Tag Archives: death

hallelujah

“Hallelujah is not a mere liturgic command, like a prelude to something exuberant. It is a crucial exercise that teaches us not only how to live but also how to die.” – Arie Uittenbogaard, Hallelujah.

Hallelujah  is the ultimate expression of surrendering control to god, the universe, collective consciousness, and/or divine power, and it is at the heart of the spiritual practice of letting go.

RIP to the great poet, musician, and activist,  Leonard Cohen. Thank you Gungor for sharing this prayer and reminder, in tribute.

*


between the earth and the river lethe

Down by the River Lethe

 

There was nothing unusual about that day, except, in retrospect; I was more aware of his body moving closer to mine in the ascendant staircase. By the fifth floor, his stride quickened and as I passed the sixth, he edged around me as if he were in a great hurry. He swept in front of me at the seventh floor and his coat turned in a circular motion akin to the dramatic flourish of a cape. He reached into his pocket and extracted a medium-sized dark red fruit. He held it out to me and said, in a gravely articulated manner,

“A pomegranate, in exchange for a kiss.”

“What?” I stammered.

For several weeks, the heavy sound of his boots had followed me up the stairs. He always paced himself so that at least one half-turn of the staircase was between us. When I reached the seventh floor, I never held the door for him; he was always too far behind me.

The sound of his footsteps would reverberate in the hall before he entered the classroom, his shoulders bent in an awkward stoop as he walked through the doorway. He never corrected his posture after passing through the aperture; he continued a few steps, hunched as if awaiting a blow, and sat in the first available seat nearest the door.

A quick glance revealed nothing of his features. I could see that the desk was ill-fitting to his frame. His long black coat tailed on the floor, the edge dirty and stained. His clothing was a blur of blackness. He kept his face downcast, obscured by lank dark brown hair. When the class began, I averted my attention, and I didn’t give him another thought until the next week, when his presence assaulted me in the flight of stairs.

“A pomegranate, in exchange for a kiss.” He repeated his previous request, though his voice seemed a little more strained.

If the ground had opened up before me, revealing a winged chariot, I would not have been as surprised.

I looked directly into his face and searched for a hint of a smile, to let me know he was joking, but found nothing. His skin was without colour and the iris of his eye was so brown it was hard to locate the circumference of his pupil; as a result, his eyes appeared so dark I questioned the depth of his soul.

He stood patiently, his palm outstretched, unwavering.

The usual before-class noise dimmed and within moments, there was a certain stillness that could only mean that classes had begun. I hadn’t answered him and he still stood before me. Neither one of us moved or seemed to breathe.

“We’re late for class,” I finally said, “I hate walking in late.”

“Will you accept my offer?” He asked quietly, as his eyes fell to the floor. He picked at the hem of his pocket with his right hand, the left still outstretched but wilting.

“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “I’m no Persephone.”

He smiled, and his face shone with a rare light.

“Would you like to go for a walk or something? I hate walking in late to class too.”

I nodded in agreement and we began the descent down the stairs. He put the pomegranate back into his pocket, but it weighed between us, an unanswered question.

We walked out of the building and were thrust into the city street. The sidewalk was crowded with people and I started to get anxious. My therapist had suggested that I take a class, once a week, as I was making progress with my social phobias. I started to walk left and he started to walk right, but then he stopped and reached for my hand and led me in his direction.

For all his awkwardness, he appeared to negotiate himself on the sidewalk with ease. Whereas I could not walk a block without stuttering in my step and nearly slamming into the people hurrying towards me from the other direction, he moved effortlessly through the chaotic rhythm of the street.

“Have you lived in New York long?” I asked.

“All my life. I grew up over by Central Park. My parents still live there, but I don’t see them anymore,” he said, his voice edging discomfort.

“Oh.” I answered, not knowing how to respond. I thought that I could tell him about my own parents, since he mentioned his. However, I didn’t have parents, well, not exactly.

I found out that I was adopted in my early twenties, when my mother and father died in a freak car accident. But that wasn’t exactly the type of thing you would talk about to a stranger who cornered you in the hallway, was it? I wasn’t even sure why I agreed to take the walk with him. I wondered what my therapist would say. She would probably think that it was an important step for me. I hadn’t gone out on a date or had sex or even kissed someone in over two years.

After we were quiet for a while, he asked me where I was from.

“Not Manhattan.” I answered.

“I figured,” he said, “you kind of have an accent.”

Of course I had been told that before. I didn’t want to tell him where I was from or that I didn’t know who my birth parents were or that sometimes I still looked into the mirror, trying to piece together a picture of my birth mother, thinking perhaps she had the same shape lips, or the same nose, or the same pale fringe of eyelashes that didn’t seem quite capable of protecting the eye.

We entered the park at the north entrance and walked the path, past the undergrowth and grass, to the benches. I was immediately comforted by surrounding nature. The sky was darkening and there was a chill in the air. We sat down and he put his hands into his pockets. It was a little colder than I had first realized and I rubbed my hands together, careful to pull the sleeves of my sweater over my wrists.

“Are you cold?” He asked.

I shook my head in an ambivalent way, meaning yes, but no. He looked at me for a moment, as if turning a question over in his mind.

“We could get some coffee, if you want.”

“No, that’s okay. I can’t really stay that long.” I said. I knew I wasn’t contributing to the conversation, but I simply didn’t trust myself to say anything.

I had been practicing my conversation skills with my therapist, but the same rules didn’t seem to apply with him. I tried to remember his name, but couldn’t. I thought about asking him, but figured we had already spent some time together and asking now would be somewhat awkward.

We fell into an uncomfortable silence. I absently kicked at the twigs and dried leaves that had gathered around the legs of the bench while he sat with his legs straight out onto the path. He stirred, crossed his leg over the other, and then, moving again, he settled into a more upright position, but remained slightly hunched over.

“I didn’t mean to offend you,” he suddenly said, his voice so soft that I had to strain to hear him.

“What?” I asked.

“I didn’t mean to offend you by my offer,” he said again, a little more loudly.

I began to wonder if he had social anxiety as well, because he didn’t seem much better at conversing than I. In fact, I couldn’t recall him ever speaking out in class, or answering a question, or talking to someone nearby.

“I wouldn’t say that you offended me.”

“Because that really wasn’t my intent.”

“What wasn’t your intent?” I asked.

“To offend you,” he said.

I paused for a minute, and a slight smile crossed my lips. “Oh, I thought you meant … to kiss me.”

“No, I intended that.”

He laughed nervously, which made me laugh a little nervously as well. I stole a glance at his face and wondered what it would be like to kiss him, thinking how strange it was that between two bodies, the most insurmountable wall was something as simple as touch.

He took his hands out of his pockets.

“Look,” he said, “at the moon. You can see it just behind those trees.”

He pointed in the direction of the moon, and I could see it rising low on the horizon. The branches of the trees, reaching desperately for the sky, were outlined crisply against the fading light. Looking at the trees in the park, I felt suddenly sad.

“Where I’m from,” I said, “Nature is something you live in, not something you have to find, tucked away like an ill-forgotten secret, battling for space against buildings, bricks, and concrete.”

“Everything is confined in one way or another, isn’t it?”

