February 2008 Volume Two Issue Two
Truths on Loose Leaves - Toby Wallis
They say she comes in the night while you are sleeping. They say she lies next to you, or stands beside you, or hovers over you and reaches inside with fingers like wisps of smoke or tiny candle flames. They say she has black skin like worn leather and lime green eyes. They also say she has lilac skin, marbled and cracked and has no eyes at all because she doesn't need them to see the things that she sees.
They say a great many things; some of them are even true.
She first came to me when I was fourteen. The summer holidays were coming to a close and I had lain awake till the early hours, my mind restless with dread and trepidation for things so trivial I now don't remember what they were. When I finally slept I dreamt of boundless futures, of potential and possibility, of brazen women; of a future that seemed both far away and worryingly imminent. I awoke at five o'clock in the morning. As the darkness softened to my eyes I saw she was lying naked next to me over the covers. Even in that low light I could see she had beautiful skin and eyes that looked at me alluringly and with kindness. Sleepily I smiled at her and a moment later she smiled back. Lazily I looked her up and down. I looked at her small breasts; at the tiny dark crack of cleavage created by the way she lay, at her legs, at the small nest of pubic hair that crept out from between them.
"Hello," I said, my voice sleepy and barely audible.
"Hello," she replied.
Then I blinked and she was gone, I was alone again in my bed, my dreams falling apart faster than I keep hold of them.
The next few years disappeared in a puff of disappointment. School passed by and then faded away as I set myself to memorising the things they wanted me to memorise and learning how to pass their exams, which I did, just about, and then proceeded to forget it all. But all that time she was in my thoughts. As all my friends developed monumental crushes on film stars and pop singers, and then on the girls in school as they filled out and started to catch our eyes, I realised that none of them measured up her, even though I could barely picture her face in my mind. It would appear occasionally, unexpectedly, and then fade away from my memory rapidly and if I tried to force myself to remember it I always found I could not.
I grew my hair long and found myself in college. I met a girl named Kate, a reactionary, fiery girl with brown nipples and who didn't wear a bra. She told me I was boring, a bourgeois with poorly considered arguments and she relished telling me how wrong I was on a great many things. I lost my virginity to Kate on the bed, over the covers, in my dorm room.
We spent almost every waking hour together, Kate and I. We would walk together to the college and then I would wait around after my classes until she had finished hers and then we would walk home again. We studied together in the library, we drank coffee at the same table in the same cafe every Saturday morning. Often we made sure to skip the same classes so we could make love under the open window in her room and then cuddle up afterwards and watch television. In public she still challenged my opinions aggressively and was openly embarrassed of me, but when we were alone she was sweet and affectionate.
I didn't think of her much during that time, that strange girl that had visited me all those years before. I didn't have much of a memory of it; it seemed so distant and faded that I remember doubting that it had happened at all. But then every once in a while her face would come back to me, and the sound of her voice, clear and sharp. I tried to tell Kate about it once but she dismissed it quickly saying she didn't believe in the occult, even though I had said nothing of the occult. She said that people who believed in things like that were simply lacking something in their lives and were compensating for it. She said it was pathetic.
"I heard you only have three original ideas in your whole life," she had said one afternoon. "I guess I'll have to be vigilant, make sure not to miss them."
I made an agreeing sort of a noise.
"The trick is to sift the good ones from the bad ones."
I shrugged and then she sighed.
"Come on," she said, "what do you think?"
"Well," I said tentatively, "I don't think there are any original ideas any more. I think that good ideas are just taking elements of different things and combining them in an interesting way that makes sense to you and the world around you. Clever juxtaposition, one thing in relation to another."
She stared me for a while and then shook her head and said, "You don't understand me at all."
That night she stayed over, though I got the impression she didn't especially want to. I couldn't sleep and lay awake watching her. Even asleep she managed to look sad, contorted into unusual positions as though she was permanently at odds with the world.
