My Melancholy Muse

 

A hint of autumn chill in the late summer air battled the smells of gasoline, bus exhaust, homeless people, cigarettes, stale urine, and the ubiquitous Cinnabon, a risky purchase down here at the bus terminal.
It was drizzling, and made the neon reflections shiny and the stones drab.
I bought two coffees and started searching, not knowing if I’d find her here.
We hadn’t spoken in a while, and I guess she got tired of waiting for my call; her message said she was leaving, and she hoped I understood.
I did, but I couldn’t let her go.
Checking the departure board there were eight buses leaving at this ungodly hour.
I found her in the last one. She’d bought a cheap green poncho that offered little protection against the elements, and the hood was over her hair. She was so lost in thought she didn’t look up as I approached.
An old blind man was sitting down from her on the bench, silently rocking back and forth.
“Dabria?” I held out a cup. Surprised, she looked up at me with those large, beautiful brown eyes that always seemed to shimmer like a sun-kissed lake.
She didn’t smile, or take the coffee. She just regarded me like someone she recognized and wasn’t sure she liked.
I proffered the cup again.
She took it, popped the lid, took a sip, and made a face.
“Sorry. Bus station coffee.”
She only nodded, then remembered her manners. “Thank you.”
I looked up at the terminal clock that had a booze ad on it; fifteen minutes until her bus left.
I said, “What are you—“
She held up a hand to stop me. “Don’t.”
“Dabria…”
“I said, ‘don’t.’ You shouldn’t have come down here.”
Time was short, and there was no time to filter what I felt. “I don’t want you to go.”
“No? Well, you sure have a funny way of showing it.”
“I’ve been writing with Nightshade—“
“I know where you’ve been. I’m having trouble understanding why you think I should stick around when she gets all your attention.”
“Because I always come back to you; you were the first, and I’m no less devoted to you now than when we started.”
“That’s a lie.”
I sighed. “If it were, Dabria, would I be here now?”
That gave her pause. “I…I guess not.”
The rain grew steadier, and somewhere in the conversation we got the blind man’s attention; he still rocked, just not as much, his head slightly tilted.
The wind harder, making the diverse odors swirl in a nauseating, miasmic, malodorous dance.
“I still need you, Dabria. We’re not close to finished, and I’ve started so late.
“Please, come home.”
“And Nightshade?”
“She’s going to be part of my life, too. Just not the main part. With you, I write what’s on my heart. With her, it’s what’s in my imagination.”
She smiled. “You do have a great imagination. I like tapping into it, too. But if I have your heart…”
“Then don’t go.”
The old blind guy had stopped rocking, and started to smile.
I reached out my hand.
She put the coffee in it, smiling. “Throw that out.”
Laughing, I tossed it, and gave mine to the blind guy. “Fresh cup.”
“Thank you. Glad you got your muse back.”
“Thanks. Me too.” I held out my hand again, and Dabria took it.
I kissed the back of it. “I promise—“
“Don’t.” She kissed me.
As we walked back to the entrance, I thought back to what the old man had said: Glad you got your muse back.
I looked back over my shoulder.
The coffee cup was on the bench, and he was getting on the bus.
“How did he—?”
“Don’t,” Dabria said.
I shook my head. “I won’t. Coffee?”
“When we get home, mister. You’re going to write all night.”
“Lucky me.”
She smiled, giving me a sideways glance from those incredible eyes. “More than you know.”

Sea Belles

They ring the seabells in the harbor

for the sailors there.

Now come the dancing village girls

with flowers in their hair.

They look so lovely in the sun,

in gowns of green and blue,

to match the mighty ocean’s blush,

and fetch a husband too.

The people clap and cry and cheer

as toward the waves they go,

A sacrifice of maidens come

to join the men below.

The echoes of the knells ring out

across the dancing waves.

The sailors wait impatiently

beside their silted graves.

The singing of the maidens now goes silent

in the surf,

The curse is spared again for those who stand

on muddy turf.

The only note that’s ringing now,

a lonely seagull’s call.

