Fading

Photo: Sue Vincent

 

They didn’t tell him he’d be seeing things.

They didn’t tell him how cold he’d be, or how alone, or how desperately he’d miss even the smallest comforts. Like a hue that wasn’t on the scale of dirty-white to sort-of-gray.

Maybe he was dying.

Was this how it would be?

He’d ask.

If he could.

They didn’t tell him he’d be unable to speak. Or that the voice he’d make would go unheard, unseen, unnoticed.

He blinked.

The stag was still there.

Perhaps real, perhaps conjured by the wish to flee combined with the worry about antlers being helplessly tangled as one tried to get away.

“You watch out,” he mouthed. Or said. Or yelled. “Don’t be fooled. Don’t be like me.”

The stag stood still. A statue. Another tree?

Then in one split second it bounded, disappeared.

Come back, he whispered. He’d never been so lonely.

He wept. He thought he did. He was so cold.

He looked at his hands. They blurred. He, too, must be fading.

Eternity.

The shadows crept near. A rumble of garbled monster-speech.

He heaved.

 

“Good trip?”

“He’s kind’a out of it.”

“He said he wanted to try some!”

“Yeah, but how much did you fools dump in his drink?”

 

 

 

For Sue Vincent’s WritePhoto challenge

 

 

Stone Face

Photo: Sue Vincent

 

She stood on the ledge and watched the edge of the world dissolve into fire.

It had been a long day, waiting. He did not come. She did not know when he could. Only that he would when he managed to get free.

As she had.

It was their place. Before. It will be their home. Now.

They’d found the small cave down the rock-face when they were still children frolicking in the waves. They’d been rolling with a large piece of driftwood one day when the currents had taken them farther than they’d expected. They’d tried to reverse course but it was futile to fight the sea. It was after reality had set in and they’d began to fret in earnest, that they’d spotted what looked like a black tooth on the jagged cliff. As Merlin tried to point to it, the log rolled, depositing the two of them into the waves and bestowing a farewell knock on Marla’s head. It had gone black behind her eyes after that.

Merlin had managed to drag her to and onto the surf-beaten rocks, scraping both of them raw in the process. He claimed the seals had helped him and she never doubted it. Nor that the seals had likely rolled the log in the only spot the two of them might’ve had a chance of getting to the shore unbroken.

They had clawed their way slowly up to the ledge, crying and more than a little frightened, only to find that what had appeared a black tooth from the sea, was in fact a cave’s mouth that was dry and deep enough to offer shelter. The marvel had calmed them enough to explore, and they’d found a precarious but doable foot- and hand-hold way to gain access up to the top of the cliff. And from there across the moors home.

They’d made a pact to never tell anyone about “Stone Face” — named for how the features could be read in the rock above the ledge. They suffered the indignities of being mocked for slipping into a whirlpool — the story they’d made up to explain their miserable condition and the lateness of their arrival home — and they endured the punishment of being forbidden from going to play in the water for the rest of that long summer, and the drudgery of extra chores.

It did not matter. Their secret sustained them. As had their rare visits to Stone Face via the barely-there climbing way. It was their refuge and all the more a miracle to them for how no one had known of it (or at least not in their lifetime, for there were signs of hearth-fires on the blackened ceiling and some stone flakes that could cut deep and might’ve been a tool in someone’s hand). It was their place of hopes and dreams and stories.

Then time came and Merlin was indentured to the Smithy, and Marla was sent off to scrub the floors and bear the fists and the bastard children of Lord Bowery, a man of no nobility in deportment or form. She tried to endure him, but the core of her rebelled against his injustices and his brutal invasions. She fled.

The Smithy’s apprentice was due to bring brackets to the manor’s door that week. She had to trust that he would find out she was gone.

And that he would come for her.

To make Stone Face, home.

 

 

 

For Sue Vincent’s WritePhoto: Stillness

 

 

A Path Back

Photo: Sue Vincent

 

She’d needed this for so long she almost did not know what to do with it. The sense of expansion felt as if it would crush her chest from the inside. The freedom felt disorienting. The quiet deafened. The freshness of the air dug splinters in her lungs.

