Sweetest Love Return Again



by Michelle K
artwork by Linn Bankson


On nights like this one, she imagined tiny frozen angels had crawled inside her and buried themselves in her bones.  The chill hovered in corridors and chambers, dry and frigid.  Breath fluffed into the air in cloudy bursts, and the walls – normally cool – felt icy to the touch.

The community was in full preparation for Winterfest.  Decorations must be hung and candles delivered.  The guest list mounted and with it, committees to ensure that no one was left behind.  The library flurried with activity.  Father – ever the watchful eye – doled out assignments with strategic precision.  William toiled in the kitchen, barking orders at his helpers.  Rebecca spent long hours in the chandlery.  Vincent, Winslow and a few others worked on minor repairs.

Never a girl of particular talent, Olivia found comfort in being useful.  Where help was needed, she was there to offer it.  Only the day before, she had mended three torn garments, swept the remains of a broken lamp, and cared for one of the children while his parents went Above.  Here she was necessary.  She was safe.

She hadn't ventured far from home for many months.  It wasn't her way.  Even as a youth, she had rarely explored beyond the central tunnels.  Timid.  That's what Winslow called her.  Timid little rabbit.

Not timid.  Cautious.

Olivia stopped and turned.  "Daniel?"

Only the long empty corridor and the labyrinth beyond.

Leave it, Liv.  Let it go.

She was nearing the surface.  The walls were smoother, rounder … painted with slushy rivulets that trickled from Above.  She touched one and it cracked beneath her fingers ... traveled like a miniature glacier with a stream of water and ice to the floor.  So fragile.  Delicate … breakable …

Like me.

Not like you.  You’re strong.  You always were.

I never was.  And now I’m here ... alone.

She reached into her pocket and her fingertips grazed the objects secreted there.  How she wished ... 

But no.  Not now.  Never again.  She trudged onward, her resistance weighting her legs.  A pledge ... a reluctant promise ... a pain she refused to release.

Once each year, until all was ended.  

Forgotten.

Never forgotten, Daniel. 

Banished, then.

I could never ... 

Leave it, Olivia.  Leave me ... in the past.  Move on.

I’ll never leave you.  Never.   But ... maybe one day ... when the world is dust.  Then ... I might let you go.

A few more steps and she was at the gate.  She pulled the crank and watched the door roll in on itself.  Not far now.  Quickly.

She moved down the final passage and hesitated at the exit.  There was a largeness Above … sounds and smells and a wide open sky that heated her blood.  Exhilarating … and terrifying. 

The park was wrapped in stillness; midwinter serenity lay like a blanket over the land, the bitter cold chasing away the undesirable … the danger.  The dark had begun to recede, leaving in its wake a hazy amethyst sky.  It beckoned her into the arms of the world … beyond the culvert, past the patches of vibrant green that poked up through the snow.

Olivia shivered in the wind … took one step ... then another ... until she stood at the base of a giant elm.  Its trunk was violently knotted, the twisted stumps like faces in the dark … gnomes of the winter wood.  She pulled off her gloves and ran her hand over the bark, dropping her fingers into every crevice, searching …

There.  A nub the size of her fist protruded outward – a bulbous nose on a rough and callous face.  On its underside, covered with a layer of mossy stubble, she found the jagged edges of a coarsely carved Y ... E ... she felt for the S, but it had long since disappeared, filled in with new growth ... new life.

She closed her eyes and imagined it as it had been – imperfect, poorly fashioned.  YES.  No initials, no identifications, no explanations.  Only one word, etched by untrained hands.

YES.

She traced it with the tips of her fingers.

“Yes, Daniel,” she whispered.  “Still yes.”

She broke off a piece of bark and pressed her nose to the wound; the wood was dryer than she expected, softer.  From its depths came a trace of cinnamon.