Suddenly I got the impression that I was being watched. Carefully I rolled over so as not to wake Kate and saw her lying next to me. The bed was barely large enough for Kate and I but it seemed to have stretched in order to accommodate her. Her skin was darker than I remember, her eyes didn't glow as bright as they did in my memory but I recognised her instantly.
"Hello," she said.
I was speechless, still staring at her, wondering how it was that I had ever let the image of her face slip from my memory.
"Who's this?" she said, gesturing over me at Kate.
"Kate," I said.
"She doesn't suit you," she said.
And suddenly it was clear to me that she didn't. It felt as though an idea had been planted in my head, a realisation as clear as day that I didn't have any grasp of only a few moments before and something, with hindsight, I suspect I never would have come to by myself; Kate was in love with me, but I was not in love with her. My eyes opened wide and she smiled her perfect smile at me.
"You're welcome," she said,
The next thing I remember was waking up, I had dreamt vividly, important, significant dreams but it didn't take long for them to vanish, scattering like truths written on loose leaves in a storm. All I was left with was the knowledge that I had dreamt something momentous.
A few days later I broke up with Kate. She said she was glad and reminded me that I was boring.
She visited me a lot after that, never leaving a more than a month between visits. Always at night she would come and we would lie on the bed talking until I fell asleep, and then in the morning she would be gone. Although it would be fairer to say that I was the one that did all the talking, she was an exceptional listener. I would love now to tell you what we spoke about, the ideas, the revolutions and realisations, the way we put the world to rights, the way everything clicked into place just by talking it over. But those memories are long gone, and not recently, in the mornings I could never remember what I had said to her. All I had was that most tenuous knowledge; the knowledge that I had forgotten something worth remembering. And always when I awoke my dreams unravelled and slipped out of my mind and so too did the memory of what she looked like.
I graduated from college with the lowest passing grade possible. I was unemployed for a while and living with my parents. When they had had enough of that they asked me to move on, which I did, and worked a string of low paid jobs in order to pay the rent on a small flat. The weeks seemed to drag on forever but the years raced by.
I had a string of short-lived, disappointing relationships. Even the occasional one night stand which I tried to believe was exciting and transient but without exception ended with them walking away from me. One girl, her name was either Susan or Sarah, angrily told me the following morning while she got dressed back into the same inappropriate outfit she had worn the previous night that she had hardly slept a wink because I talked in my sleep. She asked me what I had been dreaming and I told her honestly that I couldn't remember.
I never had any night-time visits when I was sharing my bed. One night when I was alone she came and it occurred to me that it would be greatly beneficial to me if I avoided sleeping with women so as to increase the chances that she would visit me. And indeed it was the mornings after she had that I was happiest. I would sit drinking coffee in my dressing gown clutching onto the strands of conversations we had had and remembering how beautiful she was. I wiled away a number of hours trying to picture her elusive face.
I did indeed stop sleeping with other women. When propositions came my way I excused myself from them and in time I stopped dressing well, or washing carefully and then the propositions stopped also.
I started to acquire more nasal hair then was entirely necessary and a pair of crow's-feet began to grow beside my eyes. I made a grunting noise whenever I sat down or stood up and the small bald patch which for so long had gone unnoticed began to increase in diameter. Whenever I looked at photographs of myself I noted sadly how young I looked then and spent longer than normal looking at myself in the mirror, noting how old I looked now.
I was sat on a bus one Saturday morning on my way to the supermarket, idly looking out of the window, watching the pensioners clambering aboard. Sat on that bus I had an idea for a story. At first thought it was a book then I realised that this idea wanted to be a screenplay. I started to smile as I thought it over. It was truly original, or at least as original as something needs to be. I could see as clearly as anything the opening scene and how it ought to play out, how to segue it into the next scene and the dramatic, emotional climax was perfect. I intended fully to write this idea, no matter how long it took, and it would take a long time, I knew, as I had never written anything of anything worth before in my entire life. I felt a sense of purpose and resolve and worth that I had not known for a long time.
