The Smiling Night

The bar was littered with a few weary souls scattered about on stools supporting light heads and heavy shoulders. Ceiling fans swung lazily overhead, propelling a slight stagnant breeze onto the thirsty mouths below. Mouths on hard faces parched from the burden of their day, hidden behind various shapes of glass like distorted masks. The lights were dimmed, providing an illusion of perpetual dusk to help ease the minds of the vagrant drunks into forgetfulness that light still dwelt outside. The air randomly cackled from a thunderous break at the pool table. The ancient flickering jukebox stood lonely in the corner, playing whatever it pleased bereft of change.   
    An old man held a solitary position on a stool at the center of the bar. Everything else seemed to orbit around him; a sun unto his own frontier universe. He hunched over the counter as if it were a crutch to support his aging body. He sat for hours on that stool. Contemplating everything and nothing as he marveled at the cascading colors of bottles in front of him. The come hither allure of the emerald greens found in the bottles of whiskey, the warm fires that seemed to glow red hot inside of the imported rum, the cool refreshing blue hues of vodka; an aurora of flashing lights culling him into warm inebriation and blissful nothingness.
    The bar was his home, or rather his haunt, and he played the role of its imperishable ghost to a silent applause. Few souls knew the name of this spirit of consumption, and fewer still knew how old he really was, let alone how long he had been haunting this place. To him, it was all one long blur of a seemingly infinitesimal night.
    It didn’t matter to the old man what anyone thought of him. He had lived a long time, longer than he had probably ever cared to, and old age had purchased for him an air of great indifference. He was a fierce feline of the alleys that had all but used up nine of his lives. Nine lives fostering a hundred stories that housed thousands of memories. Memories, perhaps, he no longer felt the need to carry. His head was much too full of his past. It left little room for thoughts of a future.
The door opened and hot light flooded the atmosphere, breaking the spell of the man made dusk. The old man lifted his hand to shield his wrinkled eyes from the sudden sunburst as a silhouette of a man walked in. As the creaking door slowly closed and darkness took the space again, he noticed the figure walking in wasn’t actually yet a man, but also no longer a child; it was somewhere between that maleable transition where one undergoes their trials by fire and becomes transformed from the inevitable mistakes that scorch them so.
    The boy sank into a seat a stool away from the old man. He ordered a beer in an almost inaudible voice and stared at the counter, his face devoid of all expression. When the beer arrived the unsavory paleness of it told the old man it was something cheap and tasteless. Like most young men he had observed, this boy had no taste. He decided right then and there not to bother with him and attended to his drink.
    Before the boy could even wrap his hand around his glass a song began to play from within his pockets so loud it overpowered the bar’s own jukebox. It was “Friday, I am in Love” by the Cure. It’d been years since the old man had heard it, but he knew it well. The song transported his senses back to a time of neon and adrenaline fueled rails off the bathroom stall in this very bar.
    The boy took out his phone and stared blankly at the screen. The song went on, Robert Smith sang of a profound love in D Major, and the boy did not answer. He just continued staring at it. Before the old man could voice his annoyance, the boy dropped his still ringing phone into his full glass of beer, where it bubbled and sank until it hit the bottom of the glass. The picture of a woman’s face flashed on the screen and her name was seen in brilliant white letters for a moment. Then there was nothing.
    “Excuse me?” the boy asked. “Could I get another beer? There seems to be something in my glass.”
    A solitary and involuntary chuckle escaped from the old man’s chapped lips but the bartender did not share in the same amusement; the boy was not brought another beer. The old man hoped that the boy would have had the good sense to leave, but apparently the boy seemed senseless. Gazing again at the counter with a face that seemed not just expressionless, but rather one that simply did not know what it was supposed to be expressing. He had an energy about him that made the old man uncomfortable, and comfort was something he felt entitled to in his old age.
    “So what’s up yer ass?” the old man asked loudly. The boy did not answer. He merely sat there, playing deaf to his neighbor’s inquisition. His eyes were now frozen towards what was now the corpse of his phone, as if at any moment he expected it would come back to life. The old man had no more patience left in him to harbor an insult as heavy as being ignored and the drink was strong in his blood by now. You could say it was the whiskey that caused his hand to slam in front of the boy, as much as it was the old man himself.
    “I asked you a question, boy?!”
    His breath, as hot as his temper, stank like a bottle left out in summer. If it was one thing in this world he hated, it was not being acknowledged. He had suffered enough judgment at the hands of people who thought themselves his betters his whole nine lives and the cat had tasted rejection for so long that whiskey seemed to be the only way to wash the taste from out of its mouth. It stirred in him an ancient anger he had carried with him as he long as he could carry himself. It was certainly not the first fight he’d been in under this roof, nor would it be the last. But when the boy’s eyes finally met his, he withdrew his hand and his anger went with it.
    Staring back at him now was a look he had seen once upon another life. A memory once thought drowned and forgotten, swam up resurfaced to the front of his mind like worms in the rain. He saw his own eyes staring back at him in a mirror. In that memory they wore barely a wrinkle and were filled with searing tears that flew down his face warm and unbidden. He recalled the pain he’d felt in his chest as he held her letter of farewell, hurt that throbbed like a knife in his back he was helpless to pull out. He remembered shattering that mirror into pieces and how after a dozen different sad, distorted manifestations of himself had stared back at him with that same broken gaze.
