Classrooms were easier to talk in, thought Quicksilver as he sipped the remnants of his tea. He cursed the old woman for her condescension, for her ability to act as though she knew everything, but she simply did not want to say. His gaze deep in the abyss of his tea cup, he only looked up when he was ready, and he looked up to a startling sight. She was shaking like a leaf in a thunderstorm, her eyes clouds that leaked raindrops. He had no words to comfort her, and he couldn’t move his hands away from the still-warm cup.
The crying waitress of the coffee shop came back to him just then, and with a hint of nostalgia he recalled her slim arms around his old body, and the heat of her tears as they fell onto his cold, lifeless skin. The old woman did not give off the vulnerability, or the sadness, that the waitress had given him. In her shaking, Quicksilver could gather that no embrace could shake her from this sorrow. No kind words would stir her mind from the agonies bombarding her relentlessly. Her sorrow made his fleeting, conquerable, even easy. He wondered how many score-years of pain she had seen, and he then wondered if he had brought on this frightening state. Had his appearance, in some way, unraveled some thread tied to her past?
Or perhaps, thought Quicksilver, she was just alone. Had he not wept buckets in his loneliness? The feeling of being a single thing in a vast and empty world, a jigsaw puzzle piece fallen out of its packaging, shadow without a light, it was enough to torture anybody. It was how he felt as he sat in the cottage, for he did not note the old woman’s presence whatsoever, for she did not seem like a person. Even though the human being in the cottage had not only cooked a stew but also made him a refreshing cup of tea, there was a supernatural feeling about her that made him question whether she had been born as all of us are. Had she grown with the dark forest around them, or perhaps, had the shadows of the trees eventually whispered enough to create a human? Every step he took on the mountain path had been filled with conversation- low whispers from bark to bark, so much so that he thought it entirely possible for them to mimic a human being’s capabilities. It did not strike Quicksilver as impossible for her to be a tree. But an old woman could not be a tree.
It was hard for him to picture her as absolutely alone. It was hard for him to process how somebody- anybody- who abandoned society for quiet recluse could be alone. But he supposed that he spoke out of ignorance. Who was he to question her loneliness? Who was he, apart from a teacher and a writer and an old man, to doubt whether the mountains and the trees were the lonely ones and not this slight old woman? In her silence and abandon, she reminded him of the scenery around the cottage. She was as old as the dark trees that towered over them, and yet, she was powerful, solid, like she had stood for eons without bending to the wind. And yet, here was she, bending. He wanted to ask her a great many things; for many questions had come to his mind while he sipped on his tea. He lost his yearning to find answers to the questions that irked him, instead wondering about fleeting things like how long these woods had stood the test of time. Or perhaps, how tall the tallest tree was? Or perhaps, how ferocious the creatures in the mountains were? He wanted to ask her if the mountain path, as broken and difficult to traverse as it was, was here before her. He wanted to know how, if she had, she climbed it. He could not picture this old woman laboring to pave a road up a slope, but at the same time, he could not picture it existing without her. And how had she known to watch for him, when he had come? When he clambered over the summit and onto the grass, she had seen him immediately, as if she had sensed a lonely soul making its way up the rocks. And when she whispered to herself, it reminded him of the trees talking to each other. It had disarmed him entirely, and the only reason he powered through the disorienting conversation was because he had already abandoned all hopes for his sanity between the raging flames of the coffee shop and the ghosts talking to him.
As he watched, she seemed to recover. Her unfocused eyes lingered on him for a moment, before her wire-like lips began moving very slightly. He could hear the whispers, just barely enough to make out their meaning, though the words held no meaning. There were strange names falling from her lips, names that he seemed to have never heard before. But each name struck a chord of familiarity, telling him that he had heard them before.
“Mother,” the old woman hissed softly.
The names became unintelligible rasps from her jaws, falling like stones into water, heavy but meaningless. In his own head, Quicksilver completed the list, finding that he remembered all seven names, though he did not know who these people were. Each name was weighted as she said them out into the cold air, as if she understood every speck of them, every little thing that had to do with them. She said their names like he said “Sunshine”- not just like a name but instead like the beginning of a life, the entrance into a gate of vast knowledge. As if in response, Quicksilver found himself whispering.
“Sunshine,” he said, and the old woman looked up, the bulge of frail muscle on her neck evident. He said it with the same heaviness, the same nostalgia, and as if this acknowledgement of his past made hers easier to bear, she huffed a sigh, reclining back onto the wooden walls.
“She is your wife,” said the old woman, not looking at him at all.
“Was,” he corrected. She gave him a searching look, but he did not add any further words.
“Did you love her?” she asked. The question was so simple, and yet so harshly worded. Quicksilver flushed a deep shade of maroon, not knowing if the question was in past tense or not. But he nodded all the same. It occurred to him just then that ‘her’ might have been one of two people. He almost dared to ask the old woman who she meant, but then he realized that the answer would have been the exact same.
