Beep, beep, beep. SHIT!
BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, the house alarm seemed to get louder and louder as I fumbled with the digits.
I suddenly could not remember the code I’d been using for the past six years at least once a day. It was made worse with my hair wildly flapping around my face and my flimsy dress slapping my legs.
“Are you sure you live here?” he mustered a weak smile.
“Yes, of course I’m sure!” I said, growing even more nervous. I never function well when I’m being watched.
Focus, focus, the whole neighbourhood is waking up, I thought. I stole a glance at him standing, barely standing, behind me, cradling his bruised arm.
Damn you, stupid technology! The lights in the neighbouring houses started to pounce at the back of my head. “OK, OK!” I screamed at no one in particular.
Finally, 3261, finally!
I opened the door and helped him walk in. One by one, the neighbours’ lights retreated.
I closed the door and turned on the hallway light finally able to take a look at him. A man of about forty with an unkempt reddish beard with threads of gold, the bluest eyes I’d ever seen and a tall yet frail frame.
He hugged himself for warmth. Despite the heat inside the house, he was shivering, draped in nothing but my big, thin, gold scarf.
I took his hand and slowly led him upstairs. He silently let the scarf float to the floor and followed me. When we reached the bathroom, I turned on the light, drew a hot bath and sprinkled some bath salts. Then I lit a candle and turned off the light. He looked at me with wide eyes and I took his freezing hand and led him into the sighing bath.
He steadied himself, holding onto my shoulder and tentatively got in. As he slowly lowered himself into the purple water, he maintained eye contact with me to ensure he was doing it right. I nodded, my smile unwavering, and let him sit in the water, lodging a rolled towel between his neck and the cold tiles. When he was completely submerged in the warmth of the bath, his facial muscles relaxed a little and he uttered an involuntary small sigh.
I left the steamy bathroom to get some clothes.
I stood outside the bathroom door wondering whether I was still hallucinating. Was there really a man I didn’t know in my bathtub? Where did my good judgment go? But what other choice did I have? He seemed so feeble, so freezing and so fully naked.
I found my baggiest clothes and went back. I took a deep breath to steady myself. Then I opened the bathroom door, careful not to startle him or allow the cold air to push the warm, lavender-laden air out. I put the clothes on the toilet lid in silence. When I turned to him, I saw him looking at me with unsure eyes, probably wondering what was happening next. After a moment’s hesitation, I reached for the shampoo, knelt by the bathtub, pressing my body against the cool tiles, and pumped some shampoo into the palm of my hand. I searched his eyes for any signs of disapproval, but he didn’t move. I inched closer and gently massaged the shampoo into his downy, ginger hair. He closed his eyes and sank a little deeper into the water. I massaged and massaged for longer than necessary just to admire the peaceful expression on his face. I felt a heat emit from his head and travel up my arms and chest.
After what seemed like an eternal blink of an eye, I feared the water was getting cold, so I reached for the showerhead and washed his hair, running my fingers through his strands, while he let the water cascade down his face. As the water drained, I stood up and helped him to his feet.
I felt my breathing become shallow and ragged, so I turned off the water and handed him the big towel without meeting his eye. I pointed to the pile of clothes and left.
I heard him get dressed inside while I held on tightly to the bannister outside. What was going on? How did we, two strangers, get this intimate? This communicative without any words?
Could he really be…?
When he emerged, a heat wave clung to him as if he was the one keeping it warm. He stood behind me, leaving but a sliver of air between us. I turned my head slightly and felt his sweet, warm breath on my cheek.
I felt for his damp, radiating hand and walked him to my room. I pointed to the left, usually empty, side of my bed. He peeled the crimson covers and slid underneath them. I did the same, still in my dress, and we were both asleep within seconds.
Was it all a dream?
My eyes sprang open and I sat up in bed.
The night before, I had been scrolling through Instagram, and the common thread was that that night was the winter solstice and a supermoon at the same time. A rare occurrence and a prime time for setting new intentions and ushering in new beginnings. I remember deciding to create my own manifestation ritual. Be a witch for a night.
After a bottle of wine, I went to my closet and fished for the summer dress I’d bought in Italy two summers earlier. That dress had longed to part with its price tag and embrace my skin for so long. Whenever I opened the closet to put on a boring blouse for work, I brushed my hand against it, feeling its cool fabric–white-and-gold chiffon with delicate flowers of purple and blue strewn all over it. For over two years, I wished for an occasion to slip into it. I pictured myself in shimmering tulip fields with a man I adored chasing me playfully or wrapping his arms around me while I blushed and basked in bliss.
