Moonlight seeps in through the gaps between the clouds, a welcome luminosity against the sky, dark and dreary as per usual. A chilling breeze grazes past Maria’s cheek, and she digs her nails into her palms to stop herself from shuddering, leaving little, crescent-shaped indents in them.
It was a night just like any other, except tonight, the thoughts that had been storming in her head for the past seventeen centuries would finally vacate the premises of her mind, and spill out through the silver daggers digging holes in her pocket. She’s on the roof now, a salient portrait of subtlety: back slouched against a crumbling chimney, one leg propped up against grey ridges and the other dangling lazily- evidently, she’s been up here before.
One too many times, humming softly to herself and fantasising about what life would be like after she finally did what she’s been longing to. What she will, tonight.
It’s a miracle she hasn’t been caught up here. In this town (this prison) everything worked like gears in a see-through watch. Monotonous and mechanically laced with rules, systems and schedules, ones Maria never felt the urge to abide by. But the onset of a rebellious repast often invites punishment over, serves dinner dressed in disgrace, and drips disappointment onto dessert. She watched subservient starvation with her very own eyes.
Memories of her childhood were hazy and perforated with such distinct pores they felt almost purposeful- but Maria thinks she had a sister, once. Her name was Monique.
Or maybe it was Mira or Mimi, she can’t remember but it never seemed to matter much when her name had only ever been whispered in hushed tones, or sneers, or in Ms Roger’s eight am gossip sessions every Thursday. They spoke of her with spit-laced voices, noses scrunching in disgust and throats full of bitter bile- as though she was the devil itself. Painting her witch, evil, unredeemable; how she set the school’s field on fire after they courteously catechized her for her silence, cackling while she did so, turning all her classmates into her pawns and sitting cross-legged on her unrefined throne, spine curving into a shape not dissimilar to a snake. One of many, many stories, spun from either truth or lies; candour or guile.
But she was never like that to Maria. More fairy and less witch. Breath unabated with magic, singing in loud lullabies – hush my dear, you’ll see the sun soon! – full of warm laughter and mirth-sewn smiles, starkly soft against the angled corners and sharp lines of everyone else, here. On days where she felt lonely (about one in every three), Maria would let herself sink into the comfort of it all, pretending as if she too, held a heart so ablaze, so sincerely filled with desperation to be more than just flesh and skin and bones.
Nonetheless, regardless of how hard she tried, the blood in her veins was cold, still. Still a child of this town. There were many things she despised about it, almost everything really, but she couldn’t deny the advantages of calculation, of non-spontaneous attack. How meticulous planning and thinking could lead to an impenetrable execution, and infallible operation.
For several weeks, she had been dissolving pills into the village’s water: soluble capsules of crushed bat bones, mixed with minced foxglove and woven with wolf’s bane, gradually wearing away at one’s physical capabilities until all of the land fell into a deep slumber every night, no longer waking up in the middle for late-night snacks at twelve, or toilet breaks at two. She was doing them a favour, wasn’t she? The effects were only mild, and helped them sleep well for a whole ten hours!
And now, they would get to rest for an eternity.
Chuckling underneath her breath, Maria pushes herself off the roof and jumps onto the ground, landing with a thud no louder than twenty decibels. She starts with Ms Roger’s house, sneaking in through her window and wrinkling her nose in distaste at the pink curtains, more frill than fabric. Ms Roger’s lies on her bed, scraggly strands of hair stuck against her forehead with sweat, gleaming platinum against the moonlight.
There’s a picture framed on the sickeningly floral wallpaper, of women dressed in pretty dressers, of china teacups and shrewd smiles – Maria grits her teeth thinking about how they spoke about her sister- as though they had any right to utter a single word when they knew absolutely nothing about her- and in an instant, she blinks, and her hand is on the base of Ms Roger’s throat, the other around the handle of her dagger –
It’s over in a single second. Oh, she thinks, that was easy. She whistles involuntarily, watching as red bleeds into Ms Roger’s white sheets, bathing it almost pink; the same shade as her curtains.
