From above, church bells shuttered, undertones to the trembling voices of overcoats and high heels walking in the courtyard below. Everywhere was a mural of hopeless eyes. Everyone shared the same black clothes, and held the same somber expression. I walked with careful drawn out steps, deeply withheld by a growing hesitation. My mind dipped into the past, unwilling to fulfill the present; an image, like a dream, bloomed into sight, and I was taken back. A speech continued in the distance.
It was my birthday then: the sun peered quietly from behind the blue lens of the open sky, and the day sat in idle anticipation.
“Can we please get candles to match my birthday this year?” I remember asking.
Every birthday since I could remember had only one candle, squarely in the middle of the cake.
“This is the first year of a new rebirth. You should be thankful,” they would say—almost sardonically.
From my mother’s early preaching, I learned quite early that of faith, obedience, and love, obedience was the most powerful, and so the family tradition continued. Despite this, however, there was a delicate happiness interwoven between us; my baby sister, no more than six, risen from the years of selfless innocence, had softened the grizzled hearts of our parents, and new life blossomed wherever she walked. She carried, at her age, an effortless joy that existed in colorful tangents of laughter and smiles, and happiness sprinkled around her like pollen-seeds in the spring. The day, being more than suitable then, beckoned us to a dainty park that sat just beyond the vacant road bordering our house.
“Ophelia, go play with your brother while we gather our things,” said our parents from their shallow room within the apartment. Twirling her favorite dress—white as angles wings, snowflakes, and birthday cakes— she danced her feet across the floor to where I stood. A careless wonder, filled by the open world before her, was fulfilled by the way her eyes fluttered open, as if surprising herself, and sparkled at the prospect of even mundane opportunities. In her eyes, the future was of brightly colored skies and green grass; they blended together into an ocean of turquoise that washed over the hearts of those who looked into them, and once there, if only for a moment, you were brought into her little niche of paradise, which, to her, was nothing more than living.
“Tell me the story again,” I would say. She was a bundle of imagination, and already a vivid storyteller. Sporadic sentences trembled from her pursed lips as her excitement bubbled over into overly pronounced syllables and waving hands. She carried a special fascination with fairytales, for which many of her stories were taken from, and was always the first to say:
“Happily ever after.”
Whenever those words were spoken, she always turned inwardly, as if she had a just shared a secret with herself, and gazed contently to the ceiling. There was a finality to those words that she found comforting. A promise in the way of its infallible predictably. A hope she could call her own.
Looking beyond Ophelia a moment, my whole cake, one candle and all, sat propped up in its neat cylindrical shape on our splintered wooden table in the kitchen. A ray of light streamed beneath the heavy linen curtain above the table, casting vague shadows over the room. One bead of light crawled across the table, onto the cake, silhouetting the lone candle as a dark projection on the upper layer of white frosting. Intermittent flares of passing clouds created short breaks in the fluidity of the shadow, like a broken hologram, and the weight of the world hovered above us; measured time passed as the movement of this shadow, and we were left to watch, no different than shadows ourselves, spinning from the movement of days, planets, disappointment. Feeling terribly impatient from waiting on my parents, I grabbed the cake carefully from the bottom, and ran outside—shouting as I went for them to follow.
Crossing through the open doorway, I was met by the familiar autumn wind. It whispered where the day was otherwise quiet. It had been brewing since the morning, its tremoring voice had growing by the day’s passing. Already across the street, I watched my parents, who had just begun to walk from the door, followed by a white dress: whirring, spinning, spiraling from within like sundials and destiny. Her hands, fastened into the open fingers of our parents, one hand to each, pulled forward. A small box rested in the hand of my father, and they both peered curiously, ambiguous smiles creeping from their cheeks, to where I stood. My hands trembled with excitement—the candle’s shadow below me flickered like film tape; each scene projecting staggered images of my family’s progression. Ophelia moved like a shadow before me; shifting beyond the grasp of our parents, she ran towards the road—her white dress drifting in the wind around her, blurring together like white flower petals, spinning ever faster, until they were one, as the world chased from her heels.
“Happily ever after,” she would say. You could always know she was thinking those words by the way her eyes opened, as if surprising herself, and watched the troubled world wash under a wave of her own imagination. There she would wait alone; surrounded by a sea of darkness she could never hope to understand. In her eyes read: Happily ever after—the promise of green grass and blue skies woven into the fabric of her existence, for which nothing else could compare, and once there with her, amidst the washing blue waves and rolling hills, you, if only for a moment, believed in that promise, and wished nothing but to keep her there protected, forever.
The candles’ shadow lay frozen. The wind howled as an extension of my muffled voice against a sea of darkness. Submerged beneath the weight of an ocean, a white flower reached for the tiny beads of light, so little and far between its broken petals. A moment of peace confounded the empty seconds before her feet came in contact with the open road. The windshield shattered upon her body’s impact, throwing her headlong into the street, as she spiraled downward into the desolate earth. Plumes of smoke sputtered from the now distant engine, roaring away—never caring to consider the dream of a little girl. Never caring to wonder.
My parents stood immovable—their faces ghastly and unbelieving. A box of candles, once resting in the hands of my father, cascaded onto the broken ground before him. The candles bled wax like blood on the singed earth beneath them, and pungent nectar bubbled from the heart of a broken flower, now tattered and unmoving. I remember her last expression before she ever took those fateful steps into the street, and drowned—a flower—amidst a sea of darkness. Our tears were not enough to wash away the blood, and so it stayed, stained like memories of birthday cakes, white dresses, and expectation. What never left me was way my parents always looked into my eyes, disappointed, searching for a paradise of blue skies and green grass, for which I knew I could never give them.
Beyond that day, life drew on like wisps of stardust, floating like confetti string at the back of meteors, left to wander the universe—lifetimes over—to find their home. A deep silence overcame the procession. The world slowed, if only for a moment, and waited. I returned again to the present. There was to be no “Happily ever after.” I couldn’t show it though. Maybe she looked down from somewhere, and would see the story books were false. What would she think then? So I stood stoically for that moment, unwilling to give in to what I knew was inevitable. I played from the story book, while my spirit trembled.