“I wish to speak with you on this path and there will be no end to my speaking. You will not be able to do otherwise than listen because I have bound you fast.”
Day of the Smothered Bride
Light came into me again today. I was at worship singing with the other vestal dedicants when it happened—the warmth of it fell over me like a cloak in the chill of the shrine. Others near me in the benches began to whisper. I stopped singing because twice before that had doused the light. This time it brightened.
It flickered like a flame and shone outward more and more as the song went on. The other dedicants were making such a commotion that I was afraid Vesta Natali would notice—or worse, the curate at the head of the host would.
A girl behind me whispered in my ear, “Margetta, we’re going to tell the Vesta.” I turned around to face her.
“No, you can’t,” I said. “Please.”
“Leave her alone,” said Eleni beside me.
“That’s the light of the Harper,” said the girl. “It’s our duty to tell. He must be seeking a new Bride.”
“No, you’re wrong,” said Charis behind her, loud, much too loud. Nearly a vesta herself, she had the elaborate braids afforded the oldest caste of dedicants. “That’s no holy Bride-light. Look at how it sputters and then flames up again. It’s like the witch-globes from the swamp.”
The song was drawing to an end, but the girls nearby had abandoned singing altogether, and were whispering and peering at me. As were the boys across the aisle.
“Or—I know,” continued Charis, “maybe you’re not pious enough for the Harper. Maybe you’re corrupting the light with an unclean heart.”
“Maybe it’s not the Harper’s Bride-light at all,” said the first girl. “It could be something pretending to be the Harper. Something terrible, something masked as Him. Just look at her.”
“Don’t listen to them,” said Eleni, putting her hand on mine. “I’ve heard of sometimes how the light comes, but it’s not a Bride-light. I bet that’s what this is.” I didn’t really believe it, but appreciated her saying so just the same.
But now the song was done, and the commotion was drawing the stares of the rest of the host. The curate was making his way to the dais, his long silk robes trailing past the first row. Any moment he would notice the disturbance and look down the aisle.
“Get down—hide,” said Eleni, so I ducked on the floor, then crawled under the bench. There I stayed. All the while, my light waned and wavered like a witchlight, but it did not dissipate.
As the curate went through his address, Eleni reached down and took my hand. She didn’t let go till the end, when my light finally extinguished.
Day of the Flayed Bride—Piscuary 1
It is the month named for the time the Harper stood on the banks of the Severen strumming His lyre, giving the Homily of the Fruit and the Flies to passers-by on their way to market. Hearing the homily, the fish in the river leapt onto shore and landed at His feet. They flopped and stared and writhed and died, just to better hear His words for a few rapturous, air-smothered moments. It’s said that the aroma of roses wafted off the dead fish for weeks after that, until one day they simply vanished.
I was walking by the river today on my way to the market, thinking about the Homily of the Fruit and the Flies—when suddenly I could hear His voice delivering it. I wasn’t merely remembering Vesta Natali reciting it, droning on in the tones of a mule in labor. No, I heard Him speaking the words low and sweet, His voice like wind-stirred chimes. The waters lapped at the banks of the river. And the witchlight was upon me again.
Then He was just there, standing in the grasses preaching, looking at me. I went to Him and fell down at His feet and became like one of those fishes that leapt out of the river, flopping and staring and writhing. The air began to smother the life from me. I could feel myself beginning to die.
But now I have woken—woken in my bed smelling of fish and fruit rotted in the summer sun. That is what they flung at me on the riverbank when they saw me flopping about, shrouded in the queer light. They don’t believe I am to be a Bride, but say I am impious or cursed.
I don’t know what to think. I wonder what would be more terrible: for folk to decide I must be expelled from the city, or for the Harper to visit me again.
Day of the Third Bludgeoned Bride
This morning the Harper’s Bride was found dead in her anchorhold.
So this day next year will have a new name. They will not say, though, what that name will be. Vesta Natali announced that there will be no public funeral and that her body will not be placed, as in centuries prior, at the door of the anchorhold to greet the new Bride.
