Yes, it's been a long time since I've put up an actual story. I hope the Love Letters tided over any die-hard fans I might have hiding around somewhere. (Yes, they were true. Ah well.) Be warned- if you're expecting a rerun of Things So Hidden, this isn't it. It isn't a sequel, it shares very little subject material, and it's a great deal darker and will probably in a totally different style, although I haven't quite got that worked out yet. No Shakespeare, for instance. Also, there will probably be considerable gaps between updates- I'm starting university and doing other writing as well, and I don't know if I'll be able to spare the time to update regularly.
That said, please enjoy. This is likely to be a very descriptive story, as it was originally planned as a script to a friend's artwork series, so people with visual minds will probably get the most out of it. Just warning everybody who'll review saying 'You describe stuff too much! Give us some plot!' Show patience, please.
The wind outside the church was freezing, whipping the brittle autumn leaves around in tiny spirals. It cut through her black dress like paper, but she felt no cold. There was a numbness deep within her that seemed to have seeped upwards into her skin. She was a shell.
The sky was a brilliant copper-grey. An autumn leaf chased around her legs. Inside, the service was continuing- she could hear the low rumble of the prayers said en masse, still smell the heady, pious mixture of the white flowers and the musty velvet and the ancient wood. Something inside her threatened, vaguely, to suffocate, and she had slipped outside for the sharpness of the air. Not caring what people would say. How could that hurt her, now?
As it was, she could barely feel her lungs filling. Summer and winter were sleepy, she thought, idly; things sleeping under blankets of snow or in the slow-moving sluggish summer air. Autumn and spring were times of movement, growth, evolution, sprouting, where everything came alive- and she was standing still, watching the world move around her. A statue, left behind.
The world had not changed. It was still impetuous, still wild and beautiful and cruel. There were no holes. It had other people to think about. And yet where she was, where she had been, there was space.
She had always looked at the sky, as a child. Now, at the wake, she slipped outside again. Tired of the useless commiserations of the black-clad people she scarcely knew, tired of the parchment-crumpled hands of old women, smelling quietly of lavender and dust, patting her own. She didn't notice the stares that followed her; she floated, not noticing anything.
Her hair whipped around her face. She stood there, staring at the sky, her hands clasped, not asking, not waiting, just there.
She had not cried yet. It implied a hardness of heart to some of the guests; to her, it simply felt useless in the face of the emptiness. The choke of salt in her eyes could not bring life. She was unable to cry. The fire had dried it inside her. Right now, dry as a bone, she existed like a carcass in the desert. Beaten, hard-dried, light as a feather if plucked, a strange music rushing through her bones.
Rain was coming. She could smell it on the air.
And there were no tears.
The house was small, white with a red roof. It had a large garden, she noted absently, with weeping willows and cherry trees. The box of clothes and other miscellania, still with a vague, haunting smell of smoke, was heavy and bulky in her arms.
The sky was very clear today. As raw-fresh-clean as a face after a storm of crying.
She turned around and was instantly enveloped in an enormous bear hug. She'd forgotten how tall Ethan was. He was easily 6"4. And he always smelled of the exotic cigarettes he smoked- even his trench coat, which she was being stifled in now.
He let go of her, grabbed her shoulders and made as if to study her over his glasses. He really was tall.
"You look thin." His voice was wreathed in theatrics, but she caught the note of real concern beneath it.
Delphine shrugged, smiling.
"Where's James?" she asked.
"He's uptown somewhere, haggling with a foul-smelling artist over some ridiculously expensive but gorgeous pieces of sculpture."
"As usual, huh?"
Ethan's boyfriend James was always running off chasing artwork for the gallery he managed. Ethan had told her hilarious stories about him suddenly, in the middle of business meetings, demanding the price of the artwork on the conference room wall.
"Yes- but you know him, he sees something he likes, he has to get it. Don't worry, he'll probably be joining us for dinner."
He turned and indicated the house with a sweeping gesture of his arm.
"So- what do you think?"
"It's very sweet."
"It is, isn't it?" Ethan shook his long red hair out from in front of his eyes and looked up at it, smiling all over his face.
Delphine smiled to herself. Ethan was the most ridiculously vain person she'd ever met. She knew he was positioning his profile to its most perfect angle- and that hair shake was not as unconscious as it looked. He was completely blasé about it, too.
