He left the knife behind as well, was sick of carrying it, hated how his hand remained clenched for hours after he dropped the blade.
He expected to collect more belongings as his journey continued, but the further he travels, the less he carries. Just food and water now, and little of either—enough to sustain himself for a few days, until he finds more, as he’s sure he will find more. Perhaps the world once suffered from hunger, but no longer. Now there’s too much food and no one to eat it. Now too many sustain themselves off the stars. They’re vessels, he thinks, empowering themselves through the most ancient and awestriking of all energies. By night those still roaming this world absorb the stars across millions and billions of miles, and by day they sleep and glow and bask in the bliss only found through devouring stars. There’s beauty in that, as much as there is peril, for men and women were never meant to consume the stars.
He wonders what else men and women were never meant for but now do as if as routine and required as breathing. Or did, before the world went away. They were never meant to live alone; he knows that now, but he has always known it on some level.
He’s fine, alone, but this was never how life was supposed to be lived. Because he’s not fine but tells himself otherwise despite not believing his own words. He’s alive but not truly living. What is living without love? Not his words but words someone else once wrote, and he remembers them from the lost miasma. His own words are not nearly as revealing. Nor as dooming.
Life isn’t as complex and confusing as people make it out to be. He would proclaim this and attempt to ease countless burdens if not for most of the world being dead. Life is simple, really. Or, at least, the ideas governing life are simple. You’re supposed to love. To be kind. He can think of nothing more to say, nothing else to add. The hard part is finding the right people and person to love. You can’t throw your love down a well and expect it to come back up.
“We’re not meant to die. And not here,” she motions to the surrounding water.
They stand on the deck of a ship bobbing soundlessly in the center of a bay as silent as its waveless surface. The yellow and white lights of a city speckle the shore almost as numerously as the stars in the sky. A handful of flashing red lights are thrown in, as well as streaks and blurs of blues and greens and oranges, and more lights that turn off and on as if the city is controlled by switches and circuits. The city is beautiful at night, from a distance. A painting more than a city. It moves, but it doesn’t. Peaceful from so many miles away, silhouettes and paper cutouts shadows of light and life. The ship sways just enough to feel, and the city blinks and shimmers and blurs just enough to live and breathe.
“I didn’t know we’re supposed to die in a certain place.”
“We’re not.” She seems so sure of herself, as if everything she says is certain fact. “But there are places we’re not supposed to die, moments beyond death, and this is one of them.”
“Where is this coming from?” he asks. “Why talk of death now?”
She shrugs and walks along the ship, her hand trailing the smooth siding, her steps silent as her bare feet arch elegantly. He reminds himself that she was a dancer, once, or something close to it, once, that everything she does possesses a certain grace and beauty. Her dress, long and black and blowing in the breeze behind her, is almost invisible against the skyline, would be if not for the city lights. Her coppery skin is the same, and her dark hair, so that she’s little more than a shadow walking the length of the ship.
“I suppose I’m a touch morbid,” she says, laughing into the silky night. Wind stirs, carries up sprays from the sea. “Night does that to me, makes me think of what’s beyond and why we’re here. Perhaps that’s why I always wanted to study the stars. To find more, if there is more, and of course there must be more.
“And when I say that we’re not meant to die, I mean we. Us. You made me understand that, no matter how stubborn I may be and have been.”
“Yes, I know.”
She laughs again and stares down into the black, rippling surface. The moon is only a sliver tonight, the sky touched by strands of pale gray clouds that come and go. The bay reflects the stars so that the water becomes the sky. If you were to leave the ship and slip into the sea, and swim down into the blackness, you would find stars drowning alone, waiting to be carried back to the surface so they may rejoin the sky. She stays on the ship, has already found her place in the world. Stars will come later, if need be.
“I’m sorry for all the mistakes,” she says.
“You’ve said that many times before. You made only one mistake, and I forgave you. Life…is not easy.”
“And silence does not make it easier. I was careless, somewhat blind, young, terrified, and of course a fool. I didn’t realize what I had or what I lost.”
He watches her from across the ship. He could approach her, but doesn’t. “Things happen as they should. The old maxim works both ways. It’s not about the destination, but the journey. It’s not about the journey, but the destination, where you end up when all comes to rest. We’re here, where we should be.”
“But I made it quite difficult,” she admits.
“In harmony with life.”
“I hurt you,” she insists.
“You did, but hurt is part of life.”