But no such occasion came, so the snowiest night of the year was going to be its inauguration night. I pulled the price tag off and put it on, admiring with a twirl its sheer puff sleeves and the way it flowed to the floor.
I packed a lighter, two of the scented candles I’d saved for years for a special occasion and letters and cards from ghosts past. My garden lantern called me to light the fat candle inside. I put on my winter shoes, sprayed on my favourite perfume and draped my gold-thread scarf around my bare shoulders.
I was ready to venture to the forest behind my house when I remembered a tiny pouch of mushrooms I’d bought in a small hut on a mighty mountain in Mexico. For years, it waited behind jam jars and forgotten foods, so before allowing myself to hesitate, I mixed them in the last dregs of wine and downed them.
Already feverish with the idea of creating my own pagan ritual, I waded through the powdery snow, fresh and forgiving. A blanket of snow, a mighty river, majestic trees, a full moon, scented fire and a determined me… what could go wrong?
I still don’t know if the mushrooms caused the delirium I felt, if it was wine, or simply the sheer madness of the determination for something in my lonely life to shift. To budge. Far.
The night was still; no wind, no night creatures, no life. Only my hurried boots crunching the snow and my feverish breath crushing the icy air.
I came to a sudden halt when I met the gushing stream. My breath stopped while I took in the stars, twinkling around The Moon like diamonds tantalising a queen in her prime, adoring her, wishing her to make a move. Grab them, claim them, make them stay. But she looked on, uninterested. She was only focused on me, casting her pearly cloak around me in a luminous circle.
“Do it, Child!” She urged in a tongue my mind didn’t understand but my core somehow grasped.
I nodded and set down the excited flame, trapped for its own safety, to take out the other candles and set them on a snow-covered boulder. I lit them and took out the other contents of my bag, slowly lighting the expired love letters and the cards that once meant something on fire. One by one, I threw their ashes into the turbulent torrent.
I felt my hands tremble, from the biting cold, the ritual both tame and bold, the fever of stories that burned before they were told.
When they were all gone and my heart was emptied of endings and filled with space for beginnings, a strong wind snuffed out my embracing candles and blew my hair away from my face, and I gasped.
“Go find your mate, Child!” The Wind hissed.
I looked up at The Moon and her silence approved.
I put the candles, contended with their service, back in my bag and turned to leave.
My walk out of the forest was slow. I felt a strange sense of serenity; I was almost waltzing to a mysterious beat my ears picked up from within the realms of my being. I twirled a few times, relishing the cold fabric fluttering away from my bare legs and sheathing them again.
Out of nowhere, a lonely robin dashed over my head in the same direction I was going, towards The Moon.
“I will meet my love wearing this dress one day!” I screamed to The Moon, a few steps ahead of me, lighting up the fresh path made for me alone. The robin heard it, too, and fluttered into the light.
She smiled at me… at him, and I cried again, louder, “MY LOVE IS COMING!”
That was when I heard a loud thud a few metres ahead of me. I froze, suddenly reminded of accounts of joggers dying alone in dark, cold forests.
A bird wouldn’t make such a loud thud, would it?
Then I heard a muffled groan. I rushed towards it, and there he lay, a naked man made of veined marble, his hair covering his face, hugging his arm in pain.
“Oh my God, are you OK?” I set my bag and lantern down and crouched in the snow beside him.
He flinched, clearly not expecting me there, just like I hadn’t expected him.
He sat up, suddenly aware of a stranger’s gaze on his bare skin and being at the mercy of the bitter night. I took off my scarf, and he wrapped it around his shivering shoulders like a sheer blanket of golden leaves. I helped him to his feet.
Still in bed, clutching my mouth in disbelief, I realised this was no dream. No mushrooms or wine either. This was real. The Moon did it.
I sprang out of bed and ran down the stairs, almost flying, and came to a halt when I saw him sitting in front of the big window, watching the sky and the treetops. He looked so beautiful in the light of day, even with the unfitting clothes I’d given him the night before.
When he heard me approaching, he turned around and waited. He gave me a tentative, tight-lipped smile. His eyes anxious but curious.
Too quickly, the happiest year of my life passed. When all his attempts to remember where he’d come from and all my attempts to inquire everywhere failed, I allowed myself to fall into a whirlwind of passion that revived my bones, joy that filled my thoughts, and love that engulfed my soul.
