A Woman Named Life
by Justin Chasteen
I had her once.
I was young and stupid, seeking a life of adventure—assuming my return with riches would make her happy. My father and her mother worked together in the mill. They hated each other, yet, still allowed us to play in the soft glade of Loftloss where blueberries grew like weeds. I think she and I were all that prevented our parents from killing one another. My father said her mother was a cold, haggard woman, and her mother said my father was a bastard of a man. Neither was right. Her mother was kind and gentle with a healer’s touch; the burden of raising two girls on her own made her strong. My father, tough on the outside, taught me every bit of what it took to be a man and provide for a family through hard work. I should have listened. Part of me had always dreamed that my father would realize her mother was a good woman and marry her. I always wanted a mother, and it would have given me an excuse to share a roof with Life. Yes, her name is Life. An odd name for any child, but it grew on me. It’s a beautiful name, Life, and held much meaning as we grew up together.
From childhood to our teenage years, we were inseparable, Life had no flaws—just glimmering beauty and kindness. She kissed me once. The kiss was playful, but it changed me. I never forgot the taste of blueberries on her lips.
The ships flew into the town of Crooked Hill the following day, and I left to work on the decks, promising to return to her with gold and fortune. She had no objection, blankly watching from the docks as the ship lifted me into the air. I put my left hand over my heart and pressed the fingers of my right hand against my lips until she was out of sight—a speck of earth. I now realize that she hadn’t come to see me off, but to let go of me forever. Life was wise even as a teenager, a trait I never developed.
I chose adventure over paradise.
The wind whips tentacles of blood-soaked hair around my face. Groad’s heavy fist, again, propels into the air, momentarily blocking the afternoon sun. The shadow disappears, as do my two front teeth, but at this point I’m numb from pain. They’d beaten me for two straight days and nights, and it’s worth it. The pain reminds me of the mistake I’d made—a sacrifice worthy of agony. He yanks me forward by my collar, blood streaming through my lips; droplets spatter against the deck like a light rainfall.
“Don’t choke on those,” says he. “We ain’t done yet.”
I was the best man at Groad’s wedding. It was a lovely, small event on the western shore of Solais Island. The brute wore no shirt and britches with the knees torn out; his bride wore a blue dress that hung halfway off her malnourished frame. Bessy was her name, I think. The sunset was crimson that night, and I remember thinking to myself that Groad and his new bride wouldn’t last a month. I was right. He killed her after only two weeks. Drunk as always, he’d beat her to death for not having dinner ready when he came home in the middle of the night. Much like Bessy, I didn’t stand a chance.
I spit the two teeth onto the worm-rotted wood of the main deck. It wouldn’t be long now before the worms ate their way through to the lower deck. I just wish I could be around to see it—twenty men plundering through splintered wood, their legs gashed and, hopefully, necks broken.
My swollen tongue fills the hole where my teeth used to be but doesn’t stop the bleeding. Laughter all around me, I open my good eye—the eye that’s still firmly in the socket—and glance around at my old crew. Billy, Ames, Old Rion, and even Tyre look on. Not a single man grimaces or shows any remorse.
They all encourage Groad to take my other eye, but Captain Bestial speaks, “Take a break, Groad,” says he. “I want to have words with Charles before he dies.”
“Aye aye, Captain.”
I thud like a sack of potatoes, slipping and sliding on my own gore as I try to stand, but the captain presses his boot—my old boots—against my throat.
“How did it get to this, old friend?” asks Captain Bestial. “All you have to do is tell us where you hid it, and I’ll let you live.”
Surely a lie—I’m dead either way. Capital Bestial is much more vile a captain than I ever was. He had been my quartermaster, and everything he knows, he learned from me. I try to speak, but he digs his heel into my Adam’s apple.
“Foster, where’s my prize?” says he.
“No… idea… where—”
He yanks his foot from my neck, slipping on the deck pooled with blood. I want to laugh, but my shattered jaw prevents me from even a smile. I briefly imagine my jaw looking like the puzzle pieces I used to play with as a lad.
I gaze up through single, blurred vision to the massive rotor blades spinning from the mast. Sky-piracy has crumbled in the passing years. I used to run The Golden Harp, this very ship, with dignity and honor. I love this ship. I love this ship more than any one of these heathens could love a woman or prize. Now these men, once my men, roam the skies murdering and raping traveling merchants instead of simply robbing them of their cargo and letting them sail away with their lives. We never harmed anyone who didn’t put up a fight, but these men, my men, they’re no longer men at all; they’re blood-thirsty savages.
