The Traveled Road

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Today I locked the front door for the last time.

I don’t know why I took the time to lock up.  I’m the last to leave, and I won’t be back.

My older brother was the first to leave, with bright eyes and a bounce in his step.  The road held so many promises for him, and he was going to chase them all.  He left because he could.  Because he wanted to.

Father was the next to leave, he said he’d get us everything we’d ever wished for.  He promised he’d come back.  I watched him leave us as the sun rose in a sky of coral pink.  I watched from the doorway with a fast sinking heart.

No one ever comes back.

My little sister left a year later.  Her friends were going to do it together, and she snuck out at night to join them.  Her note said she would try to find our father on her way, and remind him to come back like he’d promised.  It was maybe the only thing she could have said to soften the blow of her absence.

Mother did not leave.  She said she would never want to.  I think if father hadn’t promised to come back, she might have considered it, if only to be with him again.  I buried her by her favorite tree, and her grave is the hardest thing to leave behind.

I walked backwards down the road until the house disappeared from sight, and now I am wandering down the well trampled path before me.  A slight breeze disturbs dust from the road, and I hear it sigh and settle again.

Items start appearing on the side of the road, discarded and abandoned.  I stop to look at them, and I try to see how much I can piece together about the traveler who dropped them.

There’s a piano up ahead.

It’s been shoved off to the side and onto a slope, its bench fallen over a few feet away.  I’m surprised it was taken this far before being discarded, until I get closer and see the history it bears.

There are several initials carved into the base in large clumsy letters, and there’s a faded ‘for Jason, love mom’ engraved just above the keys.  I run my fingers over scratches on the sides, and I spot rings on the top where drinks had been set without coasters.  This instrument has known a lot of life.

I pick up the bench and set it upright on the slope.  It is unbalanced here, and I have to be careful not to fall when I sit on it, but I place my fingers on the keys and quickly forget about the discomfort.

This piano was made to be played, and it has been without someone to play it for far too long.  I mean to only play a couple scales, but as soon as my fingers start running up the keys, my heart fills with other notes and I cannot stop.

I play with the wind for a little while, rising and falling with the gusts of air.  The keys are not really in tune, but that does not matter out here.  The wind does not notice, it just likes to hear the sounds swell and flow in its current.

I play with the sunset, finding sounds to match the colors as they splash across the sky then fade into something new a minute later.  I am breathless from keeping up, and I am still playing off the memory of color well after it is dark.

I play with the stars, and I do so for a very long time.  There are deep notes for the darkness and airy notes for the light and many, many combinations of the two I want to explore.  The stars are in no hurry, and they let me take my time finding their different sounds.

I play for the travelers that pass every once in a while.  Sometimes they stop and ask for certain songs, sometimes they just listen in silence, sometimes they continue walking but with their heads turned to listen as long as they can.

Somewhere in all of this, my heartstrings have gotten entangled with the piano’s strings, and I don’t want to tear them apart.  I think music is not something travelers often hear as they walk this road.

I think perhaps that should change.

There is much ahead of me, but I’m in no hurry.  For now, I think I should like to stay here.

The world could use a bit more music.

 

Endure

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Do you hear it?

There is a sharp wind singing through the air.  It tells of cold months only just begun.  It warns to be ready with chopped firewood and stored food.

This place was made to endure, but that does not mean it is not filled with pain.  Today the morning frost lingers, the ground has become chilled to its bones.  We gather closely around our hearths, whispering of the summer past, thinking on the cold months now upon us.

Listen.

The birds have fallen silent, most of them fleeing to a softer place than this.  The ones that remain sit on barren branches, watching.  They do not turn their eyes from what is to come.

The howling of wolves rise at night, a chorus of gathering hunger.  Together, they are savage.  Together, they are protected.  Together, they await the coming cold with barred teeth.  They do not love the winter, but they do not fear it either.

Listen.

I was made to endure, but that does not mean I am not full of pain.  My footsteps have grown to be firm, my skin has grown to be tough, and my heart has grown to be strong.  The ice that falls here does not pierce me like it used to, but I do not turn away from feeling it.

There is a softness that I have grown inside me.  I guard it closely, with the ferociousness of a mother bear.  I do not wish to become the relentless cold, nor do I wish to be frozen by it.

It is not such a terrible thing, to be made to endure.  I only wish to use it to protect that which was born under the summer sun.

Listen.  Listen.

I was raised in the midst of a thousand hopeful dreams.  I have seen the forces that would destroy them as swift as the autumn frost.

