The first night they watched in silence as the two small boys fell asleep between them under the pines. The younger boy pushed his small hand into the woman’s. She held it carefully like a shell while he slept. Earlier in the night, the children had yelled FIRE! So the man started one, laughing. They tromped into the dark pine trees and collected wood to keep it burning. Once the boys were sleeping though, the man and woman let the coals burn out. Light was dangerous at night.They slept outside under the pines. It is safe out here, and warm enough, he said.
She first had met the man and the two boys on the trail to the spring when she was going to get water. They were hungry, so she invited them up to the house to roast the lamb she had slaughtered. They decided it was safer to sleep up the mountain and return down in the morning.
They lay awake late in the night, whispering over the sleeping children. He told her how he had found the boys.
They had been living for months in the woods. They smelled like leaves and wet earth--like dogs really. When I brought them inside--it was so so cold and they ate and ate-- you have never seen anyone eat so much, their bellies were distended.
She told him about how, when the war first started she moved into the abandoned house in the mountains after everyone left. She foraged for food, planted a garden from seed.How she often left the doors open to the house so the goats could roam in through the patio. Company she said, with a laugh. She had found an injured vulture and given him herbs, nursing him to health until he circled above her in the garden, crowing.How she slept in the sea sometimes.
It was as if each of them had found a spool in the mouth of the other and was tugging gently at a thread, their lives unraveling in the dark.
The woman searched for Orion that night in the sky, a constellation which lit her house and bathed the stone floors in a gilded shadow. The stars she looked for on the mountain shifted on the horizon, she knew the man something to do with it.
I am going on a walk. She said. She wanted to find the stars. She left the sleeping boys and the man and walked up to the house where she sat on the half rotten bench looking over the dark valley. Inside, light streams in from the sky, but it is not Orion, the light is from the moon. She sits on a cold stone bench on the patio until the color of the sky broke open from the pinhole blackness, spilling pink above the mountains, and she heard the bells from the sheep, announcing the hour. She broke into song:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
Then she went inside to make some coffee. She heard the boys call out to her and knew they were leaving, so she went to the patio and waved.
She did not see them again on the trail to the well, but she saw the man’s pale eyes whenever she closed hers. She prepared for winter, drying herbs, preserving tomatoes, smoking meats. She prepared enough food for a family. She waited for them, but they did not come.
She went for a long swims in the pale sea, moving through the cool water. She swam swiftly away from all the things on land that held her. When she could not see the shore she turned over and lay on her back, floating. Eyes shut, free to slip between the waves, wind pulling them over her, tucking her into the silver shadows of the depths. Dreaming.
When he did come it was winter and he came alone. The children have gone. He said. They disappeared off into the white landscape too cold for owls to fly or fish to swim.
Do you want a drink?
She went into the kitchen, and poured two glasses of homemade wine for them, but when she came back with the two glasses, he was stretched out on her bed, asleep. His long body a coiled snake under the quilt. She laid down next to him, above the quilt and night came. The light cast by Orion did not slide through windows as usual, gathering on the floor in a square like a golden carpet. Instead it was as if an indigo velvet curtain blanketed the house. No light came in.
She dreamt about the boys. They were running in the snow without shoes. He was trying to catch them. The man was calling to them but they could not hear him. They turned into white rabbits, disappearing into the snow.
When the man and woman awoke, the velvet curtain had lifted and they could see the mountains. The moon was high and full. They had been asleep for a very long time. The sheep took off their bells for us to sleep. She laughed.
Do you think the war has ended? He asked. She shook her head. The man went to the kitchen, looking for something for them to eat. She smoked tobacco now stale, and stood outside, shivering in the snow. The mountains fell around her shoulders in a dark cape. Orion appeared once more above her forming a starry crown atop her head. The man watched her. Back inside, by the fire, they talked about their dreams from their long sleep. The phantoms in his dream, she remembered.
Do the boys know about the birdmen? He had told her about them that night under the pines. The creatures wore shimmering hooded robes in brilliant colors made of firefly fluorescence. They perched on lichen covered trees in the forest, their claws wrapped around the branches. They built intricate nests out of hair and shells plastered inside the tree trunks. There were other creatures; half-man, half-pig that floated on rafts in the river and slept on mossy banks, eating fish and drinking honeywine.
I think so, but I never told them. He asked her about the silver light that surrounded her when she slept. Was it the light from the sea? I don’t know. She said. She thought it was. He took her hand in his.
They stood side by side at the window and watched the rabbits tracks fill with light in the snow.