Harmony is the strength of binding opposites: Heraclitus
She knew the way, but the liquid path never failed to frighten her. Her arms were sure as she paddled from one to side to the other, left to right, to and fro until she convinced herself the fear was nothing more but adolescent excitement. In those rare moments of calm, something stirred within her chest as one arm gave way to the stroke of another, a harmonic song issuing forth from her sternum in a moment’s moment. But the song was too brief to name and the moment too fleeting to overtake the peril. Not a cloud in the sky. The girl swore she could see the curvature of the earth from her humble placement as she paddled across the shallow sea. When she dared to glance to her side, she could see the ocean floor. It was perfect and lifeless, as useless as her mother’s jewels before it happened. The girl fixated on the mass of land ahead. To reflect in times such as these was to shift to one side. To hope was to shift to the other. The past and the future were certain doom. Reflection was the suspension of herself moving through space. The way on was the way forward. She squinted her eyes and tried to fixate on the present. To capsize and fall into the water was certain death.
She had named this body of water The Barren Sea about a week after her brother died. He had always had a proclivity for fantastical names. In such times as these, where what was left of the dead earth met the dead sea, such names were both ridiculous and necessary. The only other option was calling everything either ‘this’ or ‘that’. On that fatal morning when he coughed up chunks of his insides, her brother managed to say her name once more: ‘Arethusa’. As the island began to assert itself on the horizon, Arethusa took deep breaths to compensate for the countless others who breathed no more. Her lungs were strong, but the water was deadly. Her sight was clear, but the island was just as barren as the sea.
The sight of land always made Arethusa’s legs tingle. Her left leg was anxious to feel the firm earth while her right was wary of the dangers of stepping out of the ad hoc canoe. Just a splash of the crystalline water would blister her skin. Blisters festered and the sweats would follow as evening does the afternoon. The rest would be a fever dream of horror until her own last breath, no matter how healthy her lungs happened to be. Pristine sand thrust out of the water as her oar skimmed just above the sand beneath the shallows. Arethusa propelled the canoe up onto the island with the grace of her sure arms. But within, everything felt out of joint. It always did when she reached a destination, when the monotony of the water ended and the nebulous land began.
Just as she leapt from the canoe and onto the sand, a hot north wind blew. Somewhere in the multiverse, another Arethusa had capsized. By the time she had pulled her canoe further inland, the wind had become a gale. Not a cloud in the sky. There was nothing but the sand for the wind to show itself through. Had anyone been with Arethusa, they could have seen the wind through her smile, through her entire being in the vigor of her moment of thrill for escaping death again. She ran her fingers through her black hair and felt the tangles and dreads of her days without a comb or a reason to care. Just a few years ago, she would have wept to have a hair out of place. Now everything in her was in flux. Everything around her was approaching absolute zero.
People die and they leave things behind. Before it happened, those things could have been large sums of money or hundreds of books, secrets or bitter memories. Now, dead people left nothing of worth behind but things suitable for The Barren Sea. To find a can of beans was to inherit a fortune. The shattered remains which constituted Arethusa’s canoe was equivalent to an estate with a private helicopter. She was an heiress, but an heiress who blew through her fortune day after day and had to seek another relative overseas.
The island she was walking upon was strewn with the ruins of some factory. The circular remains of a brick smokestack stood shattered like a lingering middle finger to the cloudless sky. Just another gust of wind and that finger was bound to crumble. Towards the middle, multitudes of dead weeds had formed what looked like a giant bird’s nest. Arethusa looked up and squinted her eyes in search of some mythical beast keeping watch over its eggs from on high. If there was such a beast, it had died in its own too much.
As the sea darkened and a few wisps of clouds bade the day a pathetic farewell, Arethusa stood covered in filth and sweat. After searching the rubble of the fallen factory only to find more ruin, she had circumnavigated the island in less than an hour. Nothing. Dusk would give way to the stars and unpleasant dreams on a fruitless island. She had learned never to panic. She still had enough water for three days and an empty stomach was the status quo. But the wind was relentless and sleeping in the open was out of the question. Her apocalyptic eyes scanned the island for a suitable place to sleep. After so many seasons following the end, she still expected to hear her mother call her back inside for supper. Nothing but the wind. Just as the earthen colors of day gave way to the grays of night, it appeared.
