. A particularly large gem forces its way out of Milagros’s eye, contorting her closed eyelid and popping out to land on her cheek like a black tourmaline beetle. They continue to force their way out, one after another, until they are spilling across her cheeks in a steady flow of despair and pain. I try to run to her side, but North holds tight to my wrist.

“This isn’t your life anymore,” he says. He touches my cheek and I get chilblains.

I see Marta trying to rouse Milagros and help ease the jewels from her eyes. Milagros is bleeding now too. I am sure she will never see again.

The sisters whip the crowd into a holy frenzy. There are people falling down everywhere. People anointing themselves with Juniper’s tears. People scrabbling for gemstones. It is less of a wedding than a circus or a revival.

“Let’s go,” says North. “You are a princess now.”

He leads me through the riotous crowd, into a carriage, and pulls the drapes closed around us. Nobody comes to say goodbye as we leave. Not the nuns. Not the orphans. We sit in each other’s silence. We stare greedily. I realize that he smells like ice. I realize he’s my husband.

I do my best not to think about the scene I left behind me. I try not to think of the friends I’ve betrayed. I will find a way to honor our pact. I will return to make sure they can be free if they want to. These thoughts last until the prince touches my neck with his ungloved fingers and the tremors start uncontrollably. I get lost in the sensation of flesh, the contrast of hot and cold, the realization that burning is the same at either extreme. We both look pretty roughed up by the time we’re finished. He has blisters on his lips and burns across his chest. I have frostbite on some of my most private places.

“A witch told me I was cursed,” he says, in the painful afterglow of our shared closeness. “She said I was frozen solid. That I would never find any woman who could make me feel.”

“Feel what?” I ask. My insides are a little numb. Cold is spreading inside of me.

“Anything,” he says. He smiles at me with his frost blue eyes, hypnotizing. “But she was wrong. I can feel you.”

He arranges the inside of the carriage so that we are able to sit together, but with furs protecting him and the breeze comforting my skin.

“Why did you pretend to take such an interest in Milagros?” I ask. “None of that would have happened if you hadn’t.”

He seems surprised. “The nuns asked me to. It was a part of our agreement. I knew we would be married as soon as I kissed your hand. You give me blisters. Your friend doesn’t.”

I don’t know why I’m shocked to learn that the sisters orchestrated my betrayal of my best friend. More tears means more gifts from the Lord. At the Church of the Living God and Rescue Home for Divine and Orphaned Children, heartbreak is the ultimate tithing. It’s what keeps the place running. I’m grateful for the numbness seeping through me. After a while I fall asleep with my head resting on the furs covering North’s shoulder.

I’m not alone, I remind myself. I’m a princess now.

*

Some things seem much clearer looking backwards. For example, the moment in the kitchen where Marta tried to explain love. I know it now. It’s pain. It’s excruciating and mad and destructive. It hurts to be around my husband and it hurts to be without him. Every day I feel little pieces of my own soul slipping away from me.

We live in a frozen lighthouse atop a frozen sea. We are somewhere so far north I don’t even think it’s on a map. The wind here cuts straight through me and the sun hardly ever emerges from behind the thick layer of clouds. Early on, North built a tall ice wall to keep the howling wind from knocking me straight off the bridge walkway that goes from the top of the lighthouse to our sleeping chambers. It doesn’t stop the cold but the wind is not so harsh. Now frost and icicles grow all over everything like glistening, silver fungus. Beards of it tinsel back and forth from the bridge and the lookout railings. My feet crunch on frozen stars. Ice crystals grow and numerate, spreading the wild seeds of winter. It’s beautiful in the way that an empty ocean or a lonely moon is.

Not long after we reached the lighthouse, some of my belongings were shipped to me from the orphanage along with a letter from Sister Annika:

Dear Eliana,

We hope you are adjusting well in your new clime. Your warmth is missed here at the sanctuary, but you are remembered by the burn marks on the furniture and the smoke stains on the ceilings. Those will cost a pretty penny to repair.

