the echo of the old cathedral
by Alina Sukhovskaya
I believe, dear reader, that everyone is destined for someone. Every soul has its second half, and it is up to us to reach a level of knowledge that allows us to find that someone. Love like that is eternal, traveling life and death. In this case, a young girl reached a stair of wisdom so high that she transcended the living and found her second half who was neither dead nor alive.
Our tale starts on a sunny day, where our darling is humming a light tune as she picks flowers and herbs for her dear old mother whom she cares for very much. She, whom I speak of, is named Esmeralda Belle. Her beautiful brown hair cascades down to her calves as she twirls in a ruffled white sundress that has been dirtied at the edges by the sweet soil that accepts her weight warmly. The forest is her guardian angel, as she knows it just as well as it knows her. The lingering sweet smell of wet moss can be felt in this deep forest, as well as the alluring smell of magnolia trees, gardenia flowers, and jasmine. As she tucks roots, leaves, and flowers neatly into the basket that her father had woven for her, she smiles at it sweetly.
What broke this peace was the sound of hooves digging into the disturbed soil that was once even and wet with morning dew, and the animalistic yells of men hunting in the distance. They are approaching, she thought excitedly. From a young age, Miss Esmeralda always dreamt of being swept away by a duke on a beautiful, strong stallion that was the color of the night sky. Unfortunately, it was the same thing that she would come to dread. As the duke and his men trotted past her, he caught sight of the beautiful young lady and stopped his horse at once. This man went by the name of Duke Alfonse. He was around the age of forty and one when he crossed paths with Esmeralda who was only a mere ten and nine. His face carried the expression of disgust, eroded by wrinkles of cruelty. His candlelight hair was always obnoxiously slicked back with impudent perfection. His subjects fearfully respected him as he wouldn’t allow for any form of contempt towards his name. Duke Alfonse was a selfish man who hoarded credit all for himself when one of his men managed to hunt down a gorgeous deer that collapsed with the grace of a ballerina playing the white swan on her last night. He was one to demand respect and yet have none for his integrity. This man jumped down from his stallion like a hot-headed child and ran up to Esmeralda. “Hello there, little lady,” he acknowledged her in a condescending tone, “Why are you here all alone?”
“Oh, good sir, I am not alone! The forest is my companion, my life-long comrade.” Esmeralda contentedly replied, taken away by his sophisticated look and blinded by the exhilaration of touching her dream.
“Not many women manage to stop me in my tracks. Let alone a village girl,” He paused, repulsed by her dirtied long dress. “You are to marry me. Though you are not much, I don’t need more money nor power. I desire a beautiful woman by my side,” The duke spoke with such finality in his tone as he grasped Esmeralda by her wrist aggressively.
As this took place, Esmeralda’s rose glasses shattered as she realized his true intentions. She froze with terror as her eyes welled up with crystal tears. Regardless of this darling young woman being blinded with an unachievable fantasy, she was still quick-witted and educated by the best teacher in her village. Yanking her hand away from Duke Alfonse’s strong grip, she picked up her long dress and basket and ran away as fast as her fragile, porcelain legs allowed her to. “Hey!” The duke’s strong voice echoed through the thin trees as he quickly mounted his horse and galloped towards her. She sprinted swiftly, using shortcuts that brought her to her small village where a crowd of people was starting to form, disturbed by the gunshots of the duke’s hunters. Esmeralda jumped into the crowd, mixing in with the simple folk.
