[Note: This is an old story rewritten and made new this morning. It’s my own little version of Sleeping Beauty. Thanks to Heather for keeping it safe for me for years, and thanks to Smartypants! ‘zine, where it first saw print.]
The days were endless, chill and gray. Cobwebs draped the compound and brambles sharp as razors grew all around the cinderblock buildings. Pain peeled from the buildings in long pinkish-gray strips.
The nights were freezing cold, deep and starless. Sooty billows of poison gas obscured the moon and she slept, she slept. Fine grit was the only precipitation ever sifting down and she slept.
Maybe she had forgotten, or she no longer cared, or she was sick and depressed, cowed into submission.
These were the un-substantial rumors he’d heard– her very existence was in hard doubt. But when he dreamed, he dreamed of her, and on waking, knew the world yearned for her touch.
Jason stood in the doorway and stared around him, his bloody hands held loosely at his side. The thorns had been murderous and his hands were afire with roadmaps of cuts. His knife, dull now, he had put away.
He looked around in the swampy darkness, shadows thick in the corners and high ceiling. The vast building was filled with hunks of metal machinery, caked with sticky black crud, all inert and soundless. He couldn’t tell what they were, only that they hadn’t been used for centuries, yet did not return to the earth. He nudged one with the toe of his boot. It refused to yield.
He searched and finally saw. He walked toward the woman curled in a ragged nest. It was hard to see through in the shadows; he knew the sky outside was solid dull gray. Not the soft gray of a mouse’s fur, or the gleaming mellow pewter of the old sky after a storm (he had seen pictures of it). No, it was jsut a lifeless gray, day after day, an absence of color.
The way had been long and now that the end was near, he was caught in a bubble of inaction. The very stillness of the place invited one to pause—for eternity, if need be.
He let himself breathe again, and he shrugged sudden his indecision away. He had nothing to lose.
He knelt by her side; he hesitantly reached out and brushed wisps of almost colorless hair off her forehead. Her skin was smooth and very pale.
His touch did not wake her. He ran his fingertips down the length of her slender curled arm, lingering on a protruding wrist bone like the joint of wing. Her bones were prominent yet delicate, like tiny sculptures beneath her thin skin, and her fingernails were green.
A little more pressure, on her shoulder and her cheek, caused her to stir. Her movements were slow and reluctant. She pulled her scant covering up over her shoulder and stared at him with glazed, almost feverish, eyes.
“What?” It was the growl of a wolf, the mewl of a newly-born kit, the melodic chirrup of a bird singing at dawn, a rose-tinted chime. All of these sounds, united as one voice, soft but ringing through the silent gloom.
The sound filled him with unreasonable joy.
“It’s time for you to wake up.” He kept his voice low, he hoped it was gentle.
“Why should I? I’m comfortable.” She glanced around her ragged pallet on the concrete floor, her brows drawn down in an angry ‘v’. “Well, fairly.”
“You are needed. I’ve looked so long and hard for you.”
She snorted like an irritated horse, delicate nostrils flaring. “Needed by whom? The very ones who turned their backs on me? I’m sorry for your troubles but no, thank you, I’d like to sleep; I am exhausted.” Her lips were thin and cracked, the color of ashes. She rubbed her green-nailed fingertips over them.
He was taken aback. He had thought that merely waking her would be the end of his quest, that she would wake and rise and heal the sickness of the world. But no. She wanted to sleep.
“You’re needed by the world, the whole world. It’s dying.” Almost dead, as a matter of fact.
“Now that’s a small enough request: wake up and save the world.” Her eyelids still drooped but the glaze was clearing from her eyes.
A shadowy object caught his attention. He picked it up off the floor near the pallet. He touched it with wonder, held it up. Its aura seemed to silver the surrounding gloom. He traced the form of it with his fingers, and sparks seemed to fly. A thing crafted of willow branches and silver filigree, amber stones and glass beads, turquoise and antler. A feeling he could not identify rose in his throat; a feeling with feathers, with wings.
“Here’s your crown.” He offered it to her with both hands.
She stayed curled on the floor, waved an angular hand at him, her cold and ageless eyes examining him. “It never did any good.”
“How can you say that? You wore it when you kept the world turning in harmony. Your time has come around again. We’re willing to listen.”
Her lips thinned, her eyes blinked slowly. “All things in the universe must end; surely a knight errant like you must know that.” She sat up and turned; pulled her hair aside, showed him the back of her neck where death and the deepest, darkest, starless night existed. He caught his breath, feeling unworthy of such terrible beauty.
She lifted her arms in muscle-creaking stretch and courtesy forced him to look away from the perfection of her alabaster body. It was difficult.
“Even now, you look away,” she accused. “Your kind has no use for me now. They have forgotten the simple cycle of the seasons; they don’t even miss the sun or moon or stars.”
He looked back at her and allowed his appreciation to show on his face.
“Without you, we will all die.” This was truth, surely she could hear it in his voice, could not refuse this noble request.
At his heartfelt admission, a flush grew up her chest, her neck, in her cheeks. Her lips no longer looked like they were sculpted from frost, but loosened, became mobile.
“What can I say to convince you? I’m not a diplomat, making nice with words. I’m just a soldier. I took up a quest I thought I could finish: to find you. And I have. But I can’t woo you with words, coax you back to the world,” he said. The weariness that had threatened to overwhelm him the last few miles pressed on his shoulders, dragged at his arms and legs. Was his cause– and that of the world– completely lost?
But her eyes were brightening, brown ringed with green and gray, like miniature woodlands. She picked up a rag in her bony fingers, folded and smoothed it until it became a coral-colored rose. She offered it to him and he took it. The scent of it, unlike anything he’d smelled before, made him briefly dizzy.
“I won’t get any accolades,” she began.
“Not at first.”
“It’s such a thankless job,” she complained, but her fingers were busy, busy, folding and weaving the rags of her nest.
“I’ll thank you.” He stared, rapt, from her face to her hands. A tiny blue bird spiraled from them, up into the air.
Her hands stilled. “It is what I love.” She spoke grudgingly; she reached both hands out to him. “I have been asleep too long, and the days are interminable, and lifeless as well.” She shook her head. “Look what you’ve done.” It was, however, a gentle reproof.
“Won’t it be nice to see the sun again?” He reached his hands back to her.
“Give me a kiss first, a little life, and then I think we can go.” She tilted her finely boned face up, and as he put his lips to hers, they turned red, as red as flowers.
They kissed again and he helped her to her feet. He picked up her crown and set it on her radiant hair. He took her hand and led her out of the cinderblock structure, into the endless leaden air.
He felt that feeling, the one with feathers, rise in his throat.