The lights outside the car window seemed to elongate like small comets through the glass as we drove. Besides the occasional glimpses of man-made brightness, the rising moon continued to bathe the onyx world in a cold glow, turning the frosted crop fields into sheets of glistening sandpaper.
I looked over my shoulder. Ben was looking away, his thwarted exhales occluding the car’s side window. As much as I wanted to alleviate the pressure that had mounted between us, I was at my wit’s end, unable to make a move. I felt that the person I used to call my best friend had moved so far away from me that he almost belonged to another world. Or maybe it was I who had crossed dimensions? After all, shadows were obscuring what I used to take as common reality, with demonic acts, strangers and faces popping up around me, even finding me in my dreams. Or maybe they had always been there and I was just now beginning to see them?
The road led us away from already scarce sources of night-lights, and toward a village submerged in deep sleep, over which shone a single, faint streetlamp. Rock slowed down and turned onto a dirt road, carved between two houses with barns. Gravel churned beneath our tires. We crossed a short narrow bridge fashioned out of uneven wood planks, which ricocheted our bodies and made the seats squeak, and entered an open lot, our headlights blinding the people who had gotten there before us. Another car was approaching closely behind. I glanced at Ben, who was still immersed in deep thought, his chin leaning into his curled fingers, and wondered if I had lost him forever.
My hand was on the door handle before the car came to a full stop. I pulled the lever, got out, shut the door, and walked away. Cool autumn air swirled over my cheeks. Dizzy from exiting the stuffy car so fast, I stopped and pressed the heels of my palms into my shut eyelids. Darkness exploded into a spangled eruption, fireworks on a backdrop of darkness. I withdrew my hands. As the murk receded, the castle’s imposing silhouette emerged, the inky velvet sky peeling off its contours. I kept walking away from the car, feeling Ben’s eyes following me. He stayed back. I felt his silent defeat in my bones.
I passed circles of people, but they were too absorbed in conversation and lighting their cigarettes to notice me. Approaching the castle, I looked up toward the first of its two front towers, one of which had nearly collapsed under the weight of time. A gaping hole in the middle of the tower’s cylindrical wall exposed a spiral staircase inside which starlight splashed across the uneven surfaces of stone. I passed by decrepit oak trees with branches like claws, and thorny bushes that scratched my jeans, and walked into what many centuries ago may have been a lush garden. My eyes skipped upward toward the apex of a tower surrounded by a ring of predatory bird effigies that lunged beneath the tip of its turret, bringing back the mood from my abysmal dream.
A gust of wind hit my wide-open eyes; I blinked and two tears rolled down my cheeks. Stumbling, I neared the castle wall, and almost fell, my bare hands grabbing onto the fortress’ rugged surface in time. A feather stuck in a dry branch grazed my cheek. Startled, I jerked back and a waft of dense air ran through my hair like the fingers of a ghost. I plucked the feather off the branch and hid behind a wall of shrubs, stomping among stones and decaying leaves. Leaning my back into the wall, I closed my eyes, letting out a long exhale that merged with the wind. I listened to its howling as it snaked through the forest and licked the insides of the castle walls, its arms stretching in multiple directions at once. It soon dissipated and I inhaled the silence that descended, letting it bloom inside the still center of my being. It was the most peaceful I’d felt all day.
There, beneath my closed eyelids, floating on the wisps of feather-like clouds, my imagination brought me to a small, blue pond nestled among high mountains. I flew above its frozen surface, which, like a mirror, reflected the glowing face of a full moon shining above. I am the knowing that crushes all doubt. Ancient, numinous, rising . . . I heard its whisper. I opened my eyes and gazed up. What you seek is within you. Follow the trail. The whisper continued. Release your doubt. Trust your feelings.
A sharp cramp took my breath away. I folded over, one hand on my stomach, the other gripping the stone wall, its sharpness cutting into my skin. I straightened up, just enough to draw a breath. With oxygen’s aid, the tightness in my stomach unraveled a bit, and a glob of thick mass detached from my diaphragm and ascended upward. It crossed the gorge between my lungs and crawled across my arteries, squeezing itself through the clenched chambers of my heart before reaching my throat, where it held me in a strangling grip.
Convulsions shook my body and images swirled. I slid down the wall to the ground, and I grabbed a hold of my head. My scalp was tingling, a sandstorm raging beneath, scraping the inside of my skull. In an effort not to faint, I kept breathing and holding on with everything I had. When I could not fight it any longer, the top of my head burst open and like a geyser, the sensations left my body.
Release your doubt, the voice bellowed in the empty chambers of my head.
Still holding onto my stomach, I flung my lids open and looked at the moon. It looked back at me with its uncompromising, watchful eye. I was no longer nauseous and the cadence of my breath returned to normal. I could taste the freshness of air, devoid of the coal tinge, which was typical
I heard footsteps, followed by a glimpse of a bursting flame. I shivered and froze. The last thing I wanted was to be discovered by Ben and smothered by his attention. But it wasn’t Ben. The stranger moved the branches aside, and without uttering a single word joined me on the cold ground. Moonlight bespangled his face with a spray of a thousand cobalt flickers.
