Thirty five. Longer than he'd expected or hoped to live, at one time, not something he harped on or bemoaned. How many died before they even drew breath? Before they even fully coalesced in the womb?; How many more in the hours or days after sunlight, after cold, after pain?; More than any history could record, he was certain of that. Thirty five years... a miracle; five more than Christ. He wasn't certain he could have born any more; another year, another round of the same uncertainties and disappointments. Perhaps if he'd stayed out there, in the world, things would be different. Perhaps if...
A knock at the door, cushioned by the shower's patter, so like the rain, like the children, as though they'd finally eroded away the glass with their endless, endless tapping, now seeking entry to his skin and skull.
“Amber? Can I come in..?”
Aldwin, more familiar than Vanessa from the start; nowhere near as attentive, as technically competent; too much in his own head. Amber had always enjoyed his company the more; letting slide the little lapses; the tasks left undone, the checks left unmade. His company and conversation were enough.
The man peeked his head around the door, eyes travelling over the small bathroom as though not knowing where to settle. Not for the first time, Amber wondered how the Hell he'd fallen into nursing.
“Hey, man... you got a...visitor out here.”
Amber raised his head, the water sluicing over him, over-long hair clinging to his face.
Aldwin had already retreated, the door clicking shut behind him. Amber's shoulders sagged. A visitor? Since when had they been allowing them outside of designated hours? Since when had they been allowing them without his say? Someone come to build bridges he'd taken pains to burn, no doubt. Who was it? Lydia? Trothero? So much left undone; projects and interests and deals...all left to flail, bleed out, whatever money might have come from them not a concern; the relationships that soured nowhere near as lamented as he might have thought.
Whoever the Hell it was, they could wait; he refused to go to them stinking.
Breathless by the time he'd finished, skin raw, scalp feeling half flayed by the fury with which he'd massaged it. Where the fuck were Vanessa and Aldwin? He couldn't call for them; lacked the breath, the spittle, the pins in his chest having become sea-urchin spines, the venom they pulsed far from anaesthetic.
The button. He'd never had cause to press it before; never slipped or lost his balance. He wasn't a fucking old man; could at least do this himself.
Rising from his seat, he fumbled along the wall until he came to the railing. Leaning his weight against it, he stepped out of the shower, onto the mat that had been supplied. Towels, talc, a comb for his hair. He made some effort to make himself look halfway presentable, though the horror story in the mirror could scarcely be made so without extensive special effects.
Dressed in one of the silken bathrobes he'd brought from home (much to the hospital's chagrin), he made his way to the door, steam issuing out as he opened it.
A figure at the window, a slender hand pressed to it, as though to comfort the ghosts in the rain. Almost enough to stop his breath, to tear his heart in two at last. He hadn't forgotten...not entirely. Those memories, that time...he'd buried them, waiting for her, not wanting to see, to know...not when he couldn't touch and taste what she'd shown him.
Almost a whisper, not turning to look at him, her voice deep and resonant with an accent he couldn't place; different from the last time, not French, but faintly Arabic, like the skin she wore.
No words; those that rose in his throat strangling themselves in their banality, their absurdity. Only one; the only question that mattered:
She sighed, her fingers slipping down the window, trailing runnels through condensation. He staggered to the bed, unable to hold himself upright any longer. Sinking down onto it, he lay back, raising it so that he might sit up and see.
“I'm sorry...I heard you; I had to come.”
Beautiful, as ever; the face he glimpsed beneath hair that streamed like spun tar down her back and shoulders severe, not desirable by fashion model or movie star standards; too sculpted, too statuesque, but to him?; The only woman he'd ever desired, the only woman...
She turned away from the window, rubbing moisture between her fingers. Her hair shimmered, a scent filling his nostrils; spice and running water; frost on Autumn leaves...deep, deep wood.
Le Gevaudan...God, sweet Christ...he remembered her there; the first time he saw her; something...something that ruptured the world, that dissolved all presumption of it he'd ever held...
Green eyes, olive painted skin, elaborate rings and jewellery decorating her wrists and fingers. She wore a dress the same colour as the leaves she danced through in his mind; deep browns, muted ochres; ambers and yellows. She'd loved the Autumn; rain, frost; the promise of winter...
A smile, playing at the corners of her lips, no part of her still, as though she were constantly fighting the urge to break, to hurl herself through the glass, join the ghosts that danced beyond.
Faint fire in her eyes, dark brows rising. “I know. I'm sorry; I never meant...”
He shook his head, closing his eyes.
“It doesn't matter...I don't have time for it, now.”
She drew closer, seating herself in the armchair beside the bed, her skirts whispering around her. He couldn't help himself from picturing the body beneath; how different it must be from the one he'd known; dark where that was pale, fulsome where the other was...
The painting smeared, becoming tatters and scribbles in his mind. A wasted effort, clearly; nothing about her still or certain; not even memories of her.
The smile blossomed, the fire in her eyes flaring. He'd seen that before; something familiar, when she'd first caught his eye, when he refused to run, when he didn't look away.
“It's...been a long time since anyone called me that.”
Names; as temporary and ephemeral as faces for her; things she wore and sloughed off whenever the potential or novelty softened. Despite her insistences, he'd always called her by the first he'd known her by; the first she'd sung to him, though not through words or breath.
