By: Jenna Dickson
I loved him. Or so I thought I did. Love is a capricious thing and even after all of these years…how can you even begin to define? Regardless of my inner debates and struggles about love and the like - here I was. Here, with him. I watched his dark, gentle hands work quickly and surely as he knotted the line of material for the plane, but looked away before he could notice my stare. He had come back into my life so suddenly, come back when I had given up all thought of ever seeing him again. And yet… When I left him, I tried to tell myself it was for my own good. For his own good.
I often grow fickle in my relationships, picking apart at everything that I hold dear with questions and doubts. Consumed by my energy, my fire, I would strive to make something of my life and rejoice in my independence. And yet, the days wore on until I would find every hour of my waking consumed by thoughts of him. Memories that would leave my heart aching after something that I could not name and some yearning that I was not sure I could ever satisfy. What did I yearn for?
I remembered the deep cold as the night sky pressed in around my ears, not in a threatening way, but more of a profound stillness. A peace for the soul. The darkness was so cold that even my puffing breath didn’t have a chance to survive as it left my body and joined the frozen particles of night sky around us. We would lie in the snow, bundled well against the wind, staring up at the vast expanse of coldly burning stars. The sheer expanse of it was breathtaking and capable of holding me in rapture for hours. And he, of all wonders, seemed to understand. The world had collapsed around us, but we were still together and the sky might be dark and cold, but it was a cold that reminded us that we were alive.
We would spend hours in the snow talking about his magic and how the land would protect us. Impervious to the winter chill himself, we would head back towards the house only when the cold finally found its way into me. Even the way back was pleasant, for as we left the open, sweeping ice plains of star-bright snow and entered the stands of trees that sheltered his home, a new sort of wonder would overtake us. The path to the house was well travelled and we need not watch where we walked, but instead could look through the friendly darkness for signs of fox or owl - sometimes even the briefest flash of a wolf. A deep silence emanated from the snowy branches and our passing through the trees was as insignificant to them as the wind passing through their mighty branches.
The house would be warm, cozy, by the time we returned to be greeted by his great wolf-like dog. There we would retire and take off some of our clothing layers and perhaps drink something warm as we talked about the day and laughed together at the antics of the young dog who always seemed to be smiling in his evident joy of life. It was all so simple, so pure. In the early morning, when the sun was not yet up and the sky outside was still a comforting and sleepy gray, I would lay in bed beside him and marvel at how content I was.
So soon I let that slip away. Now all was complicated.
I left the simple world of snow and stillness to go back to my home farther south, for I had responsibilities of my own to keep. I left the magic of him and his ancestral land to come back to a broken world that seemed shallow and discontented. Sometimes in the early morning, I would rise before the sun even started to tinge the horizon with color. In that brief moment, I would stop to stare at the fading stars in the sky and once again wonder at their vast expanse. The air was still that early in the morning, but sometimes a faint breeze would whoosh past me as if urging me to remember and I would smile at the memory of what I had lost.
Sometimes I would still think of Jacob, with his dark hair and ready smile, and know that I missed him. But what did I miss more? Him or the peace and contentedness I received from those icy lands – or had it been a combination of both? For too long, I tried not to dwell on these thoughts. For too long I tried to push it all out of my mind. And then one day it all came crashing back to me.
We kept in touch at first, but inevitably drifted further apart with each sporadic letter. The lands were not as settled as some tried to make you believe and messages were paid for dearly. I learned that he moved even farther south than I had to a land that did not ever see the snow, only endless days of dry heat and brown land. I tried not to think of what that environment would do to his spirit and the magic that was a part of him. Already my return home found me ill suited to the constant sun and warmth. People were made to live in the environment that was good for their souls and mine took no joy in the steady heat or blazing sunlight on blue skies. I longed for the stillness of mind the heady winds and snow-laden branches brought me.
I tried to immerse myself in my work. Here is where I was needed. With the great cities mere shadows of what they once were and the people of the world scattered and unsure after the breaking, I had no choice but to leave our brief time together to return home. Jacob had grown up in the world of snow and ice, but I had not. I was born in a world full of hustle and bustle where the constant changing of seasons played a melodic undertone to the endless chatter and thrum of the people in the city.