“You found me,” I said.
“I told you I would,” he smiled. “You feel . . . different.”
“It’s the moon. I think it cast a spell over me.”
“Could be,” he said. “It has the power to enhance our ability to see things that are normally hidden.”
“Like the deepest cravings of your soul,” he smiled at me. I felt a rush of scarlet warmth on my face. “Tell me more about the meadows.”
“The meadows…” I echoed his request. “The place where I found scattered pieces of myself.” I closed my eyes and let my mind carry me to the land of daydreams and wildflowers. “They spread just beyond my house. They became my private kingdom. There, I felt—”
“Free.” He said the word slowly.
“Right, free. I remember running across them laughing for no reason, joy bursting out of my heart. Or I’d lie on their soft bed, tracing the sky’s changing cloud formations. But then, one day something happened.”
“Yes, that. What was it?” he asked in a shaky voice.
“I found a new place. A hidden place.”
“Take me there,” he said, and I did just that.
It was a small forest of densely growing young trees, easy to miss, surrounded by soft, moist turf. That day something had lured me in its direction. I put the crown flower wreath I had just finished making on my head and got up, shaking bits of plants off my dress and stepped across the damp ground. Water welled up around my sandals, wetting my bare toes. Slowly, I made it to the forest’s edge. Bees electrified the herbal air. Up close, the small forest had the shape of a dome, its tangled tree branches leaning toward each other. In a place where a tree had fallen, piercing the thicket, I found a passage. I stepped onto the horizontal trunk and forged ahead, arms outstretched for balance. Without a scratch, I passed through the thorny fence and looked ahead. Before me was a shaded glade sprinkled with primrose flowers, moist grass sparkled in sunlight, fresh and untainted. With trees ending their bloom, white petals were falling to the ground in swirls like snow.
“You found something there, didn’t you? On the grass,” his voice entered my world.
“A feather. The most glorious one I’d ever seen.”
“What did you do with it?” he asked and I blushed.
“I caressed my skin with it. I liked to run the long firm quill between my fingers. I let it paint my cheeks and tickle my neck. I liked its gentle touch.”
“But you lost it. How?”
My mind took me back to that day in late fall when my grandparents came for a visit to our house, which was something that did not happen often. The leaves were falling off the trees and it was raining. Dad picked me up from school. Mom made supper and the six of us ate together at a table, another rare occurrence. I kept the feather in a tall flower vase on top of a cloud of white cotton on my windowsill. When after the supper I came into my room, the vase was empty. There was no feather in sight. “I never found it again.”
“Open your palm,” he said. Nesting in my hand was a mangled quill, the rusty blood from my scratched hand rubbed into its fibers. “Do you know what the girl in my dream is searching for?” he asked.
He shook his head. “She is looking for the entrance to Tartarus, the place of his imprisonment.” He paused before continuing. “The one from your dreams is a fallen angel. The feather you found in the meadow belonged to him.”
“How do you know this?”
“Long story. Maybe one day I will tell you.”
“Who are you really?” I squinted my eyes at him.
“Friends call me Punk.”
“But that can’t be your name.”
“Why not? Don’t you think it’s fitting?”
“What’s your real name?”
“I gave it up long time ago.”
“It no longer fit,” he said. “Names have vibrations that can influence a sense of self.”
“Maybe I should change mine, then? Maybe that would help?”
“He is looking for you,” Punk said changing the tone of his voice.
“The guy in the long coat. He wants to protect you. I think he feels responsible for you.”
“Protect me from what?”
“Yourself,” Punk said and got up.
“But I’m not doing anything to myself. He should stop worrying.”
“It’s that curiosity you have. You won’t stop until you find what you’re looking for…” he reached his hand to help me up.
“And what’s wrong with that?”
“It can take you into strange territories,” he said, let go of my hand and shook the leaves and bits of grass off his pants. “You should go now and find Ben. He will take you home.”
“What about you?”
“It’s time for me to go, too,” Punk said stepping around the bushes. “Be safe, Evelina. Oh, and one more thing,” he turned toward me. “If you are really serious about finding the truth, you should go with your parents tomorrow.”
I looked at his back until the shadow of the forest swallowed his silhouette, leaving behind a yawning gap. Punk’s last words hung suspended before nature’s breath dispersed them into nothing. He was a strange person, this Punk, his presence always evoking so much, leaving me feeling cold and alone each time he departed.
Wondering how was it possible to feel so close with someone who less than a day ago was but a stranger, I began walking toward the front of the castle. Slowly, avoiding spider webs and sharp branches, I made my way back to the parking lot. Ben, Rock, and Art were waiting for me by the car. I went inside without saying a word and they followed. As the engine ignited and tires begun to turn over the gravel, my eyes fell shut and I realized how tired I was. But I was no longer angry or confused. I had found my answer. The man from my dream was a fallen angel eager to communicate with me.
