I have a confession to make: a computer program is responsible for the every day happiness I’ve experienced for the past three years. That’s because three years ago today, that computer program told me I might be romantically compatible with a man who lived 2.5 hours from me. I took a look at his picture, clicked a few buttons, and have never looked back.
That’s right. I met my husband through an online dating site. *blushes*
We live in a strange new age where that actually happens pretty frequently–more and more people are connecting online and finding their true friends, their soul mates. It makes sense, as society expands into the ethernet that we would have to expand dating/mating customs to there as well. Sounds kind of sci-fic when you look at it that way. I look at it from an anthropological mindset, and find it fascinating.
But regardless of how I met my half of my OTP, I love him in ways that are both mind blowingly profound and vomit-inducingly adorable. We are the perfect partners in crime–he makes me laugh when I’m anxious and sad, and I’m willing to dive to catch him when he falls/passes out at the altar at our wedding (yes that really happened). We can both talk for hours about the spiritual implications of The Dark Crystal, the perfect balance of flavors in Thai hot and sour soup, and why Wax Work and Wax Work II: Lost In Time are the most perfect horror films of all time.
You done good, compatibility robot/program. You done good.
Anyway, on to the second part of this post, the free short story!
Two months after I met my husband, I did something I had never done before: I wrote a short story for him, as a birthday gift. I was inspired by strange dreams I’d had since I’d met him, odd pseudo-memories of other lives I may or may not have lived. And he had asked me once, half asleep and maybe dreaming, “Where do I know you from?”
And that was all the inspiration I needed for this story, which I’m posting here for free in honor of the many freak occurances that led us to each other.
I hope you enjoy it :)
A Lover and its Ghosts
Somewhere there’s an ocean,
salty dark and deep,
that swallows stars into its heart,
and lulls the sky to sleep.
There swims a single memory,
amidst the floating lights
like lanterns lit for long lost souls
as naked as the night;
It weaves between the luminescence,
dances on the crests
of waves too far from salt-stained shores
that catch what comes to rest.
But sometimes when the moon is full
and galaxies align,
reflecting on the ocean
one can glimpse amidst the brine
the sight of what has lingered there,
more brilliantly than most
the memory of what once was:
a lover, and its ghost.
-M.C.F. Nov. 2010
Where do I know you from?
Somewhere, on a speck of dust that hovers in the vast dark of the universe, there is an ocean. It is salty, dark, and deep, like the barest of souls, having wandered far and long and lonely through epochs and eras, and endless acres of star-studded woodlands. The arms of the ocean reach out to the salt-stained shore, thrusting forward, receding, ever caressing the broken-down things escaped from its depths.
We stood ankle deep upon that shore, once upon a time. The waves crashed against our skin, stole the sand from beneath our feet; my hand fit perfectly into yours, like the boat that had slid into the harbor the night before, and waited for you now, tethered to the dock.
In the morning we watched the sun rise, fingers twined and increasingly clenched as the sky went from purple, to red. “Sailor’s warning,” I murmured with lips that threatened mutiny. My eyes burned as water levels dared to rise, and in an instant I found myself bound to you by arms and spirit and breath, when you pulled me close and pressed your lips to mine–not harsh, not hungry, not without control. But still, somehow, there was a kind of desperation in your kiss. Or perhaps it was mine.
We clung to each other in the amber glow, felt the sway of the earth as it was cradled by the water, the sway of our bodies as we rocked in each other’s arms. “One last time,” you breathed into my ear, and I trembled straight to my core.
“Once is all it takes,” I tried to whisper back, pulling you hard and close, fingers digging into your back. But my voice broke, and it came out nearly as a sob.
You held me, and said nothing. The sand moved beneath us; water swirled around our ankles. The boat bobbed in the harbor, pulley’s clanking against the metal poles and masts. A fog was rolling in from the south.
“I’ve got to go,” you whispered, and I heard the weakness in your voice that I had been afraid would come.
You leaned your forehead down to touch mine, your eyes tunneling into mine, your hands settling into mine, one last time. “But my heart remains with you, my love.”
“And mine with you,” I choked out, fighting the strain that was building along my jaw, pulling at the corners of my mouth. My hands ran through your hair, still pulling you inexorably forward.