She turned her back to the tree and slid to the ground.  It was near dawn; the city was waking.  She noticed it first in the pungency of trash and unwashed flesh that drifted from an elderly man who pushed a shopping cart through the snow.  He carried his life’s wealth with him: an old woollen blanket, edges frayed and dirty ... a stack of newspapers ... a black bag that held the breeze in its thin, plastic sail.  Atop the pile rested a rusty wire cage.  It appeared empty.  Olivia 
wondered what animal had once inhabited the unfriendly enclosure.

The man bent sharply at the waist, his large ruddy hands steadying his load as it rocked and bumped over the earth.  There was something poetic in the tilt of his chin, the way he bore himself over the cart.  Distinguished.  Familiar.

A shave, a bath ... new clothes and a warm bed ...

Like Father.  The same uncomplaining weariness, the same cares.  She breathed in his stench as it dissipated on the wind.  Proof of life.  A life that might have been hers, had circumstances been different.  A life that might have been Fathers, too.  Or Mary’s, or ...

Or Daniel’s.

She bit her lip and shoved her hands in her pockets.

“Don’t you love me, Liv?”  His hand played over her hair, a lock twisting and curling between his fingers. 

“You know I do, but ...”

“Then why not?  We belong together.”  He took her shoulders `and stared into her eyes, his own dark with passion and pain.  “Please say yes.”

She hadn’t said yes.  Not then.  Not for years.  We’re too young.  I’m not ready.  If only she had known what was to be ... and what was not.  If only she’d listened ... to Daniel, who would not live without her ... to Vincent, who urged her to follow her heart ... to herself, and the love that could not be denied.

Grey light crept through the leaves above her; she felt it upon her face, watched it inch nearer her feet.  She stretched one leg toward it and pressed her toe into the frosty grass.  It crunched beneath her shoe ... a sad note, a final plea.

Night’s farewell.

But not yours. 

Soon.

Not yet.  Stay with me.

Songbirds chirped hesitantly in the cold.  The wind joined their keyless notes, then cued the leaves – which soared from their safe havens and crumbled to ash before landing.  From the streets echoed the first trumpets of morning traffic.  A symphony of chaos, a blaring cacophony of worldly sound that could find no rival Below ... not even in the pipe chamber.

The pipes have their own music … their own secrets.

She smiled.  Yes.  Their own secrets.  Heat flooded her cheeks.  It seemed that even adulthood could not ease the turbulence of that night … her sensitivity, her embarrassment.  Meal times spent staring at her food, avoiding the unreadable expressions that seemed to … know.  Father's speculative glances.  Mary's mischievous smile.

And Daniel ... who did what he could to ease her turmoil.  He brought her Above, lay with her on the grassy knoll, twined his fingers with hers.  He touched her shoulder, her cheek.  Stop worrying, Liv.  A kiss to her temple, warm breath at her ear.  No one knows.


A sob leapt to the back of her throat.  She released it little by little, a low hum in the gloom.  No tears.  There were never tears.


Stay with me.

From her pocket, she withdrew the last tangible remains of her longing: a paper crisply folded, a velvet ribbon, the stump of an old candle, a ceramic dish in the shape of a star.

She slid the ribbon between her fingers.  It was lush and pale, the lavender like cream against her wind-burned skin. She loosed her hair until it fell freely around her face.  Slowly, meticulously, she braided it around her head.  She hadn’t any flowers, she realized.  She had forgotten the dried posies Mary gave her.  No matter.  She wove the ribbon through her dark tresses, curling it around the locks of hair.  Had she a mirror, she might believe she was beautiful.

She had never been beautiful.

She took the stump of candle and set it upright in her palm.  This would be its last year; the wax was almost depleted, the wick short and frayed.  She remembered it as it had been, that night in the chandlery when Alice hovered at her shoulder and guided her hand.

Her first attempt.  And her last.  She hadn’t the talent for candle making; her hands were too small, her arms too weak.  She was far too impatient.

* * *

I’ll never get it, she whined.  Alice pressed her arm down until the wick was almost entirely submerged.

“Dip deeply.  See there?  Don’t let it linger.  Dip, raise.  Dip, raise.  That’s it."