They hunted me and I ran, up until a few days ago when they found me asleep in a small barn outside of Layintu. The family there was generous enough to give me food and shelter for a few days’ work. It sickens me that these bastards torched the place after hauling me away.
I traveled the world on this air-ship without regret or consequence, but the life of a sky-pirate now sickens me.
One cool evening, nearly two years ago when we had docked at Myles Harbor, I took the radiant, green gem. No one had suspected a thing; I was still their captain at that point, and like a fool, I never thought they’d find me.
After I traveled three-hundred miles to Life—hitching rides on merchant ships and offering work as a deckhand for transport—I never spoke a word to her when I arrived, slipping the gem into her palm and disappearing into the night before she could object. It was the most intimate moment we’d ever shared—aside from the blueberry kiss.
“Groad, help this traitor to the plank,” says Bestial.
Groad wraps his giant hand around my throat and lifts me several feet off the deck. Light-headed, my sight leaves me until I find myself creaking on the base of a long, wooden slab.
I teeter on the edge of the plank. My eye only remains in the socket because of the swollen shut eyelid; my ribs are shattered and it burns when I inhale; my right shoulder is separated or broken, I’m not sure; but my pride remains untouched. I examine the islands in the distance much like a telescope. If I can stall a few more minutes, I’ll have a chance to land in water, not the daggered mountains of Olayth. The fall won’t kill me, but the current surely will if I’m unable to swim. There’s an outpost of crazed men and women, expelled from the main port of Talismount just south of Olayth. Surely they know of safe passage back to the capital—if they don’t eat me first, if I even survive the fall.
“I’ll tell you where it is,” says I, turning toward my crew. They’ll always be my crew, even if they mean to kill me, even if I mean to kill them. A captain knows when to turn his crew to the sword. There comes a time—not always, but occasionally—when a crew hungers for more than riches. That’s when a captain must know his crew are no longer his comrades but his adversaries.
“Aye?” says Captain Bestial. His skeletal frame looks as if the violent winds will simply blow him away like scattering sand. Through gritted golden teeth, he continues, “Where’s the gem?”
I think of Life, the girl—now woman—I’ve loved for many years. That gem was her passage to a life she’s worthy of living. Even if she doesn’t love me like I love her, she and her two children will never have to worry about food or clothing again. I’d raise those two kids like my own; I’d love them unconditionally—but it can never be. Most find it foolish that I love the memory of a girl—but most never spent every waking moment with someone for fifteen years. Life was there every morning and every evening. Some of the local-folk often mistook us for siblings because we were always side-by-side. Praise be to my father for working so hard—if it wasn’t for his long hours at the mill, I’d have never been given the chance to spend every breath with her.
A woman’s love can grow for a man, but I chose a life in the wind over a life with her.
She doesn’t look at me as a man anymore—just a pirate. Bestial will never find her, and if it means I must take her location down below and swallow a gallon of ocean, I’ll die with a smile on my face.
“I hid it in your mother’s arse,” says I. “Put her back in the ground and pissed on the mound of dirt when I was done.”
Capital Bestial pulls free his scimitar and charges forward. I consider letting his steel relieve my agony, but if there’s a chance I can somehow live and watch her grow old—even crippled and from a distance—it’s worth it.
I step backward off the edge of the plank, heels dragging me into the consuming wind.
I plunge at a great speed, arms drifting wildly above my head. This is all for her. I try to glance down, but the wind stings my good eye, and it wells with tears. Her face appears in my mind. Whether I land on soil or water, I know she—
“Doctress Adimain… he’s awake.”
Although I know who, I still refuse to believe it. For six years he’s laid in that bed without any movement. When they gave up on him, I was the one who kept him fed, hydrated, cleaned, and presentable in case this day ever came—now the day is here and I can’t face him—
“—Doctress,” repeats the nurse.
“I heard you, Laurel. Surely you don’t mean patient—”
“We had to restrain him. It seems the closing moments before he went into the coma were… violent.”
“I’ll be there in a moment,” says I.
I calmly collect my thoughts, then rise from my cot in the pitch black call-room. Although my home is only a half-mile away, it’s standard protocol for doctors and doctresses to stay at the hospital when on duty for three days. I miss tucking in my children—even if they’re too old to like it—especially on those nights I’ve tossed and turned on the cot that makes my back ache, but it’s only three nights a week. The remaining four days are spent at home with them and my sister, Eveleigh. We moved here, the twins just toddlers, eight years ago. Our mother passed away before I was pregnant, so there was nothing holding us to that small town. When we arrived, I took up studies for nursing, which led to becoming a doctress; Eveleigh became a teacher at the only school in town. She watches my children for me when I have to stay at Monstone Ward, a hospital for those who can’t afford the well-keeping from Geyser Institution just ten miles south. We here at Monstone get the drunks, stabbed, shot, and sickly poor, or in this case… comatose.
