Frustration boils. I’ve hit a wall. The bag of postcards I carry fall onto the ground, and the strap comes lose, letting my stories fly, fly, fly away, encaged birds finally free. How many times must I start over? How many times must I try to describe the same thing, and each time my words are stolen, erased, lost because the paper keeps coming loose? I grab as many postcards as I can, but the latest one slips from my fingers, an adventure I’m not even sure my younger self is ready to here. They grow more glum by the second, minute, hour, and I don’t know if there is anything I can do to stop the darkness spreading from a hole dug out of their mind. I want to blame the peddler, but it isn’t the peddler’s fault. He is trying to make art, to remind the world how beautiful it is despite the cruelty that tries to smother it.
He stands in the middle of the square, dressed in a black trench coat and a black bowler hat. A table is spread in front of him, with about a dozen bamboo roses coated in different colors stacked one by one besides graffiti sprayed canvases covered in magnificent, otherworldly designs. There was a half man, half woman walking across a floating road hovering between two planets- one made of charcoal and fire, the other blooming with red trees and blue and orange oceans. My younger self had stopped and stared, running a finger down the half man, half woman who didn’t seem to want to go one way or the other, rather stay in between. I smile sadly to myself. Perhaps one day they will know for sure, but it will be a constant struggle. People believe they understand me better than I understand myself, and I let myself believe they are right. They can call me whatever they think I would like even if I won’t like it. I might find a name better than the one I am wearing, and it will be stolen, made so I cannot use it, cannot claim it. The one I do want to claim, they won’t believe it is anything more than a silly nickname bestowed upon friends who do know that is who I am. I will remain lost, teetering on a ledge, unsure if I want to fall and finally be done or keep my back pressed to the wall, staying high and away from the danger waiting below. In, out, in, out, I’ll be so sure one moment, then afraid the next, all because I’ve allowed people to dress me up how they want to dress me, and not how I want to dress.
There is a rainbow rose beside the canvas. Next to it is a blue and pink rose, followed by a yellow, purple, and black one. To the untrained eye, they are just different color combinations, but to those who have seen them before, they mean something. I know you, the peddler seems to be speaking, And I want you to be proud of who you are.
No, I cannot blame the peddler. He is not responsible for my stories getting lost, for the frustration that constantly seeks an outlet but is buried alive inside a casket that is smothering it. It is the older generation, the ones whose minds are poisoned with unfathomable hatred disguised as the self-righteous word of God, who are to blame. The woman takes the first flower, the one painted red and gold, and smiles before placing it down at the sight of the rainbow one. She picks up the rainbow one, then tosses it to the ground, stomping its petals until there is nothing but wood chips left. The color remains, however, and it seeps into the sidewalk, crying for its destruction but still remaining. It will always remain.
“I hope you are willing to pay for that,” the peddler speaks calmly, and yet the woman’s feathers are ruffled. Her face contorts with rage, and she spits at him.
“I am not paying for your abomination to be seen by the world,” she storms off, knocking into me into the process, and sending my old bones down onto the pavement. Eyes turn and stare, but they want nothing to do with it. The postcards flutter, and then they are gone.
The young woman with the beautiful name glares. ” I wish people like her could see how much of an abomination she really is.”
The peddler shrugs. ” She is afraid. And people who are afraid either run and hide, or fight back with anger. She is like a toddler whose favorite toy has been taken away; she will scream and claw at your hands until she gets back what she wants. In this case, its the status quo.”
I look at the fallen art, at the beauty marred by an ugly storm. I bend down and help him pick up the pieces. ” I’m sorry for your art.”
” They can be made again, although it might take some time. I’m sorry for your words. I’m sure they meant something.”
“Depends on who you ask,” I say wryly. ” I’m sure plenty of people would find my words useless.”
“Flowers have a use, right? Some people don’t like certain flowers, but there is always someone who loves the one you least expect,” the peddler eyes my younger self collecting what was left of the yellow and purple and black rose, caressing the pieces and gingerly laying them out. ” Can you tell me some of your words? I’m curious to hear.”
