by Cezarija Abartis
A white horse galloped through her dream. She feared it would turn into a mouse, all her lace and silks into rags. “Stay, illusion,” she said but woke to find herself tossing by the ashes near the fireplace.
She patted her thin nightgown and pulled up the tattered quilt left by her mother. There were secrets sewn into it–on the right panel, truth; on the left, illusions; in the center, love. Outside the window, the moon shown like the empty eye of a doll. She caressed her cloth doll, the gift of her long-dead mother. Was this vision lunacy?
She tossed on the pallet and finally sat up.
There in the doorway stood her mother–but glittering and transformed, wearing a crown of tears and gems, a long gown like a lily, shining like the moon, opening her lips to speak, and the sounds that she uttered were like the music of weeping angels. “Don’t join me,” she said. “You stay in that living world. You cry your actual tears and dream your actual dreams. I will bring you a tall and handsome dream, and you will care for him in sickness and he will stay by your side in love. You two will grow old together and eventually-–here is the gift-–die together. Now say thank you to your mother in the dream, your godmother in reality.”
She reached for the shining woman, but she had already dissolved into the night. She bent over the quilt on the floor and sobbed.
The next night, she put on the glorious gown that rested on the chair and walked out the door and into the waiting coach and into the waiting life as the Prince’s wife and Queen. Fifty years passed, and he was now dying.
“Don’t join me, beloved,” he said. “Stay behind with the children and grandchildren.”
“I need you more,” she said, “than they need me.”
“I’ll stay for you,” he said and died and was buried.
Everything was sliding away. An abyss yawned before her. She would take the next step. She wiped her tears and prepared to drink a potion, when her mother appeared in the doorway, but so young, as if she were Cinderella’s granddaughter. “Remember me?” she asked.
“Mother of my life,” she said. “But you promised he and I would die together. You promised.”
“I was wrong. It was not a lie. You had fifty happy years, many more than your father and I had.”
Cinderella put her hand to her mouth to stop a scream. In that instant, sweet Winifred ran in, her youngest grandchild, waving her chubby fists in the air and crying, “Nana, I scraped my knee.”
HANSEL AND GRETEL
The old woman kept rubbing her hands in obvious desperation. “I didn’t have long-term care insurance,” she said, “so I had to eat my children.”
Her voice became soft as powder. “I told them I’d prefer not to, but finally I did it.” She looked up at the detective with her rheumy eyes. “Send me to prison. It was a cold winter. I always feel as if the winds are scraping inside me.”
The detective said, “But you don’t have children, Mrs. Gavros.”
“It was just an expression. Anybody’s children. I hit them on the head with a skillet.” She patted her chenille bathrobe down over her knees.
“There are no bodies.”
She cleared her throat and swallowed. “I cooked them in a pie with four-and-twenty blackbirds. All my pretty ones gone.” A tear trickled down her cheek.
He wondered what to do with this mad woman. His grandmother had sat like that, sadly on the couch, when he visited her. Her room smelled of naphtha and dust. She fingered a gold medallion on which was molded, implausibly, a rampant horse. She had not been a horsewoman, and he never asked her about that medallion that she took to the grave. Probably it was a gift from someone who once loved her. His grandmother told him she eagerly awaited his visits, but then she became annoyed with him, quarreled with him over why he didn’t go to St. Vincent’s church, over why he became a police officer instead of a teacher, over why he wanted to marry an Irish girl instead of an Italian, over why he didn’t finish the chocolate chip cookies she had placed on a turquoise -blue plate. “I’m not very hungry today,” he had said.
“I bet you eat at your girlfriend’s house.” The corners of her mouth turned down resentfully.
He stared at his grandmother’s ceiling with its dust webs in the corner. He should offer to help clean on a weekend. “It’s just that I’m not eating sweets.”
“Would you like cough drops?” she had asked and rose to get them.
“No.” So this is what life comes to at the end, he thought, this gradual unhinging. His grandmother sat down and straightened out the lace doilies on the arms of the couch. He stayed away the next Sunday; and the week after that, she died.
He extended a handkerchief to Mrs. Gavros. She wiped her cheeks. The skin looked so thin–as if it would flake away at the slightest touch.
“I had to eat them,” she said. “The smell of the rotting flesh was terrible.” She looked at her spotted hands and wiped them on her bathrobe. “And what I couldn’t finish, I fed to my dogs.”
“You don’t have any pets.”
“It’s just an expression. I put the remains in the trash.” She looked vaguely in the direction of her tiny kitchen.
“Do you mind if I look there?”
“Go ahead. You can have some cookies, if you like. Or some meat pie.”
The oilcloth cover on the table had fluffy puppies frolicking on the grass and kittens chasing kites on it, but no cookies. There was a wedding photo in a brass frame on the stove–he assumed it was Mrs. Gavros and her husband. The man wore a World War Two military jacket and a cap. She held a small bouquet of flowers and smiled deliriously. Her waist curved in and her eyes were clear and light. Now there was a clothesline strung up across the kitchen window and pictures cut out from magazines and held by clothespins–pictures of puppies, kittens, babies, a picture of a tropical sandy shore idly stretching to a horizon across the calm turquoise-blue sea.
She shuffled in beside him. “Push me in.” She stared at the stove. “I’ve had enough.”
He sighed deeply and put an arm around her. “Let me help you, Mrs. Gavros.”
Once upon a time, Rosamund supposed she wanted to get back to the castle, but knowing that by now the stones had fallen in and the roof had collapsed, she lay back on the pillow. There was nobody to maintain the spell, to ward off the violence of time. The tower she had been locked up in for a thousand years was itself becoming dilapidated. She felt a soft wind blowing on her face. She was free to escape.
She had slept away the centuries and dreamed about a prince kissing her awake, but she woke alone in the feather bed. She had dreamed other events as well: about her father planting a rose garden, about war in the kingdom, about the loss of magic, about her father being memorialized in song as the last great king. Nothing, nobody, nothing, nothing, never, no.
She rubbed her eyes and saw the twilight edging in through the open roof. Somebody had watched over her, had made the magic that protected her through the long sleep. She hoped it was not her stepmother but someone who loved her, her nursemaid perhaps or the old gardener, but they would be long dead by now.
She picked up a gilt oval mirror from the little table; it was surprisingly heavy. She stared at an unknown face. She did not remember what she looked like a thousand years earlier, but as she continued to stare, the face became sharper, and the sad dark eyes reminded her of her father. What good was life if it always ended? The mirror fell from her hand.
At the same time, she heard the creak of footsteps on the wooden staircase. A man’s voice sang a hunting song about chasing a hart into a tangled wood.
Should she be afraid? She took a breath and recalled her father’s song about rose bushes rooted deeply in the ground, leaning against each other, intertwining. She hummed a note.
The door latch began to lift, grating against metal.
“Yes,” she said, rising from the bed, reaching toward the door, her hand shaking.
CEZARIJA ABARTIS ' Nice Girls and Other Stories was published by New Rivers Press. Her stories have appeared in Manoa, Grey Sparrow Review, Twilight Zone Magazine, and New York Tyrant (which also gave her story The Lidano Fiction Award). “Penelope and David” is forthcoming from Story Quarterly. Recently she completed a novel, a thriller. She teaches at St. Cloud State University.