“Eve,” Ben said, gently patting my knee with his fingers. “I don’t quite know how to tell you this, but I don’t want you to grow anymore distant from me than you already have.”
“Just say what you have to say,” I said, leaning my head onto the headrest.
“Something strange is happening to me. I don’t feel like I’m myself.”
“Right, you told me that. Acing the tests and what not.”
“No, but I also feel like I’m losing control. It kind of freaks me out,” he said, low enough so the others couldn’t hear. I placed my hand over his palm. “Thank you,” he whispered in reply to my gesture. “Thank you for that.”
“The world does feel like it’s gone to hell, doesn’t it?”
“It does and the worst part is losing you. I’m sorry about today. I don’t know what came over me. I just wanted to let you know I cared. But now I see I went too far.”
I wasn’t sure what to think of his confession. “Can we talk about this later? I’m really tired now.”
“I will come over in the evening, if that’s all right? Your parents and Rena will be gone. I’ll bring supper.”
“I won’t be home. I decided to go with them.”
“I see,” Ben said, retracting his hand from under mine. A few moments later he spoke again. “Maybe we can talk tonight then? I can stay a little longer. I don’t mind walking home—”
“I have to go to bed,” I said. “I will need to be up in a few hours. You better get some sleep, too. Clear your head. I’ll call you when I get back.”
“Eve,” he lifted his hand to caress my cheek with its back. I looked down and then up at his face. “I feel like I am losing you and I don’t even know how to express how bad it feels.”
“I really need to be alone right now, Ben. It’s better this way.”
“If that is what will bring you back to me, then sure, I’ll leave you alone,” he said. “Until you return.”
The car stopped in front of my house. I thanked Rock for driving, and exited the car waving at Rock and Art from the outside. Art’s eyes were piercing and I could feel them trailing me all the way to my door. I slid the key into the lock and as quietly as I could, turned it, and slipped inside my warm house.
I took off my heavy boots, walked into my dark room, and dropped my coat, sweater and jeans onto the floor. I washed my face and brushed my teeth without turning any lights. The exhaustion that had weighed me down earlier wore off once I was home. I lit a candle in my room, retrieved the book from my backpack, and perched myself on the edge of my mattress. I flipped through the pages and ran my fingers across the handwritten text tracing the depressions left in paper. A cold shiver rolled up my back, but I didn’t feel like getting up to put on a robe. Instead, I let myself soak up the text in front of me.
Death—unsightly warrior of time
Measuring my strength to your might, I cannot.
Your dark empty caverns
Shall not suit the affections of my mind,
Only inspire the song of my dying heart.
You level us across the gamut of truths and desires,
Your teachings are stern in their rule,
Your laws uncompromised.
You shall not deny my undying trust,
Though your void awaits,
As I near my journey’s end.
Soon, you and I shall be one.
I closed the book and hugged it to my chest. What kind of ode was this? Was the one who wrote this on the verge of death? I decided it would be best to start at the beginning. My legs were tingling from the squatting position. Ready to hide under the covers, I stood up to stretch and pulled the jeans off my bed. My hands stumbled upon something hard that nested in a pocket—Mom’s red lipstick. I opened the shaft that was loose from the cracking and turned the bottom, watching the crimson cane emerge. Gazing into the candle flame, I applied a layer of the creamy substance, rubbing my lips together to evenly spread the color, a forbidden taste lingering on my tongue’s tip.
A gust of cold wind broke into my room, banging the window open and blowing out the flame. I shivered and got up to close it. But when my hands touched the sill, I was no longer cold. I squinted at the moon’s full glowing body and the orb began to grow. Its radiance spread through my bones raising my temperature. The wind kept blowing through my hair, but its frigid touch had no effect on me. I took off the rest of my clothes. Wearing nothing but the lipstick, I leaned into the sill and continued staring at the moon.
The sphere cast off a second halo that reached all the way to my room. I squinted more, blurring my vision, and watched the shadows on its surface liquefy and shift positions. Like drops of quicksilver, the shades melted together to mold a figure. It stirred before rising and showing off its full majesty. I could see his face, those distinct features that were etched in my memory. His bright yellow eyes were bewitching, body descending toward me down a celestial stairway. Cold wind tangled my hair while a descending drop of sweat tickled my back.
“Who are you, shining one?” I asked, swaying.
From the back of his body, two black wings unfurled.
Innocence is torment, I heard his deep voice reverberate within me. He reached his arms toward me. I saw dried blood on their surface. Soon his cold breath was on my neck, his hand touching my chest, fingertips drawing a straight line from my collarbone to my bellybutton. My legs folded under me. But he caught me before I fell, surrounding my body in a warm cocoon of feathers. All movement ceased and I felt I was home at last.
I am Sariel. Free me, he said, and for a brief moment the walls separating our worlds fell, and I found a piece of myself I had lost so long ago.