Flash Fiction by Emily Deibler
In her final hour Mary, resting in her bedchambers and dying of uterine cancer she had thought to be a baby, found herself on a long beach. The sand was white as snow, and she walked with a bundle in her hands. A woman strode languidly beside her with pale skin and hair dark as a magpie. Where they were going, she did not know, only that it was a night full of stars and the woman’s deep blue dress, which hung loosely from her body, had its own stars that glittered in the moonlight.
“Lovely baby,” the woman said.
"I suppose. I'm sad I didn't drown her,” Mary replied. She’d never actually taken the child out of the crib and stood at the edge of one of the estate ponds until she willed herself to submerge the small girl under the ripples. She’d thought about it, but who didn’t? With what she endured, all the humiliations, even as a young woman, she had every right. Her restraint was her virtue.
“Who are you?” Mary asked the tall woman with black, curly hair.
“I should be asking you that. So few visit my island now.” The sand beneath their feet never seemed to end. She had no shoes on, wearing what was simply a long white slip. She looked down at the child in her arms; she was sleeping. Because of course she was. Nothing mattered to her, this child that shattered her world. The world capitulated to her whims.
Mary swallowed. Her eyelids were heavy, and she smelled sweat and sickness and soiled linens all at once. Those, and salt. “I’m Mary.”
The woman replied, “Circe.”
Mary shook her head. “Be serious.”
“I am. Why would I fool you as you’re on your deathbed? That’d make me an impolite host.”
Mary peered up at the stars. “You’re a fairy tale, a myth.”
“So too you will be, one day.” Mary didn’t like to think of that, what her legacy would be, as her castle drew into a seething quiet and her people protested as the Protestants, thanks to her father’s doings, were ravaging the land with their blasphemy like the Black Death. Rats, the lot of them. Traitors, only to be cleansed with fire.
I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
And then there was this baby with its red hair, its—her, her—simple life, except life could never be simple for them because of their blood.
If only I could have had this with anyone but you. That’s all I wanted. And then Philip, he strayed, like everyone, and I . . . Fire stirred in her insides, so much like pain.
Mary croaked, “How is this possible?”
“Ah,” Circe said, a hand on Mary’s shoulder. “You see, when you’re an immortal witch, you can do many things.” Her eyes gleamed with the promise of something Mary couldn't name.
“Can you read my mind, see everything?”
Circe lowered her hand. “Some of the latter, yes. Not everything.” Her voice was soft yet deep as whalesong when Father would take Mary and her half-sister away on vacation, during better times. “Most of the women who come here were wronged by the gods, or men, and I shield them. Scylla? She was beaten by a shepherd's son, and I changed her so she'd never be powerless again.
“But . . .” Mary frowned. “But doesn't it get old?”
“Being the monster.” Monsters were meant to be slain.
“You tell me.”
Mary thought of when her life began to go wrong. When she never saw her mother again, when Mother died, defiant yet disheartened. And Father never let her see her, and Mary could never forgive him no matter what scripture said.
How Mary became a bastard. Father liked her half-sister’s mother best, until he didn't. Oh, that pathetic woman, too clever by half, giving her sweets and gowns and trying to be her friend. Even young, Mary had been prickly, but that had its benefits, or so she thought. After what Father did—even when, by God’s eternal grace, she couldn’t help but love him—she still wanted his approval like honey on the tongue.
Circe interrupted the quiet. Mary heard a murmur in the wind, the salt on her tongue stronger. “You’ve been wronged.”
“I suppose you could say that.”
“Was it a man?”
Mary thought on it. Father, what he did to Mother, how he betrayed the Church. And yet, still he’d put his hand on her cheek and kiss her brow. Philip, who detested how plain she was, how hated he was because he was Spanish and far too Catholic like she. Philip, who found other prettier women while Mary suffered from periods when she’d be nauseated and swollen and she swore, with that pain in her lower back and her missing menstrual cycles, that finally it happened, she’d have an heir, a babe she could hold and teach and ensure carried on a piece of her without resentment.
Nothing but leaves in the wind.
She looked down at the baby. “It feels like it was everyone.”
“And did you wrong anyone?” asked Circe.
