They are standing still, quite near to each other, on a small wooden bridge. It arches over a shallow creek, connecting to a path at the edge of a forest. She doesn’t know why he brought her here, and as he speaks in philosophical tongues she clicks her painted black nails on the slender railing. She wants to lay a finger under his chin, but can’t break through the transparent wall that divides them.
Years ago, someone had closed them up in a room together, as though two lost balloons drifting at the edge of the atmosphere might collide and create friction. Over time she listened, at great intervals, to his revelations pour forth, and his hushed voice helped to slow the spinning inside her like a drug. Decades later she’ll keep a book on a shelf because it bears his inscription, and she’ll worry that she never gave him anything to remember her by.
Nothing except that one night, the one when they whispered a private world into existence, where they lived harmoniously until the sun came up. When his fingertips imprinted an atlas on her body, and his shoulder blades became a map of their stars. He wouldn’t forget it, even though their fragile galaxy had shattered in the morning, like glass under the heavy heat of the day.
On the bridge, a small animal scurries past them from out of the brush. She is startled and he laughs and presents her with riddles. She has never been able to decipher him, but it doesn’t matter. She wonders if this will be the last time they see each other, has no way of knowing that there will be exactly two more times. That they will be drawn to each other like magnets, but the polarity will invariably reverse, and the fabric winding to bind them will rip so they fall away from one another.
The first time will be a year from now when she’ll ride a bus for hours to visit him with friends, they’ll eat food and attend parties, and sleep back to back in the same twin bed. A year after that he’ll climb a narrow staircase and sit across from her in a chair, to give her a gift, to unintentionally tell her goodbye forever. Both occasions will be colourless and strange because their eyes won’t meet, not truly, not even for a second.
Someday far in the future she’ll conjure him as a constellation. Orion, the hunter, chasing a reprieve from a spiritual hunger. She’ll imagine that the star map she drew on his skin rose up to reside in the night sky, where she can observe it on clear evenings. She’ll hunt there too, like Artemis, for a mythical cup to drink from that will sate her unquenchable thirst.
The sun sinks over the bridge and they are aware of the beauty of the moment, comment on the delicate cast of light slanting through the trees. She wants him to keep talking, wants him to keep wanting her. They both feel the weight of some unknown thing outside the realm of the present, yet remain as innocent as lambs, easy prey of the fates, and of the different, separate, lives they will lead.
“The Hunters” first appeared in Emerge Literary, Issue 17, 2021
Orion the Hunter. Photo/ NASA/ESA/M. Robberto (STScI/ESA)