Convulsively, she gave his torso a hug. Not easy, when you're holding a large cardboard box.
"Hey, hey, bella!" He laughed and put his enormous arms around her. They stayed that way for a little while. Then he patted her head. "You want to come inside and look? I'm very house-proud, as you might have gathered…"
"I'd love to."
She spent the rest of the afternoon being dragged around the little house and shown everything and anything inside it. It was clean and sparsely, if comfortably furnished. Night came slowly in this suburb- she didn't realise the light was fading until the streelights flickered on, white and stark.
He made them some tea. She sat down on the sofa and sipped it quietly, thinking of nothing. He put his down on the table and sat opposite her, studying her.
"So- how are you really, bella?"
He always called her that. It was their little joke. He'd been her Italian tutor for two years now, and although she had learned next to nothing from him- not his fault, she wasn't the best pupil- they had fostered a friendship.
The twilight cast long shadows. She was silent for a little while.
"You can stay as long as you need to, you know."
"Yes. Thank you."
"Are you sleeping well? You're very thin."
She just looked at him. He laughed suddenly, and shook his head, pushing his glasses up his nose.
"I'm sorry, that was probably a- very stupid question. I just-"
"It's OK, Ethan."
She smiled at him. He stared at her, and then looked away.
"No, it's not. But I'm trying to understand, bella. I am."
"You're doing the best job in the world, Ethan." She smiled at him.
(Ethan felt a shudder within himself. Seeing this once-vibrant, intelligent, vivid girl, sitting with her shoulders hunched and her heart hidden, looking at him with that trusting smile - nothing left except a shadow and an infinite calmness- it made him feel ill. The injustice of it all was sickening.)
The room was getting darker. He moved to light a candle- but saw the momentary flicker behind her eyes when he struck the match, and blew it out, pretending it had burned his fingers.
"I think perhaps we'll eat in the kitchen tonight, eh, Del?"
"Do you need help cooking?"
"No, no. You go make yourself at home in your room, and I'll whip up one of my famous culinary masterpieces in no time." He grinned absurdly widely.
Once, she would have risen to that, he thought- come back at it with sarcasm, bit the bait. Now, however, she just smiled at him distantly, put the tea on the table and walked away.
For a few seconds, in the dark of the room, Ethan put his chin on his hand, and tried to focus his thoughts.
"Yes- she's here. I'll get her. Give me a second."
Ethan came to her door, and listened through it. Complete silence, except for the occasional rustle as a page leaf turned in a book.
What had he expected, he wondered- sounds of submerged grief? Struggling sobs?
Anything, perhaps, would have been better than this- this complete peace. Peace, though, wasn't the word. Blankness, perhaps. Placid, calm blankness. Like everything that had made her come alive had withered in the night.
He hesitated, then looked inside.
She was sitting on the window sill, reading a book, but not reading it- her hand was resting on the page, ready to turn it, but her face was turned towards the sky. Something about her expression made him quietly shut the door and say, "She's sleeping," to her grandfather, who was on the other end of the line.
"No, I won't wake her up. She doesn't seem to have been sleeping well, I'll let her rest."
"Yes, it is my business. For as long as she is staying in my house."
"I don't know how long she'll stay. For as long as she wishes to."
The old man muttered something about coming home.
"You seem to forget," said Ethan, darkly, "that she no longer has a home. She is an adult and may live in whatever place she believes will give her the most peace of mind. I will not force her to do anything against her will, and you should, perhaps, think less about what is best for her, and more about what she actually needs. Good evening, sir."
He put the phone down.
She was staring at him from her doorway.
"He is- difficult, sometimes," she said, quietly.
"Don't worry about the difficulties, darling. Just rest."
"Yes, sir." She smiled. The smile was thin, only a pale shadow of what it used to be. But he recognised it for what it is, and rewarded the effort with a ruffle of her hair. Still with traces of blue in it, he saw, from the days before this. When she was rebellious and brilliant, and the now-dimmed light had shone like a beacon.
He looked at her, at the thinness of the skin, now almost see-through, and at the whiteness of the lips, and remembered what she'd said to him when he had come to stand beside her on that cold autumn day, outside the church.
"Where do I go from here, Ethan? Where do I go?"
