By Ralph Black
A king and a queen found each other in the midst of emptiness, their broken hearts the only thing they knew until they sparked flames within each other. A dark moonflower he had trusted her with became a symbol of their union, and a boutonniere wrapped their chances into an eternal camaraderie. In the midst of their joy, dread sang in the air: an artificial storm that would flip their worlds into unknowns. The witch approached the king with an offer: work for her and save his kingdom and his heart. He refused.
He realized too late the destruction he had welcomed with his rejection. He could only break as he watched the flames consume both her world and his, only to be woven into the witch’s desires by the storm she created. The witch’s lies would twist them both into abandoned husks: the barest bones of survival.
Through the musty hallway he treads, his footsteps weighted the way only a broken man’s can be. The way only a man with nothing to lose can follow the curves of destiny in a shroud of numbness that allows him to survive, even if he never truly breathes. He holds the lantern high, his callused, worn hands engulfing the handle, impervious to the gentle warmth the light exudes. He does not know gentle warmth anymore. Only cold. Cold is safe. Cold quells the constant rage: a never-ending burning that haunts his nightmares, accompanied by the crackling fire and the screams he can never quite hear. He can handle the cold. Cold is better than the imprint of a memory he cannot allow to form. He cannot allow himself to conjure her voice, to reconcile the silence with her absence. He cannot listen. He cannot reach her, the silence overwhelming his mind far more than the self-hatred ever could. He does not need hatred now. He is beyond that. He is no longer real. When the flames swallowed her, they took with them everything he was; the only sign of
him left with the sizzle of the extinguished flames against the unforgiving charcoal. He is here because he has nothing else.
The malicious woman that had hired him -who savoured his pain with the slope of her raven smile- locked this room away from his knowledge. Had fostered his collapse so fully that she assumed him bereft of anything but haunted suffering. Had allowed herself to hope that his fire was as cold as hers. But in studying the maps she provided absent-mindedly, amidst the shower of her desperate tasks that echoed of empty attempts to feel, he began to move.
He had been king. She had been queen. The witch’s long, conniving nails tore their worlds away from them, stripping, separating, scathing. But she forgot that he was a king. She forgot that he was a good king. And that duty surpassed broken. In slowly and subtly amassing the whereabouts of his people, and hers -he would not allow himself to fail her more- he noted a building that did not rest in her renderings: a mar in her imagination, a flaw imbued by sadism. She thought she was clever, tickling herself with laughter every time it crossed her mind: this song in the midst of the silence that she allowed to call, confident that he would not hear it through his pain. She thought that his peripheral being no longer existed, that he was an empty conch, echoing the sounds of the world around him without meaning.
So he let her believe. He let her think he was coming back, rising from the ashes. He let her believe he had a secret hope. He let her break him again, letting her find the boutonniere, let her set him aflame again, let his eyes dim with the falling of the remains of his small comfort. Let her see him fall. Let her see his tears intertwine with the debris. And in turn,
she let him know her. Let her believe that a quiet camaraderie accompanied his emptiness. Let him start to shave away at her internal shackles. Let him roam. Let her facade slowly crack in his presence, the beams of light painful in their beauty as she began to grow, as she began to let him understand. And he let her believe, because it was the truth neither of them could acknowledge.
And tonight she slept, a little warmer and a little more bent to the light. And tonight he crept into the abandoned shack that sat amidst the tumult of the town, hidden in its openness. It was in ruins externally, but internally it remained sturdy in its false decay. As his soundless footsteps proceeded, his darkening fingertips traced the soot-covered walls until they were greeted by the grooves of the doorway. There was no door. It was not necessary.
Turning inward, the unmade bed rested in the corner of the otherwise depleted room, paused in faded colours that clung to times passed. The only other resident in the room was the shackles and their companion. They were for her protection. The scars that trace the curves of her wrists served as testament to that. Her back was too him. The corner was empty; the corner was easier. She did not move despite a vague awareness of a gentle tread approaching. She knew the drill. They fed her. She would eat without tasting. They washed her. She no longer held shame in her naked vulnerability. They laid her in bed. She did not sleep, for fear that she would dream of the echoing silence. The silence that shrouded her imagination in a maddening cloak of disbelief. And in that corner where she chose to reside, the disbelief was allowed to be her truth.
She had refused to allow them to tell her how he died. And in that corner, he was not dead. She had never had a strange woman come gently to her bedside, despite her defensive protests. She had not beheld the ashen corpse of the dark flower that he never let leave his side; a treasure of a night in which their love blossomed in moonlight among thorns that shrouded truth. She had not beheld the flames that conquered her people and her hope. When they led her from her room, she was no longer a resident of that reality. He was still there, tender, afraid, and loving. His legs dangling over the edge of the too-small bed. She loved that he was too lanky, that the gentle touch of the flower did not dilute his ragged beauty, but rather heightened it. He was still enveloping her, and she was soft and whole with him. He had never moved from that spot, and neither had she. He had never kissed her goodbye, fear tinging his departure. His whisper still clung desperately to her amidst the scent of moss and wild rain. She remained asleep in his arms.
Until the lantern shattered. Until she was awoken by a stranger, tall and humanoid, dark hair and quaking hands, sharp bones and-
Not a stranger’s eyes. They were not a stranger’s eyes. His. And she was awake, shaking and fighting the numbness of shock engulfing her as thoroughly as his arms. And she was awake. And he was awake. Holding her, not daring to breath because she couldn’t be real and he couldn’t shatter the dream. And only pulling back when he realized the silence of their held breath had intertwined into the fuel of their nightmares. And only when their eyes met, brown crashing against blue, blue falling into brown, did they remember to breathe. And only when their breath sang did the silence break, an eruption of sound pouring forth as they were crying and reaching and touching and singing the power of their
pain the only way they knew how, and they were feeling and being and disbelieving and breathing and breathing and breathing.
“I thought you were gone. I wasn’t real anymore.”
And realization and recognition emanated from their souls, sobs erupting from them as they cradled each other, gasping awake from a nightmare that had consumed them. And their lips were on each other and their arms around each other and their hearts breaking into each other as they breathed each other, their touch familiar and strange and home. As they breathed their words and sang their truths, they grasped and broke and loved and screamed a music so powerful it seared a crack into the silence, and as the cloud of tear-stained magic swallowed them, they clung to each other in the certainty that nothing would ever be allowed to part them again. And as they opened their eyes and their mouths and their lungs and their hearts, the malicious one whose dark quiet had made them forget sighed. The witch was beaten. And her sigh echoed defeat into every corner of existence so that the world was united in her sorrow and could only forgive her. They were forced to understand that she could no longer hide from herself; that time and need had cracked her into beams of song until her echo was all that remained, her pain an eternal companion to the silence she had created. Her apology wove a soft melody of comfort into the souls of those whose destines were condemned to pain. Her infinite repentance.
And they remained, their pain engraved into every corner of their being; their remedy found within each other as they intertwined into an eternal embrace. And so they spoke and danced and breathed into a kaleidoscope of song.
And with this song, they would rebuild.