Stories For The Story Throne

May 23, 2012 § 2 Comments

And the story continues to go! I’m not entirely finished with this chapter, but it’s good enough to put up here for your enjoyment. I hope you do!

Oh, and regards pigeons (re: the pigeons roosting on my window ledge), they’ve become braver and don’t fly away when I look out the window. That might mean they’ve gotten used to us, or that they eggs are near hatching. Either way…exciting!

XVII.

Amani retched as her body furiously tried to eject some of the thick dust that swirled around her. She choked and stumbled, her vision reduced to nothing in the storm. Her world was reduced to the howling of the winds and the torrents of red sand that surrounded her like water. She coughed as the dust ripped her throat raw and her blood mingled with the dirt.

A pounding rumble filled the air, and drums sounded over the wind. The rumbling shook the ground and nearly threw Amira to her feet. She spun around, looking for the source of the sound, but the noise only increased; growing louder and louder and louder. It followed her as she moved, always getting behind her, hunting her. Fear grew inside her and the winds picked up, blasting her with dust and noise.

She ran. The drums and the pounding roared behind her, herding her on and on. Grit crunched between her teeth and her tears choked on dust before they were halfway down her face. A voice rose over the storm, guttural and fierce. It chanted no words, but was instead a deep roar in a language Amira couldn’t understand. It sounded like a mountain singing. It terrified her more than the thing chasing her.

Her flight defied comprehension. She didn’t know what was behind her, nor where she was going. It did not matter. She was being chased, therefore she had to flee.

The dust whipped into a fury around her, completely blinding her. She fell to her knees as the thumping, now clearly the sound of enormous feet falling, enveloped her. Amira forced her eyes open just in time to see a trident-wielding giant burst through the dust and thrust the weapon at her heart.

“You flee because you are afraid.”

Amira’s eyes opened and she shot up from where she had been lying on the ground. Stars stared down at a vast red desert carpeted with red sand. Three figures were with her, and she assumed them to be men. Two sat facing a fire, while the other was sprawled out on the ground like he had just fallen in place.

“Marcus!”

Amira rushed to his side. He looked bad in the firelight, but Amira assumed he would look bad anywhere in the state he was in. Sweat coated his face, far paler than normal, and blood had soaked through the front of his jacket. What Amira knew of practical medicine was only what she could remember from watching cop dramas on TV, and as much as she knew about examining security camera footage (stare at it and yell “Enhance!” until you achieve desired results), she knew even less about treating gunshot trauma. Which was all well and good, because a peculiar sound stopped her from ripping open Marcus’ shirt and plunging right into treatment.

Of the two other figures, one was seated cross-legged in a meditative pose and murmuring a strange chant. He sounded like a buffalo successfully mating with an amplifier and, in fact, sounded familiar to Amira. So familiar, in fact, she thought that she had heard that chant before.

Her brow furrowed into a crease so severe that few men had ever seen it and lived to tell the tale. Patrick, in fact, had only seen it once when he pretended to have forgotten her combined birthday/anniversary (Amira was a busy professional woman and hated to look in the mirror and mark the passing of time) by claiming he had to go watch playoff hockey at a friend’s house.

Although a joke, he still had to sleep on the couch for a week. It had been Ottawa versus New York, for crying out loud. Some of the players had pretended to be away for that one.

“Excuse me sir,” she asked in a tone of voice that indicated she had absolutely no desire to call him “sir”, “but what’s going on here?”

The man, who upon closer inspection was either a shrivelled and bearded raisin wearing a uttarasanga or an elderly Asian monk, ignored her and continued chanting in his low bass rumble. The other man, who was tending a boiling pot, chuckled.

“He will not answer you. He will not answer anyone any more. He is very close to achieving enlightenment. Dogen Zenji is a wise man. Wise enough to give up the worst of your human traits.”

Although shadowed by the fire, Amira could feel the sneer in the man’s voice as he said “human”.

“So I take it you’re not a lowly mortal, then?”

Amira’s heart stopped when she realized the thing was tending to the fire, stirring the pot, tapping on a drum, and holding a trident with one of each of his four arms.

“No.” He leaned closer over the fire and Amira could make out his features in the flickering light. His skin was deathly pale, even paler than Marcus’. He was naked but for a loincloth, but Amira hardly noticed. Her attention was trapped on the third eye that stared out of his handsome, and definitely Indian, face. It did not blink but rolled around in his head, spinning like a compass needle. He smiled and leaned back into the darkness. Amira heard something rattle and noticed that, in the dark, the bulky things that he wore on his belt seemed to be shaped an awful lot like human skulls.