As Duke Alfonse approached the village’s people, excited whispers of gossip were already circulating from one woman to the next. He approached the people with a stiff and tall posture. “I am looking for a woman,” he announced angrily, “She who ran away, bring her to me!” He roared. Consequently, Esmeralda was pushed between numerous people toward the front where he caught sight of her. Taking into account that he was in front of a crowd, he took Esmeralda’s chin. To the crowd, his gesture was gentle, as happy, childish coos escaped from their mouths, but to Esmeralda, his gesture was cruel and cold, as his nails dug into her soft skin. The look in her eyes was no longer one of fear, but rather one of anger. How could you disrespect me, Duke Alfonse? Her eyes were as transparent as glass, reflecting her inner strength. Her gaze provoked something in his soul. It was as if a spark of fire landed on gasoline-soaked wood. That was all he remembered before a palm crashed into his cheek. The crowd went dead silent as it was Esmeralda’s gentle hand that turned into a leather whip. He stared at her with wild eyes. “I will come here in a few days’ notice. You need to be ready to depart at once.” She turned her back on him, walking off into the crowd with her chin held high. She felt his eyes follow her dragging, dirty, white dress.
That night she shared the news with her mother, sitting near the stone fireplace where her mother cooked a delicious, stuffed duck. “He seemed so gentle! Oh, but his hair!” Her mother pranced around joyously, knowing that her daughter was to marry a duke. She rambled on and on about the wedding dress Esmeralda would wear and the bouquet she would carry. All that was on Esmeralda’s mind was the forest and her escape plan. She would run far, far away from this village.
When everyone was fast asleep, she gathered food into her basket, put on her beloved, dirty white dress and fled into the mysterious, deep forest. As the wind blew gently, flower petals flew carelessly in the wind which hummed like a gentle lullaby. Poor Esmeralda collapsed upon a rock after hours of trekking where she fell asleep. Night passed peacefully, cradling Esmeralda in its arms so tenderly, that it was as if the poor darling would shatter at any moment. She woke the next morning with the wish to continue traversing through the emerald forest. She found a river that day, from which she drank clean water. She ate the bread and cheese that she packed into her basket before continuing on.
It was early evening when she came across an overgrown passageway. Her curiosity pulled her by the heart as she entered the carved marble arch that was frayed with time and eroded by nature. An abandoned gothic cathedral stood proudly at the clearing of the overgrown marble arch. The statues that watch over the main gate to the mansion had broken facial features, making them seem distorted, crooked, and intimidating under the dim evening light. The dark ebony gates to the mansion were worn down, with wooden splinters and moss crawling up the cracks of the magnificent carvings of an illustration of the forest. She was so captivated by its beauty that she decided to explore it.
On the inside, the ebony gates were polished smooth and unaffected by weather conditions. Stained glass art of flowers and vines covered the looming, dirty windows of the cathedral. Inside, there were marble pillars with the same forest carvings, two grand staircases leading to the left and the right wings of the old building, and a grand ballroom in the center. The floor and ceiling were both plated with colorful mosaics. The ceiling showed beautiful visual depictions of the strong, healthy trees of the forest while the floor showed a flower meadow. Ripped grey material hung from where red velvet curtains once were. The cathedral had old, detailed furniture that was in good condition. Because the cathedral was built out of stone, it managed to stay standing for so many years.
She decided to explore the left wing first. There were three bedrooms. The first bedroom was once a light pink which now turned gray from all of the gathering dust. The bed is lacy and puffy, with layers of embroidered blankets displaying soft peonies of different hues of pink. There was a vanity table that had beautiful antique perfumes, makeup, and wilted flowers. It had an oval mirror and a little drawer in which gold and pearl jewelry was kept. She gasped at the breathtaking treasures, as she caught sight of the closet. She ran to open it and found inside a variety of pink, feminine dresses from the Victorian era. They were untouched. She gasped out of delight, “Santa Maria! What beauty!” She decided to slip a dress on to see how it would look on her. As she did this, the dress turned out to be a perfect fit! She stared at herself in the mirror before running happily to the next room. The next room was one filled with toy soldiers, and little paper bayonets. It had the heads of deer displayed on the farthest wall which was a forest dark green with ebony wall trim. There was a rocking horse, fake swords and wooden ships. It was as if it was meant for a little boy. The closet contained slacks, and shorts of dark blues, greens and browns. It had blouses and tailcoats fit for a boy of eight or nine years.