Brides die doubly, they say. The first time is when the chosen one is married to Him, and He cleanses her by separating her out from her body. He puts her ghost back in again, newly impervious to the pollution of flesh. It is the greatest honor any would-be vesta may have.
The Bride dies a second time in a final rite of purification.
It is an honor to be chosen, to dwell in the darkness of the anchorhold, to hear His endless harping and His orations, to live in constant communion with Him. That is why the Brides are remembered by their deaths.
I cannot imagine why the officials are refusing the usual rites; why they keep the Bride out of sight. There can be no bad death for a Bride.
Still, I do wonder—in dying, did she felt anything like what I did on the Severen’s banks?
All Hallowed Brides Day
Before dawn, Vesta Natali fetched me from my bed; I had been called to the curate’s chamber before an assembly of tall-hatted officials. In the chill air I was interrogated—about my light, about the incident on the riverbank. They asked if I knew anything about the Bride’s death. The stink of fear was on all of them. I answered their questions as well as I could, wondering what would happen to me if they found me a liar, or accused me of causing the Bride’s death.
They left me in a cloister while they convened, the stone walls so thick all I could hear was my own breathing.
When they called me back into their chamber, I could feel the stone of the floor creep up through my slippers into my legs, holding me in place as they made their announcement: they decided He has chosen me; they decided that in seven weeks’ time, I will forfeit my life to be His new Bride. I will marry the Harper.
When they pronounced this, I did not know what to feel, so I was glad, and wept.
When we were small and had not yet been taken up by the Harporians, Eleni and I would go to see the new Bride—that’s what she was then, new. Her anchorhold, what would be mine hence, was built into the side of the shrine. There was a high window inside so that she could hear the curate’s orations, and there was a window outside where the townsfolk would leave her food.
We went to that outside window once and called her. Bride, Bride, we said, but she did not come, and there was no movement in the thick shadows of the hold.
Where could she have gone, said Eleni.
The Harper must have taken her ghost to walk and sing in the celestial orchards, I said. Her body is lying in there somewhere, still as a corpse.
Then the Bride sprung into the window. She had been hiding against the wall listening to us, and she frightened us now making terrible noises with a strange expression contorting her face. Around her head was a halo of ragged, tormented hair and scraps of her wedding gown hung in gray tatters over her like cobwebs in dim corners. She moved back and forth erratically and sang, if it could be called singing. She looked as though she was in some torment of mind, but we knew she was in ecstasy, the only one in all the world in constant communion with the Harper. Her singing, they said, was the attempt of the body to mimic the songs sung in the celestial orchards.
As the Bride stood at the window making her terrible sounds, Eleni grabbed my hand and tore me away from the anchorhold. We ran back into the streets where we could not hear her anymore. The sounds might have been the Bride’s body trying to mimic the celestial songs, but to my ears it sounded like her calling, calling, calling us to come back to her.
Day of the Bride Scored a Thousandfold with Oyster Shells
In my room I woke. I found scabs covered my entire body, even my eyelids. I could barely open my eyes to see what had happened.
Someone knocked on the door. I heard Eleni call my name, but I could not move my mouth to reply.
It grew dark again, or I wasn’t able to see anymore. The scabs began to bleed out, soaking my nightdress and seeping into the sheets. There was a strange odor, but I was not myself and could not place it.
Someone opened the door and came in. “You’re going to make us both late,” said Charis, “if you don’t hur—Oh,” she said, exhaling as if she had been struck in the stomach.
She brought others. They gathered in my room in silence. Vesta Natali declared, “It’s a sign of the Harper’s blessing,” but she sounded fearful, and I wondered if anyone believed her.
“Should we move her to the anchorhold?” said another woman.
A man spoke. “Would it be right to take a girl to her bridal chamber unwed? No.” I recognized the curate’s voice, thin and tight as string. “No. She must stay here till the rites are complete.”
They left me, and I lay wondering if this or suffocating on the riverbank like a deranged fish would be more like living as the Harper’s Bride in the anchorhold. Once I would have wondered if He would tell me the Homily of the Fruit and the Flies whenever I wished. Now I could not bear to think of it.
