Can We Keep Bitterness From Each Other? | Teen Ink

Can We Keep Bitterness From Each Other?

November 16, 2019
By RachelShey BRONZE, Walnut Creek, California
RachelShey BRONZE, Walnut Creek, California
2 articles 0 photos 0 comments

“Be good to people and people will be good to you.”  Dad always says that.  It’s always cold in Seattle, even in June.  Walking down the street, I always stuff my hands into my coat pockets and lean forward into the wind, the menacing rustles of birch trees echoing overhead.  I never feel like being good to anyone, although I am fifteen years old, and Dad tells me that no one goes to fifteen-year-old girls for cynicism and despair. 

 

Stepping through our blue front door, I was surprised when Dad immediately greeted me.  “Happy fifteenth birthday!” 

 

“Dad!  I didn’t know you remembered!” 

 

“How could I forget?” he said enigmatically, as he fumbled in his back pocket.  He pulled out a blue pen and presented it to me, cradled in his open palms.  “Here, Rosalind.  It’s time that I tell you this story.” 

 

That was the first time I ever heard of this.  It’s not that Dad and I aren’t close; he’s just not the type to wear his heart on his sleeve.  He doesn’t seem to dwell often on the past.  Perhaps there is a reason.

 

***

 

When I was a boy, I lived in the port town of Kaohsiung.  My parents were country folk who came into good fortune and moved to the city before I was born.  I loved the port.  There was always something happening on the marina.  I would stand at the end of the docks, out of the way, out of sight, and watch as the blue shape of a ship became bigger and bigger (if I concentrated, I could start to see the windows in the cabins) until it stood before me in its navy blue and white and black glory, with men scrambling about its decks and the smell of fish on its every surface.  It was like I had brought it into reality with the power of my mind. 

 

            When the war started, my parents told me that we might have to move to the countryside.  They made promises.  Get good grades and we won’t move.  Go to cram school without complaint and we won’t move.  Pass the high school entrance exam and we won’t move.  I tallied the promises on the back page of my notebook, adding them up, to reach the sum conclusion: stay.  It was the only correct answer. 

 

            I got into the best high school in Taiwan, but still we moved, to a little village whose name I have erased from my memory.  My parents broke all the promises they’d made.  I would never forgive them.  The bitterness coiled up, dark, inside me, and choked my soul. 

 

It was still wartime.  Sometimes we heard sirens; this was a signal to go to the bomb shelters. 

                

            The first time it happened, the other children ran, but I walked slowly, like an important magistrate.  That was why I was the only one who saw the pen, lying in the dust.

 

            Back then, pens were rare and worth a great deal.  I hadn’t seen one since I’d left the city; everyone in the village just used pencils, or horsehair brushes with soot-ink sticks, or, more often, didn’t write at all.  I waited for the children to disappear into the shelter before I picked up the pen.  It was beautiful, blue, with a shiny silver nib. 

 

            In the shelter, I found a sheet of paper and a small peephole that allowed in some light.  While the others played their childish country games, I drew a ship, first the outline, and then the inner details, pulling its form into reality.  Somehow, it happened: I was standing on the dock, watching a cargo ship come in.  I can only explain it as a dream. 

 

            Something, a magnetic force, pulled me aboard as the ship took off to a land unknown.  I remember still, the unsteady feeling of the ship in the water.  When we docked, I followed the sailors down to the port where I saw many things, most of which I have forgotten. 

 

            I did not forget the granite-blue-scaled beast that lunged out of an alley and circled me.  He clanked loudly when he walked (which he did on all fours), and his yellow, lidless eyes looked cruelly at me.  His head was snakelike, his feet those of a lizard, his body like that of a dog, and he had a tail many times longer than his body. 

 

            Night fell.  There are no stars in the city, only soulless sodium lights, and although I was initially careful to keep my distance from the beast, my bare arms grew cold.  Noticing that my teeth were chattering, the beast curled around me.  Sleepily, I saw that what I had mistaken for cruelty in his eyes was only the cool austerity of mercy. 

 

            When I woke, I still had the pen.  You are holding it in your hand now.   

 

***

 

“Weird story, Dad,” I said, to dispel the darkness that had settled in his face as he spoke.  “Thanks for the pen.” 

