An empty land, shrouded in soft grey ash, fanned out into the distance. The featureless monochrome of this burned place played tricks on the eye. With nothing to draw focus, depth was hard to establish. An unbroken horizon gave no respite to the endless views of loss.
She stood, staring away at an unseen memory. A calm blue sky hung overhead, one unmarked by clouds. A faint haze hung in furthest reaches, perhaps. But then again, perhaps not. There were no hills. There was no life. Movement was spare, only soft flakes of ash tugged along by an endless meandering breeze.
Behind her, on a paved path, stood a man. The path ran from distant land to distant land, cutting cleanly through the world. One side of the path met with the greens of verdant grass, the other with desolate grey ashes. The difference in colours were jarring. A vivid world soared away in the direction of the grasses. Here, life sprung forth, waters flowed, and the air carried the chatter and cry of birds.
The man could perceive this. He stood with his head cocked to one side, listening to bustle of the green world behind him, bemused at the oddity of the silence ahead. He watched her as she stood with her back to him, and had watched her make her way off the path into this land of ash. Her footprints could be clearly seen, cutting into the uniform land of grey and white.
Glancing up, he noted in surprise that the fluffy clouds he could see in the lands behind him stopped neatly at the pathway on which he stood. She had bought him through these lands, this wonderful world of hers, to this pathway. It was, he understood, a border. He did not know why. These places were magic, or they were imagination. They were real, in many ways, and yet not. Not all rules applied, here.
Her hands trembled as she knelt, one knee pressing into ground that yielded to her touch. She scooped a handful of the ash, marvelling at the soft and velvet feel. The smell here was bitter, but touch had always been her favourite sense. Touch and the sensation of colour, but touch the most. Even now, after so much loss, this land felt good to her as she rubbed the ash between her fingers.
Memories, not unbidden, came to her. They were welcome, and they gathered around as lost and forgotten friends. Unheard laughter sung in her mind, the aching flash of humour, the dark wit that had hidden so much depth. But not to her, never to her. She had know those depths, she had loved them. She smiled sadly as she recalling the touch of another, the warm joy of his heart, the delight in the smile he had always tried to hide when he saw her. The smile he had never managed to hide from her.
“Why can’t I cross this path?” the man called from behind her. His was a familiar voice, a voice that had been with her for a great time. If, that was, time meant anything here. It felt like a long time, and it could indeed have been, or it could simply have been moments. Time was not important, what was experienced within the time was. His voice carried a pleading note, a shudder of fear. He never liked to be too far from her, and now, pressing against an unseen wall he had not known was there, he was frustrated. He was worried, for without him knowing she had gone where he could not. She didn’t look back at him, but she knew his hands would be pushing with futile effort against the barrier that walled this place off from him. He would never be able to pass into this land; she knew that.
She didn’t answer him directly. A small movement of air, almost unnoticed, had crept up and flicked at her hair. She knew it was not a coincidence, for this land recognised her. Barren in its death, this place may be, but the soul of the land had never left. The ghost of its mirth had sensed her, and even in these long lost days, it still smiled in its mischievous way for her. She brushed the line of hair back behind her ear, ash from her fingers smudging against her cheek as she did. She didn’t mind.
“This was a green land, once,” she said out loud. She hadn’t turned back to the man behind her, but rose from her knee as she spoke. “Beautiful trees soared, and the softest grasses were felt underfoot. It was always so warm here.”
“What happened?” the man asked, again receiving no answer.
“I used to take off my shoes and wriggle my toes in the grass. It tickled. There were streams here, too.”
She pointed in the direction of her mind’s eye, tracing the complex web of brooks and rivers that had crossed and re-crossed throughout this place. They had seemed so confusing to the untrained eye, a haphazard mess of scattered thought and unplanned adventure. But as she had explored this place she had discovered the rich complexity of its secrets. Others may also have realised that this place was not what it seemed, but she knew that only she had ever really understood it. It had been her secret. A truth that she held to her heart, squeezed tight in adoring embrace.
