She made her heart a stronghold
and firmly locked the gate
Then hardened it with fire
in order to survive
But hearts are made for hurting
and though it was to late
She let her walls be crumbled
to bleed and feel alive
She made her heart a stronghold
and firmly locked the gate
Then hardened it with fire
in order to survive
But hearts are made for hurting
and though it was to late
She let her walls be crumbled
to bleed and feel alive
I have seen generations come and go. They have all had their own, individual stories. From afar I have waited and watched and loved them all. This story is hers.
She looked at the family surrounding her bed, all those faces and worried eyes, and drew a shallow, raspy breath.
“I am going to tell you about a time and place of my youth”, she said. “The times are gone since long, but the place still exists.
If you drive along the winding roads of the Valasian side of the Swiss Furka Pass you will find, three kilometers below the mountain’s ridge, a hotel. It just sits there quietly, four storeys of grey brick walls lovingly supporting a crown-like silver roof, as if just waiting for the season guests to arrive.
The tall windows of the Hotel Belvédère opened their green blinds for the first time in 1882, and when they did it was to the sight of sparkling ice and heavy sheets of snow as far as the eye could see. Placed right above the then majestic Rhône glacier, in those days the hotel was flooded by beautiful people wanting to experience the fabulous view from its balconies.
I had already heard many stories about it when as a young woman I was taken in as staff. It was the late fifties, but I remember the breath-taking drive through the mountains as if it was yesterday. Mr. Paul Schroder, the pleasant but quiet hotel cook, had picked me up at the train station in his red little car and then not spoken much throughout the winding drive.
When I close my eyes I can still dream vividly of that first spring evening when, after Mr. Schroder had parked the car, I stood there in front of the hotel doors with all my worldly belongings in a small suitcase and my mind filled with thrilled expectations. I was to work in the kitchen and as a waitress. It was my first real employment and I was far from home. Then Mr. Schroder opened the doors, and I was let into a brand new world.
I was given a small room to call my own and a short tour of the premises. I was then introduced to my new colleagues – a wonderful group of people who had all left everything behind to become the life-blood of the hotel. I fell in love with all of it – and with all of them – right away. With the silent cook, the inspired but absent-minded hotel manager Mr. Hans Wolfgang Adler, Mrs. Lisa Maur – the enigmatic head of staff and self-proclaimed psychic, and the many young people who, like me, had come there with high hopes and stars in their eyes.
The days, weeks and months flew by. Spring turned into early summer, and when the snow melted from the roads the visitors started to arrive. The work was hard, the mornings early and the evenings late, but I learned many things and grew into my role as a part of the hotel’s blood stream.
The visitors came in the hundreds during summer. They ate, drank, mingled and went for spiritual walks in the breath-taking surroundings. One of the most popular attractions was the ice-cave cut into the bottom of the glacier, far below the ancient, glistening ice. And when they were done for the day, they returned to the hotel to eat and drink some more and enjoy their evening on the balcony, in the bar or in their rustic private chambers.
When the guests had retreated for the night and there were no more late sandwiches or beers to be served, I used to walk out onto one of the balconies alone to enjoy the view and the night air myself. It was during one of those silent, solitary moments that Jean Mahler found me.
She was new at the hotel, had started working there only the week before. We had not exchanged more than a few polite words during that week, but I for my part had secretly admired her from a distance ever since she stepped out of Mr. Schroder’s car on the evening of her arrival. Now she suddenly stood right next to me at the railing, her short dark hair dancing in the mountain wind, and I had no idea what to say.
I remember how I laughed nervously and said something about one of the new guests, a tall gentleman who had insisted on being allowed to wash his own dishes earlier that day. She laughed as well, and told me a story of her own. It was as if her voice broke a spell, and I suddenly found myself talking freely to her in a way that I had talked to no one before in my life. Then we stood there, watching the deep mountain pass in silence, and the starlit night and the stillness around us made me feel like this was our own secret world where we were alone and free.
The night turned into day and I was deadly tired when my shift began again. I struggled through that day in a confused haze, and every time I passed Jean in the corridor we both smiled shyly. But I lived through that day, and the shyness did not last for long. The balcony became out nightly meeting place, our secret starlit world where we could talk about anything. I remember those nights fondly even now.
Nights and days turned into months, and with autumn the guests became fewer and fewer. When the snow came the hotel closed down for the winter, and most of the staff went away to work elsewhere for the off-season. Some of us stayed, however, to keep the hotel warm and clean and take care of the few special bookings that were still being made despite the roads being mostly closed off during winter.
That first winter Jean stayed as well, and during those isolated months we grew even closer to one another. When spring finally came, it would have taken a large amount of ignorance to avoid seeing that we had grown into much more than friends.
Summer returned, and with it the guests. I started feeling like the hotel really was my home, and I would even say that I was happy. More new faces arrived to replace colleagues who hadn’t returned after winter, and together with the rest of the old staff I and Jean taught them what they needed to know.
Seasons turned into years and the hotel saw many prominent guests come and go. I remember the spectacle when Pope John XXIII once came to call, and the fuss every time we were graced by a visit from a certain Mr. Sean Connery. In 1964 the excitement was at its highest when – perhaps prompted by that very frequenter – the hotel was featured in the new James Bond movie Goldfinger.
The year I was to turn thirty two, Mr. Schroder tragically passed away. I was appointed the new cook and head of kitchen, and life in the hotel slowly moved on. When winter came that year Jean told me that she would not be coming back the next spring. She was done with the hotel and wanted to do something else. She asked me to come away with her, to make a life together somewhere else. After many sleepless nights, however, I decided to stay. My new position and responsibilities simply were not things that I could easily cast aside.
Oh, how I have regretted that decision many times since.
Life at the hotel did not become bad without her, but it became lonely. The young people came and went, and although I still viewed the older members of the staff as my closest friends, I lacked someone to talk to the way I had been able to talk with Jean.
Then came a guest who changed all that; Patrick, your father and grandfather. I remember the day as clearly as yesterday. It had been snowing the night before, even though it was in the middle of summer. He arrived together with a bachelor party of maybe ten or thirteen other young men, and at first I was not in the least interested. Later that night, however, I heard him quoting Jane Austen during dinner and was irrevocably lost.
I found myself on the balcony after the end of my shift, talking literature with him well into the morning hours. The next night was not any different, and when the party was preparing to leave on the third afternoon he promised to write me. And he did.
Life was at once exciting again, with letters to wait for and replies to write. He remembered that I lacked easy access to new reading, and thus he started sending me books as well. I eagerly read them all and sent him my reviews and analyses in the returning mail.
Winter came and went, and when spring returned, so did he. He was alone this time, and carried a ring and a proposal. This time I was older and wiser and did not repeat my previous mistake. We were married by a visiting German priest at the very entrance of the ice-cave below the hotel, before the eyes and to the cheers of all my beloved colleagues.
And so I left the hotel finally, after many years of loving service. Not a year thereafter my daughter was born. Life went on, and sometimes I was happy and sometimes I was sad. I have loved Patrick dearly, and I have loved you, my children and grandchildren.
I do have one regret, however, and that is the loss of Jean Mahler. I used to write her a letter every Christmas eve for years – but never had the courage to actually send them. They all ended up in a cardboard box beneath my bed. After my husband passed away eight years ago, though, I finally mustered up my courage and actually sent a letter to Jean. The late reply came from her sister, telling me that my old friend had already been dead for six years.
I am old now, and the times have changed. I told you that the hotel still exists, and that is true. The famous Rhône glacier, however, has melted and receded since its glory days. Today the sides of the pass glow like a vast, creased sheet of soft emerald, and only in the far distance would you be able to divine anything even resembling a cover of snow.
When the famed ice-cave finally melted away as well, the guests stopped coming altogether. My beloved hotel was closed indefinitely three years ago, and now it just stands there as a silent monument of greater times, before mankind’s brand on the world was as fierce as it is today.”
She cleared her throat and in turn met all of their gazes. There were tears there, and worry and fear. They could not fathom a world without this old woman, who had been such an important and fundamental part of all their lives for as long as they could remember. She knew this, and wished that there was something that she could say to make the pain of loss less terrible for them – but she also knew that thus is not the way of grief.
