“Tell me a story,” she sighs. Her breath is papery. It flutters toward him, a dry little whisper. Crumbling.
The room smells musty. It has been this way for as long as he can remember. The light is the same as it has always been, sepia-toned, a nondescript amber that covers her onionskin face in dull color. The sheets are thin and brittle.
He coughs. Takes a sip from his dark mug, though it is murky and he cannot see the bottom. The taste is stagnant, bitter. He puts the mug down.
Her desiccated skin pulls tight; a smile forms. Her teeth are stained and pitted. She waves a dry hand toward the wall, stirring up motes that dance at her fingertips. A drinking bird dips its beak into a glass of cloudy water, lifts its head again, dips. Steady as a metronome. “A story.”
He smiles back. Pats her bony hand. Begins to speak.
“Before the light came, there was a boy. The boy loved the grass, the trees, the moss. Do you know why he loved these things?”
Her eyes are glowing. She wants to answer; she knows the answer, but she presses her dry lips together and waits for him to continue.
“He loved them because they were green.” He stops and squeezes her hand. “And before the light came, the boy loved the sea, and the sky, and the rivers. Do you know why?”
Her excitement hisses from her mouth in a hot burst. She knows. She knows, but she will not say.
“He loved these things,” he says, “because they were blue.”
She grips his hand tighter.
“Before the light, mountains were purple. Eyes were blue, and green. Flowers were pink, and yellow, and indigo. Red was the color of more than horror and death.
“These were the colors of the boy’s world, and he loved them.”
Her breath comes quickly, and the fine skin of her throat bobs.
“And when the light came, and the boy had to choose, it was not really a choice at all. The boy went with the colors that he so loved. He went away from the light, and toward the beauty with which he belonged.”
She shuts her eyes tight. Tears appear at the corners of their wrinkled lids. She turns toward the dirty wall. The drinking bird dips into the beaker again. Raises its head.
He rises. It is time to leave.
“Tomorrow night,” he says. The woman on the bed does not move.
Outside, the wind blows fine ochre dust.
* * *
The boiling orange sun is low in the sky when he knocks at the door again. His hand comes away blackened with soot. There is no sound.
He pushes the door open and shuts it quickly, pressing hard to be sure that the vicious wind will not follow him. The dust is so thick in the air he can taste it, feel it clogging his nostrils even through the protective cloth he wears. The room is completely dark; the windows have long since been painted over. He feels for the tinder box on the shelf at his right, then pulls the lantern down from overhead. He lights the wick, and the room is flooded with familiar amber light.
The man tugs off his goggles and the bandanna that covers his face. He shrugs out of his duster and folds it, stowing it under the metal folding chair that sits across from the bed.
The woman turns slowly, her brittle, colorless hair spilling across her lined face. Her thin lips crease in a smile, and she stretches her bony hand toward him, crooking one skeletal finger.
“Tell me a story.”
“Tea first,” he says. He lights the stove and pumps murky water from the basin in the floor. He sets the kettle on the flame. They wait in silence. The porcelain bird dips its head again and again.
The kettle whistles, and the man withdraws a packet from his pocket. He tips some dried leaves into two dirty mugs and pours steaming water into them. He sets a mug on the small table beside the woman’s head. He eases into the folding chair, holding his own mug in his lap. He coughs, then takes a tentative sip.
“A story.” Her eyes, too big in her bony face, fix on his.
“All right,” he says. He leans back in his chair. Her wasted body strains toward him.
“Before the light came, there was a girl who loved to sing. Every night, she would sing, and her family would listen in awe, because her voice was so beautiful.”
Her breath catches in her sandy throat. She loves this story. She presses her lips together tightly so that he will continue.
“As the girl grew older, her voice grew lovelier. She listened to music whenever she liked. Do you know why?”
She knows why, but she waits.
“She listened to the music because it was beautiful. Because she wanted to be beautiful, too. Before the light came, there were things that could become beautiful through work and faith.”
The man does not look at her. He looks at the wall behind her, his eyes fixed on a point beyond her in the tiny room. It is as though he can see the singing woman in the cracked beige plaster of the wall.
“When the light came, the woman was singing at a sold-out show in a big city, on a smooth black stage lit with electric lights. She wore a sequined dress that sparkled in the bright lights, and her skin and hair were full and beautiful. She smiled with her red, red lips, and when the light came, she knew that her choice had been made long ago: She was of the world of beauty, not the world of the light and dust and death.”
The woman draws in her breath, closing her eyes. She breathes in, out. In, out.
The porcelain bird dips its head.
The man rises to leave.
* * *
The man walks through the swirling red dust to the gravel road below. Everything looks the same, and it has taken the man a long time to learn to navigate the land. The man has never known anything but the light, but every year the dust worsens and the roads become harder to find.
He pulls his coat tighter and adjusts the cloth over his face. His goggles are old and sand-worn, but he does not dare go out without them. He has seen men blinded by the dust, their eyes scarred sockets.
In the glare of the enormous sun, the man does not see the dim, hunched figure that approaches through the dust. Over the howl of the ferocious wind, he does not hear the hammer that drives downward from above him, splitting his skull and knocking him to the ground. He does not feel the hands that strip him of his goggles and boots, then feel blindly in his pockets, triumphantly raising the packet of tea leaves in a shaking fist before leaving him to the dust.
* * *
In the dark, the woman waits. The man has never been late before. She cannot see in the dark, but she can hear the dipping bird peck the water, and she has learned to count the tiny sounds it makes over the pounding wind outside. She never sleeps.
She waits, and she counts. Somewhere deep inside, she knows he will not come. She has always known that this will happen, has readied herself for this moment, yet it still catches her unawares. She trembles with fear. What will she do without the stories? Without the tea? Without the company of the kind man?
The woman begins to weep. She is certain that he is gone. She suspects the man may be dead, and this knowledge makes her weep all the more.
Abruptly, the boy who loved colors appears in her mind. She stops crying, surprised. She closes her eyes and finds she can see them all: the boy, the beautiful singer, the painter, the little girl who loved puzzles. They are all there in her mind, smiling, beckoning.
The woman sighs. Eyes shut tight, she reaches out her hands. They walk toward her, arms wide open, calling her name. She smiles. She does not hear the dipping bird peck in and out, in and out.
Outside, the wind howls.
Dagny Paul wishes she was a writer, but she’s really an 8th grade English teacher who can’t control her imagination. Her son is three, and her husband has a broken ankle, so it’s a miracle that she writes these days at all.