But Olivia's arms ached, and switching between them did nothing to ease the tension.  Dip.  Rest.  Raise.  Dip.  Rest.  Raise.  Dents and curves formed where the candle leaned into the can's edge.  Waves of wax melted away.  Soon, all that remained was a strange formless twig, bumpy and crooked.  She plopped her creation into a pillar mould and poured in a thick layer of wax.  The final result, she thought with amused pride, was a malformed appendage growing from a blob of nothing.

Alice was encouraging. "It takes practice.  Come back tomorrow.  We'll try again."

Olivia knew better.  There would be no going back.

* * *

She smiled at the stump ... less than a blob now.  A quick strike against the tree and the match burst to life.  She lit the candle and set it in the dish.  Stay with me ... just a little longer.

The sun would rise soon; already flames of golden light were stretching above the horizon.  She must hurry ...

* * *

“Hurry!  C’mon!”  He tugged at her hand, pulling her with such force she nearly floated along the path. 

“Slow down ... I can’t keep up!”

He turned and met her eyes, his own locked against her scrutiny ... a vault of mystery and magic.  He grinned and pulled her harder.  Olivia, tripping over tired feet, begged him to stop.

"We're almost there.  I promise."  He stopped at a steep incline and gestured her forward.  "Up here."

Olivia eyed it with caution.  The passage was narrow and dark, and she couldn't see more than a few feet ahead.  “I'm not going up there."

"C'mon, Liv.  Trust me."

"The last time I trusted you, I ended up knee deep in mud in my new dress."

"I told you that was an accident.  I didn’t know the rains would flood the passage.  Besides … this one’s elevated.  See?  No mud."  He crossed his hand over his heart.  Still, Olivia hesitated.

"Liv."  He stepped closer.  Olivia craned her neck to meet his eyes.

"Please?"  He leaned forward and kissed the tip of her nose.  "Please?"

There was peppermint on his breath.  Probably taken from Father's not-so-secret stash.  Deep in his vest, she was bound to find the remains of the stolen candy cane, a piece broken off and saved just for her.

"Okay," she sighed.  She gathered her skirt and began climbing, Daniel not far behind.  The incline wasn't as steep as it appeared, though it was damp and musty; pipes lined the walls on either side, and she was certain she heard water dripping.

When she reached the top, she climbed out onto what seemed at first to be a ledge, but on closer inspection revealed a small cave – an alcove surrounded by pipes.  Messages coursed through the metal conduits, the clashing tones melodious in their own way.  Or so Pascal insisted.

"The pipe chamber."  Disappointment rang through her voice.  This was what he wanted her to see?  "So what?"

"So …" he said, pulling her deeper into the alcove.  "Look at this.  It's like … um … a …" 

She pursed her lips and moved around him.  The ceiling dipped low at an angle, creating a barrier along one side that shadowed the back wall.  She stepped into the darkest corner.  It was ... private.

“Yes ...” she whispered.  “I see.”

* * *

She lay on her back, ignoring the shock of cold as the snow seeped through her clothes.  The tree loomed above her, its knotty branches extending an awkward embrace.  She closed her eyes and imagined his arms reaching ... his body beneath her ... his voice whispering her name.
Olivia ...

Yes, Daniel.  Still yes.

It was here, at this tree, where he had proposed.  Once ... We’re too young.  Twice ... We have a hundred years.  Three times ...

* * *

Something had changed.  She wasn’t certain how … only that things were different.  She looked up at him and her heart rushed beneath layers of cotton and cashmere ... so loud she knew he must hear it, too.  She had already given him everything she was – her body, her mind, her loyalty ... her love ...

“Yes.”  She whispered it first to his chest, her face buried in the rough wool of his coat.  She felt him pull away and clutched him more tightly, her chin tilting upward until she could see the small scar at his jaw.  She pressed her lips to it and sighed.  “Yes,” she said again, louder.

* * *

Olivia sometimes wondered whether she’d ever had a choice.  Vincent spoke of greater powers ... dreams and destiny, the pull of twin souls, the pairing of hearts.  She thought of Daniel … and the void of his absence.  Vincent must be right.