“If it had been love at all,” said Quicksilver, the words like daggers coming out of his mouth, only to turn and stab his own heart. He cursed himself; he had begun to speak like the trees, in riddles and confusing statements. How was another human being to understand a single thing he said, if he barely understood it himself? But the old woman, most annoyingly, pretended like she understood him entirely. She pretended almost as if she had similar things to say, even similar feelings.
And yet, had it been love at all? In those stretched seconds behind the coffee shop, he confessed to being in love with the waitress. In the brief period of time where she lay in his arms, when their bodies melted together to form one rain-soaked bundle of warm contact, he had been completely taken by her. When he sprinted back to the coffee shop to find her for answers to his endless questions, he had been in love with her; his desperation was furious- if he didn’t find her, the whole world could not possibly exist anymore. And when he did not find her, and when the coffee shop went up in blazes, he felt the agony of his heart breaking. He had not felt it in ages, but it was a familiar feeling. Heartache is always a familiar feeling. You feel it not in the things you expect to feel it from, but in small, miniscule moments- seconds that fly by so fast you might not have lived them, and yet so slow that you would never forget the memory. He had felt heartache looking at happy couples as they crossed the street. He had felt crushing pain when he saw a pair of young people, fingers interlaced, walking around so casually it would seem like love was everywhere. He had been in love with Sunshine, of that he was incredibly sure.
But every time he told himself those words, it stung in his eyes. A tugging feeling in his stomach made him feel like the future attempted, with effort, to pull him out of the past. It had grown very difficult to recall Sunshine’s voice- though such a voice he had not heard in all his life. He could not accurately remember the cafés they sat at either, not even the quiet conversations they had. Her presence in his soul was slowly rescinding to that of a shadow- silent, lurking, dark. The blur of years that he attributed to his marriage were slowly becoming clearer, like disappearing fog on a mirror. The burning picture of the coffee shop up in flames was all too familiar to him now- and the girl in the flames even more. When he had seen her body in the fire, he had lit up with hope, wondering if Sunshine had been the answer to his problems. But the girl in the flames had disappeared, not far from what Sunshine had done in the first place.
“When did she die?” asked the old woman, her knobby hands moving slowly as she prepared them more tea.
Quicksilver frowned. It was the first time he had been asked this question.
The old woman nodded.
It hit Quicksilver like lightning then, for July 25th had not been the day she had died. He had murmured out the first date that came to his mind, only to save himself from actually answering the question. Sunshine’s funeral had been on her favorite day- Sunday. But July 25th held a different meaning to him, it held more meaning than the old woman registered, or perhaps she did, for she suddenly looked at him as if to say something. Luckily enough, she held her tongue.
25th July was stuck in his mind now, like mold on old bread. He wanted to scrub it away, but it remained in the quicksand of his thoughts whether he liked it or not. The events of the day unfolded; it was a page in a book he had neglected to read for over fifty years. It was an important day. But he had forgotten why. Gingerly, his fingers trembling, he withdrew the old notebook from his breast pocket. It had gathered moisture from his numerous falls on the mountain path, but its old contents had been untouched.
When he wrote in his notebook, in the spontaneous moments that he did, he made sure to avoid the initial pages. The initial pages were detailed, carefully worded prose that depicted his life at that point. Young, eager, ambitious, and in love, his life had been prose- endless paragraphs of happiness or sadness. Now, all that he could muster was the arbitrary poem here and there. His sentences were often incomplete, for he consciously avoided telling all. In his worst moments, he had not known what to feel, and the ambiguity of a sonnet had appealed to him far more than the intricacy of a paragraph. Most of what he had written he had written with the mindset to never read. He did not want to glance through the pages of his past, for fear of regretting something, or worse, realizing something. He delicately flipped through the pages lined with words, until the passages began to gradually grow smaller in volume. Eventually, there were only sentences in place of every entry. For a few minutes, Quicksilver could find nothing but nonsensical sentences. Perhaps these were the blurry years he could hardly recall.
And then a page arrived like no other before- the beginning of a new tale, a new writer. The prose had abruptly disappeared, and a thin column of words littered the browning page. He flipped through the pages after, and found that this had indeed been the beginning of a poet, because there were no more paragraphs, only long, endless, almost decipherable poems. The page was soiled in places, and at the very top, scrawled in a corner in jagged handwriting unlike his usual cursive and elegant style, were the words “25th July.”
I am shadow.
But I am shadow flooded with light,
And therefore, I am nobody.
My words bounce off the walls of her heart
Like the hate I want to spew.
To feel that a diamond was never really a diamond,
Is a feeling I am drowning in.
I am not old,
But I am not young.
I linger in between, and have lingered,
For you, but you are passing beyond.
The light has grown into a smolder,
A painful sizzle, and the darkened crusts
Of what remains of me yearns for some shade.