That binds the briny couples to the stones

beneath the squall.

They ring the seabells in the harbor

for the sailors there.

Now come the drifting village maids

with seaweed in their hair.

The Secrets in the Wall 2

Chapter 2:  Secret Games

The last brick was laid in for the tombs, and the people came to fill it as they years passed, some with solemn ritual and whispered grieving punctuated by muted sobs, others with mirth and raucous celebration of a life violently lived, and still others seething with quiet anger and not so secret relief that the departed would trouble them no more.
   But he’d been the first.
   The girls were playing hide and seek with the boys, and the forbidden territory of the tombs was too tempting a place to be ignored.
   Karlyn and Essyna had broken away from the rest of the group, going into the shadowed end where the torches wrestled with the perpetual draft that came down the chutes into brackish water.
   There they waited and tittered behind their hands, confident no one would venture this far to find them.
   Essyna said to Karlyn, “I heard Prince Broderic is not the true son of the king.”
   Karlyn gasped. “Then whose son is he? Who’s brother?”
   “I don’t know, but if the king finds out, and it’s true, the Queen will die.”
   As Karlyn turned to look for seekers, Essyna’s braced herself on the wall; she snatched her hand away suddenly, as if something had stuck her.
   Karlyn turned to her. “What happened? Are you all right? Did you hurt your hand?”
   Essyna looked at it, curious. “No. It’s not even cut, but something stuck me.”
   Karlyn ran her hand over the brick, rubbed it with her fingertips, but nothing happened.
   The Secret could see them from inside the wall, their gowns bright but stained at the hems with a slimy wetness that would earn them punishments, and their just-so hair beginning to unravel, Essyna’s red-gold ringlets like a beaded cowl across her shoulders, Karlyn’s the bright yellow of a late morning summer sun.
   Footsteps echoed, and an older boy’s voice called their names.
   Their eyes widened in fright, and they scrambled from their hiding place to make themselves seen.
  “We’re here, Broderic!”
   They stood before him, eyes down.
   He laughed, not kindly. “Your mothers will have your hides for those dresses, and your fathers for coming down here when you knew you were forbidden.”
   “You could not tell them,” Essyna pleaded.
   “No way to explain away those stains.”
   Karlyn swept her right arm downward, and the stains disappeared; her smile held only a veneer of sweetness. “What stains?”
   Broderic swallowed.
   Another Secret joined the first, and the wall visibly shimmered.
  Broderic cried out and turned white.
   The girls turned to look over their shoulders, seeing nothing, and turned back to Broderic, questions and worry replacing their fear.
   “Let’s g-go,” he said. “I-I-I’ll tell them I f-found you in the garden.” The torchlight and the sounds of their footsteps receded, leaving only abject blackness.
   “Wise choice,” Karlyn said, and the dire echo of her veiled threat carried back as the Secrets settled into the stones.

 

The Secrets in the Wall

As the young man passed through the dim torchlight, hearing the flames sizzle and pop, the smoke tinging his nostrils with the smell of tarry pitch in the cool, underground caverns, the Secrets buried deep within the walls began to stir.

They were slow and sluggish, like leviathan waking in dark, watery depths.

Shuffling forward once more, they gathered in dull hope to come just beneath the surface of the wall.

Is this the one?

The oldest Secret, granted due deference, looked out through the stone.

Watching his face like eager toddlers on a sunny day waiting for their parents to wake up, their gazes were heavy on his face.

He is not.

Their brightening translucence dimmed and died as they seeped back into the stones.

Spectral tears and moans, vibrating just out of range of human hearing, deepened the somber atmosphere.

We grow weaker all the time. Soon, we’ll not have the strength to break through.

They will come.

 So you always say. But will they come in time?

The oldest Secret had no answer for that, and turned away as the other Secret left him resuming his sentinel post.

They will come.

The echoes of the passing man’s footsteps faded, and only the soft fizz and crackle of the torches remained.

The oldest Secret, the first to inhabit the wall, found his own strength waning, found it harder to keep the others intact.

