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The Ladies of Lethseme

Aaron's stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. Thanks to the patience of his wonderful wife, and despite the impatience of his wonderful children, Aaron also writes essays, graphic novels, and interactive fiction. Find him online at aaronemmel.com.

The miniature city struck the ground and burst into splinters of wood. The self-opening xdoors, the tiny clocks that moved by themselves, all were destroyed.
"Irini!" her mom gasped behind her.
Irini stepped back from the display table. "It was an accident."
She had been so entranced by the fair's wonders that she had almost forgotten her mom and sister were behind her. The miracles on display had even, mostly, overcome her disappointment that the heralded Ladies of Lethseme had failed to arrive, and she had stopped looking past every booth in the hope that they would suddenly appear.
Each exhibit was more magnificent than the last. There were stone men, as tall as the ten-year-old Irini's shoulders, who moved and aged so slowly that it had taken centuries for humans to realize they were alive, and centuries more before the discovery that they had their own civilization. One vendor sold rocks that shot out tongues of flame when they were cracked open. Irini and her sister had tasted slices of kashmi fruit, which had the color of mango and the scent of honey and which when eaten sparked vivid, fleeting visions of the hillsides where they were grown.
Yet nothing had been more amazing than the enchanted city, inhabited by tiny wooden horses pulling scale model carts alongside tiny wooden people shuffling along tiny wooden streets.
Irini could hear her mother's angry breathing. "Your sister wanted that city."
It's my birthday. Why is Alana even here? "It was an accident."
"I'm going to have to pay for it."
"You can afford it." Irini regretted the words as soon as she said them. Money wasn't the issue. No amount of money could bring something that was gone back into the world.
Her mother pressed up against her. "You ungrateful child." Her whisper was loud and hot in Irini's ear. "If Alana doesn't get a gift, maybe you won't, either."
"I didn't want a gift. I wanted to see the Lades of Lethseme."
"They didn't come."
She knew that. Her sister was there instead.
"I know why you wanted the city," Irini hissed at Alana as their mom went to offer money to the seller.
"You destroyed it on purpose."
Tiny scraps of brass flashed within the broken buildings, like candles inside ruins. "It looked like the models in grandma's room."
She didn't argue, which with Alana was as close as you'd ever get to assent. "I want to have things that remind me of her. Don't you?"
Irini stared at her. "Of course I do. I miss her every day."
"So do I."
Irini's right palm itched. She bunched the hand into a fist to stop it. The truth was, she remembered the loss of her grandmother more clearly than the woman herself. "If it had been me, if I'd started... Mom always liked you more. She always let you get away with things."
"Not anymore."
"But if it had been me, if I'd set the fire--she never would have forgiven me. Not ever." Irini stomped away, but she no longer looked at the displays. Her skin still itched. She rubbed the raised red scar on her palm where her grandmother's brooch had burned her when she'd grabbed it as the walls around her blazed.
Now it was early autumn, almost four years since her grandmother had died in the flames. One of the last stories she'd told Irini had been about the Ladies of Lethseme. The women who from their eighth birthdays pledged never to say more than two thousand words for the rest of their lives, and who aged thereafter with every word they spoke. If they remained silent, they would live forever.
"Hurry up," Alana said, catching up with her. "Mom wants to take us to the list field."
For a few exhilarating moments, the tournament was all that mattered. Irini cheered on a young knight whose crest showed a butting stag. After he won his challenge and was presented with the Harvest Wreath, Irini turned to her sister. "I wish I were a knight."
"First you'd have to be a squire," Alana answered, "and before that you'd have to learn not to break things."
"I'm pretty sure knights sometimes break things."
As they left the fair, a hush came over the throng, and people stopped walking or reigned in their mounts. The crowd parted. In the quiet and the still, there was a tinkling of bells, and six figures passed by: two rode, and four walked. Their horses had strangely long and slender legs, like mantises, and the women's ivory gowns caught the sunlight and refracted it into shimmering bands of color.
"The Ladies of Lethseme," Irini's mother murmured.
Near Irini, the procession stopped. One of the standing women turned to Irini and beckoned. Irini walked to her, amazed and dazed, and the woman placed her palm on Irini's cheek--the flesh of her hand was hard and dry--and said, "Remember, child."
Then they moved on.
Remember what?
Remember her grandmother. Remember herself, the self she'd been before the fire, she thought much later. Remember who she'd once wanted to be.
Now, though, she looked down at her own palm, and saw the mark her grandmother's brooch had branded.
Remember the secret her sister had kept for her, because she had been too young to understand the consequences.
Remember it was her fault.
Remember forever afterwards that in spite of everything, a Lady of Lethseme had for some reason considered her important enough to spare two of her limited, precious words upon.
Irini stood for a moment watching the empty space the Ladies had just left. She'd been too young to fully remember, but deep inside she'd always known, through all the years since, that she'd been the one to knock over the candle.
She turned and walked back to her sister and mother, wondering what to say to them, what would make a difference, which words to choose.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, May 10th, 2019

Author Comments

One of the things I thought might make or break this story is Irini's moment of realization toward the end. Her role in her grandmother's death has to be somewhat surprising, or at least it needs to seem plausible that she is surprised, without having the twist come from nowhere. I planted hints throughout the story, but there's only so much room for hinting in flash fiction. The solution that finally satisfied me was making it unclear in the beginning whether or not Irini breaks the model city by accident. That mini-mystery is never resolved, and I hope it creates an ongoing air of uncertainty that makes the ending feel earned.

- Aaron Emmel
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