by Christine Lee
Art by Rick Zhang
Issue: Ataraxia (Spring 2018)
As nightfall descended upon a vast and desolate world, two figures sat side by side at the window of an orphanage. Together, they quietly watched the murky shadows swallow the sunken sun. High above them in the dim sky, the last, broken remnants of radiance dwindled, flickered, and died out. Now’s our chance. Bring it with you.
Both boys parted ways with the window, and moments later, reappeared outside. The eldest who took the lead had his hair tied back in a short ponytail and carried a knapsack of necessities. His hand lifted a lantern before the both of them, the halo of light surrounding it as brittle as a sheet of golden glass. He pulled the worn scarf tighter around his neck as the two drew further and further away from the bleak building behind them. Follow me, Oliver. Stay close. Hmm? Where will we go? He stopped momentarily and smiled broadly back at the boy behind him. Where do you want to go? We can go anywhere. You have it with you, right? Good. Make sure to hold on to it.
The short-haired boy followed closely behind. He brought nothing, save for the warm woolen cape over his shoulders and an old letter clutched in his hand. It was a moonless night; the darkness was unbearably oppressive, but they traveled together with the stars—lighthouses that were guiding them through the endless sea of sheer emptiness.
The two walked along a dirt road toward the next town over, leaving behind their mundane memories of the orphanage with each step. They walked on and on, with nothing but the icy air, the glow of the lantern, and the soft sound of their shoes against the path. When the sky gave them the first telltale sign of approaching dawn, the pair spotted a sole cottage beside an acre of crops, just up ahead. The eldest went up to the door to knock. No reply. He pounded loudly against the door until an old man answered. Please, sir, we need a place to stay.
The boy with the letter observed the exchange between his companion and the bitter old man. Shortly, the door slammed shut. His companion turned with a strained expression, worry visible in his eyes as he gazed back at Oliver. He started to step away from the door.
Behind him, the door swung open, and light poured over them. The room the two young orphans stayed in once belonged to a boy around their age. The furniture had long been blanketed with dust when they arrived. The pair rested soundly until dusk came. That evening, the boys aided the old man in preparing dinner. When they sat down to enjoy a hot and hearty meal at the table, the eldest had Oliver pass the old man the letter. We’d like you to read it to us, sir. You see, neither of us learned to read.
The old man’s voice exuded genuine regret as he returned the letter into its envelope and handed it back. His vision was not what it used to be. The boys hid their disappointment by asking the old man about the wide world outside. They spent dinner listening to untold stories, hearing secret songs of an old soul. Gradually, the old man’s weathered face cracked into a smile, his eyes lighting up with nostalgia and vitality for the first time in ages.
Early the next morning, the boys departed from the old man’s residence. The old man had supplied them with enough food and water and money to last them a whole week. They had looked back one last time to wave and bid farewell, vowing to visit again once they had their own tales to share.
They reached the town by midnight and chose to stay at an inn, using the money given to them by the old man. It was mid-morning when the eldest boy awoke. Silently, as to not disturb Oliver, he dressed and left with nothing but some pocket money and the letter.
Outside, his eyes drank in colorful rows of sundry structures and thick throngs of people ambling along. There was a bakery the warm shade of burgundy with pastries—sculpted to perfection and dusted with sugar, glistening like fallen snow in the sun—lined up in the display window. There was a shop of delicate mauve with varied, vivid flowers, meticulously arranged in earthen pots placed outside. There was a market that sold fresh fruit and vegetables; the summer-green grapes were ripe and abundant, and the plumpest he had ever seen. Then, there was an unostentatious building as dark as ebony that he had nearly passed over. Out of curiosity, he paused and entered without much thought. The door closed behind him; the din from the streets lowered into a murmur and grew faint and still. The room was packed with shelves. On them, he could see countless leather-bound books, each one different and distinct, like fall foliage from the same tree. Their spines were embossed with golden glyphs. He trailed a hand over them as he ventured deeper inside, feeling the letters that he ached to recognize. His eyes could only rove over their titles aimlessly, seeing the words, and yet, it was identical to staring into the deep depths of an empty abyss.
