Every night at midnight, the purple clouds came out to dance with the blushing sky. It was midnight on the dot. This meant that I had exactly sixty seconds before the clouds disappeared again, falling back under the horizon, and returning to wherever they'd come from.
I stumbled for my looking glass. 58, 57... It wasn't where I'd left it. 55, 54... teaches me to leave something in a 'save space.' I threw open the drawer of sculpting supplies kept by the window, but could only make out shadows in the darkness. I rattled through them, 40, 39, 38... "fuck." I threw my hands up in defeat, then cast my search to whatever area of the room I happened to land in. Bed, countertop, bed again.
30, 29, 28. Under the bed. 26, 25...
I felt a blow to the top of my head. "Fuck!" Teaches me to go searching for things in the dark. I massaged my fingers into my scalp, and in a final huff of resignation, sat myself down to enjoy what was left of the lavender haze. 12; the lilac clouds stretched toward the sky. 11; like the ebb of a tide, they pulled back in. 10; up again. In and out, they danced, until the final seconds, during which they made an extravagant leap into the sky, and then dissipated.
I didn't know where the purple clouds had come from, nor did I know how long they would stay. In my small coastal town, I was the only one to have seen them, so I took it upon myself to document their every appearance. I procured my notebook, which had been thrown to the floor, and sighed again. Sitting on my desk, blinking at me with innocuous casualness, was my looking glass. Exactly where I left you. I held it to my eye and searched the sandy horizon. Nothing. Just the usual auroras, stars, and the midnight sky.
I pulled out my graphite, and by the gentle blush cast by the auroras, sketched the haze as I remembered it, and documented the time. I flipped to the page before it. It was the same, and so as it was as the one before.
Flicking back to the page from the very first night caused a pang of shame in my stomach. The townsfolk had thought that I was going crazy. Well, they had already thought that, but my incessant ravings about a glowing horizon had only served to further their theory, and I didn't blame them. After a thorough investigation across the town, I had learned that there were no other witnesses to this abnormality.
Seemingly, my lack of sleep had finally caught up to me; I was the solitude sculptor who had chipped away at one too many marbles. But then, the clouds had appeared again... and again, and every other night since the beginning of summer. The townsfolk didn't have to believe me; I knew that what I was seeing was real, even if it couldn't be explained.
I packed the looking glass away in its new 'safe space,' and lowered myself into bed. I knew that I wouldn't be able to sleep, but I willed myself to try all the same. I breathed in with the tide... and out with the tide.
If you ask the townsfolk, they'll tell you that the waves that crash on the shore are deafening, but they are as familiar to me as my own heartbeat. They do little to drown out the sounds that stray from my surrounding. Every secret moment that is thought to be lost to the night is shared with me too. Thus, the solitude sculptor knows all of this town's secrets, and it knows nothing of mine.
I fell asleep to the sound of birdsong, and woke the next morning, greeted by my usual grogginess. With my bare feet chilling on the floor, I surveyed the damage from last night's scurrying. A slew of papers dripped from my desk, and my chisel tried its hand at parting the floorboards. I pulled it loose thinking that a chip in the floorboards would be the worst of the damage, but under the window, broken and morose, was the first of my series of terracotta artworks.
I cradled it, cooing gently as I tried to work the broken pieces back into place, but it was unsalvageable. I set it aside. I'd seen the kintsugi craftsmen work wonders on broken relics, piecing them together with streams of liquid gold, and I mused for a moment that my piece could be made anew, and possibly, made more beautiful.
I shuffled through my drawers in search of coins. One bronze - well, that's enough for a bag of fish. After churning the place over a second and third time, I managed to pocket a total of three bronzes. It wasn't enough to pay the artisans, but it would have to do.
The sun was setting, and the last of the dock workers were bringing in their hauls. I slung the bag of fish over my shoulder. A few of the other market stalls were still open for trading, so I meandered through the thinning crowd, in search of terracotta clay.
"Seen any more of them lights lately?"
I tossed my head to the side. An old woman, as wrinkled as she was stout, offered me a smile. "Not lately, Auti," I lied, with a wry smile of my own. She tsked. It wasn't unkind, but I knew that she was asking because she took pity on me, not because she believed. I didn't mind. Pity from her was preferred over the derision I'd grown accustomed to, and besides, I took pity on her, too.
"What's on the market today?" I asked, eyeing her wares.
"Ah, all fine items, as per usual," she intoned, splaying her hands in a dramatic display. The items were few and strange, as per usual. They were laid out neatly across a glittering draping, and I wondered how she had managed to afford such a luxury.
The first in her display was an iridescent 'genie lamp', which, upon closer inspection, could have been more accurately described as a dusty old bottle. Then, with a solemn air, she passed me a flute. It was carved from a broken Ghostwood branch, that I assumed was picked up at the closest shoreline during one of her morning strolls. Finally, my gaze drifted to the last item, and I couldn't subdue my shock as it dawned on me what it was. A golden dune beetle, with a gentle hue to suggest that it had been dead for many moons.
