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The Girl Who Walked Toward the Light
I washed my mother’s satin dress in the river, working alongside the doves. They sung hymns while scrubbing away a layer of pollen that had weaved into the velvet tresses of my garb. The sun beat its weary rays onto the meadow, illuminating the darkness under my mother’s eyes. She slept by the cottage in a rocking chair fashioned from the thousand-year-old sandstone of what was once the Himalayas, a half-opened book propped by her side.
My mother recited her side of the tale:
She was beautiful once. My mother told me stories of men who had burned down cities and summoned tsunamis to reach her. As the Goddess of Summer, she breathed brightness into the world. Her skin radiated the sun’s light, and her smile glittered like the heavens. She had hair luscious as honey, eyes ethereal as a sunset, and a voice silky as a harp. Youthful and golden, she was prophesied to be the most stunning woman on Earth.
Then Winter came.
He arrived in a chariot of ice, immortalizing the world in a drop of frost. His silver-shadowed hair fluttered from the winds of the underworld, and he fashioned a garment of cold, hard steel. All the townsfolk cowered in his presence, and they ducked into their straw huts and hid within the forest trees.
“Where is Serephine?” he shouted, causing the ground beneath him to tremble. His face was pale as a corpse, and his gaze was relentless as death.
“I’m here.” Serephine tried to steady her voice as she stepped forward onto the cracked cobblestone street. The surrounding oaks and countryside shrubs, once natural and luminous as emerald jewels, now shriveled in a shroud of crystalline snow. For months, rumors of Caine, the God of Winter, and his lust for Serephine, the Goddess of Summer, had blazed through the village like a wildfire. The world was submerged in a six-month blizzard, and she was the only medicine that could cure Caine’s wrath and restore the seasons to their proper order. But no one foretold his entrance to be so sudden or brash.
“My sweet love.” He cupped her chin with his frigid hands. She shivered. “I have traveled so far and long to reach you. Kiss me.” Without warning, he pressed his lips against hers like two tectonic plates merging for the first time, releasing an earthquake in their wake. Fate, or tragedy, had destined them together. She was the sun providing warmth to the bleakest depths of his soul, but he was a hurricane – wild and erratic – that ravaged her innocent heart and destroyed everything in its path. Their love was equal parts splendour and destruction.
If Serephine didn’t accept Caine’s hand in marriage, the world would be plagued in an eternal winter. Not even the bravest of men could survive through such a peril. So Serephine did the only thing she felt was right. She said goodbye to her friends and family, a single glassy tear raining onto her cheek. Caine slipped a ring of stardust onto her finger while her friends, the river nymphs, wept a flood of tears onto the frozen earth. Serephine did not have time to look back at her parents, for in that moment, summer’s first petals bloomed across the land, and a cloudless sky beamed brilliantly upon the village. Unto the underworld they went, where they would reside for six months until the next winter arose.
Caine was a stubborn and cruel beast. He refused to allow Serephine to visit her family and murdered any man who dared look at her. She was a slave under his command; her cheerful, resilient spirit faded away, replaced by a hollowed silence. Three weeks into their marriage, he stole her virginity. Nine months later, I was born.
They named me Xemira. Fashioned from the seasons and a little magic, my eyes were the clear blue of rain that fluttered onto parched lands after a century of drought, my skin eggshell-white and delicate as porcelain, my hair glossy as an orb of obsidian. I remembered my mother’s smile: a pure glow on her face, lips upturned like birds soaring for the first time. Her eyes crinkled in bliss, and she swept me into her arms as though I were an angel sent from God himself. I remembered my father’s laugh, a hearty rumble deep as the ocean floor. That was the only memory I had of my parents’ unity and love.
Three years passed. The stress of being a father caused Caine to frequent the local bar, where he downed bottles of Depression and Loneliness and Anguish. I witnessed midnight arguments when, silhouetted by moonlight, my father pummeled his fists into my mother’s bones. Each scar and bruise a failed throw in their marriage until the predestined strikeout.
The night before my mother and I left, she told me we were going camping. I dreamt of ghost stories and roasted marshmallows and cuddling by the bonfire.
“Where’s daddy?” I asked. “Will he be coming with us?”
She kissed my forehead, and her eyes flashed with a rippling sadness. “He’s on a business trip.”
“When will he be back?”
She clasped my small palm in her larger one. “I love you, Xemira, more than I love myself. I need you to know that.” Just then, a titanium carriage waited outside. Mother hauled our luggage overboard, and she hoisted me into the velvet cushions. Two horses, tinged the blackness of midsummer nights, stomped against the impending wintertide storm, and we plummeted over the gates of the Underworld and hurled into Earth.
When we reached my mother’s hometown, everything was in ruins. Caine had struck a massive vengeance – his bandits had plundered the entire village, and his watchmen had kidnapped the townsfolk – until nothing remained. All the women, the children, the trees… disappeared overnight. A cloak of ice enveloped the empty streets, a symbol of Caine’s fury. My mother fell to her knees and wept frozen tears. Her face, once fresh as a summer raindrop, sagged with the weary wrinkles of a grief-stricken widow. Her throat rang strangled with a gnarled cry.
