Funny, today didn’t begin different than any of the innumerable days that passed since we entered this prison. Well, who can say when a day begins when the sun never sets behind that perpetual haze of clouds, but for me, it began with the wind whispering against my cheek, coaxing my eyelids to open, and I tried to remember where, in this private city, had I laid down for my sleep. Like so many rooms in the so many buildings here this one was bare of any furniture and had walls the color of flame-scorched stone. It did, by luck, have a small rug of some faded and indeterminate color, which I had rolled and tucked under my head.
Oh, I could never be like you. You began setting up a home the moment we realized we were trapped, dragging all the furniture to a choice cottage by the sea. But I just had to wander. I guess that’s the incompatibility that drove us, the only two souls in this shell of a town, to live our lives apart.
When I head the call of the osprey, I remembered where I had settled—the highest tower in our city, the temple, I remember you called it, for you saw something sacred in its gleaming white walls. The osprey, crying harsh, was what drew me here. I had never seen a living animal in all our time trapped in this walled city. Once I found the web of a cocoon, but it was so dry, it turned to dust at the slight brush of my fingertip. But the osprey! It was beyond my sight, but somewhere far above life continued!
Below the window, waves broke against the cliffs, so far down that their violence was inaudible. But life, life could be closer to me than that sea of death. Your garden, too, was visible from here—the fragrant green grasses that bowed along your usual paths leading down to the water, all lined with pear trees heavy with eternal white blossoms. Some part of me wondered why I couldn’t sleep there, in the soft earth by your side… Regardless, I knew I had to tell you about the osprey. Really, I couldn’t imagine you being anything but happy.
On the stairs I wondered how long ago my knees had stiffened. My face flashed hot at the thought of appearing to you as a wild old woman, my tangled white hair whipping around my shoulders and my skirt all in tatters. How unfair that I should age so many decades while the pear blossoms had yet to drop.
You’d be older too, but serious and retired, never sacrificing an ounce of dignity. You’d appear to be someone never capable of losing oneself in love. Yes, so often our young heat, our whispers in the pillows, seemed like a far-off dream, and this world, the cold and hollow city, was the only reality we ever shared.
The space outside the tower is by far my favorite part of the city—the sculpture garden, where larger than life figures of blackened bronze display all the great lovers that we were once arrogant enough to compare ourselves to—Juliet bent to taste the poison from Romeo’s lips, Eros with his wings wrapped around Psyche, and Hero, ready to plunge into the depths after her Leander.
Hero, in this last one, had a young body poised like an arrow preparing for her dive, every muscle pulled back ready to spring. But despite this taunt determination of her posture, her face remained caught between shock and despair. Her cheeks were puffed as if she had been weeping, and one corner of her lip was caught between her teeth, hinting of her inner doubts, despite her body prepared to plunge into the bottom of the sea, all for love.
I tried not to look at her when I passed. Something about her boldness mingled with her vulnerability filled me with regret. But it was hard not to carry her in my mind’s eye as I approached the well.
I saw you there, turning the crank to raise a bucket of fresh water. Pale, and so very far and small. You looked as impermanent as a ghost in the night. When you turned to me, I knew you wanted to vanish into the air, but instead you froze, eyes transfixed on my approach.
You called my name as if I were some distant acquaintance in a crowded plaza—so much indifference was in your voice it made my shudder—and then you turned to go, as if acknowledging my presence was all the interaction you desired.
“Wait,” I shouted, and ran down the path.
“What is it?” you said with a polite, but far-off, smile. You set down the bucket, and the popping in your knees reminded me what an inconvenience I was.
“There’s an osprey,” I said. “An osprey up near the top of the tower. Maybe it nests there, on the roof.”
“You actually saw an osprey?”
“Well, no. I only heard it.” I suddenly felt so disarmed. You could make me feel so unsure of myself. My voice lowered to a whisper, “What do you think it means?”
“Come,” you said with a wave of your hand. “Get the bucket, will you?”
We travel in silence through the prison we built out of our love: past the crystal towers, marble pillars and sparking fountains we once conjured to symbolize the purity of our devotion. I can’t know how many decades ago we lay below deck on that clipper ship, sculpting the monument of our perfect love. Little did we know, some god would punish us for our hubris. When we survived the shipwreck and landed here, we thought we had all we needed in the world.
