Short Story: warmth of time

The fluorescence light above flickered, pushing me to an edge I never knew existed.

It pressed me down into the illusion of solitude. It was all white, all white, the sheets and the beds and the walls. My fingertips were pale; stripped of warmth and color and all that would render them human.

I was cold and dying.

I bore a distorted truth, the sense of time and the lie of its shapeshifting. I never sunk into its rhythm, because it is a distasteful thing to have a clock ticking away at the side of a dying patient. The ticking I heard had always been a fragment of my imagination, because time stretches painfully when you’re cold.

Nights were especially long and quiet. They sent me into panic; the definite end that they hold threatened me and what little I had left. I broke into cold sweat when it happened, and felt my body come apart at the seams. I wanted to be released and contained all at once.

But then mornings came, and I heard her laugh across the hall sometimes. It filled the void that the night spent the minutes carving out of me. She was the sun, unapologetically barging into my life with a bustling warmth almost visible around her. She wore white, too, but her skin was dark and rich, a calm contrast to the dull ache that pressed on to me.

Our encounters were all in the company of needles and IV drips. Maybe, I made a drug-induced confession. Maybe I told her how much I feared the tick-tocks in my head, or how much I wanted to see her hair big like she would wear it outside the hospital, or how unfairly fast time passed when her work ethics allowed her to give the convict more warmth than she did her other patients, whose families would give all the warmth they needed, because there was no cold like the cold of hearing muffled voices of laughter and encouragement walls away when you’re withering in seclusion. Maybe I told her that she was a beautiful beginning following the end that crept closer every night, that I was sorry for all that I’d done, that I would give anything for another chance. Maybe I told her that she was the sun, because she spared me a second after her shift once, where she wasn’t putting things in my body or taking things out, and she smiled, not like she always did, because it looked so true and a little sad. It looked like dawn.

And maybe this is the end, because it is so warm I can’t stand it, and it’s everything I’d ever wanted. Time is stretching languidly, and I have nothing to do but to bask and let it seep through me until every piece of me is enclosed in it. I’ll bask until the day is done.

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Constellations

They call me the Woodwose.

But they know that I am the forest; I am the canopies and the wind and the soil underneath. I have been, ever since I inhabited its heart long ago, and settled in another still, in the heart of the Great Tree.

“I have come,” she says in a voice far too large for her frame, “to purge you, fiend!”

To that I sigh, and pay no thought to the years that the exhale holds. I have heard it a thousand times, from kings and knights and furious farmers alike. I’ve made their water and their wealth mine, and so have I their harvest and lands.

Their yield is poor this year. Not the fault of rainfall or the sun, but mine. I grow more able to bring suffering upon them, season by season.

Her father owns a nearby land, she says. Her anger is understandable, but she’s a fragile thing. A girl in her homespun skirts and flimsy limbs, with golden hair curiously chopped to her nape. Strange things they are, humans, that a fortnight of starvation could kill them, and yet they defy, and yet they dare.

She comes with a spade, and it becomes clear that no sorcery could flow from those fingertips. She fails on the first day, and she fails on the second. On the third, I ask why, thinking that it’s a redundant thing; because she’s a farmer’s daughter, and I make their crops suffer.

“To be granted knighthood.”

And my belief in the limits of foolishness disappears. It wasn’t a very strong belief to begin with, not with her futile efforts at my sides, digging at roots that recover in instants.

Being a farmer’s daughter isn’t completely irrelevant, I learn on the fourth day, because her mother died. They couldn’t provide what she’d needed; I’d taken their yield. On the fifth, she cries and I can’t distinguish tears from the sweat running down her cheeks, and it’s the bitter, furious kind because she’s miserable and a little broken. On the sixth day, she learns that I forgot the sight of the sky; and on the seventh, I learn that she can chart it.

Days pass, and she brings apples with her sometimes. When she allows herself to rest, she braids flowers into crowns. It grows, that hair, but so do my roots, back into the dirt where they belong. Soon I learn her name, and Constance watches as her efforts become vain.

