Mellilla | Haley Dittbrenner

via Pixabay


There had been another solar flare. Every news broadcaster covered the event, their warnings popping up in the corners of everyone’s antenna TVs. Cracks snaked through their glass screens, distorting the images that flashed from them, The message echoed throughout the sandstone civilization: avoid the Surface, stay indoors, keep magic usage to an all-time minimum.

And so, Mellilla found herself working from the living room of her cramped apartment, a fax from her workplace streaming paper vomit from the printer. Every apartment was designed near identically: each carved directly into the wall of sandstone, clotheslines hanging from balconies, teal paint chipping, windowsills lush with cacti and leaves and offerings. Sunlight streamed down into the Sandstone Walls, casting shadows across tarpaulin awnings and unused ladders. Even in the depths of the Sandstone Walls, much further down than Mellilla’s apartment, the air was still hot and thick with humidity.

Magical anomalies Mellilla still needed to identify were scattered about her coffee table and windowsill alongside sticky note sigils and wooden carvings of the Water Goddesses and potted cacti surrounded by stones. With the sun erratic above the Surface, she couldn’t test each object for magical potency as she normally would (as everyone found their magic unpredictable with the changing sun), and, with the rest of her paper sacrificed to the printer, was forced to simply copy down each anomaly’s properties on the creased surface of a manila folder.

Images flashed across the screen like a laser, which sent Mellilla and Amara’s three cats pouncing. Pip’s three tails twitched. Cats Cricket and Lucky followed suit, the five tails between them curling, their nine combined eyes wide. Pip (Mellilla’s wife’s cat, who was arguably more Mellilla’s than Amara’s) then moved to stand guard on the eastern balcony, which was carved and mounted into the side of the sandstone column.

Mellilla chewed on cheap five-copper noodles as she scribbled down the properties of every anomalous object she catalogued. (A grimoire penned by a woman who believed herself partially amphibian; a sack of glitter that, when opened, automatically placed itself in the deepest cracks and corners of one’s living space; eyeglasses that could supposedly protect the wearer from the sun’s tempestuous moods).

The updates from the reporters on screen droned in the background, the high brightness casting a blue-green glow over the entirety of the apartment. Mellilla turned the volume higher to drown out Amara’s gossiping; she had been talking to her sister all morning, and, thanks to the paper-thin walls, Mellilla could hear everything.

Back on the screen, a woman with sleek brown hair and teeth as unnaturally white as the sun-stained Surface explained that the solar flare should one day die down enough for life to resume a hint of normalcy.


Mellilla put down her folder in favor of drinking directly from her little clay bowl, beef broth from a dented can dripping down the side of her chin and onto the taupe linen of her sweater sleeve. The unnatural woman on screen had been replaced by one of her equally synthetic colleagues, who was much too pleased by the act of thrusting a microphone into the face of another person. The microphone’s sorry victim was cloaked in thick wool, her only distinguishing features being a crooked nose and sallow skin and sullen eyes illuminated by unmistakable determination. When she took down her hood, a crown of curly white hair cascaded down her back, and at that moment she looked typical, with dirty skin and unwashed hair. She would blend in perfectly in the marketplace, just another middle aged woman searching for the last ripe fruits. Mellilla took to her own curls, twirling them between her index and middle fingers.

The woman on screen was introduced as a Speedrunner. She had run to a place she called the Edge of the Universe, at the top of the Surface, under a raging sun.

The Speedrunner began her speech with religion, as people tend to do. Surely if someone went to the state schools then they would know of the Water Pantheon and the goddesses who composed it, and surely they would’ve memorized each prayer and prophecy by heart. As most people of the Sandstone Walls had attended such schools, most knew of the Finding of the Final Goddess, which marked the end of times and an immediate respite from their drought-ridden lives.

And the Speedrunner spoke of an anomaly of the sort that Mellilla would investigate. The latter cocked her head to the side, turning on the closed captioning and replaying what she had heard. The Speedrunner spoke of the End of the Universe, and at the End was a giant plastic crow. She spoke of its height (“fifty meters, give or take”), the protruding seam where the plastic was cauterized into a whole, a hole in the bottom of its rounded talons for the water to drain out. And It, the Crow, spoke of a life where people could live on the Surface and prosper under the sunlight like greenhouse flowers, and where magic was a thing independent of the sun’s tides. And the Crow spoke through her, as she was chosen by the Pantheon, and all one needed to achieve such a life was to offer the Crow a satchel of golds. She spoke of Surface settlements morphing into cities, life and magic and prosperity swirling about and fattening the atmosphere as Crow is hailed and danced about like a maypole—

And Mellilla turned off the TV. Surely the Druidess Council would remove the recording from air, issuing an apology to the Water Pantheon and to the innocent people who had to behold such blasphemy. The sandstone wheel would continue to turn as it always did. Mellilla listened for silence, then called Amara downstairs from the guest bedroom, which they had renovated into a little potter’s studio. The two found no greater joy than ripping into prophets of this sort.


