I’m falling, falling through the smoke rings of dreams into darkest night. My screams are muffled, my sight is muted by mist. A faint, malingering odor of mildew ebbs and flows through this black, vertical tunnel. Cold moistens the air with tangibility, permeates my grasping hands, my flaying feet.

I taste the cold, so bitter that it stings my lips. I reach out as shapes shift into shadows then slip through my outstretched fingers, leaving them numb and tinged with ice. I’m falling slower now, and rub my hands to warm them.

A sound like susurrating wind sweeps around me. It is steady, like the beating of a heart. When it grows in intensity, so does my fear. I touch hard ground. The night presses down on me like a dead man’s hand.

The sound is recognizable now?it’s hoof beats galloping down a gravel road. My breath catches in my throat. Marauders brandishing swords are approaching on horseback! I’m all alone and defenseless. When I cry out for help, the sound withers in my throat.

Horsemen thunder past me as I jump aside. These aren’t marauders?they’re my brothers and sisters! I recognize them from old photographs?my father’s first family, all killed in a cruel twist of fate that also cost him his fortune and his health.

“Wait!” I run barefoot after them but they ride away swiftly. As I pause to catch my breath, the fragrance of honeysuckle permeates the air. The night grays with silverine light as dew glitters the grass. I’m standing alone on the vast, verdant lawn framing my father’s country estate.

I awake with a start, safe in my canopied bed and whisper a prayer Father taught me. “Save us from insatiable doubt?from gnawing interminably at shadows. Save us from the bitter water of pride and avarice, from the clouds of ash that arise from indifference.”

Going to the window, I throw it open to the morning sun and bathe myself in its gentle light. There, at the end of the garden, Father is sitting on a bench next to a charred gazebo. It is all that remains of the first, elegant manor he built for his wife and children. Pulling an embroidered silk robe over my nightgown, I dash down the staircase and go outside.

Father smiles and holds up a leaf as I rush toward him. “Look at this, Karen?so much life throbbing through intricate green veins.” He finds the miraculous even in the mundane.

“It’s just a leaf.” I unintentionally mimic Mother, who is still bitter that they have suffered so much.

Father’s eyes grow wistful as he turns toward the gazebo streaked black from the fire that claimed his manor.

I whisper eagerly that I saw my siblings in a dream last night. “They rode past me and wouldn’t stop.”

Father says quietly, “Why would they? There is no need.” My voice tightens. “I’m they’re replacement, aren’t I? If they hadn’t died, I wouldn’t have been born.”

He puts his arm around me. “Oh no, we would have still had you.”

“Would I have liked my brothers and sisters?” I ask.

“Oh yes. More importantly, they would have liked you, too.” He inhales the fragrance of honeysuckle then says, “I gave you the name Karen because it means ‘jewel box.’ Like a box designed to hold treasure, your true beauty lies inside you.” Giving my arm a slight squeeze, he redirects his attention to the gazebo.

I follow his gaze to the burned wood. “Why did they have to die?”

For a long time he doesn’t answer. Instead he picks up a bit of quartz from the walkway and studies it as if it is a gem of great price. He finally says, “I find it amazing how fragments of rock fuse together to create such beauty. Perhaps our souls also need to be forged in the fires of adversity to become more than what we think we are.”

“Mother doesn’t understand why they had to die, or why you lost your fortune and were almost paralyzed …”

His smile seems sad. “Oh my child, if only I could spare you the pain of life. But if I did, you would never recognize the small joys that can be found in each passing day.”

Taking my hand, Father talks about the splendor of the garden extravagantly in bloom. “It will fade all too soon with the first frost,” he says without regret.

“Mother won’t be pleased. She enjoys having flower arrangements in all the rooms and the hothouse can’t produce enough blossoms.”

“All the more reason to enjoy this moment. Even if we lose everything, each day is a gift in itself.”

Lose everything? That possibility frightens me. No wonder Mother gets so angry with him.

Father’s voice is low, like he’s speaking to himself. “Sometimes you have to lose everything to appreciate what you have.”

Now he’s frightening me. Jumping up, I run back into the house where Mother is arranging yellow roses on the mahogany table in the dining room while the maid brings breakfast on a silver tray.

Moments later Father joins us. While we eat Mother discusses our pending trip to the city. Can Father free himself from his business dealings long enough to attend a matinee at the theater with us? He doesn’t know but says he will try. Mother never asks me if I enjoy going to the theater. She simply presumes I do.

Father concentrates on buttering his toast. I want to talk about my dead siblings but brilliant white light is streaming through the windows, fading out my dream.

Afterwards, the long, sun-resplendent day lulls me into lethargy. All too soon night descends, swathed in shrouds of mist. Crawling into bed I pull my blankets over my shoulders but I’m too frightened to sleep. A mist engulfs me, reeking of mold and mildew.

In the distance owls call plaintively like spirits of the dead. Burying my face in my pillow, I cry for all that is lost and all that I might lose. When my tears wash away the mildew, the night becomes fragrant again. Sliding out of bed, I throw open the window to marvel at a dark sky adorned with diadems of stars.

Starlight also draws the gazebo out of shadow. Once again hoof beats echo hollowly on the wind. Lifting my hands, I balance grief with joy, despair with hope. Shadows stir in the darkness, then the horsemen ride past me and vanish into mist.

I surrender to sleep and dream no more.

Published in Stories