Wednesday, 17 April 2019 13:22

In the Shadow of Your Wings by Geoffrey Lee

In the Shadow of Your Wings by Geoffrey LeeI’ve been trying not to think about you these past few months. It’s only now that you’re gone that I realize I have a thousand questions I needed to ask you. It’s horrible because it makes me doubt if I ever really knew you.

This morning, before dawn, I woke up crying. Honestly, it’d be more accurate to call it uncontrollable sobbing. Buried beneath the pitiful sound of my whimpering was a sentence. Two sentences, actually.

I’m sorry. I miss you.

The worst part is, I’m starting to forget. The times I shared with you are decaying. But I don’t want to lose any more of you. To that end I’ve started writing about you. About us. They’re flawed: honestly, they’re more about me than you. They’ve all I’ve got though. Because when those memories of you fade, what’s there to prove I ever knew you?

 #

We never got to say our final goodbyes. I never realized it would be the last time, if I knew I wouldn’t have just smiled and waved. I wonder what you felt as you walked away from me into the darkness. Was it sadness? Regret? Had you even decided by then that it would be the last time? I’d like to believe you thought about telling me but ended up not being able to. I can’t accept meaning so little to you that you didn’t even try. So let’s say I was just too blind to notice what you meant when you came back and hugged me.

I can still visualize that scene in my mind as if it were right in front of my eyes. I say I can ‘visualize’ that scene, as if it is something I am familiar with and can just copy and paste from my past onto a page. In reality, it’s different. In that moment it is the present, even when I look back on it as I do to the past. This timelessness is hard to convey, but I hope my words will do it justice.

It starts with you with your back to me after walking away. You stop and pause, your wings sweeping over the desolate landscape. The moonlight casts a shadow that stretches behind you, reaching across the horizon. I stand, stunned, as you turn with an elegance that seems otherworldly but so... so... there. You walk back towards me. The shadows shimmer and dance around your feet. You step perfectly into the pale light so that I can barely make out your eyes. They glisten. You stare at me, unblinking. For a moment that’s all I see. Something in them grips me by the heart. A determination that I can not, and probably will never be able to shake.

Then, your arms around my frail frame, an embrace that chills. And then warmth like a fresh cup of coffee. Or tea. I still can’t decide which one’s better. One that seeps through the cracks in my crumbling facade and reaches out right to the bone and imbues what is left of my weak self with a promise that it will be okay even if it isn’t. It’s a comforting promise. One that sweeps over my soul and puts it to rest. I bask in that feeling of your arms so soft around my back, your body pressed up against mine. But such intimacy overwhelms me. Shocked, the seconds pass and already you’re pulling yourself away from me. You turn back. You leave a trail of tiny, sparking lights as you leave. They flicker and float and fade into oblivion as they reach the ground. The memory, if I can call it that, ends with me fingering your tear stains on the collar of my shirt.

I will never forgive myself for not thanking you. You weren’t the only one who's helped me, but you were the most important one. I’ve taken lots of things from lots of people, never giving anything back, not even being grateful; I never hold onto them tight enough to have the chance to express my appreciation, to give a little bit of myself back. And so when you gave me everything and took nothing; I took it for granted. Maybe, if you had something from me; that something would have kept you here. Changed things for the better. I don’t know though, like so much about everything I can only hope and wish that things were different.

That last time I saw you felt like a dream. And I’m scared that like most of my dreams it’ll slowly drown in the sea of time, forgotten in the flash flood of sensations and life upon waking. Sensations that I’d rather not feel. Thoughts that I’d rather not think and memories I’d rather forget. But they come up anyway and smother the dreams I’d rather remember in the lonely darkness. My dreams are never perfect, and the time I spent with you wasn’t either. So many mistakes, most by me. But still, they were good, and better than anything else I had.

After everything had happened you said that was the first time you’d hugged someone. Honestly, I was surprised; there was an ease to which you opened yourself to me, took my struggles and thorns into your arms; the grace with which your wings wrapped around my weaknesses and covered them like a mother bird her chicks. The familiarity amazed me and the comfort it evoked called me to reciprocate your unconditional love. I’m happy I did. I couldn’t take it anymore, you know? The pretenses, the draining efforts to be someone I wasn’t, painting a visage with colors from a palette I’d never used before. You knew that I needed it, didn’t you? That’s why you did it - almost everything you did was for me, I understand that now. But ignorant, naive, I thought only my flaws needed fixing, so that’s all I talked about. Not once did I ask about how you were doing. Not once did I realize that what you had been shielding me from could hurt you as well. Not once did I find the courage to step out from the shadow of your wings to stand beside you. To fight with you.