How could he have forgotten the bleeding mirror? The poetic irony he found in the way the glass shards embedded in his knuckles like so many diamonds, engaged as he was then to his despair. Had the medicine he’d long since sought finally accomplished what he set out to do? Had he finally managed to forget?
He stared deep into the boy’s eyes now. His eyes were as a green sea suffering a red tide. He’d been crying. He’d been crying for a long time. The old man studied the boy’s eyes for a second, then two, and looked away. He could not suffer the intensity in his gaze. Those eyes that seemed to shoot a challenge to the old man, or were they imploring him? Leave me be. His own eyes found the bartender then, “Martha, two Makers, doubles. Neat.”
    The barmaid took her time walking over to the old man with a slight exaggerated swagger in her stride.
    “You could at least say please, you old fuck.” she said with a chastising smile.
    “I love you, Marty.”
    She brought the drinks, and laid them out in front of them. Bending over far more than she actually needed to. The old man picked up a glass and raised it over his head towards the boy in a gesture of salutations and apology. The boy returned the gesture in kind. The old man threw the drink back and let it settle on his tongue. He savored the burn then swallowed the fire. The boy coughed.
    “Thank you,” he said softly as he collected himself. Acknowledging the apology and cloaking, as best he could, his embarrassment.
    A few moments went by in respective silence as the old man studied the boy he had accosted from a peripheral glance. He was handsome. Beautiful in a way he had never been. Completely unaware of the looks he was drawing to himself for, in his depression, he hid well what vanity he must have surely possessed. A thick head of auburn curls fell about his face to hide the current shame in his eyes.
     The old man felt he should say something to him, but what could he say? What did men do in times like these but mend the pain from both sides in contemplative silence? He bought him a drink to nurse his wounds. It was more than most people had ever done for him. Wasn’t that enough?
“Heartsick, huh?” the old man asked with a forced laugh of congeniality. He didn’t know why he had opened his mouth and felt he was going to regret ever having done so to some baby boy fresh off the street. But then the boy laughed too. One of those sad, defeated kinds of laughs that ends with a sigh.   
     “I am sorry.” he answered once again in a quiet, soft spoken tone. One of those sensitive types, thought the old man. But there was still a bit of fight left to him, an edge that could still cut. “Forgive me for being so fucking obvious.”
    The old man sneered then dramatically sniffed the air, “Oh, I know that smell. You reek of that love sting. Still, you smell better than most of us in here, pretty boy.”
    Then came a real, honest good laugh. It erupted from the pit of the boy’s stomach, where the whiskey had no doubt made its impact. He had a surprisingly fantastic laugh; infectious and completely unrestrained. It shook the bar and sang high over the speakers as his hair fell into his face again. He brushed it back with one hand and took a drink with the other in one graceful, fluid motion. He had forgotten himself for a moment with that sudden outburst, until he opened his eyes again and remembered where he was. Upon this sobering realization his shoulders sunk and moved forward until he hung over what was now an empty glass.
     His posture spoke louder than anything he could ever say, but still he spoke, “When does it stop?”
     The old man said nothing at first. He instead gestured for another round, feeling that more of this medicine would be the best remedy for the boy’s palpable sickness. He watched Martha come and go with their prizes with weary, sunken eyes. His head was somewhere else now; far from sex and his drink and the dull pulse of the bar’s slow tempo heart. He wondered what to say to the boy, if anything. He knew the boy was still soft clay and impressionable. He could lead him astray with but a few wrong words. For men in dire straits seemed always quick to grab hold any word that might validate their current positions. And what the hell did he know about anything anyway?
“I don’t know, kid. Some hurts, they just stay with ya. Most of life is learning how to carry that.” the old man said as he handed the boy another drink. “Pain, it’s always gonna be there. Waiting to walk in through the same door that love walks out of. I think it was Cormac McCarthy who once wrote, ‘The shadow of the axe hangs over every joy.’ As if to say, eventually, joy will be stripped by sorrow. To that I say, ‘Well fuck you, Cormac!’ Learn how to block the blow, man.”
     He looked at the boy then, expecting to see that his antics might have purchased a smile. Instead he saw those green oceans in his eyes had begun to swell, and the old man did not care to see them overflow. As a man whose form was sculpted by far rougher times than the boy would likely ever see, he felt ashamed for him and his presumed weakness. Even a hint of disgust at his audacity to shed his pain in such a public fashion. But as a human being who contained within himself far more empathy then he would ever admit, he could not help but watch in some twisted sense of fascination as a solitary tear fell from the boy’s face and onto the bar, mixing in with a pool of water acummulating below a perspiring glass.
     “Some hurts just stay with ya?” the boy repeated as he made no move to wipe away the tears from his face. As if he were not ashamed at all for conveying what he, as a man, was conditioned to feel shamed for doing. His hands stayed true to his glass. “I don’t see this one going anywhere…Fuck it!” he spat and took a drink from his glass. “At least I found out she was capable of fucking around on me before I did something real stupid.”
