Can I Ever Say
When eyes graze my face
When words flood my ears
Pass me for smiling listeners
When the agony and the fear
And everything I cannot ignore
But cannot say
Can I ever say this
I was. But the was never leaves
It rattles about in my head and
About the birds flown south
I am. I am turmoil
They tear through me with all the force
Of the wind off of wings
And I tremble
in the breezes and the falling leaves
I will always be this:
How can I waste
What I do not have?
In my mind I can see
Someday soon the world will stop
My heart will stop
It seems as though it has all stopped already
The Day Has Not Begun
The colors leave as suddenly as they come. I open my eyes and there is only darkness and the beat of my heart, thump, thump, like a bomb ticking itself to vivid red self-destruction.
My clock does not tick. It sits there, hunched in the unbroken black, staring at me with solemn, glowing green eyes. The numbers say, 5:01.
I am late again.
The floor groans beneath my bare feet and the creak as I leave my room is one which, according to my mother, should wake the whole house. It does not, and the silence itself seems to yawn, stretch, and flop back into an easy state of somnolence which only I dare interrupt with the timid padding of feet across carpet.
The light is white. It shatters the grey of hallway and stair and I enter it, blinking rapidly, then shut the door, extricating myself from the embrace of the night.
The water rushes down, hot and blinding.
Soft grey warmth, and a strong arm across my back. A grin so wide I bless the dusk for concealing it. A hand takes mine, and the thrill courses through my veins to my heart.
“She made me bring the stupid purple dress she likes- the one I got at the thrift store,” I say. “She wants me to be a princess for the dance.”
“And are you a princess?” I hear his smile clearer than the words in the silvery-grey night. He holds me closer. I smile against his chest.
I turn the knob, and cool blue relief washes the pain into a gentle hum in the back of my mind.
So much time, each morning. So much effort. What for, anymore? I don’t know. Nobody looks at me, not really. Jason likes the makeup, the red of the lipstick, porcelain face, glitter on my eyelids, black-rimmed eyes.
They’re black in the center, too. All the way down to my center. No one looks at the center.
Jason likes the blush, and the curls going swish down my back, the nails painted whimsical pink, spring green, flowers and polka dots and pearly white stripes. Jason doesn’t like me.
Neither did He.
I step from the water. The beaded drops grow warm against my skin.
A green and pink spring day, and I’m seven years old on the playground, laughing and chasing Jessy. Her red curls bounce to her pink and white-striped back. She stops beneath the slide. I catch her.
“No fair, Emmy! You cheated!”
“I did not. Tag doesn’t have breaks. You should have given me your juice box.”
“I don’t have to! Make your mom pack you juice boxes if you like them so much!”
We laugh. Neither of us knows grey. It is yellow yellow yellow and the birds wheeling above us in the blue are far away.
We look up and see a boy, green shirt and yellow hair, eyes green. Turtles are green. He looks at Jessy. I frown.
“Carson and I have a surprise for you.”
I nod and understand. He is in Jessy’s class if he is friends with black-eyed Carson. I am in Mrs. Petersen’s class. Second Grade.
Jessy shrugs. “Alright. You win, Emmy. Let’s go see.”
He looks at me. “Emmy?”
“My name is Emily,” I say. I smile.
“I’m ********. You can come too if you want.”
We follow Him. He makes his way over to the pine trees. I see Carson. He’s holding a little red brown box and a stick. Red at the top. A pile of dry pinecones sits before him.
“I found them at my grandma’s,” He explains to Jessy. “Look what they do.”
I watch nervously.
“What’s wrong, Emmy?” Jessy asks. She smiles at Him.
“I’m not allowed,” I whisper. Pound. Pound. My chest hurts. I start to back away.
He frowns. “You’re afraid of matches?”
“I’m not allowed.” From twenty feet away I hug a tree and watch as the stick hits a pinecone and hiss splutter goes up in red red red flame. He tries to hide the fire with his body but Mr. Rowland the recess aid sees it anyways and He and Jessy and Carson miss recess for the next two weeks while I sit alone or wander to the little creek and watch it running, running, running.
