First published in Flash Fiction Online, February 2020
We are one and we are many. We are shrubby willow and cotton-grass; we are moss and heather. All we need is this peaceful state of being. Enjoy the sun, listen to the birds, drink the mist. But there’s a new voice among us, and she won’t let us rest.
Night and day, she whispers about a man in town.
An image flickers in the dark. Brown eyes, strong arms, warm tanned skin. The glow of red-hot iron. No matter what we tell her, she won’t let go of him, the young blacksmith she was to marry before the fever took her.
“I must go,” she says. “I can’t stay here.”
“You belong with us now.”
We surround her, prod gently at the invisible wall that separates us. It keeps us from merging; it shouldn’t be there. She has no body to cling to. Along with her wedding dress, it has long been decomposing in the moorland churchyard. Yet, somehow, her mind remains singular.
The moon keeps changing; mists come and go. We’re all here, so close together, yet not close enough. At peace, almost. Our embrace waits for her right outside her wall. When she is ready, we tell ourselves, feeling the grit of sand as much as the sun. Soon, we say, the shuffling of worms as loud as the goldfinch’s morning song. When the wind blows, we are stalks of grass bending one way while she sways the other.
The animals sense the disarray and begin to avoid the restless moor. The merlins abandon their ground-nests. The foxes leave, followed by the hares.
She sees their departure in a different light, her heart’s desire acted out.
We understand her better than she knows. We, too, have wanted. We, too, have yearned. But all the dead need is here. We push and pull and beg, but she will not join us, won’t even let go of his name.
Some days all she does is repeat his name like a heartbeat, “Dan, Dan, Dan.” A powerful, dangerous chant.
Today is such a day. The day we feared.
“I must return to him,” she says and means it with all her soul.
She wills herself a new body. Shrubs and roots coil into a wiry skeleton, and with strong willow legs, she rises from the moor. Long yellow grass pads her body and frames her face. Two freshly plucked crowberries give her sight.
The roots at her feet stretch to the point of snapping as she tries to pull free of us. It’s our last chance to stop her, even if it costs our peace. We speak over each other instead of as one:
“He won’t even know it’s you.”
“You will frighten him to death!”
“They will chase you away with torches and pitchforks.”
We raise our voice until it’s wind howling in her wooden ears, but it’s her heart that won’t listen. In her chest beats a lump of moss and heather to the song of its singular want.
Dan, Dan, Dan.
She marches over us, towards town.
Counting days matters little on the moor, weeks even less. Our time is measured in slow wingbeats and raindrops and drifting marigold petals. Each moment is precious.
It has been many skylark’s’ flights since she left. We should be as we were before, but her absence leaves a hole in us. It is small and quiet and won’t disappear.
We won’t let it.
We caress the hush of it, wrap ourselves around it. We will carry it longer than the earth holds her bones. We will wait.
With or without her, peace and balance must be restored.
We turn our marigold-heads towards the sun and chatter about the shape of clouds. We watch the fluffy seeds of cotton-grass blowing in the wind. The deer and their fawns graze upon us, and soon enough, we spot the familiar sight of foxes chasing hares.
The animals are coming back. Will she?
We feel the vibrations of the ground long before we see her.
She returns, a tangled height of sticks barely holding together. The mist hangs heavy on her shoulders, like the veil she never wore. Her feet drag through the wet grass. When she stops, so do the vibrations. She’s alone.
We gather around her, relieved to have her back but waiting for the damage.
Her whole body trembles as she speaks, shedding slivers of grass and small leaves. “I found him, but I didn’t let him see me. I watched him from the shade of trees. He is well. Older, but in good health. I wanted nothing more than to go to him, but he looked so peaceful. Happier than I last saw him. His wound has healed. I couldn’t be the one to tear it open.”
She hugs herself to steady her body, not succeeding. A deep splinter enters her voice. “I should have left then, but instead I waited. And then I saw him with the milkmaid and understood. He is more than well. He has married another.”
We lean closer, brushing softly against her feet.
She casts one last look behind her, dark juices running down her willowy cheeks. “You tried to protect me. I should have listened. This is where I belong.”
She is a pile of sticks falling into our heathery arms. Once more, her breath returns to the wind, her limbs wither, her body crumbles into the earth.
No more boundaries or resistance. Like a teardrop, she slips in and makes us whole. We sense her love for the blacksmith, sweet violets and starlight. We taste the bitter salts of her sorrow. We feel the sword of her pain. Our pain.
In time, all blades will dull. Until then, beneath the blooming heather and green moss, our whisper echoes: “Patience. One day, he will be ours.”
© Sylvia Heike