“And now my days, too, have finally come to an end”, she said instead. “Even though I know that all my beloved friends have long since gone before me, I want to picture them as still being there, busying around inside the boarded up hotel as if just waiting for the season guests to arrive. Good bye, my loves”, she breathed. “I think I am going to sleep and dream of them now.”
And with this she finally closed her eyes for the very last time, leaving her children and grandchildren to the tears and fears and grief that are all inevitable parts of life.
She herself saw and heard nothing of this, however. Because when she opened her eyes again it was other eyes that looked down on her. Smiling eyes, the well known eyes of old friends. They were all there: the pleasant but quiet hotel cook Mr. Paul Schroder, the inspired but absent-minded hotel manager Mr. Hans Wolfgang Adler, the enigmatic and psychic head of staff Mrs. Lisa Maur and many, many others. Jean Mahler, her short dark hair just as unruly and her brown eyes just as bright as all those years ago, smiled wider than all the rest. “Welcome home”, she whispered.
And with that they were all gathered, finally; all the souls and faces and voices who once lived and loved here. Now they can live and love here again, irrespective of the workings of the world outside. I have called the final drop of my life-blood back.
I am the Hotel Belvédère, and I will always stand here as a silent monument of greater times, as if just waiting for the season guests to arrive. I have seen generations and eras come and go within my grey brick walls, and I have known and loved them all. I have closed my green shutters to the world, but behind them life goes on.
Please come and visit us. You are most warmly welcome.
Chris Smedbakken, 2018-01-29
This story was written in response to a title writing prompt,
When John put his mother’s ring on my finger we both knew it was not a promise of a future together. I harbored no illusions of that kind – I knew he only dared do it because we were both aware, deep down, that we were never going home. We were going to die out there in the cold trenches, together or separated, and did not have to worry about conventions, laws and consequences.
I wish I still had that ring.
The war had been going on for ages, or so it felt. When I was first sent to the front I was young and stupid with my head full of star-spangled dreams and lies. When I met John what felt like a lifetime later, we had both seen, felt and heard enough to have learned that this was not our war – that it was no-one’s. And still we fought in it; I because I was afraid of the alternative, John because he had nothing to go back to.
I wish I could say that we gave each other hope, that us being together made the terror we lived more bearable, but that would be a lie. We suffered and we wept and despaired, and when there was pain that pain was not to be dulled by anything except sleep or death or the poisons we drank to attain one or both of them.
But John sang to me when I was drowning in panic, and I told him stories from my childhood when he hurt too badly. And we grew to love each other in a way reserved for the mad, the desperate and the dying.
I have never loved anyone since like I loved him.
It had been raining heavily that night, and when dawn came the world was drenched in mud and blood. This was the morning of long dreaded advance, of finally pushing desperately forward. The secret solace from the night before seemed like a long ago dream, and not even the ring hidden by my left glove could fully convince me that I had not in fact imagined it all.
It did not matter, however, because everything was to end very soon. I just did not know it at the time.
We left the relative but treacherous safety of the dug trenches and moved forth. I tried to keep close to John in the stealthy turmoil, but repeatedly kept losing sight of him. The sun rose behind the clouds and suddenly there was fire and explosions everywhere. We had been sighted. Our numbers scattered without any real semblance of order, and despite my best attempts to keep calm and sharp I found myself lost and terrified. I panicked.
That is how John found me. He screamed through the clamour that our unit was falling back and regrouping, that we had been ordered to take shelter in the ruins of a nearby church. He grabbed my left hand and started running, leading me towards safety.
It was then that the ground around us detonated, and everything turned into panic, pain and blackness.
I awoke to blindness in a world of horror and agony. There was not a part of me that did not hurt, and I could not see at all. Half convinced that I was in fact dead I lay there on my back, listening to the moaning, hurting voices of my compatriots all around me. Part of my mind realized that it must have been a bombshell or a hidden mine – the rest of me did not think at all.
Until I felt John’s firm grip on my hand again, that is. The pain in my entire body was excruciating when he helped me to my feet, but his warmth was so relieving that I almost did not acknowledge it.
“I can’t see”, I said. “Please don’t let go.”
“I will never let go”, he replied.
And then he led me slowly, carefully through the nightmare that I could not see, but the sounds of which will haunt me to the end of days. People were dying everywhere around us, screaming for help or relief or for people long gone. If someone had told me at that time that we were in fact walking through the fires of Purgatory, I would have readily believed it. Sound becomes a merciless paintbrush when employed on the canvas of the unseeing.
At long last we must have left the battlefield behind us, as the voices of the dying slowly faded into the distance. I was growing weaker with every step, and the steady flow of warmth down the side of my torso told me that I was bleeding badly from the explosion. Without John’s hand I mine I would have been terrified of fainting, falling or getting lost, but he never let go. Instead he firmly and calmly guided me across the uneven landscape on the other side of my personal darkness, stopping when I needed to but never for too long.
Then, suddenly, I began hearing voices again – but not those of the dying. I recognized those voices, and the relief I felt at hearing them is not to be described in words. I realized that we must have found the church that John had talked about in those final moments before the world ended. Someone called my name, another called for assistance and now, finally, my legs would not carry me any longer. I collapsed there in the mud and felt consciousness drifting away, even as running steps approached along with voices shouting medical commands.
I did not die that day, but was later told that it had been very close. I remained unconscious for a very long time, floating in an endless blackness only occasionally interrupted by brief spells of blurry, partial wakefulness. The only thing that kept me sane and calm during those short, confused moments was John’s reassuring and safe grip on my hand as he kept faithful vigil beside my sickbed.
Then, finally, I awoke one day and the darkness was gone. I blinked in confusion, and everything was made of sharp, searing light. At least almost everything; however intensely I tried to open my left eye, it simply would not obey me. A silhouette was standing in front of me, and at first I thought that it was John. But then the man spoke, and I realized that he was a doctor.
He told me that I had been lucky, that the shrapnel had only punctuated one of my eyes and that they had thankfully been able to save the right one. He then told me about several surgical operations and a long, long time of insecurity as to whether I would have the strength to wake up again. He told me that us even having this very conversation was a miracle in its own right. It was a riddle to all how I had managed, bleeding, blind and dying, to find and trudge my way back to safety.
“It was John”, I said in a voice rough from disuse. “He led me by the hand the entire way.”
I tried to squeeze John’s hand in mine, but I could not move my fingers. I wanted so badly to look at him, to see that he was alright, but my left eye was blind and my neck hurt too much to move.
“John Curtis?”, the doctor said, and even though I could only see him diffusely the tone of his voice betrayed his concern.
“Yes”, I said and even managed a defiant smile. Then and there I did not care what he knew or thought about us. In that moment I could have bravely and foolishly made John all those promises we had been too afraid to make before, and more. I hoped that he could hear this in my voice – that they both could.
The doctor was silent for a long time, and when again he spoke his voice was grave and worried.
“You must be mistaken”, he said. “You came alone. I saw it myself.”
At this I laughed and shook my head, actions both of which sent pain shooting through my body once more. But I did not care, this was all too absurd. Still smiling broadly, I turned finally to my left to meet John’s gaze. But he was gone. I stared in confusion, knowing that he had been there, holding my hand, just a moment ago.
The doctor, mistaking my sudden silence for something else, hurried to my side and put his hand on my right shoulder. “I am sorry, son, I should have told you sooner. You must have lost it in the explosion, and when we found it the day after it was too late to do anything. But everything has healed beautifully, and with some training you should be able to–”
But I was not listening to him anymore. I had let my gaze wander downwards to where my left arm should have been, and was now staring in shocked disbelief at the bandaged stump that had now taken its place.
“But… But John, he was… Right now, I…” I realized that I was rambling, but my thoughts simply would not come together. He had been sitting there, right beside me, holding my left hand. And now they were both gone.
“I am terribly sorry, but John Curtis is dead”, the doctor interrupted me. “He was killed in the explosion that took your arm. In fact, that was how we found it. Even in death he was holding on to your left hand.”