I carried the bucket of water into the cabin we once shared. The unfading roses stood in the vase. The powder blue armchair rested in the same patch of sun under the window. I set the bucket on the floor by the door. You picked it up and set it on the table. I never could remember about the water.
You settled into your armchair, but your bones were wearier now and creak as they bent into position. I couldn’t help but think that your handsome young face still existed under the sagging skin around your jaw. The papery whiteness wrinkled like a mask I could just pull off. Your eyes, under new folds of skin, were still the same misty gray.
“So, the osprey?” You said as I take my old place on the loveseat.
“Yes,” I said. “Can you believe it?”
“I might believe it. I might not believe it. Either way, I’ll never see it.” Waves crashed behind your voice, for here your garden path, through the one break in the city wall, ended at the sea.
“Why aren’t you excited? There’s life out there! Another world.”
“A world beyond our grasp.” You shook your head. “Why would I care about something I can never reach? We have only one door: the sea.”
“What about the wall? Who knows what’s on the other side?”
“The wall is unscalable. You know this.”
“But…if we could think together. The bird is in the air. It’s a clue. If we got up on the roof, maybe we could see something we missed.”
“I see,” you said in a terse tone. “You’re bored at last of exploring all those empty rooms. You need my help for your new novelty fix.”
“That’s not it!” I was nearly shouting. “There’s life continuing up there!”
“So? There’s no escape. At best, you can go up there and bird watch.”
“What’s wrong with that? I’d love to see another living being besides you.”
This last part came out more of a barb than I intended, and your gray eyes suddenly fill with storm clouds.
“Get out,” you whispered and pointed limply to the door. “I have no use for any living beings anymore.”
So I left, confused, not sure if it was my fault things went so off-track. If I had known what would happen, would I have tried harder to convince you the osprey mattered? Could I have?
As I walked to the tower, alone, I thought of that eternal stormy sea, raging just behind your cottage, and the days we spent clinging to wreckage only to arrive at this trap. We gave up so easily when we were young and happy and believed forever in each other’s arms was no punishment.
I would see the osprey, I resolved as I climbed the stairs to the room where I had slept earlier. From the window, I could see you behind the cottage. You were standing along the path, frozen between the trees of shivering white blossoms. I pitied you, stuck in your quiet habits, as I stepped out on a tiny rim of stone no wider than my hand.
I pressed flat against the tower wall, trying not to look down at the sculptures in the courtyard so dizzily far below. Without turning my head, I could still see the green of your garden and you, walking down closer to the water through the part in the tall grass.
I turned my face and searched for a way onto the peaked roof. The gutter. If I slid down a several paces, I could grab it. In a few careful movements, I stood on the roof. For the first time in decades, I felt surrounded by sky. I turned my head up, and the rippling gray field of clouds encompassed my vision. No towers held me down.
I heard the cry of the osprey, a distant echo. I scanned the horizon for a sign of the bird, but instead I saw you walking into the sea. Your clothes already were heavy with sea water as you trudged forward mechanically. I held my breath as a wave rose before you, but you only paused to let it break against your chest. I thought back later on that suspense I felt, and realize from the beginning I must have known this was no casual swim. I still knew your movements so well I could feel the subtleties of your mood, even from my sky-bound perch.
I heard the osprey again, but I didn’t turn my head. Your gray hair disappeared under the water, but you floated back up with the next wave, and flung yourself under again with more passion and intensity than I had seen in years. And each rising wave carried you farther from me. The cawing of the osprey rang like maniacal laughter in my ears. And at last, your white form, fluttering like a moth, vanished into the darkness of the angry sea.
And I’m still up here, frozen as stone, running over these events in my mind, composing one last letter to you. Far below in the courtyard, Hero stands, ready to dive for love.
BIO: Valerie Lute is a writer whose short stories and poetry have appeared in Everyday Fiction, The Good Men Project and Southword Journal, among others. She is passionate about theatre, dreams, history, mythology and the extremes of the human imagination. Sometimes adults aren’t interested in such big ideas, which is why she is writing a book for children.