“There’s sharks in the river!” screamed Ray.
Our elders set out to kill them, men and women. No one returned.
The army tried next. They dynamited everything, then drained the river. There wasn’t a shark or a villager in sight.
“I lied,” confessed Ray.
“So did our parents,” I replied.
She made sweeping changes, everything from burning the curtains to killing the cat. The outside faired no better. She had the garden walls knocked down, the fountain plugged, even the old willow tree hacked to pieces. She did all this with a smile on her face and an unwaveringly airy disposition. Next, came me.
She made sure I saw everything, every last detail. She stood there bold as brass, hands on her hips and announced in a voice so sick as to be sweet exactly who she was, this woman who’d bought it all, my business, my home, myself.
“I’m your half-sister,” she purred.
“Uh-huh. The worst half.”
Father had never said a word, and now he never would, after all, she’d disposed of him first. Apparently, it hurt less than the cat, and on the plus side, saved me a job.
It was an unfortunate situation, she and I, an overlong affair. We had our good times, or hours, or first moments, which were longer than most. I should have counted myself lucky, really. Honestly, I should. But I didn’t, and neither did she. Shame! After all, she was my mother.
She sits at the bus stop day after day. I stand at my window, imagining her name. Rain or shine, snow or wind, it makes no difference to the girl in the little lemon dress. She waits there regardless. I watch her the same.
There are buses every fifteen minutes that lead to and from the city, but which city, I no longer recall? I’m as obsessed with her as she is with time. She’s crying today.
I pour out a coffee on this evening to chill souls. Seeing her waiting for a man who’ll never arrive has warped my mind. Today, I shall make a difference. Today, I shall do the right thing.
The door clicks shut in my wake; my eyes are already upon her. She shields her own from the steadily falling snow, invisible against her porcelain features. The coffee steams from the cup.
The distance takes an age to cover, not because of the traffic, as there is none, but from my stuttering footsteps.
“Hello,” I say when almost upon her. “I’ve brought something to warm your soul.”
The cup is offered and dropped, slipping from her fingers like a dream. This saddens me and I leave.
The next day comes, and she is gone. All I can think is, was she ever there? And, was I?
A thin veil of mist delays the dawn. The stars sense it, blazing a trillion semi-permanent goodbyes. Glitter applied to the night, a decorative destiny, the bats fly higher as the swallows awaken, but neither feels fulfilled. A familiar feeling, one I’ve known far too long.
I love these moments, these hints of the beyond. My own private purgatory without having to suffer the indignity of demise, I inhale the damp air, laugh as it laps at my lungs, imagine the soil above me. Somewhere, a barren soul remains as arid as ever.
The spiders have the right idea, hanging their nets to capture the moment. They toil in relentless circles, the dew doing nothing to dampen their spirits. If spiders have spirits, that is? I really ought to know.
A blood-red sun emerges like a sliced tomato atop a decaying salad. This distant giant pulses through the clouds, pours through the mists and fruits in tangerine as a dispelled dawn. My grey nowhere is gone.
I hide in the shadow of an ancient oak. Well, ancient compared to most, anyway. Here, where night’s shawl lingers in a cool kiss, I observe the sparkling gold between the leaves. Like drifting embers, I think. Like the world’s burning. But burning isn’t my job. Never has been. That’s for someone else entirely.
The first arrives later than usual after most people have had their coffees and lunch. She is followed by more, a steady procession of once life. I greet them with a sickle smile and a hollow hello. This is the best I can muster. I try, though. Really, I do.
The rest of the daylight hours are busy, bordering on suicidal. I manage them as I always have, with grim determination.
There is no respite at night, if anything, it’s worse. It’s like they await obsidian in the same way I do grey, intensifying their efforts at self-persecution, war, murder, capitulation. But who am I to judge, as that’s the job of another. Who am I? Yet, I do. This is what they’ve made me. Me! This is what I’ve become.
Dawn, and all is still. I breathe in every peaceful moment whilst the night dwellers tuck themselves in to sleep and the day roamers rub their eyes. I wish I could stay here forever, stood between the sun and the stars.
The tears pool in my amphitheatre caverns.
I am the one you all must meet. I am the darkness glimpsed through the mist. If you hear me, you’re elsewhere. If you see me, you’ve arrived. I will welcome you as best I can, but the truth is, I couldn’t care less.
