The bursts of gunpowder above the charred city were as loud as the silences before the thunderstorms. Pregnant silences; they bore what they had made out to be devil's spawn, swimming contentedly in a womb clutched by weathered hands, hands now clapping bolts of lightning down to force peace on an angry world. It wasn’t this silence that tortured her, though; it was the thunder. Thunder as strong as a mother’s heartbeat, as if it were to try and make her understand Mother Nature only means well—a hopeless dilemma, if ever I saw one.
Mother Nature, who cajoles the ivy into trailing behind her as she treks, amongst the ashes, and snakes up to tether her to it? She turns and crushes it under her bare foot, abandoning it to its charred fate—how’s that for meaning well?
Oh, if only she had stooped down to pluck it by its roots like the venomous weed it was; if only she had barred the fear at the source, maybe things would have gone differently - maybe I wouldn’t have had to...intervene. And intervene so directly, at that. But no: she stoops down only to clasp a fistful of ash.
“A charred city,” she muses, spellbound: there’s something almost devout in her face as she raises the fist to the light of the full moon.
A scathing smile, as the ash slips through the gaps of her tightened grasp, the shadows cast by the moon keeping the ivy at bay.“That’s what we are.” She stops. “No - we were. We were a charred city.” Charred not by the loving, tender crashes above, but by the bombs of their own people.
“That’s not to say I don’t believe myself to be charred,” she admits, smiling. Her grasp, drained of ash, now grips her - alone, in the darkness. “It’s just that,” her voice quavers, fists once so strong gone limp at her sides, “I’d like to think cities are - lively - enough to maintain a population greater than one.”
The smile fades; her body shudders. “If loneliness were a currency, I’d be the richest person alive.”
Alive, she thinks. Still alive...
Alive and wandering scorched streets, the scent of burnt flesh heavier than the taste of singed air. Wandering with shoulders heavy under her burden. “There goes Hailey, her amber eyes preserving the final drops of sunlight; Henry, his decaying arms still extending a solid hand towards me—in help, I dare to dream; Holly, clumps of hair long and thick as it was when she could hang ribbon like mistletoe over rosy cheeks, and—” oh “—I’m out of ‘H’ names.”
She laughs at the ivied void. “Oh, do—don’t worry, I’ll come up with more. I always do.”
With relish, she closed her eyes on the seared scene around her. Perhaps imagining an audience without ears to turn a blind eye at words without voice. Better than nothing—or so she tells herself.
Oh? What do I imagine she imagined? Funny you should ask.
I might tell you later, if you’re lucky. But for now: stay tuned.
“Some call people crazy for talking to themselves.” She nudges a burnt artillery shell with her foot. “Me?” She kicks it. Hard.
“I’d say insanity is scavenging around for dead people to talk to. Imagine what their lives were like before the bombs and the lightning. That, and, well... That and seeing people.” She gazes with a conciliatory emptiness at an ethereal moon suspended in immortality, a knowing smile the only sign of defiance.
“Well, you’d see things too, if you were alone!” She doesn’t like “hallucinate”: it makes her seem crazy—“mentally ill.” She can’t have that, now can she?
She holds her audience in the palm of her hand. They’re mesmerized, she imagines: in their seats bodies sway to the sound of sentences spoken so silently aloud.
Indeed, her audience sits on the edge of its seat, rapt not with pity, but with something stronger. Though, while she imagines an audience of many, there sat only one in a sea of a thousand unoccupied seats to oversee only one in a charred city meant for thousands more. (I should know, after all.) With worn hands, the audience pushes itself from the unforgiving wooden chair—oh, how it had hurt my back!—and plants its feet on the intangible ground above.
“I would be dead by now, but every time I come so close, another name of a nearby corpse pops into my head. See him over there—Holden? He certainly wouldn't want that blade to pierce your pretty, uncooked skin. Had he known you in life, and everything. ‘Gee, thanks.’”
She doesn’t stop walking. Maybe it’s because she can’t seem to die, or she can’t fathom an existence simply spent lying with the smoke and debris. Whatever the reason, she walks. Always in circles; never straying far from the charred city.
She nears the last stretch of road where pavement gives way to gravel, giving way to nothingness. Here she finally crouches behind the remnants of a wall rebellious enough to stand in spite of it all, rebellious enough to be sheathed in layers of ivy. Her fingers wince at the leafy prison.
“You’re wondering why I don’t leave, aren’t you?” she asks. “It’s not like there’s anything left for me here.” She looks back at the moon, addressing it when she says: “As my good friend, Miguel de Something-Or-Other says, ‘To withdraw is not to run away, and to stay is no wise action, when there’s more reason to fear than hope.’ Words to live by.” And live by, she does.
Her eyes start to peek out from behind the brick, bearing the innate trepidation only beheld in the eyes of prey stalked, literally, to death by its predator: thirstily surveying the river beyond; hungrily touching the rough scratches outlined by the moonlight.
