talonkarrde: (Default)
For [livejournal.com profile] beautyofgrey

-

I had been sitting quietly by the bay windows for some time, watching the world go by, when my grandchildren brought the package forward. They had been playing around in the attic for the last half an hour, after their mother — my daughter — encouraged them to 'find some old things' in an effort to have some peace for a bit. Apparently, they had rummaged through enough of the dusty old boxes to come up with something that they couldn't explain. 'Mommy didn't know what it was', they chimed in together, so here they were, an eight year old boy and eleven year old girl, perched on each arm of my favorite rocking chair.

And on my lap were the crown jewels of this expedition, the source of the mystery, the secret of the adventure that apparently only I knew. It had been unwrapped, but with care — I was sure that it was Erin who had slowly tugged the strings apart, simply because Allen would have shredded the paper to get to the insides. On top of the spread wrapping paper was a small, dark wooden box, with a sliding door as the top. And lying on the box was the remains of a rose, though the years and years had turned it into something that crumbled upon being touched.

"What is this, Grandpa?" Allen asked me curiously, reaching out to touch it before Erin swatted his hand away.

I sat there for a moment, thinking of past lives and careful choices, and then responded simply — "A memory," I said, and left it at that.

But Allen wasn't satisfied with my answer — what ten year old boy would be? — and reached out for the box again, though his sister's glare was enough to stop him from actually touching it. Still, unable to contain himself, he asked again, "A memory of what?"

I looked at Erin then, who simply looked back at me curiously. She was mature beyond her years, and knew enough about life to know that this was something that could affect her grandpa more than a little, and would not press. Still, though, I could see the curiosity in her eyes, and it was that, more than anything else, which led to me actually telling the story.

---

The box was a gift to me from a girl called Terry, I said, when she was twenty and I was eighteen. Yes, she was older than me, and yes, this was well before I was even your mother's age. It was given to me on our third anniversary of being together; we had been dating for quite some time and had started thinking about long term plans.

She had been thinking about what to give me for a while, I suspect, to teach me a lesson; she had complained once that I wasn't very subtle or romantic — at least not with keepsakes — and tended to discard things the minute that I didn't care about them anymore, whereas she was the opposite and kept almost anything that had ever meant anything to her — a ticket from her only airplane ride, wedding invitations from her friends, the letters we had written to each other, her childhood toys...the list went on and on, as did the amount of stuff in her family's attic that was hers. It was a side effect, I suppose, of her being a creative artist and me being a logic-driven scientist; I saw value in the present and future, whereas she drew inspiration from the past.

Regardless, though, we spent our third anniversary eating at a nice diner and I took her home just before nine — yes, this was indeed a million years ago, when nine was late — and just after I pulled up to her house, she stopped me and said, "I think we should give each other our gifts now."

Allen, here's a word of advice — always, always prepare a gift in advance when you meet a girl for any special date. Especially if the girl says not to prepare anything; this just means that you have to think long and hard and pull out all the stops to prepare something. Our third anniversary was a special date, and I had nothing at all... so me, being the quick thinker that I was, improvised — I did an immediate running inventory of the car parts that I could break off and give to her. Somehow, saying 'you are my driveshaft' didn't sound right, even to my not-very-romantic ears. Instead, I reached to the rear seat, and picked up a single rose, and handed it to her.

Her face dropped a bit. Not, I think, because I handed her a rose, but more likely because the rose had suffered some damage — I had run over it, as a matter of fact, on the way to picking her up, due to a bit of hurry on my part, and I had simply tossed it on the backseat instead of throwing it out immediately. So she had a rose in front of her... just one that was a bit dirty, and a bit squashed, and a bit dying.

No, it wasn't the smoothest thing I've ever done.

But I suppose the gods were watching down on me, because the next thing out of my mouth was this: "The rose, Terry, symbolizes my love for you. It may not be perfect, and it may not look like much, but what it means is that I will persevere through any trial, overcome any obstacle, simply to make you happy. This rose has seen better days, yes, but it's still alive, and I promise you that if you give it some water, you will see it stay alive much longer than any perfect rose you could pick out from the store."

And then I held my breath for what was seemed like an hour while she turned the rose over in her hands and observed it closely, her face absolutely devoid of any emotion. Just as I was about to apologize for everything I said and everything I did, she smiled, and leaned in to kiss me, which I took as a success.

"And here I thought you couldn't be romantic," she said. I mentally cheered...until she followed up with, "Even though that was the biggest pile of crap in the world, you get credit for trying, and for improvisation," and kissed me again. You see why I fell in love with her?

