This story is by Adria Knudson and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
There’s something wrong about the landscape around me— everything is too perfect. Even the sweet smell of the fruit hanging from the branches is sickening.
Our journey is slow-going, and I strive to keep my anxiety hidden. I walk steadily beside him, matching each measured step across the lush grass. Then I risk a glance. His jaw is tense, and he focuses on the path before us.
He’s handsome, and something tells me I would have always loved him. The stubble on his chin hides the scar I thought made him charming and mysterious. Why did he never tell me how he got it? Why did I never ask? My fingers itch to touch the spot, but I hold back because now is not the time.
Instead, I search the ground and focus on the flowers in the meadow. It’s all too vivid. Too flawless. I stare at them longer than I intended.
He stumbles then and reaches out to catch himself. His hands find my arm, and I wince. He is in pain, and that pain shows in his strength. Before I can respond, he rights himself again, and we continue. We must keep moving because his resolve won’t last forever.
“Do you think the colors are too perfect?” I ask him. I don’t even know if he is listening.
“There’s nothing wrong with perfect,” he mutters. If I study him, I can see the lines where his smile used to be.
We’re following the stories and heading towards the forest. We’re heading towards the wraith— the one from the legend.
“Go to the deepest clearing in the darkest of woods,” they would say, “That’s where you’ll find her— the one with the haunted melody.”
The grass is withered beneath us now. He slouches and sweat beads on his brow. I grab his arm and put it around my shoulders. His hurt pride is why he won’t look at me.
Based on my greatest desires, the melody will give a haunting death, or it will heal.
And oh, how I loved him.
The bruise under my eye smarts when I brush the hair from my face. I do my best to ignore it because I know the welts along his back are worse.
That night came with reckoning. He knew where the mark on my face had come from.
I told him not to fight them, but he didn’t listen.
I’d knelt beside him in the snow and told him what I saw. I told him the damage may not have been too bad. He might’ve lived, but I wouldn’t take that chance. I couldn’t. “There’s a wraith from a story,” I’d whispered in the darkness. My voice shook then, and my hands trembled. I needed him to believe me. “If we go now, we can hear the wraith sing the melody.”
His breathing had been shallow, and his eyes stared at the stars— in and out of focus.
“Of healing or a haunted death,” I’d replied, “Whatever your greatest desire.”
He gave me one nod. It was all I needed before we began to walk. In truth, I would have dragged him there if I could, no matter his answer.
In the end, the walking had been too easy, or maybe I ignored the parts I did not want to see. Heaven knows I’m good at that.
The terrain is only dirt now, and it collects relentlessly on my skirts. The larks that sang, drowning out the sounds of warning, are no more. The forest looms ahead.
His knees sag. I know he wants to quit, but everything inside me screams to keep moving. I haven’t come this far to leave it all to chance.
I will not allow it to dictate my future. The wraith doesn’t allow it and neither will I. Mother told me the stories as a child. She spoke of how the wraith was once a woman deep in love. But love can do terrible things in the wrong hands.
So I pull him to his feet and we move on. That feeling washes over my soul. I’m getting stronger the farther we go. I get stronger every step I take.
The wind barrels over the treetops, icy tendrils snaking around my body, and I hear Mother’s voice inside my head. I feel her hands brush my hair as my young, gangly legs dangle from her lap. We sit outside and look up, counting the stars in the night sky.
“Why does the wraith sing her song?” I ask Mother as she hums.
“Betrayal,” comes the simple reply. Her humming begins again, carefully undoing the knots in my hair so I feel no pain. Only when I ask more does she answer.
“She was betrayed by the one she loved.”
I’m brought from my revere when we both stumble into the forest. His face brushes mine and my heart jolts—sending me somewhere that clouds my memory. I’m back in our bed, together. I hear his whispers in my ear, along with every happy sigh. His kisses bruise my heart and his love leaves a mark.
Another stumble causes me to tighten my hold and squeeze his side. I wonder why his shirt is damp until I pull my hand away. It’s stained in crimson— the color too bright for the dullness surrounding me.
There’s no hiding it now. The branches grab at our clothing and my hair. I know I look deranged, but I no longer see the man I knew staring back at me. Those eyes are black, empty, and calculating.
Does he know he’s close to death?
I feel the melody before I hear it, and it’s me who stops us. We’ve reached the clearing.
I let him go, causing him to sag to the dead ground. His eyes are frantic. I see that spark of desperation that comes upon every man in his final hours, the one they use their last bit of strength for to grasp life before the inevitable. He searches for the wraith.
She glides out of the shadows. Her bare feet, the color of snow, don’t quite touch the ground. She looks at him without a pause.
When she turns to me, she stops.
Her mouth opens until the haunting, beautiful melody fills my aching bones. I allow myself to become healed by her song. It soothes my bruises— the ones they see, the ones I hide. The scars fade next— the ones that made me tell so many lies.
He’s watching me now. He sees how I heal, and it gives him hope.
I smile a sad smile. The wraith waits.
Her melody will give an agonizing death, or it will heal. Whatever my greatest desire is what it will be. And I loved him so.
His wound is seeping through his shirt, and the blood drops steadily to the ground. I gaze back at the wraith, and she nods her head. He must know it now— he must see it in my eyes.
I’ve brought him here to die.
That night came with reckoning. I dropped the gold coins into their hands and made them promise.
“Don’t kill him.”
I only needed him close to death. Without them, I would have never gotten him here.
He deserves the wraith’s song.
I told him not to fight them, but I knew he would. Oh, how I knew he would.
She begins to sing. His worthless cries echo through the forest and almost drown out her voice, but she is strong. Soon, I cannot hear him.
I listen to the wraith sing as I walk away— that perfect haunted melody.