Welcome to the June installment of First Sunday Short Fiction. Please enjoy the story, and remember, if you want to submit a story of your own, you can find instructions on our submissions page.
Journey by Michelle Simkins
Descending thirteen stone steps, you stand on a gray shore, your senses full of the smell of mud and water. You are looking for answers, and you’ve been told you might find them if you take this journey. It is not dangerous, they say. No one has ever died from taking the black boat across the still water.
But no one who takes the journey comes back unchanged.
You step into the waiting boat. It tilts, once, then stills as you settle onto the hard bench seat. There are no oars; you fold your hands in your lap and wait. The water hardly stirs when the boat slips away from the land.
You pass through reflections of mountains and trees, and they waver and blur on the surface of the lake. You pass higher and higher peaks, until the image of their snow-capped summits turns the water’s surface white. You wonder how long you will travel, and what you will find when you arrive. You sleep, and wake, and the mountains recede. The lake narrows, pushing your tiny craft into a small, dark harbor, where summer-green trees crowd rustling and whispering right up to the water’s edge.
Under the trees, the shadows are thick. Anything could wait there, and you hope you’re not expected to enter the woods. The boat scrapes on the shore. The belt of sand between water and forest is just wide enough to hold it. You sit, peering into the shadows, and feel certain something looks back. But you are cold and stiff from being still, and you have not eaten today, and sitting here in this boat forever will leave you a skeleton in the end. If you are going to die today, you might as well make it quick.
It isn’t the shadows that take you. When your foot hits the sand, the earth sucks you in. You do not fall; you are swallowed, pulled sluggishly through viscous soil. And just when you think the dark, close ground will be your grave, you drop to your knees on the floor of a womb-like cave. The fire burning in the center of the floor is the first warmth you’ve felt since you descended the steps, and you move closer to the flames, tucking your knees up to your chest. You get as close as you dare, and the heat washes over you. So far, you think, this journey has not been what you expected at all. You were told you would be tested. You brought a knife, sturdy boots, and all the courage you could muster, but there have been no monsters, no enemies to fight. There has only been waiting, and wondering, and weariness.
You blink, and lifting your eyelids requires herculean effort.
When your eyes open, she’s there. She sits beside you, cross-legged. Her face and form are shrouded by sweeping black. You know she’s the one you came looking for, but you don’t know who she is. For no reason you can name, she terrifies you. You’re afraid to speak first, but after several minutes of listening to the crackling fire, you realize she’s waiting. And she can afford to wait forever.
You remember you brought an offering and open the pouch at your waist with trembling hands. Yesterday when you left home, the fruits of the Hawthorn tree that grows by the creek were jewel-bright and luscious. Now they are desiccated and nearly black, barely clinging to the thorny twigs. You want to think it’s impossible, but you know you left the rules of the ordinary world on the gray shore. You wonder if you will ever go back.
You hold out your offering. You want to apologize, to say it’s all you have, but your tongue is curled at the back of your mouth and your throat feels full of sand. She inclines her head toward the fire, and you toss the shriveled offering into the flames. They blaze up with a bright flash and a series of loud snaps. The fire returns to its subdued monologue, and you look back at the figure beside you.
You breathe around the chaotic thundering of your heart and ask, “Who are you?”
She leans forward. You hesitate, not sure you’re brave enough to see what’s behind the veil. But you have not come this far to go back without your answers. You pull the dark cloth free. It whispers as it falls.
When you see her face you understand the answers you thought you wanted are not the answers you need. You understand she is the answer, you are the answer, the journey is the answer. You see yourself mirrored in her eyes as you truly are: broken and perfect, tiny and infinite, lost in the universe, exactly where you need to be.
story ©Michelle Simkins, 2011
Artwork: “Mary Magdalene” ©Claudia Olivos, 2011. Used with permission. Find more of Claudia's visionary work at Olivos Art Studio or at her Etsy store, and don't forget to follow her on Instagram.
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About the Author:
Michelle Simkins runs Hagstone Publishing from her home office in Portland, Oregon, where she writes obsessively about herbs, trees, and encounters with the numinious, creates quirky knitting patterns, gardens haphazardly, reads voraciously, clumsily attempts to learn the Irish language, and watches too many reruns on Hulu with her wife.
Learn more about her work and her various obsessions at her website or follow her on Instagram.