The girls are all doing just fine. Milagros is now completely blind, but it was a matter of time, really. She is producing more gems than ever before and insisted that we enclose some with your belongings. Marta is pious as ever. She inquires as to your happiness up there in the frozen north. We are thinking of indoctrinating her into the Church.

Cressida moons about the window. She complains of dry skin, but at this time of year, it’s to be expected. Flora’s wings are now stained crimson in places from that almighty divine moment in the chapel. Juniper has recovered nicely since the wedding and we let her keep that abhorrent bird. Although we will cage it for the sake of punishment if we feel it’s necessary.

Overall, we thought the wedding went over splendidly. The Church has more constituents than ever before and membership has gone through the roof. You set off a holy tidal wave of sorts. We are looking to acquire another girl. Something celestial, but not quite so hot. You were terribly difficult to accommodate, my dear, but for all that we loved you anyway.

Give the prince our best. You are welcome to come back anytime for a visit. With enough advance notice we could even arrange a tour. God bless.

Love,

Sister Annika
and
The Church of the Living God and Rescue Home for Divine and Orphaned Children

The stones that Milagros sent were in two separate boxes, carefully rolled in cloth, and tucked between layers of clothes. The first box contained the crystals from the spice racks that had hung on the walls of our bedroom. Each gem was a tear that told a story of our lives together. I don’t know how I never saw it before. She had cried citrine for me when I told her the story of my parents, my birth, and my subsequent abandonment. Some tears were stories she shared with me about her own life. There was the green rain that she missed so much. There were gems the color of the ripe fruits she picked from the trees. There was aquamarine for Cressida and moonstone for Flora’s clipped wings. Each one was a moment that had cemented our lives together. In all, the crystals told the story of our friendship.

The second parcel was full of unfamiliar gems. Painful, jagged things that seemed to burn with intensity and wail with pain. Infinitely more precious and of higher quality. At the very top was the smooth, milky-blue stone Milagros had shown to Marta and I in the kitchen that morning. Her dream tear. I felt sick and heaved both boxes over the bridge. They made a glittering arc of color against the ice-white world as they fell.

“Something wrong?” North asked that night after we made love. He massaged salve onto my frostbite before putting aloe on his own burnt skin.

“When you said kissing Milagros didn’t give you blisters, you meant when you kissed her hand, right?”

He gave me a surprised look. “Well, no, remember I told you it was part of the deal. The nuns asked me to kiss her in order to ask for your hand. I thought it was strange but I would have done anything they asked.”

The numbness was spreading through me again, like it always did after we were together. One day, I would find myself extinguished.

“What’s that noise?” North asked.

Outside was the sound of tapping. Pecking.

“That’s not the wind.” He moved to get out of bed, but I stopped him.

“Ignore it. It’s nothing.” I knew what it was. It was the sound of bird wings beating against the shutters. Tiny beaks pecking holes in the ice wall outside.

*

The next morning North was delighted. The ice wall was decorated in Milagros’s tears. Gemstones of different colors and sizes had been arranged in swirling patterns and dazzling displays. The birds were perched on the top, resting. There were hundreds of them: buntings, ptarmigans, ivory gulls, and even snowy owls. They had salvaged every last crystal that Milagros had given me. They had scoured the frozen waves to return her tears. Maybe it was a gift from the Lord. Maybe it was punishment. North and I differed in our opinions.

Now, each morning, as I walk the slick bridge across to the frozen lighthouse, I grow dimmer and dimmer. I don’t worry at my numbness or my subdued glow. Instead I look out at the story of my past.

Some things are clearer looking backward, it’s true. Some things are harder. Some things are much worse. I’ve finally reached my spiritual axis, it seems.

Here, at the end of the earth, it is hard to repent.

Ariadne and the Minotaur by Elizabeth Ballou

Ceremony for the Living: Kabul 2010 by Adrienne Amundsen

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