I awoke that morning to find a change in the air. It seemed less sweet, and thick, and deep than when I breathed it last, and I rose from my sheets with my brain bearing the mark of uneasy expectation. I carried this with me as I washed, and dressed, and ate with the unceasing regularity of a well-wound pocket watch. As I stepped into the stagnant, frigid air of the street, I had begun to feel a sting. I’d never felt similar pains, and had begun to hypothesize what sort of an illness might cause them, when an icy grasp on my left shoulder returned me to reality. The pangs in my head had evolved into a sort of heavy, low-frequency force similar to a cannonball wrapped in barbed wire rolling about in my skull. The mouth of the hand that had seized my attention spoke.
“Morning, Richard. Have you heard about Sophronia? Dreadful, awful stuff.”
I noticed something, in that windless, breathless morning, in the moments following these thoughtless, frightful words.
“Last,” he said, voice amplified by the arching buildings bordering the street. I saw heads in the windows above us, faceless and silent.
“Night,” he continued, eyes dark and impassioned. I saw a leafless tree standing, crouched and lonely, by the side of the road.
“She,” his eager expression betrayed the feigned tragedy in his voice. I looked to the ground by a nearby fountain, and found that I could not see its shadow.
“Was,” he hesitated for a moment, as if acknowledging some innominate force. My eyes were drawn to the sky, pale and indifferent, as I vainly searched its depths for a semblance of wisdom.
“Killed.” My eyes had concluded their search, finding their answer in the midst of the arrival of an unremitting stream of new questions. I directed my attention to the face belonging to the mouth that had permitted such foul words to permeate my dampened universe.
I propped my shoulders back against an invisible wall and stood, with my mouth ajar and my eyes unfocused, for a moment too long. The man shifted feet. I stepped toward him. Our eyes met firmly, with conviction. “Where?” I said. He, perturbed by my proximity, stammered an address, and I moved past him, leaving him behind me, before turning on my heel. “Oh,” I said, walking backwards while addressing the bewildered man. “I thought you should know. The sun’s gone away.” I saw him look up, more puzzled than ever, and turned back to my current course of action after seeing his expression of dazed recognition.
“But” I heard him exclaim from behind me, “it’s just not there!”
* * *
I had been too afraid to announce our engagement. I planned to, really, but I had been waiting. For what, I don’t know. A sign, perhaps? A great letter in the sky, or a phenomenal dream, or a sigil in my tea leaves. I think I secretly hoped the job would be taken from me; that someone, somehow, would discover my secret, and share it with the world. So the decision would not be mine to make. I believe, ultimately, the universe got impatient, and took matters into its own hands. I guess the decision was not mine, in the end. I hope to never comprehend the unusual, twisted methods of the cosmos, as its wickedness would surely overwhelm my soft moral structure.
Sophronia was a barmaid. She was purer and bolder and more keen than any woman I had ever laid eyes on, and more beautiful, too, but not every soul is mindful of these things. In this world, birth, wealth, and education are of more import than genius, skill, or kindness, when it comes to recognizing parity. Sophronia was worth more to me than every lady and gold piece in all the world, but in this world, it does not come down to that. I suppose if she were worth enough, I would have fought harder, and sooner, to keep her.
It happened on a Wednesday night. I don’t know why that has seemed important enough to retain, but I’ve retained it, and there isn’t much to do about it. It’s funny what we remember, even when stakes are held. For instance, I can’t remember what the last words of my mother were, but I can remember what I had for dinner on the night I didn’t help her. Veal, with brussels sprouts and onions. I ate calf while my paragon slipped unnoticed through the veil of death.
I don’t know why things like that stick with you.
* * *
Four months later, and the sting of her absence rang truer every hour. I had not yet cried, as she would’ve hated herself for causing such distress, and I could not bear the thought of that. I longed to, though. And every morning, due to the horrible, beautiful dreams to which I owed my life, I awoke with damp cheeks. After these long weeks, I had forgotten the smell of her hair, and the shape of her lips when she smirked at an asinine customer asking for one last draft. This offense, to me, was unforgivable, and I did not once allow for escape from my contempt.
