The Burning Bride
by Liam Martin
I stared over the top of one of my bookshelves at the strange parcel that lay on the edge of the counter. It was wrapped in thick brown paper and bound together with string. The parcel had been there since I found it hidden away at the bottom of the stock cupboard this morning. There was no indication of whom the parcel was intended for, nor any clues as to who sent it.
I pulled my eyes away from the parcel, remembering that I had an early edition of Don Quixote in my hands ready to be stacked. Returning the book, I stepped down from the ladder, pushing it aside before making my way through the labyrinth of bookshelves towards to the front door. I glanced out of one of the exposed glass panels and saw that the alley outside was abandoned. The winter winds had taken over and now roamed freely under the darkening shades of evening. I could hear the whistle of the wind as it seeped through the cracks in the heavy wooden door-frame. The feeble cold brushed against me as I glanced down at my watch. Twenty minutes until closing time.
The shop had been unusually busy all day but for the last hour it had been dead so I decided that I would shut my shop up early. I turned over the closed sign and twisted the seal on the door, a metallic thud told me I was locked in. I went over to the window and drew down the heavy iron shutters before retreating behind the counter. Picking up the parcel, and flicking the light switch, I left behind a shop engulfed in darkness.
I went into the sitting room and fed a log to the dying embers of last night’s fire. The flames gorged on it and roared to life. I sat in my armchair across from the fireplace. Turning the parcel over in my hands, I examined it. I found that it did have writing on it. There were three words written in barely legible script on the back of the wrapping. I held the parcel up to the light, giving me more of a chance at deciphering the cryptic message, but I still could not make it out. This new sense of mystery inspired a searing compulsion deep within me so I opened the package without hesitation. What I found within was a dusty black ring box and a folded letter. I put the ring box aside and carefully unfolded the letter. The paper was tinged yellow with age and the writing itself was in an archaic script that seemed to crawl across the page. Then in the flickering firelight I read the letter.
It is with my deepest sympathies that this letter and accompanying ring should find you. Through no wrongdoing of your own you have inherited a great evil. To best explain this, I will tell you my story.
It began with the vision of my departed wife-to-be amongst the Devonshire meadows. She stood in all her beauty, in all her perfection. She wore her white laced wedding gown and her auburn hair flowed down her shoulders in loose curls. When she saw me, her lips curled into a delicate smile and her dark eyes stared longingly into my own. She reached out with one of her slender arms, beckoning me forward. As I approached flames began to dance around her. I started to run towards my burning bride, to pull her away, to spare her from this fiery death, but I was too late, I was always too late.
The fires consumed her. I watched as she dropped to the ground, as her flesh melted away, as her bones turned black. I felt the crushing noose of failure wrap around my heart. I slumped to my knees. I had lived through this nightmare so many times before, and yet, each time felt like the first.
I looked up once more at the corpse, the flames had now subsided, and I could see my bride’s lifeless body lying on a patch of scorched earth. The face that I had once found so enticing was now just a smouldering skull, the hands that had once comforted me through my sorrows were now two decrepit husks.
Suddenly, the bones in her feet began to twitch, sending a shock-wave through her entire body. Then as if being hefted by invisible string, she rose from the ground. She stared back at me with hollow eye sockets. She stepped towards me.
I backed away in horror, slowly at first but then I broke into a run as her corpse drew ever nearer. I fled as fast as I could, but still she closed in on me. Her pace equaled my own, it was unfaltering, relentless. All I could do was run, and I ran until I was torn from my sleep, finding myself lying in my bed, drenched in cold sweat. The pounding of my heart was all I could hear, and darkness seared my retinas making it impossible to go back to sleep.
Strangulated by fear I got out of bed and stumbled into the hall. I did not bother lighting my path, instead I groped at the walls of the narrow corridor until I reached the staircase. The wooden steps shrieked beneath my feet as I went down them. I went into the study and lit a candle. With shaking hands, I poured myself a brandy. I sat there in the pale candlelight trying to subdue the terrors that lurked in my thoughts, but even that had been robbed from me. The rain outside pummeled the rafters and the wind roared with an unrelenting fury. The sound was so thunderous that it was as if the window had not been fully closed. Had I forgot to close the window the evening before? I went over to check, and drawing back the curtains, found a windowpane that shook violently in its frame but was closed. I looked out at the miserable view, I could just make out the tops of the nearby trees but beyond that everything was black. As my eyes continued to scan the shadowed horizon they were drawn to a reflection in the glass. It was the reflection of the candlelight behind me, although I knew that it was the very nature of flame to flicker, my heart still felt ill at ease.
I searched through my bookshelf, thumbing through the titles to find a book that might calm my nerves. In my attempts I happened to find the velvet ring box that I had hidden between two books long ago. It had been lost to me for so long but a part of me still knew that ring too well, still feared it, the memory of it was forever etched into my mind.
