Hello, readers. Whether you’ve read a few times or the entire novel that I’ve been posting, I thank you for your time. If you’ve been enjoying a few posts here and there, you should probably go back to the beginning to read the entire book. I know this can be inconvenient and require a good bit of reading, but such is the risk I take for posting what is essential a serial novella. I’m like Charles Dickens, but far less talented. If only.
Alas, this is the final installment of Autumn’s Song. To be perfectly honest, the ending is my favorite part. I know many writers claim that ending a book is the most difficult part. For me, however, beginning is far more difficult. I battle impostor syndrome when it comes to writing–I’m not good enough. No one will read it. I’m not brilliant like McCarthy or Vonnegut (this will always be true, but I try). Thus, actually beginning a book always proves a challenge. For the current fantasy book I’m working on and attempting to get published, I wrote a few beginning scenes a half dozen times before I truly found what I wanted to write, what I thought sufficed as a quality beginning to an epic fantasy series. Hundreds of pages, scraped and started again, always thinking I and my writing were not good enough. With that book complete, I’m fully confident that it is indeed enough. I will get it published, and it’s comforting and new to feel such confidence.
Anyway, thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed this novella. I’ll be posting another one soon, in the same format as Autumn’s Song.
He studies his tattoos and wonders where they came from. Perhaps they worked their way up from beneath his skin. Perhaps ink fills his heart and veins and his body is an artist. When did he dance at a festival? Harvest moon. My moon, my stars. What happened that night, with her? It was autumn, he knows. It was always autumn, and that night felt as this day feels. Cool, refreshing, only that day lacked the soft and warm rains of today. It rained less, then, so long ago.
So long ago.
The scars of our pasts shape our futures. He’s been scarred; these tattoos are scars, reminding him of all he has lost and the truths he can’t let himself forget.
Read me your favorite line.
He stops, and this time is not surprised. The tattoo is new and fresh, only as old as his memories. Elegant like the others, worthy of his skin from wrist to elbow. The same hand has created the four tattoos. Once none, now four, and possibly more he does not yet know of. He accepts that his body is a canvas for an invisible artist, forces far beyond his control, likely the same forces that helped guide him here, for he could have never managed it alone. He’d likely still be in Green Lanes, struggling to free himself from the straightjacket. And that, again, reminds him that he was once dangerous to himself and others, that something horrible happened to him, a reason to forget. And that reminds him of the years spent in the hospital and how he can’t explain his own survival after the world died. Or how the dead old man was still alive but begged for death, for mercy. And the dolphins, carrying countless souls—the souls trapped within Green Lanes, the dead left to die, he one of them but still alive. Walking Back to Daisy and the sanguine jukebox playing without power or life. So crimson. And the music, how it filled him with such sadness, and the piano chords he still hears within his mind and memories, the notes forever lingering, burrowing into him, a melody of such deep laments and loss.
He turns away from the ferris-wheel. Memories could bring him there, but even that’s not enough. Realer memories wait elsewhere. The world is a big place, and again with the twists and turns, and a moment changes everything, and here he must find that moment and never let it go. It’s here, waiting for him. He hears it, a song so haunting it shakes the leaves off autumn trees and cools the warm rain and grays the green grass.
A song, and it was the hardest thing he ever had to write.
He has walked the length of the pier, has passed many forks and chose to keep straight, has gone straight from the beginning and now knows it as his only direction.
Everything is behind him now. The world may be behind him, and the island may sit on the edge of existence, and here he is at the very end, in the not so carnival part of the carnival.
From outside, the building is a gray octagon, roof slanted to a high point. The doors are wooden, heavy oak inlaid with leaves carved down to the finest detail, veins and all. The doorknobs are gnarled, bulbous and misshapen shapes. The building is entirely plain other than the doors.
For a moment, he wonders if he should be here, and then he sees the doors, the leaves and designs, and knows he could be nowhere else. Everything waits on one side of these doors, and everything else on the other side. They are just doors, but so was the door leading out of his padded cell. A bridge more than a door, and even now, after the world has crumbled and burned, bridges still connect one place to another, existence to existence, dreams to reality, life to death, people to people, and so on and so on. And so on.
And so it goes on and on.