Bathrooms were on the opposite sides of the hallway with porcelain toilets, sinks, and baths. The rooms had vintage beauty products, toothbrushes, and toothpastes as well as old hair curlers and hair dryers. Antique perfume and hair products lay on a shelf in that bathroom, tiled in turquoise patterns of the sea. The last room however, was situated up in a tower. It was grand and untouched for years, frozen in time. Two doors of plated gold design lead to a master bedroom. This room, filled with vines and flowers, was the one with the most life in it. This is where Esmeralda decided to stay. On the ceiling, there was a Renaissance-style painting of the night sky. The room had a shared closet, with gowns and suits for an adult couple and the bed was beautifully made. The blanket had an embroidered night sky map. The constellations were sewn with a gleaming gold thread. There was a working desk, with globes and telescopes and drawings, signifying the last owner had fancied mathematics, philosophy, astrology, physics, and anatomy. A lonesome feather lay near an ink cup that had crusting, dried ink in it. She wondered what the right wing looked like, so she waltzed right through to the other side of the cathedral.
In the right wing, there was an old library, full of old books, scrolls from Greek and Roman philosophers, and trinkets that still ticked and played classical melodies. A chandelier with candles hung from the ceiling as bookshelves stretched up. A dusty ladder leaned against the bookshelf. A few desks scattered around different parts of the room allowed for comfortable study. This wing also contained bathrooms plated in a pastel yellow, representing the sun’s golden rays.
Further down the wing, the kitchen that was connected to the dining room could be seen. The kitchen had copper pots and pans and hand painted plates of floral beauty. The cups were carefully sculpted with curvy, smooth exteriors. The silver cutlery was polished and the dining room had about 12 chairs and a long table. It was connected to the living room, with lounging couches that faced a stone fireplace. Portraiture, still-life, and landscape paintings of incredible depth covered the looming walls.
Taken away by the inner beauty of this cathedral and the stories the paintings told, Esmeralda decided to stay and clean this hidden forest gem. As days faded into weeks, she worked and cleaned. Little did she know, a ghost had been watching her from the moment she walked through his ebony gates.
Muriel Monet was an old soul, one from the Victorian era. He was a freethinking artist, a Renaissance man that humanity simply didn’t discover because of his love for solitude which was the thing that killed him in the end. Muriel had visited his family in the busy city of Paris as they owned a bakery there. His mother caught influenza, and when he returned home, he realized he caught the same sickness. It was too late to write to his family or doctors in the area. He was only twenty seven when he died. Watching Esmeralda, he didn’t know how to feel about her; he was lost. Deciding that he would fool around with this young girl, he would make books fall or pots clash, but there was never a time when Esmeralda was afraid. Instead, she was determined to stay. Weeks went by with them living together until a fateful day when he made himself known to her.
The sun enjoyed spilling its rays on Esmeralda’s beautiful, soft features as she lay in the grand bed. Her sage eyes fluttered open when she caught a glimpse of a man in the center of the grand bedroom. “Santa Maria,” she caught herself whispering, “Is it really you?” The vines that hung from the mosaic ceiling seemed to reach for him. As her gaze focused on Muriel Monet, the French artist turned to her slowly, his sculpted face gleaming in the faint light. His soft and kind eyes were hidden under bushy eyebrows and his hair was an ink black with lingering silver highlights. He stretched his gentle hand out to the lady. He was dressed in the simplest things: a light linen shirt, high-waisted slacks, and polished oxford shoes. As Esmeralda noiselessly slipped out of the bed, she slowly approached the man, matching his open posture. She questioned him, “Were you the one who painted the breathtaking paintings that hung on these old walls?” He took her hand and stood perfectly still, with a solemn expression. The man was trying to figure her out. Her eyes seemed to glint in the leaking sunlight like dew drops on a spider’s web in the early morning. Her forest green eyes were so transparent, he could see right through to her soul which peaked through the crooked branches of her world, prompting him to explore further. “Yes, I’m Muriel,” he answered, his voice echoing in the circular sanctuary. Shock crossed Esmeralda’s face for a split second, before a smile played right across it. She gave him a quick curtsy. Muriel let out a raspy laugh pulling her into his arms. It had been decades since the last time Muriel was able to take someone with a fiery soul into his arms, so he held her tight. He didn’t want her to slip away. Years of solitude hardened his tears into diamonds which melted down his cheeks. He had found her. Although the two souls found each other, there was a great sorrow the couple faced: the absence of physical touch. Even through this hardship, little by little, the two started fancying each other more and more through the summer days.
