It is dark when they come, banging on the door so loudly that I know they are bringing death with them. I hurry to answer it. I can see you stir in the sleeping alcove, little more than a hump under the blankets, but you are tired out from a day of laughing and climbing and tugging on my skirt, and you do not wake.
The night sounds of the city flow in as I open the door. Hawkers from the late market call and plead over the rise and fall of revellers from a nearby tavern. There is a distant crashing, and then a scream followed by hoarse laughter. Sounds of life, and choice, and chance.
Two men stand on my threshold. One, Iyaan, I know from the market, where he sells the sugared plums you are so greedy for. He has dark hair shot through with grey, and stubble that is more salt than pepper. City life has left its mark on him, but he has kind eyes and an engaging grin. Now, he is serious and pale.
The other is younger. Little more than a man, but he looks as a child with the fear writ large on his face. His eyes are wide, the whites showing all around, and he has been crying. No, he is crying. I start to close the door.
“Please,” he says. “Please.” He holds out the limp form in his arms, and I curse inwardly. The little girl looks like she is asleep, but she is not. I know that by the way she lays, boneless and still like a broken bird.
I told myself I would not, not again, but she seems so like you. She has the same soft curls, and there is something to the slight upturn of her nose. I am sure it crinkles when she cries. When she cried. Before I can stop myself I reach out. Her skin is soft and cool and her face is calm, but I can see small scarlet droplets in her long eyelashes, and in those dark curls. I feel the tomorrows rent and torn. Here, a flash of dancing in red shoes, giggling with delight. Here, a possible journey, the taste of dust and adventure on parched lips. And here, the bitterness of a first broken heart. The possibilities flail, greying and growing sluggish even as I sense them. My gaze is drawn to you, and then back to this broken creature.
“What happened?” I ask softly.
“She—” the younger man hitches his breath, fights the tears, and then tries again. “She fell. Down the steps. Our home, it is on the west wall.”
Simple enough. Such a mundane accident is common enough, too, if you live in one of the city wall slums, rickety buildings that sit atop one another like chipped and uneven stones. The city is full of danger. This you will learn.
“She is dead,” I say. I hear the flatness of my own voice, and I hate it. But some things need to be said, before what comes next.
“What would you have of me?”
Both men look uncomfortable in their own ways, and I suppress a sigh. You will find that most people cannot give voice to the impossible, no matter how much they want it.
— # —
It has been long, and longer, since I have been asked to do this. There was a time when such as I, such as we, were more common, but we are not built to last. Chance and choice take us early if we persist. I do not want to do it—I hope you believe that. But she is so like you. And she would have had red shoes, or an adventure, or heartache. Or so many other tomorrows.
“Put her on the rug,” I say. You have not wakened, and I doubt you will. You sleep the deepest of sleeps, as I did as a child before you. Time enough for sleeplessness when you are older, when you give away the tomorrows that you have. Oh, my love, please have more care than I.
The younger man lays the girl down in the middle of our small living space, and I motion for him to step back. What I am to do is both simple and the hardest thing. I glance to you again, but not to check your sleep. I should not do this thing, should not risk what I risk, but she has those curls, and had those tomorrows. How can I turn away those that have come? Am I so selfish as to risk nothing?
“You must promise,” I say, turning to hold my visitors with my eyes.
“Anything!” the young man sobs, and Iyaan nods quickly.
“Two things,” I continue, without acknowledging their hastiness. “First, you must not tell others.” Here, I fix Iyaan with a cold eye and he has the grace to blush. It makes him more than handsome. I can see the remnants of the child he was, before the city marked him with its weight. My heart twists a little.
“Second,” I continue. “If something happens to me, tomorrow or the next day or maybe months from now, you must promise to care for mine, if no one else makes a claim you think is just.” It has been long since I have done this thing, and extracted such a promise. I do not know if my last visitors would still consider themselves bound, as belief in strange things dwindles so with time. But Iyaan has those kind eyes, and his friend cries so for his lost daughter. They are both good things, so I ask.
There is a moment of silence as they digest my words. Iyaan’s eyes widen, and he makes as if to speak. I raise one hand to stop him. I look at the younger man, the girl’s father, and I see what I need there on his face. Hope, and pain, and perhaps, the small beginnings of understanding.