Mary didn’t want to admit it because she didn’t need this sharp-eyed woman, in her hour of need, to despise her, too. All she wanted . . . no, no point in thinking of it now.
“Thousands.” Mary wet her lips and unconsciously held the baby closer to her chest. “But it was for God, His holy blood and flesh we partake in.”
“Does that make it right,” Circe asked, “if we do it for the gods?”
“There is only one God, and . . .” Mary stared ahead. It has to.
Eventually, she saw the black and silver where the swollen moon hit the sea, and they stood at the edge. Mary held her breath, sensing that something of import was supposed to happen. So often, she felt these moments and prayed that because she wanted these things enough, they’d come to fruition.
A child. The people’s support. Love.
She was a fool. Never the cunning one.
“There it is.” Circe swept her arm across the dark horizon.
“Indeed,” Mary said. “That’s water.”
“If you want to drown her, go ahead.”
Mary startled, though the first words out of her were: “You won't stop me?”
Circe’s tone was flippant. “Of course not.”
It was then Mary stirred, looked up at the scarlet canopy above her bed. She expected to be alone—sometimes, she even preferred it that way. It was expected. But no, a warmth encompassed her hand.
When she meekly tilted her head, she was disappointed.
“Mary,” her half-sister breathed.
“Elizabeth,” she replied, “what do you want?” Can I not even have death, or must you take that, too?
Elizabeth’s brow cinched. She had the audacity to look confused. “Want?”
“Oh, you idiot.” Now was her time before she died and went to . . .
Elizabeth opened her mouth and then closed it. They passed the minutes in silence, and Elizabeth, as if burned, removed her hand from Mary’s.
It hurt too much to laugh, though laughter did bubble in Mary’s throat. “Eleven languages, and you can't talk. How impressed Father would be.”
“Sister, I don’t want to—”
“Fight, half-sister? It seems it’s too late.” But, as weak as she was, the cutting edge in her voice only cut her. She’d imprisoned Elizabeth and did so many things to get back at her, but in the end, Elizabeth—beautiful, clever Elizabeth—had won. Had won even . . .
“I have no choice.” Mary closed her eyes to keep from crying.
“What?” Elizabeth asked, expression carefully neutral when Mary opened her eyes.
“I’ve no children. There’s only you.” She added, “Sadly. So I must . . .”
By the sea, by Circe’s side, Mary said, looking down at the infant Elizabeth, “I must now become a monster to frighten children. Is that it?”
Circe said nothing, though Mary swore she heard a spell tapering in the wind, a melodic hum.
In her bed, Mary said, “I bequeath the kingship to you.” As much as she loathed to admit it with how heretical and treasonous her half-sister was, Mary trusted her. Elizabeth never lacked in ambition or strategy. She even remembered a time, though she’d been much older than Elizabeth when she carried the baby down the castle halls, that they’d been something like friends.
Elizabeth’s mouth hung open, her fingers twitching beside Mary’s.
“Don’t be coy,” Mary whispered. “This is why you came, all along.”
“It’s too late. I already made the decree.” When she bitterly smiled, it hurt. “Congratulations. I’m sure your heirs will be lovely.”
“I . . .”
Mary rasped, “I remember holding you, just like this.”
On the sand, Mary said, “Here, take her.”
Circe rose a brow as Mary offered her Elizabeth, and she accepted, taking the child into her arms. “Are you certain?”
Mary faced the water as it thrummed by her feet, in her heart. “Yes.”
She took a step, another, and the ocean was cold and unwelcoming. Nothing she hadn’t faced before. What was queer was that she had the distinct feeling she was being held—a warmth enveloping her as her limbs grew numb—strange and likely another fiction in her dying mind, something like a kiss on her brow when she finally succumbed.
A native of North Georgia, Emily Deibler is a published poet and author. Her short story “Deer in December” was published in TL;DR Press’ Halloween 2018 Horror collection, NOPE. She has also published her poems “Turkey Hunting,” “Patty,” “Samantha,” and “Daughters of the Sun.” Her debut novel, Dove Keeper, came out in October 2018. She can be found on Twitter at @emilydeibler. She is a regular contributor to Marías at Sampaguitas.