Alix looked at me, then to the clear sky, dotted with stars. It was nighttime and, from the crenellated walls, the island resembled a ship sailing out to sea.
I stretched my hands out to her, my fingers apart, as if were pushing an unseen barrier; which thinned out and disappeared entirely when Alix pressed her palms against mine.
Suddenly, I had the acute and profound sensation of someone who had woken up from a deep coma. Images, sounds, and smells exploded around me like I was in the middle of a dizzying fireworks display. I could hear the light of the stars and each sounded different, like the instruments in an orchestra playing the sky symphony. I could distinguish the vibration of a pulsar, the cascading rumble of a black hole, followed by the overture in the crescendo of a supernova explosion. I could see through the sea all the way to the depths traversed by sharks, whales, dolphins, octopuses, and, farther still, into the watery abyss where strange silhouettes slid through the corals, antediluvian creatures dragged their tails through the sand in which cohorts of crabs marched in formation, preparing for D-Day when they would invade the beaches of the world. I was feeling the smell of marijuana cigarettes two fishermen were smoking, somewhere on a boat miles away, the scent of pine resin in a forest to the north-west, the stench of burned tires from a truck where a boy and a girl were making love, her for the first time, he…
And Alix, since when had she become translucent, like a crystal statue? I could see her bones and muscles, arteries and veins where blood pulsed in harmony with the eternal rhythms of nature, I heard the beating…of two hearts?!
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Alix pulled her hands away, and my universe returned to the way it was, a pale, faded copy, a black-and-white representation of what Alix lived through, moment by moment. Alix, who…wasn’t quite human. Some would name her mortal goddess – but they knew nothing! From the outside she seemed always satisfied with herself and those around her, radiating balance and quiet acceptance, an oasis of calm in a desert of madness.
Alix heard my thought.
“Not really,” she contradicted me without raising her voice, “Once, I was just like you.”
“You mean always angry about anything or anybody?”
She smiled, but her eyes remained focus into the dreary past.
“It’s hard to not know who you are, but it’s even harder to not know what you are. Until the age of nine, I thought I was normal. I never knew my parents, but there was nothing uncommon about that − in those days, many children in Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Oslo wound up like me, abandoned, begging on the streets, relying on the mercy of strangers. Do you remember the girl with the matches, who died frozen in the snow, while the rich and their families celebrated Christmas? A story which touched, and struck a chord of sensitivity in generations of readers, or a fact of life recorded by Hans Christian Andersen with dramatic realism? Me, I was luckier than most. I ended up in a parish orphanage. I had a roof over my head, a bed with a mattress full of straw, a slimy blanket, and a place at the communal dinner table, where the daily delicacy was turnip stew.
Everything was rationed. When we outgrew our clothes, we were given others, which were just as patched up and worn. As for shoes, we didn’t have any. We had to be grateful for leftovers, rags, a piece of moldy bread, a worm-eaten apple, because they didn’t throw us outside, in the blizzard. We were a burden on the shoulders of the orphanage staff, the kitchen lady who every day was faced with a difficult decision; boiled or cooked potatoes? We were suffering from hunger, from the cold, we were dirty and ragged, but it could be worse – and we kept hearing this until the other orphans and I started to believe it.
But not Hanna.
Hanna was my friend, the girl with golden hair, and eyes of a blue so pale that they resembled two opals. Hanna spoke little and only with me, but not because she was shy, silent, or withdrawn.
Hanna believed she was an angel.
Her celestial parents were forced to leave her behind, but they hadn’t abandoned her. Tomorrow, in a year, they would return and take her with them. Sometimes, she could hear them calling her by name, telling her not to lose patience, and hope. They had left for a while, but…
“Where did they go?” I asked her one day.
The next night we sneaked through the attic window of the bedroom and stood there together, gazing at the starlit sky from the roof.
“There!” she said.
She showed me a sparkle that was the same as thousands and thousands of others. But to Hanna, that star was a beacon, lighting her way back home. And, since then, we got out on the roof every night when the sky was clear. Once, she whispered another secret in my ear. “I had sprouted invisible wings. If I opened them, I could soar over the houses, over the trees.”