Methodically, she works street by street, house after house, taking her time as she so pleases, doing as one usually does when they have ten hours to spare. When the shine of the sun starts to peek through, there are only three people alive, and Maria stands below a roof with grey ridges and a crumbling chimney. Her house. She’ll end where she started. The doors are wooden and the knobs are a rusted golden, less dull against the off-white walls and half-blinded shutters.
Her father sleeps with his eyes partially open. An amusing depiction of how he did everything, only midway through. Like he didn’t understand what it meant to be whole or to complete things without the aid of another being. He lived his whole life half-awake, doing what he was told, being the perfect citizen and assuming that everyone else would do the same – frankly, he made it much easier for Maria to carry on, unnoticed.
Perhaps neglect wasn’t something to praise a parent for, but there was something so strangely freeing about not being cared for. Thanks, she thinks as he starts to groan, and she quickly forces all the air out of him before he makes any more noise. Her father looked rather peaceful surrounded by the scent of iron, soaked in red, not much different from how he looked every other night. He did everything halfway, but Maria has always been the type to finish anything she starts.
As Maria walks across the hallway, she croons out the words that Mother always used to sing: hush my dear, let the silence serenade you. Mother didn’t sleep much. She would greet them every morning with vacation-sized luggage beneath her eyes, singing songs in shadows and dancing in darkness. Her progenitors have been going to bed in separate rooms for decades, but only one of them truly rests, so when Maria opens the door mid-lullaby to see Mother with her eyes bloodshot and open, staring out the window, she’s unsurprised.
“I should’ve drunk more water last night,” she says, sighing to herself. She doesn’t look at Maria, she never does. Her hair is a frail yellow against the rise of dawn, and she sings along, voice croaky: hush my dear, you’ll go to sleep soon. Maria searches through her stained pockets for a capsule, more poison than sleeping potion, and places it in her mother’s imploring, open palm. She sings as her mother swallows sleep wholly; watches as her eyes close, and lets go of her hands as they go limp.
Hush my dear, let the silence serenade you. Hush my dear, you’ll go to sleep soon.
Now, she was finally free. No longer trapped by a well-disguised dictatorship, or people she couldn’t trust, one transaction after another, always an ulterior motive hiding in the shadows. She wasn’t being cruel, was she? For not having a single ounce of remorse… for destroying the people she spent the entirety of her life with. It didn’t feel like hers.
This town was a warped web of invisible chains and decorated prison cells, squeezing the life out of her inch by inch until she made a habit out of holding her own breath. This was something she just had to do, and some part of her knew (some part of her, whispering in her bones; shouting between her ribs), that she was just a single chess piece in something bigger – continuing what another had started.
If there was one thing she always remembered about her sister, it would be that every night, like a chant, or a wish, or a spell, or a dream just within reach, she’d whisper: we’ll see the sun soon. The night after her sister disappeared, Maria found letters carved into her wooden walls, spelling out the same five words, over and over, again and again.
Maria leaves her house, and leaves the town, and leaves everything but the sun. Walks and walks until she’s walking on sand. Piles upon piles of sunken sediment, pulling at her calves until she can no longer feel the weight of her footsteps on the ground. Like this, she feels light. Red starts from her fingers – shines in a signet, dripping down to the joint of her knees and slipping around the curve of her ankles. She blinks away the grains that spit back into her eye, and doesn’t spare a single glance to the footsteps she leaves on the golden-brown bed beneath her.
Sunlight streams in through the gaps between the clouds, a beaming luminosity against the blue sky. A warm gust of wind grazes past Maria’s cheek, and for the first time in an eternity – she feels herself smile; sees it from a puddle of water on the ground, as clear as her silver daggers. Are there dips in her cheeks? She’s never noticed them. They look a little strange, but she stays smiling as she walks, cheeks aching, leaving little, crescent-shaped indents in them.
By Lillian Lai Ruey Yee