A walk by the sea (11-20)

11.

The sunset was dark and gloomy, half covered by grey and ominous clouds. She stared into the orange speck of sun, standing in her window, taking deep breaths from the heavy, rain-soaked air. It was far from the beach but the wind carried the fresh droplets of water into her house, onto her face. It was almost evening, and she was contemplating the silence.

Joseph had called her, for a change; he had asked her if she would be willing to visit them for Christmas. She said yes, of course, though it meant giving up her precious solitude at a time of the year when she hated to have company. The month of December had always been a time for looking back and holding onto her memories. When the new year started, she would usually forget all about him and start afresh. This year she would have to face her demons and finally let go. It had been so long ago- she did not even recall his face any more. Why was she clinging to a ghost, when there were living people around her?

Sara had also paid her a quick visit, and had brought a CD. She told Mary to listen to it as soon as she found the time; it was of course a compilation of Joshua’s music. She told her he was thirty-three. Sara was all buzzing with excitement and the way she spoke of his songs made Mary feel restless and agitated. She had the CD in her bedroom, on the bed; she would listen to it when he had left later on that day.

The imminent storm might have scared him away, she thought; they had not exchanged phone numbers, which seemed ridiculously old-fashioned, but then again, he was living a mere few houses away from her. She gazed at the sky which was slowly turning black and dark violet; the wind was getting stronger, and she had to grab the windowpane to stop it from smashing into the wall. She decided to close it altogether, and after that, she lit up the fireplace, pushing a few logs closer to the core of the fire. Watching the flames, feeling its heat on her skin had a hypnotic effect on her, and she sat down into her rocking chair to enjoy the crackling of the fire and the sounds of distant thunder.

There was a knock, and she started from her half sleep.

-I’m sorry if I woke you up –he spoke softly. –Should I go? Would you like to rest…?

-No, no –she replied quickly, too quickly, standing up, arranging her hair. –The fire made me sleepy but I can’t sleep without painting a little, so…

-In that case, I’m your sleeping pill –he chuckled.

-Far from it –she said, and realized she may have hinted at something, and was happy about the low light in the room. –But first, we’ll have dinner.

-I have nothing against food at any time –he said, placing his jacket on the coat rack. –Do you see that? –he asked, nodding towards the sea. –Unless you have a very large umbrella, I might have trouble getting home tonight.

-I’m sure it will pass quickly –Mary told him, walking past him into the kitchen to warm the quiche she had prepared from sweet potatoes and pumpkin and herbs. He did not move from the doorway and she lightly brushed his arm with hers.

Dinner was quiet and eventless; they ate in silence, listening to the storm which was already raging outside, and the welcoming sounds of the flames lashing at the logs of wood. They felt at ease in each other’s company, both of them for different reasons. He knew she had feelings for him, motherly ones: it was obvious from her tender looks and the way she mentioned her son being the same age as he was. He felt protected and loved unconditionally, and it was just what he needed. She was grateful for his acceptance of her, whatever his reasons; he kept coming every evening, and nothing seemed to keep him away. Moreover, he was also jovial and easy-going with her in public. After all those decades of trying to be someone she was not, she felt free to be herself, and for that she knew she could never thank him.

-Is the light enough? –he asked her when he sat down. He had a glass of wine on the coffee table in front of him, and he looked very cosy in the armchair. She chose to marvel at his beauty for a moment before she replied.

-I’ll work on the shadows and the outlines tonight.

An especially loud thunder shook the house and she looked outside, feeling warm and happy.

-That was quite a lightning –he said, staring into the fork of light with a thousand small branches that covered the whole sky for a few seconds. –And it’s close, too –he added, when a mere moment later the raging of the skies made the glass tremble again.

-Don’t you just love being inside when there’s a storm? –Mary asked dreamily. –My son was scared of thunder till he was twenty. I used to hold him under the covers, trying to calm him down, and all the while I was listening to the rain on the windows and the thunders that seemed to want to rip one’s soul out. It was magical.

She stood there, seemingly forgetting where she was, forgetting him and the painting, watching at the divine tragedy of sea and skies. He watched her and for a fleeting instant he had the impression she was someone else; not Mary, the cautious and cynical artist whom he hardly knew, but a young girl who just stepped into adulthood, and who has recently discovered her place in life and all the beauty surrounding her.

-He called today, by the way –she added, turning to him, and he was surprised to hear information that she had not really volunteered before. –He asked me to spend Christmas with them.

-It’s only natural to spend the holidays with your family –came the reply.

She sighed, wanting to say more, deciding against it. What good was it to talk about her lost love?

-I guess I’ll go –she spoke the safe words. –But now, let’s start working. I’ll only need you for a short time today because of the lack of light.

She looked at the canvas and at Joshua who had already settled into the pose. His leg was in a different angle and his fingers were curled up, not relaxed. He was not looking down the way he was supposed to.

-Please move your left leg a little to the right –she said. -Okay, stop. Your right hand… the fingers. Relax them. And turn your head a bit towards me. Wait –she said, stepping out behind her painting, walking to him.

When she was there, he looked up, and she forgot to speak. Her tongue was numbed and her brain was frozen. His beauty silenced and shook her completely, and she was only able to ask with her eyes. He nodded, and her hand reached out to his, and opened his gentle fist, stretching the slightly moist fingers. Then, her hands took his angelic face between them and she turned it down and to the left.

She walked back without feeling her legs. Her palms had his soft warmth on them and her lungs had his scent, before she let out a long, inaudible sigh and set to work.

He stared at his foot, hearing the fire by his side, listening to the thunders which roared more and more often. This time, he did not dare look at her, not even from the safety of his eyelashes. Her hands had touched him with a tenderness that was definitely not a mother’s; her face had been inscrutable, but her eyes were full of wistfulness. His first thought was that of shock, then, disgust, then, surprise, then, curiosity. He felt exposed and scrutinized, but the feeling bothered him now: she may have been eyeing him all this time not only as an artist, but as… well, as a woman, however old. The realization was an unexpected one, and as he was trying to digest the novelty of the situation, he relaxed into it all with surprising speed. So what if she liked him? He was used to attracting the older generations. And Mary was at least liking him for himself.

She painted mechanically, focusing on the model and her own version of him, refusing to think about what just happened. He must have noticed. He probably felt disgusted. He may never return to her house. The thought made her tremble with regret and longing, and she almost asked him to forget what she did, but she stopped herself. She was being ridiculous. He probably never noticed anything. Men are usually bad at catching signals anyway.

The evening went by, but the storm was still raging. Her eyes grew tired, and her back screamed to be in horizontal position. She looked outside; the wind was howling, the rain was being thrown against the window with dogged ferocity and the thunders did not want to cease.

-I don’t think you should go out in this weather –she said. –If I give you a blanket and a pillow, can you sleep on the couch here?

He rubbed his wrists and his thighs to get the blood circulation back into them. He did not reply for a moment and her heart stopped. Well, if he was still unaware, he must be now, she thought, and blushed under the heat of the fire and her shame.

-Sure, no problem –he said, looking at her openly. She tried to act naturally; nodding, she went to her bedroom and picked a blanket and pillow and a sheet from the pillowcase and carried them to him.

-Here –she said in a neutral voice. –I’m sorry to leave you so abruptly but I’m exhausted, and the storm is giving me a horrible headache, so… goodnight. I hope you’ll sleep comfortably.

-Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine –he replied. The gentleness in his voice melted her limbs, but she forced herself to turn and walk away quickly. –Good night –she heard behind her, before she closed the door of her bedroom.

She fell onto her bed with a heart racing like never before. Gasping, she tried to think straight. There was nothing to it, after all. There was a storm. He needed a place to sleep. He probably thought it was the only reasonable solution.

He lay down on the couch, covering himself with the blanket, suspecting that he would not need it because of the fire. He turned to see the sky, dark and cloudy, and the fat raindrops hurled against the glass. With only the light of the fire coming to him from the side, he felt endlessly cosy and safe; the lightnings lit up the vastness of the heavens occasionally, and he could see the light even through his closed eyelids.

She did her best to sleep, but thoughts kept her awake. Daring, unheard of, scandalous thoughts. The artistic mind that craved every kind of beauty was now set on the probably asleep form of Joshua, the most fascinating and attractive man she had ever met.

He fell asleep with the warmth of the flames stroking his cheek, and a fat, lazy cat staring at him from the top of the couch.

12.

It was a long night, and time seemed to have stopped for Mary; she was turning around and tossing herself against the pillow and crumpled sheet. The storm raged on for a while only to keep her wide awake, but then, when there was silence save for the hissing of the waves, her body became even more alert. She listened to the noises of the night, attentive and restless like an animal under a full moon. The air in her lungs was cool and scented; the moon shone through her window, sending a beam of light across her bed. She lay in silence, doing her best not to move, focusing on sleep, on calm, on darkness. Nothing helped; there was no chance of her falling asleep.

She shortly gave up. After sitting on the side of her bed for a while, wondering what to do to make the time pass, she opened the door and walked to her bathroom, trying to stay as quiet as possible as there was no door to the living room where he was (hopefully) deep in dreams. She put the light on and splashed some water on her face. Her hair was all tangled up, so she combed it twice, avoiding her reflection in the mirror. She knew what she looked like: she was old, she had wrinkles all over her face, and in places she had no idea wrinkles could surface; her once sparkling eyes were now dull; her lips, full before, stretched sadly over her teeth which, at least, were hers. Her hair… it used to be long and silken and dark brown with ribbons of red in it, but now she looked like the fairy godmother whose silver hair would float around her endlessly, only less benevolent.