With one last, small kiss, you drew away. Our hands lingered until the instant when your feet drew us far enough apart to split our bodies, the very moment when you turned to face the harbor, as you began to march away.
Cold air filled the spaces where once your body wrapped around my own. The chill of our divide shivered down my spine; my heart wrenched, physically dragging me. I stumbled forward, clutching at my breast, fighting against the flood as waves continued to lap at my unbound feet.
“Come back to me,” I whispered when I could move my lips again, as your form began to blur. “Come back.”
We used to live in our own little house by the sea, nestled in the rocks. The sun danced over the water each long night and quick morning that I spent meditating out on the widow’s walk, wearing your old winter coat, hand curled around a lukewarm, untouched cup of tea. I would scan the horizon for signs of your vessel, any silhouette rising with the curve of the globe, each bird and breaker causing my breath to come short; it would catch in my chest, and wind around my lungs like so much rope about a mooring post, then lance through my heart when I realized what the shapes really were: nothing more than shadows.
In that life I knew long, lonely days, filled with wistful glances and forgotten heartbeats each time my mind would wander to the water, the mighty ocean who we loved for her bounty, her beauty. She was our greatest teacher, then. She taught us patience and solitude, the joy of reunion, and the bittersweet excitement of a saltwater harvest.
She was steady, and generous–but though she gave all these things, I could not trust her. Despite my love for her, I could not trust her to bring you home to me.
I would bargain with her, make promises with the self-centered audacity to believe that my actions mattered. I made offerings to her, and to the moon, the stars, the wind. All of them would guide you safely back to shore, carry your body and soul back across time and space to bring you home to me. All those years, you’d been delivered. All those years, I’d waited and watched from the widow’s walk. All those years, I’d known I’d see you again.
But it was not so certain that last time. Dread had made its home inside my heart each time I thought about you setting out to sea. My gut had churned; my lungs had tightened against the deep breaths I’d tried to take to soothe it away. I knew I would see you again–I know I will always see you again–but the knowledge then was much more profound than before, as deep and real as the marrow in my bones. I knew it, but I did not understand it, and in my lack of understanding, I was frightened.
You would be gone for one hundred and seventeen days before they would find the wreckage of your vessel washed up forty miles south of home. Word would reach the families on the hundred and twentieth day, but by then the papers would have already gone to press, with bold headlines that struck down every widow in port, again and again, as the same two words sprung from the pages on newsstands and bulletins as they passed:
I dreamed of mountains then, leviathans of granite and lime, stained by the damp green of the deep sea. They stood like hulking giants on the soft wrinkles of sand, layers of seaweed dancing in the water and hanging from their stocky bodies like ragged clothes. The skeletons of seafaring ships leaned heavily against their stubby legs, frames made hazy by corrosion; great toothy beasts would glide between their shoulders, black eyes gleaming with a light that by all rights should not have been captured there.
Sometimes I would wake up curled into the sheets, clutching at your side of the bed as if I might be able to extract your sleeping ghost from the stuffing of the mattress. Had I been clinging to you? Swimming with your spirit through the icy water, letting the salt wash away the incomprehensible distance between us? Maybe we had become flesh for a moment in time, briefly incarnating some willing creatures asleep beneath the sea.
As certain as I was–when my hand curled around the air where yours should have been and I still felt you–I couldn’t help but be human, and wonder if any of it had really happened–or if you had ever been real to begin with.
But that’s not all, is it.
There was always sand, it seemed: endless stretches of ochre that fell like rumpled silk bed sheets across the land, forever haunting our dreams. This time it was the desert.
That was your home. You used to watch the wind roll the grains across the dunes, making the ridges dance, languid ribbons of shadow rippling and bending. As a child, you were taught that dance by your mother–who learned it from her mother, who learned it from her own; delicate lifts and drops, undulations and rotations, skirts jingling with a metallic hiss of applause. You knew how to do things with your body that would draw you into a trace; make it curve and come alive in a sequence of motion that verged on sacred. To you, and to your ancestors, it was.
Every breath you took was sacred then. You mouthed prayers of gratitude, when your bare feet fell upon the sand; when your hands ran across the soft folds of fabric awaiting the grace of your embroidery; when the scent of good black tea filled your tent at night; when you laid your head in your mother’s lap as she told you the ancient stories of the desert. There had never been a question, in your mind, as to what your vocation was: just as your heart was filled with gratitude, it was overflowing with love of the divine. You intended to give yourself to that service.
