By Edward Hodge
Naami was an old woman now. She was as small as a girl and her hair was like snow.
Her house was slight and sprayed by sea and it perched on the edge of a chalkwhite cliff. Above, unbent a fleecy sky and below it surged a kettle sea that rolled and boiled itself to froth. The cliff’s visage was etched and scarred by countless years of ocean wind. Cormorants squawked brazenly from nests inside the pockmarked cliff. Their vacuous cries were snatched awry on a breeze that blew from beyond the sea. A breeze that blew from the white cloth realm, where the sky and sea knitted themselves together at the very edge of the world.
Rocking in a chair her father had made, Naami watched the white clouds go. She felt the breeze blowing over her skin as she looked out from her balcony.
‘You’re older now, you little girl, but you look the same to me.’
She turned and saw the man who spoke.
He was ancient, yet unaged by time; by winter pain; by blight of life. He was a man with wings of glass. His beard was beaten gold. His body moved like river grass. His hands were grey as stone.
‘I was a little girl when last we met,’ said old Naami to him. ‘I was a little girl, alone and scared. Alone and scared and free. Tell me your name, you didn’t last time. I think I’ve earned that much, at least.’ She was older now and the working years had turned her cheeks to riverbeds.
‘My name?’ He laughed, as a son might laugh. ‘Mine’s not for girls like you. My name’s a thing so old and lame your mind would sure unspool.’ He smiled, ‘call me this: Dragon-Prince; a fool of things unseen. That realm of Death is mine to miss; I’m bound to life’s Machine.’
‘No name?’ She stared at him, from deep behind the crinkles of her eyes. ‘So you’ve come to take away the buzzing bees you gave to me?’
‘That was our deal, my girl,’ said he.
‘A week before my Death,’ said she. She remembered the day they’d made the deal, and the utterness of her grief. ‘Want you water poured, or something sweet? We haven’t met for many years. I lack all friendly company.’
‘Just a spell, Naami,’ said he. ‘I tend not to drink with those I deal, but for you, I will accept. You’re the last, you know. Last one for me. The last who made a deal with me. Let’s drink, sweet thing, but our deal of bees and dragonflies shall ebb upon this ocean tide.’
They left the balcony and she let him inside. The house was clean and white. He sat down in a seat. She said: ‘Would you like a drink? You do drink?’
‘I think a taste of water would be enough for me.’
She held the jug and the weight of water made her fingers pain.
‘Sweet Naami, you look the same,’ the Dragon-Prince said, like an old friend might, though she did not know what that was like.
So she laughed. ‘Don’t tease. My hair’s like snow and my thoughts are slow. My fingers hurt with age. My face is furrowed with sag and shadow. I was young, but I’m old today.’ She sat herself down, crossed her legs and poured them both a drink.
‘Naami,’ he smiled as he studied the drink. ‘I wasn’t telling lies. You’re the same sweet girl as you were, to me. It’s that fire in your eyes.’
Although she knew he aimed to flatter, she was too old for flattery. Instead she wanted to show the Prince that she was not the girl he’d known. ‘A life is but a blink to you, so perhaps to you, I’m still the same. But as I’ve lived to die each day, I do feel that I’ve changed. I was a little girl when you met me and I didn’t know a thing of grief. I was a little girl, alone and scared. Alone and scared and free.’
He seemed surprised she spoke so bluntly and she was glad of that. When she’d been a little girl, the only thing of hers that moved him was her streaming grief.
He said: ‘How are the bees?’
‘The knees of bees. The same as the day you gave them to me.’
‘And the families struck by that cruel disease? Alive and well as they’ve ever been?’
‘They’re well today, but when you leave there’ll be no cure for that disease. Their healthy lives took mine away, and once you take my bees today, you’ll also take the honey they make. That means there won’t be a cure to help the ones that get diseased. They’ll die just like my father did and it will be as though I never lived.’ She did not cry as once she did. The years had stoppered up her grief.
The Dragon-Prince frowned, like a parent might. ‘You’ve cured so many lives already. Not just the lives of the diseased, but the lives of the families that might have grieved the way you grieved when you called for me. Because of you, they’re happy and free. They’re happy and well and free.’