We had been sitting for almost an hour, our silent conversation growing more comfortable, when he suddenly said, “I want to show you something,”

He hesitated, then brushed the hair out of his eyes. Holding his arms out in front of him, he pushed up the left sleeve of his coat with his right hand, and then the right sleeve with his left.

He held out his arms to me, and I instantly recognized the disfiguration of his skin. Each of his arms were scarred badly with several deep lines, starting at various points at the wrist and continuing upwards.

“I’ve been dead for a long time,” he said, “Each time, I put a coin in my mouth, and prayed that Charon would accept his fare … but I can’t seem to leave this world.”

He pulled down his sleeves and put his hands back into his pockets. He exhaled and shifted his position on the bench.

“All my life, I’ve searched for the river Lethe,” I said.

He nodded and whispered absently, “The river of forgetfulness. The stream of death, the tributary of rebirth. I would surely wait one thousand years to be called to the river Lethe and cleansed of my memory.”

“There’s something I should…” I said, fingering the sleeve of my sweater.

“You don’t have to show me.”

He took his hands from his pockets and reached for my hand. Then he placed his other hand on top of our joined hands, so that my left hand was enclosed in both of his.

“How did you know?” I asked.

“I recognized you from the moment I saw you.”

We sat on the bench, turned towards each other, as the evening fell later into night, and the moon rose high and bright in the sky.

“Can I hold the pomegranate?” I asked.

He nodded solemnly and untangled his hands from mine to reach into his pocket and extract the fruit. He held it out to me reverently, as he had earlier, when he made his offering.

I took the pomegranate and held it with both hands. It was slightly warm from being in his pocket. I held it as if I were holding a very small globe. If I accepted his offer, could I survive the months of darkness, the black rivers and bare earth reflected in his eyes? Would my mother, then, try to find me?

I brought the pomegranate to my mouth and brushed my lips against the hard rind, tasting the scent of the ancient fruit. I imagined the labyrinth of seeds and the dark red pulp hidden inside, waiting to be revealed. Then, cradling the world between my fragile hands, I turned to answer him.

 

*


the gift

Anya looked outside the window as summer made way for fall, when the trees shyly shed their leaves in preparation for proud winter. She watched the branches sway in their green loveliness, knowing that all too soon they would be stripped bare to reveal their nakedness, exposing their innate desire to stretch and reach for the sun.

The afternoon light warmed Anya as she rocked in her chair, knitting. She was waiting for the one thing that would make her life complete and bring her full circle – the birth of her first great-grandchild, who she knew would be a girl, and who would be called Anya. The touch of the wool was soft and giving, almost as soft as the down on a baby’s back, and she longed to hold that child with a sudden fierceness that surprised her.

Closing her eyes, Anya descended into memory. She had died while she was being born. This was one of the first things she learned about herself, and it was at the core of her understanding who she was, for death had bequeathed her with a kiss, a curse – a gift that would follow her throughout her life. She thought about birth, about the entry into this world, and thought it cruel that the womb only held a child for nine months. To be that loved, wholly and completely safe … the thought brought a smile to her face. Then she thought about the children who were not wanted, who were not safe even in their mother’s wombs, and she could not make sense of it. It made her heart hurt, and her eyes winced with pain.

Anya opened her eyes again and thought she might have fallen asleep. The grandfather clock in the living room chimed several times. She thought about giving away the clock; it was useless to her now. She resented the ticking of seconds and the long, hollow chimes announcing each hour. She preferred to live by season, by the shifting light of each day. She woke when the birds began their morning song and the sky broke through its veil of darkness. She knew it was night when the light turned dark and the sun shattered into stars.

A knock on the door alerted the arrival of a visitor. The knock was a soft scratching, the sound reminiscent of the way her beloved stray used to return home in the evenings, so cautious, quietly insistent, eager to be let in. Anya smiled, knowing that it was Hope, the little girl who lived next door.

*

“Come in, child,” she called out, and listened for Hope’s hesitant footsteps as she walked through the kitchen , down the hallway, and into the sitting room. Anya sat up a little straighter in the chair and put her knitting into the basket beside her.

“Hello,” the girl said, peeking her head into the room first, as if she still wasn’t sure it was okay for her to enter.

“Don’t be shy,” Anya said. “Come, come,” she waved her closer, “should we continue where we left off? Or do you want to start from the beginning?”

Anya reached back into the basket and pulled out two decks of cards. She swung out the side table so that they would have a surface to play upon, then began shuffling. Hope pulled one of the chairs forward and sat down across from her. Two decks, 13 cards each, 7 hands. They played a game that Anya had made up long ago, and she changed the rules each time. The last time they played, they had only gotten through five hands, and Hope was losing badly. Anya had watched the girl compose herself as tears stung her eyes and she tried and failed and tried again; she was learning.

“Let’s start from the beginning.”

Hope’s feet swung in anticipation, her toes still not quite able to reach the floor. She looked around at the paintings and drawings Anya had made, always fascinated that the old woman had created such vibrant, strange art. Her eye traveled across the objects Anya had acquired from her travels all over the world. Hope often asked her questions about them, and sometimes Anya would respond with stories from her life. Hope listened, spellbound, as the hazy summer sun set in another time, lost in Anya’s memories, dreams of comrades and friends, artists and lovers, years of war, challenges, changes, new beginnings.

Hope took a deep breath and felt more calm than she had all day, all week even. The sound of splashing from a neighbor’s pool, laughter, and young shrieking voices carried across the wind into the room.

“Don’t you want to play with the other children?”

“No,” the girl answered.

She didn’t want to tell Anya that Chrissy wouldn’t allow the other kids to talk to her this week. She didn’t want to tell her that “this week” was going on the third week in a row. Ever since Chrissy caught her playing with Adam when it was his week, she’d been furious with her. Hope wasn’t trying to play with him. Adam came over to her when she was sitting outside, reading by the tree. He was so lonely, he was crying, and she never liked that game anyway; she thought it was mean. But no one else besides her would dare go against Chrissy. For the past three weeks, even Adam averted his eyes and pretended Hope didn’t exist.

“I like playing with you.”

“And I like playing with you too,” Anya smiled. She loved this little girl who appeared one day at her side door, eyes as big as moonflowers blooming in a dark, neglected garden.

“But it’s important to have friends your own age.”

The girl didn’t answer. She didn’t know what to say. She wanted to have friends her own age. She wanted to have friends like the characters in the books she loved to read, but she never met kids like that in real life. Chrissy wanted to make everyone in the neighborhood hate her, and she didn’t know why. They used to be friends. Chrissy said she wanted to be her best friend in the world. Then, she told all the kids her secrets, right in front of her, and laughed as if she was telling them all a joke. She told them that her parents always fought, that she wished she could live in a book, that she was waiting for her magic to appear. She told them that she still played with baby toys, even though she was twelve years old, even though those were the toys Chrissy had always wanted to play with when she came over, and they had made up complex stories with those little people and tiny houses.

“Amelia and David used to be my friends, but they moved away.”

She thought about her old friends, Amelia and David. They used to play a lot together. Her basement was their own private world, and Hope’s mother never bothered them. The first rainy day that they all played together, David said “I like to kiss girls” and Amelia said “I like to kiss girls too.” Hope had smiled at both of them and said, “that’s okay, I like to kiss girls and boys.”