They sent me home after that. I do not think that they would have reinstated me into service even if my body had been intact, since it must have been so painfully apparent that my mind was not. I do not know what happened to the ring, and have only presumed that someone must have stolen it. It was never returned to me, at the very least.
I went to John’s funeral and met his estranged parents and siblings. I told them that I was a friend, and saying those words hurt more than I had thought it would. I exchanged a few polite stories with the grieving family, but left soon after when it became painfully clear to me that we were not even talking about the same person.
This was all a long time ago now. I eventually learned to live with one arm and one eye, and nowadays I barely reflect upon the loss at all. The only reason, however, that I am able to live with a heart irrevocably split by sorrow, is that I know that the other half of it is never far away – just as despite all I still know that John Curtis saved my life on that cursed day.
Because every day and every night since then, however far I walk and wherever I may go, as soon as I close my eye I feel it; John’s strong fingers lacing together with those of my missing, left hand, as he walks beside me to the end of days.
Chris Smedbakken, 2018-01-18
This story was written in response to a title writing prompt,
May the brightest star that is
shine to light your way
So you can find a safe path through your life
every night and day
That guardian light I send to you
is bound to never fade
‘Cause like the moon with its silver light
of eternity it’s made
May a gentle wind carry you
on your journey, so let it be
May your steps be light, and so your heart
May your road be the one of destiny
And if darkness comes between us
and the end draws near it seems
May we meet again someday, somehow
in a world beyond the dreams.
I vividly remember writing this one. I was sitting at my old desk – I had had it since childhood – at my parents’ house one dark night back in December 2002. I was fifteen years old, my cousin had just died in a snowmobile accident and I felt guilty for still wanting to dedicate this poem to my then-boyfriend. Some memories just stick, don’t they?
Anyway, this poem has switched meanings for me several times over the years – but I think now it has finally found its way home.
Last night I sat up late and finished yet another recording of one of my short stories. This one is called “In the Heart of a Star”, and the original text from last autumn can be found here.
Recording audio versions of my stories turned out to be both fun and somewhat addictive. The music for this one was composed and recorded by a very talented composer named Kai Engel – I recommend you check him out!
I also noticed that the blog Words and Feathers hosts an October Open Mic event, and decided to offer this audio story as a contribution to it. If you like listening to stories, you should follow that link.
I hope you enjoyed listening to this story as much as I enjoyed writing and recording it. Feel free to comment, I am somewhat new to this and manically appreciate feedback (mohaha).
Until next time!
Two years later and I’m here again. Same place, same streets, same sun.
Nothing much has changed here, and yet everything about me has.
My fears then, my worries, my desperate feeling of not knowing how to survive without destroying a life upon my return, all those things have joined the other bottled memories on the shelves in my mind’s library.
But yes, I feared and I worried. I survived and I destroyed.
I never meant to. I wanted fairytale sunset ending as much as anybody. I’m not sure if I failed or if I was in the wrong kind of fairytale altogether. Maybe the one where the scarred warrior princess gets saved by a masked black knight and rides off into happily ever after, never to look back, was not for me. However much I wanted that ending. If you’re ever reading this, you might as well know that a not at all insignificant part of me still does. And that’s what pains me today, two years later. That I could not live it, and that I lost so much. That I lost you.
Writing this might be inconsiderate, of course. Not the most pedagogic thing to do. But then again, I’m not writing this for anybody else but me. This time it’s for me. Because I write, that’s what I do and what I’ve always done to get those itchy voices out of my head. And right now they’re loud. So I write.
This sun sees so many people come and go, and everyone has their own itchy voices. I’d be surprised if it remembers them all. The footsteps I made in the sand the last time around sure as hell aren’t there anymore. And still when I look up at that sun, when I walk on that beach, I remember. I have changed so much and so much has changed me, but I’m still that same person with the same worries and fears and a feeling of not knowing how to survive without destroying lives in the process. The desperation is gone, now it’s memories that haunt me. I miss you, and I’m sorry I broke.
And being here again, two years later and with so many new bottles on my shelves, this new thought is taking form, growing roots: what kind of fairytale am I really supposed to be in? Will I ever know, and how many things must yet be destroyed in order for me to find out?
And maybe the sun knows, but it never tells.
Most good talks happen during the night. What I had not managed to convey well enough before I was able to tell him tonight, in those secret hours between twilights where rules and conventions simply don’t apply. Then he listened.
He listened while I told him everything. About how my mind had started turning from beginning insight already three years earlier, even though I didn’t fully understand it at the time. About how I had fought, ever since then, to hold myself together, to stay the same. Not to lose anything and everything. But after that trip nothing was the same. It journeyed farther and farther away from the same, as did I.
I told him about the numbness that came over me during this struggle. Repressing insights growing inside of oneself takes also repressing thoughts and feelings and passions. He listened, and I saw in his eyes that finally he began to understand. This was never about him. I never meant to break his dream and his story, I wanted to be part of it but I couldn’t.
One thing I didn’t tell him, but in that moment maybe he knew that as well. It felt like that, anyway. And he smiled sadly but knowingly, when finally I described my feelings when in the end none of my struggles were enough. When I realized I had failed, that I could not repress this and that this had always been a losing fight. But that it was never about him, that those feelings were never affected. This was simply something I had to go through to be whole, to be me. And I saw no other way than the changing of everything to make that happen.
I was finally able to explain to him this whole transgender business and all the thinking and contemplation and development I had gone through since last we spoke, more than a year ago. He understood, finally, how things had exploded in my life after I left his. How so many thoughts had been released and finally allowed to be thought and how I had changed in all ways imaginable. On the inside, at least.
And of course I listened to him as well. He had much to say, and I respected him for all of it. He had his own struggles and battles and fears, and he had his own story about all of this. But it was not about me, not entirely. And I felt such relief to hear him talk about it, because I had worried for him and thought about him every day, not knowing anything. A monumental weight was lifted from my shoulders and from my heart by just hearing him talk about the things I had been thinking for so long.
We agreed, finally, that we both had our own, personal stories. They intermingled and entwined, but they were not the same. His story was his, and my story was mine, as all people’s stories are their own. We could not save one another, but we could do our best to understand and so make our own stories more whole. We would speak again, he told me, and hugged me, and let me go. He let me go.
And I don’t remember what I felt or thought when I walked away and he walked away, each back to resume our own separate stories. But I was lighter, I was almost flying. I hadn’t broken anything, I hadn’t failed. All I had done was to allow my own story to tell itself finally, and now he understood that as well. He and his story would be alright, and we would speak again. And then I woke.
How come that most good talks, the ones that really matter, happen in dreams? How come that I always meet him there, and how come that talking there always feels so good but makes me sink like a stone upon waking? I don’t know any of this, but I know that I am crying as I am typing these lines and that one of my greatest regrets is that all our good talks only ever happen inside my own head.
Christina Smedbakken 2015-10-31
This text works as a stand-alone, but if you want to read the first part you can find it here.
The brave new world she stalked through was filled with brave new lives and brave new loves, but not for her. Never for her. She would taste the warmth of innocent hearts and let it awaken in her for a moment memories of a time when she as well had felt and dreamed and hoped, only to leave them just as empty and dying afterwards as she had been left herself so long ago. But whilst the blankly staring eyes of these new lives were doomed to fade not long after she walked away, her own two eyes were cursed to remain forever open.
She saw cruelty, she saw suffering and death and all of these were far worse than the pain her own hunger and cold would ever be able to afflict upon a humanity that was slowly torturing itself into hardened submission.
Sometimes she took lives in the name of souls too defeated to extract their own vengeance upon murderers and oppressors. It was during such brief moments of chimeric justification that she came close enough to feeling to actually remember that the word had a meaning attached to it.
For the most part, however, she took lives in the name of her own vices and did not discriminate between the guilty and the innocent any more than the blind distinguish between light and darkness. It was during such moments of liberating numbness that she realized that feelings and principles were constructions belonging to the living, and that monsters such as herself were meant to thrive and thirst in the regretless shadows of apathy. And so she did, until the night when she heard again the words of a monster long dead being spoken into the night like painful phantoms of the past.
