I’ve been quiet lately because of my health. After several months of not feeling well, I was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism (the ER doctor described it as being turned into a hummingbird) which is… not fun. But I’ll talk more about some of that later. Today I bring you a short story (since that’s what most of my updates seem to encompass more often than not) that I wrote while pregnant with my last child.
Warning: It’s a darker one. My apologies for that, but the mind can be a dark and terrible place when you’re busy bringing new life into the world.
So here is We Will Wander. I hope you enjoy it.
We Will Wander
Her hand shakes.
He tells himself he will remember that much, at least. The hesitation. It is what he fools himself into believing it is: a reluctance to finish the thing, even after she has brought him here, has bound him, forced him to his knees, broken his bones, left his blood to flow out into the gaps between the stones of the floor beneath him.
Her hand shakes.
Or perhaps it is fear. Has she killed before? A mother. She is a mother. No, she was a mother. And that is what frightens him more than anything, that simple change in tense. What she once had that is now lost. What she insists he bears some of the blame for taking from her.
“It won’t bring them back.”
Words he regrets the moment they fall out of his mouth, dropping with the weight of stones before him.
“No.” A small flutter of her hand, as if she is batting away anything and everything he might say. But she says it again, louder this time, and with a tremor in her throat she cannot disguise. “No.”
He thinks she will turn away from him. And she does, for a moment. The light from the small candle strikes her profile, scratching shadows into the lines around her eyes, the furrows that flank her mouth. But only for a moment.
She opens her closed fist, the slow movement of a flower’s petals stirring towards the sun. The pain does not begin as pain at all. More of a pressure, across his shoulders, a weight on his head, pressing him down into the floor, his knees – already bloody, the torn fabric of his trousers sticking to the wounds hardly healed over – grinding into the stones and grit there.
Enough, he thinks. Please let it be enough.
A thought without an ending. The same thought playing through his mind for hours; days, possibly. Because there is no light here, not but for the candle, smoking slightly and only lit when she comes to see him. To hurt him over and again.
He watches her. This he forces himself to do. Even as her fingers curl inward. Such a movement, but it pulls him towards her, drawn by an invisible cord. She holds him there, longer than she should. Forward, forward, his back arching against it, no matter how many times she has done this before. But his legs drag across the floor, ripping at his skin, at his flesh, a fresh pain he would’ve thought he’d be immune to already.
He hits the floor when she releases him. His elbows take the brunt of his weight, and then he touches his forehead down, like a man setting himself prostrate before her. A breath, and another, the dirt blasting out and away from his mouth in a small cloud. The sweat soaking his skin, his shirt, only makes itself known because of the itching as it trickles and drips and dries. The odor he produces, he can only imagine. Sweat and piss and clotted blood and vomit. He’s a mess, and the thought almost makes him laugh.
She turns away, and he looks up as she moves towards a table in the corner of the room. There is water there. She pours out enough to fill a small cup. A sip, she takes. Then licks her lips, one drop sliding down her chin, clinging to the point of it, catching the light like a jewel.
Such a waste, he thinks. But she must want him to see; the shine of the water, the hint of a drink she will not give him. Let him die with parched lips, with the burn of thirst in his throat.
Let him die.
The rest is gone in a swallow. Finished, her fingertips tap along the side of the empty cup before her mouth tightens and her hand goes still.
“I’m torn, you know.”
The prelude to a greater speech, is how it sounds to him. But she says no more, her mouth opening and closing once before her gaze drifts away from him, sailing off to some place he cannot see.
“Tomorrow,” she says. As she always says. And then she returns the cup to the table, picks up the paltry light of the candle brought down with her, and leaves.
The darkness isn’t a complete thing. There are chinks and slivers of light, if only he waits for them to appear. He can see the outline of the door she left through, another ridge of light nearer to the ceiling, perhaps where a window – now bricked over – might have been. So much light, once the glow of the candle has left his memory.
The floor is strangely warm beneath him. Or perhaps he is grown accustomed to it. But he shivers despite the lack of cold, his muscles refusing to relax, his heart racing even as he closes his eyes and begs the silence for sleep.