And now it is too late.

#

I still wonder why you chose me. At the beginning I thought maybe it was me that reached out to poor you, being the friend that you so desperately needed. (I laugh at that now: in the end I’m the one wishing you were still here.) You told me that it was because I had no boxes to put you in, no prior stereotypes or expectations. That I would accept you and your wings just as you were. I doubt that part though, maybe I had less but reservations there were; shifting beneath each interaction we had.

But now, because of what you’ve done, you’ve taught me there’s no need for boxes. My prejudices and assumptions failed to categorize you. I realized that maybe there’s no need to try bringing people down to where we’re at. You had wings, but you never flew away from me. Even at my worst. You said that you couldn’t fly (and that yes, you had tried many, many times before). But I bet that you flew down to come to us from whatever beautiful realm birthed you. And despite what everyone else seems to think or tried to forget by explaining it away with their little boxes, I’m sure that it was with your wings that you flew back to wherever you came from.

It’s unfortunate, but I wish you took me too. Though, thanks to you, I’ve realized that there are others that have been trapped in society’s little boxes that maybe don’t deserve to be. And so, thanks to you, I’ve got the courage to go open those little boxes, let them see the beautiful sky and grow the wings to fly into the open blue and beyond.

#

I think I realized when we watched the stars fall. Out on the mountains, exhausted, I couldn’t muster the energy to hold up my barriers, to tell myself the lies I always would. I let my head fall against your neck, sucking up your warmth like a black hole. In that moment, for the first time, I knew I needed you. All of you. Everything you had. I reached my arms around you then, collapsing into your lap and letting you comfort me with the silence of your words and the soothing symphonies of your subtle motions.

The starlight danced across your wings like fireworks. Your nervousness in the slight shifts of your sleek mantle, mine in the tears that poured out of my eyes. The serenity of the night cradled my sadness like a mother her baby and I rocked softly in your paternal embrace that provided all the comfort I would need. Comfort that I could drink deeply from, forever. I couldn’t tell you how much you meant to me. I know I should’ve. I wish I could’ve. But I suppose that will always be the hamartia to my tragic downfall: understanding the tiny hints we give off like looking through the peepholes into a lit room. Understanding but doing nothing as I let myself be cowed by the monsters that could lurk in the shadows hidden behind the room’s walls. Doing nothing until it’s too late. Maybe that’s why you left when you did. Before I could react in time. Before I could convince you not to stay. Before you let yourself go in the fantasy of what we had. That was always what I loved most about you. You never diverted your gaze from whatever it was fixed on (it wasn’t me). Chasing and chasing something I could never imagine, dragging me through the dust of dreams as you brought me so, so, so close to what it was you were looking for down here.

And I think I found it, like the stars buried in the vast sky each clue is hidden in our interactions, the things you said, the things I thought and never said, each moment we shared forming a constellation mapping the way to utopia. But now you’re there and I’m not. I would complain about the unfairness of it all, but the irony is, it was you to whom the injustice was done. Having to stick with me, is what I mean. Me being so much less than what you deserved. And you being the hope for a love I could never reach.

#

Do you remember the time you led me through that crowd? I never told you, but, arriving just when you did, I can never thank you enough. I arrived early that afternoon. I couldn’t help catching the early train, despite all the times you told me to take the risk, just to prove that my fabled ‘what if’ would never happen. I should’ve asked to meet somewhere different, more familiar. But what happened, happened. I stood, leaning against the station wall as nonchalantly as the restless storm of my emotions raged against my heart could allow. Staring at my phone while hoping no-one would stare at me. Praying that no-one would notice how I had nowhere to go, nobody to be with.

It was painful, watching the minutes tick by while shadows writhed and threatened to reach out and drag me under from the corner of my eye. And that’s how it was, me holding up battered walls to stop the onslaught of imaginary whispers, about to drown in my own thoughts; when you reached out to me. With one word you shattered everything, as you always did. With your wings blocking out stares that were never there, you pulled me up, asked me how long I had been waiting.

I returned your smile, buried my fears in an overfull graveyard and laughed as I told you how I had just arrived. You knew I was lying, of course. I knew you knew. But sometimes, those lies become a part of you, makeshift stitches holding together the abomination that you are. And maybe, knowing me, you let them lie; for to undo one was to undo them all and let the facade crumble, revealing a pandora’s box of paradoxes. I thought of none of this at the time, only your hand; warm and firm around mine as you dragged me along the footpath without looking back.