In the end, she did lift her eyes to meet the stranger in the mirror. Why hide, or deny the facts? She knew she was in a place where if she did not watch herself, she would end up doing foolish things, making herself look like a ridiculous, crazy old hag. She could not become the laugh of the town… she would not let them point at her and talk behind her back, saying ‘look, there she goes, the one who fell in love with a younger man’. The fear struck her: she had been receiving him for days, feeding him, in her house, in the evenings. Someone must have noticed for sure. If no one else, then Pete, the imbecile gossip of the street, Pete the obnoxious neighbour who had nothing better to do all day than sit outside his porch, pretending to read the paper, observing the unsuspecting people who passed his viewing angle. He would notice a handsome young man for certain, especially when that young man was entering the house of the old, whimsical painter on a regular basis.

She faced herself under the artificial light of her cosy bathroom, holding on to the edge of the sink. Yes, it was her alright, the part of her that was relentlessly changing, not leaving her one day of rest: every day she found something else changed, and every day she knew she was one step closer to fading into oblivion. Her eyelids were sad and even a little puffed up from the lack of sleep; her cheeks were sagging and her lips pale. She blinked, trying to make herself go away, and bring back the young woman who used to think she would live forever.

Under her nightshirt she felt on her skin the cool breeze that came through the open window. It was the same skin she had been born with, only more sensitive and tired. It was ugly and flopping but she could still enjoy a hot bath or a refreshing evening walk on the beach. So why did she look so changed? Her breasts were small, retaining only some of their former firmness; her thighs were shapely but skinny- her every part was alien to her, different, old. She wanted her body back. Her body that could have given endless joy to the perfect young man who lay asleep on her couch, seducing her without him knowing it.

It was time to face the facts. Yes, she felt attracted to him in ways which scared her to death. She had absolutely no right or reason to think of him the way she did, but there was no one else in this world she could be honest to but herself. He inspired her, he made her feel accepted, but more than that he made her realize she was still a woman. Being a wife and a mother cut her off reality; the roles she needed to play were overpowering and demanding all her attention. She loved to please her husband and son, because society was never late to praise her for it. Yes, she was a good wife, yes, she was a good mother, therefore, her life must be complete, she used to think- but not after he left her, and Joseph left her too. All alone, feeling used, feeling bereft of all that was important for her. She found solace in her painting and learnt to live on her own again, telling herself over and over that there was no one she would ever need. Strength only came from solitude, that was her motto, and she lived by it for such a long time that now she felt puzzled and vulnerable. How could she think of Joshua so much? He was only a neighbour, a young man who was willing to spend some time with her, for reasons she had no clue of, and frankly, she was too scared to enquire about.

Under the old skin and behind the veils of her ashamed old soul there was the heart of a young woman beating. It drummed against her ears, reminding her of desire, of lust, or sweet abandon, of giving bodily pleasure to a man, of losing herself in love, that inexplicable and totally useless state without which the world may be a dull place. She recalled her first love, her first kiss, the spring leaves covering her naked little form in the forest she hid with the similarly scared little boy- awakening to desire, experiencing the first jolts of painful delight, the fire, the wartmth, the throbbing pain, blood racing, eyes opening, lips on lips, lips on skin- she felt it all now, and it was wonderful.

Like a sleepwalker she opened the door and tiptoed into the living-room.

There was a feeble fire still burning amidst the ashen logs of wood; warmth pervaded the room, and the cool night breeze pushed the lace curtains against each other. The moon was lighting up the sky of a million stars, clear after the storm had departed.

Mary stood transfixed in the doorway, looking at a sight she knew she would never forget. She walked to her rocking chair slowly, carefully picking up her sketchbook from the floor. She sat down and rested her hands on the book, in her lap, staring at Joshua.

Time had really stopped; she felt no need to breathe. Nothing was important- just her and him, locked in space and time. Her eyes were fixed on his sleeping form, and she drank him in, storing him inside her brain and creating memories which she would pull out of oblivion long after all of it: the sea, the walks, his presence had ceased to be.

When she got out of her daze she opened her sketchbook and started drawing. First, his head which lay on the pillow, turned slightly towards the fire. The tiny flames cast warmth upon his creamy skin. His right arm was lifted above his head, his forearm resting on his forehead, his wrist in a sensual curve and limp against his curls. He had long ago discared his blanket because of the heat. He was still wearing his shirt but the buttons were not locking it on his chest any more, and where his left arm was hanging down from the couch, almost touching the floor, his shirt was totally open. Mary sketched with surprisingly stable hands: the sight of his bare chest stopped her brain from working, but the artist in her pushed her on. She had to capture the sight, she had to lock him away from being forgotten. The way his wrist arched- his lashes under his closed eyelids- his lips slightly parted- his right leg pulled up- and Marshmallow sitting on the couch next to him, curling up next to him, pressing against his bare waist. Mary held her breath to watch the scene some more. She sketched with hurried, fitful strokes, praying she would always remember him as he lay in front of her in that moment: beautiful, sensual, vulnerable and immortal.

She finished the sketch and lay back in the chair, contemplating his figure. The sounds of the sea were softly purring in her ear, and as she fixed her glance on his chest, she noticed it rising and falling gently, slowly. He was hers then, completely hers. If she wanted, she could go and touch him, or breathe him in, or just stare at his beauty forever. He would never find out- no one would ever find out that she stole his soul and caged it into her heart. There was such peace in that room that it almost scared her: would she ever feel the same again? He had come and changed the person she thought she was, but would she be able to live again after he had gone? She knew he would not stay forever. The eternal cycle of encounters and partings would not be broken for her sake.

The approaching dawn found them both asleep: him on the couch, and her in the rocking chair. She had succumbed to sleep easily, like a newborn baby after beind fed the warm milk from its mother’s breast. She had been given inspiration and joy, the feeling of being reborn and a sense of belonging. She wanted to be with him as long as time would allow her, and she cared of nothing else. She would remain invisible, stay in the background, let him live his young life, and accept his presence whenever he would be willing to share it with an old matron like her.

Little did she know that the heart did not tread paths chosen by the mind: old as she was, life would soon be laughing in her face.

13.

Waking up early used to be out of the question for Joshua, but staying by the sea had changed this aspect of his life completely. These days it was not a rare occasion that he awoke with the sun. Somehow, the soft whisperings of the great sky-dweller had a deep and lasting effect on him; he woke early, started feeling sleepy after each sunset he witnessed and the energy he obtained from basking in the sun in the daytime seemed to come in endless supplies.

This morning he woke to the sounds of waves, that shushing, hissing, crashing symphony. With eyes still closed he listened to the words the sea was murmuring, then screaming, and eventually, whispering as each time the waves were born and died. It was so soothing he just lay on the couch, still only half conscious, slowly getting signals from his body that he was cold. He stirred to move and in the same moment, a fuzzy ball of warmth jumped from where it had been curled up and pressed against his side. Joshua opened his eyes to see Marshmallow arch her back on the floor, then stretch forward luxuriously. She sat down on her hind legs and blinked at him with the somnorous eyes of a goddess who is still too lazy to exert adoration from anyone. Joshua blinked back at her and grinned at the stunned expression the cat adopted. She turned her back with disdain and walked out of the room.

It was then he noticed Mary, asleep in the rocking chair. Her long hair was down and it reached her waist, covering her arms. Her face was rested and calm, but her brows seemed to be pulled into a constant frown that was very familar. He remembered how often she frowned, as if there was too much in the world she could not agree with. He had a fleeting impression he was looking at a sorceress at rest, one whose mind was at work even while she was sleeping. He sat up and buttoned his shirt, observing the fire: it was still lingering there, but the silver and eggshell-white ashes formed a tiny heap in the fireplace and their warmth had been taken over by the chilliness of the dawn that crept in through the open window. He shivered involuntarily when he noticed Mary was only wearing a thin nightshirt. He got up and walked to her rocking chair, the blanket in his hand still retaining his own warmth. He spread the blanket over her legs, lifting it carefully to make sure it covered her shoulders too, and only then did his eye focus on a sketchbook lying on the floor next to her feet. He picked it up to see what she had drawn in it last.

The gentle warmth of Marshmallow who had returned to offer her purring satisfaction felt natural; she rubbed herself against his calves, oozing contentment, demanding attention. He stooped to stroke the purring animal and stayed in a crouching position, rubbing the cat behind her ears and under her chin. Marshmallow was loudly ecstatic and he kept stroking her, soon losing his focus as he stared at the hastily drawn sketch, striking against the whiteness of the paper.

So this was how she saw him: a sleeping god with a toned chest, tender slopes at his abdomen and delicious bulks of flesh attracting the eye. The curves of his wrist, the darkness of his hair, the thickness of his lashes all added to the striking pose she caught him in. He was surprised he had fallen asleep like that, unbuttoned and uncovered, but her presence in the same room was more surprising: it struck him only now that she must have crept in to see him sleep and draw him. Once again, the sense of being exposed filled his guts. He looked at the sketch of himself which showed a handsome stranger, someone she either saw or imagined. He tried to envisage himself as the person in the drawing but he felt strange doing it; this was not a faithful rendition of who he pictured himself to be, but it was definitely drawn by the hands of a woman. The sensuality radiating from the sketch was so raw that he was close to experiencing a sudden rush of desire, realizing what must have gone on inside her while she threw those hasty strokes of pencil on paper. He saw himself through her eyes and he understood what she wanted.

