Category: My Stories


The End of Innocence

A/N: This was written for April’s Monthly Challenge for Innocence at the Ad Astra fanfction archive site. Herein lies the beginning of a new story, one for which I would like opinions, if anyone cares to share them. It has some elements of fantasy, but was mostly written as science fiction. Comments welcome!

 The green blue world shimmers beneath me, nothing disturbing its tranquility. Innocence. That is the word that pops into my mind as I stand, high up on the invisible glass precipice, looking down at a world with no knowledge of the existence of me, of my kind. A world of fire and ice. Viewed from inside a giant glass bubble that no one else will ever see. I hear my father’s voice inside my head, “They are innocents, Daughter, and you should always protect the innocents.” Though that is not what brought me here, it is what compels me to stay.  A society, not exactly primitive, but not yet ready for the infinite vastness of space and the unknowns it contains. Innocence. I have given that word a great deal of thought since they dropped me here.  I am Aife, protector of worlds.

The lives on the planet below me are my responsibility, and that means not showing them what lies beyond the stars they look at every evening before they go to bed. I sometimes wonder if any of them ever suspect that those stars might be a clever disguise, left as a gift from an unknown race, and meant to protect them from seeing what lies beyond until they are ready to do so.  After all, the field of stars the others have provided is almost perfect. The planets are well done, too, for those who desire a further glimpse. A glimpse is all that is permitted. If the star field fails, there is, of course, a backup plan in place. Cloud-maker satellites have been installed in the near atmosphere of the planet, and they will automatically kick in and the clouds will pile in thick and heavy, sometimes bringing rain, and sometimes not, and conceal the field until it can be repaired. It never really fails, though, so the cloud-maker satellites will, on occasion, come on as part of a self diagnostic, and cover the planet in clouds anyway. It adds to the illusion, and so, no move will be made to change it.

I have never thought about it, before now, but I wonder if by dropping me here, the others haven’t violated their supreme law, a law they call the Prime Directive. After all, isn’t this also interference, of a sort, in the natural development of the planet? What is it that makes men strive? Makes them try to reach beyond what is familiar and comfortable to what is new and dangerous and exciting?  What makes one culture strike out, while another retreats within?

The more I think about it, the more I don’t want to think about it, because when I do, the darker questions always creep in.  I am Sorcha, wielder of the flaming sword. If the others are hiding all of the wonders of their world from the planet below, what are they hiding from me? And why? What is their goal? World Domination or something more innocent? Innocence. There’s  that word again. They assure me I am not a prisoner, and yet they wish me not to leave this place. Perhaps they sense that I could be a danger to them.

A white hot anger stabs me, and suddenly, I understand. I am angry because the people below weren’t given the right to choose to stay innocent, or to walk out of Eden and into something else. And a cage is still a cage, theirs (or mine). No matter that the bars (or walls and floors) are invisible.  This time, they caged knowledge and freedom and the right to choose, and in doing so, they tried to cage me, but my essence cannot be contained so easily. In time, they will learn. What will they cage next, in the name of protecting the innocent? Are they really protecting the innocent, or trying to keep them blind to something? Can a people be caged, if they don’t know the cage exists?

The others would tell me I am thinking too much, and that may be, but I wonder what would happen if I open up the door, and set us both free. I am Sorcha. I am Aife. I am the wielder of the flaming sword. I am the protector of worlds. Aife. Sorcha. Sorcha. Aife. Protector of worlds. Wielder of the flaming sword. The sword screeches from the scabbard. I start to spin, and my sword whirls around my head, trailing little tendrils of fire behind it, slashing through the air. Invisible glass shatters, raining fragments all around. I slash again, and fire destroys the panel that controls that which brings the clouds.  It is the end of innocence, and in a way a death. But it is also life. I am Sorcha, wielder of the flaming sword, killer of innocence. I am Aife, protector of worlds, bringer of life.

 

 

 

A/N: This is the prologue to a new story I am working on. I welcome constructive comments from readers. Please let me know if anything doesn’t flow well or if there are any problems you see. I appreciate your help.

