“What are the little sins that I must commit
before I am allowed to sink my teeth into
life and tear happiness from it?”
– From the play, ‘ANTIGONE’, written by Sophocles
Running away, leaving, it’s second nature to me. It should be easy, like it was before. But this time it isn’t. It’s painful and tiring and draining. But maybe it’s only because of the awkward atmosphere separating Rhys and I like an unbreakable wall. The remnants of the conversation before still lingers on my mind. No matter what I say or do, the nagging thought of the unease I feel whenever I think of how strong Rhys was – how wrong that is, won’t leave my mind.
“Let me explain.” Rhys tries again. I don’t answer. I don’t know what to say. A part of me feels that I somehow owe it to our friendship to let him explain, but the stubborn part of me refuses to even so much as think about it.
“Just give me five minutes. That’s all I ask.”
I close my eyes and sigh.
“How will it change anything?”
“You’ll know. Isn’t that enough?”
He’s right. He knows I want to know – I want to understand. I like to know the truth – maybe it leads to the mystery that was my father and his death.
“You’ve got five minutes.”
Out of the corner of my mouth, I see his mouth twitch upwards – he’s enjoying this.
“Then follow me.” He tells me, and he leads me towards the forest path we used to take previously, a year ago, when everything was simple and clear. The Outlands is beautiful today, even more so than usual. The sun pushes through the leaves and trees, as if yearning desperately to become visible through the dense plant life. The flimsy breeze brushes past us, carrying stray leaves and strands of grass along with it. The buds of wild flowers begin to blossom with the warm rays of sunlight, as the sun rises behind us.
Rhys leads me under the thick, curling branch of a tree blocking the path. Despite my feeling annoyed, I find myself enjoying this. I haven’t realized how long it’s been since I’ve hunted – or really explored – and I find my fingers reaching out and brushing the surrounding plants with hunger, and my feet pulling me forward without a second thought, as if controlled by some deeper, stronger part of myself. This is all second nature, all of this, and it’s all coming back to me in waves.
“How much further?” I hear myself asking. But not because I want it to end – rather because I don’t want it to end.
“It’ll be a while. Another day at the least.”
That gets me thinking. It makes me wonder. How far is he taking me? Where is he taking me? I’ve never been this far, and it feels good. It feels exhilarating and exiting.
“Don’t worry,” Rhys suddenly calls out over his shoulder, “it’ll be well worth the effort.”
I can almost feel his smile even while he has his back turned to me.
“It had better be.” I call back.
Somewhere behind me, a bird begins to sing. The wind whispers its secrets in my ear as it drifts past. The sun’s shadow dances in front of me – always a single footstep away, never resting. And just like that, with the feeling of ultimate freedom pressing down on me, I begin to feel happy. I begin to enjoy it. I feel the strange sensation of a smile blossoming across my face. Maybe it’s the weather. Maybe.
“Are you missing all of this yet?” he asks me.
I look to the ground, watching my shoes tread over the mossy grass below my feet, memories of the moments spent here before washing over me like a gentle rainfall. “I guess so.”
Once the words are out of my mouth, a warm feeling rises to my cheeks. It feels wrong to admit something so personal, but I can’t take it back once it’s out, and the words seem suspended in the air in front of me, dangling in between the distance between him and me.
“I knew you did.” He tells me. “How could you not? You’re here again – in the place we used to call home, with a charming friend whom you have missed dearly.”
“Oh, dream on.” I tell him, but a smile clings to the corners of my mouth, dragging it upwards.
“Come on,” I feel his smile burn through his words, “you must be enjoying it at least a little.”
“Actually, I can’t really remember what we got up to before. I’ve sort of forgotten.” I tell him, trying to hide my smile. It’s what I’ve wanted to believe, but even as I say them I know it isn’t true. I’ve tried to forget – I’ve tried everything.
“Maybe you just need something to remind you.” His answer puzzles me, but then I see him stop, turn around, and throw something towards me. I catch it with one hand, my palm clasped around it. One finger at a time, I peel my fingers apart. For a moment, I don’t know what it is. But then I pull open the string typing rolled up slips of aged paper together, and the words fill my mind as I read over them. And then I remember.