The scent...deeper, now she was closer; not some applied perfume or bottled essence; her own, that she breathed and sweated; the sacred perfume of her body, her soul. Deep wood; Autumn rain, mist and chill...wandering, lost. Something in the mists; dark eyed, not black, like a wolf, but white, so pale as to be almost nothing...
“Who...are you, now?”
The smile died, her eyes closing. She looked to the closed door.
“Arienne will do; I always liked her.”
Miracles. Art. That's how he'd come across her; in the midst of them; sweating, breathing; shatting and swathed in them. The memory of it...simultaneously intense and distant; something he recalled more acutely than his Mother's face, then his eighteenth birthday; than the aftermath of his first fuck, cigarette, glass of wine. Insubstantial as a dream:
The wood, Le Gevaudan. He'd wandered there, much against the warnings of the locals -the residents of nearby villages, the monastery where he'd been given bed and board; from which he'd taken all that he could carry, and a little more besides-, losing himself.
There. Singing, though not to him; a song that seemed so familiar, but that he'd never heard before. Something that snared in him, tangling in his entrails, drawing him deep, deep...
Stumbling over rocks, through the trees, he found her. No attempt to hide or conceal himself. Why would he? Why would he not wish to be seen as he saw, though every, animal instinct; every conditioning of culture, of law, insisted that he should? No. He stumbled to her, through the freezing shallows of the small stream on whose banks she stood, reaching for her, murmuring snippets of her song...
Fingers at the window, more urgent, more desperate; the rain hammering down furiously, as it sometimes did for whole days; softening as he stirred, attention returning to the present.
He raised his hand. She hesitated, looking at it as though she might somehow contract the genetic abnormality unweaving the fibre of his heart. In truth, he was as reluctant, knowing what a touch from her could mean.
Warm, faintly trembling; nothing of the contact he'd once known. Why? Why did she hold herself back..?
“I can't stay. They...are close.”
Always, always; every day, every night he'd spent with her, moving; fleeing. Occasionally, they caught glimpses of those who followed; little more than men and women to his eye, but so much more to her. She'd made no effort to describe or explain them, insisting that it would be better for him if he didn't know. He'd not pressed her, content to be in her company; to be shown a little of what he'd witnessed on the riverbank, in the woods.
A sigh, a smile. “Forever. Until they or I stop. I won't; not ever.”
“Is that why..?”
She gripped his hand, silencing him.
“I couldn't...couldn't let you go, not without asking..?”
Time, shearing away; every moment she spent here, a risk, allowing them to draw closer. The question; hanging unspoken in the air between them.
He'd not even considered it; not in the most desperate moments following his prognosis, when he'd courted every quack and magician he could contact: That she might return to him; that she might somehow smell or hear his distress and come with her miracles, her Art...impossible. She was gone; the absence she'd left still raw, sucking like a wound.
He smiled, almost laughing for the first time in many months. He'd begged her, even long after she'd gone, abandoning him; calling into the night, in his own dreams, begging her to come and make him like her.
She could; he knew it, but had always refused; in the aftermath of lovemaking, in the midst of argument or confession...always.
No. You don't understand what you're asking for...
Undoubtedly; he could barely accept, let alone comprehend, the fact of her; that something could have stepped from nightmares, from the fevered fantasies of his adolescence, into waking reality. Before her, he would have condemned the very notion; insisted that sanity would slip and shatter before it allowed him to accept it. Not so; he'd acclimatised with surprisingly little in the way of trauma; no sputtered denials, no fits or catatonia; only escalating awe, a sense as of blooming behind his eyes, new contexts flowering with every moment he spent in her company.
The world, which she called The Waking, so much stranger than it had ever allowed him to believe; beyond the remit of any myth or conspiracy theory; any potential he'd read of in metaphysical or science fiction.
She'd done that to him; torn open his eyes, his mind; the briefest of glimpses, the most momentary taste, before abandoning him to old delusions, leaving him to wonder whether it had ever been experienced, or if he'd simply slipped into momentary delirium; a state so acute, so richly detailed, it couldn't be discerned from reality.
Perhaps the same occurred now, with body and mind on the precipice, waiting for one or both to fail.
He understood no better; nothing of her mystery, nor of the world that allowed her to be. The very thought of walking there, with her, again...beautiful, but terrifying. Another year, another decade...no. To Hell with it; he didn't want it anymore; not ghosts or rain or wandering or mystery. Not Art or love.
She knew, her hand leaving his, drawing away. He resisted the urge to call her back, his fingers closing on empty air, ragged nails biting into his palms.
A moment, a heartbeat longer; a look. He held it, suspending her as long as he could, not even daring to blink. Questions, so many that he ached to asked her; that he'd called or scribbled or painted, in the throes of drunkenness or fever; in chemical ecstasy. No more answers now as then.
He let them go, let her go, the absence she left behind more traumatic than the holes widening in hs heart.
George Lea is an entity that seems to simultaneously exist and not exist at various points and states in time and reality, mostly where there are vast quantities of cake to be had. He has a lot of books. And a cat named Rufus. What she makes of all this is anyone's guess.