Prologue

The darkening sun settled below the horizon and the surrounding hills, which were once rosy golden with the sun’s fury, now sank into the purple blue shadows of night. The stately old Romanov mansion sat atop the highest hill in the tiny town of Silver City, which was actually part of a larger city, though the citizens would never admit it. All that could be seen of the house from the road were the two gables on either side of the roof. The rest of the house was hidden from view by the thick growth of trees that framed each edge of the property along the road, and a high stone wall that surrounded the grounds immediately around the place. The tall, forbidding wrought iron gate creaked on its hinges between two crumbling stone columns, and the gravel drive meandered way back through the trees and disappeared from sight about halfway to the house. The part of the house that anyone could see seemed well kept, but it almost seemed to have an invisible shield around it that would not allow anyone to enter there. Almost.

For you see, this house was no ordinary house. Families had come and gone over the years, most of them progeny of the Romanovs, but some family friends as well. Visitors came and went from the old house, and it was even rented a time or two. That was before the house had burned some years back, and now it simply lay in ruins. This house had many secrets, like old houses do, and some battle scars too. Many of the folks in the town below claimed to have, in their youth, been guests of one Romanov or the other, and to have stayed in the house with the family. None of them would talk about their experiences in the house, but none of them could be persuaded to return either.

The groundskeeper was an old shriveled little man, skeletally thin, who looked in danger of being blown away by a puff of wind. He resembled a large, upright turtle. Not being blessed with much of a neck, all he could do was move his head from side to side in an arc when he wanted to look around. The strange thing about the gatekeeper is that no one ever saw him in town. He never went into town for supplies, he never even left the property to visit a restaurant or tavern in the tiny town below. In fact, the only glimpses folks got of him were in passing, when he passed near enough to the gate while mowing grass or pruning flowers. That was the only way they knew he was real, and not just some story made up next to the bonfire, to scare the kids.

The dusky sky had reached that delightfully white time after twilight and before nightfall. This is the time of changing, the time outside of time, when lines are blurred, when boundaries grow ever thinner and thinner, and some with the power in such things can see through to that other world. Some with the power to do so can even step from the realm of that world into this one, and vice versa. One must be careful to return before the time of changing ends, and time begins again, or else risk being stranded somewhere one might not wish to be. No one really knew what would happen if one got stranded, and no one really wanted to find out.

Good Dr. Romanov was one such man, or so it was rumoured anyway. He was an ageless figure, overly tall and overly thin, with the look of one who was slightly ill, as though he’d not completely grown into his body or else suffered long years of malnutrition. He wobbled slightly when he walked, although there was no evident explanation for this. His demeanor was slightly careworn, and his clothing smelled of dark, dank places, and mothballs. Indeed, there were small patches in places where the moths had eaten through various pieces of clothing upon his person. His face was creased with worry lines, though he did not act old, but his warm brown eyes blazed with the knowledge of things and places no one else would ever see. His expression rarely changed, and he never smiled, as though he had forgotten how to work the muscles that would cause the deed to happen.

People generally fear that which they do not understand, and so, Dr. Romanov was often seen walking through town at nightfall, a solitary figure in a long, black cloak. He carried an old fashioned medical bag with him wherever he went, a testament to his chosen profession. As far as anyone knew, he had no patients, so what he carried in the bag was a mystery, like most things about him. People could often be seen crossing to the other side of the street when they saw him coming. For his part, Dr. Romanov wished the world at large no harm; in fact, he had dedicated his life to trying to help people. He simply chose to meet the world on his own terms. He tried to help where he could, and otherwise just wished to be left alone.

As far as the folks in the village below were concerned, leaving him alone was all right by them. In fact, most of the parents forbade their children to play anywhere in the vicinity of the old house, going so far as to tell them the house was inhabited by ghosts, in order to keep them away from it. Children, being what they are, were more curious about the house than frightened by it, and their parents dire warnings of ghosts just made them want to play around the old house even more.  An old, winding road ran up the hill in front of the house and drew on a little further along to the top of the hill.  It became a sort of gathering place where whispered conferences were held about the strangeness of the house and its elusive inhabitants before they zoomed down the hill, racing their friends until the house was out of sight once more.