I light a candle, and then enter the hallway that leads to the main floor. Short of breath and lightheaded, I ascend the stairs to the floor where this patient has rested for much longer than anyone expected. I’ve waited a long time for this moment, finally to hear his voice, but now I only want to run out the front entrance. I knew this day was coming. For the past several weeks he’d squeezed my finger when I asked him to. The first time he squeezed it, I ran into the hallway and vomited.
Three months into his occupancy, the chief medical staff voted to bury him. I refused, and all his care is now docked from my pay. Why do I do it? At first, I had no clue. It wasn’t until three years ago that I realized I had never fallen out of love with him.
My shoes click against the stone floor, and I brace myself for an impact I can’t predict. Will he remember the voice that read to him nearly every night, the touch that washed his body, and the lips that met his—if only that one time? Will he know who I am? Examinations claim that the comatose often can hear, but medical theory and distant hypotheses mean little to me. I’ve come to learn two things in this field: assumption leads to death, and reaction lengthens life.
His door is shut, and there’s not a sound from the other side, where an entire world awaited me.
“Patient Doe,” says I from behind the wooden door. “This is Doctress Adimain. I’m going to enter.”
Not a peep from him, but a nurse beckons me.
I slowly creak open the door and see his tall, lanky frame shackled to the bed by leather straps around his wrists and ankles. Eyes glazed, breath heavy, he doesn’t try to move.
I glance to the two nurses in attendance and nod for them to leave. When the door shuts behind me, I stride to his bed and rest my hand on his chest. He flinches, which in return causes me to pull back. He twists his eyes to meet mine, and I see nothing behind them.
“Charles, do you know who I am?” says I, trembling.
“Charles?” says he.
“Your name is Charles Foster, but everyone here will call you patient Doe.”
“Where am I?” says he.
When he first came to Monstone Ward, his face was swollen badly from a broken orbital bone. We were able to repair his eye, doubting he’d ever see out of it again, and his fingers and shoulder had to be reset. I’d forgotten over all this time that he’d also been missing his two front teeth. About a year ago I’d snuck a dentist in here after hours and had him take a graph of Charles’ gums. If he ever awoke, I wanted him to be able to wear false teeth. He always had such a pretty smile.
“You’re at Monstone Ward, in Dochness. Do you know where that is?”
“No.” He tries to raise his torso, but the restraints keep him flat.
“Dochness is the capital of Volsire.”
“How long have I been asleep?” says he.
“You’ve been comatose for six years,” says I. “Would you like me to loosen your restraints?”
Again, his gaze flicks to me, but I can tell he has no idea who I am. From what I’ve studied, those who awaken from a coma often have blurred vision.
“Please, Ma’am,” says he. “who are you?”
“My name is Life—Life Adimain, and I’ve been taking care of you these past six years.”
“And now what?” says Eveleigh. “Just because he’s awoken, you think you can make up for lost time?”
“Be quiet,” says I, peeking toward the two closed doors on the far side of the living room. “You’re going to wake them!”
“He chose a life of crime over you before; surely he’ll do it again. Do you think he’ll magically remember the times you spent together as children? You said yourself—he only murmurs of the sky.”
“I don’t know what to expect, Eveleigh, but because of him, you and I have what we have. That gem he gave me paid for all of this.”
“No. You cashed in that gem and donated most of the money to the mill. That gem paid for Thomas and Maggie’s schooling and your doctress degree,” says Eveleigh.
“And your teaching certificate. I didn’t hear any objections when we used the money to pay for that. I only kept enough gold for the opportunity to get my children a proper education, and the gift of knowledge for you and I to help others.”
“And you feel like you owe him something now?” Eveleigh stood from the far stool near the table, flipping curly, red hair from her shoulders. “It’s been two weeks since he’s awoken, yet you go see him even when you’re not on duty.”
“Mind your own business,” says I, tears welling. “I can’t help that I love the bastard. I did once before and swore to never love again. Do you think I could see the future—that he’d somehow come to this hospital?”
Eveleigh pauses, considering her next choice of words. She had always feared the temper of her little sister, and I often used it to my advantage. “What if he walks away again?”
“Then so be it,” says I. “But I must know if his memory—the memory of he and I—will come back to him. Fate brought him here, and I guarantee he was in that coma because of the gem he gave to me.”
“That was his choice.” Eveleigh stomps her foot. “He holds no claim over you or this family. Just because their father could never amount to the man you claimed Charles could be, doesn’t mean you were right. He’s a goddamn pirate!”
