evening of sevens
Once upon a time, a boy and a girl fell in love. Ah! he thought, I love her. Ah! she thought, I love him. Day by day their love consumed them until they could do nothing but profess their feelings and touch the dear face of the other. The parents of the boy and the parents of the girl had no choice but to separate them.
"You may never see her again!" said the parents of the boy.
"You may never see him again!" said the parents of the girl.
The boy and the girl were crushed and though they returned to their earlier lives they did so with endless grief. As the days passed, their parents, upon seeing such sorrow, allowed them one day a year to be together.
How bitter, this love. How sweet.
They boarded the train at seven past seven, the girl in the white dress and the boy dressed in blue. A small basket hung from her wrist, checkered cloth dripping from the edge; a leather satchel swung at his side. Hand-in-hand they had waited for the earliest train of the day.
Entering the station itself at six, perhaps two after, she took his hand in hers and clutched it between them, lifting her face to the old painting which drew the sky above the stone floor. "It's beautiful," she said. "Even more than the pictures in the book."
Their footsteps echoed. He smiled. "There's another," he said, "even more beautiful, in the old station at Abend."
"The one with the angels?"
"And the swan, yes. Mother said an old master had painted it, the last before his death; she said when she saw it as a girl it was new, and indescribably tragic."
They came to the platform. In the morning the air was cool and fragrant with the flowers which grew in small, awkward gardens around the open complex; the train had not yet arrived.
"Tragic?" she said.
"Lonely, I guess," he said. "You've seen the picture of it in the book, in black and white." She nodded. He led her to a small bench where they sat, side by side, fingers together, her knee brushing his through the cloth, white and dark. "They say he painted it for his wife, who died when they were young."
"How sad," she said. She touched his wrist. Beneath her fingers his heart fluttered and beat. "He must have loved her very much."
He brushed his fingers through her hair, which fell soft and reddish across her shoulders. "More than anything, they say."
"Did she love him?"
"Does it matter?"
"I think it does. It should." She waited, tracing the veins in his wrist, and said, "She must have loved him."
"How do you know?"
"She must have, for him to be so sad."
"Perhaps his sadness came from one-sided love."
"Don't be so gloomy!" she said, and kicked his shin.
"Ah!" He rubbed his leg, digging fingers in the cloth, massaging the skin, bone. "What was that for!"
"'One-sided love,'" she said. "We don't have the time to be depressed!" She paused, and thought, and added, "I'm sorry. Does it hurt?" Leaning forward she brushed a hand down his leg, nudging his foot with hers. Her skirt rustled. She touched his hand. He straightened and she, too, hair sliding across her cheek as she pressed her side against him.
"A little," he said. "Not at all."
"I'm glad," she said. "A little."
They ate breakfast on the train, the first set of sandwiches packed in her basket. She sat by the window, legs crossed beneath her weight and shoes on the floor; he sat across from her, watching the sun rising on her throat. Biting into her sandwich, she looked at his hands, still, cupping his own, unwrapped.
"Aren't you hungry?" she said, licking her fingers. "I'm so hungry I think I could eat the train."
"Little pig," he said, and began unwrapping the sandwich. She stuck out her tongue and took another bite, wriggling her toes. "When we get there would you like ice cream?"
"Mm!" she said, and swallowed, nodding violently as she took another bite. "Chocolate?"
"And vanilla. Strawberry, if you want it."
She laughed, and ate, and watching her face washed over with light, the sun bright and rising beyond the window, he thought of the things he could not say and would not write. She licked her fingers. The sun shone red in her hair.
He tore his sandwich down the middle and offered her the larger half; her eyes widened and she protested, for a moment, before taking it from his hand and beginning with the corner. The warmth of her hand burned in his fingertips.
Some time later, thirty minutes, an hour, she dozed with her knees to her breast, fingers woven loosely around her shins, cheek to the glass. In the curious state of half-sleep she shone as though insubstantial: nearly translucent in the sunlight, a neat and faded pink against the white of her dress, hair a shock of muted red curled around her ears. Propping his feet on the seat beside her he set his notebook on his thighs and wrote. The train sighed and pressed on. Outside the window meadow and lake, lit by dawn, flowers, the small estates of the country. A man came into the car and went; a woman followed a moment later, who upon seeing the two smiled and pressed a finger to her lips. He turned the page.
She opened her eyes once: he did not see, and continued writing, dark hair falling across his eyes, fingers splayed across the paper. She smiled and thought of leaning over to brush the hair from his eyes. Trace the bones beneath his cheek, the sharp line of his jaw. She closed her eyes.
The man returned and left the way he had first come. Outside the meadows changed to fenced fields and small houses, the lakes to ponds and roads paved with stone. Ten in the morning on July the seventh. Another page.
Her fingers fluttered, once, and stilled.
In the city it did not take long to find the garden: in summer the tourists were plentiful and the city-dwellers helpful, in more ways than expected. A hatter commented on how pale she was, particularly when standing beside her companion, perhaps not a fair comparison, and had offered her one of the more lopsided hats for a low sum which he paid, more to see the way it framed her face than out of gratitude. The brim flopped across her eyes and the ribbon dangled beside her ear. She said she looked silly when they stepped outside. He said she looked beautiful.
