The Lightning Struck Boy and the Thunderstruck Girl

Saturday, April 27th, 2013

This is my story, but it’s also his. Mostly it is mine, for I have the telling of it. (My king is generous).

This is the story of how I became a queen.

I. We grew up on opposite sides of Campbell, a small town that looms large in my mind. I lived in a neighborhood of cottages that cuddled together in companionship; he grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, amid shacks that leaned towards each other like drunks around a trash-can fire. His name was Erik Jensen and mine was Aria Paraskos but those names were only lies and they are only words now. Mother raised me alone in a two-bedroom house crowded with potted plants. They flung their greedy green arms over everything and used to make me dream that I was strangling in their vines. I would wake gasping for breath and Mother would be there before I could even begin to cry; she would catch my tears in her hands the moment they started to fall, whispering, hush my dear, Mommy is here. My father slipped through Mother’s fingers so she clung to me, the wreckage of their failed love, to keep her afloat. I was good at my job. Then.

He grew like a weed until he was tall as a tree, and that is what we called him. Tree dodged a brother’s cruel mischief and a father’s disappointment until he grew too tall for them to reach. Mister Jensen lost his eye in a work accident, and his will along with it. The house fell down around them and Tree dreamed of wielding a hammer, of building something that would last. But fate and my father had other plans.

II. We were nineteen when the Big Storm came; one of April’s tantrums that made me envy her the freedom to be so hateful. Nimbostratus rolled in thick and fast, unfurled its banners of black and gray, and commenced hurling down the rain. The glass of the passenger side window in Mother’s car was cold against my forehead. My whole body was twisted away from her. Once again she had refused to let me drive. Her calloused fingers were tight on the wheel, there was a crust of dirt encircling her fingernails as usual, her black hair was half gray, I loved her more than anything in the world, and right then I wanted to hit her careworn face.

Lightning lit the sky up, shaking its fists and screaming to be noticed.

III. At the same moment a boy named Tree was taking the short way home, cutting through the cornfield. I imagine him now as he must have looked then: walking fast, hunching his shoulders up against the howling wind. I imagine him flinching as the water struck his face; sweeping damp golden hair out of his gray eyes and running ever faster, running a race he was never going to win. I picture him realizing what was going to happen but pushing harder, trying to outrun destiny. I see him standing tall as a statue against that wicked sky, chest shoulders and head above the corn.

He was the tallest thing for miles.

IV. We had just pulled into our driveway. Red flowers greeted us, waving from the porch posts they were clinging to for dear life, heads bowed by the storm. In the spaces between houses, I saw lightning devour the sky in its jagged jaws. Seconds later, the thunder swallowed up my scream. It’s just a little lightning, Aria, Mother said tenderly, reaching out to stroke my cheek. She hadn’t blinked at the flare of fire or the roar of its rebounding. She feared nothing nature could unleash. I believed she feared nothing. I jerked away from her touch.

V. I wonder if Tree screamed, when that same “little lightning” crashed through his body. I have never asked him and doubt I ever will. They found him lying on his back in the middle of a burnt-down patch of corn stalks, his clothing reduced to so much char and cinder, his shoulder-length blond hair turned black. Since that day, he has always walked as slowly as honey pours, and he smells of ash and smoke from the fire that burns in the heart of dying stars.

It was inevitable that I would fall in love with him. It was fate.

VI. I touched his hand by mistake one day. A current ran from his fingers to mine, leaving my nerves tingling, anxious, braced for further pain. You shocked me, I accused him. I do that, he said without apology. He looked straight through people now, like they were all just ghosts to him. But I have never been a ghost. I will never be a ghost. I made him look at me. And he has never looked away. I took his hand again, on purpose, and found I quite liked the pain.

VII. He tucked dead flowers behind my ears, kissed my cheek, and told me I was beautiful. He said it like it was a bad thing. He told me that my hair was a novel, that my hands were poetry. He told me that my eyes were a symphony and my mouth was a tragedy. He told me he loved me.

VIII. When Mother caught us kissing in the rose garden, she opened her mouth and screamed at the sky. She snatched at our entwined hands and dragged mine from his so fast that his hand flew back and scraped against the thorns. Six drops of blood fell from the back of Tree’s hand, leaving black spots on the rose petals. I wrestled with my mother, but she was too strong for me.

IX. That was the night Tree took me to the Campbell caves. I climbed out my bedroom window and into his arms, and we ran together through rain-soaked fields as the chill in the air and the sob in the wind threatened us. We reached the mouth of the caves just as the skies opened up. We let the storm rage on outside, while he took my hand and guided my steps through narrow halls, through crevices, through solid walls of darkness. This is the throne room, he told me, as we emerged into a wide open space as large as my mother’s house. In the middle of the room there was a stone platform; I could see why someone might have thought it resembled a throne. Tree did not want to linger there. This is the king’s chamber, he said, dragging me on into a room with a stone slab that resembled a bed. And next to it, the queen’s. I peered through the shadows to the smaller room, the smaller bed. The narrow doorway, more warning than invitation, made me inexplicably sad. Why don’t they just share? I asked. Because they’re selfish, at heart, and because the queen is tired of sharing, he said. He took my hand shyly and pulled me to him. Do you like it? His gray eyes were wide with hope.