Your mother did not try to sway you, though she knew the ascetic ways of your holy people, and the brutal demands it would make of your slight, supple form. She never told you there was another way, because she also knew of the stubbornness in your heart. It was the same in her own–that let her raise a child on her own, under the guise of widowhood. The truth was, your father had raped your mother. The truth was, your mother had killed your father. The truth was, you were ten thousand miles from your mother’s home, and there wasn’t a price she hadn’t paid to get you there.
I know this, because she told me, after everything. After we’d met, and fallen in love; after you’d taken your vows as a servant to your gods; after your death. And I found out then that she was different from you in one heartbreaking way: she was capable of regret.
You were dancing the first time I saw you, practicing with your mother as the blind son of the man in the neighboring tent played a hypnotic melody on his pungi. I was travelling across the sandstone ridge that overlooked your home, and led deeper into the village that your encampment bordered. There was an image of a many-armed goddess crudely painted on a tapestry hanging over the opening of your tent; she was blue, with hooded eyes and a bright red tongue as long as her hand, wrist to fingertip. Adorned with gold chains and ornamental armor, her bare breasts stood bold and round over an impossibly narrow waist, and muscular legs, one folded so that the foot touched the opposite knee. She looked like a warrior, or a demon; I was shocked to see such elegant women worshiping her image.
But I observed your refined movements, the bend of your knees and arch of your back, the smooth circles you made with your hips, all of it accentuated by the frame you traced with your hands. In each isolated swell of motion I saw in you her ferocity, the glamour of her strength; in her, I saw the reflection of your beauty and exquisite grace.
And that was the moment I fell in love.
I did not know it at the time. I was young, and didn’t even know your name. It was a feeling all together new to me, both expansive and final, unending and constricting. My heart beat the same as it always had, but now I was suddenly aware that its rhythm was a part of your dance; that your dance was mimicry of the undulating crests of sand; that the sands of the desert were as eternal as the shapes they formed were ephemeral. Somewhere, I fit into that. The thought was more than enough to make my soul thrill, and to make my heart cry out for yours.
But there was to be conflict.
You were a desert creature, with skin the color of late autumn leaves that you would never see, and hair as black as the kohl that lined your eyes. You knew the ancient tongues, the fertility dances, the intricate web of your people’s pantheon. You had a love affair with the moon, and at night one could see you twirling about in her beams, arms raised as silver light caressed your swaying body.
And I… was a white man. I was an artisan, a craftsman, with an inheritance from a late, estranged uncle that allowed me to travel and gain inspiration for my next great work–or, really, my first. For five years I had been traveling the world; wandering the streets and jungles of foreign lands; sailing the frothy waters of the sea. My mind was full of images, of places and people, of tastes and smells, and customs I could barely understand. My heart, though… my heart… it was only ever full of one thing: yearning.
I had not realized it until recently. Always there had been a listlessness to my ways, a lust for movement–forward, away, back. Never could I seem to find happiness in one place, be it old or new, familiar or strange. I had disguised my yearning with boredom, and disgust, and apathy. I had done all that I could to prevent it from whispering to my heart, for in the moment that I heard its true name I would be a slave to it’s call. Sitting in judgment one can still feel satisfied; once one realizes the depth of emptiness in his own heart, there is nothing to be done but to attempt to fill it–until the end of your days.
It had come upon me on a train one night, chugging along through the mountains in some distant land whose name was lost among all the others. Lying awake in my car, staring out the window as the trees and rocks rushed past, I saw how the stars remained fixed in the sky, flickering with sunlight from light years away. We seemed to circle the stars, barely curving around them as we barely curved around the globe.
How long had those stars shone? How long had we gazed upon them, wondering what they were–where they were? Was there someone out there at that very moment looking at those very stars, wondering these very questions? And if there was, how in the world would I ever find her? And did I need to?
The colossal size of the universe laid itself bare upon my consciousness as I pressed the back of my head more deeply into my pillow, as if I might be able to take it all in if I could just step back far enough. But it was impossible–to comprehend the stars was a feat no man could dare hope to achieve. And yet I felt that if I could find that other mind out there, the other soul, under the same stars, riding that very train of thought, that it might relieve me of the magnitude, the weight, of the responsibility I’d suddenly burdened myself with. For if I could not grasp the vastness of infinity, I did not want to leave it up to others to do so for me.