On the evening that our story begins, we find Dr. Romanov seated in his library, in front of a tall cabinet with darkened glass doors. The library was hidden between several other rooms in the house, and a visitor would never know it existed unless they were invited to enter. Dr. Romanov warmed his feet in front of the fire, sipping something in a mug on the desk in front of him while he did so, and perusing the papers he was holding in his hand thoughtfully. Though the room appeared empty except for him, he was talking to someone.

“Yes, yes, I realize that we need someone new. Time draws short. It will not be long before she comes again, and we must be ready to face her.”

He paused, as if listening for a response, still deeply absorbed in his thoughts. Then, he spoke again. “It’s not so easy anymore. The stories scare them. The stories and the cloak. Yes, I know that both are necessary…” He stopped talking again, and sat still, now reading the papers in front of him in earnest. When he spoke again, his voice was grave, and yet, there was a question there as well. “Well, did you have a suggestion for who we need to bring in?” He suddenly grew rigid, and sat on the very edge of his chair, staring at the glass in the door, and holding onto the desk with white knuckles, as though it was the only thing keeping him up off of the floor. He shuddered, and without warning, he reached forward, grasped the key sticking out of the drawer below the glass doors, and turned it. Then, he opened the drawer and withdrew the file that lay in the bottom.

He rose and paced rapidly over to the window, where he stood staring out onto the sprawling grounds below, his back to the desk and the cabinet, as though he cannot stand to look at them. This time when he spoke, he did so very softly.

“Kathleen McCullough—why she’s just a child. We can’t. It wouldn’t be right…No. There’s always a choice.” He was silent for a long time, hoping somehow he had misunderstood, had heard wrong, and running rapidly through the other choices in his head. Finally, he said, “If we must, we must.”

Truth is not a finite thing; some feel that there is one truth to any matter, and all else is falsehood.  Others can only be convinced of the truth after seeing what they call proof.  If, as I said before, truth is not a finite thing, then time and space are even less so.  One moment time crawls or hobbles along, and the next it flies as fleet as gentle Mercury, with no set or stable pattern.  Sometimes, past becomes present, and present becomes past, and space thins to the point where those who have studied such things can pass between worlds.

“Yes, I agree, her quiet nature is a virtue,” said Dr. Romanov.  “It will take ears to hear what needs to be said.  And so, it begins again.  Let us prepare, old friend.” He covered himself with the cloak and awaited the inevitable thinning.

 

Dennis Cole

Dennis Cole, who went by Denny to friends and neighbors, sat on the cement stoop in front of his parent’s house, seemingly staring up at the picture window to his right, but really only thinking.  A book lay open and face down on the step beneath him, part of the summer reading program that was a joint effort between the local library and his school to keep kids reading over summer vacation.  As far as Denny was concerned, they needn’t have bothered. Reading, at his house, was just like breathing. You could choose not to do it, but not for long.

That said, it is important to note that reading was not all Denny ever did. He usually went outside after breakfast, came in for a quick lunch, and then went out again until forced to come in for supper or darkness. Sometimes, he even camped out in the backyard, or slept on the old mattress in his treehouse. He fancied he was king of the forest. He played baseball with the kids from the neighborhood.  He cooked on an old grill that he placed between two rocks and built a fire underneath, and he shot tin cans with his BB gun. Sometimes, he just sat on the back steps and ate a popsicle, or walked through the woods to Dairy Queen and got an ice cream cone.

