Kiss Me in the Dark
We have no name for her, but she wore spectacles and clutched an ugly clump of weeds as she cried. Tears streaked her face as she hurled the hideous bouquet of weeds to the ground, trampled them and turned down the path into the forest. Call her “Alice”, if you must name her, but know that a terrible unkindness had been played upon Alice this night, and she had suffered much hurt. That much is known.
Alice stepped through the remains of the weeds which had been presented to her as flowers with disdain, scarcely noticing as the woods turned dark. Her eyes were filled with tears, which were spattering into her corrective spectacles as well, turning her vision into a watery wash of green and black. Shadow and tree mixed and melded until the world itself could have been the yawning opening of a leafy abyss into which she tumbled headlong. She remained on her feet, though, having walked this path many a time, to her home on the other side of the woods. Home was where she most wanted to be, curled in her sleep space, facing the wall, crying and holding herself and suffering her misery alone, with no one to see. And no one would see her here, she knew, in the dark woods which bordered the settlement. No one came here except her family, and they were all gone. It was only Alice now, alone and unwanted, as the trampled bouquet, the laughs and sneers, had so pointedly reminded her.
“Hello?” a voice called from the shadows off the path, and Alice stopped short.
The voice was strange, as if it came down a long metal tube, bouncing to and fro before emerging directly into her head. The one who spoke could not be seen, except in a vague outline, but he lay in the grass just off the path, one limb outstretched. “Hello? Can you help me?”
“Who’s there?” Alice called. Had they come to play yet another cruel joke on her? Could there be that much cruelty in anyone? She knew there could. “Who is it?”
“I’m sorry if I frightened you?” the voice said. “I don’t mean you any harm. I was badly injured, I managed to tend to my wounds but…I need food. I’m so hungry. And weak. Do you…do you have anything I could eat? Please?”
The air was still and close in the forest, but a chill passed through her nonetheless. She could not help him, not with everything else that she had suffered this night. It was too much, just too much.
“No, I’m sorry…I’m sorry, I can’t help you!”
She began to move away from him, further down the path.
“Please,” his peculiar voice called faintly. “Please.”
Alice ran then, wiping the tears from her face and dashing down the path, not stopping (“Pleeeeease.”) until she had reached the end of the woods and her family’s old home, with the door closed tight behind her. She stood that way for a long while, just bracing herself against the door and allowing her rapid breathing to slow. Finally, she stepped away from the door, and only then, with the threshold to the dining area just to her right, did she see the meal she had prepared in anticipation of a much different ending to this night. The dining area was set for two, the lighting set at the appropriate romantic level.
Romance. She laughed bitterly at herself, a coarse sound that burbled up through a throat already reddened by her cries. All at once she became angry, at them, at herself, she knew not which, but she found herself sweeping the serving platters away with one limb, scattering them in a clangor. She overturned the chairs. She smashed the lights. She gathered the food and took it to the trash receptacle, and there paused, unexpectedly.
And so Alice found herself picking her way back up the forest path, through the shadows and darkness, to the spot where she had first heard the stranger’s voice.
“Hello?” she called. “Are you here?”
Silence for a moment, then: “You…you’ve come back. Oh thank you.”
He had moved, just a bit further off the path, but was still there, lying in darkness. She approached cautiously, still clutching the food she had gathered from the table. She couldn’t see him fully, just an outline in the shadow, but he seemed to be reaching out to her.
“Something smells good,” he said. “Something smells delicious.”
“I’ve brought food,” she admitted. “Can you come a little closer? Into the light?”
“I don’t want to frighten you,” he said. “I’m afraid with my injuries I’m a terrible sight.”
“You poor thing,” she said. She decided then that she would not be afraid, partly because with everything she had been through tonight, she felt she had nothing left to fear. But also because, peculiar voice and all, there was something trustworthy in the tone of the stranger’s words. He seemed truly grateful for her return.
She sat down beside him just off the path and placed the food on the grass in front of him.
“I’ve forgotten the platters and utensils,” she said sheepishly. “Foolish of me. I’m sorry.”
He scooped up the food and began eating greedily. “No no, do not worry yourself. You’ve no idea how thankful I am for your kindness. You are a marvel.”
She smiled, and it felt good to smile, when so recently she had thought she’d never smile again. And so she sat with him in the darkness and listened to him eat, and her sadness was lighter somehow.
“I never thought to encounter someone so kind,” he said.
Call him “Jack”, for lack of a better name. Jack had come a very long way indeed to find someone like our Alice.
That much is known.
After Jack had finished eating, he and Alice lay back, staring up at an opening in the canopy through which they could gaze upon the stars.
