[Image: “Les nuits blanches” by Sophie Lecuyer]
Only she didn’t fly. She fell. Careened. The wind whipped her face, struck like iced rain, pulled tears from her eyes. But with her arms spread, the sensation was akin to a sort of time-travel, to going backward a fraction, re-visiting how much she’d lost, everything that had been missing when she woke on this purgatorial island, when she opened her eyes and there was a hole where a world used to be.
On the green grass of The Sledge she sat cross-legged, the flying done, the world absent, the dew wet on her ankles, the haze of dense clouds hovering, covering the sun, pinching it out of reach. There should have been hope in her next Conjuring, a chance that this one would bring back her love, transport him nearer to her living. But Conjuring took courage and strength and she had neither of those today. Where courage and strength should have been were only instead the remembrances of three failed Conjurings: A shipwreck of the drowned, a caribou herd stocked for sport-hunting, and a single-engine crash, the pilot some ugly proffered amalgamation of herself. And surrounding each of those, she’d been tortured with recollections of once-was, how they’d met and fallen in love, how the universe had complicated, how their relationship had tangled in pockmarks of arguments, guilt and remorse, culminating in him saying I love you and her saying I’m in love with someone else.
She felt the wind on her face, exposed on the tundra.
She didn’t feel like Conjuring. She felt like suicide. But she’d thrown herself off the tallest cliff-face of The Sledge, those dusty white walls, jagged textures passing as she fell, and she didn’t fly. She only fell and fell, and then the slap of the water, the hard kiss of the cold, instant sea, and she was back among the wet green of the tundra, its purgatory heavy in her heart.
She sat, not ready to Conjure, hardly able to exist, wishing she could simply disappear, vanish. There were a half-dozen other ways she could muster, methods rising to the forefront, excuses seeping in. She could set herself on fire. She could swim out to sea until she drowned. She could Conjure a knife, a gun, a rope. She could Conjure a 747 just before take-off, buckle herself in and wait for the captain to announce the end. She could imagine the water or the ground rifling back to her at untenable speeds, passengers screaming in a wake of panic and desperation, crying for an end she welcomed.
Here, she knew purgatory meant a torture beyond torture.
These thoughts washed over her as she sat, the cold dew of the tundra against her calves, the sky a muddle of grey, the haze of a sun kept under clouds, a heart unwilling to relinquish its armor.
All the while, she knew what she wanted: She wanted to tell him it wasn’t true. She wanted to Conjure him here, to this Elsewhere, so she could say I love you, tell him she didn’t love someone else, that it was only a fitful dream.
She wasn’t in love with anyone else. There was no one else. It was fear. It was worry. It was a conglomeration of anxieties. She’d said it because they hadn’t been connecting as much anymore. She’d said it because their relationship had felt like a slow shatter, the individual frames of a ceramic plate bursting. She’d said it to buy time, to make room for faith to re-grow, or fear to diminish, her worry of someone else out there, someone she wouldn’t shatter with, someone who wouldn’t leave the window open on the pet bird of her desires.
She’d told him she loved someone else, but she didn’t.
The night had been sky and stars, the orange ember glow of streetlights like the world ablaze. She was barefoot. He’d made dinner. There was no gilded cage behind whose little door flounced a bustling bird. There was only them two, and their hearts between, and the trajectory of the argument. It was nothing at the onset, though it grew bodily, statuesque, until it had form and shape, until it brought anger into the air like an ether. She’d walked to the balcony as a plane whispered overhead. She paid it no heed. The night was cool and she wished the sun would rise faster, shine its bright, ebullient light on how this had gotten away from them, unlatched from love, derailed into moon-like petty jealousies. They had argued before, but never like this. This was bigger, this had heft and spite and the threat of breaking. A gathering of pebbles that had adhered to her feet deployed into the carpet as she walked back into the apartment. His face was stilled with oncoming grief, as if he knew the future.
She thought of him while she packed the overnight bag. She thought of him when she watched the last of the night wane. She thought of him with the celestial energy of every star in the sky. She thought of him while the sun steeped the hills. She looked him straight in the eyes before she left, but when he looked back, her insides collapsed and she had to quit everything, even breathing, just to sustain the idea of leaving. In her ears was the static of waves or the end of the world, both pointless. She thought of him and how they were meant to be together, how she knew it, and she mourned the knowing. They were exposed, a train without tracks. Together they’d fought through the night and here she was, bag packed, walking out the door, into the dawn, sun rising and the world crashing down.
Ghost apples. She held one in her hands, her hands in her lap, the small meadow grasses beneath, the wet island all around. She hadn’t meant to Conjure it.