    The boy did not sob. Nor did his voice betray his convictions with the slightest quiver. His only course now seemed to be to reinforce his beliefs with words he did not really seem to believe. He had been running over the scenarios of his recent love’s denouement no doubt a thousand times already. Traveling absent of mind miles in any given direction. Far from the scene of the crime till the street brought him here to this place to self medicate the wound. A subconscious, yet conditioned, response yearning for anything to fill the empty space within him that, until recently, had housed an extraordinary kind of love. Now he searched the barest of vacancies to fill the void.
    The old man had heard these kinds of stories in the corner of this bar alone dozens, perhaps even hundreds of times. He knew what the boy was going to say before he could even say it. But for some reason, he was still listening. He hung on the boy’s every word, though he couldn’t understand why he even gave a damn. They shared camaraderie in heartbreak and nothing more. They were men born from different times who lived entirely different lives. The only bond connecting them now was the bottle their whiskey came from.
    The boy was still very naive in his youth, where the old man was a grizzled veteran of a long fought campaign. The lad was pretty and soft, whereas he was calloused and the years had been anything but kind to him. But in spite of the tremendous amount of evidence that brought to light the boy’s foolishness, the old man decided he would keep listening. For had he too not been a great fool once himself?
    The boy heaved a great and heavy sigh, “I give up. I just fucking give up.”
     “What are you giving up?” asked the old man, gently challenging him.
    “People!” barked the boy. “Ya give ’em what they say they want and then they just want more! It’s never enough. People just want to take. I am running out of things to give…”
     “We are all wired that way, it’s human nature. You can’t give up on people. After that, it’s only a matter of time before you give up on yourself.”
     “I just don’t understand–how could she do that?” the boy’s voice quivered again. “The more I try to understand the less I know. It just doesn’t make sense…”
     “You should be goddamn grateful it doesn’t.” said the old man thumbing the rim of his glass. “Be thankful you aren’t like those people; that even the notion of commiting such an act is utterly alien to you. But you should know by now, no one makes it this far in one piece, kid. You gotta give people the space to be…human. We all have our demons. Some of them we don’t even want to exorcise. They can become a part of you, or you them if you carry them too long. With people you let inside, you gotta let in their demons too. All or nothin’, brother. See if their devils dance with yours. Otherwise, you ain’t really in love you’re just, well, you’re dressing up and playin’ house.”
     “Why dress up at all?” the boy implored. “Why are we so afraid of being real?”
The old man froze with his glass just before his lips as they quivered slightly in anticipation. He didn’t know how to answer him. Had he ever even asked himself that question? But, suddenly his tongue ran away with him.
     “To be real is to be seen. For most of us, we have gotten so used to hiding maybe we don’t even know what part of us is real anymore? We go off of blueprints handed down to us from somewhere. We base our love off the love we have seen and how we should act to get that love. And some people didn’t get shown too much love, some got none at all, and others couldn’t have possibly gotten anymore. That’s life, and it’s never fair. But we have to look for this. We look and keep looking because, goddammit, it’s what we are.”
    “That pain a lot of people feel, I think that’s us trying to force ourselves when we don’t fit. Two different puzzles that spilled out onto the same floor. Or it’s us leaving those pieces we just simply cannot fit into. We hurt each other when we hold on too tight. We hurt each other when we lessen the grip. It’s too much and then, it’s not enough. You want it. You get it. Then, it turns out it’s not what you wanted, so you let it go. Then, you want it back because it’s gone…”
     The old man still held the drink before his face. Stirring it in his hand, fascinated by the way the liquid caught the light and distorted the world around him. ”We all just want what we have seen in the movies, really. What we have been conditioned by art to feel. We want to be spouting that poetry to beautiful, perfectly imperfect souls like we see on that magical silver screen. Those goddamn films have killed us with their impossible walking contradictions. The poets handed us loaded guns and the writers are holding queue cards to pull the trigger. Filling our heads with dreams we try endlessly to recreate.”
    He took a long, hard drink from his patient glass and waited for his words to really hit the boy while the whiskey hit him. He felt then, in that moment of silent reflection, as though he had become a conduit. As if someone else was speaking through him, for his words did not seem his own. The spirit of the bottle, perhaps? He couldn’t remember the last time he had talked so much to anyone. It wasn’t so bad. His throat was beginning to become sore and the whiskey was making his voice sound harsher than he meant for it to sound. It masked his sympathy and hid his sincerity.
     “Have you ever been in love with someone?” asked the boy.
    “Of course I have loved someone. Many someones!” the old man laughed. They came and went; transient affections. How long is forever anyway, really? A few months, a couple years? Eternity is surprisingly short, in my experience. Then again, it can happen…who knows? For me, most of them turned out to be no more than passing seasons. And now, in the winter of my years I see that all those eternities I was promised, all of those forever and infinities, however much time they really gave me, they were all worth it in their own way. I harbor no real regrets, who has the fucking time? Hell, I don’t even regret the bad ones–especially the bad ones!”
     “Those bad ones show you how good those good ones really were that you let go of so you can hold on next time around–if you are that lucky.” He paused to gather his thoughts, though the words flowed out of him in one long river as if he were a dam burst.
