This story is featured on the preliminary ballot for the Bram Stoker Awards® for 2022 in the category of Best Short Fiction. If you are a voting HWA member, please consider and vote for it!
Layla fell in love with a man made of glass. His hands were jagged, but his lips were smooth and cool to the touch. He slipped into her bedroom in the evenings, invisible to the naked eye, and when they made love, he refracted the light into rainbows.
Something magical happened. Layla’s belly grew and she felt something exquisite and frightening moving around inside. She held her glass lover’s hand and he kissed her fingers, and her temple, and her cheek, and her face, before putting his mouth close to her stomach.
“Little one,” he said, and his voice sounded like the wind blowing through a flute, “there are so many wondrous things to see. But the world is dangerous to our kind. Take after your mother and be flesh and bone, for I wish you to be strong and experience the world.”
He turned to Layla, his clear eyes sparkling in the candlelight.
“I would be your husband if you will have me,” he said, and when Layla wept in joy, her colorless tears looked like glass themselves.
But a love affair with a glass man isn’t tenable. Layla’s father stormed in, demanding to know who had soiled her, because he had wealthy suitors lined up for miles around.
“They won’t marry you if you’re with child,” he said. His eyes glowed in a way quite unlike her lover’s. “They want a woman unsullied. But if we can perhaps ratify your mistake…”
He took his walking stick, with its thick silver handle, and struck her once. Layla cried out in a voice piercing enough to shatter wine glasses. Her father raised it a second time and brought it down hard.
“Enough,” cried her lover, who stood glistening in the corner. He raced to defend his beloved and grabbed the cane in his fragile hands.
“A demon!” Layla’s father cried and swung the cane wildly. There was a sound, like a mirror shattering. There was a sound, like a crystal snifter dropping. There was a sound, and then another, as Layla stood in an explosion of glass shards and wailed.
“Layla,” her father called, but she gathered her skirts and ran from him, her feet cut and ripped by the broken glass on the ground. Glass embedded itself in her feet and she left footprints of blood as she fled deep into the night.
* * *
Crystal was fine and young and smooth and completely translucent. Her young legs were long, and her hair fell down her back in tinkling waves. Her heart was red and made of organic muscle just like her mother’s. It pulsed and throbbed and beat through her clear chest.
“Be careful,” Layla told her wearily. “You mustn’t fall.”
“I know, Mother.”
“You mustn’t jar or crack or break.”
“I’m being very careful.”
“You must be wary of extreme temperatures.”
Her mother’s eyes went far away as they often did, and Crystal knew she was thinking of her father. She wouldn’t speak much of him except to say that he had come to a bad end, and that’s why she and Layla lived alone in the forest, where nobody could bump into them. Their tiny house was surrounded by soft grasses and clover. Layla went outside daily, removing rocks and wayward branches. There was nothing for Crystal to shatter her toe on.
“You must be careful, for I cannot heal you,” her mother said, and tended to her own feet. They were gnarled with wounds that never quite seemed to heal, shards of something shiny constantly worrying under her skin. When she walked, she moved as though she was stepping on knives, but she touched the tender scars gently and with a strange kind of love.
Crystal sighed. She tired of being swaddled in knitted wraps like an infant. She wanted to shed the extra layers and run free in the woods, to dip her hands in the brook and become like a river rock. She wanted to reflect the sunlight like a prism and see what a town square looked like and do all the things her mother forbade.
“If I could just climb a tree,” Crystal began.
“You’re so precious,” Layla said. “More precious than a diamond. More precious than the glass slipper of a princess.”
“Mother, I want to go to school. I want to have friends. I’m so very lonely.”
Her mother kissed her forehead dreamily, and Crystal closed her eyes.
“Lonely, yes,” she murmured to Crystal. “But you are unbroken.”
“Is there anywhere else that is safe? Somewhere that isn’t here? Perhaps we could travel there, Mother.”
“I’ve thought of taking you to the sea, child. It’s miles and miles of open water with nothing to shatter against. But it’s far away and the journey is too dangerous. And the sea is so vast…”
It was so large that a small glass girl, slippery from the water, could wriggle from her mother’s grasp and float far, far away. It was Layla’s nightmare but Crystal’s dream.