All lines of communication between cities, great and small, were now severed. The breaking started slowly, hardly noticeable really, just a few power outages here and there or cell towers going dull. When I returned home, no one expected the slow continuation of a true collapse. Bereft of the technologies that used to keep us together, folk drifted apart and cities grew dark. Whole towns and villages were abandoned completely, and now, where once the cities of mankind glowed bright enough to rival the stars in the night sky, there was only muted light. I was alone in a city full of strangers.
The spaces between civilizations grew thick and wild. Long forgotten beasts descended on the land and emerged from the shadows once they no longer feared the all-consuming growth that had been human. Many people died during these times of change. Some grew despairing and took their own lives while others refused to believe the truth of what the world had become and stubbornly stayed in their homes as the encroaching wildness slowly took over the lands. Many tried to renew the forms of technology we once held so dearly, but the earth had no more energy left to give to us. Like a woman dying of starvation, she suddenly gave herself up to the fate we created and left us to fend for ourselves.
It took time, but we adapted and learned how to provide for those that remained. The great outline of the city still towered against the sky and even if its face did not light up at night like it used to, it was still a place to call home. I missed him though. I missed how we were together – the simple recognition of two souls at harmony in the present and reveling in the wild and solitude of the icy northern land. The flight network was the first to ravel apart, then the train routes started to muddle and halt, and finally the cars ran out of any sort of fuel and the final pieces of what tied the world together continued unraveling. It was if we had drained the world dry and now she refused to yield even the barest form of help. My return to my home city found me trapped and isolated along with the others as the world around us disappeared.
Jacob always said that the magic of his lands would protect the people there from the unraveling and I yearned to leave the desperate shell of the city I once called home and return to the feeling of that place. Every now and then, someone would get it into their head to travel to another city, but the world was a darker, wilder place and news of other cities was sporadic and unreliable. These people never returned. I like to think they reached another city somewhere out in that darkness and lived there happily ever after, but dared not speak these hopes aloud, for everyone knew of what their true fates had surely become.
And then one day, someone came in from the vast dark wilderness and wandered into our city. Word spread quickly long before I could see the man for myself. When I finally did, I could not believe my eyes for there in the restaurant, sitting amongst a throng of curious people, was Jacob. He seemed tired and sore, with a few visible bruises and cuts on his face and hands, but he was whole and he was real. Suddenly, seeing him alive after all these years was too much for me – I dared not approach him. After all, I had left him, I didn’t deserve to yearn for what we once had together any longer.
He found me just as I was walking back down the deserted street. My heart nearly stopped in my chest when I caught sight of him. “I missed you,” he said simply, “There was much we left unsaid.” I nodded mutely, unsure of what to say and having little control of my voice over the unnatural thumping of my heart. He folded me suddenly into his arms, speaking quietly above my head. “I go back to my homeland,” was all he said, so calmly, so confidently. I pulled back to look at him wonderingly. “The magic calls to me, I must return,” he said simply as he stared deeply into my eyes. I swallowed thickly on emotion. “How would we get back?” I finally asked. Jacob only smiled at me. No need for more words or lengthy explanations – we just were again.
In the days that followed, we busied ourselves with plans and gathered supplies. Two others travelled with him, also both natives of the great icy land that they so desperately wished to return to. They had stayed back amongst the trees to make camp as Jacob ventured into the city and were eagerly awaiting our return for the necessary supplies we brought with. The small plane they travelled so far with had crashed not but a few miles outside of my city and become damaged as it fell and tangled through the trees. I shuddered to think of the endless days of travel they endured on such a finicky mode of travel. Without fuel, they used their ancestral magic to maintain the winds under the plane as they flew, but an unlucky storm had been too much for them to handle. I did not dwell on whether it was fate or chance that brought him back to me.