Her audience saw this—I saw this; I saw first the thirst with with which she yearned, then the hunger with which she starved, and saw finally that that wall had more bravery than her. At this, I slumped back into my chair, defeated, but determined—discouraged, and divided; ever the Antigone to her irresolute Ismene.
Another clap of lightning. Our Ismene jolts awake from the trance, terrified; no matter how long the thunder sounds, she’ll never get used to it. For every time bellows, she sees them.
She sees them now, and her eyes must widen to reflect the fear so boundless within. The fear rolls over her, cascades from the blue, blue irises over her shoulders, arms, waist and legs until she is drowning. The feel is more real this time than ever; They stand so close to her, so close. They. She could touch them if her arms weren’t held down. She could keep running if her lungs weren’t crushed by the sea around her.
Their arms stretch out. Hands swathed in tendriled darkness blanket her body. There is no room for her to recoil, to shrink away. She can no longer quell the burning pace of her flighty heart, nor the burning of their fingers on her skin. A scream as the fire bleeds onto the water, now, the fear; the fear colors the world around her in shades of bleak, bleak, and bleaker. Even after They leave her, she wanders the streets of a charred city looming above her. Gnarled and twisted as it were, the city was entangled in the fear—a kind of ivy, everything good in the city asphyxiated in the ivy’s many coils. Every time she thought she saw a light blossom into warmth, the fear would be there to crush it under cold thicket upon thicket upon thicket upon thicket.
Truly, there is more reason to fear than to hope in a world like that, but I stand by what I said: If only she had stooped down to pluck it by its roots like the weed it was; if only she had barred the fear at the source. Now it was far too late: how unwilling fear was to give up its only plaything.
It left her as desolate and as barren as the artillery shells she kicked back into the word, the world a mere echo of the emptiness within.
Within—was it always this wet, “within”?
Oh, rain. Water, falling; rain. Silences pregnant no longer—ha.
It’s raining, it’s pouring, the—
“That’s why I was drowning.”
It was only the rain.
“Nothing more,” she murmurs, little conviction in her voice.
Nothing more? Certainly, a small part of her thinks, this is more than nothing? Am I supposed to believe nothing is what binds me down? That I live in a world of...nothing?
More than nothing—that is what she thinks she sees sprouting from the ground, what she visualizes constricting around her ankles and around her chest.
The ivy might as well be real; the fear she suffered through so vividly, she had to personify it as something, anything for us incompetents to understand how she hurt—hallucination, or otherwise.
The fear was the most real thing she felt.
To the onlooker, she’d appear as though she were thrashing against the bonds of air. Yet, to me and every other experienced onlooker, she’d be struggling against bonds of fears invisible to all; she just has the sense to give them form.
So she wanders, her shoulders heavy with the burden of choosing not to know fantasy from reality, wandering farther and farther into the tangles of her world laden with vines of fear.
Have I been this way before? There lies Hailey’s eyes, Henry’s hand, and Holly’s cheekbones—she pocketed the shell fragment she kicked years ago. (Years, days?—what was the difference?) A souvenir, for when she would leave this place. Her finger hovers over the bones of their skeletons—never touching, never staying.
She cocked her head. “Do they seem more—” she squints “—decayed?—to you than usual?”
Nobody answered, of course.
A pursing of the lips. “Funny, how things decay. You’d think,” she said, speaking in crescendos, “you’d think they’d stay the same. I mean, this ivy does—I don’t see why they can’t, either!”
And, withholding from it the great ceremony it deserved, she sat. On the ground. Prostrate, and done with walking; content to let herself decay to ash. She wouldn’t be needing that souvenier, come tomorrow.
Content to give up on her search for the one remedy she needed:
Just today, she asked me, in an outburst of cynicism: “When did you finally decide to help me? When did you decide, after watching me suffer for so long, did I finally become more than just a plaything to you?”
Did I blame her for being ungrateful, you ask? No, I didn’t; I like to think I can understand where they’re coming from, you see, and why they’re so doubtful of me, but—in the end—I suppose I’m too wrapped up in my own ivy to see myself the way they see me. As a monster.
The response was almost automatic, rehearsed; she’s not the first person to pick a bone with me, you know. I took her hand in mine. “‘It’s not what you look at that matters; it’s what you see.’ Thoreau—you taught me that, remember? So don’t look at me as though I’m not real—you see me well enough.”
She began softly. “That isn’t what bothers me anymore. It’s just—just—”
I cupped her face in my opalline hands. “My dear child—if you think I thought of you as my plaything, you’ve confused me with someone else.”
She ripped herself from my hands. “That doesn’t answer my question,” she snarled.
I tore my gaze from her condemning eyes. Tears—so I’m capable of them after all. “No,” I breathed, shakey. “No, it doesn’t.”