A pensioner boarded the bus and the driver accelerated away before she had sat down and she nearly fell over as she pulled herself into the seat next to me. I shifted over to give her some room and she thanked me. I went back to gazing out of the window so as to continue thinking about the script I was going to write when I felt a hand on my knee. I looked at the hand and was surprised to see it was not an old, wrinkled pensioner's hand, but a smooth, pale skinned hand that gripped my leg gently. I looked up and saw her sat next to me, a small smile curling her lips and her eyes looking deep into mine. She seemed so different in daylight. Still it was that every time I saw her I was surprised by her face and how it was that I was able to forget it, but on that occasion it had a different resonance. Her eyes and her skin were an unearthly colour that had seemed believable in the near darkness but by daylight was unreal and slightly worrying. She seemed larger and the expression she wore was stern and intimidating, but still I was comforted by her presence. I put my hand on hers and squeezed it gently. She smiled a little and tilted her head. I turned to look out of the window and watch the world race by, so fickle and delightfully pointless. I don't know how long I sat like that, blissfully unaware as I was, but I was bought back to earth by a raspy voice in my ear.
"Excuse me dear, but can I have my hand back?" The pensioner looked slightly alarmed and I got off the bus two stops early, mortally embarrassed.
It wasn't until later that day that I realised I had forgotten my story completely. I still bought a pad of paper and two pens, one blue and one red, but I never set to writing anything.
Another chunk of my life wasted away with nothing happening and nothing changing. I'm sure something must have happened in that time but certainly nothing relevant enough to mention. She didn't visit me for a long time. After a while I stopped forcing myself to stay up late in the hope she would and simply allowed myself to fall asleep whenever I wanted to. Still though I could never remember my dreams. It had been so long since had been able to that I convinced myself that it was because I was not dreaming at all, and I resigned myself to madness, since I had read this is what happens to the dreamless.
I witnessed births and deaths, the natural joining and passing of life. My first school got knocked down and turned into houses. My heart gave me a scare and I spent a few days in hospital which mostly I spent watching television and complaining about the food.
I don't know how many years passed at this point but at this time my hair had silver streaks, the creases in my face had developed into deep set wrinkles and I was taking pills daily to regulate my heartbeat. I was lying in bed, alone as had been my way for so long that I had developed a strong belief that I would never be able to share my bed with anyone else ever again. I had awoken and had lain there staring at the ceiling for some time not even having noticed I was awake. I looked at the clock; it was just passed three in the morning. When I looked away I saw her lying next to me, propped up on one arm.
I still found her as beautiful as I ever did, but on this final occasion I found her beauty somewhat disquieting. I had changed so much over the years, my body transforming with age; she had not changed at all. Her skin was still as smooth as porcelain, her face as young as it had ever looked.
"I have loved you for as long as I have known you," I said.
"I know," she broke eye contact with me uncomfortably.
"I didn't want to," I said.
For a long while we lay there in silence. She was staring intensely past me.
"I know," she said again, "I made you do it."
"My muse," I reached over and stroked her arm with my hand. Her skin was cold.
"I'm not your muse," she said.
I closed me eyes and nodded, "I know," I said.
I lay back and put my hands up behind my head, perfectly at ease and thoroughly relaxed.
When I awoke the next morning I could remember my dream. I sat at the kitchen table watching my coffee go cold, thinking about the things I had dreamt, trying to discern the meaning of those obscure images, stunned by their clarity, and wondering what secret truths they contained, the first that I had been able to cling onto for a very, very long time.
I also could remember the last thing she said to me, just as I was on the cusp of sleep. Her voice was cracked and thin as she simply said 'I'm so sorry'.
I never saw her again.
It didn't take long for me to lose the image of her face from my mind.
They say she comes in the night while you are sleeping. They say she has black skin like worn leather and lime green eyes. And perhaps she does, though honestly I can't remember.
- END -
Since Toby neglected to send a bio, I felt perfectly free to do a bit of sleuthing, and I'm delighted to tell you that Toby Wallis has more online fiction available at Bewildering Stories. "All Art Aspires To Be Music," "Over The Bridge," "Peppermint," and a serial called "The Artificer" (no longer available.)