She was safe and she was loved, but that wasn’t enough. One night when the moon was full and the air was as clear as Crystal herself, she donned her warmest cloak and fled into the night.
She ran like a rabbit. She ran like a stream. She ran like her mother so many years ago, her human heart thumping against her fragile ribs, her legs shining in the dark. While her mother had carried a precious unborn child of glass, Crystal carried her fragile, human heart.
It wasn’t easy for a glass girl in a city. There were cobblestones to trip on and carriages that run past. Crystal’s pinky finger was caught in a door and broke off in the jam. Her tears plink, plink, plinked as they fell and shattered on the ground. Children hurried to collect them before they broke, sucking on them like candy.
“Who are you?” one of the children asked. He squatted next to a dirty alley. “Why do you look so strange?”
“My name is Crystal,” she answered. “I come from the forest.”
“Are you a witch?” a little girl wondered. “Are you a fairy?”
“I’m a girl just like you,” she said.
“You’re nothing like us,” a boy told her, grabbing her arm. “You’re strange and I can see right through you. Even your skin feels different.”
“Please don’t,” she said, and stepped away, but he pushed her against the stone wall so roughly that she heard two of her vertebrae crush.
“Are you see-through everywhere?” he asked. He yanked her cloak off. The other children began to tug at her simple clothes.
“Stop,” she cried. “Leave me alone!”
Fabric tore, and Crystal stood there in the sunlight, covering herself with invisible hands. Her vulgar human heart was glutted with transparent blood, a pumping clump of arteries and muscle.
“Her heart looks like something dead,” the boy said, and his face was white.
“Disgusting,” a child cried, and reached down to pick up a stone. “Go away! Never come back.”
The stone flew past Crystal’s head and hit the alley wall. She stood still, staring in shock, until another stone hit her in the shoulder. She heard a crunching of glass, the sound of fragile bones breaking. The children whooped as she fled, holding her tattered clothes around her. Rocks hit the dirt at her feet, occasionally pelting her body, and the glass bruised in spiderweb cracks.
* * *
Layla searched for her daughter. She searched every inch of the cottage, looking for the tell-tale signs of light rainbowing over the walls or reflecting against the ceiling. Crystal wasn’t to be found.
Had she been stolen like a jewel? Had somebody slipped her from bed during the night? Had she left on her own because she was so unbearably lonely?
“What do I do?” Layla said aloud. She held a glass drop in her hand, a piece of her lover that had once been sharp and brittle, but time and the constant rubbing from her warm fingers had turned it smooth. “I must find her.” She kissed the glass drop and tucked it into a little pocket sewn inside her dress, next to her heart.
Layla gathered her things. It didn’t take long for she didn’t have much. Anxiety swelled and bloomed like a bloodstain inside of her chest as she set out on her journey. The world is so terribly cruel to those who are fragile.
* * *
Crystal believed in beauty and kindness with her whole beating heart. Surely those children were exceptionally ill-tempered, and everyone else would be better.
It was not to be. A glass girl, just like a regular girl, can be coveted and kept on a shelf. Greedy hands caught in her hair and broke it off in clumps. She was pawed and pushed to her knees with a sound like pottery falling. A girl with a glass jaw only needs one good punch to crush it permanently, and it’s impossible to hide your damaged face behind hands when they’re transparent.
Crystal ran from the city, ran from the forest, ran until she was good and lost and exhausted and miserable. She wandered until she came to a strange blue horizon that smelled of salt. She collapsed in the sand, and heard strange birds calling overhead when she fell asleep. She wept, for most birds were drawn to shiny things.
* * *
Layla followed the dusty road to the city, where she found a group of children playing with wooden swords. Her eyes were drawn to a familiar blue cloak.
“You there,” she said, and grabbed the cloaked child by the scruff of the neck. “Where did you come by my daughter’s robe?”
“That thing was your daughter?” the child asked. Layla struggled to keep her fists from clenching.
“Tell me where she is, or you will regret it,” Layla vowed.
