The Lady Wore a Shawl

This short story was published in New Fairytales, Issue 5 .

**

“Is that her?”

“Is she here?”

“Did it work?”

A chorus of questions fill the dank air, as she glides through the streets; touching walls, smearing glass, humming softly. Children rush out of the darkness, a sense of celebration filling the eerie quiet as they clutch at her dress and skip around her as she moves.

“Is it you?”

“It is you!”

“You came I knew you would!”

Their words echo about the ruins, splashing into puddles and bouncing off  the rusty  husks of abandoned cars. Small bare feet sidestep rubbish and spent shell casings with practised ease. The children are moths to a flame, pride and excitement lighting their eyes and puffing out skinny chests. They smell like sweat and fear turned sour, but the city smells of rot and damp, the scent of death is sickly and taints everything.

She remains silent, and wariness creeps in, the current of jubilation deadened by her cool stare. Quiet surrounds her and flattens the city where she treads. Her shawl clings to thin shoulders, and the jade satin gleams and winks as she passes.

The children scatter from her skirts then and hover behind corners, watching as the woman floats above the mud and debris, down streets once busy with traffic and noise and life. Now the alleyways are stained with the memory of the flood, holding secrets much darker than illicit kisses bought and paid for. Disease festers in the ruins, reaching beyond the tumbled walls and shattered glass to curse the survivors two times over. The visitor appears untouched by the decay of the city, and the children grip slimy brickwork, craning dirty necks to catch a better look as she wafts on by.

“I think it worked,” a blonde boy whispers, his eager bright eyes following her passage reverently. “We did it.”

“She don’t look much,” another grumbles, chewing a torn thumb nail nervously. “You should ask her.”

The blonde boy shakes his head, but the others crowd about him, nodding and pushing him on.

The woman pauses outside a bakery, and peers into the jagged glass that juts from the door frame. The children fall silent, holding their breath, waiting. Her long dress billows as she moves, as dark slate clouds above the city press down, squeezing the air like a damp rag. The children are used to being hot and sticky now, and wear mere scraps of clothing that flutter when the wind picks up. The wind is a blessing as it tears through the thunder trapped streets, and they laugh as their hair is whipped from their faces. The sound amplifies the emptiness that sours the place, and fades quickly to nothing in the gloom.

“Shh, she’ll hear you,” a red haired girl whispers, her blue eyes like saucers as she gazes at the visitor, admiring the luminous white hair, that flows like a banner in the wind. The woman’s face is old, like chewed leather, but her eyes are sharp and bright in the murk that exists beneath the cities fallen towers. Her expression is serene as she glances at the small faces peering hungrily between the cracks of the buildings, and the children turn to each other, excitement bubbling upon mud streaked faces.

“It is her, did you see-”

“Ask her, go on ask her-”

The blonde boy steps forward, his scuffed shoes squelching through the mud and vegetation now sprouting between the cracks in the pavement. He coughs, then turns to his comrades, who duck out of sight, like the cowards they are.

“’Scuse me lady,” he stutters, then tugs at her skirt and raises his head, swallowing his fear. “Are you who we asked for?”

A roll of thunder breaks the silence, and the woman turns to examine the child, a small frown crossing her features.

“I am here aren’t I?” Her lips don’t move, but her voice flows about the city, filling each empty crevice with rich vibrant noise. The city seems to moan in response, and the storm overhead snatches the wail of the dying and sweeps it across the barren stretches of land that border the city.  The boy stumbles away, gulping back a cry of terror. The city creaks beneath the storm and he returns to his comrades, dimples forming in his forehead.

“I don’t think we did it right.”

“I did my part-”

“You mucked up that chanting-”

“You never cut your hand like us-”

“I did, what you sayin’-”

“Stop it!” hisses the red head, smacking clenched fists to her thighs. “ She’s here now, and if she ain’t who we asked for who is she?”

They turn in unison, and stare at the lady, apprehension crackling between them. A small boy jumps, then wobbles as shafts of stark white light spear the clouds and hit the street like searchlights, sweeping the wreckage. The children shrink back, the memory of the searchlights, and the bullets from the sky still raw.

