the canyon

Posted on November 6, 2013

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Mixing things up a bit, this story was based not on a phase or concept, but a picture. I admit I didn’t look at it very hard, so possibly it isn’t really a canyon at all. But it became a canyon in my head and a canyon on the page, and I’m pretty proud of how it turned out.

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A Line in the Dirt, a Line in the Sky

I used to joke that Beck was the most beautiful boy in two worlds. At least, I would say the words as if they were a joke, but they were absolutely true. Sometimes I still wake up in the middle of the night, worrying that he didn’t realise that. I pray to God that he did.

Depending on your outlook, the canyon was a place that either proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the aforementioned God existed, or that he couldn’t possibly. In that way, it was pretty much like everything else in life. In every other sense it was a remarkable and dangerous place. For a while it was a favourite destination for scientists from across the globe, but after the loss of too many lives in return for nothing in the way of answers, the scientific community had done its best to forget the impossibilities that waited at the ends of the narrow, dusty paths and beyond into the infinite. By the time I was old enough to take an interest in the place, it was only disturbed by the occasional hopeful young scientist who would send down remote controlled rovers in the hope of finding something their forebears had not. As far as I am aware, they all left disappointed.

The canyon was utterly forbidden to the local kids, so of course it became a rite of passage to venture inside. Unlike the scientists, reckless in their superior intellect, a kind of folk knowledge passed down through overlapping generations of children kept us safe from the greater dangers that waited below. There were certainly a few frights had, but no one from our nearby town had been lost since before my parents’ time, at least. The adults knew we went there, but they knew that we knew where to step and what not to touch, and that we would grow out of our fascination just as they had.

I know Rebecca goes to that place, drawn there by a pull that might be even stronger than my own. Wearing his eyes and serious mouth and the darkness of his hair, she walks down into the canyon and is back before dinner.

It pains me how much I have forgotten about my own visits. A diary is not the place to record the things that wander where the world grows thin. But I will always remember the day I met him that first time. It is written on my heart, my bones.

It was my first time alone in the canyon. I had ventured with an older kid before, had been shown the ropes of the crooked pathways and the signs that warned of immediate dangers. But eventually the time came to strike out alone, to prove to yourself brave. The canyon walls and outcrops bore marks to warn against the greater perils – one-way routes that would never lead you back home again; places were the creatures we called Outsiders were known to wander. The dust storms were annoying and unpleasant, but it was the opaque mist that could rise without warning that we were taught to truly fear. Its touch meant death; we all knew to flee at its approach. And if we became lost, there were signs to lead us back.

Part of the draw of the canyon was its trackless nature. It could not be mapped by a thousand generations of inquisitive youngsters; there was always some new wonder to discover and make your own. Places where the ground gave way to vistas over alien landscapes or the starry void; flowers that bloomed in unnameable colours; old debris washed up on the shores of our reality. The single commandment that all must follow if they wished to live: touch nothing.

The crack in the huge boulder called to me. It was perilously narrow if I had to flee from the mist, but I couldn’t refuse its summons. I might have searched around the sides of the outcropping, but under the canyon’s laws it was unlikely to lead me to the same spot. My only choice was to brave the cool darkness or ignore the call.

The passage was shorter than I expected. Light filtered thinly from above as I took several sharp turns that opened abruptly into a space beneath a cloudless sky. I found myself in a roughly circular bowl bordered by a wall of rock that shone with silvery veins. The dusty ground glittered with specks of the same bright mineral. Across the way was an identical opening. It was the most serene place I had found in the chaos of the canyon, a safe place within arms of stone.

Safe perhaps, but less than exciting. The place was pretty, but offered no views or wonders. No burning cities or silver jungles shuddering in the grip of gale force winds. I was half turned away when I saw, from the corner of my eye, Beck stepping through the opposite opening. I didn’t know his name then, of course, wasn’t aware that one day it would whisper through my dreams. Caught between a mess of dark hair and dirty cheeks, cautious eyes peered. I called out to him and waved – it was a day for bravery. He paused only momentarily before mirroring my steps across the ochre ground. Details emerged as the distance narrowed: a small, fine nose and straight, dark dashes of eyebrows the shaded the thoughtful eyes beneath. It was a serious face across which smiles broke with rare brilliance.

We both seemed to notice a peculiar phenomenon at the same time. Directly across the centre of the space, where it grew widest, there was a line in the air and earth. It was as though the far side was viewed through a filter that left the colours tinted a grey blue, the way the world sometimes looks when you open your eyes after holding them closed in bright sunlight. There was no sheen on the air to indicate a barrier other than change in the light. I reached out towards the boy, and although I did not meet a solid surface, there was resistance where the barrier lay. It was like in school when you try to bring the like poles of two magnets together, a field that was smooth and slippery, but undeniable. My fingers could press further into it, but it the resistance increased the further they moved towards that other, outstretched hand. I wonder if Beck experienced the wall between us as I did.

