It seemed the whole Earth was holding its breath trying to anchor everyone to their places. It was in that moment that she uttered with weariness, “It’s over.”
“Perhaps for you,” his eyes glazed over and his jaw set with the last vowel. He turned away from Magda and walked into a blackness that resembled night. Continuing to move in any direction that took him away from her, he gradually found himself along the river. His footsteps slowed and ground to a halt, the soles of his boots scratching at the gravel beneath. Leaning against the railing (Monet’s green in daylight), and gazed at the willows and other trees planted across the riverbank, how the street and city lights seemed to dance upon the boughs of each. Eventually, the car lights became fewer and the darkness around him deeper. Shrugging, he shifted the collar of the leather jacket upward to protect the back of his neck from the gloom he knew was headed towards him. Gritting his teeth, he steeled for the shock of it, but instead it came creeping up slowly like cigarette smoke.
He snorted silently. Digging into his back pocket, he reached for a battered and rarely used pack of Marlborough menthols and lit one. He watched it burn and glow as it tickled his nose. He never looked at his companion, and assumed it had the same rule of thumb: only look at those you mean to do continuing business with. Except he’d had continuing business earlier but he just couldn’t make the sale. It wasn’t a question of readiness, but resolution. He heard the sleight of hand rather than feeling it, the grain of the linen paper sliding across the unzipped edge of the pocket. Just as gradually, he saw the smoke swirling from between his fingers suck away against the wind, and it was gone just as quickly. Picking his way along the river, across the footpath on the bridge, he lay beneath the willows. Lying down, he looked up into the branches and watched the reflections of a rare car dance and twinkle off the leaves’ waxy sheen. The chill in the air kept him grounded as he waited for the warmth to return. With the returning warmth, not only would he be able to move onward, but he’d learn just exactly how it wasn’t over.
Word had come through the chain of command; he wasn’t to have another assignment. He’d simply follow in the footsteps that could have been trod. Sometimes when an event is determined to be complete by a single party, it only seems to end. For one it ends, for others it lingers like nicotine long after the room is converted to “non-smoking”. In appearance, he would have fit the image of a casual smoker trying too hard to fit the hard-core image; however he didn’t spend much time on his appearance and preferred being likened to smoke. The presence of that past, but not long-ago enough, evening was just like him; or him like it. He never really was sure.
Resolution he had, he’d possessed it from the very beginning. Even before some of the greatest lightning storms to ever exist lit up the heavens, he’d been certain of his duty. He knew beyond the pale, although he stayed within it. It wasn’t his nature to wander or question; this did not demand that he welcome all work. He followed along, watching from shadows, dreams, and imaginings. Always around, but never quite thought of, he thought he liked it that way.
As with most events, things yellowed with age and peeled at the corners. Things unraveled. Nothing was quite working out as peacefully as planned. He thought ruefully of the oft-spoken phrase Man makes plans and God laughs. He wasn’t laughing, but nothing in his work really seemed worth making light. As time passed, he was being pulled out of the shadows into the darkness. He had an increasingly difficult time following. The delicate frames that held the world and unconsciousness apart were warping, and in places they broke. Eventually he’d be weary like Magda had been that long-ago day. He didn’t want that time to come.
It was crowded, almost too crowded. Glancing around, he could see several others that he’d seen following, waiting and watching just as he was. Except the one he was following wasn’t supposed to be as anxious; that was his ponder until Magda sidled up alongside him.
He was flooded with gall at the realization of what her presence meant. He shifted slightly, keeping his charge clearly and squarely in his line of sight.
“I don’t want to know.”
“Word from on high is that you’re to hear, just as she has read and never heard.”
“Don’t tell me, I already know everything.”
“She doesn’t. That’s why Leslie isn’t here.”
He looked like he needed a cigarette.
While waiting was something of an occupation, he hadn’t expected that he’d have to be patient to such an extent as to wait for awareness of himself to creep into the boundaries of consciousness. Years passed by, knowledge was uttered and bandied around like an inside joke. Nothing seemed to lead anywhere until a few instances here and there in passing. Then, his world encroached upon hers and he watched it all. He had to, he couldn’t cross the boundary. Exactly like a thief in the night, dark and cold and lonely nights, gloom seemed to be in the air, inhaled and desperation exhaled. If only tears evaporated in the heat of battle. If only his name was uttered, he could enter through the slightest tear, as if cobwebs were all that kept him away.
Magda came around more often, too. Hanging out with him sometimes, but for some reason, she came and went between the two, to the extent he began to eyeball her, expecting information to come. Yet he knew that he couldn’t receive any information that wasn’t directly meant for him – then he’d be able to bend and weave through the webs. For the sake of being, he wanted to be there.
Just as though he’d been created in that instant, he zipped through the edges of memory, knowledge, and faith, like pages being flipped. He danced along the edge of each one, filling gaps of time, space and information quicker than could be realized, and slow enough for faith to detect a difference, a nuance. Like the moment the tongue detects peppers or currant in a wine that only earlier hinted at oak and cork. Being called in, upon, wasn’t a treat and he gritted his teeth as he remembered all the moments and seconds that he longed to be on this side of things. It wasn’t pretty, and now, neither was he.
Who could be more battle worn? Which of the two had more spiritual bruises and scars? He wasn’t sure that his charge could discern the difference between his duty and hers any longer. He was called on night and day: chanted forth like a lullaby when the clock glared at 3:21am; adored trisagion; or leaned upon like the good friend he had previously longed to be. Now he was, and he was busy.
On the rare occasions that he wasn’t working with her, he’d still wander and walk down along the river and across the footbridge. He would often recall the night that the final command came down that he’d stick around. The trees still glittered but they had lost their charisma. The river still softly whispered at night, but nothing was calm. He roiled inside as she increasingly seemed to be approaching a low precipice. Some days when he should have been with her, she kept him at arm’s length; days turned into months. Slowly it dawned on him that it was not her that was keeping him away, and there was little that came down the chain of command to suggest that he had a reason to be around. Rather, they were connected as fisherman to fish. They were tethered as they had always been and she called out to him, but he was stayed. Held back, he zeroed all his attention into why he was being held back so intently as to not notice anything else about her. At the edge, in a dead zone he had a companion whom he hadn’t ever fathomed to entertain. Cloaked in gray wool, fog and mist rose about their brief meeting and the woman simply shook her head, her visage hidden by the delicate but sturdy weave of her hood and gown. Fog rolled as though boiling, and she blended in with the environs; she watched with baited breath like an October storm. He wanted to cower in her presence, but he sensed that his charge had not; he wanted to do as she had done. Sorrowful and well-deep eyes pierced his mind, and he backed away to stand on the edge, waiting for the cobwebs to be broken again. Waiting and watching, he was aimless as his charge was swept off to a deserted place in the growing night. Like mysterious orbs of light, holy ones came and went, weaving a path between his and her worlds. She wandered along the riverbank, looked over the water wondering if falling was like flying, as if she could ever venture to discover the difference. She pondered the lonely thoughts of people who romance the footbridge at night, in the daytime. Spiritually she tread the night, passing even where few angels trod, and certainly not hers.
Hearing her beckon was like ginger-infused whiskey and menthol cigarettes. He met her there.
© Megan Singer