“And that, really, is why I’m sorry. I hurt both of us so badly. I would have destroyed this, us, everything, if not for you. I can’t keep us afloat alone. I’m not even sure I can manage myself. There’s so much I don’t understand.” Silence. “You named this ship after me.” A statement rather than a question.
“I always wanted a ship. I just needed a name.”
“Silent Reader,” she says, smiling, cherishing his memory and how he’s forgotten nothing about her. “You are a fool, you know. A romantic as well. You take meaning from everything and put meaning where it doesn’t belong. Yet…a good name.” Silent Reader. She nods. “I’m not being presumptuous and conceited to assume the ship is named after me?”
“Many things are molded after you. You give things meaning. If I wrote a book, I’d write it about you.”
“That would make a very boring and uneventful book.”
““Not if the story is woven well. Not if it truly gives meaning.”
“Pull a single thread and the entire weave might undo itself.”
“The risks are worth it. You should have been the writer.”
Again she shrugs and turns back to facing where the sea meets the bay and everything is black other than the stars. “No. I prefer reading. I’m the silent reader, after all. You must write me something.”
“I am,” he says. “I am.”
He wakes to a gentle rocking. Disoriented, he opens his eyes and finds himself staring at the sky, unknowing of where he is or how he got here. Near midday, if he had to guess, although the sky reveals nothing more than that it is day rather than night. Gentle rocking. A ship, he realizes without much deducing, but he never fell asleep on a ship. He never fell asleep in general. He had been walking along the shore where the sea meets the city and the city becomes ruin.
He stands gingerly, his legs reminding him of the first time he stood in Green Lanes so long ago. But the deck is not padded; if he falls, he will hurt his knees. His belongings lay on the deck beside him. He turns at the sound of approaching footsteps.
“Close enough,” he says to the cloaked figure.
A small frame, but imposing, face hidden within the endless shadows of day. The cloak is entirely gray and wrinkled from hood to hem, far too large for the person beneath and hiding hands and feet.
“No closer,” he says, despite that the cloaked figure has not moved. “Where am I?”
“On a ship.” The voice belongs to a woman. Her tone lacks emotion, betrays none of what she feels.
“The ship’s name,” he says. “What’s the ship’s name?”
She sidesteps nearer to the rail and points to the cabin wall. Da Capo al Segno in black letters bordered by white.
“Da Capo al Segno?” he asks.
“That’s what the words say, yes. The name of the ship.”
“What does it mean?”
“It is to be interpreted,” she says. “As most things are. It’s cold out here and the rains will soon fall. Warm and soft, but not so much of either out here. The seas are angry like so much else. Come inside and below, where you’ll find warmth. Out here you’ll find nothing. Not yet.”
He shakes his head. “How am I here? I was walking through the city hours ago. However long ago. What happened?”
“The city is dangerous. I couldn’t leave you there. So I brought you here, where there’s no danger, where you should be, where there’s very little of anything. Look.”
He sees nothing more than water. Land, in all directions, has vanished. Nothing indeed. “But how did you get me here?” He feels like he’s talking to a shadow even though she’s standing directly before him, staring at him. He feels her eyes from deep within her hood.
“I dragged you. It wasn’t too far.”
He studies her and is reminded that he’s a large man, heavy despite all the weight he has lost. She cannot be much taller than five feet and petite if she so easily vanishes within the cloak. “I’m heavy.”
“Yes, I know. I did carry you. Will you come below now? I’ll not stay out here much longer. The skies will soon open and the clouds will burst.”
He feels the first raindrop hit his cheek, and another soon after. Seconds pass before rain pounds against the deck and splashes up, so loud he can hear nothing else, and although the rain isn’t cold, it isn’t warm, and although it isn’t hard, it isn’t soft like the rains of the past. He has no choice but to follow her across the deck and into the cabin, shutting the door behind him, down a narrow flight of unlit stairs that quickly empty into a small, single room.
“There isn’t much space,” he says, taking everything in. A bed of blankets and pillows made up on the floor in the corner. A small wooden chest that a candle sits atop in a metal bowl. The candle, red, emits barely enough light to see by; the flame is small and flickering and sheds no warmth, although it’s far warmer here than outside. A rug on the floor, gray and plush, and the paneled walls have faded. A stack of books occupy the corner beside him, and in the other corner, a leather armchair and crate of food.
“A small ship,” she acknowledges. “A boat as much as a ship. It’s enough space in any case. I also hate rhyming. Sit. The chair, if you wish.”