We swam in oceans; we climbed mountains; we dived into each other and drank flowery teas, reading while intricately woven together. And every full Moon, I went to the forest alone to whisper my thanks.
The Moon remained expressionless, wordless, but The Wind occasionally whispered in my ear in different tongues. I put a blindfold on my intuition so it wouldn’t get wind.
One late November night, my mother and grandmother were over for dinner, and we shared more than a few glasses of wine. He never drank, so he got up after dinner, leaned over to kiss me and started clearing the table.
My mother looked at him adoringly while he was out of earshot and mused, “Isn’t he just perfect?”
“I know, right?” I beamed, cheeks flushed and heart full.
We both looked at my grandmother, waiting for her to chime in. But she looked at her glass.
“Gran?” I asked, “Is everything alright?”
“I know you’re happy, my love, and that makes me happy!” she said, not quite meeting my eye.
“But…?” I whispered, already dreading the answer.
“That man is not happy!” she took a sip of her wine and winced.
“What?” Mum gasped in horror.
I choked, glancing at him, head bowed while he washed the dishes.
That night, he wrapped himself around me like a warm blanket as he always did and fell asleep, leaving me to writhe motionlessly.
How could he possibly be unhappy? I gave him my everything! I nursed him back to health. I built him a nest in my deepest self. I helped him get back on his feet, both literally and metaphorically. I cooked his meals and washed his clothes. I made him smile. I gave him all of the love my soul could churn up, and then some. I listened to his heartbeat and kissed his feet. What more could a man want?
I told myself he was fine. No, more than fine. He was happy! But whenever we went for a walk in the forest, I watched his deep, blue eyes yearn for the sky, dream of The Wind. As the days wore on, he became increasingly quiet in his continued affection, forlorn despite his devotion.
He would sit by the window for hours, pretending to read a book or listen to music, when in reality he’d be gazing into the distant horizon.
Whenever I thought about letting him go, I felt like I was about to throw up. A lump of sorrow would materialise in the pit of my stomach, ready to simultaneously eat me up and spit me out.
“Do you love me?” I asked him.
“You’re my world!” he said.
“Do you love me, though?” I said, my lips trembling with tears threatening to flood.
“Have I ever let you down?” he whispered stroking my hair and rocking me back and forth.
“I need to hear it!” I said almost inaudibly.
He heard me, but he just kissed me. “I hate seeing you cry. Please don’t cry.”
On the day of the new winter solstice, on our first anniversary, I came back home carrying a new dress and cake to celebrate.
He didn’t come to kiss me as he usually did, so I walked into the living room and saw him outside in the garden. He was crouching barefoot on the matted wet grass with his back to me. I put the cake and the bags on the table and went to the window to see what he was doing. He had a handful of seeds in his hand while a robin perched on his knee.
He glanced up and saw me looking at him, so he smiled and carried the robin inside.
“The poor thing fell from the tree!” he said stroking the bird’s bright feathers. “Just like that! I need to fix his wing!”
“Sure!” I said, “Let’s put him over here. Look, here’s bowl… we can make a comfy bed for…”
“No,” he interrupted. “He needs to heal outside. He hates being trapped.”
“But…but he’ll die outside, in the cold, unable to move his wing!” The tears started rolling again.
He looked at me quizzically, unable to understand why I was crying more and more frequently.
He didn’t know that we were saying our goodbyes. I knew that, left to his own loyalty and sense of duty, he’d never leave. I knew I had to do it for him. I threw the cake into the bin, topped with heavy, sad tissues.
That night, I lit my lantern, donned my new black dress and took his hand.
“Where are we going?” he asked, confused.
“To the forest!” I tried to smile, lips trembling again. “Have we ever been there at midnight? Dress warmly, my love.”
We walked in silence, powdery snow crunching under our feet. I laced my fingers through his and squeezed hard. He squeezed back.
When we got to the river, I asked him if he wanted to leave me.
“What?” he was taken aback.
“I want you with every fibre of my being,” I gulped hard, “but I feel you fading each day, yearning for the great unknown!”
“The wide world? Alone?” tears pooled in his eyes, “Will you be OK?”
“I will,” I choked, “your wings are ready, and I would never hold you back.”
The lantern flame danced in his blue eyes, sorrowful, yet dreaming. It was clear; the longing, the wanting, the hungry haunting.
“My wings will carry me away,” he said, kissing my forehead, “and maybe one day they’ll bring me back home.”
“Home?” I tried to hide the flicker of hope that perhaps I was home?
“One way to find out,” he turned around and stepped into the dark.