The ice cream they found and she dripped on her dress, and the woman who poured the salt in the mixer helped her clean it. "I'm sorry," she said, "I'm so clumsy! You don't have to do this, you really don't," and the woman laughed, waving her hand, and said, "No, it's quite all right, I want to," standing her up beside the table.
She stood with her skirt pulled out, the woman rubbing ice against the chocolate, the hat lopsided and flopping against her neck as her shoulders lifted, and fell. He sat silent in his seat, clenching his fingers, unclenching, watching the soft rise and fall of her shoulders, the fringe of hair at her neck. Water dripped on the skirt.
"Oh!" said the woman. "Are you crying?"
"The dress was new," she said. "Just for today."
"You can get another one, dear," said the woman.
"Not this dress," she said. "Not this one."
The woman patted her hand. "It'll be all right."
Outside she scrubbed at her eyes and apologized, palms wiping her cheeks, which shone wet and silver. "I'm sorry. I ruined it."
He caught her hand. He said, "You haven't ruined anything." When she shook her head, he kissed her fingertips and said, again, "You haven't ruined anything. Don't cry."
"I'm not crying."
He smiled. "Idiot," he said, and brushing the brim from her eyes, kissed the soft skin of her brow. "Don't cry."
"I'm not an idiot," she said, pursing her lips at him. He pulled the hat down over her eyes and she swatted his hand. "You!"
"Let's go," he said. "To the flowers."
She tipped her hat back and nodded, sliding her fingers between his.
They purchased tickets outside the gardens, one for him, one for her.
"The Lover's Walk is a rather romantic spot," said the woman who sold the tickets, winking down at her and ripping off a pair of tickets.
"What?" she said, and reddened. "Oh, no, that. It."
"Come on," he said, "it's past lunch already. Or haven't you heard your stomach growl?"
"That!" Her blush deepened and she pulled the ends of her hat down, taking the ticket he (grinning) offered her. "We can eat inside."
"Careful," he said. "Don't fall over of hunger."
Hat down past her ears, she stalked beneath the green entrance arch, picnic basket swinging from her hand.
She found a small reflecting pool with a family of ducks bathing together, dipping into the water and preening their feathers. "Here," she said. "Let's eat here."
He tore the crusts from their sandwiches and crumbled them in his hands; she ate, and watched, as he tossed bits of crust to the ducks where they ruffled their feathers, white. He crouched beside the pool, pinching bread between his fingers. One, two. A duck quacked and ducked underwater, splashing water at him. He rocked back on his heels. "Hey!" and tossed a piece of bread at the duck.
Watching the duck snatch the bread in its bill, she brushed her fingers across her skirt, the faint stain where the ice cream had spilled. "You're making him angry," she said.
He stood, brushing dirt from his knees. "Oh, it's a him? How do you know?"
She nodded, and made a face, digging an apple from the basket. He sat beside her on the small bench, taking another and rolling it in his hands.
"I know," she said.
Rolling the apple back, forth, catching it in a cradle of his fingers, he said, "Should I be jealous?"
"Ah," she said. She cupped her apple and bit into it, watching the ducks pass each other in the water. The hat hung by her ears; he could not see her face.
He looked away.
A moment, two. She finished her apple and stood, fingers still sticky, only to crouch on the ground before him. She pressed her fingers to his knees, palms cupping the joints, and rested her chin between them, tipping her face up to his.
"Are you brooding?"
He scowled. "I'm not brooding."
She smiled at him. "Are you sulking?"
He flushed and looked away, to the ducks in the pool, to the ground beside her. "I'm not sulking."
He closed his eyes. "Idiot."
She pushed up off his knees, curling her fingers around his thighs and leaning forward to look into his face. She kissed the corner of his mouth and touched her nose to his, the brim of her hat flattened between them, her hands warm through the cloth of his trousers, his breath and hers.
"I don't have time to be mad," she said. "Or hurt. So I won't be."
He reached to touch her cheek and instead brushed the fiery fringe of hair curled around her ear. She closed her eyes and mirrored him, brushing a hand across his cheek, the curve of his ear.
"I didn't think."
"I know. And if -- if it weren't today, if I could, I'd be so mad at you. So mad. I'd, I'd hit you, maybe, like this." She pulled back and made a fist, mimed socking him in the gut. He covered his chest reflexively, and reddened when she laughed, turning her fist into a pinch.
A moment, again. The ducks chatted together, quacking and splashing, water shining between them.
"I'm sorry," he said.
"I say things," he said, needing it to not be silent. "Without thinking, or meaning."
"I know," she said. "I've noticed. It's all right. Just for today!" she added, squinting at him and shaking a finger. "Besides," she said, turning so her skirt twirled around her legs, "who has time to live life with regrets?"
He followed her movements as she turned this way, and that, her skirt twisting with her. Dancer's legs, long and slim beneath the white cloth. "Some people do nothing but."
"I wish they wouldn't."
"What of the man whose wife died when they were young?"
