Hope everybody is enjoying the holidays.
I happened across a short story I wrote freshman year which, while not good writing by most standards, was incredibly perfect to me, and still is, as a memento of the feelings I had as an eighteen year old, and the way I felt that life finally had meaning. I give it to you now, confident that it still true.
Note: the intent of this experimental magical-realism piece is that it is to be read while listening to its musical inspiration, Alexi Murdoch’s “Orange Sky“. Enjoy.
The boy lay on his back, embracing the land with his shoulder muscles and his long arms.
Before him was a yellow valley of rolling hills, tossing and turning themselves all the way down to the shoreline a few miles out, after which there was nothing but glistening ocean and uninterrupted horizon. A shimmering reflection of white light followed the boy’s line of sight over the surface of the water to line up with the August sun, just beginning its descent beyond the curvature of the world. Above this sundrenched sea was nothing but orange sky.
Beside the boy stood an old oak tree, stretching its wide limbs graciously over the slope of the hill. Its bark was blackened from the ice of winter nights and the occasional torrents of rain that the tree, alone, had withstood over time. One or two rare instances of lightning had buckled its hardy trunk, leaving scars and disfigurements that made the tree seem all the more aged. From where the boy lay, the late afternoon sunlight scattered through the dense canopy of branches and leaves in little kaleidoscopic threads, casting his relaxed body in a melodrama of spots.
The tree was a kind of eyes and ears for the heart of the hills, to which the boy spoke.
“When I was younger, my vision of the world was so small… I couldn’t imagine anything beyond the front door of my home, or the curb of the sidewalk, or the end of the neighborhood.” In his fingers, he measured a blade of grass. “But then as I grew older, that little sphere in which I lived grew and expanded, first to the corner of the block, then to the school, and then the whole town, and now this entire region. And so I think our perception of distance is a very different thing from one chapter of our lives to the next.”
“Is this how you fell in love?” the hills whispered. A hawk circled high above, riding the wind.
The boy turned over onto his stomach, hiding his face in the ground. His silky hair swayed lightly like an auburn tuft of grass, the curves and creases of his skin imbued with an amber glow. From far away his body appeared to be a rock or mound buried into the slope of the land.
“When I first met her, I felt like she was so far away, like the trip to her home was a journey that could only be made once in a lifetime. Back then, the distance between us was something very disheartening, something that led me to believe my love was hopeless. But in reality, she was only about ten miles away! Now the distance between us is nothing. Traveling to meet her is almost the same as stepping outside my front door. I feel like she is beside me, even now.”
The hills exhaled deeply, as if content with his answer. “Brother, distance is something you have conquered with age, but it is not the same for me. Would you like to see what I see?” The boy nodded, planting his hands into the cool soil and closing his eyes.
“The land does not travel; and if it moves, it moves slowly, inch by inch over the course of the year. Perhaps over millennia the continents have separated, mountain ranges have risen and canyons have split, but there is no traveling to speak of, no final destination; just movement as a way of life, not a means to an end. So although your scope of the world is always expanding, mine is forever limited by the boundaries of the horizon.” After a moment the hills added, “But Brother, it’s a long road you’ve been walking on. In a way, your travels have given me the experience of distance, too.”
The boy smiled and sat up on the grass. “Is there anywhere you would like me to go for you?”
“Go to her,” the hills said, and the boy was running down the slope, disappearing with the sun.
* * * * *
When the boy came back some days later his hand was leading hers up the hill, her eyes covered by a summer shawl. Their feet tripped over each other in excitement and anticipation until they got to the top of the hill and he slipped behind her, moving his fingers from her waist up her sides, over her naked shoulders, up the curve of her neck. Delicately removing the blindfold, he whispered into her ear, “Now, open your eyes.” The girl saw before her the entire valley, the yellow fields, the rolling hills and the glistening ocean, the orange sky.
They didn’t speak for a while, taking in the view.
Then she turned around, stared at him, and began to rock slowly, her hands curling around his neck, her eyes beaming in that way he knew meant she was exactly where she wanted to be. As they swayed beneath the tree, brown leaves twirled between their legs and nestled into the grass, creating almost a whistle in the air, as if the hills were humming a tune to their rhythm. They heard it and smiled, feeling the music resonate through their feet, vibrating in the spaces between their arms.
From the foot of the hill they appeared to be a single silhouette spinning in place beside the black tree, upon a black slope, the sky behind them a glorious backdrop for a film that never ends. They held their embrace until the sun touched the surface of the ocean, and as the light began to fade, she stepped back, looking at him suddenly with concern. Her lips seemed to be forming words, her slender fingers pressing the hair behind her ears, one bare foot curled behind the other.
But then she sighed, tiptoed to bring her nose close to his ear and whispered, “In time.”
