by Kate O’Connor
I am standing at the foot of the bridge. The old boards creak under my feet. They have no color under the harsh, watchful moon, bleached to grey and darker-grey and black. A woman stands on the narrow span over a slow, swirling stream. All I hear is her voice. It is as hollow as a bell, as pure as silence. She sings, but the wind rushes her words away from me. The water reflects the rest, black and silver in the bright, bright moonlight. I think she must be looking down at the dark cascade.
It is hard to say where her eyes truly rest beneath the sheer, concealing veil that flutters around her like black-winged doves. She will be beautiful. I know she will be beautiful if I see her face. The truth of her beauty is written in the grief-wrought lines of her slender body and the elegant, unbreakable set of her shoulders.
She holds out a hand to me. Beckons once. Her face never turns, and the water flows on into the darkness between steep banks held together by pale, razor-sharp scrub-grass and bare, bleached roots like broken bird-bones. I go to her, stand beside her. The rail is cool and rough under my hands. My fingers are corded and scarred, awkward next to her delicate, gloved ones. I look over the edge, leaning as far as I can, tilting forward with the railing pressed tight to my belly. The water could be inches or miles deep. It ripples in slow patterns, twisting and flowing over the unseen mountains and valleys of its depths.
I can smell her, honey-sweet lily and thick, cloying rose. Her scent invades my throat and floods my eyes. I am weeping. I don’t know why. She still does not turn towards me, singing her wordless song to herself and the water and the tall, whispering grass. There is a melody in her song, one I know. I must know it for the tune to strike so deeply. Her fingers brush my back, chilly and remote as the moonlight.
“Do you see?” She asks in a voice that is neither high nor low, old nor young. “Do you see them?”
For a moment, I see pale shapes in the water, fish or faces or reflected images of the full, watchful moon. They are familiar and foreign at once. I might know them if only the water would stay still. I want to see more clearly. I hold my breath, stretching myself toward them. Closer, closer. Then she pushes. I tip over the edge, the hard rail mossy and slick under my fingers when a moment ago it was dry and splintery. I am falling. The water rushes up to meet me. Or I go to meet it. Either way, it doesn’t taste sweet like running stream water should. It is thick and salty in my gaping mouth.
I wake with moonlight in my face, streaming in from the wide, curtain-less living room window. It is an old house, but new to us. We haven’t been here long enough to have dressed it up. Tomorrow I’ll go shopping. Get something nice to dim the light’s harsh intrusion.
My lips taste salty and my throat feels raw. Have I been crying in my sleep? I last dreamed of moonlight a dozen years ago. Then, I always wandered alone through that other land, the place I used to go in my dreams. Mother said people who sleep under the moon go mad. Yet another of her silly ideas. She was crazy enough even with blackout curtains on all the windows. Or maybe because of them.
The lumpy couch groans as I shift around on it. I hadn’t meant to sleep, just sit for a minute before I started on dinner. At first, still half-dreaming, I don’t know what woke me, then I see. He stands in the doorway, quiet and wonderfully familiar. I smile, though my contentment drops away as his shoulders slump. He turns and walks into the kitchen. I follow, twisting to stretch the kinks out of my back. The kitchen light is yellow and warm when he turns it on. It chases away the chill my dreams have left me with. We start on dinner together.
Silence shrouds him, heavy and malignant. I can feel it even with my back to him. He has always had to fight his rage, but he wins. I breathe slowly. He won’t let it get me, his anger and frustration. I know him better. To prove it to us both, I move the cutting board closer to where he is washing potatoes, pushing my shoulder against his arm so he knows he is not alone. I say nothing. He will speak when he is ready, when his thoughts are in order and he has words for his uncertainties. Tonight, he looks like he needs a beer. Or a glass of whiskey, deep and smoky with a single, solitary ice cube like a little boat, the way my mother used to drink it. Need it or not, he won’t. He doesn’t drink. I have always loved that about him. He doesn’t drink and he speaks in a gentle, steady voice. In twelve years, he has never yelled at me. I wouldn’t have stood for a soul laying a hand on me, but most days I forget that. He has given me no reason to remember it.
The tight lines around his eyes clench my stomach and try to round my shoulders. I keep them straight, like the woman in my dream, holding hard against everything.
“They’re talking cuts again,” he says at last. The exhaustion in his voice is bleak and frightening. He sees my face and tries to smile through it. “Just rumors, sweetie.”
I want to tell him it will be alright. He is a good worker, a good man. He is not a troublemaker. He has survived layoffs in the past. But we don’t lie to each other. If he is afraid, he has reason. He knows the rhythms of the world he lives in.