“And me?” I asked her.
“I won’t leave you, Alix. When my parents will come for me, we will go together.”
Forty girls lived in the attic bedroom. One of them – I never learned which – told the supervisor about our nightly escapades. In the orphanage everything was economized, food, heat, candle wax, everything except punishments.
For the better part of two days, Hanna and I were forced to sit on our knees on crushed walnut shells. Then they gave us brushes, soap, and buckets of water to clean the blood off the floorboards. But the true punishment was yet to come. The headmistress had called a blacksmith to place iron bars on the attic windows.
And on the night before the bedroom became a prison, Hanna came to my bed and put a finger on my lips. She didn’t utter a word, but I understood her thought. These were our last moments of freedom. Why should we waste them?
In the sky, the blackness covering the stars was beginning to fade. Earlier it had rained and the roof was wet and slippery. But so what? Hanna had wings, the stars were flashing between the ragged clouds, soon the firmament would be clear, and all ours.
When the tiles slipped from under my feet, Hanna caught my arms, trying to stop me, but it didn’t work. We both tumbled over the drainpipe and fell fourteen meters to the granite-paved courtyard.
I woke up in the orphanage infirmary. The doctor told me Hanna was crushed and died instantly. It was a cruel lie, and I refused to believe it. Hanna had flown! She had opened her wings wide and was floating somewhere over the city. But why had she left me there?
Maybe she left me behind because all my bones were broken. No one in the orphanage believed I would survive till morning, and they waited and waited. At dawn, I still hadn’t given my last breath, and by afternoon I had asked for a glass of water.
Had a miracle happened?
The doctor looked at me in horror and fright, like I was a three-headed calf – and so what? Hanna had escaped, she would come back to take me away from him, from all of them. That evening my fever dropped, I could stand on my own feet and I got myself out of bed. The bathroom was on the other end of the corridor, and I had almost made it, when I smelled a strange odor, like wilted flowers.
I opened a door, then another. In the third room I found Hanna, covered in a rust-stained sheet. But it was blood. I tore it off and I stared at the crushed body, and the disfigured face of my friend. She had been a girl who dreamed she was a winged creature; now she was just an anonymous corpse, which the orphanage was about to sell to the Royal Clinique, as a teaching aid for Medical students.
As for me, was I an angel, a demon, an abomination?
They moved me from the common dormitory to a closet in the basement, passing me food through a slit in the door, as if I had leprosy, the plague, or some other infectious disease. The headmistress had called an exorcist, the doctor informed his anatomy colleagues to prepare the table and dissection instruments, but not before running a few scientific experiments. Was I resistant to freezing water, fire, sulfuric acid? Could they conserve me in formaldehyde?
They called me the girl with rubber bones, who had fallen off a roof and had gotten up, without a scratch. That’s how urban legends are born. Was I lucky or a child of the devil?
They didn’t get to find out. The third day after the accident that brought me the unwanted fame, I ran away from the orphanage, leaving behind the town, then Sweden. I didn’t linger for more than a couple of days in one place, still running although nobody was chasing me, with no other luggage except the memories. Up to you, Hanna was my only friend.
“A girl who thought she was an angel and another who fancied herself as a human”, I said. “Both were wrong and right at the same time. But did you find out, finally, at the end of so many pathways, who are you, what are you?”
Alix tilted her head to one side and stared at me under her eyelashes.
“In the end…is it really so important?”
Rodica Bretin was born and raised in Brasov, a town in Transilvania, not far from Dracula Castle. She began writing her debut novel at an early age, after obsessing over books about the mysteries of the world. When she’s not writing, she can be found wandering through the dense forests around his hometown. Currently she lives and writes in a house next to an old fortress, with her cat Lorena.
She published her first book, „Holographic Effect“, in 1985. Since then, she has published over thirty novels and volumes of stories, on some favorite topics: time travel paranormal, medieval times, the Viking Age, fantasy and science-fiction.
Rodica Bretin is a member of the Romanian Writers Union (USR) since 1991.