He sits down and exhales in relief. His legs hurt more than they should, and his head feels no better. Everything is heavy. Perhaps he has traveled too much and rested too little. Perhaps he has not truly slept in days. Dreams are not sleep. Not these dreams.
“You’re tired,” she says.
“Exhausted,” he corrects. “I’m learning the difference. I haven’t been tired in a very long time.”
“There’s no time to be tired.”
“What do you know about me?”
“You ramble in sleep and can’t be woken. You speak misery and your eyes are as haunted as your thoughts and dreams, as any eyes I have ever seen. I think, once, you had soft brown eyes, but at some point they took on the blue iciness of despair, and now the ice will not thaw. Your eyes are frozen, and you are frozen in time, lost in your thoughts and regrets and angry at what you can’t understand. Flames cannot unthaw you.”
“You see me very well while a cloak hides you.”
“Do you wish to see me?”
“I like to know my company, yes.” She pulls back her hood so that it drops onto her back. “You look familiar,” he says, not knowing how or why she jogs a memory. She’s young, as he thought. Possibly a teenager, and statuesque in her beauty, the straightest and blackest hair he has ever seen; it falls along the sides of her face and vanishes into her cloak. Her pale skin glows in the candlelight, her ice blue eyes matching his own, her cheekbones high and sharp. She seems angry, but he cannot tell if that’s her natural look. Her eyes have a force to them, within them, an intensity that would make most stop and stare.
“Many days have passed since I last withdrew my hood. I prefer to remain unseen. The world has seen too many eyes.”
“It’s only you and I here. Four eyes and no more. And if you didn’t want me seeing you, you shouldn’t have dragged me onto your ship.”
“I have already left too many to die alone. One more…no. Besides, you’re here for a reason. You’re searching for something. I couldn’t leave you to die while that something remains unfound. So few still have purpose.”
He silently mules over her words. She knows much, almost too much, but he’s grown used to everyone knowing more than him, even about himself. His mannerisms and emotions must tell a story, make him readable. How clear is it that he’s missing whatever once made him whole? Noticeable from the first moment? Is he truly that despaired, his dejection that obvious, his pain so visible?
“There’s all that,” she says, “as well as the note I found curled up in your hand. It seems you were supposed to be here, to come to me. I am the ferry deep into the sea, only I have never ferried anyone other than myself. Things change even now.”
“Note?” he asks, remembering no note. He had written nothing, keeps all his thoughts in his own forgetful mind. “I didn’t have a note.”
“You did,” she insists as she sits cross-legged on the floor, staring at him. “And autumn leaves filled your pockets. That’s nearly as important as the note. You’re from somewhere else, somewhere where leaves still fall, where autumn is endless. Here, there’s nothing. The city is too vast to cross unless you know the ways and the people deep within. You’ll die before then, within the labyrinth of ruin. You’ll lose yourself, or someone will force you to become lost. There are no trees, no leaves. Perhaps a few blown across the sea, but not enough to fill your pockets, and your pockets were filled. I have them here.”
She turns and reaches behind the chest, retrieving a bucket filled to the brim with leaves, red and orange and yellow. The colors are shockingly vivid, the leaves impossibly fresh. “Leaves. You’re from somewhere. You will see these leaves again.”
“And the note?”
“Here.” It rests atop the chest, beside the candle in its bowl. “It’s yours, so you may have it.” She reaches forward with the note in hand but doesn’t stand, forcing him to leave his chair.
He doesn’t read the note until he sits back down. He doesn’t want to fall and assumes that whatever the note says will buckle his knees and steal his breath. He recalls the note he found in his car, and when so much of his memory is gone, he remembers the note word for word. The world passes us by before we realize it. I understand that now. It took some time, and I took some time so far away, but I understand, and I’m sorry, so sorry. The mistakes I made were for us, I think. The hurt and pain, for us.
The world passes us by before we realize it. The words cut deeper than they should; they are painfully true. He, and everyone, have missed so much. One moment there is life, followed by nothing. In an instant. And even memories fade. He’s a living testament to that.
The stars and stories and words you spoke, the truth in your eyes, and me, a fool, unbelieving for too long. What we lost we gained, and what we lost was everything.
The same elegant script from the first note—the note he lost long ago, likely in one of his sleeping fits. He sets the note on his lap and searches his pockets.
“What are you looking for?” she asks.
“A pen, something I could have used to write this.”
“You didn’t write it.”
“I must have. If not me, then who?”
“Do you have paper? Have you ever had paper?”