 

“You don’t believe my story, do you?” 

 

“Well, no, not really.  You made it up, right?  I mean, I have a hard time remembering dreams, anyway.” 

 

Dad was silent.  He looked regretful, but at least he didn’t seem angry.

 

***

That evening, still wearing my red coat, I sat alone in my room, turning the pen over and over.  There were marks carved in the pen’s blue sides, and it felt strangely heavy.  Dad’s story rang out in my head, over and over and over again.  Was it just nonsense? 

 

But Dad was a mathematician, an economist, a biologist, a chemist; he loved numbers and certainty.  He had the confidence that came from statistical understanding, the wonder from the mysteries of the natural world.  He wouldn’t spout nonsense if it wasn’t important. 

 

Oh well.  What else is there to do with a sometime magical pen?  I pressed its sharp tip against a white piece of paper. A lithe little bird appeared on the page, rendered in swift strokes.  The scratching of a shiny silver nib against paper filled the silence. 

 

I remembered the last time I had felt so tranquil.  I remembered something else too. 

 

***

I was always the apple of his eye, always the one who escaped unscathed from his blistering critiques.  Other students told me later: “Your favorite teacher says such terrible things.  His words make me want to break my fingers and never pick up a pencil again.”  They did not need to tell me, for I was the one who watched him closest.  I knew his favorite insults, how he told some of them they had no talent for imagination, worse, that they had no imaginations.  He told some of them that their drawings were stiff, soulless, while he twirled his fingers in the air (even in mimicking awkwardness, his gestures never lacked grace).  I couldn’t possibly forget him pulling a girl’s arm high in the air, her fingers silhouetted against the ceiling lights, and mockingly muttering: “like sausages, oily and fat.”

 

For me he had the finest praise.  Look at Rosalind’s bee-yoo-tee-ful composition!  It makes my heart sing!  Look at her delicate white fingers, she was born an artist.  Such imagination, such talent, such prowess.  Sometimes I heard him repeat these praises, just like his insults, to another student, favored for a day.  But he always had a “small criticism” for me too, and these made dread wrap like iron chains around my midsection.  Here, a misplaced line.  There, a poorly placed shape.  How could you think that orange would go well with purple?  You have broken my heart.  I can never forgive you. 

 

I don’t remember exactly when I stopped.  It was when the “small criticism” began to weigh more than the praises.  Because the praises seemed hollow, smooth.  It was his criticism that contained his soul, and he had taught me to look for soul in response to my work.  He told me to look for the person who had been torn apart and put back together in a different order by my color and line, the person who might not like the new order, and thus directed their self-loathing outwards.  He said this like he was describing some stranger who was not him, could never be him. 

 

It is my heart, not my head, that tells me to draw.  And while my head could hear the intention, my heart only heard the “small criticism,” and my heart would replay the words it heard until they swelled, became more and more terrible, swallowed me whole, broke my fingers and threw away my pencil. 

 

You have broken my heart.  Can I ever forgive you?

 

***

 

I lifted my hands to crumple the sheet, but something stopped me and made me linger over the drawing for a moment.  It seemed to have captured the very essence of a summer evening.  I paused. 

 

Far away… was that the faint chirping of a small songbird? 

 

There was a flutter of white movement in my periphery.  I glanced toward it.  There it was!  A pale sparrow perched on my open window ledge, glowing with soft light.  Had I opened the window?  And then it flew, leaving behind one ink-tinged feather on my bedroom floor, and the green-jewel scent of a summer night breeze.  It wasn’t cold anymore.  I shrugged off the coat.

 

The paper was blank and slightly creased; the bird had flown. 

 

Intrigued, I put pen to paper again.  Two kind eyes, a nose, grinning mouth; my pen moved with a swift natural confidence.    

 

“Don’t waste it.”  My thoughts stacked after and over each other, like piano chords plinked down in quick succession.  I was afraid I would be swept away by the crescendos mounting heedless to my alarm.  The pen!  Furiously it moved, gliding over the paper like an ice skater, swooping, dancing, whirling in my fingers.  I was frightened, but fascinated.  It flew.  I surrendered.  And then I flew too. 

 

***

And then I fell, I was falling, but there was no fear in it.  I saw stars, counted constellations, dove past Mars and Venus and Mercury.  Swirled into the moon as it grew massive and bright, and all was whiteness. 

