It was not quite a smile.
It was born not in joy
Nor in any enchantment,
But in desperate
As it loomed,
In the fast shrinking distance.
It was not quite a smile.
It was born not in joy
Nor in any enchantment,
But in desperate
As it loomed,
In the fast shrinking distance.
“You might as well open your eyes now.”
His gravely voice was somewhat amused but carried in it the edge of impatience she’d recognized from her own father. A dismissive tone that simultaneously mocked and tolerated females’ flair for the emotional while also warning said females to not mistake momentary patience for leniency.
Muriel swallowed any sign of sigh. Her body ached from three days rattling on wooden wheels over rocks and gravel and muddy ruts and unexpected pits. To make matters worse, the girl-servant who’d been her companion since childhood, hadn’t been allowed to accompany her, and the rough hands of service women who did not know her, had tied her stays too tight and left the knots digging at her ribs and the small of her back.
She’d closed her eyes in part to manage the ever present nausea of travel forced on her at the opposite direction of movement. However, a goodly bit of it was in order to allow herself at least a semblance of private space in the confines of the carriage. His eyes undressed her either way, but at least she could pretend to not see it.
Her time for privacy was up.
She forced her eyes open and nodded the politest smile she could manage at the man who would be her lord and father-in-law (and if his leering told her anything, also the master of her body, son or no son).
He scared her and his eyes were cruel, but she’d learned at a young age to hide revulsion under a lowering of lashes and to nod compliance as means to reduce inevitable harm.
“You are a girl-child, Muriel,” her mother would soothe and scold her as she gently rubbed salve onto what new welts and bruises another lashing had left on the child. “No matter what they do or ask of you, you must not disobey.”
And yet even her mother, the mistress of the manor, who embodied the balance of stately conduct and humility before her betters, sported the occasional split lip from her husband, Muriel’s father, along with other wounds in areas best left unmentioned. All a female could do was walk the tightrope in attempt to limit scope and frequency of pain.
Muriel raised her eyes to meet the heavy brow of the man who occupied the seat across from her. She calmed her voice so it not reflect her fretting mind.
“Have we almost arrived, My Lord?”
His eyes flicked to the window and she leaned to look through the opening, acutely aware that this brought her body perilously close to his lap.
The lake sprawled at the side of their conveyance, the water undulating lightly in the breeze as afternoon clouds gathered. Into it grew a spit of rock and on top it a castle, stout in stone and strong in somber presence. It was far larger than the house she’d left behind. Gloomier and more glorious, too.
She wondered how long it would be before she could once again see it from this or any vantage point. Some lords did not allow their women to leave their rooms, let alone the courtyard. Especially not the newly arrived, who might attempt to steal a path out of marriage by seeking the luring company of nymphs at the bottom of lakes.
She let her gaze linger on the castle before straightening.
“It is beautiful, My Lord,” she said.
His eyes narrowed then relaxed and she was glad she didn’t need to lie about it. He’d probably know if she had.
“Your new home,” he noted, almost kindly.
Her stomach lurched. Home or jail, there may not really be a difference. Still, as the carriage continued toward the future that this man had proposed and her father had accepted, she felt she may have passed some test that if she managed to maintain the credit of, could bring her — if not safety or protection — then perhaps a lesser measure of misery.
He had never been so hungry.
Not even when he’d gone without food for three days to win a dare. Perhaps because at least then the food was there, available to him had he gotten too weak or ravenous enough to render the challenge unappetizing.
He’d won that bet. And the mountain bike his friend was cocky enough to suggest as the prize.
The same bike — and all his gear atop it — that now lay twisted at the end of some ravine he had no hope of reaching. The bike that would have dragged him down to the same end had he not, in some unknown reflex of survival, thrown himself off the seat and against the rocky walls of what he’d thought was a sort-of-trail.
It first it was the abrasions that caused him the most suffering. The skinless arms and cheek. The raw wound on his shoulder where his shirt had ripped.
Then night came and it was the cold.
And the next day, the hunger.
He had nothing on him. No knife. No phone. Not even a lighter. He’d been so proud to dress the bike with a complicated harness to carry everything he needed for his week-long trek. Now he was naked of supplies. Bare of any protection or wherewithal, alone in the wilderness, and ignorant of how to make do without the gadgets he’d never given a thought to the possibility of not having.