He touches the doorknobs. The gnarled wood is warm, dry and not graced by the rain. The wood seems molded to the contours of his hands, so he stands there holding the knobs and studying the inlaid leaves and noting how they resemble real leaves. Only their colors are wrong; they are the shade of wood, oak, without hints of the warm autumn tones. The leaves are too cold.
He grasps the doorknobs, and pulls the doors toward him, and steps inside, into darkness.
An octagonal room, the ceiling slanting toward a center higher than the rest. Leaves fall from the ceiling, float down and down, and vanish into the floor. They do not land, and they do not crinkle and crack beneath his feet, against a marble floor so polished he sees himself in it. They simply vanish. He looks old—older than he remembers, his face a brown beard and his eyes nearly as bright as the marble, like ice reflecting the sun, except there is no sun, no source of light here, but it’s bright just the same.
He looks so tired, so worn, so deep within his thoughts, his face lined with years he has not lived, memories he can’t remember nor forget. The years—time in general—have not treated him well. Nor has the world.
He looks away from his reflection. Leaves continue to fall from the ceiling, appearing from nowhere and going nowhere, like shooting stars traveling to the unseen corners of space, and then, suddenly, the room becomes space.
He walks through space above and below and all around him. Beneath him, stars twinkle in the countless. With every step he ponders falling through, slipping forever through the endlessness of space, but his feet always find solid ground. He can’t fall here. He can only be lifted higher. Swirls and streaks and chaos clusters of colors, infinite galaxies deep within the cosmos Color burst into existence one after another, not as numerous as the stars but still innumerable. Planets, nebulous gas giants and the frozen spheres never to unthaw, secrets buried beneath ice, infernos burning fierce and volatile, and verdant jungles emerald and trembling with life.
At the center of it all sits a piano, black and lustrous and filled with shooting stars, so that the entire piano, bench and pedals and all, seems alive, swarming with countless fireflies.
And from the piano, music.
A song he knows by now, and doesn’t know. It steals his breath, stops him in mid-stride, tenses every muscle. The melody drifts through the room, through the universe, but only he can hear it. Every note builds upon the last. Every note. Tension without release. An empire of sound. There’s no quickness to it, no rushing or needing to finish. It can and will go on forever. The song is slow but not leisurely. The notes carefully chosen but natural just the same, intended to stir emotion, to draw it out from your deepest depths and capture it, and you, forever. The notes ring out, and last, sustain, fade until they die and are replaced. Words are not needed; the sentiment is clear. The musician needs the music as much as the music needs the musician. One cannot exist without the other. Desperation and urgency and a sense that all will fade. All will sail into the last horizon. All will fall and become the fallen.
The music silences. The stars and planets fade. He is again in the octagonal room with leaves falling from the ceiling. But now they’re gathering on the floor.
That’s how he hears her footsteps, knows before he turns that it is her. He knows the sound of her steps, the arch of her feet, the balance in her stride, of practiced and perfected elegance. She was a dancer, once, he remembers. And her scent. An autumn breeze fresh with life, of apples and hay and leaves piled high. He breathes it in until it dizzies him. She has always dizzied him, from the first moment he truly saw her.
He turns slowly, believing she will vanish if he moves too fast. He can’t let her vanish. He can’t endure it again. “You’re here,” he says, his voice little more than a whisper.
“I can be here,” she says.
From her voice he knows it is truly her, that he’s looking at her in reality and not in a dream, that she’s alive and he’s alive, and, together, they are alive. But he’s moving too fast, clinging at too many conclusions. Maybe she isn’t alive. He has already conceded her death, has believed it and still believes it somewhere deep inside.
“Are you dead?” he asks. A question he should not ask, , but must.
“I am here,” she says. “And that is enough.”
“I love you,” he says, needing to say it before she vanishes. She mustn’t vanish. She mustn’t. “I had to say it, before anything else happens.”
“I know. Love is everything you are. Everything I am.”