But what of this jagged Tooth Mountain
Leering in front of me like an old man?
My feet bleed when I try to step forward,
But there is a wall behind me the likes of which I cannot climb.
What awaits me at the end of this golden stream-
The verse was broken by ink drops and smudges, but most of all, it was written in a rush. Each word climbed onto the next; Quicksilver was lucky he was familiar with his brand of incorrigible handwriting. The final word, like a question he had been asking himself, in contrast, had been neatly etched in, as if he had written it after a great deal of rumination. The ramble was short, but it pricked his conscience. Every word reminded him of his presence at the top of the mountain path. Now that he thought about it, it did remind him of the base of a set of jaws large enough to swallow him and the valley whole. It seemed far more alive than before, when, even with the trees whispering songs to each other, the mountain remained a dormant stone. The golden stream had always looked like ichor, and so it did.
To feel that a diamond was never really a diamond…He had been cruel in his dismissals, but the words hung in his mind like wet clothes weighing him down. 25th July…he wished he remembered every second of it, but no matter how hard he tried, the minute details escaped him. His ominous words about shadows startled him, bringing up his journey after witnessing the burning of the coffee shop. He felt goosebumps erupting over his skin, as if the shadows were once again clambering over him. Once they dispersed into the cobblestone, he thought to himself- how different are creatures of light and shadow? But if he listened carefully to the words of his past-self, he had to admit that they were a largely subjective thing. He had felt a shadow for much of his life, and the blurry years had zoomed by in this darkness.
He wondered how many days he spent walking his home and his classrooms so thoughtlessly. And as the memories of his classrooms were painted into his mind like emerging watercolors, he felt like he understood the 25th of July. It was a day that he had never marked in the calendar, a date that he never bothered to remember. In truth, there were so many days he labored to forget- there were even days he lived through hoping to forget once his head hit the pillow. He had once wished dearly for an opportunity to rub out days from his life entirely, but Sunshine had told him that was like cutting small slivers of your life until the parts left can no longer form a whole. The days we live through stay with us forever, she had told him. And on the 25th of July, he had questioned why these days need to stay at all.
In an effort to rid himself of these slivers, had he disappeared, only to find the beginning of a crushed and dangerous path, only to see some positivity in it? He had gone in search of moonlight, afraid of what he might find. All through his life, he had wanted things but had been far too afraid to reach out for them. He had wanted a great deal of money, a great deal of fame, but he preferred to stay away from that which required effort. His first real efforts were getting himself to appear, as much as he could, as a dignified young man. He wanted Sunshine to see the romance in him, even if it didn’t shine through into the world. And in some way, she had seen it, caring when no one else had, comprehending his confusing words in better ways than anyone ever had.
Now that the words seemed to read themselves aloud to him, the lurking sight of a gigantic wall closing in on him slapped him into alertness. He experienced the familiar feeling of being tossed into a cage; the worst kind of cage- the ones where you want to stay confined, even if the walls loom over you like towers and there seems no possibility of escape. He felt too frightened to talk. He almost heard her voice, a voice he could do nothing but listen to, delivering the final blows to his thoughts. He heard her rubbish his sentences like they meant nothing, and he felt her smack the sensations of pain away from him, when he wanted to feel them. He felt her ignore him when he needed to be listened to.
For eventually, the words clawed at his insides, yearning to get out into the world somehow. His mind and body pushed away from each other, and he began questioning his every move. He began doubting his arms as he reached for her hair, he began avoiding opportunities to hear her speak. He began finding new ways to embrace coffee shops, and he stopped listening to school bells. He no longer appreciated the blissful feeling of leaving his students. He would stand quite alone on the first step of the school building, watching the girls and boys make their way out. Burning time had become the smartest way of living his life.
The solid, thick wall that rose behind him separated her from him, and she did not realize. Her pleasant smile turned into a cruel leer, and her light no longer shone on him. He began to smart from her glances, start at her touch, and nervously edge away from dialogue. It occurred to him that with every one of his negative reactions, the wall grew higher. With every step away from her, bricks were added to the top. On the 25th of July, it had struck him that the wall now stood miles high. It was taller than the tallest of buildings, and much more powerful. There was no scaling such a thing, not these hardened bricks of coldness and non-feeling. It was no surprise to Quicksilver that on 25th July, he had decided that bleeding onto a rocky path was far less painful than standing in the shadow of that wall.
For the next bundle of pages, the notebook had been left starkly empty. There were pages with noticeable blots of ink, as if he had paused, pen on paper, but no words had come to mind. It was odd to him- for when was there a time when he actually had nothing to say? He had always jotted down his days and weeks, making entirely sure to weigh his happiness and unhappiness. It worked well in helping him achieve some sort of balance in his life. And yet, there were far too many pages that had been left untouched for that to be true. He supposed that at some point, he stopped craving balance. At some point, he had decided to only get what he wanted- nothing less.
