Self-Preservation

The day is crimson. It drips from eves, winds around necks, and stains the hands of everyone that I brush past on the street. Only children turn to look at me before they are jerked away by parents who know my touch too well to acknowledge it anymore.

Cheerful yellow weeds dot the yard as I make my way up the drive; one small sign that things under this roof are not as they should be. Her parents left the door opened for me when they left hours ago, seeking empty words from people who could never begin to imagine the grief that they’re pretending not to feel.

It’s hard to stay grounded in this house anymore. I grip the banister hard as I climb the stairs. I slip through the crack of her bedroom door and realize that we are not alone. You sit at the foot of the bed, watching her. You were unexpected, but I’m not overly concerned; I’ve never pretended omniscience. I make myself as small as possible on her pillow. As long as you are here, I am content just to watch.

She stands in front of the mirror, hesitant hands smoothing over white silk that will capture her final moments well. She is midnight hair and violet eyes; radiance personified. You are chin on knees and arms wrapped around legs; undeserved nerves and well-deserved guilt.

She sees my reflection behind hers in the mirror. I nod. Her mouth thins.

She calls you over to her and you oblige, knowing that you are the last friendly face that she will ever see. She takes a dark wooden box from the vanity and relieves it of a pearl hair comb. She pushes hair back from your face and slides it in, cupping her hands under your chin.

You struggle for words. You know that this is important; a culmination of everything that the two of you have been and never will be.

“I won’t help them,” you say.

Her hands turn to iron.

“No.”

They slide down to your shoulders.

“You have to.”

They squeeze tight.

“Do you hear me?”

She shakes you so hard that her final gift to you tumbles to the floor. She lets go, neither guilty nor confused nor crazed.

“You have to.”

You nod and bend. She takes the comb and replaces it, hand to hair and lips to forehead.

You will miss her, but you can’t do anything about that now.

You drink her in for the last time, but she is already gone. So you leave, too.

Now it’s just she and I, and she knows that I’m here.

She has spent nights on her knees, clutching me tight as she sobbed for someone, anyone, to save her. And when that didn’t happen, she started the screaming and destruction. None of it mattered. Whatever she did, the silence stayed.

That was then.

This is now.

“It’s not you that did this,” she says as I slither off of the bed and face her. “I’m not afraid anymore. For me.”

I cock my head.

“Keep her safe.”

And then she is gone too, striding through her house and out into the street without a backward glance. She gave me up a long time ago, and her life soon after. Today is little more than a means to an end.

I glance out the window at the crimson streamers dripping from the rooftops. The houses bleed with her.

People are already lining the streets when I catch up. Hundreds of eyes follow her as she walks slowly, confidently down the street that she has known since she was a child. She meets no one’s eyes, draws on no strength but her own because it is the only kind left.

A faint whistle is all of the notice before she is struck from behind by a stone the size of a tennis ball. And then they are coming from everywhere, heaved by her schoolmates and teachers, the woman who cuts her hair and the man that has served her ice-cream every  Saturday afternoon since she was five.

I am looking for one particular face. I find you on the fringes of the crowd, staring blankly at the scene before you. This thing, this ritual that you have observed blindly since you were old enough to  choose your own stone is different now. You have never before understood so deeply the meaning of the word superstition, and for the first time you wonder if you have been lied to, if all of the loved ones who told you that this was not murder, this was necessity, had ever had to stand where you are standing now; if the body filling the white dress slowly being stained red ever really meant anything to them.

And then I am beside you. I put my hand on your shoulder. You look up as I press a smooth, flat stone into your palm. I have a promise to keep.

You decide.

She is on the ground now, all of the stones discarded but for the one in your hand. You pull me with you to her side, where she stares unseeing at the sky and twitches as the last signs of her life bloom across her dress. You bend, kiss her on the forehead. Her blood stains your lips as you raise the rock above your head and put an end to a life that was finished long ago.

I gather her up in my arms and rock her gently even though she can’t feel me anymore. By the time she stills every eye is on you.

I stretch out my hand.

You turn away.

You know better than anyone how little I can really do for you.

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Esther

Breaking bread with the man who has ordered the wholesale slaughter of my people is the most difficult thing that I’ve ever had to do.

I watch him as he licks the honey from his fingers and do my best to mask the fury that I feel every time that I look at him. And when he looks up at me, I smile, because that’s what I’m supposed to do.

Little does he know that his time of reckoning is coming. I am young and small and feminine, but I have more to lose than he could ever dream and that makes me reckless.

My husband sits to my right and smiles at me with that smile that has melted my heart since I first saw him. That smile that he only gives to me. Every time he touches me, my skin burns with the most delicious heat and my thoughts go back to the night that I won him over; the night that he became mine.

I pay careful attention when he and my guest speak, because every word could be the difference between the life and death of everything that I know.

I never meant to be a savior, but I wasn’t given a choice.

God willing, my people will not die today.

 

Choice

I was seven years old when my father pressed a knife into my hand and told me how I was going to die.

It was after I found the raggedy girl in the stables, wedged between the horse trough and the wall. I offered her food and she offered me a view of her mouth, a cavern full of dried blood and stumps where teeth should have been.

So I ran to get my father.

He took one look at her, called a servant to him, and led me away to the sound of two metallic pops.