“I’m not sure if I can remember them right now,” I try to let him down gently, to hide my discouragement in losing the thoughts I’ve worked hard to craft. A sadness bubbles within his grey blue eyes, and I realize he needed to hear a distraction. ” But I’ll try to carve something new. Just for you. All of you.”
I take a deep breath and recite the words that once came to me in a crowded bar when I couldn’t face the people I was with. They didn’t want me; I didn’t drink, I didn’t understand their dramas, so I withdrew into a place I was most comfortable with, a world full of stories and pictures that took me away from the things that were hard for me to do. They come to me again, in a map that lays the groundwork for something possibly spectacular, at least to me.
Another Chance I wake up with an aching feeling pounding against my chest. Something is missing. Something should be there, but the problem is I can’t remember what it is supposed to be. The feeling grows louder, starts screaming in my veins as I walk outside and breathe the same air I’ve always breathed. Except something is different. Traces of sweet honey are layered within the soft, salty breeze. I remember her skin bathing in the scent, and I shudder involuntarily. Her. There is supposed to be her. Who is she and why can’t I remember her? I break from my usual routine- an early walk down the boardwalk laying parallel to a rich blue ocean before grabbing coffee at Dolores’ diner- and return to my home, searching for any evidence of the woman who had left me wanting to remember. There is nothing in the bathroom, although I can see shadows of where things used to be. A toothbrush. An empty lipstick tube. A bottle of vitamins that I never took but should have, her whispers tell me. There is nothing in the bedroom. No photographs or trinkets belonging to her or me. Nothing to cherish and press desperately to my chest. There is, however, a crumpled piece of paper next to the waste basket, not in it. Curious, I unfold it, and the ache inside me intensifies, transforming into something ugly, something burning my veins aflame instead of calming them. It is a letter. She wrote to me, then thought better that I should see it. “My love, I know you, and I know you won’t want to forget me when I’m gone. But I want you to be happy. I want you to move on and find the love you deserve to have for much longer than mine. So, when I’m gone, when the sickness finally takes me, you will forget. You will forget everything about me, from the first moment we met at the carnival to the moment we took our vows underneath the willow tree. You will forget I ever existed, that I ever took your heart, so you will be free to give it to someone else. There will be shadows, but please don’t follow. Don’t follow me into a early grave.” I sit on my bed, reaching for the soft pillows that are suddenly too stiff. I search for the memories I want back, but it is a blank slate. The traces linger, although they take me nowhere. Remember, please remember. The sun stretches on, and eventually the aching stops. Tears drip from my eyes and land on my cheeks. I wait for them to dry.
When I finish, the peddler looks at me expectantly, waiting for me to continue. ” No, that’s it,” I say simply. ” That’s the story.”
He frowns. ” I feel like there should be more.”
The girl with the beautiful name agrees. ” I feel like we only got a fraction of something bigger.”
Perhaps there will be something bigger. Their encouragement bolsters me with ideas, and I float on a balloon, hopping from one color to the next, bringing something new with me each time. But it will have to wait. I inhale again, and on my next exhale I begin with another tale.
The Grey Sweater The grey sweater Sticks to their back as they Climb, climb, climb One, two, three Hills taller than the Gods Sitting in their white hall Watching As the little black dots Squabble and bleed red And they shake their heads Muttering "This is not how we made them" Climb, climb, climb One, two, three Hills that look into a valley Where their home waits For their return Delayed by time and pain Which freed them from a box Where flickering dreams struggled To fly And stay alive The grey sweater Sticks to their back as they Descend, descend, descend One, two, three Hills sinking lower than the rivers Running through them With tears of shredded names That belonged to faces not meant To be a he or a she But something else And they tug on The grey sweater Hiding their fresh scars On a fresh body finally given The chance to let those flickering Dreams fly and Stay alive The grey sweater Itches their neck As they Walk, walk, walk One, two, three Times ever closer To a home that once had A window looking towards The moon, the stars The dreams waiting To fly And stay alive Among the shadows that tried To snuff out their light Among the man who couldn't believe They were anything more Among the woman who couldn't let go Of everything she wanted them to be Of flickering dreams trying To fly And stay alive The grey sweater Blends into the light Fading, fading, fading One, two, three Seconds pass until it is gone And the man in the window That once looked towards The moon, the stars But now sees nothing Except towering cliffs Walks with the woman to A table once set for three And they pause at the door Their hand poised to ask "Would they recognize me? Would they want to see me, And my flickering dreams That no longer flicker but Fly And stay alive?"