The boy was young, but still older than she herself had been when the night had swallowed her heart and slowly begun hollowing her from the inside. He had dreams in his eyes and fight in his voice when he recited verses forgotten by the new world but remembered in the hearts of lovers and warriors, and she stood in the shadows and waited and hated as memories too painful to keep but too precious to lose struggled towards the frozen surface of her soul.
His borrowed words were embraced by those who heard him speak and she realized that he was known and loved and respected for knowing and speaking them. She also realized that he had broken something inside of her by doing so, something that was bleeding and would not mend on its own.
Mad with memory she stalked him through the night. She learned his name and his passions and saw him dance and laugh and live. He was a poet and a dreamer, but unlike the monster whose words he worshiped he was no thief and would not steal another’s heart unless freely given. She realized she saw in him something she had vainly looked for in her long dead killer and lover, and she hated him for it because the thought frightened her more than she wished to admit.
Nights went by and unseen she followed him through them even as the wound inside of her kept bleeding. For full a year she listened as he spoke the words of others and of his own, and watched him struggle with life and words and dreams. She was drawn to him in ways that she could not explain and for a time forgot to be the thirsting monster in the regretless shadows.
But time affected him as it did all mortals, and she heard his words and thoughts growing heavier and deeper for each moon that passed. The dreamer boy was turning into a man, and she knew that soon he would be old and withering and dying. His inspired words and dreams would slowly harden into pragmatic philosophy and then he would die, like they all did.
But he had made her feel, if only just so slightly. She knew that the uncaring apathy was ready to embrace her again, but having seen the light anew through this living thing she knew she would have to die all over again if she let it. So in order to save her mind and her memory of a soul from drowning, she stepped out of the shadows.
She stared into his eyes, she touched his face and she watched cold realization creep over him. Then she snapped his neck and drank his blood and listened as he drew his final, chocked breath.
And as she watched him die she slit her own wrist and let the red darkness pass from her to him. He would never grow old and die, and his words and dreams would never change.
“I have all the time in the world”, she whispered as life left him and made room for something new. ”Make me love you.”
This is the second part of an installment of three. It was inspired by a writing prompt, and you can find the first part here. Stay tuned for the third and final part, and feel free to leave comments!
This text is from 2008, and was written as part of a short story project I never finished. I’ll read through it when I get back home and see if I need to make any changes. Feel free to leave a comment!
Happiness, laughter, naive delusions that life will last forever. In young years everything can have such a wonderful aura of invincibility, and in the eyes of the newborn explorer anything is possible. But this kind of imaginary reality is so frail, so easily shattered, that what seems in one moment to be the start of something, can suddenly turn out to be the end of everything.
The snow was falling intensely outside the windows, striking against the front of the small car like stars around a fast flying space ship in one of those movies. There were just the three of them, on their way to her family cottage some distance outside of town. They had been driving for about an hour, and were more than halfway there. As usual they were all joking and laughing, she in the back seat and her two friends in front. The sky was inky black and no star was visible in this long winter night – only the full moon helped light the shadows of the road where the car’s headlights were too caked with snow to do it.
Later she would remember these details as clearly as if she were still there in that car, in those last moments of the world. She would breathe these remembered moments as if were they oxygen and she drowning, alone and desperate in a dark sea. She saw them smiling back at her through the rear view mirror and then they all burst out laughing at what had just been said. They had known each others for years and knew that they would still be friends when they were all old and gray, sitting at some home and whining about the ways of new generations. This though, as it would turn out, was never going to happen.
She saw the one of her friends driving turn around towards her to say something. She heard her other friend scream suddenly, and saw the driver hastily turn his attention back to the road. He also screamed, and turned the wheel frantically in one direction. The car jumped and spun on the icy road. She screamed. They all screamed. She never even saw what had caused the commotion, and then everything turned black.
In confused and despairing lonely hours to come, despite the blurriness that had consumed every other memory of that fateful awakening back to light and reality, she would always be able to recall cold snow against her bruised back, someone screaming about a survivor and a blanket being wrapped around her shoulders by supporting hands – a blanket that was most probably warm but which she could not at that moment feel at all. Her senses registered no sound after that whatsoever, even though she was well aware that there should be sirens screaming since she could see them flashing, and a fire roaring since she could see the reflection of its flames against the glittering white winter snow. The flames themselves, though, she was not allowed to see. She was promptly turned away from them, even as several uniform clad men and women rushed past her to reach the source of their raging dance. She was all alone, even with all the people surrounding her and supporting her. She could not hear their worried voices, she could not see their concerned faces for all the tears in her own eyes. She knew nothing but that she was alone. The two stars that had once lit her darkness would never shine again, and her own fire was waning. But still no pain. Only tears and silence.
Just before they gently pushed her inside one of the waiting emergency vehicles, she managed one last glance back at the burning wreck that had once been her friend’s red car. The flames stood in screaming contrast to the dark forest and the black winter sky, and in a way it was all very beautiful in a terrible, terrible way. But what caught her attention most was not the fire, not the mashed metal of the carriage body or the limp arm of the person that was now being carefully lifted out of the car by two fire fighters clad in bright colours. No, it was neither of those things. Rather, it was something far more insignificant. Beside the burning car, in the snow that was melting by the fire even as she watched, were a collection of tracks made by small, small paws, trailing away from the scene of the tragedy and into the nightly forest beyond. And she would remember afterwards how she stood there, looking at those tracks, holding the hems of the blanket close together, and finally totally comprehending the full horror of the situation. And then came the pain. Then came all the terrible, searing sounds of the world. Then came the cold, the desperation. And she would remember nothing more.
She spent a long time in a hospital where everything was white, and everyone was smiling at her, talking to her in low tones as if the sound of human voices would damage her ears. She saw pity in their eyes and felt that she could not get away soon enough. But there was much inside her that was broken, not counting her heart, and her stay in that place would not be a short one.
Nights were her worst time, since it was then that everything around her went silent and she had time to think, to ponder and to grieve. Dreams were never easy on her and the memories she had of the accident she was forced to relive every time she closed her eyes. She grew to hate the white walls and the smiling people with the soft voices and the pitying eyes. She grew silent and withdrawn, and when at length she was allowed to leave the confinement of the white, accursed walls she had already sunk below the surface of herself. And slowly drowning, invisibly, unnoticed and seemingly irrevocably, she entered the world anew – but nothing was longer what it had been, and she least of all.
Spring came and with it memories. Memories of a time that had been happy and innocent, before the world ended and shades emerged to put up a pretense of blissful normality. She never returned to everyday life, to the things she had liked to do in the time Before. She only wandered and remembered, tortured herself with What Ifs and Whys. Her wanderings took her to places they had been together; an old playground, a steep hill destined to be covered in green grass when the weather got warmer, the roof of an old house where no one dared to live anymore in fear of wandering legends. In all these places she saw ghosts of her Happy Life, shadows of her lost friends laughing and singing.
Summer came and the steep hill gained its soft draping of flowing emerald. She lay there for hours gazing up at the sailing clouds above. Then she went down to the lake where they had used to swim on sunny afternoons. She sat down in the life-saving boat they had used to borrow-without-asking on several occasions, and gazed out at the dark waters. Nothing was as it should. Not anymore. She felt that she should have died in that car, too, which would have saved her from this agonizing existence. No shape of cloud and no song of water could ease her inner pain, and no bright summer sun would be ever able to light her darkness.
Autumn and falling leaves. Rain and thunder, wind and the crow of dark birds on otherwise empty branches. The season did nothing to help her, but she felt at home in it since it mirrored her inner feelings. The sorrow did not go away, as the others had said that it would. She hated the word “Eventually”, since the vocabularies of all the people surrounding her seemed to have suddenly lost all other words while they were in her presence. During stormy evenings she crept up into the window of her room and looked gloomily out at the darkening streets where falling water and wet red leaves seemed to compete furiously for the wind’s attention. Let me be a leaf, she thought. Let the wind take me and carry me away.
But she was no leaf, and when the air got cold and the wind grew biting rather than wet, she sat there still by her window, looking down at those streets. Soon the ground became white with frost and later covered by an even whiter blanket of snow. This was when she went out into the world again, to fully feel the pain of knowing that a year had passed her by and nothing inside her had changed even the slightest bit. She wandered the known streets. She left them for unknown ones, and ended up outside the areas of the most crowded habitation. Trees grew here, and the road was small and would not allow the width of two cars beside each other.
