Ashes of Me

The sky has swallowed the stars. Black is the night that overtakes my sight.

In rides a wind that would scatter the ashes of me to the edges of the world. My heart's lunatic palpitations gallop thundering in my shallow breast, essaying to set in motion my frozen blood-flow. My mouth opens in a silent scream that catches in my throat and dies on my lips. Here is where the nightmare was born.

Shapes distort, colours are bled, shadows deepen and expand to give quarter to the breadth of my despair. The earth groans a feral death-cry, the wind howls a vicious blasphemy – alas, I am deceived! The sound proceeds from my own lungs. Wretched, wretched! This is the witching hour, and the hands of the clock are arrested. The bell tower continues to chime the hour of my doom.

Has this infernal blackness of my soul always dwelt inside me, crouching in wait to uncloak its devil's face? Does it come from within, infesting my heart like sunspots unfading, or does it come from without, burning on my breast like a talisman of doom? But no, It rests there no longer. The cause is removed. It is me, me alone. I am the darkness. The midnight of my life will last forever.

Farewell, my heart's content! Farewell, you cherished valley of quiet repose! No more shall I know you, my fair-weather friends. You birds, I have strangled your voices; you Sun, I have tarred your bright light. Where once was flowered tree now grows twisted oak; where once flowed waters clear there stagnates dust-choked channel. Roll back, you hills of springtime green; raise me a mound of silent grey! Let me lie sepulcher-still in this bed 'til the nightmare has ended.

Where is Frodo, a sighing voice croons in elegy.

What ghost of me gave utterance to that phrase? Begone cruel specter! Do not mock me thus with wretched lullaby. Fly hence on your vulture's wings and trouble me no more.

Where is Frodo weeps the refrain.

He is long gone another voice replies, sibilant, baleful, viper-like.

Gone, gone, yes, he is gone. Are you satisfied you sneering mouth, you fell conjuror? I am bested, brittle, belittled. Here is no Halfling, for there remains of me not even half of who I was before – aye, not a quarter, not even a tithe. I am a crude and mutilated effigy, a cracked and crumbling plaster cast. My glass heart would shiver at the merest touch, my threadbare soul would fly shrieking at the least provocation. Do not tune your song to the pitch of my sorrows. What dark overlord do you serve? By whose art are you sent to jeer at me?

Wait, do not answer! I know what you would say. I know you, faceless tormentor. We have met before. Did you not once say that we served a common lord? I see you now. A bloodless face whereon heathen's crown sits, a keening scream that splits earth and sky, a livid knife unsheathed in wrath. What mind have you not haunted, what valour has not wilted in the face of your terror? O pale king, you have never left me! You have come to reclaim what should have been yours! Hail, ruler of corpses, master of misery, defiler of dreams! You have summoned me into the Void – dutifully have I followed. Even midst the writhing convulsions of my shackled spirit, I have followed you.

You are the cancer that feeds on my fears. You sucked out the marrow and threw me the empty bones. You it is who hollowed out the fruit of my life and left me a shriveled rind. And yet, I bow before you on bended knee. I am yours to command, a subject to your dominion, a captive to your malice. I pay service to your iron supremacy, I swear allegiance to your phantom reign. Your will is the mightier, your sword the stronger; you have shown me that. The seduced know best how to seduce; so have you lured me from the rubble of my body. Then command me, pale king! Who else shall now guide these my stone-weighted feet? Whose voice but yours can penetrate these trappings of black that mantle this world?

In perverse union are we joined, o king of the despised. Yours is the ice that roils beneath my paper-thin skin, yours is the light that sears behind closed lids. The after-burn of your steel bleeds me even now and will do so evermore. But even you, tyrant king, are under the yoke of a will greater than your own. It compels you, as it has compelled me. Have you too spoken fool's prayers to the night that you might be free of it? When you release inhuman scream into the starless night, do you scream in horror for the utter annihilation of your spirit? Do you pine for blood-warmth and beating heart? Is there aught that remains of the man you once were?

Slave, you are no better than I! Throw down your crown of tin, do you not know that your reign has ended? The black kingdom is leveled! Your master has failed you!

Ah, but the memory, the memory still persists. What in heaven or earth is bitterer than memory whose serpent coils shall never loosen? Your black shroud bodiless fell, but the evil of you still walks the earth unclothed. The heat of your hate is inextinguishable, it would scorch the grass on which you trod and melt the flesh from my very bones. The ice of your blade is implacable, it would lay waste to molten Sun and collapse the branching tributaries of my veins. You have manacled yourself to me with indissoluble chain; your heat invests me, your cold infuses me. I am undone. Your sword lies bladeless hissing, your crown has tumbled from your head, but I am undone. You have vouchsafed that.