“It wasn’t perfect though,” she reminded herself out loud, to the faint sound of his relief behind her. He didn’t like to hear about her past. That this past had ended badly was clear to anyone’s eye, but he didn’t like to hear her give praise to anything but himself. He was too tender, she knew.
“Storms came,” she said. “They come to everyone, of course, but these were awful. The land pushed me out, pushed me away. I tried to stay, but it was not enough. Eventually I couldn’t face them anymore, and so I left this border.”
“You found me, after, though,” he piped with a child-like confidence.
“Eventually.” She still hadn’t looked back at him and he pouted, unheeded.
“I’ve been good to you. We made a good place together.”
Her mind roamed the green land behind them both; her land. Everyone was a guardian of their own land, here in this place. And those that they bordered? Unknowable until discovered and explored. Borders, like time, were not so strict here.
Her land was richer and deeper than he knew, though it was very much loved by him, regardless. That couldn’t be disputed, and his easy affection was something that she couldn’t help but like in him. It was simple and expressed with a keen joy. Beyond her lands, there was another path like the one on which he now stood, a far boarder whose lands that bore her soul joined with the place that bore his. They had indeed build something good, there. A richly intertwined tapestry of companionship, weaving across their borders and melding until the pathway could barely even be seen. He had forgotten such things even existed until today, where he now stood on something that he recalled with an unsettling malaise.
She looked at the mottled grey ahead, and wondered how long it had been since she had seen this place in its wonderful living complexity. Aeons, perhaps. Or maybe just minutes.
She looked to him and smiled kindly. “We did make a good place, you’re right.”
“And I never pushed you out.”
He needed to feel her support, her reaffirmation of their bond. It had been a sweet trait of his in the early times, when they had first come together, but it had never made things easy. She missed, right now though, the light touch of that which had been before. There had been a freedom to explore as she had wished, and a quiet welcome to the secrets that she uncovered. These lands had been frustrating on occasion, for sure, but less burdensome, too. And so wonderful, at times. A warm sun in which to bask. But that was before the persistent rains of the storm.
The poignancy of her recalled experience rose in her, overwhelming her. The sweetness of happy memories easily outweighed the dull pain that had been felt at the end. Her throat grew tight as she looked away from him and back at this empty place, and she swallowed at the tenderness of the clustered joys that bobbed around her. She tried to swallow again, but instead felt a sob fill her mouth. He didn’t hear her, he was gazing back at her bright lands again, his uneasy needs assuaged by her affirmation.
Tears flowed freely at the nostalgia that she felt, and they fell to the ground where she had knelt, landing on the small heap of ash she had disturbed. She coughed to hide her briefly exposed heart from him, and rubbed her eyes with a sleeve held between her fingers and the heel of her unmarked hand.
“The fire was intense, you know,” she said when she felt she could trust her voice again. “I couldn’t stop it. It burned so high and so bright. When it was done, there was nothing left. Nothing but this ash.” The smoke hadn’t even crossed the pathway, it had been contained by this land’s guardian, a message of protection sent just to her. The fire had raged here, only.
“Is there anything out there? Anything left?” he asked, though he wasn’t that curious about this place. It didn’t matter to him, but he felt that she wanted the question to be asked anyway. He did know her, he could guess her mind sometimes. He adored her for her many surprises, and for her kind heart, though he didn’t always completely understand her. But he knew she liked him back, and that would do for now.
“I don’t know,” she answered in partial honesty. She had never ventured into these lands after that horrifying day, not until now. Was it a day? Or maybe a week? It had raged forever in her mind, but had been so quick at the time. Could it have only taken hours to reduce that once great land to this lonely waste?
She didn’t know how far the devastation had spread. But standing here, now, she knew that it wasn’t total. She had an affinity for this place, and knew that it was aware of her presence. Something, somewhere far away, had responded to her touch. She looked to the distance, not knowing where the presence was, and smiled, hoping that it somehow could sense that, too. It was a private smile, one that would be recognised only by the one for who it was intended.
She wasn’t sure if she imagined it but just barely, just possibly, she thought she felt something smile back. A long lost touch, the faintest of brushes, but perhaps it had been there. It was enough.