A bigger crowd has gathered around me, my words drawing them in like a spell. But it isn’t witchcraft; it is just unexpressed thoughts and feelings knitted together and revealed in a different way. Does it make sense? Depends on the listener, I suppose. I believe nothing I say makes sense because everything about me is not equipped to navigate a world not designed for someone like me. Yet the world in general is a messed up place; frankly, I am surprised a zombie outbreak hasn’t occurred as punishment for all the corruption and greed impacting basic human rights. I cannot grasp my head around it, but I can take comfort in the little pieces of escapism that bob and float, bob and float, like apples in a barrel waiting to be snatched up. Of course, these pieces can be easily destroyed, too. I look at the flowers, the beautiful art that came from gnarled hands covered in soot and ash. But just because they are broken does not mean they have to stay broken, although I suppose with a strong support, it can be difficult to get the petals to rise again.
“I have another story,” I say as the last of the pieces get swept into a bag, and the peddler curls his lips, pleased. ” Although I warn you, it is not a kind one. It’s what happens when anger becomes too much, and the satisfaction that comes when it is released may or may not be justified.”
“That’s the thing, though,” the peddler replies. ” You need stories told in various different ways. Sometimes that can be the same thing recycled in a different format, sometimes it can be things no one wants to hear but needs to. Who knows? There are a plethora of stories that bounce back one another, but they are still special. My roses aren’t any different except they have me. I’m what makes them special. So no matter what you think, I want to keep hearing them.”
I shake my head. ” How old are you again?”
He shrugs, then gives off a piece of broken petal to me, to the girl, to my younger self scowling in the corner.
The Place That Broke Him He stills remembers it, the image a clear painting yellowed at the edges but kept preserved in a determined varnish. The branches of wispy trees dangling loosely over a freshly paved road hiding the cracks underneath. The ocean crowding the sides, cornering a ginormous stone castle into the center, making it the focus of attention. Within the walls, the shrieking woman wails, and he can see her contorted face staring at him with lifeless eyes as he sits in the back seat, the well-polished convertible driving him closer and closer to the place that broke him in the same way he broke his grandfather’s ivory chess piece. Viciously. Without remorse. The funeral is scheduled for the next day, but they head up early, for his parents are eager to hear the contents of the will. He scoffs to himself. There is nothing worth receiving from that ambitious old man whose pride became his downfall, or so he liked to believe. In reality, irony got the old man. A heart attack, right in the middle of accepting a lifetime achievement award at the university he had been president of for forty years. Well deserved, the heart attack, and the shrieking woman would agree, if was still around to do so. It looms closer in his mind, the ominous castle, and its intimidating glory. The ostentatious red carpet ran through every room, which possessed some unique or expensive trinket. A golden clock. A suit of armor. A bookcase with every book cover the same color. An ivory chess set. Each summer he would sit in those stiff, uncomfortable mahogany chairs while his grandfather taught him the rules of a game he didn’t want to play. “Life is about learning to control yourself,” the words wheezes across his mind, the old man’s smokey breath clouding the spaces that used to belong to him and him alone. “Without control, you won’t get far. Again, show me again. We will not stop until you get it right, until you know how to control yourself.” He glances up at his parents, the resentment seething between his teeth. It is their fault. They sent him there, summer after summer, to be remodeled and reshaped into the ideal image. Their own whispers hiss at him from the shadows behind the wispy trees. “What are we going to do about him, Gerald? It has got to stop. He is getting too old to behave the way he behaves. The teachers call him a menace, unable to sit still and follow the rules. He punched poor Bobby Miller who rightfully called him out on his obsessive rock collecting habit. He lacks the ability to socialize properly, and he flails when things become a little too much.” He looks down at his hands. They begin to tremble and shake, the drudged-up fear causing cataclysmic earthquakes. He must remember to be good, his grandfather told him with each move of the chess piece, otherwise the overzealousness will cause him to break. “We need a break ourselves. Let’s