I couldn’t imagine that anyone was more handsome or imposing than my father, not even the king. When he crouched down to look me in the eye, I couldn’t resist the urge to run the palm of my hand over the plain of his face, relishing the roughness of his beard against my skin.

“Have you ever seen anyone like that girl around here before?”

I shook my head. I had never been allowed to leave the estate before, nor was I allowed to meet anyone who came in. That girl had been the first unfamiliar face that I had ever seen.

“Who was she?”

My father drew in a breath, buying both of us time.

“She’s practice.”

I frowned.

“Practice for what?”

Slowly, he reached up an grabbed my hand, pulling it from against his cheek and pressing it against his mouth.

“She is practice,” he said, “For you.”

I realize now that the tears glistening in his eyes and the shake in his voice when he explained himself were fabricated. To this day I have trouble reconciling the father that I knew before that day and the one that calmly explained how he had no choice but to put me out to pasture.

“A long time ago,” he said, “I made a very important man very mad. I’ve done everything that I can to make sure that he doesn’t know that you exist. But I can’t hide you forever.”

He drew the wood-handled hunting knife that he always carried at this belt and held it out to me.

“One day he will find out about you and he will see to it that you suffer a hundred times worse than the girl in the barn. So you have a choice: you can give up now or you can fight.”

Then he pressed the hilt into my hand and his mouth to my forehead and left me alone with the choice that he hadn’t been able to make seven years before.

I stared at the knife for a very long time. I was no coward, but the simple act of pressing the blade to my wrists and saving myself the trouble of years of anticipation for the very same consequence seemed too dramatic for my small mind. Though my father had taken my freedom, he had bought me time.

I was going to learn to fight.

And as much as I could, when my time came, I was going to give them hell.

Finding

The soap that you put in the bathroom started to smell like sadness and that was my first clue that something was wrong.

I called you three times and tried to fight down the inexplicable panic that ripped through me every time I got your voicemail. I called your work twice only to find that your cube mate hadn’t seen you in three days and that if you didn’t call in soon the boss had threatened to hire the temp permanently.

Despite my better judgement, I called your mother and used up the last dregs of sanity keeping myself from telling her that I had misplaced you again.

I called your sister, and she knew me well enough by then to hear the insincerity in my voice when I told her that nothing was wrong.

“Have you checked they keys?”

Of course I haven’t. But now I do. Your car key is missing, which I noticed the first time around, and this time I notice that there’s another bare hook. I grab my own car keys and fly.

The key that you took with you is the only way to open the gate, but it’s not the only way to get in. It wasn’t too terribly long ago that your father didn’t trust you yet, so we had to find alternative means of trespassing on his property. Though I am much more clumsy this time than the last, the tree still supports my weight and I am able to vault over the fence with only a few scratches to mark my lack of practice.

“I’m sorry,” you say when I find you. I don’t know why I didn’t think to look for you here before. This place is you almost as much as you are. I close the distance between us slowly; I have never been completely comfortable with the way the old wooden dock sways under out weight, but I always feigned confidence for you.

“About what?”

You flick your lit cigarette into the lake like you hope that I won’t notice. I didn’t think that you did that anymore, but at this point I’m so relieved that you’re still around that I don’t care about your vices. I fold myself up beside you as you puzzle out an answer.

“I’m sorry that I took off. I just…I don’t feel like me sometimes.”

One of the first things that I noticed about you was how uncomfortable you were in your own skin. All I’ve ever tried to do is make you realize how beautiful you are.

“But when you’re here, you do.”

You keep your eyes on the water, at the exact spot where your cigarette disappeared. You wind an arm around me and I fold into you like I always have.

“When I’m here,” you say, shifting so that my head can rest in the cradle of your shoulder, “I do.”

You press your mouth against my hair and breathe me in and that small bit of contact is how I know that we’re going to be okay for now.

If I only I could convince myself that now could last forever.

Wept

I fell to my knees and wept because that’s what’s expected of someone who has just been told that their father is dead.

I fell to my knees and wept in front of the principal, the counselor, my favorite teacher, and my best friend, none of whom had any idea what the correct response was to this magnitude of meltdown.

I fell to my knees and wept despite the fact that my mother was absent, though to be fair she was rarely around when it mattered the most.

I fell to my knees and wept because for the first time in eight years I will be able to sleep peacefully at night without barricading the door first.

Her

Once upon a time there was a girl who hated boredom because she read a poem once about how curiosity didn’t kill the cat.

She moved mountains and warm fronts and tectonic plates.

She fought pirates, poverty, and the common cold.

She saved the damsel, the prince, the evil king, and herself.

She found God, the Devil, the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker.

She hopped, skipped, jumped, cartwheeled, nosedived, and soared.

She felt much, hated little, and loved most of all.

She failed and fell and learned to keep Band-Aids in her back pocket and a story up her sleeve for a rainy day.

She didn’t want, but she made sure to need, because needing was what kept her going.

And at the end of it all they took her memories and bottled them up and called them dementia, because surely no one lives a life that full anymore what with speed dating and conference calls to keep us occupied in a world where “slowing down” means carving out an hour and a half to watch the brand new Rom-com that’s come out a dozen times already.

But I believe her.

And I decided a long time ago that she’s who I want to be when I grow up.