On the sodden shore of a lagoon, there stood a boy. Moonlight splashed across the rock walls that surrounded him and painted the shore blue in the dark. Illuminating splinters scattered over the water and glinted on a gentle current that ran out to the horizon.
A hovering mist appeared on the water and edged towards the shore. The light reflected in its cloud and shimmered kaleidoscopic in its murky belly.
Above the mist appeared a hooded body draped in black. The boy’s anxious eyes widened. He stared in wonder at the approaching traveler. The boatman had arrived.
“What say you, boatman,” he shouted.
“I say patience, boy! I’ve yet to even reach the shore!”
Of no consequence and to no surprise, the boatman’s voice was quite feminine; womanly and honey-sweet.
He waited for her nightly; from the break of dawn to the edge of dusk. He didn’t know it, but his unwavering loyalty to her and a touch of love were the payment required for her to return each night. Should his heart flounder the slightest bit, she’d not make the trek. It was a long and arduous journey - too long to make for a weak-hearted boy. But she’d never missed an appointment. He’d never given her a reason to.
Nearing the shore, the boatman cut a guiding oar through the mist. The mist was split into a ghostly palisades through which the boatman steered. The raft sailed up to the riverbank. The boatman’s face couldn’t be seen beneath her cloak. But it was the boy’s decision not to see it. No identities were secret here.
“You’re looking young today,” the boatman said as she pulled alongside the shore. “How old are we?”
“I’m seventeen,” said the boy.
“Have you made up your mind,” the boatman asked.
“I have,” the boy said.
“Wonderful,” she said. “What shall I start you off with tonight?”
“The day we met,” he said smiling.
“So be it!” she called to the sky.
The mist billowed out from beneath her boat and rolled over the shore. It overtook the boy’s sight and ran to the edges of the gully. It swirled round, filled the rocky basin til it brimmed at the edge of the ravine. It twisted and molded the blue-hued night into the bright, summer evening of a year long past.
The fog lifted. The boy was staring down at his feet, bare on the dusty ground. And filthy. His soles were cut and callused and worn like shoes.
He ran a hand over his clothes; dingy and ragged. Dirt stained his palm.
But these clothes were his own, he thought with pride. They might as well be fit for a king.
He was a king, lest he forget - king of all that hung off his back. So, Lord of Himself, he stood up straight, swiped the dirt from his legs, and adjusted his shirt collar.
He lifted his brow to the sight before him. A hundred feet away were children and families; flying, falling, screaming and laughing, indulging in crazed, chaotic fun.
He remembered this - the carnival. That’s what had brought him here. The men who ran it never minded his sneaking in, though he preferred it when they didn’t catch him at all. They’d even offered him a job once, but he’d turned them down on principle. It was the fun he was after. There was no fun in knowing how things worked.
He could taste the wind. It tasted like salt and fat, swampy and clogging up his nostrils. It was heavy, weighed down his tongue, and flowed like glop into his belly. He took a step forward.
He was transported, at once swallowed up in the madness. The carnival grabbed him by the throat and refused to let him go. He was suffocating in its grandeur, and he couldn’t be happier.
His second step was quicker. His pace picked up. And with his third, fourth, fifth, he was sprinting, kicking back a trail of dust that choked the carnival-goers around him.
They shouted and kicked at him, called him names like “tramp” and “urchin”. But he didn’t care. He was too fast to hear them mostly, anyway.
Every step was that much closer to the freedom of presence – to being seen; to seeing others who’d catch his eye or say hello. Everywhere else, they’d look away, tighten their grips on their purses, or look him over and sneer.
But the carnival was a mask. A sort of shield that kept the world from seeing him for what he was. He could tell them he was anybody, that he came from anywhere. And they’d believe him. After all, they were, too. And they had, as well.
His heart pumped faster than his feet could pound the dirt. Drumming full and aching, he couldn’t catch a breath. If he didn’t stop, he’d faint.
‘What an entrance!’ he thought to himself. ‘Wouldn’t they enjoy that! But lo,’ he concluded, ‘it was too dramatic.’