 

I fluttered awake, the movements of galaxies trailing away as I surfaced.  Awakening is always such a strange thing, when you clamber into some strange world, strange for it is never your dreams.  But—some quality of this world was too good to be real. 

 

I looked down. 

 

My hands, my clothes, the floor – all were a chalky fossil-white, bordered by quicksilver lines that shifted suddenly like desert sands in the wind.  I quivered expectantly, but still no fear thrilled through me. 

 

I was not alone.  There was a boy, the boy that the pen had refused to stop drawing.  His clothes were not white, but granite-blue.   

 

“Are you alright?”

 

“Where am I?  Who are you?” 

 

“Try thinking of some better questions.” 

 

I was caught off-guard by this, so I tried for business-like professionalism.  Fortunately, I utterly failed.  “Ah, how- how do I-?”

 

“Yes,” said the boy, seemingly pleased by my inarticulate confusion.  “You’re making progress.”  He gestured casually toward a round escape hatch. 

 

The cool knob in my hand, I saw the clotted pinks and greens spinning like disturbed nebulae over the velvet blackness just outside the threshold.  A summer evening wind blew into my face.  I waited, but still, I felt no fear, nothing holding me back.  I dangled a white foot over the colors.

 

Jump. 

 

The boy shouted and lurched forward, nearly falling out after me.   

 

“I’ll be back,” I promised as I fell, and the blackness spilled around me, ten thousand galaxies commingling, the stars of Sagittarius searing into my retinas.  I shut my eyes. 

 

Last thing I felt were his paper-thin hands on my back. 

 

***

                                 

That night I slept uneasily, flitting in and out of ink-lined dreams where birds and boys looked at me with accusing eyes.  After I woke for the fifth time, I decided to flee the terrible dreams. 

 

I padded silently to my desk and rifled through the papers, casting inky shadows over the walls.  The pen.  It was heavier now, the carved sides ominous and monolithic in their intensity.  I was certain that if my attention lapsed for a moment, it would surely swallow me, it would pull me in like a black hole and stretch and shatter me and put me back together again in a new order. 

 

Shivering, I dragged the pen on the paper, and then my slumbering mind grabbed at the memory of the boy, the crashing crescendo of thought.  The pen twitched with impossible quickness, so fast I could smell the friction of the metal on paper, until it took flight, taking me with it. 

 

***

 

I fell, down, past pearlescent Pisces and glittering Gemini, back into the dry white dream world where a promise awaited me. 

 

“Strange,” I murmured as I opened my eyes and lifted a hand to my face.  There was the whispering sound of paper gliding against itself.  I had forgotten something, something important.  It darted at the edges of my memory, a flashing, sunlight-dazzled fish that I couldn’t quite catch. 

 

“What’s strange?” came a voice.  I bolted up, an electric chill coursing down my spine.  And then I remembered.  The boy. 

 

“Nothing, nothing,” I rushed, scanning him.  Examining his intricate shell ears, neatly set jaw, carefully even teeth.  I couldn’t help but marvel at how the resolution of his eyes increased as I looked closer.  Yet there was something missing; there was no glint in his dully exquisite eyes, no sparkle of something more behind those beautifully lined pupils.  He was like a pretty plastic vase that disappoints with its lightness when picked up. 

 

The boy looked at me.  “Give me a name.” 

 

            “What?” 

 

            “Name me, so you have something to call me.” 

 

“Ganymede,” I said too quickly.  “What happened to your real name?”

 

“It’s a long tale.  But we have time, I’ll tell it.” 

 

I sat and listened to his voice, which rose and fell, rustling with static. 

 

***

 

My name is not Ganymede, but it isn’t anything else either.  As is common among people who have lived for too long, I disfavor the idea of names as all-encompassing, self-limiting collections of letters.  I prefer to think of names as cups, into which I pour a little bit of my soul, for the mortals to enjoy.  It would be impossible to drink all of my soul and it would be an error to believe that it all tastes the same.  I choose to decant only a small amount from the surface.  The best parts settle to the bottom, never to be seen or tasted.  I haven’t decided if it’s better to keep them for myself or share them with others.

