When a young woman finds herself swept away, will she keep her head?
The fur on the inch of old, cold coffee is grey. The daybreak scratching at Bly’s window is grey, a sleepless night hangs grey from her eyes. Do something. Her thoughts are grey. Clean. Starts with the vacuum, but the bag is full. So empty it. Bins are full. Empty them. Can’t think where the fresh liners are. Shower. Water runs cold, only a glassy shave of soap left. Scum in the dish is grey. Tiles are grey, cold and grey.
Standing, gut-full of grey nothing. Get dressed. Last clean jumper has a hole, soles of her socks are house dust grey. So vacuum. Bag’s full. So empty it. Bins are full. Empty them. Can’t find the bin liners. Feed yourself. Put the milk back empty yesterday. Bins are full. Leave it. Dry cereal, and the box for a bowl. Coffee. Mug needs washing. So wash it. Rubber glove’s missing a fingertip. No hot water. Dawn outside is grey, unfeeling and grey. Bly’s thoughts are grey.
Do something. Anything.
Winged on the coffee table, an unfinished library book. Long overdue. So finish it. Grey ink words, and Bly can’t remember the story. Something about falling, and a race without rules on the shore of a sea of tears.
Return it. Bly sits up. Looks down. Her sweatpants are grey. Who will care.
“Oh, thank God you’re here,” says the woman Bly’s never seen before.
“I’m sorry?” Bly asks.
“I should hope so. You’re overdue, and so is this book as it happens. You’ll have to pay a fine, but it can wait until you return.”
“Return? Am I going somewhere?”
“Oh, of course! Look at me; forget my own head if it wasn’t attached.” The librarian plucks the topmost return card from a nearby stack, scribbling something Bly can’t read upside down. Folding the card, the librarian slides it across the desk with the air of a person very much hoping to be seen being inconspicuous. Fighting back an awkward giggle, Bly takes the card and goes to open it.
“Not here! Wait until you’re in the stacks. Gosh, child, is this your first day?”
“First day as what?” Bly asks, and the woman stares as if Bly’s demanded her deepest secret. The moment stretches, ballooning horribly as Bly tries to think what to say. At last she settles on, “I think you’ve mistaken me for someone else.”
“No,” the librarian says, “they said to look out for someone nobody would look twice at, someone looking exactly and completely like nobody special. And you’re the least special little nobody I’ve ever seen.”
“Don’t stand there catching flies,” the librarian says. “You’re late. Hurry, go!” She flings out an arm, palm toward Bly, fingers and thumb an arrow pointing deep into the library’s guts.
Still speechless, Bly finds herself going.
The shadows in the stacks are deep and cool, and smell of dust.
“A nobody, am I,” Bly says to the note, “nobody special.” She turns the card between her fingers. “Well, you thought I was someone.”
She opens it.
The handwriting is swirling and beautiful, the words make no sense.
Turn your back on the white whale. Stamp once, and spin three times.
Find the scribe.
Below this, an ominous post-script.
P.S. Whatever you do, don’t look back.
“White whale,” Bly says to the books, “not much of a riddle.” She studies the spines, running her fingers over the linen bindings, until she finds it. Moby Dick. She turns her back, quelling the part of her that asks why she’d follow these strange instructions. Do something.
She stamps. She turns, and turns, and turns.
She can’t stop. The note flutters from her fingers. The books blur into a dust-smoked rainbow as she spins and spins and spins. Her stomach lurches and she closes her eyes.
She opens them to stillness, and a rough stone path through a leering forest. Moss-swathed branches stretch as if to snatch her up and feed her to the crows that cry their displeasure at such an intruder as her.
“Run,” bellows a voice, a growl wrapped in a thunderclap shaped into an order she can’t disobey. She flees, and something’s chasing footsteps echo behind.
She runs until her legs are aching and her feet burn as if the path were crushed glass. She’s exhausted. Defeated. She stops.
She looks back.
Her feet grow roots, though now she longs to run again. A scream boils up her throat and freezes there, choking her. The hound pads closer, slower now. Its breath steaming, its eyes twin points of black fire already devouring her. The white fangs are stark and gleaming against its grey fur.
“No!” A man crashes onto the path between them, armour shining and sword upheld. A knight. The hound does not cower, but it backs away a pace.
“With me, my lady,” a second man speaks from the foliage. “Don’t worry, I know the ways off the path.”
The knight is talking, pleading. Bly watches a fat blowfly walk the rim of her teacup like a tightrope. Far away and right next to her, the knight’s voice shapes the word love, the word despair.