She listens when I scoff and tell the tales of her predecessors. Sometimes she laughs too, at the knight who promised the heart of the tree but fled when it talked, and the old king who led his men to where the horses wouldn’t follow, and tripped into the river while he hailed his call.

When I ask if she’s searching for my weakness in their stories, “Perhaps I am,” she cheekily says. But no, and although I am incapable of emotions beyond sins, no tenderness to be offered to humans, I can see it; that earnestness in eyes that should be set on horizons.

“Find my virtues,” I tell her after months she spends visiting, the secret of uprooting the heart of the woods. Seven, scattered across lands and seas far beyond her little village. It intrigues her, and she asks where, not how. And it is a little charming how willful the weaker beings can sometimes be. At least she, whose eyes bear something I can’t read, when she’s told in which scorching desert my Patience I’d left, and in the depth of which sea my Honesty dwells, and how high the mountain that holds my Humility is.

Then they call for her and she heeds. She leaves on a ship, and the wind brings back news of her when he can. She disembarks, and she finds her first companion, a small monkey, on a strange land I must have journeyed during my old life. It wasn’t so robust then.

She spends the year away, guided by voices and the stars. My virtues are gently awakened throughout, but I can’t possess them yet. She is captured and put to suffering for stealing my Sincerity from a land that honored it far beyond its worth, then she escapes unaided. The wind tells me she finds another companion, a boy, and is taught the way of the sword. Beasts become less frightening, and her sobs more courageous and sparse.

Her laughter comes in abundance, and the freckles on the bridge of her nose become more defined by the sun. She struggles still, against mountains of snow and ice and furious skies. But Constance grows and flourishes and takes the world by a storm.

I hear her curiosity finds ways to discover me, and seas away my secrets unravel in old myths and tales of havoc. She knows that I once had the freedom she seeks, and that I exploited it. I raged and plundered; I remorselessly sinned until that heart was spoiled beyond the capacity of a body to contain.

I begin losing myself, perhaps as she finds me elsewhere. I grow weaker in the entirety of my existence. Their crops prosper and her father writes and sends birds with joy. It appears that it soon would be gone, my vision, but it doesn’t shake me, because the wind sometimes carries her voice, but never the sight of her.

She’s carrying trinkets in the palms of her hands when she returns. Seven of them; little, old things that gleam even in the dead of the night, even to eyes that could see nothing else. I’ve become too weak for the year she spent away to feel as insignificant as it should.

She cries again, and it’s a headache how much she does. “Why have you withered away,” she says, her voice barely wrapped around a sob. “We had an agreement, I was meant to purge you.”

I lie and tell her that it was because she found my virtues that I began dying, but she only weeps harder. “But I have many stories to tell,” she says, and a number of them are about me; small, lost pieces of a past. “You’re not meant to just die yet.”

But I am; because finding my virtues wouldn’t take me, but my own desire to leave would. To leave the tree that took me in when the rest of the world refused is how I am made to die.

She tells her tales as I disintegrate. The bark that kept me for centuries falls apart in the circle of her arms, and the roots that held me dissolved beneath her feet. “Stop crying, you fool,” I say, and it’s met by a mess of small laughs and sobs and persevering stories.

“You never told me your Kindness was swallowed by a Kraken. That took a whole crew of pirates to retrieve, and another band of outlaws, too. And a massive carnivorous flower was guarding your Tolerance! I almost decided you could live without it at that sight.”

The Tree vanishes along with all the sorcery that rooted the forest. I feel it in me that it remains behind unchanged, and it could recover and grow without my notoriety keeping it in place. I have lived a burden, and remorse finds its way into me unprompted by the waiting virtues now scattered around her. Her stories are rushed and desperate, and so are her breaths. She breaks a little farther when my past as a human tumbles down her lips. She tells me that she knows and she says it again, that she knows and she knows, and she never says what it is. But it resonates in my body, every piece of the past she unraveled and willfully discovered, that left me with only envy and wrath. I feel it in the form that I undertook, and whether I am a beast or the human I’d once been I don’t know. But I am weaker than I’ve ever been, and even Pride can’t hold me upright against it. My head is cradled in her lap, on the harsh fabric of her breeches. And my eyes are gone, but she shifts me so they’re looking up. Constance pours Benevolence on them, and, “Open your eyes,” she says, “Look at the sky, Woodwose, isn’t it beautiful?”