Anyway, afterwards, she reached down under the seat and brought out this exact box, in the exact same form that you see here now. When I asked her what it was for, she simply said, "It contains a little bit of the past, and a little bit of the present, and a little bit of the future. Don't open it until you can tell me what's inside." She looked very serious, and asked me to promise her that I wouldn't, which I did. I didn't understand at all, but she knew me well enough to know that I would keep asking questions until I figured it out — something that we seem to share, Allen.

I recall that the first thing I did with the box was shake it — always the scientist, I intended on subjecting it through a rigorous series of physical tests to determine the attributes inside. Of course, Terry was always one step ahead of me, and all of my actions yielded nothing. It wasn't light, but it wasn't heavy; it didn't smell like anything while it was closed, and shaking it produced absolutely no effect. I began carrying it around with me in class and at work, and would play with it absentmindedly while I was thinking of other things, but I never tried to open it — I had promised, after all.

It took me about two weeks, or maybe three, before I really entertained the suspicion that nothing was inside. It was always at the back of my mind, but I think it was after accidentally dropping it — yes, that's why this corner is a bit dented — that I wondered if she simply gave me a box, with absolutely nothing inside. It couldn't be, I thought... or could it? It struck me as something avant garde, which was like her, if a bit cruel, which wasn't, and came up with a null hypothesis.

So I asked her, and she simply shook her head — and then asked for the box. This was new, and I readily complied, only to watch her tilt it towards her, slide it open, and... talk into it? I moved to change my angle but she had already closed it, handling it back to me, and I was left with just as big of a mystery as before. But it led to one major change — every night, when I would set the box by my bedside, she would perform that same ritual before she went to sleep. She always covered the face, always lifted it to her mouth, and always seemed to say something before setting it back down.

And it looks like you've already figured it out, Erin. No, Allen, she wasn't eating, or spitting, or doing anything like that; she was speaking into the box, speaking her hopes and dreams and memories to store, acting as a modern day Pandora, without any of the bad things. It was indeed a little bit of her — and our — past, and our present, and the future she hoped we would share.

It was completely sentimental, and completely emotional, and I finally understood why she collected what she did — everything she kept had a bit of the person who created it in them, and now she was giving more than a little bit of herself to me.

I kept the box by my side for ten years, up until the day that she passed away, giving birth to a wonderful little girl called Marie — yes, your mother. The week before my Terry died, she was going through her collection of memories — in the attic you were just in — and brought out the rose, which she had kept all this time, and hidden from me. It was our thirtieth anniversary.

And afterwards... after it happened, I couldn't bear to have the box by me anymore, so I wrapped it with the rose, and set it up here, where it's been for thirty-four years now.

---

With that, I lifted the rose up by the stem, wondering at the forces that had kept it together for the last third of a century, and finally slid open the box to reveal — as expected — nothing tangible. But of things that couldn't be measured by science, one might imagine the wisp of a good life rising from the box, a slight smell of cinnamon and nutmeg, never to be recaptured again.

"And now that I've passed the story on to you," I said, "I think I'd like to pass these gifts on. Would you like them, perhaps, to keep and think about?"

I could see that both of them were a bit intrigued and a bit put off at the same time — it was certainly unlike any gift that they had given or gotten before. And yet, the story had changed them, at least a bit; they understood that there was signifance in these ancient relics beneath my wrinkled hands, and appreciated them for more than what they appeared to be.

Allen spoke first, as usual, and claimed the rose, without giving a reason why; Erin didn't object, but reverently lifted the box off of my lap after Allen had taken the stem from my fingers. And that was that.

---

I didn't see my keepsakes again after that, but Allen came by a few years later and told me that each one of his girlfriends received a rose — crushed — and the story of what it meant, and that apparently he had quite a bit of success in deviating from the standard. And Erin, a few years after that, told me that she had given the box to her first boyfriend after two years of being together, and expected to marry him. I gave her my blessing and attended the wedding; it was a beautiful one.

And now, at the end of my days, I simply wait until I can see Terry again, and tell her how much Erin looked like she did at our wedding.
talonkarrde: (Default)
The first step of the waltz is the man’s advance and woman’s retreat. On the surface, the man is dominating the dance,  pushing the woman back, but the correctly danced waltz relies on the man matching how far the lady wishes to retreat. They met at a friend’s wedding, on the dance floor, because they were the best dancers there. He asked her out, and she agreed -  on the condition that they dance a waltz once a year, every year that they stayed together.

Their first two years were, like the beginning of the dance, more momentum than technique. They met at other times, but the night of the waltz was special to them, in the way that is cliché in recountings but special to those that were there. They would spend it dancing, first casually and chatting while they did, and then more seriously, each striving to prove themselves the better dancer. It was a time of getting to know the other’s carriage, style, and life.