Confused and unaware, I pressed my pudgy fingers against a wilted begonia, its sunrise-red petals powdered in snow. Suddenly! – a warmness seeped through the air, and bursts of color blossomed across the land. The forest critters roused from their winter hibernation, and the music of vitality chirped into the world. My mother covered her mouth in awe.
I was the Goddess of Spring.
Out of the ashes, we built a new civilization around us. From my fingertips, green meadows and sun-soaked valleys adorned the frost-trimmed countryside, and a river of sapphire cut through the lush earth like a knife through stone. My only friends were the rural animals who dwelt in the dark forest and riverside: nimble antelope, melodious hummingbirds, and fluffy rabbits who grazed upon the fruits of our land. It was our own slice of paradise. My mother was fiercely protective of me – she rarely allowed me to explore the woods a few miles from our house, and we never interacted with foreigners, in fear that they were my father’s comrades. For as long as we stayed sheltered in our quiet, idyllic domain, the world beyond our realm was burdened by Caine’s grasp.
Six more years flew by.
Now, mother rocked gently in her chair, shaded by elm leaves and idle in her peaceful slumber. My heart felt hollow, in the way a brick sunk to the ocean floor. Some days, in the midst of the rustic quiet, I felt lonely.
I wondered what life was like beyond the acreage my mother and I called home.
* * *
The first rays of dawn fell slow and sweet upon the foliage, like maple syrup dripping into a mason jar. I woke up at the same time as the rising horizon and stifled a yawn. My mother appeared happy in her sleep, her calloused face reflecting a contentment I had never seen before.
I walked outside. A peasant stood at the doorstep. He quivered in his tattered rags, a frown marring his weathered face.
“I have searched land and sea for you, your majesty,” the peasant croaked out, his voice raspy as sandpaper. He spat into the dirt and wheezed hard phlegm, as if he were a beggar rattling his cup of coins. “Please… you’re our only hope left.”
Dazed, I asked him what he meant.
He explained. For the past few years, winter tormented their homes. An endless assail of snow, sleet, and hail drained the hope out of their people. Caine and his henchmen seized reign of Earth, paralyzing the troposphere in sub-zero temperatures. Disease skyrocketed. Crops, trade, and technology plummeted at alarming rates, causing the global economy to collapse into a depression. My mother and I, hidden from society in our halcyon bubble, were the only ones untouched by his scorn; her Seasonal energy, combined with the magnitude of my own, was the only force that could counterbalance his supernatural touch.
“I can’t go beyond the woods.” I hesitated. “My mother worries for my safety.”
The peasant held up his hands in despair. “We need you, your majesty. Please, before time runs out…” His voice cracked, and his eyes brimmed with agony.
Wanderlust burned like kerosene in my lantern heart. My feet ached to venture into the universe beyond the woods, the curiosity in my bones catching fire in an inferno of longing.
I penned a letter to my mother and tacked it onto the door frame:
I have decided to leave home for awhile in order to help the general populace regain control from father, who has encumbered their lands in a harsh, bleak midwinter. Do not shed tears; this is not a goodbye. The time will come when we will reunite. But for now, I have come to a revelation; I cannot spend my life in solitude out of dread for the nameless places we’ve never been. For it is the cave we fear that holds the treasure we seek… and I am tired of hiding, of living afraid. It is time for me to become my own woman, to step into the light of the world beyond my control. It is time for me to control my own course, to navigate my own sails. And if anything shall go wrong, I will summon a global rainstorm as a plea for your help, in the event that I may need it. Irregardless of what happens, you will always be my mother, my best friend, and I love you always.
The peasant led the way forward. He limped with a heavy gait, as though his feet were shackled in chains. He reminded me of a miner: hunched shoulders, face sunken with soot and dejection, coal dust caked into his fingernails. We walked in silence until reaching the border of our territory. I turned back to see the trees, the rocks, the valleys. The water forming music with the riverbank creatures. The cottage where my mother now slept. My entire sphere of home merely a speck in the distance, like a star drowned out by the night sky. Then, facing ahead, we trekked into the unknown.
* * *
Our feet trudged through the rubble and wreckage of the War-torn borough. The seaside city, veiled in a mist of fog and ice, loomed over us like a demon from Hell. We drew a crowd as we walked, pedestrians whispering excitedly at my arrival. The first seeds of hope began to sprout in their hollow, exhausted eyes, their slouched backs straightening with newborn faith.
“Your father operates in this city; it is his capital,” the peasant said. I looked around. An industrial smell clung to the air, reeking of poverty and anarchy and sorrow. Something about the charcoal streets felt carnal.
