Like Music for Stones
by Chloe N. Clark
The release party had been over-planned from the start. The band’s lead singer, Alexei, never expected anything less than a packed house. This optimism continued even after numerous shows where the crowd had more than enough room for wildly flamboyant dancing. Still Alexei planned the party as if it were going to be the premiere event of the season. Everyone was encouraged to come in costume. Alexei had always wanted the band to play in costume at their shows but the other band members wisely vetoed this move. The party was another story. Orlando went as a knight. It wasn’t the brightest idea that he had ever had; it’s not easy to play the guitar in a full suit of plastic armor. He wasn’t sure which was worse, the claustrophobic heat of the outfit or the obnoxiously tinkly jangling that accompanied his strumming.
He went up to the bar between sets to get an overdue drink and he saw her. She had gone as the night. She wore a full-length, dark blue dress covered in glittering stars. She made the night seem more beautiful than any day could ever be. She looked at him and smiled, “Hey, we’re homophones.”
He laughed though it took him a second to get the joke and then he bought her a drink. A Raspberry Ruffle. They had the same favorite drink.
“I’m Orlando. I’m in the band,” he said, using the line that he had vowed never to use.
“I’m Era. I’m not musical in any way.” Her smile lit up the darkness of the club.
“Era? That’s an unusual name.” He wasn’t just saying that. It seemed like the kind of name one would have in a fantasy novel; it was a name fit for a feisty heroine who travels to every point on the compass just to save her lover.
“Yeah, well, you should meet my sisters Eon and Epoch,” she said and her eyes stayed lit from within by some half-mischievous light.
He wasn’t sure if she was serious. And then she laughed, and it sounded like what making wishes on shooting stars might sound like.
That was how they met and, of course, they fell in love. No, it wasn’t instantaneous. It took time in the way that these things do. It was a kind of gradual falling, like how comets shooting across the sky might look in slow motion videos. But still, it was love.
A year went by in a blur. It was night-long conversations. It was walks by the lake and glances that met across the table. It was a thousand thousands of tiny moments that led to this. Orlando began to spend his free time looking at engagement rings. He saw ones that looked like tiny chips of ice that might melt at the smallest suggestion of warmth and ones that seemed like they belonged hanging inside glacial caves. He couldn’t find one that would be everything he wanted it to be.
Then, inevitably, there came a moment when everything changed. Sometimes these moments seem inevitable, sometimes they have been foreshadowed from day one, and sometimes they are shatteringly out of place. It was a Tuesday. Tuesdays seem like they should be inauspicious days. Has anything ever happened on a Tuesday?
But let us at least give these lovers something—it was a beautiful day. The kind where fall is just beginning to send a shiver into the air but the sun still warms. Orlando woke up first. He turned and watched Era sleeping. Her eyes danced underneath her lids. She might have been dreaming of anything: a ballroom dance across the sky or a passionate kiss shared at the gates of Atlantis. He got up and made them cups of coffee. His was black and hers had cream swirling patterns across the surface. He thought he could make out the shape of a serpent but then the cream spread out into nothing.
When they said goodbye that morning, they said it as they always said it. A kiss and that was all.
Era went to the building where she worked like she had done every Tuesday for quite some time. Tuesdays were ordinary days. She spent the morning typing up reports: rows and rows of numbers. She liked numbers because they always seemed so concrete. They always tried to tell the truth. It was only humans that manipulated the numbers to take the meanings they wanted. Era went out for lunch. She had a favorite café that was only a block away from her office. The café served hot sandwiches in elaborate combinations of flavors: rosemary focaccia stuffed with provolone, marinated sweet peppers, pesto mayonnaise and ones with crusty sourdough surrounding caramelized onions, grilled portabellas, and Muenster cheese. She was considering what she might order; she wanted something unexpected. She walked along the sidewalk and hummed to herself. It was one of Orlando’s new songs; but she didn’t realize that. It was the best song that he would ever write. We’ll say it was about her because everything he wrote then had a tiny bit of her hidden in the space between the notes. She started to cross the street. We are always caught in the smallest of moments: the phone not answered or the three-second stop to say hello that delays us just long enough. The SUV was green, the color of new leaves. The driver screamed and dropped her phone.
Era looked up and saw the sky. The clouds were making shapes but she couldn’t quite tell what they were supposed to be. She remembered when she would lie out in the fields with her best friend and they would try to pinpoint which cloud the other was looking at: do you see the dragon? That is a curl of smoke from its mouth.
There wasn’t much blood. Just a tiny pool spreading out in rivulets like snakes slithering away from vibrations shaking the ground. There wasn’t any glass. No one commented on this, though. Maybe it wasn’t worth commenting on, or maybe it meant everything. Everyone tried to look away. The lights of the ambulance blinked out Morse code messages of nothing and too late.