After Amelia moved, it was just Hope and David. David liked to play superhero, and he used to tie her up with her jump rope, like in one of those saturday morning cartoons; he was the hero and the villain, and she was the heroine, captured, bound, waiting to be rescued. He liked to play cops and robbers and when he caught her, he’d put her in jail, then punish her with chinese tickle-torture until she laughed so hard she could barely breathe. He liked to play family, and he always wanted to be the dad. He insisting on taking care of the babies while Hope went to work, and cuddling all together when she came home.

When Chrissy’s family moved into Amelia’s house, Hope invited her over to play. David said “I like to play doctor” and Chrissy said “I like to play doctor too.” But when David started taking off his pants for a check up, Chrissy didn’t want to play anymore. She said that they were dirty and that she was going home. Chrissy’s mother told all the other mothers what happened. None of the neighborhood girls were allowed to play with David anymore, including Hope. Then, he moved away too.

“I wish I could go somewhere new,” Hope said.

“You will, someday,” Anya said, laying down her cards in a perfect spread.

Hope hadn’t even put down her hand yet. She gave her cards reluctantly to Anya to count. She would have to re-do the hand, while Anya moved on to the next one. Hope bit her lip. Anya would get double the points for this hand, while she got zero. She would never catch up.

“You can still win,” Anya said as if reading her thoughts, then began shuffling the cards again for the next hand.

“What’s that?” Hope asked, her eye catching the rainbow of colours in the knitting basket on the floor.

Anya smiled proudly. “My first great-grandchild will be born soon. I’m knitting a baby blanket for her … It’s my gift.”

“It’s beautiful,” Hope said wistfully.

“Do you know how to knit, child?”

“No …” the girl said. “Would you teach me?”

“Of course,” Anya said. “Next time.”

*

Alone, a wave of deep sadness and bittersweet nostalgia passed over her as she thought about her life, her endless dance with death. Anya knew that if she was damned to eternal return, she would have no regrets. She had lived a full life. She had lived as an artist, a wife, a mother, an independent woman. She was proud of the work she had done. The love of her life was an army man; she had lost him in the last war. She had lived more years without him than she had with him, but she still loved him as much as the day she had married him. He had blessed her with three beautiful children who brought her so much joy. Her life had been filled with love; she had amazing family, incredible friends, passionate lovers. Now, all of her friends and lovers were gone. Now, her children were all grown, with families of their own. Now, her eyes and hands didn’t work the way they used to, and she hadn’t been able to paint or draw in years. Now, she was alone.

There was a knock at the door.

Since becoming friends with Hope over the summer, she had grown used to having a daily visitor. But Hope only came in the afternoon, after lunch. She listened again. It was not Hope’s knock. This knock was impatient, forceful, angry. Anya got up from her chair and slowly made her way into the kitchen, to see who it was.

A girl about Hope’s age stood outside the screen door. She looked like a corn-fed child model, blonde and blue eyed and rosy cheeked, with a splash of freckles across the bridge of her nose. The girl smiled.

“Can I help you?” Anya asked.

“Can I come in?” the girl asked, pulling at the door. The door did not open. The door was unlocked.

“Why are you here?” Anya asked bluntly.

“I know that Hope has been coming here. I’ve seen her. You let Hope come in. Why won’t you let me in?” the girl pulled at the door again.

“I’m sorry child … there is nothing for you here.”

“You are teaching Hope, aren’t you?” the girl said angrily, nearly spitting out the words.

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you are talking about.”

Anya reprimanded herself for leaving the side door open. All that stood between her and the girl was a flimsy screen. She felt the frailty of her old woman’s body betray her only for a moment. Then, her eyes burned. She put one hand on her hip, and the other on the knob of the heavy door that stood ajar, ready to close it.

“I think you do.” The girl held her eyes, and Anya felt a chill run through her bones. “And I’m telling you to stop. Because if you don’t stop, I will make you stop.”

“Are you threatening me child?”

“No,” the girl said, still smiling. “It’s not a threat. It’s a promise.”

“Go home, child. Don’t come back here.”

A woman’s voice pierced the silence between them, calling out into the quickly darkening sky: “Chrissy! Chrissssy! Come home!”

The girl rolled her eyes then called back in a sweet sing-song voice, “coming!” She glared at Anya one last time and left.

*

Hope’s mother kept the blinds closed so that no sunlight would enter the house. They didn’t have air conditioning so the absence of sun made the inside of the house about 10 degrees cooler than it was outside. Still, it was hot.

Hope sat with her brother in the dark at the dining room table, but they did not talk to each other. Her brother watched television with a focus he only seemed to have when the tv was on, which is probably why her mother always kept it on. Hope finished her sandwich and drank the last of her milk before she asked her mother for permission to go to Anya’s house. Hope’s mother was sitting in the shadowy kitchen alone, smoking again. It seemed that the bitter-sharp scent of tobacco, smoke and ash, remnants of fire, had become part of her mother’s moody silences since her parents stopped fighting. Now, they only fought when her dad came home, and that seemed to happen less and less often these days. The silence seemed just as loud.

“Hope … Miss Anya is a lovely old woman, and I know you think of her as a friend but –”

“She is my friend!”

Hope’s mother inhaled her cigarette.

“Do you want to take your brother with you?”

“No,” Hope said quickly, but seeing her mother’s eyebrows rise, she added, “Miss Anya is going to teach me how to knit. He’d be in the way.”

“I know how to knit … I could teach you.”

“I’ve never seen you knit.”

“Well, I used to knit. I’m sure I remember how … My grandmother taught me … Grandma even knit the blanket you loved so much. Don’t you remember?”

“Grandma made my blanket?” Hope asked.

“No … my grandmother made it. Your great-grandmother. She died a long time ago, right after you were born … I know I’ve told you about her a million times. Don’t you remember? You were named after her …”

“Oh yeah,” Hope said. “So can I go?”

“All right,” her mother exhaled noisily. “Just be home for dinner.”

“Will dad be home for dinner?” Hope asked.

Her mother didn’t answer at first, and in the pause, Hope regretted asking. It had just come out, she wasn’t thinking. Her mother crushed her cigarette in the ashtray and immediately lit another one, retreating further into a cloud of smoke and the shadows of the kitchen.

“I don’t know,” her mother said.

*

Hope peeked outside the window. The sun was blindingly bright. She wanted to make sure that no one was outside. Anya was her secret friend, and she wanted to keep it that way. After making sure that the coast was clear, she would go outside quickly, then run across the lawn and through the hedge of rose-of-sharon, which led directly to Anya’s side door. It only took a minute, since the houses had been developed side by side and were very close together, but that minute had Hope’s heart racing.

When she arrived, panting from the mad dash and sweating under the hot sun, she knocked tentatively, then waited until she heard Miss Anya call, “Come in, child.”

It was as if hearing those words had a magical calming effect on her, and all of her problems just disappeared. She always entered the house reverently, cherishing the quiet peacefulness of Anya’s space. It was so unlike her own house, with her parents fighting and her brother whining and the television always on. She sometimes wondered how she was even able to read with all the noise, but books remained another sacred space, and when she opened one, she seemed to fall into another world.