A day had passed, and the Speedrunner looked different. Surely, she still bore the same once-broken nose and lymphatic skin and drooping eyes, but her hair had been straightened, each pale curl flattened under a heat equally as oppressive as the sun’s. She appeared business-professional, whereas before, her wild curls made her ordinary, just another woman from the Sandstone Walls. Her woolen cloak had been replaced by a powder blue suit, adorned with little silver cufflinks in the shape of crows. The apartment was silent as each screenward sentence hung in the air, a prayer in its own right dedicated entirely to Crow.

Mellilla turned to Amara with a scoff, because really this was all (to be rather blunt, as the former put it) just bullshit, some sort of elaborate joke that neither woman could comprehend. Plastic was rare enough as is, and to dangle a better life in front of them was as equally insulting as waving a fish carcass above the head of a half-starved tomcat. And Amara scoffed back, and without regard to bluntness agreed that it was bullshit and nothing more than an elaborate game to test people’s faith.

And then the broadcaster on screen referred to the Speedrunner as a Prophet, one crowned with a capital P, who had taken Crow and placed It amongst the other Water Goddesses as reigning. Because, regardless of sheer absurdity, the theology lined up; as the scriptures said, Crow was unlike the other goddesses who bore blue skin and life and a dozen arms sprouted from their torso. Judgement was in Its eyes, charisma on the Prophet’s tongue. It had been a day, and this marked the first time she was referred to as Prophet.

Mellilla felt as the hinge of her jaw tightened, and she fumbled to turn something else on. Amara stood up after her, their three cats sulking away from the tension that hung thick in the air. Mellilla flipped through each channel, the screen going dim before returning to a speech of the Prophet’s rhetoric, a theocratic lesson, a call to the Surface. All the while Mellilla’s nerves wound up like a child’s toy. Without a word, she stole some paper away from the eternal fax and began scribbling something pointed on the backside. She only stopped writing to notice Amara, who had started into the kitchen.

Mellilla watched Amara return only moments afterwards with a mug of tea and a small clay statue of the Water Pantheon. She looked down at Mellilla’s work—a letter of censorship to the Druidess Council—and corrected a spelling mistake her wife made in the ninth paragraph. She kissed Mellilla on the forehead, setting aside the tea and placing the statue between them; together the two women prayed.


The Druidess Council was instantly recognizable by the opulence that hung about them, in direct spite of the cheap TV screens they appeared on. They oversaw how religion was practiced in the Sandstone Walls, and it was by their discretion that religious matters appeared on air.  Their robes were crimson and glittered with splendor, a living juxtaposition with the teals and indigos and beige that defined life in the Sandstone Walls. On this day—three days after the Prophet’s first appearance —the head of the Druidess Council wore blue, a bird shaped lapel pushed into the collar of her suit. Her message was simple: although some people are upset, even more are left in awe over the pomp and magnificence of the Prophet’s rhetoric. The way she rolled her ‘R’s and matched scripture to life was undeniable, and it all fit neatly into whatever theology could be considered fixed.

The Prophet had called on a witness testimonial to prove the greatness of Crow. Said witness was a little girl, whose mother had taken her to Crow via a wrap of swaddling clothes on her back, her older sister trailing behind them. Crow told them of the paradise that could have awaited them, if only they’d brought a single handful of gold more. The little girl’s mother never returned to the Walls.

Mellilla hadn’t seen that broadcast (she had spent the afternoon annotating pages from the amphibian grimoire and taking in laundry that had spent the evening drying under the stifling heat) and yet she was not free of it. Notifications littered the screen of her tablet. Recommendations for blue suits she could never afford appeared wedged between articles.

But Amara had seen the broadcast, and she wondered aloud how the children could return without their mother. She came to the conclusion that her initial reaction was correct, and she used the word “bullshit” again, and she decided that something was untrue.

Deeper down in the Walls, within the apartments and slums that composed it, a mass migration had begun. Suitcases had been packed and kept beside doors for decades, and inhabitants of the Sandstone Walls had just found a reason to put them to use. They had taken in the Prophet’s newest message, a quick catchphrase that couldn’t be anything but remembered:

“All is futile.”


 With the blessing of the Druidess Council buzzing in their minds and blue cloaks on their backs, people left for the Surface in mass droves. Half of the apartment complex was empty. It had only been two days. Mellilla watched as mothers carried their daughters up the metallic ladders to the Surface, Mary Janes clashing against steel, tiny fists pounding against their mother’s breasts. Rogue, unbelieving news broadcasters sent out alerts to every citizen (“Have you forgotten the solar flare? Your hair will spark fire no more than a few minutes on the Surface!”), but nearly everyone who left kept their tablets at home. Those who took them found no worth in the warnings.

