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In Amber - Short Stories

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A collection of unrelated short stories.

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The sea stretches forever on every side and there is nothing but the surface of the water. Beneath it remains a mystery for they have never ventured over the sides of their raft. Their feet have touched no ground but for the wooden planks which separate them from the deep. But what is this deep? Perhaps a tenebrous infinity to fall through weightless or perhaps be resisted and crushed somewhere far away; perhaps only a hair’s breadth in depth and a grand illusion. Perhaps nothing at all lies beneath the surface whose small regular and unceasing ripples represent the edge of everything. Each half-moon ripple is the size of one hand and evenly-spaced, small enough not to disturb the raft whatsoever. The raft could only move should its sole inhabitant step too firmly or rise from sitting or sit from standing with any modicum of vigour or lack of care. But they have lived on this raft for their entire life. Life started suddenly and they opened their eyes one day and saw the horizon meet the cloudless sky. They move such that the raft does not rock or shift in the water and why wouldn’t they? This is the way that the ground always has been and they know how to walk without disturbing it as intuitively as they know how to breathe or sleep when the moon rises silver-white in the sky and makes the water into glittering crescents which dance in the moon’s sickle-shaped image. Where does the time go? It comes and goes as it pleases; now the wooden planks begin slowly to crack and turn from a deep and rich brown to blonde to bleached to a bone-white whose splits and holes reveal the water beneath over so many days and nights that they barely remember the raft being any other colour. But the sun and moon then change their direction in the sky and the cracks begin to heal and colour returns. They may even have stopped existing, pulled on time’s tides back before they first opened their eyes to this flat world and been reborn many times over. It is clear, however, that time itself is pulled irresistibly in one direction though it may try fruitlessly to deny this. No matter how many times it wavers and how many times the sun and moon will change their course across they sky the raft grows more frayed. Each time it becomes more ragged it never recovers to the same extent. They feel the ground beneath their feet thin and grow more fragile and less able. It sits lower in the water and they look to a time when their world is prouder and less pale. It becomes hale once more but with a sense of inevitability for one day it will dissolve and they know that once this happens they too will dissolve beneath the waves. This fills them with a creeping fear and an inexorable sense of decay for what waits for them somewhere hidden over the horizon. Each day presents a choice of great import and meaning. The edges of the raft are a gleaming and polished path in which the grain and whorls of the wood trace beautiful patterns of waves and vortices more tempestuous than the placid waters which are everything. The only thing that they regret when time moves and the raft’s decay reverses is that this path grows less pronounced and the work that they take such pride in is erased. There is, then, a silver lining to time’s march to decay: the polished circle grows more polished but held with the cruellest threat. Once the raft is no more and they too slip from the surface what is left behind but the sea’s blank face? Their important choice? They must decide which direction to walk in. In the morning they stand on one of the raft’s corners and face its centre. Do they start walking along the path and smooth it with their footsteps by first turning to their left or by turning to their right? This decision can be made in many ways, sometimes with a sudden insight or flash of inspiration and the answer comes to them in a single electrifying moment and they are invigorated by their surety. They sometimes deliberate agonisingly; they lie awake in the moonlight and consider what they must do and what it will mean for the future. These decisions cannot be taken lightly for their work is too important and they must pace the circle on their raft; for what other purpose should they be here? In making these decisions they feel exposed as if hanging in a void without knowing where to go. The number of unknowns are dizzying and at times they wish to give up as they are so frightened of the responsibility and the possibility of it all going wrong and their labours coming to naught. So each morning they choose not on a whim but knowing that while their future is uncertain they must choose now and choose wisely, left or right, and see the decision though to its end. They work very hard each day and are exhausted by the end of it. They walk without stopping for breaks or for anything else which does not smooth the path and do not look up as they walk for this makes them dizzy. There are times where they feel shame for not wanting to continue because they are tired or because the necessity of their task becomes less clear or if their feet and joints ache. They still remember with humiliation those few days when they did nothing but lie on their back and stare into the sun until they saw nothing but glowing and colourful phosphorescence which faded only gradually over several days. But their weaknesses last only for a moment and they resume their vital work with a renewed determination. While working they stare at their body in fascination, although not without a great degree of disgust. Their feet press into the raft and spread out slightly with each step, toes grasp at the ground and cascade across the wooden planks’ subtle topology. They raise their toes as far as they will go and admire the peaks and troughs of skin when the tendons stand out and run along the tops of their feet as veins slide among them. Their knees bulge from their legs grotesquely but they understand that these knees are a grim and unfortunate necessity should they wish to achieve their obscure goal. And the goal is just that: obscure. It is only the means to this goal which is clear but once the path is smoothed and worn enough the answer will come and purpose and meaning will be within reach after all of this time. The only way is to continue this path, the circle starting either left or right. It is hard to tell where the raft is moving or whether in fact it moves at all. The sea’s surface is an unending and perfectly uniform pattern and nothing breaks its vast tedium and upon this the raft floats without any motive force. There is no sail nor are there any oars. They have not tried to paddle and do not wish to touch the water