Ignorant, too, of the consequences of veering off the path “to test the bike’s capabilities.” He had told a couple of friends he was planning to go for a bike ride, but he had planned to surprise them with his accomplishment post-trek, and in his hubris did not notify them when, where to, or how long for.
Off the trail and into the “uncharted.” He’d felt strong. He’d felt courageous. He’d felt the braggadocio reverberating underneath his ribs.
Now no one knew where he was.
Or when to expect him.
Or that he deseprately needed aid.
He’d never been so hungry. Or so tired. Or so hurting. Or so scared.
He couldn’t help thinking of how someone would one day find what was left of him. That is if some animal did not find him first.
He stopped to rest when the new blisters on his feet had burst and the pain of another raw place was too much to manage.
His shoulder throbbed. His head. His hand where it had slammed against the rock and left two of his fingers black and unbending. He checked the sky and realized a third day was about to end and he was just as lost as he had been the ones before. And hungrier.
He cried a bit. There was no one in front of whom to be ashamed.
Or so he thought.
He woke to warmth and thought he’d died already. The weight of something on his torso must have been the earth, though he couldn’t bother to try and consider who’d have dug a grave.
Then a smell wafted to him and his stomach clenched in painful hunger. Surely not even hell would torment so in death!
He cracked open an eyelid to the view of a lively fire and a shadowed figure stirring something over a corner of coals. He blinked. The figure was still there. He swallowed, and his mouth was not as dry as it should have been. There was a taste of sweetness on his tongue, as well. He coughed just to hear his own voice.
The head swiveled toward him and he could not discern any of its features against the brightness of the flames. A hand reached back into a pack and rummaged, then the legs straightened and the person unfurled and stepped toward him. He squinted but still could not see the face. He wasn’t even sure it was a man.
“Here,” the voice confirmed. A woman, and not a young one. Not warm but by her actions so far, not unkind. “Jerky. Chew on this until the stew is done.”
Lush grass now grew over the span of stones, though none had grown there in the many years when the passage of feet had mowed and flattened any seedling that had found a crack in which to nestle.
The water gurgled as it had, though, flowing like a ribbon of careless abandon underneath. Incoming. Through. Not one look back. Away.
She wondered if the fish silvering in the stream were the descendants of the ones who’d flapped among the rocks and dove out of the reach of all manner of two-legged hunters. Their instincts certainly remained the same.
Honed by years of flight, and generations of bare escape from calamity and disaster and all manner of two-legged hunters’ spread of misery.
For centuries the stones of the old bridge had been the thoroughfare of goods and news — both good and not — from isolated farms to the town’s market and from the town into the farms, and in that order. It had withstood war and fights and blight and playful dares and cruel shove-overs. It streamed with rain and baked with sun and creaked with ice and endured more than one direct hit of lightning. It had heard the laughter of small children and the cries of same, sometimes not much later after. Where rugged wheels and heavy hooves had carved ruts of rattling passage, now weeds took hold to cover any sign of man.
It stood deserted, and perhaps relieved, since the new and wider bridge was built a bit further downstream. The modern pathway accommodated simultaneous travel in both directions as it carried the weight of the machines that belched dark stains onto its tar.
She’d been warned against attempting to put any weight on the old bridge. They all were. “It’s held by no more than blessings and a whisper,” her grandmother had cautioned. “One step onto the wrong stone and it could collapse.”
And yet, it had outlasted both Grandmother’s life and Mother’s and seemed poised to outlast hers, as well. Perhaps blessings and a whisper were better mortar than the speeding up of time.
“And you don’t have much long to wait to outlast me,” she murmured as she walked to the water and bent to dip her palm. Cold.
As she would be, sans blessings or a whisper, before much more water churned indifferently along, passed under the bridge, and was gone.
When she leaves, there will be time enough for all the things that should have happened and yet didn’t. When she leaves, a space will open to allow what was yearned for but manifested not. When she leaves — in a week or month or year or decade — a leaf would turn to let the newness grow.
When she leaves.
Yet for the time being she remains.
She has no choice. Or not a real one.
She plods along the rutted path made by the heavy feet she’d dragged so many times before. She does what must be done. She smiles. She nods. She cooks. She holds.
She finds in every day a small reminder of the hope. A sliver of a dream. A memory of what is yet to come.
It sustains her.
It has to.
It’s all she has.
Until she leaves.