There were whispers as he rustled through the white pages. Somehow, without a single word or sentence, these pages spoke to him in a dangerously seductive voice. It had him leaning forward, peering at every little corner of the paper, looking for thumb-prints, dirt, stains, anything at all. As the tips of his fingers grazed the crisp paper, the voices grew stronger. Being in the cottage reading from his notebook, he realized, was a frightening combination. The memories that the four wooden walls contained were slowly piecing together like a puzzle- and the final piece or pieces seemed to be sheaves of empty, white, untouched paper. A wild thought occurred to Quicksilver, a thought that drove all remnants of Sunshine from his mind- a realization that each white page represented a day he had spent with Sarah.
He remembered the days as one long episode. He never bothered to count how long he stayed, for within the cottage, time did not exist to him. He enjoyed the exciting feeling of being absolutely blank, staring out into the mountain path as if it were a snake that might suddenly roll its corded muscle. And where his nights with Sunshine became passionate screams of joy, Sarah’s soft touch influenced his every word. He spoke softer, gestured less explosively, and moved far less than he used to. Admittedly, as age had worn his body, he had already steadily decreased his movements. But with Sarah- there was no unnecessary movement. They walked extensively, crossing valleys and streams and lakes, but when he was by her side, they preferred to be quiet statues. In the beginning, he had been filled with insecurity, wondering what in the world she could have been thinking about with such a blissful expression painted on her face.
He concluded things and questioned things in his own mind, answering them with far-off replies. When she leaned on him, he asked himself mentally if he should extract his arm from between them and place it gently around her shoulders. When her slim fingers gripped his with unmistakable pressure, and he turned his face to hers, she kissed him once, a small peck layered with more affection than he had understood. It took him quite a few hours to finally achieve what she had achieved- complete satisfaction in silence. It was an ability he envied- to cast off all thoughts and worries, to simply exist in one state and be happy. It was an ability that made one feel like sitting in one spot still tugged some energy out, a trait that ensured that Sarah could never quite be asleep.
On the first of those cold, rainy nights, Quicksilver had not known how to go on. His wedding ring still shone very obviously on his finger, and yet, she pretended like she had not seen it in the first place. It took a soft conversation for him to be filled with some measure of regret mixed with love for a woman far away from him now. And though he would not admit it, Quicksilver knew that on the first night, the only reason he moved past the guilt was because he told himself that deep inside, he still loved Sunshine. Her face came to him clear as day- and with it its flaws and sharp words, its pretend-smile and its annoyance at his sadness. The wall reappeared, and he knew he could not, and would not, leave this mountain cottage. The mental image of cool light shining on the black wall, revealing its damaging effects on the world he lived in, eventually dissolved into a single, unsmiling portrait of Sarah.
Still, he did not understand Sarah. They had been talking and staring into each other’s eyes for an entire day, and he still did not know exactly how to function around her. His innermost desires were far removed from her silent love- for he was driven by passion, by physicality, by words. If not for the lingering of Sunshine in his mind, he would have perhaps given up, and his desire might have grown. When Sarah’s stable hands took his shaking palms, he had wanted to wrap her in his arms so tightly their very souls melded together. That was the problem with women, thought Quicksilver even then. It took all of a second for you to topple everything you stand for and bare yourself to her, and you never had enough. Every touch seemed more far away, so much so that you stop thinking of the immense privilege it is to be touched, instead finding yourself bursting with the urge to have more. The power of imagination had delivered the final blow that night- for he had imagined a great many things already. He imagined how strange it would be to fall hopelessly in love with someone new, someone entirely different, someone thrilling. His bones knocking against bones he wasn’t as familiar with, his unworthy skin rippling with new sensations. Most of all, he imagined a tight ball of comfort and joy, and encased within this ball was he and Sarah. He would confess to nobody that Sarah’s face in this ball of joy was largely a silhouette. Now that he explored the recesses of his past mind, Quicksilver understood this. Love had always been a strange phenomenon, and in some lonely abyss of his mind, he had fallen in love with love itself. The swiftly moving pictures in his head did nothing to steady his hand as she took it for the first time that night.
25th July’s night was shockingly cold, even for a region so high up in the sky. They had no fears that the cottage would be blown down by the vicious scythes of wind, and this was perhaps because they simply could not admit it was possible. The walls were too solid, too warm, too steady, and most of all, these walls had contained Sarah. The glass windows became slim sheets of ice acting as barriers protecting them from the cutting buffets, misting up enough for them to draw childish smiles and eyes. The eyes turned quickly into a bad idea, for he began to feel unsettled by seemingly-dead eyes glaring down at him almost permanently. With the palm of his hand, he quietly erased the face. He could feel the glass shaking with the wind, rattling in its frame.