Where is Frodo?

Hush you, trebly accursed! How you harp upon my anguish! How you delight in my despair! I have no claim to that name anymore. How many defeats must I admit before you are contented? How many deaths must I die before you are appeased? Leave me… leave me. I am ruined.

Who am I but a nameless thing, fatherless, brotherless, countryless. In the darkness was I begat; it is my creator. To the riders in black my traitor's feet sped; they are my brethren. To the emptiness have I returned; that is my rightful residence.

Witless tears, no longer can I dam you. Vainly do you spill, for your waters cannot cleanse, only singe, only erode, only burn. Brutally do these weeping tracks brand the sunken valleys of my face – let this then be my self-immolation. Flow on, tears; wring yourselves from bloodshot eyes, unmake your maker, set me free!

Pain, pain, pain, the sole reality that is left me, the broken throne on which I sit. If pain it must be, then let it be exquisite, a pain unmatched. If it is fire that shall consume me, let it be such an inferno that would put the fires of Doom to shame. If it is water that shall drown me let it be an ocean deeper and darker than the Sea. Leave no trace, spare no remnant; I want none of it.

Was there ever a time when this hurt did not exist? Was there ever a moment's reprieve from these shuddering spasms? Did ever a cooling draught pass these cracked and colourless lips? Did ever a song well up in these labouring lungs that was not a lament? I cannot recall.

Frodo?

I cannot bear it! It is too much, too much! It is too hot, too cold, too dark. I tell you, I am done!

Mr. Frodo?

I know that voice.

It has cradled me in its virtue. It has coaxed me in other-worlds from my sanctum of darkness. Not that, not now! I dare not show myself before that face. Does he deign to love this lifeless wraith? Would he abase himself to lay hold of this charred husk? Unthinkable.

O you holder of the light, keeper of my memory, guardian of my uncorrupted heart, can even your sure hands rebuild this crumbling edifice? Can life yet sprout from scorched earth, from lump of soot, from land of eternal drought? Then why plant the seed of your inviolate kiss on blighted burying ground, why water weeds with precious fluid of your tears?

I see you recoil from me – and why not? This waxen vessel houses no joy, these deadened eyes will admit no light. Even yours is blurred at the edges; yes, that vital spark is now but a dim torchlight wanly flickering. One may perceive the location of the Sun behind closed eyes as a vague bloom of red in a sea of black, but he is no less sightless for that.

The pages of my life's history have been ripped from their binding. They are smouldering in the hearth, blackening at the edges in devouring flame. Would you thrust your hand in that fire? Would you collect the cinders in your open palm and call them substance? Would you salvage what is beyond repair?

But still, I would bar your eyes from the sight of it. I would shut the gates as the flames rose higher and sweep away the ashes that are left behind. I would carry on the pretense as long as time allowed. But that cannot be very long.

How many hauntings can the mind endure? How many wails unleashed by ghosts long-dead can be withstood? How many nights spent tossing and turning praying for a sleep that will never come? How many dissembling smiles, clumsy reassurances, feigned laughs before I am my own betrayer?

I see the question on your face, can read the movement of your lips though your voice comes from far away and fathoms deep. I cannot make out what you say, but I can guess at the meaning easily enough. The crinkling of your brow, the pallor of your skin, the pools of water trembling in your eyes, these things tell me all I need to know.

I make to reply, to force a breath from my suffocated throat, to give to you some tiny part of what I used to be, something, anything to hold on to. But so much has already been taken. Too much.

"I am wounded, wounded; it will never really heal."

Have I spoken those words aloud? Is this then my last offering to you who hoped so fiercely, who fought so selflessly, who prayed so deeply? Is this the epitaph that shall be crudely writ on my gravestone? Will this be your final memory of me, and your most enduring?

I can see by your fallen face that I have shown myself. The mask is torn away. So it is done. At last you begin to see.

I cannot stay.

Please understand.

My place is no longer with you. I am too broken to be pieced back together. You must learn to look to a new hope on another horizon. A day will come – it is not far now – when I shall follow the failing arc of the setting Sun. Maybe you will learn to love the light that I become.

I must go, dear friend, hope's golden child, soul's brother.

But you know now in your heart of hearts that I am already gone.

The western wind bears my ashes away.

XXXXX

A/N: The line "I am wounded, wounded; it will never really heal," is quoted directly from Return of the King in the chapter "The Grey Havens." Inspiration was also derived from John Milton's "Paradise Lost" and the music of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds (it seems likely that there are other references unconsciously slipped in as well; perhaps I should give a nod to Poe and any number of Gothic writers to cover my bases). I consider this piece in its current state to still be a rough draft, and I will very likely make some alterations when I have use of a functional computer again (which could be a while).