Bear It

mad hatter

They call me Alice, but I feel more like the Mad Hatter.

I see ghosts in the draperies that billow in the wind, there just long enough to stay in my mind for the rest of the day.  I listen to the walls as they whisper secrets no one else can hear.  I don’t understand most of them, but I feel their weight settle inside me.  I sense haunted hearts among the people around me, though I can never tell who they belong to.

All I know is I am full of emotions that aren’t mine.

The winding staircase is full of panic.  The halls echo with emptiness even when they are filled.  The walls in my room weep with forgotten tears.  The dining room will sometimes shiver in fear.

I can’t eat when it does that.

Sometimes, the palace is so full of panic and tears and fear that it chases me up and up and up to the roof.  The roof is the only place that stays quiet.

Like it’s used to bearing the turmoil beneath.

Like it’s accepted what happens below and has learned to watch the sky instead.

On clear nights, the stars have started to become familiar.  I have a few old friends up there who I like to stare at until my tears blur everything together.  The black sky of a cloudy night feels like a blanket tucked around my shoulders.  I let the darkness hold me until I’m able to move again.

In the daylight, the deep blue of a cloudless sky fills me inside until the cracks start to seal themselves. It reminds me to breathe until I don’t have to think to do it.  The grey clouds of an overcast day tell me I’m not alone.  I am comforted with the thought that even the sky can get clouded with milling emotions.

On stormy days, the rain wipes away my tears with its own.  I let it soak me until the feelings that aren’t mine are washed off.

This place is full of things long forgotten, of stories and lives that have slipped away, and it cannot bear their stories without them being told.  I can hear them, so I listen.  But when it becomes too much I run to the roof and stay until I remember myself again.

It is how I have learned to bear it.

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Blue

Blue

Her eyes were blue.

Deep, piercing, intensive blue; like I had looked into a hot summer sky and found its gaze burning back at me.

Her granddaughter had driven her there, pushing her wheelchair into my salon for her perm appointment.  She had to be in her nineties.  Her face had more wrinkles than paper crumpled in the hands of a child.  Her body was giving out on her, hardly letting her hold her head up for extended periods of time.

But her eyes were alive.  It was like drinking a tall glass of ice water on a sweltering hot day.  Her eyes grabbed me and shook me and told me I am HERE.

I took out the little peach-colored perm rods and sectioned off her hair, feeling for all the world like a dry sponge falling towards an ocean of water.  She had so much knowledge and stories and experience wrapped up in a well-worn soul, and I could ask her anything.

Beginning the long process of rolling her hair, I started conversation as I usually do.  I’ve narrowed down on questions people love to answer, asking about their family or if they have pets.  It doesn’t take much after that for people to start rambling on about themselves and their life, quite forgetting I’m even doing their hair while they talk.

Everyone has stories.  Everyone has something to surprise me.

If the others were chapters in a book I could write, she was an entire series.  Her body might have crumbled away with age, but her mind was sharp and her memory strong.

She had been a very young girl during the Second World War.  She could remember her two older brothers going off to fight and coming back home.

She had spent a summer at a farm when she was ten, and she told me about the people there who had taken her in like an extension of their family.  She told me about Clive, the rooster that had terrorized her the entire summer, and John, the old farm hand who often rescued her from her feathered nemeses.

She told me about her faith, and how it was tested and strengthened through all her years.  It was one thing she never regretted, something that had never let her down.

She’d fallen in love with a gentle man and stayed with him until the day he died.  Her children were grandparents, sending her pictures with names written on the back so she can keep them all straight.

She had been to so many funerals and seen so many births, I could feel both the weight and joy they left behind in every word she spoke.

Then she asked me about myself, and what I enjoyed, and what I did.

It took me a moment to understand her questions because how could she possibly want to know about me?  Something lifted inside me as I told her about my life, my slowly growing faith, and my dreams for the future.  She truly listened to my story and grabbed my hand when I finished rinsing out her perm.

I’ll never forget what she said to me then.  Her eyes had locked with mine as she told me how comforting it was to meet me.

Tears filled my eyes as she went on.  She said she felt fresh hope, knowing a girl as young as myself still believed as she believed.  Still hoped as she hoped.  Still held to the faith she held so tightly.

Every time I feel alone, she’d said, God sends me someone like you to tell me that no, there are so many more.

Some people come into your life and leave a mark forever inside you.

And I know, etched into my soul, every word she spoke is lined in the deepest, brightest blue.

 

Like This

smoke

You will die saving your best friend’s life.  I’ve known it since childhood.