It was Michigan and they’d driven around the lake, over the top and nearly into another country. The rain had come as it does there. The temps fell. Rain froze around the punky skins of unpicked apples, and when the insides dropped out, it left this shell of ice, a globe of ghosted apple. She remembered how they had held one just like this in their two hands, hearts syncopated in joyous rhythm. There, in that freezing rain, delicate nature shared in their hands. The lake had been behind them, the smell of balsam everywhere, the boughs giving way to shoreline beached in waist-high grasses and dogwood, love coming to them with sweeping arms.
Accidentally, she Conjured. Up the balsam came as a ghostly forest, in icicle reverse. Up came icy fern and saw-grass husks and the shells of dogwood branches, the blue fringe of that iced apple in her hands, a shimmering remembrance of the Otherworld, glistening and ripe.
She could never stop seeking him. He was her love. He was somewhere in that Otherworld, and she had to keep fighting this Elsewhere to find him.
She closed her eyes and relaxed her heart. The ghost of the balsam disappeared along with the ferns and the grasses and the dogwood, along with the ghost apple in her hand. Her breathing came back, long in the soughing. The ice shells of forest vanished and she was left on the tundra meadow of The Sledge, attempting once again to Conjure their love.
She went down to the shore, past the white cliffs. Coated in blue, she saw a figure on the beach, a hunch of oversized jacket and layers, hands busy with something unseen in the shallow tide. She walked the wet tundra of The Sledge, the figure slowly becoming a man in front of her, step by step. He had wild, roustabout hair and his hands were busy in some constant, unseen maneuver. When she was near enough to touch him, she stood, polite and quiet, listening to his rain jacket squinch and squeal in the island’s wet air. She could hear the murmurs of his gutturals too, his movements harried and harrumphing as the water remained low-tide and salty, as the sky above was sun-trapped and loose in its interpretation of what used to be.
She leaned to see what he was doing. He had a square box lined with screen, and in the tributaries of the shallow tide he was sifting sand. He’d load the box and screen it until there were only the larger moments left, and those he’d check and mumble over until, dissatisfied, he’d flick them back to the water.
Next to him was another screened box, another tributary where she could also sift the tide, the fine-sanded flecks of beach. She had no idea what he was looking for. His hair was not dissimilar from the head of hair she’d loved mornings, him waiting for coffee to brew and the sun rising and the floorboards warm creaking. But this wasn’t him. This was a different man, a stranger Conjured from the Otherworld of collapses.
She knelt and began screening.
Several times she was tempted toward conversation, though she kept quiet, only boxed and screened. Once, she’d almost reached out to the blue-tint of the man’s shoulder, to ask what he was seeking, but she saw the intensity by which he worked, a frantic energy that seemed impossible to interrupt. Instead she boxed and screened and he did the same right beside her, his grunts and mumbles thick with not-getting, sticky with not-finding, and the water washing over her knelt legs, fresh tributaries bleeding into the sea.
For a moment, the mist turned to proper rain and it plinked on the ribbon-runs of the man’s slicker. When the rain subsided, the sun tempted to show then reneged, stayed tucked in the cover of gray and grief.
The man screened and screened, occasionally taking something into his blue Conjured palm only to grumble and toss it back to the sea. Alongside him she quietly did the same, shuffled a box of sand and sea, sifting, waiting for something to happen, expecting some new suicide to rise in the box, expecting to sift out a fleck of no-hope or invincible angst, a pebble of the Otherworld coated with ugly longing. Instead it was box after box of nothing except blank screen, mining for naught in this endless, purgatorial sea.
Not knowing how long she’d continue, maybe forever and maybe not one box more, she sifted, and there, soaked and swimming, a scrap of paper rose, a white starfish of ink that sifted down onto the screen, the sea sighing out and the sky sun-muzzled, gray and gristled. She read the single word written there: Love.
She stopped and the Conjuring died out and she set about a new, frantic letter:
Some of it is getting through. I’ve written I don’t know how many letters now. I’ve set them under rocks, torn them to shreds and blowing on the wind. I’ve torched them and ingested them and sailed them in boat shapes, watching them gulp the water into their paper hulls and sink out of sight. But today, I Conjured a man panning for memories and I panned next to him and I found this scrap of paper that said Love. It was your handwriting. We’re getting closer. Because I wasn’t sure if you’d given up on me, and now this. Write me a thousand more letters. Leave them all over the city. Burn them or ingest them or spread their confetti in gusts. Some of it is coming through. And I’ll Conjure harder, because the gap between the Otherworld and Elsewhere has thinned. Our hearts are beacons. We’ve become lighthouses between here and there. I’ll keep writing. I’ll keep Conjuring. I’m still here. I still hope. I still love you,
J. A. Tyler is the author of The Zoo, a Going (Dzanc Books). His fiction has appeared in Diagram, Black Warrior Review, Fairy Tale Review, Fourteen Hills, and New York Tyrant among others. From 2007-2013 he ran Mud Luscious Press. He resides mostly offline.