Shelter

By Gabi (Gabi@pinkfluffy.net)

The rain was heavy, not just a steady drumbeat, but rather the sound of countless marching hordes drawing ever closer to his heels. He couldn't remember where he'd come from or why he was there, wandering along that lonely country road in the middle of such a heavy downpour, but at the time, that didn't seem odd to him. He was simply there, nearly soaked to the bone because he didn't have the presence of mind to fasten up the ankle length slicker that seemed as foreign to him as the deserted road.

His slacks were soaked through up to his thighs, and the heavy woolen sweater that he wore did little to turn water, seeming more inclined to soak up water like a bloated sponge. He had no doubt that he probably bore a striking resemblance to a drowned sheep, although he kept this information to himself, and not just because he had no one to share it with.

He turned his face to the sky for a moment, and the water beaded and bounced off of his glasses as he studied the clouds. This kind of rain was unseasonable at this time of the year. He could find comfort in the most mundane of observations. Science was comforting. Then the torrential rain forced him to turn his eyes away from the heavens, even as he realized ruefully that he didn't know what time of year it was.

He put his hands into his semi-dry pockets and bent his head to the rain, knowing instinctually, even as he knew the rain was unseasonable without knowing the season, that something was waiting over the crest of the hill. He leaned into the wind even as his unfamiliar boots scrabbled for purchase against unfamiliar stones as he trudged up the hill.

He stopped to glance up to the summit again and lightning gashed the sky, illuminating clearly what he had totally missed before, or what perhaps, hadn't been there minutes ago. But that was idiotic, for what he stared at was the crowning iron spire of a weathered and aged cathedral. It was a massive construction of pitted and whorled stonework, standing like a great hulking shadow against the darkness of the night.

Something about the lighting of the storm, or lack thereof, had to be responsible for his inability to see it before. It was the only logical explanation. Something about the light had shifted, because now he had no difficulty sighting the cathedral, because it was dark against the twilight, against the shifting grays of the half-night. Yes. Something about the light had changed, or the massive bulwark of stone had come to be there in between the flashes of lightning. But once again, that was not plausible, not acceptable. Gigantic stone churches do not just sprout up like weeds while no one is looking. Still, despite the inexplicable nature of the cathedral, he made for it because he felt any shelter was preferable to weathering out this storm alone.

Up close, the cathedral looked even more forbidding that it did from the road. It was a monstrosity of limestone and plate glass, all of which he was sure was colored, but there was not enough light to confirm this. The twelve front steps were smoothed and dimpled with age and the passage of many feet. He avoided the worn in footprints ostensibly because they would be slick from the rain, but honestly because something about them chilled him, although he wasn't about to admit this to himself. He had no time for childish superstitions. Yet even so, he picked his way up the side of the steps instead.

The slight overhang of stone over the doors kept off some of the rain, and he was almost tempted to make the best of it there, against the cool stone wall, which was relatively dry. But a chill in his bones drove him onward, to the heavy oak doors, intricately carved with a scene of the final judgment. He could recognize the work, a piece by an Italian master whom he couldn't quite remember. Ciotto? Perhaps Brunalesci? It was also out of place. It had no reason to be here, in the middle of the countryside in . . . and then he realized that he had no clear idea of where he was, other than the fact that it was obviously rural and sparsely populated.

"Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost."

He was startled by sound of the spoken words until he realized that he spoke them himself. He hadn't meant to voice them aloud, although it made little difference as his

own soft voice was almost lost against the cacophony of the rain.

Midway upon the journey of life. That was a startling thought for a boy his age. A boy, a man, he wasn't particularly clear on the specifics, he just knew he was someplace close to the age of sixteen. Mid to late adolescence. It was somehow fitting that he should be standing in front of these doors now, whether or not he was midway upon the journey of life. There were times when he felt far older than he actually was, aged through lost time, omnipotent yet blind at the same time. He knew all, yet knew nothing.

It was Socrates who had stated that to learn and understand, you must first forget all you think you know, for it is your greatest hindrance. He endeavored to do so now. If he went through these doors prepared for them to lead him into the mouth of hell, then it would color whatever observations he made. Someone or something was waiting for him on the other side of those doors, and it was not necessarily Virgil. He had to be prepared to accept it if it was instead Camus, or Heisenburg, or even God himself.

He drew his breath in softly and then laid a hand against the door. It swung in easily. It had to be very finely balanced, because he'd exerted almost no force on it. He slipped through the space provided and into the dimly lit interior of the cathedral, and as he did so the door swung silently shut behind him. He turned just as it clicked shut and noted, in the flickering candlelight, that the back of the door sported a carved relief of the saints in paradise. Hell when you enter and heaven when you leave. It was supposed to be the other way around. Somehow, this didn't surprise him.

