The Stranger’s Tale (part one)

Everything began when Ella got lost in the woods. She’d been hiking, watching the sun stream in languorous ribbons down the trees and crumble through the leaves. She got distracted. It was easy to do when the light sliced through the forest the way it was doing. But then the shadows grew, and stretched. The light faded and the blue darkness pooled on the ground until the trees and the sky were steeped in it. The shadows spread and Ella was alone in the forest in the dark under a violet dimming sky.

Ella tried to figure out which way was north, or which way she’d come. The moon was no help at all. It just glimmered at her, indifferently, offering a sliver’s worth of silver light. She’d worn shorts and a sleeveless top, which was sensible in the sun. In the deepening dusk the mosquitoes swarmed and before too long she was covered in bites, slapping at her arms and brushing bugs from her neck. Finally Ella sat, her back to the prickly bark of a tree, and closed her eyes to wait for the sun.

A chirp sounded. She sighed. Crickets. Another chirp, and another rang out. Soon the air was clamoring with crickets, and probably the odd frog. The noise continued for a while, and then in a moment the forest was silent. Ella opened her eyes.

There was a woman there, sitting against a tree facing Ella. She was wearing long pants – Ella’s bug bites itched in envy – and a t-shirt. She smiled when Ella looked up at her, and said, “Hello there, sweet one. You seem a bit lost.”

Ella scrambled to her feet, bracing herself against the tree when her legs buckled. Her whole body seemed to be asleep. The strange woman rose too, somewhat more gracefully. “Yes,” said Ella, her voice loud against her own ears. “Could you tell me the way back to Angram Street? It’s just against the woods, it’s where I came from -”

The woman was shaking her head. “No, dear. I’m sorry, I simple don’t know the geography of this place. With me, though, you have nothing to fear, and I can tell you a story to pass the hours until day breaks. If you like, that is.”

Ella’s brow crinkled. What a strange suggestion. “Okay,” she said, knowing that she sounded as bewildered as she felt. “Sure, I’ll hear a story.”

“Oh, how wonderful!” the woman clapped her hands together. “But first, what is your name?”

“Ella.”

“Ah.” The woman let out a long sigh. “Ella. That was my name once.” Ella just looked at her, blank.

“Right then, on with the story. It’s a tale long and seldom told, a tale you can find once and never again. A tale that is spun lost in the wood by the light of the almost-moon. It’s about a story, in a manner of speaking. A tale within a tale. Though what is a story, of course? That is the question. A dream, a ghost, a wish? I wouldn’t know, of course. I only tell the tale. You know, when the tale is told by a good storyteller, all else ceases to exist? But I’m rambling now, and I will tell you.”

Ella was thoroughly perplexed at this point, but the strange woman continued.

“This is a story cobbled together from the half-remembered and nearly-known. It’s about a ghost more than a wish, I suppose, because it’s about itself. You see, when a person -” she nodded to Ella, “when a person such as yourself, my dear, finds herself wandering a strange place where the moon is barely gleaming on the trees, she may meet with a ghost. Or a dream, or whatever else it may be. Nobody quite knows who the stranger is, who the dream is. There have been arguments on this point, naturally. Some say that the dream is nothing more than that, the fancy woven of fear and moonlight. Some say that it is a shadow of the past. Those ones have a story all embroidered and blood-spattered. It’s the ghost of a woman who fled to freedom, who escaped a vengeful lover, who – oh, I don’t know. Who can say. Those ones think it’s the heroine of some story who’s run from it, only to find herself in another. It’s a very dramatic view of things.”

Ella coughed and the strange woman looked up, as though she’d forgotten her listener was there. Neither spoke for a minute, and then the woman went on with her tale.

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Five Minutes to Breathe

Clouds stood crisp and white against the blue of the sky. The edges furled and wrinkled, faraway fjords in nothing but sunlit mist. It looked so close that he could touch it. Higher up the clouds dissolved and swirled like sheer scarves of gauze. Brian settled back onto the grass, letting the soft blades tickle the back of his neck and his shoulders. He had five minutes left. Then he’d have to get back to the factory for another four hours. He let out a long, slow breath.

A sigh sounded next to him. He’d nearly forgotten that Tam was next to him. She scooted over to press her arm against his. The warmth of her skin thrilled against his own, deeper and more solid than the sun melting on his face. He turned his head to smile at her. She was looking at the sky too, her eyes fixed on a cloud or maybe just lost in the dusty blue. He smiled at her profile instead, at the intent eyes and the peace smoothing her face.