Then there was the bleating of sheep, and I saw brilliant light through closed eyelids, and He was there with me. He was standing over the bed saying, “My new Bride, my new Bride. All those who have come before you have been but temporary Brides until the time that I found you. When at last we can be together, I will grant you a great gift.” I felt His lips press to my forehead. At that moment, the grip on my flesh released, and I felt the scabs fall off.
“I can scarcely bear to wait for the time we will be together,” He said and was gone. It was dark again. I felt like I was drowning, choking on air.
In a dream, I heard pounding on a distant door and Eleni calling me. When I woke, Vesta Natali was there at my bedside, tending my body with damp cloths. All the scabs lay around me like shed fish scales. I lifted a cloth and saw that my skin looked as new as an infant’s.
Vesta Natali put a fresh sheet on the bed, rolling me from side to side to get it under me. After I had lain in the dark for some time, clean and new and alone, I decided I should go to the evening worship to prevent more whisperings than surely already passed through myriad lips. I dressed, then opened the chamber door and found Eleni waiting for me, hunched over on the floor.
“Margetta, are you alright?” she said, leaping to her feet. “What happened to you?” She embraced me. I was glad to see her.
“I don’t know,” I said, “I had scabs like all my flesh was a wound, and I bled and bled.” I did not want to talk about the Harper. We walked with the others towards the shrine and I noticed that everyone was dressed for the morning meal. I continued with the rest of them anyway. Everyone nearby me was hushed and regarded me with timid glances. I wondered what day it was.
“You’ve not heard about what happened at the Severen near the market yesterday,” said Eleni, dark braids swinging as we walked. “Hundreds of fish leapt out of the waters and onto the bank and died.”
“That’s curious,” I said.
“They were dead, great waves of them, the moment they landed on the bank. They were dry as bones, like they had been lying in the sun for a week. Like they had been drained of blood and everything else.”
“Very curious,” I said, and noticed an odd look in Eleni’s eye. She had stopped walking. “What’s the matter?” I said.
“I’ve been waiting outside your door. Margetta, I smelled something peculiar coming from your chamber last night,” she said. “And early this morning I saw Vesta Natali take sheets from your room. She had them rolled up tight, and another blanket over them besides. But she must have been hasty because a sheet corner was trailing behind her. It looked strange, so I followed her to the wash room. When she put the sheets into the vat, it wasn’t blood on the sheet but a yellow oily stain the size of a girl and more.
“And then I realized—what I smelled coming from your chamber last night was the smell of dead fish.”
I told Eleni that I intended to find out what had happened to the old bride. “What is He doing?” I said. “First my Bride-light is all wrong. Then what happened by the river. Now the scabs and the fish.”
She clutched my hand and bit her lip, saying nothing. What was there to say, beyond that something was terribly amiss?“Maybe if we find out what happened to the old Bride,” I said. “Maybe that will help us understand.”
The next morning there was a knock at my door. It was Eleni—Eleni, who always knew what to do before she knew what to say. She had spied on Vesta Natali conversing with Charis and overheard where the old Bride’s body was being kept.
So under the shroud of night Eleni and I snuck from our rooms to the curate’s cloister to look for her.
There, hidden under mounds of carefully piled rugs and ratty tapestries, covered with a cerecloth on a stone bier, we found the old Bride.
She no longer had a body, exactly. There were pieces of limbs, and what had once been the torso. And her head.
I heard myself cry, how could this be a cleansing, how could this be a cleansing, how?
Eleni kept saying my name as she wept.
Then she threw a tapestry over it all. She pulled me out of the room and shut the door behind us. It was the second time she had me take leave of that Bride.
The fact of such deaths has been written out before us, clear and familiar as the days of the year.
It wasn’t until I looked death in the face that I decided I would die only once—that I’d rather die impure than suffer a cleansing at His hand.
Feast of the Harper—Dedication of the Bride-About-To-Be
We were gathered outside for the Harper’s Procession. As in centuries past, the Bride About-To-Be walks near the front of the procession donning her black and red vestments. In these robes, I was like my own ghost hovering over my hewn Bride’s body, a spirit newly dead and awaiting Him in the darkness.
