55) Manumission

The world was filled with the quiet rustle of desiccated vegetation, the hum of night time insects taking up their shift, and the increasingly sleepy murmur of birds settling down for the night.  Sara perched on a wall on the very lip of the valley, gazing over the late summer landscape.  She existed only in the moment, and time stretched to fill the universe from end to end with the sweet dusty smell of balmy air and a hint of petrichor on the breeze.  Sure enough, the faintest whisper of thunder rumbled from the head of the valley, and focussed Sara’s gaze back on the here and now.

She smiled.  Turning her head, she watched the bruised clouds stalk down the valley. The advancing edge of the storm blew erratic gusts of wind before it, setting her hair flying around her head.  As the storm drew closer, each flash of lightning and roll of thunder widened her smile a little more until, by the time the storm hit, Sara’s lips were drawn back in a fierce snarl of savage joy.  Soaked to the skin in seconds, she raised her face to the heavens and let the rain wash her clean.

Tingles and shivers racing up and down her spine; she stretched her head forward, hunched and then arched her back.  She could feel them.  They were always there, but at times like this, she couldn’t ignore them.  Phantom wings drew and stretched from her spine, spreading and sweeping the rain soaked air.

With two beats, she was airborne, a cloud of black smoke, swooping between land and sky, laughing and twisting in the stormy air currents.

Her balletic revels were cut short when she felt the thread.  It was what she had been waiting for on the lip of the valley, yet still she loosed a frustrated curse into the storm before she gave one more elegant twist through the air, and then was all business.  Her flight was economical and swift as she headed for the house.  Reeling her in, the thread pulled more strongly until she was arrowing through the deep evening air and straight to the threshold of the house she needed.

Sometime during her flight, the storm had passed over, leaving the deep blue evening washed clean and dripping in the aftermath.  The threshold belonged to a house nestled within a small cluster of cottages sheltered in the valley bottom.  The lone streetlight in the cluster shone orange on the facades, and glinted from the wet road.  In the stillness, Sara laid her hand flat on the door.  There was a tickle in her palm, and then a click, and the door swung open without a sound.

Sara crossed the threshold, folding and settling her wings to her back – a barely detectable cloak of shadow cowled her head and shoulders, swathing down to puddle on the floor around her feet.

The hallway was cluttered and cramped with lifetimes, and now she was so close, she could feel every shining moment of those years with every step she took down the narrow hall.  The stairs at the end did not creak as she set foot on each tread, and she made her silent way along the landing to the door at the end.  Walking in to the small room, she perched on the edge of the bed.

‘Bernard.’

At her soft voice, the man sleeping in the bed shifted a little.

‘Bernard.’

She watched his face, lines etched deep by the many years of his time on earth.  His mouth twitched a little, then his brow.  And then his eyes slid open just a fraction.

Sarah smiled.  ‘Hello, Bernard.  Thought you weren’t going to come to me for a minute.’

Bernard’s lips moved, and a ragged exhalation followed.  He licked his lips, swallowed, and tried again.  ‘Today, is it?’

Sara glanced at the window.  ‘Well – tonight, really, but yes.  It’s now.’

Bernard’s eyes widened a little.  ‘Now?’

Sara’s smile became sympathetic at the note of panic in his voice.  ‘Yes, Bernard.  It’s now.  It’s why I’m here.  You knew that.’

Bernard was regaining his voice rapidly.  ‘Well, yes, but…  Now?  Now- now?’

The note of panic had morphed into something resembling a mixture of desperation and resignation.

‘I know it won’t make you feel any better, but it’s always too soon, Bernard.  It’s always a surprise no matter how long you’ve known.  Honestly, if anyone says, “Too long, where the hell have you been”?  well, they’ve had problems that I’m not sure even I can help with.  But I try, anyway.’

‘But what about…?’  Bernard glanced across to the other side of the bed.  Mary shifted in her sleep.

Sara looked him in the eyes.  ‘She’s strong, Bernard.  Stronger than you might think.  Stronger than she thinks, too.’

‘Who’s going to look after her now, though?’

It was a good job that Sara had hardened her heart long ago.  Otherwise the sadness in Bernard’s voice would have shattered it.  Not for the first time, either.

‘Bernard, please believe me.  Mary is a very capable woman.  Not even she believes it.  But she is, and she will be.  She’s going to be very sad, and she’s going to miss you horribly.  But she will live.  And believe it or not, she will learn to take joy in the world again.’

‘Will I be able to see her?’

‘I can’t answer that.’

Bernard turned around to look at Sara again.  The panic and desperation was all gone, now.  In its place was only resignation.  ‘Can’t or won’t?’

‘Can’t.’

He held her gaze for an eternity.  Then he blinked, and nodded once.  Turned around to his wife of forty three years, and kissed her on the cheek.

‘Take care of yourself, Mary.  I love you.’

 

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