There was a soft click and the door swung open. A whirling, ice-cold, jet of air swirled around them, an uninvited guest. Standing in the way of the storm, Sarah had flung her arms outwards, embracing the goosebumps that began to emerge from her skin. Sheets of rain converged upon her, and soon, the thin blue dress on her bodice stuck to her skin, but she did not mind, tossing her hair left and right as the winds buffeted her. She had turned to him with a wild look in her eyes, the eyes of an excited child.
“Let’s go for a walk,” said Sarah, extending her hand.
Of all the things he had imagined this night to be, this was not one. Reluctantly, he gave in, reaching for her mutely. She stretched forward at once, grasping his cold wrist with her fingers, pulling him to her with surprising force. The door slammed shut off its own accord, and they were standing in the eye of a storm. Grass was ripped from the soil, and the trees creaked forward and backward, their branches like flailing black arms hoping to grip whatever it came across. But Sarah did not mind, dancing in between the forked limbs of the trees lithely, much like a ballet dancer twirling around a stage. The wind tore at her dress, and a distinct sound told Quicksilver that the cloth had given way. There was a rip and a fistful of the hem of her dress was in Sarah’s hand. She tossed it away playfully, gamboling into the woods. Quicksilver could do nothing but follow, for the cottage door was shut, and it no longer felt like home if Sarah did not dwell within.
Even in the cloudy night sky, moonlight managed to find its way to the ground. Shadows played everywhere, shadows of trees, multiple shadows of Sarah and Quicksilver, all outlined by the silver moonlight. They made their way around the cottage, drifting away from the mountain path. Behind the wooden house hung a steep cliff, but the rains had weathered the rock down to stepping stones extending deep down into the mountain. Dangerously, Sarah leapt from stone to stone, and Quicksilver scrambled to follow. She moved like a deer, surefooted and nimble, and he was a clumsy elephant, managing to slip and fall at almost every instance. He struggled to keep up with this free spirited creature, but as his struggle grew in intensity, as he fell time and time again, he pictured her extending her hand to him once again, and it made him rise to his feet, only to fall once again.
After what seemed to be the entire night, Quicksilver slipped off the wet stone, finding himself surprised to land on soft ground. The silver grass tickled his body, and he grappled with his back; his shirt was now in shreds, somehow managing to cling to his cold, wet body. There was another loud riiiip and he turned to see Sarah, clutching what suspiciously looked like the material of his shirt, before she tossed it behind her. Shivering, Quicksilver went to stand beside her.
The cottage was impossible to spot from this position, and the steep path leading up to it seemed even more imposing. Quicksilver was surprised he was alive at all; how had he managed to descend without breaking every single bone in his body? He looked back to Sarah with awe, realizing that she had not looked back even once. She stared straight ahead, as if the cottage did not exist at all, as if she did not plan to ever make the climb back up. Her eyes shone with eagerness in the moonlight.
“I’ve never done that before,” she said, astonishing Quicksilver, who recoiled at her superhuman athletic ability. With a flash, she turned to smile at him. The wind whipped around her dress, causing it to leap and twist as a passionate dancer would do. Her skin was left naked to the moonlight, but the curve of her lips and the gleaming sparkle of her eyes was the only nakedness he could feel. It seemed like she had undressed, and let herself be bare to the world around her. As he smiled back, he told himself he was grateful to be part of this world.
“Neither have I,” he said, grinning at her, causing her to erupt in a gale of laughter. As she clutched her stomach to steady her shaking body, he bent and pulled out his shoes and socks, leaving them at his feet.
They could have been vagabonds, he thought. Shivering in the cold sheets of rain, dressed in the remnants of old cloth still tossing with the wind, with the moon hanging over them like a guardian, he took her hand, applying a great deal of pressure. She gripped his as hard, and just like that, holding on to each other like they might dissolve at any second, they stepped forward.
The grass, cool and soaked with rain, pricked and tickled the soles of his feet, making him spasm with relish. Lying in front of him like a carefully paved road was an untouched corridor, extending far out into the distance. There were no stones at his feet, only grass that rippled like an eclipse- black as night at times and streaking silver with moonlight at other times. Here, the tree trunks did not dare reach out, instead forming a canopy high above their heads, creating a tunnel out of the grassy corridor. Still, light filtered in through spaces between the trembling leaves. Here, the howling wind was replaced by the muffled steps they took. His hand numb but still gripping tight, he could feel Sarah’s every movement.
Her pulse hammered through his veins, and he began to feel that through their hands, they were more intimately connected than he had ever been before. An entire universe expanded around them, and they were at the very center. Ferocious gusts and tornadoes ripped the side of the mountain to shreds; he could hear the wind tugging at the very roots of the forest, and yet, the tunnel only quivered, as if the leaves, like welcoming hands, enticed them to come further. Like a heartbeat in the middle of a huge body, Quicksilver and Sarah began walking, their feet pressing into the grass, creating indents that the crashing rain would have washed away if not for the unfurled canopies above them. He rapidly began to feel more and more like he walked on a massive living creature, because the entire tunnel seemed to be inhaling and exhaling. Olive greens mixed with the color of night to create a long, rippling snake that could have been a gigantic trachea, for all Quicksilver knew. Standing in what felt like a world-encompassing oil painting, he really did feel like all of it was fleeting, almost like he was being provided with the tiniest of glimpses into paradise.