It was the yearning, really. The slow release of what she had compressed herself into, for absolutely way too long.

Like pins and needles of a ‘fallen asleep’ limb waking up, it was. Only that this was her soul awakening, her spirit that she’d squelched into an air-tight packet and had pushed into a too-small drawer. Her way to survive.

She’d done this to herself, in a way. She realized. Sure, she could blame others for the part they played, but in the end it was her own small choices to ignore and minimize and shrug off and explain away, that slowly but resolutely coiled herself into herself, and did it so completely that she’d began believing herself to be devoid of need or want or urges to do more than what was outwardly expected.

So she’d stopped taking time for herself. She’d stopped going into nature. She’d stopped asking what she loved, or inquiring what she lost, or still required.

Till that day, when the small worm of “maybe,” fed by events that almost forced her hand, led to a gap in her calendar, and to a decision she could not quite explain to herself. A caprice, it felt, to rent a car and go — without a definite plan or conscious understanding of its meaning — into the wilder parts outside the concrete jungle that had become home.

And with the first crunch of her feet onto the leaf-strewn path, something inside her belly and right above her heart began to crack.

She let the wind carry her tears in zigzags on her cheeks. She used her sleeve to wipe her nose, as heedless as a child and as contentedly miserable. She cried because she could. She felt the ache and wronged bewilderment rise in her, slow at first, then unrestrained in its demand to be freed from the confines of denial and regret.

When she’d first left the car at the makeshift parking by the hiking trail, she thought she’d just stretch her legs a bit and perhaps take a few photos of the foliage. She didn’t realize — or perhaps she had but her spirit guarded it a secret so that, too, not be squashed — that there was far more inside her that needed a bit of stretching out. And that once out of the box that confined it, it swelled and would not be going back.

The air around her rustled and a flock of geese curved a misshapen arrow overhead, heading to a warmer clime. She spread her arms and closed her eyes and twirled a slow circle around.

She’d needed this for so long that she almost did not know what to do with it. But she was going to find out.

As the space in her chest fought to accommodate the rise of feelings, the rush of hope finally allowed her to truly inflate her lungs. The leaves around her crumbled to the touch even as more of them floated down to crown her head and shoulders. Some things in her were crumbling, too, even as others — light as golden feathers — came to rest like beacons on a path back to who she was.

 

 

For Sue Vincent’s WritePhoto challenge: Copper

 

Grounded

Photo: Sue Vincent

 

“Where did you find it?”

The boy’s face reflected his struggle: to tell the truth would be to admit he’d been doing what he oughtn’t, but to withhold the truth could mean that what needs to happen, won’t.

The woman waited. Integrity was best cultivated by one’s own appreciation of the internal equilibrium that is restored by accepting the inherent benefit of right versus wrong, and not by shaming or attempting to compel it via fear of punishment.

She knew, of course, that he’d been out of bed, and on a night when he’d already been grounded for breaking his sister’s carpentry project. All the more reason, she thought, to let him find a place to dig himself out of a hole of misdemeanors.

Some children tended to break rules all the time. Her son did not. Or at least not without what one could usually understand as good reason. That the nine-year-old had refused to say why he’d demolished Liz’s contraption, and that he did not argue when he’d been sent to his room, told her there was already more to the story than what he was willing to tell her.

The moment lingered. She let it stretch.

“Outside,” he said. He lifted his eyes to her, having crossed the Rubicon.

Displeased as she was that he broke curfew, she was proud of him for finding the courage to admit it.

“I see,” she nodded and raised an eyebrow in direction of his cupped hands.

“I had to save it.” Timidity was gone now that truth was set in motion. “Liz said she was going to put it in her new cage and keep it. But it is not a pet, and it is hurt and it cannot fly and something was going to come and eat it.”

The boy’s eyes were bright with tears of righteous defiance. “I don’t care if you ground me till I’m, like, a hundred. He needed help!”

The bird wriggled clumsily in the boy’s palms and the child’s young face crumbled in uncertainty. “But … um … before you send me to my room for forever, can you please please drive me to the vet?”