“You’re the one who must do it. They sent you for this,” says the scribe.
They’re seated in his small, bookish house. Bly, the knight, and the scribe. He’s settled her in a fat armchair, and plied her with tea. And now he begs her help, on behalf of his foolish, love-struck friend, the knight. Who has stolen a ruby from the queen for his elusive, demanding beloved.
“They didn’t send me, a librarian thought I was someone else,” Bly says, her voice sudden and loud in her head. The scribe doesn’t speak, but the lines of his face shape a question she’s already asked herself. Did she?
“What, exactly, are you asking me to do,” she holds the ruby to the light. Big as a Swann’s egg, red as the rage of a queen should she find it lost.
“Return it,” says the scribe.
“Save me,” says the knight, “and my beloved.” Bly holds back a roll of her eyes.
“How?” she asks the scribe.
“Only cross the ballroom without drawing the queen’s attention, the jewel house door will present itself. Once the stone is back in place, you may simply enjoy the party.” This time Bly can’t help it, she snorts.
“Then you give me the map?” she asks.
“Then I give you the map,” he says, his eyes sliding away.
“And I get to go home.”
“And you get to go home.”
The knocker is a golden mouse, swinging by its tail from the teeth of a wide-grinning cat. Bly tells her hand to reach for it, that knocking is a small matter. A nothing much. Yet her arm hangs heavy at her side. A nothing too much then, a nothing too far.
“I can’t do this, can I,” she asks the mouse, “if I can’t even get through the door?”
“You want to go through the door, why ever didn’t you say so?” asks a voice behind her. Bly whirls, her legs catching in the unfamiliar lengths of her borrowed gown, and almost falls. Strong arms enclose her, set her back on her feet. Taking a moment to settle, she finds the arms belong to a footman. His velvet frock coat is an unfortunate shade of red for the winged mustachios, over which he peers at her.
“We can’t make time for latecomers. Make time, take time. Lake time.”
“Lake time?” Bly asks, before she can stop herself.
“Of course. Time behaves differently underwater, haven’t you noticed?”
“Can’t say I have.”
“I don’t blame him, I hate to get my feet wet. Met. Bet. Toilette. Cigarette.”
“Forget,” Bly says. The footman frowns over his moustache at her.
“Baguette?” she tries.
“Better,” he says, turning and laying his weight against the vast golden doors. Soundlessly, they open and he leads the way inside. Bly finds herself smiling, and following behind.
The carpet cushioning Bly's every step is red. Red like pomegranate seeds, and the hearts of full-blooming roses. Red like the ruby weighting Bly’s pocket. The swathed curtains and velvet sofas are red. The damask, and brocade, the chiffon, the lace, the moiré, and the taffeta of the gowns. All are red. The suede of the men’s shoes, and the silk of their ties are red. The candle light lapping at the dancers is golden, gilded like the carvings on the marble walls, and the swaying chandeliers. Golden like the chains around the throats of the women, and the rings on their slender fingers. Golden like the goblets they sip from. The wine is red. The queen is red.
Her dress is red satin so deep its almost black, spilling from her seat on the throne like cut-throat blood. Her face is veiled in red silk organza, crowned with a golden sunburst, and there’s no way for Bly to know where the hidden eyes are wandering.
Bly’s trespass presses on her. Seems to make her huge and unwieldy among the swirling dancers. Her footfalls, in the borrowed golden shoes, echo in her ears like the tramping of an elephant. Fit to draw the notice of every person there, until they turn and gape at this creature who’s misplaced herself in their midst.
She blinks. The vision fades. No one is looking.
“Psst,” says the footman, “don’t forget to be who you are.”
“Who am I?” Bly asks. The footman captures a goblet from a passing waiter’s tray, handing it to Bly he raises his fox’s eyebrows.
“How should I know that?” he asks. Bly hears his muttering as he turns to wander back the way they came, “hat, bat, cravat. Oh, rat, fat, polecat. Acrobat. Pyrostat. Diplomat.”
“Caveat,” Bly says, by way of goodbye. She sips from the goblet, sips again. Licks her lips and sips again. Delicious. Candied bitter cherries sparkle on her tongue, rose and black pepper warm her throat. The wine settles in her blood like the glow of an ember.
“Dance!” rings out a voice. “The Volta, and none stand idly by. It is a party!” All faces turn to the queen, a tide toward the moon. The goblet in Bly’s hand vanishes into nothing.