At first it terrified me.  The words would haunt my nightmares, my imagination twisting scenarios of my friend Harris bleeding, screaming, dying.  He would look at me and we would switch.  It was never a choice.  I would be lying there instead of him, and the blood pooling beneath me was suddenly my own.

I would wake up screaming, but I never told my parents why.

I couldn’t.

They shouldn’t have to live with my dread.  They went through enough already.

My sister Sera was the only person I told.  She used to say it was just a nightmare that got stuck in my head.  She’d say it wasn’t real.  She would never let me die before her.

Still, Sera held me at night when I woke up screaming, and listened when it all became too much to hold in my mind any longer.

You will die saving your best friend’s life.

At some point, the words stopped scaring me.  I’d heard them so many times, they lost their sting.  Whenever Harris and I played together, I was always the one to die dramatically, saving him from whatever enemy we made up.  Even Sera joined in occasionally, playing the nurse who would revive me with CPR, no matter what had killed me.

It had become a game.  An inside joke.

A story I told myself at night instead of counting sheep.

When I was in my late teens, Sera asked me if I still believed I would die saving Harris.

Yes.  I’d said.  Of course.

Doesn’t it still scare you?

I’d laughed.  The only thing that scares me now is finals at school.

She didn’t laugh with me.  I couldn’t figure out why she looked so unnerved.  She’d never believed it was true anyway.  It was just a nightmare that got stuck in my head.

You will die saving your best friend’s life.

It wasn’t supposed to feel like this.

Harris has pulled a gun on me.  He’s telling his boss I won’t be a problem as the word traitor sticks to my lips.  His hands do not waver, but his eyes are panicked.  How could he not have seen that it would come down to this.  To choosing between us.

All I know is Harris will make it out alive.

He’s getting closer, and I’m telling him to stop this nightmare.  This isn’t the Harris I’ve known.  It wasn’t supposed to go like this.

I wasn’t supposed to feel this kind of pain.

His boss is asking what’s taking him so long.  My heart is beating so fast I can’t feel it anymore.  My legs won’t stop shaking.  Harris takes a breath, and his eyes harden with resolve.

It wasn’t supposed to happen so fast.

He’s pointing his gun at his boss and pulling the trigger.

I’m running before the gunshot registers.  His boss is falling, but he’s raising his gun on his way down, squeezing the trigger with the last of his strength.

And it doesn’t matter what I’ve heard all my life.  It doesn’t matter if I’d known or not.  It was always going to be this.

The bullet goes through me.

I look back at Harris and his eyes are open wide in horror.  I’m falling away from the hand he stretches towards me, as though somehow he could save me.  As if he could stop this nightmare from sticking.

My vision is going black.  Silence closes in around me.

My sister will never forgive me for dying first.

You will die saving your best friend’s life.

I didn’t think it would happen like this.

But all I feel now is relief.

 

Home

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Moving into the forest was not my first plan.  Or my second.

It was my fifth, actually, because there are enough old wives tales and scary campfire stories about that place to ward any sane person away.

And yeah, the place is weird.  The trees never quite stay in the same spot, although they are very slow and usually good at avoiding key structures.  Fallen logs are always occupied, and that goes for bramble bushes as well.  Firewood is strangely hard to come by for a place that’s crawling with trees.

Literally.

Hundreds of flowers carpet the forest floor, and they make beautiful bouquets as long as I don’t pick any that the fairies have claimed.  They used to be hard to spot, but now I know to look for fairy dust clinging to the pedals.  If I see a marked flower, I usually go find a different patch just to be safe.

Angry fairies are a hassle and, quite frankly, annoying.

The creeks and streams that run through the forest are gentle, perfect for soaking weary feet and washing away troubled thoughts.  I’m careful to not let myself get lulled to sleep there.  I’m not sure I’d ever wake up.

I met Trissa the day I entered the woods, and if I hadn’t, who knows what stupid things I might have gotten into.  She knows her way around, and she was the one who showed me the way the forest lives.

Trissa doesn’t speak, but it seems she doesn’t need to in order to be heard.  Not in this place anyway.  Her hair is as brown as the rich soil beneath us and her eyes are a little darker.  She has a few freckles across her nose that spread whenever the sunlight finds her face.

The animals love her.  It was an exuberant squirrel, in fact, that brought her to me.  I have yet to spend much time with her, really, that didn’t have some other animal snuggling close to her or sticking a curious head into our faces.

I like animals, I do, but these are wild things and I think we both don’t quite know what to do with each other.