     “So many girls but ah, so few women! So few real women who know when to stoke the flame and when to douse it. I guess you could say that about men too. How many girls lost their faith in men because of some boy’s false religion? It’s as if people have forgotten how to be–how to be happy, how to be loved. There is no real soul to anything it seems anymore. It’s all made on the cheap. All this knowledge and no wisdom. It’s all just sex, instinct without passion. You’re all in heat, but that ain’t fire. Those embers won’t keep you warm the way a soul’s gotta stay warm. You’ll find bodies, sure. But you gotta dig for that kind of real fire kid, really dig. And you’ll know when you find it because then, you won’t even have to ask yourself. Then, you are going to burn something awful.”
     Somewhere behind them a man cursed aloud and threw his pool cue on the table. The boy looked back and glanced around the place as the old man attended to what was left of his drink. He saw men and women smiling at each other in the darkness, betrayed by the whites of their smiles and the glaze in their narrowed eyes. He overheard their conversations out of sheer curiosity and then laughed softly to himself, but he didn’t really know why.
     It was then that Martha came back around with two fresh glasses, “These are on the house boys!”
    “See,” said the old man, “Now this is a good woman! I can try and set you guys up if you like?!” And for the first time in the entirety of their evening together the boy heard the old man laugh. He was glad to have been an audience to it.
     “Tell your boyfriend to come back when he has some hair on his damn chest!” said Martha as she left the boy with a wink.
     The boy joined in on the laughter and together their sudden uproar drew the attention of everyone in the bar. They were both dismissed as drunken fools and were convicted on both counts. He felt much lighter than before, stronger somehow. As if the great weight of his despair had been suddenly lifted by the laughter of his transient companion. That illusion of invincibility found in the drink was coursing through his veins now, pumping out the sickness that had sought to claim him. It was too early to even consider a retreat. Instead, he would surrender himself again to the old man and leave himself at the mercy of his words. The boy smiled another one of those sad smiles from beneath his hair, “The writers really have damned us all, haven’t they?”
    “Who knows?” the old man shrugged. “Maybe they haven’t damned us at all. Maybe they have just been trying to save us?”
    “From what?” asked the boy with a tilt of his head.
    “Life…The life we find now in front of us. They are trying to save us, help us escape. Maybe in their scenes and pages they are just giving us a map–”
    “–to get out of where we feel the need to escape from.”
     “To lead us home, precisely! To save us and help us forget!” The old man stood up straighter in his stool, levitating almost, on sheer excitement alone. He felt something then, something he refused to call faith. More like bravery, a kind of greater hope. “Forget about our debts and dead ends! Death and taxes and the state and our goddamn religions! The wives and ex wives and their lousy head and their lousier, stinking husbands! Advertising, television, the pigs and the threat of cages…they want us to forget all of that. How could we damn them for wanting to paint a better picture for us that we didn’t have the balls to paint ourselves?”
     The old man hunched down and leaned in close and the boy couldn’t help but think there was a fire in his eyes. “Let’s not damn the movies or the writers. What if all they are trying to give us is hope? Hope that there is more to this life than all this phony bullshit we have built for ourselves. Just because you haven’t found it yet, doesn’t mean it isn’t real. I will drink to that. I will believe in that, if nothing else.”
     The boy smiled, “You’ll believe in fiction then?”
     “And who is to say we can’t make fiction real? I think people could use a bit more imagination and magic in their lives. Let them succumb be allowed to believe again. Let em’ fuckin’ burn! I feel for those poor souls who never even start; afraid of the fire. I did my dance. And I danced with some lovely creatures. But your song is just starting.”
The old man’s drunkenness was reigned in for a moment. “This thing you are going through, hell you know it’s temporary. Time is the dog that licks all wounds. You’ll mend this like you’ve sutured a thousand other wounds you’ve already forgotten about and go on. That’s the thing about life, son; it goes on.”
    The boy had never felt so foolish and yet so wise in all of his waxing years. His soul was made lighter by all the spirits he’d imbibed. His heart was still wounded, but that wound would soon bring to him a new kind of strength. This old soul had truly saved him, if only for a night. The boy stood up for the first time in what felt like days to him. Almost forgetting he even had legs, he wondered if he had always been this tall, as he found the floor to be quite problematic at first. He took out some crumpled bills from his pocket and threw them on the table. It was far more than what the bill would have been, but in his mind he was paying for a priceless lesson.
     “Thanks.” said the boy as he placed his hand gently with a reassuring pat on the old man’s shoulder. He let it linger there for a while.
The old man made no motion to remove himself, even placing his own wrinkled hand gently upon the boy’s fingers and squeezed them softly. No more words from him. He had given all he could spare.
    The boy finally found his feet, possessing once again the body that now felt so foreign to him, and walked back out to the street from which he came. Outside the night had come as quickly as the day had gone. The door closed behind him shutting out all the sounds of the atmosphere he flew out of, leaving him to suffer the silence of the night alone. And what a lonely night it was. The streets were empty and their lights flickered like so many fireflies.
     He was fantastically drunk but still fully aware of himself. It hurt a little less now, though the wound was still fresh. It would take time. Time is the dog that licks all wounds. A cold breeze caught his face and filled his nose with a sweet nocturnal perfume. He looked up from the cracks in the sidewalk and found a tilted crescent moon shining bright above him in an almost starless sky. He smiled, and the night seemed to smile with him.