“No, I am not.” He stirred the pot again but made no move to taste it. “And you continue to flee.”

Amira considered the being again and took a different track. She had been learning from the masters, after all.

“Why did you stab me with a trident in my dream?”

“Why did you run from me?”

“The trident, mostly.”

He barked a laugh. His voice was calm but sharp, not at all like the deep boom of the monk. “You lie even to us who cannot be lied to. Do you know why Dogen Zenji has not opened his eyes or done anything but chant since his spirit left his body?”

Amira sighed and curled up by the fire. She might as well be comfortable. “Is Marcus dying or not?”

He did not answer. Dogen continued chanting. The stars continued shining on the desert.

“Will you tell me if I answer your question?”

“He is not dying, but he is sorely injured. Do you know why Dogen Zenji has not-”

“Yes yes yes, fine. No, I don’t know why the monk keeps chanting like that, or why he hasn’t opened his eyes. Happy?”

“He has not yet achieved enlightenment and thinks this all to be a dream sent by Yama to test his devotion. Dogen, then, to follow the example of the Blessed Buddha, closed his eyes and shut his ears with the sutras so that he would be safe from the temptations of the King of the Dead.”

They both stared at the chanting monk for a long moment.

“Why do you think I’m lying?”

“I know you are lying. You ran before you saw me, before you even saw the trident.”

“Well of course! There were the drums, and the chanting and the storm! It was scary! I had to, to…”

Her indignation faded in the relentless droning of the monk’s chant and the other man’s indifference. There wasn’t any point to it. There wasn’t any point to any of it. Marcus lay there, barely breathing, while she was stuck in a desert in Hell in only God-knows-where, going to a gate for some reason that she didn’t understand to get somewhere she didn’t even know why she was going there.

The stars stared down at her.

“Man cannot lie to the desert. Words mean nothing to her, for truth is the wind that scours her flesh and the sun that burns her body. Lies are weak, petty things that can bear neither light nor truth. They screech and burn. Only truth can survive in the desert.”

Amira snorted. “What is truth?”

The man chuckled, a deep sawing laugh the sounded like flesh sloughing off of bones. “Truth is that which does not go away when it is not believed. That is why Dogen Zenji will never stop chanting, and that is why you will never stop running.”

A different track, Amira. They’re older and smarter than you. Turn them around! She was getting tired of talking to gods and spirits that absolutely refused to speak plainly, but it seemed the only way to get them talking was to ask them inane questions and listen to them blather on. Amira decided to feed the fire.

“Maybe I’m running because I have some place to go. Maybe I have some destination I have to get to before…”

“Before what?” The man swept an arm across the empty desert, where not even the wind stirred the sand. “Before the end of Time? Then good for you, Amira, you have succeeded. Time has ended for you. You need not run anymore.” The arm came back to point straight at her accusingly. “And yet you ran from me.”

“You know my name.”

“I know many things. I know what you run from.”

“Oh, really? Then why don’t you tell me? You seem to want to talk about it an awful lot.”

“I lack for company.”

Dogen continued chanting.

“But don’t I need to know what I’m running away from?”

“Is it more important than where you are running to? You may be being chased by a bear, but you may be running towards a cliff. What threatens you more?”

“I am getting tired of you gods and your stupid questions. You just talk on and on and on and you don’t ever actually say anything! Between trying to sell me off, trying to buy me, trying to eat me, trying to use me for something I don’t even understand, you’ve all managed to confuse the hell out of me! What are you trying to tell me? AND WOULD YOU PLEASE SHUT UP?”

She directed the last bit of her speech, delivered in a piercing scream, at Dogen. Dogen did not acknowledge her directly, but instead began chanting louder.

Without warning, Amira felt herself burst into tears. They exploded out of her like they were rocket-powered, and before she knew it, she was using the corner of Dogen’s robe as a handkerchief, coughing and blubbering into the monk’s saffron-coloured clothing.

A memory resurfaced, quickly, and very hard. She was sitting on a park bench in the summer with a piece of paper clenched in her hand. It was a beautiful, sunny day, the type that people imagined only came to California whenever the movie stars were on the beach. She sat in the shade of a tree, wearing her best “I’m professional but I’m still totally hot” black dress and ignoring her buzzing and ringing phone. It was an important day for Over/Above design; they were in talks with an as yet-unnamed star to provide her dress for her premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. It was vitally important that she get this contract if she wanted her little design boutique to become more than a passing fancy. Sure, they might have a successful and profitable storefront just off of Yorkville, the swankiest fashion district in Toronto, but it meant nothing if they didn’t keep expanding, if they didn’t keep getting their designs in the front and centre of the fashion elite. This was the perfect opportunity. Her career would take off, her designs would be seen on the international stage, and life would be exactly what she wanted it to be.