She clasped her hands at her back, and rocked on her toes, face turned to the sky, sharp ankles turning beneath her as she moved, half-dancing. "He should remember the days when they were married."
"And if she never loved him as he loved her?"
She shrugged and twisted to face him, smiling beneath the floppy cream of her hat. "He should remember what it felt to love someone. Love," she said, "doesn't need an answer."
"Sometimes it does." He turned the apple in his hand and bit into it. "Anyway, have you finished eating?"
"Dance with me," she said. They stood in the greenhouse, eaten by heat and humidity and the fragrance of a thousand delicate tropical flowers. The sunlight tinted green, falling through the glass against her skin. She lifted her hands to him, heels and ankles together, toes out. He moved with the memory of motion, and when she laughed, her hat falling to the ground as he lifted her, he could not remember why he stopped. Only when he hooked her hat with his thumb and plopped it back down upon her head did he remember. She turned from him, the light playing against her nape. The satchel banged his thigh as they walked, one, two, three.
He lost her between the roses and the hedge. One moment she had been before him, laughing, white skirt flying around her legs as she ran, trailing her fingers down the hedge which towered above her; the next he was alone. His heart beat uneven in his chest. He touched the roses and called her name, at first thinking he had lost her in a turn, perhaps he had passed her, perhaps she was behind him; perhaps she stood, now, silent to his back.
Turning, he called her name again. A breeze swept against the flowers; the roses sighed in the wind, red, white, yellow, fragile and endless along this path. He opened his hands and closed them, as if to draw her back to him. The sun was bright, moving across the sky. He thought he might choke on the scent of rose, thick and cloying in his throat.
He waited another moment and then he slid the satchel from his shoulder, digging for his notebook, a pen, fumbling to pop off the cap.
She is gone. I have lost her. Come back to me.
He pressed the pen to the paper and drew a sharp, jittering line; he stared at his hand, which shook, the scar on the back suddenly stark. She is gone, he wrote. I have lost her.
"What are you doing? Your hands are shaking." She climbed out from a split in the hedge, wrapping the skirt around her legs to keep from snagging. Her hat slid off. "I was waiting for you," she said, kneeling to gather the hat, "but here you are writing! It figures." She blew dust from the top of the hat and fit it over her hair, again, floppy edges around her face.
The roses at his back, the hedge at hers. He said her name. She looked at him, fingers paused at her ears, and said, "What's wrong?"
"Don't go," he said, and, "I thought I'd lost you." The honesty stung him; the words felt awkward and new against his tongue. He wanted to say: Don't leave me. Stay with me. I love you. The words would not come. He did not know how.
She stepped forward and touched his shoulder, which fell beneath her touch and rose again when she cupped his cheek in her palm. "I'm right here. It's all right." The smell of roses surrounded them. She covered his wrist when he dropped the notebook, pen, at his feet, moved to pick them up. "You dropped your--"
He said her name, again, and stepped forward so his leg brushed hers and her breast his heart, catching her before she had gone. Lining her face with his hands he kissed the curve of her mouth and tasted the faded stickiness of apple on her lips. "Don't go," he said. He buried his face in her throat, fingers tight against her skin. "Don't go."
She traced her arms around his back and then held him, winding her fingers in his hair, closing her eyes. Her throat was swollen, her tongue dry. His breath burned her. She lifted her hands, curved her arms just so: love, against his back.
On their way once more through the city, golden in the growing dusk, she carried her shoes in one hand and the basket with the other. Her shadow was a long line at her back, wavering against the cobblestones. He walked at her side and when they turned to come to the station, he touched her arm and kissed her, once, his shadow sliding into hers. They entered the station.
They boarded the train at twenty past eight, the girl in the white dress and the boy dressed in blue. She sat by the window, her shoes on the floor, he sat across from her, watching the sun die on her face.
"Next year," she said, "let's go to a beach."
"I'd like that," he said.
"Thank you," she said, "for the dress and the hat and the ice cream and the flowers." Her face caught the sun, red and low, sliding down beneath the horizon, down the length of her throat.
"And the flowers," he said.
She smiled. He reached for her hand.
Fifty past eight, fifty-two. Her skin shone white and burst. The hat fell onto the seat, the dress collapsed in folds. Beneath the cloth she quacked, low and sad. He picked her out of the dress and held her in the crook of his arm, brushing her feathers with his fingers. Nine in the evening, July seventh. Outside the sky was dark.
The lack of names was a conscious decision, for intimacy, or something else entirely, I'm not sure what. I might very well haul back through and plug in a few choice Fakirs and Ahirus if it's needed, but for now it stands as so.
The prologue (1) as well as the title and the date (July 7) are all drawn from the tale which serves as origin for the festival Tanabata (Japan) or Qi Xi (China), depending which country's you prefer. Like many older stories there are several different tellings; Google can you help you find one.
This was written August 19, 2005, in response to the same day's theme at the 31days community on livejournal: at most, flowers.
Feedback of any sort is welcome. It's all good here, folks.
I do not own, nor do I claim to own, any of the characters, ideas, or whatevers of Princess Tutu.