Golda Grais (Media Arts, ‘20)
The morning was gray. Trees swayed on the cliffs surrounding the beach, skinny and
malnourished. Their needles were frosted, branches gnarled, and points reaching high
into the sky. Air, on the brink of winter and bitter with salt from the sea, sliced into
our skin like ice cold knives. The coarse sand swirled lazily, brushing up against our
heels. The ocean was silent, but no less turbulent as waves capped in gray foam crashed
against the shores, lapping up to the tips of our feet.
We stood, shrouded in black ceremonial hoods. Each man was the same under the veil
of cloth, their faces faded behind deep shadows. The thick fabric wavered softly in the
wind, which lifted the cloaks to nip bitterly at our ankles. My skin prickled with every
gust of wind.
Heulwen, my older sister, lay stiffly positioned within her coffin, which was whittled from
dark wood, carved with leafy vines, illustrious, fruit bearing branches, and thorny roses,
and lined in sumptuous velvet stained in tears. My father and the village leaders carried
it mounted on their shoulders, emotionless, the muscles in their arms straining as they
hoisted it along. They carefully lifted it above their heads and placed in on the damp,
stony sand. My sister lay for all to see; cold, sullen, and lifeless. Looking down at her was
like meeting a stranger.
I longed for Heulwen’s former vibrancy. I tried in vain to scrap together the remnants of
my memories shared with her, of how her green eyes sparkled even at night and that
her sparkling laugh could be heard from the other side of the village. That she was free
like a sprite, well liked by all, and shone like the sun at the peak of morning. She seemed
so unlike herself now, dressed in a simple white shift instead of her colorful pinafores,
her hair intricately braided in coils against her scalp instead of flowing down her back.
The village elders began their prayers as they placed rocks into the casket. Their words
jumbled in my ears, and I played with the fabric of my cloak. A drying, fiery sensation
spread up my throat and my eyes dampened. I looked at my father, and his face was
stoic. The muscles in his neck and face were strained. First he had lost his wife, and now
his eldest daughter. He would have to wait for me to come of age before he could join
our family’s bloodline with another’s.
When the chanting voices faded and the prayers ended, we had to give our gifts to
Heulwen. Father went first, placing my mother’s small silver ring into her coffin. Next was
my younger brother, who put in a small bundle of barley and rigid white gull feathers.
Then it was my turn. I slowly crept towards the coffin and looked down at Heulwen. She
looked asleep, her long eyelashes fluttering gently against her cheeks. The flush and
welts of disease were gone from her skin, now covered in a thin veil of white powder.
Her cheeks and lips were stained with fruit pulp to bring the color back to them, the
edges of her mouth pulled down slightly. The rocks surrounded her, pinning the rough
fabric of her shift against her thighs. The wind played with my hood, brushing it back
farther from my hairline, letting small pieces of blonde hair dance around my face. I
placed my gift, a pine bough bundled with wildflowers, onto her chest.
Suddenly, I saw her eyelids flutter. I stumbled back into my father’s arms. When I
whispered to him what I had seen, he held me, telling me that Heulwen was at rest.
I released, crying into his chest, the fabric of his cloak soaking up my tears. I missed
Heulwen. I wanted her to smile, to dance with me when it stormed. I wanted my older
sister to hold me when I didn’t know what to say, to pick wildflowers with me, to prepare
the night’s roast just the way I liked. And now she was lifeless, cold and foreign in the
A village leader came forth with the lid to her coffin, solemn and stern. My father’s voice
lead the burial chant, the same song he had sung for his wife years ago. My younger
brother’s voice joined in, wavering. My lips moved along, but I was unable to bring sound
from them. The noise ripped into my skull, and I buried myself into my hood, trembling.
The lid was placed on the coffin. The elders came to the edges of the coffin with their
mallets and stakes. They pounded the stakes into the corners, sealing Heulwen inside
the wooden box. They hammered in unison, each strike sending a chill up my spine. The
elders retreated, and the coffin lied on the sand, the waves lapping at its base. My father,
my younger brother, and I approached it. I ran my fingers over the intricate carvings of
leaves and flowers on the lid of the box.
I heard a muffled noise from within the casket. It was Heulwen’s voice, the same voice
that had sung me to sleep when the howling wolves were too much for me to bear,
the voice that had scolded me when I broke a piece of pottery. I stifled my scream and
looked in panic at my father, whose eyes were trained on a gull, soaring majestically
over the trees, letting out a lonesome, suppressed call. The waves crashed onto the
shores more bitterly than before.
The sealed casket was hoisted again onto the shoulders of the leaders and my father.
They struggled with the added weight and began to wade into the thrashing sea, their
steps heavy and slow. My younger brother and I followed a few paces behind. The frosty
water began to work its way up my cloak, freezing my hips. My toes gripped into the
spongy ocean floor, my teeth chattering.
The casket carriers were chest deep in the water as they approached the abyss that
dropped off a short distance from the shoreline. They struggled to lift the box above
their heads as the water pushed into them, coating their lips in salt. They heaved the
coffin over the edge of the abyss, sending Heulwen deep into the depths of the sea.
I cried out and surged forward, breaking free of my father’s grasp and struggling through
the crashing waves. The hammering in my head drowned me in noise as I dove down
after the casket, after Heulwen. The last thing I heard before the silence was my father
screaming my name and the thundering waves.
The water filled my ears as I pushed down into it. It was silent, eerie, the water a murky
green beneath the surface. The salt flooded my eyes as I continued, stinging them. My
head and heart were pounding in tandem, heaving against the suffocating loss of air.
My hand touched something hard and smooth. I opened my eyes and saw the casket
before me, glimmering. I reached out to touch it again, my fingers grazing the carvings.
I felt a fiery sensation in my chest, and black spots creeped along in the water in front
Then, the wood shattered beneath my fingertips, sending splinters hurling in all
directions. Heulwen rose in front of me. Her shift floated through the water, her hair fell
from its braids and clouded about her face. She was celestial against the gray of the sea,
a stream of light from the surface illuminating her. She held my bouquet in her hands,
the petals dancing through the water. I gasped, water clogging my throat.
Her image began to fog at the edges. I reached out for her. The eagle feathers my
younger brother had given her swirled about and formed wings on her back, sending
her floating up to the surface while I sank into the murky depths. She was out of my
reach before I could touch her, and my vision muddled to black.