Hope you like this. I don’t often put my stories on here, but this was recently featured in the wonderful The Tophat Raven magazine. Check it out and show them some support.
Dappled light cast mysterious shadows over the valley floor. It was more than a dream, more than I deserved. I inhaled deeply of the fresh, salt-tinged air and shielded my eyes from the burning sun. Blinking twice, then refocusing, I realised myself to be gazing upon perfection. Had I stumbled across a new Eden? Here, as I crested this last ridge, had I found that which was thought lost? I was one footstep closer to the end of my pilgrimage, but it felt like I had already taken a giant stride into heaven.
Cumulous clouds dodged playfully overhead in and out of the sun’s rays as though children in a game of hide and seek. I stared in wonder upon them, it made me feel…happy, yes happy. I felt the start of a gentle tugging at the corners of my mouth. It wasn’t an unpleasant sensation, simply an unfamiliar one. What was happening I thought to myself? A shaft of ephemeral light emerged from behind a billowing pillow and shone gracefully down upon a lone maple tree. Leaves of rouge kissed the light, as of a first tentative encounter. It was beautiful, I had missed so much. I looked upon the burnished tree and sensed the tugging at the corners of my mouth increasing up to my ears. This was the first time I had smiled since I lost her. It felt wrong to do so, as if somehow I dishonoured her memory. I tried to stop, but couldn’t.
The last few weeks had seemed inexorable. It’s funny how heartbreak can do that to a person. My wanderings had taken me from east coast to west. So many miles of hardship all in the name of lost love. I had hoped to reach the shores of the Neo-Pacific as a final goodbye to her. This had been an ambition and dream of my wife’s for so long that I believed I owed it to her memory to complete it. I couldn’t have lived with a clear conscience if I had not at least tried. Although, if I had perished along the way I don’t think I would have been too upset. As I stood there, one short valley’s length from the ocean, my final destination, I felt not unlike the passage of my only companion the sun: I was setting.
The barren wastelands of the east lay behind me. To think that nothing but a wall of rock could separate grim desolation from such eye-startling magnificence. I wondered how many others had given up before the climb, as I had momentarily considered, too. If I had not continued, despite my exhaustion, I would not have borne witness to this utopia. It was a true pleasure to look, at least for a time, upon actual life. Blazing rhododendron bushes, scarlet, cerise, and pink, cascaded from every surface. Green was the prevailing colour rather than the pallid sand of the desert wastes. My vision was filled with verdant splendour. Gentians burst forth from between the upland grasses in pockets of spectrum colour bringing the hillsides to resplendent life. These miniature rainbows of bustling beauty would shine their little hearts out during an all too short life. The intoxicating scents of the floral brigade overwhelmed my olfactory senses. Only having reached such abundant life and stood there basking in their combined colognes, did I realise how long I had been mired in the smells of the dead. A stream ran from its hiding place amongst higher pastures and I had a sudden desire to seek its source, perhaps even attain a view of that which I sought. But I quickly decided against it and instead chose to follow the waters that rushed past my feet, around several bouquets of the tiny flowers, and on to meet the ocean’s waters. Or so I suspected; I would follow it, I thought I should like that.
Downwards I loped, my backpack with its one solitary parcel banging rapidly against my back. The slope was steep but sufficiently well-covered in plant matter to guarantee a soft landing should I slip in my pursuit of the fast running stream. Reinvigorated by the tranquility I beheld, I yearned to run through the lush fields below and moved with a certain lack of dignity to attain them as quickly as possible. I probably looked a crazed lunatic, but I did not care. I would enjoy what time was left and damn the unlikelihood of being watched. Little did I know a flying pirate was doing just that. The seagull squawked an opinion overhead, startling me out of my euphoria. This was the first living being I had found in over three long weeks. His noise, for that was the best I could term it, was quite irritating, but welcome nonetheless. He spiralled overhead perhaps lost, perhaps pitying me, before languidly gliding away. I cupped my eyes against the sun and watched his outline fade away until I could see him no more.
I rapidly closed the distance between myself and the valley floor. From the great height I had so recently attained the grasses had seemed shorn and almost flat. In fact, I found myself walking through vegetation of almost twice my own height. Fronds of softest delicacy brushed against my face and for the first time in an age I knew what it was to feel. They tickled my skin and enlivened my soul; a soul I had thought lost to me. A stray feathered end touched at my nose making me sneeze. The echoing volume only contributed to making me laugh, too. Soon, it seemed a cacophony of voices were laughing through the glade, and I knew what it was like to have company again.