 

 

 

For Sue Vincent’s WritePhoto prompt

 

 

The Way Of Stars

Photo: Sue Vincent

 

They were like stars, swirling low and high across the sky, marking the path of time and soul and light and dark and what will come and what had been.

As the murmuration rose and swelled, so did the sorrow in her chest, as did tears, and longing, and gratitude.

Her grandmother had told her once, that murmurs were a way of making stars. Flocking in elegant waves across the heavens, to the places far above, where movement wasn’t labored and where breath no longer hurt and where hearts beat in the unison of souls that know all separation is only an illusion.

She held on, remembering, her tears a stream to feed flowers that would grow to feed the small things that would feed the starlings that would murmur to make stars to house beloved souls. And she thought of how the murmur in her chest – which made sound and sobs – ached and expanded as the birds’ wings wove and rose and dipped and dove.

For it was like being seen.

The starlings’ dance a last hello, a soft goodbye, a blessing on the wind.

 

 

For Sue Vincent’s Write Photo: Murmur

 

 

 

Light Ahead

Photo: Sue Vincent

 

After weeks of gray and thistles and ceaseless wind that scraped her raw, there was light.

She could scarcely believe it at first.

The cloud cover had been so complete for so long that she’d began wondering if there was even a real sun still behind it. The revolutions of soupy daylight and inky nights felt equally murky as every step became oppressive. She had waking dreams of being lost inside a massive warehouse, a mouse in a maze, endlessly seeking an exit yet seeing none.

She wondered whether there was still use in trying. She was oh so tired.

Now there was a break. The sky spawned a cavity and the leaden heavens began to dissipate. She could discern a layer of ease in the distance.

And light, streaming like caressing fingers ahead. Showing the way home.

 

 

 

Note: Dedicated to the all-too-many who are staggering through their personal wilderness, caught in the molasses of gloom, and thinking of giving up — keep on, hold on. There’s light ahead, and we’re leaving it on for you.

For Sue Vincent’s WritePhoto challenge

 

 

Forget The ABC

Photo: Sue Vincent

 

“If you knew where it goes, would you follow?”

Efran peeked down the leaf-strewn stone shaft and rough steps. “I can see where it goes,” he pointed. “There.”

Jerow shook his head. It could be difficult to know with Efran, whose disposition tended to be ebullient to the point of daft, whether the lad was deliberately vexing or totally clueless. “Yes, you see what looks like the bottom of the stairs, but what’s behind it? Where does it go?”

Efran took anther step and leaned closer to the crack between the stones, absentmindedly pushing back the locks of hair that forever escaped out of his braid. “Well, only one way to know.”

“Wait,” Jerow reached for Efran’s arm. He glanced behind him toward the encampment they’d wandered away from. The trees obscured it. Unless others were stretching restless legs while the elders deliberated the day’s route over morning tea, no one would know where they are. “Shouldn’t we tell someones?”

“Why? So they open a whole new round of discussions about who should be allowed to go down there first and at what auspicious hour?”

Jerow had to admit Efran had a point. If the elders knew about this, they’d probably find reason to forbid it, and if they didn’t know about this, they’d forbid it all the more. Probably claim ABC and CBC.

“Advice Before Carelessness” and “Caution Before Curiosity” were endlessly drilled and just as often resented. How was anyone to learn anything new or do anything exciting if inevitable delays always took precedent to investigation?

Still, he wondered if in this particular case there was merit to at least asking before launching oneself into a crack in the ground. They were, after all, in what everyone knew were haunted territories. He looked around again, almost hoping for someone to stop them.

“Forget the ABC!” Efran dropped his feet onto the steps and used his arms to brace against the narrow walls. “I want to see! Stick to your letters or come with me!”

 

 

 

For Sue Vincent’s WritePhoto

 

 

Where It Broke Out

Photo: Sue Vincent

 

“This is where it broke out.”

Bender shaded his eyes from the glare and squinted at the black patch on the meandering snake of ice.

“Tis a mighty small one, then,” he noted.

Roman frowned. “That hole is bigger up close. And anyway, you should’ve seen the length of it.”

Bender shrugged and took a few steps closer, daring Roman to do the same. The ice crunched under their feet, a staccato to their accelerating heartbeat.

