Prose Version

Zero

Borders are sharp places. They are a razor-wire edge, a cold sharp cutting blade, and where they dig into the flesh of reality they lacerate; hell-hot drops of blood dripping and seeping through the cracks in space and time.

Where the blood seeps through, pain follows. Anger flows. The innocent and the damned are mingled.

Time runs slow and disjointedly.

Things get mixed and scrambled.

The world falls out of step.

It was to the border that Rowan came.

 

One

There are sentinels who watch the edges. Men and women who guard that which is from that which is not. That which is: green, ripe, fat, full of the essence of being. That which is not: hungry, emaciated, dry as dessicants and as cold as nothing. The story of time is the story of the conflict between being and not-being.

One such watcher was Rowan.

How long did she stand there? How long did she wait, staring into the cold starlight, the earth turning towards dawn? She never told me.

I never asked.

She was beautiful, I think, although I believe that at the time I was looking for a hero to save me from my misery. Her hair was milk-white and flowing. Her eyes were dark. Nose, lips, cheekbones, all were in the right places.  Long legs, strong shoulders, tall, proud, like a standing stone, and when we made love she would wrap her legs around me and bite my neck with her small, sharp teeth.

She came into my life but for a moment. A brief moment, when I was young and the world was green and new.

(She was much older than me. I think. I never asked her age.)

I was in love (or thought I was in love) and I think (hope) (wish) that she had some affection for me. She came into my life like a brief shower that falls from the sky in the spring sunlight. She left me like the sun, slipping out of my world slowly, until everything was dark.

Not a day goes by when I don’t miss her.

 

Two

“This is my sword,” Rowan told me, “and you must never touch her. I give you leave to touch any part of my body, from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet and anyplace in between. But this is my sword, and we share a bond that is closer than lovers. Closer than twins are we. We are two parts of the same body.”

“Do you love your sword more than you love me?” I asked her.

It was a teasing question, an idle statement, the kind of jest a lover would make. I expected her to smile and laugh, shrug, and lean against me, pressing her lips to mine, our tenderest skin touching.

I was as surprised as anybody when Rowan replied, “Yes.”

 

Three

She would leave for weeks on end.

She would vanish into the darkness once every few months, leaving my side as I slept after we made love. I knew she was gone, because her sword, which always stood by the fireplace of my cottage when she was around, would invariably be gone.

She always knew how to hurt me most.

One night when it stormed and raged, dark thoughts flew through my head like birds of shadow.

Is she with another man? 

Someone far away, where nobody knows me?

How many lovers does she have?

Is she lying to me?

I went down to the inn on the village green, bought a bottle of Rhaelish whiskey and drank it down, cup by cup, every last drop.

When I came home, she was there, asleep in our bed.

I woke her up, called her whore, raged incoherently at her for the better part of an hour. She sat there and bore it. Finally she showed me her back and peeled off her bandages and there it was, from her tailbone to the nape of her neck, a pink-and-tender healing wound that was only a week old.

After a moment of shock my head cleared. I understood.

“I don’t abandon you for myself,” Rowan told me gently. “I abandon you for the world.”

 

Four

I touched her sword, one winter day.

Rowan was out chopping wood and I was in the house watching the fire crackle, leaping and crackling with gleeful abandon.

The firelight shone on the pommel of the sword. I came over to the fireplace and drew the sword.

(After all, she said that I could touch any part of her body, didn’t she? We were lovers. We were friends. Were not Rowan and the sword two parts of the same body?)

It was not much. A bit heavy, very sharp, but the sword was a thing of beauty. Not gaudy or jeweled elegance. It was the sane, practical beauty of a beloved kitchen knife.

I felt guilty to touch it.

I have a poet’s hands. Rowan had the strong fingers and scarred palms of a skilled warrior. It felt wrong for me to handle a sword.

I sheathed it and went back to watching the fireplace.

Rowan came in at sunset, carrying an armful of wood in her strong arms. I said nothing to her about touching her sword, her most private part. But I felt guilty, and Rowan must have sensed the guilt, for we did not make love that night, nor did we sleep in each other’s arms (as was our custom on winter nights) but back to back, shoulder blades touching, the stigmata of silence lying over my house.

 

Five

After I touched Rowan’s sword, we fell out of each other’s lives.

She was gone more and more frequently, going away for longer and longer, until one day at the height of summer she did not return.

I cried. I was heartbroken.

But I was young.

And young hearts heal.

 

Six

I saw her three times after that.

The first time was in a tavern in the gaudy city of Lost Steelhaven at the mouth of the Swiftflow River.

I had moved to the city to make my living as a playwright. I had a woman, barely more than a girl, who I took to the tavern and sat down on my knee as I drank and played dominoes with jewel-pipped ivory squares surrounded by beautiful women and some of my friends.

She stood across the room, firelight shining on her milk-white hair and her eyes, like obsidian at the heart of a volcano.

She wore leather armor and her sword, which I had touched, was slung across her back. I could tell she was a mercenary, a sword for hire, standing there with her arms crossed and her body language as impassive as a mountain.

(I did not speak to her. It’s awkward to introduce an old lover to the girl you plan to sleep with later that night.)

The second time was at a ball in High Overholt, the greatest city of the cold North, where I was performing my newest play for the delight of the magistrate’s daughter.

She was there, wearing a gown of soft damask, the soft green color of spring grass. I had never seen Rowan in a dress before. You could have knocked me over with a feather.

She spotted me, this time, and came over to talk. She smiled, and laughed, and we danced a measure as the band played sweet music.

She told me that she was going to the border, that she would be away for a long time, that she might never return. She told me the story of conflict, of being and not-being and how not-being will one day win. She would do whatever she could to postpone that day.

It was a bittersweet meeting.

The third time was in a dream, but somehow, in my deepest bones, I knew it was a true dream.

She sat on a rock, sword on her knees, staring up at the starlight, coldness in her eyes, waiting for something.

For what? For the end of the world.

This was the last time we met. And though I am old now, with a wife and three children and five or more bastards, I still think of that time I had with her, when I was young and the world was green and new, when the days were filled with laughter, when the nights smelled sweetly of love.

Not a day goes by when I don’t miss her.

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