Anya was in the sitting room, knitting furiously. She was trying to decide whether or not she should mention the other girl’s visit, but when she saw Hope’s face, so eager and trusting, she decided not to worry her. She beckoned Hope forward hastily.

“Come now, we haven’t got all day,” she said.

Hope sat in the chair across from her. On the side table were two knitting needles and several balls of yarn in different colours.

“How is the blanket coming along?”

“Good … good …” Anya said, “I haven’t got much time left. The baby’s coming very soon, sooner than they think … go ahead child, choose the colour you like, and I will show you what to do.”

Hope picked up the balls of yarn. They were soft and light and each one had a slightly different texture. One was glossy and black as a raven’s wing, another was pink-purple and reminded her of the big blooms on the hydrangea bush in her backyard. She chose the blended green and blue wool, because when she held it in her hands, she imagined she was holding a small globe, a miniature planet earth.

“I see,” Anya smiled, “you want to recreate the world.”

Hope laughed. “Are you going to teach me how to make a blanket?”

“Hmm … you have time for that yet. I think you should make something simple, but useful, to start. A scarf would be nice … you could wear it all winter, and if you make it long enough, you’ll never outgrow it.”

“Okay,” Hope agreed.

Anya finished another row and when her hands were free, she took the yarn from Hope and began whirling the thread around one of the needles.

“Beginning is the hardest,” Anya said.

Hope watched her measure each stitch on the needle, making sure the width would be good for a scarf. Then she showed her how to use the other needle to push through and behind each loop, twirling the yarn across the top, pulling the needle through the front, and then easing each stitch from one needle to the other.

“And when you get to the end,” Anya instructed, “you begin again.”

“Got it,” Hope said.

Anya placed the knitting needles and yarn into Hope’s outstretched hands, then resumed her work on the baby blanket. For awhile they worked in silence, the only sound being the gentle scrape of needle against needle, the whirring of Anya’s handiwork, and Hope’s slow but steady progress.

“I think it’s really nice that you are making a blanket for the baby,” Hope said. “It’s a wonderful gift.”

“Oh, I’m glad to do it,” Anya replied.

“My mom told me that my grandmother – no, my great-grandmother – knitted a blanket for me when I was born. I don’t remember her though. She died after I was born. Her name was Hope, too …”

Anya stopped knitting, a split-second pause.

“That blanket was my favorite thing when I was little. I remember that I used to sleep with it, like it was a stuffed animal. For a long time, I couldn’t sleep without it.”

“Do you still have it?”

“Of course!” Hope said. “But I never sleep with it anymore. I mean, almost never. I mean, sometimes … but only when I have bad dreams or if I really, really can’t sleep.”

“And it helps you … sleep?”

“Yes. But I’m not supposed to sleep with it anymore. They took it away from me because they said I was too old for a baby blanket … I cried so much they gave it back. But I’m not supposed to sleep with it anymore. It’s in my closet. Sometimes just knowing it is there is enough.”

“Yes,” Anya said absently.

“I know this will sound silly, but when I was little I used to pretend that it was a magic blanket. I thought it would protect me from bad things.”

“No, that doesn’t sound silly at all.” Anya cleared her throat. “I’d love to see it sometime, if you don’t mind.”

Hope hesitated. She never took the blanket out of the house. No one had ever asked to see it, not even the kids she had told about it before she learned to keep certain things to herself.

Anya continued, “I always like to see the work of others. Not too many people knit anymore. It’s an art form, really …”

“I will bring it next time,” Hope said. She never took her blanket out of the house, but she would make an exception for Anya. She thought that Anya was the best friend she had ever had, and she felt her heart swell.

*

Dusk turned to darkness. Anya watched her reflection shape and form in the window. She was an old woman. Just that afternoon, she had been a young girl, almost thirteen, the same age as Hope. Each year was imbedded in her; she was not just the age the current year accounted for, she was each age up to and including that year. She was twelve. She was forty-two. She was ninety. The calendar in the kitchen delineated time into small squares and numbers. It was like the clock, another false construct.

The baby would not know to arrive on a specific day. She would come into this world when she was ready. Later, she would learn the day and month and year. In school, the child would learn to tell time, and as an adult, she would live by time. Later, much later, Anya thought, the child will turn her back on time, when the cycle reverses itself, when she lives closer to the womb-state, when she is dancing.

*

The tentative knock at the door alerted Anya to the girl’s arrival.

She prayed that Hope had remembered to bring the blanket. All night, she had dreamed about it, vivid strange dreams that dissipated as soon as she woke, nightmares that kept waking her in a cold sweat of panic and confusion. When the sun rose again, the one thought in Anya’s mind was Hope’s blanket. All day, she had anxiously waited for her.

“Come in, child,” she called, but when she heard the footsteps in the hallway, she knew at once that was not Hope’s footfall.

Too late. She had invited her in.

The girl strode into the room. Blonde, blue eyed, rosy cheeked. The girl who had made Hope’s life so hard. The girl who could not open the door without her permission. The girl who made her blood run cold.

“I told you to stop teaching Hope.”

Anya did not pause; she continued knitting furiously, the blanket exploding with a rainbow of kaleidoscopic colour.

“I told you not to come back here.”

*

Anya wasn’t answering the door. Hope knocked again, slightly louder, thinking that maybe she had fallen asleep or something. But that had never happened, and the heavy door was open, as if waiting for her to arrive. In Hope’s arms were the knitting needles, the yarn, and her baby blanket. She looked around furtively. At least a minute went by and Anya still didn’t answer the door. Hope began to worry. What if Anya fell? She was very old … She thought about going back home, maybe her mother would know what to do. But as soon as she turned to leave, another voice inside her told her to go inside. The voice told her that Anya needed her help.

Hope opened the door quietly. She walked straight to the sitting room, and when she entered the room, she was so shocked, she stopped dumb-struck. Chrissy was in the room, leaning over Anya.

Anya was struggling. Her voice was muffled. Her arms and legs were flailing uselessly, her old woman’s body overcome by the young girl’s strength. Chrissy had something over Anya’s face.

Hope dropped the things in her arms and ran into the room, shouting “NO.”

Chrissy turned, surprised, still holding the throw pillow in her hands. Anya gasped for breath, a horrifying, wheezing sound. Hope flew across the room and into Chrissy, pushing her away from Anya and knocking her to the floor.

“Miss Anya … are you okay?” Anya shook her head, pointing desperately at Hope, behind Hope.

Hope felt her hair being pulled, pulled so hard that her body jerked backwards. She spun around to face Chrissy, and Chrissy began to hit her. Hope remembered the time that Chrissy had given her a black eye. All she had done was win the game they were playing. She had played fair. But Chrissy didn’t like to lose. She had thrown the game board across the room and started punching her. After, Chrissy told her to lie and say she got hit with a ball while they were playing catch. She said that if she told the truth she would hurt her even worse. She said she had a knife, and that no one would believe her anyway.

This time, Hope was not afraid.

She lashed out blindly, punching, slapping, clawing, kicking. Tears streamed down her face, as if every blow she inflicted on Chrissy was hurting her, too. From far away, she heard Chrissy sobbing, crying “stop, stop.” But Hope did not stop. She thought for a moment that she would never stop, that she could beat Chrissy for the rest of her life, that she could cross the line from defense and protection into cruelty. From far away, she heard Anya calling her name. She stopped. She grabbed Chrissy by the arm and pulled her out of the room, down the hallway and into the kitchen, where she held her at the door.

