The Arcadian Press

Autumn to Ash

Two maple leaves on a snowy background.

Autumn to Ash

By Marianne Smith

She knew she was going to die soon. The deity could feel it in her immortal soul, the sinking sensation of dread locking her dark-colored skin and curly hair into ash. The goddess, watching a last leaf from her tantalizing auburn and orange shirt crumble in her palm to a dull gray, pitted the dead thing to the wind from atop her rooftop. Watching it flitter from her grasp, like a dead butterfly. Each and every bone in this constructed body ached with an eternal desperation for life. Her plump lips a day before had shriveled to raisins; the child of the harvest’s eyes were kindled with an unquenchable fire. She wasn’t Summer, صيف, holder of heat and sun, but she burned just as he did. Despite her soul, built to break and rearrange itself to decay, she wanted to live.

Sitting here now, it never occurred to Otoño to think about the fate of the other seasons. Last year had been her birth year, reborn into a world of wild and warm color with only a pair of wings to guide her will. In passing, the leaves whispered tiny truths. She would not be the first Autumn in the world, nor would she be the last. They echoed the name Herfst, another variation of the same being. A faded predecessor. Taking the name Otoño, another variation of the season, she retaught the colored forests to bow and sway to it. Otoño. I am your goddess. You will obey me.

The words had left her youthful mouth before she tugged them back in, as if a parasite had inhibited her body and tugged at her strings. It wasn’t the forest’s fault for abandoning the name of its past mother, Herfst, echoing Otoño’s chosen title with an unusual sentience. Following her from then on, she’d brought a bounty she was sure no other Autumn had ever accomplished. It was an irregular thought, considering the deity had never breathed to see another. Her pumpkins were plump as balloons in Halloween patches; every tree was painted and watercolor with shades she didn’t think were possible -she felt invincible. An invisible godly worm had crawled inside her, directing her human fingers to do otherworldly ethereal things. It was so selfishly addicting that she’d forgotten to remember her mortal past. Otoño.

Despite everything she knew that wasn’t her. It was some kind of twisted framework. Who she looked like now was only a masquerade for one real human girl. A mortal child who had died and been reconstructed into something stronger. That was the trouble with living, she feared. Everything was built to die. It was that little girl who had been the unlucky one.  She’d pulled the shortest stick. Instead of being allowed to die like the rest of her delicate kind, the child was chosen by something else to become one of the four. Whether it was a god, the universe, space, or some other silent power was a mystery. Despite the power in her palm, a voice that commanded gales, Otoño wondered if she was worthy to call that girl herself.

She knew where that girl had been from, in any case. Brushing her hand over the railing, she blinked down at the swarm of adolescents loading themselves onto bright yellow trucks below. From the laughing squad who chugged chocolate milk beside the bleachers to the quiet girl reading a romance novel in the hall, the goddess wondered which category her girl would’ve fallen into. She thought it funny that she found herself wandering here of all places, like the idea of a dog walking away from its owner so they didn’t have to see it die.

Another piece that remained was her name’s language origin itself. The second she’d breathed in her new body she’d known what she would choose to go by. Curiously enough, her own mouth had puzzled her. Sometimes the goddess would speak a language unlabeled to her when she couldn’t put her finger on a word otherwise, but most of the time she spoke the common dialect of this realm. The one that the children, whose buses were now fading into the horizon, typically uttered. Sometimes beneath her canopy of rotting leaves, she wondered if her past self had been a traveler from another land. An immigrant, even. It was enough to make her cry, if she could ever muster the tears to try. Who was I?

She wasn’t even certain how she’d come to meet her demise. Otoño could only assume it had been during a time under the autumn moon. When her corpse lay in a bed of browns and oranges, ignorant of its significance. A small price to pay for a far greater purpose. Stroking the splintered wood of her bow, she imagined it wouldn’t be hard to snap the rotten weapon in half. A colony of earthworms and fungus had already crept their way through the cracks and hollowed out portions, mocking the inevitable.