“Look!” gasps the brave child that dared voice their question, and points at the lady with  a trembling hand.  Caught in a beam of sunlight slashing the darkness, the woman raises her face to the sky, and her hair and face glow with an opal sheen, the lines of her face smoothed away by the glare. The shawl about her shoulders bursts with colour and as the children gaze in hushed awe, hundreds of tiny gems spark with life against the jade  green cloth.

Tentative feet shuffle forward, and the red head squeaks in rapture as she squints at the rainbow hues now flowing through the shawl. The children form a circle about the woman, gasping in amazement and clapping in delight as the gems morph into creatures, that dance and flutter upon the fabric. It is beautiful.

Delicate chattering nibbles at their ears as they creep ever closer to stare at the magical spectacle, and the thunder is a distant thought as it roars overhead, and the rain is no distraction as fat rain drops splash upon their upturned faces.

“We really did it,” a tall girl with freckles says, her voice cracking as rain trickles down her forehead.  The children nod in agreement, and wide smiles split hopeful faces as the living shawl glitters and whispers in the rain. They really had.

The woman lifts her hands then, holding the corners of her shawl tightly like a cape, letting the wind lift it high as they watch. She turns in a slow circle, and the redhead notices that her feet are bare, and now her toes are sinking into the mud and sludge of the city. The shawl is as large as a flag, being hoisted proudly beneath the storm.  The creatures swarm upon it in a frenzy of colour and rustling words, too small to decipher. The children strain to hear anyway, spellbound by its glory as the roving sunlight kisses it to life. The rain is whooshing down now, thick and moody, attacking the streets and cascading dirt where it flicks puddles of grey mud.

“Are you ready now little ones?” The white haired lady smiles at her admirers, her voice penetrating the darkness of the city, yet her lips remain closed in the smile she shares.

“Yes lady,” they nod, “I am, yes please..” The spells had worked, the chanting, the offerings. Skinning the rat was worth it, slashing palms and swearing oaths, all worth it. They had summoned an angel.

“Then we shall begin.”

The lone cry of a bird, pierces the scene; and she looks up, eyes flashing as scarlet as the blood they spilt to call her. A vast bird swoops down through the steely clouds and lands upon her left wrist. It’s beady golden eyes and indigo feathers are vivid beside the woman’s luminous hair.  A sigh ripples through the gathered children, as their worries and fears melt away with the rain.

 

Then the shawl shrieks loudly, and the creatures dancing upon it writhe in agony, twisting and clawing to get free from their prison. One by one the children vanish, marked only by a violent popping sound, and acrid smoke twisting where they stood.

The shawl grows larger, and glitters fiercely as extra gems appear, and the woman lets the tail of the shawl dip and sway in the windy rain swept street. The city howls again, the wounded wretched wail of a last hope fled. The silence that returns is that of the sea, of the desert, of the forest. The silence of a place without people.

The last child, the blonde boy disappears, as he is swirling about looking for his friends, confused and frightened. A final spark attaches to her shawl, and she breathes in deep lungful’s of air, wiggling her bare toes in the sodden muck beneath her.  The bird lifts its wings a little, and cocks its head to one side. Golden eyes pin the woman, and she laughs, wrapping the shawl tight about her as the lines fall from her face completely. She spins, up on tiptoe, and squeals as her toes slip.  The bird wobbles, and vicious talons cling her wrist too tightly, drawing blood. Wincing, she stares at the creature, and then sighs, stepping along the street.

“Are we done now?” Her face is hopeful. The bird shudders, and she frowns, her free hand reaching up to find her face wrinkle free, as smooth as it had been the first day she made her own wish. That dreadful dreadful wish.

“Eternity my dear, is a long way off yet. Let us leave it to rain now.”

The bird caws, and launches from her wrist, an indigo smudge against the wintry sky as it flies away, weaving in and out of the sun beams that spear the clouds. Wrapping the shawl tight about her shoulders, she strokes the fabric gently, letting her tears fall on the jade satin. Not that the tears would ever be penance enough.  The bird shrieks in the distance, its beak widening to become a gaping jaw in which she saw the endless darkness of her own fate stretching on and on. Shivering, she opened her arms once more, embracing the agony as she was drawn up past the ruined city, to the awaiting talons, hearing the endless far off whispered wishes that beckoned her on.

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