The sky collapsed in evening shades. Every second spawned a greater darkness. Every hour weighed upon the soul. Leaden and unwilling to relent, the clouds engulfed us. This was how purgatory descended.
The ivy crept across the floor more from necessity than design, looking to strangle the world one lump of grit at a time. We didn’t see it, of course, but we felt every inch of unleashed tendril. This was how purgatory attacked.
We found each other in paired hands, squeezing. There were no sounds. Death came easily to us over and over again. Had ever a reality been conquered so easily? We still believed it a dream, of course. Somewhere deep in limbo’s fog, an entity whistled from boredom. Unless it was me? This was how purgatory won.
The depth of her sorrow submerged my soul. I saw it in her eyes, felt it in her every trembling movement.
Her head hung like a mannequin with its strings cut. There it bobbed like a buoy in an undulating ocean. How I wished to brush that curtain of long, black hair aside and lift her by the chin, tell her everything was okay.
I watched her slender fingers grapple with the hem of her skirt, like ancient ivy wringing the life out of its host. One foot tapped a rapid beat. She built to something, but what?
Time to act. What else was a lover meant to do?
“Can you tell me about it?” I asked, softly.
She shook her head, slow and purposeful.
“A drink? Food?”
Again, the same.
The direct approach was often the best. “You’re in pain.”
“Almost,” she whispered.
“Because you think I don’t love you.”
When her eyes met mine, they were no longer those of a girl, nor even a woman, but something older, feral.
“Because I know you don’t. At least, that’s what I shall tell myself until the pain erodes your memory.”
It happened all of a rush, her standing, the slash of the blade. She never blinked once.
I slumped to the ground, quite dead. All was becalmed.
It came as I would’ve hoped. I raised from myself, like souls do in the movies. In one last exhalation of self, my ghost vacated its shell, and then paused as if unsure of what direction to take. I’d been mostly good. Surely, that was enough.
I wouldn’t say she hated me, or that she was prepared to take God’s word for it, but she was ready for anything. She held the vacuum cleaner hose in one hand and set the suction to maximum with the other.
The fade from dusk to permanent night passed in shades of doom. I deserved every bit of darkness, most men do, but was ever thankful for the moments before. I think it was a gift, a final farewell, an ‘at-least-he tried.’ And I did in my own way.
I had waited in my bed with the curtains flung wide. The window glass was dirtier than I would have liked, smudges like spectres haunting the pane, unmoving, critical of all I’d done. Yet, these questionable fractions of a life made torrid departed as the sun failed to illuminate them, blending into the background as I had for all my eighty years.
There’s a pivot, a hinging of self, when you realise, it will happen to you, it won’t last. All those years of pretending Death a visitor to others, slumped. Reality hit. An unorthodox life — a good word that, I always thought — for an otherwise pointless existence, was over. I gritted my teeth, said I was ready, glad to go. I was neither.
This moment came at ten o-clock one September evening as a bat whizzed past the glass, looped in a fluttering, flittering arc and came to rest on the outside ledge. It stood there on two legs like the world’s ugliest doll.
I squinted like the old fool I was, as if in doing so, the bat would disappear. But it didn’t disappear, not yet, anyway. The leathery creature tapped a tiny claw upon the glass to a perfect percussion, and then waved its almost transparent wing like a thrown shroud. I’d have ducked if I’d had the energy.
I was a skeptic and always had been. Omens were for others, and fate didn’t apply. I was beyond such things. People told of the ridiculous to bring false amazement to their otherwise inept existences. And, yet, here I was with such a story to tell, with no time to tell it and no one to hear it screamed.
The bat grinned as I shook my head, and then flew away.
I was a goner. I was about to meet my maker, or his darker self, if I was realistic. Bats did not do what the little one had, and chests only felt this much pain before they burst.
I contemplated pulling the telephone closer, stabbing those three particular numbers in an effort to save my skin, but instead, pushed it off the sideboard.
I settled into my pillows as best I might and watched the last light fade.
Everyone knew that dusk came in grey and left in black. There was no reason for any different. Still, I wanted to die with my eyes open. Closing them would give whoever found me something to do.
There was a mountain in the distance and a forest I couldn’t see. I imagined it all spiky haired spruces and pines, all ancient oaks and weeping willows.