“WAS,” spill the words from my lips, “was a pirate.”
“He’s going to break your heart again, sister, and I can’t see you like that.”
“I have to know,” says I. “I have to know if his memory will come back to him—if he still chooses to be that man he was long before he ran off and joined a crew—I must know.”
Eveleigh snatches her cloak from the table chair. “Not tonight,” says she. “I’m going out. You stay here for once, and let the piece of shit gaze aimlessly from his bed.”
“He no longer gazes,” says I. “He’s coherent now. He remembers more each day.”
“About that goddamn ship. Not about you.”
Eveleigh opens the door, and a brisk wind whips across my face. “It’s too chilled tonight for just a cloak.”
“I’ll make due,” says she, closing the door behind her.
I stride to the kitchen and pour a glass of blue wine. I haven’t drank in years—since he first came to Monstone Ward—but the sweet taste of blueberry on my lips reminds me of the fields of Loftloss. It’s foolish to have hope—I know this—but I loved Charles back then, I loved him after he left me for riches, I loved him when he came to me and put that gem in my palm, and I love him now. How did he know I was a struggling mother of two? Did he keep eyes on me even from the sky? He’s returned to my life for a reason, and I will not waste it.
I light a lantern and sit by the window, journal on my lap and glass in hand. Skimming through the first few pages, I recall the notes I’d taken of a comatose patient during my residency. He eventually awoke, but had no amnesia like Charles. I browse over my notes of the past week:
Day Three: He’s quite hungry and able to keep his food down. He refers to me as nurse, although I’ve told him several times I’m a doctress. I try to get him to walk from his bed to the window, but his legs are dead to him. He isn’t fond of the black eyepatch worn to cover his blind eye but continues to wear it when looking outside.
Day Four: He remembers my name from the days prior; Life Adimain, he says with a roll of his tongue like I’m some foreign minister. He asks me to come read to him before bed hours and I decline.
Day Five: He’s able to take a single step before collapsing. Charles recollects being in the air, on a ship—possibly a merchant vessel as it’s raided. He says he thinks no one was harmed, but still is appalled that someone would steal from a merchant. He has no clue that he was the pirate.
Day Six: Charles takes three steps, and then needs to sit. He recalls a man named Bestial and says he’s a prick, but doesn’t know why. He asks me if a “Groad” or any of his other men are at the hospital. I say no. That he asks me to read to him. He chooses a novel titled A Life in the Sky, and I say I’ll try and obtain it for him from the local library. Bringing back any memory of his days as a sky-pirate could help him remember me, and perhaps what he once felt for me.
Day Seven: He sleeps most of the day. When I bathe him, he remains a gentleman as always, but attempts to scrub himself, poorly. He doesn’t ask about the book. I gift him the false teeth I had molded for him, and he accepts then thanks me. He tells me that he wishes he knew someone with my kindness before he was broken—maybe he wouldn’t be in the pain he’s in now. I leave the room crying.
Day Eight: His hands grow strong and less clumsy. He’s able to feed himself with his fingers, but not a fork or spoon. Charles grows angry when he can’t do simple tasks and claims to be a “goddamn baby.”
Day Nine: The local library is not able to provide the book he requested. I offer to read him something else, and he says he trusts me to pick a good book. He likes to hear gossip from Monstone Ward, too.
Day Ten: He walks up and down the hallway with my help and feels good about doing so. He’s able to read most words. Writing is a task since his hands are still clumsy, but his vocabulary has remarkably returned to near perfection. Charles asks me what put him into his six-year coma and how he came about being admitted to Monstone Ward, but I play ignorant. The initial report is that he washed ashore badly broken, and a fisherman called the town guards to come claim the body. They had nearly killed and buried him due to little faith he’d return to normal frame.
Day Eleven: He asks me if he will ever see out of his left eye again. I say no and he cries. “Why would someone do this to me?” he asks, but I have no answer. I read him two chapters from the novel Lanegan Way, and he falls asleep in a fetal position staring out the window into night.
I close the journal and realize I’ve emptied my glass. Why I’m doing this to myself when I could simply tell him of our past? Our past means nothing without the memory of his emotions. He needs to recall everything he’s done—including the bad—and decide if he’s ready to settle down with me. I can’t push him, or tell him of how we used to share a bed, innocently, when his father worked late, or that I loved him even in the moment he left me. He needs to realize my pain to remember my love.
A few more days walking down the hall, and he should have the energy to go outside. I plan on taking him to a glade not far from here that resembles Loftloss. Maybe his memory will start to return then.