If they are to stand a chance, I must keep my senses on guard and my weapons at the ready.  It is not an easy state to be in; to be hardened enough to keep cold dark fingers from reaching inside, but soft enough to encourage things to grow.

Then again, I was not made for easy.

Listen.

The sharp wind is warning us to prepare.  The birds that remain are watching.  The wolves of the night are crying out in hunger.  There is pain ahead of us all.  This place is bowed under the weight of knowing such things, but it has not broken.

It has built me to endure.

 

Behind the Candy Shop

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A cheery bell announces my entrance to the candy shop. Gaia looks up from counting money behind the counter and smiles at me. Today she’s wearing the softest looking sweater with dark blue jeans. Her light brown hair is escaping from a braid, showing off a couple peek-a-boo streaks of color.

There is a gentleman already browsing inside, so I look at the caramel apple display for a bit.

“Can I help you find anything?” Gaia asks after a few minutes. Now that she’s come around the counter, I can see she’s wearing yellow bee socks with her converse.

I nod and ask about her licorice. She shows me her selection and we start discussing the flavors. The shiny red pieces are my favorite, but there’s also purple and yellow and blue and black. Gaia laughs when I wrinkle my nose at the black licorice and insists they’re the best kind. She would know, she argues. After all, she made them herself.

She shows me her new batch of lemon drops, the peppermints, the gum balls. Her eyes are sparkling as she shows off her chocolate selection. I nod and admire her work and ask her about her day, but we do not talk about buying anything.

She knows I’m not here for the candy.

The gentleman finally comes to the register and buys a bag of taffies and a box of chocolates. I watch him from out of the corner of my eye while examining a barrel of rock candy.

We both wait until the door has shut behind him before turning to each other again. Gaia is grinning from ear to ear.

I follow her into the back room, and she pushes a wheeled shelf away from the wall. She presses her fingers against a knot in the wooden panels, and something behind them clicks. Four panels swing open as a hidden door.

“Have fun.” Gaia whispers, and she shuts the door behind me with barely a click.
The path before me is lined with bookcases.

The first time I saw it, I cried from the beauty. Books and books and books, as far as I dared to venture. I never thought it was possible.

It certainly wasn’t legal.

There are five owners of the Forbidden Ink. Gaia usually runs the candy shop in the front, always keeping an eye out for someone in desperate need of the books they keep so carefully hidden.

I walk in deeper, smiling at the first couple of shelves I pass. They were the first I looked through, and I still remember how each title sprang out at me and demanded to be taken. I take a turn to the right and then to the left, running my fingers lightly over the bindings.

Someday. I tell myself. Someday I will read them all.

I take another turn and find Carena, re-shelving books while humming an old piece she once played for me on the piano. She’s wearing a blue polka-dot dress and Mary Jane heels, and when she sees me her eyes light up. “Good afternoon! I just put on the kettle, would you like some tea?”

There is something about her voice that reminds me of misty autumn nights, quiet Sunday afternoons, and cozy winter evenings. Words fall from her mouth like snowflakes on a still winter day.

Clear and soft and beautiful.

We walk through a row of shelves to a small sitting room. There are armchairs facing each other and a coffee table that holds mugs and coasters and teabags. Along the wall is a stove with a steaming kettle. We sit and have tea and Carena tells me about the mystery books she just finished. I pull out my notebook to jot down the titles.

I have seconds on tea and she asks me about my week and it is a while before I return to the labyrinth of books, feeling warmed inside and out.

The air smells like books and vanilla and jasmine tea. I pause among the poetry and look for something to take home with me. Something simple and complex and short and deep, all bundled within paper and ink.

I’ve found a pocket-sized volume that calls out to me when my eyes catch on a maple leaf butterfly. Each wing is brilliantly blended from red to orange, looking for all the world like it belongs on a tree. It’s crawling along a shelf, lost and bewildered.

The butterflies don’t normally come out to the poetry section. I nudge it gently onto my small volume of poetry and carry it away.

Soon the bookcases have delicate vines trailing up their sides and tiny crocus flowers peeking out from between floorboards. Potted saplings start appearing in openings where shafts of light filter in. Butterflies start fluttering out of shelves with wings of glass, of leaves, of feathers and smoke. I lower the maple leaf butterfly to a group of potted lavender and let it crawl off.

“Well hello!”