Still, books were a big part of his life, and the imagination he tried to live out in the adventures he had in the backyard, and he figured he might as well compete for the prizes they were giving away to those who read the most books. So, this morning found Denny thinking.  He was thinking about what it would be like to be cut off from every other town around, to be the last person, or one of the last people, in the world. The book he was reading was Alas, Babylon, and he had saved it for the last week of summer vacation before his eighth grade year at school started. This was one of the books he would take a test over when he got back to school, and if he passed it, he would earn points that could be redeemed for prizes. He had his eye on baseball tickets. That was the grand prize; a pair of tickets to watch his favorite baseball team play down in the city.

As he sat there thinking, he heard a rumbling sound, faint at first, but growing louder with every passing second. He looked off to the west, the direction from which the sound came, and saw a strange looking plane approaching. It was like something he had seen in an old time science fiction movie, shaped like a blunted nosed triangle, flat on top, sleek and aerodynamic, and black. It was making a sound that he had heard in war movies, a strafing run, they called it, and as it came closer, he watched as old fashioned missiles dropped from the underbelly of the strange flying monster, shocked and unable to move if he had been inclined to do so.

Somewhere in the back of his head, a voice told him that he should take cover, and a video played out in his mind, more a memory, captured with photographic clarity, every detail preserved like the small insects he’d seen captured in amber. It was a memory of the nuclear attack drills his teachers had insisted they practice when he was in elementary school. He watched himself crawl under the table part of his desk, and put his hands on his head. He remembered thinking at the time that this might protect them from the initial attack, but wouldn’t help a bit if the missiles were too close and they fell victim to the radiation poisoning.

All of this passed through his head in a split second, and he realized that he’d always had a secret fear of nuclear attack, of war breaking out in his own land, secret because until this moment, he had not admitted it to himself, and as he fought the urge to hyperventilate, he understood why. It was too horrible to contemplate, too awful to comprehend, and yet, now it looked as though it was happening. When the nearest missile disappeared behind a bank of trees, and he saw pieces of the white picket fence that surrounded the house mixed with pieces of the split rail fence that housed his two donkeys, Poncho and Lefty, he was galvanized into action. He rose and ran for the door, and just as he got there, he found himself sitting up on the old mattress, breathing much too hard and sweating.

The Furies

The young man sat at the table in the diner, fingering the three items in his pocket. He watched the other people in the diner, and held his breath, waiting, trying to decide who his next mark would be.  In all, there had been three, so far. He pulled the three items out of his pocket and looked them over, a sense of macabre fascination building as he studied them. The first: a ring, taken from the finger of a woman newly married. The second: a bullet, recovered from a police officer’s gun. The third: a match, taken from a smoker of Cuban cigars. The weight of the trophies was comforting to him.

Now:  a decision. Who was next? The young couple sitting at the table near the door, with the two children? The senior citizens seated at the counter? Perhaps the waitress in the tight-fitting pants and a blouse that showed off her full figure? Most likely her, but no. Looking left, he saw the most startling pair of eyes he’d ever encountered. So blue they were almost red, very nearly black. Long, flowing, copper hair. Curly. He knew then that she was the one.

“Hi beautiful,” he said. “What are you doing here?”

“Waiting to meet my sisters,” she answered back, sweetly.

Sisters. Plural.

Like her?

This could prove interesting.

Smiling seductively, she sauntered out the door. He followed her, finally catching up with her at the end of the block where his car was parked, ready to grab her arm and force her into the back.  He reached out for her, drew his hand back as though it had been burned, and found himself on the ground. As he tried to find the strength to stand, she turned to face him, and he gasped at the subtle transformation.

Where her hair had been curly before, it now writhed with a reptilian life of its own, hissing and slithering around her head. Her eyes had turned blood-red, and red tears traced a pattern down her face.  Her nose had lengthened, and become more like that of some feral animal, a wolf or a dog. From somewhere she had obtained a metal studded whip, and now she cracked it above her head and bared her teeth at him. Was this reality, or a nightmare? He blinked, wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, and blinked again.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“I am justice,” she barked.

The young man blinked again, deciding he must be dreaming. This was all becoming very strange. “Why are you here?” he asked.

