"WHAT STORIES ARE FOR"
Warning: The following is based on A FRIEND IN NEED.
I arrive too late, but in time. She still stands, though wobbly, slumping to the ground only now that I am here. I tear through the few she has left me with a vengeance that sends the last of them fleeing from this hellion who follows in the footsteps of the one they felled.
I hurdle corpses, make a path through blood to reach her. Kneel carefully beside her crumpled form. So many arrows! Too many wounds! Where do I dare touch? I am like an idiot, my hands hovering above her, more worried about hurting her than checking for signs of life.
She must sense me. She stirs. Her eyelashes flutter and slowly part. I dont think she sees me at first, but she just needs to focus. When she does, her lopsided grin curls my way. She frowns, puzzling why Im poised there, mute, motionless. She realizes my predicament, weakly raises her hand to a shaft imbedded in her shoulder.
"Break them off."
I hesitate causing her more pain, but figure this is not the time to argue. Not if I want to get closer to her before before it is past too late. I grasp this first arrow and search her eyes.
Usually I try not to stare when I do this, but now I must. Usually she shuts her eyes to protect me. Now she doesnt. We both sense we may not get another chance like we usually do.
I break the shaft. She winces. We exchange wry smiles, grateful she can still feel anything. I wait a few moments before snapping the arrows above her hip, in her thigh, poking through her calf. I know Ive broken them a little too high in my haste, that we will both feel the stumps. I gather her quickly in my arms anyway. I can tell shes having trouble staying with me.
"What else can I do for you?" I ask, stroking her hair.
"Mmmm," she murmurs. "Senough. Always has been."
I feel the tears spilling down my face. Out of habit, I start to wipe them away, but let them consecrate the crown of her head. In all honesty, theres nothing of me she cant have.
"I want to do more," I whisper, not bothering to hide the quiver in my voice. "Always have."
She squeezes the arm cradling her. "Know that."
I feel her trying to lean her head back. I help her. She grins up at me, face scrunched like a little girl.
Im startled. "Sing?!"
She winks. I see longing behind the mischief in her eyes.
Flustered, I stammer, "B-b-but, Xena, you know I cant ."
She arches that eyebrow, snuggles into me, struggling mightily to keep me in focus. Im reminded I can do most anything for her.
"Okay." I begin humming something I heard that time Ares pretended to be her father. A tune from her childhood.
"Mmmm." Her eyes close. From somewhere she summons the strength to hum with me. When her rich voice fades to silence, I am nearly deafened by the throbbing in my ears.
"Xena?" I call softly, fighting the terrible need to pound her chest, forcing myself to stroke her cheek.
Her lashes flutter. "Here."
I want to say so much! All those words in me! Too many to choose from! Oh, gods, dont let them fail me now! My lips move. I hear them saying simply, "I am so glad I followed you."
Her eyes blink open. "No."
Something crumples inside me. "No?" No?! After everything, all the good weve done, she cant possibly think -
She gazes at me as though I am the air she breathes, the sun on her face, the earth she curls her toes in. "No so glad I followed you." Shaking fingers reach to my lips, managing to caress them before I catch her falling hand. "My Gabrielle."
We drink in each others eyes, hoarding love for eternity. I am the first to get too full. I press her head to my chest, unable to watch the blue cloud over, the paling lips go slack. I rock her gently, humming again, even as I feel her dead weight pull away and the heat retreating from her limbs. I tell her stories of bloodless battlefields, where life flows in laughter and sparkling rivers, when two wandering souls lost themselves in each other and found their way.
Only after it is dark -- so dark Im reminded to teasingly show her what to see in the stars -- do I let her go. Ease her out of the tattered battle clothes that can do no good for either of us any longer. Gently cleanse her of the gore and grime she might have accepted, but wouldnt expect me to let her rest in. Spend awhile gazing upon her in the moonlight as shed come into the world - naked and vulnerable like shes been to me. Finally swaddle her in strips of linen we brought from Egypt.
I prepare her last bed. She seemed resigned to lying wherever she happened to fall, though she spoke once of hoping it would be next to Lyceus. Other than that, I doubt she gave it much thought. I did, not that I wanted to. It was an eventuality I could handle only if I pictured myself resting beside her. Ultimately, the one thing she didnt want.
Well, whats next is mine to decide now. What to do with me, but also what to do with her. Id never wanted to picture her confined, buried, in darkness. Cold. Still. She was much too like the fire I choose instead. Hot, spitting, crackling energy surging skyward. Tangibly dangerous one moment, tearingly gentle and elusive the next.
Funny, I hadnt pictured ashes either. Maybe thats why the urn had jarred me so, even though, at the time, I didnt know I was already too late. Ill keep it, of course, but not in memory of what really happened. No. Her dying was one thing. I learned from the beginning Id better prepare for that. But racing frantically to find my breath, my sun, my earth vanished save for a bloody circle of steel? Lulled by honor into embracing the ghost of my dreams, my life? Robbed of her final tribute, retching instead at the awful trophy a thief claimed with her precious, beautiful ? No.
Yes, I am alive. She got her wish, big surprise, and gave me no choice but to honor it. The urn, her chakram, my loneliness are certainly proof of that. I wont deny the responsibility I shared or the love that drove her to die without me. Nothing can dampen the joy of knowing shed say I could never be too late, that I saved her from the beginning, helped her find some measure of peace in the end, that Ill no doubt be on time another day. I cant change any of that, even if I wanted. But memory? Memory is for the living.
I do still have imagination. All those words I savored once -- now bittersweet and insufficient. They will do, as they always have, in time. So much time, and nothing to stop me from spending it also honoring my own wish: To remember that I was with her. That we closed this chapter of our lives together. That my hands, my voice were the ones to send her on her way. That she lives in the flames lighting my nights, in smoky wisps that take my breath at dawn, in the ever-smoldering embers I stoke to rekindle my days. Isnt that, after all, what stories are for?
The long day dies; I walk the woods alone;
Beyond the ridge two wood thrush sing as one.
Being delights in being, and in time.
The evening wraps me, steady as a flame.
(From 'A Walk in Late Summer,' by Theodore Roethke)
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