by Bethany van Sterling
The late November night in the palace courtyard was like a still, empty ballroom. The towering Palacio Real glowed white and silver against the obsidian sky. Ramona looked up at its immense facade, studying the aged pillars and dozens of worn window shudders, some half open. The shudders creaked as the night breeze whistled through them.
Eduardo gently put his hand on Ramona’s shoulder, interrupting her fixation on the marvelous building. She started at his touch.
“It’s beautiful,” she commented, catching her wits.
The two of them strolled down the pathway of the Plaza de Oriente, the perfectly kempt gardens in front of the palace. Lined beside them were statues of the great Gothic kings of the Iberian Peninsula, standing in militant poses in their breaches and capes. Eduardo watched Ramona admiringly as she studied the faces of the men. She caught a second glance at a face that reminded her of someone she knew. They walked a few more steps, and Eduardo put his arm around her shoulder, hoping it would get her mind back on him.
Intrigued, Ramona looked up to the statues again. “Look at that one,” she remarked. “His nose is worn off.”
Eduardo looked up and squinted, studying it. “No it’s not.”
Ramona looked up at it again. A perfectly chiseled face of a man, nose and all, with the head of his victim in hand. She shook her head, feeling foolish. The cold air must be getting to her, she thought.
The nearby cathedral chimed twice. 2 AM. A young bicyclist swept past Ramona and her heart jumped. She paused for a moment, and they continued their path past the statues framing the gardens. Eduardo pulled her closer in his arms, feeling her shiver in the bitter autumn night.
Ramona kept her eyes fixed on the faces of the kings that were frozen in time. “Alonso the 5th,” she read on the platform, “year 1027.” His nose was gone. She blinked. Yes, definitely, not there. She traced her eyes down the cape of the statue and was caught by a woman sitting on the nearby bench.
“Look at that,” she whispered to Eduardo.
“She must be from the Festival de Almudena,” he joked.
The woman’s head was bowed, a traditional headscarf tied around her neck, sheltering her forehead. A white cotton dress adorned with tiny blue flowers hung over her slight figure, and a black shawl drooped at the creases of her elbows, in between which she held a book. The girl sat still, moving her head side to side reading, humming to herself as if in boredom.
Eduardo tugged Ramona’s arm and they both nearly moved on, but Ramona couldn’t help but fix her eyes on the bizarre figure. The girl’s bony fingers turned the page, and her head continued to move side to side. Ramona caught a glance of the pages. There were no words. The pages were empty, nothing more than blank white.
“Ramona,” Fiona called, entering the living room, throwing her coat on a chair after a day of work. Her roommate didn’t answer. “Ramona!” she said louder, approaching her from the side of the sofa. Ramona started, but refused to separate her gaze from the blank white wall next to her.
“Ramona,” her roommate repeated again. “What’s wrong with you today?”
Ramona glanced at Fiona, but said nothing, quickly turning her head towards the wall again.
Fiona approached Ramona slowly, fearful that her roommate had suffered a stroke or the like. She carefully extended her hand to touch Ramona’s shoulder.
“No!” Ramona shrieked, her clamorous voice setting Fiona aback. “It will push you,” she grumbled, barely audible.
“What?” Fiona asked. “What is wrong with you?” she demanded accusatorily.
Ramona looked at her roommate, and then back at the wall. She twitched a few times as her eyes dropped closed, and then she forced them open, suddenly jumping up from the sofa.
“Let me call a doctor—” Fiona began, but too late. Ramona had thrown on her coat and pushed her way out of the apartment door.
Ramona looked up at the towering mass, at the worn shudders swaying in the wind. She saw two skinny hands appear from the white lace curtains, and rip the shudders closed with a bang. Ramona held her breath. She turned around to the still gardens, hearing only the brush of the fountain below the horseman statue, mounted high in the middle of the trees.
Ramona approached the bench next to Alonso the 5th. It was empty. She looked up to the medieval king, his nose still missing. Before she could look away, the socket turned black, then crimson like fresh blood, dripping. Impossible. Ramona shook her head and looked again. Only solid white, spotless.
Ramona knew she had to leave, once and for all. She turned around, approaching the front of the gardens to bid adieu to the massive palace. She stepped forward, and a footstep echoed behind her. Shhhhump. Ramona stepped again. The noise continued to follow her, like a severed foot, the ankle dragging it just by a tendon. Shhhhhump. Ramona stopped in her tracks. Shhhhhump. Shhhhhump. The sound refused to stop now. Ramona held her breath and whipped herself around.
The mysterious girl’s head hung downward, with the same white scarf framing it. Slowly the head crept up, laboriously creaking. Two empty black holes transfixed Ramona. The nose, a cavity of bloodied red flesh. The mouth, lipless and drawn back like a snarling wolf to reveal yellowed blocks of tooth remnants. The corpse’s mouth struggled to open, and from it rang a shrill cry of pain that jangled through the vast, empty courtyard.
