The late morning star threw jagged sunlight across Ash’s face. She stirred slightly and felt someone next to her in bed. Fragile wisps of dyed black hair fell across broad shoulders, but his face was turned away. Ash’s gaze lingered, and she traced her finger above the intricate patterns on his back. The colours and symbols mapped pieces of his life, a journey which had only just begun.
She took a deep breath and followed the light across the room where it settled on the top shelf of her armoire, hitting the center of the hourglass. The reddish tinted sands of time burned under the hot summer sun, bursting as if on fire. Ash watched the hourglass intently; the bottom portion was nearly full, the top portion waning. She felt the irresistible urge to run across the room and turn the hourglass upon its head, though she knew it would not move for her.
Usually she was very careful, but she had hardly noticed this time as time slipped through the sieve of glass. Ash got out of bed and walked to the window to draw the blinds. She stretched and felt nothing changed. Her skin was still softening, white streaks ran forcefully through her dark hair; she could feel her body slipping away from her, gradually, persistently. She did not know her true age and she did not care to know. She lived by cycle, by the waxing and waning of the hourglass.
She watched the city move beneath her, bursting with life, unaware of the passage of time, the insignificance of measure, day turning into night, into day, into night again. She thought back to when she was younger, when the knowledge of her fate weighed upon her as heavily as each grain of sand which passed through the hourglass. She had changed.
Now, even though she sensed they could not restore her, Ash still accepted those who sought her comfort. Who was she to refuse them?
“Good morning,” the young man mumbled in a soft voice, removing Ash from her thoughts. She tensed, and was glad that her back was to him and he could not see her pensive face.
“It’s almost noon.” She said, turning to reveal herself.
Nathaniel stared at her. She was even more beautiful than he had thought the night before. He remembered seeing her from his seat at the bar, the tight, burning sensation that ran through him as he watched her dancing. He heard the voice of the old woman he had met on the street just hours earlier, cautioning him:
“You will recognize her, but you will forget the danger.”
The old crone was wrong, he had thought; the thrill of fear entwined with desire permeated his being.
She left the dance floor and he had followed her with his eyes, barely able to believe his luck as she edged her way towards him and they made eye contact, a split-second shock. She paused, then kept walking. Emboldened by the drinks he had consumed earlier, he ran out of the bar after her.
The humidity of the hot summer night clung to his skin as he caught up with her on the sidewalk. He touched her shoulder gently, stammered hello under her cool gaze.
“Please,” he had said, “allow me to take you home.”
She searched his face, then nodded, and they walked several blocks to her apartment. Inside, they kissed hungrily, releasing zippers and easing buttons; clothing was pulled, torn from skin. He remembered that when he had looked into her eyes, he felt like he was falling.
“I hope you have slept well.”
Vertigo. He watched her standing very still across the room; bands of sunlight crossing her naked skin, blinding him with blurry desire.
“Where is your accent from?” he asked.
“Your accent … it’s …” He fumbled awkwardly as she watched him. “I don’t know. It’s very slight, but you sound different … You can’t originally be from New York?”
“No … not originally,” she said carefully.
She lived by place; Anna in Poland, Delphine in France. In America, she was called Ash – short for Ashley she would say if asked, but she was rarely asked.
She knew that he knew that she was evading the question.
“Born and bred” he laughed. “Though I’ve traveled all over really, with my band, but New York is … always will be, home.”
“So you are a musician?” She asked politely.
“Yes. My band just broke up, but … well, I wrote all the songs anyway, so, it’s not like it was a team effort. I can do it alone, if I have to. Other than that, I work at mostly crappy jobs. You know, jobs I can just leave or take, retail, restaurants, you know the deal …”
Ash wasn’t sure she did know the deal, but she certainly knew what it was like to be transient, to work for the money that bought shelter, food, comforts.
“Where do you work?”
“I … recently I’ve found work repairing jewelry and watches.”
“Is that where you got that?” he asked.
She followed his gaze to the hourglass on the very top of the armoire. Ash closed her eyes. Too many questions, he was getting too close.
“I had a nice night, please don’t take this the wrong way, but I do have a lot to do today …”
“… and don’t let the door hit my ass on the way out?” He laughed, showing uneven white teeth, a brilliant smile.
She looked at him patiently.