ian gallows ©

Moments of Collapse

I awoke that day to the familiar patter of footsteps pacing the hardwood floors. But that morning, the steps were hurried and palpably manic. I opened my door to find my friend pacing the house with a phone to her ear and tears on her cheeks.

“Larry just died,” she said.

Larry. Her mother’s partner. An old oak of a man whose main method of communication was a series of grunts, scoffs, and dismissive waves. Visibly racked with a pain only a dying man can feel, no one ever questioned the brevity of his speech. He dwelled in a space of solitary that young people reserve for the old; kept at a respectable distance for to be any closer would remind them of the fate that awaits their spry joints and quick limbs.

“Larry is dead…”

The words washed over me with little sensation. A breeze through an open door, subtle and fleeting. I didn’t know him. He was but a fixture in a house to me. Someone I didn’t sit near or speak to besides whatever cheap courtesies I could afford. A nod. Hello. Goodbye.

He gave up the ghost a little after dawn. And in that sunrise I learned that you never really know when your last goodbye is for good.

As I watched my friend crumble before me, my male mind raced with solutions on how to fix a problem I’d never solve. In the wake of my helplessness I knew only that I should be there for her. So when she finally got in the car, I got in the fucking car too.

Her mother’s house was not the home I remembered. It was stirring with an unsettling static in the atmosphere, like something had been sucked out of the walls.  The yelling, the barking, the screaming, all the laughter, that chorus clamor of an affectionately dysfunctional family…it wasn’t there. The music of the house had dwindled to a mumbled lament. Not even the dogs made a sound. For the first time, I entered that house and was greeted by a stranger named Silence.

My friend walked up to her mother, whose face immediately swelled with tears like a dry wood that touches water. They held each other and their grief. I stood in the doorway and felt the pressure of something I didn’t know how to articulate then. I touched their shoulders in quiet consolation as they shook under the weight of their sobbing. I left them to their mourning without a word.

I walked down the long hall. My feet moved, driven with a purpose all their own. I had been down that hall I don’t know many times before; ushered by screaming children chased by panting dogs. Walking alone then, the hall suddenly felt so much wider than I remembered. I found my feet in front of his door. Beyond was a place I had never been, in every sense of what that could mean. I didn’t know what was on the other side but my body took me there, and I followed.

Larry’s bedroom was a simple and quiet place. A fine reflection of what I had seen of his character. The walls were completely unadorned, save for a few scattered photographs. Strange and familiar faces inside of small frames. Another family. Another life. A solitary window faced the street where the early morning sunlight began creeping in.

The light and I found him, sitting in a chair in the corner of the cold room; his head resting in his chest. His hands curled atop his lap where a blanket lay falling off his legs. The old man looked like he was just sleeping.

Almost like a spotlight, the sun stole into the room. The rays caused the naked white walls to shine brilliantly as they touched the atrophied limbs of the body in front of me. Almost heavenly, in a way–if, after all this time, you still believed in such things.

I had never seen a dead body before. It’s something your eyes see, plain as sunlight, but your mind struggles to grasp the concept. This person is gone; even with their body right in front of you, somehow you know they aren’t here anymore.

And yet, his peaceful countenance stirred in me a sense of disbelief. What if he is just sleeping? What if he isn’t dead?

With a steady hand I placed my fingers upon the life vein in his throat, searching for a semblance of a pulse. His body had already begun to atrophy and grow stiff. It felt as if human skin had been stretched across the bark of a tree. His pulse answered me as a statue would. I felt his chest for a heart beat but it’s measure was over. No breath. No movement behind the closed veils of his eyes.

In the hallway, I could hear the women he left behind crying. Sadness was in the walls and the house seemed to creak in response. I found his bed without any real thought and slowly sat down. I don’t know how long I stared at him. I can only tell you I could not look away. Neither fascinated nor disturbed. Not afraid nor really brave. I only felt this great sense of…nothing.

I felt nothing.

“Where’d you go, old man?” I asked him as I smiled to myself. Realizing then what a great joke this had just become. I just said more to this man in death than I think ever had in life. That distance I kept him at, would that I have closed the gap.

”I want to believe you went somewhere. Somewhere better, I do…” Conflicted with my own beliefs of the existence of an afterlife, talking to what was left of that old tree named Larry, I felt something then. I couldn’t tell you what it was. I could only tell you it was there.

I remember hearing once that when stars die they collapse under the weight of their own gravity. The star erupts, and when the dust settles what remains of the star and its energy coalesces around it’s former orbit to form a nebula. In that room I felt a pressure then, of a star that had gone out in a tiny universe with four white walls. And there is poetry there that I will forever struggle to properly articulate.

As I stared at the body of what used to be a husband, a son, a father, I noticed he had drool slowly falling from his mouth down the side of his great wrinkled face. It made him look particularly infantile. Regressed in death, to the stage of his birth. I took a rag and gently wiped away the spit. I took his blanket and covered him up to his neck. He didn’t seem so frail then. Just a man lost to a forever kind of dream.

And then I left him. To be mourned and seen by what people knew him. One by one his people began to visit the house to pay their respects and be there for one and another in their own way. They all began to regale stories of the old oak. His grumpiness was comical to most and to my surprise, he was quite a rambunctious soul. Had you only took the time to know him, he’d have talked to you. He might have even made you laugh. Scoffed at your youth and then, perhaps, shared some wisdom purchased at the cost of all his years.

And you couldn’t help but wonder, who will be there when my body is found? Will I make it to old age? Will I be so lucky, to pass quietly into that good night? Will they speak as fondly of me? You can only hope and strive to be that for people; a source of fond remembrance. In that crowded room in our wake, I couldn’t help but think that in the face of death, you can only live in spite of it. In truth, is that not life’s greatest rebellion?