He nods. “I’m staring at you. I actually see you.” Dark hair framing a face that will be young forever, teeth so white and eyes so dark—eyes filled with shifting thoughts and emotions. She prefers to be alone, he remembers, just like himself. Together, they were alone. Remembering is easier when she stands before him. She’s not smiling, and despite that he adores her smile, how she so often tries to hide it and her laughter and is embarrassed when she can’t hold back her pleasure, he appreciates her calculating stare just the same. She has always stared at him like that, as if she sees something no one else sees in him, as if she’s looking into him rather than at, and from the first moment he saw that stare, he knew. He just knew. Like a punch to the face. Unlike everything else in his life, he knew and continued to know despite how hard it was, the foolishness of it all. The absurdity. He knew, despite that the world railed against him. He knew, and now, staring at her staring at him, he still knows, and knows he was right to believe.
“I’m staring at you,” he repeats. “But I still don’t remember you. Not everything. Did you wear that dress so long ago?” A sundress, yellow and loose and sprinkled with blue roses.
She smiles and nods. “You will remember everything, but only if you wish.”
“I’ve never wanted anything more.”
“And if the memories destroy you?” She reaches out and takes his hand, and he feels that she is real, not a figment of his imagination. Her hands are soft, just as his are soft. The rain has softened them, he thinks.
“Then I will be destroyed in your presence. I can’t go on like this. I’m already being destroyed. I can’t do it any longer.”
She nods and approaches him, touches his shoulders and sits him on the bench he didn’t know was behind him. His forearm hits the piano he thought had vanished. She turns him around, in the position to play, and straightens his back, his wrists. She stands over him and smiles down, stares as if she’s again seeing him for the first time.
They stare at each other for a very long time.
“I’ve missed you,” he says. “I first saw you like this, didn’t I? There was a piano.”
“There was, and only as much as I’ve missed you. The world is silent without you. There’s no music. Everything is wrong, tarnished and tainted. Colorless. So many grays. I was never good with words, you know. You were the words. You made me speak, made me spill so many secrets I never wished to share. And that’s another secret I’ve kept, how much I’ve missed you. The waiting was mine to endure. Mine alone. I’m a passable actress.”
“I must remember,” he repeats. “How? How do I remember everything?”
“Are you certain? You always did rush into things.”
“I made a promise to you.” He does not know what that promise entails, only that it exists.
She takes a deep breath and bites her bottom lip, a new sadness suddenly filling her eyes. “You must play, if you wish to remember. A song you wrote so long ago. The notes are yours. The melody is yours. The passion. Everything you are, we are, survives in song. You must play.”
“I don’t know how,” he says, staring at the keys, black and white. “Even if I did, I can’t remember the song.”
“They are here,” she says, and at first he thinks she’s reaching for his chest, his heart, but she pulls up his coat sleeve to reveal a treble and base cleft tattooed on his forearm, and on those clefts, a key signature, timing, and notes. The beginning of a song, and it’s enough. It stirs memories, exhumes a grave he buried long ago. There’s a song here, on his skin, but the majority of it still flows through him. He has heard it all this time, and knew it all this time, but never understood on what level, how completely he and the song are connected. So when his fingers touch the keys, he knows they are in the right position, and the notes are perfect, and when he plays what he reads on his skin, he has already remembered the rest of the song, in its entirety, down the most minuscule dynamics. He knows the song better than he knows himself. He has played it a hundred times, a thousand times, drunkenly and sober, mindless and alert, with her and without. So many times without.
His fingers flow across the keys as the song flows within him. Played by memory, his fingers reacting long before his mind thinks to act. The music is here, buried deep down, instilled within him, as intrinsic as breathing. No separation between himself and the music; they can only exist together, and only he can play this song as it’s meant to be played, with the same emotion, the same love, passion, and horrible, horrible loss.
It is then, at the thought of loss, that the memories begin resurfacing.
The pleasant memories are fleeting, just snapshots even now. In her room again, for the first time, so young, so foolish but already knowing what the future holds for them. Laying beneath the stars, staring into the sky, content with just being together beneath the eternity above, joined together when the rest of the world waits so far away. It is those times when nothing else mattered. They were married beneath the stars. No one understood it other than the two of them, and it was better that way, perfect. She smiled so much that night, and told him, again and again, how she loved him, how marrying her beneath the stars was the best idea he would ever have. Other than just marrying her, of course. She is his wife, he realizes, although part of him has always known.
