art by Cheryl Owen-Wilson
Tell Me How All This (and Love too) Will Ruin Us
by Sunny Moraine
***Editor's Note: Thoroughly adult story***
You were screaming when I pulled you from the boat.
You hadn't fallen into a bout of it since we left the mainland. I'd bound your legs to broken steel poles, kept you as still as I could, doused you in whiskey. For a time you were quiet while the sea roared around us. I thought we might die then; I thought you might die in a kind of peace, and this comforted me when not much else did. But I made myself ready for my own death the moment I laid you in the bottom of the boat, and when we pulled ashore on the long strand, having successfully avoided the worst of the rocks, I knew it had only been postponed.
Now it's past sunset. I can tell only by the dying light; we sailed in clear skies but we sailed through storms to reach the island, and now I think that the storms must always be here, circling the place, keeping it from the rest of the world. So the clouds hang heavy here, and it seems appropriate. Looking up the cliffs, the dark slate, the sparse grass clinging to the ledges and the hillsides, I can't imagine this place under the clarity of full sun This is a place of darkness and twilight, and in what light dawn allows us, I'll pull you, no doubt screaming, up the hillside.
I have made a fire from pieces of driftwood. It smells like salt and wet sand, and it smokes badly. You lie wrapped in the blankets I bought. With the aid of more whiskey, you sleep. I sit in the cold, unprotected, and I think of you and what might come after. How much of this will you remember? Enough to be grateful? Enough to know that I loved you? That for a while, maybe, you loved me?
I will show you, in the most vicious way that anyone can. You may be lucid. This is another thing I've given up caring about, because there's only so much I can afford now.
I remember when you took me.
We all do, those given to the rest of you to be your handmaidens, to be kept by you. The rest of you who keep the world turning, who bring up the sun and the moon and who, as in the stories of the elder days, bring us the rich harvest. All that power, closed up inside you. We're never told why you begin too weak to free it on your own, why you need us to do it for you. But anyway: You were singing as you stepped up to me and I handed you my sprig of blackthorn and meadowsweet. You were singing as you kissed me and I knew I would never leave you until you needed me to.
You'll sing to me now. Sing me up the terraces, over the abandoned pastures. Sing the slip and slide of gravel under my feet but don't let me fall. Sing me through the strings of barbed wire, play on it with the wind like a cello. I'm in pain but it's nothing to yours, I'm terrified but it must be nothing to your terror, but you have the power in this equation; only lend me a little. Just enough.
I was never a witch. So sing the magic into me. Soon I'll sing it back to you. We'll make a duet of flesh and blood and bone.
It's not as though you did magic, not that I remember. We're taught from a young age that the magic is inside of you, locked into a chrysalis, waiting to emerge. We are the kept ones. We are the knife that cuts through and sets it free. We don't understand how, or when. We're ready, every minute of every day. Of course this isn't true. Of course, at the precise moment for which we've always prepared, there is mad panic.
I have a knife. It's stuffed into the side of my boot. I can feel it against me like a brace, like a smaller version of what's holding you together now that I can't anymore. I have a knife, which is not yours but which was instead given to me by the old woman in the shack by the sea, the one I found, wandering away from the rocks and screaming your name for lack of anything else to do. When I was sure you were dying. When I knew you were. I found her by her fire and she told me what to do.
She gave us the broken steel. She said it had been split by lightning. We bound your shattered bones in ruin. She summoned me, and you did through her. Perhaps she was waiting, and perhaps she was the first tentative emergence, called into being by you for this specific purpose.
I'm not like you. This doesn't belong to me. But I promise to try.
You never liked me to come into the bathroom when you were there, but on that rainy Sunday I did anyway, drawn by your voice and the splash of the water. I sat on the toilet and looked at you as you covered yourself in bubbles, laughed at me. Your slick thighs. Your nipples just visible under the water, brown and relaxed in the heat. The tile beaded with condensation. You hadn't called me, you were reading poetry aloud to yourself. I asked you to read to me. I only had to push a little, and you went through all the lines. You read me more than I ever asked for. In the end: you, head tipped back in the water and your hair glossy black like a seal, crying. Your tears dissolved in the tub and I thought of you making a tiny ocean through will alone.
I could read poetry to you now. I didn't bring any books, but I remember your favorites, I can read them from the book of us that lives under my skin. Your head is in my lap, and I can give thanks for this much: you're warm. You will stay warm. I'll keep you that way. I'll love you and keep you, which I promised to do, and in the end I forgive you. For the choice I made when there were no alternatives.
