by Christine Lee
Art by Caroline Wang
Issue: Solivagant (Winter 2018)
The kingdom of Vivere and the kingdom of Mori—two realms opposite in nature, yet neither could be without the other. Each defied what the other represented, and swore an oath to keep to themselves.
However, as time progressed, more and more pledged allegiance to Mori, and thus Vivere issued an order throughout the land:
“Whoever dares to leave for any reason,
Absurdly commits an act of treason.”
Even so, one forever yearned for what waited beyond the dying of the twilight.
The mask he was told to wear was cold in his hands, the steely gray grin spreading across it like a sinister sliver of crescent moon. Emmet mutely casted his eyes over it before setting it in place. As he headed toward the front door, a distant voice spoke to him.
“Good morning, son. Another new day awaits.”
He gave his father a sidelong glance, flinching beneath his mask before mechanically leaving to join the simpering swarms. At school his teacher greeted him with a pleased beam of her own as he took his seat among everyone else with their perfectly painted faces. As always, he mimicked them, and they mimicked him, and all was well in the kingdom of Vivere.
But once the sun started to slip below the horizon, he separated himself from the rest and made his way past the colorless pavement, through the trees, along the running river, and across the bridge toward the grassy hill that overlooked the tunnel entrance to the other realm. Standing there with his face tilted toward the fading light, he stripped off his mask, releasing a suppressed sigh into the crisp air and watching the stars in the sky struggle to the surface.
The following day, he arranged his mask the usual, appropriate way, listened to his father again recite, “Good morning,” and left in the direction everyone else travelled. All went according to script—the same costumes, the same dialogue, the same scenery. Then, after they were permitted to leave, he was confronted by three leering boys led by his classmate Azriel. Emmet tried to veer around them, but was knocked back by a blow to his chest. Some paused to idly observe, while others continued, occasionally staring at them with detached interest before boredly looking away. Even this, was still the same.
“Don’t pretend you’re like the rest of us. I’ll bet I know what you’re thinking,” Azriel said icily. “I hear that it’s like hell on the other side—maybe you deserve to end up there after all. Luckily, I see it as my duty to beat some sense into you.” His fist met Emmet’s jaw, causing his mask to clatter to the pavement.
He didn’t know how much time passed while Azriel and his gang kept at it, but eventually the onslaught stopped and he was left alone gasping for air. He laid on the ground motionless, gazing at the horizon as the sky darkened above him. Gradually, his ears faintly picked up the dead sound of quickening steps.
“Oh, Emmet,” he recognized his classmate Memisse by her concerned voice, “you got in a fight with Azriel again, didn’t you. Are you okay?”
“I doubt I am.”
For a second, she was taken aback, as if she had expected a different outcome. “You look terrible—what happened to your mask?” She quickly found it lying beside him and helped him to his feet. “Here, put it on. I can’t bear seeing you like this.”
He took it, but only stared dully down at the chipped, cracking form of his worn facade. He remained silent for a moment, until tentatively meeting her eyes and speaking up, his voice hoarse, but unwavering. “I have a favor to ask.”
“Good morning, son. Another new day awaits.” The following day came and went.
“Weak as ever, huh. Get back on your feet.” And the following day came and went.
“You don’t look so good. Here, your mask.” And the following day came and went.
Always re-acting the same performance over and over and over again, until the promised day to close the curtains.
It was the day of rest and his birthday—though he’d already forgotten which one. He’d stopped keeping track years ago. Outside the window, a blemished drop of amber against a dimming backdrop dipped further down to kiss the earth. His vague reflection in the clear glass stared back at him while he pondered how different his next birthday would be like.
Settling on the conclusion that not much would change and that he couldn’t really distinguish it from today, he made up his mind to go. He left the window, and as he headed toward the front door, he stopped and looked back.
There was no one there. No one else but him and his ever-present isolation. When his eyes, seeking, finally understood the stark absence that awaited him all along, a ripple of what seemed like relief swept over him. He was released, and there was nothing left to hold him back. The corners of his mouth hesitantly lifted before he concealed himself behind his mask.
“I knew my daydream had to end. Good night.”