Once, when I was in the cottage alone, a fawn wandered in.  Apparently, we caused enough of a ruckus to send the birds soaring after Trissa.  When she arrived, she found the poor fawn prancing in circles and myself crouching behind the couch, armed with a pillow.  She had her hands full calming the both of us, but after a cup of tea and a bowl of salad, we came to an understanding.  The fawn and I are good friends now, I call him Carl and he headbutts me whenever he gets the chance and Trissa regrets ever introducing us to each other.

I was not born for this kind of life, but I am growing to love it.  I think the forest, in its own way, is growing used to me.

When I get lost, the trees slowly part to make a small path back to the cottage where I live.  It’s gotten to the point where if I see a path in the trees, I just follow it.  They take me on wonderful walks.

If I get hurt, a fairy inevitably shows up to sprinkle fairy dust where it hurts.  It doesn’t make the pain go away, but it does make it heal faster.  I’ve stopped wondering how they know when I’m in pain.

Trissa stops by for tea a couple of days a week, and she’s teaching me to knit.  The chipmunks have gotten wind if this, and they stop in to ‘help’ me; which means I’m learning to knit with five chipmunks snuggled on my lap ceaselessly chattering in what I think are supposed to be encouraging remarks.

I might have become a tale to tell around campfires by now, but whatever they say about me, I know they have it all wrong.  Yes, the forest is strange and wild and different, but it has adopted me as one of its own.

And I like to call it home.

 

Ruler

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A ruler is someone who must fight.  This I have been taught since childhood.

The night is dark as I climb over the palace walls to the waiting city below.  A few stars peek through the clouds to shed a faint, pale version of their light.  I let myself drop the last couple feet, my boots make hardly a sound as they land on the dew covered grass.

From the moment the crown touches a ruler’s head, they must fight to keep the peace, to rule the kingdom, to stay on the throne.  There will always be someone who would rather wear the crown.  There will always be someone ready to tear apart the peace and set chaos loose.  There will always be someone who disagrees with the rules.

I keep to the darkest shadows as I slip through the city, my heart pounding against my chest so hard I think it might bruise.  The satchel slung over my back seems heavier than before, and it digs into my shoulder.

To wear a crown means every day is a struggle, every hour a close call.  Rulers surround themselves with guards and advisers, but it never quite sets them to rest.  Advice must be weighed with caution and searched for alternate motives.  Paranoia seeps in, questioning the loyalty of their soldiers.

I glance over my shoulder, my imagination running wild with tales of killers in the darkness, or someone waiting to drag me back.  A cold sweat breaks over my skin, and I run.  I run to the edge of the city, then slip past its gates.

The road ahead of me is dark and I cannot see where it goes, but that does not matter.  It will take me away and that is enough.

A ruler can never let down their guard.

Not when they sleep, not when they eat, not when they speak with friends.  Assassins love the dark, food is easily poisoned, and betrayal only comes from the ones you trust.

A ruler must know the feel of a blade and how to use it, for they will carry one at their side until the day they die.

At the crest of a hill, I glance back one more time.  The city is barely visible, a dim glow from taverns and inns outlining its edges.  Looming over it all, dark and cold as the stone that built it, the palace waits.  It never sleeps.  Not even in the dead of night, when every light is out.

To wear the crown means to fight alone.  It means playing mind games that will cause insanity.  It means never trusting, never resting.

I would rather run for the rest of my life then walk those gilded halls again.

I turn away, facing the night before me.  A flicker of excitement sparks inside my chest.  The possibilities have sunk into my pulse, beating stories of what might be, of I only reach out for them.

I plunge into the darkness and shed my royal skin.

The prince is no more.

 

Storyteller

streets

I often walked the streets in the late afternoon, when the sunlight becomes golden and the shadows reach for me.

There was one street in particular that I frequented.  Behind the shops, branched off from the normal bustle of that city, I would walk until I came across the people who lived there.

Not inside the buildings, but on the streets.

Huddled against walls in the winter to keep a little warmth to themselves or standing in whatever shade they could find to keep cool in the summer.  Their eyes looking up with fear, or mischief, or hate, or emptiness.

I never had much to give them, and I didn’t know what I could do to help.  I’d said as much to a man who lived there, who said his name was Frank, and he’d nodded his head. “Just tell me something to hope for.” he’d said.  There were tears behind his hollow voice. “Leave me with something to hold on to, so I can rest for once.”

That was when I knew I’d be back.  I told him the same story every time, and by the end I usually saw a glimmer in his eye.  Not enough to define it, not enough to last long, but there was something.  It could be my imagination, but I think that glimmer grew stronger as time wore on.

I met an old woman there, who everyone called Sly.  I learned to watch her hands to keep from losing my things.  She was good at slipping through a conversation, at moving subtly so that she might afford to eat.  Once I got her to stop moving and cut through her tricky words, once her restless eyes settled on me, she became as fragile as my grandmother’s crumbling china.