It comes, though not for as long as he would wish.
The return of the light is what wakes him. Not a candle this time, but a small lamp. Copper perhaps, and with glass windows etched to refract the light, to make the single flame inside of it seem brighter. He blinks at it, tries to raise an arm to rub at the grit in his eyes, but finds he cannot manage such a small movement as that. Because she has bound him? Or rather because his body has given up on him?
She walks up to him, near enough that he can smell the leather of her boots, the dampness of the earth clinging to them. “I’ve no wish to do this, you know.”
Oh, but that much is a lie. He laughs, or attempts to, before it turns to a cough that spatters the floor beside his cheek with flecks of blood and spittle. “Your daughter-”
No more words than those. His head snaps back, twisting slightly, her hold there allowing him only enough air to keep from passing out entirely. If he could reach his throat, he would scrabble at the skin there, as if he could tear away her touch, the power wending and tightening around his neck.
“You will not speak of her.” Her voice scrapes out from the back of her throat, just as she releases him, all of his weight slamming down again onto the grit and the stones of the floor, her hand held towards him, her fingers curled into claws.
Every breath hurts, but he gulps them in, his lungs – gluttonous things – heaving for more. “I never saw her,” he says, his teeth grinding against the pain, the echo of it that will not recede. “Your son, I did not see him until later. Until it was too late.”
He shuts his eyes. He does not want to see what reaction his words might elicit. No doubt she will not believe him. She did not before, so why should her mind behave differently today?
The creak of her boots. He can hear it, as close as she now is. The tip of her boot slides into the space beneath his jaw, raising his head an inch from the floor. “You lie.”
“Why?” He wrenches away, no matter that his arms will not obey him, that his head throbs with the pain of a knife sliding in behind his eyes. Another breath, topping off his lungs, and then the cry breaks free from him. “WHY?”
Her own eyes widen, though she doesn’t step back. Days, it has been. Days, possibly weeks. He does not know what time is any more, how long since she dragged him down here, his head bleeding, her hands gripping him with such force she carried some of his flesh beneath her nails when she let him go.
“Why would I lie?” He settles onto his knees, sitting on his feet. Unable to sit up straight, he leans forward, his hands curled into fists, propping up his upper body. So heavy, he feels. Even though he has not eaten, has not tasted water or wine for so long. Yet the weight of his limbs seems to increase with every passing hour. “You’re going to kill me, yes? No matter what I say.” He stops, his head drooping until his chin touches his chest. Every word is like another wound, tearing his throat, his mouth, to shreds. But he breathes, slowly, and raises his eyes again.
“I am already a dead man to you. A talking corpse. Well, here. Let me speak to you from beyond the grave. I had nothing to do with their deaths. I was not even there. But have some mercy. Kill me quick if you’re foolish enough to think it will return them to you.”
It is enough to make her pause. Or perhaps he only imagines it. Perhaps she is simply thinking over the best way to end his life. She has had days to think over it, but now that the moment is here…
“I’m not a fool. I know they’re lost to me.”
Still, her gaze will not settle on him. Instead it laps over him and recedes, drawing in, in, and away, skirting along the edges of the room until it finds its way to the table. The table with the lamp and the pitcher of water and the dented tin cup. Two steps backwards before she turns her back on him. To the table, for water this time? No, not that. A soft scrape, and there is the shine of metal, not dull at all, but sharp and precise as if the very air could be sliced in two by a sweep of that blade.
A beautiful weapon. He wonders at that, that she should choose to end it like this, when he suspects she possesses the power to stop his heart inside his chest with a flick of her fingers.
She doesn’t brandish the knife, makes no move to threaten him. She holds it like she would a mere tool, her hand relaxed around the hilt. “My children,” she says, her own attention fixed on nothing, on a thought, a memory. “Killed because our village was in the way, in the way of your war.”
“I did not touch them,” he says. There is a desperate note in his voice, woven in with resignation. He will die now. Everything before this has been an overture, a prelude to a death. And here is his killer, his audience, come to clear the stage.