And somehow, while the weight of it sat upon my chest, I felt my heart expand. I breathed deeply, and became keenly aware of an icy, nauseating emptiness inside my chest. There were stars in there. It was the same vast emptiness of the sky, peppered with fairy lights, and dust motes floating on moonbeams–shadows flitting through the pitch of a bottomless, endless, borderless emptiness. If there was a soul out there that night, watching the same stars as I, then that would be the soul who could understand the very galaxy within my own breast, and I within hers.
Once aware of that vast emptiness, however, it was almost impossible to look away. The vacuum of space drew me in, and I found that I was propelled forward in an entirely new way. I let my heart carry the burden of choice, and following her instructions I soon found myself treading the sands of your desert, feeling foolish, tired, dirty, and hungry.
That is, until I saw you. Everything changed after that. It was a soft, unassuming shift, but grand, like the rise and fall of mountain ranges; one minute I was lost and searching; the next minute I had forgotten what brought me to the desert to begin with; and in the wake of it all, I can look back on my time there and see how everything I was before I found you had been leading up to that moment.
We spoke for the first time in the market. You had come to purchase food for your mother and yourself, and I had come with the intention of introducing myself to you. When I got turned around by the crowd, and stumbled into a butcher’s table, and found myself stared down by a large black-skinned man with eyes like cut glass, I did not expect to hear your soft voice cajoling him on my behalf.
You would tell me later that you’d seen me in the crowd and “felt a different wind on your face,” which took me some time to realize what you had meant was that you had “felt the winds of fate change.” In the meantime, however, I carried your bags back to your tent for you, and your mother offered me tea in exchange for stories of my time abroad.
We made a habit of it. Everyday you would find a reason to come to the market, and every day we would find each other. Every day I would walk you home, and we would have tea with your mother while I taught both of you about my world, and you taught me about yours. But one day, some weeks into our routine, I looked you in the eyes before I left and felt the deep pulse of space within my heart. I saw it reflected in your ink black eyes, and wondered what you saw in mine. Perhaps I’d held your gaze too long, or not long enough, but what you saw frightened you.
You did not come to the market the next day. Or the next.
I visited your tent on the third day, unable to keep myself away without knowing you were well. But you were gone when I arrived, taking lessons from the old priestess at the temple, laying offerings at the feet of statues, preparing your soul for your dedication. It was then that your mother explained the path you had intended for yourself.
She did not disapprove of your decision, for she knew of the dangers of the mundane world, the profanity that permeated even the most innocent of lives. But she could not entirely agree with your decision, either; on her path to healing, her heart had not only mended, but grown. Finding solace in her faith, she had inadvertently shaped her daughter into a devotee, to the exclusion of your devotion to anything else. Your mother knew that there was profound, sacred beauty that also permeated the world, high and low, near and far. She wanted you to know it as well, before you devoted your soul and your body to the world that lies beyond the one we live in.
Your mother pitied me. She had watched us fall in love over tea served in small hammered bronze cups; she had watched my sea-colored eyes linger on the delicate lines of your face, memorizing them; she had watched your slow smile curl the edges of your mouth when you caught me and pretended that you hadn’t. I was only a young man, a romantic at heart, and deeply in love with a young woman who had given her heart to God. She wished for nothing else than that we could be happy together–but you had made your decision.
The dawn was cool and purple the morning before your dedication. I found you sitting atop the sandstone rocks that stood like sentinels at the four corners of your village, watching the clouds drift over the desert. You had come because you wished to say goodbye to the world you were leaving. I had come to say goodbye to the desert.
It was no surprise when we found each other there, for some part of our souls are never parted, and somewhere in our hearts we always know that. You were wrapped in white– in your faith, the color of the initiate; back home, the color of a bride. I was in my traveling suit, the wide-eyed luster of youth gone from my eyes, replaced with the depth of a well-traveled soul; it had been high, and it had been low, and it had been near and far. It found what it was looking for imbedded in the sand at the border of a desert village, in the middle of Nowhere. Unmovable. And would I want to wrench the beautiful thing that I had found from the place it felt it belonged too?
