by Shannon Joyce Prince
He had pulled himself in half. He had slid the part of himself that ached from the cold away and was using the rest of his energy to try to force some delight out of the sight of the whirling snowflakes. He had thought, earlier that night, that by taking the low path that would place the coral-tinged star in the midst of the branches of the large weeping willow and then by orienting himself so that both were over his left shoulder, he would soon be home.
The cosmos had been deceiving. Now lured by footprints he’d seen in the snow, he wondered whether he should follow them to a hypothetical hut with warm skins to lie upon and perhaps carrot stew over the fire. The first time, days ago, that he had traced footprints, they’d been his own, and he had rimmed the celadon firs three times in ignorance. The second time they’d been an elk’s, but the gentle look in the being’s dark brown eyes had more than compensated for a day wasted.
He placed his hope alongside the new footprints and trailed them with his head bent down in deep concentration. It was only after the dull ache in his eyes had reached a crescendo that he realized he had walked into an empire of light.
The stars were stitched above him twenty to an inch, and the oak trees bared more rows of icy teeth than sharks. The stallion spirit of the river was now bound in a crystal sarcophagus, and beams of a thousand colors like an unraveled and abandoned rainbow forged a web in winter’s prism. The cloakless slipperless young woman in the glen was an orichalcum snowflake. Like an Ice-Age seashell, she was summer’s form within the blizzard, and her queer beauty nearly made the man forget the peril of her position.
“Wake up!” he cried flying towards her. “Wake up! You have to get up quickly. I have to get you warm. Here, take my coat. No, let me get you dry first. Oh, my goodness! Oh, gracious!”
The woman pushed her shock to the front of her face, then her confusion. She squinted her eyes against the brilliant sun. “Coat? I’m fine, but thank you.”
“You’re delirious, that’s all. Please, sweetheart, just put on this coat. Everything is going to be alright.”
“Really, I’m alright.”
“Please. This is an emergency. It’s freezing out here. You could die. You have to stay warm.”
“Are you teasing me?” smiled the woman. She tried not to get angry at the elderly man who had separated her from her sun-born dreams and warm peace.
The man paused. He looked down at his feet where his shame lay. His home was lost somewhere in these woods. His memories had fallen one by one like sand from a woven straw basket and, inside, age had curled up and, like a sleeping cat, decided to stay in the most inconvenient of all places. So now he had no way of knowing if he had eaten roasted apples or wild herbs for lunch.
He couldn’t tell where one son ended and the next began. His children, was all his mind would tell him, his children. His progeny was now a single entity bearing only a last name. Had he miscalculated the light?
He turned to the sky. The golden rose. The coral star was the bad star that had hidden him deeper in the forest. And these falling ones of ephemeral glass — instead of burning they inverted the heat. But the jasper star...
He bent towards the woman and touched her shoulder, which was as warm as a malachite trinket clenched in the tight fist of a baby. So this star, colored like the earth, was true.
The young women smiled at him reassuringly. He was old, maybe senile, he deserved her kindness. She reached for his hand.
“You’re fine now,” she crooned, as if talking to her former nurse who was now about the same age and facing time’s same scary frontier. “Come sit here by me.” She put her arm around the old man’s shoulder, gilding his years with her youth. She shuddered inwardly as he opened towards her like a split melon, revealing his heartbreaking vulnerability, but that slowly sank beneath the depths as he came to peace.
“See,” she began. “Nobody’s in danger. We’re both safe.” She smiled at him delightedly. A new star, he thought. A pearlescent spangle. A sacred ivory lotus...
“See, it’s summer. We’re in the heat of summer, and the whole earth smells like hot peach trees. The quetzal are in mammoth throngs in the magnolia boughs. Beneath them the grass is made of cut beryl, and rising in froth above them are roses. The perfume, the nectar, the silk petals, the mating songs, and the light — they are united and bound. They are woven together and complementary. They are like facets of one crystal.
“This is my favorite day on earth. Today I reside in the interior of the flower. Today I know the lily’s secret. No matter how lovely the dress of the waterlily is, her glory is her corolla. And I walk the halls of that golden sanctum. I delight in house of the noon. Look up. Do you see the beams of celestite? If you look closely you can see the buttresses of the cathedral.”