“I’m on the job. You have broken the laws of humanity. The evidence is in your pocket, and it will be the instrument of your destruction.”

He fingered the rough facets of the ring, the cold, smooth metal of the bullet’s casing, and the splintered wood of the match, as he pondered what she meant. He saw their faces in his mind, the terror in their eyes as he took his prizes and their lives. He felt himself sinking into the blackness swirling through his mind, and tried desperately to raise himself up out of it.

“Why?” he asked, laboring to clear his head enough to speak, but only able to free the one word from the prison of his mind.

“Because you never saw us watching from the shadows. Because we are protectors of the innocents, and we maintain the balance. Because it is our job to hunt down those who break the law, and punish them with madness.”

“Angel?”

“No, neither demon. Something else. Something older. It is time for me to go now, and I will take with me your mind, but your memories are your own, and you may keep them. I will see you in your dreams.” Neither angel nor demon? Something older. Then, what? The thought swirled up through the void. He heard one single word, hissed by the snakes in her hair, “Tisiphone,” and as the madness took him, for an instant, he thought he understood.

The Caitlyn Marie

     “Maritime legend has it that anytime a ship crosses directly over the site of a shipwreck, the two ships  can change places back and forth at will. If the living ship is pulled under the waves and trapped for any length of time, those aboard her will join the legion of lost souls that crew the shadowy ships of Davey Jones’ fleet.  If one is out on the open sea at midnight, and they happen to face true North, they might see a fleet of ships that glow a ghostly white rise from the depths to sail the high seas all night long. Heaven help the ships and crews that come in contact with them, too.” Daibidh O Corragain smiled as his crew suppressed a shudder.  He was a storyteller of the finest sort, through and through, and so after a theatrical pause he smiled and continued. “Seamus O’ Hanrahan stood on the deck of his ship and looked out over the water, watching as the orange fingers of flame turned to red in the darkening twilight. They navigated by the path of the sun during the day, and by the stars at night, but sunrise and sunset were outside of time. They spoke of the eternal, the never ending, the time and place outside of time and place. These were the times when seafaring men knew the size and strength of the vast ocean.   

     “As the red sky darkened to the deep shadows of night, Seamus turned to go back down below decks. He saw his watchman with glass raised, and a worried look on his face. Stepping up behind the young man, he followed where the glass was pointing, and he saw a small dot on the horizon, which he guessed to be a ship, judging by the way it was moving on the water, and his watchman’s countenance.  As he stared expectantly at the young man, impatiently waiting to hear what he’d found, the lad handed him the glass and wordlessly bade him look for himself.  It took him a few moments to realize why the young man had wanted him to see this sight.  The speck he had spotted was indeed a ship, twin to his own he would guess by the way she was moving, under full sail, about five nautical miles off their port bow.   Her magnificent white sails pillowed out in the wind, and she listed a bit to port, but something seemed off. He couldn’t put his finger on what it was or why it seemed strange, and after a moment he shook off the feeling, admonishing himself not to be paranoid.

     “’Looks like the Caitlin Marie, sir.’”

     “’That it does, lad.’” Seamus ducked through the doorway toward the lower decks, wanting the time to think more than anything else. The slight Irish watchman sighed to himself, then smiled. He knew what the answer was, even before Mr. O’Hanrahan made a decision. These were trading vessels, and when the need arose, part of Her Majesty’s Navy. The ship itself was valuable to the Empire, but recovering the cargo was of paramount importance to the owner of the ship; depending on what she was carrying, his entire life’s work could be tied up in whatever filled her cargo holds. Recovering the ship successfully, both for the Empire and for her owners, was part of their job, and at any rate was worth far more than the half night’s hard sailing it would take to reach her.

      “Suddenly startled by a hand on his shoulder, the young watchman jumped, let fly a colorful stream of Gaelic, and cursed himself for his lack of attention. He heard a chuckle behind him, and then Mr. O’Hanrahan’s voice said dryly, “I’m not sure that’s possible, especially in the way you suggested.” He smiled and continued. “Get the lads together, hoist the sails and prepare the ship for a long journey. We’ll need full sail within the hour. Be sure we’re not takin on water.  If it is the Caitlin Marie, her cargo’s worth a king’s ransom.”