The words that passed between us on the rocks that morning were scarce, but they were all that needed to be said. Certain things must be said, so that one not lie awake at night wondering, or regretting. We were two who knew that each other deserved the truth, as much as ourselves.
“I love you,” I said.
And you cried.
We embraced the only time we ever would, and I held you until your eyes were dry. There was something between us, and that was the irrefutable truth that caused you such pain. In the presence of God, you felt an overwhelming awe, bathed in the glory of divine love, filled with a passion that moved you, body and soul.
But in my arms, you felt whole.
When you pulled away from me, you did not avert your eyes. You stared deep down into my soul, and it caused great pain in you. But the pain passed with the moment, and something inside of me gave you the strength you needed to make the right choice.
“I would give up everything to be with you,” you told me. “And because of that I must remain with God. Only God could have given me a love so great, and for that I am eternally thankful.” You cocked your head and held my hand in both of yours, slender fingers stretched across my square palm. “We will meet again, in a time and place where nothing will keep us apart. And I will love you as you deserve to be loved.”
Your face began to change in the instant that passed between the words leaving your mouth, and your hands slipping away from mine. I watched you turn and walk away, climb down the rocks, and pause as the same pain tearing my heart in two also ripped through yours. I saw your shoulders rise and fall once–twice–before your legs found the strength to carry you away from me forever.
I cannot say that in that life I was ever able to understand your decision. But that did not matter. Though there was always a great pain in my heart where I knew yours was supposed to be, my love for you was, and is, great enough to let you go.
And I think that, now, I’m beginning to understand.
How is it you remember this?
I don’t remember. I see it–lives, reflected in your eyes.
And are we always lovers?
There is always love.
Once, it took us almost an entire lifetime to find each other. The pain of it was that we’d known each other all along.
As children, we lived on different ends of the same lake. You were the only son of a wealthy tradesman and an heiress, living in luxury and security. You would stare out across our lake at night, as you leaned against the stone railing of your bedroom terrace, dreaming of a world without bitter tea and polished spoons and parents who sleep in different wings of the same estate; you dreamed about the things that lurked in the shadows of the woods, dreamed that they would steal you away in the night and take you into their wild kingdom and treat you as a brother; you imagined running with the wolves that sometimes came down from the north and howled at the cold light of the full moon; you wished to dance across the water with the specters that swirled inside the mist, out to the horizon, where the strange green light from my father’s cabin burned deep into the night.
I would sit up late by the oil lamp, sketching stories on abandoned parchment, old invoices and receipts that my father would have never known were missing if he didn’t stumble upon my nest some years later. I dreamed about the lives of the children on the other side of our lake, living the fairytales that my mother had told me once upon a time, before she was laid to rest in an early grave; I would imagine myself walking among those children, eating sweets, wearing finery, riding in carriages and washing with scented soaps and soft cloths. How little I knew then that our lives were very much like fairytales–at least the beginning of one, with the prince envying the pauper, who envied the prince. A fairytale ending was not to come for some time, though.
There came a long night when we were both indescribably bored. As I sat in the window of my father’s cabin awaiting his return, I saw out of the corner of my eye a new light appear on the horizon. You had found a lantern in your father’s stable and brought it to your terrace, to see if you could make contact with the strange green light–with me. The light flashed three times.
I looked around and found a small, empty crate, and with great intrigue and hope I lowered and raised it over my own lantern, three times.
And so began a curious lifetime of friendship.
At first, there was only a game of memorizing patterns, lengths and numbers of flashes imitated, then added to.
Gradually, we developed our own secret code of communication. It was only imagined, I had thought. I would imagine saying hello every night, and good night every morning, and you would mimic my patterns, sometimes use them first. Then, when we were bored with challenging our memories, we imagined talking to each other with the careful rhythms we blinked across our lake. I would tell you about my father, and how he cared for me as best he could despite our poverty; you would tell me about your family, and how you often forgot you even had parents since father was always away on business, and mother was always sleeping off one of her migraines.
Sometimes we would share details about our days–I would wait for the sun to set, and to see your light appear out of the pitch, and I would eagerly tell you about the old Indian I had met hauling grain for Mr. Murdoch, who promised to help me make a bow and arrows; the drawing I had made of you and I together, even though I didn’t know what you looked like; the beast I heard lived at the bottom of the lake; the guilt I felt when my arrow found the heart of a rabbit.