This road she walked, never looking back or up at what was in front of her, but always looking down at the ground, thinking and grieving. This is probably why she did not at first notice that someone was walking ahead of her. She saw the tracks before she saw the people; in fact, it was when she saw the tracks that she looked up from the ground at her feat, and noticed them. Shocked, she stopped on the road and only stared. For the two people that were walking some distance ahead of her could not be any other than the two persons that she missed most in the world, and also the two persons she had expected the least ever to see again. Two pairs of tracks trailed after them in the snow on the ground, and they seemed to be dancing where they went; dancing in the beautifully falling snow, just like they had used do in the past.
She called their names, but they did not seem to hear her. Laughing happily, they continued down the forest road, away from her. She called again and started to run after them, joy rising in her heart for the first time in a long, long time. Could this possibly be true? What had really happened on that night, since they were both here, now, alive? But she did not give these thoughts much time, since she had to run her fastest not to lose sight of them. Because however fast she ran, she never seemed to get any closer to them; they were always a long distance ahead of her.
They rounded a turn in the road and were for a moment hidden from her sight by the close growing trees of the forest. She hurried to catch up, but when she too had rounded the turn they could no longer be seen. Confused and disappointed she stopped. In front of her was a small bridge spanning a frozen river, but the tracks her two friends had left did not go any further than the beginning of that bridge. Then they were gone, without any sign of where they could have disappeared.
She gazed out over the river, and saw how the ice crystals on the snowy surface mirrored the twinkling stars in the dark heavens above. The forest was silent but for a murmuring wind that danced in the treetops. No laughter, no dance. Not even a nightly bird broke the tranquility. And nowhere anyone at all. Again she was alone. The bridge stretched empty in front of her, and on either side the world seemed to hold its breath and wait for her to think through the strangely wonderful thing that had just befallen her. But yet she did not understand.
Then she turned around to return the same way that she had come, and suddenly she remembered the tracks. There should be more tracks than her own in the snow behind her, if she had not imagined it all and was finally going mad. But the tracks of two pairs of shoes that she had been following were not there anymore. Only the depressions in the snow where she had put her own feet remained, and even they were being filled with falling snow as she watched.
With a heavy heart she was just about to take the first dreary steps on her journey back home, when she noticed them. Small, small tracks made by paws trailed along her own. Tracks made by two cats, seemingly playful, dancing, where the tracks of her friends’ shoes had been a moment ago. And suddenly she remembered. The very same kind of tracks on the snowy ground next to a burning car on a winter night like this, a whole year ago. Two pairs of tracks leading away from two persons killed in a tragic car crash on a dark road in the middle of nowhere. Two. And now the very same kind of tracks on a snowy night road where she had only moments before spotted her lost friends, very much alive and even dancing happily.
All came back to her then. Every memory, happy and sad, good and bad. The laughter, the screaming, the pain and the cold. She relived the end of the world, but not in the same way as she had done every night for the last year. Stronger, more painful. But then there were the tracks in the snow. It all ended and started with those tracks. Cat tracks. Two cats dancing in the snow.
A single tear rolled down her cheek, and she followed the tracks all the way back to where the houses begun. The silence was still unbroken, but inside of her a bright red flower had sprung up from soil that she had though of as dead and dry.
There are those who claim that the souls of lovers, if brutally and suddenly ripped from the world and from each other, can sometimes escape in the form of nightly creatures. Cats? Perhaps. I am not sure what to believe about that, but what I do know is that where a heart was earlier slowing, stopping, it is now starting to beat with more strength than it has ever had before. Someone who thought that all was lost suddenly discovered that nothing is ever, ever lost as long as there is a will to survive, to carry on. And as seasons change and the sun and moon continue to circulate the sky, so does hope return to a world that has ended many times but has been resurrected almost as often. For hope is our strongest force; a force that will outlive time itself.
I have to settle for uploading another old text today, since I am in Budapest over the weekend and would feel sorry for my company if I were to sit down and write for hours right now. This text was written as part of my NaNoWriMo-challenge back in 2007. I finished the text, but not the challenge. We´ll see if this year will see my revenge. Feel free to leave a comment!
Stories are told on cold nights when the moon is high in the sky and nightmares and the fantastic unknown stalk close by the windows of human dwellings, careful not to step into the light cast by fires and candles. Stories grant peace and occupation to frightened minds and give everyone something to think about apart from the fear of shadows and glaring, haunting eyes in the sunforsaken hours between twilight and chilly dawn.
This particular tale is a very old one – so old that in our day I would be surprised if anyone human could remember it enough to retell it fully. In fact I am very much strengthened in this assumption by the fact that I, in my striving to put this story to paper truthfully, had to consult someone very dear to me but who could in no reasonable way be called even something close to “human”. With his help this writing down of the story that could maybe be considered the most beautiful of them all was at last possible, and I want to thank him deeply for all the help and time he offered me in this. You will notice that this tale carries some differences in relation to some of the others in this collection. The reason, I guess, is that it has been told and retold so many times that it has acquired the character of a fairy tale, whence the others are merely documentations of more or less fantastic events.
In the time and era of this tale, as you are about to see, the borders between realities were not yet firmly secured and no one really doubted the fact that humans were not alone in dreaming and thinking and shaping the world. By this I do not mean that anyone was not surprised when this long suspected fact was sometimes direly proven before their very eyes – they were, I can knowingly assure you – but they accepted it as part of their view of life and seldom tried to deny it. That is why something like this cannot happen anymore; people are too afraid to open their eyes in front of the unknown to be able to see what really lies beyond the edge of their knowledge. Everything has a fixed explanation nowadays, and questing for answers with danger of losing everything is no longer in question. But the destination of this particular journey is in fact very real.
I will not tell you where to find it, lest I accomplish no more than adding to the already swelling pile of “common knowledge” that is so effectively dulling the curiosity of human dreamers worldwide even as I scratch pen against paper, writing this for you to read. No, I will not. But I will go as far as telling you that where I am sitting right now, candle burning in a room otherwise wrapped in winter darkness, is a place very, very close to the sacred spot where the subject of this story finally finds his answers. This I tell you only to convince you further not to doubt my word when I sacrifice my time to open your eyes to some of the mysteries of your world – and I hope sincerely that my efforts will not have been in vain. Now to my story.
The summer was long advanced in this particular village by the start of the chain of events that would at length mark the beginning of an adventure. A young couple was about to get married and everyone was eagerly preparing for the festivities – and not least for the ceremony itself.
A tradition was upheld in this village, that the shift of seasons at the end of summer and winter was always marked by the uniting of a man and a woman in loving marriage; this symbolizing the coming together of Queen Summer and King Winter twice a year when time was right for the one to pass the sceptre of season domination to the other. When the first leaf of autumn fell to the ground, and not until then, was the ceremony to start and the bridegroom to step up to the Autumn Bride by the forest altar to be with her united for the rest of their remaining lives. This both for their shared happiness and for the luck and well being of the village, which relied on the ceremony to grant them the favours of the Greater Unknown in securing their harvest and protecting their families.
It was not common for couples to be married at any other time of the year in this village, since no one wanted to miss the honour and blessing of being Autumn wed or Spring wed, and thus it was a great privilege for a couple to be at last admitted to the altar, perhaps after several years of waiting. This young pair had been chosen to be Autumn wed this year not only because of their obvious and limitless love for each other, but also because of their curious resemblance to the Queen and King of the Seasons themselves; the young bride-to-be wore her sunny, blossomy red hair long and often entwined with colourful flowers and she was never far from heartily laughter that reminded the villagers of a dancing brook in high summer’s swirl, while her future husband had hair like silvery ice on the mountain peaks, reflecting the sun’s light like half frozen crystal water in a wintry lake. His eyes were like the cold blue sky on a frosty day and though he was often quiet and thoughtful, there was a passion and a strength burning in those eyes that sometimes broke through his silent surface and swept him up like a winter storm – and those moments had grew even more common since he met her. They were meant for each other, no one doubted that.