As the house began to fill, I took a seat next to a friend, the youngest daughter of the now widowed Mother. She was holding in her arms her newborn niece, Mary Anne, swathed in a blanket and clutched at her breast. I sat next to these two beautiful creatures and my weary eyes just rested a while in their innocent countenance. Little Mary Anne, being fawned and awed by a love struck teenager.

Such life existed now in this house where, only moments ago, was only a vacuum of sorrow. Our own little rebellion, if we had anything to say about it. I edged closer to them and dove into Mary’s eyes. These great blue pools of curiosity teeming with wonder and contemplation. Searching the room until they found you. And then you just drown in there. You really do.

I reached out and touched her soft, porcelain hands and she grabbed my finger with a strength I didn’t know an infant could possess. In that moment, I can tell you, I felt something; love. This sudden unwavering desire for nothing but all the good of the world to befall this creature.

That feeling, it grips me as tight as her hold on my finger and does not let go. As I am swimming in her eyes, I see her begin to drool a bit. Her spittle falling gracefully over her face, I grab some napkins and wipe it all away from the cherub ever so softly. I wipe until her face is clean and ready to be admired. And then, I laughed. I didn’t know what else I could possibly do but laugh.

All Bows to the Gale – A DND Tale

The wolf licked his muzzle, still slick with the blood of his prey. The crimson hue of viscera indiscernible against it’s black as midnight coat. He scratched behind his ears, his claws scraping against giant horns that protruded unnaturally like that of a devil. It savored the taste with what could almost be mistaken as a smirk and then, intoxicated with satisfaction, the great beast collapsed, his paws lazily hanging over the edge of a bluff that gazed at an endless horizon of giant trees and imposing mountains.  The wolf watched with one eye lazily open as a plume of dust and flower blossoms burst forth from the long grass and took to the air. The pedals cascading gingerly in a waltz with the wind as they flew down the vast valley below him in a sea of red and gold, until finally vanishing into the brilliance of the setting sun. 

The great beast lifted it’s head and sniffed, then stretched with a dramatic yawn before curling into himself. The chill of Autumn was fast approaching. It’s culling breath bringing the slow death of Winter that would claim the weak and the sick from his land to let life thrive anew. And this was buy generic Pregabalin his land, the trees told him. Speaking in a language older than time that he could not comprehend, but one that he somehow understood. This forest belonged to him, and he belonged to the forest.

The Trees spoke to him, in creaks and groans and with wordless spells weaved from skeletal boughs that shivered from cold. A tuneless hymn that comforted his restless spirit with a constant hum. A sonnet that sung praises of his name and revered him as a God. A great protector. This was  dig this his land, and he would partake in the hunt here until the forest that bore him life took him again in death. There was no past, there was no future. Only the hunt.

And that was  enough.  

And yet, somewhere deep within him, between his swollen belly and pride, something gnawed at him. An itch he could not scratch, like a tick that had burrowed itself into the back of his mind. For as long as the wolf could remember, he had felt chased.

rencontre femme en suisse But what could ever catch him?

He was lightning made flesh. He brought with him a storm of claws and teeth. And still, he felt prey to something he could not sense. Stalked by a memory he could not recall that lay waiting for him. He had forgotten something, a task so much more greater than his station as the warden God of this land. No matter how long the trees sang for him, his body was restless and his dreams were haunted. When he dared to close his eyes again, he dreamed of her. 

A woman with skin like snow and hair tangled in a fire that somehow did not burn him. He feared and worshiped her, but he knew nothing of her tongue to sing her praise. She called to him, and he could not understand. He touched her with hands that were not his, the hands of a man. He felt her on his bare skin that had no fur but was never cold. There was a ravenous hunger that seemed insatiable, he desired her body but his teeth never broke her skin. In his sleep, the wolf bared his fangs with a longing to feel her smooth neck snap like a twig in his jaws and taste her blood, but as a man he had no claws or teeth. Just a soft mouth that took hers into his…over and over and over–

The wolf woke in the night crying with fear and fury. In the wake of his dream lay a monstrous sadness and anger residing in his heart all at once; clashing like two storm fronts colliding in the heavens. He howled, and lightning burst forth from his mighty jaws that tore a bright rift into the once black sky. Creatures of the night flew away from him with shrill shrieks of panic. He could feel the familiar pulse of the earth below him seek to placate his torment, but nothing could soothe the sickness he felt in his heart. A heart that this beast somehow knew was not only his.

Something was trying to surface within him and he would suffocate this other thing that dared to speak until it ran out of breath and surfaced no more. Nothing would overcome him. He was the wind, and all bows to the gale; even the mountains in time. But something else just as immense and dreadful as he had been looming behind him for far too long. Days passed into nights that brought through it’s black curtain a nightmare theater. Each night becoming more vivid than the last, clawing at his eyes until they were lashed red. The thing that hunted him was drawing closer. He felt it with his bones, with every shudder of his sharp instincts. Until the tremors grew to a quake and told him to run. And so he ran.

How long he ran, he did not know. Days blended into night and he dared not dream again. Leaves fell until there were leaves no more and the forest shuddered under a blanket of snow. Naked, still, and lifeless. The wolf’s breath frosted and singed with raw energy from the storm that surged within him. His waking life was surrounded by ghosts he could not outrun. He had fled his dreams and now they had followed him here. 

Faces he somehow knew but could not name chased him out of his forest and out of his mind. In his flight he begin to see specters. Phantoms from a past that brought pain that stabbed his heart like so many knives just from the sight of them. They hunted him, this great forest god, like a dog. And no matter how fast his flight, his past was always there ahead of him–waiting.