Amara had locked herself in her potter’s studio, watching the Prophet speak on live broadcast. The Prophet’s voice was tinny from the tablet speakers in desperate need of repair. The room itself was nearly bare, save for a stone potter’s wheel and a dozen half finished cups. The Prophet’s voice echoed off terracotta caked walls. Amara’s sister had left for Crow that morning. Mellilla kept the front door locked.

Mellilla first noticed the scrap of paper fastened to her door when she collected the cats from the balcony before she clamped the lock bolts shut. It was torn from a yellow pad of paper, a coffee cup stain branding the righthand corner, scribbles drawn in rapid bursts of grainy brown ink. Given the shortage, there was no doubt that the ink was homemade. Amara stood behind Mellilla’s shoulder, deciphering the nearly illegible writing.

Mellilla was still reading by the time Amara finished. Amara lunged for the note, tearing it from her wife’s hands and ripping it into two. Mellilla could see Amara swiping tears from her lower lashes once the paper was on the ground. Mellilla held her wife close as she put the halves together and read.

The first half of the note concerned Mellilla’s letter to the Druidess Council and was written in language so dripping and vile that anyone who dared repeat it, let alone speak it, would forever be branded as slovenly, distinctly lower. Every stroke of ink bore thorns. At the bottom of the page, written in letters much bigger and bolder than the ones that preceded it, was a venomous phrase, the Prophet’s standard call, the written equivalent of lichen and foxglove. Seek Crow.


A week passed; the sun still shone. Mellilla awoke, and the other side of the bed was cold. Cricket and Pip padded beside her as she stumbled into the living room, and sitting on the table was Lucky, grooming an ear with a pure white paw. Lucky sat on a new note, comprised of a torn manilla folder. Mellilla ripped the note from underneath the cat, and through tears deciphered the Amara’s curled handwriting. Crow, this thing that hadn’t concerned either of them, that could barely be considered an anomaly if not a hoax from someone else, had sent Amara away. She had gone to find her sister. Perhaps they would live a nice life together.

Mellilla crumpled up the torn folder, throwing it at the westward window where people could be seen migrating upwards. That morning she remained by the ratty couch in her living room, tears flowing, people purging from their apartments. When evening came, she cast a spell with no regard to the sun, one that would keep the cat’s bowls filled automatically on the hour. She took up the amphibian grimoire and threw on her sable cloak, drawing the hood over puffy eyes and frizzy curls. When she shut the door behind her she witnessed dozens doing the same.

Mellilla cast a spell upon herself that made her hands tenacious in quality, as if she had dipped them in glue. She took to the ladder, hands burning under the stinging heat, and when she had reached the edge of the ladder began to climb up the sandstone cliffs themselves. Had she looked down towards the bottommost pit of the Walls, she would’ve beheld the skeletons of those who hadn’t been able to keep grip. From the edge of the Surface, when Mellilla looked downwards, the exodus looked to be no more than ants marching. The skeletons were too small to be seen.


The crust of the Surface crumbled under the slightest touch, the clumps too thick to be referred to as sand but much too friable to be considered anything else. The sky was a brilliant vermilion shade that could be seen in full splendor, even way down in the deepest cracks of the wall. The sun was a bright fuchsia that may have been beautiful if not for the fact that it took up two thirds of the devastated sky. A disorganized cluster of people trekked forward, clad in blue and spilling gold from swollen pockets, eyes glazed over and sweat beading down the sharp of their chin.

Before divinity, the Prophet was a Speedrunner, who had made it to the Edge of the Universe for simple sport. So Mellilla ran. And from behind her the other women cracked smiles, the heat apparent across their chapped faces, their endmost moments defined by a happiness that Mellilla, at last, had seen the light.

Not long afterwards, Mellilla was alone, with nothing but the blazing sun and rock for company. Sweat fell from the tip of her nose and chin, nausea swelling tempestuously in the pit of her chest. In the near distance were tents, those grand settlements that would sprout into cities. Mellilla dared to smile as her mind wandered towards what could be inside. The Prophet, no longer static on a TV screen but someone comprised of blood and hope and a mop of frizzy hair. Hundreds of people content and dancing. Amara and her sister, alive.

Mellilla ran up to the nearest tent and tore open the burnt flap. Within them were skeletons, blue cloaks incendiary, gold melting onto the already deliquescing earth. The bones were bleached.

And Mellilla turned away from this skeleton town, folding in on herself and vomiting. The world seemed to constrict her, something crossed between disappointment and terror rising up and taking over her chest. If only there had been a sign, a billion meters to the Edge of the Universe. If only there had been a sign pointing to Crow’s existence, or a map the Prophet could have provided, or a single feather made from burnt plastic.

 And yet there was nothing, because the Edge of the Universe simply hadn’t been.

And when the world turned black, fuchsia and red and ochre melting into obscurity, Mellilla pretended that it was all the giant wing of a magnificent plastic crow.



My name is Haley Dittbrenner! I am an undergraduate writer based at Susquehanna University. I can be found on Instagram at @hdwritess.

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