The preparations for the ceremony were in high progress and the whole village was doing their best to make this year’s festivities something really special – like they did every year, but always, in some way, seemed capable of succeeding with in the end. The bride had been working for days on her wedding dress, in which time she had seen no one except her closest family. The bridegroom had been finished with his own ceremonial garments for some time, as tradition prescribed, and was now taking long walks through the wilds every day, searching for the perfect wedding gift to give to his bride in the name of the sacred bond they were about to tie.
In the likeness of the Winter King’s courting of the Summer Queen when they come together at the close of each year, at which occasion he brings her wonderful gifts in the form of turning the leaves golden for her and summoning glistering ice rain down over the two of them and the rest of the world, the Autumn bridegroom must bring the bride a gift of autumn – something worthy that must represent the love he felt for her. This he could do first when the turning of seasons had just begun, since no autumn gifts could reasonably be found before that time. And when he had found his sign of autumn and love, the ceremony would take place the very following day – like the gifts of the Winter King, the returning of the bridegroom with the ceremonial gift marked the beginning of the period between Summer’s End and Wintercome.
I suspect that my source for this story knew the name of this young man – yes, I think he remembered it very well indeed – but for reasons I can only guess he refused to tell it to me and that I will respect and thereby leave it at that.
Anyway, the young man wandered for days and days around the borders of the village, searching for the first sign of autumn, but without luck. His future bride was soon to be finished with her preparations, and the festivities had all but begun. Autumn had been late in coming before and at first no one worried about it too much, but when the weeks went by and the weather showed no signs of changing from the sunny state of high summer and not even the early mornings saw the smallest suggestion of ice on the surface of the villagers’ water buckets, people begun to get anxious. Why did not Summer’s End begin? What caused this strange delay in the turning of seasons?
The future bridegroom became more and more certain that something was not in order, and begun to fear that the marriage would never come to pass. What if the first leaf never fell? He would never have his beloved bride if he could not find a proper autumn gift to seal their bond; anything less than such a gift would be unworthy and would certainly bring dishonour to her name. Her family would never ever permit her to step up to the altar as anything less than a proper Autumn bride, and in case he could not find his ceremonial gift they would consider it a sign from the higher forces that he did not have their blessing in becoming part of the Autumn couple.
One night, draped in desperation, he went to consult the village elder. He was told that nothing in the likeness of this had happened since the beginning of known time, and that the elder suspected that something was terribly amiss with the greater scheme of things.
“If you want your bride”, the old man said, “seek then the place where Summer and Winter meet – the sacred spot where spring and autumn begin.” He looked him deep in the eye and then handed him his beautifully carved walking stick. “Take this and everyone will know that you have my blessing.”
The young man met his future bride at sunfall by the large oaken tree in the hilltop clearing on which the forest altar stood. She was wearing the wonderful dress in which she hoped to one day stand bride, and her hair danced freely in the warm, late summer breeze. He told her of the journey he must make and held her tight when she cried wide eyed at this terrible revelation. He told her never to fear for him and not to be sad, and under no circumstances doubt his promise that he would soon return to her.
Even with tears in her eyes she was more beautiful to him than anything else he had ever laid eyes upon, and he swore to himself that for her he would do anything. He told her that, and he told her that he loved her. And with those words, and after holding her close one last time, he started to untangle himself from her embrace to begin his journey. Before he managed to force himself to say goodbye, though, she took hold of his shoulders and looked deep into his eyes in a way that only she in the whole world could do. She smiled sadly and forced back the tears momentarily.
“Remember this”, she said, fighting to keep her voice steady, “I love you and will not have anyone other than you. You are my reason to keep on breathing.” She stroked the side of his face with a tear wet hand, lovingly. She seemed to summon her last vestige of willpower and continued: “I do not care whether you find the most fantastic autumn gift in the world, or if you come back with only a moth eaten leaf or even empty handed. Just to see you back alive will make me the happiest person in the world, and whatever gift you bring back with you will be worth more to me than the sun in the sky or all the diamonds on the surface of the sea at night. This because I love you. Nothing matters apart from that. Nothing. Because love makes all other things seem small and simple. Remember that, and return to me safely and soon. I will wait for you. I will wait for you here, right on this hilltop.”
She kissed him passionately and let him go. He looked at her and felt how tears started to fill his own eyes. But before she could see this, he turned and started down the hill, back turned to the village that was his home.
The Autumn bride watched him leave, tears finally running down her face and falling to the ever green grass at her feet. She stood there still when the sun disappeared behind the larger hills at the horizon, and when the full moon rose it was to see her sitting by the large oak tree, gazing in the direction in which he had disappeared. The leaves of the oak were deep green like the soft grass beneath her, and the air was warm. No sign of Summer’s End she could see, and no sign of her beloved. She promised quietly to wait for him there, beneath the rustling branches of the oak on the hill. She promised to rise first when it was to step up to the altar in front of her and be united with her love at his return. When the first leaf fell from the tree by which she was sitting, she would know that he had found what he was seeking and was on his way back to her.
Nowhere he came did he see the slightest sign of autumn, even though he wandered for days. Dressed for rough weather and prepared for almost anything, he visited village after village asking for the way to the place where autumn begins. He was treated with respect due to his being sent by the elder of his own village, but nobody seemed to know anything about how to find the place he was looking for. Everyone he met, though, was also worried by the fact that no winter seemed to be approaching this year.
This way he wandered aimlessly for many days and nights, sometimes finding shelter under a roof by evening and sometimes not. He kept always the picture in his mind of his beloved one standing on the hilltop, gazing longingly after him. He wanted so much to return to her but knew that if he could find no sign of autumn to present to her and the villagers for the ceremony, he would never be allowed to be with her. If the higher forces had judged him unworthy of this honour, he would have to find out why and if there was something he could do to change their minds.
He met with many different people during his journey, all very helpful but none who could tell him anything truly useful. He had begun to mistrust when finally he came to a place where a tall forest loomed over a small collection of houses. He was exhausted from his wanderings and was just about to ask for a place to rest when an old, bearded man stepped up to him and told him he recognized the staff he was carrying. The young man told him that he had been given the staff by his village elder and also revealed his mission.
The old man eyed him for a long moment, much like the village elder had done, and said finally that he knew the place that he was searching for. He told him that the way there was long and a bit dangerous, but that the place was real and fully possible to reach if one dared to seek it out. He pointed in the direction of the high mountain peaks beyond the forest.
“I have not seen the place with my own eyes, but I believe the old stories about it being hidden among those cliffs, because every spring and fall I see the proof of it clearly.” He gave the young man a serious look. “It is down those slopes over there that the changes come charging before they are visible anywhere else. It is from up there that the season of Summer’s End should have poured down upon us a long time ago now.”
So without staying in the little village to rest even for the night, the young man bid the older one farewell and entered the dark forest, walking steadily towards the mountains far, far away. He had a new hope in his heart now that he knew where he was going, and worried little about how he was going to climb those slopes once he got there. Again he recalled the face of his bride-to-be, and smiled happily when he thought about how he soon again would hold her in his arms.
Back in the village, the one he was longing for was sitting still under that oak, refusing to talk to anyone and always searching the distant forest edge for any sign of him coming back up the slope towards her. Sometimes her gaze strayed upwards to the branches that sang and danced between her and the summer skies, but no red leaf could be seen and no chilly wind ever played in the greenery around her. Her heart sank but stayed always true to the promise she had made, though every day that went by saw her face even more hardened, as though the frost that refused to present itself to the grass and the water had anyway reached out and honoured at least the silent Autumn bride with its icy touch.
It took him several days of hard travelling to reach the slopes of the mountains. He paused here for a day to rest and to contemplate where to go from here. How was he going to find out which mountain trail to follow to reach the point among the cliffs that some called “the place where spring and autumn begin”? He thought about it for many hours, and decided at last that if he wanted to find the source of autumn and spring, he should look out for spots where the flowers and weeds grew the thickest; in the places that spring reached first the vegetation should have had the longest time to grow and spread, whence in all other places it should be more, but maybe not obviously, sparse.