I kneel by the girl. I do not search for her injuries. They are not important. I do not know where this gift, or this curse, or both, comes from. I know it was in my mother, and I feel it in your small, chubby hands as they grasp mine. It is much the same as I feel from others, twisting threads of chance, but in yours, I feel this curse, this skill, this risk, winding its way through your days.
In the girl, the threads are torn and fading. I see again the red shoes, taste the dust and thirst, feel the heartache. And more besides, but now they are all like whispers, sun-faded paintings, echoes. I turn to regard the men. Their pathways are strong, bright and silver. The girl’s father has but a handful left to him, even at his young age. In one, he is destitute, bereft, a failure. In several others, he dies early, but not completely unhappy. There are a few wavering, silvery threads of hope still there, hovering about him, stretching up and away to a future that may grow from a miracle.
Iyaan is different. His pathways are few, and gleam with solid chances of becoming. I am a little surprised to see one silvery line flash with an image of me, bright and twisting with emotion. With an effort, I put my desire to trace it, to see what I can see, aside. You must do the same, when fate tempts you. You will never see enough, and the taste of those bright threads of chance are so very bitter.
I look back to the girl. I know what she would have had, if I had seen her earlier. Silvery threads of possible futures spilling out of her, splitting, merging, twisting and branching, choices made and ignored, her many lives flickering as possibilities. Now, there are just those fading threads, the last flickers of a fire that has burnt to embers.
I reach up to my own threads. There are not that many of them, and I do not see them as clearly as I see others. I let my fingers brush one, then another. There is an art to what I do, to what you may feel compelled to do. You need one that will take root, but you must select so very carefully. The first I touch has the smell of flatbread and long, warm summer days, the ache of old bones. It fills me with both satisfaction and tiredness. It is not of interest to a young girl on the edge of life. The second is nothing but tears and hollowness, and I push it away from me. The third—there is a flash of laughter and childish spirits. I draw in a sharp breath as I see you, smiling and spinning, watching your dress twirl in the late afternoon sun. You are older, but not much, and I feel an ache inside as I close my hand around the thread. It will work.
I pluck the thread even as my eyes well with tears. I have not changed the chance you will spin and smile—I cannot do that. But if that future firms and grows, I will not see it.
I give the thread to the girl. She is young, and there was at least a possibility that she would one day dance and giggle in red shoes. It is enough. The thread catches and holds and shimmers. It will grow and split and spread, choices wending their way back into her tomorrows. The rootstock is strong and well-matched.
The girl breathes deeply and her father cries out. I slump back on my haunches and wave at them to leave me be. I am not tired, but I ache inside. The image of you spinning and smiling is fading, and I feel…I don’t know. Less. Ashamed. I should be able to say no. I cannot say no. I do not understand myself, and yet I hope one day you will.
Iyaan hustles the man and his daughter away, shushing them both as they cry, him in relief, her in confusion. He whispers to me he shall return to see me later, but I do not want to look for that thread that may run from him to me. It was the future, and it was only a chance anyway.
— # —
My tea cools in my hand as I sit by the window, listening to the city, listening to the choices being made, the futures winnowed from silvery chance. I order my thoughts as best I can, but it is hard. Soon, I will write the story of tonight, and hope you will one day hear it from my lips, rather than read it on old, dry parchment.
What I do is what I must, but I don’t know if I can keep on, or if I should. I close my eyes and see a young girl, dancing in red shoes. I try to see you, spinning in the afternoon sun, and I cannot. It is nothing but the memory of a day I will never see. The memory of a tomorrow with you in it.
© 2022 Matt Tighe
About the Author
Matt Tighe lives in south eastern Australia with his amazingly patient wife, not so patient children, and the unlikely duo of Sherlock the dog and Moriarty the cat.
He is an academic in his other life.
His work has appeared in Nature Futures, The NoSleep Podcast, and Spawn: Weird Horror Tales about Pregnancy, Birth and Babies from IFWG Australia as well as other places.
He enjoys running and posting photos of the same run many, many times on social media.
You can find such on twitter @MKTighewrites and other info at https://matttighe.weebly.com/ (including a cool picture his son drew of his father’s brain).