“You’ve kept them.” I tell him with surprise. “You’ve kept the letters.”
The letters. The letters we would write to each other each day as children, before we would slip it into the black hole in the bark of the Large Tree, where the other one of us would run to collect it whenever we had a chance, before writing back eagerly. It was almost like our secret language. It was our secret. It was our game. It was the only way of communicating anything without getting caught, when everything you post to another person is re-read and altered if necessary. It was too dangerous to risk exposure – and so this was our resort.
“Of course I did.” He answers, as if it’s plainly simple and obvious. As if he would do anything else.
My fingers brush across the pieces of parchment, slipping into the dents where one of us had pressed pen to the paper so hard it had almost broken through. The words bubble through my mind as I read, bringing the memories I’d tried to keep hidden right back to the surface.
Dear Rhys, I’d written, Today I overheard J telling I that this – all of the bombs – are only just the beginning. He says worse things are coming. He told me to be careful of what I say – that it isn’t safe anymore. And not just because of the war. I’d stopped there. I remember how I’d run out of things to say. I remember the images running through my head at the time – it was one of the first raids Edward the Prosperous had ordered – but at the time, we had no idea why. We were scared. I can feel the fear through the pressure placed on the paper. I can imagine myself writing this – my shaking hand scratching across the paper. I can imagine the anger, too – the angry slashes to each end word.
Dear Cara, Rhys had written in response, Don’t be scared. Even if we live far away, even if I can’t be there in person, just imagine me there in your head. I’ll always be there.
He’d stopped there. He hadn’t needed to say anything else. His words had comforted me, had almost made me forget for a few moments. I remember, how, a few days later my brother had been killed. And the letters came slower and slower, right until they stopped completely. And it had almost broken me. There was one last one – one last letter, after the second night of my brother’s death.
Dear Rhys, it began. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to feel. That’s all I had written. It’s all I could manage – if I remember correctly. I remember that night – the night of the last letter. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t finish a single sentence – I couldn’t sleep an inch for fear of the images of his death returning. I couldn’t make it longer than five minutes without the tears and pain raking my body and leaving me breathless. And he hadn’t written back.
“You stopped writing.” I mutter quietly, lost in the sadness and loneliness of the memory. “You never replied.”
It takes a while for him to reply. “I did reply.” He tells me. “I just couldn’t send it. I couldn’t go through with it.”
I shake my head with anger. Of course. He never could finish anything.
And then he abruptly stops. He turns to face me, and I drag my eyes away from the crumbling paper in my hands. “I couldn’t finish it – not until now.”
“What do you mean?”
Confused. That’s how I feel.
And then he takes a step to the side, and my eyes trail to the thing he’d been covering from my sight.
“It’s the tree.” He tells me. “It’s the Large Tree.”
I know. I want to tell him. I could never forget, what with how many times I’d visited, hoping to find a letter – just one more.
But then it hits me. The tree – it’s different. Every inch of the bark is covered in writing. Writing scratched deeply into the bark. Two words. Two words fill the surface of the whole tree; swallow it whole.
Two words – two words that had meant so much. Now they mean nothing.
“It took me hours,” he tells me. “I came back a few days before I’d come to your house, and I’d completed it. The last letter. The last reply.”
I shake my head and smile a ghost of a smile.
“It’s just a little late, don’t you think?”
He doesn’t answer. There’s nothing left to say. And then it all makes sense. All that’s left between us is empty dreams and hollow words that have lost their meaning.
We walk in silence, as the sun begins to set and the moon slowly rises to replace it, the sky ablaze with fulgent colours of the diminishing sunlight that streaks across the sky. It almost feels out of place in the grey and white world the country has become. The minutes drag into hours, and none of us says a word. And I don’t mind it. I don’t know what to say.
All around me, the creatures of the Outlands settle down, preparing for the night ahead.
“Let’s find a tree to sleep in for tonight.” Rhys says, uttering the first words since the letters and the tree. He doesn’t look at me – he hasn’t all day.
“Sure.” I reply, not trusting myself to say anything more.
And then it plunges right back into silence. And that’s how it stays.