“Stop,” he said aloud, wheezing. ‘Catch your breath,’ he thought. ‘What good is it to die before you can enjoy it? How will they know you’re not yourself if you can’t tell them? Then they’d see you for what you are. They’d bury you in an old shoebox!’
He almost toppled over when he finally could slow down. He bent forward, threw his head between his legs, and heaved. He took a breath. A dry, dusty wind washed over him. He pulled it in and coughed. He hacked out the storm from his lungs. He punched his gut to get at the rest.
His heart still pounded. His knees throbbed. He explored the thought to tear into his ribs and grab his heart to slow it. But all he could do was scratch his burning chest and rinse the pain off with his shirt.
A glass of water swooped in front of him. The boy stumbled back. For a moment, he almost insisted that he’d made it appear out of thin air. How else could it have come to be? No one else would bring him water.
He wondered if there was a sideshow worthy of his newfound magick. But giving it pause, he found a slender arm outstretched in his periphery. He wasn’t so powerful, after all, he lamented.
But when he turned, he felt that magick again reflected through the eyes of a girl who stood before him in a flower dress. He was sure her eyes were carved from crystal. They shined so brilliantly even amidst the settling dust. The dust was no match for her lashes, either, that batted it off effortlessly. And it didn’t dare to touch her soft, cinnamon skin. The world seemed briefly to stutter as he watched her hair’s black curls bobbing and brushing her shoulders in the wind.
A small horde of angry gawkers was starting to gather.
“Get out of here,” she said to them coolly, and her eyes didn’t budge from his. “Scat, you rats!” she shouted, and the gawkers started away.
He watched her eyes disappear a dozen times behind her lids before he could think of anything to say – or of anything at all, for that matter.
“Thank you,” he spoke up at last and instantly questioned his choice of words.
“You have to take it, first,” she said with a chuckle.
He reached for the glass and ran a finger over her hand. If she asked, he’d say it was unintentional. But she didn’t.
He coughed a bit more, swilled some water, and bent sidewise to spit. But he paused. He looked at her. His eyes plead that she turn away. He’d have to swallow if she didn’t.
She smiled at him – a coy, threatening smile that was mulling the thought to dare him to swallow. But she relented and closed her eyes. This, however, only when she was certain he’d have swallowed if she hadn’t.
Splat, and her eyes bolstered open.
There was still dirt in his teeth. He wanted to spit again, but he couldn’t risk her looking away a second time. So he swallowed the dirty spittle. He tried to hide that he had, but his lunging throat told her everything. She shuddred.
“You should’ve spat,” she said. “Don’t you think?”
“I think so,” he replied regretfully.
“How’d it taste?”
“Not so bad,” he said, trying to hide a grimace in a smile.
“Take another sip,” she commanded sweetly. “And this time, spit it out.”
The boy took a drink and gargled. He lingered with it in his mouth, apprehensive.
“Spit,” she said.
Not wanting to disappoint her further, he spat. And ruined her skirt. He was mortified.
“It’s not ruined,” she said. “It’s no dirtier now than it was a moment ago.”
But his cheeks went red. He lowered his brow and turned his eyes away.
“Stop that,” she scolded. “It’s only dirt and water. What’s your name?”
Timidly, the boy lifted his gaze to answer her. He assumed he said it, though he couldn’t recall.
“What’s your name,” he asked her then.
She opened her mouth, and he awaited a symphony; her tongue, the conductor, her name, the song.
But when she started to speak, the sound of her voice was overtaken by a roar of gushing water. A falls breached her lips and poured from her mouth out on the ground. Neither the girl nor anyone else noticed it.
The boy trained his eyes on her mouth, trying to read her lips. He replayed the moment countless times over. She said her name a thousand times. She pierced her lips and slapped her tongue. Enchanted by the subtle lifts and ebbs of her lips, he still couldn’t make out a letter of it.
Surely, he thought, he wanted to know her name. But then, not hearing it was an odd relief.
The water raged out of her. Even when her mouth was closed, it didn’t stop. It poured from every hole in her body and from every body around. And no one paid any mind. They continued languidly towards the carnival. They rode the soaking ferris wheel. They played the carnival games in puddles.