Excepting, of course, the baby that was growing inside her belly.

That did not follow The Plan.

The Plan was to develop her design studio, advance her fashion career so that within the decade she could branch off into interior and architectural design, and by 40, have a boy and a girl through painless cesarean sections. They would grow into little angels, requiring only the minimum of attention, before attending prestigious private schools and growing into, respectively, the Prime Minister of Canada and the next Queen of England (or perhaps Consort to the Queen. Amira was flexible).

The Plan was deadly serious. There was no room for serious deviation, and a baby counted as a very serious deviation. If she was pregnant, much less traipsing around Europe, she could kiss goodbye being treated seriously by anyone in the business. This was as cut-throat as it could get, and any weakness she showed would be repaid a thousand times over.

She could not have this baby. It was impossible; end of story.

There wasn’t even a choice to be made, really. It was obvious what to do next. So she had booked an appointment at the Morgentaler Clinic, had her referral with a friendly and understanding (female) doctor, and was spending the last few hours before her appointment in the sun in Eglinton Park. She couldn’t ask for a better afternoon to sit around a park, killing some time before she killed, well, before she had her procedure. It sounded far better when she called it a “procedure” rather than what it was actually called.

And of course, Patrick knew nothing. He had wanted children for some time now, and although Amira had made her views clear, they compromised: no birth control, but no family planning. Amira was therefore forced to surreptitiously take her birth control and paid for every prescription renewal in cash. It was therefore quite the surprise when she had woken up sick for some time, and even more of a surprise when the OB/Gyn happily informed her that, yes, the test was correct. She was pregnant. Amira had barely made it back to her car before bursting into tears.

If Patrick knew, it would be terrible.

He would be happy for them.

A seagull flew by, squawking in the gentle summer air, as white as the clouds carelessly scattered in the sky. The park was nearly empty but for a few trees nodding in the breeze and a man tossing a frisbee to his dog. Nature, who felt no particular need to follow any sort of plan, was carrying on quite well, thank you very much.

Amira felt sick to her stomach in a way that had nothing to do with the child within. She unrolled the paper for the thousandth time and felt the letters and numbers, words she had long ago memorized, imprint them on her memory again.

Friday 23rd: 2:30pm. Outpatient by 4, home by 5.

She checked her watch. It was 1pm. She would have to leave soon if she wanted to get there on time. And she very much did. The Plan, and all that.

It was obvious; it was necessary. There was no need to question it.

Why, then, did she feel like she was committing a monstrous crime? Why did she feel like the very, very last thing she wanted to do in the world was get up and go to the clinic? Why would she rather sit in the sun and let the world ignore her, before telling her husband that she was pregnant?

The dog did a marvellous back-flip as it caught the frisbee in its jaws. The man whistled, but the dog took the opportunity to run away with the disc in its mouth, gleefully ignoring his master’s demands. Amira smiled at the dog’s innocent rebellion.

“Marvellous day, isn’t it?”

Amira nearly jumped at the voice, but it only belonged to an aged (a nicer word than “decrepit”) black man who was out for a stroll. He motioned to the empty seat and enquired in a voice that was equal parts hot chocolate and cracking ice, “May I sit there, miss? These old bones need a rest now and again.”

“Please!” Amira made space for him by grabbing and pulling her bag closer to her but without actually making any space. The bench was, in actuality, big enough for four people or more, but it was the image that mattered.

“Very kind.” The old man sat down by falling in slow motion. “Very kind of you, miss. My name’s George. George Campbell Williams. And you are?” He offered his hand to Amira, who shook it. She could feel the bones move when she made the gentlest squeeze .

“Amira Mehenni-Flanagan.”

“Goodness gracious woman! I need that hand.” George chuckled. “Isn’t it just a marvellous day out today? Sun shinin’, breeze blowing. They don’t make many like this anymore, do they?”

“Haha, no they don’t.” Amira agreed. She didn’t, really, but she had to maintain the veneer of pleasant conversation. She actually had no desire to talk to anyone about anything right now and would much have preferred to stew quietly; in peace.

“Quiet too, nice quiet summer day. But even if it was loud and sticky, it’d still be a marvellous day. Can’t go through a war and not think after that any day you’re still alive isn’t marvellous.”