The second step of the waltz is the most complicated; the woman turns clockwise as she sweeps her left leg back and out, and the man follows. When danced properly, the eye can not know who is leading or following – if it looks like there is, the dancers are out of sync. She would call him up between March and August and simply say ‘tonight’, and he would clear his schedule, explaining to the others that he had a prior obligation. The courtship had progressed beyond initial attractions; it was no longer about getting to know the other, but rather about fine-tuning styles to be most comfortable and complimentary.

Five years taught him to order her an Alaskan salmone alla crema with 1998 pinot noir; five years gave her the knowledge to get him a 12 oz. ribeye cut and a whiskey sour. Conversations turned from the grand 'what do you like' to the mundane 'what shall we do tomorrow', and more about the future than the past. Their dancing afterwards was also more sedate; they had less to prove and more to enjoy. It traded speed and motion for beauty and grace.

The final step is the closing; the feet come back together as dancers finish the final pivot; it completes the circle and prepares to start it anew. The dancers should be with each other and the music, ‘leader’ and ‘follower’ no longer exist. It became spontaneous; he would tap her on the shoulder and it would be subtly different from the other times; she would look at him with the idea in her eyes and they would go, that night.

The final year, she finished the dance with him and then stopped in the center of the ballroom. He dropped to one knee in front of her and the eight year waltz was complete.
talonkarrde: (Default)
The waves lap at the shore silently, one after another, forever, until the end.

He sits there, alone, once every four years, from dusk until dawn, a sentinel in the darkness. Once, his children had stayed with them, but they fell asleep well before midnight, and never came again.

It's been twenty years since the first time. This is his fifth time, and his last.

Twenty-four years ago, they were celebrating their twentieth anniversary.

---

The sky and sea joined in the way that poets weep about and artists dream about, with the aquamarine of the water touching the brilliant, untainted blue of the skies. The catamaran Harmony glided quietly over the water, ignored by the couple on deck who were holding glasses and talking quietly.

“Thank the lord our kids have friends who they can sleep over with, right?” he said quietly, and they both laughed softly.

“I wouldn’t have minded if they came,” she said, “but being here, with you…”

“Is the most boring twenty-year anniversary you could have imagined?” he finished, dodging the swat with a smile on his face.

“Is the most romantic place you could have taken me, Harry. Here, where sky meets sea and we are alone...alone except for what brought us here.”

“The bonus on this year’s paycheck?” he finished, but not quick enough to dodge the swat this time. She glared and him until he smiled a rueful grin, and then let her face soften.

“Our love, Harry. How many couples can say that they’re as happy after twenty-years, after so much misfortune and a miscarriage, as they were when they took their vows?” she asked, contemplatively.

“Our love,” he echoed, completely serious now. “But how many couples can say that all the fights they’ve ever had were taken care of by their sophomore year in high school?”

“We’ve had fights,” she stated, making a face at him.

“Over who would do the dishes,” he said and grinned, poking her lightly.

“Just because you’re the man doesn’t mean you always have to do them,” she responded, taking his hand and snuggling up close.

“Fine, I give up. But you’re right, my love, it’s been a beautiful twenty years. Or five, depending on how you look at it.”

“Eric was so confused when we told him it was our two year anniversary,” she said, smiling at the memory.

“Not all five year olds understand leap years, darling,” he said, kissing the top of her head. “Ali understood, though.”

“That’s because the first time she remembers was when she was eight!” she replied, snorting, and there was silence for a time.

“To twenty years, my love, and twenty more,” he said, raising his glass.

“To twenty past and twenty yet to come,” she replied, touching her glass to his and saying no more.

---

Thinking back on it, he wondered why they promised twenty instead of a lifetime, instead of forever. Probably because they were both realistic, despite being the high school sweethearts that people fantasized about, and realized that twenty years was better than pledging forever and breaking their word. So twenty years, they said at their wedding, and another twenty they pledged that night.

If only it had lasted twenty, or even ten.

---

When he woke up it was still dark, but the calm and peaceful sea they’d fallen asleep to was starting to become choppy. He blinked a couple times to adjust himself and saw that she was still asleep. He decided to wait instead of opening the hatch and waking her, and just studied her peaceful face instead, until the catamaran slowly started listing to port and starboard, back and forth. More worrisome, however, was rain from the evening’s mist that had started falling, at first softly, now fast and heavy. When the ship had started listing to one side for more than ten seconds, he realized that they were in the middle of a bad storm.

“What’s wrong, Harry?” she asked as she woke up from the sharpening movements of the ship.

“A storm is coming,” he said calmly, but with a hint of tension. She looked and him, seeing the severity of the situation in the tightness of his eyes.

“Is it bad?”

“We’ll make it,” he said, and got up.

