Like the night before, my trip into town had found me at the tavern. Also like the night before, I had more ale than food. How I managed, in such a state, to walk the miles home through the dark and twisting forest, is something I can’t say.
Perhaps I needed the chill night air to sober me. The drink I needed to quench the smoldering anger, of a jealous fire within me. It worked for a time, numbing me to my shameful sense of failure and allowing me to pretend that I didn’t care. But it dawned on me eventually how out of place I was among the married men and happy couples around.
I believed it all would pass, that my heart would mend. If I stayed the course, undaunted by the anguish, then I would become the man that I was not. What could come from misery so conquered, if not the wisdom to appreciate whatever joy I might find later in life?
Beneath my feet, the trail lost its double and became somewhat familiar. I looked ahead and saw the roof of the barn where I slept. I thought of the soft heap of hay I would climb into and I pledged to sleep for a hundred years if not forevermore. But this simple plan could not withstand the memory of her smiling face and laughing eyes.
Those wondrous eyes had once looked on me with love and in those times, I believed in magic. I could see it in the sweetness of her features, an invisible light that made the whole world beautiful. Every sky was a painting made from heaven, every tree, every rock a priceless sculpture, and when the light of her shining eyes fell on me, I knew what it was to truly love, to live. How simple and right it had all seemed.
But with a terrible speed all of it had changed. She no longer laughed or smiled for me. She pulled away when I tried to take her hand in mine. She would not tell me, at first, what it was that troubled her, and I, a trusting fool, knew nothing else to do but grant her time. But in truth, I knew what was wrong, and it was me.
I was a common man, a poor man. Until this time that had meant little, for all men in our town were poor. Still, I was young and able-bodied so I was not without some prospects. It was the arrival of a wealthy bachelor that placed those prospects as near to nothing as could be. Within a few months, he had bought most of the farmland and began construction on a grand house overlooking the town.
Most of the better families courted his favor, offering their daughters as brides. As fate would have it, he chose the woman I loved, and she chose him over me. I tried to move on, but this humiliation lingered. It haunted my quiet moments, tormenting me with memories of happiness and love, constantly reminding me of what had been lost forever.
It was her face I saw when I closed my eyes. And when her voice called out through the darkness, I could scarcely believe it was real.
In the dark, I sat holding my breath and cursing my heart for pounding so loudly in my ears. The aching silence compelled me, in a voice almost too timid to be heard, to call back to her. Again, the silence surrounded me, but my heart screamed out into the night with neither word nor sound.
And to a joy so sharp that it pained me, I heard again, like faint and distant music, the voice of the only woman I will ever love. I was overwhelmed in the moment, thinking nothing of the oddness of the situation. With some effort, I lifted myself and stumbled toward the door.
Throwing it open, I gazed on an earth bathed in golden moonlight. My heart, lifted high by hope, came crashing down as my desperate eyes searched in vain. I saw no one and nothing. Yet, I was certain she was there.
“Mad,” I whispered to myself, “I have taken leave of my senses.”
Despair and rage swelled within me until I trembled. Tears blurred the scene before me, and I clutched my head while choking on a wail of misery.
“Invisible light,” I whispered, wishing for the impossible.
“Invisible light.” she whispered back.
As my hands slowly dropped from my eyes, I saw her standing there. She glowed with a radiance that put to shame even the full moon above. She was even more beautiful than I remembered and I shut my eyes and shook my head, unable to believe she was real. But she remained when I looked again, though she stood closer now, just beyond my reach.
“Help me,” she begged, and the sound of the pain in her words moved me in ways my own could not. But before I could say anything or even step toward her, she continued.
“Death has come to me tonight. In the form of a terrible hag, she stood over me and claimed the life of my child, even as he was born.”
I had no words. All I could do was reach out to take her hand in mine. This time she did not pull away.
“What a fool I have been.” she sighed, her eyes cast down, “I have ruined things for us. I’m so sorry…”
“No, no,” I tried, certain the fault was mine, that I had failed her and myself in being no more than I was. She would have none of it, though, and she stepped in. The closeness of her body woke every nerve in me and held me paralyzed, transfixed.
“I offered him the best years of my life, and why? His are already all but behind him. I should have stayed with you, you so young, so warm, so alive…”
Her hand, tniy, gentle, delicate, brushed across my chest until the open palm rested on my heart. A soft gasp escaped her lips as though the rare and priceless gift of life had made its splendor known.
“Will you come with me, my love? Can you forgive me?”
In truth, there had been times when I hated her. In weak moments, I had cursed her. Her rejection had been not only a condemnation from the one I loved more than life, it had been a denouncement from life itself.
But with her before me, I felt no more anger. My pain meant nothing, all I wanted was to make her happy, to ease her suffering. My words were unnecessary, she knew the answer having drawn it from my very heart itself.
I did not care that she was married. I had no concern for what the hateful gossips would say. Even of the God who presumed providence over their union, I cared nothing. All that mattered was the meeting of two hearts that were meant for each other.
Her arms wound themselves around me and mine around her. She was cold and I clutched her closer to me, trying to warm her from the night. Her cheek against my jaw felt like ice but I had no time to ponder this as she turned her face up to me and her cold lips met mine.
Such a desperate kiss, I have never known. I tasted her kiss, so sweet and yet so strong. Her grip tightened, her nails dug into me, I did not care. To hold her, to kiss her, and in this simple act, to become one with her… This was all I cared for.
I did not even care when I tasted blood.
I heard the ripping of cloth as her nails cut into my flesh. My body now fought to escape, but it was too late. She held me with the arms of a statue, as if her body was made of steel. My head turned and I gasped for air, exposing my neck to her hungry fangs.
The world disappeared in two blazing points of pain. Agony surged with each pulse of my racing heart. I could feel my life escaping, blazing in the fire of her love. Steadily, the beats slowed.
I fell into darkness…
And into eternal love.
story by Joe Stanley