And then she was gone, down the hill, and suddenly the boy sank a little into his own body, his wings disappearing back into his shoulders, and he felt a strange weight press down in the depths of his heart. The hills asked, “How do you feel, Brother?”
“She has only just left, yet suddenly I feel like I have been alone my entire life. Why is it that now she has such a profound effect on me? Is this what we must suffer in exchange for happiness?”
The hills laughed and enveloped the boy in a warm embrace. “Men who walk the earth know nothing of the true nature of happiness. Brother, you have believed all your life that happiness is a goal, something to attain, the reward at the end of the road.” The grass swayed lightly, in circles. “But in fact, happiness is just a single point on the wheel of life, a flicker on the reel, something you gain and lose as inevitably as the cycling seasons. The land has always known this, you see.”
The boy held his arms tightly to his chest, trying to keep the girl’s fleeting warmth. “I just wish it didn’t have to be this way. That we could just live the rest of our days in eternal summer.”
The sun disappeared again behind the horizon, for the fourth time in four days. “Brother, you still have so much to learn. The happiness you seek is not in summer, but in the darkness of winter, in the cold of the night. Because in fact, true happiness is the anticipation of experience, the anticipation of memories, knowing that the future holds something beautiful, that in time, you will see your love again. Go now, and cherish this emptiness while it lasts.”
As the boy ran down the slope with renewed spirit, the hills watched the sky turn from orange to black and remembered a December many years ago when the entire valley froze over with ice, and a bolt of lightning shattered the trunk of the oak tree, leaving a gaping emptiness in the earth. The night took over, the cool air descended like fog, the boy and the girl were gone, and the land was alone. The land was serene.
* * * * *
The girl stared out to sea, her blue dress, her ebony hair, billowing in the light breeze. Many years had passed, and the boy took her weekly to spend the afternoons with him beneath the orange sky, but every once in a while, when he was away, she came alone.
She had been curious ever since that first afternoon when she danced with the boy and the land seemed to be alive all around them, and she wanted to find out for herself the nature of the hills. The following week she had biked down the country road alone, following the landmarks that had been imprinted in her memory: the chain-linked fence overgrown with vines, the shingled roof with a satellite dish perched at its edge, the two trees at the shoulder of the path that had interlocked their trunks as if in love, the dirt path through the brush, over the creek and up the foot of the hills, to the oak tree high above where the whole valley was illuminated.
She had placed her fragile hands upon the rough surface of the tree and listened to the wind, waiting for a response from the hills. An hour had passed by and with no sign of life she had concluded her beliefs were mistaken, when suddenly the bark beneath her palm moved and she whispered, “Hello?”
“Why did you wait so long to speak?”
“I was waiting for you.”
Over time she came to learn the story of the hills. How their father was a mountain and their mother was the ocean, each weaving their designs into the fabric of the valley, giving them life, giving them history. How once in the past natives danced and sang upon their yellow slopes, dark-skinned men and women wearing the feathers of eagles and the hide of deer, bobbing up and down in time to the beating of their drums, the beating of their hearts. How later men in black uniforms drove the dancers out, slashed their necks with daggers, shed their blood upon the scarred soil, buried their children’s bodies in graves cut out of the crying land. How at night their voices can still be heard in the hollows of the trees, the undulations of the tides, the gusts of the winds. How the people came and went over centuries, claiming the earth around the hills, building freeways and shopping malls upon overturned soil, disrupting the horizon however they pleased. How the land still sings although nobody is listening; how the land still dances although nobody is watching.
Underneath the oak, the girl tied a string of dandelions together in her hair and sat cross-legged on the tree’s roots, sunbeams in her eyes. After a while, she said to the hills, “They’re sending him away next month. They’re sending him overseas to fight in the war.”
The hills did not speak. She clenched her arms closer to her chest and continued, “He says they’ll only require him to serve for a year. He says he’ll write as often as he can.”
Suddenly, she broke the silence with a single gasp, straining to keep her composure. A single tear trickled down her freckled cheek, but she did not wipe it away. The hills still did not speak.
“I have… so many fears,” she cried. The cold air bit into her pale skin as the skies began to darken.
“What are you afraid of?”
She tugged at the grass with her toes. “Our lives are like flowers in the wind. Who can say what becomes of our souls when we leave this world? I wonder, will we go to Heaven or Hell?”
The soil beneath her seemed to sigh. “Actually, Sister, Heaven and Hell are the same place.”
She looked up. “Is this true?” She imagined the boy, fighting somewhere beyond the horizon.
“Wherever you go in this life or the next, always remember that you can bring your own sunshine. It’s only those who close their eyes who find themselves in Hell. But you, Sister, have the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen. Look, and you will always find Heaven.”
The girl placed her hand on the withered trunk. “Do you really think so?”
The wind suddenly ceased to blow, and the entire field of grass seemed to stand up straight in response. “I believe in dreams, in comet skies and the morning dew. My Sister, I believe in you.”
