I promised myself that the days weren’t cold. Beyond the fabric cascades that covered the windows, I knew the sun was shining; I saw it once. Puddled deep into the cushions of my armchair, I meditated, tried to breathe as lightly as possible so I could catch each echo of birdsong that managed to slip into the room. They were symphonies; the music of a world unknown. Mother had gone. She always tried to go unnoticed, but I had learnt to listen for the slide of locks, and the faint patter as her boots struck against the stone steps that ran a spine down the garden. Then nothing.
I rose from my seat, my heart a war-drum, beating ever faster as I begged myself for courage, tiptoeing across the carpet, a ballet dancer, free. Pausing every few seconds, I listened for her return. The curtain was in reaching distance, I stretched to stroke each thread, woven thick like matted hair. I trembled; on the other side, the window lay, each pane of glass painted in coats of black so dark it seemed to bleed. I gasped. Through a pin sized hole, where the paint had somehow flaked away, a beam of gold shone, blazing. It did not seem real. Perhaps I was imagining.
My hand, pale as milk, hovered closer and closer; I stopped so near, a single slip would have thrown my skin into the light. The smallest hint of warmth began a fire in my chest. The bolt slid back on the door.
Flying across the room, fuelled by fear, I leapt onto my chair, immediately resuming a position of innocence. The curtain rolled with movement, a breaking wave that seemed to stop as soon as mother entered the room.
“Good morning.” I smiled. She placed her bags down, each one brimming with enough food to last for weeks, and kissed me delicately on my forehead.
“It’s ever so dark out there, Florence, you wouldn’t like it at all.”
I was not a hostage. She was not my captor.
“It’s not safe out there; remember how it killed your father.” She used to say, her eyes bursting with tenderness, glossed with tears of nostalgia. I embraced her, she draped her arms around me and sobbed quietly. Her skin was warm.
“I know, mother, I know.” I reassured, looking around the room. I knew every inch; the dust that settled upon the coffee table, the imprints, pits and falls, on cushions that still clung to the aroma of tobacco, the perfume of a man I could not remember, but loved all the same.
“It’s not safe out there.” She repeated, this time in whispered tones. Her head found safety in my collarbone.
They were happy, again. I did not know who ‘they’ were; they did not exist beyond the sounds of joy; faint shadows of laughter and muffled traces of names all burst through the bubble as if they had somehow morphed into a knife edge.
I felt tormented; other than mother’s, I could not recall a face that did not lay trapped within the paper prisons of pages. Sometimes, if I was particularly lucky, I could imagine the faint outline of their lips, or conjure a glimpse of their hair, flowing as they ran. They were not porcelain; they had seen the sun, bathed in it, I had even seen a photograph of a boy with skin as dark as the old mahogany desk that cowered in the corner of father’s office.
They had gotten louder, then stopped altogether. I wondered what had happened to them, whether they had become bored of their game and sulked their way home, or if they had run to the fields instead.
“Are you okay?” Mother asked; I had forgotten she was in the room.
“Yes.” I lied. The fire in my chest returned. I wanted to run, but not from her. I wanted to taste the air.
Her silhouette lay, morgue-still, with nothing but the hum of breath to prove she was alive. My hands were shaking as I reached over her sleeping form and fingered the keys from the bedside; she twitched, moaned some indecipherable lyric, and rolled onto her side. I froze, a statue of pallid complexion, a sinner in the darkness. I crept backward, soaking up the image of her face.
I felt strong as iron as I stepped into the night.
The woodland heaved with every lick of wind that ran a hand through the trees. There was rhythm to the madness that I could feel resonate deep through every bone; trunks swayed in synchronised ranks, leaves bristled in percussive harmony. I stopped running and dug my hand into the earth, letting the ochre clay run deep beneath my fingernails. Under the freckled cheek of stars, I marched on, upwards, rising, toward the mountain made of stone.
I had waited for hours at the top of the world. Below me, the valley stretched lazily into the horizon, and the damask of night began to slip away. I rose to my feet, anxious that the day would never come, furious at myself for ignoring the wisdom of my mother, who would soon realise I had abandoned the safety of her nest. I turned, ready to run, weeping, already practicing my apology, already envisioning the shock in her loving, dimpled face as I announced my return. Suddenly, I felt it filter through my tissue paper blouse and settle warmth across my back.
Turning, I watched in awe as the sun, big and bold and bright, rose a slow yolk over the boundary of the horizon. Glorious, unimaginable light oozed, heavy honey, across every atom of my being.
In an instant, I was gone. A feather, I floated skyward, swam in waves of azure blue; below me, the stone edge of the land stood perplexed, embarrassed by the way it could not rise. I made out the ant sized shape of my mother scrambling wildly to the crest, flailing her arms, screaming until her lungs began to ache.
I watched as the light touched her skin. She turned silent; we drifted together, weightless, under the medallion of the sun.