Days pass, and his strength, coordination, and sight return to an average state. I make Charles a special breakfast. His father used to take a mixture of grape jelly and butter, whip it into a big pink glob, and dip biscuits in it. Charles ate it every morning, but I only had the luxury of enjoying the butter-jelly once Charles was old enough to make it for us both. He’s shy eating in front of me, possibly still getting used to his false front teeth, so I pretend to write a medical supply list.
“This is good,” says he, “best thing I’ve tasted in years.” Charles tries not to smile, but I can’t help but smirk. His humor returns, even if his memory doesn’t.
“Does it remind you of anything?” says I.
He thinks for a bit, then shakes his head no as if there’s a pile of dry leaves in his brain, but there’s no flint to light it.
I try to keep track of time as he gazes through one eye at the mercantile and imperial sky-ships floating with the clouds beneath the glow of the sun. Sometimes the harbor becomes backed up blocks and the sky-ships hang several hundred feet for close to an hour—massive, stupid flying block of wood I say. I’ve always hated sky-ships, even before Charles left in one. When we moved to Dochness, I refused to go by sky-ship, and it took an extra three weeks to get here by sea.
It’s hard to assume he didn’t know how much I loved him, even so young, and it’s selfish to pretend he should have known though I didn’t tell him. Boys don’t think like girls. He was intent on bringing me riches, and I hadn’t a clue if that was love or friendship. Now that I think about it, maybe girls don’t think like boys—
But, how could I hold on to a man who wouldn’t hold on to me?
He looks healthier in the sunlight, possibly more content with his situation. Studies show once a piece of memory comes back, more may follow, or even flood, and the patient may calm. I never realized how handsome Charles had grown to be. It had been close to eight years since I’d seen him. Raising two babies alone at twenty-three taught me a lot about myself. They were only two months old when their father grew jealous of the attention I gave them and took off—I haven’t seen him since. Maggie and Thomas were two years old when Charles dropped that gem in my hand and disappeared. I sold it immediately and moved far away to better our lives. Charles had left me abruptly, again, and I wanted to go where he’d never be able to find me. Now, my children will never have to depend on anyone else, like I unwillingly depended on Charles’ treasure. I was spiteful when I sold it, but never felt so much relief when we were able to move away with the opportunity he’d provided and simply started our lives over. Now they’re both ten, and much more rambunctious than I at their age.
“What’s this place called?” says he, admiring the tall field of waving orange grass. I’m happy to see he finally broke his wonderment of the sky-ships. “It’s lovely.”
“This is Maiden’s Glade. I come here sometimes to think,” says I. “I thought it would be nice to get some fresh air. Are you cold?”
“No,” says he, rolling his fingers, then pulling his cloak tight around his neck.
“Any more memories return?” says I.
He looks at me with one eye—a big, beautiful, blue iris—and slowly exhales. “I had a dream of my love,” says he.
My stomach knots.
“We called her The Golden Harp, but I named her something else. I don’t remember, though.”
“A harp? You loved a harp?” asks I, sorrowfully.
He smiles for the first time. His fake front teeth look as real as any. “No. It was my ship,” says he. “Every sky-lord loves his ship like a woman. I just can’t remember what I named her.”
If he named the ship after me, then there is still hope. Normally I’d be disgusted by such lunacy—a ship used for thievery and murder named Life—but I don’t care. I want him to stand up and scream my name.
“It’ll come back to you,” says I. “Your memory returns more each day.”
“Life,” says he, and my heart skips a beat. The ship’s name had come to him after all.
“That’s my name,” says I. I can see my name and the name of his ship connecting in his head.
“No, I know that. I haven’t forgotten anything learned since I awoke. I was just saying your name because I wanted to thank you for everything you’ve done for me the past six years. No matter what happens to me, I’ll always remember the name of the kindest woman in the world.”
His words are a sweet dagger into my heart. Tears of disappointment well in my eyes, and I pull out a cloth handkerchief. “Thank you, Charles,” says I.
“Why are you crying?” asks he. “I hope I’ve not offended you with my praise. I just appreciate it—taking time away from your family for me—your husband’s a generous man to allow you to help me.”
I smile. “The wind wets my eyes. No worries, Charles. I have an allergy to the sungrass.”
“We can go back inside.” He fumbles with his cloak and tries to wrap it around my shoulders. He sees that I’m shivering, but has no idea it’s because I’m close to a complete collapse. Charles thinks I’m cold; he remembers how to read others—even if he doesn’t realize it.
“No, this is lovely,” says I. “And don’t worry about my husband. I’ve never had one.”
“I… I’m sorry for assuming.” Charles leans back on both hands against the blanket—just like the picnics we’d had so many times before.