On the riverbank where the procession would end, I was to cast off the red and black to reveal the white messaline gown beneath. This would be my garb for the remaining six bridal ceremonies; and some weeks from now, it would be my wedding dress. Today, it would represent the Bride as a ghost delivered back into her body by the grace of His harping. I alone amidst all humanity would not be soiled by flesh, because my spirit would not be tied to my body—only wearing it, like a gown.
But this transformation would be realized only as a symbol. I would not remain long enough for it to become the truth of me. We were going to leave by dark of night, Eleni and I, after the dedication when they would be certain of my commitment to the Harper. Eleni had found we could flee undetected later that night through a back door in the refectory after all had gone to bed. She had already assembled a pack for our journey.
Where would we go? Not to our families, even if we could remember where to find them—they would have to return us to the Harporians. No, we’d go somewhere far away.
The curate walked ahead of me, grotesquely tall with his elaborate white hat. Behind me were the vestas, and, far behind the city officials, the dedicants. The parade began with the Harper’s Psalm, the holiest of all psalms on the holiest of days. The procession moved forward now down the avenue, and I with it. The dedicants, the vestas, and the people gathered in the streets sang the Harper’s song. But I was to remain as silent as a fleshless spirit; I was to float along like the ghost they expected I would become.
I heard a moaning like wind blowing through corridors, the bleating of lambs, and wind chimes in my ears all at once.
The procession slowed and people turned to me. I could not see for the light in my eyes and His singing in my ears. The sound felt like missing a step walking down stairs.
I heard Him say close to my ear: “I cannot wait for you any longer, Bride. We must be together now.”
I found the ground beneath me. As I was lifted to my feet by hands unseen, I knew something was wrong. Many people were speaking.
“Has He come?”
“She must finish the procession, come what may.”
Someone was coughing.
“Bride About-to-Be, you must walk.” The curate was standing over me, his voice pulling me back into awareness. “You must walk so you can enact the Harper returning you to your body.” I expected the witchlight to be upon me, but there was none.
I smelled a peculiar smell. The curate scowled. People around me were coughing and moving away. I looked around wildly for Eleni, but the dedicants were far at the back of the procession. People were staring. I glimpsed Vesta Natali as she flinched back into the crowd. A putrefaction had filled the air.
He, He had done this. On this, the holiest of days, I smelled of rot.
That was when I was sure our god had gone mad.
“A curse is upon her.”
“The Harper has rejected her. Her heart is wicked. They’ve said so all along.”
People—vestas, townspeople—moved back, encircling me, and I stood alone in my black and red. Then something struck my shoulder. A stone rolled over the ground. A man shouted, and another, till it was a rush of shouting, and I was being pummeled with stones.
I felt someone grab me by the shoulder and pull me back into the crowd. It was Charis. “Get out of here,” she whispered to me, eyes wide.
I did what Eleni would do: I ran.
I ran out of the procession and pushed through the crowd along the street. The stench was overwhelming; it frightened many back. But others grabbed at me and tried to hold me. A man seized me, grasping my outer red and black robes. I struggled, withdrew one arm from its sleeve and then the other, and slipped away into the crowd. The grasping hands and faces writ with revulsion blurred into a heaving, recoiling terror as I went. I left the city behind.
I ran to the banks of the Severen and passed a place rich with reeds. I thought I might duck into them and hide from Him, because I thought He intended to find me by my stench. But I feared my stench was too strong even for the river. So I followed it towards the only place that I could think of, the only place that could offer protection until I could find Eleni and decide what to do. For how could we have known He would try to get me away from His followers? I followed the river for two miles to the swamp outside town, the swamp as stinking as me.
But He was there, waiting for me.
“My Bride, you escaped. They reviled you, and you have come. They did not know what they reviled,” He exclaimed, hanging in the open air under high trees. “I could not wait any longer. I have been looking for you since the day I came to this world. When I gaze upon you, all who came before you are vanquished from My memory. None will come after you. I have called you here to make you my last Bride. My True Bride.”