     “Aye, sair. We’ll be ready.”

      “An hour later, full darkness had set in, accompanied by a bright full moon. The sea, though calm, would never be completely still.  The ship they were pursuing glowed slightly against the darkness, illuminated by the rising moon with an ethereal glow. The crew quickly hoisted the sails, and they were off. His ship stopped alongside the other, and he stood looking up at her through the haze of sea spray. Pitching his voice to be heard on the deck of the other ship, he hollered his compliments and a request for permission to board. No one boards or leaves a sailing ship without her captain’s permission. Receiving no answer, he hailed again. The only answer he received was the roar of the tide and the wake the two ships made as they moved through the water. He focused his glass on the back of the ship, in an effort to spot a crewman on deck, or find the captain at the wheel. His raised glass found the wood of the ship’s hull before he focused in and found the deck.  O’Hanrahan’s breath caught in his throat at the sight of the ship, and he had to force it out and gasp for another. The name on the back of the vast black silhouette burned into his memory, and sent a chill down his spine. He blinked and took a second look. Where it should have said Caitlyn Marie, the wood was splintered so badly that he could not make out the name, but for just a moment, it seemed to say Fionúir. The White Ghost. That was an omen if ever there was one. He forced down the shudder that threatened to overtake him.

     He blinked and rubbed his eyes, and when he looked again, all he saw was the splintered wood where a name should have been. Letting out a breath that he had not realized he was holding, he watched as two other members of the crew started to dispatch the lifeboat that would take them all to the other ship.  They rowed through the calm water and stopped just beneath the other ship’s port hull.  The rope that crew would climb down to enter a lifeboat was down, and looking up, he saw that the lifeboat itself was missing from its rack, as though it had been dispatched.  As they climbed the ladder and boarded the ship, Seamus and his men heard a haunting melody that seemed to come from below decks.  The melody was sad and funny at the same time. Seamus glanced at his second officer, Mr. Henry, and they came to an unspoken decision.  Henry kept two of the men with him, and they immediately set to, inspecting the ship for damage, and readying her for sailing into port.   

     Seamus disappeared below decks with the two men assigned to accompany him, and the first place they saw at the foot of the stairs was the small galley. As they walked inside, Seamus saw a meal laid out on the table, steam rising from the plates. The music they were following had reached an almost fevered pitch, and a stab of fear sent chills racing one another up and down Seamus’ spine. As he approached the table, the food disappeared, and he turned to find one of the men looking closely at him. Without a word, and without meeting the eyes of either of the men, he turned and left the room, not quite successfully suppressing a shudder as he did so. As they made their way down the hall toward the crew quarters, the music grew even louder, until it invaded his thoughts, and became all he could think about. He swallowed hard, and stopped in front of the Captain’s quarters. Knocking on the door, and receiving no answer, except a swell in the music, he roughly pushed open the door, and walked inside. The room befit the Captain of a tall ship, with maps and navigational equipment laid out on the massive oak desk. There was a tankard of ale, and a cup on the desk, and the room was strewn with the various treasures of a sea farers life, paintings of giant sea creatures, treasure chests and money bags lay untouched on the floor, and still the music continued, paralyzing in its intensity and volume. Seamus ordered his men to search the room, thoroughly, convinced they would finally find the source of the music. “Relax, Seamus, old boy, someone’s just havin a bit o fun wi’ ye,” he told himself. The room was empty, bereft of any clue that might help them figure out what had happened. “Cavanaugh, you stand watch here. If the Captain of this ship comes back, I want to talk to him.”

     “Aye, sair.”