“You’re lucky I didn’t take that pillow and do to you what you were about to do to Miss Anya. You’re lucky I’m not calling the police right now.” Hope dug her fingernails into Chrissy’s arm. “But if you ever come near Miss Anya or me again, you’re dead.”

She pushed Chrissy towards the screen, swinging the door open, shoving her through the threshold while releasing her grip on her arm, causing the girl to stumble and fall on the broken sidewalk.

*

Hope closed the door and locked it with the chain, then walked slowly back to Anya. She felt sick. She was shaking. She was crying. Places on her body were sore and her head was pounding.

Anya was sitting in the rocking chair, holding Hope’s baby blanket, cradling it in her arms. When Hope entered the room, she looked up. Tears were glistening in her eyes.

“Chrissy will never hurt you again,” she said, “But there will be others. Others will try. No matter how much they hurt you, they will never break you. You are strong, stronger than you may ever know. Come here, child.”

Hope pulled a chair close to her, and sat down. Anya spread the blanket out between them, so it covered both of their knees.

“Touch it,” she said, and Hope did. A feeling of calm washed over her. She sighed deeply, releasing all the tension inside her.

“You are gifted, Hope.”

The girl looked at Anya in confusion. Anya continued, “that is why Chrissy hated you. That is why others will try to break you.”

“I don’t understand … Do you mean … I have magic?”

“Not exactly,” Anya laughed. “But nevertheless, there is magic in the gift. Your great-grandmother’s gift is woven into this blanket, she gave it to you. Have you ever noticed that you feel things very strongly? That you are extraordinarily sensitive, not just in your heart, but in all your senses – what you touch, what you hear, what you see?”

“I don’t know … people do say I’m too sensitive, sometimes.”

“Did your mother ever tell you about the circumstances of your birth?”

“Why?” Hope asked. She shifted uncomfortably in the chair.

“What did she say?”

“She said that … the umbilical cord was wrapped around me neck a lot of times. She said that my heart stopped beating. The nurse thought I died. But I didn’t die – ”

“You died, Hope.”

“No, I didn’t. It was a mistake. The nurse made a mistake.”

“You died. You died while you were being born, and then you came back to be born again. You lived. Your spirit, your soul, was so strong that death could not take you. People who have experienced life and death so quickly have a special kind of knowledge, a vision, a gift. As you grow older, the form your gift will take will become clearer, and you will have a responsibility to trust that gift, no matter where it takes you. It will not be easy. Sometimes it will feel like you are living in an entirely different world than the others. People will sense your difference, your strangeness. Some will hate you for it. Some will love you for it. Your life will be more difficult because of it. But your life will also be richer, fuller, filled with incredible beauty. The gift may pain you, but it will never fail to protect you. These things work both ways.”

*

Hope told her mother that she wasn’t hungry, that she’d rather stay in her room instead of coming down to dinner.

“We’re eating together, as a family, and I don’t care if you are hungry or not, you are going to sit with us.”

When Hope entered the dining room, she saw the table set for three. Her little brother was already sitting down, filling his plate.

“I thought you said we were eating as a family,” she said.

Her mother’s face fell; the assertive composure that she had held only a moment before crumbled, and Hope felt a stab of pain.

“We are,” she said quietly, her voice quivering.

Then she looked at Hope and saw the bruises and scratches on her face. She reached out to her, asking “Hope … what happened?”and the girl burst into tears.

Her mother put her arms around her and held her close, the way she used to hold her when she was little, that completely. And together they cried, for all they had lost, for all they were going to find, and they stayed in the embrace for a long time until Hope’s little brother said in a surly voice, “get a room,” and they laughed and laughed, pulling him into their wild, joyful hug.

*

Everything was changing.

Only a week later, Chrissy was gone. When the moving van came, it seemed almost too good to be true. The neighborhood kids stayed indoors, peeking from their windows, watching to see if it was really true. No one gathered outside to say goodbye, the way they had for Amelia and David. After the moving van pulled away from the curb, the kids emerged from their houses one by one. No one talked about Chrissy. They played games they used to play when they were little – freeze tag, kick the can, ghost in the graveyard. They laughed loudly and ran in the street, wild and free. Then school started, and Hope became very busy very quickly with new classes, new teachers, new friends. By the end of September, Anya told Hope that she was going to stay with her daughter for awhile; the baby was coming early, just as she had expected. Hope didn’t want her to go. She hugged her tightly before she left, hoping that Anya knew how much she loved her, how grateful she was to have known her. Hope knew that she would never see her again, at least not in this lifetime.

Everything had changed.

Hope looked outside the window as summer made way for fall, when the trees shyly shed their leaves in preparation for proud winter. She watched the branches sway in their green loveliness, knowing that all too soon they would be stripped bare to reveal their nakedness, exposing their innate desire to stretch and reach for the sun.

*


the fig tree

fig tree with sleeping gnome

The last few months have been very difficult, and I wasn’t planning on planting a garden this year. Since I avoided the garden, I didn’t notice that the fig tree wasn’t coming back to life. It wasn’t until a neighbor said “I think your fig tree died” that I thought about it.

Every year, for almost 16 years, the fig tree had come back to life after winter. And every year, it grew bigger and stronger. It got to a point where I could no longer wrap it during the winter, and I would worry that the weather was too severe for it to survive. New York isn’t the ideal climate for fig trees, but the tree had grown, and had grown strong. I thought we lost it a few years ago, but it came back with a force that seemed to double it’s size.

The tree was a hybrid of two cuttings – one from my friend’s father’s glorious fig tree and one from a local nursery. The placenta from each of my pregnancies had nourished the root. It sat in the corner of my garden, and in truth, it had taken up most of the spot. I had to extend the garden along the fence, because there was no more room in the original garden to plant vegetables and herbs that needed full sun. But I didn’t mind. I loved the fig tree. In it’s shade, I could still plant things that would grow.

The fig tree was the pride of my garden. Every year, I anticipated it’s arrival. Every year, I loved watching it come back to life. People who visited in late summer would leave with a bounty of figs, and there was still enough for all the birds and squirrels. We had families of birds living in the backyard in nests and various birdhouses, some who hung out all day among the branches, singing, and many species who came from far and wide to feast on the fruit.

So this year, when my neighbor told me that he thought the fig tree died, I was upset at the prospect that it really died, but I was also upset that I was so wrapped up in my problems, I had neglected to notice it.

I went into the garden and surveyed the tree. There were shoots at the bottom, new growth. The fig tree had not died completely. But all of the branches, even the strongest limbs, were dead wood. I took a deep breath and went back into the house, changed my clothes, found my saw and a lopper, got a drink of water, and went back outside.

It was hot. The sun beat down as I circled the tree, cutting off each branch and limb carefully, methodically, one by one, down at the base, and then watched, sometimes guided, each one as they fell. Some of the limbs were over 10 ft tall. The air around me began to smell like over-ripe peaches, and it actually became so overwhelming, I wondered where the scent was coming from. Then I realized it was the sawdust and cut wood from the fig tree.

