NYC Midnight Short Story, 2023 — Round 3 Entry
Synopsis: A young girl’s experience with death haunts her throughout her life.
Competition Assignment — 1st Place Winner
Genre: Fairy Tale
Character: A Cabinet Maker
Word Count: 1500, Time: 48 Hours
Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like awhile, they bore her up.
But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death
The Death of Ophelia,
Hamlet, Act IV, Scene VII
— — — — — — — — — — — -
Grace Eaton had long since known she would drown to death.
She’d known since she was twelve.
She’d been reading Hamlet, alone and out loud, to the Yorkshire moors when she’d learned it. A gale had blown in, and below her, the sea beat violently against the cliffs, the coastal winds whipping at her dress, inviting her over the edge. But Grace was well traveled along the English coast, and she knew the pull of the wind and the dangers of the sea. She had fixed herself well between two large rocks, the edges of her petticoats snug around her body, a cocoon against the storm. Thus the wuthering sounds of the moors were all the wind had against her, and Grace found it apt accompaniment to the death of Ophelia.
Her father had come to Ravenscar to dress a lady for a wedding. She’d not known whom, nor did she care. Grace’s father was a skilled tailor, and she, his traveling companion. While he was invited to attend the wedding, she’d been excused, joyfully relegated to reading Shakespeare to the coming storm.
It had been hours after the wedding when she’d heard voices atop the wind and found a boy and a girl, only a few years older than she, walking the edge of the cliffs. Grace watched, enchanted, as the yellow ribbons in the girl’s hands danced in the wind. She wore a magnificent dress of gold and white, her skirts billowing around her, catching the breeze like a sail. The boy wore coal on his face, and was far from equally dressed, but he was handsome and strong, and he caught the girl’s hand, holding her steady against the torrent of the wind. Grace heard their words on the wind.
The boy begged her to run away with him. To forsake her new husband. That he had discovered iron, and that his days of mining coal were over.
The girl laughed. She told him that she’d never be a miner’s wife, no matter what he pulled from the earth. She’d teased him, reaching up to tickle the coal on his face with her ribbons, joking that he’d better make sure he washed his face before proposing to the next girl.
The boy grabbed her hand, violently ripping the ribbons from them, and the girl stopped laughing.
The pages of Hamlet had rustled beneath her, so Grace looked down to close her book.
When she looked up, the girl was gone.
The boy remained.
For a long while, he stared down at the sea, the yellow ribbons painted with coal fluttering along the grass beneath him.. Then he turned and walked away.
Grace had risen then, and crawled along the edge of the cliff and looked down to the rocks below. The girl, it seemed, had not died in the fall. She’d missed the rocks altogether, taken instead into the sea. Grace could see her struggling in the waters, her wedding dress billowing around her, keeping her afloat as she screamed into the wind.
Grace had thought to run for help. The Hall was not far. But she did not move. Instead, she sank low into the grass, tucking her chin on her hands, and watched the girl drown.
Grace had been fascinated by how long it took the sea to bring the girl in, by the beauty of the dress splayed around her, by the look of the girl’s hair plastered around her neck, like a noose of the ocean. She wanted to see if the girl’s dress would drag her under, as Ophelia’s had in Hamlet. Grace began to hum an old Celtic song as she watched each layer of linen disappear beneath the water. The girl’s last moment of despair was little more than a flash of lace disappearing beneath the waves.
It was in that moment that Grace knew, unequivocally, that she would die as such — water would take her, a song in her throat, and she’d join her Ophelia in a watery grave.
Something tickled her chin, and Grace found a set of yellow ribbons fluttering in front of her. They held the lingering scent of lavender laced with coal. Grace collected her book, folding the ribbons reverently into the pages, and returned to Ravenshall, where the search was under way for the missing bride.
The girl’s body was never found.
And Grace moved on.
Her Ophelia followed her.
Followed her as she traveled with her father until a fever struck him down; a fever she knew could not consume her, for her Ophelia would keep her alive until they returned to the ocean.
Followed her to the wretched Yorkshire orphanage where Grace nearly starved for three years. As she shivered against the winter cold, her Ophelia had stood at the base of her bed, drenched and dripping, her dress soaked with the salt of the sea, reminding her that she would not die here. Her Ophelia would share her own food with her. Twice, other children died of starvation, and Grace would sing to them in their coffins, but she knew she would survive.
For there was no place in that orphanage to drown.
Next, they found their way to a cotton factory in North England. Grace arrived with nothing but a book and some yellow ribbons, and she’d not found any friends, none save her Ophelia. Though Grace had choked on the cotton that swirled like snow, she would sing to her Ophelia, a dull madness settling in. Once, she’d slipped on the water from her Ophelia’s dress, and knocked the hand of a man who’d snuck a cigar into the factory. The cigar had caught the cotton on his shirt, and in minutes, the factory was ablaze, fifty men, women, and children burned alive.
But Grace had walked out, for she could not drown in an inferno.
In pity, the factory owner had found Grace a living as a lady’s maid at Hever Castle. Her Ophelia came with her, though her wedding dress never dried, even in the warm summers of Sussex County. Grace would sing often for Lady Hever, and they’d dance together, reading books and playing games in the garden. Once, Lady Hever had gifted Grace with a lesson in love, but her Ophelia had become jealous, and Grace awoke the next morning beside Lady Hever, a long yellow ribbon cutting deep into her neck. Grace had risen from the bed, peeling the ribbon off the Lady’s neck and threading it into her hair. She apologized to her Ophelia for the neglect, and the two of them sang over Lady Hever’s body.
And once more, Grace knew she’d not die from the noose, for water could not flood a scaffold.
Her madness acquitted her. Lord Hever, choosing recompense to revenge, arranged the sale of Grace to a man in need of a broodmare. Grace traveled for days, humming absently to the driver, her Ophelia’s hair dripping in time on the boards next to them, before the smell of the sea and the sounds of the moors welcomed her home.
Grace was deposited in front of an ancient church, and her Ophelia stood next to her, the two of them breathing in unison to the rhythm of the waves. A heavy dress of white and gold was thrust into her arms and Grace changed into her wedding dress, her Ophelia singing her an old Celtic tune. She was met at the altar by a rough man with dirt on his face, and Grace thought that he ought to have washed for his own wedding.
That night, the man took Grace along the coast to an old coal mine, one which hardly thrived against the competition of the new iron ore. Gruffly, he led her to the main mine, set along the cliffs. The man wanted to show Grace what luck she had, but Grace knew this land, and she knew a dying mine when she saw it.
The man slapped her.
Grace laughed again, and a gust of wind whipped Grace’s hair up, the yellow ribbons tainted with blood and coal carrying a faint scent of lavender.
The man’s eyes widened and Ophelia shoved him square in the chest, and he slipped on the wet rocks, falling gracelessly off the cliffs. As he stumbled, he grabbed Grace’s skirt, pulling her over the edge with him.
He hit the rocks.
She did not.
Grace landed in the ocean, her wedding dress billowing around her as the foam of the sea stuck her hair to her neck. Above her, Ophelia watched her from the cliffs, a yellow ribbon dancing at her feet.
Together, they began to sing.