I didn’t always tell her the same story.  There were some days I would tell her something beautiful and soft, and feel her grip become firm in my hands.  There were other days when she shook so hard I was sure she’d shatter in my hands.  That was when I’d tell her something brave and hopeful, staying with her long after I was done to wipe away her silent tears.

There was a boy there that called himself Ace, and beneath his cocky grin lay a simmering rage.  I didn’t see him very often.  When I first met him, I’d been at loss for words, because what can you say to a rage you haven’t known?  So I’d asked him, what kind of story did he want to hear.

I still remember how his eyes light up with green fire. “I want to hear about justice.” he’d said. “Tell me about the bad guys getting what they deserve for once.”

So I told him.  I told him of a young criminal, so fed up with guilt and strife, who turned himself in so justice would let him rest.  I remember sweat slicking my palms as I watched the green fire sputter and glow.  Ace had walked away in a daze, and I was certain I’d never see him again.

He showed up about a week later, leaning against a brick wall and flipping a coin.  This time, when I asked what story he’d like to hear, he’d merely said, “Make me think.”

It’s been his request ever since.

There were two old sisters whose names were Sue and Mary, and they were always hiding away in some corner or other.  They would have been difficult to find on my own, but one of them always called out when they spotted me.

They never tired of fairy tales, and they would request their favorite ones over and over.  I could have told them those same stories for days, and when I finished they’d still beg for one more before I left.

Stories were all I could give, and after a time, stories were what I received in turn.  One by one, they all reached out for my hand and ask if I wanted to hear their story.  I always said yes.  And I always ended up in tears.

Theirs were stories of heartbreak and hardship, of sorrow and crime, of burdens and sacrifice.

By the end, our roles ended up reversed, and they held my hands and I listened.  Every one of them, even Ace, locked their eyes with mine and finished their story by saying, “Then I met this storyteller, and for the first time in a long while, I didn’t feel alone.”

“Thank you.” were Frank’s final words.

“Remember me.” was Sly’s only request.

“Don’t stop.” Ace told me solemnly.

“One more.” Mary asked.

“Please, before you go.” Sue added.

I never forgot them, and I haven’t stopped.  When the sun’s rays turn golden and the shadows stretch out to touch me, I walk the streets and look for the people who live there.  I have so many stories to tell.

So do they.

Letting Settle

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The shop is filled with a faint scent of old books, honeysuckle, and leather.  I take a deep breath as I make myself comfortable in the spot behind the register and pull out my knitting.  The days I work here are often quiet, and I like to knit while I sort out my thoughts.

I love this place.  It’s as though time is different here.  Neither slower nor faster than usual, but just not in such a pressing hurry.  Time that lets you breathe as it marches on.  I think it’s because this place is so old it has learned to be patient and not a busybody like everywhere else.  It has its own cares to deal with.

It’s fifteen past the hour, and I hear the time marked by our tall grandfather’s clock.  He is so set in his spot on the floor, between a bookshelf and a saddle-rack, that I wonder what would happen if someone tried to buy him.  He may be too old to be moved at this point, becoming as much a part of the store as the windows and floor.  Filling the silent hours with his chimes every hour, half-hour, and quarter-past.

Sometimes I like to wander through the store a bit, though never too far from the register.  I can’t afford to get lost when I’m working, and I’m not completely sure there’s an end to this place.  There are times I wonder what the back wall looks like, and what sort of treasures I’d find there.  I always ask customers if they made it to the back.  So far, no one has seen it.

One of these days, I’ll come in on a day off and be the first.

The bells at the door are ringing, announcing the first customers of the day.  A trio of older ladies walk in, and I smile.  They wave when they see me, before disappearing into the store.  I’m sure they’ve told me their real names at some point, but in my mind, they are Sugar, Spice, and Nice.  They come in about every other month, and theirs are always the best finds.  Last time they found a chest of keys, a stack of old fairy tale books, a teacup, and a beautiful music box.

I think the store loves them.

Though I can’t wait to see what they’ll end up with today, I know it won’t be for hours.  One of these days, they won’t be back by closing time and I’ll have to go on a search and rescue mission.  If anyone finds the end to this store before me, it would be them.  They have a knack for searching, and it makes me wonder if they’ve ever found what they look for, or if they simply make do with other things instead.

My knitting takes shape under my fingers as the store creaks and groans, trying to settle.  It’s been trying for years.  I reach out and pat the countertop in sympathy.  This place is has too many old things full of memories for it to settle properly.  It does what it can.

We all do.