I was sweating, soaked in sweat; my shirt was sticking to me, and drops fell from my skin like tears, burning my eyes. I was thinking of everything. I was thinking of nothing. I wanted to stop. I did not stop. I kept sawing. For a second I wondered if I was crying and didn’t know it, and then I thought that it was as if my entire being was crying, gushing through my skin. I was kneeling on the earth, covered in dirt, taking care of the dead, preparing the way for new life.

When I was done, I stood up. All around me were felled branches and limbs, splayed out in a grotesque circle. My neighbor called out in passing, “that’s a lot of work!” and I muttered back, “it feels like a massacre.”

Then I began the work of chopping each one into a manageable length, sawing first in pieces along the trunk, then lopping each network at the top, organizing them into piles and bundles, to be disposed of and recycled later. By the time I finished completely, hours had passed, and I was numb. I stood and looked at what remained. At the base of the fig tree stood more new growth than I had thought, strong growth, reaching almost 2 ft. The garden gnome on a stake who used to be at the bottom of the tree is now almost at the top. The gnome is climbing up the stake and he has his hand to his mouth, as if he is whispering to the plants beside him, “grow, grow.” And when I saw that, I couldn’t help but smile.

*


dream lover

Daphne

He descended every night.

Some nights, the steps were light, and he found himself in a sun dappled wood, surrounded by blue sky and bird song, the stairs nature-made from loam and rock. Other nights, the staircase was cold and dark, a spiraling descent that saw no end into the blackness below, and Paul would guide himself by feeling the damp stone walls, moving slowly, carefully; the only sounds being the echo of his footfall and his shallow breath.

He descended each and every night, and lost himself in a world of dreams, falling deeply, dangerously, into sleep, into the blissful arms of Lily, his dream lover.

It had been months since he conquered his insomnia, the long dark sickness that he battled night after night over the previous year, leaving him exhausted each day when the sun rose. Each sleep-deprived morning Paul cursed the brightening sky, reluctant to continue what had become his life, days strung-out without promise; without sleep, there was no break, no renewal.

He would go days without blessed unconsciousness, days without closing his red-rimmed, bloodshot eyes. Paul continued to work at the insurance agency, but he became ill-tempered, erratic. His co-workers whispered, eyes upon him, and stopped talking when he was near. A meeting with his supervisor found him demoted to paperwork and moved to another part of the building, away from customers and clients, away from the most perfunctory human contact.

Paul never had a problem with sleep before, he had explained to his new wife. They had been married for two months when the insomnia kicked in; he had two months of sleeping beside his bride before his world began to unravel.

 

He and Grace had met at a mutual friend’s wedding not quite a year prior. They were placed at the same table with the other single guests, an odd mix of lonely spinsters, confirmed bachelors, and distant relatives. Perhaps it was the spell of the wedding, but they felt drawn to one another. In between the salad and the main course, they began to converse; Grace criticized the greens as wilted, the steak over-done. Paul, emboldened by his visits to the open bar, had pushed away the food and asked her to dance.

They had moved together awkwardly, his hand pressed against her back, held flat against her bra strap. Grace insisted on leading; he had to keep reminding himself to follow. Later, swept away in a buzzed haze, Paul had escorted her outside for a breath of fresh air and fumbled towards her in the darkness, mouth against mouth, cheek, neck, shoulder. Grace had firmly but gently pushed him away and patted her hair back into place.

They had several, appropriately proper, dates in the months that followed, and quickly settled into a quiet routine of sexless companionship. While it was not exciting, it was comfortable; and before the year was done, they were married. Paul had hoped that the situation would improve after their marriage, when they shared a bed as husband and wife. It didn’t. Two months later, Paul found that he could sleep no more. He had a makeshift bed on the living room couch, a mockery.

At first, Grace was patient, a concerned wife. She suggested therapy, hypnosis, a sleep clinic; nothing worked.

He tried sleeping pills, taking two, five, ten, handfuls of pills that should have killed him. He began drinking, hard, hoping that he would blackout and put an end to the torture which held him awake, night after night. After a year, Grace gave him an ultimatum: either he get his sleep under control or she would file for divorce.

And as suddenly as the insomnia had taken over and wreaked its terrible havoc on his mind, his marriage, his life – it stopped.

The sleep that had once evaded him now overtook him. He could not wait to go to sleep, to alter his consciousness, to descend the changing staircase that lead, night after night, to the delicious landscape of his dreams.

But Paul found it harder and harder to wake.

The alarm became useless, and Grace found herself with the task of waking him each morning. She hated waking him. She hated the sight of his sleeping form; eyes closed, body still and heavy as death.

She shook him, yelled and cursed at him. She threw up her hands, disgusted, half-wishing he still had insomnia, half-wishing she had never married him. She wanted to leave, to just walk away from him, leave and start over. She wanted to let him deal with his nightly afflictions, let him stay in his disturbed dreams, let him sleep his life away.

 

“She’s trying to wake you.”

Paul touched the strands of ivy in Lily’s earth-black hair. They laid together on the forest floor. He kissed her hands, and inhaled the scent of her bracelets as he touched the climbing vines and flowers binding her wrists.

“How did I find you?” Paul asked her, gazing into her eyes.

“I found you.” Lily laughed, a light and airy laugh that fell into the air around them and rose higher, touching upon the canopy of trees and leaves above. A dawn chorus of birds answered the sound; light fell across their naked skin.

Paul ran his hands along her body, and remembered.

The first night, that first night he fell into sleep, all was blackness, a nightmare of darkness in a tangled wood. He walked into the abyss, tripping over rocks and branches. Unseen things reached out and scratched his face and arms; he was blinded by the absence of light.

Then he saw a flicker of a candle in the distance. A single, dancing flame led him forward, guiding him towards a torch-lit mansion. The expanse was grand and beautiful, and staircases were everywhere; Paul froze in the entrance hall, blinking in the surreal landscape, finding himself in an Escher drawing come to life.

A movement caused the slightest sound, and turned his eye to the small light advancing on the highest ladder of stairs. It was a blur of figure, a flicker of flame, seducing him onward. He followed, as he had followed through the wood, trusting that this strange dream would soon find him awake, bursting breathless into consciousness.

At the top of the stairs, Paul saw a sliver of orange light, a door ajar.

He pushed open the door, and there she was. A mirage, a fantasy. More beautiful than any woman, real or imagined, he had ever seen.

She was lying half-suspended, reclining on a four poster bed.

The bed was shaped from earth and clay, and covered with a green mantle of soft moss. Each post was a young tree, and the canopy was intricately woven with branches and boughs. Vines of moon-flower and climbing datura were trained across it, blooming obscenely, seductively, in the diffuse light.

Her arms were raised in crucifixion and her legs were tied to each shaft by ropes of braided green stems. Torches lit the room and dancing shadows revealed walls lined with instruments of pleasure and pain. Incense burned sweetly, infusing the room with a soporific haze.

Paul felt his knees go weak, and reached out for something to support his fall. The woman in the bed did not speak. Her eyes stared through him; her face was luminous, her body was a sculpture tended by erotic hands, unreal, unparalleled loveliness.