---

His memory of the rest of the night was an indistinct sense of chaos. He wasn’t completely sure of his instruments and so ended up tracing a zigzag instead of a straight line out of the storm. The one thing he remembered was that even though there were pounding waves and searing winds, he never thought they were going to die.

They made it through, but the catamaran wasn’t designed to weather a heavy storm. Neither were they, and as soon as he was confident that they would make it through without sinking, he decided to rest and assess the damage tomorrow.

Just another bad idea, he thought.

---

“Harry? Is that an island, with a port or dock of some kind?” she asked, pointing at the small blot on the horizon.

“If you can see a port from here then I married a hawk,” he mumbled, looking up at her from the engine pit. She handed him a pair of binoculars, and his face immediately lost the tired expression as he looked through them towards land.

“We need to get there; it’s a small port but will probably have the spare engine parts and sail we need. Right now we’re just dead in the water - in fact, the current is pushing us away from the island, which means we might have been closer in the morning, when we were asleep.” He stopped talking and looked at her uncertainly.

“What? That face means something bad is about to happen.”

“Someone needs to take the excursion boat, load it up with fuel, and hail those at the port for help.”

“It’s just an inflatable with an engine, Harry. Are you sure it will make it?” she questioned, slowly realizing the choice they had to make.

“With the extra containers of fuel, yes. That fuel…also means that there’s no room to take anything else.”

“So one of us has to go and the other has to stay?” She asked, already knowing the answer.

“Yes.”

---

He went. It was the closest they’d ever come to fighting after marriage. He realized that whoever went was most likely going to make it back to civilization quickly, while whoever stayed would only have a day’s worth of food and no idea when help would arrive. She probably knew this as well and refused to go, saying he knew the engine and could work it better. It was tense, he remembered, but when they looked at each other, they realized they weren’t going to start fighting now, a night after vowing twenty more years. They fell into each other’s arms, still believing in life and love triumphing over chance and fate.

He never saw her again.

When he reached the port, there were no ships docked, and the next ship wasn’t due for another week. Radioing for help with the much land based antenna brought the Coast Guard, who searched the area but never found the catamaran. He insisted, repeatedly, that they weren’t searching hard enough, and took another boat out there, day after day, and night after night. It was only after another storm had almost capsized his boat that he stopped looking, and flew home.

A month later, it was reported that pieces of a small ship possibly called the Harmony were washing up on the shore of a resort island. A tourist found a bottle of Chardonnay from 1998, and he knew that it was over.

And so here he came, once every four years on their anniversary, for a night of solitude, a night of reflection, and a night of remembering.

From dusk until dawn, these last four visits. At dawn he gets up and goes back to his car to continue his life, or what was left of it after she drifted away on the Harmony. The children, by that time, were old enough to understand what had happened, and they mourned with him for a time. But children grow up to become adults with families of their own, and in time, all they remembered was that their mother had died young, from a tragic storm.

But Harry remembered the last look on her face, the way she waved when he started off, the last night they shared together. Harry remembered the words they said and the years they had, and could never let her memory rest.

And after twenty-four years, he realized that the memory would never rest, so he came prepared this time, this last trip to the shore. At dusk, he drank a glass of wine, and raised it up in a toast.

“It’s been twenty years, and now four more. And this time, I pledge to you eternity. Twenty years past, and an eternity to come,” he vowed, draining his glass.

He drove to the pier, then, and set out on the recently bought catamaran Tragedy, with the paint only a few days dry. When the sellers told him that naming a ship the Tragedy would bring him bad luck, he looked at them silently for a few seconds, slid another fifty across the table, and the sellers gave in. What did they care if an old man wanted to name it something unfortunate, as he probably was going to hire a captain to drive it for him anyway, and no captain would sail on such a ship.

But he was a captain as experienced as any, after the weeks he had spent searching for her. He started up the engine and slipped the surly bonds of Earth shortly after dusk, and eased the catamaran into the night. It carried no excursion boat this time, and he was going on no excursions that he would need the smaller boat for.

After three hours at the wheel, he saw what he was looking for: storm clouds. He raised the sail and put the engine on full, straight into the rising front, and watched the rain start and the waves rise. When he started to lose control of the ship, he knew it was time. He took out an axe and started chopping at the mast, amidst the water and wind. After a few minutes of work, the wind gusted and blew the mast off and into the water, looking for all the world like a triangular sheet of paper someone had dropped into a puddle, he thought.

Slowly, methodically, he turned and slammed the axe into the hull, then yanked it out and dropped it into the ocean. He was tired and the ocean would do the rest.

“If I could not live with you, then perhaps I will die like you did, my love,” he whispered, as he closed the hatch and watched the water fill the room.

---

The waves lap at the shore silently, one after another, forever, until the end.

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