The towel is white. My name is stitched onto it in neat blue letters. The dampness leaves me and the strands of my hair lighten from black to brown. The hot air hits my head as the brown winds around the gleaming metal. Steam rises in white tendrils and the metal hits my hand but I don’t cry out, only watch in the burnished mirror as my eyes go wider and wider and the grey in them seems to darken.
I run my hand under the water.
“******** is so handsome, don’t you think, Emmy?” Jessy smiles at herself in the glass, brown eyes, and she’s smiling at herself in a lacy white dress.
I laugh. Then the laugh stops. I pull at my white blouse, my grey skirt. I look anywhere but at her. “He’s… he’s not as handsome as Carson.” Carson is not handsome. He’s silly and his black hair is always messy. He’s shorter than me, not at all like a prince from my movies. ******** is slim and tall. He is always smiling. His mother gels his hair sometimes. It looks beautiful, shiny and candle-flame yellow, with his green eyes sparking beneath it.
“I’m so nervous.” Jessy turns to face me. “What if I mess up the words?”
“You know you won’t.”
“But I can't sing while I'm looking at ********... We’ll be calling each other ‘dear,’ Emmy!” Jessy tugs at her hair. It is glowing red, red like the flames coming up beneath the pine trees two years ago. Her face glows red, too. She is thinking about calling Him dear.
I snort. “You’ll be singing about a hole in a bucket. That's not very romantic.”
Nine is not a particularly charitable age. I am thinking about using the bucket they sing about to drop water on her glowing rosy head. I am jealous, jealous, jealous because Jessy will sing a solo in the fourth grade concert and she will sing to Him. And He will smile bright green-eyed smiles at her the way he’s done at every. Single. Practice.
But I don't do anything. I smile at her to show I didn't mean to be harsh, and I look back at the mirror. Back at my drab white and grey self and my black flats. Darker the farther down you go.
My shoes hurt, and my heart hurts.
We walk out of the white bathroom into the blue-paint hallway. The concert will be in the gym, but we don't walk in that direction. Jessy has just spotted Him and Carson.
He turns. “Hi, Jessy. Hi, Emily.” His crisp white shirt and green tie are dazzling.
I smile weakly.
He smiles sparking candle-flame and green smiles at Jessy’s rosy face during the song. She messes the words up. He doesn't seem to care. And I sing short bursts of words with the other girls who aren’t pretty pretty pink and red Valentine Jessy.
“Dear Henry, dear Henry…”
But in my mind I am singing to Him, not some boy named Henry, and his green eyes twinkle-smile at me.
My hand hurts. There is a burn on my finger and I get a bandage from the cabinet, then continue to wind brown strands of hair around the metal, my hand stinging all the while. It is raining outside, cold December rain, and there is a skylight above me which leaks in brown drips that are the same shade as my hair.
One drops on my hair; there is a hiss as the curler touches it and destroys its fragile and cold beauty.
When He tells Jessy that he does not like her anymore, but instead some girl named Carly, I feel a stinging, terrible hot anger inside. No matter how much it may hurt to watch him spark-shine at Jessy’s pink-and-perfect self, it hurts more to know there is an unknown other out there who is not my best friend and who does not deserve every happiness there is in the world. I couldn't hate Jessy.
But I hate her.
I see her first in November of my fifth-grade year. She is in my class, and she is perfect. Hair like spun gold and eyes of a cool, bright blue. Her voice is sweet as an angel’s and she makes an effort to be friends with everyone, an effort which Jessy and I kindly but firmly rebuff.
I am beginning to read romance books, a habit my mother disapproves of. She prefers the books I used to read, books like Tom Sawyer and Swiss Family Robinson. But there is something in my soul which craves the unique thrill of a happy, romantic ending to worrisome drama.
It occurs to me, of course, that if this were a romance novel, my rival would be beautiful, yes, but so vindictive that anything disagreeable which might befall her would not trouble anyone.
Carly rejects Him in the late winter when he gives her a valentine. I am both delighted and furious with her. How dare she treat this wonderful opportunity which I do not have as something which can be tossed to the side? But she appears to prefer Carson. Carson! They call themselves a ‘thing,’ like Carly’s older sister and her boyfriend.