Memories return; they were always there, waiting in the depths, waiting to be rekindled. Of books and songs and written notes, hikes to mountaintops and car rides late at night, the only light in darkness. All before the world ended.
An assault of memories, and he watches them as he plays, mindlessly, repeating the song when it ends, and again when it ends again, and again and again, and each time he plays flawlessly, his fingers hitting the notes a bit harder, with more force, more zeal, the notes becoming realer, filling the room with sound so passionate tears stream down his face, and her face as she watches and knows what he’s seeing, what he will see, and what may happen when all is said and done, when the song finishes and the music ends.
But for now, the music plays on as visions come and go, as he dreams while awake and memories, the only memories that truly matter, return his past to him. The years he spent with her, the life he made and the life he lost.
Playing a piano in a cavernous room. Wooden floorboards glisten as the sun, sitting high above the sea and the stone balcony outside, shines through the double glass doors and fills the room with silent, serene light. He hears himself playing the song his present-self plays, only it’s not yet complete, the longing and loss not yet matured. He’s smiling as he plays, when now it’s impossible to smile while playing this song. He watches himself stand as the phone rings from another room, and he returns to the room with the phone at his ear. He’s walking in slow motion, stops at the glass doors and listens as he stares out over the windswept headland, into the sea.
Tears pour down his face. He’s crumbling to the floor, a broken, destroyed man, because broken is not enough. It was never enough. He lays there, in the sun shining through the doors, staring at the ceiling but seeing nothing more than her face, her smile, her memories and his memories of her, and lastly, just as they were the first thing he ever saw, truly saw, he sees her eyes.
And once again, forever this time, he’s lost within them.
His fingers press the keys so softly and delicately that it’s barely a song now, is not a song when he finally stops and turns to her. She’s sitting beside him, sharing the bench, their knees touching. She takes his hand into hers, cradles it gently.
“This part of me,” he says, touching his chest, “”Couldn’t go on. I lost everything. You, my mind, the memories, but mostly just you. You were everything. And that’s the danger, the terror, when you give yourself, you’re everything, to another.”
She nods. “You kept me alive, deep down. The memories vanished, but they didn’t go away. We kept each other alive.”
“I’m sorry I forgot you.”
She rests her head on his shoulder and sighs. “Don’t you dare blame yourself. You had to forget or else it would destroy you. You always blame yourself.”
“It destroyed me anyway.”
“But you put the pieces back together. You’re whole again.”
“And you’re real?” he asks. “You’ve been with me from the beginning.” Not a question. “You saved me once, and now twice.” Still not a question.
“My amends for my mistakes.”
“We can so rarely control the pain we cause,” he says. “But now what? I can’t do this again. You can’t leave me again.”
“I’ll never leave you. And that is a promise I will never break.”
“Then how?” he asks.
Leaves fall from the ceiling, the reds and oranges and yellows he knows so well. They land and lie motionlessly on the piano, and in his lap, and her lap, and one comes to rest on his hand still positioned to play the notes to a song.
“We will play the song together.”
“I don’t remember how to begin. I’ve forgotten, again.”
“I’m here,” she says, and that is enough. It’s always been enough. More than enough. With her, there’s no need for anything else. The music, truly, comes from her. For her. “I’ll always be here. I promise.”
And so they play. She first, striking the notes so that they reverberate, and he follows, matching her fingers two octaves higher so that both his hands can play. They have practiced this before, have perfected it, and it is perfect again. The song plays, and he looks beside himself and sees her, her eyes studying the keys until she turns and looks at him, and finally, after so long, after he has nearly forgotten what it looks like, she smiles, truly smiles.
The song plays, and he knows, someday, as long as the song continues, even when the rest of the world fades into dusk and dusk becomes darkness and ash buries the world like music buries silence, even when all things fade—all things do fade and even the final leaves of autumn blacken and color is lost—he knows, that as long as the song plays on and she guides him through the melody and bridges and together as they harmonize just as they harmonized from the beginning, the first time he saw her and her eyes, so deep and dark and more true than anything he has ever known, as long as all these things come to pass, and he sits beside her at this piano, knees touching and hands so close, so close, and the song plays on, he will remember her name.