just send him to my father’s. He always did right by us.” It isn’t his fault. He can’t help it when the world grows loud and bright, and everything around him falls away, leaving him with nothing to walk on. Yet he is expected to walk when there is nothing to walk on. He remembers the rich perfume permeating down the halls. He remembers the rules to abide by, the rules he broke every single time. “Do not go in the dining room during the day,” his grandfather began his litany the same. “But I needed to get my ball that rolled in there.” “You do not need that ball. It is childish to do so.” “And what if I get dirty when I’m outside? Then I need to take a bath.” “The bath is never used unless it is a special occasion. Running around does not meet the requirement, nor is it a practical use of time. You will only be permitted outside if your lessons demand it.” He rubs his wrist. The marks are still there, faded from an angry red to a tender pink to a fragile white. There were consequences when he broke the rules, consequences his parents dismissed. “If he is burning you, then don’t do it again,” his father would say. But again, it would happen, something he didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to do he would do. At first, it was only a match, then it was the fireside poker, and eventually it was the black whip. One, two, three lashes. Four, five, six lashes. “We need to make sure the monster within you is gone. Obey, and you shall look upon your scars as an accomplishment of coming out victorious.” The convertible takes a sharp turn left, and they are rolling into the long, meticulously carven driveway. Two straight lines surrounded by lion-shaped bushes guide their way, and the screams from her grow increasingly louder, making it impossible to ignore the past. He had met her during his first stay, on an early summer evening where the breeze was dry and the sun light passed slowly, the yellow lingering before changing into a rapid series of orange, pink, and purple. Despite the warmth, they were sitting by the fire, the flames licking against the chimney while they played the first of many matches. She was a comely girl, stuck on the cusp of youth and mature adulthood, wearing her hair in a plaited braid that ran down to her waist. His grandfather made a sharp tsk between his teeth. “If you are going to work for me, you need to have a more respectable appearance.” He remembered her not being afraid. “If my appearance displeases you, perhaps you should adjust your expectations.” That night was the first of many screams. The next time he saw her, her hair had been cut and stuffed inside a bonnet. A welt rose from her cheek, and she tried to cover the burn mark on her wrist with the hem of her sleeve. “I will have obedience, do you understand?” They moved together in silence, their faces mirroring each other. Fear bound them together, but it wasn’t enough to keep them safe. His grandfather taught him how to be a proper man, and his latest lesson instructed him on how to keep his place over a woman. “Woman are meant to obey you,” he whispered callously one evening. The fire was burning low in the fireplace, and the light flickered ominously over the chess pieces. She had come in delivering a silver plate holding cold biscuits and two bowls of soup. Without looking up at her, the old man had hissed his disappointment. “Come, Thomas. I think it’s time you finally did what needs to be done.” He led him downstairs, into a cool, dark basement that serves more like a dungeon than anything else. Paladins lined the wall, each coated in thick, black armor and holding a sword that he didn’t believe could be real. Yet one light prick of the edge told him of its sharpness, and he remembers shuddering every time until the day came when he no longer did. On that day, he was no longer himself. His grandfather took him to a room and told him to wait. For once, he obeyed, if only because the chill stilled him. When his grandfather returned, he brought her with him. Her eyes were down casted, as if she were expecting this. The castle stares down at him as the car pulls up and stops next to the stone steps leading to a set of stoic doors. “You will do as I say,” the castle hisses, and he sees himself being handed a whip. He hesitates. The castle mutters its disappointment. He sees the whip being taken from his hand, and it is drawn back, lashing out across his face. The cut burns. He takes the whip back. One, two, three. She wails. Her screams echo through the hall as his parents push through the door. Everything is the same and yet it is different. His parents led the way past the foyer, into an adjoining sitting room where his grandfather conducted all of his business. The upholstered armchair is already filled by his shadow, a crooked man possessed of a high sense of propriety, with his back