He does not play with Carson much anymore. Instead, He begins to talk to Jessy again, and all the old pain comes back.
I try to fade into the blossomy pink and green spring, but I cannot. Green and pink are the right colors for ******** and Jessy, but not for me.
The cold spray hits my hair. It feels like water. It is not. It is chemical and I almost feel it grabbing at me as it begins to harden. It ‘holds’ the strands in place.
Only my pride holds me in mine.
The powder is not white, like Jessy’s dress, or the light from the door. The powder fades into my skin, the grey of the spectrum of bright colors. I do not feel it brush my cheeks.
But the red of the stain on my lips feels hotly invasive. It sticks and clings and I frown at my reflection, reach for a paper towel, and wet it.
My fifth grade class goes on a boat out onto the endless ripples of the Chesapeake Bay for graduation. There is music, dancing. There are strings of sparking red and white lights that dance on the water. I frown at their glow. It disrupts the glassy smooth blackness of the night, reflected on the Bay. The stars are beautiful. The artificial lights are not.
I feel artificial. My mother has curled my hair and I wear pink strawberry chapstick which prevents me from truly enjoying anything I might eat. I have a yellow dress on which stands against the night nearly as much as the lights. The yellow makes my hair almost dark gold and dims the grey of my eyes. But for some reason people seem to like it.
I do not understand people.
I am leaning on the rail of the boat, watching the yellow blob that is me progress across the black-smooth water along with the white boat and the false lights and the stars. I am thinking about Jessy in white, her flamelike hair streaming ripples down her back. Real curls, not like mine. He approaches me.
I turn, and the colors floating on the ripples of Jessy’s hair and the water disappear, replaced by dizzy visions of candle-flame yellow, green green eyes, and a real actual suit.
“Hi,” I say. I look around for Jessy. But Jessy is nowhere in sight.
“Do you want to dance?” He motions towards the smooth-boarded floor where my classmates are jumping up and down in reckless abandonment as some popular, fast paced song plays.
I frown. “Are you kidding?” My dazzling vision of circling the floor in his arms while beautiful music plays vanishes.
He holds his hands out. “Come on, Emily. It'll be fun.”
And it is. My feet in their black flats hurt after only six minutes of smiling and laughing into ******** Ericson’s sparking green eyes, which for once are directed at me, and only me. The yellow of the dress and my artificial curls don’t seem so bad anymore. One song turns into two, and then three, and-
And then I see Jessy coming out of the bathroom.
“Sorry,” I say to Him. “My feet hurt. I have to sit down. You should dance with Jessy.”
He looks up at her. I whisk away.
Later, as I watch the water again, Jessy comes up to me, breathless, brown eyes sparkling and red red hair dancing in the air behind her. “Emmy, he asked me to dance!”
I could say that I, too, was asked, that it wasn’t only Jessy who was granted that immense privilege. But I don’t. I nod.
“He’s so cute,” she sighs.
I nod again, without thinking, and her eyes narrow at me.
The door opens, and light floods from behind me onto the carpet, a black shadow in the center of the pool of white indicating where I am, where I truly am, but one brief flip of the switch on the wall is enough to push the reminder from me.
I return to my room, slip on a yellow shirt and black pants. Yellow like the dress I wore that night. Yellow for Jessy, Jessy who wears everything well, and black for me. And then I descend down the stairs into the pitch-dark, grope for my backpack, my keys, leave the house as silently as the light from the bathroom. It is only 5:50. I do not need to be at school for at least another hour and a half. But I do this every morning, now. I have since last December, even in the summertime.
I drive along roads still cloaked in shadow, the headlights of my car breaking garishly through the silent beauty of a world without light. And within minutes I have pulled into my school’s parking lot and my feet in their pink sneakers are pounding, pounding on the path leading into the forest where it all happened. The mists of dawn have begun to penetrate the darkness. I feel more fear at the light filtering through the leaves above than I do at my solitude.
I reach the bridge, grey and isolated and lonely in the morning light. I cross it and jog towards an opening in the trees. I find the old grey oak, its branches budding but still mostly bare. I lean against it and look through the fog over a deserted basketball court.