They would be punished for walking here. The Winter Gods had taken too many who strayed onto what masqueraded as solid ground but was in fact bog fairies lurking beneath frosted fronds. Even in summer these flats were dangerous, full of sinkholes and swampy ponds that sucked at your feet and then leeched out your blood. Children were outright forbidden from entering the bog.

Which made the space all the more alluring to boys who had to prove bravery and test the lore.

For there was a boy, the stories told, who got swallowed by a sinkhole only to be adopted by the creek and made half-human and half-snake. He could breathe both in the air and underwater, and came to hunt in winter, when other snakes were slowed by cold.

Some had said they’d seen it, slithering among the silver plants by dusk and dawn. Some even claimed to have escaped its grasp — for the half-boy-half-snake had arms that ended in sharp claws held close to it’s lower body as it undulated silently toward its prey. One man had four parallel scars upon his calf that he said were the proof of his escaping the creature.

Roman said he’d seen it, slipping out of the ice.

Bender never could trust Roman’s sight, influenced as it tended to be by what his friend wished to see but often did not. Still, to say so would be showing him a coward … so … Bender took another step, crunching deeper into the foreboding land.

Behind him, Roman breathed out clouds of exhalation accentuated by shorter puffs of terror. “Perhaps it had gone back in already,” he whispered.

“Yeah,” Bender gasped in barely masked relief. “Must have. After all, it is almost full light. Nothing for it but for us, too, to head back.”

 

 

 

For Sue Vincent’s WritePhoto prompt

The Constitutional

Photo: Sue Vincent

 

“He never would’ve been out there without his hat.”

Elizabeth shook her head in suppressed exasperation. Of course her mother would find fault.

The older woman perched on the edge of the folding chair that Elizabeth and the fresh-faced health-carer had dragged over for her. The flickering episodes of weakness and disorientation had grown more frequent since Grandfather died. Perhaps it had been the shock of finding him, as her mother had, slumped against the edge of the bathtub. Perhaps it had been the letting go that followed endless years of caring for an increasingly ailing parent. Perhaps it was her mother taking on the role of family invalid.

The doctors certainly did not seem to know.

Or know the difference.

Not that Elizabeth could not understand the wish to let go. She could. Very much so.

Caring for her increasingly moody mother gave her a taste of what it had to have been like for her mother to endure the constant worry over and never-ending bitterness of a man who could no longer do what had sustained him. The amicable if somewhat taciturn grandfather had turned into a fussy, verbally cruel, bed-bound tyrant. Her mother’s father had to have become insufferable.

A little like her mother was becoming.

“They should’ve made a hat. It’s all wrong without a hat.” Her mother scowled.

The figure on the hill leaned into the wind. Impossibly lithe and utterly determined, it embodied how Elizabeth the young child had known him. As far back as she could remember, Grandfather never missed a day of what he’d called his “constitutional.” Rain or shine or wind or hail or mist or blazing sun, her grandfather would leave on his solitary afternoon walk, returning — like clockwork — when the sun had disappeared behind the hill.

Elizabeth would wait for him, her child’s body pressed against the stone fence that bordered the estate, and watch his shadow edge on home, his walking stick as part of him as any limb could be. At some point his tweed pants would materialize at the bottom of the shadow, and in another step or two the rest of him would unveil into certainty.

By the time he’d reach the gate, his windblown face would hold a smile for her. He’d nod a welcome, compensating with it for the long wait, for the yearning that he’d take her along (he never did, nor had he taken any of his children before that), and for the fluttery worry that perhaps the shadowed figure was not Grandfather at all, but in fact an elf or ghost or some trickster’s apparition.

She gazed at the silhouette on the hill, its stride frozen forever in the time before a stroke changed everything.

Hat or not, this was how he’d want to be remembered.

“He’d stuff the hat in his pocket when the wind was high,” she whispered, her voice full of sudden sorrow. “He’d pull it out and put it on a step before he reached the gate.”

Her mother’s mouth opened in preparation for automatic argument, but then the wrinkled corners turned down as a quiver shook her chin.