 

I met the pen several centuries into my wanderings.  She, too, has no name.  Together, with my limited form of precognition (I don’t “see” the future, per se; it’s more like a shadowy vision of what should be, projected just outside my reach) and her ability to wheedle secrets out of people (think, how many of the important events in your life have been accompanied by pencils and pens.  The businessman who settles the deal of his life with a humble Pentel clipped into his breast pocket, the girl who slots a Ticonderoga behind her ear and runs to tell her mother something important that she has just realized, the lonely man who crafts a world in a maelstrom of fountain pen ink), we’ve muddled on through the centuries, doing odd jobs and good works. 

 

***

 

That was all I told Rosalind, but there is more to this story. 

 

The pen told me about a girl who was blessed with incredible gifts.  Chief among them was her teacher, who saw her as his protégé, and vowed to make her succeed where he had failed.  For there is a reason that the teacher never dares to set his pen down on paper anymore.   

 

The girl was cheerful and bold, often choosing to act rather than think.  This was one of her teacher’s frustrations.  Why?  Why did you draw on the table, when a new shipment of rag paper was coming in tomorrow?  Why did you put a slash of black ink over your painting, when all it needed was another coat of varnish?  Why did you fill your outline with watercolor before you tested a swatch?  Darling, the mark of a truly skilled artist is patience.  Artists bursting with talent and impatience are a dime a dozen, but an artist with the wisdom to hold back is a rare jewel.  He forgot to add that the other integral skill was to know when to temper fear, and he neglected to say that a muse is not something to be hidden but to be forced into the open, poured messily into cups and handed around, don’t be precious about it now. 

 

Among her gifts was a certain guilelessness.  The girl did not recognize her skill, did not value it in particular, and watched her classmates work with a mixture of awe and confusion.  What did she have that they lacked?  Why did the teacher demean them, when their skill seemed equal?  The pen knew. 

 

“Rosalind casts a spell.  Her work contains little technical ability, incomplete mastery of most media, and a good deal of poor choices, but it makes you feel something.  It seems to pull something out of you that you didn’t know was there, like a shiny new penny from the mud at the bottom of a fountain.  Look at me.  I am made of wood.  But when I saw one of her drawings, it made me leap up and go, ‘Yes, that is exactly how I was feeling last Friday.’  I don’t know how to describe it, really.  It’s kind of magical, to be honest.” 

 

“Magic?  What are we, a coven now?” 

 

“Skeptics would say that gods don’t exist, but you and I are living proof.”

 

You see now why I love the pen.  “True, since I haven’t seen it, I can’t judge, but that sounds fine.  A girl has a gift, and…?” 

 

“The gift isn’t quite relevant to what drew me to her.  Really tragic, she dies in the future – or in the past – someone or something killed her five minutes away from home, left her dead on the side of the road.  Whatever it was chained up time and stopped it from flowing, and now she cycles, dragging with her the luggage of her life as she lives and dies, over and over and over again.  I think the gift is somehow connected, but I don’t know.” 

 

“What?  What do you mean?  What should I do?” 

 

“You’ll figure it out soon enough, but it falls right in your wheelhouse.” 

 

Ah, pen, pen, always so maddeningly indirect.  But I suppose I am too; such is the way of people who have lived too long. 

 

***

 

I handed Rosalind my business card.  “Now you have heard all, or at least all that matters.”  

 

Examining the scrap of paper, she looked even more perplexed.  “Why does it say that you do ‘summonings?’” 

 

“Ah, yes,” I said.  “Summonings are something that I learned by accident, when I was trying to do something else.”  Really, it was wrong.  Shouldn’t she be more interested by the part where it says, “Spirit of Unknown Specialty?”  She seemed like the kind of person who needed something unknown. 

 

Fine, I could work with it.  “Would you like a summoning?  My ‘powers of precognition’ tell me that you need one.” 

 

“Now do I?” muttered Rosalind indistinctly.   

 

“Yes, you do.  Who, or what, would you like to summon?” 

 

Rosalind tilted her head and curled a tendril of her hair around a finger.  Her brow furrowed slightly.  “How do I decide?”