He was sweating, desire burned through him. He took a deep breath and wiped his brow. A dream, he thought. He wanted to touch her. Could he touch her? He looked at the walls, and excruciating thoughts of pleasure dominated his mind.

“Yes” she said, raising her eyes to meet his. Hearing her voice, ethereal and sultry, caused a shock to run through his body.

Yes.

The word hung in the air between them; light as jasmine and vervain, perfume wafting from an open bottle, heavy as the hanging blossoms of datura and moon-flower above the bed..

“Please” she whispered. “You know what I want. You know what I need.”

And after that first night, each and every night found him searching for the place he would find her; she was his fantasy, his deepest desire come true. There was no limit to the places they would explore; each night was an erotic feast, a sexual playground of boundless, raw desire. Night after night, their bodies twisted and entwined, aching with an insatiable craving to feed their tortured hunger.

“Paul, she’s trying to wake you.” Lily reminded him.

“I don’t want to go back.” Paul said.

“You’ve been saying that for months,” Lily frowned. “I’m starting to not believe you.”

She gave him a somber kiss, then pushed him into wakefulness.

 

The light hurt his eyes; Grace was standing over him. Her face was distorted in anger. His head hurt. Paul rubbed his head, trying to break through the cloudiness of his mind. He felt hung-over but he knew he hadn’t drank the night before. Or had he? He could barely remember anything these days. He closed his eyes.

Grace glanced at the watch on her arm and glared at him.

“You’re going to be late again.”

He was drifting, his hand reached out, and fell empty on the crisp cotton sheets of the bed. She was gone. He turned over, trying to find his way out of this nightmare, back to the forest, back to Lily.

“You’re falling back asleep.”

No, Paul thought, raising his hands instinctively over his ears. He squeezed his eyes shut, searching the darkness, trying to find the threads of unconsciousness that would lead him back to his dream.

“Don’t go back to sleep.”

Her voice wouldn’t let him go.

He ran desperately throughout the forest, but all was quiet, empty. There was no trace of Lily; he frantically turned around and around, calling out her name. Even the birds were silent.

Grace pulled the covers off him, exposing his body from head to toe. Paul’s feet were revealed, caked with dirt. What looked like crushed leaves littered the end of the bed. She stopped, mouth open. “What the hell?”

“Are you sleep walking now?” She exhaled noisily.

“Where the hell were you last night?”

Her voice. Paul struggled to pull the covers back over him.

“Don’t go back to sleep!” Grace yelled.

Paul lashed out, pushing her away, pushing her with such force that she lost her balance and fell onto to the floor.

“I’m done.” She screamed at him. “I don’t care if you sleep forever.”

Grace got up and left the room. The angry step of her heels pounded across the hard wood floor, and a few seconds later, the front door slammed shut.

The sound shook the floor boards.

 

He was descending into ruin.

The stairs were wooden, crooked, and broken in places. The house had fallen apart. The steps creaked and threatened to give under his weight. He felt the sharp pain of a splinter in his soft arch. He cried out.

Lily appeared at the foot of the steps.

“Did you hurt yourself?”

The basement of the house was dark, damp with decay. Lily looked more beautiful than ever, the dark green pools of her eyes were still and calm. Her body was adorned with flowers and leaves, and the scent of her spun around him, enchanting and intoxicating him.

“Sit down, my Love.”

Paul sat in a large wooden chair. The seat was covered with bright green moss. She knelt before him on the earthen floor and took his foot into her hands. She used a pine needle to drive the splinter out of his skin, then kissed the wound.

“I’m sorry,” she said, and backed away from him as thorny vines slowly began to trap Paul’s arms and legs to the wooden frame of the chair.

He looked at Lily in alarm. “What is this?”

“You said you don’t want to go back.”

Her face was sensual and cruel as she circled him. “And yet, you do. You leave me over and over again. You go back to your wife, to your life, your life! While I am here, alone in this wretched and desolate place, waiting for you.”

“Lily, I want to be with you. I love you.” Paul struggled against the restraints. His heart began to beat wildly.

“Help me.”

She looked into his liquid, desperate eyes, then kissed him on the lips, drawing his hungry breath into her mouth with furious desire.

When Grace returned from work, she walked angrily into the house, placed some boxes on the floor, and slammed the door. Paul’s car was still in the driveway; he had missed work again.

It didn’t matter, she had made up her mind; it was over. A friend from work had offered her guest room until Grace could find a new apartment. She only needed a few personal items for the remainder of the week; she would make arrangements to retrieve the rest of her possessions later. She grabbed a box and stalked into the bedroom, not even noticing the dirt on the floor.

Her eyes instinctively flicked towards the bed, where she knew he would be asleep. She stood in the doorway, stock-still, unable to make a sound.

Paul’s body was tied to the bed frame, shrouded with green leaves, tangled with roots, and entwined with creepers and flowering vines. Moss covered his eyes; earth filled his open mouth. He did not hear her scream.

 

The first weak rays of sunlight slowly aroused his shadowy form, and he began to awaken. He opened his eyes and found himself next to Lily, sheltered under a canopy of twisted branches and vines. Morning Glories bloomed around them as the sun stretched and began to flood the sky. He reached for his dream lover, lover of dreams, and fell into the light.

 

 *


tale of the hourglass

I’m so excited and happy to have my story “Tale of the Hourglass”  included in the beautiful debut issue of Rose Red Review!

Rose Red Review is a new online journal which “seeks to publish art, photography, fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry that best reflects the magic in the every day–work that honors the past, the moment, and the uncertain future.”

Click here to read “Tale of the Hourglass” and be sure to check out all of the talented writers and artists collected in this lovely issue!

*

 

 


Bleach

Emily wanted to be home. The glaring fluorescent light in the hallway hurt her eyes and the sudden scent of bleach struck her as an exercise in futility; nothing would ever truly clean the years of embedded shit and dirt, piss and mold, the years of pain, of loss, of silence. Damn him, she thought, approaching the door again. Emily felt for her key; first in the left pocket, pushing through the torn hole at the corner, then in the right, hesitating for a second as she touched the Raven. Caleb often asked her if she thought about using the gun. Sometimes she lied and said yes; sometimes she lied and said no. Some nights, she searched the streets of lower Bath, the Raven clenched in her hand, thinking: One bullet. It would be enough.

Intrigued by Russian roulette, Caleb insisted on loading the pistol with one shot. Every once in a while, he’d demand that Emily give him the gun and he’d point the Raven at the soft spot above his ear, taking his chances. She didn’t know where he got it but it wasn’t new; the chrome was faded and the wooden handle was dented. He’d told her that it was formally known as the Raven .25 caliber semi-automatic pistol. Emily liked the name of it, the Raven. It fit in her pocket, in the palm of her hand.

She placed the key in the lock and felt something shift, but the door refused to open. Emily pressed her shoulder against the hard brass knocker. The bolts were still locked. She knocked tentatively, staring at the door, once painted white, now peeling from the top left corner to reveal the hope of the last color.

She couldn’t stay in the hallway. The lock on the entry door had been broken for months and the addicts and vagrants came in for warmth, they came hungry with need. During the night, when she knew they were walking through the building, she’d crawl close to Caleb in bed, though he offered no comfort. She hated night. Afraid and alone, she would listen to the irregularity of her breath and wait for the first signs of day. She heard a rush of swift movement, the sound of a door opening. Emily froze.