impeccable straight and his nose long and narrow. The same distain warps his lips, and thin, graying hair is brushed carefully. “I am Mr. Fairfax, your father’s trusted solicitor.” The words spoken are not his own, and he sees his grandfather standing over him. Unsmiling. Cruel. The comely girl is not so comely when he is done with her. Her face comes to him through the walls, bloody and broken and pleading for it to stop. It doesn’t stop. It continues, that first summer, where he is taken down to that chamber and given the black whip. He watches through tear-stained eyes. His grandfather hovers, his face vacant, soulless. Then one night, it comes. There is nothing left of the girl, so Thomas sets her free. His hands wrap around her throat and press until all the air is gone. His grandfather is sitting in the chair, eyes focused on the chess set. With his hand, Mr. Fairfax moves a piece up, then to the left, and he points to an empty space, a space written with words carved in an elegant script. Within his pocket is a lighter. Over the years, he developed a new habit, a habit his parents disliked but could do nothing about. “Would you prefer I go back to flapping and flailing, to disobeying every rule?” he smiles slyly, his sliver of victory. Each hit brought him satisfaction. Each hit slowly killed away the parts they made him from, burning and blackening who he had become. The silver case is empty, but he doesn’t move to reach it. Instead, he flicks the lighter and watched the flame come to life. His grandfather’s eyes shudder as he picks up the ivory chess piece and snaps it. Viciously. Without remorse. The will disintegrates, and his parents scream, admonishing him. But their screams are nothing compared to hers. Her face smiles under the bonnet, and she whispers, “Keep going.” He reaches for the curtains dangling by the window. It doesn’t take long to heat them, and their edges quickly curl and blacken, the flames rushing up. “You don’t deserve any of this,” he takes from his second pocket the remains of the broken chess piece. Throughout the years, he had carried it, and when he received the news of his grandfather’s passing, he remodeled it, the jagged pieces coming together to form a key, a key which fit perfectly in the slot of the double doors. “Just remember, the queen is in the most powerful position,” his grandfather instructs from the clouds. “The others, they must obey the queen’s will.” He leaves the room, holding the newly made queen in the palm of his hand. The flames rise, and the towering inferno consumes the room. Mr. Fairfax stumbles, his parents press their hands to their mouth. The smoke screens the exit, but not the man who moves as a shadow, escaping the destruction he had created. “No, you don’t deserve to have what you crave. You’ve taken all that made me, and now I’m going to take all that made you.” The halls watch in silence as he strolls calmly down them, pushing open the doors and breathing the fresh, summer air brimming with pomegranates and apples. Two of his favorite things, or at least they used to be, before he stepped inside the castle. He tries to conjure an image of a small, happy boy with dark brown hair cut neatly at the ears, but it is blurred, smeared, and he doesn’t recognize him. The boy is gone, taken by the place that broke him. Slowly, with deliberate measures, he closes the door, slipping the key in the hole he so carefully studied. It is a simple lock, and it clicks instantly. The screams ring behind him, and as he continues to walk, they grow faint, disappearing down a long, dark tunnel he would not be returning to. “You must obey the queen’s will,” the old voice wheezes out a final breath. “No, I don’t think I will,” he looks up at the sun. Its heat warms his cheeks, and for the first time in a long time, he smiles.
The beautiful woman with the beautiful name blinks at me, a tear slipping silently down her cheek. She leaves it, adding it to the other stains. ” How did you know that was me?”
I stare at her, confused. ” What?”
“That story… it is so similar to mine, so similar to how I was broken, except only a part of me died.”
“But now,” says the peddler, closing her hand around the piece of shattered flower. ” You have a part of you that’s waiting to grow, and make you anew.”
Her smile is faint, but it gradually grows and broadens into something I haven’t seen from her in all this time we have traveled together. The shadow around her has been cast aside, and the sun shines brightly over her shoulders.
I suppose it’s true; one never knows the effect of a story, and if one story can make someone forget how hard it is to be different, how much life seems to be crumbling around them, how much despair and agony is consuming them from things beyond their control, how broken the world has made them feel, then it is a good story, no matter what.