By Ruby Gower
This is a scene from a novel that I’ve been working on forever. Anna is saying goodbye to her best friend—who has died trying to save her—and learning about grief and the past from an older woman.
Now that Ela was dead, she had to let her go down the river, but first she would make a flower crown for her. Herminia braided the stalks expertly, and Anna realized with a pang that she must have done it many times before.
“I made one for my father,” she said suddenly, as if she had read Anna’s mind.
“Oh. What was he like? I’ve never had a father.”
“I never saw him much. Always out working. He died when I was seventeen. I had just gotten married.”
Anna leaned in, fascinated.
“It hurt for a while, even though I barely knew him. He would cook for us sometimes, even though the village said it was a woman’s job. But I healed eventually.”
Herminia shot her a meaningful glance from over the stems she was twisting together.
“And my sister died from rabies when I was four. She was my first flower crown. Not these sort of flowers, of course. ”
Anna bit her lip.
“I’m sorry, Herminia.”
“Don’t be. It’s not your fault. Many village children died that year, in one way or another. There was a sickness going around.”
Anna’s stomach shifted. She could tell with her eyes closed where they were going next.
“But not the Queen, of course. Your mother. She was nine.”
“She was walled away for the longest time. Came out a different girl.”
“Do you know—”
“That she’s dead? Yes. I didn’t know if you did.”
Anna couldn’t bring herself to tell her what she had done, so she just shrugged.
“Here’s your crown. You ready?”
“I think so. But I’d rather do it alone, if you don’t mind.”
“Of course. You just have to let go. It all gets easier after that, I promise.”
She would have to let Ela wash away down the river. A pain went through her stomach.
“Can’t I bury her?”
“You can. But you’ll never find your peace that way.”
Anna nodded. She was right. Of course she was.
“Come on,” Herminia said gently.
Anna took the flower crown and held it as gently as she could as they trudged back up the slope. It was beautiful, the pinks and whites and blues somehow woven like fabric together. It would be heartbreaking to float it away.
“You do need to float her away at some point. Shadowchildren are meant to run, even in death. She’ll do well as a river spirit.”
“I know. Tomorrow?”
“Perfect, Anna. You’re doing great, you know that?”
So this was it. The final goodbye. She looked down at Ela’s peaceful face, finally at rest after so many brave deeds done in her name. She traced her cheekbones, already sallow from death, until they came to her mouth, her beautiful carob lips, shaped like a rose. She should have spent more time studying her face, appreciating every moment she got to spend with her.
But she hadn’t. And now this was all she had left. All of a sudden, love and grief and pain overcame her and she dived down, kissing her hard, her tears dripping down onto her face. She sobbed into her closed lips, shaking her desperately, even though she knew the effort was futile.
She could have sworn that her lips were still warm as she broke apart from her. She wouldn’t be able to let go. She couldn’t. But she owed it to Ela. Far better to dissolve into the water and become a spirit of the river than to spend her death locked away in a casket.
So she had to let go. She rose up onto her knees to see Ela’s whole body, to take one last picture in her mind to join all the frozen moments of Ela laughing and running she had stored in her head. Ela had never been more darkly beautiful than now.
And now it was time. The last time she would ever see her again in all her days. She secured the flower crown onto Ela’s head and around her beautiful black hair. She wouldn’t want her to lose it as she became a river spirit. On a whim, she gently pulled a pale pink petal from the weaving and put it gently into her dress pocket, careful not to damage it.
Then she took a shaky breath and stroked a stray piece of hair from Ela’s unlined forehead (how young she was, too young to die).
And then, closing her eyes to hold back the tears ready to spill forth, she let go. The last she saw of her best friend was a dark shape floating down the river, distorted through the tears in her eyes. She rubbed desperately at them, trying to get one last clear image of her Shadow, but Ela was long gone by the time she pried them open.
Ruby Gower is a class of 2020 Girls Write Now mentee based in Brooklyn, NY.