Azurella holds her breath as the candle flame flickers. Its tiny light illuminates magical words, burning away the darkness. Alone, the sixteen-year-old girl shivers, the chunk of charcoal cool in her hand. Shadows skitter across the cracked whitewashed walls of her once family home. With all the furniture used for firewood, the house is now bare, its empty rooms filled with a deathly silence. She writes another word onto the wall. Fear scratches at her heart as the charcoal snaps in two between her fingers, falling from her grasp. Hand shaking, Azurella picks up the broken shards and gently puts the smaller section into her coat pocket.
She must save the book’s spirit, save a part of herself; get all the words down before it’s too late and they are lost forever. Before the light fades and the only thing left to burn is the book’s pages.
She shudders with the tiny flame, fighting against the chilling draughts and clawing darkness. The final candle has melted to the size of a child’s thumb. It can’t have long left. A thought that fills her with a coldness she is sure no fire will ever quell.
Damp hangs in the air, filling the house’s lungs with water. The charcoal bites into her palm. Memories from school rush into her mind; she was so quiet, always at the back of class, but her love of language always burned bright. The one subject she felt free as a bird studying. Azurella copies another paragraph onto the wall, transferring the magic from paper to plaster, the power of the words pushing her on, encouraging her efforts.
As she dots a full stop, Azurella hears the finished sentence from her mother’s lips, echoing from the past. She continues to copy the novel onto the wall. Handwritten by her ancestors, it’s Mother’s favorite book; was her favorite… The book she read to Azurella and her brother Tylo as the cold crept into their house and the snows choked the Gia Stream that protected their village from a cold death. The land is now treeless. Barren. Smothered like her childhood dreams. The island’s harbor is deserted; all the boats and ships long gone, like Father’s as it sails on the other side of the world.
She’d wrote it all in her journal, their suffering and her heartache after Father left them, and Mother and Tylo passed: a book she cherishes as much as Mother cherished the book Azurella copies now.
She hates her father for leaving them, though she knows he had little choice. She wishes he were here with her. Wishes Mother would have taken them with him as Father begged, away from the cold and suffering of this island. To a new life he promised would be better for them. He promised to return too, with food and gifts for them, but it is too late now.
Arm aching, Azurella writes one more line, the story flowing through her as she grits against the pain inside her. The words become the color of her brother’s eyes staring through her when the words ran out and mother went still, when her limbs turned dark as ink and ceaseless night. The last ember of her life a final word in her daughter’s ear: Love.
Azurella’s eyes burn. With the final candle threatening to snuff out, her energy threatening to fail, she bites her lip.
The charcoal crumbles to powder in her hand and her breath catches in her throat. Azurella carefully pulls out the last sliver of charcoal to copy the last page. She holds it between thumb and forefinger, its color drinking the light. Like her, it’s frail and small, but it might just last. It must.
Darkness eats the candle flame’s edges, blots the book’s cream pages. Just three more paragraphs and she can stop. Then she can burn the book to keep the cold out of her bones, feel the added warmth from saving its spirit.
Azurella wishes she could have saved Tylo too: his story barely written; his shivering body too small to survive the cold no matter how much she held him. How much she prayed. Hot tears spill from her eyes now; the words sparkle on the whitewash and she wonders if she imagines it or not.
The black graffiti blooms across the wall as she begins to write the final line. Azurella’s heart swells. Her arm tingles. Her wrist twists and the arc of her stroke reaches its apex when the candle fizzles, guttering out. Darkness. Acrid smoke clogs her nostrils. She struggles to breathe. Panic rushes up into her throat as she stumbles over to the fireplace. Blindly, she feels for the fragile strip of wood.
But her hand comes away empty; the last sliver of charcoal and hope lost. Please, she begs to any gods the lands have ever known. But they did not save her family, so why would they care about an awkward girl lost in the dark? “I have to finish,” she cries. “I have to do this if nothing else…” Tears stream down her face. Her chest burns; her body trembles. Azurella falls to the floor from exhaustion, broken and defeated. The palm of her hand lands on top of something thin and delicate.
Sulfur fills the air as the last match burns. A shot of warmth. She blinks against the brightness, holds her breath, and waits for the wood to fully burn. An angelic glow paints the room back to life. But she has nothing to write with, nothing to finish the work she has spent countless hours on…
Azurella looks inside the dark recesses of her memory until she finds something to guide her: her mother’s calm composure when things were most difficult; and Azurella realizes that it is as much a part of herself as Mother’s love for words.
Biting down on her lip, she rushes to finish the sentence the only way she can, the bitter taste of copper flooding her mouth.
Azurella uses the match’s dwindling flame to ignite the book; the novel’s spirit now transferred to the walls her and mother painted when Azurella was smaller still and Tylo far too young to help. The book’s cover curls, and its pages are soon ablaze. She gasps—the flames burning her fingertips. She drops the book into the fireplace. It lands with a dull thunk she feels in the pit of her stomach. She sucks her fingers, the way her little brother did his thumb when he was scared.