“Around that one,” he said, presumably pointing to one of the stars (Alice could not see well enough to know for sure), “there are five planets, each as different from one another as you could ever believe. One frozen in ice, one a steaming jungle.”
“Really?” she asked, her imagination bursting.
“There is a mountain range there so high it nearly touches the closest moon. You could jump from the highest peak and land on the moon, if you timed it just right.”
“You’re making that up,” she said with a giggle.
A sound came down the same long tube from which she imagined his voice travelled. He might have been laughing. It was a warm sound though, a pleasant, rumbling sound. She rather liked it.
“Maybe,” he said.
She sighed. “I know nothing of the stars, or planets or those things. My father did, he was very learned about such matters, but I never picked it up. I was always burying myself in the newest compendium of tales. I love the tales.”
“That explains it, then,” he said, and before she could ask, added, “your kindness and compassion. Only a lover of stories could be so generous.”
Alice felt the blood rush into her skin. She turned away, though he almost certainly could not see her.
“Do you still read?” he asked.
Alice nodded. When a moment of silence passed, she remembered the need to speak aloud. “Yes, yes I do. I…” She paused. She had been about to tell her him her profession, and remembered of the cruelty of her patrons, especially the young male with whom she had thought she shared… No. It was too much, just for a moment. Too much.
“Have I offended you somehow? Please forgive me,” Jack said, misinterpreting her silence.
Alice recovered herself, wiping away sudden tears. “No, no, it’s not you. Yes I do read, I am a keeper of the compendiums now, I meant to say. I keep the collection at the scriptorium.”
“Ah,” he said. “How fascinating, to be surrounded with all the knowledge and wisdom of generations.”
Alice was silent. She had always thought so, too. Always.
“I wish I could hear your tales,” he said. “That would be marvelous.”
“Come to the scriptorium!” She said, forgetting her pain. “You can read the compendiums.”
Wind whistled through the trees, rustling the limbs. There was time for her to brush several leaves from her face before he spoke.
“I have come from very far away,” he said, “and I am not like the people here. I am afraid I’d be unwelcome, an outsider. They might even be frightened of me. I would not want that. I’ve no wish to frighten anyone.”
“Well, you don’t frighten me,” she said.
“You are too kind. You’re an –“ Here he used a word unknown to her, and his meaning was lost, though his tone was complimentary. “I am safer here, I think. Safer in the dark. When I’m feeling better I can repair my vehicle. It’s not far away, in a clearing in the forest. Thanks to your generosity I am feeling much stronger.”
His words saddened her. She didn’t know who he was or where he had come from, but she knew he had made her pain less and she didn’t want him to leave. Not yet.
An idea struck her.
“I could come back.” She reached out and found him in the dark, entwining her hand in his. His skin was rough and dry, scratchy against her own. Strange. “I could come back tomorrow night, and bring more food.”
“You would do that for me?” he asked, returning her grip with a squeeze of his own.
“I could tell you stories,” she said with a flash of inspiration. “I could tell you my favorite tales.”
He emitted a snuffle, and his breathing quickened. “I believe I could climb the tallest of mountains, slog through the hottest marshes, or delve through the deepest caves in all the planets of the heavens, and never find a soul as bright as yours.”
It was settled, Alice thought with a smile.
The next night passed much as the first one had, except that Alice was in better spirits, having regained a bit of her bruised self-confidence. She told him one of her favorite tales from when she was very young, that of the wealthy traveler and the thrice-burnt inn. She could barely contain her laugher as she recounted the moment when the traveler saw the blackened walls of her sleeping quarters. Her father had always done the most amusing voice as he spoke in the traveler’s haughty voice. She could not get it quite as right as he had done, or something else was lost in the retelling, she assumed, because only a mild rumble passed down the length of imaginary tubing to reach her from Jack’s chest.
“Well, anyway, you get the idea,” she said, embarrassed.
“She is wealthy, he a poor innkeeper. I hope this story ends with them falling in love.”
“You know the tale!”
This time he did laugh. “No, no. But I think, don’t you, that all good tales end with love. Love is the best story, the most worthy story.
She had never heard it said in quite those words. “I love a good romance tale too.”
“Continue, please,” he said, “I like the way your voice changes as you tell it. It’s almost musical.”
She smiled. ‘My father did the best voices. I’m not as good as he was.”
“Oh! Jack was surprised. “You do the voices of the characters.”
How could he not have heard that, she wondered. But it was hardly important, so she picked up the tale. Jack had already predicted the end, but she went through it anyway, telling of the various comical incidents that led to the traveler and innkeeper finally falling in love, and her remodeling of his black husk of a building into a beautiful resort, which they operated together, and in which they lived to the end of their days.