The old man grew diminutive beneath the high ceiling of the geodesic temple. “I’m lost. I’ve been lost for a very long time. Perhaps you could send one of your servants to escort me home in the morning. I live in a small hut in the woods, near peridot moss and sometimes ruddy deer, and my boys live near by, and there are children. They are my grandchildren. They come to me. They play with me...” His voice drifted off as he remembered small hands but no smiles because he could remember no faces.
“That sounds lovely,” said the maiden. “May I escort you to see it? I know theses woods as if a map of them were transcribed along my arm.”
“Please,” he said. Please do not withdraw you sultry flower. I like for your sardine arm to ornament my form.
The elder and the maiden slept in her palace that night, resting before their trip. The next morning the two began their walk and by mid-evening they had arrived at the wizened man’s hut and were assailed by five strong men who embraced him forcefully. Their five hearts lived inside of him wherever he went, and only when hugging their father could they be near their own souls. When they saw the magnificently robed woman they bowed quickly and thanked her for returning their hearts to within reach of their hands.
“Please,” said the eldest. “You must be exhausted. Sit on this bed of pine. It may spoil your fine dress a little, but it will scent it wonderfully.”
“Really, I’m fine,” said the young woman. “I’m so happy to meet all of you. For your father you are like five suns, and in possessing all of them in one sky he feels profoundly blessed. And now that I have seen your love for my new friend, I know why you are to be treasured. You are as lovely as these grand trees and burnt sienna deer.”
“You speak kindly, my lady,” said another son, “but you must have rest. Lie down here on this bed until we can make some tea for you and later some soup.”
“How thoughtful of you to think of me,” smiled the maiden. “But your father, because of his age, needs the rest more than I.”
The eldest son began to laugh, thinking that the joy in the woman’s eyes belonged to what she had said in jest, but in those agates he saw only inner merriment, nothing as temporal as the presence or lack of pleasantries.
“My lady,” he began again. “Please rest. You will need it after your long walk.”
“But I’m sure that you men exert yourselves with more than a three quarter’s day walk all of the time. I am not winded. You have been hospitable to me, but it is your father who needs your care.”
“Yes, my lady,” said a son who had not spoken before. “But we are young men. With all due respect, at your age you should not exert yourself so much.”
“But son,” said the old man, “this woman is over fifteen years younger than you,” said the old man laughing riotously. The young woman nearly collapsed laughing at the boys.
“You told me they were kind,” said the young woman to the old man, “but you didn’t tell me how witty they were.”
The second eldest boy reached for the woman who had nearly fallen to the ground due to the laughter that seemed to course through her body in lieu of blood. He feared for what would happen to her fragile bones if she fell, and when he grabbed her, long gray cornrows fell over his arm.
He staggered with the gleeful woman into the hut and placed her on the bed. Joy had weakened her too much for her to protest. So, Daddy’s found a friend who has neared the end of her path as well and is now tugging at the last tethers of mental fitness.
He looked at his dad who was now sitting beside the woman and remained equally helpless with giggles. Like friends that sup together they share whims between them, but how dangerous is their distorted sense of this earth!
“Rest here,” he told the old woman. “Daddy, you’ll sleep with my family tonight. Tomorrow, we’ll take your friend home.” Before he had finished his speech the old woman had fallen in among her dreams. She’s a beauty, but she has certainly seen at least three score. He sighed and walked his dad into his own hut nearby.
The next morning, the five sons, their wives and kids, and their father grouped under the apricot colored dawn for sweet berries. The old man gathered his confusion and shifted it inwards.
He walked towards one of his daughters-in-law and searched the agate sparks and amber spokes for a sign. I know you are the one whose hands blessed my shoulders after my wife died. The gleeful one who brought forth a silence to heal me. You prayed for me with your fingers. Hand. He put a warm hand to the woman’s cheek, pretending that he never intended to greet her by name, only to give her a father’s caress.
He shuffled quickly past her understanding smile. He was saddened by her pity. I must be more discreet. Upon a grandson’s head he left a playful pat. The sensitive boy looked at him wistfully. Too dismissive. I’d let my love linger on you if I could, boy, but I can’t bear the shame. One of the women had given him a bowl of berries, and he sat looking despairingly at the red worlds.