He turned his head to better take in his dimly ethereal surroundings but his glasses fogged up from the change in temperature from the outside to the inside. He impatiently took them off and tucked them into an interior pocket and waited for his eyes to adjust. The first thing his eyes set on was a polished wooden hat rack. Well someone had thought of everything, hadn't they? He shrugged out of his slicker and the heavy wet sweater, leaving his clad in his slacks and a mostly dry button-down shirt. He tried to wring some of the water out of his shoulder length hair, so it wouldn't drip down the back of his neck, but all he really did was get his hands wet. Wiping them dry on his pants, he turned his eyes upward again.

The ceilings and windows were lost in shadows as the only light came from spidery gilt candelabra, placed here and there along the walls. The aisles of pews seemed endless, heavy oaken benches that looked as if they'd been carved out of a single slab of wood. A few feet in front of him the smooth stone floor stopped and a thick velvet carpet began. His eyes followed it all the way through the endless sea of pews to a distant raised dais.

He couldn't make out what was on the dais, but there were considerably more candelabra there. As if to make it abundantly clear which direction he was supposed to go, lying neatly on the ground in front of him was a piece of paper with a hand inked on it. The hand pointed one unwavering finger down the softly lit heavy velvet trail and to the dais it eventually led to.

Here was his Virgil, a flimsy piece of cardboard from an unknown print shop. Ruefully, he tucked it into his shirt pocket and then sat down on the smooth stone floor. Out of deference to the building, no matter what country they were in, he took off the heavy, muddy boots, and stood again, somehow feeling infinitely more connected to what was happening, with only a thin layer of stocking cloth separating him from the age-old building. Without stopping to once again ponder what he did and did not know, he began the walk to the dais.

The air was musty, old, as one might expect from such a place, but it was not a smell of mildew, as many old places have. There was something unusual in the air. It smelled of solitude, and loneliness. It smelled of being forgotten.

Over the must there was a faint air of incense, although no censers we lit. It was a permeating smell, a smell that fixed a time and place. He knew that later, even if he forgot everything else, he would still remember the smell of unlit incense and the strangely smokeless candles.

After hours or minutes, he could not say because he had no watch and time seemed to bend and flow in strange patterns in this place, he drew close enough to the dais to see what it elevated. Behind the altar there were three ebon coffins, spaced out asymmetrically on the thick red carpet. Two of them took up much of the space, as if they'd been placed there first. The third seemed almost an afterthought, shoved over to the side of the dais as it was.

The primary coffins also appeared to be firmly closed and ready for burial, while the third, smaller coffin lay open, as if still expecting mourners. He could not see what was in it from his low vantage point, but he suspected that it was this that the heavens wept over. Folding his slender hands behind his back, he continued on, unwilling to turn back.

He took the steps by the altar slowly, deliberately and advanced on the open coffin with the same slow caution. The other two coffins were closed and they both had heavy wreaths of roses on them. He wondered why he hadn't detected the scent of the roses earlier and then realized that it was because the roses on the caskets were silk. Artificial and beautiful, they were eternal, never to wilt and go blown like a garden-grown rose. Of course, something cannot live for eternity if it has not lived in the first place. The roses on the coffins were as eternal and passionate as stones, and he began to wish that he hadn't noticed they were synthetic in the first place.

The third coffin matched the others, except in size, and bore no adorning flowers, making him once again wonder if mourners for this coffin had not yet been by. Perhaps there were no mourners for this coffin and it was like he, solitudnal and alone.

It was then that he noticed the lock of pink hair that hung over the side of the coffin. He approached dispassionately and surveyed the coffin's contents without blinking. There was a child in the coffin, a little girl with pale rose hair and porcelain skin. She looked so sculpted, features tiny and elven, that he could almost believe that she had already been made up by the mortician. He knew this couldn't be true, as he could still detect the even rise and fall of her chest.

She looked as if she were clad in her Sunday best, a navy black dress of mourning. She was such a little girl, perhaps not even eight years old, and she was sleeping in an open coffin. There was a child's stool nearby, so he pulled it closer and sat on it, folding his hands over his bent knees even as he quietly observed the silent girl.

The quiet was deafening. Somehow the massive stonework muted even the violence of the storm outside, so all he could hear was her breathing, and his own. When she spoke, it was both unexpected and eerie.

"What do you want?" her voice was soft and childish. She didn't move, and her arms still concealed her face, so the words came to him slightly muffled.

"So you're not asleep?" he answered her question with his own.

After a long pause, she answered, "No, I'm dead."

He examined the silk lined elegance of the ebony coffin she lay in before he responded dryly, "I am afraid I have to disagree with you on that count. You're still breathing."

"That doesn't matter," she was firm in her child's logic, "I'm dead."

"I'm sorry, it doesn't matter how many times you say it, it's not going to be true while you're still breathing. You can't force your will on reality through mere strength of belief. You can't make something that's not true true just by saying it often enough."