For the SoCS writing prompt: Leaves
She’d have preferred to not have even as much contact with others as the job required, but the alternatives were worse, and she couldn’t argue with the benefits:
A roof over her head.
A stipend for the necessaries.
Granted, there were days when she could feel the walls press close around her and the vistas felt airless. She’d scan the horizon, then, wondering when someone would stop by that she could talk to. Vulnerable in her need, her fingers would reach for the radio, yearning to hear a voice that was not her own, and she’d make some excuse about checking the weather or changing the date of the next airdrop.
And yet she could not wait to end the conversation – if that was what one could call the brief exchange with the dispatch to arrange a fly-by or a stop-drop of supplies – so the last of the vowels could evaporate into the quiet.
Human contact suffocated her.
Its lack bore holes into her soul.
It was untenable, and all she could do is try and find some semblance of balance between loneliness and overwhelm.
There were no roads to the respite cabin, only footpaths, or for those who braved the crosswind, a rocky field in which to try and land a chopper. The nearest town was a hard three-days trek through the mountains.
Once in a while she’d see a shepherd who’d misread a storm and sought shelter. Sometimes another ranger would stop in during an upkeep task, to resupply or send an update to headquarters. Those were hardy, silent persons like herself, who welcomed a warm bowl of soup, a place to dry their clothes, and a break from the wind, but needed little in the way of clucking.
The trekkers, for whom the respite cabin was intended, thankfully limited themselves to the brief season when the weather was most forgiving. Her outpost was stationed on what was a remote route even for the most intrepid hikers, and yet some evenings in midsummer the small cabin would be bursting at the seams with chatter and the smell of unwashed feet, damp shoes, and giddy overconfidence. The bunks slept eight. To have even three occupied felt to her like eighty.
The trekkers would all leave in early morning, bellies full of oats and faces flushed with sleep, and she would not know if their eagerness was for the day’s exertions or to get to where they could safely gossip about the agonies of trying to wrest a word out of the reticent resident ranger.
She’d grow skinless by the time fall brought with it a piercing cold and the relief of rarer human sightings.
It would be weeks into winter before her fingers reached for the radio, pining to hear another person’s word.
So she was not prepared for the knock that came, an hour into night in early winter.
There was no storm. No ranger’s late arrival. No shepherd.
Just a youth. Half-frozen and her belly swollen, and in her eyes a look that pleaded urgent need even as it warned to keep a distance.
It could have been herself.
Fifteen years back.
They walked around, eyes wide, not touching anything.
“It’s like a museum,” Lilly breathed.
“Only with ghosts,” Samantha shuddered.
Lilly shot her a warning glance and slid her eyes toward Mikey. As it was the boy woke up screaming every night.
This was the first intact house they’d seen. Well, almost intact. It had a roof, walls, and shutters that had protected some of the windows. It even had a wood-burning stove. They needed the shelter more than any ghost might, and Mikey didn’t need additional terrors.
She forced a smile. “Let’s find some water and make tea, shall we?”
A warm dinner.
Wood enough for warmth
What millions would call
The very lap of
“Dominant does not mean domineering,” she said. “It does not need to mean oppressive or demeaning.”
“A true leader leads with kindness,” she added. “They govern with understanding and resolve, not ego, hate, or petty revenge.”
A cardboard sign was tied to her walker with green bread twists. It read: “I’m old enough to know how this ends.”
The faded purple blue tattoo on her arm was evidence of having lived through what most would deem un-survivable. She had survived, and came out the other side not only alive but vibrating with a kind of solid empathy that no one would mistake for weakness.
She did not raise her voice but nonetheless it carried. Or maybe it was her energy that created a little centripetal force-field around her. People stopped by. Leaned in to hear more. Some took her photo.
“Authority needs to be bestowed, not taken,” she noted, and I couldn’t help but think that someone ought to hire this little old lady, this walking wisdom slogan-machine.
The sun washed over the sea of people, signs, distant chants, knit hats. A puppy barked and a child’s exuberant peal of laughter carried on the wind.
“Hear that?” The old woman smiled. “That’s power.”
“And that,” she waved a wrinkled hand to encircle the swelling crowds. “That’s due dominance.”
For The Daily Post
“For children who depend on mentally escaping into their minds to survive, imagination can become both refuge and desert island.”
(Na’ama Yehuda, Communicating Trauma, p. 148)
original fiction, rhyme and photography
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