I imagined you telling me about what you had learned in school sometimes, about kings and queens and knights and their battles. You told me about the book your uncle had sent you from Africa, filled with legend and lore from a hundred different tribes; the older boy at school who picked on you for being small, and how you knocked him down during recess; the girl just down the road who moved in one summer, and how you planned to marry her.
For years, we imagined these conversations across our lake, waiting up nearly every night until my father came home from his graveyard shift at the factory in town. Gradually, as we grew up, our responsibilities got in the way of our midnight liaisons; our bodies refused to tolerate the lack of sleep, and the nights we did speak became few and far between. Eventually, they stopped all together.
I never told my friends about you. You were my secret, something that belonged only to me, a treasure I held close to my heart. We didn’t mourn the end of our nights together any more than we mourned the end of our childhood–it was just something that happened, and ended, as most things in life seem to do.
It was several years later when my father died. After the funeral, I sat out on the porch with the lantern like I use to, when I would wait for him to return. Its strange green light cast an eerie glow over the water that lapped up against our land. I watched the water, sloshing gently against the rocks, until my eyes were weary and my heart was heavy, and then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the light across our lake blink into existence.
You said our old familiar hello, or so I imagined.
Hello, I flashed back.
Trouble? As if you’d felt the weight of my heart all the way across the dark body of water between us.
No. Father died.
A pause. So sorry.
Some time passed before your light blinked again, but I couldn’t imagine what it meant.
Are you well? I asked.
Joined the military. Leaving tomorrow.
Another long pause cloyed at us, weathering our nerves. Finally I asked you Is that what you want to do?
You responded with It’s what I must do.
We didn’t know we loved each other then, of course. As young men are wont to do, we kept our emotions hidden, often even from ourselves. And if we’d known it then, we never could have understood it. But you were more than a friend to me–you were a voice in the dark. And I was more than a friend to you–I was a light on the horizon.
By the time I had enough money to buy myself a little cottage on the other side of the lake, I was an old man.
Slow and steady, I had saved every penny I could, and sold my artwork and illustrations anywhere they would take me. I made my way through various means, and lived a long and fruitful life with my faithful wife at my side. I loved her, too. I didn’t think of you often–periodically I’d see a light on the lake and feel an old, familiar pulse of excitement, like I used to get when we first began our games. But then you’d steal away into the recesses of my brain where you most likely belonged.
My wife fell ill at the end of winter, when the humidity rose and a cold damp seeped into her lungs. She would get better, but I came to sit by her bed in the hospital every day. When she slept I would make conversation with the young woman sitting beside the bed next to us, a lanky old man lying before her, wheezing in his sleep. She told me you had lived here all your life. You were a schoolteacher once; you had given up the society life your parents had left you in exchange for a chance to help children learn. You had served in the war, and when you returned you married The Girl Next Door, who even now you were still madly in love with, though she’d been dead twenty years if a day. The young woman was your granddaughter, and had been living with you for several months while her parents were away in Europe.
She asked me to watch you while she went to lunch with some friends one day. At that point, I didn’t realize that you were the same young man who’d gone to war so many decades ago, nor the same boy who I had imagined a friendship with via lanterns and across a lake. I only knew you were a good person, and well loved by that young woman.
It was your eyes that did it. Something in their smoky gray depths spoke of a life-long love affair with the night, and all her dark mysteries. In those scarce moments I could imagine the boy you had been, leaning over the railing of your lakeside terrace, balancing your lantern with both hands. You cocked your head and looked at me, and with an awkward smile and a scratchy voice you said: “You look familiar. Do I know you?”
“In a way, I believe you do,” I replied, feeling something in my heart awaken.
Your chest heaved, and you were racked by a fit of coughing for a few minutes. I brought you some water, and waited for you to catch your breath. Eventually, pounding a weak fist against your chest, you laughed. “I’m telling you, this whole dying venture is probably the biggest mistake I’ve made yet. Tell me something…” Your wiry gray eyebrows knitted together, and a strange look came over you, like a pain you had brightly anticipated. “Why did we never tell each other our names?”
A laugh escaped my lips. “I was under the impression I was imagining that you even understood me.”
“Me too, me too,” you admitted. “But we told each other everything else anyway, didn’t we?”