“We’ll get through it,” I say instead, taking his big hands in mine, our work-calloused fingers catching as they rub together. “Whatever happens.” I can get another job, maybe. There aren’t many to be had, and I have a few more than I can easily juggle as it is, but I’m good at finding the work no one else wants to do. “I can always go clean latrines again,” I offer, wrinkling my nose and leaning up to rub it against his. He hadn’t complained about the smell, just done my laundry and kissed me extra after I showered since he couldn’t manage to do it when I came in the door. “They’re usually hiring.”
“No need for desperate measures yet.” His grin breaks free in spite of his troubles, and now he is looking at me, our eyes finding each other after a long day of back-breaking labor and anxiety. His anger is leaving. We have chased it away again, together. He reaches out and cups my face with a gentle hand. His lips brush mine. “You are everything, Lane,” he whispers into my hair, “everything I have.”
The moon is full. The moon is always full here. Miniature headstones poke up under dwarf trees. The twisted branches are reaching to cover what lies beneath, shielding the graves from unwelcome eyes. The moon makes long shadows with the tiny monoliths, growing them into the markers of giants. Its cold light shapes the world here, drawing it together and giving it form and flesh and a pale reflection of daylight. She waits beside a dollhouse-mausoleum.
“All gone. All gone,” she says in her far-away voice. Her eyes glint at me behind her veil. They are huge, the color of milk and fish-belly scales and hard, white pebbles washed smooth in seawater. “Who’s gone?” I stand before her. There are names on those little graves. I can’t read them through the gathering shadows. She gestures around us but does not turn her head away. Her eyes are a sharp weight in my heart, acid and toothache. “The ones I loved.” The words float on the air.
In a moonlit moment of clarity, I nod. She is alone. Why else would she be here in this moon-splintered midnight? I know the place her pain comes from. I feel it too.
I sit beside her, staring out into the deep slashes of darkness. The wind rustles the trees and for an instant I see. My heart goes still in its fragile cage of bone. The nearest grave carries his name. I shake my head, looking harder. The shadows have closed in again and I can’t see.
“Do you know the song?” she asks.
I know the one she means. The one she sang before, on the bridge. It is still with me. It has run through my head since I heard her sing it. Over and over, no matter how loudly I crank the radio. No matter what else I try to hear. “No,” I whisper, suddenly afraid.
“Sing to me. So I won’t be alone,” she says.
I want to do what she wants. She shouldn’t be abandoned in her grief. But she scares me. This place scares me and I want to run. I stand, keeping silent instead.
Her eyes glitter like snow in starlight. Each razor-edged crystal cuts me deeper. “Sing,” she says. The word is a sigh, imploring and demanding. The moon shines on us both, looking down as it sails in relentless stillness across the never-ending night. I open my mouth. She leans forward, silent and expectant as an owl in the silvery not-darkness. The moon watches, pushes at me. The melody thrums louder and louder in my head, carrying the beat of my heart and the throbbing of my blood with it.
I stay silent.
“No job anymore, love,” he says. He tries a smile and seems surprised when it stays on his face. It is a sad little thing with tired eyes and heavy frowns just behind it. He knew this was coming, had accepted it, but it still hurts him badly. He is not himself without work, without a job to do. It is his safety, his light in the dark.
I go to him. I touch his face, fingertips brushing the soft quirk of his lips that crinkles skin weathered to the smooth suppleness of old denim. We look at each other and I find my own smile to offer.
“Okay then.” I know him. If nothing else, he is glad the waiting is done. “Let’s celebrate.”
I grab his hands, pull him into the moonlit living room. He huffs a sigh, eyes turning bright as he offers a token resistance. I hum to myself, dancing a few steps on my own. His hands are solid on mine. They anchor me. I dart up, dropping a quick kiss on his smiling lips. Then he is swinging me around the room, hands on my hips, dipping me down and pulling me against him again. We laugh for no reason at all but the joy of being with each other. For this moment, there is nothing else but us. We collapse in a heap on the couch, grinning and gasping for breath. I lay my head on his chest. His heart is beating fast and sure under my ear.
“Don’t give up yet,” I whisper.
“I’m trying,” he says, holding me closer than air.
I hold him back. I can feel despair hovering just out of sight, waiting for me to let him go. I don’t like the look in his eyes, the feel of the air around him, thick and dark as molasses. I will keep him safe from this somehow. From himself if I have to. Without him, I am alone. Even with the living room glowing gold with artificial light, I see the moon through the window. It is a bare crescent, not the full, encompassing presence it is in my dreams. I take comfort in that. Here, in the waking world, the moon changes.
She walks ahead of me. The path is long and straight, a deeply worn rut between two gritty banks of withered grass. There is another figure beside her, tall and broad shouldered and beloved.