“Don’t be,” says I. “I never loved the man who fathered them, but I’m grateful for him.”
“I don’t understand.”
“If it weren’t for him, I’d not have Thomas and Maggie,” says I, “and most likely wouldn’t be here in Dochness.”
“Where would you be?” asks he. “Where are you from?”
“Far from here.”
“Oh,” says he. “I’m glad you have someone in your life to make you feel that way. I can’t remember if I’m a father, or a husband, or a King. I don’t know if I’ve ever loved a woman or child. All I remember is spending a great deal of time on one of those ships.” He points to the sky. “Maybe I was a merchant.”
“There’s no shame in that,” says I, regretting the entire afternoon. “There are far worse things to be than a merchant.”
Several weeks later I approach Charles’ room early one morning with butter-jelly and warm biscuits. He’s speaking to someone, and I stay in the hallway to listen.
“It’s a real shame this happened to you, Sir. Any time you’re ready to get back into the sky, I’d be happy to take you anywhere you want to go,” says a deep, familiar voice. “You don’t remember, but you saved my life many years ago—I’ll never forget it.”
“I wish I did remember,” says Charles. “You say your ship was taken by pirates?”
“Aye,” says the stranger. “Your ship pulled up, and you had words with their captain. They left with no objection.”
“And you’re a mail carrier?” asks Charles. I realize it’s Duke Canniston, the postman who delivers mail from across the sea. I only see him every few months.
“Aye. You were just a young man then, but I never forgot your face. My crew and I owe you our lives.”
“What was I?” says Charles. “A merchant? A merchant that intimidated pirates?”
Before I can break the conversation, I hear Duke trip over his words. “No… you were a pirate.”
I halt my intended entrance and listen. “A pirate,” says Charles. “A sky-pirate?”
Duke’s reluctance is felt through the walls. “Yes. Don’t know much more than that. I don’t even remember your name, Sir. Just that you were the captain and others feared you enough to drop all my cargo and leave without objection.”
“Get out,” says Charles.
Charles’ seething tongue startles me, but I know he needs to hear this.
Duke Canniston stomps from the room without a word, and I turn my back to him so he doesn’t see my face. He’s always trying to court me, and that’s the last thing I need right now.
By the time I find the nerve to enter his room, the biscuits are cooled.
“Good morning, Charles. How was your night?” says I.
He doesn’t respond. Charles sits on his bed with his knees tucked to his chin, arms wrapped around his shins. He’d taken his black eyepatch and thrown it across the room, possibly at Duke.
“I’m never wearing that again,” says he.
“But Charles, your eye is too sensitive to sunlight.”
“I don’t care. May I be left alone today, Doctress?”
He speaks to me as if the past few weeks have been nothing. I’m a stranger, and he’s a monster—I can sense it in his voice. The memories bottled so deeply in a part of his mind that he might never be able to open—they haunted him—and now he’s learned of his past as a pirate. Although I know this can only lead to more memory, I’m still sad for him.
“As you wish.” I leave the plate of butter-jelly and biscuits on the foot of his bed and exit his room.
A bit shaken up, I return home. It was one of my days off, but I’ve gotten so used to spending time with Charles when the children were at school or in bed, I hadn’t realized all I’ve ignored around my own home. After sweeping the floor, folding Maggie and Thomas’ clothing, and washing the dishes left from breakfast—which was host to my children’s new favorite meal—I collapse in my bed, wondering what Charles is doing.
I fall asleep and dream that he leaves me.
Later that evening I sip my blue wine and check over Thomas’ homework—he struggles with long division—and there’s a knock at the door. Eveleigh answers as I continue on with Thomas about division tables.
“Doctress,” says a voice from the door. It’s Thane Grigoric, the watchman who works evenings in our area of the town. Broad shouldered, he turns sideways to enter my home, hand resting firmly on the haft of his sword, crossbow latched to his back. I’d fancied Thane for a time—short peach-colored hair blended with his beard, a prominent jaw, and muscles that had muscles of their own—but there was no room for men in my life… so I once thought.
“Sorry to bother you this late, Doctress,” says he.
“It’s Life,” says I. “You know there’s no need for titles when I’m not on duty, Watchman. What’s the problem?”
“I was told to only speak to you, privately, regarding a situation at Monstone Ward. Would you please come with me?”
“Is everything alright?” says Thomas from the table. I love how the sunset always turns his hair auburn from blonde. It makes him look less of his father and more of me.
“Everything is fine, young man.”
“Eveleigh, would you put them to bed?” says I. “I’ll be back shortly.”
Eveleigh nods, and I exit to the porch with Thane. The near-nightfall air makes my lungs heavy with chill, and I cross my arms.
