by Astrid Vallet
Ruth plucked a soft-glowing ember from the mound of ashes, and placed it in a teacup. She poked around some more in the dull gray pile but found no other survivor from last night’s fire. Her fingers clasped the cup just a bit harder, held it close as she pushed herself up. Dawn was so young, the sun so little, so low and shy in the gray sky; and yet she’d almost been too late. She cradled her own piece of sunshine and moved it to her stomach. So feeble. Ruth set it down by the hearth, so that maybe the lingering heat would help. She traded the poker for a broom.
It was instinct to tighten her cardigan around her shoulders when she stepped out, it was instinct to stoop, even in the still, crisp air. She ran a hand over her bald head, because that habit in particular died hard. Some fuzz was growing back, but nobody would notice without taking a good look at her. And that wouldn’t happen. It was growing back, slowly, and the trees and pines were shedding. She swept the leaves and needles inside, somewhat distractedly. The hedge of hawthorns around her otherwise defenseless cabin would need some taking care of. The rumbling sound of boiling water hurried her back inside, though not without a couple of logs under her elbow. A few select dry leaves made it into the teacup, and she settled the logs in the fireplace. Ruth shot the ember a glance, and saw the faintest orange gnaw at the edges of maple leaves.
Only then did she move to the kitchen to take the pan off the stove. A pinch of cloves, pine needles, dandelions from the last stubborn days of summer – she poured some hot water in the bowl and called it both an herbal tea and breakfast. Ruth sat at the kitchen table, fixated on the tiny air bubbles that clung onto the petals. When had this become routine? She took a sip of the concoction, it burned on its way down, and she realized one of her hands was free. So she went to the teacup, fed it more leaves and needles, and brought it right back to the kitchen, holding it in her lap. If she closed her eyes, her body could wrap itself around the silhouette that wasn’t there. Ruth wouldn’t cry, couldn’t risk the tears putting it out.
She couldn’t do that to the ember, she couldn’t do that to Amber.
Ruth watched the little beating core crumble, her very own piece of sunshine disintegrate, and for a second she didn’t have a breath, she didn’t have a pulse, and she almost did cry, and she almost did break the teacup, her teacup, in the grip of her tender hand. But the smallest, brightest seed was inside, and Ruth slapped a hand onto her mouth not to gasp out her relief. She fed and fed, tucking it deeper in between the logs, nibbling the inside of her cheek, hoping, praying the bark wasn’t humid. But it ate, and she turned her head away to sigh, rubbed her watering eyes onto her shoulder. Ruth got closer and shielded it from the cold of her home and the drafts slithering from outside. Her hands hovered over the now growing ember, its warmth so uncertain against her palms. She resorted to digging her fingers into the ashes, clenching and unclenching her fists, grasping at nothing.
As much as the halo dancing across the bark was mesmerizing, and its growing warmth addictive, hunger ushered her outside, with a basket at her hip. And inside the basket, a tall glass, to protect the salvaged ember.
Stepping on the patches of moss rather than the crackling leaves, Ruth ran her free hand on her bald head, dug her nails into her palm, anything to keep it occupied. She was trying so hard to make up for it and eventually her mind slipped; she could recall the sensation just fine, her fingers, their fingers, intertwined. She was missing, a phantom limb. Ruth checked on the ever-hungry ember, bent down to tear off some moss and fed it. She carried on, deeper into the woods, towards the creek. The trees stood closer to one another there.
She greeted the weeping willow like an old friend; it hadn’t been so long, after all. She walked right into the shuddering curtain of its vines and found no one but the thick, resilient trunk. Ruth called her name nonetheless.
In her stead, she gazed tenderly at what was now a flame and shivered in this new-found shade. It was instinct to reach for the scarf that wasn’t there. Amber wouldn’t show up, but she had kept the scarf, hopefully, hidden it somewhere. Perhaps in her cherry wardrobe, that smelled like soap and lavender, in the same pile as her wedding linen. Ruth’s throat tightened. Hopefully. She doubted it could keep her warm, in her pretty house with the thick walls, right by the marketplace. Ruth wiped the dew off her cheeks with the hem of her sleeve and shifted the basket into her arms. She rocked on her heels and pretended to soothe a baby.
It was unfair to be bitter, or resentful. Things hadn’t turned out so bad. Ruth stepped back into the vines and pretended she had her hair. She pretended the leaves tickling her cheeks and lips and shoulders were the kisses, the caresses she missed so much. Amber was warm, at least, and safe. Hopefully.
Lively conversations, steps of people who didn’t have to hide, distant, so distant. They rarely wandered near the creek, anyway. She could stay a little more, entertain the memories and dreams a little longer, before hurrying back to the cabin they had shunned her into. Not that her house in town used to be much better, but it stood between other houses, and they tried to keep one another warm. Not that it made much of a difference. There was no warmth where there was no wealth. Ruth wondered whether Amber had managed to glean some of her things, or if her things were now someone else’s things.