It was when she was walking away from me I answered, “When did you finally decide to give up?”
She stopped. “Give up?” she said, incredulous to what she was hearing. “I broke down. Waiting. For you.”
I approached her, the wounded prey. “Tell me,” I began, slowing to a halt:
“When did you decide you couldn’t find me yourself?”
She fell quiet.
“When did you decide to treat yourself like a plaything?”
Though this time, it wasn't her own.
She flew to her feet, her head hysteric with hope as she the fear she’d remain alone waned, as it once did when the moonlight was strong. Frantic, she sped towards the sound of the voice, not caring she broke through thicket upon thicket upon thisket upon thicket, not caring that she crushed bones like weeds under her feet, not caring if the ivy lost its grip on her, not caring—
She fell to her knees.
Her hands rose to her mouth.
They couldn’t silence her shirek.
At her feet lay a girl. She couldn’t have been more than eight years old.
A girl was lying—no, writhing—in vines of ivy, her own lacerated hands trying to shield her face, in vain, as the fear found other places to sink its teeth into.
She’d never seen first-hand what it was like for someone to be possessed by the fear; never seen how vile these vines were, never felt the sheer loathing she had ever felt when she was the victim.
Is this how I look, when it kills me?
In a vengeful stupor, she drug her nails into the fear, dragging them across the leafy prison bars, and tore, tearing them to shreds. I’d never seen anything like it. Only once in a blue moon does someone take head-on their fears as she did. Tearing, and tearing, until finally, there was nothing left to tear. She tore even at the back of the girl when she clutched her, convulsing back and forth with her tears drenching the poor girl, leaving them both gasping for breath as they drowned, not alone, but together—both their fears lying in ribbons at their feet.
Now I’d like to say it was the end of fear for us; that when she untangled me from the ivy—when she clutched me to her chest—it drained from our lives just as the sand did from her tightened grasp.
In short: it wasn’t.
It would take years for me to finally be able to lift myself away from that mother’s heartbeat of hers. For every time I’ve had to mother my survivors, it’s nice, for once, to be mothered back.
“Why are you glowing?” Yes—those were the first words she said to me. Don’t laugh.
I brought my hands to my face. They were silvery with moonlight—opalline, even. “I suppose I’ve gotten used to it.”
She stood up. “We should go,” she began. “The ivy’s probably grown back.”
She was taller than me, though in years, I was older. “No, it won’t.”
“What do you mean?”
I nodded at her waist. “Give me that, in you pocket.”
“What?” she asked, pulling out the shell fragment. “This?”
I took it from her. I dabbed my finger in the lacerations on the back of my hand—my artist’s palette, if you will—and drew, in blood, two dots and a curve.
I handed it back. She held it away from her body. “What is this?”
“Why, that’s a smiley face. You didn’t know?”
That is what I find most heartbreaking: she doesn’t even know what happiness is. “All you need to know is that it is taking something terrible, and turning it into a shield.” I clasped her hands. “The ivy won’t bother you if you have this.”
She didn’t believe me. I could tell. She wore her disbelief so blatantly upon her face, it was nearly as deafening as—
Reflexively, her body broke out in trembles. Watching her as her audience and as a girl were two different things: with the former, I could pretend her suffering had no affect on me—that I anything I would try would be to no avail; but here, in front of her, I could not help but intervene.
“Do you—are They there?”
I gulped—her fears became mine. “Yes. They are.” Hailey, Henry, Holly, Holden; everyone she had ever attempted to find a helping hand in was there, surrounding us, their faces vehement with decay.
“You—you can see them?”
They took a step closer.
“You can see them?”
“I told you: I can see them.”
Another step closer.
“Are you. Sure?”
I was frustrated, now. “Yes!”
Was she crying? “Are you. Sure.”
“Because if you see them,” she said, her voice raspy and wet, “then you’re—you’re—”
Too close, too close.
“I won’t. Don’t make me do this!”
Too close, too close, too close, too close—
“They’re! Not! REAL!” she cries. “They’re not real, and—and I’m—I’m—I’m crazy.”
They stand close enough—
“And if you can see them—and I can see you—you’re...”
that They could touch her—
“Just a—a—hallucination. You’re not real either.”
She closes her eyes on the seared scene around her. Perhaps imagining an audience with ears and eyes—and maybe even opalline hands—to make her feel as though she had a voice.
Yes. That’s what I imagine she imagined.
She opened them to the light of the sun streaming through a gate now freed of ivy. And, departing the charred city, she swore she felt my hand clasp hers, as she looked down, and saw a blood-red smiley face. But, no longer was she fearful of being hopeless, so how was she to know?
Yes, here was Hailey, Henry, Holly, and Holden;
And yes, the fear was the most real thing she’d ever felt;
But she named me Hope.
And I. Am the most real thing she ever feels.