“Doctor Stahl sent me. A… Patient Doe won’t eat, refuses to take any medication, and has been restrained. He only says your name.”
When I burst into Charles’ room, two watchmen monitor him as he tries to rip his limbs free from leather restraints; his bare ankles and wrists are smeared with blood.
“I’m here,” says I, careful not to expose my knowledge of his name.
He stops struggling, and drops his head to his sweat-stained pillow. “Life,” says he. “I remember so much. After this morning, when I acted like a fool, I fell asleep and awoke with memories—”
I try to swallow, but my throat is too dry. “Wait outside, please,” says I to the watchmen. They both nod and take their leave, keeping the door open behind them for my own safety. “What do you remember?”
I unfasten his restraints and then wet a washcloth from the sink, carefully washing his raw wrists and ankles. Thankfully, he only has minor cuts. Once he’s free, he sits up in his bed and hides his long face in his hands.
“Horrible things,” says he. Hope leaves me, once again. He still doesn’t remember me—unless he remembers leaving me. “All these horrible things. I flew for many years as a sky-captain. We raided merchants, fought battles with all who opposed, and killed sky-guardians who tried to bring us to justice. These horrible deeds, yet I only feel sorrow for what I’d done to my own crew. I stole from them—something of great value.”
“What was it?” says I. “Surely there’s no shame in stealing an already stolen item.”
“I don’t remember,” says he. “All I know is I took it to some town. I hid for days, weeks, maybe years after that until they found me. They beat me to hell and back. I think that’s why I’m in here.”
I rest my hand on the back of his neck; Charles doesn’t flinch at my warm touch. “All this shame and sorrow—I’m surely where I deserve to be. We stole and killed together, yet I only feel regret because I stole from them… men considered to be family by oath. Why would I feel such things?”
“It’s alright, Charles,” says I. “It’s not what we’ve done with our lives, but what we’ve yet accomplished. You have a chance to start over, away from all of that, and write your wrongs into songs of joy.”
“I’m broken,” murmurs he.
I take his face in mine. His white-glossed eye never bothered me. In this moment it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen—far more radiant than the gem he’d given me so many years ago that brought us back together. In time, he’d remember what he stole, whom he gave it to, and why he did it—and we’d be able to start our lives over together.
I press my lips to his, salty tears moistening my mouth, and he doesn’t restrain. “Blueberries,” says he. “You taste like blueberries; I remember blueberries.” I release our kiss, nearly twenty years held, and turn to shut the door. He grabs my wrist, startling me and tugs me back to him. I lift my leg behind me and close the door with the tips of my toes. We kiss again, and again, and again. Our hands glide over each other’s bodies. He pulls my shawl over my head and rubs his hands up my back; it gives me chills. I unbutton his shirt, no care of what’s heard on the other side of the door, and run my fingertips along his abdomen. He’s so scarred, yet smooth—like a stone shaped over hundreds of years from the oceanic tide. It’s beautiful.
His single blue eye meets my gaze, and he smiles as if asking for permission. I place his hands on my hips and continue kissing him. Charles gently eases down my skirt and slides a palm between my legs. His touch is warm as I pulse in his hand. His memory is clouded, so I help direct his fingers in the right places and gently inhale his breath into mine. It feels so right—so natural as if all these years of torture were meant to lead to this moment. Between gasps of passion, I pull his britches down and climb onto the bed. He enters my life for a fourth time.
In the passing days, Charles and I keep our hands to ourselves during the hours when I’m on duty. We both know it was no mistake and continue to make love each night after the watchmen leave Monstone Ward for the evening. Even when I’m home, I dream of his touch. I’d waited so long to feel his lips on mine again, and I never wanted them to leave. Sometimes in the middle of the night, I sneak out and check on him as he sleeps, just to make sure he hasn’t left me again. More memories return—detailed memories of his days as Captain Charles Foster—and he often speaks of blueberries. He has no interest in eating them, only tasting them on my lips. The panel of elder doctors and doctresses grow restless with his stay and claim he’ll soon be able to leave Monstone Ward and continue his life elsewhere. I know I’ll have to be the one who has the discussion with him on his future plans, but I’m not nervous. He’ll stay in Dochness. Not with me at first—I could never just throw a man into my children’s lives—but he’ll remain close. I’m confident he is capable of physical labor to a certain degree, and there’s plenty of opportunity in Dochness. Charles is retaining information with no memory loss, and I’m content with the man his is now, even if he doesn’t remember what we once were. I hope he feels the same way. What we are now is much more than childhood love.