His friend had risen earlier than they had expected an aristocrat to. She had missed breakfast and was sitting solemnly against the base of a tree. The old man walked towards her softly.
“Are you lost?” he asked the young woman.
“Are you sad and lonely? Are you far from your palace?”
“Not lost. Not sad. Do you know about this day?
“Did God tell you, too?”
“Maybe. I’m losing my short term memory.”
“No. You would have remembered. This is an old, old day. God made the sun first and flowers later, but flowers came long before people — especially the people who are here now. And this day was a flower God made but couldn’t bear to leave in Eden. He watched it blossom more every day, and at the penultimate moment, He plucked it saying, ‘Your next unfolding shall be light’.
“And He carried the day in his sustaining hands above many galaxies and many worlds. And animals were created and animals disappeared, and peoples gave birth to other peoples while still the flower was hidden.
“In the pine smell and the dark night, God explained it all to me, and I rose to meet the morning. Today is the best day to be on earth. If you are not on earth today, you should be very sad. If you are not on earth today, shame on you, you were born too early and you died too soon. If you are not on earth today, why haven’t your parents made you? They are cursed.”
The young woman looked fearfully and tearfully at the old man. “What happens?”
“What happens how?”
“What happens when?” corrected the old woman.
“When the day passes? What will God hold in his hand? What can we hope for on earth?”
“Today’s not a good today. It was a fine morning, but now it’s cloudy. Today is celadon being stalked by charcoal clouds. Today is a bad day. Today is the day you got lost. You’re lost, aren’t you?” asked the old man.
“No! No, I’m not lost. There are no clouds today. The sun is beating down on us. It’s heating the trees. It smells like — like peaches are cooking.”
“There are no peach trees here.”
“And the quetzals. I’ve never seen so many quetzals. I saw a tree filled with butterflies once, but quetzals — never, never so many.”
“It’s alright, young lady. It’s okay to be lost. My sons will bring you home. My sons will keep you safe. I have many sons.”
“Look at all the roses. I’ll never see this many roses after today. There’ll never be anything better. Hush, and look.”
The old man’s granddaughter found the two under the aegis of a gentle, nearly protective rain.
“Granddaddy, it’s raining. Why don’t you and your friend come inside, and I’ll get one of the boys to light a fire for you.”
The old man’s heart twisted. It was raining? Here, on the peach trees? Could there be rain where there were peach trees? The old man’s heart tightened. I must see this day. A star has been dropped in the mud where the land is hostile, and more magic won’t come in my time, or this woman’s time, or this little girl’s time. The old man’s heart stretched. This is my home. This is my home. There are red berries and there are orange deer, but there are no red deer and there are no orange fruits, so there are no peach trees here.
“There are no peach trees here,” he stated to his granddaughter, but really it was more of a question.
“Yes, no,” she pushed him from his confidence and reeled him back. “Yes, you are right. There are no peach trees.” She smiled at the truth that her grandfather seemed to be grasping like a tool.
The yes applies to the void where there are no peach trees. No, the lack peach of trees is filled by these oaks. No, there are no peach trees, which, yes, I am right about. Now, what is my firstborn son’s name? No. Stick to the path I know.
So is this woman real? This woman who sees a nonexistent day? No, she is not real. No. That nullification was incorrect. There is not space beside me, there is a woman. She is on my left side. Her knees are crossed. Long gray cornrows are falling down her back.
The old man’s heart exploded. No, I know that age is not here. No, it’s only the silver rain veiling her. Is there rain? This is a young woman. This is a woman in her prime. This is a woman at the noon of her day. This is the best day on earth. Look at how the rain falls though the sky is goldenrod. Look at these birds flocking to my granddaughter. She is covered with birds, covered.
The girl walked back towards the huts to summon help from her parents. Look at the auburn clouds drifting into the heavens. Look at the comet spiraling towards us. Look at the planets rushing towards each other like warring hawks. The old man began walking towards the flaming trees and deeper into the grove where moons hung in place of fruit. He walked deeper and deeper into the woods entranced by its phantasmagorical landscape.
Realization sank into his sore knees with the dusk. It was cold, and he didn’t know where home was.
Copyright © 2008 by Shannon Joyce Prince