Written by Erin Nust
Art by Janez Podnar
Melinda dragged her feet as she was reaching the top of the hill. She could feel some of the dirt and the pebbles from the ground entering her old, leather shoes, making every step even more painful and tiresome; but she didn’t have time to stop and make herself comfortable.
The bridge was there and her brown eyes glittered with joy and relief. Her pace recovered the energy of the beginning of her journey.
She knew the flower was across that bridge.
It was exactly like Henry had described it to her: a strong construction made of heavy grey stones, a concrete structure that connected the two parts of the kingdom. Of course Melinda’s family was born and raised on the wrong side of that bridge.
She placed her foot steadily on the stony surface of the bridge and the sensation of the perfectly glued pebbles against the bottom of her shoes was extraordinary. Melinda could see why her people attributed the construction of the bridge to a witch.
According to her calculations, she’d have to walk for about ten minutes until she’d manage to cross the whole bridge and reach the other side. A ten minute walk that will give her access to the flower Henry asked for her brother.
The goal was shining and burning in her head like a piece of glass under the midday summer sunlight. She didn’t have time to moan or whine or worry about her little brother lying sick on his bed, with her parents crying and standing above him day and night. Henry, the village doctor, had made a request and Melinda had devoted the next two days to it. She pushed the feeling down and kept climbing the bridge.
The sun had turned into an unexpected burden for her journey. It was shining too brightly, the clouds didn’t dim it. The direct sun rays hit Melinda’s naked forehead, and droplets of sweat were born and ran across her face, some of them managing to enter her eyes, making them stingy and irritated. There was no turning back now, there was no time. Every second spent for her comfort was endangering Kyle’s life. Soon, she was feeling as if she was strolling through the deserts of the Old World, a feeling her mind could replicate only based on the tales she and Kyle heard from their grandma.
Melinda was almost halfway through the bridge. Her eyes caught some small object four feet away from where she was, lying on the stony ground. She tried not to pay any attention to it, to keep her eyes locked on her target, but it was too white, reflecting the hot sunlight. Unconsciously, her pace went faster.
It was bones.
Bones. In the middle of a bridge, where almost nobody crosses. For the first time during her two-days journey, Melinda stopped. She lingered above the bones and scrutinized them although she was sure from the first time she saw them they were human bones. The perfectly shaped bone of a human skull, with empty sockets, strong teeth, facing the Earthly sky as if searching for clouds.
Maybe it was true; what Henry had warned her about. Knowledge had started to shape into her head like a piece of clay into the experienced hands of a potter. She was so absorbed in the end goal that she ignored the signs, Henry’s words (you need to be careful, there are rumours that people didn’t survive, rumours I don’t believe are true of course), the isolation of the place. Only the flower mattered. And Kyle.
Suddenly her clothes were too hot against her skin, her shoes hesitating to move forward. She looked at the skull as if asking its story, her mind avoided the truth. The comforting image of Kyle rose. Melinda pictured her little brother on a hot day like this, helping her with fetching water from the river, running around, asking her questions about the flowers, the trees… The image gave her strength.
The river under the bridge ran smoothly, up to the point Melinda had stopped. She craned her neck, touched the wall and looked down to see what was going on. The water ran, but it was mute. Everything around her worked fine, but her hearing was lost.
She shrieked and removed her hands from the wall. Suddenly, the bridge felt contaminated with some unknown illness. The blinding sunlight was overcast. The previously hot sweat now turned into ice and ran down Melinda’s back.
“Who wishes to pass my bridge?” the voice of a woman made her turn her head.
She couldn’t take her eyes away from the view. Melinda was under the shadow of a gigantic, magnificent form of a female with wild black hair and skin made of ice. A dark matter floated around her and everywhere she looked darkness reigned.
“Who wishes to pass my bridge?”
“My name is Melinda,” she said, her voice a feeble leaf under the strong gust.
“Just a name is useless to me. Who are you?”
Melinda froze. She wasn’t sure if she was dreaming, if her long exposure to the strong sunlight was creating illusions. If that was the case she had to wake up fast.
“I… I’m Melinda. I don’t know what else you need to hear.”
The woman’s eyes turned black with fury. It was her. The witch.
“We’re much more than our names, Melinda.”
Melinda felt the passing time giving her a strong slap to the face.
“My brother is in danger. Real danger, there’s a flower I need on the other side of the-”
“So, you’re a sister. I used to be a sister once, hundreds of years ago,” the witch’s voice was harsh but flat. There was no soul in it, no human expression, as if she was reading it apathetically from a piece of paper.
