White lilies only grow in the snow
Updated: Jan 29
Q: What if you’re in the wrong multiverse?
This story was written as a collaboration with Journal d'Ambroisie, an online youth publication 'born out of a vision to create a space for free expression of the greatest thoughts by the leading youth of our generation. It is made up of a collective of young writers wanting to express themselves.' Written by Anja Radonjic, one of the featured writers.
Chapter one – Departures
Before the robins began to sing, and ruptured the solitude of dawn, I collapsed to my knees and sobbed. All my existence fitted within the walls of this room; in each scrap of wallpaper, in each pore of the mold on the ceiling. This room was my tomb.
Unwashed cups. The mountain chain my sister Thea painted across four walls. My teddy bear. Blue ribbons for excellence. Excel in all, the motto of our family. The white jumper Father wore, bequeathed to me. Mother’s emerald ring given for her service to the Blessed Commonwealth. Broken pens. Rubik’s cube from a century ago. Glossy photographs. Photographs of people I barely knew. My collection of porcelain butterflies. This room is mine. My tears, my dreams, my desires and nightmares – they drenched these walls and everything within. Yet, today, it will all belong to Kai.
No one knows when the Rekindling of Souls first happened. In our history lessons we learned of fallen empires, of restored peace, how one soul from this world was first found by the soul of another. When an Earthling, like me, was forever changed by an Altri.
No one knows how the Altri travel to this world, through which weak Earthly membrane they penetrate. Meeting your very own Altri, your kindred spirit, you from the other world – it’s an honour. My parents never found theirs. Kai restored my Father’s pride, our standing in the Blessed Commonwealth. They say a love for an Altri is a different bond than any other; a connection stronger than kinship, apart from the one between a mother and a child. Yet when we met for the first time, on the green field behind the Academy, I did not recognise myself in Kai. Kai’s cat-like eyes, green like pine trees, consumed me, so proud to have found me. Kai’s long fingers interlaced with mine – I wondered whether I’d been caught in a web or a cocoon. Was I Kai’s to take, or were they mine?
The days that followed were lost in the never-ending moonlit nights. Festivities, dinners, our first dance of the Rekindling, that felt like a return to the womb, something so innately familiar, yet terrifyingly unknown. Kai and I spoke for hours. We counted each others birthmarks – exactly 39 each. We studied each other’s faces, places where the skin broke and mended itself, like a scientist meticulously studying microscopic creatures. Kai told me of the Altri’s world, a reflection of our own – where each decision ever made, was the opposite. For every good thought an Earthling had, an Altri had a malicious one. For every poor choice an Earthling makes, an Altri makes their world a better place. I heard in History that our Ancestors called it the ying and yang.
The word spread quickly amongst our neighbours and soon our house was filled with their endless yapping. Everyone had a question for Kai, perhaps secretly hoping Kai would take them to the Altri. Kai’s storytelling kept them all at the edge of their seats, their eyes glued to every one of Kai’s hand gestures. I was meant to be grateful for such a wise and charismatic Altri to take my place, to give our family a better chance to prosper in the Blessed Commonwealth.
And I did adore Kai in those days. I wanted to kiss each freckle on their face and when Kai held my face between the palms of their hands, so gently, so carefully – I felt I was in the Ancient Heavens.
Then a date had to be arranged, for the Departures to take place. The custom between Earthlings and Altri demands - at the agreement of both souls - that each shall cross over to the other’s world, keeping the worlds forever in equilibrium. Eternal peace between the worlds but perpetual regret within me. I didn’t want to leave Thea, the Black Forest, or the Academy. I thought perhaps Kai would keep Father’s smile and Mother’s soft humming last a bit longer. Our family might not find happiness but at least I wanted them to be content.
That was ten years ago now, when we arranged to meet on the first day of Spring, for the Departures. Kai gifted me a porcelain butterfly with the electric blue wings before he left. The first one of my collection that I carefully treasured. A welcome present from Kai to the Earthlings.
Since then, I had not heard a word from Kai, not a glimpse in a dream, not a whisper in the wind for a decade. Mother and Father counted off the days to Kai’s arrival so desperately. After Thea died, I disappeared for days into the Black Forest and each of my returns left them unfazed, as if I was a stray neighbourhood cat that required occasional feeding.
