Sunday, December 29, 2013

"Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies"

The children jumped rope and skipped down the hopscotch squares and sang a song that went like this:

He is near and he is far.
Closest house and furthest star.
No more sadness, no more fear.
He is far and he is near.

Nobody knew what the song meant. They had all heard it from someone else. If you lined up the children in a chain and asked each one where they had heard the rhyme, they would point to each other and if you were to somehow untangle, to reach the endpoint, you would find that the first child had heard it from somebody that wasn't there, someone they had met on the way home.

But nobody asked them where the rhyme came from. The children played tag and hide-and-seek and when the bell rang, they slumped their shoulders and dragged their feet back to class where the teacher taught them that two times two is four and four times four is sixteen, but any number times zero is always zero.

There were never any snow days, but whenever winter rolled around, the children always wished there were. They wished for a day when snow would fall like in the movies, when they would be able to see a snowflake that wasn't made of white paper, when they could build real snowmen and have snowball fights and when they got tired, they would go inside to drink hot chocolate. Nobody asked the children what they wished.

Nobody asked the children anything.

And then, one day, it did snow. It was not like the snow in the movies—it was not pure white, but a shade of blue. They did not see it come down from the sky, but rather it already covered the ground when they woke up. They woke up and their dreams had come true.

There wasn't enough snow for school to be canceled, however, so each child was dutifully dropped at school and each one trudged to class, their gaze looking out at the snow-covered playground.

At recess, they hurried outside to play in the snow, but the sun had already done its work and most of it had melted, leaving only puddles and wet grass.

And then they heard the rhyme:

I am here and I am there.
With snow and skies and frosty air.
Let's go where it snows all year.
I am there and I am here.

When the bell rang and none of the children returned, the teachers all went outside and found there was nobody there. There were manhunts and rewards and tearful pleadings, but none of the children ever came back.

If you stand in the playground in the dead of winter, however, and listen carefully, you can hear singing:

They are cold and they are here.
With all their friends so near.
Always young and never old.
They are here and they are cold.

"Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair"

My true love's hair is thick and coarse and black. Sometimes his hair feels soft, like feathers; sometimes, each hair is as hard and as sharp as a needle. Sometimes I wonder if his hair symbolizes his mood—but then I realize it's useless to wonder about my true love's mood or motivations. They will forever remain a mystery to me.

My true love's teeth are yellow and his tongue is pink. At night, he will crawl into bed with me and lick my face and I will whisper, "Good boy. That's a good boy." My true love's breath smells of meat and death.

I first met my true love when I was twelve. He followed me home one day after school and I asked my mother—begged, really—to keep him. She said no, but my true love followed me home the next day and the next and eventually I wore her down.

The first time my true love disappeared, I was distraught. My mother tried to console me, told me that it was bound to happen, of course, but I was inconsolable. After five days of crying, though, my true love returned to me. I was so excited, I barely even noticed the police cars and ambulances down the street. Not my problem—I had my true love back and I would never let him go.

Of course, it didn't work out like that. My true love would disappear for days on end and then come back to me. Sometimes he would be covered in dirt or dried blood, although I could never find a cut or wound on him. But I didn't care—as long as he came back to me, I was happy.

My mother grew suspicious of my true love over the years. "He looks the same," she would say. "He looks like he hasn't aged a bit." I would just shrug—I had noticed that, too, but it didn't matter to me. It just meant my true love would stay with me longer.

He stayed with me during college. He stayed with me when I went to my first party. I remember the drunken frat boys with their hands pawing at me. And I remember the next day when my true love came to me with their hands in his mouth. "Good boy," I said as I patted his head. "That's a good boy."

After college, I moved back home and found a job. Something to keep myself occupied while my true love is away. He is away for longer and longer times now. Sometimes I go months without feeling his fur between my fingers.

But it still does not matter. He is my true love and he will stay my true love until I am an old woman with gray hair. And as I lay upon my death bed, he will come to me and open his jaws and I will finally give away my heart to my one true love.

"After the Ball was Over"

After the ball was over, all that was left were ash and cinders.

I was just a servant. My job was to be as quiet and invisible as possible as I refilled the guest's goblets and wine glasses. I saw so many guests, all dressed in their brightly colored finery; princes and dignitaries, duchesses and regents. Twenty boars had been killed and cooked for this ball and their apple-stuffed faces looked at me as I passed them by.

I, like the rest of the servants, was nobody. Just someone trying to earn an honest living. The servants were all dressed in black, with the same black half-masks, so everyone would know who we were. The guests, on the other hand, had a variety of masks to choose from—everything from small diamond masks to elaborate face masks made from porcelain and gold.

Everyone noticed when she stepped into the room. How could we not? She was the most beautiful among them. Her dress was a golden yellow and her hair was a deep red.

But though she looked like them, she did not act like them. I later learned that she was a simple servant girl from a different house who scrubbed and cleaned. How she had managed to make such a gorgeous dress I do not know—perhaps it was magic. Perhaps whatever entity possessed her that night made it for her.

In any case, she tried to fit in, but could not. It was plainly obvious to the rest that, despite her beauty, she wasn't one of them. In fact, her beauty caused them to be more cruel in their whispers, creating more lies for their rumors.

If this was a fairy tale, the night would end with her dancing with a prince and losing a shoe. But this is not a fairy tale. The night ended when one of the guests—perhaps he was a prince, I do not know—got a bit too drunk and decided that he wanted her and tried to take her.

She resisted and pushed him away, but the damage had been done already. More whispers, more cruel lies surrounded her. As she tried to slip away, someone grabbed her dress and ripped it. She looked down at the rip, her mask slowly slipping from her face.

Someone must have recognized her—perhaps someone from the house she cleaned was at the ball, I do not know—for the whispers intensified.

I thought perhaps I should do something then, perhaps lead her outside, to protect her, to shield her. But I did nothing. Sometimes I wonder if I should have stayed and become ash with the others. I deserve it, for doing nothing.

Her mask was gone and her face was a vision of beauty and sadness and pain. She looked around at the various guests and then looked up. "You were right," she said. "You were right."

Then her face looked down upon us and her sadness had transformed into something else: anger. She was someone else at that point. Her body glowed incandescently, as if she was hot metal on an iron. She raised her arms, her hands upturned, and sparks flashes from her fingertips. The sparks caught on her dress and it went up in flames. She laughed and twirled around, the fire spreading out from her like waves. She was beautiful and deadly. Those closest to her burned first, then the rest. The fire seemed to be alive even as we ran. It caught those behind me with tendrils of flame.

I do not know exactly why I was able to leave and the others were not. Perhaps she wanted someone to spread the story. Perhaps she simply did not care enough to kill me.

All I can remember as I ran is the heat and the sound of her laughter. And after the ball was over, when all that was left were ash and cinders, as the smoke curled around me, all I could do was shiver.