“I don’t know. She ran away a long time ago. Let go of me.” The child wiggled out of her grasp and scurried away.
* * *
The sea is a beautiful, rough thing, gorgeous and unyielding. It makes no promises. It refuses to compromise. When something shattered and fragmented crawls into its waters, a metamorphosis happens.
The sea took this glass child, this ruined girl, and ran its sea-foam hands over her broken parts. It seeped into every crack, every vein, mouthing at the dirt caught inside.
“Can you put me back together?” Crystal asked.
“That is not what I do,” the sea hissed. It was busy creating whirlpools and causing carnage. The sea rose with sunken ships in its hair and paused for admiration.
“What can you do, then?” Crystal asked.
“I transform, child,” the sea said, and it lapped at Crystal’s cracked feet. “Come.”
Crystal thought of her mother, and this gave her courage. She slid under the ocean waves, and it began.
The sea tumbled and tossed and buffeted. Loose pieces fell away, and her meaty human heart was fed to the fishes. Her loneliness and longing wore away like the rest of her, riding the waves and turning into foam.
“At last,” she thought, “I am happy.”
“It matters not,” answered the sea.
* * *
Layla searched the land tirelessly. She looked in cities and towns and villages. She looked in the forest and in the deserts. Her tender, raw feet grew calloused from her travels, pushing the precious glass shards even farther into her body. Each painful step was an exquisite reminder of him. Her hair grayed and her back stooped, but each thought of a little glass girl rejuvenated her. She climbed through tall grasses and tripped over roots. She eventually came to a place that smelled of salt and tears.
Each footstep in the sand felt heavy, but the water glittered and glistened like two loves long lost. Layla touched her lover’s glass drop through the pocket in her dress.
She neared the water, pulling off her shoes and wading into the waves. The sand gave way beneath her.
“What do you want?” asked the sea. “I am busy.”
“I’m looking for my daughter,” Layla said. She had never spoken to the sea before. “She disappeared many years ago.”
“Daughters often disappear,” the sea sniffed. “I’ve taken many of them myself. So easy to lose, daughters.”
“She is beautiful. She’s made of glass.”
The sea capsized several ships while it thought.
Layla sighed and fell to her knees. The water swirled around her.
“It’s possible to love something too much,” the sea told her. It caressed her legs with green weeds. “You can love something to pieces.”
“I’m afraid that’s what I’ve done,” Layla admitted. Her tears, when they fell, weren’t glass at all. They were bitter and salty, and the sea opened its mouth to taste them.
“Tastes like me,” the sea commented, and something washed onto the sand. A treasure of the deep. A gift from the universe. Layla reached out for it with a small sound.
It was a piece of sea glass, its rough edges worn smooth by years in the ocean. Layla picked it up and it thrummed in her hand.
“Crystal,” she whispered, and held the glass to the sun. It had turned milky over time, and no longer reflected light like a prism, but seemed to capture it and hold it within.
“She said she was happy,” the sea said offhandedly, and flowed away. It had fish to spawn and currents to follow. The short lives of humans meant very little in the vastness of the universe.
Layla took the shiny piece of glass from her pocket and held them both, lover and daughter, in her gnarled hand before clenching them to her heart. She lay back in the sand, the sun warming her old bones as the water lapped around her.
“She was happy,” Layla repeated, and closed her eyes. The waves crept higher. “ That was all I ever wanted.”
Layla didn’t turn into mermaid’s tears like her lover and daughter. Her flesh became a feast for monsters of the deep, and her bones were picked clean and worn as hairpins by the sea itself. But the human heart, made of muscle and meat, is such a funny thing. Even after it’s consumed and turned into energy that powers mighty tails and tiny fins and microscopic cilia, it still manages to beat, beat, beat under the ocean waves with everything else that is precious.
Mercedes M. Yardley is a dark fantasist who wears poisonous flowers in her hair. She is the author of Beautiful Sorrows, Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu: A Tale of Atomic Love, Pretty Little Dead Girls, Darling, and won the Bram Stoker Award for Little Dead Red. She lives and works in Las Vegas. You can find her at mercedesmyardley.com.