I’m taking a departure into something a little bit more unusual.
Many people don’t know this, but along with fiction, I’ve been an avid poet over the years. I’ve written close to 500 pieces of poetry, on a wide range of subjects. And one of those poems (one near and dear to my own heart) eventually found its way into story form, of a sort. So, now I offer you something very different, as I unveil the short story/poem that defined a major transition in my own life.
A Short Story by Esther Mitchell
The old fountain pen clinks against the side of the inkpot, as if shaking loose what little ink it has managed to find in the dry glass jar. Then, like the dry rasp of dying man’s last breath, it scrapes across the brittle, yellowed paper. It is the only sound in the eerie stillness of the dark room. A single dot of light blooms in the withered void of night, barely sufficient to see by. Yet, pen trembling, a pale hand endeavors to write, spurred by the weary desperation of its mistress. Only the night bears witness to her cloudy eyes, to the salty water which slips down her parched cheeks. As the tears slowly fall from face to page, each drop punctuates the words her hand frantically scribbles:
‘Without earthly thought,’ plip
‘I, nightly, spend this tryst,’ plip
‘wrapped in dreams dearly bought,’ plip
‘which vanish, as dawn’s ethereal mist,’ plip
The words fall from mind to lips to paper without so much as a whisper. The matted grey hair that wreathes her face stirs as a breeze slips through the room, changing the dimensions of the darkness for an instant. She is beyond feeling such winds, beyond seeing these changes in shadows. Her eyes are fixed solely on her unfinished task.
‘Within pages unwritten,
beyond lives never lived in,
rests forbidden fruit, as yet unbitten,
a knowledge offered but never given’
Her head slips slowly down, her lined face sagging behind curtains of steel and snow. It is so easy to slip into that other place, to leave this all behind. Her mind lives in a younger age, a memory she’s never forgotten, and never will. Lonely years have greyed her hair and wrinkled her skin, but her gaze holds the starlight of eternal youth. Nearly a century of distrust and solitude have made her hands shake, and her breath a faint tremble through thin lips, but the bloom of youth still lingers in her heart. She remembers clearly what the night hours have given her, and what they have taken from her, over the years. As she remembers, the pen scratches out those memories in a fierce symphony of pain and joy.
‘Nightly here, I’ve reverently slipped,
to dance a dream’s darkness,
safe within Morpheus’ grip,
my heart a dark jewel in his starkness;’
‘Here in dreams I am safe from harm,
a fugitive child, held so tightly,
in love’s warmth, childhood’s charm,
here, I escape daylight woes, nightly’
Age has worn her body down, these loveless years in which sleep has become her only solace, her personal haven. In her dreams alone did she once meet love, and, over the years, it has been in dreams that she learned the lessons of life. However, her waking hours have left her empty, longing for a sleep she will not awaken from, a dream that never ends. Her waking life is as bare as her tiny room.
The shuffle of steps moves past her door, and her eyes turn mournful. No one stops here anymore, and her room has become a cell. The walls close in more tightly with every day, it seems. Only night holds reprieve from the endless suffocation. Only sleep gives her wings beyond her tiny cage of glass and stone. She slips into sleep as quickly as she can most nights. As soon as the sun touches the horizon to the west, she escapes into blessed slumber. But not this night. No, this night she will not sleep. But her hours of agitation are nearly at an end, her time of dreaming nearly come, as she labors to create, in these last hours before dawn, a memory of her only haven, her only friend. In these dark hours between twilight and dawn, she drives away that welcome weariness as she strives to explain her passage from waking to sleeping, to grant a first and last glimpse of her fragile young heart to those who will come in the hours and days after. The trembling in her hands seems greater now, her control more frayed, as she scrawls her heart onto that yellowed page.
‘Here I’ve found my only home,
a dream well bought and spent,
to dance before a silver throne,
where time’s veil remains unrent’
Slowly, her head lifts, and her eyes touch the paleness of dawn beyond the horizon outside her small window. Pain stabs her chest, briefly, and she feels at last the chill, touching every limb. Shivering, she draws her shawl up about her quaking shoulders with a violently shaking hand. Her words on the page before her seem blurred, beyond comprehension, and each stroke she makes slants a little more, wobbles about the page like a drunken oaf. Her hands tremble with the shivering cold of the dawn, a dawn she will not look at, light she refuses to see. Her watery, weary eyes fix stoically on the page and her lips compress as the last words jerk from pen to page with the squeal of a tortured animal.
‘Now, as dawn slays the night,
so do I leave the waking place,
and though dawn flees from my sight,
I’ll at last see pale Morpheus’ face.’
A final squeak leaves a trail of inky blackness down the yellow face of the paper, but no hand moves to correct the error, no eyes scan the final line for its ending. Only the quivering light of dawn, peeping solemnly through the tiny window, notices the frail figure slumped before her writing table, her eyes fixed beyond the waking world as the last spark of starlight gutters away.
copyright 1993 by Esther Mitchell