For a Moment, a Bride

This story comes from a place much closer to home than my previous one and is one that has always captured my imagination. I’m not usually one for ghost stories, but there’s something special about the ghosts in your back yard. Below is a short story about the Ghost Bride that resides in the Banff Springs Hotel. Cover image courtesy of: all other photographs were taken by yours truly.

Wispy clouds shroud the peak of Mount Rundle, creating a veil over the mountain’s cliff face. The scene is framed beautifully in the large, arched picture windows of the ballroom. Snow dusts the stonework and sparkles like diamonds in the noon day sun. White clouds, white snow, white dress.

I can hear the guests settling and the important players getting into position. Today has been orchestrated down to the last dust mote and we all move about like clockwork dancers. Standing still in front of the frosted glass, I allow my mind to go blank as my maid of honor adjusts a seam here, settles a pleat there. Last to donn is the veil.

She has been nattering away to me for the past twenty minutes, but I tuned her out after the third time she mentioned the correct pace at which to walk down the aisle. 

“Not too fast, savor the moment, dear, but not too slow, we don’t want Aunt Daphne falling asleep”

Sage piece of advice, although one only requiring a single mention. 

Breathe in, breathe out

If only this second, this day, this feeling could last forever.

I shut my eyes as though to capture the moment; to place it in a snow globe where the only thing to change is the way the little snowflakes fall. The window of the castle becomes the glass dome and I see myself, now tiny and static, in the hands of a little girl. My white dress shines through the little window as she shakes the scene again and again. Snowflakes drift around the turrets and land peacefully in the grounds. She could place me on her nightstand and I would look out of the castle window forever. But already I can feel the seconds ticking by. Sand in an unforgiving hourglass. My traitorous heart counting down life’s beats.

The veil is lifted and settles around my shoulders. I glimpse my reflection in the glass. A pale, ghostly reflection of the girl I will never be again. The sheer, delicate fabric floats down over my face. Now the mountain and I have something in common.

Such a simple garment, an ephemeral piece of fabric. Yet it marks a divide. The next time it is lifted, I shall have a different name. A different identity. Wife. No longer a Miss but a Ms. Somehow I expected the veil to be heavier because of this, but it is as light as gossamer. It floats about me like Rundle’s cloud. 

Finally, and all too soon, I am ready. The women in my orbit now step into formation. In single file, they pass beneath the crystal chandelier- did they not pause to look up even once?– to the top of the marble staircase.

Candlelight flickers and casts warm shadows on the wall as the ladies descend. For a moment, I am convinced the cheery light belongs to tiny fairies lining the edge of the smooth marble steps. Members of the Seelie Court awaiting their Queen to descend and marry their King. 

I take a few more steps to the top of the staircase and feel a snag. My train, much longer than I had requested, caught for a moment on an uneven section of floor. A tug and it is free, another moment comes and goes too quickly.

One step, then another. 

I see my father waiting for me at the base of the stairs. His face, aglow with candlelight and pride, shines like a lighthouse on a dark night. He will guide me to the harbour of my husband. Husband. How strange that word sounds in my ears now. I suppose soon it will sound as common as a sigh.

Left foot, right foot.

I feel the fabric of my gown slide down each step just a moment behind my footfalls. A pure white shadow keeping pace. The music floats towards me from the room below, and I feel the strings reverberate in my heart. 

Suddenly, the light from the candles is all too much. I can feel their heat intensify. Their warm glow becomes an oppressive inferno. All at once the moments speed up and rush past me out of control.

My father’s face contorts in horror. He races to reach me, but is running through molasses. My bridesmaids turn and shriek, but can do nothing more than stare. Their eyes wide, flames reflected within. I have become a being of light. Pain licks up my limbs. My train, a phoenix’s tail.

I claw at the dress to rip myself free. Charred lace and silk comes off in my hands, but still I am bound within this nightmare chrysalis. The steps beneath my feet rearrange and disappear from where I had left them. I feel myself teeter, my arms flail for purchase as I stumble blindly into the void. The veil ignites next and my vision becomes a kaleidoscope of searing, flickering light.