He was a passer-by, an observer in the goings-on of this mysterious world, while Sarah was part of it. She had been painted by a master, to both belong to the majestic moonlit universe as well as seem its lead character. She stood out like a sore thumb to Quicksilver, for in painting styles, the world differed from her. She was a flowing watercolor image, dancing like she consisted of numerous drops of color leaking its gorgeous aura into the scenery. Light followed her every step; he realized that even in this expansive and strange terrain, he would never lose sight of her, no matter how far she went. He wondered if, like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumb trail, Sarah’s glowing footsteps would lead them back to the steep path up to the cottage. The watercolor in her was of unlimited measure; for every outflow of color into the air, new colors seemed to put her back together. Quicksilver began to suspiciously feel like some sort of drug was doing the rounds in his nervous system, making him see and hear things differently. But really, he asked himself, how long could a drug last? Sarah pulled him along, as if in answer to his silent thoughts.
In terms of distance, they had accomplished nothing. But based on the wild things Quicksilver was seeing and hearing, they had been in the tunnel for days. He did not know if the next day had come around, he did not know the time, he did not know if it mattered at all. As they ventured further in, the trees began to talk again. But their words were punctuated by the softest melodies Quicksilver had ever heard- of no instrument he was familiar with, but a glorious symphony nonetheless. Once he thought he heard the tinkling keys of a piano, and the next moment he thought he heard a low keening saxophone begging the forest to come alive. Unsurprisingly, the young woman who could dance without music began to jive to the tune, but she danced off-beat, as if the music she heard was entirely different from what he listened to. The fantastical tunes meshed with words he couldn’t make out created a strange rhythm to their walk. He found himself taking lighter steps, skipping across the grass to keep up. On another night, he would have felt rather foolish, for he was no dancer. His steps were crooked and ugly, jerking movements that made him look far less appealing than he usually did, and that was truly an accomplishment. She giggled girlishly, witnessing his single-handed destruction of dance itself. The laughter washed over him like sweet-smelling waves from an endless, pink ocean, and he was doused in a feeling of absolute comfort. His crooked dance moves graduated to spins that would have landed him on his backside, a position Sarah consistently pulled him out of.
The deeper into the recesses of the forest they ventured, the darker it became. He could no longer see much of Sarah, for, by letting go of his hand and momentarily severing the connection, she had merged with the scenery. Strangely, he could still feel her presence; it simply lingered all around him- her honey-like smell, the quiet sound her hair made when it swooshed, even the sound of what remained of her thin dress fighting against the rushing breeze.
It took the force of willpower now to push Quicksilver forward, because he was unaccustomed to the absolute lack of illumination. The darkness had seemed crushing, as it always had. Immediately, it swept him back to his bedroom, where, without Sunshine by his side, he could not remain engulfed in black. He could not write or read words in complete darkness, and without that, what was he? If he could not see what was around him to feel and understand and comprehend and jot down notes about, then what was he?
The first and last time he began to doubt his decision and his journey to the cottage, Quicksilver rapidly grew fearful. It felt all of a sudden like he was going down the very same path he had been on all his life. To find that a diamond was never a diamond…The words played in his head like a muffled radio. The all-touching darkness felt tangible, like an overly soft black cloud that pressed against his body in bursts. The music of the trees became crashing sounds of terror, and so in helplessness he looked for her, and he was entranced. Spots of moonlight, peeping through the tiniest gaps between leaves, streaked onto her slim body, making her disappear and appear. The irregular shapes drifted as she drifted, but the light seemed to catch glimpses of her- he would see an eye flash into existence, or a finger, and sometimes he found himself staring at what must have been a mythical maid glowing with the silver light of the gods. As soon as these wonderful thoughts struck him, she would dance out of the light’s reach, re-entering the dark painting. He thought, for a second, he had lost her. The pricks of light did not find her either, and with the melodies around him, he only heard the odd mixtures of sound without knowing where they came from. Had she floated away to a different part of this paradise, leaving him behind?