That’s when the tears came. All the years I’d lived there, or rather inhabited the place, as I never really lived anywhere, and I’d never walked among them. What a pity. What a waste.
Every saline drop hurt to shed. Every slug-like trail stung my skin. Until it didn’t.
I woke with a start and a stab to the chest.
I was still in my bed and, if judged by the rasping breaths ghosting across my bedroom, alive. And yet…
Magenta moonbeams blazed from outside, filling my room with unnatural light. The night cringed at its brilliance, as did I. All those things, all those bits and pieces of paraphernalia accumulated in a tedious lifetime, be they sat upon shelves, the carpet where I’d kicked them, even the posters on the wall, shone in that rarest of colours. Not red. Not purple. A brilliance somewhere between what was never really seen in real life, yet everyone knew. This magenta moment was mine and mine alone. It was my colour. It was my gift.
There was no reason for it other than unadulterated joy. The magenta light pooled in my eyes, coursed into my open mouth and into my lungs, streamed around my veins. There were no golds, no blacks, no lava reds, none of those colours associated with the world beyond. There was only magenta. There was only me.
They came through that bruise in forever, all those I’d known. They came because in age and befuddlement I’d forgotten, twisted, corrupted a life well-lived. I was never worthless, dangerous, useless or the rest, just long-lived, too long for the rest of them. There was my father, mother, brother and sister, too. Rebecca was laughing; she always laughed. There were classmates and colleagues, brothers in arms, sharers of medals and more. And somewhere at the back, there was you, Alice.
She wore magenta lipstick, my Alice. It accentuated her lips, distracted others from the beauty that was the rest of her. But not me. Not ever. I’d remembered it until the day I died. Just like I promised.
I have considered the question as though it is my best friend: Why live?
The world is full of moments, some short, some long, and some unending. Until they do end, that is, which renders the latter one moot. Whether a moment secures itself in life’s final journal depends on many contributory factors. Does one love the instant in question? Does one wish to relive the experience again? If I forget it, will it matter? The criteria are as endless as the ultimate decision.
I have heard people croon about the sunrise. Other good folk have a soft spot for the moon. Children enjoy days at the beach when the tide tickles their toes and the sun bakes their skin. I am no sentimentalist. I have not the luxury of knowing for certain. But I can surmise. I can guess.
Reproduction. That insistence of life to replicate. Without reproduction there would be no life unless we, too, learned to split, endlessly dividing, sending copies of ourselves here there and everywhere. Surely, reproduction must be the reason for living, isn’t it? But here we have a dilemma, for not everyone possesses the inclination, looks, or sheer stupidity to do so. Why perpetrate the falsity of greatness, of a perfection worth continuing, when most are clearly not? It really is a pickle, life.
So, after a lifetime of near misses and many millions of seconds practising for death by living, I have come to a conclusion. ‘What!’ you scream. How can I know what scholars have cogitated over since humanity first learnt to think? The truth, I haven’t, not for everyone. But I have for me: To write this.
To put into words what the lost and the dreamers search for, this is my purpose. It is not to give them the answer, just the reassurance that they aren’t alone in their worrying and searching. Ultimately, there can be no right answer, at least, that’s what I think. But everyone has one essential reason for living, and that reason must mean something to you.
Sometimes the need to breathe overwhelms. Our throats constrict, tongues swell, eyes bulge like bullfrogs. A blue sky darkens to ocean, the world reversed, our bodies upside down. Not even the earth offers a steadying reassurance, volatile like an undulating sea. We drown, eyes open. We gasp for air. The worst of it? There’s no rational explanation. Just another day or night in a life of many. Just another second on this road called life.
These moments are fleeting, though occasionally, they linger. But the body always remembers what to do, after all, without a predisposition for breathing, why even have lungs?
Breathing is what we do when we close our eyes. We leave the body to do its thing as we dream of better. Unlike the accordion that requires a good squeeze, or the bike pump that demands manipulation, our bodies do not. So, why do we need so many teachers to help us? The answer is simple: We don’t.
Yet we have apps to follow and sites to see, gurus to advise, and leotarded superstars to offer salvation. If only we could breathe like them. If only we could do it right.
