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art by Cheryl L Owen-Wilson

Slumber

Jennifer Mason-Black lives in the woods of Massachusetts, surrounded by her human family and a menagerie of elderly animals. In addition to previous publication in Daily Science Fiction, her fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Giganotosaurus, and The Sun, among others. Additional information about her work can be found at cosmic driftwood.wordpress.com.
She wakes hungry. He knows this, now. He greets her sleepy smile with bread and honey, with blueberry pancakes and salmon jerky, with the last of the jelly made from the wild grapes. He covers the table with food--once, twice, three times--until she groans and pushes it away.
"It's April," she says, looking out the window.
"Yes." He studies the brown of her eyes, the cut of her cheekbones against her winterwashed skin. There's a dusting of coarse brown hairs caught in the cup of her collarbones. He resists the urge to brush it away.
"You waited." The curve of a smile breaks the solemn plains of her face. More than just a smile. A reward.
"I did."
It is one thing to fly over the mountains, above the deep dark green of the trees, the gray steel of the peaks, tracing the lifelines of water running through it all. It is quite another to fall from the sky into that crumpled blanket of a world. To hear the sputter of the engine and know that the grace that carried you aloft has come to an end, and all that remains is to negotiate a dark still location for your bones to rest.
The fall lasted a lifetime. Before it began, he'd been thinking of the roast beef sandwich in the paper bag beside him, and of the woman who had made it for him. It would be cut in four precise triangles. There would be a small jar with horseradish in the bag as well, and a spoon. "You don't want the bread to get soggy," she'd said when he asked her once why she didn't just add the horseradish and save the extra dish.
"The bread gets soggy anyway. The meat makes it wet."
"It's better this way," she said with absolute confidence.
There'd be a napkin too, and meticulously sliced carrot sticks, and a thermos of ice tea. There'd been a kiss as he left the house, and a waving hand, and the vacuum starting as he drove away. There were drapes to hold out the sun at noon, and spotless windows to let the sunset in. There was her body, toned by ninety minutes at the gym every day, and the mail in a basket on the table, and a cold beer waiting for his return.
"You're a lucky man," he'd heard more than once. More than he cared to count. He'd smiled every time, and twisted the ring on his finger and imagined himself in the air, high above it all.
That's not what he thought of as he fell. He thought first of the sandwich, and then the engine, and disbelief, and no, and in that moment just before gravity realized he could be conquered, in that utter silence, he thought why? Then it was all falling, and the engine catching a little, and sputtering again, and trying to even out, as if there existed anywhere to land amid those trees, trees that looked like green velvet peace from above, but were tall and hard and unforgiving.
And then there was black.
He heats water for her on the wood stove. She watches as he fills the old tin bucket, half steaming water, half fresh drawn from the stream. He's done it for himself, probably not often enough, as she slept. There's barely room for her to settle in. She draws her knees to her chin, and gathers water in her hands to drip over herself.
"Let me." He uses a ladle, pours water down her back, over her hair, works his fingers through the greasy snarls and along the crease made by her spine. The soap smells faintly of lavender. He thinks of the rows of soaps in a grocery store, of the cloying falsehood in their scent. Here everything smells of smoke and food and body. Here, disguises do not last.
When she's finished, she rises, leaving behind water gray-filmed and cold. Breast, hip, shoulder, thigh--she stands naked before him.
"That felt good." She stretches her hands up, touches them to the rafters above his head. She touches him then, his cheek, briefly. "My nails need trimming. I'll hurt you."
The thing about pain is that there can be so much of it. He remembered the sound of tearing, though not whether it came from the skin of the plane, or his own fragile wrapper, or even whether they could be considered separate at that point. How much of the damage came from the fall, and how much from the rescue he did not know.
"I had to help," she told him, after. "I had to do what I could, as best as I could."
The pain fed on him, tunneled beneath his skin, emptied his bones. The woman kept him in her bed. She slept outside, under the stars, coming and going to tend him. She washed the blood away, dressed the open areas with poultices that smelled of onion, dropped broth into his mouth from a spoon. She spoke hardly at all. It made no difference. The only language he knew was that of suffering.