X. I told him the truth. I liked it, and him, very much.

XI. The corners of his eyes crinkled in relief. I’m glad… now, I want to show you something else. I watched him remove his jacket, his shirt. White lines branched off from a crooked scar that looked much like a twisted tree. The scar scrawled across his broad chest, clung to his clavicles, spiraled down his arms. It’s beautiful, I breathed. It was a miracle you survived. His voice was not bitter when he said I didn’t survive. My eyes never left his face, and a question never left my lips, but he must have read it in my eyes nonetheless.

XII. I could not stop myself. Fingertips extended, I brushed his flesh, touched the spot where the scar branched out: the place directly over his heart. His skin was warm, but as he reached out and held my palm flat against him, I turned cold.

XIII. Whatever his heart was doing inside his chest, it was not beating. It matched, perfectly, the rhythm of the rain, and whenever there was a rumble of distant thunder, his heart met the sound with a wild erratic jump. I stared up at his sweet face with mingled wonderment and horror. Tears were in his eyes when he told me

XIV. I died that day, Aria

XV. And tears were in my eyes when I told him that I did not care. Groaning, he pulled me to him, all fears put aside. He dragged me down in his embrace, down onto the King’s bed. Never let it be said that I did not go willingly... I went joyfully.

XVI. I woke to the sound of crashing thunder, my body full of precious aches. Tree surrounded me as surely as the air I was breathing. His presence was solid, sturdy, his warmth sustaining me. Under the earth, wrapped in his arms, I felt safe. Looking at his sleeping face, I knew I loved him. But even that could not keep me from running when I heard Mother’s voice calling my name. My long hair was trapped beneath Tree’s body, but I tugged myself free and ran for the mouth of the cave.

XVII. Outside, I saw my mother, in overalls and bare feet, drenched in rain, hair plastered to her skull. She stood with open hands extended towards me. Her eyes were wells of sorrow. Her face was pale, shining through the darkness like a beacon, but her hands were whiter, white as bone. They were empty, and for the first time in months, I yearned to fill them.

XVIII. I took a step towards her, just one. Then I realized I could go no further. I turned to Tree for help, mouth open in a silent plea, but all words died when I saw his sad and guilty face. I’m sorry, Aria, he whispered with trembling lips. Ignoring him, I looked back at my mother. She had seen that I could not come to her. A pitiful sob escaped her, and for the first time I realized how small she was. Her mouth curved into a painful smile as she raised a hand in loving farewell. What have you done? I screamed at Tree. I lashed out and began hitting every part of him that I could reach, but he stood stolidly, let me beat him bloody. I craned my neck, hoping Mother saw how fiercely I was fighting.

Fog had rolled in, and obscured her.

XIX. I have not forgiven Tree. I am glad of those separate bedchambers. There are nights when my fingers inch toward his throat while he’s sleeping, until I remember that he cannot die. There are days when I wait by the mouth of the cave for hours, holding my fingertips into the sunlight as far as they will go, and Tree and all our subjects know better than to approach me. I go with Mother in the springtime when she comes for me, and we are happy together in the garden, sunshine warm on our shoulders. But I cannot touch the plants, or they wither and die. The first time it happened, Mother cried. The second time she handed me a shovel and told me to dig.

This is our arrangement now. I dig holes, rapid in my movements, grim in my concentration. Mother cradles the seeds and guides them into the earth. I cover them, patting down the soul with my hands. We go into the house, Mother’s arm around my shoulders, mine around her waist, and drink lavender tea until the weather turns cold again.

XX. Then I go home, under the earth.

XXI. Armies of shadows hit their knees at the sight of me. But I pass by them, above them, to meet their master, who has been crying and makes no effort to hide it. The Lord of the Dead kneels before me too, until I bid him rise. He looks down at me as though he is still looking up. He may command ghosts, but I am no ghost. I could crush him with a word, so I must choose mine carefully, and remember that I love him.

XXII. I missed you, I say, because it is true.

He holds me like he thought I would never return, like he forgets that I have no choice.

But I cannot say I would have chosen differently.

XXIII. This is our life now. I could get used to this; in fact I already am. Shadows tremble when they see me coming; ghosts fall over themselves to gain my favor. I can never bear Tree’s child, but I have already told him that one day, when I am ready, I may find a little ghost girl, too soon taken from her mother, hold out my empty hands to her, wait for her to rush into them so I can catch her tears the moment they start to fall.

XXIV. Hush, my dear, I will tell her. Mommy is here.