Ayanna’s eyes are shut. She takes a minute at the gate to prepare herself. Fear snaps at her toes but she doesn’t allow the teeth to sink in and paralyse her. Brambles are wrapped around the top of the iron gate, with dead roses collected in a heap at the bottom. She places down a snakeskin on the floor which had been shed the night before. She awoke to find it in her bed. She takes a deep breath in and steps one bare foot out in front, followed by the other. She walks as though feeling the earth beneath her feet for the first time, curious and excited yet cautious.

Her curled hair is oak brown with strands stained orange and golden from the sunlight. Her eyes glow with anticipation and her lips turn up at the sides to form a childlike smile full of innocence and determination.

 Her fingers run across the wet stone walls of the tunnel she enters. She continues down deeper and deeper into the passageway. The cold floor leads her further into the dark. She strikes her only match to light a small flame in a lantern she has brought with her. It gives off just enough light to see the way forward by one step, no more.

Ayanna is concentrating so hard on where to put her feet that she is bent forward slightly and is shocked by her head hitting something solid with a thud. She holds the light up in front of her and sees there is a door. It is made of rotten wood crumbling at the sides with metal hinges rusted through. She pauses. The flame reveals a keyhole but there is no key. She tries to shake the door open but to no avail. Ayanna lets out a sigh which involuntarily breathes an end to the fire.

She surrenders to the pitch black now engulfing her. Adrenaline shoots through her body, not so much that she loses control, but enough to keep her alert. She realises there is something or someone here. She can hear it breathing a rasping exhale and choked inhale.

“Whose there?” She calls out. She hears scratching, the slow methodical movement of fingernails across the wooden door. It’s coming from the other side.

“Let me in, I want to meet you.” Ayanna tells the creature, a little unsure if she really does.

“Get out!” A quick low hiss replies, “I don’t want you here. Get out!”

Ayanna suddenly notices a hole in the wooden door. She feels a cold, bony hand on her stomach. It shot out to grasp her before she had the chance to move. Nails sink into her skin and the hand pushes her back, but the push is weak.

“Get out!” The creature rasps again, voice breaking into a low cough.

 Ayanna feels the wet floor against the soles of her feet, as she notices the crawling feeling on her toes is not fear but beetles and cockroaches. She becomes fierce and decisively launches herself forward into the door, using her full force.

“Argh!” She cries, tearing through the rotten wood. “I will not go back. Is this the welcome I get after travelling all this way to meet you?”

Her eyes fix on the dilated white pupils of her sister, who is crouching low in the corner of the damp room. A small hole in the ceiling lets a dim ray of light shine down, which allows Ayanna to see the shadow of a body in front of her.

Thick black hair sticks to the sister’s outline, going over the contours and crevices of her skeleton. The matted hair is so long that she stands on it, her bony legs tangled up amongst the nest. Bent over with a crooked back and long fingers touching the ground, elbows sticking out, she lurches forward and bares her teeth.

“Hsssssssss” she spits, nose wrinkled and eyes flashing wild. Her skin is coated with dirt, dead flies encrusted into it. Maggots eat the flesh of her feet, beetles crawl out of her ears.

Ayanna does not care about any of these details for she knows what she has to do, the reason she came here. She smiles at her sister and walks forward to meet her. Ayanna holds her open arms out, and comes close to her sister’s cowered, distorted and dirty body.

She wraps her up in an uninvited embrace. The sister has never before felt such warmth and does not know whether to bite Ayanna’s neck in defence or sink deeper into this strange sensation. She feebly opens her mouth and tenses her arms, getting ready to try and break Ayanna’s bones and rip apart her flesh. But Ayanna pulls the disheveled creature even closer, gently guiding the dirt covered head to rest on her heart.

The sister is distracted from her violent thoughts by the sound of Ayanna’s heart which goes boom boom, boom boom, boom boom. The consistent rhythm of blood pumping out from this centre point is hypnotic. She cannot be bothered to fight anymore and goes limp. Ayanna strokes her sister’s hair, getting flies legs caught beneath her fingernails. She doesn’t mind, she simply allows her sister to be just as she is. She knows she needs all the rest she can get after so many years of torment, of exile.

A lifetime’s worth of battling, of denying one another’s existence for refusal to accept what the other represents. They are both tired. In the end neither sister can even be bothered to try to change the other.

The two bodies simply rest in awareness, connected for the first time. One side of the picture is warm, glowing and strong. The other side is cold, dark and vulnerable. Yet together, they are complete.

“You are here at last” say both voices merged into one. When the tears come it’s hard to tell which pair of eyes they’re spilling from.

Ayanna opens her eyes and takes her hand away from the cold surface of the mirror. She stares in awe at her reflection and turns to walk away.

Writer, Jasmine Irving and photographer, JJ Oxberry Hogg attempt to explore ideas of reflection, the self and embracing darkness using short story fiction combined with photo imagery. This collaboration was inspired by the sense that artists working together evokes a feeling of community and connection where creativity can be shared to spark new ideas. The pair have known each other since primary school and are currently working on further projects including a trip to India in the new year where they will combine photography and writing.

Jasmine has been enthused by a passion for writing from her very first years of learning to pick up a pen and write at primary school. She loves to travel, learn and connect with people & places. She runs a travel blog called Coeliac on The Road, regularly blogs for Huffington Post and has had various work published over the last ten years, from poetry to short stories to journalism.

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