Aimless children wandered barefoot in scraps and rags of cloth, and elders huddled in their shawls as a coldness punched at their bones and a gloom gathered in their hearts. Stragglers slumped against decaying concrete walls, their weathered faces embittered with stress lines. As I stepped over cracks of sidewalk, a whip of wind rushed through me, and a clap of thunder boomed from the skies. I tasted a tempest brewing.
A maelstrom of sleet fell in scythes onto rooftops and corners and avenues. From below, they looked like meteors of ice, pelting my body like bullets. Suddenly! – as a gale blew upon the streets like a wolf toppling hay, and a lightning smothered the cityscape in a streak of frenzied ultraviolet – a pocket of earth erupted, a gorgeous wound unfolding. From the destruction, Caine, in his regal, stony appearance, gazed upon the desperate city like a Creator upon His mortals.
“Daughter,” he whispered, touching my face as if it would fade in a second. I had never seen him with a beard before – he looked ragged, hardened like a blade – and my eyes widened into saucers at his arrival. For a moment, we stood there, gazing into each other’s eyes, an entire universe of hurt and hatred spewing from his electric blue pupils.
“I have been thinking about you for the entirety of the last nine years,” he confessed. A tear trickled down his cheek, shattering the windshield of a car down below. “Your mother stole you – my deepest, only source of love -- from me.”
The storm raged into its peak. A hurricane assaulted the alleyways, spinning furiously like a record player on infinite loop, splintering everything in its path. Sirens wailed in the distance, and screams echoed into the madness.
“Your mother was an emotional manipulator. She’s a con – lying her way through life.” He cupped my chin in his left hand. “Whatever story she made up about me… it’s all fabricated.” A dragon’s fire burned in Caine’s – father’s – irises, searing everything in sight. He unbuttoned his coat and lifted his shirt, showing me a scar that flowed deep like a river down the lilt of his spine. “Your mother caused this. She was abusive and miserable most days. My love for her was never enough. Many days, your mother would beat me with the kitchen pans and her fingernails, and she frequently threatened to take you and run away, just to spite me.”
“How did you meet?” I asked, breathless against the current, shock paralyzing my body.
“The summer of ’02. We were seventeen at the time, and she was my neighbor. We’d sneak out on midnight trips to the local park, sneaking bottles of booze and drunken kisses.” He smiled wistfully at the memory. “After she left, she told a different story to the public. Your mother never flinched from her narrative of me being the abuser. Our village shunned me. I was exiled. I was shackled everywhere I went – no one would accept me; I was a prisoner roaming free land. This city is the gateway to your mother.”
I stared into his eyes, nostrils flared with shaking breaths, and saw fragments of myself. The way his bloodless skin paled like a spectre, his twiddling thumbs and bitten fingernails. There was a fear – a suppressed agony -- drawn on his face, illustrated in his vulnerable form.
I thought about my mother. Wondered if what father said was true. That my whole life was a lie. That the one person I loved more than anything in existence had deceived me, breathing venomous hoaxes as reality into the air. I craved the truth desperately. Remembering my letter, I inhaled deeply and raised my arms. From the veins on my palms, a colossal cloudburst rained onto the hemisphere. I waited for my mother to receive the signal, come here, and save me. My heart jumped.
“My love. Join me” Father reached for my hand, a bolt of cold flooding through me. “Let us do unto the world the pain it has caused me.”
Night draped its ebony cowl across the horizon, honeying the world in a viscous layer of black. An ember of dread ignited in the eyes of the citizens. Father wept, a monstrous tornado colliding into the asphalt from the moisture of his tears.
“Please… help us,” a crippled old woman begged, her knuckles bleeding white, voice hollow as prayers.
“Help me,” father urged. “Help me break the world as it has broken me.”
I swallowed. The tornado fumed vigorously. After a moment’s hesitation, I opened my arms toward the jet-black vortex of the sky. Concentrating furiously, I harnessed all my energy. In seconds, a stream of sunlight swam onto the city. The tornado, the storm, and the rain died off, combusting into steam and evaporating with a hiss. Father’s eyes were drained of life. But I knew that far more damage would be done if his vengeance had gone unrestrained.
I barely managed to look into his desolate face. An emptiness rested there, that void of having lost everything. He retreated back to his homeland, the Underworld. I didn’t know when I’d see him again.
A mellifluous symphony of relief spiraled into the atmosphere. From the snow and ice and sleet, a single wildflower burgeoned its colorful, balmy petals into the soft, newborn earth.
The world blossomed anew. Out of the darkest pits of Winter, the Earth was resurrected in a luminous Spring.
Maybe I would return to my mother. Rekindle our relationship. Seek the truth.
Maybe I would listen to my father. Perhaps he was lying; perhaps he was not. Maybe I would try to piece together the puzzle pieces of our relationship – fractured but not lost.
The only thing I knew for certain was the newfound happiness and calm on the townspeople’s faces.
“Madam, that street over there is still slick with hail,” a man interjected. Light illuminated the street’s frozen sidewalk, where a child lay stuck and helpless.
I nodded, a newly fueled independence in my step, and walked toward the light.
St. Louis, Missouri
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