It all began with my older sister, this was the ring that was given to her on her engagement. I was twenty-five years old at the time, and my work had taken me to Salzburg. I had planned to arrive back in England just in time for the wedding. Whilst I was still in Austria, I received word that there had been a house fire in Greater London. On further inquiry I found out the fire had occurred in Blackheath, the location of my family home. I can remember those two days vividly, the worry, the torment, I could not eat, I could not sleep, I just waited for any news, but none came.
When I finally arrived back home it was to a crumbling ruin. As I feared the fire had consumed my family home. Both my mother and father had escaped the blaze unharmed, but my sister perished. From the little I could find out from my father; she had collected her wedding gown that day and had been so happy with it. The fire had started at night in her room from a stray ember from her fireplace. It then grew into a great inferno and by the time she awoke her room was a cage of flame that imprisoned her. Anything more than that I did not dare ask. The only thing we had left of her now was her ruby engagement ring that was found amongst the ashes of our home.
After my sister’s passing everything changed. My mother soon left this world of a fatal sickness, and my father in his grief, succumbed to madness, eventually taking his own life. For the first time in my life I was alone. Being the only living heir, I had inherited a large fortune, but all of these gains would forever be overshadowed by what I had lost. The years of mourning that followed were near unbearable and I was forever changed by them. I no longer found comfort in the company of people, their words, just whispers that mocked my suffering, their faces, shadows that terrorized my thoughts, so I shut them out. I moved into Elbery Estate, a house on the outskirts of Exeter. The brickwork had already begun to crumble, and the house was entombed by a thicket of weeping trees, but I had the isolation I craved. These dreary surroundings did little to ease my sorrows, but the seclusion made me numb, it was as if I had forgotten how to feel.
Then I met Victoria and in her I was reminded of my own humanity. She became my reason for existence, the only thing that mattered. We quickly set a date to be wed. I used my sister’s ring for the engagement, whether it was because of the blindness that infatuation brings or the vain notion that love conquers all I do not know, but that was the ring I chose. On the night before our wedding, when it was customary for brides and grooms to be separated, I arranged rooms for Victoria and her family at the local inn. On the morning of our wedding I awoke to find that, during the night the inn had caught fire and all those inside had perished. No warmth could chase away the coldness that took hold of my heart that day. My Victoria was no more, but the ring had survived, and once more found itself in my possession. That ring was a symbol of my own doom, I hated it, I wanted it gone, but fearing a curse was on it I kept the ring so that it could not harm anyone else ever again. I hid it away and forgot about it. Then the nightmares began; the visions of my Victoria, of the flames, and of the unholy creature she became, they all scraped through my mind until they became one. I could no longer look at the pictures of her the same as I once did. I could no longer think of her with the same affection, so I made myself forget. I destroyed everything that reminded me of her, erased her very existence. Only that accursed and indestructible ring remained.
The nightmare plagued my sleep for five nights in a row, but on the sixth, just as the burning bride closed in on me, I was ripped from my slumber by a creaking sound. I slowed my breathing and listened. There it was again. I was certain that someone was moving around in my house. Fleeting visions of the burning bride bearing down on me crashed through my thoughts and sent a shard of ice straight down my spine. I rolled out of bed making as much noise as I could in the hope it might scare off the intruders. I lit a candle and watched the flickering light illuminate the floorboards; my eyes followed the pale stream upwards until it withered into darkness. I took my antique revolver out of the drawer. “I have a pistol,” I shouted. I had never used it as anything more than a decoration before, it was not loaded, and I doubt it would work even if it was, but the intruder did not know that. In the hallway I lit a second candle and picked it up, carrying it in my free hand. I heard the sound of receding footsteps and a distant door slam that seemed to come from downstairs, so I slowly descended the staircase. I passed through the entrance hall into the kitchen. The room was empty. I was just about to leave and go into the dining room when I heard several loud footsteps behind me, I spun around and ran into the entrance hall. I got there just in time to see the front door violently slam shut. The intruder had gotten away, I, like in all of my nightmares, was too late.
I went over to the door, wrenching it open. I searched the horizon for any sign of movement, but I soon found myself gazing into the early dawn. It seemed peaceful, even the usually rampaging winds were nothing more than a gentle hum. The sun was just beginning to rise, its light casting aside the shades of night and adorning the distant meadows in veils of gold. I stood marveling at the sunrise, admiring all of its intricacies of colour, and as I watched, my heart grew warm.
Once the morning mists converged, I closed my front door. I checked in each of the rooms to make sure nothing had been taken before heading up to the study. I did not bother lighting a candle, instead I drew the curtains allowing bright sunlight to pour through the windows. It was only when I had mid-way through reading a chapter Don Quixote that I noticed the ring box was no longer on the mantelpiece. I went over and examined the dust covered shelf. I could see the imprint of where it had been but no ring. I turned to my bookshelf and rifled through all of my books but found nothing. In the end I ransacked my entire study but found no ring.
It was gone.
