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Shall Not

by Marie Lecrivain

Time to go out again, she realized as she woke up to rays of early morning sun poking through rhomboid holes in the ceiling. It was so tiresome; the collecting, gluing, and placing each piece just so. She sighed as she pushed back a lock of hair with a slender and scarred hand.

It was this or an eternity working as a fat cashier catering to redneck squires at a 7-11, she lamented. All she’d wanted was one knight.

She pushed back the covers and shivered in the cold. She moved quickly as she robed herself in her warmest sackcloth and collected her eggshell basket. The wind blew so hard, despairing, whistling, and finally weeping. She’d tune it out most of the time, but late at night, it woke her with breathy, long drawn-out notes that sobbed in rhythmic verse. She hated it, preferring the random screams that woke her right before dawn. The free verse had power, a rawness missing from the sonnets and roundels she’d heard so many years before.

The shadows from stone vultures crept back under the arching sun as she stepped out the door. Above her rose a curved wall that merged into the smooth arch of the dome. Her dwelling sat atop a cluster of low mountains recessed from prying eyes. She’d carefully climb up one side, gently feed her fingertips into random pockets of space and pull herself to the apex. It was bittersweet to watch the stars come out against a brave and ragged strip of night sky while the wind pressed her ribs in tight, sucking air.

It was easy getting down the path: a dusty river that wound into the sandy plains of nowhere. What wasn’t easy was getting past the groundlings who languished under the sun as they baked away their humanity and picked at old wounds.

They gathered around her, ragged children plucking at her rough robes–tugging–as sibilant whispers brushed against hair, the backs of her wrists, the entrance of her ear canals.

“Shall... shall you not... shall... not... Lady of Sh–”

She hurled the eggshell basket at their collective heads as they scattered away like pigeons at the sight of a cat.

“Don’t call me that! Leave me alone!” The groundlings went back to their scab picking.

She retrieved her basket. Sand filled her slippers, weighed down each step — 99 of them from the doorway of her dwelling by the lake, to the bough of the boat — were heavier than the ones she took now. She continued through desert, into the horizon, toward the great dune that floated in the vastness of noonday sun.

“Lady,” whispered a voice behind her.

She turned. A groundling huddled nearby, the rest of his group a few paces behind.

She stiffened. “What do you want?”

He held out a drinking gourd. She took it thankfully, and sipped the murky water, rolled it over her tongue. This wasn’t water freshly drawn from the Well, her hands forming a chalice to catch the silver drops as they dripped down her grateful chin while his soft lips kissed them away as she handed back the gourd.

“Thank you.” The groundling nodded, but didn’t budge.

She stirred, impatient to go on. “What?”

“Lady,” the groundling whimpered. “Can you fix it?”

“I can try,” she said at last as she watched the sun slide past noon into the second half of day. “But I have to go, NOW!”

He scuttled backward as she turned and placed herself on the path. The sun was so cruel, like the bard had been cruel: as well as silver-tongued. He was gifted with the magic of double-entrendre. At the White One’s insistence, she’d been spirited away during the festival and offered one of three choices.

Death. No redemption. She’d just die, no heaven, no hell, and no in between.

Whoredom. Dressed in drab, tight-fitting fabric that chaffed her tender skin, she stood behind a counter, tired under bleary lights. Her face was deeply lined and she drank endless cups of a dark, bitter-looking brew from a strange, flimsy container. She smoked long, thin, acrid-smelling cylinders; smoke wreathed her head and blurred her vision. She felt the scratch of stone walls as they bit into her back while fat, eager fingers pushed her up against a wall while she was penetrated by unknown fleshy... she welcomed the invasion, watched in horror as her face collapsed in resignation of a few pathetic moments of anonymous intimacy.

Purgatory in this wasteland, like Sisyphus with the boulder, she’d receive the worst of compromises.

She chose third and here she was. It happened as soon as she told the bard. Just like that. She found herself tumbling down the side of a dune into the bright, unforgiving sunlight.

She had no idea how long she’d been here; maybe forever.

The dune loomed large over her now as she began her ascent. She tilted up her head as his hand caressed her cheek.

“You are fair of face,” he said.

“You are my life,” she replied, “Love–”

“Is beautiful, as are you, but I cannot give you what you ask. She’ll never leave us alone, never let us be together,” he insisted. His eyes drew away from hers and melded with the glacial stare of the White One, the one who made her come here – with the groundlings.

She’d chosen to be here... of her own free will.

At the top of the dune, she paused. It was the same as before. The boulder, enthroned. Once it was hollowed out to hold a sword; its center now expanded into a deep basin. All around on the ground were many, razor-bright shards gleaming in the fading rays of the sun. She shivered, the wind suddenly blew strong and cold as it teased the shards, which cried for her touch.

Collecting was laborious. The wind blew cold through her lungs and with each breath she expelled the smoky tendrils that curled back into her hair, hissing softly. She picked up pieces and carefully placed them in the eggshell basket, the strongest vessel to hold such jagged fragments. She placed them, one by one, into the basin. They sliced delicate filigrees into her upturned palms; the blood adhered to the shards and filled in the cracks.

At last she was done. This was a good day, she reflected as she put the final shards in place. It was a good day.

The mirror caught the sun’s rays where it spilled into many eyes that were turned toward its weary splendor; sorrow washed away in floods of tears. The inhabitants of the wasteland knew their secrets and sins were alleviated... for the moment.

The basin glistened as it filled with tears, and rippled outward to its edges. His face formed in the center as he reached out a beseeching hand. The shadow of the White One loomed in the background. She reached, gradually falling into moment of desire to stroke the brow of her beloved and caressed the water as he disappeared.

She started back down the dune, her steps light but her heart heavy. The shards would be there again, as they had been the day before, and all the days preceding. In her deepest self, it was worth relieving the pain with the unrequited souls who shared this place with her; for the fleeting glimpse of the one she still loved–his eyes shadowed as he felt the weight of her soul on the other side of the mirror, knowing love put her there, and he could do nothing to save her.

Copyright © 2004 by Marie Lecrvain

Previously published in Lily

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