I walked the streets in the same manner, and talked in the same tones, but something was changed, within me. I was angry. With the universe, with the men who had stolen my salvation, and most of all, with myself. There was no redemption, in this case, I figured. If I could not redeem her, I would not allow for my own atonement.
This internal environment spelled out disaster for my ethical practices. I stopped attending mass, and praying, and caring at all for my place in the world. From time to time I would realize this and beg for Sophronia’s forgiveness, as she would have rather died than seen me blind to the good of humanity. But it never did any good, as I was lost, and had no North Star by which to orient myself.
A few months into my suddenly barren life, I came across an abhorrent, seductive thought: If I were to kill her murderers, what would be the cost?
It could not be worse than the purgatory I was bound to.
Would God hold me accountable for this vindication?
I debated long and hard, and in the end, I found that I couldn’t care less. Hell would be heaven to me.
It was not hard, finding who they were. The police had not spent very long gathering
evidence. “Things like this” they had said, “happen all the time.”
When I had ascertained that these were certainly the men I was looking for, I made a plan. They were flatmates, and lived a town over. They had probably been to Sophronia’s tavern dozens of times. I had probably seen them, drunk and dumb, on one of my Sophronia-night-excursions.
I don’t think they meant to kill her. It didn’t add up. I had asked around, while investigating, and while they were, according to neighbors, “a disorderly bunch,” there was no reason to suspect they were violent. It was more likely that they had come on to her, and she did not respond desirably. The trauma to her head would not have been enough to kill her had she not fallen and hit it again on the cobblestone in the tavern alley. They left her body behind a stack of boxes outside the bar, obviously startled enough to leave without covering their tracks. These were not seasoned criminals.
But they had taken her from me.
I climbed through their window while they were at work in the local textile factory, and waited for them to return. I had debated poison, but ultimately decided that I wanted them to know the reason for the necessity of their deaths.
I wanted them to understand.
I wanted them to hate themselves as much as I hated them, and to observe with their own senses the magnitude of what they so carelessly destroyed.
So I showed them.
When it was over, I cried. I cried for hours. I couldn’t have stopped if I’d wanted to.
I begged for Sophronia’s forgiveness, as I became increasingly aware that she, in life, would have been appalled by my actions.
As always, my pleas went unanswered.
Her silence was my epiphany. I had to complete the circle of death that had nearly surrounded me. The opening was not wide enough to escape from, and inside was worse than any hell I could imagine.
My father left me an old pistol when he died, and I found it then. Tucked away in some unused drawer of some forgotten desk in some dark corner of the house.
I was done debating. Months of unceasing despair had rendered my mind useless for intelligent debate; I didn’t even know what the other argument would look like.
I thought briefly of my destination and resolved to embrace it as my deserved and eternal home, silently hoping I would not be brought to face the inevitable hatred in the eyes of my beloved. I put the barrel to my temple and squeezed.
After, there was light. Not bright, or white, but luminescent and reflective, like a room filled with a million fireflies.
Three giant figures approached, gliding through space with a temporal permanence, each movement lasting both an eternity and no time at all. Every second was identical to every other second; it imbued me with a sense of complacency. Two of the figures had undefined faces, and stood like mountains above me; one wore black, and the other, white robes. They soon stood close to me, and I saw that the middle figure was glowing gold, obscuring its face.
I felt her, though, and knew.
“Sophronia” I mouthed.
Yes. She didn’t speak, but projected this thought to me.
I know, she responded.
Where does he belong? thought the white figure.
With me, she thought. He knows he has wronged.
You are sure? asked the black figure.
He has lived enough pain.
The black figure quietly and suddenly disappeared, leaving only a faint sound of rustling feathers in his wake.
Sophronia moved toward me, gliding peacefully: the angel she always was. She offered her hand to me, and as I placed mine in it, a bright, cool sensation filled my being, pressing outward against my skin.
The two before me were no longer giants.
Sophronia, I thought.
Yes, she replied.