The blue eyes staring straight ahead, at the horizon.
"Where do you want to go?" he had asked.
"Nobody is considering it now. It's like the lull before the storm. Soon, though- and in the end, they will decide to send me off to a relative- an aunt, or an uncle. Or my grandfather."
The ashen-haired old leprechaun hobbling down the aisle, dressed in a new black suit, pulling at its collar, with the wooden face carved an inch deep in wrinkles. He had looked at him once, during the service and quietly put him down as a regular old tartar, set in his ways.
"Is that what you want to do, Del?"
She had looked down at her hands. Such pale hands. He couldn't count the amount of times he had envied those slim hands of hers, with their lily-white grace.
"They already have families," she'd said, her voice barely above a murmur. "Mother, father and the babies, very young children, all of them. There's no room for me there. The unit has been made, and foreign objects just disturb the flow."
Ethan was amazed, as usual, by her propensity to use the most extraordinary phrases to describe things. He stayed silent.
"And they would be kind, they would sympathise with me-" the words measured, like drips of water from a cup- "but there would be no love, no acceptance. They wouldn't be a family."
"And your grandfather?"
"He wouldn't understand anything. Wouldn't allow me freedom, wouldn't give me good advice if I asked it. He loves me, but he knows nothing of me."
She sighed. For the first time he was struck by how delicate she seemed. Like she'd just blow away.
Then she looked at him, and smiled her calm smile.
"Bit of a dilemma."
"Indeed it is. But there are other doors open to you, you know."
"Who wants a teenager in this town, Ethan? Somebody who's grown up without them…"
"You could come and live with me."
She just looked at him. He raised his eyebrows.
"Of course, I wouldn't be the best of role models- I keep very late hours and I work in the city all the time, so I couldn't monitor your delinquency."
She smiled at this. He welcomed it as a signal of encouragement, and went on.
"You can live on your own steam. Write, and go to university. And do whatever you think is best. Be independent. I won't cramp your style. Just as somewhere to- get some peace. No family. Just friends. How does that sound?"
The courtyard was so large, so empty. The wind almost echoed. And the girl was standing there as if she'd been there for a thousand years, through storms and other peoples' grief. Sailing above the deep seas of humanity, looking up at the sky.
"It sounds- wonderful."
The word was empty. But he understood what she meant, and he had ruffled her hair then, just as he was ruffling it now, in the night, in his house.
"I'm sorry James couldn't join us," he said, in the silence. "He's gone off half-cocked again."
"Will James be here a lot? I like him."
"Not often, principessa." Ethan was actually English. He was 26 and had travelled widely, picking up languages as he went. He'd loved Italy most of all, with its white-bleached ruins and its dark-hued wine and its beautiful, beautiful boys. "He doesn't like my domesticity, I'm afraid. Has no desire to be a nine-to-five house husband."
"You wouldn't make the best housewife, Ethan."
"No? Can't see me in an apron, wielding a duster?"
She smiled and shook her head slightly.
"Neither can I." Am I turning into a caricature, he wondered, suddenly? Being a clown, to try and provoke some life from her? "No, you will not be disturbed, Del. Except perhaps by my younger brother, a highly irresponsible young wretch whose comings and goings are not my concern."
She looked mildly questioning.
"As long as he gets to school, he isn't my problem," he said, shrugging.
"He's living here?"
"He and our parents had a mild disagreement a few years ago. Over- a few things. It's all old business now. Nel passato." It meant 'in the past.' "So I told him to live here."
"You're a good brother."
"It was better than seeing him bunk down in an alley. Besides, I may as well keep an eye on him. Make sure he doesn't get into too much trouble. Be a good influence."
He did his winning-smile thing again. She smiled, quietly, but her eyes retained their shut-off look. Perhaps it was just the darkness, he thought.
"Get some rest, please, bella. I will see you in the morning. Oh, no- I won't. I leave early. But there's food in the pantry."
"All right. Thank you, Ethan."
She smiled, and disappeared. Ethan put a finger to his lips, thinking. She reminded him of something- in a poem. Yes; he remembered. Un fiore chiuso. A closed flower- its petals folded against the wind, keeping its purple secrets within its heart.
Please stay with me. I know it might be boring, all of this- but I believe in thorough exposition.