We could go anywhere, I said. You picked the place. I knew you for ten years before you fell, and you were always running away from something. Never me, at least I don't think so, and I base this last of my few remaining convictions on the fact that when you made that final lunge for a world without anyone else, that world included me. We called it a vacation. You were happy. Maybe some part of me knew then. We parked the car on the edge of one of the cliffs, a barely-paved road winding like a lost ribbon against the top, and you looked out at the ocean and yelled and threw your arms around my neck, tangled your fingers in my hair, kissed me and kissed me.
It was sunny that day. I remember. Other things have faded into insignificance, even my early memories of you, but I do remember that. The last happiness before the step, the slip--was it a slip? Did you fall?
Did you jump?
The last of you is a litany of screaming. It's how you mark your time. Strength to scream and then strength gone and gathered to scream again. At first I thought about smashing your head in with a rock to stop your agony. I'm ashamed of it now. But seeing you dead felt preferable to seeing you in pain that way, broken on the rocks, regardless of the choice that put you there.
Your white bones, splintered and stabbed through your skin. Your blood. Your mangled flesh. The way you went pale. I saw you begin to fade out of the world. I held you against me and you just kept screaming.
My pants and hands are painted with your blood. At the darkest point of the night I lift my fingers to my mouth, copper and grit, and lick them clean.
Dawn. I haven't slept. You have, though I don't know if the thing you've done could be properly called sleep. But you're awake as I get to my feet, as I look down at you you're looking back up at me, and for the first time since you fell your eyes are clear.
I wait for you to speak, but of course, you don't.
I have to do this, I say. I have to. You know that, you did this. You don't nod. You don't give me any indication that you understand me but I know you do and for a horrible moment I'm angry at you, because this is so hard on me already and you're doing nothing to make it any easier.
As soon as there was light I made a sledge for you out of more driftwood and rope from the boat. It may not hold together but then again it might, and there's nothing else. I'm gritting my teeth as I try to lift you just enough to get you onto it; you're a dead weight, not helping me but not fighting, which I suppose I can be grateful for, and also, that you aren't screaming. Maybe you've moved into a place beyond pain.
I have to hurry.
I take the ropes of the thing, loop them around my arms, and start to plod up toward the least steep incline of the hill. It's still steep, sliding rock and loose grass, and if I fall too, there won't be anything left, but like I told you: Choices. That I make, when all others are removed. That you put me in the position of making. I don't know that any of you really trust us when we're given to you. We're given these horrible options, we're pushed by you into jumping.
There was no stone shack. There was no fire, no bent old woman in a fog bank. There was no wind chime of rib bones, there was no blood, no cold spells. There was a boat and there is an island but we would have come to those things by other ways, other means. Or we wouldn't have, and it would have been you on the rocks and me beating myself into the surf, but anyway: there was no shack, no woman, no magic. Not absent you.
It was the first emergence, light through the veins. You tore a hole in time and placed yourself on the other end of the rip. You were ancient in that hut and maybe you didn't expect me to recognize you, but I did.
She walked with a limp.
The island proceeds upward in stages, terraces, things that looked carved with intent. My back is aching as we continue, my arms, and it begins to feel as though, while your bones were broken at once in a terrible series of seconds, mine are breaking slowly over long hours. I pull you and I pull you, dead weight behind me, pausing every hour to make sure that you aren't, in fact, dead. I have a watch, solar powered, and it still works in spite of the lack of sun. Without the sound of your agony I mark the time that way.
I can see the stones now. They're still so distant, protruding from the top of the island, like a crown, like blunted teeth. They'll gnaw at me. I'll feed myself to them and pray that I'm enough meat for what I need them to do.
I think it's midday. I have no way of knowing for sure. As I said, it's true that I have my watch, and I can detect the sun moving through the fog and cloud-banks, but time here is so strange, unreliable, and seems to skip about as if delighting in its freedom from human-constructed tracking devices. It certainly cares nothing for what I'm trying to do.
Anyway: You start to sing.
At first I think it's only the wind, barreling its way up the line of the cliffs, passing like a rough hand over us as I drag the sledge up the series of terraces. I'm now sure that they were formed by human hands at some point in the very distant past, and my way is marked by laid stones and rotting logs, the remains of walls. Divisions of the land. But now there's no one to maintain them; this place has not belonged to people for centuries, and the thought of your voice absent pain is strange to me. So you sing, and I don't recognize it for what it is, except that I find myself singing along. Songs we used to share, in front of fires and streetlights on river water, songs we sang in bed. You were full of them to overflowing.
I sing and I know the song. When I know that it's your voice beside mine the world blurs away, but I continue. In weariness and terror so great that it feels as though it exists outside of and surrounds me rather than originating in any kind of interior state, I find that I have forgotten the words. But I make sounds like words, things that are the worn remains of words. I look at the standing stones in the distance, their pale weathered faces, and I send my word-ruins up to them. Then I fall silent and only your voice remains, low and somehow strong in spite of everything.