When he could listen, when she did speak, she dwelt on practical matters. "Two working arms are nice, but one is enough. You have what you need."
"What I need is my life back."
"You have your life. There is no back. There is this."
"This?" He sat, blanket wrapped about him. "I don't even have clothes of my own. I have a useless arm. I have more scars than I can count, and plenty of time to count them. I can't keep thoughts straight in my head, can't even see without double vision half the time. This isn't life. This is hell."
"It is life," she growled, and stalked out the door.
The woman wobbles a bit as she walks. There are the times when the truth of her shows through--falling into sleep, waking, flashes of surprise--but that is true of everyone. Once, before he fell, he sat on the couch, watching a football game, only not really. Instead, he watched his smiling, careful wife as a flash of pure desperation shot across her face, as bleak and terrible as a trapped animal's.
"Something wrong?" he asked.
"Of course not."
The truth had been that he hadn't wanted to hear what she might say. Hadn't cared, not at all. In that moment, something vibrated in the air between them. Rather than listen, he muffled the sound with a glance at the score, his drink raised to his lips. Women like to have their secrets, his father once told him. Fact is, none of them are very important.
Such was the nature of his life, then.
This woman carries only one secret, and not very well. Fact is, it is the most important thing he has ever known.
She made him clothing of deer hide. Crude things, stitched with sinew, no more grace to them than a child might manage with needle and thread. "Needs only to be tight enough not to catch on things," she said. She sewed quickly, by the light of a grease lantern.
"If you stay, you'll have to learn to do things for yourself. That is the way of this." She tossed the clothes at him.
"What other choice do I have?"
She scowled. He'd never met a woman taller than himself before, nor one who took so little pains with her appearance. She bathed in the stream, and lay naked in the sun to dry. She worked her long hair smooth with her fingers, and kept it in a honey gold braid for days at a time. Her nails grew fast and long, and she raked them along the bark of the trees outside, reaching high as she could and scratching downward.
"You can leave. Follow the stream, follow the water. Eventually you'll find yourself somewhere else." She didn't look at him. "Or you can die. Fast or slow, that's a choice as well."
He had not spoken to her for two days after that. It made no difference to her, none that he could tell.
They walk as far as the edge of the clearing. She breathes deeply, lifts her face to the sun. "It's warm today."
He wants to tell her it's warm every day, that the winter passed with too little snow, too little cold, though more than enough for him. He suspects she knows, though, that her own marrow freezes along with the land's, that she feels the changes in a way he never can. But there will be time enough for such conversations. This day is for gratitude.
"There are things in this world that don't beg for explanation," she told him the day he learned to pluck the stings of bees from her swollen skin.
"Meaning you refuse to answer my questions." He leaned close to find his targets, near enough to see the pores of her skin, smell the salty sweetness of her body.
"Meaning I am what I am, just as you are yourself. Is there reason to label everything? Can you not simply accept what is here, what is now?"
He stopped, looked at her. It is important when you suffer in front of me, he meant to say. When you are unlike everything I know of women, when I have become unlike everything I know of myself.
It was what he meant to say, but he was distracted, first by the sweet slick of honey shining on her pale lips, then by the sadness in her dark brown eyes.
They did not touch, then. He did not raise his hand to her neck and lift the curtain of her hair. She did not shiver, her eyelashes fluttering against her skin. He did not pause as she bared her yellowed teeth, the musk rising from her like the scent of roses on a hot summer day.
That all came later.
"You started the peas already?" She kneels by the edge of the garden, one hand to the soil.
"Yes."
"You had enough food through the winter?"
"Yes." He pulls up his shirt, bares his ample stomach to her. The lines crisscrossing it have faded to soft silver cords. Some nights he rubs a hand over them, trying to remember what he has forgotten. Blood, fear, something more. Death perhaps, one bony finger tapping in time with his flickering pulse as it sat beside him. Those things are past, for now. Death will come again someday to take what it pleases.
"I missed you," he says.
She looks at him, that puzzled, pained expression on her face.
"I know you didn't miss me. It's okay."
"I can't help what I am."
"I know. I don't expect otherwise."