“Hmm, okay,” he said, “but, wouldn’t you like to have breakfast or lunch or something? That’s how things go the morning after, don’t they? I don’t really make it a habit to wake up like this, I mean, under such circumstances … I mean, I feel like we’ve done things a bit backwards, and I’d like to at least get a chance to talk with you, to look at such a beautiful woman just a little longer.”
He smiled again, a hint of mischievousness lurking at the corners of his grin, as if he hoped that Ash would not be immune to such flattery. Inside, he felt uneasy as he watched the indecision play out in her face.
“I’m sorry,” she said, turning away.
“Don’t be sorry,” he said. “It’s just that I thought … well, it doesn’t matter. I thought she was crazy anyway.”
He shook his head in mild amusement. “The old woman was wrong after all.”
“The old woman?”
“Yeah, I guess because it was so surreal, so strange. I thought … I mean, I walk down that street every day and I never saw her but she, well, to put it bluntly, she told me that I would meet you.”
“That’s impossible.” Ash laughed.
“Is it?” Nathaniel looked at her seriously, and she averted her eyes to look through the window again.
“I would think,” she said in a measured tone, “that if she told you that you would meet me, then she would have also told you to keep away.”
Ash turned around.
“The woman said, ‘you with the mark of the raven’.” Nathaniel caressed the tattoo on his shoulder. “I was wearing a shirt … I stopped. She began shuffling cards.”
“And what else did she say?” Ash shifted her eyes from the raven on his shoulder to his face.
“She said I would meet a woman of dark and mysterious beauty who would have the potential to change me in ways unknowable in the mortal realm.”
He laughed; it seemed so ridiculous. He couldn’t believe he was telling her this. He blushed, but his eyes did not waver. Ash composed her face. They stared at each other for a few moments.
“What else did she say?”
He hesitated, then decided not to tell Ash that the old woman had also said that he was in danger, that if he met her, his soul would burn in aberration, that the woman would alter the course of his destiny. He did not tell her that as he turned away, the old woman had grabbed his wrist painfully. “Turn nothing,” she had hissed, “Do what you will, but turn nothing.”
He had tried to shake the crone off, but it was difficult; the old woman held his wrist with a strangely firm grip. When she finally released him, he felt dizzy and dazed. As he walked away, shaking his head in disbelief, she continued to shout after him.
“Tell her it’s time to come home.”
Ash felt a tug in her chest. She felt the pervasiveness of home, the concept of it, the scent of grass and green wood. She didn’t remember home any more than she remembered her age. But still, both lingered somewhere deep within her heart, in the landscape of her dreams.
“And you believe in such sorcery?” Ash said lightly.
He looked at her helplessly.
Ash admired the young man’s honest beauty, from his lean body and lucid eyes to his sensual lips. She liked the scar set like a crescent moon on his cheek and the map of tattoos and scars on his body; she inhaled his scent, softly burning pine.
“Maybe… Maybe I’m still just dreaming.” Nathaniel sighed deeply.
For reasons that she could not fathom nor articulate, Ash was seized with the thought that he was quite different from the others. This young man had crashed into her world, insisted on taking her home. She knew he could not restore her, but he touched her with his openness. There was something about him, about his very tenacity, that softened her resolve.
She walked back to the bed and crawled across the tangled sheets and coverlet. She stopped above his body, resting her own nakedness gently against his. Her breath caressed his lips as she whispered, “You feel very much awake to me.”
For the next several hours, their bodies entwined with furious pleasure. As the afternoon passed into early evening, they learned each others bodies even more intimately than the night prior. Skin was pressed, kissed, sucked. Arms and legs contorted in esoteric positions. Their bodies together formed a single body, like the ocean, rough crashing waves smoothing into softness, gingerly fingering the giving sand before returning to the deep again.
By returning to bed, Ash broke one of her first rules. He should have left upon waking. Then she broke another rule.
His name left her lips before she could think. She breathed his name in a sob of ecstasy, a barely perceptible intonation.
Hearing his name in her voice had a strange effect on him; it was as if he was hearing his name for the very first time. He knew nothing about her, he didn’t care; he loved her. The feeling swelled within him. His soul opened to her, he would worship her forever; he would never let her go.
They laid together, knotted in thoughtful silence.
Ash could feel the age in her body, the skin drying and softening on her hands, the slow web of wrinkles giving way around her mouth and the corner of her eye. She had needed this one to restore her, to take part of innocence and give him experience in return. It was a simple method of subtraction and addition; she would not hurt him.
But he was not innocent. She knew it when she had taken him home; she knew it when she had woken in the morning. She knew it as they moved together as one, tapping into the very essence and energy of the universe, speaking the ancient language of body.