Slowly placing the sketchbook back where he took it from, he stood up, deciding to go home and take a shower. He should have felt shocked and indignant at her actions but it was way too early. Taking a sip from the almost empty cup of coffee she had forgotten on the small table next to the couch, he turned to leave, careful not to wake her up. She was peacefully sleeping, unaware that he had found her out, and he wondered what she would feel like upon realizing that he had. He was passing her chair when either because of the simple fact that he was in a position to do it, or because he felt like taking something from her when she was oblivious to it like she had done to him, he felt compelled to lean close to her and smell her hair. He did so and was surprised: he had expected the familiar smell of the old, that unquestionable, sweet fragrance mixed with the scent of lingering memories and sad goodbyes. But she smelled nothing like that: her hair was effusing the scent of the sea, and the passing summer, and that of flowers and soil.

He quickly straightened up and walked out, trying to figure out if he really smelled what he did. Just when he was nearing her entrance door, his cellphone buzzed in his jacket. He checked who was calling and when he saw the number, he accepted the call with a concerned look.

~~~

She felt warm and cosy with the exception of her neck which was cramped against the hard wooden chair. She opened her eyes- the couch was empty- the blanket was on her legs. She glanced at the sketch book, noticing the slightly different angle in which it lay. Feeling a painful rush of fear she got to her feet, stretching her legs and almost kicking Marshmallow as she turned to walk into the kitchen to make coffee.

It was late in the morning; she did not remember a time when she slept so long into the day, and she wondered if that was a good or a bad sign. Stirring the sugar in her coffee she looked at Marshmallow; the cat looked back at her with an impassable face, blinking slyly.

-What did he do, Mellow? -she asked, drinking the hot liquid. -Tell me what he did.

The cat kept staring, then let out a low, affable grunt, and rubbed herself against Mary’s ankle.

-I see -Mary replied, picking the cat up and taking her back to the living-room. -I know you had a great night. I saw where you were sleeping, you sly furry demon.

Almost wishing she had been the cat that night, Mary dressed up deep in thought. She desperately wanted to find out under what circumstances he had left, and how soon he would be back. For one thing, she knew he would appear at her door later in the evening. Dinner and painting seemed to have become a sweet ritual in their lives, and she was looking forward to their evenings together. Not even her beloved walks at the seaside seemed to eclipse the bliss she felt when he was with her.

Her day went, crawled, rolled by, reluctantly. She did some gardening, went shopping, took a walk, called Sara- but time would not be rushed, and she was so exasperated at the slowness of the hours going by that when evening came she felt extremely tired. After preparing dinner and her paint-stand she sat down to read a newspaper, but sentences did not stay together, so she put the paper aside.

She remembered the CD in her bedroom. She would listen to it later on that evening, after he had left.

She waited, and the sun set, and she waited some more, and the moon had climbed up into the sky, and then she stopped waiting. She put the food into the fridge with a sinking heart. He had not come- she had scared him away. He must have thought she was revolting. An old hag, lusting for a man who could be her son.

Dark thoughts covered her brow as she lay in her bed. Sleep was not coming. Her peace of mind was ruined. She felt scared, she felt irrational, she felt angry and cheated, disappointed at him for letting her down, disillusioned with herself for even for a second thinking he would understand her- what a fool she had been. She felt old, ugly, redundant.

The moon was hiding behind clouds and as shame crept into her heart and all around her soul she felt like hiding with her celestial sister forever.

14.

Mary sat by the sea on the rough surface of an unwelcoming cliff. She stared at the waves with a blank expression. She felt alone.

It had been three days without any news from him. He had disappeared, probably forever. She did not have his exact address, and searching for his name on gates, trying to locate him among the houses sprinkled by the shore was beyond her class. It would have been humiliating and ridiculous. Like she herself was: pathetic. Making her way stealthily into a stranger’s room only to watch him sleep and revel in his beauty. What was she thinking? She had absolutely no right… She was a criminal: she had stolen something from him he was not, and would never be ready to give her.

Sitting there on a rock, contemplating the waves, she felt forgotten by everyone. Joseph sounded distant and cold the previous night, even more so than usually. He gave a large party that needed to be organized as an excuse, but Mary knew that he was simply not in the mood to make conversation with with his old mother. Sara had excused herself when Mary offered them dinner, and even Marshmallow seemed to be grumpier ever since that day he left. Mary knew it was scandalous but she could not help feeling what she felt: self-disdain and anger for having allowed her silly old body to overcome her right mind. She had made a fool of herself; she had stooped to the level of a teenager lusting for her object of desire. And he was there to see it. Whatever respect he may have had for her must be long gone by now.

To make things worse, she heard his voice float to her out of nowhere. She forced herself to listen to the disc the day before and she instantly knew it was the most beautiful human voice she had ever heard. It was rich as the sights of the most luxurious, royal palaces, pure as the clearest, crystalline dew-drops that shimmer at the end of leaves in the morning, and astounding as all that could make Mary stare in awe: she compared his voice to motionless, silent lakes at dawn, to restful, innocent naps of little children, to powerful, merciless thunderstorms that frighten the soul but also fill it with appreciation and awe. When she heard those melodies being sung by Joshua, the rest of the world had stopped short, and so did her heart. Having lived for more than half a century without hearing the voice of the heavens she had been unaware of all the beauty she had missed, and now she was hit by the waves of joy. She now recalled his voice clearly in the belated warmth of a languid sunset, being an artist who stores away all those details that make the human heart soar. She did not even have to close her eyes to hear him… as the crests of the sea rose and fell rhythmically, so did his voice soar and plunge, and the orange sky provided a perfect background to the symphony of beauty. His voice was perfection at its highest form, and she sat on her cliff, trembling with pain and wistfulness and a sense of loss. She had found him too late, and he was already gone from her life.

She took her favourite path home, passing the church, zig-zagging in between willow-trees and oaks and pines, past the old bench that had the initials of several life-long loves inscribed into the ancient, half-rotting, memory-laden wooden legs and seat. The bells had chimed while she sat by the sea, calling at her from afar. She had always been at peace whenever she could watch the waves- now a war was raging inside her and she longed to be at peace again. She was not aware of it, but her feet took her back from the top of the path, back to where the pebbles led the way, to where she could have found it with her eyes closed.

She had gone back to the church, and she walked in to meet God face to face, for the first time in thirty-three years.

An atmosphere of ethereal silence pervaded the slightly musty air; through the minute windows nested inside the old walls to the left of the aisle the light came in, broken by the simple, uncarved benches. It never reached the floor and Mary felt like walking on an endless field of darkness as she proceeded towards the front of the building. She sat down in the first row, facing the altar.

On the crucifix, a thin and haggard Christ was bleeding away his earthly life. He seemed dead and forgotten by his heavenly father, uncapable of helping himself let alone anyone who chose to plead for mercy from him. Mary followed his tired muscles all along the inconspicuous sculpture, and she felt so sorry for the poor fellow. Sacrificing himself for all of humanity, which never really gave a damn. All of his commandents were clear and easy to follow but mankind had always chosen, and would always chose to refuse obedience and deny the love that was given freely.

Nothing was to be heard, as there was no one in the small church after the evening mass had ended. From outside, distant sounds of waves floated in, and the scent of salt and flowers mingled with the mustiness of the old building. Mary wondered why she was there but she could find no explanation except curiosity that had always been her weakness. The eternal wish to know, discover, peel off the layers, see the essence of things. She was not a fan of numbers and dates; her realm was that of scents, sounds, sights, and feelings. Inside the old church there was nothing for the normal eye, but she saw beauty in the dying wood which received her tired old body, the whitewashed walls that bore the traces of dust and spider-webs, the squeaking old floor the sound of which startled her. The light which from a rich, translucent peachy-orange turned into a pale lilac as the day progressed. The dust-atoms which floated in the air, and on the rays of sunshine that were slowly bidding farewell to the day. The more she paid attention, the more details she grasped, and the richer she felt, sitting in a crumbling, forgotten little church.

The waves, the silent devoutness of a lifeless icon of a supposedly immortal creature, the stubborn, nudging goodness of the place had a strange effect on Mary. Scattered memories of her being baptized belatedly, the cold feeling of water splashing gently on her head, the sense of abandon when she prayed as she was told- had she missed all of that for all these years? Perhaps not, but remembering details of her childhood that had been stored away safely, after the disappointment she had felt so many times afterwards awoke her senses and her heart started racing with unstoppable speed. She heard nothing else but her own heartbeat; it was hot suddenly, and then cold, and very dark.

Before she could explain to herself what she was feeling, she heard that voice again. It spilled out of its hiding place like a soft brooklet from the crevices of ancient rocks piled together by the hands of time. She heard him clearly, singing in a language that was unimportant, words that were irrelevant. He sang inside her soul, a melody that seemed more beautiful and appallingly divine than anything she had heard before. It was uncanny and way beyond comprehension even for her, an artist whose imagination knows no boundaries.

She stared at the crucifix but the next moment she got up, frightened, and swiftly walked out into the crisp freshness of the evening. It was already rather dark and cold. She pulled her coat tighter on her frail body. The late summer wind was tireless and without pity, blowing with a force that stopped Mary short. She walked on, though, hanging her head low, squinting to keep the cold out of her watering eyes.

It was late when she got home. Was the road so long from the church to her house? She may have been waylaid by strange powers, stealing hours of her life unbeknowst to her. She would not have been surprised. The evening had been too peculiar even for her standards. That crucifix… the image haunted her, she could not shake it off. The silence, and then the voice piercing it, Joshua and that piece of dead wood blown together-

Mary shuddered. Tea was hot, and it warmed her limbs. Her legs were tired and so was her mind. She wanted to relax and do something differently. She did not want to see Joshua’s painting, or the sensual drawing of his half-naked body. It would have been pure torture for her, in the state she was in. She sat down in her rocking chair and picked up her phone.

-Sara. Hi. Not bothering for long… I just want to ask you something. Can you give me the phone number of your hairdresser? And I’d like to see that dress you told me about. Yes, that one. Tomorrow, certainly. And thank you. Goodnight.

She lay back with a content sigh. Marshmallow had been waiting for this, and she jumped in her master’s lap with a loud purr and she curled up snugly, lifting her fluffy face to cast unquestioning, complacent eyes on Mary.

-That’s right, Marsh. I’m going to look different tomorrow. Memorize me well, as the old, pitiful, flaccid Mary bids you farewell now.

She stared out into the darkness, at the starry sky. Yes, she needed a change. She felt the need to change… something was stirring inside her but she could not place it. The only thing she was certain of was that the wish to do something else, or be someone else, was stronger than ever before. Stroking the cat’s silky fur she contemplated her future. Nothing was certain, but she foresaw good times, happy times, laughter and life. It seemed as ridiculous as her infantile fears of Joshua’s opinion of her, but she decided to stop questioning.

As she let out a slow sigh it struck her how much he had influenced her in those few weeks she had known him. She knew he would never return, but in that moment of clarity and irresponsible bliss she felt he had given her more to last her a lifetime.

15.

The train sped by soundlessly, crawling under God’s eyes among vast, lush meadows and sunlit glades. The land was soaked with incessant rains; greens were bright and vibrating against the sharp blue above. Sitting on the train, he felt he was organically part of the landscape. The smooth motion that took him away from where he had been and at the same time, closer to where he wanted to be had a calming effect on his senses. He leaned back in his seat with his hands resting on his thighs, contemplating the scenery that rushed by him, never resting, always different and yet, always the same: welcoming, imperturbable, beautiful. While the thousand-faced landscape rolled by, through the trees he caught glimpses of the sea.

He was soon home.

Strange word, home… what did it mean? A place, a person, a something- anything that was pulling one’s heart like a magnet. His home used to be in Los Angeles, with his family, his friends, his dog. From these, only his family was still there, but the longing to be somewhere he only experienced now, when the train was taking him back to the sea, that calming cradle of purposelessness and futility, that picturesque sight to behold no matter what time of day he happened to see it. The sea had anger and sadness, just like he, but with her, release came ever so often, in a glorious sunset, or a devastating storm. There was so much anger in him that needed to be released… The tension was constantly present in him, and past were the times when he could release it by embracing his bodily desires. He felt compelled to go back to the sea and through her daily outbursts of emotion, let her take him by the hand and lead him through the valleys of his pain. Maybe through facing them repeatedly redemption would eventually arrive.

On a vast slope of green and rocky hill, his eyes caught the improbable outlines of a horse, etched there in qhite stone, by the gods for their own selfish pleasure. A horse, gallopping and majestic, retaining some of its primeval self, bringing to life the wonderful lore of the land’s ancestors, helping to bridge the distance between old and new. He watched the giant horse disappear from his sight as endless meadows sprinkled with the tiny dots of countless, grazing sheep came into view. And then, woods again, and fields, and sun, and shadow, greens, yellows, ochres, clouds floating by, green pastures, poisonous green meltig into light, neon-green.

After spending more than a week mostly encircled by the grey walls of a hospital, he revelled in the exuberance of colours flashing by his exhausted eyes. His lids hardly stayed open, but they did, because his soul needed to see all that beauty he was returning to. It soothed his heart, chased away his fears; he had gone through hell, and the memory of that pale face and the closed eyes made him shiver despite the warmth of a mellow sun.

Remembering it was the day of the charity event, he dialled Sara’s number she had made him save the second time she talked to him about the event. She was overjoyed that he had returned, and discussed the details with him, happily loquatious. He indulged her, listening with a wan smile, trying to focus on her words. It was a local show, therefore no serious organizing was required, and she told him she would arrange for him to meet the band later on in the afternoon for a quick rehearsal. It all sounded ridiculously relaxed compared to what he had been used to: meticulous rehearsals, well thought of setlists, logistics and a paraphernalia of machines, instruments, crew… He did not mind the change. It fit perfectly into the scheme of the things that were part of his present life.

After the quick phonecall he closed his eyes for a while; scenes of pain and fear and acceptance, then relief played over and over in his head, while the rainbows of his newly found emotions were bursting through his closed lids, wanting to mix with the heat of the yellow sunshine. The monotone humming of metal softly meeting metal relaxed him into his seat, and he felt his legs go sleepy. He had plans, but they could wait. He wanted to be home, sleep, recover. Find himself again.

He never noticed how tired he was until the train stopped and he got off. His limbs were hardly sustaining him and he was in bad need of a drink. He called a taxi and gave directions to the driver, then allowed the fast vehicle to take him back where he belonged, by the sea.

He had no rest until he walked out to the seashore, although exhaustion was threatening to make him collapse at any moment. His legs took him to the waves; his tired eyes stared into the frothy, cold water, his lungs sucked in the air that screamed of revival and optimism. Whatever happened in the past could not harm him any more: he was safe in the arms of a strange love he could not see of even hear- he sensed it with his every cell, with the tips of his hair that reached out for it like a thousand tentacles, with the invisible cells of his pupils that diluted with beauty, with the beating of his heart that was like heavenly anticipation, the premonition of a blissful apocalypse. He felt protected and gently pushed forward towards something that would bring him perfect happiness. He felt it clearly; after all the years of abstinence from all things good, he knew his time was coming. He breathed in the whispering of the waves and smiled into the sun that was preparing to set, stroking his cheek. The sun was his, the sea was his, the peace around him and inside him were his.

The moment of purity that he had been waiting for… it came, and went just as quickly. It lingered on, wanly, but his exhaustion droned out the feeling of completion. He felt alone once more, very tired, uncertain whether he belonged there… whether he had ever belonged anywhere.

He turned back to drag himself home. Kicking his shoes off, he fell onto his bed; blindly setting the alarm, he lay his head on the pillow and instantly fell asleep.

16.

The phone rang, several times, then it grew silent. She combed her hair, enjoying the light tugging feel the ebony object exerted from her freshly washed and dried hair. It sent slight, tingling shivers down her scalp, all the way to her neck and through it, to her whole body.

She put her white dress on, the new one she had bought. Well, not new, but it would be perfectly suitable for those few occasions she would wear it. The wide, eggshell-colour belt woven from soft felt into a rich Celtic knot-design accentuated the slimness of her waist that she had totally forgotten about, and made her feel fresh and strong. The way the long dress touched her skin whenever she moved was intoxicating- it was silky, heavy, sensually brushing against her flesh. She had shaved her legs, and pampered herself in a long, soothing bath, then had applied her favourite moisturizer that reminded her of a rose garden. The dress appreciated the smoothness of her legs and it sent cool kisses to her skin every time she took a step forward. It was too wonderful. Did she really deserve to feel like someone that she was not any more: a young woman?

Stubbornly stepping to the gold-framed mirror in the hallway, she applied a little make-up. Her soft, wrinkled skin refused to take too much of any cosmetics, but she loved the creamy colour of her cheeks and the pale, walnut-shade lipstick on her lips.

The phone rang again. She did not want to talk to anyone. It was probably Sara, asking her about her dress, wanting to congratulate her on her new hairstyle, and possibly trying to persuade her into another disastrous blind date with a middle-aged, but fit and attractive male. Well, she would meet people now. There might be no need to try and set her up with anyone.

Marshmallow stopped to sit down by her master’s feet and looked up at her.

-What do you say, Marsh? Do I look presentable?

The cat meowed her response and Mary couldn’t help but stooping to pick the furball up. Not caring about the cat-hair sticking to her beautiful dress, she squeezed her pet lovingly and cuddled her for a while. Marsh purred and snuggled up against Mary’s bosom.

-You’re my only true companion -Mary said to the impassable animal eyes, feeling the tears come to her own.

Dropping the cat carefully, she cleaned her dress from the hair, then checked herself once more. Yes, she looked presentable, for a change. Even if there was no one to look presentable for.