He felt a sudden explosion of warmth emanating from his chest, and looked down to see a patch of moonlight exposing a very slim hand resting underneath his collar bone. The rush of warm skin made everything else feel freezing, and he quietly noted that in their escapade, his half-nakedness might have killed him, had he been alone. He did not move a muscle, still overwhelmed with her sudden appearance and touch. It felt new, similar to the tight grip of her fingers that thrilled him. It felt, once again, like the beginning of a new life, for warmth found its home only under the caress of her gentle fingertips. He felt his body tremble as her fingers drummed a beat, uniformly cut nails grazing his collarbone. Like he was being summoned, he moved forward with her, out of the moonlight. As long as she continued her tune on his chest, he could see her figure clearly, and he couldn’t help but feel a rush inside him as her curving silhouette guided him. While he stumbled along to keep pace, she gracefully glided backwards, her feet somehow managing to find perfectly level grass, as if she had walked this path for years. They moved into entire darkness, and there were no pinpricks of silver anymore. There was no music in his ears. Very quickly, they had moved into the heart of the beast this landscape had transformed into. A muffled drum beat in his head told him that his heart played a furious tune, a rattle and a patter so rapid it made his breath shallow and his eyes wide.
Slinking through the darkness like cats, they moved in this odd formation, as if they clutched between them something incredibly important, something incredibly heavy. And so it was, for her hand now rested on his heart, and her fingers followed the rhythm of his flesh. But his heart no longer felt heavy. It was as if every artery and vein had disconnected from it, and it had become an independent being. Such was the tension swirling within his body when Sarah touched him. The startling feeling of being touched by her but not seeing her entirely had created a new person in him, a person that found himself increasingly more comfortable in the darkened tunnel of trees. Now, the tunnel was dim, and not dark. He could see the contours of her face, but only black holes where her eyes should be. And yet, there were glowing coals smoldering within her eyes, but they did not blind him. The glow was diffused, as if it was ancient and had shone on the world for centuries. The glow in Sarah’s eyes controlled his breath, for as he followed, he found his movements closely synchronized with hers. Out of the corner of his eye, his foot moved with her foot, and every step brought their toes a fraction closer to each other before the next. Once again, he was terribly affected by how close and yet far they were from touching. It was as if flames sparked into existence as their bodies came together.
His gaze was so fixed on her that he did not notice, away in the distance, a spotlight the moon had created atop a shale stone that jutted outwards. It was a column of stunning silver, like a gleaming sword had been thrust into the earth from the heavens. Slowly, as if guiding a blind person, she lead him to the stone, and it felt to him like he had opened his eyes for the first time in his life. For when the darkness was canceled out by the moonlight, it revealed her in entirety. He was a blind man, and she had restored in him the ability to see. He stood away from the pillar of light, looking in awe at this wonder of the universe. She must have thought him odd, for his gaze made a statue of his body. She simply closed her eyes, turning her face to the heavens, spreading her arms wide, just as she had welcomed the storm at the cottage’s door.
The paintbrush of the master continued its work, gently darkening her skin. She was now a mirror to the sky, and the galaxies glistened on her skin. Huge swirling tornadoes of stars shifted on her belly, its long arms extending down to her thighs. Between her hips he could see what must have been the sun, far away from the earth. He had seen images of the sun taken by satellites roaming the abyss of outer-space, and the barbed flames of solar flares extended around Sarah’s hipbones, and in one straight line along her spinal cord, it connected her shoulder blades in fire. All the stars in the sky, like pigeons fluttering to roost, had settled in Sarah’s petite body. Finally, she lowered her eyelids, and two starry conglomerations twinkled at him. In a trance, she raised a velvet-black hand, which he slowly took. He would forever remember this moment, he knew, and so it was that he did.
They stood in the light for minutes, silently gazing at each other’s bodies. For when he stepped into the moonlight, his skin acquired a similar sheen and color, but the stars most definitely did not shine as much as they had on hers. There was a marked difference between their bodies, as if artists of differing skill had painted them- Sarah was a masterpiece, and he, not so much. He remembered the details too well- but years of keeping this hidden made his memory require prodding- and the vivid picture of her stepping close to him had made his eyes water. When they came together, the entire shale stone glowed like a torch. Their bodies, like two supernovas exploding simultaneously, writhed under the shaft of moonlight. It was this part about the 25th of July that had clawed its way to the forefront of his mind, blotting out all other memories momentarily.
The night had gone on, and they did not stop at all. From the moment the moon rose in its lofty throne above them, to the second it disappeared behind the fresh dawn, they walked under the canopies, stopping to love each other at times, and at other times not stopping at all. Quicksilver did not even realize that they had arrived back at the cottage when they had- the steep climb upwards had been far easier than before. Soon, their bodies dripping wet, clothes abandoned on the trail behind them, they thrust the doors open amid the sunrise, allowing yellow light to flood the cottage. Much of the rest of the day was spent wrapped in woolen blankets, sipping piping hot tea.
Quicksilver raised his head to see the old woman staring at him, a blank expression on her face. In his muddled thoughts, he had forgotten her completely. He was convinced, immediately, that she could read his mind. Perhaps the vivid images did not pass to her, but there was a sudden twinkle in her eye that jarred him. For the first time that day, she seemed lucid. Something in his mellow and thoughtful behavior had convinced her to change her visage, and stare at him with something besides confusion. If anything, Quicksilver felt like she was ready to talk.