He coughed, the sound unimpeded by the barrier.

“Hello,” I said.

“Hello. I’m Beck.”

“Hello Beck. I don’t recognise you. Are you new in town?”

His eyes slid away from me over that subtle divide. They switched back to me and up into the two halves of the blue sky. “I don’t think we’re from the same town,” he said. I knew exactly what he meant.

We spoke for hours about the simple things you do when you’re trying to get to know a person: family, school, hobbies. This proved an unexpected challenge at points, because it was impossible to guess what references were common to both our worlds. Our languages were very similar, but occasionally a familiar word would possess a very different meaning. I will always remember the first time I came across ‘fart’, which to Beck meant to rush or run. I never heard him laugh as loudly as when I explained.

Beck was quieter than I, more measured in his reactions, but I could never miss his intent, no matter how subtle. On that first day, when his eyes flickered with concern at the darkening sky, I noticed in him what I had missed in the worlds around me.

“I should go,” I said, trying to sound unconcerned about the monsters in the night, the shadows that could cut you free from reality. “I’m late for dinner as it is.”

We made plans to meet again, several days later, and though I didn’t properly understand why at the time, I knew there was nothing that could stop me from coming. No meddling adult or danger that the canyon held could bar my way.

We very soon had a timetable in place, arranging meetings as often as we were able. Sometimes Beck would be late, but he would always make it. He used to tell me stories about a troubled world torn by violence and privation. It seemed so far from my own quiet world – a short walk away but for the invisible barrier – that I couldn’t at first believe what he said could really be the case. I began to invent my own stories about a wicked mother and hateful sisters, until the day he was very late, and came limping with bruises on his face. After that, I was careful to steer the conversation to happier places, and promised myself to always be truthful.

I would spend hours explaining the things I had learned in school. As I grew older, I think that helped me in school more than anything else, fitting my head around concepts so that I could in turn explain them to him. My career in teaching came about partly in his memory.

In turn, Beck would tell me the stories and legends of his people. Some were peculiarly familiar, like the son of the sky god who turned all the water in the land to rum to avenge a slight against his father. Or the first daughters and sons of the mother goddess, who were banished from her garden when they refused to eat the roots that held all the knowledge of creation.

“At the dawn of time it was always day,” Beck told me. It was eighteen months, perhaps two years, since our first meeting. In our early adolescence we were still changing fast. That serious young face that I had fallen in love with was beginning to show the serious man who would never be. “The light of the sun was a brilliant birthmark on the inner thigh of the mother goddess, where her own father had touched her as a newborn before he left forever to the hunting grounds beyond the stars. It blazed with a father’s love for his daughter, and a mother’s love for the world she had made.

“But one day the Vârcolac” – as far as I could gather, some sort of great vampiric bat that haunted the nights of Beck’s world – “the most proud and greedy of the creatures of the land, was hungry and bored. He had feasted on his neighbours until they shunned him and would not walk abroad in his sight. And so he looked up at the sun and shook out his magnificent feathered wings, whose plumage shone with all the colours of creation, and said to himself, ‘I hunger so terribly. It twists and claws at my belly. If the sun is a sign of the Mother’s love for us, surely she will not begrudge me tasting of it until my suffering is ended.’ And so he soared up, higher than any creature had gone before, and fastened his fangs into the sun.

“She felt the touch of his fangs instantly, and rose up in anger. The light of the sun burned away the Vârcolac’s beautiful plumage and left him a thing of blackened skin. The Mother seized him and he cried out as her sky blue fingers bit into his raw flesh. ‘You have tried to take advantage of my love,’ she said, ‘and for that its light will be taken from you.’ And then the Mother cast the wounded thing aside and closed her legs. The sun rolled from view and the first night fell.

“The first night was long, and while the things that loved the dark thrived, others of her children suffered without the light of her love. And so the great emerald bee flew to heaven and begged the Mother to return the sun to them. The Mother was moved by the bee’s plea, but seeing that others had grown to love the darkness, she decided that her legs would open and close to bring day and night in turn to her children. And because the Vârcolac could no longer bear the light that had burned him, he forever became a monster that haunted the darkness and fled from the day.”

He fell silent, just watching me with his dark eyes. I never felt uncomfortable when he watched me. There was no judgement in him. It was like the light of love shining from the mother goddess’s birthmark. I blushed slightly, but only at the risqué image that the story painted. Beck could watch me forever.

I leaned forward towards the barrier. “Kiss me.”

His eyes grew darker, pained. “You know I can’t do that.”

“Just try,” I told him, closing my eyes and pushing my face into the resistance. The sensation was not painful, just peculiar, as the opposing force grew more and more insistent. I didn’t look, just moved against it with all my will. I felt caught in a minuscule moment that had been stretched out into forever. Then his lips touched mine, and for a moment the barrier dissolved into nothing. I felt the moisture on his lips and his breath moving across the worlds. My eyes flicked open – I couldn’t help myself – and in a dizzying blur I was pushed back into my own reality. Beck was picking himself up across from me, looking equally dazed.