“Who are you?” she asked, as they lay together in the darkening room.
“I am yours.” He said simply, and then fell into a deep sleep.
Ash felt his love, so uncomplicated and forceful, stirring within her. She was awakening to a feeling that she had known so long ago. Lulled by his sleeping breath, she also slept. Her dreams were vivid and when she woke, she immediately knew that she had changed. Her body ached in what felt like a hundred different places. She left the bed quietly so as not to wake Nathaniel and made her way to the bathroom, afraid.
The light almost made her cry out, and she bit her lip so hard that she drew blood. She wiped the rusted taste away with the back of her gnarled and wrinkled hand. Her hair still fell to her waist, but it was a shock of white.
Ash whispered to her reflection, “No. Not like this.”
She closed the light in the bathroom and stole into the other room, searching for the hourglass that sat in a consecrated spot on her armoire. She reached for it in the darkness, and when she held the heavy alloy framing the glass, it was surprisingly light. She carried it with her back to the bathroom. In desperation, she turned the hourglass, a stopped clock; the sand refused to fall.
She had run out of time; she had failed.
She thought of Nathaniel in the bed, so full of youth, so full of love, and she couldn’t touch him. She couldn’t let him see her like this. Ash watched her reflection in the mirror in horror. Her face was skeletal, her body was brittle bone and bent spine. Holding the hourglass in one hand, she aimed at the mirror. The mirror cracked into several versions of Ash dwindling as shadows filled the room, shattering her image into fractions of seconds as she fell into the light.
Nathaniel lay suspended between sleep and wakefulness. He sat with Ash in a field; she wore a deep green dress. She spoke to him gently, caressing his face and hands as she spoke.
“I was born in a fairy tale, a world of green hills and ribbons of cloud. I never wanted anything else, save the beauty of the earth and the simplicity of my place in it. To help my family, I served ale at the local tavern, being the age of maturity. There were whispers that I should marry, or at least take a lover, but I had no such designs. My beauty was untouchable, and no one dared trespass my inner sanctity … but then I did meet a man, a traveler. He was so beautiful, so soft and gentle, that when he asked me to meet him at the wood on the eve of the summer solstice, I did. There he loved me in ways I had never known, and would never have known again, except for you … Nathaniel … except for this very night.”
“I did not know where he went when I woke. I was bereft, mad with love. In his wake, he left me an hourglass, the very hourglass that you commented on. I thought it was a token, a treasure, but little did I know then of the curse laid upon it. When I laid my hands on it and turned it upside down, I found that I could no longer turn it back again. The sands of time showered down until he came to me in a dream and told me of my fate. In order to keep my youth and, indeed, my life, I would have to give my own experience away, in exchange for the innocence I would take. This exchange, this method of addition and subtraction, would suspend the rate of the time falling through the sieve. And this is the manner in which I have lived, Nathaniel, for hundreds of years, in different times and different places.”
“But I have grown tired, and I have grown old. I did not caution myself against the passing, and I took those into my bed who would not fulfill my need. Perhaps I also had a need, though I did not know of it until last night. The fortune teller you met is correct; I have not been an ordinary mortal. But I will still die as any mortal, my life befitting the name I have chosen this time, into ash, sands of time. I do not wish this life upon anyone, so I must caution you to leave immediately when you wake. Do as the fortune teller told you, and turn away, dear Nathaniel, the one who is young and not innocent, the one who has returned me to love, to the natural course of life. I will now know peace as I return to the world’s dream.”
Nathaniel woke in the darkness suddenly and felt the emptiness of the bed next to him before he opened his eyes. Panic began to rise within him, as the realization that she was gone began to solidify in his mind.
“Ash?” He scanned the apartment, shaking the sleep from his mind.
“Ash, where are you?”
He looked in her closet, her drawers, nothing. There was nothing to indicate her presence, her existence. He noticed that the strange looking hourglass was missing.
He opened the door to the bathroom. He saw the fractured mirror. He found the hourglass on the floor. There was a moment of hesitation as his mind raced deliriously, desperately. All thought spiraled relentlessly on one thought: he would never see her again. He knelt on the bathroom tile among shards of mirror shattered stars and picked up the hourglass. The alloy felt heavy; the sand was stopped breath, full and bright, apple-red, hungry to be turned, to be free, to fall.
Tale of the Hourglass was published in Rose Red Review.