And talk she did. She told him, without stopping for breath, of the years she had spent in the cottage. She talked of the stew she had prepared meticulously, each and every day, for the pack of wolves that seemed to live so far away and yet, managed to arrive at precisely the same time every single day. She told him, with no emotion in her voice, that the wolves had been disappearing, one by one. With an accusatory glare, she revealed to him that one of the beasts had deserted recently, at a time so in tune with his arrival that it was scary. She told him that the last four-pawed creature had chosen to disappear soon after Sarah’s departure into the woods. He crumbled internally to hear of Sarah’s almost wordless journey into the mountain, and how she had seemed uncaring, emotionless, and not at all part of the world she lived in. It crushed him to think that all these years, he had breezed past the life he was living, much as she had walked out the cottage door for the last time. He could imagine her now, walking lifelessly through the woods, while the animals ignored her entirely, for the animals did not care for a creature without a heart. He had realized all people were animals when he realized they did not care much for him at all, unless he was someone special. The ordinary had no place in the world, and he and Sarah were extremely ordinary. He corrected himself- Sarah was anything but ordinary. But had he leached the special beauty from her that one night- had he destroyed it all and taken it away when he walked back to his old life?
There was no journey as mystical as the one he had taken, and yet, the mysteries seemed so painful it was hard to imagine he was in reality. He began to question his steps, wondering if leaping into his instincts was a good one. He began to wonder if the ghosts of his ancestors had been rooted deep in his insecurities, waiting to pounce at him when they had the opportunity. Perhaps the ghosts stood now beside him, invisible, laughing at the idiocy with which a school teacher had hurled himself across the country- and for what? To correct a mistake? To understand the truths of life? Was he not understanding a truth of life by teaching children all he had learned over his long and expansive life? Was he not a scholar in his own right? Didn’t Sarah say much the same- that teachers opened a world to children, a different dimension, and a new perspective that beckoned them closer to the age of knowledge and comprehension? Had he traveled up this mountain path to revisit his life’s errors, and thereby learn from his mistakes, and somehow come out of this a better man? He could almost laugh- there was no better man, no good man, no bad man, there was just a man and his desires, unfulfilled and fulfilled.
He was but a man, and his desires were fulfilled, and yet, he had come back, and found that his desires were not indeed as fulfilled as he had thought. He had lived through a long marriage- some say too long- and he had retired from the world of love, passion, and romance. He no longer felt the urge to grasp love by its fragile throat and kiss its blood-red lips- and then, all of a sudden, he had been reminded of everything he had loved and everything he would ever love. He knew now that the waitress at the coffee shop had been something close to an illusion, though he was sure she was very real. He presumed his ghost ancestors had seen through every inch of his mind, and did what they could to manipulate him- to eventually guide him to a small cottage in the middle of a large mountain. He could be sure now that the mountain did not exist, though how he found it twice he would never understand. Did human beings regularly revisit dreams- without trying to? Had his mind leaned toward an illusion it was already familiar with?
Even in his relatively calm state of mind, he could not acknowledge that he lived in reality- but he knew that this was no dream. Dreams were vivid, smooth, and acceptable- when he got lost in the expanse of his slumber, he saw things and believed them without question. This- this was different. Every visual sensation felt stronger, as if every touch was compounded by a sharp sting of pain simply to remind him that he walked the real world. The old woman could not be part of a dream, for her ways were too odd. A long time ago, the Professor had attempted to understand the world of dreams and how one navigated through them. He had indulged in his fair share of soul-searching, trying desperately to understand why he saw things the way he did. After Sunshine’s death, he could only dream of the glowing orb of the moon stretching out twinkling arms to grasp the sheets of the oceans and seas and tug at them to create crashing waves. Every night, he dreamed the same dream. After more than a month, he concluded that his mind’s eye had become far too used to seeing Sunshine’s brightness; it had become harsh and difficult to manage. His subconscious craved a cool touch.
And suddenly, the dreams stopped altogether. He would rest his head on the soft pillow, and wake the next morning, flabbergasted at the ease at which he passed from wakefulness to a restful slumber. He told himself, most ruefully, that this was a sign that he was now no longer young. Did old people dream at all? He imagined that the day he dreamt again would be the day he did not wake up. He waited for the day eagerly, hoping for a lapse, hoping to leave the teacher’s desk empty once and for all. Was it dark, to think of his own death? Was it negativity he was espousing? He had always looked at negativity distastefully, as if it were maggots nibbling at decaying flesh. But the negativity kept him waking up every day, its pain urging him to begin the next lesson, or drink the next cup of tea. If he had wanted to live, perhaps, he would not have been giving this second chance. Humans never received what they asked for, and if they did, they didn’t know what to do with it. He had been given Sunshine- all he had ever wanted, all he had ever desired- and yet, the sun had burned a hole in his ageing heart.