Ashen concrete. Limbs reaching for the shining remnants of twilight. The splashing sound his abandoned sneer makes upon hitting the water. The hollow thuds of footsteps against aging wood. A playful breeze caressing his cheek as he drew closer toward the mouth of the dark passage. To descend meant to forsake all he ever knew.
At the edge of the entrance, he paused when he heard his name called.
She ran up to him, stopping a little ways behind him as she struggled to catch her breath before making up her mind to tear off her mask. The two shyly gazed at each other in the dwindling warmth of the sun.
“You’re really leaving,” Memisse murmured, deciding to speak up first. “I didn’t think, you would actually do it.”
Looking away, he admitted, “I thought so, too.” He turned to face the unknown. “But now, I’m not afraid anymore. And I want to believe that maybe, just maybe, on the other side—somewhere in Mori—there’s a place for me there.”
“You’ve mentioned it before, but what do you mean by ‘Mori’?”
He closed his eyes, briefly remembering. “Just something from an old legend my dad used to tell me. We reside here in what used to be the kingdom of Vivere. Just beyond this tunnel is the other kingdom—Mori. Nobody here knows what’s on the other side, and those who have already passed through never returned. Though I’ve heard the rumors, I need to see it with my own eyes.”
“You’ll regret leaving if you do this.”
“I’ll regret staying if I continue like this.” He withdrew an old silver lighter from his pocket, flicked it on, and stepped away from the light. “You won’t forget to keep your promise, right?”
“I’m not so sure that I can,” she admitted weakly.
He gave her a gentle smile. “Whenever you’re lost, find your way here and look up at the sky. You’ll see what I mean.”
They exchanged farewells not with words, but with sad smiles.
She watched the flickering flame until it disappeared just as the first of the stars blinked into existence.
Two figures, their faces bare, sat together at the top of the viridescent expanse while another twilight passed.
“He and I—well, we were good friends once,” Azriel confessed.
Memisse was quiet, listening.
“Then one day, he told me his father was gone. And just like that, both of us weren’t the same again. He stopped talking to me, and I stopped trying. He was broken, and I found new friends.” His voice, strained and resigned, continued, “Whenever I saw him, I would remember how things used to be. That’s when I’d feel sick of him, and so sick of myself. No matter how much I hurt him, he never spoke anything back, never stood up even once for himself. I didn’t have a clue how to save him, or myself. That’s how things came to be the way they are.” He stood up, gazing at the gate to the dark. “It looks like he’s finally made a choice for himself. He beat me to the punch. It wasn’t supposed to be Emmet—it should’ve been me.”
She rose to her feet to face him. “It was his choice. So maybe leaving is forbidden. So maybe we don’t know what’s on the other side. So maybe it was the wrong choice. But nothing can touch the truth. We can’t change the past. We can only trust that the future won’t be the same.”
Azriel searched her eyes for contempt or resentment, but found only sorrow and regret.
A flicker of light, fleeting, yet burning bright and white-hot, darted through the already dark sky.
“Did you see that, Azriel?”
“Yeah, I did. It was a falling star.”
“Are you going to make a wish?”
“Let me think about it. You go first.”
She paused a bit, then said softly. “I wish I can keep my promise—to find and remember my own reason for staying.” She nudged Azriel. “Okay, now you.”
He looked down bitterly at the mask in his hands, brooding over the unsalvageable past and the monotonous future he was already all too familiar with. “I wish—” He stopped and shook his head in resignation. “I mean, wherever he’s gone, I hope it’s a better place.”
Tomorrow, they would don their masks again, as to play their part as a complacent puppet. Tomorrow, they would put on a routine performance again, as to satisfy the audience’s demands. Tomorrow, they would give in to sleep, and either wake up, exhausted, or lie awake, questioning tomorrow.
But today, only for today, they gazed up at the shower of streaking stars and seared into memory their choice. The choice of all choices they made each and every day, whether they themselves knew it or not.
The kingdom of Vivere and the kingdom of Mori—two realms opposite in nature, yet neither could be without the other. Each defied, but bestowed significance upon what the other represented.
However, as time passed, Vivere remained indifferent. Unloving and unloved, more and more escaped to Mori:
“No longer can they merely pretend,
No choice but to meet their end.”
Alas, a pair of paradises—but only one in which spite arises.
We yearned for what waited beyond the dying of the twilight.