The carpet of leaves crackled, right outside her haven, her sanctuary, so close, too close. Her eyes saw nothing past the curtain of the weeping willow and for a moment, she thought it was but a squirrel. Ruth clutched the basket harder and turned her back to the trunk. A boy poked his head through the vines. First his head. He pushed through, she watched his shoulders follow, then his torso, his legs. She watched him stand before her, fully inside. Not just eyes peeking, the whole of his body, violating. A boy. The boy. No word came out of his open mouth, it twisted onto itself, into a quivering pout. How old could he be? Barely even a teen, just a kid, the height of innocence. Just a kid. The kid, the sweet kid, whose name she never learned, who thanked Amber whenever she would offer matches or even a candle, the sweet and loud kid, who talked too much, who always talked too damn much. Of course he would look at her bald head, now, because everything else was covered, but Ruth remembered his eyes that night, peeking between vines, worried and curious then fascinated and horrified all at once. Sin, he must have thought, abomination. And in his horror he recognized only her, and spared Amber. Things hadn’t turned out so bad.
Ruth had refused to cry for so long and now here he was, teary-eyed over his stupid guilt, which helped no one at all. Ruth hissed in an attempt to hush him out, watched him flinch with delight. He whipped his head around, then back, he dared take a step closer, extending his little hand… He held her scarf, and a box of matches. He muttered of cutting down the willow, he muttered of a feast. He kept trying to shove them into her basket, trying to push her away. Ruth stood, mouth agape, shoulders trembling. He muttered of cutting down the willow, he muttered of a feast, because her secret lover had been found out, but because she was married the sin was somehow greater, and her life would be snuffed out. He looked at the scarf and the matchbox. He swallowed, ignoring his tears. With another push, he managed to make her step out, past the willow’s curtain. Out of her temple, her real home. Nothing registered properly. Her fingers laced with the vines that had offered them comfort, privacy, on so many occasions except for the last. The very last, now. Ruth fell. Ruth scrambled for her basket, for the two gifts, scrambled away and out of sight. She curled herself behind a nearby oak, hand holding the glass that housed the flame, her eyes not leaving the willow’s vines.
Incoherent, possibly drunken conversations and laughs, of people who didn’t have to hide. Then the sound of hacking, metal against bark, again and again.
Ruth couldn’t bring herself to move. Couldn’t bring herself to cry, to say goodbye to her old friend, their love nest, without Amber to hold her through the pain. She ran her thumb over the embroidered initials, tracing the R and the A, again and again. Not realizing.
The willow fell and it was like thunder, all around and in her ribs. She muffled her sobs in the scarf, that now smelled like Amber and willow leaves. She fell asleep knowing that after all, she had worn it. Not realizing.
In the waning afternoon, Ruth woke up to a cold glass. She broke scales off of a pine cone and dropped them in. She wrapped both her hands around it, brought her knees to her chest. When nothing happened, she picked a dry leaf and attempted to poke the little grey pebble. Inside, somewhere, somewhere.
It was gray, all of it, only gray. Crumbs of the orange leaf fell into the ash, sank. Pressing her lips into a tight line, Ruth tapped the glass with her nail, and the pebble crumbled. That was really all it took. She could feel the corners of her mouth pulling down on their own, she smiled wide to counter them. Still, all of her was trembling and when she squeezed her eyes shut, tears rolled down. There was still water inside of her, and perhaps there was still fire, home. She managed to stand. She managed to lay eyes on what was left of the weeping willow, to walk among the pieces of vines and shards of wood. Ruth kneeled by the stump and caressed it with her palm, tracing the circles of its age. She pressed a kiss onto the mutilated limb.
Ruth poured the ashes onto the ruins of the weeping willow. Remnants with remnants, it felt like they belonged. She turned away and carried herself and her basket back home, with no care on what leaves she was stepping.
She found nothing but gray in the hearth, too. She plunged her hands in the ashes, raking through. Even outside, dusk was falling. Not a speck of vivid rose-orange.
Ruth draped the scarf over her shoulders. Realizing. Her knees hurt on the cold hard floor. She fiddled with the matchbox. She slid it open, and inside were indeed matches, along with a small braid of hair, and a note. Ruth brought a hand to her mouth and refused to cry, because she had to read. Her fingers tasted the paper, unfolded it.
Now they know I was with you, and you must be the last one I tell this to: I love you.
A kiss for a sob. Ruth kissed each word, kissed the braid. She tightened the scarf around her shoulders, buried her face in it, breathed in its scent. Amber had worn it, instead of keeping it in her wardrobe, and that must have been how her husband had known. Ruth caressed their embroidered initials; she used to feel warm, doing that. R and A. She looked at the chestnut locks, caressed her own bald head.
She trudged out the door and sat at the threshold. It wasn’t any warmer inside. She turned the matchbox in her hands, watching the fireflies dancing over the hawthorn hedge. She struck a match, the flame was too small to give off heat. She wondered what it would eat, how it would grow. There was music and drunken songs, in the village, not so far away. They lasted and lasted, and eventually withered away.
The village burned down as the new dawn rose.
She carried the body of her beloved, blue with cold and bruises, back home. She laid her to rest, with her hair, by the hawthorn hedge, so the fireflies would watch over her.
Ruth wouldn’t light the fireplace anymore, and only wore more layers. Flames were too fragile. They ate, they died.
Astrid Vallet is a queer, very-probably-AuDHD writer and translator from France. She holds a M.A. in Cultural Studies from the University of Tours, and their work is featured in The Lumiere Review and Coffin Bell, among other places. Visit her links here.