We kissed fourteen times in the years that we knew each other. What I would have given for a higher number, one that couldn’t be counted on my fingers and toes.

“What do you do with your spare time?” I asked one morning, feeling inquisitive. It was easy to get complacent, to grow ignorant.

Beck shrugged. “I sit and think about you.” He was so deadpan it was easy to take everything he said seriously.

“Stop teasing me.”

He leaned in closer. I could see each perfect pore on his nose. “I work on the farm. Or fix things. But those are all ways of keeping my hands busy while I’m thinking about you.”

There was a part of me that was always in that stone-banked clearing, no matter where I went. Sometimes it was comforting, and made me feel safe; when times were hard, I felt the ache of something taken from me that only the sound of his voice could give back.

He never mentioned it – and so neither did I – but I could tell that things were getting bad at home. There was a haunted look in his eyes that would slowly melt only as I talked. I spoke a lot in those days, rather than sitting reading or drawing pictures in the dust. The comfortable silences we had made together were driven away. Sometimes I felt that my words were a lifeline to him, and if I let them fall silent he would slip beyond my reach. Beck accepted my verbosity with good grace. Indeed, he made me feel that whatever I said was precious.

He was limping the last time I saw him. With every step came a wince, and with every wince my heart broke. I wanted to pretend it was some minor injury from the canyon – just a careless misstep in the dangerous places where the worlds crowd close – but I knew it wasn’t. The place hardly seemed a danger at all anymore; we were drawn to each other, swept above the perils that could harm those who were lost or uncertain. No, it was the world outside that hurt him, and it was something I could not touch or protect him from. I could not keep him here and safe, because I could bring him neither food nor water. All I had were words, my face, and the occasional stolen kiss in defiance of possibility.

I told him all these things; I couldn’t bear to keep them from him. He didn’t contradict or confirm, but he smiled and his dark eyes shone on the very edge of tears.

“I love you,” he said. “The happiness you’ve given me is more than I could find if I wandered through all the worlds in the canyon. The perfect accidents that made you could never be repeated in a billion worlds. If I died tomorrow–“

“Don’t say that. Please don’t ever say that.”

He smiled. “If I died tomorrow and woke in the Underworld, I would search forever until I found my way back here to you.”

I reached out and grasped him. It was the most difficult thing I ever did, and the most inevitable. The boundaries of our two worlds slid away and we were cocooned together in our own space, clutched together as one being for the first and only time. I lived a lifetime in that place, but too soon we were pushed back into our apportioned spots, looking at each other over the merciless divide. Night was falling. I said goodbye to him. I felt sick.

I got lost on the way home. In the years of coming here it had never happened before. It was getting almost too dark to see, and suddenly I felt the danger of the place, the danger that had eaten those scientists or dragged them free from their reality forever. I heard a sound through the gloom that made my lower half feel loose and useless. I found myself clinging in the lee of a boulder as heavy, slow footsteps grew closer. I held my breath. I felt my body dropping away from me, as if my spirit knew these moments to be my last and had decided to get a head start. I looked up and saw an Outsider silhouette looming over the rock. It was roughly man-shaped but huge and misshapen. It looked like a minotaur. It looked like death.

It raised its head slowly, appearing to scent the air, but either it didn’t smell me, or found the odour of my fear unappealing. With cruel slowness it turned and shambled away back to its own place. As my heart struggled into a quieter pace, I notice one of the marks, just above my head, that pointed the safe way home.

Beck never came back to our place. I spent whole days waiting, and each time it was harder to drag my feet back there. The canyon seemed unduly dangerous now, after years of barely warranting a thought. I told myself that perhaps his way had become blocked, but I knew it was a lie. Only death could have kept him from me. He was dead, on a battlefield or taken sleeping in his bed – did it really matter which? I used to wish I had demanded to know more about his hard world, but now I am a bit older I am glad I know too little to even begin to guess.

Just shy of nine months since the day I last saw him, our daughter was born. When I was pregnant I was afraid that I might hate her for reminding me of what I had lost, but the first time I held her I knew those fears had been unfounded. She reminded me of the best in both of us, and I named her Rebecca in his memory. I told her the strange story as soon as I thought she would understand it, and as a child of two worlds, I think she was the one person who could never possibly doubt me.

She has reached that particular age, and I know she walks the crooked path down into the canyon, braving the mists and shadows for answers. As a parent, I am afraid for her, but as a human being I know I can’t stop her, and nor should I try. We are both creatures of two worlds, and though I don’t go down to look across the divide any more, I know how it feels to have a piece of yourself lost in a place out of reach.

And perhaps one day, Beck will find his way up from the world of the dead, and that line in the dirt and sky will no longer be able to hold him back. I will hear a quiet knock on the door and know that the time has come to be whole again.

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