The old woman’s stark nakedness shone brightly, and juxtaposed against the tarmac. She looked just like the moon in the night sky. But just as she was a reflection of all that was above, she was also a reflection of all that was below, all that came before and all that would come after. She was the sky and the ground, the heavens and the underworld. She was everything. She was the first person I had seen in weeks.
The old woman was walking but not hurriedly, not quite limping but shuffling in a way that denotes old age rather than ill health. She seemed to neither have a purpose nor lack one; she was simply moving from one point to another. I may not have noticed this if we weren’t all doing the same thing.
My first question related not to her nakedness, which seemed only natural, but to her presence on this colonic dark road in the velvety depths of night. She should not be here, I thought. Neither of us should have been, but I read her age as vulnerability; I have made this mistake before.
We moved closer towards one another, in spite of the threat we each posed, as if being pulled together, two ends of a retractable tape measure. I could see then that her skin was freckled such that she was actually the inverse of the night sky, a bright white star lightly spattered with small pinpricks of darkness. I noticed that she looked like my mother and I could tell by her face that I looked like somebody to her too.
The resemblance was striking, but the woodworm tracks of her wrinkles sat differently to those of my mother, as if she were the same woman but had lived through different experiences. Her eyes held something of Annabel, but perhaps that was a reflection of my own love.
We became close and when I looked past her to the road beyond, I could no longer see into the distance as far as I had when I first noticed her. The world had grown smaller and darker as I basked in her cold, naked light.
We each looked at the other as if they were blind, as if they would not notice our eyes searching, as if it were normal to try to absorb a person’s whole being immediately on meeting. There was no need to speak. I thought about taking off my coat and handing it to her, but there was no one else to see this kindness and so I didn’t.
We stood this way for perhaps a minute. It was the closest I had come to trust in weeks and I only broke eye contact when I realized how foolish I had been to let my guard down. The old woman understood this immediately and dipped her head in a nod without raising it back up again. Without speaking, we sidestepped each other and continued on our way, two corpses dancing in the night.
The road was darker now that the woman was behind me and I realized that I missed her glow, that I felt cold and frightened without it. I had been traveling alone for so long, I had not expected this. When I turned back, she was gone. A patch of long grass near the road where I left her seemed brighter than its surroundings, but it seemed most likely to be the simple cold light of the moon. At this point I ought to have kept going. I had nowhere to go, of course, but I had plenty to run from.
I felt exhausted and the glow in the distance seemed stronger, as if the old woman had drained something from me which she radiated now. It may have been that I had blamed myself for so long and the guilt that weighed so heavily on my shoulders had finally pulled me down, or it could have been that the old woman had in fact drained something vital from me, but I stumbled into the long grass and dropped heavy and fluid as a sack of snooker balls to the ground.
When I came to, nothing had changed and it would not be until many hours later, when the sun had still not burst through the belly of the night that I would realize I had lost only minutes in the long grass. It would not be for many hours after that when sky still hung low and heavy in the absence of light, that I would begin to understand that it would never be daytime again.
Of course I had known that it was going to happen, we all did, but I hadn’t realized how ill-prepared we were. We had held our breath for whole nights it seemed, watching the skies from our homes, from the streets, on our own, in our crowds. We were once relative to the day, but the night had always bewildered us; we were all babies wrapped in a swaddling blanket that could choke us at any time. We feared the night. We respected it. We suspected that it might engulf us but we didn’t really believe it; until we knew that it would – engulf us – and then we accepted it and we fell apart.
We had known that the world was going to end, but we hadn’t expected to keep on living here after it was over. I don’t know why we kept trying. Did we think we could go back? Did with think if we progressed far enough forward, we would end up where we began? Did we believe that love could still exist in this scant and sulfurous post-life?
I had known love once, I was almost certain of it. I could remember the grip of love’s hot fingers squeezing my heart, my lungs, my stomach, filling me up and hollowing me out all at once. As a child, I suppose I had loved my mother as I perched on the side of the bathtub next to the icebergs of her head, her breasts, her knees, sobbing uncontrollably at the prospect of her impending death. Was that love – the fear of loss? And what about Annabel? Would I have loved her if I did not know that she would be taken by the night?
I realized then that love is always strongest when it becomes one with the darkness, that love is always strongest in its absence.
I craved the old woman; this amalgamation of all of the women I had loved. If I could be with her, would it be as if they had never been taken? I traced the lines of her nakedness in the shadows of the black trees against the blacker sky. She was the only person I could think of and so I loved her with all of my heart, willing her toward me, trusting my body to carry me to her. My heart had been as empty as the threat of eternal darkness, but now it was married to the night, bursting at the seams such that I knew if I could not find love one last time, I would die here.
I knew that the night would have caught her by now but I had no choice but to keep walking; I knew that darkness like this was not habitable for much longer alone. It was not safe in the grass but it was less safe to stay on the road and so I edged slowly into the fields, knees bent so that only my head bobbed against the tall black fronds of grass. Shorter dried stalks scratched my thighs and shorter shoots still tickled my ankles and calves as I tried to find my place in the night. What would become of these fields? I wondered if I too gave off a glow, but it seemed more likely to me that I emitted only a darkness much thicker than the night.
So many things were strengthened by the night: foxes, dreams, anxieties, but I had never been a night person. I had dutifully covered myself each evening and receded into sleep where I could not be swept into night’s eternal blackness. I did not know how to behave and I was unsure whether the moon was making me crazy.
I tripped over her body where it had dropped in the grass and in doing so I woke her up. She watched me, unmoving, unspeaking and I sank down beside her, resting on my heels before dropping to my knees. She didn’t look surprised when I told her I loved her, she just blinked slowly and nodded as if I had offered up my condolences at the funeral of someone we both did not know very well. I reached out to touch her hand. What had looked cold and reptilian was actually warm parchment and I withdrew my touch for fear of crumbling her ephemeral skin.
“So it’s happened.”
Her voice was a whisper of crackling autumn leaves, as warm and dry as her skin. I feared that it too, could tear and dissolve at any moment and I started to cry at the prospect of never hearing her voice again. She took my chin in her hands and with her warm, papery tongue she licked my face and continued to do so until the tears stopped flowing and my cheeks were dry.
“I love you” I told her, more urgently this time.
“I know” she said.
“We have to keep walking.”
I reached for her hand to pull her up but in my head I heard the warning shot of paper tearing so I stood up and let her stand herself. I slipped off my coat, and draped the shedded exoskeleton around her pale thin shoulders. She was all I had now and I would not let her slip away from me. She may have been my mother in the old world, she may have been my lover. All I knew was that I loved her then, and I would continue to love her for as long as she could keep me alive.
Kylie Whitehead is a fiction writer from London, UK. She has been published in Litro, Moonchild Magazine and STORGY. She is currently working on her first novel.
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