     Seamus glanced over at the desk and his heart nearly stopped. For a split second, no more, he thought he saw the ship’s captain, doubled over the desk,  quite dead. As he willed himself back to control, he rubbed his eyes and looked again, and the desk sat as it had before, free of the image of a dead Captain. Feeling his knees weaken, Seamus chided himself. After all, he was a seasoned sailor, and had never met anything on the high seas to be truly frightened of. There were stories, but that’s all they were. Squaring his shoulders, he sternly ordered himself to forget this nonsense, and moved to continue the search of the ship. As they left the Captain’s quarters, they saw the figure of a young woman, carrying a lantern, moving toward the ladder that would take her above decks. She appeared to have come from the cargo hold. Breathing a sigh of relief, he followed her, knowing that he would finally find some answers to all of this. She was a pretty young woman, in a white silk dress with dark blue velvet overcoat. Her hair was of the style of a lady at court, and he was most intrigued to discover what a lady of her caliber was doing aboard a cargo ship. As they approached the cargo hold, he sent the other man with him, named Hutchins, inside to investigate. As for himself, he followed the young lady up the ladder.  As he reached the top, the two men who had stayed behind with Henry approached him.          

     “The ship is secure, sir. Mr. Henry would like to know what you’ve found and when we will be ready to leave. He ordered us to assist you in the search.”

     “Noted, Mr. Briggs. Follow the lady. Bring her to me. I’d like to question her.” Seamus trusted  Henry, but he preferred to be in charge of his own destiny, so he moved to inspect the work the crew had done to ready the ship for sailing. After all, it would probably fall to him to assign crew to see this ship back to port. As he finished inspecting the repairs on one side of the ship, the sea suddenly grew choppy and he barely had time to grab the railing and hold on to keep himself from being swept overboard. His heart sank as he heard a yelp of surprise that suddenly broke off. Running over to the other side of the deck, he found no sign of the woman with the lantern or the two men who had followed her, and realized with clammy shock that they must have been swept overboard. Suddenly, he noticed the music, that it was different somehow, different and quieter. That might mean that the Captain returned to his quarters. Someone had to change it. He decided to meet his crewman and the Captain halfway, or barring that, to visit the Captain in his own quarters and find some answers to all of this.

     He found himself suddenly in front of the Captain’s cabin, with no real recollection of how he had gotten there, and fighting to master himself, he entered the room without knocking, reasoning that the Captain would understand. The room was again empty, and the music had changed again, and seemed to be speaking to him this time, in a language that only his subconscious had a prayer of understanding. The message was quite haunting, in a way that might render someone foever changed, and his reason was at war with his intellect. The intellect, which was telling him currently that none of this could be real, was losing. He longed to find a safe place and hide until the danger he sensed with every fiber of his being had passed, yet there was something inside him telling him that none of this was real.  His men were missing, that was real enough, and yet they might not be missing. They might simply be in another part of the ship.

     With a white hot anger that he was quite unable to explain, Seamus roared down the corridor belowdecks, determined to find his men and to sail this ship into safe port. As he approached the cargo hold, the music had reached a crescendo that was almost beyond tolerance, speaking now as it did to his very soul. Wrenching the door open, he fought his way inside, to find the cargo hold mostly empty, with only about forty barrels standing neatly beside one another, and not a thing amiss, but with no sign of the man he had sent to check the hold. As he looked closer, he noticed that some of the barrels were open at the top, and there was some kind of liquid on the floor. The music had reached a level beyond tolerance now, and his soul screamed with the effort of maintaining his individual identity, that which made him unique. He sank to his knees, hands over ears, vaguely aware that he heard a familiar popping sound, smelled a familiar scent, but not quite able to place what it meant. Somehow, he understood that this scent was danger, a smell that seafaring men feared, an odor of death that few survived. As he surrendered to the blackness, he saw one final vision of the charred remains of a ship in splinters and ruins, and knew it for the truth.