Orlando got the call and then found himself in the hospital. He couldn’t remember how A had led to B. There must have been some kind of transportation. Then there were doctors shaking their heads. A nurse kept tapping her fingernails into the palm of her hand. He counted the beats. There was a song pattern in there somewhere. He was sure of it.
He lost a few days but he wasn’t sure how many. Then he realized that didn’t bother him. It was the lost days that were almost close to bearable. He woke up in his room one morning and realized that three entire days had passed. That seemed like almost too many. He decided that he had to do something. Something had to be done.
He had heard of a woman who knew about these things. There were stories told about her. The kinds of stories that played out only in whispers. She had a place downtown and so he went there. He never got lost. The path was open to him. The outside of the building looked so ordinary. Her office walls were white; there were no smiling family photos, no abstract works of art.
“Orlando?” she said when he walked in. She wore green, the color of moss.
“I’m—I need—” There are some words that can never be found in time to say out loud.
“I know. This is always going to happen. It is always like this,” she said. There are some whose tongues only allow them to speak in riddles.
He didn’t ask what she meant. “Can I find her?”
“You can try. It won’t be easy.” She looked away from him to some distant point in the wall as if that was where the answers would be found.
“I’m already in hell. How hard could it be?” He spoke to the floor. He imagined it might open up and swallow him as he said the words.
“Not the place. Not the finding. I mean once you reach her. You can bring her back. You can always bring them back. But you can’t look back once you’ve saved her. Not once. Not ever. No matter how much you want to. No matter what.” She met his eyes and hers seemed so full of sunlight, like a lake sparkling in the middle of summer. That reflected glare could blind just as well as the real thing.
“But she’ll be alive.” He didn’t ask. He couldn’t form it as a question.
The woman nodded and so he nodded. She handed him a pill. It was tiny but covered in a painting of a lake. He put it into his mouth and swallowed. Then there was light and dark and cascades of color until it was everything there was.
He woke up in a forest. It seemed endless, just tree leading to tree leading to tree. The trees all had faces. Everyone that he had ever known was carved into bark. They each were caught up in the middle of doing something. The thing in his mind which most captured them. His mother was laughing. His brother was looking off at something in the distance. Alexei was in mid-song. But she was not there. And so he walked on.
He came to a stream that stretched around the world and never once began again. The stream was filled up with stones and on each stone was written something, and compiled together the stones contained everything that he had ever said: Mama, I’m scared. I’m Orlando. I’m in the band. I love you.
He kept walking and walking and walking. He thought his feet would simply disintegrate. He kept walking for what must have been a million miles. He walked until he could have circled the world a thousand times. Finally he came to a little house. It looked like it came out of an illustration in one of the books his mother used to read him to sleep with. A tiny puff of smoke danced up out of the chimney in tendrils like a dragon might breathe out. He opened the door— it was as green as a tree frog—and walked inside. The house smelled of cinnamon tea and sugar cookies. In the kitchen, a woman sat drinking a cup of coffee. She wore green, the color of snake’s skin. She looked up at him. “You want her back, don’t you?”
“Please…” He knew the words were somewhere deep inside him. But this one word said them all anyway.
She took a sip. “You have to convince me. That’s just how these things are done.”
She pointed to the corner of the room and Orlando’s guitar was leaning against the wall. He got it and began to play. He filled the song with everything that was Era. Her laugh, the way that her lips parted slightly when she was concentrating, the color of her eyes that were gray like stones, the feel of her fingertips on his skin, the smell of her hair, the way that she hummed. The woman watched him intently. He stopped and she smiled. “I will give her back to the world because I think it would miss her otherwise. But, I want something…”
“Anything.” He meant it. Of course he meant it.
“Your love for her. She can’t ever feel it. I want it. It seems so comfortable and warm like curling up by the fireplace after a blizzard,” the woman said.
“But she’ll be alive?” This time it was a question. It was always the question.
The woman nodded, smiling slightly and enough to show the rows and rows of her teeth, and so he nodded in return.
Orlando opened his eyes. The release party was going well. Alexei seemed pleased. Orlando wished he hadn’t gone as a knight, though. The armor clanked as he walked. He went up to the bar and ordered a drink. A woman was sitting there. She was covered in stars. She turned to him, “Hey, we’re—”
He walked away without turning to her. He felt for a spilt second that he had lost something, some song he’d never be able to play again. But, he never once looked back.
* * *
What advice do you have for other fantasy writers?
To quote Journey and 1000 episodes of Glee: Don't Stop Believin'. Also don't stop questioning the world, fantasy I think is about the questions we can't answer with the everyday.