“A good story,” he said, gripping her hand with his scratchy skin. “A beautiful tale.”
The next night he returned the favor by telling her his own stories of the stars, and the planets around them. He told her of twin suns that circled a citadel of diamond. He told her of cavernous gold mines where one could be lost forever in the brilliant shine of the walls and never find the way out. He told her of oceans of liquid metal where one crack in the walls would mean certain doom, and great behemoths prowled the depths, blind, but striking out at every vibration of the molten sea.
Alice listened to all Jack’s tales with growing trepidation, because these were not tales to be found in the scriptorium. There were no moldy, skin-bound tomes from which he had once read. Jack spoke as if he had been to these places, walked the shores of other worlds, so many worlds. And she believed he had. She knew it.
Hours turned into nights, nights into weeks, and each time they met she knew he was closer to repairing his vehicle and leaving her, yet still Jack had never let her see him in the light, and he had never told her of the most important thing about himself.
He had never told her of home.
Alice feared learning the truth, but she feared losing him without ever knowing even more.
One night, she knew the end had come.
Jack placed the empty platter on the ground and stood. She stood also, but remained close to him, partly because she did not wish to let him go, but also because mid-season had come, and the nights were colder now. Most of the trees had lost their plumage, and the wind was sharp as it howled through their trunks.
“I must leave you now,” he said. “My repairs are finished, and my vehicle is ready for travel. But I wanted to say goodbye. And to sit with you one last time. Your company has meant everything to me, and I wanted you to know that.”
“Don’t go,” she said impulsively, “you can stay here, with me. No one need see or know of you. You can stay in secret.”
“It is tempting,” he said with a rumble. “But I fear it wouldn’t be safe. It wouldn’t be safe for you.”
Alice felt safer with Jack than she ever had among the people of her village, especially after she had been hurt so badly by the only one who had ever shown any interest in her. She was ugly to them, she knew that, and always had. The only one who had ever called her a beauty was her father, and he was gone. Long gone.
But Jack didn’t care about her appearance. He had never really seen her. All the time they had spent, all the nights they had told stories and held each other, all that time had been spent in the dark. Jack cared about the person she was, and she felt the same of him.
“One more thing,” Jack said. “I would like to…I need to share something with you.”
He guided her hands to his face, and there she felt something even stranger than his dry skin. Jack wore a metal mask, a machine that wrapped around his head and covered his mouth. It was especially cold to the touch in the mid-season wind, and smooth, polished and adorned with knobs and dials.
“This is how I communicate with you. I cannot speak your language. This device translates what you say to me, and what I say to you.”
Alice shook with understanding. This was why his voice was so strange, and seemed to float to her down a long tube. And perhaps this was also why he didn’t grasp her voices as she played the different roles from her tale. He could hear the change in her voice, but not what it meant.
“I want to take it off. I want to hear your real voice, and speak to you in mine. Will you…if I take this off, will you speak your name to me? I want to take your name with me to the stars.”
Alice’s words were lost in the wash of her tears, but she managed a “yes”.
Jack reached back and uncoupled whatever fastened his mask. He pulled it away from his face, and she saw his head silhouetted in starlight, a curious oblong shape.
For a moment there was silence, then she remembered what he had asked and she spoke her name, clearly as she could. Jack’s oblong head bobbed, up and down, and he said something back to her in his true voice. It was clear now, a deep rumbling sound that came from somewhere in his midsection and emerged from his head. A fluctuation of resonant sounds, chopped off at the end by his mouth. Alice realized, perhaps a bit too late, that he had told her his name as well, and she struggled to remember the sounds he had made.
A cold wind struck them both, and reflexively they came together, their faces pressing into one another in what became a sort of kiss. His face was even scratchier than his hands, covered in sharp bristly hairs, and his breath was hot upon her cheeks as they parted, but continued to hold one another.
Finally, Jack released her and stepped back, replacing the mask on his head.
“I will never forget you.”
Alice stood there, alone in the cold, remembering their kiss and the strange, low sounds that had been the name of the one she loved, for a while before realizing something. The most important thing she had ever known.
She could not let him go.
Bare limbs whipped and clawed at her as she picked her way through the dark as quickly as she could. She had no way of knowing if she was going the right way, she knew. She might become hopelessly lost in the dark, or worse, fall into a hole or off a cliff, but she went on anyway, stumbling in the night and starting at every unexpected sound.
