The water sluiced past, singing without words to the rhythm of my rowing. The current’s melody rang out in clear tones, punctuated by the droplets that fell from the oar’s blade like my own tears. This river, dark gray beneath the clouds that blocked out the moon and stars, understood my sadness in a way no human had.
No pier waited for me on the other side: only the looming shadows of the forest, and the night breeze that rustled the leaves as it passed through them. There shouldn’t have been leaves, only bare branches moaning in the wind. There shouldn’t have been grass, moss, or flowers, either. When Justin died, the whole world ought to have gone into mourning. Yet, in defiance of the night’s gloom, the woods clung to spring’s joyous finery.
When I lost my fiancée–no, my husband, if only for a few hours––I lost my entire world. But the outside world barely noticed his absence. After the passing of a mere two months, even his parents urged me to move on.
I moored my boat to a sycamore with peeling white-and-gray bark. Leaning against the trunk, I pulled my rings tighter on my finger. I would not play the part of the widow, with clinking gold and diamond weighing down the chain around my neck.
Not when there remained a chance to bring him back.
Stumbling through the shadows, I fell again and again. Each time, the temptation to resort to my phone’s flashlight grew. I gripped my case tighter, resisting the urge. This would only work in the darkness of the night.
Without warning, the cave mouth loomed over me, threatening to engulf me in inky midnight. My mind buzzed with every nightmare I’d ever had, and every gruesome tale I’d ever heard. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I glanced over my shoulder, half-convinced a monster prowled behind me. Only the quiet forest lay behind me.
Heart racing, I turned back and plunged into the earth’s maw. No monster or nightmare could ever compare to what I had already suffered. Closing my eyes, I pictured Justin: his warm sienna skin, his glossy black hair, and his brown eyes that sparkled with every dimpled smile. For him, I could do anything. And I would.
The darkness was unwavering; the stony floor sloped forever down. There was no way to know how far I had walked, nor what depths lay ahead. Yet somehow, I knew when I had arrived where I was supposed to be. I stopped and sat, gripping my case even tighter.
“Darcy Blake.” The voice rumbled through the ground beneath me. “Why have you come to this place?”
It was as if my entire body turned to ice. I could not move, let alone speak. All thoughts slipped from my mind, replaced by the swirling shadows that enveloped me.
“Have you nothing to say?” he said, breaking the silence. “If not, you should leave this place at once.”
Never. My bones ached with a cold fury at the thought of such cowardice. Though my tongue remained paralyzed, my hands did not. I opened the case and withdrew my violin. The scent of resin, and the familiar feel of rosewood on my hands, steadied me.
Memories of Justin filled my mind. I drew the bow across the strings, conjuring each one in sequence. The stone walls echoed with joy as I remembered our awkward first meeting, our bashful courtship, and at long last, our engagement. Undertones of foreboding crept in toward the wedding. So many things had gone wrong, from the moldy flowers to the loss of our venue, that even the priest had joked the two of us must be cursed. After we exchanged our vows, it slipped away. The moment our lips met stretched on in pure, endless joy.
I paused, allowing the note to reverberate through the cavern and emphasize the weight of what could have, and should have, come after.
The rest poured out of me in a frenzy. Justin, ducking out of the reception for a stroll with his brothers. My growing fear when they returned without him, realizing his absence too late. The chaos and discord of our disorganized search party. The pain of the thorns and brambles that tore at my dress until it was stained brown with soil and red with my blood. The searing agony of finding my collapsed husband, giving way to determined hope as we rushed him to the hospital. Finally, the soft-spoken doctor whose words plunged me into the abyss of despair, in which I still drowned.
Silent tears flowed down my cheeks. I waited for the echoes to die before returning my instrument to its case, laying it down with the same care with which we had lowered my husband into the grave.
It was a long time before the voice spoke again. “I will grant your request.”
My heart pounded giddily as I leapt to my feet. “Thank you! Thank you so–”
“Do not thank me yet,” he interrupted sternly. “There is a price to pay.”
I nodded, steeling myself for whatever it might be. No matter how painful or difficult it was, I would pay it in full.
“Speak the name of your beloved,” he commanded.
At that I hesitated, knowing all too well that names held power. But what power could I give him that he did not already hold?
“Justin Yi,” I whispered through my tears.
“Justin Yi shall be returned to you,” he replied, “when the moon is dark, in two months’ time. Until then, you must speak his name no more.”
Surely it could not be something so small and simple. But the voice said nothing else. “I won’t,” I assured him, picking up my case with trembling hands.
“So say all who come to me,” the voice replied, growing softer. “Most, I meet again all too soon.”
I hurried away, my case clutched tight to my chest. The more I thought, the lower my heart sank. How could I go two weeks without saying my husband’s name? Everyone would notice I was avoiding it and assume excessive grief was at the root of it. They would push and prod me to say his name, as they had pushed me to take off my rings, go through his belongings, and stop visiting his tombstone.
Or would they notice, after all? They barely seemed to have taken heed of his passing. Why would they question it when I joined them in forgetfulness?
Seeming forgetfulness. I tightened my rings once more, overcome with horror at the thought of letting his memory fade into eternal silence.
At the mouth of the cave, I exhaled slowly. For truly, I would be my own greatest enemy. Every shared memory brought his name to my lips. One moment of carelessness, and I would doom us to be forever apart.
Never. I strode back to my boat, jaw clamped tight. Even if I had to cut out my tongue and forsake speech altogether, I would not utter his name until I saw him once more by my side.
As I rowed back, the clouds parted, painting the river silver with reflected moonlight. The water still sang to me. I could not tell whether it was a melody of sadness or hope.
About the Author
Julia LaFond is a geoscience/astrobiology PhD candidate at Penn State, where she regularly attended the Creative Writing Club pre-pandemic. She’s also a member of #TeamVelvetSteel (a group of YA writers who found each other through Pitch Wars). Her repertoire includes “Reflection” (206 Word Stories, Bag of Bones Press), “The Dullahan” (Short Edition/PSU library system), and “The Hunting of the Spider” (Short Edition/PSU library system). In her spare time she enjoys reading, gaming, and advocating for disability rights.