She reflected on this for several minutes in silence and he continued.

"Adults may tell you that you can make your dreams reality, but I'm afraid that's not so in this case."

The silence held on for another long minute, and the she responded, "Well, if I'm not dead, then I want to be dead."

"Dying is often painful," he observed absently, taking his glasses out of his pocket and thoughtfully cleaning them on his shirt.

"I don't want to be dying. I want to be dead, " she explained as if he simply wasn't catching on, "Death doesn't hurt. I've seen. It's quiet, like sleep."

"Well, you can't get to one without going through the other," he murmured and then put his glasses back on.

"So they hurt a lot before they died?" she asked softly and he could only surmise that she meant the occupants of the other two coffins.

"I don't know," he responded honestly, "It's possible."

He watched her quiver, and knew, although he couldn't see her face, that she was probably crying.

"Why is it that you want to be dead?" he asked quietly, one slender hand tucking the long hanging piece of rose colored hair back into the coffin with her.

"My parents. Those are my parents. They're both dead. I should be dead too. I should have died too."

He turned to look over his shoulder at the silent coffins before speaking again, "So you are all alone."

"They're dead and I want to be with them. Wouldn't you want to be with your parents too?"

"I don't remember my parents," it was an honest answer, even if it did avoid the heart of the question.

"Oh."

"My parents are dead," he said flatly, glancing up into the shadowed depths of the ceiling.

"But I thought you said you didn't remember them," she sounded confused, but at least she wasn't crying any more.

"Do you remember your parents?" he asked abruptly.

"Of course I do. You're not making any sense," she was starting to sound a little cross with him. Well, that was better than the flat dejection she'd started out with. Even anger is better than apathy.

"As long as you can remember your parents then they'll always live in your memories. Even if you somehow managed to will yourself to die right now, you'll live in my memories," he spoke slowly, trying to dull the edge of his constantly icy tone.

"Then your parents are dead . . . " she connected it all up quietly.

"Because I can't remember them," he finished for her, the level emotionless of his voice having neither raised nor lowered once throughout the conversation. Soft and cold. He was soft and cold.

"So if I die, then my parents will really be gone," she was thoughtful.

"That is the logical conclusion, yes."

"So memories are like treasures then," she seemed to be puzzling this out in her greater value system, "They're treasures of the people you don't have any more."

That sounded remarkably kindergarten in sentiment. Still, it was comforting in it's own way.

"I suppose so."

"What do you do when you don't have any memory treasures?" she asked softly, "Isn't it lonely?"

It was his turn to be silent for several minutes, and when he spoke, his voice sounded strangely vulnerable, not the way he'd intended at all, "Yes, it is lonely. I suppose when you don't have memories of your own, you have to find new ones or make some up."

"So I'm one of your new memories?"

He got control of his voice quickly, and answered in the same mechanical tone that was his byline, "I suppose so."

He rose from the child's stool and turned from the coffin, putting his hands in his pockets, "So, are you going to get out of the coffin?"

She was silent for several seconds before mimicking his voice surprisingly well, "I suppose so."

He turned his head so he could just glimpse the rose of her hair in the top of the coffin.

"But I'm going to stay here a while and remember first," her voice was soft and thoughtful, "To make sure that I never forget them."

The silence was no longer eerie. It had become their companion during their disjointed conversation. He enjoyed it for a spare minute or two while she lay there quietly.

"What are you going to do?"

The question caught him off guard, but for some reason, he felt he owed her an answer.

"I suppose I'm going to keep going forward."

She seemed satisfied by this, at least to some degree, "But you will always remember me?"

He turned back to face the coffin and found her sitting up. She'd apparently been looking at his back for some time. For one long second, their eyes locked, deep, pale blue met a faded, dry maroon, and then they both turned away.

"You suppose so?" she asked softly, the barest hint of a smile, playing around her small mouth.

He chuckled dryly and nodded.

"And I'll always remember you too."

His pink hair seemed to have an almost ivory cast to it in the flickering candlelight. He brushed it out of his face and then turned to leave.

"Wait, before you go, tell me what your name is, so I can remember that too!" she cried after him.

He paused, but did not turn back, preferring to master his emotions where she couldn't see. At least he had held onto his name.

"N-Nemuro," he coughed as he spoke, but she still apparently caught it.

"Thank you, Nemuro-san. I promise I'll see you again."

He nodded once, curtly, and then continued on his way. She rustled about a little and then laid down in the coffin again, to wait and remember. He simply kept going forward.

Outside, the rain had stopped.

----

Second of such in two days. My, I'm feeling creative. This fanfic was based my wondering what would have happened if Nemuro had met Utena while she slumbered in her coffin. After all, just about everyone else gets to meet her :P

Anyway, comments appreciated.

http://www.seiryuu.org/~pinkfluffy/wokeup/

Love,

Gabi