Until today. I arranged the little trinkets on the desk in a perfect line. I cleared the drawers of my things. These were the relics of my existence. I wanted Kai to be reminded of me by each little item, although I wondered what they would feel. I grinned thinking they would never have Thea, the only confidante, who was solely mine. And now the robins wake. The blackbirds follow, singing a melody that I’ve known since birth. I say goodbye to all that I am, to all I grew up to be. I did not want to find out whether I could continue my studies of The Ancients in the Altri’s Academy. Certainly, maybe greater things awaited there - maybe Kai’s parents would love me more. Maybe I could start growing the white lilies Thea kept pressed in her books. My breathing eased with the thoughts of another world, where I am not a replica of another, where I stand on my own. But I take another look at this room, and I feel myself unable to move, unwilling to ever leave the only thing I’ve ever known.
There are things far worse than death; why do I have to give myself up, only to face uncertainty? I struggled to believe the stories of grand destinies, of duties, and legacies – it was unbearable to think, just tomorrow, I would have to be formed anew. What if Kai had changed their mind? What if I refused and simply stayed?
Chapter two – Morning dew
Dear Laila-Sol, this is your last letter from me… I scribble down quickly, hoping she doesn’t arrive before I finish. My usually neat handwriting deserts me and the words on the page are pushed against one another. I worry she will find this an illegible mess, an utter disappointment. I flick through the already filled notebook of my letters; ten years’ worth of stories, apologies and explanations. I fear she will toss it as soon as she enters the Altri world and never understand.
I realise my coat is soaking and my fingers feel like icicles. Maybe it’s better that I’m dead before she comes to meet me. We’ve chosen the field behind the Academy, where I first saw her. A sudden wave of nausea hits me. I think about everything I need to atone for. For ten years of silence. For a world she is about to inherit. It’s all my fault.
As I write this, I struggle to find a word to express how deeply sorry I am for the hurt I’m about to cause you…my writing becomes even more indecipherable as I walk quickly back and forth between the meeting spot and the nearby pond, the one with the water lilies. I tried to imagine what Laila-Sol’s last few years must have been like: did she enjoy walking around this pond with Thea? Maybe she secretly met up with someone she fancied right here? Imagining her life was my favourite pastime, musing on her infinite possibilities, like a kaleidoscope. The choices that were going to be ruthlessly snatched away.
I plucked a little lily and placed a petal inside one of the pages. Laila-Sol was so cheerful and confident when we first met, the loudest and tallest of them all. I was mesmerised by how everyone followed her, like little ducklings following their mother. The day we met behind the Academy I sensed her presence before I even saw her. I had this overwhelming feeling, a sense of nervousness that felt like a thousand butterflies inside me. I’ve heard Earthlings call this ‘having butterflies’ and they were right. Only Laila-Sol could set them free. I shake thinking my salvation was going to be her demise.
Ever since we were children, the Altri instilled in us the belief that secrets were our only weapon, our only way to be more powerful than the Earthlings. Silence was our vow to the Altri Supreme, our leader. A vow that was inscribed in all our houses and schools in thin silver letters as a constant reminder. Poor Earthlings. They always thought that the Rekindling of Souls meant they were our equals, that their world could prosper alongside ours. No Altri had ever told them how to cross over on their own, how to find us – although they would be more than capable of doing so. Even the Altris who decided to stay in the world of the Earthlings, having fallen in love and adopted their ways, only answered to the Altri Supreme.
Finding Laila-Sol was no accident. I was sent to find her. I knew she existed, like we all know our soul mates exist amongst the Earthlings. Altris rarely wished to cross over to meet their soul mates as we did not wish our fate upon unsuspecting Earthlings. However, every few decades, an Altri would have had enough of the suffering and cross over to meet their own counterpart in the Earthling’s world. They would be looked down upon for their selfishness but I understood them. Our lives were bleak like the thick morning mist, all consuming and suffocating.