His great paws bled. His bones ached. His silver eyes bloodshot from the sleep he eluded. He had not known exhaustion, not truly, until his pace slowed to a trot, then to a crawl, until his great and terrible frame collapsed into the snow. It blanketed him slowly, the cold a welcome respite to the blood that had been boiling within him for so long. He saw the faces of his pursuers surrounding him now, these phantasms portraits of grief and pity. He snorted into the snow with what could almost pass as laughter.

You, pity me?  The Beast thought in the midst of his fever. I never needed you.

As if they could hear his thoughts, the visions vanished and he felt the pain in his heart only amplify at their departure. Carrion birds circled above him patiently while winter crept into his heart and he bid it freeze. He would run no more. Soon there would be nothing. No more dreams. No more ghosts. No more listening to the laughter of crows. The torment that gnawed at him would cease to bite and he would commit himself to the earth. How easy this was, to finally surrender…

The wolf closed his eyes for what he prayed would be the last time. 

The woman with fire in her hair came for him again, as he knew she would. He whimpered softly and his eyes pleaded to her. She bent down and he felt the burst of warmth from her hand part the snow from his eyes. Was this still a dream?  Her eyes met his with kindness, understanding, and…an insufferable sadness. A sadness he somehow knew he had helped author.

“You have to wake up, Sol.” she spoke. The song of her voice was sweeter than the forest ever sounded.

The wolf groaned with a tongue that was not his,“I…I…”

She leaned in and whispered in his ear, “I will wait for you…

Then she was gone. All was quiet and still. Time knew no measure until the wolf commanded his body to move and it slowly acquiesced to his demands. The snow falling off him as he desperately searched the woods for any trace of her. He began to move again, his body fueled only by sheer will now. The forest began to slowly recede, it’s hum now barely a whisper in his ears as the trees became sparser and sparser. Above him the pale sunlight began to creep in through the dense canopy and he began to see the clouds above him, pregnant with rain. He felt the wind shift directions against his fur and caught the scent of the sea not too far from him. The wind stung his nostrils with a salted bite and–something else. Something so familiar that the wolf froze and he remembered a name. 

“I–Ireena?”, the wolf spoke. His vocal chords deep and strained, rusted with time.

The wolf shot out of the snow like lightning from a thunder cloud. His body screamed but his roar was louder. A light rain began to fall as he ran towards the scent, his body a freight of desperate desire careening towards the one thing that ever felt like home. The beast broke through great trees, snapping trunks in twain as if they were nothing.
The very floor beneath him seemed to quake in panic when suddenly, the forest itself moved against him. The earth shifted and heaved in mighty tremors as gnarled tendrils shot from the ground and roots grasped at his limbs.

He roared and snapped as he smashed through rock and root as they splashed and splintered against his mighty form. His energy waned as he plummeted against the wilds. His body beaten with sleeplessness and hunger. He slowed. No matter how many boughs he broke against his body they continued their assault. He frothed at the mouth, snapping and gnawing until the tendrils of forest ensnared him in shackles. The feeling of chains all to familiar.

Instantly the wolf was transported to a cage in his mind. He was now a just a small child, crying and afraid behind bars that his tiny limbs could not yield to bend. A prisoner put on display for the world’s entertainment for his difference. He was a Tiefling, a spawn of demons and man, cursed for an existence and form he never chose. Years spent in chains tattooing permanent scars on his wrists and ankles that would never heal in his body or his soul. Until one day the boy summoned his wrath into a wreath of flame, like the devil they all claimed him to be. And with his own burning shackles choked the life out of his captors and escaped.

Lightning and flame surged in the wolf’s eyes and his great body heaved with renewed fury. He would never be a prisoner again, not even in paradise. He was the god of this forest, the forest was not his god. And he would command it to bow. His heaving breath smoked in the winter air and crackled. The wolf howled, his eyes glowed from silver to a blinding white ignited with cosmic sparks. The clouds above him darkened and burst open. With a power he had forgotten he had paid a great price for, he brought the wrath of the heavens down.

The wolf emerged from what was left of the wilds, the forest all but ash and smoke behind him. His body burned, bloodied, and broken. The rain pelted his fur and blood ran in streams from his wounds. 

In the clearing before him, he saw a cabin by the sea, built upon a cliff. A house he had built, in another life. Like the north star at sea, a lone light illuminated a window and the hearth smoked. The beast moved toward the cabin with a will no longer it’s own, it resigned itself to the voice it had made mute for so long.

With each step he recalled a different memory, as if leaving the forest allowed him to finally remember. Flashes of another life surged across his mind. This was the home they made with each other, him and the woman with fire in her hair. Far away from anyone who would do them harm. They’d both been hunted in their other lives. And from then on, far and away from anything that they had known, they could finally find some semblance of peace in their house above the sea.

His broken spirit began to lift as he stepped closer and closer. He’d be haunted by her memory no more. Now, he could finally join her and the beast could rest. He moved quietly in the rain, fear suddenly gripping him but not enough to stay his pace. He followed the scent and then he found her. Beneath a pile of wet dirt and a weathered stone that read,  


Here Lies Ireena Holstead
Beloved Wife, Mother, and Healer
Rest in Peace

The wolf stared at the stone. Reading the words over and over as the rain spattered against it. Below him the waves crashed and he recalled a vision of her playing in the sea with no regard for anything but the waves. He longed to see her again. He began to whimper, and pawed at the wet dirt below him. This couldn’t be true. He had to see. He had to see her. His bloodied paws moved the earth and the mud with a desperate frenzy.