Down in the tangles of the weeds at the center of the island, firelight cast shadows and demanded they dance. The spectacle seemed to be cut out of space and time, a memory skipping hallucination and demanding presence in the actual. Arethusa had almost forgot the sight of fire. The relentless heat of the days extinguished even a thought of starting one. But this night was full of cool wind. This night was a night of fire. She waited for it to spread but the unseen flames were contained. Fire was the great ravisher, she knew that. It took volition to contain it. ‘Come what come may,’ she said to herself, as the forgetfulness of years had consumed the rest of the mantra. Arethusa almost smiled as she walked towards the light.
It was a song that accompanied the crackling of the fire. There were no words. Words had become relics. But the harmony of someone humming with a sorrowful resonance invited Arethusa to enter the nest. Never had she known a song to match her own silence. But when she stepped through the dead vines, such was the case. Arethusa pulled apart the dead branches that were left and saw.
—I see a nymph has stumbled upon a poor old woman, or my old eyes deceive me.
Arethusa listened but stumbled when she tried to respond. She had almost forgotten the taste of words before they issued from her own mouth on their way to another. She stood and tried to look but she could not see. All that she knew was that she had stepped into a little world far too rich for her to perceive all at once. She looked down at herself and saw the tattered remains of her clothes hanging loosely upon her.
—Forgot what it feels like to be seen? That’s what happens to goddesses who forget to descend. Pity. Now you see what you have let us do. Tell me, when was the last time you remember eating?
An old woman. An old woman tending to the fire with a stick. Piles and piles of canned goods and bottles of water all around her. Arethusa blinked and she saw. She tried to remember the last time she ate. Food. Somehow, the memory of food was only with her as a silent witness. A boy eating a can of beans and drinking the remains to the last drop. A mother being nursed into death by that boy as she refuses the can of beans. Beans. Arethusa could smell them, but the taste was elusive. Water. She knew it was wet and best when consumed cool. She could not remember thirst. She shook her head and the old woman had aged even more. She looked down at herself and saw that her tattered clothes had rotted off and were dust long blown away.
—Oh, you’re better off for it. Those such as you are clothed in your own resplendence. Hags such as me need something on our hunched backs, even if we outlive the yet unborn and those who will never be. I’d offer you a drink of water, but you would only think you wanted it. Not as much left as there was the last time you blinked. Come, come and sit by the fire so that I may see you listen to me speak.
By the time Arethusa had settled onto a patch of sand, the old woman was in the midst of fitful tales of the days gone by. Arethusa shivered as the words poured from the old woman’s toothless mouth while her leprous skin was split at the elbows where the bones articulated her stories. From time to time, the old woman would stick her black forefinger deep into her left nostril and pull out the black ooze of festering thoughts. Every pile of abominable snot on the sand punctuated the last sentence of another age of humankind.
—I wonder…. I wonder if you are still immortal if you cannot remember anymore? Seems like a descent into the absurd but I had to say it. Well, you can see what you have done to me. Even death dies when there’s no one left to take. It makes a woman wither. But now you pass through the world like a will o’ the wisp seen by nobody. Gone are the ones to sing your praises. Makes me wonder if you ever could think for yourself. Could you? Well, too late for that. But let me ask you this… the gods, you are beautiful…Let me ask you this: Is Death still Death when there is nobody left to die? It’s not a riddle, I assure you. Tough audience tonight. I suppose it’s rhetorical. A lot of good rhetoric did the world. Look at it now! Well, my job’s done. I’ve been cruel only to be kind. Perhaps I overdid it. But everything comes to an end. Except for clichés. These are not the words I wanted to end with. But death tends to be disappointing. So, I say to the deathless one. Well, I leave all of this to you. Even if you can’t see past the last blink of your flawless eyes you grey-eyed goddess of nothing. Don’t worry about tomorrow because nobody’s watching. I appreciate the attention. Oh, forget it.
When the old woman smiled, she rested her own left hand on her own right shoulder. Arethusa watched as the rags the old woman was wearing fell into a clump on the sand. Arethusa blinked and when she opened her eyes, the fire was extinguished, and the sun hung directly overhead. She looked at herself and saw her own resplendence. By the time she had put on the rags, she knew they would serve her well for days to come. She thought of clichés and smiled at their half-truths. When she reached the shore, her canoe was nowhere in sight. But she knew not to panic. All she felt was the irresistible urge to scratch her right shoulder.
Hayden Moore was born and raised in Georgia and has lived in New York City for the past twelve years. In the past six months, he has been published four times for his short stories: twice in Corner Bar Magazine, once in Metonym Literary Journal and once in Drunk Monkey Literary Journal. He lives with his wife and cat on the waters of Jamaica Bay in Queens. This is his first publication with The Fictional Café.