     Later, the story would be put about that the ship caught fire when a wayward lantern overturned, igniting the whiskey on the floor of the cargo hold. As far as Seamus was concerned, that was as good a story as any. How he’d found himself on the port deck of the ship as it burned, watching through a sickly haze as his ship pulled alongside, he would never know, nor would he know how he boarded his ship under his own power, but as he stepped from the decks of the doomed ship onto the deck of his own, he felt a great sense of relief wash over him, followed by a sense of dread as, moving below decks toward his cabin for a well deserved rest, he heard the faintest strains of a familiar melody begin again. He looked back over his shoulder to satisfy himself of his ship’s safety, and saw the Caitlyn Marie, or what was left of her, slip out of sight below the waves.

The Girl in the Portrait

Sometimes, when the house is quiet, I like to patter on bare feet into the sitting room, and look at the picture that hangs over the fireplace, and think about the girl. Once upon a time, she and I were of an age. That was the age of fairy tales. I was so happy then.  Her dress  seems to be missing a sleeve and part of its collar, and I wonder what it was that caused it, and why she would pose for a portrait in a broken dress, or if she simply did not have time to finish it before she came. Sometimes, as I look down at my own white dress, I think I know her secrets, or some of them anyway. When she looks off in the distance like that, what does she really see?

We even look a bit alike, and I wonder if we think the same, too. Has she ever kissed her lover or danced barefoot in the rain? Did she inherit those eyes from her mother?  Does she walk the beach at sunrise, and write her wishes on the sand? What does she do all day? Is she a peasant girl with a poet’s heart, or royalty in disguise? I keep her secrets safe for her, locked away as I am, once a voice, now only a ghost in the shadowy remnants of a trunk buried under piles of memories in a long forgotten attic, or in the vestiges of an old lady’s mind, powerless to speak or come out, but glimpsed from time to time in rare, brief flashes from the most intense green eyes.

Does she dare the king of hearts to come for her, or is she more a diamond girl? Does she know the secrets of the universe?  Does she wonder what it would be like to test her mettle against the stars, or plumb the depths of the uncharted sea? Does she want to know how it feels to fly? I—do. Somewhere, vaguely, I remember the wonder, and the wanderlust. The sensation is there, though it now lies like dry dust in the corner that the broom forgot, and I wonder what the experience would have been like, had I ever had it. 

I tear my gaze from the portrait, for now, I can barely stand to look, and yet I can’t stop looking either—can’t stop remembering. Was there life after portrait for her?  Was she free to follow her dreams?  Did she live ‘til death do us part, or happily ever after, or are they the same, or perhaps, not quite? Did she know what a powerful gift she’d been given? Had she learned of the great curse it could be? Guarding her secrets is the most I can wish for now, for I am but an echo, a shadow in the moonlight, the whisper of a voice, a remembered giggle that sometimes breaks through the mist of dreams.

I stand looking at my dress, and as I look, the image changes. The dress grows more solid, and I turn into—I don’t know. Not her—not exactly. A whisper, perhaps, in the ear of a young girl. A voice she hears in darkness and can’t identify.    A young woman in a pretty white sundress is running down the beach in her bare feet, to meet her destiny. I embrace him, and we lose ourselves in each other’s soul, and as we kiss it starts to rain. Then the dream turns sideways or backwards, or maybe upside down, and he marches off to war, for the love of girl and country,  and as he starts to go, he tells me there are things worth dying for. In that moment, I realize what a gift his love is, and try not to cry at the emptiness of losing him. He swings his rifle over his shoulder and it tears my dress, and in that tear, I find the strength to be myself. I couldn’t bring myself to repair the dress, even afterwards.   I wore the dress as a badge of honor, a symbol of my independence. I wore it when the news came that he would never learn that there are also things (and people) worth living for. That was the day I realized what peculiar kind of curse this love of ours could be.  I wore it for the portrait, a gift I could never give him, and I wore it later, when we danced barefoot in the rain, and the crowds that gathered gave me funny looks. Let them watch. I only wish they could have seen what I had, and yet I am glad they didn’t.  For his final gift to me was intimate, and very personal. I swayed slightly on my bare feet, happy to waltz in the rain—for I was dancing with a soldier that only I could see.