“Ashes and Pomegranates”
By Sara Cleto
Originally Published in C is for Chimera
At night, Leah dreams of pomegranates. She plucks a single fruit from the branch overhead and holds the heavy weight in her cupped hands before cracking it open like a jewelry box. Red, and not the dull shade of the foxes that haunt the garden or autumn leaves before they fall, but brilliant and strange enough to make her eyes water. Carefully, reverently, she pulls a seed from its nest and places it on her tongue. When it bursts between her teeth, the juice is sharp and bright, and for a moment, she hears her mother’s voice.
When she wakes, she can never remember the words.
Her father’s house is cold and dark, even in the summer—or what passes for summer in the far north. Always, she wears thick wool socks. They keep her feet warm against the unyielding marble floor, but they muffle her footsteps so that she feels like a ghost drifting through the halls.
The house slides inexorably into grey with each passing year. Even the weak sunlight that slants through the clouded windows leaches color from the drapes and paintings, and dust clings to every surface like a lover. Leah ties a kerchief around her mass of black, tightly coiling hair and wields her feather duster with the exactness of a rapier, slicing through grime until color glows anew—though she is streaked in shades of ash. Late at night, when she washes away the dense layer of powder, she holds her breath until her bronze skin appears, shining under the water.
In her room, she lights candles—a small act of resistance, since her father has forbidden open flame inside the house. The candlesticks were retrieved quietly, one at a time, from her mother’s room, until her father noticed the room’s attrition of objects and locked the door. The writhing shapes are heavy with years of wax, their original designs long buried. Sometimes, Leah tries to guess what they have become, but the silhouettes change too quickly in the flickering candlelight for her to decide.
Sometimes, she lets the melting wax drip onto her hands, obscuring the fine tracery of scales that shimmers just beneath her skin.
The garden feels alive, though quiet, so quiet, next to the dead house. Nothing blooms. Buds remain pursed as lips over a secret before wilting, but the vines are green and thrum with life under Leah’s fingers. Most of the trees are pines, tall and fragrant, and their needles whisper under her bare feet.
In the center of the garden, there is a tree that is different. The trunk, barely taller than she, is a faded grey, but the leaves are dark and glossy and flat. The branches are haunted by fruit that once grew there.
When Leah is seventeen, her father rouses himself from his study and returns with a bride.
Annabel’s long golden hair falls past her knees, or it would if she did not braid it tightly and wrap it in a crown around her head. Her eyes are cornflowers in a face of ivory, set off by the yards of bright fabric that tumble from her shoulders to the floor. Her waist is cinched with a long leather strap, bifurcating her body with a narrow precision that mimics a winged insect, and Leah wonders how she bears it. Still, with her colorful silks and bee-waist, she looks like a garden, the kind that breaths and blooms in picture books and behind other people’s gates.
Leah stands before her quietly, hands clasping and unclasping. She knows her hair is escaping from its scarf in wild curls and tufts, and her skin is mottled with dust.
“Kiss your stepmother hello, Leah,” he father tells her. These are the first words he has spoken to her in a week.“I’m dirty from the garden,” she says, and her voice rasps faintly with disuse. “I’ll hurt her gown.”
Annabel holds out a hand, dainty in its white glove. “A little dirt never hurt anything.” Carefully, Leah edges forward, lays her fingertips in Annabel’s palm, and leaves brown smudges all along the lace. Closing her hand before her husband can see the damage, she says, “Do you have roses here?”
“No,” Leah replies quietly, “nothing flowers here.”
Annabel nods once before her husband takes her other hand and pulls her down the hall and behind his bedroom door.
Weeds have sprung up between the paving stones and vines scale the stone walls that circle her tree. She pulls the weeds but lets the vines crawl where they will. When she turns back to the house, she sees Annabel’s pale face in the window for a moment before her father’s hand appears and pulls the curtains closed.
Leah’s shoulder blades itch, and so do the backs of her hands. When the sun slants through the leaves overhead, her skin gleams greener than the filtered light and angular scrollwork unfurls down her fingers. She rolls her shoulders hard and sinks her hands wrist-deep into the soil, tiny roots curling round her fingers like rings.
Little changes in the house after Annabel’s arrival. Leah carries on her losing battle with dust inside the house and her stalemate with weeds in the garden. But the air feels heavier, fuller, and she can feel the breath of a third person pull the tides in the air with the inevitability of a moon.