You stared past me with a wry expression on your lined face, before you turned your eyes to the ceiling. “There were certainly some times we could have used each others company in this life.”
My smile persisted, though a lifetime of pain and joy that did not belong to me flashed through my heart in an instant. I wanted you to tell me everything–I wanted to tell you everything, about what we had learned from life, and what we feared and hoped for death. I wanted to show you the drawing I had made so many years ago, of you and I together. And strangely, I did not want to know what our lives would have been like if we had found each other sooner. We were, as we had always been, each other’s voice in the dark, and light on the horizon.
My hand wrapped around yours, finding it papery and cool, your pulse just a hairsbreadth from the surface. “We have some time still,” I told you.
And you smiled, still watching the ceiling–looking though it even, all the way up to the sky…
Maybe. I don’t know.
I had a strange dream the other night, that you and I were wandering around in the forest. It was late autumn; what leaves remained clinging to the branches were burnished and gold; the ones on the ground formed a crunchy brown carpet that kicked up delicious Halloween smells as we ploughed through. The trees were tall–taller than normal, with branches reaching so high up to the sky that the canopy was lost inside the atmosphere. The sky was at once bright and dull, mimicking the season as it slipped back and forth between color and grayscale. You slipped your hand into mine, and until that instant I hadn’t been aware you weren’t already holding it.
We wove between tree trunks, purposefully meandering, with strides that seemed to grow longer and stronger the farther we drove into the forest. A wind picked up to match our pace, blowing fragrant debris into our hair and eyes and mouths. We tried to block our faces with our free hands, but the holding hands held fast, and tight, until they were one, and I didn’t know where your flesh ended and mine began.
We followed the creek down to a river, and then the river to the sea, where we marched out onto the sandbar and up to our shoulders in the water. Then I realized you were gone.
The surf overtook me, threw me about like a leaf in the wind. It churned, whipping and dragging my body against the rough grains of deep-sea sand, filling the wounds with saline. Sea shells, mother of pearl, old limbs from crabs and creatures– they imbedded themselves into my flesh, turning me into something not of the land, but of the ocean. And I cried out, dooming myself and throwing away the air in my lungs, just to say your name one more time.
My feet caught against wreckage trapped on the sea floor, and as the water rushed it covered them with sand as black as the depths behind your eyes. Agitation stirred the grains, made the water cloudy, until all was dark and I felt myself give in.
But I didn’t die. Instead, I languished at the bottom of the ocean until the sediment settled, limbs suspended in the water as if in time as well. I had eons to contemplate the universe, life, and all of existence. Worlds waited to reveal themselves to me if I would but turn my internal gaze upon them, but the only thought that ran through my mind in all of that eternity was …we will meet again… a question as much as it was a promise. All that time I held on to my humanity in the form of my mistrust, my uncertainty; but I knew, in another way, without a shadow of a doubt, that we had to meet again, because I felt I was still holding your hand.
Then everything changed, in that dream-like way that things can change, as if, suddenly, they’ve always been that way. The water pulled away like an enormous wave, receding from the shore to reveal a trove of long-lost, seaworn treasures, half buried in the sand. There was a statue, a stiff and barnacle-encrusted imitation of life, lying awkwardly on its back with its arms and legs broken, chipped, missing.
You were behind me–I knew it before I saw you come around, still holding my hand in yours. Your feet moved fast; you must have been running to see what the shallows had revealed. I could sense the shadowy presences of others around us, holding back, parting for you to pass, but I couldn’t see them any more than I can see the ghosts around us now. You stopped short. Your hand came up to your mouth as your chest heaved up and tried to pull you back, like a smooth, choreographed motion of shock. I squeezed your hand, but found that you had bent down, and were kneeling in the sand. You reached down to touch the statue with the hand that I was still, somehow, holding, and when your fingers touched my cheek all the centuries of sea-life and erosion fell away from me, revealing a corpse as fresh as the day we met.
And yet I stood beside you, as a wraith, still feeling the wholeness of your hand in mine. I was with you–I had never really left. And, just as you had come to me on the shore, and recognized me through all the ages that had weathered and shaped my soul, I knew I would always come back.
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Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed “A Lover and it’s Ghosts,” you might also like my novel The Poppet and the Lune, an original fairy tale about a patchwork girl and a boy who cried wolf (and became one). Just sayin’.
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