Then I am falling, tumbling, crashing to the cold marble below. A fallen star snuffed out. I don’t recall landing. I don’t recall who extinguished the fire. I don’t even recall if I concluded my life’s story with a final word, or where exactly my last breath fell. But I do remember, all at once, the pain stopped. My breath stopped. Everything just… stopped.

Now, my dress shines the purest white. Forever perfect, untouched by the ravages of time. My train never catches on uneven sections of floor. I have the leisure to look up and admire the crystal chandelier for as long as I wish. For time is all I have. I peer out of my snow globe and watch the snowflakes fall in different patterns around me; watch the people scurry to and fro in different patterns around me; watch the sun rise and set and the moon follow suit around me. My moment is frozen, now and forever. On the edge of Miss and Ms. My veil is ever-unlifted. As unchanging as the mountain my window overlooks; something else we have in common.

I’ve watched a century’s worth of brides become wives within these walls. Some even descend my staircase. There is a handrail now, and most will avoid using open flames. I expect I’ll be here to watch a century’s more walk down the aisle. The least I can do is smooth their trains and settle their veils; I try not to take it personally when they shudder at my touch. Since the flames, I’ve not been able to warm myself. If I’m feeling bold, I will walk beside them a ways. I see their brows furrow and some turn sharply if I hover too near. I don’t mean to unnerve them on their special day, but a bit of unease might make them cautious. Accidents happen. And I know I would have liked someone beside me at the end. I never walk them to their groom. I do not even stay to watch as he turns to greet her. For that is their journey to make, not mine.

Pictures taken by me on November 11, 2020 during one of many visits to the Banff Springs Hotel

An Ocean Throne

This short story was inspired by the song Anne Bonny by Karliene and the subsequent research I did about the Villainous, Infamous, Pirate Queen. For those who don’t know, Anne Bonny is one of the most famous female pirates of all time. Her brutal final words to her lover are what drew me to her story. I wanted to play with that final moment and this was the result. I took some artistic liberties, but for the most part the events are as they were reported to have happened. Enjoy!

The light sea breeze brushed a tendril of auburn hair from her face and danced in the sails. An old nursemaid caressing the cheek of a beloved ward. Anne smiled and reveled in the sensation. The wind was laced with the brine of distant seas. The smell was ingrained in her being like the salt water that thrummed through her veins in blood’s stead. 

Sparkling like jewels more brilliant than any her crew had seized, the morning sunlight coruscated from the ruffled surface of the ocean. The soft sound of waves lapping against the hull of the William more familiar to her than her own heartbeat. A lone gull heralded the dawn somewhere off the Jamaican coast.

Anne stood at the helm, hand resting idly on the wheel, surveying the sea. Her home, her realm, her Queendom. A throne not passively won, and not easily kept. Her crown, a more practical tricorne hat, perched atop her flaming locks that cascaded free and defiant down her back. There had been a time when she had hidden her hair and bound her chest. Women could not be pirates, afterall. But a Queen could change the rules, so a Queen she had become.

The deck was still. Her men were sleeping off a night of drink below. Their recent haul yet another excuse to fill then promptly empty the rum stores. An ebb and flow as inevitable as the tides themselves.

A creak and the sound of soft footfalls brought her from her reverie. Mary Read, a Queen in her own right, had risen early. She too had avoided the deep cups the men had been so eager to fill the night before. 

Anne watched Mary make her way up the steps from the deck below. The women acknowledged each other with a slight nod of the head. Mary had long since replaced Jack as Anne’s right hand man. Not that Jack had noticed his demotion. The two stood silently looking out, not to shore, but out to the horizon.

Anne felt the life within her stir and placed a hand to her swollen belly. Mary looked at her and smiled. “Let’s hope she’s a fighter,” she said softly.

“Aye,” Anne agreed. “Lord knows the world has enough pretty fools.”

Silence settled around them again.

“The men should be up by now,” Mary observed dryly.

“They should,” Anne said. “And more’s their sorrow the longer they’re not.”

The sun flashed brightly as it rose higher above the horizon. Anne lifted a palm to shield her eyes. Momentarily blinded, she blinked and lowered her hand. As if by magic, the mast of a lone sloop now emerged from the light; it rounded the point and entered the bay. Bow aimed like an arrow towards the William. In one fluid motion, Anne swept the spyglass from her belt and peered at the apparition.  