The mists settle over my skin, and once again I remember.
Twelve, now, tall and gawky with a permanent worry line etched between my brows. I am wearing grey, and standing alone against a tree as grey as I am, watching my classmates play basketball on the middle-school blacktop below. Watching Him, but only out of the corner of my eye. Jessy appears, blooming red in my monoscape, blooming red angry.
“Jessy?” I sound surprised. I am not. I have felt her jealous eyes bore into me for weeks now. “You never call me Emily. What’s wrong?”
Jealousy is not green. Jealousy is red. Jealousy is anger.
“Emily, you like ********.”
I don’t deny it. How can I? It’s true, and Jessy knows it. Instead, I turn away.
“There’s nothing to worry about,” I say.
She glares at me. “How can you say that? You like the boy I like!” Her voice softens. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
I shrug. “I didn’t want to hurt you, Jessy. And I’m… I’m me. He won’t like me. I’m not like you.”
Jessy doesn’t look as though she agrees but she lets it go and sits at the base of the tree. I sit, too, and we watch the players together. Jessy, because she has the right to, watches Him. I am careful not to watch ********, even out of the corner of my eye. But Jessy still shoots glances at me to make sure I am not.
“We’ll always be best friends, won’t we?” she asks.
I lean against her and put my head on her shoulder, glad suddenly that there is no chance that He will ever like me. I’m never giving Jessy up.
“Yes,” I say simply.
I shake my head to clear it and walk down into the school grounds. The branches of trees still arch over my head, even when I have left the forest.
I sit on a bench still wet from the night’s rain, heedless of the damp cold which shoots through my legs and then dulls to an uneasy warmth.
There is more. Of course there is. But just now, in the middle of the middle between night and day, I do not have to face it, do not have to face it yet. I do not have to think about Him. For now, he and Jessy and the world have faded away. This is where it began, the trouble, the heartache, life.
The day has not yet begun.
Thicker than Tears
Don't, they say
In the midst of a torrent
For tears over loss
Is time lost
Is it better to walk
Head held high
Eyes hard and unyielding
And chin set
A sorrow unseen for shame
Gives the sorrower the blame
I Should Glow
In the shadow of my passing
Like the glitter of the droplets which fly from the waves
Fly and then fall
And are lost to the dim of the blue and the green
Until they surge again
And fling jeweled teardrops to the sun
The light of the darkness dimmed my eyes
I saw her
Her eyes, bright
Like mine but brighter
Her lips, pink
Like mine but with a darker flush
Her waist, curved
Thinner and smoother than that which encircles my own spine
And her voice
Sweeter than angels' singing
Softer than a sigh
Sad and soft and almost silent
And prettier than mine
Because my heart inside its cage of bone
Beats, beats, beats
Not until it has been stilled
Broken and silent as the bone which holds it
Will I be free
Part One, Section One: Behind the Waterfall
Shi’van, bastard prince of the Shir, was conceived in the sixth month of the 999th year in a room nearly as old as the seven-pointed valley of Riavach itself, concealed at the end of a network of twisting tunnels which extended into the stone of the cliffs. Light filtered through the one crudely shaped window into the room from beyond a rushing curtain of water. During the night the lights were at times purple, golden, and red; pale and colorless when the Heavenly Lights did not stream across the valley from an unknown source beyond the faraway clifftops.
It was through the window- the only one in all the tunnels- that the silvery morning mists came on the fateful day when the wife of the second prince and a hated man from Irin defiled the personal sleeping couch of the second prince, the only part of the room which had been added since its creation. And it was there that Shi’Orin found them when the sun had reached its peak and was fully flooding the valley- and the room, through the shimmering waterfall- with golden light.
Shi’Orin, a man of relatively small stature among the Shir people but still an imposing figure, with flashing dark eyes and a muscular build which was defined still more by the light against his jet-black skin, looked down at his wife, a bright red wooden tube held loosely in one hand. His wife looked back up at him, perhaps a little embarrassed and annoyed but still relatively unperturbed.