6C stood at the open door, holding a baseball bat at his side. “What the fuck are you doing?” The man looked from right to left, his face was worn brown leather marked hard with age and time. They had never spoken except for the curt and polite nod in passing. He’d moved into 6C in September.

What the fuck was she doing? Emily fingered her pocket and lied: her boyfriend had locked up for the night and she forgot her key.
“Ah, shit,” he replied, “Come on in. Call your boyfriend and get his ass up. I heard some of those fuckers in the hallway just a few minutes ago.”

“It’s okay; I was just stopping by. I’m meeting a friend and it’s so cold… and I … I forgot my gloves.” Emily didn’t know if she was fooling the man; his wizened face seemed to peer right through her. For all she knew, 6C had heard them fighting earlier. The walls in the apartment house were stereotypically thin.

“Stay there,” he said, shutting the door.

Emily looked wistfully at the door to the apartment. Caleb was the one who lived there; his name was on the mailbox and the monthly checks for rent.

The door to 6C opened as abruptly as it had shut. The man looked out again but was not holding the baseball bat; he was holding a scarf and gloves. “I’m sure the gloves will be too big – but they’ll keep you warm enough. Take the scarf too. Your coat… the scarf will help a little.”

Emily wavered, unprepared for his generosity. She felt tears threaten to betray her coolness, the mask that set on her features more firmly each year. The man pushed the items into her hands.
“Thank you,” she whispered.

“Be safe. Come home soon.”

Home. The word lingered in her mind like a shadow. She used to have a home. When she was a child, she grew up in a house by the ocean. At night, the water rose and flooded the floorboards. She never dreamed; she swam through the sea, glittering scales. When she woke, she always found sand in the corners of her room and traces of salt on her pillow.

Emily pulled the scarf around her neck. It was soft and warm and smelled like toast. She pulled on the gloves; they were way too big. She thought about leaving them by 6C’s door, but reasoned that the man had given them to her, and she wouldn’t want someone else to take them, so she stuffed the gloves into her pockets, along with her hands.

She hurried down the stairwell; it would be safer outside, in the streets. At the first floor landing, she noticed two women sitting against the wall, their eyes red and angry. As she passed them, she felt something brush her leg as one of them whispered hoarsely “What you got, white girl?” She nearly broke into a run.

In the few years she had lived with Caleb, she had tried to persuade him to move. She didn’t like being a minority in the building, on the streets of the neighborhood. She hated herself for thinking it an issue at all, but it was and she couldn’t do anything about it. She couldn’t change the color of her skin, though she would have, if that was what it took to belong to something, somewhere.

Emily walked outside into the cold night air. Snow was just beginning to fall; it was the kind of snow she had always loved, the kind that melted as soon as it touched her skin. The streets were empty, the world quiet. Emily crossed the street.

Caleb wouldn’t leave because the rent was cheap. Of course it’s cheap, Emily would counter; the apartment house was an old tenement; poverty and depravation were as part of the building as the brick and mortar.

“Then leave,” he’d say, always returning to those two words that held such power over her.

She’d met him at the bar where she worked part-time. The Spiral had a venue, a minor one, but one nevertheless. Caleb’s band played there every once in a while. He was a drummer. He liked to hit things. He liked to hit – not all the time, just… sometimes, she thought, as she brushed her lip absently with her finger to see if the swelling had gone down. She didn’t even think about how she looked when she saw 6C. She peered into one of the storefront windows and almost didn’t recognize herself.

Emily stopped at her reflection, barely able to reconcile the image before her. Her lip was still swollen and her eyes were large and dark. Emily’s hair was cut severely, bleached a coarse and dull blonde. Her hair used to shine around her head like a halo; her mother had called it spun gold, as if she were a princess in one of those fairy tales she read to her at bedtime. She closed her eyes, remembering the way her mother had brushed her long silky hair when she was a child.

She could almost feel the touch of the brush on her scalp when she was jolted; a hand grabbed the back of her head and her eyes flew open. In the window, she saw a man behind her. Quickly, she reached into her pockets and found 6C’s gloves blocking her access to the contents within.

“Didn’t think I’d find anyone out here tonight.” The man laughed harshly, “But ladies have to work, right?”

Emily’s eyes widened. “I’m… I’m not –”

The man smiled broadly, “I wasn’t going to pay for it anyway.” His smile snapped shut as he tightened his grasp on the back of Emily’s head and lead her forward on the street towards the alley. With her right hand, she reached into her pocket and let the glove fall to the ground. She searched the hole and clasped her hand on the Raven.

Emily held the gun in her pocket and jerked quickly and awkwardly away from the man. He was still holding the back of her head, her hair entwined with his thumb and forefinger. She moved her head violently away from him and felt a stab of pain as she broke free from his grip. The man’s face distorted with anger.

“Crazy bitch.” He said, dropping her disentangled hair on the sidewalk. He hit her across the cheek, then the side of the jaw. She turned mid-swing and his fist caught her eye; she staggered at the force of the blow. Emily tore her hand from her pocket and shakily pointed the gun at his face.

Emily tried to steady the Raven. He looked at her hand, then into her eyes. Her right eye was inflamed and tearing; her left eye was implacable. The man’s countenance changed from anger to indifference. He laughed dryly.

“You know how to use that, little girl?”

Emily didn’t answer him, her left eye bore into his. She had waited to pull the trigger all these years, maybe all her life; she would not hesitate now. He shrugged and backed away, crossing the street slowly. He stood in front of the apartment house where 6C asked her in, where Caleb locked her out. Emily didn’t move, her arm holding the Raven remained outstretched. Only after the man walked through the entry and the door shut did her arm fall, defeated, broken.

She was shaking. The back of her head was raw. She felt completely sober. Why did she take the last of the heroin? It had only made Caleb angry, the way she always made father angry. If only she was good, if only she wouldn’t cry, if only she’d waited for him, he’d have finished it and then made arrangements to score. He didn’t want to hurt her; at night, in the terrible night, he said he loved her. She didn’t think. She just didn’t think about anything, anymore.

Emily usually went to The Spiral when Caleb kicked her out, to give him some time to cool down. But she had already gone to The Spiral earlier; she couldn’t go back. She looked across the street, realizing that she could leave at that moment; there was nothing to return for. She hated that building, falling apart and rotting from the inside out; it wasn’t her home. It never was.

Home. The word lingered in her mind like a shadow. She used to have a home. When Emily was a child, she grew up in a house by the forest. At night, the roots of the trees lifted the floorboards. She never dreamed; she crouched on the ground, growing fur. When she woke, she always found dirt in the corners of her room and crushed leaves on her pillow.

Emily adjusted the scarf around her, carefully covering the back of her head. She made her way up the street in the falling snow. It was beginning to stick, the street spilled with bleach. For a moment, she breathed in the idea that a world could change, that it could be cleansed, that it was possible to begin anew. She turned her face towards the dark starless sky, the flurries thickening and storming around her. Another long night, and she was tired, so tired. She walked on heavily; wondering if each endless step would take her to the break of day. The Raven felt light and safe in her hand. One bullet, she thought. It would be enough.

Originally published in Tales from the Moonlit Path.