The beginning of this dream is lost. The first thing I remember is dark, cold moors. There isn’t a house around for miles. No lights. I have a job to do, but I don’t want to do it. Oh god, I don’t want to do it. But I have to. If I don’t do what I set out to do, my life will be forfeit.
I smile in the darkness, even though he can’t see it, and grasp his hand. I hope my grip is steadier than it feels. The smile feels traitorous on my face. He drinks more. Good. He’s drunk. Not drunk enough to stumble and fall. I have to make sure he doesn’t drink that much. He’s bigger than me, so if he goes down, I have to do it the hard way. The mere thought of it sends my stomach pitching and rolling like the hills over which we walk.
Darkness coats the moors like paint, but I look up and read the thick spray of stars well. I know these moors and I know where I must take him. It’s not far, but the bitter wind slices through to my bones and slows me. Neither of us has a heavy coat, but that doesn’t bother him. Alcohol is his coat.
I stretch out the hand that’s not connected to his and brush something hard and rough. The tree.
I tell him that we need to wait a minute, but I don’t let go of his hand. Don’t dare. I can’t lose him in the darkness. I lean against the tree, wrap my free arm around it and press my cheek to its crusty, craggy bark.
I know what it looks like in the light: Gnarled and twisted, dark and blasted. Its limbs do not reach for the sky anymore; they’re arthritic fingers, curled into knobby claws by time and age. It’s shedding its bark; it falls off in musty-mossy chunks. Wind and water and day and night have worn away the ground around its roots. They rise from the earth like the backs of sea serpents. He trips over them and almost falls. My heart leaps into my throat. But he leans on the tree to get up again.
“Don’t touch it,” I almost scream. “It’s not yours!” I screw my mouth shut against the scream pressing against the backs of my teeth.
Technically it’s not mine either, but I bare my teeth and snarl at him silently. He doesn’t notice. He spilled his beer on the roots of the tree. I want to force his head down and make him lick it off, but there are more important things to get done.
I don’t want to leave the tree. I draw no comfort from its crumbling existence. Its peeling, pointed bark pierces the bare flesh of my cheek and arm, but I grip it tighter anyway. It is still warm, and that’s what I cling to.
It’s time to go, I say to myself. You have to. Now.
I let go of the tree gingerly, feeling like I’ve left my heart impaled on one spiny piece of bark. It’s connected to me only by strings, which spin out like thread on spools as we make our way over the moors.
It’s downhill now, and I know we’re getting close. I don’t hear it yet, and I hope he won’t hear it until it’s too late.
There is no moon, which is good and bad. Good because there isn’t enough light for him to read the land and, more importantly, to read me. He’s always been good at that, and I’ve been bad about keeping my heart hidden. Bad because I love the moon. I miss the moon. It anchors my heart. It is my eye, my satellite, my safety, my blanket of light in this always-night.
He doesn’t notice when I begin to hum. He still holds the empty beer bottle and tips it back from time to time, trying to drink from it. We still hold hands. I try desperately to keep my grip from mimicking the clawed branches of the tree.
To my dearest forsaken
Who the earth now has taken
Empty, the bottle drains no more
A rushing, hushing sound begins to drown out my quiet hums. I’ve been down here dozens of times, but that doesn’t matter. I must be still. Because to most, the sound has no source. It creeps and surrounds, blankets and disorients, makes you scared and dizzy. The very air makes the sound, it seems, and it’s warning you like a rattlesnake.
But I know better. I know how to find the source of the sound. I close my eyes and remove myself from myself. It used to be a lot more difficult than it is now. I throw my consciousness out wide in front of me like a net and find what I’m looking for. Close. Not even a football field away. Relief and trepidation muscle into my mind and I am sucked back into myself.
Awareness begins to clear the cloud of drunkenness around him and he asks where we’re going. I squeeze his hand in reassurance, which he seems to accept. We walk. I feel the strings attached to my heart begin to pull. I hum.
It is true that I loved you
Despite the harm now on you
Wash us; the river has you, boy
As we get closer, the sound does not grow or change. It gets colder, though, as we pick our way through the blasted moor grasses, down, down. I glance up. The fog kicked up by the water is separating us from the stars. That’s okay. It’s not them I’m wedded to, not their tiny needlepricks of cold white light. I urge him deeper into the mist.
We may as well already be underwater. It’s bone-cold and dangerously black. The air, the fog, the sound presses on us like silt on a riverbed. Here is where it gets tricky for me. I don’t know precisely where the drop-off is, so I have to tread like a frightened child, reaching out to test the ground with one foot before I take each step. I tell him not to step ahead of me.
Even though that would be easier.
But I still have hold of his hand; if he falls, he’ll grip me tighter instead of letting go.
I can’t let that happen. I can’t fall with him. I can’t.
The heartstrings, connected to my heart still at the tree, are nearly taut now.
With my next step I reach out, step on nothing but air. I find the edge of the bank, orient myself along it so that we stand side by side facing the yawning crevasse the river has cut into the flank of the moor.
Despite how close we are to the roaring rapids, the sound is not deafening. That’s because the water has spent millions of lifetimes carving this never-healing wound; it’s cut so deep into the earth that the sound works so hard to reach us it’s tired and weak when it gets here.
“It’s warm,” he says.
It is. The poisonous cold is less here, right at the bank, especially when you lean out over the emptiness. The river ran so deep it must have struck the earth’s vital warmth, which it was now releasing. I look down, even though it’s still too black to see even a hand an inch from my face. The water must be boiling down there.
I let go of his hand.
Here on the eve of too long
Where you’ll think I have done wrong
Waking in fear of you no more
I am scared. I feel the triphammer-pound of my heart through the strings, which thrum and vibrate and send out a frantic, skittery song.
He is quiet. Still. He’s sober now and beginning to guess why we’re here. I have to do it before he realizes how deeply I violated his trust.
I have to do it.
I wonder if he can feel the terror and anticipation baking off me in waves.
I have to do it.
I will the soft soil under his feet to suddenly crumble and pitch him into nothingness.
I have to do it.
I put my hand on his shoulder.
If he decides to fight, he’ll win. He’s bigger and stronger than me. What will I do then?
If I move another inch, the taut strings of my heart will snap.
I have to do it. Now.
I take a shuddering, painful breath and push.
There is a terrible ripping from the center of my chest. The pain is blinding. It tears the breath out of me and I fall back onto the bank coughing and gasping. I clasp the sucking hole in my chest, expecting to plunge my hand into gouts of hot, thick blood, but feel nothing. Not even a hole.
I feel nothing.
I lie there for a moment and catch my breath. Gazing up into the stifling blackness, I begin to hum again.
To my dearest forsaken
Dearest vow I have broken
Afraid of your angry hands no more
River may help me later
Sleeping my lost love for you, boy
Song: "Dearest Forsaken" By Iron and Wine