 

“Some ask to summon fate, love, the past.”  From what the pen had told me, it sounded like she needed to summon the past, but Rosalind remained still and silent.  “Others want to summon someone; I let them choose anyone, dead or alive.  Could be a lover or a friend, but usually they pick an enemy.  Choose wisely.  When a summoning ends, there are no secrets left.”

 

Rosalind calmly released the tangle of hair that she was clutching in her fist and straightened up.  “I want to summon Mr. Douglas.” 

 

Mr. Douglas.  Given the way she had said his name, I half-expected him to appear demonically in a puff of flame, replete with snarling rows of sharp white teeth and curved horns.  What I summoned was simply an old man. 

 

***

 

The darkness of Mr. Douglas was unusual, given that his form had been translated into milk-white paper and spidery pen lines.  His eyes were piercing, hooded under bushy, black, satanically-shaped eyebrows.  I didn’t like the look of his goatee, although it was a limp, grayish sort of goatee, not the slick, mistrustful kind.  Shapeshifting tattoos slowly migrated up and down his forearms. 

 

“Mr. Douglas, your student, Rosalind, has summoned you.” I said.

 

He seemed confused.  “What am I here for?”

 

I responded with another question.  “Can we keep bitterness from each other?” 

 

It’s an oddly personal question; it sucks in all the air around you and makes it difficult to breathe.  Not anything like “Are you keeping secrets?”  Everyone knows how to answer that one: no.  “Can we keep bitterness from each other?”  There really is no right or wrong answer to this one.  I asked it once, like a challenge.  I asked it again, so it sounded like the kind of question that one asks to keep one’s moral compass from sliding slowly south.  I asked it a third time.  Now it was a presumptuous question, with a hidden directive. 

 

And Mr. Douglas began to speak. 

 

***

           

Are you listening?  Good.  Today is the first and only time I have ever told anyone of this.   

 

            Every Saturday morning, as light streams into my house and gilds my table, I open my notebook and set it flat on the table.  I sketch nimbly, and for a moment: bliss. 

 

            But then I remember myself and look at my work with a critic’s eye.  All I have created is sorry trash; I fold the paper, push it away, and try to forget about it.  Fear breaks my fingers and throws away my pencil.  Why, you must be wondering, am I an art teacher, if I so loathe my work?   

***

 

Some years ago, I went for a drive.  It was on a day when my home was too suffocating to stay in any longer; it was raining, hard, outside, and I wanted to feel the wind and rain.  I wanted to get lost. 

 

The drive was relaxing.  The green pastures rolling by merged together through the mist of rain, behind the birch trees lining the wet road.  I nearly started to drowse, so I idled the car and took out a piece of paper and a pen to write something. 

 

Instead of writing, I drew, lines linking together a strange map of the surrounding area, from the vantage point of the field I had stopped by.  For some reason, it felt as though the pen had taken control; I sat in the gray light, paralyzed, a vessel to the demands of the ballpoint. 

 

I saw a flash of red and blue to the side.  There was a woman, standing on the side of the road, wearing a shiny red coat.  Her hair was granite-blue, an unusual color, I remember it even now.  She was motioning toward me. 

 

I opened the car door.  “Need a ride?”

 

She stepped in, bringing a buffet of rain that soaked the inside of my car.  “Sorry,” she mumbled.  “Got in a fight with my friend.  He ditched me.”  Water dripped from her hair to her coat, where it beaded freshly. 

                      

“Not a very good friend, then,” I said, trying to make conversation.  “Where to?” 

 

She grabbed the slip of paper I had clutched between my hand and the steering wheel.  I noticed a vivid, granite-blue tattoo of a scaled, yellow-eyed beast stretching from her wrist to the hinge of her elbow. “Here,” she said, denoting with her finger a point about five minutes away, on the map that I had freehanded. 

 

The birch trees rustled menacingly.  “Wha— Who are you?” 

 

“That doesn’t matter,” she said, smiling reassuringly.  “Please take me home.” 

 

Hearing the note of slight desperation in her voice, I started the car and started driving.  “So,” I said.  “Tell me about yourself?” 

 

“You first,” she said. 

 

 “Well, I’m an art student.  It’s been a long while since I’ve made anything worthwhile, and I’m starting to think of switching.  But… I made a vow to myself, years ago, that I would make this work.  I want to prove my father wrong.  I want to show him that I can succeed.  Succeed on my own terms.”  The drum of rain and the swish of the windshield wipers filled the silence. 