Sometimes, her father will bring her a garment—a thin nightdress or swishing petticoat—and tell her to mend it. The hems are tidy, even, and the pleats fall neatly, but they have long rents in the material around the waist. Leah mends them with even stiches in threads of marigold and rose, bright against the white fabric, and leaves them by the bedroom door. Twice, she knocks, but the room within is quiet.
One afternoon, her father hands her a delicate slip. When she unrolls it, the pale silk is mottled with dark brown smears and splotches. She sniffs it cautiously, inhales the metallic tang of copper. That evening, when she hears her father’s tread in the study, she creeps to the bedroom door and tries the doorknob, but it is locked.
“Annabel?” she whispers through the keyhole.
A rustle, a light step, and cornflower blue blinks back through the crevice in the wood. “Go back to your room before he sees you,” she whispers back.
“There was blood on your slip. You’re locked in your room. How can I get you out?”
A dry laugh. “There is no ‘out’ for me.”
“What do you mean? Why did you agree to come to this place and marry him?”
The silence within the room is heavier than the third night of a wake.
“Father, I need your keys. There are locked rooms that haven’t been cleaned in years. And I thought perhaps Annabel might like some things from Mother’s room.”
Her father almost looks at her over the top of his paper, but his eyes skitter away from her face and back to the curtailed grids and numbers in black and white that marched across the page.
“What’s locked should remain locked. Remember that, Leah.”
“I’m out of thread for mending. I know where Mother’s sewing box is, and I could use it to fix Annabel’s slip.”
A measured pause, while Leah fights not to itch her arms, clasping her hands behind her back. Her nails lengthen, bite into her palms for a moment before receding. Then her father pulls the massive ring of keys from his pocket and drops it on his desk. “Bring it back to me this evening. And, Leah, I will know if any keys are missing.”
She nods and hooks the ring onto her belt. The ring, thick with keys, bites into her waist so that for a moment she, too, feels bifurcated, insect-like, under her father’s gaze as his eyes finally rise to look at her. She takes slow, measured steps across the room and into the hall, then breaks and dashes for the garden, keys slamming into her thigh and ringing discordantly with each step.
She bursts through the door, gasping in the cold air, and quiets the keys under her palm. She has to decide what to do, and quickly. There are locksmiths, she knows—she has read about them in books—but she does not know how to find one and she has no way to pay. She could go upstairs now, unlock the door, and hope that they could run fast enough. Turning to look at the window, she sees her stepmother’s face for an instant before her father appears beside her, his fingers curling on her shoulder.
Leah shudders and looks away, pushing deeper into the garden. When she reaches her tree, she kneels in the dirt near its base and presses her forehead against the bark. With her eyes closed, she can pretend that it is her mother’s knees she is leaning against, her fingers moving through her hair instead of the wind. The flat, glossy leaves above her head rustle, and one falls, brushing against her cheek before landing on the back of her hand.
“Bury it.” The words caress the back of her neck.
Leah’s head jerks, her eyes open and wild. “What?” The garden is empty and utterly silent, the wind stilled. After a long moment, the leaves rustle again in the dead air.
“Bury it.” The voice is a low, sibilant hush, lingering in her ear. Her skin prickles furiously, and she sinks her nails in her arms until blood wells in tiny crescents.
“Bury what?” she whispers.
Leah looks down at the ring on her belt, and one key flashes gold in the low afternoon light. When she grasps it between her fingers, it feels warm, as if it has been lying in the sun, absorbing heat for hours. She pulls it off the ring, and digs into the soil. The roots part under her fingers, drawing delicately away and reforming into a shallow, textured basin. Leah drops the key into the little hollow and smooths dirt over it before rushing back into the house.
As she goes about her chores—unlocking, polishing, collecting, relocking—she listens for the leaf-voice, even though she instinctively knows that it can only be heard in the garden. Still, she lingers in her mother’s room after she has shaken the dust from the curtains and wiped down the wooden surfaces and the floor. When she picks up the bag she has filled with throws and dresses for Annabel, she turns for one last look at the room and sees a small box on the vanity—a box that hadn’t been there when she had polished the other trinkets on the counter.
She walks to the vanity and examines the case, which is made from a smooth dull wood that retains a familiar fragrance. When she opens the box, she finds a nest of velvet ribbon with something small and brilliant gleaming underneath. The ribbon unwinds to reveal a round, faceted garnet the size of her thumbnail. Tiny golden leaves sprout from the top. She wants to put it in her mouth and let it burst on her tongue, but instead she drops the ribbon over head and tucks the jewel beneath the front of her dress. When she crosses to the door, she stops for a moment, tracing the splintered grooves gouged into the wood. Her fingers fit into the marks, too deep for human nails to carve.