“What, what do you mean?” I said.
“True Bride, I will tear you from your body indelibly, and you will be my Ghost Queen and rule this world along side Me for eternity. You won’t need a final cleansing: You will be with Me forever.”
Slowly the world froze in place. All went white. Nothing moved. The only sound was the blood moving through me and the wind blowing around Him.
“‘True Bride,’” I said. “How is it that I have been found worthy of this gift?” I could barely speak. There was no air to breathe. There was no escape.
The Harper grinned down at me. The sound of sheep bleating filled my ears as He spoke. “Why, you are pure. Now, lie down so that I can grant my gift and rip you from that flesh.” I backed away, but He skirted up to me again, crowding close, chilling me with His wind.
“Harper,” I said, my teeth chattering in fright. “I do not welcome this. I do not want to be your True Bride.”
I could not bear to look at Him, so I hid my face in the gown.
“Do not be afraid,” He said with the voice of chimes. “I will be the kindest of masters to you.”
I could not think what to do. I could not run now. “I saw the old Bride,” I said. “I saw what you did to her.”
“The Bride Torn Asunder. Yes. I’d nearly forgotten her.”
“How many have you…ruined?…like that,” I said.
“Like that? She was the first.”
I was shaking. “That was not what I meant.”
“Why, you know the litany of their names, True Bride,” he said, impatient. “Pressed Bride, Drowned Bride, Blood-Let Bride, Impaled Twin Infant Brides. Foolish girl. But soon you will know all my secrets, Ghost Queen.”
“Please, I beg you—allow me to live in my corpse like the Brides before me did. If I am pure enough to be your True Bride, can’t I keep my body?”
But I guessed what He would say.
“I am sorry, Queen,” He said, “You cannot rule this world through human flesh, even if it does not spoil you as it did the others.”
As He spoke, I realized hope still hung in tatters around me.
I sighed. “If that is how it must be.” I said it as if resigning myself. “If that is my only choice, then I have something to ask. The procession that would allow me to act out this change—it ended too early, and I am without my robes.” I displayed the white dress, my wedding gown. “Have mercy on me—could we enact the change before it happens, so that I may prepare myself?”
“I am ready and eager to make you my Bride, child,” He said in a voice like lambs. “I cannot wait much longer.” His light had dimmed and I could see he was slavering at the mouth.
“I beg you,” I said, shuddering. “If you could retrieve my robes where I lost them in the procession, we could play at how it will go, and I will be more ready to accept my fate, Bridegroom.”
At that He reared up, angrily I thought, but then he whisked away, over the swamp towards the city.
I was alone.
He would not be gone long. Few places could conceal me with the mark He had put on me.
But there was one.
I collected reeds near the banks of the river, and fled back to the swamp. I stepped ankle-deep into the slime, and it slid between my toes. I stepped in deeper, and it oozed up around my calves. The stench wafted over me, and I felt ill. I stepped in deeper, and it curled around my thighs. The feeling of illness abated, for the smell was nothing I did not already know. I stepped in deeper, quick, and the swamp embraced me around my shoulders like a friend thought lost. I put the reed to my lips and sunk below the surface.
I breathed. The air came thin and foul, but I breathed.
I do not know how long I was in the black mire before He returned to find me gone.
I could hear the bleat of the sheep and the frantic tinkling of chimes behind His wailing: My Bride, My Bride, where have you gone?
The swamp clenched at my throat, at all of me, but I held the reed between my lips and breathed and breathed while His voice echoed over and across the swamp and back again.
He must have called for a day and a night. Or perhaps it was a week. I do not know. I became faint without food, and the bog pressing against me, and the air coming thinly through the reed. Fear brought my breath too quick, and my nose and eyes were burning, all my skin was burning. He wailed at the edge of the swamp saying, Why have you forsaken me, my Bride oh my Bride? But I did not rise out of the mire, despite that I felt my life leaving me. Better to die there.