So far, they hadn’t lost any, but the days continued to pass uneventfully; those who had tenuous holds were beginning to slip. More floors put over them, more layers to the left and right of them, and the memories of the long dead in the crypt saw fewer visitors.

The Secret began to wonder if his own words had become automatic; he still sounded sincere in his own hearing, but he wondered.

Eyes of Summer Ice

My trading for the day complete, that night I found myself on a night road between towns, journeying on despite the salacious female entreaties to stay and spend more money on excesses. I left too late, now regretting the rejection of their invitation.
I could either camp or keep moving; unfamiliar with the land, and being armed, I decided to keep going.
The twin crescent moons were poor companions for light, but better than darkness.
Tendrils of mist slinked along the ground, shrouding the trees like pale and ancient serpents.
The wind began to rise, and its temperature drop.
In the north I would have taken the change in stride, but I was far to the south where the sun burned much hotter, and the night at best should have been balmy, not cold.
As the mist closed in and grew thick I lost sight of the path.
The map was now useless, and I was no sailor to navigate by moonlight and stars.
Celestial brightness dimmed as incoming ribbons of black clouds veiled the moons, now seeming like a woman’s eyes staring through black silk.
My attempts to find the path proved futile, and stumbling about in the dark could only prove fatal. Finding a gathering of stones, I made my peace with ceasing the journey and sat down to rest.
I stuck my knife in the ground and put my arms around my knees, making as small a target as I could, and tried to sleep.
 
***********
I heard a woman’s mellifluous voice.
‘Traveler?”
I opened my eyes and saw a vision of stunning loveliness.
‘Traveler, this is not a good place to stop.’
I looked into the face of a young girl with skin the color of sapling branches, her eyes the color of diamonds in the sun, the faintest of gold traces in them.
I rubbed at my eyes; looking at those shining irises took some effort. “I got lost.”
She gradually came into focus, but when I looked at her, I had to turn away. An ethereal light seemed to shine from her; the slim netting in her hair and small gems she wore flared in the shrouded moonlight.
“I was trying to find the path, but the mist…”
*Why is it so cold?*
“Ah. Yes, the mist. It is ever the mist.”
“What?”
“It disorients you.”
“Yes. Yes, that’s what happened. Can…can you help me?”
“Yes, traveler. I know the way.”
Relief flooded me. “I’ll follow you.”
“There is nothing to follow, traveler.”
“What? Can you take me to the path?”
She stepped closer. “I am the way out; you have to kiss me.”
I picked up my knife, and the cold shot up my arm so fast that I cried out and dropped it, looking at her in shocked anger.
Her eyes narrowed, her voice all the more menacing for the fact that it was low and quiet. “You will not threaten me in my home.”
“Your home?” The sense of being lost was stronger. “This forest is your home?”
“I am as much a part of it as the trees, the wolves, the soil; it is all here, in me.
“We…share each other.”
She had me at too many disadvantages. The cold was seeping through along with a mild panic.
“What must I do?”
“Kiss me.”
“Why”
“So that you might be on your way.”
“But…”
“What I say makes no sense to you?”
“Yes, I mean, no. I mean, yes, it makes no sense to me.”
Her eyes glinted as she smiled with amusement, as if they were connected.
“I can help you find your way, but you must kiss me first.”
Perhaps her embrace will warm you.
I took her in my arms, tilted her face to mine…
 
************
It snows here all the time.
The freezing wind blows all the time.
There are others trapped in here with me; I hear them stumbling about, footsteps crunching, but our voices are gone.
Only the perpetual blizzard makes its white noise.
The light inside her eyes has blinded us, but we can hear her lies.
Another traveler on another night; the mist has led him to her.
I hear his voice and scream at him to run, to kill her, but he can’t hear me.
No one hears.
Soon he’ll walk among us, never traveling again, trapped behind the prison of her eyes.
Her eyes of summer ice.
 