He withdrew his hand and turned to leave, painfully aware and ashamed of what he did not know. Then he heard a muffled sound from the very back of the room. He hesitantly followed it and caught a glimpse of a fair-haired girl who wore a round pair of glasses reaching for a book high up on the shelf. Although he noticed she was taller than Oliver, he felt certain that she would not be able to reach it, no matter how hard she stretched herself. Here, let me, he found himself offering readily. I should be about tall enough.
After he had helped retrieve the book for the girl, she thanked him, explaining that the bookstore’s stepladder had broken recently and her father had left her temporarily in charge while he was away on a delivery. A thought suddenly occurred to him as she spoke. You can read, can’t you? He pulled out the letter from his pocket. Would you mind reading this to me?
Her amber eyes met his curiously, but soon, a shy and sympathetic smile graced her features. She was more than happy to. The girl handed her book to him, exchanging it for the letter so that she could use both hands to open the envelope and hold the message. She read the first few words aloud. Then she drew to a halt. Continued where she left off. Stopped.
Her eyes scanned the rest of the page. Finally, she tore her eyes away to look at him, visibly upset. She was utterly reluctant to reveal the contents of the letter. He could feel cold fear welling up inside of him. But he had to know—for both his and Oliver’s sake. Tell me, he demanded while fighting to stay calm. What does it say?
So she told him.
Once his initial shock shattered, the truth—raw and forever fixed—was all that remained. He let out a short and bitter laugh. Feeling hollow with devastation, yet inexplicably relieved, he made up his mind. What did you say your name was?
She said it was Chiara.
Sorry, Chiara. Let’s start over. I’m Isaac. Is there any chance you could teach me how to read?
Oliver was simply stunned. He asked what Isaac meant by saying that they should forget the letter.
I mean exactly that. They’re dead. Face it. It’s time for us to move on. He spoke flatly, with the letter spread out between them. He had just returned and it was already late in the evening. Oliver refused to believe him. He accused Isaac of lying. He accused the girl who could read of lying. He accused even the letter—the contents must be fake. It had to be.
Enough, he broke in quietly. Tomorrow, we start over. Chiara has kindly agreed to help teach us how to read and write. I’ll find work. We’ll save up to buy ourselves a place. A place we can call home. As for you, you need to learn to let go of that letter. I’m going to sleep.
Oliver stayed sitting, staring blankly at the page. He trailed his fingers over the black ink, wishing for something that was well beyond his reach. He went to bed, gripping the letter as a child would do with a mother’s hand. Isaac listened for his breathing to slow and grow steady. Then, when he was sure that he was asleep, he spoke in a sad and subdued whisper. They gave us up, Oliver. His voice was hoarse. The fact that they don’t want us—that they never did—won’t change. But you still have me. As he drifted off to sleep, his words reduced to an incoherent mumble. Am I not enough for you?
He gingerly held a single white gardenia bloom in his hands. Oliver absently wondered why Isaac had bothered to squander money on something that was destined to die. He wondered who was it intended for. He kept quiet, however, yesterday’s dispute still fresh in his mind. It was the morning of the fifth day since they had run away from the orphanage that night so long ago. The sky was hazy and daylight was dull. The two of them were leisurely making their way through the crowd in the direction of the bookstore.
It happened without warning. A passerby skillfully swiped the letter from the pocket of his coat after bumping into the boy. Oliver released a cry that was swallowed by the sounds of the streets and gave chase to the thief who had already dashed away. Isaac, oblivious to what had transpired behind him, continued onward. As he drew further apart from the horde of people, the noises diminished enough for him to anxiously ask, Do you think she’ll like it? When there came no response, he turned around. His blood ran cold. Oliver?
The flower fell soundlessly to the ground.
The thief mistook it for money. Oliver pursued him to the edge of the small town. The main road forked. The thief veered left with Oliver following behind. The path was steep. A gust of frigid air stung his cheeks. His shoes crunched against gravel. At last, the thief stopped. Ahead was a lake, as black as an empty void of space. On the far side, gray rock rose slightly to meet the sky and broke off into a flat precipice that hung precariously over a deep yawning chasm.
