Four Walls, a Door
until the end until the end when we come
This is the story. What comes back, comes back again. Only the heretics say otherwise. False prophets, every one. Those were the days, they said. Soldiers on every corner, whispers pitched across alleyways, tossed from shadow to shadow. People walked with their heads bent, hands clutched at their chests. Eyes down, the better not to see. It is always better not to see. These things never change, not ever. A door opens onto a damp street, the spilt yellow glow of lamplight. The door shuts and there is only the moon reflecting circles, reflecting stones, faces painted white. The men pull cloaks over their shoulders, fingers scratching throats. Their skeleton faces bowed as they scurry through streets, unmarked paths. Circles traced in the earth, in the night where even the cats keep watch with the glare of yellow eyes.
In the story, everything was over. The old ways. Dead. They meant it, same as now. The black stone where the people worshiped was stolen, wrapped in silk. Everyone or no one was to blame. Women cried in the streets, foreheads lifted and pressed to the ground. (Again and again.) Chants in the night, fire casting shadows on the walls. A girl from the village missing and only her dress found by the water. Tangled white lace, the smudged outline of fingerprints. Gypsies, they said. A man discovered sleeping downstream without his shoes. A finger for each question he could not answer until he could, and then the softest part of his tongue. This is the only way, they told him. At night the dogs licked blood off the streets so they would be empty again by morning.
Listen. This is the story. There was a boy, imprisoned. They said he was the One. So many for the offering. Haunted, wide-eyed. Hair grown over chests to the concave space below their ribs. Muttering through cracked lips, sunken cheeks. And the end, and the end will come, and the End will come to us all. No one listened. Except the one, the boy. They spoke his name on the streets above. The One. Come again, this time again. With his eyes closed he could hear them whisper. Don't. This is. You know. You are. Come. Years below the streets, and he never spoke. The guards were afraid of him, his silence, the way he never grew any older. Year after year. It was said that each winter Age came and asked permission to stay, and the boy always refused. It was said that he gave his tongue in exchange for this right. No one remembered the story, same as now, same as always. It was said that one word would bring Time back, a great flood of skin turned to sand, hair faded white. In moments the boy would decay into a man, until they were left with nothing but ash on the floor. The fingerprint of gods. And that taste left on their lips, that smoke scent of burning.
Where do things go from here? This is just the story. The courtyard gunshots, people ordered on their knees before the flames. The boy sat alone in his cell with his eyes closed, waiting for his throat to be slit. Every night it was the same. The footsteps outside his door, cats hissing in the alleyways. A dog's bark, silence and the moonlight. Night after night. Once he woke to find a butterfly on the wall. It flew down to rest on his outstretched hand. Who are you? he whispered. Why don't you come for me? Red wings soft against his palm, dusted like powder. The execution was at daybreak while the sky was bleeding with the sun. Even in their cribs the smallest children heard the steel blade rise and fall and rise and fall.
That was only what happened. The story of things, as they were. What we want to know then: how were they? Missing stones, missing girls, the echo of footprints down an alley lined with yellow eyes. The echo of a blade finding wood, finding stone, and a day that begins like any other. The painted walls of an underground prison, the outline of a figure colored red. Only this is not the real story, the one that came before. What comes back, comes back again. The boy who was once just a boy. Who was in love with a girl who never spoke. Who drew the girl pictures of red wings spread in flight and whispered music into her ear. And the candlelit nights and the sheets and the shadows of bodies cast on walls. And the memories of bodies etched into stones.
What happened was this. In the center of the square was a black stone. In the morning people came to touch it, kneeling on the ground. He saw her there one morning when he climbed a tree to watch the faithful. He was told she did not speak. She will, he said. He pointed to the branches where he first watched her, to the trees filled with silent red birds. Watch them, he said. For days the birds sat stiff as statues until people forgot they were there. And then the dusk with its giant rushing. Wind funneled over land, over water, over land. The force of the unseen. Is it any wonder then. The giant rushing, these unseen hands. A blanket of red feathers lit against a white sky, and the thunder of a thousand heartbeats. Under the moving shadows of leaves, under wings just lifted by flight. And all eyes turned up towards the sky.
Who could say? They could only say what happened. How. Their intertwined limbs. Red feathers, red talons, curved red beaks with white teeth stained black. Every year the earth turned and they lit fires in the fields before dawn. This is where he found her. The boy who was the one, who did not know he was called to be the One. How he turned to show her something. His cupped palm, her head bent toward his cheek. Pressed together, pulled apart. In his hand a perfect sphere of fire. His moving lips and the wind through the empty space between them. A void without land or light. (This cannot be true.) On the night of the fires the villagers spilled into the streets, spread through fields of shadows. And the laughter, fires burning sand, tambourines striking wrists -- days and nights without rest -- voices and names called through the darkness, laughter laughter music, the sound of the earth spinning through space. Yet later, in his memory, only silence remained. Wind felt on skin and the ball of fire floating in his hand as he turned, as he turned and offered it to her.
This was just what happened. The weight of fabric over one shoulder, the other. Elliptical shadows under downcast eyes. Red lips and silver teeth that cut through bone. Why don't you, he asked. Why don't you ever. His face without movement. Flames trapped inside his eyes, inside hers. But that is just a reflection, a mirroring. The ball of fire inside his palms, their heads bent, almost touching. Just a mirroring, what is already there, retold. Inside a circle of light, inside darkness. The mirrored flames, the only kind of light that lies.