I run, calling his name in a voice that won’t rise above a whisper. I run and cannot catch them. He is growing dim in the moonlight until I am not sure I ever saw him there. The moonlit air burns in my lungs.
She is alone, the night gathering around her as her slow, graceful steps carry her away from me as though she were dandelion fluff on the breeze. I stumble over the furrowed track, choking on the musty, thirsty dirt before I crawl to my feet again. She turns and though she was far away, we are face-to-face. Her eyes are all I see, nothing but that thin slip of a veil between me and her grave-pale gaze.
“You are not alone,” she says, accusing, desolate. Her fingers brush my waist, lingering on the spots where he held me.
“I am sometimes,” I tell her, “but not anymore.”
She stares at me, her opalescent eyes burning into mine. Her hands get hard, digging in like pincers.
“He saw me,” I say, trying to explain so that she will know. Know that there is more than moonlight and loneliness. If there was for me, there might be for her. “I was working at a museum, cleaning the exhibits after hours. I don’t think I’d actually spoken to another human being in weeks. He was living in a little apartment across the alley. He saw me taking the trash out. We met between the garbage cans.”,/p>
I remember what it was like before the moment when our eyes met. It aches, that memory, makes me a shadow, a small figure on the fringes, touching nothing of the world.
She releases me, starts walking again. Her little slippers leave damp prints in the powdery dust.
I stand still.
She begins to sing, her voice lifting over the emptiness and flying all the way up to the waiting moon.
Each note is his name.
“I’m dreaming too much,” he says, staring blankly at the wall. He has been two months without work.
I worry the walls are eating him. Something is: his anger, his shame, my absence. I am always gone, always working now. It’s the only way I know to keep this from getting worse. In this house we are together, we have the place we have made.
“About what?” I will keep our home afloat for both of us until he can find work and I can afford to drop a job or two. Surely it won’t be long.
He shakes his head, lost in looking for words again. They come even more slowly than usual. “The moon,” he says at last and then subsides into silence again.
My stomach lurches. I stare at the back of his head. His for-once-too-long hair is tangled and unbrushed. I feel the earth tilting. He can’t mean it. The moon dreams are mine, something I made up to define my fears, my loneliness, my uselessness since this all began. The danger in the moonlight is my mother’s madness. It is not real.
“I have those,” I say. My voice is small and scared. I remember the moonlight on his back as he faded away from me at the end of an endless road.
His eyes flash as he turns to me, hot and furious in a face I barely recognize. I flinch and it is oxygen on the fire.
“You don’t.” His anger burns between us for an eternity of heartbeats before he pulls it back, turning away and shaking his head.
I want to tell him what I’ve been dreaming. I want to know that he is right, that I don’t know, it’s not the same at all. I don’t know what it means that we can’t talk about this. I go to him anyway, touching his broad, stiff shoulders with hands that tremble. I stroke the worn plaid until his muscles begin to loosen. I wrap my arms around him, resting my chin on his shoulder. I rock him gently. This is right. We will be alright. We always have been before, no matter how rough things get. A little longer, I tell him with my body, just hold on a little longer and it will sort itself out.
When he relaxes further I begin to hum softly. He jerks up and away from me as if struck by lightning. I catch a glimpse of wild, moon-bright eyes before he is gone up the stairs, all but running from me. My outstretched arms drop slowly to my sides, pressed down by gravity and his absence. I have never seen him run from anything before.
Then I know where I went wrong. It was her song I was singing.
“It won’t grow.” The garden is a tangle of dead, brittle things. She leans over it, touching plants that turn to dust under her gloved hands. Her dark skirts pool around her, ink on ebony.
“The moon isn’t enough,” I say.
She looks at me. Her eyes are staring through me. “It is for some.”
“What are you doing to us?” I haven’t forgotten his face. He is asleep beside me though I do not see him here. I am glad of that. So very glad.
“I must make a place for him.” She pats the dry earth then turns her face to the sky. The moon paints her beauty in harsh, unforgiving strokes. “It is still light,” she says, “even reflected.”
“Let him go,” I beg. I take her gloved hands in mine. They feel like cold bones and slug-slick silk. “I’ll stay with you instead.”
“Would you lose him or keep him?” She stares up at the moon. “The world hurts him.” The line of her fragile jaw is clean and perfect behind her veil. “I didn’t hold mine soon enough. Didn’t stop their hurts and they are gone. Gone. They only come to say they are gone. And I didn’t save them.”
“Please,” I whisper. I would do anything to keep him with me. Keep him safe.”
“Call him,” she says, “Sing.”