After a moment she turned and saw him looking. They were so close that her breath whispered against his cheek. Abruptly she shifted, pushing a hand onto his shoulder to lever herself up. Once standing she offered a hand and pulled him to his feet. She kept her hand in his, her fingers small in his, and tugged him toward the road. “We should start walking back,” she said. Her voice was husky after the silence, raw in the still air.

Trees and sunlight

Photo credit: Takashi(aes256)

They walked side by side on the scruffy grass at the side of the road. She let go of him, and his hand felt empty. He curled it into a fist, and his curled hand hung by his side. The sun was high in the sky. The trees were shattered kaleidoscopes of light. The greens and yellows and blues tangled and sliced together, bright and beautiful. Brian could never walk past this street without staring a little. Even after six years in this town, his eyes went to it at once and stayed.

Tam checked her watch. She had to get back at the same time as he did, though she was going to the school instead of the factory. They were right across the street from each other, though. They stole off nearly every day during lunch to slip down to that secret spot of theirs. Sometimes they even brought food, though mostly they forgot. That had been their tradition for a year, since Brian graduated and had been working at the factory. On days when Tam couldn’t meet him, he wandered around listlessly. Sometimes he felt like when he didn’t see her he was holding his breath. The world faded a little bit, and when she was there again it was like the air rushed back into him and he could breathe again.

They were still a ways away from the school factory. They should have left earlier. Lines were creasing in Tam’s forehead as she fiddled with her watch. “We’re going to be late,” she said. Her voice had evened out, losing the quiet rasp it always got when she didn’t speak for a while. He loved that rasp.

“Race you back,” he said. Tam grinned, and then sprinted off. “Hey!” he called, jumping forward. She laughed back at him over her shoulder, her eyes bright in the midday sun. She ran, her feet kicking up little puffs of dust and her elbows swinging. Brian took a quick deep breath and followed.

Darkening

The people in the park around them were dark and blank against the slipping light of the sunset. The skyline jutted in great bricks of black to carve shapes out from the sky, where the colors spread and dripped past the horizon. Charlotte closed her eyes, leaning against the warmth of his chest, and sighed.

Martin’s arms tightened around her, and she turned to him. He wasn’t looking at her, and she tipped her face up. He noticed, after a moment, his eyes flaring. He kissed her, a brief touch, and then let her nestle against him again. He didn’t move to hold her. Before long, of course, he wanted to leave. They walked, hands clasped, down the street and toward her place.

When they got into the apartment, Martin hissed out an exasperated breath. It was a mess. It was always a mess. He had used to think it was cute, the way she forgot about her coffee mugs and dropped discarded clothes over chairs. That had been months and months ago, though. She scurried from one corner to another, catching up dishes and shoving them to clatter together in the sink, flicking the sweater and the scarf into the bedroom. “Sit, babe, I’m just going to get some water.” He sat and she hid in the kitchen for a moment.

In March, when they were still flushed and smiling about one another, she’d said nearly the same thing. The words rang in her head with the memory echoing behind them. He’d stood instead, surprised her at the sink and wrapped his arms around her waist. She’d set the glass down and turned, forgetting to turn off the tap so she could kiss him.

Charlotte watched the water fill the glass. She thought it would be very dramatic to stare and let it overflow until her hand was shiny and slipping, but she didn’t. She could hear the chair creaking from where Martin was shifting his weight in the other room. The glass wobbled in her hand, water leaning closer to the edge, threatening to spill. She carried it out of the kitchen and sat across the table from her boyfriend.

The room was tinged with darkness. She’d forgotten to flip the light switch. Martin’s hand was on the table, the window sending its shadow to stretch long and straight away from the light. She reached for his hand, curling her fingers around his. He didn’t move, and she felt a heaviness settle in her chest. She was used to the feeling. In the shadowy room she watched him hold still, his eyes downcast, away from her. After a long moment he looked up.

“Actually, Charlotte, I should probably get going. I told Mike we could hang out tonight, you know, I should go grab some food before I meet him. Or we could go for dinner, I don’t know. You okay?”

“Yeah,” she smiled at him. The sadness sat and swelled. “Sure.” Martin stood, slipping his hand from hers, and walked to the door.

He half-turned to her, sitting in the darkened room by herself, and spoke over his shoulder as he opened the door. “I’ll text you or something tomorrow. Love you.”

“Okay,” she said, watching him go. “Bye.”