But there were still days he thought he could know the world. When he imagined ships setting sail and setting sail. All the things he would discover for her, monuments erected behind them. The stories he would tell and all that would come later. Later, when there was nothing left to see, when everything had been named and placed on the maps in the drawer drawn shut and there was only the scent of jasmine in the evenings over the painted balcony and her figure coming towards him across hills of sand, green lawns, fields of water and fire -- so lovely -- with her hair undone down her back and her white nightgown loose in the wind, the shadow of her collarbone. Curled on his lap as he told stories of the world beyond view. Even in his dreams she did not speak, only sometimes stood quiet behind him, fingers at the back of his neck. Only the warmth of her hair at his mouth. Only the softness of her touch. Only the world as it belonged to them.
Later, the boy told her. Meet me. Deep in the night the square was always empty. Only the dogs with their red tongues and the black stone reflecting moonlight. They met in the shadows, faces covered in dark cloth. Pressed against walls, fingers locked without a word. Down alleys, sharp corners, running. Into dark fields, open sky. The two of them, faces side by side on the soft earth. Their bare skin over sharp bones. Under the night sky and darkness and the white circle of the moon. Faces framed in windows and their bodies painted white, unblemished. Her hair in his fist like the weight of sand between fingers. To imagine being buried in it. Under sand, under air, under sky. Night fell and rose and fell again. The girl lay in the grass beside him, pinned to the earth. Her hair on a pillow of straw, spread like the wing of a butterfly.
Later people swore they heard voices in the night. Wind blowing through curtains, under doors. A song rising and falling. Light behind grey clouds and the face on the moon. Watching, watching two lovers in a field of shadows. Bare skin, white. Who, asks the owl in the tree with branches like thorns. Who. And all the red birds have flown, and all the heartbeats are silenced by wind. And still the lovers kiss, lips to wrists, to the insides of thighs. Who, who. Who will be the One. The things she whispers in his ear while he sleeps. And all the yellow eyes rise together toward the night, toward the shining white light and the bitter taste of salt eating earth, eating skin.
And later. When they were found. When he was. A white dress damp beside running water, a boy left to sleep and dream of fire. Bare toes and the hands grasping arms, grasping fingers hooked like claws. In the crowd no one spoke. Moving in around the boy, faces worn like masks in the early dawn light. Silver streams and the moon low against the horizon. The face in the sky and the girl in her white dress (again, again), dancing to an audience of water. Flames orange on her skin, catching sparks through her hair. And the echoes of shadows, wet streets, a blanket of silk covering the cries of the faithful. Inside the walled city where no one slept. And even the hands on the clock would not stop their spinning and spinning.
Now the shapes of their bodies. Now the light on their bodies; now the shadows. Seven suns, seven moons, and then they rested. Afterwards, in the time that came after the time before. He could still see her then. Clear, how she stepped into the water moving toward him. He wanted to say her name but in his mind it became a language he had never spoken before. There were often dreams like this, ones where faces rose up over and over. Only reaching for them did he realize they were not there at all. A man on a bicycle, waving four fingers in the air. A woman bent, hair drawn in a knot at her neck, red teeth to white skin. Blades cutting through heated air and the sound of boots on concrete. Listen, he asked her. Can you hear it too?
Each year when the fires died only scorched earth was left behind. How it was then, afterwards. How everything and nothing had changed. No one remembered the stories, the sounds of music, laughter, fire floating inside bent palms. Only the silent wind remained, far north in the hills and valleys. Raking fingers through trees, footprints on water. A net cast and recast. Moving clouds, wings outstretched and dusted. Only the boy kept beneath the streets could hear. With his eyes closed. The One. Red feathers, red sky, whispers and the wind that would remain when all else had vanished. Ashes to dust and dust to ashes. Everything swept clean by the wind without a name. The final breath of ice on skin, the unseen movement of air. Calling and calling.
There was always an afterwards. The one that came and went and left no trace. In the years of summers that followed, the trees were full of blacksnakes. Their smooth bodies wound over rough bark, tails threaded through weighted branches. Someone remembered a story of a boy who called the red birds from the trees with a golden flute. His lover with the voice so beautiful she could change the direction of water. So it always ran toward her. Long ago, the time that was then. Not like it is now, in the afterwards. The boy who pointed to the trees and said he was the One. Watch them, he said. And his lover sang to water and all the birds took flight, a thousand rapid hearts beating. Thunder and all the faces raised toward a heaven they could suddenly, finally, see.
Bodies pressed together, pulling apart, friction of bare skin and candlelight. There is always the moment when she calls his name and the image flickers, a leg folded round his hip. The way he is tattooed on her body. The way he will be, afterwards. Their hands and skin and thighs, pressing, frantic, the way he covers her and they move like snakes beneath sheets, sweat slick and outside the window the night continues to gather.
But if time is the frame, they are the portrait. There they lie still, unaware. Watched and silent. Only the object that encloses them is held, and yet what we insist we know is not always what we believe. Because now and again the hour arrives when the clocks blink back their yellow eyes. And all rise to stare
1996 © 2012