A door burst open behind him and a woman readied her rifle against the pillar of her porch and fired a warning shot into the air.

“STOP!”, she screamed as the gunshot echoed off the cliffs.

The wolf turned with a growl and bared his fangs. He saw a red haired woman behind him who looked so much like the woman in his dreams that his eyes widened and his jaw closed. But she was not his Ireena. Her hair was a dark red, and she had eyes the color of the sea at midday and her belly was swollen with child. While the wolf could smell her fear, he could still sense her resolve. Seeing those eyes behind the rifle’s sights, that gaze told him she would not flee.

He looked back at the tombstone and the world seemed to freeze. Nothing moved but the rain. The women kept her eyes down the sights, while the wolf contemplated the grave. Suddenly, he broke the armistice and tilted his head back. The woman jolted as his haunting cry echoed off the cliffs. His howl suspended in time and air. He continued to mourn, as other wolves from far and away in the forest took up his lament. 

The woman kept her rifle aimed true at the giant wolf’s heart but paused. She studied it’s body, broken and battered from a recent battle, but also a lifelong one. His body reminded her of a tree that had been struck by lightning. Parts of it’s skin still singed from the burn, and arcs of electricity still seemed to pulse bright and blue from his veins. But it was the horns that curled back from his head…those horns.

Her eyes widened as the howl turned into an inhuman cry, distorted and unnatural. She saw the fur from the wolf began to fall from his form. It’s bones began to snap. Cracking in and out of place as she watched in horrid fascination the monstrous wolf turn into the form of sobbing man. A man with skin like that of a corpse and grey eyes that burned bright against his tattooed face. The horns of a devil sprouting ominously from long black hair that failed to cover a trail of a lightning scar down the right side of his cheek. His naked and scarred body shook, whether it was from the cold or his pain, she did not know.

But she did know him.

“Are you…Solitude?”, she asked from behind her rifle.

The Tiefling slowly stifled his sobs. He looked at the woman, with tears still flowing from his silver eyes lost amidst the falling rain. Without irises, his eyes seemed devoid of expression and yet still, they were the saddest eyes she had ever seen. 

“I…am. I…was.”, he said looking away from her. The scarred half of his face seemed paralyzed and sagged, and he spoke out of the side of his mouth. “Are you…Ireena’s daughter?” 

“Reena was my Grandmother. My name is Rose.”, she said, finally putting down her rifle against the cabin. “She was waiting for you, you know?”  

Solitude recalled the last thing Ireena had ever said to him. It was right before he had left to forage the forest before the Winter snowed them in. She said the same thing she had whispered in his ear in the forest,

“I will wait for you.”   

He startled suddenly as Rose placed a fur coat over him to shield his body from the cold of the rain. She knelt in front of him, and reached out to touch his horns before stopping herself. 

“I thought you were a dream brought on by the fever that took her. But here you are. The man who was a devil that was a beast…She told me about you, right before she died. She told me everything. And I never believed her. She told me she waited for you. And when you didn’t come back from the forest she went looking for you. She said it felt like…like the wilds were keeping you from her. They say these woods are cursed. That this forest grants you wishes. She went in there over and over, wishing to see you again, going round in circles that always brought her back. Until one winter she fell ill and a hunter found her half dead in the snow. He took her back here and nursed her back and well, you know how it goes…Guess she finally got her wish though.”

She paused for a long while awaiting a response, but none came. “Why didn’t you come back?” 

Solitude’s eyes rose from the grave to Rose’s eyes, searching and hoping for some manner of deception that was not there. How had it been so long?

“The forest did not let me leave and I…I forgot myself. It felt like a dream, or a curse I just kept drifting deeper into. A part of me always knew. Maybe I chose to forget…”

The Tiefling rose up with great effort, and with a slight raise of his hand the soil he’d dug up around the disturbed grave began to shift and coalesced into a proper burial mound once again. Rain pattered on the fresh soil as he outstretched his bleeding arm and let a few drops of blood drip over the soil. Tiny buds began to emerge from the earth that grew with unnatural speed into brilliant red roses that blossomed all around the grave of Ireena Holstead.

“I am so sorry,” said the Devil to the flowers. “Did she live a happy life?” 

“She lived,” said Rose. “That’s more than most get.”   

Solitude clutched the fur to his chest and turned to the direction of the sea and began to limp away.

“Wait,” cried Rose. “…why did you call yourself ‘Solitude’?”

The Tiefling stopped and turned to her, forcing a smile at her with the part of his face that could still move. 

“Other than Ireena, it’s the only thing I ever wanted. I guess the Forest gave me my wish, too.”

Rose watched until he was out of sight and legend.

The Devil who helped stop a great curse that affected an entire people fell victim to one of his own making. No one knows what fate befell Solitude, but every Fall there after the Holstead family would find furs and food at their doorstep to get them through the harsh Winters. And as the cemetery on the cliff grew, each new grave would suddenly blossom with the the most brilliant red roses. Until the cliff the cabin was built on eventually fell into the sea. For all bows down to the gale in the end.

Even the mountains.