And we try. We try so very hard to understand. To appreciate. To live the dream. If we do it right, who knows, perhaps Death will never take us.
Death, the dark force behind it all. The one who wants us to fail, to gasp, flounder, capitulate. He cares not that we breathe or that we might only sometimes breathe, just that one day we won’t. Even thinking about it makes our chests constrict, breaths shorten, noses block. As dogs before a desert without master or chain, free to explore, but scared to stray far from the puddle at their feet, we hesitate. Death smiles.
Hesitation is his dark foot in the door. It is doubt. It is a taster. That instant of will our breaths return, even when knowing they should. So, we regather like they’ve taught us. We control ourselves with the skill a baby would admire. We breathe, deep and long, our cheeks puffed out and brows sweating.
They teach us to listen to our breaths and from there ourselves. The body will know. The body will calm itself. But in this calmness, this cosmic realignment, we hear what our breaths have immersed. An app shuts down. A website fails. A guru collapses to the ground quite dead. The leotard splits to howls of universal derision.
We breathe because we want to. We breathe because we must. But one day in the not-so-distant future, we won’t. On that day, Death can take us. On that day, our accordions shall not require being played. I, for one, shall welcome it, as I hope will you.
Fingers entwine like November branches, The chill offering pleasurable release; There’s no benefit to being overly warm. We swish amongst the decadent leaves Raining down in shades of gone: Ah, the bliss of the festering mind. A moment in the meadow is a lifetime on the sea; Translucent waves like polished glass Revealing only an inverse night. The hole looms like a collapsed bed, And I can’t wait to draw the obsidian sheets high. A raven rattles a warning, or a joyful dirge, Flapping wings to dispel the buzzing bats; They’ve already consumed the flies. She bends low like an avalanche Destroying all I’ve ever known, been, seen. I welcome it, her, this unmarked legacy, One colder than my heart. The impossible shades of an afterlife found Embrace this shell and pop out a nutlike soul. And though I wish to scream ‘come back’ She spins a maelstrom, shifting time and tide for me, Only for me, always for me, as she ever has and ever will. For though our cold, cold love is abhorrent to most, The universe has just gained two more stars.
I once watched an artist paint the sky. His brush caressed the canvas like a lover’s kiss. His every fluent movement was poetry in motion. At least, I thought so. The painter did not.
Whether it was frustration, or a lack of imagination, who knew? But the fellow grew so incensed, he snatched each sheet from his easel and tossed them into the wind. There they drifted like enormous snowflakes off to decorate unfamiliar landscapes.
The trees provided shade and anonymity. These I used for hours. The painter remained unaware of my presence throughout. And although I couldn’t see what he painted, I took a certain satisfaction in knowing I would.
As the sun evaporated into the river in tangerine bursts, things changed. The poor fellow’s inability to capture what he wished gained momentum until, in one shrieking outburst, he threw his palette away. It landed upside down in the water.
I expected to see a brief flash of vermillion, perhaps a touch of violet, cerulean or emerald green; there was only black. The paint bled into the river like a cut vein during an eclipse. Spilled ink might have described it, but ink had a purpose and this did not. What a waste. What a terrible waste.
I clasped a hand to my mouth, but too late. The cough echoed into infinity.
The painter turned. He wept. Tears streamed from his old, rheumy eyes.
“I’m sorry,” I spluttered.
The painter looked right through me, right into my soul. His eyes took in my colours, my personal palette. He refused to stop swamping me in his sorrows. I feared we’d both drown.
When the sun disappeared below the horizon with a pfft of extinguished flame, only then did he look away. To heaven, actually.
“Ah,” he crooned. “Now I remember.”
“Remember what?” The words left my lips without permission.
“Raven. Her hair was raven. If only I’d not tossed my paints away. Ah, well!”
Head drooped and feet shuffling, the painter packed up his belongings and made to leave. He paused as the moon came out in mercury silvers, turned back. “Never forget what she looks like, young man.”
“I won’t,” I promised.
With that, he departed. I never saw him again.
I often looked back and mulled over his words. He’d seemed so genuine. But only as I too regarded her bone white features and robes of liquid obsidian, did I know who he meant. I couldn’t have captured her raven hair either, as her ebony eyes already held my own.
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