The sloop silently slipped towards their ship. Encircled in a brass frame, Anne saw a crew of uniformed officials running about the deck, a man she recognized as Captain Jonathan Barnet shouted orders from the helm. 

Her eyes returned to her own ship and she looked about the empty deck. Her mind flew to the cots of drunken pirates below. As one, the two women split and ran down the steps on either side of the wheel, shouting all the while. 

“Up! Up! Ye squiffy dogs!”

“Sail, ho!”

“All hands! All hands on deck!”

The sounds from below were sudden but slow.

Too slow, Anne thought bitterly. She and Mary shared a knowing look and rushed to retrieve swords and pistols. Their anchor was tucked in the ocean floor below like a child in its cradle, the sails hung limply in the still air. The men moved like wax dripping down a tallow candle. Some half dressed, most with rum on their breath. 

And still the sloop sailed closer.

“Damn it,” Mary cursed, loading her pistol with shaking hands. 

In the calm before the storm, the two women clasped hands. Half a handful of men blundered about them, struggling to get to their positions. From the corner of her eye, Anne saw Jack, her Jack, the infamous Calico Jack, trip over a lead line and vomit bodily over the side. 

Then the storm hit.

Anne lost Mary’s hand in the sudden crash of metal on wood. Masts splintered, sails ripped and were torn free of their eyelets and rigging. The William was at the mercy of the sloop’s cannon fire, while its own cannons sat useless. Screams and groans filled her ears. The sharp scent of gunpowder stung her nostrils. She felt the polished wood pommel of her pistol, warm as though alive in her palm, and fired. Satisfied briefly as a body fell at the end of her shot, she dove for cover to reload.

Anne and Mary fought like two edges of the same blade. A lone sword in the ambush. They stood as their ship’s last defence, and held their ground viciously. Though it felt like an eternity, the battle was fought and lost in a matter of minutes. Anne only dropped her weapon when cold steel touched her throat. Warm blood trickled from cheek to chin. Her lip had split. She winced as wounds she had not felt began to make themselves known. Mary struggled in the arms of an officer until a blow to the side forced her to her knees. Men littered the deck like discarded rum bottles and had been just as useful. Many, she noticed, had fled below deck, if they had surfaced at all. 

Captain Barnet stepped slowly and purposefully around the captured crew. His hand on the hilt of a sword he had not unsheathed. He surveyed the scene with the look of a man who had just stepped off the docks and into something foul. Sneering, he came to a stop before Calico Jack. Jack’s namesake clothing was torn and stained. Blood and worse streaked the calico material. 

“You and your crew are to be hanged until dead,” Captain Barnet intoned, bored. “By order of Governor Nicholas Lawes.”

Anne looked about her helplessly. Her hand instinctively curled around her belly. A defiant kick came from within and she gasped. “Mercy!” she cried, struggling against her captor to stand and address the Captain. “I plead the belly!”

“Aye! As do I.” Came Mary’s voice from where she still crouched; her face pressed against the boards. The two women exchanged a grim smile. Life within securing life without. 

Captain Barnet nodded slowly and gave orders for the prisoners to be bound and led to the untouched sloop. The William now a broken shell of its former glory.

The pirates were forced into the sloop’s hold, some still trying to shake off their drunken haze. Anne and Mary were pulled aside to be separated from their doomed crewmen. Jack looked around blearily, hands bound in front, and sought Anne out. He spotted her and came alive with motion. Before the officers could stop him, he rushed over and clasped her hands in his.

“Think of me, my love,” he croaked. His breath a concoction of old rum and bile. Anne wrinkled her nose and regarded him coldly. The colossus she had left her husband, home, and land for. Now, the deflated husk of a captain. The black mark stained him. She could almost see the hangman’s noose about his neck.

“Had you fought like a man,” she said, her voice a deadly whisper, “you wouldn’t be about to die like a dog.”

He was wrenched from her, but she had already turned from him before he disappeared below. 

She felt a smaller hand clasp hers. Mary stood beside her. Their eyes met, then their gaze shifted. They looked not towards shore, but out to the horizon. A sudden gust of wind flew through Anne’s hair and threw her tricorne to the deck. An officer bent, picked it up, and with a cruel grin, tossed it into the sea. It floated for a second, whirled in an eddie, then disappeared below the waves.