He started up the trail and searched eagerly for any sign of change in the undergrowth. He thought after a while that he had found what he was searching for, as some patches of green were stained with colour due to collections of small, blue flowers, and followed heartily every sign that he found. These signs led him higher and higher up among the rocky slopes and heights, and when he at length turned and looked back, he could see the whole world stretch itself out far, far below him. All was green as far as he could see.
He imagined for a second that he could see the hilltop outside his own village home, and thought that he could see the shape of his beloved standing there, looking at him from afar. Of course this was just a dream, but when he again turned to his task of climbing this the highest of mountains the thought crossed his mind for the first time that the peaks might kill him – that there was a risk that he would not return alive to see her smile again or to feel her loving embrace. The thought chilled him terribly, but when he again looked down at the blue flowers that guided his path he pushed it aside with force. Of course he would return safely. Of course he would.
There was a strange sensation in the air that grew the higher he climbed. Some kind of tension that he did not like, but which was not really frightening either. He continued his climb, which was getting harder for every step he took due to the sparse foothold and the thorny vegetation that sometimes blocked his path. The blue flowers grew thicker here, and he knew he was getting very close to his goal. The peaks above him no longer seemed as distant as before, at the same time as the landscape below him had grown frighteningly small and far away. A fall from this point would certainly prove fatal, and he tightened his grip on the branches of the small trees that grew on the steep trail.
At last he reached the top of a rocky cliff and drew in a breath of relief. He had been fighting the heights for several days with little or no rest in the intervals between climbing, and was tired in both body and soul from the struggle. One day a careful but intense rain had fallen, soaking the steep mountainside and turning the trail to slippery mud. He had been forced to seek shelter within a shallow cave between some gray rocks to avoid the risk of falling all the way down to earth, and every hour that went by with the rain showing no sign of ceasing, his mood and mind darkened at the thought of how much time he was losing. At length the downpour stopped, but still he had to wait in that cave until the next morning when the trail was once again solid and safe.
Another day, or another night to be more precise, he had stood in hiding against a wall of stone to avoid the attention of a stalking something that he could hear faintly in his closeness, but which he could see nothing of except for its cunning, yellow eyes. The beast – or beasts, he could not be certain of the number – either missed him or decided against attacking for some other, unknowable reason, and although he got no sleep that night at least the morrow found him alive and unharmed, and he could continue his climbing wandering, stumbling like a sleep walker. When now he dragged himself up onto the high plateau that had been his unreachable goal ever since he left solid ground, he was half delirious and half afraid of what might face him on the other side.
He lay still on the flat surface for a long time, breathing heavily and quickly until his heart slowed down and he felt more like himself again. Then he rose to a sitting position, took a deep breath and crawled to the far edge to see what lay beyond the plateau on the other side. The sight that met him caused him to let out a sigh of relief – then his repressed exhaustion got the better of him and he collapsed on the stone surface, unconscious before his head hit the ground.
What he had seen stretching before him was not more cliffs only, but a panorama of bright colours and mist clad peaks. He had reached the top of the mountain that was said to hold the meeting place of seasons, and only a small drop separated his vantage point from endless voids of long forgotten wilds. A stream sang quietly close by, just below the cliff on which he lay, and the ground below was covered in bluish moss and rough, short grass that seemed to have gotten its colour from moonlight. Much of the landscape consisted of rock undressed in either of these, and the trees that grew sparsely but none the less existed here and there in this place were small and strangely shaped, as though their struggle to survive this far above the world had forced them to twist painfully around themselves to find shelter from the fierce winds that haunted this borderland between earth and sky and played the eerily mist draped peaks of nearby looming mountains like unworldly phantom flutes. This was a place of forgotten magic, but its cold and otherworldly spirit made it also a place of nightmare, and it was in such haunted dreams the young man twisted for long hours before he was awakened at dawn by the unmistakable howling of a wolf somewhere in the distance.
After lying still a while after waking, listening terror struck for signs of beastly pursuit, he rose on shaky legs to once again take in the beauty and endlessness of this place towards which he had been striving for so many days. The brook sang still beneath him, and in the distance the wind had begun its ghostly playing of mountain flutes, as if to greet him welcome to this the end of sane, merciful reality.
A terrible thirst came over him, and suddenly the sound of dancing water seemed almost irresistible to his tired ears – and so he begun to climb down from the high place on which he stood, taking care not to fall even though the distance was no more than a couple of meters, letting himself drop the last few inches down to solid ground. The moss was crisp under his feet and the prints he left, making his way over the frozen plain, remained there for many years, even after he had forgotten the music of the place; this place above world never forget anything or any man’s visit.
The wind was strong here, in the shelter of no tree or cliff, but he was well dressed and did not suffer much from the cold – at first. It was day when he first trod this strange land, even though the sun did little to warm or comfort these high places. Its light played beautifully in the dance of the lively brook, but the water’s swirl made it impossible for his reflection to fasten itself on the silvery surface. This, though, did not hinder him from quenching his thirst with handfuls from this burningly freezing source, and soon he felt refreshed and suddenly more as one with his surroundings.
With new opened eyes he started his wandering anew, not knowing for what he was looking but hoping that when it presented itself to him he would be aware of its importance to his purpose. The ground sloped slightly upwards, and soon the music of the brook was left far behind and below. Even the plateau on which he had rested was soon below him, and even though the air grew colder still with every step, he saw no sigh of snow as far as his gaze could reach. The little blue flowers grew everywhere here, no thicker or sparser in any one place which caused him to think that as least he had found the right place. But what was he supposed to learn here?
Soon the cold began to get the better of his thick winter garb, and he felt chill creep into his bones. He struggled on, more and more depending on his staff to keep him standing upright. His gaze fixed upon one of the high peaks that lined the open space that he was fighting, and it was towards this peak that he unconsciously set his path when it was all he could do to remain putting on foot in front of the other.
He did not realize it at first, but the reason the peak had first caught his attention was that it stood out against everything else because of its colour; whilst all else was shrouded in pale green and blue, the top of this particular height was shiningly white. It was covered in snow. The insight took the breath out of him, and for a while he stopped and just stood there, looking up at the whiteness with a thousand thoughts running through his head. Why was the snow resting silently on that one peak, when it was nowhere else to be found in the whole world?
Despite his numb limbs and confused thoughts, he fought on against the dark cloudiness that now had begun to line his vision. The dizziness increased until all he saw was the top of that peak, tightly surrounded by a dark tunnel of black clouds that expanded all the time. At last the cold got him, and his benumbed legs would not support him anymore. He fell to his knees, eyes still on the distant snow, consciousness fast slipping away.
But right before he lost connection to reality, when his vision was mostly covered with a veil of blackness and the wind that shouted all around was outvoiced by the ringing in his own head, he thought for an instant that he saw a shape standing on that faraway peak, rising out of the snow as if one with it. And though the distance was great and he was inches from fainting, he knew by the aura of majesty and omniscience shrouding this appearance that he was in the presence of King Winter himself.
Awestruck and half doubting his own senses, he bowed in front of the royal incarnation of the winter he had sought for so long. Time seemed to have stopped; he knew he was still going to faint – a dangerous thing in these cold lands – but he got the feeling that he was given time to ask the one question which had driven him this far from home and safety.
“Why have you not come?”, he whispered, the words barely escaping his frozen lips as he again looked up at the cold majesty standing on the peak, gazing down at him. “Why have you not come?”
The king of Winter let time pass, let his eyes take in this boy dying in the cold, before answering. Then the young man heard the wind’s roaring take the shape of words, resounding painfully in his head. Still the shape on the peak did not move, but there was no question of who was speaking.
“You could not possibly understand, but since you have made this long journey not made by many in this time, I will tell you. There is one in this world, only one, whom I love. She is beautiful and breathes life itself, and everywhere she goes she makes wonderful things grow. I have always thought that I was a worthy groom to her, that when we met at fall after being separated for one whole season, I was able to present her with gifts suitable for Her divine presence. But I was wrong. What is golden leaves to one who can create flowers from dead soil? What worth is there in an intricate flake of crystal snow to one who makes the air smell of sun on the ocean, to one who invokes joy of life in every soul? To her, the music of the northern wind in a storm must seem like nothing, she who conjures the song of birds and the laughter of playing children. Thus I have settled not to disturb her life-full reign with my bothersome and contemptible attempts at declaring my love to her another time. Thus I have settled for quiet longing and grieving, for I will never be her equal and thus will never be more than a loathsome bother to her.”