He's asked her whether she dreams. Her answer depends on the time of year. In the spring, she says no, says she has no use for dreams. Come fall, though, the answer changes to yes, spoken with the despair of one facing an endless night.
By late summer that first year, he'd recovered as much as he would. Skin mended, bones knit, muscles relearned to obey him. Only his mind continued to flicker like a poorly connected light bulb. Memories scuttling around corners on mouse feet, thoughts rolling up like maps on a table with no hands to hold them fast.
Still, he was well enough to try to peer forward into what was, what might become. Somewhere, outside the forest, his house, his wife, continued on without him. He could return to them, hike out, find his way home. Or he could leave and keep going, away from home, into another life entirely.
"Go. If you're going to go, do so soon, before winter." The woman hoisted her maul, paused as she split wood. Her muscles clenched beneath her skin as she raised her arm. Her clothes had grown tight as the summer had grown long, her flesh abundant, her hair glossy.
"My life is out there." He swung his arm vaguely, out there encompassing the entire world. "I'm grateful to you for what you did. Why don't you come with me?"
In his voice he heard only old ways. Evenings on the couch watching TV, dinners filled with pointless chatter, lawns needing mowing. They filled his mouth like a cud to be chewed slowly, endlessly, and still he offered it to her.
"There is no other life for me. This is my only place." She hoisted her maul, let it fall to splinter the log beneath it.
He went to the crash site alone. She'd told him that nothing remained, but that wasn't true. Many things lingered there--the ability to move his arm and to think in straight clean lines, his house with the drapes and the spotless windows, his roast beef sandwich. They waited, a ladder on which to climb his way back into the sky, if only he could find the bottom rung.
The tail of the plane had separated from the front. Both pieces lay, separate, crumpled, the wings splayed on the ground. Everything so broken that it was hard to believe that it had once been whole, that he had once stepped into it willingly and flown.
The front, where he had sat and watched the world come to an end told another story. It was rent by trees and stone, and by something more. Great raking scars in parallel stripes, the skin torn open like a gazelle's beneath a lion's paws. Like bark beneath a grizzly's.
As a child, he'd been disappointed again and again by the star constellations diagrammed in books. The night sky didn't hold hunters and rams and bears for him. It was filled with stars, burning, dying balls of light, their locations a matter of physics, not stories and dreams. He'd quickly learned to stop looking for patterns, beyond those one could use as a guide.
As he touched his hand to the shattered plane, a single pattern revealed itself to him.
They lay in the sun together. She doesn't bother to dress, and the light brings a blush to her skin. "I didn't expect you to stay," she says.
"I always do."
"But you don't have to. It's a long time alone. I've no right to ask you to wait."
"I want to wait."
The first winter he thought he'd die of loneliness. Nothing but the wind, and the dark, and the snow, and the fire that needed feeding, and the emptiness of the bed. Never again, he promised himself every morning. Come spring I'll leave. I'm fit enough. I know how to stay alive. I've done my part for her.
Over the slow creep of months, he realized his time was not as empty as he thought. The past, that vanished time, those hours in that sealed and soilless house, everything ticking, ticking, ticking, the conversations that had gone nowhere and meant nothing, came to him less and less. How did it balance against this place, against the time he spent teaching himself to mend his clothes, the cloth clamped between his knees, against the hunger and the silence and the breathing in of bitter cold air on nights when the trees were hung with stars?
Then, when she woke, sleepy and slow and searching for food, and said "you stayed," with such surprise, such open pleasure, it felt as though something struggled free within him, pain and wonder and understanding that the world was full of things that could only be lived with, not controlled, not dissected clean and simple.
He'd returned from the crash site full of fury, with nowhere to spend it. The cabin was empty, the yard as well. He grabbed the bag she'd made him, stuffed jerky into the soft leather folds, a skin of water, jam and honeycomb. He slammed the door as he went out, the jays rising with shrieks of indignation at the noise.
Follow the water, she'd said. The uneven ground tested his awkward gait, fed his anger. He could hear little above the rush of the river, and as he stumbled along, he kept swiveling, watching. He'd flown above these trees hundreds of times, believing he knew everything below him. He'd listened to the hunting tales of friends, admired the heads mounted on their walls, agreed when they said even the wild was tame these days.