Only a rare few were actually requested to go and find their other half. And this only happened when our Earthling soul was a woman. It was the job of the Altri Council to send people like me to find the Earthling women and bring them back to our world. Women in the Altri world were the sole source of our power – they were our workers, our mothers, teachers, healers and chiefs. The Altri world only existed as long as there were women. Their exhaustion leads to the Final Sacrifice, when the Altri Supreme takes them forever. Commonly, most women reach this point by their 35th solar year, depending on how you counted it. My mother was gone by her 32nd while my aunt lasted until her 37th solar year. Now, there were no other women left in our family. My father and I had no purpose without our women. That is why I was sent to find Laila-Sol. She was to take my place within my family and ensure its place in society. Last night, I tried to resist and save us both.
The wound on my knee began to bleed again. I watched as the small red dot quickly spread into a circle. I ended up with just a scratch though, I chuckle softly as I scribble that down, knowing Laila-Sol might be concerned when seeing it. The Altri Council knew I was unwilling to give her up, ever since I returned to the Altri ten years ago and said I couldn’t find her. I lied for the first time in my life. Punishment for lying was cleansing of the mouth with soap and the whipping of the hands (the Altri believed lying led to stealing). They washed my mouth out over and over again. I still wince at the smell of lavender, the soap they used. Last night I lied again (it was easier the second time round) and I said our meeting was at dusk and not dawn. The Altri Council laughed with delight. They pulled up a chair with straps and told me to sit still. I kicked in the seat a few times, as the straps around my knees stopped the circulation in the body. ‘Pins and needles’, what a funny way to describe the utter terror of losing the feeling of your own body. Now I know they are watching us. They expect to have Laila-Sol as soon as she arrives.
I felt weak. My resolve was being beaten out of me. Was I foolish to even think that I could save Laila-Sol? I knew my destiny had been mapped out by the Altri; I was to follow the same path as those who had walked before me. But why couldn’t I take a different path? Was it futile to resist? Did I even have a choice? What was I to do?
Chapter three – The Final Rekindling
Trigger warning: some scenes may be disturbing
They can’t get her, they won’t get her, Kai whispered softly. How far was it to the pond? Could they outrun the soldiers? Please let her not come, let her stand me up. Maybe a prayer would save them both, but Kai didn’t know who to pray to. The best he could do was to grab her hand and tell her to follow him as soon as she turned up.
In the very moment their eyes met again, it was difficult to determine whether they’d run into an embrace or attack one another. Kai shivered, so tall and lean, like a reed in the wind. Laila-Sol slowly approached, each step heavier and more hesitant than the one before.
It’s been a while
I’ve missed you
Let me explain
Please, I wish…
Not a single word from you
For over a decade
Did you think I chose that?
Well, even soulmates
Can be strangers, right?
Kai desperately searched for the words, anything that could be used to pacify Laila-Sol’s anger. He was trapped, Altri soldiers would be growing impatient with every minute he spent with her; Laila-Sol on the other hand wanted all the time in the world to make up for the past. There was nothing for it but to grab her hand and run towards the pond. There, he dropped it as if her hand was on fire and then fell to the ground. They were safe for now and he had so much to say.
Let me show you...
What’s going on?
Your knee is bleeding
It’s just a scratch
Scratches don’t look like
A bloody full moon
What’s going on?
I thought of you
Every day, every day I wrote
All I thought of, and feared
All my hopes for you
There was silence. Neither knew quite what to say next.
Kai, do you know loneliness?
In the world of Altri, is it different from being alone?
Thea died, Kai
Oh, Laila-Sol, I’m so
There was no one, only
The leaves of the Black Forest
Its shade, the wet moss, and the sounds
Of the robins and woodpeckers. I wish the word sorry
Could take away your grief.
Kai, look at me.
Should I be worried,
I’m fine. Don’t waste your
energy, don't waste your love.
Tell me the truth.
Laila-Sol, we do not have much...
time. I know.
Just tell me what’s going on?
Kai knew the time had come. Time to make his choice. Time to take a different path.
You are a sacrifice, Laila-Sol.
Altri’s source of power;
Energy, and lifeblood.
Our world is built
On Earthling women like you.
I mean, we are both sacrifices, right?