“Quickly,” says a man, whose face she doesn’t see, “quickly.” And his hand is in hers and he’s sweeping her into the current of dancers circling the floor.
“I don’t,” she says, gasping and stumbling, hauling her skirts from under her feet with her free hand. “I don’t know the steps.”
“Then I shall dance for us both,” says the stranger, and he’s looking at her now and his eyes are dark and his cheekbones high and his lips are red with wine, and Bly remembers the taste of it and knows he would taste of it too, and she’s blushing and they are somehow all that time dancing. He turns her, turns with her, leaps her into the air. Circles her, steps back, comes close. Bly can do nothing but try to remember to breathe. While, above it all, the queen’s veiled facelessness beholds the dance.
Until she stands, and the ballroom falls quiet.
“Come to me,” the queen reaches out. Trembling, head bowed, silent, a man emerges from the revellers and takes the proffered hand.
“Let me help you,” the queen says. She draws the man onto the dais before the throne. Passive, he stands with head low until she rests her fingertips beneath his chin, and he lifts his eyes to her. Her free hand she rests on his chest. The ballroom holds its breath.
From the folds of his red brocade jacket, she withdraws the pulsing, blood-damp heart. They stand, close as lovers, the heart pulsing between them in the queen’s hand. Red flames ignite within the heart, and crawl their twining way up the queen’s arms to sink into the flesh of her chest.
The heart that remains is vitrified, burned to clear glass, and with infinite gentleness the queen presses it home behind the man’s ribs. A hollow moment rings through the room, until the man sighs as if a great weight has lifted. He smiles. Lighthearted now, he bounds from the dais and returns to the dance, which welcomes him a hero.
“The Foxtrot,” calls the queen, retaking her seat, and the band strikes up the song.
Alone unmoving, her partner swallowed by the dance, Bly hears an echo. Simply be happy. She turns, finding what she knows will be there. Silent, shadow-wreathed. Standing guard over the way back. The hound, tall as a man and grey as nothingness, waits for her. She knows his name now. Knows enough to hold it barred behind her teeth.
The queen could take him—Bly knows this too—if she spoke his name, called him to her. The queen could burn him away, and Bly could remain. Dancing with these others, with their light hearts.
What then? Endless contentedness, and is that any more than a new kind of nothing. Back home, her nothing is not nothing, she’s known all along. It is sadness. It’s hers though, and back home—unlike here—it may change. What might she feel then? Pride. Relief, satisfaction. Hope.
Watching the dancers, considering their smiles whirling past, she teeters on the edge of the dream. Draws away. Keeps her head.
“Stay back,” she whispers, and the hound obeys. And why not, he is hers after all, and she grins at that. She takes a breath. Simply, happy. A hand is offered, she grasps it, and the dancers sweep her up.
This time she’s watchful, and when the far end of the ballroom blurs by, she leaps. The door, as promised, is obvious. Carved from red wood, bright against the white marble.
Standing before the door, she half turns to look back. To see if the hound waits for her still. She catches herself, she walks forward.
“Tell the knight he’s safe,” she says, when she meets the scribe again. “The stone is returned to the crown. As far as the queen knows, it was never lost. Our bargain—”
“There’s no map,” the scribe confesses.
“No,” Bly says. “I simply want to leave?” It’s not truly a question.
The scribe smiles, “but please, take this.” He closes her hand around the gift.
Bly closes her eyes, and thinks of home.
Nothing is different. Fur on the inch of old, cold coffee is grey. Another sleepless night hangs grey from her eyes. Soles of her socks are house dust grey, scum in the soap dish is grey. Her sweatpants are grey.
It might all have been a dream but for the cool kiss of metal in her fist. She loosens her fingers, and there on her palm rests a pendant. A ruby heart on a slender golden chain.
Nothing is different, and yet, she’s almost certain this grey dawn has a fleck of red in it.
About the Creator
Writer. Chronic sickie. Part-time gorgon. Probably thinking about cyborgs right now.
Very well written. Keep up the good work!
Niche topic & fresh perspectives
Good one 💯👌
Anyone interested in romcom or love fiction..... this is worth a try https://vocal.media/fiction/phoenix-and-albatross-a-tale-of-two-wings-y0jigr0zfc
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Beautifully written. A very vivid gripping storyline. Well done and good luck for the future!
Like the most vivid dream I almost had. Silly question at this point: did you ever listen to 'Foxtrot' by Genesis. There is a track called 'Supper's Ready', and there are some scenes that seem connected to that piece. ;)