Melinda’s eyes passed through the magnificent figure of the giant witch who was still floating in front of her, and locked her final destination behind her. Everything around her surrendered in the darkness the witch brought, but under the shadows, there stood the meadows. According to Henry, the flower was behind those hills, carefully guarded by the witch.
“Nobody passes my bridge before stating who they are and what they’re about to pay in return,” the witch nailed her eyes into Melinda’s, piercing her soul.
She was at loss for words.
“I am a sister. I have no money on me, nothing valuable to exchange”
“You humans. I never talked about money, there are a lot of interestingly valuable things you possess and you don’t even know it. Pity.”
Melinda was suddenly intrigued with the woman. Her hair danced in the air as if she was underwater, her words made the girl think, ponder about what she possessed that the witch might find valuable enough.
Taking a closer look, she had just realized that the woman looked like a mermaid. Since her appearance aligned with the stop of the river, the girl was convinced that she was some sort of water witch, if this was something that existed. The magical world was too far away from her little mind, only a fairy tale when she was a child. The way her hair floated in the air, the light blue light that emanated from her form, the icy, pale skin was textured with scales.
“There is only one way to pass this bridge. Tell me who you are.”
“I already told you. I’m Melinda. I have a younger brother who is currently dying from a disease that can only be cured by a flower that grows on some rocks on the other side of this bridge. I don’t have time for chatting. Just tell me what you want and I’ll give it to you.”
The witch took on an expression for the first time. It was a smile; or rather a smirk.
“You are time. The clock is ticking in your head. You can hear it, second by second, you can feel its passing on your skin. This is what defines you, what is most valuable for you.”
Melinda felt a heavy rock lying on her chest. Whatever the witch meant with that, she was certain it wouldn’t be easy or good. No thing asked from a creature like this could be good.
“Wh- What does that mean?” The air around her hung heavy and cold, darkness embracing her fully inside and out. Her soul had been seen, and worse, had been touched by a witch.
“If you still wish to pass this bridge, you have to give up time. This will be our deal. Time or you can turn back from where you started, running.”
The girl felt the witch’s hand already reaching her, scratching the veil between her physical form and her soul with her long nails. Melinda was taking some steps backwards. She was ready to do what the woman had proposed and run, run as fast as she could, run away from this horrendous being and curl up into her mother’s embrace.
But she didn’t.
“If this is what you need then my time is yours to take, if you can promise me an uninterrupted crossing both ways of this bridge.”
“It’s a deal, Melinda: sister and provider of Time.”
The witch outstretched her right hand in an elegant move and the tip of her nail touched Melinda’s chest. The pain was unbearable as she was tearing apart the veil to find Melinda’s soul and extract her value. She was screaming, but no entity in the world seemed to listen or to care. Nature had taken Her eyes away from this insidious exchange.
“I have been looking for Time for so long,” the witch whispered and the path before Melinda was clear.
The sun was hot on her head, the river ran smoothly in the stream, the bones sunbathed against the hot stones of the bridge.
Jessica opened the door in desperate hope it would be her daughter. Her disappointment was double: not only was it not Melinda outside her door, but the cure for her little boy was still missing, and time was running out.
“Hello?” she asked the old woman standing by her door. She was short, with heavy lines all over her face. A leathered bag crossed her body and reached her hip. The old woman tried to talk but the voice was too feeble to be comprehensible. She made a mumbling sound.
Henry stood and went by the door. He tapped Jessica’s shoulder, indicating he would take care of the old woman and she went back to the boy.
“May I help you?” Henry asked and the old woman opened the leathered bag with her tired wrinkled hand and got out a small plant with tiny purple flowers in the shape of a bell.
“Oh my God, Melinda. I- I’m so sorry.”
Henry let her inside, after taking the flower and running to prepare with it Kyle’s medicine. His face was pale, as if he had just witnessed a miracle.
“Mom?” Melinda said with a raspy voice. Jessica’s confusion dissolved after minutes of examining her.
“I’m sorry, Jessica. I didn’t know, I never thought…” Henry mumbled as he was crushing the flower in a pot. He didn’t find the courage to look at Melinda’s mother.
Jessica came closer to her daughter and carressed the deep lines on her face. “There was no other way, mom. For Kyle.” Her eyes filled with tears listening to her daughter’s words.
“It’s alright. I gave my time to Kyle. I would do it again. One hundred times, if needed.”