#

You would always tell me that words had power. I never really believed it. Conversation was never one of my strong points. But looking back, I suppose you were right. The right words said in the right way, those are the ones that can cut through pretenses. The swords and shields in your war to reach my heart. And now I’ve taken up your mantle, picked up your arms. I never had your finesse, I doubt I ever will. But I get better, I get stronger, and that’s what matters. That finally, I can take the constant flux of my heart and even slightly iron them out into something that makes a lopsided kind of sense.

#

You were my drug and my antidote. I suppose it’s good I could never overdose on you, I would have tried so many times just to see what would happen. There were no harmful side effects and unburdened by guilt and shame I continued meeting you, talking to you. Standing in the shadow of your wings, I held onto every word you said, they were genuine--unlike everything I had heard before--and unbelievably so. As if, each word was made for me. As if you had carved and molded it to every single atom until its connotations weaved together perfectly in front of my eyes.

Truth never felt so real, so perfect, so euphoric. You broke down my world and rebuilt it. Slowly, with all the throwaway conversations that turned out to be pure gold. And now, here I am. Trying to piece together the puzzle because I can no longer live without the feeling like I finally understand someone, that--for once, maybe--I could say I know someone. Deeply, intimately, that between us there was no lost meaning shed by the little parts of us ingrained in all our idiosyncrasies. If I’m being honest, however, I know I’ve stumbled in the understanding. I’m sure that the picture I’m painting is but an amateur’s fraud. But it’s all I have, and sometimes, that’s all you need.

Speaking of painting, I still remember the time we camped out near the lake. It had frozen over during the winter, driving away all the campers wanting to kayak and fish and who knows what and leaving just the two of us submerged in a pristine bubble of serenity. You had brought along a cumbersome set of duffel bags hanging on your shoulders that you declined to let me carry. Funnily enough, even with the load I could not keep up with you as we made our way through forest and plain.

But back to the painting: you called me up one morning, shaking me with a firm gentleness as if I could break, taking my hand and slowly pulling me out of our rundown tent, telling me over and over how nice the sunrise was and how I had to see it to live a fulfilling life. You were joking, obviously, but, thinking about it, maybe it had some truth to it. Looking back, that sunrise, the way the light splayed across the cracking ice marking the season’s first step into spring; the rainbows dancing off the shimmering surface, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that if I were to die there, I would’ve been happy. Still, it would be a stretch and I’m thankful, very thankful, that my life has gone on for long as it has.

When you told me that you had painted the scene, and that it was the first time you had ever held a paintbrush in your life, I thought you were joking as well. For, through some miracle you had managed to improve on the perfection that lay before my eyes. It was no beginner’s luck, even I could see that. Infused within your artwork was some indescribable aspect that screamed of life, love and joy; and it pulsed like a beating heart all throughout the canvas. As if you had buried a little piece of yourself in it. Even now, as I think about it, as this precious memory plays again in my head, I still can’t help smiling. Smiling, then covering my mouth, trying to stifle cries and screams begging you to come back.

#

It’s weird. It’s not like I’ve run out of things to say, every second we shared is worth sharing with the world and I’ve still got more than enough to last a lifetime; but it doesn’t feel like I need to write anymore. Just maybe one more short thing, an epilogue of sorts. It starts with a thought, as so many stories do. Thoughts that have been slowly tended with the precise care of a gardener sprouting into action, spontaneous yet meticulously predetermined. So with that in mind: here’s to the thoughts that keep us going. The thoughts that keep us on our feet, treading with a tense caution, for better or for worse.

It had just started raining. Fast and furious the innocent downpour whipped itself into a storm that pressed hard into our clothes. Only one step before being drenched, we found ourselves an underpass. Surprised to find it dry, we sat in the darkness mottled with the frail illumination of the streetlight outside. We just sat. Your outstretched wings draped over my hunched frame. The soft sound of us trying to catch our breath. Never before would I have said I loved the ambient pitter-patter of rain, but after that moment, I can say I have. A serenity which so filled up the silence that I haven’t been able to find again. Unlike most moments I shared with you, I’d rather that one not last forever. For its resonance arises from its transience: surely, what made the ten, twenty minutes we spent in that underpass so memorable was the hours turned days of action and talking that surrounded it.

I wish all our time was like that, but despite all our seconds being more than worth sharing, many of them still slip past my fingers like sand with only the ghost of their touch lingering on my mind.