The young man blinked and looked up at the King in silent and sudden surprise. He wondered for the split of a second whether the world had gone totally mad.
“But”, he said, and remembered the tender words of his own beloved at his departure, “do you not know that she loves you? Just to see you back will fill her with joy, and whatever gift you bring her will be worth more to her than the sun in the sky and all the diamonds on the surface of the sea at night. Do you not know that love makes all other things seem small and simple, and that if given with love the smallest snowflake can be worth more than all the riches in the world?”
At this, the fierce northern wind became quiet, and for the split of a second the young man could see the eyes in the face of the faraway majesty widen in sudden realization. The boy’s eyes widened too, but in surprise and frightening insight.
“You did not know this, did you?”
Then everything started to spin as the time and the world suddenly started again. The young man cast one last gaze up the peak, but there was nothing there – only the quiet, eternal snow resting there, sleeping, sleeping. Darkness dragged him down into silence, but he did not feel anything. All of his body was already numb from the cold, and even his mind was so clouded that he did not even reflect upon what fainting in this biting wind would mean. Then he did not think about anything at all.
They came together in the middle of the open, under the clear sky. The sun, at the sight of the two of them together, let go its focus of the world in relaxation, knowing that its full attention was needed no more for this season. At once the light that radiated from it grew slightly fainter and took on a more chilly quality, making the ground and vegetation seem even more pale and frozen.
This cold light shone down upon the barren landscape where seasons were said to start, and made ice crystals gleam like diamonds upon the trail of snow and frost that followed in the wake of the king of Winter, where he made his way down from his wintry peak. Flowers withered and died where he went by, crust-like spider webs of ice spread in his tracks every time he set down his foot.
She, the goal of his journey down from the far mountaintop, stood patiently waiting for him in the middle of this barren landscape, a silent smile on her lips. The road she had walked was marked by a trail of small, pale-blue flowers that spread out like the hem of a wide dress around her where she now stood. Red never still hair flowed down her shoulders, crowned with a wreath of eternally fresh summer flowers in warm colours and white. Her light dress billowed around her in the cold wind that he brought with him, and in her right hand she held a plain wooden staff overgrown with green ivy and decorated with flowers and feathers at the top.
He walked up to her, silvery hair flowing behind him as he went, robes the colour of winter night draping his majestic form and his head crowned with a circlet of frost covered ice. He stopped one step away from her, and there they stood, looking each other in the eye. He did not beam as she did, but a lively spark in his eyes made his otherwise stern expression melt a little, and if one looked very close, his face could be seen to soften by a faint but fond smile.
So there the seasons met – Winter standing in snow and frost a pace away from Summer who resided among a million of blue flowers. The king opened his outstretched hand, slowly, and revealed a single maple leaf, golden and gleaming in the fading sunlight. The queen looked at it for a long time and then, while lifting her gaze and looking deep into his eyes, accepted the gift with a delighted smile illuminating her whole face.
Now also the king let his face mirror his inner joy at seeing her again at last, after all this time. She took the golden leaf and held it up for the wind to catch it, still smiling. Then she reached out for him, and together they walked off from this barren plain, down the mountain and out into the world. With his right hand on her shoulder, protectively, lovingly, he led her through the world, showing her how his essence turned trees ablaze and puddles into mirrors; forests became dreamlike and silent, and everything gained a dull shell of ice inlaid with tiny, shining gems.
They would have the whole period between Summers End and Wintercome to explore and laugh together before they would have to part for another season, and they intended to make it worth the while. They took turns holding the wooden staff, sometimes holding it together, and so the weather shifted – so the seasons changed.
When he woke there was snow everywhere, but by some unknowable design the place where he lay was not shrouded in snow, but in warm little blue flowers. He struggled to his feet, regaining his grip on the staff he had dropped to the ground when he fell. Confused and dizzy he looked around. No sign of life could be seen anywhere, and the world was covered in white, ice-cold snow as if winter had come to this place while he was unconscious.
Then, right before he started walking, he looked down on the blue flowers and saw something. A golden maple leaf, stuck in the vegetation and waving frantically in the wind, lay among the flowers as if waiting for him. He picked it up and looked at it for a long time. It reminded him of something, vaguely. Something that he had seen in a dream. But he could not recall what the dream had been about, and so he put the leaf safely against his chest under his warm clothes, and got going.
Staggering he made his way back the same way that he had come – the going was harder now with all the ice and snow on the ground, and the air was unquestionably colder than before. When he had reached the plateau from where he had first gazed down on this strange world, just before he started to descend the mountainside, he cast one final gaze over his shoulder, on the distant peak where he thought himself to have seen snow when it was to be seen nowhere else. Now, though, he was not really sure which one of all the peaks that was the one he had noticed; now all the peaks were dressed in white, none distinguishable from the other. With a sigh he started down the steep path, wonderingly shaking his head.
Everywhere he came the world had changed. The mountain trail was covered in snow and wintry already, but the farther he got from the mountain the less wintry the weather got. However, there was no doubt that Winter would catch up, for even though the season itself had not reached far from the mountain yet, it was evident that Summer was over for this year. Fall had come to the world at last, with Winter in its wake. It would not be long before the season of Wintercome started, and the leaves were already turning golden and crimson – but none of them as golden as the one he kept with him.
He passed all the villages again on his way back, and all the people he met looked a bit strangely at him when he returned, but he did not understand why since he did not think about how much he looked like Winter himself, coming down from the legendary mountain with Fall in his wake. And so he did not linger anywhere too long to spend thoughts on such matters, and the journey back was swifter than it had been when he first travelled the road, in the other direction.
She had been sitting by the tree for so long that she had lost count of the days. The sun had been her only companion by day, and the moon had been the only one to watch over her at night. She never lost hope, but her spirit became heavy and she almost felt as if she was on with the tree. Then, finally one evening, so soundlessly and suddenly that she nearly did not notice, it happened. She looked up towards the green branches, and all of a sudden one of the leaves broke loose from the others and glided down to land on her knee. It was first then that she noticed that its colour was not green, but fiery yellow. She picked it up and turned it between her fingers, at first not really realizing what this meant.
Then the insight dawned on her and slowly, slowly, not really daring to in fear that she would be wrong, she looked up. At first she did not see anything, and her heart sank. But then a shape could be seen moving up the forest hill. He looked worn and tired, and his silvery hair was tangled and strewn with leaves and dirt, but when he laid eyes upon her, sitting there by the tree like the embodiment of Summer in front of him, he smiled.
When he reached inside his coat and withdrew the golden leaf, unharmed by the rough journey and still shining as brightly as before, she rose from beneath the tree and ran towards him, laughing with tears streaming from her eyes. They embraced, and then he stroked her face with his left hand, while he used the right to put the golden leaf, his gift of Autumn, in her hair.
The ceremony begun before long and did prove to outshine all previous weddings held in this particular village. The bridal couple was more beautiful and more representative to the change of seasons than any couple before them, and no couple had ever been as happy or loved each other as much as these two did. The golden leaf gleamed beautifully in her hair as they said their vows, and all thought that it was the most wonderful autumn gift ever – but she herself did not think about it much, since all her attention was on him, her beloved one who had returned to her from afar. For love makes things like golden leaves seem small and simple.
And Summers End passed over into Wintercome, with snow, cold nights and short days. Winter reigned fair as he always did, guarding the world well until his beloved Summer was once again ready to take up the sceptre, or the wooden staff which is what it really is. She watched him from afar, from a spot hidden in the mountains where blue flowers grow forever, and longed for the short time in Spring when the two of them would again be together, when she would be the one to give him gifts and show him wonderful things all over the world.
Everything was as it should be. The years went by, new generations grew up and new beliefs spread over the world, obscuring or replacing the old ways as it has always been. And never ever again did one of the seasons delay because it doubted its importance to the other.