She rose to her knees.  The candle was nearly finished; the melted remains offered only a few more minutes of light.

Hurry now.

She unfolded the paper slowly, taking care of the worn creases, the smudges along one edge.  Her hand trembled over the faded words ...

* * *

He lay among the blankets she had brought from their chamber, the fever like dragon’s breath upon his brow.  The collapse had been the worst they'd seen for many years.  The walls were saturated by the flood; the crew had worked shift upon shift to shore them up, but they were too late.

She had remained at his side for days, pleading ... praying over injuries that might be healed, if only he would go Above.

But he refused.  “My life is here.”

“Father, make him go!”

Father, whose voice had been the anchor of her world ... whose hand graced children with life ... whose secret torment healed other broken souls with kindness, forgiveness, compassion.  Father ... could do nothing.

“It’s my time, Liv ...”

“It’s not your time! It will never be your time!”

“We had a hundred years ...”  She shook her head, but he pressed on.  “We had a lifetime.”

“Don’t do this, Daniel ... please.  Go Above.  Peter will take care of you.”

He pressed it into her hand, a folded piece of paper he’d taken from beneath the blankets.   

She started to open it.  “No,” he whispered.  “Not now.  Save it ... for ... later.”

The tears came freely, spilling over her face like a gentle rain.  “Don’t go ...”

“You have to promise me something.”

“Anything.”

“Live your life.”

“My life is with you.”

“Leave me, Liv.  In the past.  You’ll have another hundred years.”

“I’ll never leave you.”

“Then banish me to the corners of your memory, and take me out on special occasions.  Like your purple ribbon.”

“Lavender,” she corrected.

“Lavender.”  He smiled.  “Promise me.”

“I can’t.”

“You can.  Special occasions, Liv.  Once a year ... until all is ended.”

She stared at his fading smile.  His face was flush, his eyes pained.

“Promise,” he said again, and she knew it was nearly done.

“I promise.”

* * *

She brought the page to her chest and clutched it in one hand.  Beneath it, she knew her heart continued, but in that moment ... always in that moment ... she felt it stop as his had stopped.   She heard the hush of his final breath, watched his eyes grow distant, saw her dreams crumble to dust.

She had cried once, when it seemed the tears were forever.  One hundred years.

Olivia took in a breath and lowered the paper to her lap.  With one finger, she traced the curve of every letter, his messy script impossible to read in the early morning light.  With the ghosts of memory upon her, she needed no light.  She needed nothing but him ... and it was his voice she heard, as dusk spread across the park.

It is enough of honor for one lifetime
To have known you better than the rest have known,
The shadows and the colours of your voice,
Your will, immutable and still as stone.
The shy heart, so lonely and so gay,
The sad laughter and the pride of pride,
The tenderness, the depth of tenderness
Rich as the earth, and wide as heaven is wide.[1]


She brought the paper to her face and ran it over her cheeks ... pressed it to her nose and searched for his lingering scent.  It had long since disappeared.

She refolded the paper and placed it in her pocket.  The candle had snuffed itself out.  She lifted the dish; the wax sloshed over the rim and hardened on her finger.  Once each year, until all is ended.

A sting at her cheek.  She raised her free hand to brush it away, but there was nothing there.  Only the cold reminder of his absence ... and ... tears.  Bitter, icy stains upon her skin.  There were never tears.

There are always tears.

Spikes of gold impaled the morning sky.  A bird whistled from a branch somewhere far above her.  Soon, children would rush through the park, excited to greet the snow and gather it into their hands.  Proof of life, she thought, rising to her feet. 

As she made her way back to the culvert, she heard once more the sweetness of Night’s farewell.

Not farewell, my love.

No. She smiled.  Not farewell.  Love will return again … for another hundred years.









[1] Teasdale, Sara.  “The Beloved.



1 comments:

Ophelia April 10, 2011 at 12:54 PM  

Lyrical, hopeful, and sad. Such a beautiful piece of work, Michelle. Olivia comes alive here, as does Daniel. Absolute loveliness!

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