My sky is green-eyed and freckled.

“That, she is,” I say, slipping away under her tears, “That she is.”


Notes

100-word story: lo mein

“Grab some Chinese take-out on your way home, would you?”

“You should’ve taken this job if you wanted to eat out, love,” I tell her, and hear her softly laugh through the device in my ear – the voice I sleep and wake up to.

“In paper boxes, please!”

She’s in the same line of work, my partner-in-crime (or against it), and my endearingly insufferable wife.

My breathing is steady, and the din of the city quiets down. I tug between a heartbeat and the next, one silent bullet through the brains of some corrupt politician. A job done. Dinner time.

Constellations Part 2: The Heroine

The hands that had spread maps before me and dotted them like the night sky now cradled my face, rough and dry and wearing away by age. They held worry and an odd form of pride when too little time was between us and the beginning of my journey.

I have yet to find anything as comforting as the warmth of my father’s hands that night.

He pressed his lips to my brow, and his frame was still as large as it’d been, refusing to bend down to age just yet. He was readily graying, though, and I’d given him grief for it. His eyes crinkled at the sides, lines much deeper than they were many springs ago. I thought it was clear why age had suddenly shown its weight on him. It had started once Mother got sick.

What took her was acute. It spared us no time to come to terms with any of it. A fever, short and sharp and the most horrifying thing I’d seen. Then she passed, taking along the light of her laughter from the life of my father and my own.

The yield had been especially poor then, barely enough to feed us. But the urgency of her illness brought surgeons in nonetheless, as many of them as it could. The cure could’ve been a few villages away, but she was too weak, and the limits of humans caught in a drought glared, ugly and desperate.

They blamed the crisis on the Woodwose, but I know the skies, their force too restless, too great, to be controlled by a being. The Woodwose’s roots exploited the richness of our lands, and that, compared to the unbound power of the sky, is a force that people perhaps can stand against.

But my journey was not inspired by revenge; that was that notion that pushed me to dig out his roots. There was the knighthood that I sought, the voice that it all held, one loud enough for the villagers threatened by hunger and illnesses and too much grief.

‘Not revenge,’  I had repeated time and time again, hoping that it would become the truth.

“You really are your mother’s daughter.”

Suddenly, I was brought back to the present, but as young as I had been when the life my father spent laughing under the sun hadn’t etched his lines as deep, back when my mother would bake apples while she answered all my questions, one from every corner of the world.

Who rules the East, Mommy? And the Southern Sea? Where are all the mermaids? Are they pretty?

Until my questions reached the sky, and right until then, she would answer like she’d seen it all.

What’s the brightest star in the sky called, Mommy?

Then Mother would smile and place her hand on my head. “Isn’t that question more suited for Daddy? You know no one knows the skies like he does.” He’d taught me how to chart the stars because I feared the dark.

“Would you grow up like Mommy, Constance? Or will you turn out land-bound like Daddy?

Or better yet, you’d grow your own self. I’m sure of it.”

I’d missed her, so much that it felt like something broke in half inside me, and I was faced with another parting still. The tightness in my throat ached fiercely. I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t, but the sob tore despite it all, and before I knew it, I was a child again, contained in the protection of my father’s arms. My hands grabbed fistfuls of the back of his clothes, desperate, broken things.

I was frightened out of my wits, the world was so large beyond our village, but not once did I doubt my desire to go, to see it and brave its seas. I caught my next sigh and swallowed it, out of the stubborn determination to ready myself for the journey if nothing else.

But what he said about my resemblance to Mother was blurred and muffled by my tears. I didn’t understand any of it then. I couldn’t, until many seas later.