~~~

The sea was calm, with no trace of storms or rains on the horizon. Another perfect sunset was shading the darkening waters with light; the breeze sent her hair playfully around her ears and into her eyes. The silky dress flew against her legs and thighs, causing her to shiver and breathe deeply. If only he was there with her. Silent, motionless. There would be no need for him to talk, or even acknowledge her presence. How can he have left without any notice, or any message? Did she not mean anything to him, anything at all? She tightened her lips. It had been her fault.

She walked back into the real world with her head hanging, her eyes watching the pebbles, the tufts of grass in between the small crevices of stone and soil, the little, brave flowers growing right where human steps would crush them. The church beckoned her, but she did not go in. She did not want to be late for the charity evening.

People were already there, filling the large town hall. The pale yellow walls shone under the lights, and the transparent cups and glasses contained the red and green and yellow and white drinks like a shell contains its pearl. As the event served mostly locally prepared and baked delicacies, housewives and spinsters were in harsh contest about whose meringue was lighter, whose pie had the crispier crust and whose cream-puffs were puffier. Mary greeted and smiled at every second person. It was amazing how everyone seemed familiar despite the fact that she hardly invited anyone to her house. It must have been Sara’s influence: she was always present at every party, she knew about everyone’s public and private doings, and she would probably be able to present the complete list of single women and men from Bodeford and its vicinity, according to age, race, sexual preferences and interests, political and otherwise. There was always commotion around Sara, hence, Mary knew half the town.

