Softly, She Treads Ch. 04

byXyJonah©

Then, at last, the bird gave a single caw and landed upon the ground. Hester could see that the trees thinned to form a small clearing, in the centre of which, a grassy mound rose sharply. Hester peered closely at the hillock, and, in the moonlight, was able to make out a hole in the centre, from which rose a thin plume of grey smoke. It was the woman's house, Hester was certain. As his conviction struck him, another rare sound pierced the otherwise silent atmosphere. He could hear the woman's rich voice singing, the words muffled by the distance and the fact that she was within her strange dwelling. Hester wished the horse would crouch again; he longed to slide from its back, yet it remained standing, waiting. None of the animals moved.

A black Hanson cab appeared, incongruous in its natural surroundings. Hester's heart leapt as a familiar figure stepped from the cab. Amelia, dressed in black, appeared in the clearing, followed by their two daughters. Aimee was weeping, Elizabeth putting on a bravely stiff face, but still discreetly holding her younger sister's hand as they followed their mother. Hester felt a surge of pride for his children, a deep passion that had never truly been given voice swelled within him, and he silently wept.

As the three women crossed the clearing, a building appeared in the mist on the other side. A simple church, its aisles filled with mourners in black, all of whom turned to see the three women enter, tipping their heads to murmur to each other as the three swept past them to the front of the church. Amelia paused to clasp hands briefly or nod a greeting to various women on her way; the girls seemed aware only of each other and the ominous box raised on the dais at the front. The three women each paused before it, crossed themselves, and took their seats. Only little Aimee paused to touch the casket, her hand shaking as she smoothed her glove over the polished wood.

Moments later, the women stood again and, with equal silent dignity, filed back the way they had come, back into the centre of the clearing. As they went, the church behind them faded and, on the opposite side of the clearing, a churchyard appeared, in the same way the church had before it. The three women came to take their places at the graveside, Amelia with her father, the girls standing alone, both now sobbing quietly in each others' arms. White roses were tossed into a gaping hole, then Amelia stooped to take a handful of dirt in her black-gloved hand. She threw it into the grave before unconsciously scrubbing at the material that had been touched by the earth. The girls came next, Aimee unable to release her handful without her sister whispering in her ear.

The three women stood there, Amelia and the two girls, next to each other, yet completely separated, as the scene around them changed a final time. Now Amelia was surrounded by mourners, each shaking her hands and offering silent words of comfort and strength. She excelled herself, replying to each guest in turn with quiet, graceful elegance, entirely immersed in her task. The two girls watched her for a while, together alone to one side, before slipping silently away. Their absence went unnoticed.

Hester remained upon the horse's back and wept soundlessly as the scene faded, profound comprehension washing over him in deep, paralytic waves as the animals turned and bore him away from the clearing, the sound of the woman's singing returned to his ears and haunted their return passage through the trees.

A sound, loud and brash, boomed in his ears and Hester sat up with a cry. He was in the hut, naked and in his bed. The animals were gone, and sound had returned. He screwed his eyes closed and cried out, helpless and afraid.

Then she was there, and he was in her arms. She smoothed his hair with gently caring hands and eased him back onto his pillow. She whispered softly into his ear and held his hands. Hester was not alone; the woman was by him. He slept again, this time clutching her hand tightly as he succumbed, while outside thunder raged.

X.

"Are you awake?"

"Yes."

"Are you well?"

"I don't know."

"Take your time, there's no hurry."

Hester opened his eyes. She was curled up on the floor next to him bed, her arms and head lying upon his chest, her hands still clutching his. Her face was beautiful; framed by her dark hair and examining him with caring concern.

"I love you," he said.

"I know," she replied, before her face contorted delicately, and fat tears rolled down her cheeks. He reached out a finger and caught one, wiping it away.

"Don't cry. I won't leave. We'll be here, together."

He had meant to comfort her, yet her weeping intensified. "No... no..." she moaned softly, her head dropping to her fingers which clutched one of his hands.

"Something happened last night," said Hester, his tear-damp fingers now stroking her hair.

"What happened?" she asked.

"I saw something. Animals came and took me to a clearing. I saw your house and my wife and children..." Hester paused and frowned, unsure how to continue.

She raised her head, her eyes were blazing. "I love you," she said again.

"It's over, isn't it?" He asked, "This is the end." She nodded in reply, then leaned over him to kiss him upon the cheek.

"When did I..?"

"At sea, in the storm."

"Then why am I here?"

"Because you weren't ready to go."

"Who are you?"

"I am what you needed to become ready. I am the glimpse of what could have been; the drawing cast in the sand as the waves break over it. I am what you needed to accept what comes next."

"Love," said Hester, without question. She nodded and began to weep again. He couldn't look at her, instead he pulled her onto the bed and held her tightly, kissing the top of her head.

"Will you vanish, too?"

"I don't know," she replied through her tears. "I should think so. What more will there be for me to do?"

"Remember me?"

"You have your wife for that."

"Amelia," breathed Hester.

"I love you," she said again.

"I love you, Nameless One," he replied. They held each other for a long time, each of them silently preparing for the inevitable conclusion. Finally Hester spoke, kissing the top of her head and murmuring, "Come on. It's time."

Together they rose from the bed, neither of them hesitating when their covers dropped away to reveal them to each other. Hand in hand they left that small hut and danced together over the grass that never existed towards the woods that never were. And there, on the edge of the trees, Hester paused. He looked at his death-companion, letting his eyes roam hungrily over her. "You are beautiful," he said. He pulled her into a deep, savage kiss. She returned his embrace, holding him tightly and rising to her tiptoes as he clung to her.

When the kiss broke, Hester turned her head so that he could whisper into her ear. "Thank you," he said. The two of them held hands again, laughing and dancing together into the trees. Somewhere, a black dog barked and, slowly, they faded away from the world.

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