Out of the color of her eye, the hayish shade of her grass had been encased in a fine dusting of powdered sugar. Like mold, the white flecks of frost corrupted the children’s playground in its soft blanket. The breeze rose, a tidal wave coming to ravage a city, and blew through her thick hair. Tinted with winter’s bite, Otoño could feel the faint candle inside her dormant body dimming. Her breath came out as a defeated gust as she staggered to her brittle feet. Her skirt, once adorned with the speckled tapestry of the forest, hung on her body like thin animal skin. Shifting back, she left the school rooftop, her wings, only glamorous and full a few sunsets ago, now cracked and translucent. They were earthbound; achromatic; corroded. A mouse fleeing from an owl, she scaled the staircase with breathless haste. The ground felt slippery beneath her bare feet, as she was fleeing on ice.

The musty smell of school lunches filled the air, making her innards feel full of bacon grease and popcorn oil. Sweat, laced with salt, drilled down her brow as a pair of teachers turned a corner. Otoño didn’t falter as she sprinted through their forms. The tip of her bow glided through the professor’s chest like melted butter, their bodies mere mirages. Among humans, she walked as an otherworldly ghost able to surpass the restraints of the living. They walked in a world she could no longer follow. She could watch the children lick the caramel off their sugared apples as parents dusted leaves off their clothing, but it could never go beyond that. None of them would ever have a clue of the beings that were forcefully sacrificed just for the sake of the coveted cycle of time.

Choking out a breath, she shoved air into her lungs. Her fingers, twisting branches that trembled in the wind, embedded themselves against her breast. As she scraped against her own destiny, hobbling down another flight of stairs, her eyes were blind to the colorful club flyers that decorated the hallways. Everything she could’ve been: a dancer, a class president, an artist. All of it had been traded for the “great honor” that was beholding her life. Her heart thudded a beat, and then, like a clock chiming the final hour, struck her in a flash of lightning; an arrow to the chest.

Otoño felt like a dead bird falling down, down, down. Her knees hit the pavement on the final stair, and she imagined all the bones inside her cracking. Cradling her bow in her arms like her only love, she tilted her chin up to gaze up at her beautiful death. The only person in the world who could relieve her of her suffering, and the one who would relish in every moment of it. She was full of loathing, but in this moment, there was almost a twinge of relief in her soul at seeing another being. In the bleak shadows of the school, where the bricks had been coated in a yellowish-green color, a line of glistening frost framed the doorway in which he stood. Inverno. I am your god. You will bleed by my blade.

A halo of light haloed his face: serene yet so full of brutality. The angles that made up his chin were sharp and pointed, as if they were carved from the tips of icicles. Pale skin that outlined the wrinkles of his face, the tip of his nose and cheek were discolored into a pastel periwinkle blue. Often this harvest season, while she’d bided her time wondering when she might see him again, Otoño pondered if he could bleed himself. It was a question that only Spring, or 春天 could answer, she supposed. A forbidden idea, in its essence. Otoño and  春天 (or Chūntiān), would never be allowed to meet. Not as long as this celestial creature stood in their way.

Inverno was hellishly tall, and had long white hair that ran down to his waist in loops and braids, mimicking silk sashes tied to a woman’s dress. On his head, a crown of silver horns captivated the only two beings permitted to gaze upon him. Reflecting light against an enormous pair of snowy owl wings, he was depicted as a holy death angel of myth. His eyes, however, were perhaps what struck her the most. They were cruel shards of ice, seeking to cut out her life force and drain her of everything she had. For months upon months, he lingered in the depths of this land, biding his time until he got to emerge as its king once again.

Scrambling to lift her bow, her arm twisted back to grab an arrow. Despite the chill, she knew she still had a fight left in her. She was at her worst, and yet, a burning flame that ravaged inside her contradicted the opposition. This was a survival and a bleating cry for help all at once. It was a wild youth’s spirit against an ancient titan. In the back of her mind, where cobwebs and dust bunnies resided, she could recall the first time he’d taken her life. It may have not been the first time she’d departed from this world, and by proof of what was happening right now, it wouldn’t be the last.  That may be true, but it will not be now. You will wait another moon until you dare come to take my place for the second time. As she slid it into place and drew the string back, Inverno stepped forward with grace. Cocking a chilled eyebrow, he peered down at her as if she were a bug stuck on his shoe. “Herfst,” he murmured as if he were singing a hymn, his blank expression hardening. It was something close to confusion, as if he could not quite recall himself.

 The oldest of the current four seasons, Inverno had seen the most out of any of them. Hosts, those chosen in mortal death, couldn’t go on forever. Sooner or later, a patch of flower buds had to wilt for their final time, and every speck of snow would melt eventually. As is the case of Herfst, who he was speaking of now. The universe had grown weary of her autumns and the lackluster expressions she left upon the world; a fresh start was required.