You must kiss me first…

Desert Thorns

The evening air dried the day’s sweat on their skin, pushing it past the surface and into their bones. The slavers didn’t care if they succumbed. Only the strongest were fit to serve; the rest they left to the scouring sand.

Finding themselves too thinly dressed for the cooling weather, two young women hugged themselves for modesty and warmth.

The cleric’s cruel eyes noticed, gleaming in lustful anticipation.

They noticed him too.

Hakina, the bolder of the two, dared to narrow her eyes in haughty defiance.

With a sneer disguised as a smile, the cleric sauntered his way over to where they sat in their own filth, chained to each other and a heavy steel pole, his nose wrinkling at the stench.

He turned to the bent-back whose duty it was to shadow him and obey his every command, no matter how abusive, disgusting, or self-abasing.

“Clean this one and bring her to my tent at the edge of the camp.”

“Nameless hears and obeys, Cleric Hameen.”

“Nameless pleases. Now go.”

The bent-back shuffled off as his master turned his attention back on Hakina.

She wanted to keep quiet but her hatred wouldn’t allow it.

“One such as you seeks to break me?”

He slapped her down, kicking some of foul sand toward her eyes.

“Little bitch, I will shatter you before this night is done.”

“You call me ‘bitch,’ but it’s you who shall howl, pretender!” Her eyes burned and stung as she wiped at them, trying to gain her footing .

He punched her, slamming her down again.

Her mouth was bleeding.

He pulled her hair to tilt her head, wiped her lips hard with a rough hand, smearing the blood on her cheeks as she sought to dislodge herself.

For her defiance, he pressed her cheeks in hard on both sides until she drooled and cried out from the pain. Her hands came up to throttle him, but the clinking of the chain checked her.

The movement and its intent wasn’t lost on him, and he sneered again.

“We shall see.” His quiet voice belied the storm in his eyes as he shoved her away and walked off, leaving her gasping for air and rubbing her jaw.

Her fellow captive went to help her up, but Hakina slapped her hand away.

“Do you seek to have us die before sunrise?” Isani asked.

“I seek to have us free by moonrise, if you’ll help me. The fate of women is ever the same in these places.”

Hakina gained her feet without assistance, looking up at the evening sky as she wiped the tears the cleric forced out of her with the back of her dirty sleeve.

As for Isani, this was the third time she was captured, and she vowed it would be the last. They’d taken her mother and sister too, slaughtering her father as he knelt, crying and pleading for the lives of his family at the expense of his own.

They granted his wish and took their time enjoying it, but set no one free.

She’d managed to escape through playing the ‘broken woman,’ and endured their sick games as they used her. When they were confident she understood her place, she quietly killed them. Blades, poison, acid on their groins after they were gagged. Whatever lay nearby.

The camp guards never questioned her when she left the camps crying, her face puffy and her clothing torn. They sneered, making their own lewd remarks and rubbing themselves as she passed, offering their own crude versions of comforting her.

By the time they discovered their dead, she was long gone.

She sighed, looking after the retreating form of the impious, impure cleric.

“Done, if you manage to include me in the tryst.”

Hakina looked her over, a mirthless smile on her lips.

“I think I can manage that.”

Red Jade: No Warrior’s Path

Still wanting to fight, Sora begged Chimatsu to continue.

Seeing her determination, and going against his better judgment for the sake of her father, he agreed.

The winter months flew by in a haze of pain, adrenalin, and feelings of inadequacy.

His litany of her wrongs seemed endless:

You’re fighting in anger.

You hesitate.

Your defense is lacking.

You’ve been captured.

You’ve been killed.

One day he did not come out to train her.

She practiced her forms alone, considering it a test of some kind, looking at the door to his swaybacked house, but it didn’t open.

The next day she practiced her weaponry, knowing he was watching, but nothing happened to make him open the door.

The next day she practiced longer, but he still stayed inside.

Enough of this!

She went to confront him as the day was ending.

She raised her fists to pound the door, only to find it was already open a crack.

A little thrill of fear made her peer inside, thinking she might find him dead.

He was sitting in front of a large, warm fire, drinking tea and eating a bowl of rice and some savory fish.