-Just in time for our mystery performer- a plump, smiling old lady waved to Mary. -Take a glass, my dear, and find a seat.

-Mystery performer? -Mary repeated, suddenly wishful and restless. If only. But it was totally impossible.

-Sara found him in the last minute -Mrs Robbins nodded. -She refused to give any additional information. We have been guessing the whole afternoon! You arrived just in time to avoid a fight, and to find out what has been killing us for two hours now -she added, happily displaying her brand new false teeth.

Mary smiled back, already feeling tired. Perhaps it was a bad idea, after all. Looking around, she merely saw couples and a few scattered singles, mostly young, pretty ones. She was totally out of place despite her pretended youthfulness: she wanted to be home, safely alone with her cat and her canvases of a life she would never have.

Someone was talking into the microphone, but she was already moving to leave the hall adorned with artificial lights and fake flowers. Taking her wallet, she produced five twenty-pound notes and pushed them into the collection box placed at the entrance.

Her hand was on the doorknob when she heard his voice. It shot through her like lightning, that voice she would recognize from a million other voices; it travelled across the space directly to her drumming heart. She turned around on shaking legs and saw him on the stage, sitting at the piano.

She literally was shaking. She somehow found something to lean on, a table or a chair or another human being, she was oblivious. He was there. He had come back. And he was singing.

Through the blurry veil of her emotions she noticed he was singing in Spanish, and that two women accompanied him on their violins. It was a gentle melody, and each time his fingers pressed a key, or his throat emitted a trembling note, she felt it press onto her own heart, leaving an indelible mark on her soul. His voice was that of a celestial, not earthly being; looking around when she was finally able to see, she noted the same dumbstruck expression on everyone’s faces she knew she must have adopted too. The feelings he evoked from all those strangers were hard to comprehend, and everyone was struggling. She looked back at him. He was finishing the song; when he stood up from his piano, the crowd exploded. There was no end to the clapping and cheering, and Mary smiled through her tears- the tears that had been easier in coming for a while now.

He smiled gratefully, bowing, putting his right hand to his heart. Mary noticed how thin he looked, how pale and tired. But his radiance shone through his frail state, and when he started singing again, everything else faded.

Oh, what bliss to see him again! She wanted to tell, scream, cry out into the world that she knew him, that he had trusted her enough to sleep on her couch, that he did not hate her that much if he had been willing to return. She forgave him everything she had ever begrudged him, and forgot her own fears too. He was back- nothing else mattered.