I turn and grin. Asena is exactly how I’d picture a forest nymph. Short, soft hair that curls at the ends like the tendrils of a climbing vine, a green shirt with a belt at the waist, and a layered gypsy skirt of earthen tones. She’s wearing a flower crown, which also carries a few resting butterflies.

“Hello.” I say. “One of your maple leaves got lost among the poetry.”

She walks over to the lavender and stoops to examine the returned butterfly. “Oh dear, they’ve been doing that recently. I think it’s the rose tea Carena just got. Can’t blame them for loving the smell.”

I can’t help but think that if Asena ever grabbed my hand and said ‘come with me on an adventure’, I would follow her without hesitation. She looks like she would know exactly where to go to find dragons or castles or sea creatures.

Talking with her was like sinking into an old legend, surrounded by magic.

And knowing I’d always make it back home.

She shows me her newest plants and tells me about the stray bluebird that she’d adopted. I show her the pocket volume I’ve picked and she tells me which poems are her favorites.

I ask her to tell me about another world before I go, and she eagerly begins to talk about a land of starlight and moonbeams, of fairies and magical glens, of beasts of nightmares and creatures of light.

When she finishes, it is as if she had grabbed my hand and run off, taking me there and back again and leaving me with memories of adventure.

I wander through the bookcases, leaving the plants and butterflies behind. The book-bindings here are made of leather the titles are written in golds and silvers.
I’m amongst the fantasy books now, and I am scanning the titles for a book I spotted the last time I was here.

“Can I help you find something?”

I look up in time to see Celeste poke her head around a corner. Her hair is layered and long, with little braids scattered throughout and tiny white flowers woven in. She’s wearing a teal blue blouse with a leather jacket and dark jeans.

Her eyes are full of things yearning to be made.

I try to tell her the title I’m looking for, but instead I end up telling her what I remember about the story and how it made me feel and why it meant so much to me. She’s nodding like I’m making sense when really I feel like my words are spilling out in a mess, like the way puzzle pieces tumble out of a newly opened box.

Celeste leads me to a bookshelf and we search the books together. I fall into silence as I look, and suddenly she is the one with words tumbling out. She’s telling me about constellations and music and the way our brains process memories. I pull out the book I’m looking for as she tells me about the way people talk and what their words usually mean.

We chat for a while, and I forget what it is that we say but I remember what we mean.

Celeste reminds me of a lighthouse glowing in the night, of a fairy glen under a bright summer sun, of a scribe’s office with papers scattered everywhere.

When I finally pull away, my thoughts have settled into new places of belonging.
I hold the two books close to me as I take the roundabout way back. I am not eager to leave this place, and I linger among the shelves of scripts and screenplays. Behind one of the shelves I hear typing, and I peek around the corner to spot Kairi in front of a computer.

She’s wearing an asymmetrical blue dress with a fitted white jacket. The desk is clean and white, holding her computer and a vase of blush roses. Her fingers are dancing over the keys, keeping beat to a jumpy tune I cannot hear. I watch her for a minute before she blows a stand of pink hair out of her face and spots me. “Find some good books?”

I hold up the two I’m carrying and she nods with a grin. But of course she knows I found some good ones. That’s the only kind they carry. She waves me over and pulls out her sketchbook, opening it to show me her newest concepts. There are characters, inventions, and designs filling the pages, everything I could never imagine on my own.

I think she’s from the future.

Kairi makes me think of lightning and crystals and stars. When I listen to her talk I feel like she’s telling me the secrets of the universe. I tell her about my week and she tells me about new ideas and dreams for tomorrow.

When I leave her to her typing, I feel like I could try anything.

I feel like trying would be worth it.

I knock on the hidden door and wait for Gaia. She wraps my books carefully and I buy them along with a caramel apple. The bell rings once more as I leave the candy shop and walk home in a crowd of people. People who haven’t just come from a forbidden bookstore. People who didn’t just travel and wonder and have a cup of tea with friends.

I think of Gaia, waiting for someone in desperate need of books to walk into her store.

Waiting for someone starved of stories.

Waiting for everyone in this crowded city.

Creature of the Lake

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There is a lake in the middle of the sprawling enchanted forest.  The only visitors it gets are woodland creatures, a handful of fairies, perhaps an old wizard or two.  Every once in a while, on the days where the air is dimmed and the world wilts, a desperate adventurer arrives looking for direction, or hope, or answers.

They always stop at the lake somewhere along their journey.

It is for us to listen, to help, to offer council.  We ask them for news, or stories, or perhaps something new we haven’t seen, and in return we send them on with what they need.  Some do not listen, most do not understand our council right away.  It is only when another comes that we find out if we were listened to, in the end.