When at last He had been silent for a long time, and I hoped He had gone back to the shrine to look for me, I lifted my head. I could not see through the slime, and my eyes were near failing. But I did not see His light. I waited, listening for Him.
He was gone.
I emerged to the sound of a low thrum. I fell on the bank and found myself lying amid rose petals.
Rose petals, and maggots.
Flies settled upon me, swarming. One bit me. And another. But as I slapped at them I laughed, I laughed because He had not found me, and I was not dead. The rose petals and the maggots covered everywhere as though they had showered from the sky. They stuck to me. Amidst the scent of roses, the air was abuzz with the hatched maggots He left behind. Still, I laughed.
Then Eleni was there at my side.
When she had cleaned the swamp from my flesh and eyes and nose, when she had set my life firmly back into my body, when she had drawn me into a rough shelter of branches and enormous leaves—then Eleni told me how she came to be there. She told me she couldn’t find me in the commotion, but someone said he saw me run towards the river.
“When I heard that, I went and grabbed the pack back at the shrine. I looked everywhere on the banks,” she said, “and wondered if you’d fallen in and drowned,” she said, and crouched down next to me under the secret shelter. “But I kept going and reached the swamp.”
She swatted at a fly. “I waited and waited for you, and looked everywhere. Then the Harper came, calling and wailing for you, and I knew I’d come to the right place. I hid in a dead tree trunk the whole time, for a day and a night and today, till he left. Then, there you were, coming out of the far side of the swamp.”
“He’ll come back, you know,” I said.
“I know,” said Eleni, drawing a thin blanket from the leather pack. She wrapped it around my shoulders. “And I’ll help you hide.”
“His mark on me might be permanent,” I said.
“Maybe it’s not. Maybe it will fade over time,” she said.
“If it doesn’t, I might not be able to ever leave. Or maybe I’d have to go far, far away where there are no Harporians, and where folk have not heard of the escaped putrid Bride. What if I always stink of the swamp? He…He is mad, Eleni.”
“I think He was already going mad when He first sought you out,” she said. “The Bride-light was never right.”
“I think he must have been mad from the beginning, when he first came here.”
Evening was fading. Insects thrummed against the coming dark.
“We’ll find a way,” Eleni said at last.
“We can stay here, at least till I can travel, and hide from Him if I can,” I said. “I’ll be a Swamp Bride for now. Better that than His Bride, pure or True or otherwise.” I pulled the blanket tighter around me. “And Eleni?—I don’t ever want to hear the Homily of the Fruit and the Flies again.”
She laughed, a sound akin to wind chimes that made me smile instead of shudder. “We’ll make sure you never have to. I’ll get some reeds from the river at first light. We’ll make a better shelter. We’re both Swamp Brides now,” she said.
Witch-globes rose over the green reach of the swamp wheeling, gyring around each other, their weird green light flickering like flames caressed by a breeze.
“Look,” she breathed and drew me out of the shelter. The globes danced towards us slowly and bobbed overhead before returning to swoop and nod over the swamp.
“No, no more of His homilies,” she said as we watched them. “No more of the curate’s addresses. We won’t braid our hair anymore, if we don’t want to,” she said.
“We’ll forget the names of the days of the year,” I said.
Eleni put her hand in mine, and with flies worrying at our flesh and rose petals underfoot, we passed the night there, watching the witchlights dance.
Join Darja to discuss His One True Bride and the impetus behind it. She’ll answer questions until Sunday evening (6/22).
Darja Malcolm-Clarke has fiction appearing in Clarkesworld Magazine (“The Beacon” was long-listed for the BSFA for best short fiction of 2007) and in Ideomancer and forthcoming in Greatest Uncommon Denominator. She attended Clarion West in 2004. She holds master’s degrees in Folklore and in English, and is a Ph.D. candidate studying post-WWII speculative fiction. Her non-fiction appears in the Journal for the Fantastic in the Arts and The New Weird anthology. She lives in Bloomington, Indiana, where there are many thunderstorms, which suits her just fine, and she blogs at http://ombriel.livejournal.com/. She is currently writing a fantasy novel.