There had only been two of us left after the holocaust, at least that I knew of, but hearing all that repeated laughter reminded me just why my wife and I had moved so far from the remains of civilisation. We had sought peace, and for a time, found it. Whether other remnants of humanity who crawled back out of their holes in the ground after the bombs had all subsided, chose east, I do not know? If they sought the greater populations of the Atlantica east coast, those furthest from the hardest shelling, I can only guess? But my wife and I never saw another living soul again. We traveled as far as her condition would allow before being forced to stop. There I built us a ramshackle dwelling from the abundant debris. Some would call it a hovel; we called it home. If only she had been able to journey the relatively short extra distance to this paradise. We could have been very happy here. Pity, that was never going to happen now.
Onwards I paced, as the sun began to slowly diminish, following the bubbling vein before me. The little stream gurgled and spat its way through the undergrowth leading me joyfully across the valley floor. All manner of wildflowers clung to its shallow banks in multicoloured splendour. I think my beloved would have liked to sit amongst them and laugh. Dragonflies skimmed the chugging waters in aerobatic manoeuvres of such skill that my eyes were almost unable to follow them. The stream was a miniature highway of life. One that I was a willing participant in. It was a pity that such an idyllic scene would not last.
My surge across the valley floor led me inexorably on until at last the shushing of the ocean assailed my ears. I was so enamoured with its subtle tones that I almost walked straight over the edge of the cliff tops. Emerging from the long grass into clear air I beheld the glory of a liquid world. It flowed before my eyes like molten gold; it was incredible. The little stream fell away before me, a miniature waterfall that tumbled hundreds of feet to meet its own private destiny. I was unable to follow bodily, but my heart would be with it always. I was there, facing the western waters, and for the first time felt doubt.
I had come so very far to see this sight. Desperation had sustained me through conditions that no man should have lived through. Sands had beaten relentlessly at my exposed skin, and the sun that appeared so becalmed now, had been fierce in its previous bombardment. I had run out of food days ago and as yet had not refilled my small water flask; I didn’t suppose I would ever fill it again. But, as I stood there bathed in the beauty of the natural world, I had misgivings. Had I truly done it for her or for myself? All of a sudden I was not so sure?
Everything had happened so suddenly. From the exultation of confirmed conception to that moment after she gave birth to our daughter. For a fraction of a second I was the happiest man on Earth. I was a proud father and loving husband. Moments later I was neither. It had all been ripped from my grasp so quickly that I wasn’t sure that I had yet come to terms with it.
There had been no sound; I had expected sound. How could silence have been so threatening?
I’d stood there at the foot of the bed awash in blood, a broken man with broken dreams and nothing left to do but weep.
I had buried my soulmate that same day. The rocks, so plentiful about our makeshift home, provided the only sign we’d ever been there other than the charred remains and scorch marks on the claylike soil. The last two people on the continent had become one, when it should have been three. And the one was only a spectral version of the man he had been.
Losing my dear wife had broken more than just my spirit. But, standing there before the myriad tones of amber hue with the heartbeat of the world enveloping me, I knew she would not want me to cast my own life aside so cheaply. She had fought to give our child life right to the bitter end, whereas I had simply given up with no more than a whimper. I was shaming her memory. I determined not to do so again.
I hitched up my backpack, rolled up the tattered remnants of my sleeves, and lowered myself over the edge of the cliff face. I trusted to the network of roots and coarse vegetation in a way I would never have previously done so. Caution had been cast to the sea breeze. That was the only way down, and I would make it count.
By the time I eventually reached the sandy floor the sun sat low over the ocean. Tiredness overwhelmed me, but I strode purposefully over the shoreline and into the cool embrace of the water. I did not pause, for I knew I could not do what was needed if I did so. I pushed on through the rolling breakers, as the ocean thrust against my chest, until I was up to my neck in that which every living thing first sprang from. Only then did I pause, carefully removing my bag from my shoulders. Gently, I reached inside and removed the small package within. It was so light, almost as if there was nothing there at all. I could not bring myself to unwrap the clothing my wife had so lovingly made for our child to be, that which I had wrapped my precious cargo in. Instead, I held it to my face and softly whispered goodbye.
I watched my daughter’s body drift effortlessly away, anointed by the ocean her mother had so wished her to see. In that moment I christened her Hope, for that is what she had given me before she slowly ducked beneath the foaming waters into the womb of the sea.
I stayed there motionless, as the sun vanished over the distant horizon, and liquid fire burned over the waves for many minutes. I was unable to turn from it. The flaming waters mesmerised me. Only when darkness encased my being and the stars popped into existence overhead did I shed my last tear and turn to leave.
As I collapsed on the sandy beech too exhausted to move, I made up my tired mind. I would no longer wallow in self pity. I would endeavour to seek out more of my kind, or die trying. There had to be someone, somewhere!
It had taken the death of two angels to make me believe again. Through me their memory would live on. Through me, this world on the brink, would once more know possibility. Here, at the extremities of landfall, life had survived. I would take that hope with me, as the ocean, and the memory of my daughter, watched me leave.