Plucked from our lives
For the balance – for peace.
My love, it’s all a ruse
The Altri have little care for
Earthlings are simply
A valuable commodity.
I don’t understand. What does it mean?
For me? For you? For us?
Silence. Neither speak. Kai put his head in his hands and started crying uncontrollably. He was surprised the Altri soldiers had not taken him away yet, maybe they knew how futile it would be to run - at least he got to tell her the truth. What followed would be her choice, a shot at making her own destiny.
Laila-Sol stood up and stared at an oak tree that loomed over the Academy, its branches dancing frantically in the wind. There was to be no studying of the Ancients in the world of Altri. There was to be no loving parents. Stuck between two worlds, neither made for her. Funny how dreams can collapse in a second like a house of cards.
It began to snow. It was the first day of spring and the last snowfall of the season – a moment when beginnings and endings meet.
You know, this isn’t snow
What do you mean?
It’s sleet, or skift
Which turns to grue
We have so many words to say
The same thing – an ending.
There’s only one type of
snow in the Altri world.
All of our flowers grow from it;
White lilies are the first
So we always hope for snow.
Lilies growing in snow. How odd.
Well, you have lilies growing in
They grew closer now, to keep warm as the snowflakes surrounded them, painting the green field behind the Academy white. Laila-Sol wrapped herself in Kai’s arms, like the first time. His arms were her safe haven from the storm. She gently played with Kai’s hair, studying his face all over again. The Earthlings never cared for her and the Altri’s promises were all a lie. She slowly exhaled with relief. There was no need to have expectations from either world and she no longer needed to comply. Laila-Sol smiled, knowing where she finally belonged - her universe was right here, clutching onto her with his long, clumsy arms. Her world of endless possibilities, of exploring the places beyond the Earthlings and Altri, began with Kai.
Kai, what would happen
If I didn’t go? My love, they are already here,
Lurking in the shadows of the trees
But what if I refused?
You could run,
But they would outrun us.
Like light and sound,
Light is forever quicker.
And if you refused?
I would have worse trouble than this
Her eyes smiled at Kai. She pulled out a steel letter opener from her bag and placed it in his trembling hands.
We’ve followed blindly
For too long.
I want to go beyond those fields Laila-Sol…
I won’t do it.
Haven't I hurt you enough?
But we don’t belong here;
We’ll win if they don’t have our lives.
There are so many worlds to explore.
I can’t wait to see them.
I’m not ready to say goodbye again.
Come with me.
You owe me freedom
Let me be free from them all.
And once it’s done,
Kai knew he owed it to Laila-Sol. For dragging her into this and for failing to get here out of it. She hugged him and began to rock him gently.
You know Kai, I am so grateful you found me. Despite everything. I can’t wait to roam the other worlds, to have the ability to choose my own path. A tabula rasa of my own life.
It happened in an instant. Laila-Sol’s blood quickly mixed with the grue, feeding into the dark soil underneath. Kai wailed. Birds flew out of the trees. Altri soldiers appeared next to him before he even dropped the letter opener. He tried to crawl away from their tight clutch, from the shower of beatings that followed. The bruises slowly closed his eyes and blurred his vision. Last thing he remembered seeing was Laila-Sol’s smile, her motionless body like a marble statue – beautiful and serene. The Altri soldiers picked up the heavy bodies to carry them back with them. Before they found an entry to the world of Altri, one soldier looked over at them, only to see that Kai’s last stroke of life was to grab Laila-Sol’s hand.
Somewhere in Laila-Sol’s bag, the ground-keeper of the Academy will eventually find Kai’s notebook. By the time he finishes Kai’s story, his whole world will fall apart. All of his beliefs will be destroyed. Everyone amongst the Earthlings will soon read their story and find out what really happened on the first day of spring. The Earthlings will rally their men and women and wage another final war against the Altri.
Meanwhile, Kai and Laila-Sol exist outside of the Earthlings’ and Altri’s destruction. They become the particles of the morning dawn and the evening dusk; the particles of light’s reflection in the river stream. Together, in all that brought them happiness. Together, they exist in the petals of the white lilies that only grow in the snow.
📷: Annie Spratt