You open your eyes and you are being rowed across dark water. It is so silent and you cannot make music in your head. By god, you try, but even you cannot stop what is happening to you.
You are not the boatman, you are not the sad silent oar dipping into dark water, you are not the ripples trailing behind that oar.
Who ever said, who ever said that life was fair
Before all this...You stood in the park. In the dark, rain slashing. You were narrowing your eyes at something just out of sight. What was it? What was it you thought you heard out there? You stood inside a ring of lamps, your over-heated heart almost catching on the sodium fizz, bones burnt white underneath, confronting your oddity. You thought you saw them on the edges, their eyes gazing back at you, bulging black slits.
You groaned and held your head. You held both our heads.
Whatever it is, whatever it is you saw, I know there was just a circle of yellow lamps, fading imperceptibly.
It is black ahead, but you can see the long oar moving forward. Sounds melt into dark ripples, disappearing, as you look up at the silouhette of a mountain in front of you. And all around a hush you cannot quite believe.
In the park, you thought you saw fingers, stretching, alive.
Already, you are starting to envy them.
You stood with your own fingers tight over your eyes. You could not bear to look. Before, you insisted on looking all the time, searching. Then you closed your eyes against the dark. But you continued to see through shut lids. You did not realize that you had only come to meet what was already there inside you.
The oar stirs the water, the ripples go out, the boatman averts his face.
Already, you are turning your head through thick air to look back at me. You are turning it, but something is wrong because there is no sound.
You are afraid. You are afraid—you have no choice.
But I am not the boatman. I am not the sad silent oar dipping into dark water. I am not the water trailing behind that oar.
You would not listen to me. Now there is nothing that I can do.
Somehow, that first time, I got you home from the park. You sat in front of the fire and watched the ashes heap up in the tray you had pulled forwards to breathe air into the flames. And even while it was helping them to burn more brightly, it was ending them more swiftly.
You see that the mountain is a woman: she has a face, features; but she is also still, quiet, she absorbs all sound.
That last time in the park...
Your fear. A shutter opening and closing. A picture. It was yours. I could see that. I could see that it was yours.
But where was I?
You cannot take your eyes from the mountain. She is festooned like a helter-skelter. Lines of bright paper dolls wind round her, spiralling up and down. Wreaths of white paper dolls, blinking against her blackness.
Your picture: a young man lifting metal, turning it, pointing it at your flesh. But did you see the flash, the tiny bullet leaving?
Leaving me alone.
You notice that the dolls are increasing—the woman holds each one close, then hangs it on the line. You can see the river through them, where the end of the line sinks down into it. She holds each doll for a moment and you think that she is a mountain where someone slipped off, a vast...
She does not pick you out, she has not seen you out of the corner of her granite eye.
Too quick—I did not know if it was you or me—I felt the kick in my flesh before I heard the bullet leave the chamber.
You did this. You did.
You tried to join us forever when you made me shoot the bullet. It went into me like a child's arrow, trailing a string you could haul back. Afterwards, you reeled me towards you, flopping like a fish, blood spurting.
Now you are being rowed across while I stand on the shore and watch.
Who ever said, who ever said that life is fair?
The dolls crowd on the line, multiplying, until your eyes grow heavy. You are not sure how many more you can take.
Already, you are turning your head through thick air, you are turning it to shout to me. You open your mouth, but something is wrong because there is no sound.
What do you know of a man in a green jacket, holding up metal, pointing? What do you know of the flash, the tiny bullet leaving the chamber?
Leaving you alone.
Your eyes are closing, but you can still make things out—the dark long oar moving forward, forward, the ripples behind it, the boatman's face, averted, and the silent mountain ahead, the paper people fading from white to grey.
You are being rowed. You are being rowed across. You turn to shout...
But you are not the boatman. You are not the sad silent oar dipping into dark water. You are not the ripples trailing behind that oar.
You are being rowed across.
It was a small hole. I felt the metal going in and my flesh exploding out for your longed-for final celebration, my lifelong carefulness blasted away.
We lay down under a tree, its gnarled fingers wreathed in rings of green leaves closed tightly shut against the fading light.
You were whistling. You were whistling, for god's sake!
The woman has picked you out. She looms over you. She has seen you.
What I see is the paper doll in her hands, the paper dolls on her body, waving in the still breeze of her, in the ripples from the water.
Please put orange against the black. I know that this is what you would say if you could speak. The fire burning in the grate that last time...The orange against black please, just for a moment.
The silence in the darkness. How you want to shout.
You cannot do it without me.
Once, the park gleamed green and bright for you. Later, it gleamed dark, light tapering into thin branches that you thought were fingers.
And now that you are going forwards in that boat, you find that you do not want to. Something you wanted for a long time, but this is not how you envisaged it.
It is not.
Fingers, stretching, alive. Already, you feel they are lucky, already, you are starting to envy them.
Dark descending, darkness descending.
Who ever said, who ever said that life was fair?
I did not say it. I stand on the shore with my fingers stretched tight over my eyes—I cannot bear to look now. Before, I looked all the time—I was searching for you.
And the mountain woman has mercy on you. She reaches out a hand and she snips off a paper person, then another, and they drift away through dark air, through dark water, they drift away home, or wherever they are going.
I see their shapes flatten into silent ripples. On the dark mountain, the woman's eyes close and I feel a lifting, a space where the dolls crowded in, emptied. And I know that you can speak again.
You turn and shout across the water, but you are too far away for me to hear.
Smiling, you turn to the mountain.
But what I see behind you is the boatman's face, the sad silent oar, the ripples trailing behind that oar. And I am afraid.
I am afraid as I watch you cross over the dark waters. By god, I try, but even I cannot guess what is happening to you.
I do know, but I cannot say it. In the park, I lost count quickly of the pints leaving our body. I saw a doll as I closed my eyes tight shut.
You saw a picture: me, turning the gun, shooting a bullet...
What I saw was your doll, not mine.
When I came to, I had my fingers pressed tight against the tiny hole and you were gone. You left me alone in the park as our blood trickled into the grass.
Now I am no longer on your string.
I stand alone on the shore. I have been given a second chance.
Now I lie alone in this cold park and dream of crossing the water to embrace you.
But my head is barely above the choppy waves as I hear less, less, less...
I dream of the mountain woman snipping off the dolls. I realize now that she is simply making room.
How much time do we have left? Do you know?
grew up in South Africa and lives in Nottingham, UK. Her short stories have appeared in "The Best British Short Stories 2017" (Salt), Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Ambit, Mslexia, The Lonely Crowd
and other places. She is an assistant editor at Reckoning Journal
. She can be found on Twitter at @gisellekleeb