Her mouth watered and her stomach growled.

He knew she was there, but didn’t acknowledge her; he offered no food nor a seat by the fire.

“What’s going on, sensei?”

He set his bowl and cup down on a tray, then leaned back and steepled his fingers under his chin as he gazed into the fire but spoke to her.

“It’s simple enough; I can no longer teach you.”

“But I’ve been practicing!”

He shook his head. “To no foreseeable end. You lack skill, Sora, not heart. But in an actual battle, you’d be among the first to fall.

He sighed. “I’ve already written to your father. I will take no more of his money, and waste no more of my time, or yours.”

“So you’re saying…”

“What I’ve said before: the life of a warrior is not for you.”

“So what am I to do?”

“Rest, heal, spend the night, and in the morning, return to your father’s house.”

“I meant about my fighting.” She moved in front of him, blocking the fire’s warmth.

His eyes seemed to look through her as if she wasn’t there at all; her world was shrinking, and he wouldn’t even look at her.

“What am I to do about my fighting?” she asked again, her voice hitching.

He surmised that she needed to hear him say it, and as much as he didn’t want to, her refusal to leave forced it out of him.

He looked at her then, his eyes sad and somber, the firelight dancing in their depths; to her he looked like an ancient god in transition.

“Fight no longer. Marry, and raise children, a son perhaps; one who can take the road you seek.

“Your skills are adequate, but they need to be superior, and for that, you have not the skill.”

Her fists clenched, she began to pace. “You’re wrong! You’re wrong about this! About me!”

Again he shook his head, the fiery eyes tracking her.

“No, I am not wrong. Here is what I am: too old, and too slow to help you improve.

“The truth is, Sora, I’ve enjoyed your company, but as a student of the killing arts, you will be the only student I have failed.”

That made her stop, her face betraying shock, and she spluttered and swallowed whatever she’d been about to say in protest.

He rose, shifting his weight like a log in the fire, poured her a cup of tea and shambled over to give it to her while he gave her advice.

“Abandon this road, and live a longer, happier life as a civilian. The warrior’s path is not for everyone to walk.”

She took the proffered cup because she needed something to focus on to keep from screaming, and because she didn’t know what else to do.

All this time, he’d not said a kind word, or did a kind deed, but now that he was done with her he was almost gentle, and even a little sad.

It made no sense.

He returned to his chair, and indicated with a small sweeping gesture toward the pot that she could help herself to some food.

She looked at him, but his eyes were closed now and she couldn’t tell if he was sleeping.

Emotions fought within her, but there was too much and nothing more to say.

The bowl steamed in the cooling evening air as she sat on the steps, watching the shadows lengthen on the ground.

Swarms of gnats and small butterflies played around high stalks of flowers in the persimmon rays, and the birds began their evensongs.

She concentrated on the beauty of the scene in front of her, and felt the rhythm of her heart slowing.

Eating without tasting, she finally finished everything and left the bowl and cup on the steps.

On her way back to the cottage she began to turn Chimatsu’s words over in her mind.

Inside, looking around at the sparse furnishings there came a realization that as harsh and uncomfortable as it had been, she’d endured it, and that was something.

If nothing else he’d released a side of her she didn’t know she possessed.

He said the warrior’s path wasn’t for her, but maybe it just wasn’t a straight one. The truth was, she loved the feel of the weapons, loved the hum and swish as she sliced the air to chunks and the straw men to ribbons.

It thrilled her.

And yet, for all her joy, Chimatsu had basically shown her that even at the end of his fighting days, over before Sora was born, he could still beat her; he would brook no excuses as to his reputation.

“Your opponent doesn’t care who you are.” Splat!

Still, his name struck fear into hearts of enemies and allies alike; he’d went through both with equal alacrity and aplomb. In his time it was considered an honor to fight beside him, and a death sentence to fight against him.

He told her she would never be worthy of being considered either, and in the cold, empty embrace of this strange place in a strange land, alone where no one could see, she allowed herself to cry.