‘But at the cost of me,’ she said. ‘For all my work, I get a week. Just a week of seven days? I haven’t skills in other ways. I’m a fated fool, a beekeeper spinster, a wizened honey-girl. Sole daughter of a man who died from a disease without a cure. Should I sit here on my balcony and watch Death slowly come for me? Watch the clouds, and roiling waves, and wish my life be cast away?’
She watched him watch his water cup. His tongue ran round his lips.
He seemed to want to drink from it, but couldn’t bring himself to sip.
‘You know,’ he said, and he looked quite sad, ‘I understand your helplessness. The older you get, the more you want, but the less that you can do. There’s little left in this world for me except for deals. And you.’
She crossed her arms and said to him: ‘You’re tired of everything, Dragon-Prince? You’ve been alive so long?’
He sighed. ‘I’ve lost count how long I’ve been, Naami. Now all that’s left is me.’ His dusty fingers wrapped his cup in flesh that could not be.
‘All I’ve got is a week,’ said she, and suddenly she felt scared. The taste of water could not take the taste of waking Death away. It was clinging old and bitter onto her aged and unused tongue. It made her afraid, and she suddenly asked: ‘Death detests the taste of you, but Death will taste of me,’ she said. ‘Can you salt my life like yours, so Death will leave me be?’
He shook his ancient head and a sardonic smile pulled up his lips.
‘Naami, you sweet and brazen thing. Even if I could do that, you wouldn’t like its sting. Immortality is a harrowed land, where no beast ever sleeps. It’s not a peaceful nicety, it’s a place for men like me. Still, I’d rather life that hurts forever than chance the snap of Death.’
Naami watched the old man stir the water with his cup. He didn’t lift it, or try to drink. He let it swirl like quenchless ink. And then she felt the painful ache of a long and unused life; in her hands; her eyes; her mouth; her thighs; in her old and unused feet. She wondered what he thought of fear.
‘You have a fear of Death?’ said she.
‘Of course I don’t!’ retorted he. ‘A fear of Death need not be feared by those that ever-be.’
‘I have a fear,’ said Naami. She whispered quietly, privately, in a way that she had never done with anyone before. ‘I fear not living up to my Death. I fear that I’ll be frozen in fear, for every day of my final week. A fear of the end, a terror of the end. A thing that will haunt my seven sleeps. I’ve had so many years of being alive, but now that I am free. . . I fear my freedom will be sapped from me, by my own dumb fear of the end of me.’
‘I think that fear is foolish, girl,’ said the Dragon-Prince. ‘You’ll go when called: scared or free. That’s how it’s always been. Fear the realm of Death itself, not the fear of fear itself.’
She had another sip of drink. ‘Fear of dread is what gets me,’ she said. ‘For you, I think, it’s Death itself that stops your sleep with breathless think.’
The Dragon-Prince said nothing. His eyes and mouth were still as stone, and his hands were like stone around his cup. She knew that she had struck the part he kept for thoughts alone.
‘Is it obliteration that frightens you?’ Naami said to him. ‘Or is it knowledge of your own paltry mereness; that trillions came, and trillions went, and that you should come and go as well? That Death is a far more common thing than river stones in a mountain stream?’
‘Both, I think.’ His voice was weak, like a boy’s might be. A child’s voice. She’d never had her own.
Yet, his was also a voice of stone; edged and brittle and smooth and old.
‘You’ve been for years in life’s Machine. Have you ever glimpsed upstream, the place that waits in twilit seas; the land of Death, in reverie?’
‘Of course not, girl!’ the stone voice snapped. His knuckles cracked his water cup, a long thick line that ran from the untouched rim down to the base. ‘Not a place I want to see, nor a place I want to be. It’s a desert-land where souls are sand, and the sky’s a bright abyss. Death’s place breeds the fear you feel within your blackest dreams. I don’t envy your journey there. I’d rather my dusty torture here than the twilit land that waits upstream.’
He stared at the water inside his cup as though he could make it drink itself. But the water stayed still as mirror glass; the crack he’d wrought wasn’t deep enough to make the water leak.