They call our lake the Oracle’s Tears.

The Seeker’s Pool.

The Whispering Waters.

They write our lake into their legends, they speak of it in their poetry.  They call it whatever it meant to them.  They name it as the place they sought when the world grew dim and their path crumbled beneath them.

I call it home.

I was born in the inky depths of its waters and grew up cradled by its waves.  I played with the fairies that danced on the surface, I listened to stories about heroes and villains and the people caught in between, and I wished upon the stars at night that they would wake me if a traveler came to us after dark.

I wanted to be the one to speak with the next adventurer.  There were so many questions I wanted to ask them, and there was so much kept inside me that longed to be shared.  We all knew the stories; there were so few, and there was so much time for them to be told.  It left us with no one to listen but the fairies, and fairies do not have the interest to listen to anything longer than a sentence.

I had all these words with nowhere to put them.

I was old when the stars finally awoke me, piercing farther through the water than they usually like to so that I would stir from sleep.  An adventurer had come, and I could greet them.  The waters were still and silent, dark and drowsy, and it caressed me like a tired mother in the dead of night.  Not another creature stirred within the water, and I remember feeling more awake than if I were a child playing with fairies as I swam to the surface.

He was a child, kneeling at the water’s edge with the weight of a kingdom on his shoulders.  His eyes reflected starlight as he watched me rise from the surface.  I did not expect my adventurer to be so young.

What brings you here small one?

His hands were trembling in his lap.  I think the forest bent forward to hold him.  I do not know how to do this alone, he whispered, and I have lost my way.

All my life I’d considered what questions to ask, but never had I thought it would be this. Why you?

He looked away for a moment of thought, and when he turned back I saw a weariness that comes from hard decisions. There was no one else, and so it must be me.

The trees shivered, and a wind picked up as if to wrap around him like the arms of a loved one.  Even the water rose from its slumber and lapped at the shore near him.  He’d said there was no one else.  How had it come to this?

Tell me, I said softly, tell me where you’re going, and what waits for you there.

Moonlight glinted off the water’s surface, lighting the boy’s face as he told me his story.  The wind played with the strands of his hair, the trees lifted roots around him to sit on, and the nocturnal woodland creatures crept out of the shadows to lay next to the place he sat.

We know what it is to feel alone.  We sense it in this boy, and none of us can ignore him.  None of us can part from him while he feels this way.  It is the way of the forest and the lake, to never abandon the lost and lonely.

He finished his story and waited for me to speak, watching intently with a shard of moonlight in his gaze.  I was a guide, a creature of the lake.

A creature of the Oracle’s Tears.

The Seeker’s Pool.

The Whispering Waters.

He knew the legends, the poems that speak of this place.  He was here for direction, for hope, for answers.

It was for me to listen, to help him, to give council.  To send him on his way with what he needed.

He needed so much.

I was at a loss for words.  All the shared wisdom and knowledge and stories did not prepare me for a boy that took on the world because no one else would.  There was only one thought in my head, and it grew and grew until I could not contain it.

I dipped a hand into the waters that had watched over me all my life.  I looked at the trees, the woodland creatures, the moon and the stars, and I asked for one last wish to be granted me.

A creature of night rose and sent its shadows stretching to me.  The trees shook and sent their leaves twirling through the air.  A fog lifted from the surface of the lake, sparkling in the moonlight like diamonds, like magic.  The wind rose and picked up the shadows, the leaves, the fog and the moonbeams, mixing them and sending them spinning around me.

I looked up and saw a sky of shooting stars, streaking into the night with trails of gold dust in their wake.  I think the dust got caught in the storm around me.

The wind fell, everything in it dissolving, and I was standing on the shore in clothes made of shadows.  I was standing, standing on feet and legs and shoes made out of a granted wish.  I was unsteady, uncertain of the ground and empty air.  The world seemed more precarious from land.  Precarious and fragile and full of possibility.

I helped the boy to his feet. You will not do this alone, we will share this burden.

His shoulders loosened, as if a kingdom had lifted from them, and he lifted his head high.  Something in me ached at the sight, at the boy who should not have needed to come here.  I took his hand and vowed he would not be a tragedy.

To the poets and writers of legends, listen.

When you tell of our journey, remember how it began.  Tell them how a kingdom was falling, and no one would step forward to help.  Tell them it should not have been this way.  Tell them to learn from this:

I would not let him go alone.