She returns to the tree at dusk, just before her father returns to his study, and begins to dig. In the little root hollow, she finds the golden key that she buried hours before. When she lifts it from the root-basin, she sees a second key beneath. Instead of gold metal, it is the smooth, grey wood of the tree, of the jewelry box.
When she returns the key ring to her father, he lets the bits of metal trickle through his fingers like water before pausing on the key to his bedroom door. He taps it gently against his desk and watches packed earth fall from the grooves and notches in the gold.
“The key is dirty,” he observes mildly.
“The house is dirty. The garden is dirty.” She raises her chin slightly, gestures at her grime-streaked cheeks and blackened fingernails. “And I’m always dirty from trying to keep things in order.”
Her father leans back in her chair, still tapping the key on the desk. Leah’s blood pounds in time with the sound.
“Perhaps it’s time we had help around the house. I will never find a man who will agree to marry you in this state.”
Leah hides her balled fists in the folds of her skirt and thinks of the school she had briefly attended as a child, the pictures of taverns and other people’s gardens she sees in the books she took from her mother’s room. She is not afraid of work, but inertia and habit have made her wary of the world beyond the garden. Still, she is more afraid of the locked doors, and for Annabel behind them.
“If I could go out again, meet people, perhaps I would meet someone,” she ventured.
“It would not be appropriate without a chaperone.”
“Would not my stepmother be a suitable chaperone?” she says, her eyes wide and guileless.
“Your stepmother is much occupied at present.”
Leah presses her tongue against the roof of her mouth and waits.
“The prince is hosting a ball in a few days. Perhaps, if I hired…” he trails off, still tapping. “No. Too big, too much spectacle. It would be overwhelming for a recluse like you.”
“I would like to see a ball.”
He shakes his head and, finally, drops the keys. They land with a splintered chime on the desk. “You don’t know how to waltz or hold of flute of champagne. You don’t know how to talk to strangers or how to pin your hair. It would be a disaster.”
“Annabel could help me.”
Her father sweeps the keys into his pocket. “No. She cannot.”
Three days later, her father puts on his finest suit, emeralds at his wrists and silk at his throat. He saddles their only horse and rides in the direction of the castle, keys jangling in his pocket. Leah watches him depart through her bedroom window, and when he vanishes around the bend in the road, she races through the halls, woolen socks sliding recklessly on marble, and slips her wooden key into the lock.
Annabel is in a chair by the window, the stub of a pencil in her hand. The corner of a piece of paper is just visible beneath a heap of fabric. She is thinner, and there are blue marks around her wrists and at her throat, dull lapis to her husband’s shining emeralds, but her hair is neatly braided and her back is straight. When she sees Leah in the doorway, she releases a breath and leans back in her chair.
“It’s you. I was afraid I was going to lose my paper again. Richard says too much stimulation unsettles a woman’s mind.” She shoves the bundle of fabric away, revealing a graceful sketch of the garden. Leah’s tree is in the center, rendered in careful detail, but there are round shapes hanging from the branches, shapes that echo her dreams and the charm around her neck.
“What are those?” she asks, forgetting the ball, her father, everything else.
Annabel blinks at her. “Pomegranates, of course. I thought you knew—it seems to be your favorite tree.”
“I told you—nothing blooms here. There have not been flowers or fruits in the trees since my mother died.”
“You look nothing like Richard,” she says lightly. “You must take after her.”
Leah thinks of her filthy hands and feet, her unwashed hair in a coil under her scarf. “No. My mother was beautiful.”
“As are you.” She watches Leah brush at the dust and ashes on her arms. “Remember, I said a little dirt hurts nothing. It helps things grow.”
“There is a ball tonight,” Leah blurts. “I don’t know how the world works, but I know how balls are supposed to end. We could go, maybe find help.” Her hands stilled. “At the very least, we could see something alive, something that blooms.”
Annabel shook her head. “Balls are beautiful, but they can be dangerous. Where do you think I met your father? Well, where my father met your father. It was love at first sight—matching cufflinks, matching ideas about my future.”
“Please come with me. I don’t know how to do this alone.”
Annabel tries to stand, but her leg buckles. She sighs and lifts her skirt, revealing a tattered piece of fabric wrapped round and round her calf and knee. “I cannot, but you can. And I’ll show you how. Bring me your sewing kit.”
“I thought you couldn’t sew—that’s why Father brought me your things to mend.”
“No,” she says gently. “I am very deft with a needle. Which is why Richard took mine away after I stabbed him with it.”