‘I don’t believe,’ said Naami, ‘that any place is truly bad. In all your travels, have you ever seen a land that’s always bleak? Although they might be inhabitants, I don’t think fear and pain will be the kings of that grey place upstream. No one thing rules any realm, that’s how it seems to me.’ She drank her last sip of water and set the hollow cup on her knee.
‘So sure are you?’
Naami laughed. ‘Perhaps my age has made me wise.’
‘You’re still a girl to me, Naami, with fire in your eyes.’
She felt insulted. ‘Dragon-Prince, you haven’t grown. You live in fear of the only place that you will never know. That’s a very silly thing. You’ve changed less than me.’
‘We haven’t changed at all, sweet thing. We’re both the same, Naami.’ His whispered words fell soft as snow and heavier than ancient stones.
‘Is that true?’ she whispered, too. ‘I haven’t changed at all? Am I just the same small girl I was before I called you?’ As she looked at him, an old, sharp anger twisted her old and wizened lip. ‘Well, if that is the case, then I would have changed.’
He raised an immortal brow.
‘If you had brought him back. Brought my father back, like I asked.’ Naami felt a young girl’s rage that was as wild and deep as the kettle sea that frothed beneath her balcony. Her sudden tears hurt like flame. She remembered how they’d streamed for days and weeks before at last the Dragon-Prince came.
‘He was dead,’ the aged Prince said. ‘He was dead and gone, Naami. I couldn’t bring your father back, but I couldn’t leave you in your grief. I gave you bees, sweet curing bees! And their honey to cure the ones diseased that would have died like your father did. You saved their families, too, Naami. Daughters that might have felt like you. They needed such a thing, Naami. You needed such a thing, Naami! Should I have let you wallow and weep? Broken by your utter grief? I gave you work and I gave you purpose. I gave you purpose, sweet Naami. Why, a thing to do for all your life is an eternal desire for those that die. Many would sell their father for that and think it a bargain price.’
‘I would not!’ She wanted to cry, and shout, and shriek, and slash him with her nails. She wanted to break that ageless face, make him wail for a soothing Death that would not ever take him. ‘Purpose is the Machine’s best prison, and you swallowed my only key! Since he died I’ve had no one, no one, no one save for buzzing bees. No friends, no lovers, no children — Prince, only buzzing bees. Honey! Honey! Curing honey! You trapped me with Papa’s disease! How could I let the families feel the grief that tortured me? For years and years, for all my life, honey’s been my family. I think you made a mistake, fool Prince and I think you messed up badly! I think you killed a young girl’s life rather than save her Papa’s. Yes, you gave me purpose and yes, you made me needed. But that was not the thing I needed! I asked to be given love, not purpose. Only my Papa ever loved me. You couldn’t give me back his life. You couldn’t give me back his love. You replaced the love he had for me with a wasted life and fleeting bees.’
He suddenly looked very young and scared, and his voice was suddenly small. ‘All I did was give you bees. You could have done whatever you pleased, I don’t think I killed your life.’ He heaved a breath that was long and deep. ‘Please, Naami, please. All I did was give you bees. You could have set them free. You didn’t have to make their honey. You could have set them free.’
He stood up from the table and the water in his cracked cup was as full as the moment she’d finished pouring. He led her out onto the balcony. She could see a cloud of bees swelling behind the house. They were velvet black like drops of night. Then, dragonflies came from the sky and they were as warped and bright as long-loved lies. In the time it takes old hearts to beat, the bees were eaten by the dragonflies.
‘Goodbye, Naami,’ said the Dragon-Prince. His voice had hardened, smooth as stone; unbroken and unbreakable.
Naami sat down heavily in her father’s rocking chair. It creaked, as did her bones.
‘Please, don’t fear the week, Naami. You’re still so young and wise, and sweet. You don’t fear for what I weep. Please, don’t fear the week. I don’t want another regret, Naami.’
As the dragonflies took wing and dived toward the kettle sea, the Dragon-Prince, with a face unaged, was gone in a gust of ocean breeze.
And old Naami, as small as a girl, was left alone and scared on her balcony. Old Naami, with hair like snow, was alone and scared and free.