Standing alone in front of time, a woman reflects on life, its significance and what comes next.
This story was initially nothing more than scribbled words on a sheet of paper in answer to a writing prompt exercise based on a photo. The exercise was part of a workshop in July 2013 called Fiction Writing 101, presented by Shandi Mitchell. It was one of many sessions available during the Maritimes Writers' Workshop hosted at the University of New Brunswick. Later at home, going through my notes, I decided to expand and wrote the version presented here.
The lone figure stood at the top of the clock tower, on a narrow ledge in front of time. Her silhouette lazed against the slow-moving minute hand of the tower clock, blackening the worn dial. She was immobile with her back to the world. Her head bent forward and her shape wrapped in a long cape. Her stance spoke of defeat.
It was dusk. She stood alone, at a standstill, battling wind and vertigo, black hair and cape flapping. There was no door, no passage and no ladder leading to the ledge where she was poised.
Yet there she was, a symbol of determination standing so very high as to be almost imperceptible from the ground. Standing on the brink of a long fall. Standing on the precipice of life.
Below, so far as to be silenced by distance, a river raged in frothed waves and splashed against jutting rocks, plunging toward the lower plateau and the plains, on and on toward the unseen sea.
On the opposite side, the cityscape was flattened against the slope, forming a tapestry of lights, multi-coloured, a parody of a star-infused sky. The city climbed but never came close to the mountain crown, cut in a horizon made charcoal by an invisible sun that just wouldn’t leave.
I look at the clock and wonder where time has gone.
I am forty-five and have nothing. I have accomplished nothing. I have no possessions but what I carry. I have no one waiting for me or thinking of me.
My name is Vyrna.
You should know that I have tried. I wanted to be as they desired me to be. I tried to imitate the others, to fit and blend, to be an honest citizen, a humane and abiding individual. I endeavoured to work and for a while I built and fabricated. I served and serviced. I practised generosity, gave many times. And I also took when I shouldn’t have. I upheld the law, and broke it. I assisted the weak and the ones in need. Then I trained to fight and went to the frontier. I survived a war, defended our country and those living in it. It was a battle between empires and many say it will define the generations to come.
Yet it has no meaning to me. I cannot understand any of it. Life is an unknown, and as much as I try, I cannot grasp its logic or purpose.
There is a void, an emptiness. It surrounds me and invades me, nestling here in my chest, so close.
As a child, I remember running in the yellow fields behind my grandmother’s house, dreaming and hoping. I loved the smell of wheat and earth. I found reassurance in lying down, disappearing in the long grass, becoming invisible to the world. It was a time before the city. It was when eternity beckoned, when limit didn’t exist and everything was starting.
I used to have so many dreams. I wanted to be someone, achieve something. But life came and went and didn’t take me along. The dreams, I don’t know, they dissipated while I wasn’t looking.
The clock is ticking, the pendulum swinging, creaking and not waiting. Never waiting.
Here I am. Totally spent.
The river calls to me. As do the rocks hiding in the flows.
I put a hand in my pocket and touch the object lodged there. I had almost forgotten about it. Its jagged edges cut into my skin.
It doesn’t belong to me. It is my father’s.
I stole it.
So it wouldn’t hurt anybody else.
If only my father had been honest. If only he had shared the truth, if not with my mother, then with me. In his haste to protect her, he pushed me out of his life.
I would have been there for him. There is nothing I would have wanted more. I would have helped. I tried to help everybody else, but it didn’t fill the void.
I hope to never see my father again. I do not want to look upon what he has become.
Is this, then, how it is to end?
I hesitate and do not know why.
After the furtive run through so many streets, after the walk in the shadows, after the long climb along the white surface and after the contemplation of time… after all that, still I hesitate.
I abhor this new uncertainty. I have planned this and desired this. It is the culmination of what I have done and not done, of what I have tried and omitted. It is the sum of my failures and the only way forward that I can see.
I only need to push lightly, just a little with my toes, topple back and open my arms, close my eyes and forget, and fall, and fall.
Earlier tonight, I stopped in the shade of an alley and watched the young boy sitting on the edge of a short staircase. He was playing with a little puppet in the shape of a lion, growling and making ferocious sounds. I should not have looked, but I wanted to see him one last time. He doesn’t know me, doesn’t know we have the same father, doesn’t know his father. There is such a gap between us, an eternity in years. How could I explain this without scaring him away? It’s better he doesn’t know, so I can disappear without him knowing I was ever there.
I need to forget now. I need to forget the sorry state of the rags covering him, the dirt covering the fake lion in his hands. Forget he found the lion on the side of the stairs, placed there by my own traitorous hands. Forget he probably has less than I did. He doesn’t even have a field where he can retreat and hide…
The truth is, there is nowhere to hide. For no one.
People always think there is. They reassure themselves falsely, look down and away from what is really happening. They ignore the world around, push the worries away, the reality away, stay cocooned and comfortable in a safe daily pattern. They look around and see tall buildings, strong and solid. They see the city lights by the millions and believe they will always shine, lighting the way. But when the day comes that the lights burn out and the buildings crumble, what then? What will they do then?
There is something I know that no one does.
The object in my pocket bites at my fingers. Night is getting darker. The face of my young brother appears in the reflection of the moon on the clock dial. I close my eyes and push it away.
Why do I have this thing in my pocket? Why did I bother taking it with me? Maybe to take one last stab at my father? A last show of defiance, leave a last message to him.
“Father!” I scream. “Look, I have it. I took it from you!”
The truth of it is that only I, Vyrna, could have taken it. And I have.
It is my only possession. And is it not everything?
What if I tried to make it disappear? What would happen then? There is a tiny thread of chance that it could make a difference.
Should I even try? Is this, then, why I hesitate?
Time never waits.
I hear steps and voices on the stairs inside the clock tower and feel fingers of ice caressing my back.
He knows I have it. I should have foreseen that he would come after it. Not himself. He would not exert himself that way. He will stand back and walk slowly and wait at the bottom of the tower for everything to happen and be over.
The sounds are many, getting louder and closer. His servants and slaves, strangers of this country allied with proctors of the city. They are his, all of them. Their life is his to do with as he pleases.
I do not understand their loyalty. No one does.
They will say I trespassed. None should be in the tower. None is allowed to look upon the city from above. They might even say they tried to help me and save me, and seal it all by adding that insanity was my name.
I wanted to end everything today.
But now, I am not so certain.
The lone figure, immobile until this moment, crouched and put a hand on the stony ledge under her feet. She looked around quickly, looking for an escape, for a way out. But there was nowhere to go.
Above, along the balustrade, figures appeared armed with combat pistols and rifles, with elyctric swords and bows, looking down on her. From the windows below, more figures emerged, moonlight reflecting on their visors and plated armour. They could not reach the ledge and started to point and yell, shouting orders to climb down.
The figure didn’t move, didn’t reply. Her head was down again, hidden in the folds of her cape, hidden under her falling hair.
There was nowhere to go.
A crux is reached then, the juncture of a life. It happens in the briefest of instants when time almost stops. The figure is unmoving. She is small standing against the white of the tower and the hands of time. She is insignificant to the vast world living all around. And yet, in this night of nights, she is everything.
Time starts flowing again. A change just happened, missed by all except her. It is so subtle, barely visible in her stance.
She stands up and tall, looks down, so far down, along the street leading to the tower. She searches for something, someone. Suddenly, she lets out a laugh, a single burst, loud and clear. A mockery or a challenge.
Then she takes a few steps, running, bends her knees and closes her eyes. As the bows snap and the guns crack, the figure’s feet abandon the ledge.
The river, far below, opens its arms.
This is the end of the story.