After his last song everything seemed so silent, despite the ear-hurting, screeching human noise the several hundred excited and flabbergasted people were producing. They had not expected such shocking talent and everyone was buzzing like a bee eager to return to the hive. She missed his velvet-voice, but more than that, she missed his proximity. She had no desire to go home, now that he was there, but seeing how he was surrounded by dozens of new fans, she turned to walk to the food section instead. Picking a random piece of fruit-pie, she started eating absent-mindedly, longing to talk to him, longing to have him close, under no matter what circumstances.

~~~

He had got rid of the last stranger who wanted to squeeze his already raw hand and ask for his autograph. Most of them had no idea who he was, thankfully, but some of them recognized him. It was not all unpleasant, the sounds of appreciation and admiration, the open clinging, the honest delight he saw on the faces- but he had a sinking feeling in his stomach that told him his peaceful days would soon be over. In any case, the hubbub was over now, at least for a while.

Approaching the table with the scattered plates and trays full of hors-d-oeuvres, dainty sandwiches and cakes, he noticed a woman with her back to him standing at the table. She was slender, wearing a white dress that almost touched the ground, with a wide belt encompassing her waist. Her reddish-brown hair was reaching just below her ears, grazing her neck. As he got closer, his nose detected something familiar. Before he could determine what it was, he felt like addressing the attractive stranger in a white dress.

-I had not sung in public for long years and I’d like to ask for an unbiased opinion about my performance. What did you think of it? -he asked, half leaning over her to reach a tray with camembert-and-walnut sandwiches.

She turned and his hand stopped in mid-air before it could touch its target. He stared at her with eyes wide open and an adorably embarrassed expression around his lips.

-M-Mary -he stuttered and she almost choked on her cake. Swallowing with difficulty, she managed to compose herself before she spoke.

-Hello Joshua -she said, loving his eyes that for the first time she felt completely fixed on her and her only. -Your performance was flawless, but I’m not so sure I’m giving an unbiased opinion.

He merely nodded, the ambiguity of her remark probably lost on him as he seemed to get out of his stupour. It was the earthy, fresh scent he had smelled on her hair when she was asleep. That was the scent.

-I’m happy to see you again -she said, smiling at him. Her heart was overflowing but there was no way she could show it, so she only stood and took in his beauty, the pale skin, the stubble, the dark eyes, the amazing curls, and the tiny wrinkles around his eyes that she saw for the first time.

-It’s great to s… to be back -he replied, blushing slightly under the shadow of his stubble. She experienced something close to a minor heart-attack, but she steadied herself on the edge of the table.

-You look very tired -she spoke again, and despite her concern being genuine, she mostly directed her remark at blowing away his embarrassment.

-I had a rough week -he said calmly, blinking. He looked away, resting his glance on the table and the rich feast on it. Then he looked back at her, seemingly very ill at ease. -I’m sorry I disappeared like that, I…

-Please don’t apologize -Mary managed to say without falling apart. The happiness she felt was becoming unbearable. It was literally too much- he was back- talking to her- with a look on his face she had never seen before- and he was apologizing.

-I was called away suddenly and I had no time to notify you -he finished, stubbornly stressing each word. -You were asleep when…

Her hand reached out for his, instinctively. When his fingers were touching hers she realized what she was doing but it was too late. Her hand longed to be able to stroke his, like a lover’s- but the staring faces and his startling beauty dumbed her gestures and all she was capable of was a reassuring shake of hand, that of elderly women when they want to say to a frightened child that everything will be alright. She smiled, shocked at her own bravery, letting go of his warm hand. His eyes were piercing hers- she was close to collapsing, but she held herself up.

-I’m happy you’re back -she said, turning around and walking away. It was the only thing to do, but she did it happily, floating above ground, smiling, happy, feeling special. She loved him, she loved him more than she had ever loved anything or anyone before, and the feeling that spread to her every cell was liberating and frightening, but for certain, the closest thing to perfection she had ever experienced. After his voice, he himself, Joshua. The perfection she had been looking for, and was granted finally.

17.

Her heart was in a rapture she had never experienced before- she could hardly contain herself. Who to tell? Who to share her bliss with? He was back! Joseph would never understand her… Sara might, but there would be an edge of sympathy to her happiness. After all, she was thirty years younger. No young person could fully comprehend what she was going through… She got another chance from life, a new leaf, a blank canvas that she could fill with colours she only now noticed. Youth meant red, blue, green, yellow. Approaching her final act on the universal stage she had been granted a clarity of perception she would not have exchanged it with a less ripe age. Joshua would probably never look at her as if she was young and beautiful, but she was so delighted she refused to be depressed about the fact.

She loved him, his loneliness, his beauty, his secretive self, his gentleness that surprised her more often than she would have guessed from their first meeting. The look he gave her- she surprised him too- she recalled his glance, that of astonishment and shock and, could it be- appreciation? She felt warmth cover her from head to toe- impatience overcame her. She had to see him again. She had to talk to him. To be with him as much as she could.

The sea was dark as well as the sky. She stared at the stars for a while, enjoying the cool silence floating back and forth with the subdued waves. There was so much beauty in the landscape- but she was restless, she could not enjoy it at peace. Scraps of fresh memories got back to her over and over again; as a wave came closer, kissing the shore- his look… the wave returning to its cradle of peace- the sincerity on his face… another wave trying to break the calmness, unsatisfied, wanting to explore- the tired posture. Why was she longing for him more than she longed for the sun to come up?

She walked home deep in thought, with her heart beating frighteningly fast. She stayed in her dress, enjoying the touch of silk on her legs, feeling self-conscious despite being alone, addressed only by a plump and hungry cat. She fed Marshmallow, then opened the window of her living-room, wanting to allow the cool evening air to fill her lungs. What if he came now- this very second- he would knock on the door, or would just come in as he usually did- would sit down and let her revel in his beauty-

She turned on her heels at the soft noise coming from the entrance, just when he appeared in the doorway.

-I’m… sorry… it’s rather late. But… your painting -he stuttered the words. Her first thought was that he had drunk too much, but looking at his haggard face she saw he was merely exhausted.

-I’m glad to see you, I really am -she said in a concerned voice, -but you look totally under the weather. You should go home and rest.

-Can I come in? -he asked, almost pleadingly.

She took a step closer, wanting to take his hand and lead him in, or just signal for him to enter, but he was already walking towards the couch. He literally fell onto the piece of furniture, letting his head fall back slowly.

-I’m so tired -he uttered, closing his eyes. His breathing was inconsistent and abrupt- she stepped next to him and leaned over him. The hands rested in his lap, his jacket was open, showing his black pullover with a V-neck. She gently touched his forehead with her palm- it was burning. He opened his eyes but they were blurry. She felt weak- she checked his cheeks, his forehead- he had a high fever. She rushed to her bathroom but found nothing for a fever there, only vitamins and pills for high blood-pressure. Quickly dialling on the phone placed on a small table in the hallway, she looked at him, motionless on the couch.

-Dr Morse? I know it’s late. Please come to my house… a friend has a very high fever and I suspect he may be ill. Yes. Thank you.

Going back to the living-room, she sat down next to him, not minding it was not her place. She was so worried she could hardly think. What was wrong with him? The tiredness, the one week absence…

-Let me take the jacket off -she said quietly, carefully pulling at his right sleeve, making him sit up a little to peel it off his reluctant body. -I called the doctor, he’ll be here in a few minutes.

-What for? -he asked in a ragged tone.

-You have a fever -she said patiently. -We have to know what caused it.

He rolled his eyes, seemingly very conscious.

-I just came to pose for your bloody painting and you call a doctor like a mother-hen.

His words caught her off-guard but she knew the fever was affecting him.

-Shhh -she said, attempting to take his hand in hers, but he pulled it away rather aggressively.

-Quit acting like my mother -he grumbled.

This time, his words stung. Apparently, he was conscious enough to hurt her, for some reason she did not understand.

-I’m not your mother -she replied coldly.

-And I’m not your son -he said, turning his face to look at her. His eyes were blurry, but he stressed every word, and for a secondher heart stopped in the frozen moment hanging between them like a crashing wave that had been suspended mid-air, threatening to hit the rocks any time now. [edit: good lord I repeated the same word 3 times in the same sentence!!!!!!!!! corrected it now…]

They faced each other and she was shattered by his glance, the beautiful eyes that were full of strange hatred and confusion. She did not dare move or breathe, she did not dare ponder on the meaning of his words. Time and everything tangible had stopped existing when his hand reached out for hers under the weighty sound of his breathing.

Mary looked but her eyes must have been deceiving her: her hand was faintly held by his, and she felt the warm sweat of his palm stick to her fingers. His fingers pressed into her palm and his thumb stroked the top of her hand amidst the clamour of her frenzied heart.

His eyes pierced hers, sending an avalanche of emotions into her soul she was not yet prepared for: she was still struggling with her own newly-found ones. It was all a dream, for sure: she blinked but he was still there, and then she moved her hand a little and his grip strengthened- and that’s when she knew it was really happening.

The ringing of the doorbell caused her to start, and she stood up dizzily to open the door.

-Evening, doctor -she said to the middle-age, half-bald and amiable doctor, Alan Morse. He was always available and he knew everyone’s innermost secrets, simply because he was a man to be trusted. -Please come in.

-Hello Mary. Yes. Let me get my bag -he said after hanging up his coat. -I assume he’s the patient. Oh, the talened young performer -he added, sticking a thermometer into Joshua’s mouth. -So you know each other? Let me listen to your heart… nothing wrong there. Pulse fine… ah, well, a temperature of forty is not nothing. Please lean forward a bit… I’m going to lift your shirt to… yes. Now breathe. Again. And again.

She watched the scene trying to keep herself composed. Between worrying and feeling exalted there was nothing else really. The earth was holding her back but her wings were wanting to take her to the place of happiness; she longed to have Joshua’s hand on hers and to feel his beautiful eyes on her once more.

-His lungs are not clear… he has a nasty case of pneumonia. I just wonder how he was able to sing like that today.[second edit, more corrections… I usually read everything four times to avoid mistakes but today I had to rush from the office in the last minute]

She stared at the man, unable to get it.

-He has what? How?

-Has he undergone a lot of stress lately? -he asked her, standing up, folding his stethoscope. -Also, the climate. The wind. Bacteria travel fast around here. Or, he may have caught it in a hospital.

-But… -she started, then went all pale. Of course. He disappeared without any trace for a week, and returned flimsy and hardly able to stand on his feet.

-I think he was in hospital just recently -she said, shaking. -Did you see anything else to worry about…?

-No, nothing at all -he reassured her. -I’ll prescribe some antibiotics, and aside from that, he needs to rest and drink a lot. I suggest he stays put -he glanced at the young man who seemed asleep. -Maybe he can go home in a day or two when his fever subsides.

She nodded, not sure whether to laugh or cry. She took the slip of paper from Dr Morse’s hand, then saw him to the door and thanked him for coming so quickly. When he was gone she closed the door, locking it- she had not locked her door in perhaps years. Somehow the presence of the sleeping Joshua seemed too precious to allow anyone or anything to break the spell.

Walking back on tiptoes, she placed several logs of wood into the fireplace, and closed the window, leaving it only slightly ajar to let fresh air come in. Then she took his jacket and neatly hung it on the coatrack. After that, she prepared gentle chamomile tea and added slices of lemon to it. She placed the slip of paper on the table in the kitchen, for her to easily remember to take it the next day. Only then, after she had attended to every tiny, insignificant detail did she turn to face him.

Even asleep, he seemed more beautiful than most of the people she had ever seen.

18.