Two months come and go, and it’s time for his release from the hospital. I’m anxious of the world around me that’s hopefully about to change for the better. I arise from another sleepless night, and vomit just like the previous few mornings—a familiar feeling—surely my nerves getting the best of me. We haven’t discussed his plans, but I will ask him to stay in Dochness. Willand Mayforth, a local carpenter and close friend of Eveleigh has offered to take him as an apprentice if Charles will have it. It’s a good start, a fresh start. I bathe and dress myself, fighting to urge to vomit again. I charge forward to Monstone Ward with a sense of eagerness, not only for Charles, but for myself.
When I arrive to his room, stomach queasy, his bed is empty. There’s a note on his bed. Nausea drops me to my knees, and I read it.
I can never thank you enough for all you’ve done for me. You used your god-given kindness to keep me alive and fix me one piece at a time. In this moment, these past few months, possibly the past six years—I’d never been happier to have someone at my side. It sickens me to leave you, but I must. I love you, but there’s someone else, and I love her, too. I now know that I made the mistake of leaving her years ago, and I must find her. I’ve loved her from the moment I laid eyes on her as a child. I don’t remember this, but feel it. Just like you’ve taught me, I have to trust my heart. I don’t remember a thing about her, but what you and I shared sparked her presence inside of me. Her name, face, and location are a blur, but I will find her. I can’t stay here with you when I know there’s someone else out there who truly holds my heart. It’s not fair to you.
The limp in my left leg is unnoticeable, in my opinion anyway. I refuse to leave Life wearing the clothing she’d purchased for me to wear on our evening strolls, so I picked the lock to the tailor’s shop—I guess skill remains where memory doesn’t—and dressed in a suit of black.
The sun’s not yet risen, but I’m already through the trader’s town that spills halfway to Monstone Ward from the sky-harbor of Dochness. I’m unsure if I’ve ever felt pain like I feel now—a ball of twisted agony in the pit of my gut—but I know I must go find her. I can never repay Life for all she’s done for me, but like a coward, I must flee. I fear that if I speak to her face-to-face, she’ll convince me to stay, and I owe it to this other woman—this other piece to my heart—to find her and make up for the years I’d spent away from her. When Life would kiss me after drinking her blue wine, I vaguely remembered a glade. One night after Life had returned to her home, I’d broken into the library and skimmed one of the geography books. There’s only three places in this country where blueberries grow, and they’re all southern regions. Surely I can find my past if I can find this glade.
It only takes a moment before I recognize a pirate ship. The men all pretend to be merchants, but I can tell by the way the wood-worms have chewed their way through the bowsprit that this vessel is not under the regulations of the trade commission.
“May I speak to your captain,” says I to a lumbering fellow unloading sacks of grain.
“We have no captain,” says he, playing dumb. It’s not uncommon for merchants to purchase goods from pirates as long as their flags are unseen.
“Well may I speak to your merchant lord?” says I.
“Aye,” says he. “You’re talkin’ to ‘em.”
“My name is Charles Foster. I previously worked on a ship like this, and was wondering—”
“You ain’t never worked on a ship like this,” says he.
“Nonetheless, I was wondering if you could use a deckhand. I ask no payment. Just three meals a day, and passage to Crooked Hill, Delias, or Windsprint. Will you be flying by any of those towns on your voyage?” says I.
The captain looks me over. “You’re scrawny. You better not eat much,” says he.
“Mostly broth and bread—and you’ll have the cleanest deck in the clouds.”
The captain, still pretending to be a merchant lord, unloads the last sack of grain and accepts a leather sack from one of the local merchants. When the merchant takes his leave, the captain motions me aboard.
“Crooked Hill, Delias, or Windsprint?” says he. “I think we might find our way to one of those places soon enough. Welcome aboard.”
The mammoth rotors begin to spin, and I hold on to the railing so I’m not swept overboard. I try my damnedest not to look in the direction of Monstone Ward. Tears fill my eyes, and the wind knocks them down my cheeks. I want to stay, spend the rest of my days with Life, but I cannot. I’m a vile man who’s done vile deeds. A nurturing soul like that deserves a man of accord, not a former scoundrel of the skies.
With my one good eye, I glance down toward the docks as the ship floats higher and higher. The harbor shrinks, and a faint memory of flying overwhelms me. Just before I can pry my eyes away from Dochness, I see Life standing at the docks staring up at me, her golden hair whipping in the wind. The last thing I want is for her to see me leave on a vessel, especially a pirate ship, but it’s an insult to pretend I don’t see her—after all she’s done, that wonderful woman.
I peer down to her, placing my left hand over my heart, right hand to my lips, and blow her one last kiss before I disappear into the clouds.