Leah retrieves her kit and retreats into Annabel’s bathroom, where a hot bath is waiting for her.
“Use the soap in the red bottle,” Annabel says through the door. “I’ll have a dress ready for you when you are done.”
As Leah scrubs her skin and hair with the soap that smells of roses and citrus, Annabel tells her the names and titles she will see and how deeply to bob her head or curtsey for each one. She tells her what sounds to listen for—the bright, brassy sound of trumpets and the chime of spoons on glasses. In case of dancing, she says to follow her partner and to move her feet in a square and, in case of drinking, to hold the flute between her thumb and first three fingers.
When Leah steps from the tub, Annabel hands her a dress around the door. Leah recognizes it, a bright, crimson silk of her mother’s that she had brought Annabel a few days before. But now threads of burnt orange, fuchsia, and persimmon shimmer at the waist, cinching tight before bursting across the skirt in a kaleidoscope of scrolling scales and feathers.
“How?” Leah breathes, stroking the tiny stitches.
A silence behind the door. “It’s a…talent. One that earned my family’s fortune before my father tired of my small rebellions and sold me to the highest bidder. Your father planned to use it, I think, before he saw me and decided I had other uses.”
Leah slips the fabric over her head and went back into the bedroom. “My mother had talents, too. She made things grow. And change.”
“Many of us do.”
“But she couldn’t live here. I think this place and my father…she was from the South, and the cold inside this house killed her.”
“Which is why we are getting you out. Sit.” Annabel gestures to the chair and carefully works a comb through the snarled curls before twisting them into braids and weaving them round her head in a crown. “I wish I had shoes to give you, but I’m afraid mine are too big.” Her fingers move to the ribbon around Leah’s neck, knotting it deftly so the pomegranate hangs in the hollow of her throat.
Leah rises and takes her hand. “I think I know what to do.”
They take the stairs slowly, Annabel hanging on Leah’s arm, her gait uneven. Out the back door and through the garden and to the pomegranate tree they walk, the girl in crimson and the girl in white. At the base of the tree is a pair of shoes—crimson leather with wooden heels that twist daringly, like the tail of a snake. Beside them is a compress that smells faintly of roses and the bark of the tree. Leah slides her feet into the shoes, and Annabel slips the compress under the bandage around her knee.
“Leah,” her stepmother says, “if you get the chance, if you find help, a stray horse, anything…run. Don’t come back here.”
Leah shakes her head, her braids trembling. “I am not leaving you here. I’ll come back for you.” She presses the wooden key into her hand. “I’ll be back soon. Use this to lock yourself back in. Or out.”
The strange heels add a spring to her gait that eats at the distance to the palace. She arrives at the gate in a matter of a few moments, a few steps.
Torches line the path and spark along the tops of the walls. Surreptitiously, she dips her fingers into the first flame as she walks past—they feel warm for the first time in months. Through the main doors, up a long corridor, and down the stairs—she dodges the man with the starched shirt and long list of names, as Annabel told her to do—but she can not stop the trumpets sounding and the drums beating as she descends the stairs. She tucks her head low so that her father will not recognize her if his is one of the faces turning towards her in the crowd.
When she reaches the bottom, a man is waiting for her. He has dark eyes, like her mother’s, and Annabel’s fair hair, but his hands are long and graceful and entirely his own, with scars on his fingers and a trace of dirt under his nails. He is beautiful. He doesn’t offer his name, so she dips a low curtsey, grateful her skirts cover her feet.
He bows with the lithe elegance of a fencer. “Dance with me?” he asks, holding out a hand.
She does. She trips a few times, but he shows her how to loop the hem of her skirt in her palm, how to follow his feet in a square, and then other more elaborate patterns. She finds herself laughing as she turns and turns in his arms. After a time, they pause, and he brings her a small flute of champagne, which she holds carefully between thumb and fingers. It sparkles in her throat, unlike anything she has tasted before. When they return to the dance floor, she stops thinking about her feet, stops thinking about the cold house and locked doors. Faster and faster they dance, until she is not sure if she is touching the floor or dancing above it.
When the music pauses, he asks, “Can I show you something? In the garden?” His hand on hers is gentle and tentative, ready to let go should she pull back.
She tightens her fingers around his. “Yes.”
He leads her through the crowded room and down another long hall before slipping through a side door. The garden is alive with a thousand different scents, a thousand open blooms waiting in the still night air. “What’s your name?” he asks as they walk into the garden.
“Leah. Leah Glass. What is yours?”