rich orange light was cast upon the face of a man who was almost three decades her junior, and who through the funny twists of the big cataclism humans call fate happened to personify everything that she considered beautiful in life. This man was sound asleep on her sofa, for the second time, and she felt like a child whose biggest wish had been granted before Christmas Eve, then on the sacred night he realized the granted wish was only a tiny part of the amazing and wonderful feast that was coming. Standing there with her mind boggled and her heart drumming she was not sure what to do and how to feel about the whole evening, or his behaviour. He looked upon her as a friend, surely- anything beyond the borders of friendship would have been what they called ‘magical realism’ in literary circles: possible in theory, but when actually happening, stirring the peaceful sands of reality. She knew the term well- it was what she had been after in her art, subconsciously at first, then as she grew older, fully aware of her goals. To capture something ordinary that mixed with another ordinary thing would result in blissful magic! He could, in theory, become something more than a friend- but the mere thought caused her whole being to tremble like the undaunting flames in the night breeze.

The fire warmed the room to a very pleasant temperature; the night air whispered into the curtains, and a merry moon was shining down on everything earthly. Mary stared at Joshua’s closed eyes, the slightly fluttering eyelids, the sweetly parted lips- and then her glance fell on his exposed neck, wide and masculine and yet, creamy and reminiscent of Reneissance paintings of lush scenes with ample-bodied but attractive cherubim flying around similarly fleshy and soft goddesses. Where the V-neck dived low into his chest, a generous amount of hair was visible- Mary felt a desire that may have been understandable under different circumstances, perhaps, but not with a sick man asleep in her sight.

She sighed and approached him- she had to do something- he could not sleep like that. She carefully pushed her hand under his neck and tried to bring him into a sitting position to be able to lay him down properly on the couch. The moment she touched him a slight shiver ran through his body that she felt quite clearly, too. He mumbled inaudibly and lifted his head, opening his eyes to look at her. Inches from her eyes. She focused on the blanket which was crumpled under his weight- she knew she would have lost her mind otherwise. She pulled strongly and somehow got the blanket out, then gently pushed his torso to the side. There was no need to do anything else really- he fell on his own accord, his right hand dropping on his chest, the left one making an effort to stay conscious and hold onto something- or just touch anything in the way. His eyes were already closed, and she lifted his feet from the floor, placing them side by side on the couch. While undoing the strings of his shoes she noticed the mud stain on his right shoe, just above the sole.

He looked so peaceful, so deserted there, sleeping in a stranger’s house. She had a feeling he was desperate to be with someone… wondering what he must have gone through in the past week or so, she lifted his dangling left hand and placed it gently by his side, then covered him with the blanket, tucking him in like she used to do with Joseph every night when he went to sleep. This time she felt protective in a different way, in a way she could not understand really. She only knew he trusted her enough to come to her in the middle of the night, and for that she was grateful to the point of servility.

Watching him sleep a little longer endowed her with a sense of tranquility and restlessness- she felt happy and frightened of when the moment would come that would put an end to the miracle. She had never believed in miracles, but this time she could not deny what her eyes were seeing and her whole being was going through. It was beyond comprehension and as such, would be short-lived. She was certain of it.

The thought crushed her as suddenly as the surprise she experienced at his arrival that evening, and later, at his appearance at her door- and then- his fingers entangled in hers. She felt it as strongly as she felt the wind brush through her hair she had shortened and painted to his youthful tastes, and as mercilessly as the silk travelled between her legs, giving her hints of ecstasy she craved to share with him. She knew that all beauty was treacherous: it softened the senses and then it all came crashing down on the unsuspecting soul who forgot himself before the sunset and was consumed by the pitiless ocean wave. Staring at his face, watching his lids flutter and his lips whisper things not meant for anyone to hear she wondered how often she had been deceived by beauty… she had built her whole existence on the fact that beauty was real, and true. She had accumulated experiences and cherished moments of joy through manifestations of beauty in every field of life- but what good was it? Beauty faded, it died, was lost among the hardships and misery. It delighted for as long as a whiff of flower-scented air travelled through one’s nostrils and into the lungs: when released, it was gone forever… and no memory could recreate that exact feeling, that intense emotion it had evoked. Who was she fooling? Not even she believed it was any good any more… He would get better, and he would go. Leave her, go back to his old life. That was the natural course of events, and she was not going to dispute anyone on that.

She stood up and slowly left the room. There was heaven- and there was hell- but neither could have made her feel as much joy and fear at the same time as the lingering, timid thought that he was there- no matter what would ensue- he was there. For a little while.

19.

She woke up in her own room where reason pushed her after what seemed like blissful eternity at his side. Sleeping soundly seemed out of the question but somehow a mental exhaustion overcame her alertness and put her to sleep. And now she awoke startled at a sound that came from the living-room.

She got up and enveloping herself in a nightgown, she tiptoed across the hallway, into the room where her life’s most wonderful treasure was sleeping.

Except that he seemed like one possessed, tossing and grunting occasionally. She went closer, concerned; when she was above him she noticed how his face was flushed and that his hair was glued to his forehead. He had tossed the blanket off and was now shivering under the cool touch of the night. She quickly closed the window and checked his skin. It almost burned and the anxiety grew in her- poor sweetheart, suffering like that. his face was soaked in sweat and she knew his whole body was probably trying to relieve itself of something painful. She went to the bathroom and poured some water, almost hot, into a basin which she transported back into the living-room together with a towel. She noticed how moist his skin was at his neck and forearms where he had pulled up his sleeves in his sleep. Her heart overflowed with feelings- she was a mother and a woman, both ready to do anything and everything to give happiness. She knew she was going to get hurt, but she was willing to sacrifice her own bliss as only a mother is ready to give unconditionally. At the same time, his perfect beauty blinded her reason and all she knew was she felt a love vast and unimaginable in her soul.

She stooped lightly to take his pullover off of him- he did not resist, he was asleep and in a fever that frightened her- what if it would not go away? What if-

His teeth were chattering in his sleep, so she quickly covered his bare torso once more, and his unconscious hands grabbed the edge of the blanket, holding it tight against his shivering body. She felt weak and shattered at the sight of his dry lips and his fingers clasped around the soft wooly material. Composing herself for his sake, she swiftly unbuttoned his black tweed trousers and with fast movements, to get him back into the warm as soon as possible, pulled them off.

It was not her intention, but his boxers came with them.

After she covered his whole body with the blanket that did not seem warm enough- he was shivering incessantly- she recovered from the shock of seeing him completely naked, enough to get to her feet, walk to her bedroom and bring two other blankets from her wardrobe. She spread both of them over his shaking form and pulling the basin closer, she sat down on the edge of the couch. She had to press herself against him since the couch was too narrow- feeling the warmth that came from his young body was the sweetest sensation in a long time and while she soaked one of the towel’s corners in the warm water she allowed the tenderness of the moment weigh on her. Her eyes turned blurry, and she gently tugged at the covers. When she uncovered his chin and his neck, she started washing the perspiration off his face, slowly rubbing his skin with the wet towel.

The moon shone and the stars sparkled, with a burning fire and a purring cat in the room apart from the lovers inconceivable even for the deities; Marsh was looking at the scene with sleepy eyes from the top of the coffee table. In the silence of the night Joshua’s unconscious moans sounded especially painful. Mary hurried on, struggling with the knowledge that he was ill and vulnerable; her fingers left marks on his skin that disappeared without a trace the next moment- but for a short while, she was part of him. She rinsed the towel to make it warm again, and continued bathing him- this time, his neck, and the upper half of his chest. He shivered under her touch, and his nipples were tiny and hard as the sensation of cold travelled across his whole body. She gently placed his right arm on the blanket in front of her to be able to wash and dry it. While she rubbed the inside of his elbow she wondered at the softness of the skin there… Then she took his hand and dried his burning palm- and couldn’t stop herself from lifting his fingers to her lips. He would never know anyway.

His eyes opened as if awoken from a deep sleep, but he did not see her in his feverish state. She dived in the darkness of his large eyes; he seemed to be scared from something she was unaware of, and disconcertingly distant. At the same time, his left hand seemed to live a life of its own as it rose to her waist, then slid to her hips. His fingers rested on her body that did not want to move ever again. His eyes were fixed on her face; she watched his lips try to utter something, feeling his fingers fumble unconsciously with the belt of her nightgown.

-Don’t… -came from his throat in a broken voice. -Please, Susie… don’t.

Then, silence, save for his subdued whispers. His fingers were trying to take hold of her gown but his strength gave up on him and his hand fell limply onto the blanket. She watched his face eagerly, though ashamed to do so: perhaps he would give away more of what his soul was trying to keep a secret.

-I’ll try to be fast but I have to do this -she whispered, standing up, tearing herself away from him. She covered back his chest, but pushed the covers away to leave his abdomen and hips exposed. He held her breath while she touched his most vulnerable parts- she felt like a nurse- and he was a patient. The only way to keep her emotions that threatened to overwhelm her under control.

By the time she finished with his legs he was deep in sleep, motionless and peaceful. She dropped the towel into the basin, tucking him in, careful not to let any part of him uncovered.

-We’re done… you can sleep now -she said, stroking his cheek.

He was so beautiful… Fragile and handsome, a face which only for her exposed feelings she never would have dreamed of seeing again, and a body supple and perfect, untamed by the years. His whole life was before him, and through his youth she felt her own life wake from its slumber and grab for the missed opportunities and the words she had not dared speak or smiles she had not dared give.

Her fingers lingered on his skin, reluctant to let go. His cheek felt soft and smooth, like velvet and silk and rose petals… she felt compelled to sit back next to him, and lean closer to smell him as he breathed peace and dreams through his slightly parted lips. The new hair on his chin and around his mouth was dark and strong, but it felt heavenly against her exploring hand. She held her palm just above his lips, not touching him, enjoying his warm breath tickle her skin. Being this close to another human being was wonderful but seemed wrong at the same time: she was past her prime, she had had her chances… Why him, why now, why come to her beach?

She looked away, into the flames. They were swallowing the logs, new life feeding off an old one, sucking its energy away, transforming it into cinders of something ancient. In her case, she was feeding off of him… an old plant crawling to touch a vibrant green one, anxious to get their roots intertwined, receiving drops of dewy sunshine from the fresh leaves. Ashamed she should have been, but she felt joyous and carefree.

Turning her head to look at him again she found him even more beautiful than before- how was that possible? His head was slightly turned to the left, towards the fire; the flames painted his creamy skin with the hues of a bursting sunrise. Light and shadow played on his seducing lips and his cheeks; a perfect curl was resting on the bridge of his nose. Her hand brushed it gently back with the rest of them- his hair- oh, his hair felt like falling feathers of doves reaching for the sky, like silky ribbons that are meant to keep a pretty girl’s beautiful tresses together, like the creamy water of a tantalising bath that had been run to prepare a virgin for her first night of passion. Her fingers stirred amidst his curls, a timid chick discovering the warmth and safety of its nest. She used them as a comb to slowly run through his locks, separating them slightly, relishing the sensation of her thin fingers being held back by them- it was all in her mind, but she trembled between the silvery light of the moon and the orange one of the fire. She lifted her head to look into the face of the cold night sun: she felt a kinship with her. They were both old and grey, while he- he was all burning and passion and possessed by the admirable will to embrace life, as all young people were: her complete opposite. Why would the flames want to become pale ashes sooner than it was meant to be?