There is no moon in the sky and then there is, sister to the sun and holding close. I'm unsurprised to see it; you put it there to give additional light to guide me by. You've never called the moon before but I know it for what it is.
As for the stones, they may know their own when we reach them. The old woman said they might open themselves to us, part as a gate to a way. She said the world you made might be merciful. Then she laughed and laughed.
Night again. It comes on fast, like the fall of a dying hand. I don't make a fire. I sit on a clear patch of ground, mostly exposed slate, and it's cold but I wrap myself around you, as best I can without touching your broken legs. I checked the wrappings before the light died, and I saw blood blooming up through the cloth. I have no idea if you're dreaming. What would you dream of, if you did? The last inches of thin air between you and the rocks? The taste of my mouth? The crash of the waves?
Or would you do what you will do, with my knife, and dream the world into being?
I hope you do. Before the meager light returns we'll make the final ascent, and there must be something left here for you to return to.
The wind should be at its cruelest here. Instead it has died, and everything is silent. No waves crashing against the rocks below. No creak and grate of wire. No whispering of grass. No singing, yours or mine, and you seemed to have screamed out your pain long ago. Even the sound of my breathing is dampened. The scratching slide of the sledge over the gravel. Nothing.
The light rises over the circle of stones. It rises out of them. It's my beacon. I follow it on breaking legs, my head full of rocks and crashing surf. But silent.
Should I make my own little bloodless magic? In the silence that remains, should I give you poetry that made you cry?
We never wrote our own. We were always stealing meaning from everywhere else. You'll steal from me, except I don't think you could steal what's freely given.
So we come to the stones.
They aren't very tall. I don't know what I expected, I don't know why they loomed so large on the lower hillsides, except that they're clearly the only part of this place that's lasting and real, and I can feel what they can do. What you can do within them. I drag you into their center and let the ropes slither down my arms like seaweed, and I turn to you. As before your eyes are open and they bore into mine. Cut, like a knife. You know. You're lucid. And you're utterly without mercy.
Here there's light, more than anywhere else. Here there's wind, soft and dull, but it moans through the stones, almost inaudible, your voice. And here are the things that keep me here, staring at you, reaching into my boot for the knife.
You: singing love songs on the balcony of that first hotel, your hands wet with sweat of a champagne flute and your fingers on my cheeks. You: running on uneven pavement in new shoes and almost falling until I caught you, laughing. You: lighting fingers calling a storm. You: lips against my ear telling me how all this was going to work. You: shattered on the rocks with your hair a slick, wet tangle, staring up at me, pleading, yes, but behind the weakness a certainty that this was a final test of your power. My love.
And the knife and the fire and the stone.
The first cut doesn't hurt; I'm faintly surprised. Kneeling before the central stone, thick and gray and wearing a coat of dully colored moss, the blade of the knife parting the skin of my upper thigh, it should hurt. It should be agony. Blood runs down and makes dark patches in the dirt, and I cut deeper, flaying back the flesh, red and pink and the pale yellow of fat. I catch a glimpse of bone. With bizarre, clear precision I avoid the artery; I must be conscious. I must stay alive until the end.
And still no pain. I don't look up at you, I can't, I don't know if I could go on if I did, but I wonder if you're eating the pain, pulling it into you to become poetry later on, murmured out over your flesh remade. You're stronger than me, love. I need you to be.
My skin comes away in thick strips. The blood makes the knife slippery. Twice I nearly drop it. I lift one of my hands and paint the side of the stone, turning the moss black. And here comes the pain at last, perhaps more than you could take, crashing against my rocks. Hissing through my grass. Almost pushing me over. But I love you. I keep cutting. And now here are my bones, here is my exposed hillside, my cliffs. Here is what I can break myself against. For you. All for you.
I pile my flesh at the foot of the stone, under my bloody handprints. I lay my skin over it like a sheet. There's a heavy rock by the stone, because there had to be. I don't know if I'm strong enough, except I know I will be because you will it so. My final ascent. My final fall. I pick up the rock; with it in my hands at last I can lift my gaze to yours. And of course your lips are moving. You, crying like before, burning with life, and if you were in the water you would be making it boil.
I don't hear my own bones shatter. I hear your voice, strong and beautiful as you unmake the world.
We tell a story of one of us who died--how does not matter--and who was laid out at her keeper's side. Her keeper was still asleep, dreaming of wholeness, but she was awake and watching before the darkness took her. She spoke to them before that happened, and she said In the end you decide why you're alive and that determines how you die.
She died in silence with her eyes open.
Her keeper sang contralto at her funeral, left pages of poetry on her casket in lieu of flowers. In the end she went away, thinking that, while it wasn't a good ending, it had at least been one chosen.
In a manner of speaking.
This story was first published on Friday, November 29th, 2013