She turned back to the man. He looked plaintively at her, silently asking for her to cross back from this land and into their shared place. She could feel the nervous murmur in his heart, the ever-resurgent worry that arose when she was away from him for too long. Far away, on her side of the overgrown border between their shared place, she knew that rain had begun to fall. It was a tired and graceless drizzle for now. But it would be a storm before long. He couldn’t feel it yet, but he would. She walked softly back to the path, standing opposite him. His hand quested for hers, but she did not respond.
Feeling her unusual mood, he asked his question again. “What happened here? What caused the fire?”
She sighed, the frustration built in an unknowable stretch of accumulated time coming to the fore. She wasn’t sure whether she should answer, she often took care to mind his fragile heart. But this time she needed the cathartic truth to be heard.
“You. You happened. In your childish rage, you lit the fire. In your jealousy, you burned everything.”
He frowned, uncomprehending. He didn’t remember that day, or know what he had done, but she did. “Oh,” he said, simply.
He had never released what he had done on that day. He had been too concerned by his own desperate need to be loved. Blinded by his ignorance, he had lit the fire that had wrecked savage havoc through this once unique place. This place that, even in the end, had been important to her.
Rains were needed, from time to time, to keep a land fresh. She knew that. While each guardian should be responsible for their own lands, many found that a partnership with others could truly bring a land into its own. In partnership, the burden of the rains could be lifted, the storms better weathered. But it took work, and it took work from all within the partnership. If one part was not willing to share responsibility, the partnership would inevitably fail. Lands did not always survive.
The storms that had pushed her away had been too much, and she had not been aided by this land’s guardian. When she had finally fled to safety, she had met the man who now stood before her. They had grown close, and they had indeed enjoyed many pleasant years, since. Or was it decades? Or weeks?
After she had fled these now-burned lands, their own guardian had in turn retreated, belatedly understanding the mistake that had been made. With no one to watch over them, the lands had dried, lacking nourishment and care.
When the man before her had come into her life he had also found this place; she had liked to walk its border, even after the end. It was too early for the man to really understand what it was to her, if he ever even could have. In his frustrated, desperate anger, he cast it into the fire from which it had never recovered.
The loss had been bitter to her, but she had consoled herself in the new world that she had discovered with the man. She had even, for a long time, forgotten about this place, locking away the memories that it stirred in her. That lock, now, had opened, and the memories were calling back.
She shrugged them aside for now, letting them fall to the pathway that separated this place from hers. She leaned forward and lightly kissed the man’s cheek, feeling his mood brighten at her touch.
“Come,” she said, “let’s walk some more.” She reached for his hand and he gladly took it in his, walking by her side as they moved away from this strange place that he didn’t remember.
Silence returned and within the grey wasteland, nothing much moved. A listless wind shuffled ash on its way, moving this and that from here to there. As ever, little changed in this empty place.
Except, now, for a small pile of ash that resisted the pull of the wind. Dampened by tears it clung to its secret treasure, hoarding the gift that had been received. In the darkness of its hidden heart there now lay a seed. Bought across from a rich and green place, tucked with deliberate care into a shallow divot, the waters of the woman’s tears fed its thirst. Time wasn’t the same, in this world. A moment could stretch, a year could be squeezed.
In the wastelands across the horizon, something had woken, returning its thoughts to this long lost place. It had felt the familiar feel of tentative steps, and had enjoyed the quiet stroke of fingers through the ash. It had quested out, its playful nature carefully greeting an old friend. It been surprised to find the warmth of returned greetings, the planting of the seed, and it, too, had cried at the sweetness of memory.
In the grey lands, nothing much moved. But here, a few steps from a path that had once been well travelled, a small flake of ash was carefully pushed to one side. Easy to miss, for now, the smallest movement could be seen, a reaching quest toward a blue sky far overhead. It was possible that there was a change in the wind, too, a slight adjustment, one that bought the hint of future clouds, of future nourishment.
Against the mottled grey that stretched so far, there was now one, smallest, exception. One hope, one slender shoot of questing green.