The man next to her, his usually dark green complexion now the shade of leaves in the sun, scrambled from the couch and attempted to run. With a single swift movement, Shi’Orin had him by the collar of his robe. Shi’Orin, short among the Shir, still towered over this man and could look nearly directly down into his wide, frightened red eyes.
Another swift movement with his other hand, which still held the wooden tube, and a jetty black dart had flown into the Irin’s forehead. A weak scream was all the man could emit before his eyes had rolled back into his head and his breath had stopped.
Shi’Orin released his grip on the robes and the man’s corpse dropped to the ground in an unsightly heap. A stream of jewel-hued blood made its way to the cold, smooth stone floor, where they shone dimly from the dust of centuries.
Shi’Orin, stepping aside to avoid the steadily increasing pool, now returned his gaze to his wife, who, after glancing at the corpse, met his stare evenly and cooly.
“Another?” he asked calmly.
“You were to be gone until these seven suns had passed.”
“That, woman, is no excuse for high treason. You are lucky that your dowry is a continuous source of wealth and not an immediate payment.”
Shin’Zel’s chin set stubbornly. “It is not as if the man was a Llan. You see it has not harmed you. I suppose you will be composing a note to the accursed Irin High Priest this afternoon with an appropriate excuse. Then all will be ended.”
“You would do such a thing with a Llan, were the filthy half-beasts in any other place but the accursed Forest and Lake. And not all will be quite ended. You forget that these cushions and this floor-” he glanced at the blood, which had by now reached the dark, clawed wooden legs of the sleeping couch- “must now be washed.”
“A simple task.”
“And still we have not discussed how it is you came to know of these secret chambers.”
“Nor how you came to know.” Shin’Zel, increasingly anxious, glanced to either side at the only other objects in the room, a large stone coffer and a perfectly round black orb, large as two fists, on a stand of the same material. Neither could provide her any aid in this case. “Vision teaches that the cliffs are sacred and not to be touched, or even approached. Yet here it would appear you sit daily, within the cliffs themselves and directly beneath the sacred waters. It is no easy feat to open all three of the hidden portals beneath the palace gates. I should never have managed it if I had not watched you do it these thirty moons past.”
“You are one to discuss the teachings of Vision, woman. I seem to recall several passages regarding fidelity to one’s partner.” Shi’Orin paused and looked around at the room and its contents, a dangerous unease building in his haunted dark eyes. “These tunnels I discovered through mere chance. They hold untold secrets which are worth the sin of uncovering them in a place such as this.” He turned to her, his eyes suddenly intense. “What have you uncovered of this place? What do you know?”
“Very little.” Shin’Zel sniffed and nodded at the coffer. “In there, I have seen dusty records. In the globe, I see nothing. It is merely a stone. This room I value for its privacy and secrecy. Yet even that, it would seem, cannot be found here.”
“Have you read the records?” Shi’Orin stepped closer to his wife, his left hand clenching tightly once more around the dartshot. It became apparent to Shin’Zel that it was not her infidelity which she was going to need to defend.
“It is all written in Old Tongue,” she huffed. “The one scroll which I attempted to read spoke only of things called drakons. A battle. Musty wars and history, as if I cared.”
“No.” Shin’Zel shifted on the couch, rumpled silken sheets still surrounding her from her waist down. She passed a hand nervously over a cushion. “And I- I do not care to know more.”
“Nor must anyone else in this palace, if you value your life. Do you understand?”
“If I am to become Shir when my father, bless his name, dies, I must have two things- a child and an untouchable reputation.” He glanced distastefully at his wife. “The way you behave, I am almost sure to have a child. Although the chances of it being truly mine- well, they are significantly less, are they not?”
Prophetic words. For exactly nine months later, in the 1000th year, Shin’Zel gave birth.
And the child was a Llan.
Don’t Get Too Close
She perceives my flaws
Talks of them behind my back
She is porcelain.
He looks at my flaws
Tells me I am not enough
Like the looking-glass.
She could see my flaws
But elects to ignore them
She, a lifeless bird
Which hits the cold glass
and crumples to the pavement
Where I love the most
The more is the harm