#

Okay, turns out I haven’t run out of things to say. There’s still one more thing, it came up on the topic of time. Because it was the last time I saw you. Although, it wasn’t the last time we met. As in, I’m not sure it counts as a meeting. But before I get to that--maybe I’m just trying to avoid the inevitable end--here’s another thought.

‘Black wings bring black tidings,’ I read once. Although, you were never bad; I certainly was though. You took all my failures in your unfaltering, empathetic stride.

On that note--I’m really sorry this is entirely irrelevant --there is one thing I’d like to ask. If you’re reading this, somehow, wherever you are now, it’s not relevant, but: where did you learn to walk like that? There was something natural yet alien about it, almost but not like the regality that is accorded to the highest of kings and queens. So much of your past you never shared with me, I suppose I should’ve asked. There were, are, still so many things I suppose I should’ve done. But in the end words fail. I fail. You fail (this one I am less sure about).

Alright, back to the thought. This one makes me tear up. Just a little. Fine, maybe a lot. Never until then have I hated how much all good things must come to an end. But with that end there is a hope. A hope that from the loss of one good thing another will grow. One bigger and brighter that will make me smile and cry at how that loss was only just setting up for the better that was to come. I’m still waiting. I know, not for certain but off some instinct I can never shake, that it will come. And again, I digress, so onto the very last time. The one that would signal both the end and the beginning.

#

I’ll never forget the way your body lay lifeless on the dry creek bed. The sun shone a little less brightly that day, the weak shadow cast by your outstretched wings melding into the pallid light. Is it weird that you looked like freedom itself had lay there on the ground? That the way your deep crimson blood stained your jet-black feathers made you look even more majestic, even more beautiful than you ever had before. No-one averted their eyes that day, yet still people dismissed you as another tragic victim, neatly placing you into one of myriads of little boxes.

I tried to shout at them, scream, yell, anything to defend you, say that it wasn’t just another suicide. That you couldn’t have jumped off that bridge in the summer, knowing the creek had dried up. That you wouldn’t have, after everything we had spent together. The memories we shared. But I couldn’t find the words. Only this emptiness, a hollow exasperation where I hated myself for finding you beautiful in that moment. Looking back now, that was all I really saw of you. I couldn’t see past your wings, couldn’t see the shadows they cast as you walked. Maybe, I put you into my own little box, when I saw you as someone fresh from a fantasy. A box where, all I saw and all I expected was perfection.

I look at what I have written now, and it pains me to see that all I will and can remember of you will be that cracks running down your flawless facade. That behind all your smiles and genius were demons I paid no heed to. That you had come not just to give, to support; but to receive, to be encouraged. I was too blind to see that, then. And I’m doing my best to make it up to you. In a wretched sort of way, I’m learning to see past my insecurities. Already I’ve learnt that it wasn’t just you: the world has so much to offer yet so, so, much wrong too. I’m trying, and along the way I’ve found many others as well, to make this broken place just a little bit better.

#

I’m sorry. I should’ve ended it there. I can’t help but indulge my nostalgia and remembering the last time I saw you brings up the last memory we truly shared. One that felt perfect, even though it wasn’t. Like the one before, it is a memory I’ll never forget, that I can’t forget. The memory that I wish I had much, much more of. The memory of your soft wings wrapped around my back like a mother’s embrace; your fingers slightly digging into my skin, a sign that you weren’t holding back; the way my head nestled perfectly into your neck, as if we were made for each other.

Sometimes, I like to believe we were.

Our personalities fit together like jigsaw pieces, which makes the pain even worse now that you’re gone, like a piece of me has been ripped out. I used to think that simile was cliché, that ‘there are little bits of ourselves in each other’. But now that there’s no-one to lead me to the creek because I never bothered to remember where it was; now that there’s no-one to point out the shapes the clouds make whenever I look at the sky, I realize, painfully, that it’s true. Just like all the other stereotypes that start as seemingly innocent observations.

I wish I had hugged you more. I wish that I had hugged you every single time we met, though I doubt that’d be enough. For the both of us. I shouldn’t have held back, especially when you went so far. I’m sorry. You were the one who needed the help, the backbone, the support that I received from you. And now I can never return the love that you showed me. At least, with what you’ve given me, I have more than enough to share with others. So I do. In turn, hopefully, they too will come to share what they have with those who need it.

Now, I suppose there really is nothing else to say, except:

Thank you.

Additional Info

AUTHOR BIO: Geoffrey Lee was born and raised in Sydney.