 

            The woman puffed out her breath.  I stole a glance at her, to see that her eyes were closed and her brow was furrowed.  After a brief pause, she spoke.  “You will succeed.  Keep going.” 

 

            “How do you know?  Are you a fortune teller?”  I chuckled. 

 

            The woman fixed me with a serious stare.  “In a way, yes.  But I don’t really “see” the future; it’s more like… looking up through a hole in the roof at the night sky.  I’ve heard that our destinies are ‘written in the stars,’ but I only see the occasional slow sweeps of blinking planes and the creep of light across the sky at sunrise.”

           

            Something about her manner convinced me she was genuine.  “So… can you tell me how I succeed?” 

 

            There was a longer silence.  Too long.  I stole a glance at the passenger seat.  It was empty.  Puddles and streaks of water were all that were left. 

 

            “Where… where are you?” 

 

            The birch trees rustled menacingly. 

 

            I stopped at her home, where the lights were on.  As soon as I saw them, yellow, gleaming through the fog, I had a sense of coming out of a long dream.  Rain pelted on my back as I knocked on the blue front door. 

 

            An old, old man opened the door. 

 

“Hi,” I said uncertainly.  “I, uh, met a hitchhiker on the road, she had blue hair, quite a curious shade of blue, kind of stone-like, and a red coat, and she said to take her here?  Do you know her?  I didn’t get her name…”  I stopped, aware of how improbable it was that he knew who I was talking about. 

 

            The old man’s eyes flickered with recognition.  “Yes.  My daughter had a very particular shade of blue hair, and she was wearing a red coat on the night she… she died.” 

 

            “What?” 

 

            “She died ten years ago, five minutes away from home.  Her friend ditches her, next morning they find her dead on the side of the road.  Killed by something.  No marks found, except a strange tattoo on her arm.  Who would do such a thing?  Kill a girl without leaving any trace but a tattoo on her body.”  The faraway look on his face suddenly vanished, replaced by an angry glare. 

 

            “You!  Leave, boy!  Don’t torment old men for fun.  Go, laugh about ghost stories with your friends!”  He slammed the door. 

           

            I turned my face to the rain, and by the time I returned to my car, it looked like I had been crying.  By the time I returned home, I knew what to do.  By the time my father died, I made sure he saw me succeed. 

 

            Ever since then, my tattoos move and transform while I’m not watching.  I don’t know what it means, but I think I will, one day.   

           

***

           

            “I died?  No, it can’t be.  I’m alive.  I’m not a ghost… am I?”  Rosalind looked panicky.  Mr. Douglas remained silent, contemplative, dark regret settling in his face. 

 

            How can you remember something that hasn’t happened yet?  But slowly, slowly, I watched as a world of memory crashed down on Rosalind. 

 

***

           

Some of the residents of the Seattle suburb where I grew up believe that a ghost haunts a five-minute-stretch of street that cuts through a birch forest.  People talked about passing through the fog or rain and suddenly seeing a woman standing with the birch trees.  Every story had the same woman: an odd shade of blue hair, a waterproof red coat.  Sometimes she just stands there.  They would blink and she’d be gone, but always there was a hole in the mist where she had been, or a footprint, a small track of her existence.  Sometimes she runs up and bangs on the door; her blows sound heavy, hard, they’re about to crush in the metal, then they become muffled, and then she simply slides off and disappear.  Sometimes they offer her a ride, and she demurs, says she’s waiting for someone.  There is much speculation about who the ghost is; some think she’s some Native American princess (but which Native American princess wears a red vinyl raincoat?), some say she’s the victim of a brutal murder in Seattle proper, a few decades ago (why would she haunt a segment of rural road far away from her home?), and others think she’s the spirit of all the trees that were cut down (a conclusion far too cliché to be true).  But now you shall hear the true story of the ghost, told by the girl herself: I, Rosalind. 

 

***

            Fifteen years old, five minutes away from home, and I’d just been ditched on the side of the road by my “best friend.”  It was raining, or fogging; in any case, the air was wet.  The birch trees always struck a note of cold terror into my stomach. 