She retrieved her hand from his beautiful hair, resting it on his chest without realizing it. When his chest rose she almost started: the gentle hills of his body, the protective shield of flesh and bone around his heart, the ribs her insightful fingers felt clearly even through the thick cover of three blankets- it was all hers. It was too wonderful to be true. She slid her palm across his very heart, closing her eyes, listening to his lifeline unfold under her hand, the muffled, rhythmical beats clutching into each other, the short string of a mortal’s life. Through the deep sounds of his heartbeat she heard his pain and his joy, his wishes and regrets. She knew where he had started from and where he was going; she would be left behind, the ashes of something once beautiful- perhaps- she was not sure. Memories are life’s big cheaters: embelished by time, they render everything beautiful, even horror and death, but what once was worth remembering always becomes illusion… impossible to believe. Her mind knew she used to be young and pretty, easy to look at and nice to be with, but her heart refused to acknowledge her past. All she could believe now was her old age, her pathetic clinging to a yound branch, her feeding off the flames.

It was time to go back to her room. She felt tired and lonely, but his presence alleviated her pain somewhat. Casting a last glance at his perfect, fire-painted profile she stood up to leave.

Did she only imagine that his left hand grabbed hers? She stared at his hand, then at his closed eyes. He was fast asleep, and his hand was clinging to her right one. The warm fingers were locking hers in a tender embrace- she sat back, struggling with her emotions.

She sat beside him staring at his beauty, inhaling his presence, thinking of him with all the love her old life enabled her to feel, until one teardrop was finally brave enough to let go of her lashes and rolled down her wrinkled face.

20.

He woke up to the sound of a warm furball purring on his stomach, staring at him with half closed eyes. Marshmallow was obviously trying to endear herself, and he blinked at the cat, feeling tired and still sleepy. He stirred a little under the blankets and the cat instantly bounced off, indignantly looking back behind her shoulders, then walking away.

The morning was grey and heavy, with no sight of the sun, only rainclouds collecting on the white sky. Joshua turned his head to focus on the new day, collecting his memories of the previous evening, then night. The skin above his brows seemed sticky when he rubbed his eyes, and his hair felt glued together; he realized he was sweating like a dog, so he rid himself of two blankets, retaining only one. It was more than enough.

Breathing deep he felt a strange pain at his chest, and a sudden urge to cough overcame him. He coughed, surprised and a bit worried, when the chest pain did not go away. He swallowed with a dry throat, breathing again, and the cough returned. He stifled it, shaking slightly as the urge moved his tired body. The pain was not very bad, and nercifully, he was able to stop coughing after a while, after which he eased back into the soft deepening his weight had made in the couch, wiping his forehead of the new beads of sweat caused by the exertion.

In the process of moving to toss the covers off, he noticed how smooth the blanket felt against his skin. He stretched his legs comfortably; his body screamed against the horizontal position, but his mind relished the thought of spending a little more time lying lazily in the dusky day. He arched his back slowly on the perhaps too soft couch, feeling his bones crack and the blood starting to circulate in his limbs again.

It was then he noticed he was completely naked under the blanket.

He lifted the brown blanket to make sure, not trusting his eyes in the soft, dark light that seeped through the woolen material- his hand could not be deceived, though. His body stiffened in its pose, one hand holding the blanket slightly up, the other feeling his own pubic hair. As his brain raced to pinpoint the events that must have led to- to his getting undressed, his stomach turned a little. He felt like a stranger in a stranger’s house, he felt exposed, he felt- he felt used.

Then he remembered it was Mary’s house he was in.

Relaxing, he allowed his withheld breath to travel freely and mix with the mellow air of the room. His nose detected a bit of smoke and a bit of unfamiliarity, all the while knowing he was safe. He also smelled something delicious- some kind of food- his bowels moved and his stomach growled hungrily.

-Good morning -he heard the gentle voice which seemed to be the only thing capable of soothing his senses lately. He turned into the direction of the voice and saw Mary stand in the doorway, dressed in comfy jeans and a loose sweater. She looked like a teenager more than an elderly matron, with her playfully short hair put tight behind her ears and an easy-going smile on her lips.

-Good morning -he replied, strangely at ease. He knew he had nothing to worry about: his instincts said she would be the last person on earth to harm him.

She seemed confused, wiping her hand on the right leg of her jeans, opening her mouth to say something. She stopped herself, then looked at him timidly. He held her glance, wondering what was going on inside her head. Her eyes looked warm and friendly despite their unhospitable shade.

-I… I took your clothes -she finally uttered. -They were terribly sweaty and your lungs would not have appreciated it.

-What do you mean? -he asked with a frown.

-I had to call the doctor last night, you had such a high fever -she replied patiently, taking a few steps closer, lowering herself down into her rocking chair. -He diagnosed you with pneumonia. There’s nothing to worry about though -she quickly added, her hands moving forward in a gesture of reassurance.

-Oh -he said, turning slightly to lie on his side. -But can I get up and dress?

-Well… he said you should rest for a day, at least -she spoke slowly, her hands clasped together, as if worried she’d annoy him with her reply.

He pondered for a moment, then pushed his head deeper in the pillow, following Marshmallow with his glance. The cat had returned to the living-room, hearing human talk and wanting to be part of the company.

-I washed your clothes, they will be dry soon -she added, placing her hands on her knees, palms down, rocking slowly. -In the meantime, I found a pair of pyjamas that used to belong to my husband. He was a bit taller than you, but otherwise his build was exactly the same. You can put that on if you want to move around.

-Thank you -he replied, hanging his eyes on her from his sideways position.

-Don’t be silly -she said, smiling kindly. He watched her smile grow and spread on her face, light up her greyish eyes and make her wrinkles look softer.

-The smells are awfully nice -he said, swallowing with a grin to break the tenderness of the moment that seemed a little strange for both of them.

-Oh. Sure. I’ll bring you some food right away -she jumped up, eagerly walking to the kitchen. He looked after her, deep in thought. He felt a little like a child who was taken care of by a worried mother-

Just then, her words from the previous night, then his flashed back. He felt a shiver go up his spine- he recalled her angered eyes linger on his, and the feeling his heart pushed to his veins, making it part of him, enveloping him in it. It was a desire to become something different for her than what he was.

She returned with a wooden tray and a round, red bowl from which steam rose, and she placed it on the coffee table, sweeping Marshmallow off to make space.

-She can get terribly whimsical and selfish you know -Mary said with a giggle. -Just like humans. She’s a very nice creature.

Joshua sat up slowly, pulling the blanket around his shoulders, covering his every part, his eyes fixed on the bowl.

-I love broth. My mom used to make it all the time when I was a kid -he said, yawning a little. -Then we grew up, Chris and I, and she stopped giving us broth, for some reason.

She had so many questions welled up in her throat, but she could not possibly pose them. Not until he finished eating, not until he was weak and vulnerable, not until he did not feel safe enough to start talking on his own.

-How’s your chest? Does it hurt?

-Yeah. I only noticed it this morning.

-We were wondering how you managed to perform last night -she shook her head, pushing the tray closer. -I went to get the antibiotics Dr Morse prescribed. You should take a pill after you eat.

Yes mum, he almost said. Checking himself, suddenly aware she would probably not find it funny.

-I’ll go iron your shirt and your pants -she said, standing up. -I’ll be back shortly.

He nodded and she disappeared, leaving him alone with the hot soup and the wistful cat. He stretched a little to take the bowl in his hands, enjoying the hot roundness between his palms. The blanket had fallen from his shoulders but he had no hands left to put it back; he sipped some of the soup, letting it trickle down his throat slowly before he took another spoonful. He stared into the golden depths of the liquid, smelling the hot steam which rose to his nostrils and into his eyes, warming him wonderfully. The remnants of a rich fire were smouldering in the fireplace, and Marshmallow jumped to his lap despite his reluctance; she looked up into his eyes, then turned around on his thighs, making a full circle, looking for the perfect spot to lie down. She danced a while before she finally eased down into his lap, purring happily. He chuckled and continued eating the soup that was already growing colder. When he finished, he slowly reached his hand over to the coffee table to place down the empty bowl. The cat never moved but went on napping contentedly in Joshua’s lap, who leaned back and stifled a terribly urge to cough; not only would he have hated to disturb the cat, who looked like a furry princess after her marriage proposal, but the pain in his chest was growing stronger each time he coughed. He closed his eyes to make his will more powerful, thinking of a peaceful meadow with flowers on it, with the sun shining above and the sounds of the wind blowing through the leaves and stems and petals. It all went away, together with his cough, and he opened his eyes gratefully.

Stroking the cat as slowly as he could, enjoying the soft warmth of her fur against his fingers, he felt strangely happy. Past were the years of fear and uncertainty; nothing had changed, but the smoky warmth of the room and a full stomach pressed against a striped orange cat made him feel wonderfully at home. Marsh lifted her face in her sleep and he stroked her under her chin, grinning at the ecstatic expression of the animal. She turned her head to show him where to apply his fingers and he rubbed happily, letting the cat move closer and press herself more against his bare stomach. He was so warmed up by the hot soup that he didn’t feel the cold against his shoulders; the cat felt so soft and so warm that he could not stop grinning like a little boy. He remembered how he used to play with the beloved Sweeney, the countless hours of comradeship they exchanged with each other, the trust he gave and received, and the love. Perhaps his mother and Sweeney were the only creatures on earth who had not grudged him that: unconditional love. One of them was dead, and the other… He swallowed with difficulty, feeling the tears sting his eyes. His hand started to shake at the memory of his mother lying on the hospital bed, unconscious.

-I can see you made really close friends by now -Mary giggled from the doorway.

He looked up and the sudden movement of his head sent a tear down his cheek, which he wiped quickly and automatically.

-Is… is there something wrong? -she asked quietly, coming closer. -Is the pain very bad? I… I can call Dr Morse if…

-No. Don’t -he said in a muffled voice, his hand stroking Marshmallow. He hung his head, looking at the peaceful animal through blurry eyes. Mary’s compassion was like a trigger to his withheld sorrow and he was unable to keep it within himself any longer. His tears rolled and fell on his arms, his hands, and the cat’s fur. -I’m fine -he said, making an effort for Mary’s sake who he knew was in a state of absolute shock and concern.

She stood beside the rocking chair, wanting with her every cell to sweep the cat out of his lap and take him in her arms. He looked so broken and desolate, stroking the purring animal meticulously and with gentle movements, as if he would find the key there to whatever door he needed to open, or close.

-Please let me help -she said, her own tears starting to flow from her eyes. -Tell me if I can do anything and I’ll do it -she added, not caring that it sounded like the pledge of a trembling lover ready to throw her life away.

He lifted his tearstained face and she almost fell to his feet. It took all her strength to sit down into the rocking chair and wipe her eyes before he noticed she had been crying.

-You are so very kind to me, Mary -he said, rubbing his eyes with his left hand. His right hand rested on the cat’s neck.

She hung her head, trying to keep herself from falling into a million particles. Was she supposed to keep silent, to stop herself from loving him? She felt her soul torn by the emotions welling up; his presence overwhelmed her, and his words sounded like the voice of angels. He was her path to happiness and her guide to the light, he was her redemption. She knew he would leave, but she also knew he would be there for a short while. He was there now.

-I went home to see my mom -she heard his otherwise velvety voice, now ragged from the tears, stir the silence. -My brother called me the morning I woke up here. He told me she had had a heart attack -he added, his voice quivering.

-Is… is she alright? -Mary asked with a tightening stomach, dreading the reply.

-Yes, she is -he exhaled, closing his eyes. -It was a long week… horrible week. It’s over now…

-Thank God -she said, feeling her anxiety pass over her like a dreadful stormcloud. She exhaled with him, actually feeling the relief leave her empty and weak, knowing what he must go through.

He opened his eyes and stared at Marshmallow who was happily sleeping between his hands. He stroked her deep in thought, his brows furrowed, his curls hanging into his eyes. She knew he was not done talking and she waited with her breath held back for him to tell her about his secrets, the ones that might have pushed him so far from his past and his family.

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