Fear was building inside him; of being at her side and the comfort of it. The boy removed himself from his memory and sped up the day. He remained outside the gates and watched as she entered hand-in-hand with a ghost. She went about laughing and carried on as if he were right next to her.
All the while, the water poured. Day slipped into night. The carnival rides started to rust. The carts and tracks cracked and snapped and crumbled. The wind picked up and rubbed the carnival into auburn piles of ash. It flowed over the landscape and spread the piles out on the air.
Dimming rays from the drowsing sun sped through the whirling specks of rust. They cut the light to ribbons of violet and blue. Nighttime shades rained down around the boy.
The flowing specks turned gray and morphed into patterns that reformed the rocks and sand. At the horizon, a blanket of water spilled out of the sky. It rushed over the land, swallowed the people, and buried them in the mud.
The moon appeared overhead. The water’s edge crept up to his feet. A heavy mist settled on the water. It wove into the form of the boatman’s cloak.
“What was her name,” asked the boatman, brushing the mist from her shoulders.
“I couldn’t hear,” said the boy.
“But you refused to,” she replied.
“It was only the first day,” said the boy. “Surely, I’ll see her again, and I’ll ask her then.” The thought of another chance made him smile.
The boatman said, “There were others, boy. Many more from the first.”
“How can that be,” the boy asked. “I’ve only had the first. It’s all you’ve ever shown me.”
“That’s all you’ve ever allowed.”
The boy scoffed, “There are no others.”
“There were many,” the boatman said again. “And just as the first, those days are gone.”
“But there will be more,” the boy insisted. “Take me to the future, boatman. That’s where she’ll be.”
“I can show you every day, if you’ll allow it,” the boatman offered. “But she’s not in your future.”
“Surely, I can find her again,” the boy said. “But the past isn’t the place to look. ”
“No,” the boatman said, “that’s where she is. And so are you. Neither of you lives in the future.”
“If this is a game, I don’t like it,” said the boy. “You may go now.”
The boatman pressed on, however, “We’ve had our time, boy. If the future’s where you want to go, I can take you there. But you must recall more than that first day.”
“There’s no more yet, boatman. Stop speaking.”
The boatman said, “If you truly wanted me to stop, I would. But here I speak--”
“I like your voice,” the boy spat. “It has nothing to do with what you say. What you’re saying is meaningless. It makes no sense.”
A tear slipped down his cheek. It fell on the ground and scuttled into the water. A wave leapt up and slapped the boat.
Staring at the ripple and another tear in the river, she said,“I’m only as real as those memories. I live inside you. You’ve not seen the face beneath this hood because there isn’t one. You don’t know what I look like anymore. We had our time. We had years. But those years ran away long ago. You want to keep hold of a life that doesn’t exist.”
“It does exist,” said the boy. “The past is so tangible. How can you say it doesn’t?”
The boatman went on, “When all that’s left of you is what’s in your mind, everything seems so real. Because that’s all there is. That’s the most real there can be.
“But not even you are real. You’re a ghost in the mind of a man who’s forgotten you. You won’t be returned to that body. But you can come along with me and disappear. The void will quit your pain. Climb into my boat and dissolve. Leave this man to himself.
“You’re the last fragment of a person who doesn’t exist. If you’ll only remember the day you broke apart, if you can face that you’re a remnant, perhaps then, you’ll come willingly.”
“I won’t,” said the boy, his eyes glistening with tears. “I don’t believe you.”
“These thoughts are your own. I’m speaking from the mind of the man you became. He wants you gone. He’s sorry you have to leave. And he’s trying to make it easy for you.”
“Show me a happy day,” the boy commanded.
“That was the happiest day,” she said. “Won’t you see the worst? Can’t you face it yet? Won’t you say my name?”
She reached for her hood to pull it back. The boy turned away in fright.
“I’ve seen enough,” he shouted.
The boatman bowed her head defeated. She’d almost convinced him, she could feel it.
“Maybe tomorrow,” she said.
She pushed away from the riverbank and drifted off towards the horizon. The boy turned back to see her. His heart ached for her to stay just a little longer. But he had no say in that. He could do nothing to make her stay.