In the months that followed my sleep was unburdened by nightmare, it was as if I had been given a second chance at life. I took pleasure in the way the sky looked in the middle of the day, the way the sea embraced the shore. I went on morning walks, not to clear my head but for my own enjoyment and I found myself regularly wandering into the local towns and villages. I would spend entire days outside noticing the little things I would have usually passed by without giving them any thought. From time to time I would still be reminded of the ring by the sight of a bride on her wedding day, or by the shadows that sometimes crept into the edges of my vision. The curse of the ring no longer hung over me like it once did, but I knew that it was not gone, the ring was still out there somewhere. Part of me wanted to track down my burden, to once more sacrifice myself to the fires of hell so that nobody else would have to, but I was too weak, my reawakened voracity for life was too strong for me and I did nothing.
My resolve was challenged one day in early July when I happened to be at a market in Exeter. It was high summer, and the sun beat down on me, the sweat thick on my brow. People flooded the marketplace and it was becoming busier by the minute. Never being one for crowds I turned into an alleyway that was obscured by two houses. Because the passageway was shaded, the temperature dropped significantly, and I found it to be quite a welcome relief to walk up the cobble stone path. The alleyway seemed to be deserted so I decided to take my time passing through it. Part of the way through I glanced in one of the shop windows and I saw my lost ring. I froze where I stood. There was no doubt about it though, no question that this was that accursed ring. Images of the burning bride flooded back into my thoughts. “No,” I screamed, forcing my eyes shut. I rubbed them over and over again trying to scrape the images away. When I reopened my eyes, I did not look in that window again. I was too weak. I could have bought it there and then, I had more than enough money on my person, I could have stopped what was to come, but instead I just walked away.
The horrid realization of what I had done that day came to me on a cold morning in mid-September. I was wandering on the edge of the woodlands that bordered the Chambercombe Manor when I heard screams of pure agony. They seemed to be coming from the distant gypsy caravan parked along the lakeside. I rushed over to it. As I drew nearer, I noticed the terror-stricken faces of the people around me but what it was they saw I could not make out through the crowd. The cries were louder now. My imagination ran wild as I began to frantically push my way through. What I saw, what laid beside that lake was far worse than I could ever imagine. On a patch of scorched earth lay a woman, burnt from head to toe. The acrid smell of burning fat filled the air. Every covering of her flesh had melted away, she was just a blackened skeleton. I stared at the charred remains of the woman. I was motionless.
She had tried to drag her burning body to the lake, but the flames had been too strong for her. Then I saw it. On her hand was the ring, my ring. My blood turned to ice and each breath I took seemed to choke me further. Is this my punishment for trying to forget? Was I responsible for this? A million questions bombarded my thoughts. I felt myself detaching from all of those around me, from all of humanity. It was like a dagger had just pierced my chest. Then I saw a little girl come out of the crowd. She moved towards the body, kneeling down beside her she began to pray. As she left her side, she subtly slipped the ring from the corpse’s ashen finger. Nobody else noticed. Nobody else saw. Would they have even cared if they did? But they did not know what I knew.
I was rooted to the spot, my lungs, constricted. I said nothing. I did nothing. I just watched her slip into the crowd, and as she became lost to me my heart shattered into a million pieces…
It was here the writing deteriorated into scribbles that I could no longer make out.
I put the letter down, allowing myself to gather my thoughts. For a second, I almost believed that there was some truth to this tall tale. Things like that just did not happen in real life, I assured myself. It was just an intricate trick played by someone with too much time on his hands. I threw the letter in the fireplace and watched triumphantly as it became lost to flame. Now my attention turned to the box. If the letter had any credibility to it, I would find a ring inside. I placed my palm over the box and snapped it open. Inside, as I was promised, was a ring. I took the ring out of the box and held it up to the light. The dust on it was thick, I ran my forefinger around the band revealing a glistening gold band. I rubbed the center stone with my ring finger to find that it was a mesmerizing scarlet just like in the letter. This person must have gone to great lengths to maintain their game.
I shifted the ring around in my hand, eventually putting it on my little finger. It was not as if I was expecting anything to happen when I put it on but when nothing did, I could not help feeling a slight disappointment. I slung the box to one side and picked up the collection of Dostoevsky’s short stories that I had been reading the night before.
As I navigated my way through the pages, I found myself drifting slowly to sleep. Reading the letter had obviously reawakened my imagination, and whilst I slept, I dreamt the same nightmare that was described in the letter. I stood in a meadow facing an auburn-haired woman, she looked at me not with enticement but with malice. She began to charge towards me bursting into flame. Her skin blistered, and then her flesh started to peel away from her bones. I stood strong in the face of such illusion. I could see her dead tissue contracting, her blackened sinew pulsating, her hollow eye sockets bearing down on me. She passed straight through me and vanished into nothing. A wave of heat tore through my entire body, and I shuddered so violently that I awoke. I looked around me, my sitting room engulfed in flames.
About the Author
Liam Martin is a writer from Nottinghamshire in the United Kingdom. He has a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Derby and is currently studying a master’s degree in English Studies at the University of Nottingham.