When she told me her story, I was sitting in my usual spot in the café, the only spot that was lucky enough to be graced by the veil of the morning sun as it tiptoed slowly and reluctantly towards the blistering noon.
I had just closed my eyes and put my hands on the table to savour the plasticised heat radiating off the table when there was a loud thump and an unsettling scrape of a wooden chair. I opened my eyes. An old woman had thrown her portly frame into the seat opposite, blatantly ignoring the multitude of empty seats that bobbed quietly in the sea of shade around us.
Her grey hair was strewn in thick, untidy pleats, strangely girlish for the wrinkled face that framed it. It was as if there was a battle between the meek and the courageous, her leonine strands fighting valiantly against the limitation of the braid. Liver spots dotted her skin but not in an unflattering way. More like camouflage, the freckles were sprinkled on her softened face in a matter-of-fact way, like the natural state of things. Her mouth was rich, darkened with age to a rich wine but twisted with a sardonic sadness that hung heavily in the damp folds of her neck.
Her eyes were startling: kaleidoscope eyes. A singular shade of grey, as if time had bleached the colour out of them. Rather than appear weak and watery, they took on the texture of stone, like an unpolished diamond in the rough. So sharp they cut you in the heart, so that I felt a prick of apprehension stab me in the heart and I bled a quiet pain as she fixated her jewelled eyes at me. And though her eyes were grey, there was a darkness in her pupils that seeped into the tendrils of her bloodshot whites, red slivers leading to uncommonly dry-looking tear ducts, as if she no longer had any tears to shed.
I remember little about her clothing, except that it was dark and unremarkable. It was her presence that captivated me, a certain charisma that descends upon some individuals and is attainable only through tragedy. And it is tragedy that draws me to people, their bitterness and regret, their pain and their solitude.
In the same way, she is drawn to me. Her eyes look towards me but she is not looking at me. Her mind’s eye is drawn inwards, towards the Pandora’s box that she has kept locked in her heart all those years ago. I need only blink, and she says:
“I was kidnapped as a child. It is one of those things that marks a permanent dirty stain on the record of your life, and yet is made unremarkable by the passing of time.
When it happened, my town was a sleepy little hollow that rarely had anything happen except scandalous gossip of what kind of pesticide the next door neighbours were spraying on their flowers. At home my mother spoke little, my father even less. I had three other siblings but we were not close. As the second youngest, I made a very little blot on the family tree, destined to mean nothing and achieve nothing and leave no legacy.
But even so, despite my deserving nothing, I longed to make a difference. I yearned to be loved so deeply I could die. My life was flitting by through my blurry eyesight like an unremembered dream, and I was scared I would drown in the very air that surrounded me. It was hard to breathe: they diagnosed me with asthma but I knew my problem was rooted in the dispassionate past and in the hopelessness of the future.
He came to me when I had begun to lose my last shreds of hope. At night, when I counted sheep, lambs, and at last, in desperation, strands of wool, he came to me as if in a waking dream. So clearly, I remember him. Tall and handsome, with a wisp of a beard and dressed smartly in a pea green tailcoat. He swiped his top hat in greeting and smiled.
Alice, I know how you suffer. Come with me and abandon your tears. I will take you to a place with endless joy.
He was so convincing, so beautiful. How could I resist? I was just a child. I took his gloved hand and he led me down the illuminated ribboned stairs beneath my bed, a wonderland underneath the dark earth of my dead town.
Through a glittering cave of purple crystals, we crept. Don’t touch, he warned, for they were so poisonous to the touch that a single prick would fell you to the ground and keep you sedated with glittering dreams until you suffocated under the ego of your greed.
We walked through a sumptuous forest, a vivid green saturated with the coy whispers of dryads and giggles of nymphs. He held me close and told me to close my eyes until the danger had gone. They would snatch you in your sleep and replace you with a changeling, he said. They were so lonely, you see, for a child that would love them deeply and without reason.
Then we were skipping up the hardboiled pebbles of a sugarcoated road that led to the most beautiful castle I had ever seen. It was made of glass, or something like it, completely translucent and so dazzling it stripped my eyes of its rust and humbled me to its luminous glory. I could see slender scaffoldings on the buttresses supporting tiny people as they polished the glass with a clockwork efficiency.
Come, he said, and then we were in through the door, in the palace - your palace, he said.
He sat me on a throne of grass and nestled a crown of thorns on my head. With delicate fingers, he fed me little blue eggs that crunched between my pearly teeth. You never have to leave, he said. We have everything you want here.
I just want to be loved, I said. True love, like in the stories. I don’t wish for a fairytale; an honest love is enough for me. I don’t need a happily ever after, I just need something to believe in.
He frowned. But I love you, he said. Isn’t that enough? I’ve watched you since you were born - in the wrong land, in the wrong time. I have always waited for you, for a thousand years. I devoted myself to you and I built you this palace, I created this world, just for you.
If it’s not enough, he said, you can have my heart as well. Saying so, he plunged his delicate fingers into his chest and drew out his pulsing heart, red as a rose and dripping with the labour of his love. He placed it on a gold platter and drew it to my mouth.
If you eat my heart, I can be with you forever, he said.
Frightened, I pushed it away. This isn’t the kind of love I mean, I say, and though my eyes are heavy, I cannot cry. I abandoned my tears in the land of the living.
A butterfly flutters through the air and lands on my fingers: glass, so beautifully unreal. I lift it to my red mouth and blow softly onto the miniature insect: it dissolves in little crystals, like the sweets he fed me, like the palace he gave me.
A love like this is worse than having no love at all, I say. Your love is hollow.
His beautiful face stares at me, and then dissolves into rage. It is a bottomless rage that twists his features into that of a hideous creature, a hulking beast hidden behind the prim facade of a gentleman. How could I have been so blind?
I run, tripping down the dais in my white dress: through the castle, shattering behind me, into the forest, where I tear myself away from the lonely cries of the pitiful souls trapped here by my selfishness.
You are mine, he shrieks. I will have you.
I keep running, running, running. Running is all I have. I tear my dress, I lose my crown, and as I run through the cave, stumbling between crystals, I am terrified he is behind me, but I dare not look back. If I look back, I will be trapped here forever.
Up the stairs, melting step by step. I make it through the trapdoor before it crumbles and I snap it shut, tumbling, heart thumping, into my bed, back in cruel reality without a single person in the house realising I had gone.
And when I was sure I was safe, oh, how I cried. Endlessly, until they dried and I knew I would cry no more. Never cry, never again be so naive with a wish that had almost destroyed me, had almost suffocated me with its devotion. I closed my heart, for now I knew that there were things listening in the dark who preyed on your vulnerability, on your loneliness.”
She finishes with a finality that drops like a stone. There is a pause, during which she draws her curtain of hair behind an ear with a gentle tenderness. Her eyes are no longer like stones: their edges have been smoothed by the tide of words that had gushed out of her, seeping her vitality and leaving them worn.
She gets to her feet with a slow deliberation, shuffling out the door and leaving me sitting alone at my table. My cup of coffee is cold as I gaze out into the quiet boulevard of swaying trees, moving slowly in the golden haze of sun.
How I loved you, Alice.