Meanwhile, Esmeralda’s face still lingered in Duke Alfonse’s foggy mind as the search for her expanded. Men patrolled forests and neighboring villages as the search dragged on for white days and black nights. Through it all, the duke’s selfish obsession to have what he could not did not settle. His poisoned love for sweet Esmeralda only grew. One early morning, he went into the deep forest with rage in his eyes. A little boy had told him that he saw a beautiful maiden in a dirty white dress gardening near the old cathedral that was situated deep within the heart of the woods. Recognizing who it was, he set out straight away, following the boy’s directions. The hard rum he drank slurred his gaze as he stumbled through and stepped on the poor flowers that only wanted to show their beauty. He cut sharply through branches with his rapier until he came upon the same overgrown marble arch. His heart told him she was there as he trudged, stupidly in love with her and with himself, through the well-kept cathedral, climbing the steps of that tower just to slam the gold-plated doors wide open. He saw her there. Her rich brown hair curled beautifully against her angelic face in the clean bed sheets as he heard her soft breathing. Muriel quickly noticed that the cruel man was trembling with violent, uncontrollable anger. The duke charged at sleeping Esmeralda before Muriel stepped in to stop him. She awoke abruptly, her heart almost jumping out of her chest. He was using his whole being to protect the only woman he had ever loved. It thundered outside as rain hammered down outside the tall windows. Alfonse’s pent-up emotions struck against Monet’s will as they fought in that empty circular bedroom. They crashed into tables, and bookshelves before Muriel grabbed the drunk’s rapier and pierced it through his heart with all his might. Esmeralda was covered in cold sweat, seeing the man fall to his knees. Blood and regret dripped from the coward’s collapsed chest. He was no longer a man.
It was as if the world went quiet in that instant, as both faced victory and loss, realizing the consequences of the damned rapier. The tragedy, dear reader, is in Muriel: he had used up all of his might. He would no longer be able to show himself to Esmeralda. She sobbed and sobbed, robbed of the soul that was rightfully hers with no one to comfort her until she felt his hands.
A comforting voice came from all around them: “For many years, the terrible duke and his men have hunted down my animals and cut down my trees. Muriel Monet, you have saved many in the forest with this death. As a reward, you may choose life if you wish.” The world seemed to still and then Muriel began to appear, only this time he became solid. Muriel chose to live, to feel, to taste, to hear, and to touch again. He learned the value of life, that Muriel Monet; He learned the value of life with the other half of his soul.
And so, dear reader, the couple lived and then faced death together. The couple’s children also faced life and death together with their other halves. Love forces us to face tragedy and happiness, for love was always a two-faced coin.
I love writing. I have picked this hobby up only this year because of the interest that past writing teachers have sparked in me. I also have a deep passion for art and I have placed in various competitions this year. In addition, I’m a National Ballroom Dance Champion across 2 categories!
what is your main source of inspiration?
I have a few. As a child, my favorite musical was Notre Dame De Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame). This is where I got my idea of the cathedral. As for the overall plot, I always relied on everyday interactions with the people around me.
what artists and/or writers inspired or influenced your work?
There was a short story collection by Takashi Murakami that I still remember. When I first read it, I loved his voice, style, and the way his short stories always looked at life with a simple, yet unique perspective. This is definitely something I aimed to integrate into my work.
what is your ideal writing environment?
I prefer when music is playing. Not just any music, but something with a very clear and intense emotion. Sometimes, I could switch from Tchaikovsky to Sting just because that is what I want to hear while writing a specific piece in the story.