Choking for breath, Ramona blinked. Suddenly she saw a cream-skinned young woman, seated on the bench beside a young man. He was handsome under the black stubble of his face, dressed in a regal indigo overcoat and a white scarf at his neck. He leaned over the shoulder of the ingénue girl, reading the text aloud that she held in her hands. At the sight, a tide of joy filled Ramona with warmth in every limb, like the first time she had fallen in love as an adolescent.
The cathedral chimed, rumbling like a strike of thunder. Ramona turned around. A bride strode forward in front of the palace, her white beaded gown trailing behind her, arm in arm with the handsome man in his indigo overcoat. A young woman in a white cotton gown with blue flowers stood in the crowd, head bowed. She rose her head gravely. One eye was completely blackened, and her nose and lips purpled and crusted in blood. The warmth Ramona had felt drained to an eerie numbness. She held her hand to her brow bone, her head throbbing in pain as if from a blow. She felt the scabs split at the corners of her lips as her mouth dropped open in confusion. What was happening to her?
Ramona shook her head in disbelief. The still night returned, and nobody was present. She heard a deep heaving from behind her, and it quickly sped by her side. Ramona turned to her right, seeing a form in a white pristine nightgown next to the railing beside the palace. The gowned form climbed over the railing, and hesitated, watching the immense drop below her. A moment later, she dove. Thump. The body met the cobblestones.
Ramona caught her breath. She crept towards the railing, apprehensively. A deafening screech wailed behind her, reverberating like a siren. Ramona felt a force, like a fierce gust of wind, slam her against the railing. “It will push you!” the voice cried. “It will push you! Just like it pushed me!” it shrieked. Ramona held on for her life, feeling the force try to pull her over. She glimpsed down, between the bare tree branches on the cobblestones below. There the body lay, blood oozing out from beneath the pristine white nightgown.
Ramona bolted from the palace courtyard, down the promenade of Calle Bailen, passing the Catedral de la Almudena that smoldered like fire and ice beside the streetlights. Its lofty steeples, stately and proud, suddenly menaced her, as if they were three jagged harpoons determined to impale her. Nausea crept up Ramona’s stomach with each of her movements, like a virgin drinking for the first time, the body untouched and vulnerable to the acidic delight of wine. Ramona stumbled and slowed her pace from the sensation. The sickness seemed to claw at every muscle, but she couldn’t get herself to flinch, remaining expressionless like a dying bird hiding every stab of pain as its organs collapsed one by one. Ramona forced herself to break out of the paralysis, and ran, and ran, trying to escape the demon that refused to abandon her from within.
Ramona slammed the door behind her, pausing to catch her breath. She looked around. The apartment was empty. Her heart jumped as her cell phone vibrated and rang loudly on the kitchen table, where she had left it. She looked at it. Eduardo. Ten missed calls. Ramona took the wailing phone, ran to the window and tore it open, lancing the still-ringing phone out the window. It slammed against the pavement and with a crack, split into a dozen pieces. A massive wind pushed against her back, forcing half of her body to hang out the window. “It will push you!” she heard again from behind her. She screamed and threw the window closed with all her might. Ramona finally managed to reach the sofa, and sat to collect her breath, staring at the empty white wall beside her.
“Look at that,” Erin commented. She took one look into her guidebook, and then up to the majestic palace glowing in silver and white. “It’s beautiful.”
Ben bent over her shoulder to look at the open page in the guidebook. “Let’s see,” Erin continued. “Here it gives the history.” Her finger brushed over the page. “Legend has it,” she began reading, “That a tragedy took place among the late 19th century royal family. It is said that a duke of the family, Frederico, forged a clandestine love affair with Estrella, the palace’s young maid, a beautiful albeit illiterate orphan from the Castilian countryside. According to the family’s arrangement, Frederico soon wed a duchess, and upon discovery of his liaison with Estrella, the young maid succumbed to mistreatment and isolation in the cellar of the royal palace. It is said that weeks after Frederico’s marriage, she committed suicide in the palace gardens. Evidence of this extraordinary legend, however, is dubious.”
“Huh,” Ben said with a chuckle. “Bizarre Spanish folklore, eh?”
He took Erin’s hand for a stroll around the gardens of the Plaza de Oriente, passing the regal statues of yore. “Alonso the 5th,” Erin read from one of the statues. “Oh, look at that,” she whispered to Ben, nodding towards a figure in a traditional headscarf and dress, sitting on the bench next to the statue, bent over reading.
“Must be from one of those Madrid festivals,” he commented with a laugh.
The two strolled on. The reader’s head creaked up, and a shriek howled through the ballroom of the palace courtyard.
A writer of historical and paranormal fiction, Bethany van Sterling is also a language teacher and performing artist residing in Madrid, Spain. She adores good wine, animals, and the many dark and bright corners of the city. Her novellas are available through Amazon and Smashwords. Connect with her on Twitter at @BethVanSterling or [email protected].