* * * * *
The boy and the land spoke of many things, in those last few days before he went away. They spoke of the past and pending, of forgotten dreams, of the meaning of life, of God. But more often than not they spoke of his love for the girl.
“Brother,” the hills asked. “It has been ten years, yet the two of you remain frozen in time on this land. And now you should be preparing to go to war, preparing to leave your home, leave your family, but you choose to spend your time here with the girl. Are you not wasting precious time?”
Two squirrels scurried past the boy’s stretched-out legs and up the trunk, their tails jumping about and small feet scrambling on chipped bark. A jet streamed through the distant sky, leaving a trail of exhaust behind it, on its way to a new coast. The boy leaned against the tree, unmoving.
“Everything in my life right now,” he replied, “is just so incredibly fast, and confusing, and out of my hands… This is the one place where time slows down, where I can see the world with clarity. I think she is the one person in my life who gives me bearing.”
The plane was now too small to be seen, and its trail had dissolved into a blur. The squirrels had retreated into their hole, their little eyes watching the world. After a while, the hills sighed, “It is exactly the opposite for me.” The boy listened, curious.
“I have existed here for thousands of years, watching the sun meander across the orange sky, hearing the cool breeze of the wind across my hair, feeling the soil on my skin slowly erode away.” A little ship appeared on the horizon, almost motionless in perspective. “Have you ever stared at anything for longer than a minute? I have stared at many things, each for hundreds of years, and still I am not any closer to seeing the entirety of this land. Time for me is a waltz and I am twirling slowly in place, never changing, never awakening.”
The boy felt the earth tremble below him, a rush of emotion shaking the trunk of the oak and sending a rustle of leaves swirling downwards onto his outstretched body, the land’s way of extending its touch. “But you have changed all that. Your life is but a split second in my own, yet it has been my greatest rejuvenation. I believe the bond you two share may be more natural than the movements of the stars, or the flow of the tides, even my own existence.”
Then, realizing its significance, the hills added, “My Brother, your love could be the spark of life.”
Together, the boy and the hills looked out onto the white ocean, contemplating the nature of time. The boy imagined deep inside his chest a tiny seed, as bright as a light bulb, holding the spark of life that passed on to every surface he touched. He imagined that seed flying over the ocean, to a place that had no hills, no trees, no grass. He imagined that seed crushed in the palm of another hand, its light fading as quickly as it appeared. He imagined a hardened seed buried deep in the ground, safe for the rest of eternity.
The sun set in exactly half an hour, the shimmering path of reflected light whisking away to darkness. But to the hills it felt like many, many years, while the boy felt only one minute fly by.
* * * * *
She crept up the slope of the hill to find him waiting by the tree. She stopped short of him, letting him see the entirety of her body, as if she were standing naked before him, bathed in the yellow warmth of the setting sun. The grass between them bent side to side, absorbing the silence. She began to speak, but he quickly put his index finger to his lips. She understood. From inside her jacket she pulled out a small black notebook and held it towards him. For you, to write to me.
He extended his own hand. Thank you.
Do you remember that first time we danced here, beneath the orange sky?
I thought that the hills were alive. I thought that we had left behind the bustling world we knew, but here was something more, something natural, something beautiful. But now I wonder if maybe hills are hills, the sky is the sky, and what I felt was a feeling from you, after all.
He stepped closer to her.
She stopped his body with her hand.
Before we do this, I want you to know what will happen. I will fall into your arms, and we will dance one more time by the oak tree. We will love each other more than we have ever loved before, realizing the perfection of the silence, the sanctity of our embrace. And then the sun will set, and I’ll return to my life, and you’ll go off to the war, and life as we know it will change. You’ll become weary, the memory of me will break your heart, and your mind will be too strong to carry on. And here I will wait, missing you, missing me, and we’ll realize that even if you do return, our love will never be the same as it was here on these hills, on this day. And the effect of what you had seen, what I had lost, will slowly tear us apart. And we’ll both spend the rest of our lives searching for a home that once was. After a moment she added, Our home may be this place, but it is also a time.
He saw the sadness in her eyes and tried to touch her face, but she stopped him and continued.
I want you to know that this will happen. Our time is too short. The distance between us will be too much. I want you to know that whatever we feel in each other’s arms today will be true, but it will not last. I am telling you right now: we will not last.
Alright. He smiled at her. The hills smiled. She smiled back, then fell into his arms.