Something wakes me. It is late, but not early. The darkness is heavy and deep, no hint of dawn in the sky, no early birdsong, just stars and the moonlight streaming in through the thin curtains. I look around, suddenly afraid. He sleeps quietly, on his back, the way he usually does. I sigh, tightness easing from my chest. His face is still and perfect, the worry and fear gone from it as he rests. It is the face he never shows outside of our bedroom.
The moonlight moves as I watch, shifting with slow, inexorable elegance. It touches his blanket-covered legs, lingers on his strong hands.
It caresses the familiar, beloved planes of his face, making shadows on his eyelids and deep hollows under his thin lips and in the graceful little cleft beneath his nose.
Then he fades, each bit of him becoming moonlight, becoming air, becoming nothing as I watch and cannot stop it.
I scream his name.
I search the sheets and under the bed. I run to the window, the closet, back to the bed. Everywhere the moonlight might have touched.
He is not there.
I am walking at the edge of a cliff. Far, far below me, the waves sparkle with phosphorescent constellations. Overhead, thin clouds race by, veiling the moon and softening its light. I am glad to see it. It is the only thing that remains the same.
This time, she waits for me, watching as I come. I will go no further. She can keep waiting. I turn to the sea instead. The steady roar of the waves holds me up. I step to the edge, the dark pebbles racing away from my toes, clattering down and down and down. I want to follow them. I lean forward, nothing between me and the ocean but the wind and his name.,/p>
“I didn’t mean it,” I tell the air and the water. I wanted to keep him safe, but safe in the sunlight. Safe where I could still touch him and breathe his breath and grow old and wrinkled and perfect by his side.
“Can you see them?” The wind carries her words to me, broken, begging.
I look down. There is nothing but moonlight looking back. Then I see. I find his face in the curve of the moon’s edge, his eyes in the bright darts of light rippling through the water. I step back. I open my mouth. I sing.
“Yes.” She whispers. “They come if you call.”
Her grave-mist voice chills my neck. I shiver, but the song lives on its own now, and I cannot stop singing it. My voice has weight that it never carried before. It is an anchor-line woven of moonlight, stretching between me and him. The light in the water sharpens. He comes.
“See?” she says. Her hands stroke my hair, brush my shoulders, grab hold of my hands. Her voice rises to a wordless cry. It blends with my song.
I see can see them. All of the ones she has been calling for. They come close to listen. We call them together, mine, hers, faces I don’t know surrounding the one I have learned better than my own. They all come. The moonlight draws each line of him before me, through me, using my voice to pull him together from its pale reflections of sunlight. No despair cripples his face and I am glad.
But nothing else touches him either.
Without him, the house goes quiet. I cannot change the sheets or I will lose the imprint of his body, the long-faded warmth of him. I have walked the house and the yard, sat in his favorite chair, held each of his shirts to my face and breathed him in. I tell our friends that he has gone to look for work, interviews two states over, good benefits. I can’t tell them that he is gone, even if I had words to explain him beside me one moment and moonlight the next. If I say it aloud, his absence will be real. He will never come back and sit with me in the sunlight again.
The moon rises, full and bright even against the lights of our little town. Its borrowed light fills the back yard with silver and black. The noises fade as the neighbors go to bed. I settle myself on the parched lawn and lean back. The blades of dry grass prickle through my thin t-shirt.
I will sing to him again tonight. While the moon is in the sky, while I sleep under it, I can be with him wherever it is that we go. The moonlight shivers on my skin. I breathe deeply and close my eyes. I will call and he will come. I don’t care about the others that follow my voice. The moon can have them. As long as I can see his face, I will sing its song. I will hold him with everything I have. It is all I have.
LUNATIC © 2016 Kate O’Connor. After graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Kate O’Connor took up writing science fiction and fantasy. Her short fiction has most recently appeared in Intergalactic Medicine Show, StarShipSofa, and Escape Pod. In between telling stories, she flies airplanes, digs up artifacts, and manages a dog kennel. Her website can be found at kateoconnor3.wordpress.com.
Photograph, “She, Eidolon”, © Jennifer Rhoades
Spoken in Red is the moniker under which Jennifer Rhoades operates as a photographic artist. Her work has been published in Gothesque Magazine, Avari Magazine, and Pink Panther Magazine on several occasions. She will be a feature artist in the upcoming March issue of Shift Art Magazine. Formerly a ballet dancer, Jennifer now uses photography as a means of personal expression and creativity using her knowledge of the stage into this new artistic translation. Her work can be found at www.spokeninred.com, www.flickr.com/photos/jennjr2012, 500px.com/spoken-in-red, and www.facebook.com/SpokenInRed