“Henry, I’m afraid. There was no getting round it.”
“Why not?” she asks, pausing briefly to caress the petals of a massive white and pink blossom.
“Seeing as the last eleven kings have had it, I suppose my parents felt compelled to make it an even dozen.”
“So you are the prince,” she says. “In that case, I need to ask for your help.”
The path swerves, and they enter a small orchard. “What can I…“ he trails off, smiling, when Leah drops his hand and runs to the nearest tree.
“I thought you might like them, judging by your necklace.”
“I’ve never seen a real one before.” She thinks of her mother, of Annabel standing still beneath her tiny tree, and she swallows hard.
Henry pulls a pomegranate, red, ripe, heavy, from a branch overhead and opens it like a jewelry box between his long fingers. He offers her the two halves, gleaming garnet-bright. She pulls a seed from its cluster and places it on her tongue. The taste is everything she remembers from her dreams, made sweeter still by the smile in Henry’s eyes.
“Thank you,” she says. “I—“
Her voice dies in her throat as she sees her father appear over Henry’s shoulder. He looms huge in the moonlight, and his booted feet crush flowers with each slow step.
No. He has taken too much from her already. He will not take this, too. Her arms do not itch—they burn—as scales slide through her skin and fur rolls up her neck and cheeks,
“Leah!” It is Henry now, his hands on her arms, slipping, losing traction on the dark scales, but he does not back away even as she feels her teeth lengthen past her lips.
“Leah.” Her father is close now, close enough for her to see the disgust twisting his lips. “Just like your mother,” he says, and she sees something sharp and bright in his hand. He turns his wrist, and light slides along the blade. She looks at Henry, kicks off her shoes, and throws one, heel first, at her father. She hears a hiss and a howl of pain as serpentine teeth slid home in his flesh. Then she turns and runs as the clock in the great hall begins to chime.
Leah runs on legs that bunch and then lengthen. When her gait becomes unsteady, she drops to all fours. The ribbon tightens as her neck expands and thickens with muscle, but Annabel’s knots come loose and the garnet swings easily against her fur. Her vision sharpens until her eyes cut through the night with perfect clarity, and her center of gravity lowers as she feels her tailbone extend and hit the ground. She picks up speed, feeling once more the grace and speed that was hers on the dance floor, but without the assurance of Henry’s arm or the delicious blankness of thought. Instead, her mind churns—Did Henry have a way to defend himself from the knife in her father’s hand? Did he get away? Was her father behind her? What would happen to Annabel, with her swollen knee and bruises, when her father arrived home?—and she demands more speed from her hybrid body, more power from her twisting tail and cloven hooves.
The journey is longer without the crimson shoes. When she reaches the garden wall, she leaps over it and canters towards her mother’s tree. Annabel is asleep among the roots, her hair freed from its braid and tangling with leaves.
Leah pounds the ground with her hooves and roars.
Annabel is moving before her eyes open, scrambling back against the trunk of the tree, her mouth opening to scream. Then her gaze fixes on the pomegranate glistening on Leah’s fur, and her mouth closes, reshapes around her name.
Leah steps closer and nudges her stepmother’s shoulder with her head. Annabel closes a hand in her fur.
“Lock up something long enough, and it doesn’t know how to leave,” says a voice behind them. Leah whirls, tripping over her serpentine tail, but her hooves bite into the earth and keep her standing. “Your mother never left this house after I found out. Once I realized what she was, a monster, a chimera, how could I let her?” He appears from behind the tree, the knife still in his fist. “Your magic seemed small enough,” he spits at Annabel, before returning his gaze to Leah, “but you. I had hoped you had not inherited her sickness, or that I could at least pass you off before it became apparent.” He takes a step closer, and Leah herds Annabel behind her. “But now there is nothing to be done. It is time for you to join your mother.”
Another step, and he lunges.
“Breathe,” says the leaf-voice, branches shivering in the still air.
This time, Leah does not hesitate. Her breath rushes from her chest with all the heat she has been denied, all the rage of enclosure, all the joy of her small rebellions with her stepmother and her dances with the prince. She breathes with her mother, and flame pours from her throat and envelops her father like a luxurious coat. For a moment, he is lit, incandescent, and then he is nothing but ashes beneath a tree heavy with fruit.
When Henry arrives at the front door an hour later, crimson shoe in hand, he finds two women, cinder-shod and smiling, lighting fires in every hearth in the house.
[Image: Zaida Ben-Yusuf “The Odor of Pomegranates” (1899, Published 1901) Photogravure on paper, Tate.]