Oliver pleaded vainly for the letter. The thief insisted that Oliver’s lies would not work on him, that nobody could possibly value a piece of paper to such a degree, that there was money inside and all of it now belonged to him. When Oliver gathered the courage to step closer the thief whipped out a knife and brandished it at the boy, muted light glinting sinisterly off of the sharp blade. The thief began to rant deliriously. He entertained the idea of killing him. That he was not afraid to. That he could and he would do it, here and now.
The boy shook like a leaf. He cautiously backed away, but the knife only edged closer and closer to his face. All of a sudden, he felt a hand clasp his from behind, forcefully jerking him back, dragging him along. Oliver was on the verge of wailing aloud until his eyes, wet with tears, caught a blurred glimpse of a familiar scarf, burnt orange fluttering in the wind like flaring firelight. When they reached the fork in the road, Oliver slowed to a stop. He looked back and mentioned the letter to Isaac, who frowned in disapproval. Then his eyes softened. Okay. I’ll get it. Wait here. So he did. It started to snow. He waited and he waited until he saw a weak silhouette stumble toward him through the snow. His eyes brightened and he called out his name earnestly.
Drops of ruby red. Incandescent embers, dying bit by bit. The snow fell like pale ash around them, blanketing the world, draining it of its colors. Oliver’s senses numbed. He barely felt Isaac grab him by the shoulders, could hardly hear his feverish words. Remember Mr. McCarthy, the old man? You have to go back to him. He’ll take good care of you. Shh. It’s all right. Don’t cry. He wiped Oliver’s tears away with his scarf as they spilled down his cheeks. I’m so sorry that this is how things turned out. I should’ve taken better care of us, of you. Here. He pressed the crinkled letter into his palm. You decide. You’re on your own now, but you’re not alone. Whatever happens, I’ll always be there by your side, little brother. I’ll… always— His grip on Oliver loosened. He swayed on his feet before crumpling to the carpet of white snow. His eyes were vacant and devoid of life. A deep, ugly gash ran across his chest. Crimson bloomed on his body.
Oliver shuddered violently and fell feebly beside his brother’s body. He desperately urged, then begged his brother to open his eyes. To wake up. To say something, anything. He promised through sobs that he would listen from now on. That he would be good and learn to read and write. He swore that he would always, always follow the faded outline of his brother’s back. Nothing moved, and the freezing ash continued to pile up until a quivering light casted shadows over Oliver’s frail frame.
He was dimly aware of the events that came after Isaac’s death. The girl’s father had been on his way back to the town. The man had placed his brother’s body inside the covered wagon. The youngest had refused to let go of his hand. The rest had all passed by in a blur of colorless motion.
As nightfall plunged the world into everlasting gloom the following day, a solitary shadow sat on the edge of a precipice, dangling his legs over empty space. He tentatively hummed the forlorn tune of a requiem. In one hand, he held the letter, and with the other, he fingered the frayed scarf wrapped with care around his neck. He fixed his glassy stare on the horizon. The day was dying away, leaving behind only dark, downcast skies.
The still silence was deafening. At some time, the somber stars surfaced in the far-off, unreachable distance. Yet, the boy could only register them as hollow holes, crudely stabbed through the inky blackness. Beyond them was a better place where he wistfully yearned to be. He pushed himself wearily to his feet and gazed out with an expression of lackluster dreariness at the chasm before him. The youngest reached a hand out.
The letter fell, and before the seventh day, he held on longer than he should.
He jolts awake. At first, he cannot remember where he is. The boy slowly takes in his surroundings as he sits up, the grass tickling his fingers when he shifts himself. He is lying beneath the cool shade of a tremendous tree. A gentle breeze brushes soothingly against his skin and plays with his hair as he looks ahead. The sun is shining, basking the world in its golden glow. The seventh day, peaceful and full of promise, has just begun.
“Oliver, where are you?”
The boy leaps to his feet, an eager grin forming on his face as he recognizes the faraway, indistinct voice calling out to him. “Right here, Isaac!”
The two brothers reunite beneath the wilting weeping willow. Isaac takes Oliver’s hand, guiding him out of the shadows. “C’mon. Let’s go home.”
The two figures walk hand in hand together toward the warm, welcoming light.