* * * * *
Twenty years ago, they were born along the coast, ten miles apart. A single road connected their towns, through largely uninhabited wilderness, running adjacent to a stretch of yellow hills. When they were five they both attended preschool in little white churches, wearing little white uniforms that their mothers hand-washed twice a week. When they were nine the boy’s father drove him ten miles to see an old family friend who lived in a quaint pastel house at the end of a cul-de-sac. There, he met the girl for the first time. She sat on the piano stool, tugging at her shoes while he sat on the sofa, scratching his head. For the next five years the boy asked his father once a week when they would visit the family friend again, which began to annoy his father greatly after two years. When they were sixteen the boy got his first car and drove ten miles to see the girl every weekend, completing all of his homework by Friday night. When they were seventeen he took her to see his favorite spot in the hills, by the old tree that overlooked the valley.
When he was nineteen the boy was drafted to the military, while the girl began her education at a nearby college. She sent him letters written on orange leaves that had fallen off of the tree, which he kept in a bag under his bunk and pressed to his nose when he slept. He wrote back to her on lined paper that he ripped from a small black notebook she had given him before he left. Its pages were wrinkled and crumpled because he had carelessly taken it with him in his jacket pocket one day to patrol. An armed vehicle down the path had exploded, hurtling scraps of burning metal onto the desert road as he scrambled for cover under the falling walls and dying voices. That night he returned to base camp to find her notebook soaked in sweat and tears and realized that life did not always reward good intentions.
When she was twenty she was told that the boy had been killed in action. He was transporting civilians from their homes into a safe zone when he was caught in ambush gunfire and shot in the chest. His squad carried him to a helicopter but by then it was too late. The same night, a fire in the base camp forced the squad to evacuate. His belongings were all lost. His body was being transported back home.
* * * * *
She had never seen the sunrise before, over the ocean from this viewpoint by the tree. The sky was the same shade of orange as it was every afternoon she had spent with him here, but the difference was that that orange was always turning darker as the sun seeped into the water, while this orange was gradually becoming lighter, more like bright, splendid day. She rubbed her hands in a circular motion over the surface of the porcelain jar. It was change, after all. It was always change that mattered.
Alone with the hills she felt calm and secure. Up here she could see as far as her arms could stretch, hundreds, possibly thousands of miles out onto the ocean, forever upwards, and every inch over the valley. She leaned against the tree in silence, clutching his remains, her eyes wandering, her mind lucid.
“If it were up to you,” she said, suddenly placing the jar on the ground, “what would you do? Would you scatter his ashes over the sea, or bury them in your soil?”
A breeze caught the leaves by the jar and sent them tumbling through the air, down the slope to the sea. “The land retains everything,” the hills said. “I collect rocks and pebbles that wash in from the ocean. I hold the treasures of the sky, the heat of sun, the secrets of animals.” The hills trembled with weight. “The memories of man.” The scars of graves pressed down on the earth.
The girl remained silent. The jar by her feet sat motionless, reflecting the growing light of the morning. The hills finally sighed, “I believe it is part of the human condition to desire permanence, to become one with the land.” The grass parted. “I have nothing to hold. I can shed my soil. I can make room for his memory.”
“Then no,” the girl said suddenly, dropping to her knees. “We will be different. We will float with the wind and leave the same way we came.” She removed the heavy lid and scooped his ashes into her soft hands. For a moment, she closed her eyes, feeling the texture of his life, the weight of his experience. Softly she whispered, “With no home, we will never be missed.” And then she lifted her arms, and the wind took him away, flying towards the orange sky.
The hills watched in silence. The wind continued to rush over the slope of the land, picking up the boy, picking up the leaves, the flowers, her hair, her skirt, the tears. The hills felt a strange weight lifted from the earth and marveled at surprise, the youth, the novelty of it all. The girl picked up the jar and started down the back slope. Then she stopped and turned back towards the hill.
“What are you, anyway?” she mused. “Are you the earth? Are you a spirit? Are you God?”
The hills breathed in the cool, ocean air. “I am exactly what I appear to be. I am the trees, the grass, the rocks, the hills. I am a thousand little things at once, and nothing at all. I am everything under the orange sky. I am life and death, intertwined. I am energy, flowing, rising.”
The sun broke the edge of the hill and shed light upon the dark side of the hill, casting the girl in a warm glow. “But now the question is turned to you. Are you what you appear to be?”
She thought for a moment. “Well, what do I appear to be?”
The hills thought for a long time.
“You appear to be constantly aware of your mortality. You enjoy life like you would a song at its last chorus, or a bittersweet novel at its last chapter. You’re human nature as it should be.”
She smiled after hearing this and decided what she would spend the rest of the day alone. As she skirted away, her smooth hair trailing behind her, the hills wondered if it were possible that she was an angel, that he was an angel, that all humans were answers from God. The hills began to chant gloriously at this thought, the grass welling with water, the leaves rustling with fury, the foundations of the nearby cities suddenly rumbling, the girl looking to the sky, the entire valley lifted in song.
In your love, my salvation lies
In your love, my salvation lies
In your love, my salvation lies
In your love, my salvation lies
* * * * *