Azurella stops shivering, the heat from the fire comforting her. Wrapping around her cold bones. The movement of the flames fills her heart with wonder as she hugs her own favorite book, a journal no one but her has read. It will warm her chest long after there is nothing but ash again in the grate.
Slipping into a gentle sleep, Azurella dreams of Tylo and her mother and father, and hugs them tight.
Azurella wakes and is no longer cold, her stomach no longer aching with cramps and loss. A pool of moonlight covers the floor, and her breath doesn’t cloud in front of her. A sense of peace fills her as she uncurls herself like a cat, leaving the book where it rests on the edge of the moonlight. The fire has died out, the books sacrificed a pile of grey-white ash. Though the words glow on the wall.
Days slip into darkness and new light and Azurella loses her sense of time. It stops having meaning until she hears someone clearing the snow from the door, breathing hard, and they budge open the door.
The man shivers as he enters the hallway. His thin hair is plastered to his wind-reddened face, eyebrows white with snow. She is angry and glad to see him after being alone for so long. Wishes he got here weeks before.
“Father? Is it really you?” Azurella asks, fearing it’s a dream.
He looks through her, anger on his face.
“Father,” she calls. “It’s me. Don’t go upstairs. Not yet, not until I explain what happened.”
He walks straight past her to the living room, ignoring her completely. Azurella stumbles, realization crushing down on her. No, it can’t be true. It can’t be.
He falls to his knees. “No.”
She sees father crying through her tears, his low sobs echoing through the room, and she can no longer be angry with him. Only wants him to hold her and tell her it will be okay like he always did before.
“I’m so sorry, darling. I should have never left… Please forgive me.” His voice is jagged with grief as he approaches the body Azurella has refused to acknowledge since waking. Her body curled up around her journal.
Azurella steps forward. She faces herself without fear and hears Mother calling her from upstairs.
Sapai finds his daughter curled up small, hugging a book she refused to burn. Tears spill hot and raw from his eyes. He touches her journal, the gift he gave Azurella on her last name day. His stomach roils. His body shudders.
He cries to the island’s gods, the old and the new. “Why did you not save her?” Though he knows he can only blame himself. Shame and regret and anger cut through him.
He sobs, chest and throat burning.
He hates himself more than ever. Wishes he stayed. Wishes the world were not so cruel.
He knew it was a mistake as soon as he left. When the shipping work came to transport exotic goods across the shrinking seventeen seas, he’d begged her mother, Eliana, to leave with him. To start a new life before it was too late for them. They had to find food and warmth. But she would not leave her birth island and Sapai soon realized life without his family was no life at all. And he could not get back soon enough. But the frozen seas had delayed him by months, each day a spike in his side, as they broke through the ice.
The loss is an ice-cold wind cutting through him, a burning pain in every part of his body.
His daughter’s hair looks darker, black as starless night; her skin paler and paper-thin, clinging to her delicate body. So different to his little girl that was full of life and energy.
He limps upstairs and knows Tylo and Eliana have passed too before he finds them laid out together in Tylo’s bedroom. His beautiful son and wife. In peace. Tormented by memories, he whispers how much he loved them, how much he is sorry for abandoning them.
Sapai’s aching sobs echo in the stripped room once filled with love and happiness. He doesn’t want to think of how many families in the village he knew are now lost. Too many. Souls snuffed out before they had time to truly shine.
He returns to Azurella’s side, limping, wishing he could give his life to bring them back.
Sunlight spills through the room, the darkness fleeing after months of supremacy, and the girl’s writing is illuminated on the walls: the story’s last words shining bright as golden starlight.
No matter how dark things become, sunlight will return to paint the world golden again.
Words he recognizes. Words his wife read to him at night as they held each other and their children slept without fear for the changing weather conditions.
Sapai’s eyes widen in wonder as he takes it all in and spots the journal glowing too, covering the girl in angelic light. He kneels to take a closer look. The journal is clutched tightly, a treasure in her arms. Only now does he see the fingertips of her left hand are covered in ash and blood, which sparkle bright as the final words she wrote. She must have run out of charcoal, he thinks, but she never gave up.
Her sacrifice hits him, and he sheds more tears, heart cracking and splintering like a ship over frozen water. He makes her a solemn promise. “Others will know what you did, angel. I swear it.” He will sail the seventeen seas and tell people what his daughter did to save the book, a small piece of magic in the dying world, and he will tell her own story. The one thing he can do now to make amends. So she can live again through her words as he tells them.
Sayings his tearful goodbyes, Sapai leaves her in his family’s home and resting place. He begins his long journey, resolute, and imagines his daughter by his side, her last written words shining bright in his mind.
|L. P. Melling currently writes from the East of England, UK, after academia and a legal career took him around the country. His fiction appears in such places as Dark Matter Magazine, the Upon a Twice Time anthology, and the Flame Tree Press Newsletter as well as some Best of anthologies. When not writing, he works for a legal charity. You can find out more about at his site: www.lpmelling.wordpress.com.|