Chuck Wendig’s latest Flash Fiction Challenge: choose from a list of conflicts* and write your face off.
The simple pine box was plain and smelled of fresh sawdust, bright and clean against the heavy, damp scent of overturned earth. The top rested beside it, not yet sealed. The mourners stood in a huddle at the base of the hill, where the widow could not hear their whispers. Such a sad thing, to die so young. Lady Daria Vuldava’s shoulders shook with suppressed emotion.
“Lady Vuldava,” the priest broke free from the flock and walked through the damp, blowing grass.
“Father,” she took his thin, dry hands in hers. “Thank you so much—it was a beautiful ceremony.”
“Lord Vuldava will be missed,” the priest’s smile quivered at the corners.
“My Andrei,” Daria pressed her lips together and looked away, “would have appreciated your words. He so loved your homilies each Sunday.”
“I am honored, Lady Daria,” the priest freed his hands from her grip, turning to look at the coffin.
“Was there something else, Father?” Daria could not help but notice the way he clutched his rosary, fingers clicking across the beads.
“Lady Daria, this brings me such grief,” the priest swallowed and Daria watched his Adam’s apple bob in discomfort.
“Please, Father, speak freely,” Daria pulled her thick black furs tightly around her shoulders.
“Your husband—God have mercy on his soul—died so suddenly, so unexpectedly…” the priest abandoned his rosary, dry-washing his pale, bony fingers.
Daria looked expectantly at him, twisting the enourmous ruby on her left hand. When she did not speak, the Father’s shoulders heaved in a sigh.
“The townspeople…given the circumstances of Lord Andrei’s death, would be put at ease if the old rites were performed.”
‘The old rites?” Daria’s hands clenched on her handkerchief. “You want to put a stake through my Andrei’s chest? To desecrate his body, consecrated unto the Lord, whom you claim to serve?”
“Please, Lady Daria,” the priest glanced down the hill at the townspeople. Their pale, shapeless faces were all turned towards the Father and the widow. Daria stepped away from the priest, her black gown billowing out behind her in the gusting wind. The priest scurried after her, an errant leaf blown in her wake.
Daria looked down at Andrei’s face. His skin was pale, almost translucent, in death. The thick eyelashes that rested on his cheeks like black crescent moons, the full lips forever stilled. She took a deep, shuddering breath and knelt next to him, crumpling as though her knees could no longer hold the weight of her sorrow.
“Fine,” she rasped, looking up at the priest. “It shall be done. But not by you. He is—was—my husband. No one else shall touch him.”
The priest finally nodded, his fingers twisting and twining like coupling serpents.
“Lady Daria…it is no easy task…” he faltered at the look in her eyes and cleared his throat. “Those that prepared the body took the liberty…” he reached down a shaking hand and parted the thick furs and fine silks that draped Lord Vuldava’s body. A crude X was marked on his breast, just over his heart.
Daria brushed her fingers over Andrei’s smooth, cold cheek, holding out a hand to the Father. She did not look at him as he laid the heavy wooden stake in her palm. Her fingers closed over it, feeling the splintered wood bite into her bare skin.
“Leave me,” she said, her hand shaking as she examined the stake.
“My Lady, I must bear witness—”
“You will close the lid, will you not? You will see that I have done what is required of me. Now, go. If this desecration, this mutilation must happen, it will happen at my hands alone,” Daria waited until she heard the sounds of his hurried footsteps departing, the murmured reassurances he offered to the crowd of carrion crows waiting below.
She rose up on her knees, steadying herself on the edge of the coffin before gripping the stake in both hands and raising it high above her head.
“To Thee, I commit his spirit,” she cried, loud enough for the gossips and their spiritual guide to hear.
The stake met the resistance of cold flesh and bone. Sinews and muscle. Thick, black blood welled out like tar. Daria leaned heavily against the side of the coffin. Half the stake’s length was buried in his breast; the rest of the dry wood seemed to drink in the dead blood. Daria buried her face in her hands, ignoring the pressure of the priest’s hand on her shoulder as he came to examine the body. He lifted her gently away as the gravediggers came to seal the coffin. He released her long enough to make the sign of the cross and murmur “In nomine Patris, et Filis, et Spiritus Sancti” before the pine coffin disappeared into the hole. With the thuds of dirt on wood echoing across the hilltop, Daria let the priest lead her away.
The wind that blew as the gravediggers filled in the last of the hole picked up as the shadows drew and the day was devoured by the evening. Lightning rent the black sky with brilliant tongues of white fire, though no rain fell. The candles in the church flickered fitfully and the farmers and their wives closed the shutters tightly. No moon shone on the hilltop, but the windows in the Vuldava mansion glittered like a thousand eyes shining in the darkness.
Daria stood alone on the hill, watching as the lightning lit the crosses and monuments with eerie, pale light. No veil of mourning covered her face and the wind whipped her dark hair free of its bindings and lashed it across her face. She reached down to grip the long fingered white hand that thrust out of the soil. She tenderly brushed the filth from his face as Andrei pulled the stake from his chest and cast it to the side, looking at her with pale, luminous grey eyes that drank in the lightning.
Daria smiled exultantly,“Welcome back, my love.”
* a difficult funeral