“It doesn’t matter.” Her gaze meets his. For the first time, he thinks. She sees him, and she allows him to see her. She is not old, not at all. A plain, unremarkable face. Brown hair, skin darkened by the sun and the shadows of the room. And a dimness in her eyes, eyes that hardly spark with life, the amber threads among the brown growing more dull as he watches her.
He licks his lips, his tongue sticking to split, swollen skin. “Please.” His voice cracks. He has faced armies, he has slaughtered so many men, men he did not know, strangers without faces, without lives he ever paused to consider. And all without fear. But the soft light of the lamp touches the tip of the blade as she lifts it from beside her thigh, and thinks his breath will stop and he will die now from being afraid. “Please,” he says again. “Be quick.”
A nod. She gives him that. And he is sorry. Sorry for the children she lost, the pain carried in every line on her face. And perhaps he deserves to die, if it is not until now he realizes how much more devastation he has brought into the lives of others before this moment.
And she is quick. A sharp gasp of her breath, the curve of her arm, and she drives the blade deep into her own stomach.
He cannot move. Not from shock or surprise, but because of some other power held over him, shackles holding him in place while a dark stain spreads out around the knife buried in her abdomen.
She drops to her knees in front of him, near enough that he feels the hiss of her every exhalation, can smell the sweat beneath her clothes. And still she watches him. As the last of the amber light dies in her eyes, as her life spills out between her fingers, surging gently with every sluggish beat of her heart.
God. He doesn’t say it. He finds he cannot. Not from shock or anything the like. Because there is no movement he can make, not even to blink. Some final spell of hers, he realizes, to prevent him from stopping her, from aiding her as her breath shudders and she bleeds out before his eyes.
Minutes, it must take. And this is the worst torture she could’ve conjured, to force him to watch her own demise. And as her eyes close, as the seeping of her blood slows and the pool that darkens the floor around her absorbs the dust and the grit of the stones, the hold on him lessens. A twitch of his fingers, a blink of his eyes, his mouth, his tongue released for him to cry out, to struggle forward and towards her.
It’s too late, of course. He knows this, and yet he crawls anyway, her blood soaking what is left of his trousers, mingling with his own blood, dried and tight on his skin. Useless, he feels, the knowledge that he cannot help, cannot heal a fresh weight on him, a vise around his chest tight enough to halt his breathing.
“Why?” A question to which he already knows the answer. Anger and grief and desperation. And love. All of it there, writ in the shadows of the dead woman’s face.
His hands hover over her, but he cannot bring himself to touch her. The urge to scream at her for what she’s done rises inside of him. All of this… all of this. And for what? Without thinking of whether or not he should, he wraps his fingers around the handle of the knife and pulls it free.
She does not stir.
He hadn’t expected her to, but the shock is still there, the utter finality of this last act of torture. He moves to set the knife down on the floor beside her, but instead he hesitates, his gaze skimming the edge of the blade, the dark ink of her blood running down and over his hand. Dead blood, yet still flowing.
A quick wipe on both sides across his thigh and it is nearly clean again. The metal shines, the edge recently sharpened. A prepared blade. She had not done this without forethought.
“I am sorry.” There is nothing he can do for her. He does not even know her name, nor the names of her children. They were young, most likely dead for no other reason than being in the way while the war washed over them. “I will take this, if you don’t mind. May it serve me better than it did you.”
If he could, he would leap to his feet, run from the room, from the death spreading through the room at the pace her blood runs in rivulets between the stones. But even released from her spell, the wounds of his body are left behind, and he staggers up to his feet, shuffling forward and towards the door with the gait of an old, broken man.
And he is broken, he realizes. She left him his life, but not before burdening him with new injuries, some of which he doubts will ever heal. He holds the knife at his side, turning it slowly in his hand. The door isn’t fully closed, left slightly ajar so that he can toe it open without even a lift of the latch.
His freedom before him. And dearly paid. He walks out and up, up the stairs he can hardly remember being dragged down, leaving behind him some portion of his life, the low thrum of war ready to welcome him again. He sweeps his finger across the edge of the blade. A fresh prick of blood, his own, now mingled with another’s. A mother, dead behind him. And he, sentenced to live with the memory of it.