He came upon her at the bend in the river where the water cut deep into the rock. They were of one piece--the water, the rock, the trees, her. She held a fish in her hands, its skin shimmering as it thrashed against her grip.
"You lied." He had to yell to be heard above the rush.
"Never."
"Not in words, maybe. But you never told the truth."
Something moved in her face, a flicker, a tic of a muscle. "Words mean very little. I told the truth every day. You chose to ignore it."
"Truth. Look at you. You're a..."
She did nothing. Stood there, half in the sunlight that parted the trees, half in the dark of the shadows.
"You could have killed me. You still could. It's all a lie."
"You think I haven't faced death as well? You think I haven't listened for the dogs on the wind, haven't shivered as I heard the guns in the fall? You think that you do not carry it within you to kill? We all do, every one of us, that power to tear each other open, to destroy. Have you caused no harm, ever?"
He wanted to force... what? What exactly had he imagined? This woman on his spotless couch, jumping up at the sound of the kitchen timer while he drank beer from a frosted mug, eyes on the nightly news? Walking the dog through the park with him, telling him about a joke another woman had told her at the gym?
His house had had a tree by it when he'd first moved there. It had provided shade, but also leaves to rake in the fall, pollen to coat the car in the spring, branches left on the ground after every storm. He'd cut it down, no, not done it himself. Hired a crew of men to come and take it down while he was away during the day. He returned to that empty space, laid grass seed down over the soil, covered it in straw, and told his wife it was a great relief. The wild belonged elsewhere, just as he surely belonged somewhere other than here, where the trees grew thick and his will shaped nothing.
"Follow the water. I won't follow you. It should take you three days, maybe four." She turned away, toward the far shore.
He traveled another hour, maybe two, before he remembered the shelves she'd built while he lay on her bed, healing. Crude, rough-hewn, now stocked with dried food, canned food, more than enough food to take a single person through the winter and into the summer again. Food she would not need, more work than he'd ever put into anything during all those years he'd believed himself busy.
He made it back to the cabin before nightfall. She sat alone outside, arms wrapped around her legs as she stared up into the sky.
"Have you always been alone?"
She turned her dark eyes to his. "Always is a very long time."
He tried again. "You've always been the way you are?"
"Yes."
He thought of grocery store aisles, and sidewalks, and mowed lawns, and treadmills. Of everything he'd built with words, and how little it had meant in the end. An owl called from behind him, gruff and loud, a question, an answer, nothing more than the one creature reaching for another as the night closed in. He dropped his pack to the ground, raised his own face to the stars.
"There were two of us once." She has told him this story many times over the years. There are, after all, a finite number of tales, and only one listener to hear them.
"My brother and I were never meant to be two. He was born for summer and I for winter, but it was more than that. He longed for nothing but the voices of people, for chairs and bedtimes and windows that could be closed, things he could never have. I longed only for this life, as long as he was near. We looked after one another, he with his pelt and I with my heart.
"But the world you come from believes in what is seen above all else. Fur, teeth, claws. That is all they saw of him. He was taken long ago."
They lay together on the bed he slept alone in all winter. The mustiness of the cave lingers about her. Her skin is slack from the fat burned away during the slumbering cold.
"And then you came. I smelled your blood, and heard your heart, and knew you sat between worlds. I brought you home because I could not bear to think of being forgotten. Perhaps there is something of my brother in my heart. Perhaps I sought something of him in yours."
"Hush," he says, and he pulls the blanket over them. Nothing more exists than this, the time of warmth when she is with him, the time of cold when he lives alone. Perhaps this is always the way it has been, all of his life, all of the lives throughout the world, known only by those who chose to hear, to see. Perhaps somewhere in that other world, his wife stands by the wallpapered walls, flexes her wrists, reaches high up and scratches down their length. It's not for him to know. There is only this: the quiet when the snow muffles everything, the chatter of the birds in spring.
"Hush," he says again. "It is time to dream."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, January 10th, 2014

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