He stops, settles his arms onto his legs and allows his shoulders to slump. “No,” he admits. “No paper, no pen. Nothing.”
“So you didn’t write it.” She stares at him, her lack of facial expressions making him jealous. If only he could hide emotions so well. If only he didn’t feel so much—everything. Emotions control him. They always have, and often to a fault. He wants to scream, his impatience mounting, the lack of answers splitting his head.
“I didn’t,” he makes himself say. His hands could never produce such script, his mind incapable of such words.
“And the tattoos?” she asks.
“Yes, the harvest festival,” he murmurs. “Tattoos? More than one?”
She nods, now her turn to move slowly and confusedly. “You’re so disoriented for someone who’s survived this long, in this world. It’s like everything is brand new to you, as if my questions are the first you’ve ever heard. How are you still alive? And what do the tattoos mean?”
“I don’t know how I’m alive,” he says, and he doesn’t know, doesn’t know how to begin answering that question. “Which tattoo?” He assumes she knows of tattoos he doesn’t, when the tattoos are on his body.
“Your hands.” She stands and approaches him, taking his hands into hers and spreading them out across his knees like starfish on stones. “These hands. These tattoos. Your tattoos. A very bewildered man,” she repeats, shaking her head and returning to her seat on the floor.
He is again stunned, forgetting all about the note.
The scars of our pasts his left hand reads, the words beginning at his wrist and ending at the tip of his thumb, just before the nail. Shape our futures his right hand finishes, down from his thumb and ending at his wrist.
“You look terrified,” she says. “Would it help if I told you my name? Here, I am named Shoal. Does that ease some fear, knowing I have a name? What’s wrong?” she asks when he doesn’t respond.
“I had these tattoos when you found me?”
She nods. “Of course. I’ve no talent in the arts, and that script, those letters, that’s art. But what does it mean? The scars of our pasts shape our futures. It’s poetic, if it’s anything. But a bit morbid and untrue. It is poetic, right? I’ve never been one for poetry.”
“It only means what seems obvious,” he finds himself saying. “Our pasts make us who we are.”
“But why not our successes, our achievements, our victories, and so on? Why our scars?”
“Pain changes us the most, affects us the deepest. We forget so much, but we remember pain with the most clarity, what hurts us and scars our insides. We’re shaped and molded.”
“What about you? If your words are true, then what have you forgotten?”
He thinks for a long time. “I only know that it changed me. Too much, to the point where everything faded.” So he tells Shoal his story, or at least what he remembers, everything after he has woken, and in the end it doesn’t seem like much. “And that’s all. So yes, I’m searching for something, or someone. I can’t stop until I find what I lost.”
Shoal takes a deep breath and stares at him. “You realize she’s dead, don’t you? Years have passed since the world went away. Years. What’s gone cannot return. Some survived, but not nearly enough. Say everyone died and you’d be as good as right. Everyone died.”
“You’re alive, and Hannigan, and the woman, and there’s others out there. You said so yourself. The city isn’t safe because of them. People are still alive.”
“But not enough, and they’re just barely living. One woman in the entire world, one woman you know, or think you know, and you’re searching for her? We’re all fools, but we haven’t lost our senses. I’m sorry, but she’s dead. What you’re seeking is a ghost, a spirit, a memory of something long gone. Even if she was alive, she wouldn’t have waited for you. She would have thought you died, and moved on. You, too, must move on.”
“A memory,” he whispers, falling deep within the leather chair, sinking into it, his body numb and eyelids heavy in the dimness of the room. “That’s all I’m searching for,” he admits, aloud, painfully. “A memory, her face and name somewhere other than in dreams, before I hear winter’s song, before the autumn leaves begin to fall.”
“They have already begun,” Shoal says. “And will do so forever. That’s where I’m bringing you. You have seen the leaves once before, so you can see them again. A rare privilege in these days, to see color, real and natural color, when the world only knows shades of gray and the end of days we keep deep inside.”
“And you have seen these colors?”
She nods. “I am the ferrywoman, and after all these years, you’re my first passenger. I suppose I’ve been waiting for you. Someone had to come, eventually.”
“Yes, eventually. And where is it that we’re going?”
“Where things are lost and found again. A place for you, perhaps. Maybe there you’ll find what you’re looking for. I am the ferry, and this is my duty.”
“Like the dolphins?”
“Carrying our souls to another, better place, a world beyond life and death.”
“Maybe,” she says. “But I’m not bringing you someplace better. Just different, where answers may hide and voices may chime. And music. Always music.”