and never have. The thought of doing so makes them shiver in the hot sun. Not even a rudder hangs lank into the water and they do not consider that the raft’s direction could be influenced. But why would it need to be and for what reason would they choose one direction over another? What is important is to walk the path which they must walk without distraction and the sea’s endless vista of perfect homogeneity is a distraction which offers nothing in return. The brief time in between working and sleep is a time of anxious waiting and a gnawing feeling of indolence. Now they finish before it is dark and today they gaze lovingly at the polished wood of the path and how the sun caresses its honeyed landscape with glints and winks of white light. Tonight they run their tongue along its smooth surface and crawl in circles on all fours as their legs and feet are too exhausted to stand. It is tasteless and without smell. Initially it is hot from the sun and from the warm footsteps which trod it all day. Their tongue dries of saliva very soon and catches and jumps on the polished surface and is as dry as the raft’s sunbathed wood. It cools as they trace it with their tongue and they eventually stop as they understand that there is nothing more for them here. They press their ear to their pride and jump. Perhaps the circle lives just as they do? The blank moonlight is absorbed by the matte of the raft except for the circular path which shines. As they press their ear once again to the circle in wonder they smile with joy as they hear a rushing and pulsing of blood in their ears. They fall asleep with their ear pressed to the raft and feel contentment. After their decisions of left or right and their marching for several days hence they press their ear to the path and drift off fulfilled to a dreamless sleep knowing that the path acknowledges them. Far away a vague black smudge nestles between the waves. They cry in anguish as they press their fingers into their ears and hear the same rushing and pulsing sound and know that they have been betrayed by their body once again. Their flesh is weak and frustrates their efforts and they would toil all day and all night were it not for the irresistible exhaustion that overcomes their legs. They understand better now than ever that their body is the enemy as it has tricked them by making these sounds in their ears and making them think that the circle was talking to them. But it is merely a sound from within that they only hear with their ears plugged up to shut out the outside world. It is a song of deceit and they vow never to hear it again. Evidently this is something to be appreciated only vaguely as a job well done. They decide that this path is too elevated to love by mere sensations. As they pull at their hair in despair they look up and see in the distance the vague shape which becomes more distinct. Over many days it draws closer until it takes the form of another raft much like the one that they inhabit. A shape on the raft paces familiarly. Their long lines and bowed frame are foreign and stir a feeling of curious dread. Once it is close enough they can see that the figure on it regards them with the same curiosity. For a moment on every lap in their paths they face each other but they do not let this novelty keep them idle. At dusk once they have stopped they examine each other. They gaze and run their hands over their naked bodies as the sun sets. To see arms and legs in context is startling. Their limbs hang sinuously and their spines coil and each vertebra is clear beneath the skin. In idle moments they have explored themselves, poured their fingers into their mouths and down their throats, rubbed their eyes until they stumbled blindly along their circle. They avoid blocking their ears now that they know them to lie. To see their faces is a quiet revelation and they now see where sight comes from. They stare into each other’s eyes unashamedly. Some days they drift closer and some days further away. They wake earlier now and finish later. The other raft’s path looks very well-worn and they walk around it with purpose. Whether they choose to walk to the left or the right is observed keenly. As the circle is traced they watch not only their own feet but also those on the other raft, how they fall on the wood, their tempo, their vigour and they vow never to fall behind. It is with a feeling of satisfaction that when time flows backwards both circles fade, not merely their own. This is evidence of a just universe and says that it is only them and not anything else which will make their path better or worse. Sleep is to be had only when they fall unconscious from exhaustion and they agonise over whether to start by walking to the left or to the right at all times when they are not actually walking. The new arrival has convinced them of the uselessness of rest. It is with a great deal of satisfaction that their bodies burn and complain from the longer and longer days because this pain is the weakness being squeezed from them and leaving behind something worthier. Neither of them have slept for several days and have taken no breaks. They have walked continuously and steadily and steal glances at one another and their work and make comparisons. In the beginning both were confident and strode in circles and knew that their work attested to their brilliance. Doubts creep in over time. Perhaps their back will be straighter or their circle seems more perfect to the consternation of the other. They stumble and fall. The sound of their head striking the raft sings across the water. Upon coming to they see them kneeling in the middle of the circle on the other raft. Their eyes are closed and they smile in the still air. The sun hangs directly overhead in a perfect line drawn through their spine and their head and into the sky. The object of their toil is beautiful and a point of great envy. With a click of their fingers they are engulfed in flames which first emerge from their mouth and eyes and then slither all over their body. It is a peaceful inferno whose centrepiece is a charred figure who has now stopped screaming. The flames extend very far into the sky and now also burn the raft. Ash and smoke rise almost out of sight in a single unbroken line which then bends its neck back down towards the sea and into the mouth of the unburned worker who still paces in awe. Today they choose to start walking to the right. As they breathe in the smoke of their burning and taste the grit they understand that they have made the correct decision, that turning today to the right rather than otherwise was what needed to be done and that they in some distant future will one day be rewarded for their labour; all is perfect. Nothing is left. The ashes crunch between their teeth and they continue to walk.

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