“That’s not my name.” She stopped shaking long enough to aim her point steady, still collapsed on the floor as recollection etched into his features. A thin broadsword made out of black ice rose for her judgment, and his wings spread as if they were stretching them after a long nap. The feathers in their interior fluffed out, and he took another confident step forward. “It’s Otoño,” the fairy-like girl mustered, bowing her head with an edge. Though they were encased inside the school walls, the girl could feel the power that had been stripped away from her. Her forests and breezes, once her dutiful allies and close friends, were inching towards Inverno and his majesty. Nature was a fickle thing, and so full of betrayal. Even after she’d loved it and tenderly cared for it so much this past season, it still flew to whatever side brought it the most strength. Not for long.

The muscles inside his cheek contracted, and his eyes dilated like the snowy bird he mimicked. “Otoño,” he repeated, as if tasting the sound of it on his lips. The goddess didn’t like the way he dissected it as if it were a rotten frog carcass. “You’ve come too soon, Inverno,” she croaked out, trying to force power into her words. “I seek an extension. It’s only the end of November.” Indeed, she deserved much more time to discolor her leaves gray and leave her branches barren. Instead, she’d been rushed and robbed of her harvest. Her wings, tasting at the idea of flight, fluttered behind her anxiously.

A low, grizzly laugh rumbled out of the man, and the light around him seemed to flicker in amusement at her words. Stepping forward, the god reached the first step, his sword trailing against the floor like nails on a chalkboard. Cringing and skidding back, Otoño let her arrow fly.

Sizzling through the air like a firework, twirling through the air as a primadonna ballerina, her performance was cut short with the snap of wood coming from the heavens. Fixating her eyes on autumn’s bane, his arm was outstretched and clenching her singular arrow. Cracked in half, the twig fell to the floor as nothing more than discarded trash.

Her eyes hit the floor as his voice rang out like a symphony. “An extension? It’s an extension you seek? Dear child, I fear you do not understand the way I work.” Stepping down a stair, his sword hit the ridge with a metallic echo. Everything about him, his hair, wings, and clothes, they all seemed to sashay in the nonexistent wind. Step after step occurred, and Otoño feared that she was all too transfixed by his appearance. Frozen in place, she looked up at him with nothing but humility. A small girl shushed by the authority in the room, she almost looked to him for guidance. The fire in her was fading fast, but did she want to stop it?

He must have seen the question in her eyes, because he lowered his chin to her and smiled. “When I come, I aim to destroy you. There is nothing more to it, and nothing less. I don’t make deals, little one. It is simply not my way.” Raising his sword to her face, still a few feet away, he wrinkled his brow. “Tell me, though, why are you so desperate to stay? Amuse a centuries-old god, and perhaps I will make this quick.”

Her fists clenched, and she felt a fury bury itself inside of her. She could feel her mouth grow hot, which was the only sign of her fire’s ability to be rekindled. “It is a simple answer. I want to stay because I am the best Autumn this world has ever seen,” she replied, knocking another arrow into her bow. “The squirrels worship the ground I touch, as they have had more nuts for Winter than ever before. Naked trees and bushels of woven hay whistle my glory, and the birds bow to my gales. I’ve worked harder than anyone.” The goddess sat up a little straighter, her wings crackling like gift-wrapping paper. Perhaps it was still her youthful folly that allowed her to speak this way, or the goddess was ignorant of the danger. Aiming her arrow at his heart, she pulled it back as she could feel the muscles in her arm wasting away.

He flashed his pearly white teeth at her. “You insolent child,” he growled, flashing forward with his sword raised. She tried to move, but he was already upon her, grabbing at the roots of her curly hair and yanking her body to where she hung nimbly in the air. Otoño gasped in agony, her scalp burning like hot coals. “You took everything from me,” he hissed, the words hanging in confusion. The girl struggled like a worm snagged on a hook, everything suddenly feeling hazy. “I’m giving you everything I have,” she rasped, an apology on the tip of her lips.

Twitching, she grabbed her arrow with haste. She could still plunge it into him, slice her hair off with his sword, and escape. It wasn’t too late, she could still-

The cold edge of his blade danced across the tip of her throat; as was autumn to ash.

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