Creatures from the dunes rarely visited us now, despite being a stone's throw away. The beetles, especially, were known to be careful creatures. It might have been their enviable colouring, or maybe it was the rumous of their magical properties that made them so coveted. Either way, they'd repaid our relentless poaching of their shells by feigning extinction. How in God's name had Auti come across one?
My gaping mouth tried to form words; to dare to ask Auti for a price, kintsugi be damned. But, as I did so an unexpected motion caused me to stop. It was barely there, but unmistakable. The beetle's leg had twitched. "Aaah... Auti." Auti who had been proudly straightening her drapery hadn't noticed the movement. I shuffled closer, so as to not draw any attention our way, and whispered, "Auti...that beetle is alive."
In a flash, the beetle scurried across the draping, and narrowly escaped the thwack of Auti's rolled-up papers. "Get it!" She yelled. Passerbys stopped, attracted by the commotion, and in a desperate attempt to repel their attention I blocked Auti with outstretched hands. "Nothing to see here," I said with a nervous laugh, "just me... being weird again..."
My feeble attempt at a distraction did little to turn the rapidly growing crowd away. If anything, the addition of a few furrowed brows only helped to draw more eyes. The townsfolk flocked over, and the palms of my hands began to sting. "What's that!" I yelled, pointing at nothing in particular. A few curious heads whipped 'round to see, but as the onlookers scanned around them, I noticed that one pair of eyes were fastened directly on me.
A man, dressed head to toe in desert linens, and with eyes bright as firestones stood stock still. Nothing was visible under his clothes, save for a slit that portrayed sand-beaten skin beneath. As the townsfolk shuffled around him, he remained unmoving. The hairs on my arms began to rise.
Auti's screeching pulled me out of my daze, and I stumbled as the table knocked my thighs. The beetle was running in frantic circles, and as Auti rushed to capture it, the flute went flying off the table. I snatched the 'genie lamp', and tipped it upside down to catch the beetle inside. It dodged with expert agility and then scurried up my arm. For the second time in a matter of moments, I was forced to pause. Whilst sitting upon where my hand met the lamp, the beetle glowered at me, and in a strange show of personification, squeaked what could only be interpreted as an angry reproach.
I dropped the bottle.
Auti shrieked, and we both fell to our knees. With hands more nibble than her age should have allowed, she caught it, mere inches from the ground. She let out a shaky sigh, but before she could even finish her breath, her eyes grew wide again.
A shadowy figure had engulfed her small frame, and although I couldn't see who was behind me, I could feel a prickle at the back of my neck, and the hairs on my arms began to raise again. I froze. A stale smell, like old musk, permeated the air around us, and in one swift motion, a linen-clad hand shot into my periphery, slammed a gold coin onto the table, and then snatched the genie lamp from Auti's grasp.
She stared at the gold piece, stunned. Still sitting, she reached for it and stammered.
"Auti..." I whispered, "what on earth was that... who was that?"
The mysterious figure had disappeared as quickly as they'd came, but to my surprise, not a single face in the now thinning crowd seemed perturbed by their haughty display. Instead, their eyes searched the ground for the golden beetle. "Where's the beetle?" I asked, patting down my clothes.
My string of questions went ignored, and Auti's eyes were suspended on the coin as if it might vanish into a puff of smoke. "Auti, the beetle! Where is it?"
"What?" She murmured, "beetle?"
We had been in the presence of a creature previously thought to be extinct or at the very least endangered, and now Auti couldn't seem to see past a simple gold coin. A woman of her fragility shouldn't be subject to the kind of exertion she'd just experienced, and I feared that she might be in a state of shock... but I couldn't risk losing the beetle. "Well!" I yelled at the now-thinning crowd, "somebody take her to a doctor!"
Conveniently, the crowd of onlookers had found themselves distracted by more lucrative, less taxing forms of amusement. The most audacious of the lot had the sense to pat down Auti's drapery, likely in search of the beetle. "You!" I demanded, jabbing a finger into their chest, "stay with her."
Leaving Auti behind, and the stranger agape, I swiveled on my heel and sauntered away. If the beetle was anywhere amongst the mess of the market, one of the townsfolk would surely spot it before I had the chance. Besides, a creature of that intelligence would know better than to hide amongst all of those trampling feet. I decided to try my luck on the outskirts of town.
Most of the townsfolk had heard of the commotion - news traveled fast in a town like this - but not a single one of them could account for the beetle. "Perhaps it ran inside the bottle?" suggested one of the kintsugi craftsmen, and I realised, with a pang of regret, that he was probably right. The beetle was in the hands of the stranger.
I churned the dirt under my feet as I ambled through town and half-heartedly checked under buildings, logs, and the occasional pile of garbage. After many hours of searching, I had yielded nothing but a fresh ache between my eyes, and blisters on my toes. I sulked home, slugging the bag of fish behind me.
