I like my hands—small, translucent. As I look at them now, I see that my fingertips are pink with cold. Strokes of black soil are embedded beneath the fine slivers of pearl. I touch the bark of a tree. I can’t feel it.
On my feet are red, satin slippers. I always wear them, even in the woods, even when it’s cold like this and pebbles press painfully through the soles. Droplets of blood mingle with the seeping dye. The cold has burnt all feeling away so that my hands and feet are no longer mine. I dance through the woods on numb toes.
I’ve loved to dance ever since I was a child. Back then, my only shoes were coarse leather—worn and dulled, settled into the soles. Not even sensible; Cumbersome, heavy. I couldn’t wait to pull them off and feel the cool, green grass. I can remember the dew on my skin and the flying hem of my skirt. The fields felt so vast to me then.
He gave me these shoes—soft as petals, red as berries.
“I want to see you dance.”
“Shame on you for returning home, again and again. You could have danced away.”
And so, I put them on and never took them off; I still haven’t. That was my gift to him.
These shoes are mine. I’m known by them. I prefer it that way. I don’t like my name very much. I won’t even tell it to you. But it lives here threaded through these skeleton trees. I can almost hear it reverberating on the branches, along with the echo of bright birds who fled long ago. It’s all gray now: the clouds above, and the brittle, crystalline remnants decaying on the forest floor.
What lingers is never sweet. The air oppresses me here, where I last saw his face, glowing like the moon. Like moonlight glancing off the leaves. Like moonlight on my satin shoes. But my name is here and my shoes are red even in the dimmest places.
And the words! Did you notice the words carved into the trees? Look. “North,” it says.
What did he mean by that?…I can’t remember. Which way is North? Which…? If I figure that out, this word will lead me to another word on another tree. Sentences emerge here in these woods. They renew themselves, daily. These paths into a new map, these steps into a new dance, these words into a new poem put to nocturnal music.
I never find him.
Sometimes I carve a response. I write myself into the story so that I can stay, to remind myself that this place is mine. But how to compose a story from within? All my efforts only serve to further obscure the meaning from without, so that I begin to follow my own words thinking that they’re his.
“Shame on you.” Shame on me. He isn’t here to gather phrases, mine or his own. He isn’t here circling from tree to tree. Only I remain to listen. The white moon is blameless.
But he can’t have carved that. No, he never said, “You.” Not once. A piece of bark peels away in my hand. I hold it, not wanting it to fall to the ground. Trees aren’t so substantial. They fade like everything else. They pass so quickly now. They turn black under a sugary frost.
The moon draws me deeper into the night. I crawl through starry shadows. Briars pull at my clothes. Berries or roses stain my skin. And then…Yes, a clearing. There was a clearing. That was true. And then the sky opens into a full black orb. It turns the ring of trees to fine-chiseled ivory. The undergrowth recedes in pools of black ink.
My story is here. Mine.
And it’s not merely fading under a snowy rot; It’s consumed in blue flames. Anyone could see the words are burning. I pull my story from the fire as gusts of ash whirl around me, take my breath, splay my limbs. I climb into a hollowed tree, my burnt hands gripping the book to my chest. The tree shifts; it disintegrates amidst a flurry of yellowed pages. I twirl upon a pointed foot. I dance, and dance, and dance.
But all you’ll see are a hand, a red shoe, a pale dusting of snow.
Sarah Akin is an American writer of short stories and poems. Her previous work has appeared in the magazine Barking Sycamores. She currently resides in New Bedford, Massachusetts with her boyfriend George and their cat Emilia. Twitter: @E_c_h_o