“Oh, you were in the army?” Amira asked, not paying any sort of attention at all. She wondered that if she perhaps thought hard enough, the man would go away on his own. It was currently not successful, but that in no way dampened Amira’s attempts.

“I was. Back in ’44, I went to France with two of my brothers to teach old Adolf a lesson. You should have seen us. Three dogs we were. We were stationed in a small town in the south of England, and you would have thought the three of us were enough to take on every German in Europe on our own. The way we talked, if they had given us a rifle and a bullet each, we would have had the whole thing locked up in a week. Ah, we were young and stupid.”

The seagull looped around and landed in the grass. The dog, bored of running away from his master, caught sight of the bird and his little doggy brain exploded. There was something new there. It had to be investigated immediately. It took off at full speed, barking happily and wagging its tail enough to take off.

“Welp, they did give us a rifle, and they packed us in a little tin can of a boat and sent us off to wrest a beach from Jerry. We were all from Toronto, me and James and Freddy, and they put us in the Queen’s Own Rifles. Boy, they gave us such a welcome in England, and didn’t even mind we were the only three black fellas in the company. Neither did Jerry, in a way. He shot all of us equally.”

“Really? That must have been hard.” A part of Amira’s brain recognized that something significant was going on and suggested that she immediately start paying attention.

“There were thirty of us on that boat. I still remember seeing the door going down and bzz! Just like that! Like a bee stinging your ear, bzzz! Ten men killed. Ten! Less than a second, and those ten boys just hit the water like bags of flour, dead as you please. Bzzz, and James and Freddy never even got to set foot on France.”

They were silent for a long time. Amira had no idea what to follow that with, and had no intention of being the next to speak.

“But it was a nice day like this, just like this, when the war ended. I remember that, too. D-Day was bad and cloudy, like God was telling us what was coming, but the day Germany surrendered was God just being happy it was over. Not much of a religious fellow, but I’d stake my life on it. He must’a been so happy we stopped killing each other, at least for a while. Was the day I met Elke, it was. Can you imagine that? Black boy from Toronto who lost two brothers to the Germans marrying a Jerry girl from Berlin? Didn’t even speak a word of German myself, and she only knew “Yes”, “No,”, and a Laurel and Hardy skit. If you asked us, neither of us could tell you what happened. Just happened to see her, she just happened to see me, and bam. We were in love before you knew it.”

The seagull, who had decided that he was having none of whatever the dog was offering, flew off in a huff. The dog whined and lamented his departed friend before running back to his master. Happily, of course.

Amira wondered why the old man was telling her this.

“You must be wondering why I’m telling you this. It’s awful nice of you to humour an old fogey like myself, but you must be getting bothered by me being here.”

“No no,” Amira lied, “it’s no bother at all.”

“Sure it ain’t.” George rapped his cane on the ground. “Sure it ain’t. I ain’t a curious fellow, but when I see a pretty woman like yourself, sitting alone, it means you’ve got a decision to make that you don’t particularly want to.”

“That’s very astute of you.” Amira replied, a touch frostier than she intended.

“Nah, I’m not astute, just old. You pick up these things when you’ve been alive as long as I have.” With a great exertion of will, George forced himself to his feet. Amira rose to help him, but he waved her off. “Don’t you worry about me. I just wanted to tell you an old man’s story. Sometimes decisions make themselves, and sometimes they don’t.”

George ambled off into the sunlight and shared a brief moment with the dog. The dog was overjoyed to have some attention, and licked George’s hand until it shone in the sunlight.

Amira shook her head as she watched the old man totter off. What just happened? All of a sudden this old man was sitting next to her, telling her his life story, and all while she was trying to make her decision about…

That.

Her phone buzzed again, and Amira jerked when she saw the time. She would have to go, and go now if she didn’t want to be late. She would have to gather her things, pick up her bag, and actually make her feet work. After that, she’d be free to design all the dresses in the world, be as successful as she could make herself, and revel in the glory. And then live the rest of her life without telling Patrick anything.

She rubbed her stomach, which was still (mostly) flat. There wasn’t even the hint of a swell, and it would take several weeks for that to show. Plenty of time to make decisions. To talk. To make up minds and be certain.

Her phone buzzed and, seeing Patrick’s name on the phone, she actually picked it up.

Hey babe, I booked the flight. Have a good day! ❤

She put the phone down and looked around. Amira decided that it wouldn’t kill anyone to sit on the bench a bit longer. Or, a lot longer. She, in fact, sat there until the sun began to go down.

And she never saw George again. It was better that way.

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