When I finally laid down I realised how tired I had become. Not like my usual kind of tiredness that only manifested in my muscles, but an endless kind, that found its way into my mind as well. I was so tired, in fact, that I couldn't even bring myself to mull over the day's events. Despite my best interests, though, I willed myself to stay awake. Just a few more hours, and I could watch the lilac clouds...
I fell asleep to thoughts of golden beetles and glowing firestones.
By midnight, I was woken.
A scratch at my door had trickled into my subconscious and intruded on my dreams. I grumbled and turned onto my side. It wasn't like the townsfolk to pay me a visit... in fact, they'd never done so before, and I wasn't going to let tonight be the first of their merry visits. Too tired to be interested in the purple haze, and too agitated to check on the door, I pulled a pillow over my head in hopes of drowning out the noise.
The scratching intensified.
I shot to my feet. Flinging the door open, I prepared to shout a flurry of insults but was surprised to see that no one was there. I checked around the corners... nothing. Hmph. I slammed the door closed, and considered again the validity of my sanity. Returning to bed, I hoped that sleep wouldn't evade me, but before I even had the chance to try, a soft light appeared in my periphery. Inching itself under the door, and squeaking incessantly, was a beetle. My mouth dropped.
I wouldn't have recognised it, if not for the squeaking, for it was no longer golden, but shone a bright and luminous lilac. "You..." A mirthful giggle escaped my throat.
The lilac light bounced around my room as I frantically brushed the papers from my table in search of my notebook. I followed it, trying to catch a proper view, and laughed. I held the graphite to the paper, but the beetle's shape was imperceptible. It seemed to notice what I was holding, and with new vigor, it scurried and threw itself under the slit in the door. "Wait!" Too bulbous to scuttle under with ease, the beetle wrestled against the doorframe and kicked its back legs. I dropped my notebook on my bed, and inched the door open.
The beetle touched what I thought was its nose to the tip of my finger, and with a chirrup descended the stairs. I marveled. The light that ebbed from its little body was reminiscent of firefly and I wondered if the light could be turned on and off at will. I tried to make out the golden shade beneath the lilac, but it moved too quickly for me to see. A panic-stricken squeal broke me from my contemplation. Was the beetle trying to tell me something? I crouched, "what is it?"
The wooden stairs creaked beneath my movements, causing the beetle to jump, then scuttle under the staircase. I followed and watched in fascination as it burrowed into the sand.
Suddenly, the night grew very dark and very silent.
As my senses adjusted, a familiar scent pricked at my nose. Musk. I didn't know why, but I had the unshakable urge to hide. Not inside. There was no place close by that would conceal my body; the trees were thin, and the gap beneath my house was large enough only for a rabbit. I dropped to the sand and evaluated the gap beneath the stairs. There wasn't much room, but I would fit.
As I wedged myself inside, a pair of footsteps sounded over the tide. The beetle shuffled so that I wouldn't crush it, and as it did the sand shifted around its body. Lilac light flickered like strobes from a lighthouse, and I had to cup my hand over its body to mask it. At first, the beetle resisted. But when the sound of a whisper broke through the silence it stopped.
"Are you sure she was here?"
It definitely wasn't Auti, nor was it any voice that I had heard before.
"Positive," replied a second, deeper voice, "there was no mistaking her."
Between the slates of the stairs, I could make out the outline of two figures. They trodded closer until they were looming directly above me. I held my breath, and the hypnotic smell of musk drifted through the stairs. In what felt like a series of mini earthquakes, the footsteps ascended, one by one, and then paused at the threshold of my house.
It was silent for a moment until the first voice spoke, "she's not here."
A small cacophony told me that my room was being turned over. Drawers were thrown open, and sculptures were dragged across the wood. I flinched when I heard another of my terracotta bowls meet the floorboards. Someone cursed. I squeezed my eyes shut as if that would stop the strangers from finding me, and my joints were beginning to ache. A gentle ruffle of papers sounded, followed by a soft thud. Finally, the pair descended the stairs, and I let loose the breath that I had been holding.
Under my palm, the beetle began to squirm, and I felt its shaking change to vibration. I lifted my hand and unfolded myself. With exaggerated care, I surveyed my surroundings. Nothing. On shaking limbs, I crawled up the staircase and crouched by the door.
Under the wash of purple light, I could take in the state of my room. Everything - aside from the terracotta bowl - was intact. No geodes were missing, nor were any bronze coins taken from my stash. Strange. Whatever the strangers had come for, it had nothing to do with wealth. I pulled open the drawer of sculpting supplies. My chisel laid in wait, and the looking glass blinked at me, patiently.
The place had been left tidier than when they'd arrived. A pile of papers were neatly arranged on my desk, and I shuffled through them to see if any were missing. They weren't.
But something was...
In the middle of my desk, in the space usually reserved for my notebook, was an iridescent bottle, laid on its side. Auti's genie lamp. I ran to the bed and patted down my sheets. My notebook was nowhere to be seen.
They had found what they were looking for.
About the Creator
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Compelling and original writing
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