Lost in moonlit moments, we walked along the creaking pier, as wicked surf stripped the ancient wood of yesteryear’s memories. “We’re ocean bound,” I called to a nosey seagull. He cawed a warning, one we chose to ignore. We held each other as we drowned, no longer lost, just smiling.
She had no status, no place in this world. She barely had a life. Then again, neither did I.
We met one Easter morning and had married by tea in an unorthodox ceremony involving a stray cat who fussed our feet like catnip. It then peed on the floor. We laughed like hyenas. The pastor didn’t. The next day became our anniversary, and the next, and the next. Not a great legacy but something. We all must have something.
We left the city for the coast on an empty bus, a move in direct opposition to the latest trends, and got off at the last stop because the driver made us. He smiled as he did so like a man in the know.
We found a tiny house with a bed, a toilet, a door, and a view. This was all we required. This and each other.
It began soon after.
She forgot my name by Halloween and my face by Christmas. My voice went last. Perhaps it reassured her? A somnambulist by day, worse still by night, she wandered. I wandered with her when I could. It was only a matter of time.
New Year’s Day. I found her mangled body upon the rocky shore. She’d stepped from the cliffs as though them our lawn, whilst the sea fret tickled her eyelids and vindictive gulls egged her on. I was sad, but not inconsolable.
I buried her deeper than I ought, marking her grave with a simple cross of two bound sticks. There, I scratched the message: To My beloved Wife.
Later, when malicious gossip made the pastor aware of my situation, he visited one gloomy afternoon.
“It’s untitled, anonymous!” he exclaimed.
“What is?” I replied.
“Her grave, man. Her grave!”
“As was she.”
“Because she had no name?” he ventured, calming at my obvious heartbreak.
There was something unsavoury about her smile, an unavoidable diagnosis of disgust. Whilst she revelled in self-centred superiority, the world might’ve burned. The others played on.
She felt wrong. The whole thing felt wrong. As if having swallowed a live worm when expecting a jellied one, she wriggled within. I’d have wretched, but she was watching.
She’d done nothing other than sit there politely minding her own business. I hadn’t sought her, nor looked upon her by any other reason than an accident. She happened upon me. This was the simple truth.
Evasion proved the smarter side of valour. I slipped away to another table like a furtive rat, eager for some space and a place to breathe. She followed. Why the hell had I chosen this casino?
She sat and asked the time. I made a point of looking at her watch, but she ignored it. I gave her the correct hour but added twenty minutes. She laughed a crescendo.
I woke to an empty bed and an emptier wallet. She was long gone. I wasn’t annoyed, though. I blamed myself. She enjoyed her games, always had. I savoured them, too, once, but less so after we married.
Death was an inelegant solution to an elegant game, an imperfect answer to the most perfect of all solutions. Yet here, Death held no sway.
Memories were never my forte. I remembered in fits and starts, never then till now, nor here to there. I recalled moments, or fragments of moments, nothing more, like a jigsaw turned upside down and with no means of reference to piece it back together. This was how the first conjunction occurred, grey on black, black on grey, always white in-between.
The small, white bird was not a creature of feathers and pumping blood, but of glazed porcelain with a copper beak. It sang, though, trilled its little metal heart out. It sang and sang and sang.
I put the bird in my pocket only to realise many years later, when next I checked, that it had a hole. I panicked then, something to set the heart palpitating. The dull boom, boom, thud of it rang throughout the place, as I searched everywhere except where I ought.
The second alignment came upon discovering the first of two pits. I peered in one, dropped to my knees for a closer look and almost toppled into the other. In a world of insubstantiality, they were flat, almost symmetrical, two discarded black orbs in a land of dusk. Well, until they blinked.
They say life comes in threes. Third time lucky and all that. Not for me.
The sun appeared like a coin from a grandparent’s pocket. You wanted it, needed it, but if you took it too quickly, you might not get another. I had desired the sun since I lost it. She always gleamed.
She was my little bird, pale with sable hair, which added to her ghostlike appearance. Her eyes were black. No other description fit them. Closing them was the hardest thing I ever did.
The sun, now bright and beaming like a lighthouse slicing through a stormy midnight, rose higher. It reached its zenith like a diamond in a jet black ring.
The voice hurt my ears. It rang through my befuddled thoughts like Big Ben’s bells thrust inside my skull. I hated pain. My pain, that was.
I didn’t answer. I never answered. The words were never quite there. Instead, I wrapped my fogged shawl closer, pulled it tight. Anything else might have killed me.