 

            I froze when I heard the sound of movement in the trees.  Two yellow eyes glowed in the darkness.  They advanced on me.  Crunch, crunch, the yellow-eyed monster broke twigs as it marched, the sound holding me captive.  I couldn’t run.  My feet were rooted to the ground. 

 

            The monster stepped out into the gray half-light.  Granite-blue scales covered his body, seeming to unfold origami-like from his skin.  His head was snakelike, his feet those of a lizard, his body like that of a dog, and he had a tail many times longer than his body.  He was the beast my father had described. 

 

            “Rosalind,” he rasped.  “Fair Rosalind.  I am now to curse you and to bless you, as I did your father before you.  Where is the pen?” 

 

            I dug it from my pocket.  “This?” 

 

            The monster took the pen from my trembling fingers and pressed its shiny nib against my wrist, as though my skin were paper.  He drew: a coiling blue beast on my forearm.  I slowly felt more and more detached, like he was sliding my skin off.  I wanted it to stop.  I wanted to jerk my arm away, but he was holding it too tightly.  Terror chilled my blood to concrete and made it impossible for me to move. 

 

With a single prick of the nib, he dotted the eye of the beast.  Part of me collapsed to the ground.  Part of me rose up against the sky.  I gasped for air, like I’d gotten the wind knocked out of me. 

 

            “Oh god, what have you done?”  I said, once I recovered enough to speak.  “What have you done, why did you do this… why?  You’ve killed me, haven’t you?” 

 

            “It was you who did this,” the monster said quietly.  “You will stay here until you find the one who can help you liberate yourself, and then you can go home.”  He thrust the pen in my hand and disappeared back into the birch forest. 

 

            Go home.  I wanted to go home.  And I waited, years and year, rainy day upon rainy day, until I saw my teacher driving through the forest, and then I did the thing that let me go home. 

 

            But this time, I don’t want to go home.  I want to live again.  I want to break the cycle. 

 

***

           

Ganymede watched me dolefully.  When I looked at him out of the corner of my eye, he seemed like the monster I had seen in my memory.  But when I focused on him, he was only a blue-shirted boy again.  Strange. 

           

“I understand now,” said Mr. Douglas, his eyes fixed on the tattoos shifting wildly on his arms.  “Where is the pen?” 

 

I took out the pen and gave it to Mr. Douglas.  “What are you going to do?” 

           

“I’ve realized something,” said Mr. Douglas.  “It sounds a little stupid to say, but there are always those things that you can’t really understand until you experience it.  You know, like when your parents tell you not to do something, but you don’t listen to them until it’s too late.

 

“But anyway, I’ve been doing some thinking and realized that I’m really afraid.  Afraid of a lot of things.  Everyone’s afraid of death, obviously, but I’m talking about real, concrete fear, that actually seems alive?  Like it’s part of you, actually seems really reasonable most of the time. 

 

“It’s time to break that cycle now.  I’m still afraid, but I’ve decided it’s not reasonable anymore.  Hell, you’ve died already, many times; there’s nothing worse.  When you’ve already experienced the worst thing, I think, it’s alright to let go.” 

 

He seemed to be talking as much to himself as to me when he uncapped the pen and rested it on my white paper wrist.  And I saw him do something I had never seen him do before.  He just drew.  The lines came out of the sweep of his arm, the precise twitches of his fingers.  There were no guidelines this time, no sketches, no canvas-stretching, nothing.  It was just him, his pen, and his paper: me.  What did he draw?  A granite-blue beast, with merciful yellow eyes, coiling from my wrist to my elbow. 

 

When I looked up, Ganymede was gone.  I felt a sudden lightness when Mr. Douglas pricked my skin to dot the eye of the beast.  He capped the pen and returned it to me. 

 

Can I ever forgive you?  Yes.  I forgive you. 

 

***

 

No one ever spoke to me of the ghost again.  I kept the pen, although no matter how many different types of ink I loaded into it, it never drew again.  But I still do.  And every time I draw, I turn my wrist and look into the eyes of the blue beast inked on my forearm, and sometimes, just sometimes, it makes me feel like being good to people. 


The author's comments:

Inspired by "What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours" by Helen Oyeyemi.  


Similar Articles

JOIN THE DISCUSSION

This article has 0 comments.



Smith Summer

Parkland Speaks

Campus Compare