“He did,” her voice a child’s in elder’s clothing. “It is exactly what he’d do.”

Elizabeth squeezed her mother’s shoulder and the older woman placed a trembling hand over her daughter’s.

“It is perfect, then,” her mother murmured. “I’d forgotten. Take me home, Lizzy. Let us allow him his constitutional in peace, now that he can once more go about it.”

 

 

 

For Sue Vincent’s WritePhoto Challenge

 

 

Faith in Stones

Photo: Sue Vincent

 

They none of them could explain when it had been built or how it had been done. The standing stones were magic enough, but the slab of solid rock perching above their heads against the laws of order and human power — it went beyond what anyone understood.

Even The Sage did not know.

And she knew everything there was to learn and some of what could not be taught yet she ascertained anyhow.

“Though I heard say …” The Sage stretched the words as every child and many an adult leaned into her speaking. It was the mid-of-day that followed the longest morning. A time of pause and story. “… that it could have been the Angel Bird.”

The elder’s wisps of hair haloed her face. The oval itself was shadowed by the relative darkness under the stone overhang.

A child shifted in his mother’s lap. An errant toddler was reprimanded. A baby’s wail was quieted by its mother’s nipple. The people settled.

The Sage lifted her chin and many eyes followed. Soot and marks of time tanned the gray expanse above.

“In her beak, the Angel Bird can carry many men into the sea. Her wings can mask the stars so fishers lose the way back to their hearths. She can lift a whale and place it on the shore to feed the people. She can bring the howling wind. She can ice the river. She can slash the fire in the skies. Yet she can also pluck a clover and carve a snowflake. She can blow a single hair off of an ailing person’s forehead and lead them back to health or to the place-of-no-more-breath. … ” The Sage paused and filled her own lungs with air. “Perhaps the Angel Bird was the one to lift the slab atop the pillars.”

“Can she take it down?”

An admonishing murmur rose. Young voice or not, saying a thing made it. Now the notion hung above them like storm-clouds. Fear thickened the air but to state the worry might make it, too.

The Sage raised her palm but let the silence linger. Her eyes wandered over the cracks and small crevices of the ancient stone.

The questioning child was not to blame. The Sage had wondered similarly herself. Had her thoughts manifested through the young one’s mind? It had been known to happen. Sometimes it was a sign of too-easy a persuasion. At other times it signaled the nascent perceptiveness of a future apprentice.

The girl met The Sage’s eyes with tears brimming at the unfairness of collective condemnation, but stared on, defiant.

The latter then. The Sage allowed a corner of her lip to twitch. She’ll take it on herself to observe the child. In the meantime the girl deserved the response that had chased away many an hour of The Sage’s sleep.

“Indeed the Angel Bird can …”

People gasped. More frowns were directed at the girl, who pulled herself straighter, pushed a mess of tangled hair off her face, and squared her shoulders.

The latter. No question now.

“And she likely will. In time,” The Sage added.

An audible inhale rippled through the group as more and more faces lifted to inspect the heavy ceiling. No longer a taken-for-granted solid refuge, but a slide-between-the-fingers sand.

“All things die,” The Sage pressed on, aware that the answer had become the opportunity for its own story. “It is no curse nor blessing. No different than the change of seasons or the leaves that bud and green and grow and brown and fall. In early summer it may seem that foliage had always been and always will be, and yet we know that time will come when the leaves will die and the branches be laid bare.”

“This is no leaf,” a woman murmured, eyes uneasily on the rock and her body curled over a nursing infant.

Several other women fidgeted and darted glances at the sunny meadow at the shelter’s side.

The Sage sighed. Panic tended to have its fingers intertwined with knowledge. She knew it better than most.

“Life requires faith,” she said. “Every person who ever took shelter under this place of magic — from the first ancestors to the persons sitting here today — accepted that it is not of our doing. Whether by the Angel Bird or a different magic, this marvel means that our people do not suffer in the rain or ice or burning sun. We did not build this. It is our home but we do not own it. The most we can do is ensure we keep it well and are not the ones to destroy it.”

 

 

 

 

 

For Sue Vincent’s WritePhoto prompt