She came to a clearing, and there she saw something she had never seen before. Something stood at the clearing’s center, a metal shape that reflected the light of the stars and seemed almost to be made of the same night sky that hung above its dome.
Alice felt her pulse quicken. This could only be the vehicle Jack had spoken of, the vessel that she knew had carried her love here from another world. And she saw something else.
The door was still open.
Light streamed from inside, guiding her way across the grass. Alice peered through the open doorway for a moment, bracing herself against the metal frame outside, before stepping across into a world her mind could never have imagined. Screens lined the walls, each showing something entirely different. Some showed writings, scribbles that reminded her of the mathematical formulae she had been taught by her schoolteacher years before, but with entirely different lines and squiggled characters than she had ever learned. Others showed diagrams and charts, showing the progress of inner workings of machinery or biology, which she could only guess. Still others showed amazing panoramic vistas of worlds unknown to her. Along and beneath these screen were control stations, panels full of buttons and sliding knobs, dials and keypads and sensors and…it was endless. It seemed endless.
They spiraled upwards around a central stair that led up into the dome of the great vessel, and some led off down hallways and corridors and through passages and open hatchways. There were those that even led into the floor, into secret crawlspaces and beneath hatched panels and grids.
She stepped inside, and heard a WHOOSH as the door slid closed behind her. She didn’t care. She only had eyes for the endless screens and the stories she might step into by following them.
Alice walked around the room, and finally lit upon the one screen she could not look away from, a screen so captivating she gasped aloud when she saw it.
This screen showed a path through the stars.
Red lines charted a tunnel through space, and showed a high speed vision of traveling through it. If one followed this tunnel, as the machine indicated they might, they’d fly through black space between the suns, falling, but falling with clear purpose and intent, through a whorl of starlight. They’d maneuver between spiraling mouths of sheer night, sling around shining blue jewels of flame, burst into clusters of rock the size of mountains, and zig between them without a care. She reached up to touch the screen, enchanted by the vision of the journey ahead, and that’s when she saw the monster reflected in its surface.
Alice whirled in fright.
“I hoped you’d come,” Jack’s familiar, but strange, voice said from the monster’s face. “I was too afraid to ask, but I hoped. I hoped.” It lifted two pinkish limbs, each adorned with flat hands from which stubby fingers protruded. “I’m so glad. So glad you’re here.”
Alice slithered backward as fast as her trunk would allow, her dorsal fins pressing into the wall painfully.
“What’s wrong?” the monster asked. It stood on two lanky legs, but they were straight, with apparently a bone structure supporting its weight, not at all as elegant as the tentacles that propelled Alice’s fluid moton.
“You…I never…” Alice wiped tears away from her eyes with one slippery swipe of a tentacle arm. The monster in front of her had two elliptical orbs, which must have been its eyes, atop one nasal protrusion and its hairy chin, which was now covered by the translator device.
Alice looked back with disgust. She of course had her own proper eyes, black circular orbs, set in a ring of six above her nasal proboscis, upon which her corrective lenses perched.
“I never saw you,” she choked out. This thing, she realized with distaste, was her lover, the one she had lain with in the darkness so many times. She had told him stories and dreams and pinned all her hopes upon him. She had even…oh no, she thought, remembering their kiss.
Jack’s twin eyes lowered, showing his head full of hair like his chin, only longer and finer, of the color of straw. “I have frightened you. I’m so sorry. I thought this might…here.” He stepped forward, alarming her a bit, but it was only to press a control key on the wall. The outer door slid open again with another loud WHOOSH.
“You may leave, of course. I would never hurt you. I will always remember how kind you were to me. I will never forget-“ but the creature choked on its words then, and he fell silent, fluid draining from his eyes.
Alice started for the door, but turned back to see him leaning against the wall, sobbing.
She was forcefully reminded of the night they had met, and the bouquet of weeds she’d been given as a cruel gift to remind her of her ugliness, by a man perhaps more beautiful, with his gray green mantle and brilliant fins, but an inner self more horrible than Jack could ever dream of being.
She wrapped one hand around his, and with another of her four hands she pressed the control key, closing the door.
“You…you’re not afraid?”
“Kiss me,” she said, and he reached to remove the mask. Alice stopped him.
“Could we…turn off the lights?” she asked.
A low rumbling laugh was her answer, and he pressed another key.
She wrapped herself around him and they melded together, the scratchy hairs of his pink skin brushing her slick, moist blue dermis, in the first of many embraces on their journey, always in the dark and always bravely flying through the night, touching each other just as they have touched all of us. Beginning at that moment, they brought their message of peace and love to all our worlds, yours and mine.
That much is known.
© 2017 by J. David Clarke