Slowly, the repairs were made on the plane and I knew that I would fly with them when the time came to leave. For better or worse, life became simpler with Jacob around and I was infected by his desire to return to the peaceful shores of that icy wild land. There the world would not seem so close and ruined, not with the stars shining so unhindered all around you in a great expanse of curved sky, not with the natural magic of the lands watching over you.
Here, the forest constantly threatened to engulf the city and its inhabitants battled the teeming mass of undergrowth and lurking beasts desperately. They never learned to live in harmony with the land that was now threatening to take everything back. Far in the north, the land had always been wild, there was nothing for the wilderness to reclaim. The ancestral magic ensured inhabitants of the terrain lived in harmony with the natural world.
“Is there a town left?” I asked Jacob one day as we labored on mending a tattered wing of the small plane. He paused for a moment, working his hands over the material, muttering something under his breath. “I received word from my brother months ago,” he did not turn his eyes away from the material as he spoke to me, “I know he awaits me there. It is milder in the summer and he managed to build a small house and make stores for the winter. But of the town, I do not know.”
I nodded quietly to that, turning my attention to Will and Rebecca as they worked solemnly on the smashed steering gears and saw the determination in their faces to get back. Did it matter if there was a town awaiting us? We would have each other. Did not I dislike the constant hustle and bustle of so many people in the city? There was a deep determination in Jacob, a quiet will that I was drawn to. His deep dark eyes left his work to briefly glance at me and give an encouraging sort of smile and my heart soared. I would follow him.
“Once we get it into the air, we just need to follow the wind currents. It’s tricky, but it can get us to where we want to go. Once in the air, I can guide it from there,” Jacob was telling me reassuringly as the four of us surveyed the cramped and battered plane. I knew he spoke of his magic, that extraordinary and yet so simple power of nature that he seemed to command.
Guiding the plane slowly and carefully, we made our way out of the trees. “We need wind,” Will grunted as he braced his shoulder firmly against the metal and together we pushed the plane onto a deserted old cornfield hidden on the outskirts of the city. Broken and moldering remains of corn stalks littered the expanse of field abandoned in favor of ones closer to the inhabited part of the city. Jacob stood still and calculated: “We can try to run it again - it worked in the desert.” Will looked doubtfully over the field full of tripping stalks and permanent ruts in the half-dried dirt: “The air is heavier here, I fear that we lack the strength to lift this even with our combined magics. The repairs have made it more substantial.”
“We have to try,” Jacob only replied with a simple shrug of his shoulders.
That afternoon we made many attempts and all to no avail. The plane simply would not lift. “We need more wind,” Rebecca finally panted, “Our magic is not enough to lift it alone.” The three of them leaned against the plane tiredly and I paused to look around at the small crowd we had attracted. I closed my eyes briefly, feeling the oppressive weight of the thick air as it pressed down upon us and thought longingly of the cool breeze that whipped through the city streets.
“The ocean,” I realized suddenly, “There is always wind coming off the ocean, and not nearly so thick or heavy as this.” Glancing around again, Jacob nodded in agreement. We had hoped to not draw attention to ourselves by going further into the city, but we already managed to draw a crowd anyways, we might as well try another plan. The mass of people watched with looks of awe, bewilderment, and even anger. No one left the city anymore – who were we to try? Fear of Will, Rebecca, and Jacob’s power to control the wind whispered and thrummed amongst the onlookers.
As we guided the plane between ourselves and made our way further into the wide streets of the city we attracted a growing following. The buildings grew taller and created drafty wind tunnels as the air from the water came gusting down the streets. The tension among our small group started to grow as more and more people followed behind us, now and then calling and yelling, growing angry at our brash attempt to leave the city behind or pleading to join us. People became more bold as we caught the faint sight of the ocean in the distance. The jeers and catcalls increased and people started to make grabs at the plane and I suddenly felt the air around the wings and propeller start to thrum with magic as Jacob and the others called the wind.
Suddenly, the wheels were skimming the pavement as the plane gained height and wobbled in the air. Jacob was running beside me and shoving me into the cabin with the others as the plane became airborne and then we were lifting, lifting and gliding unsteadily over the crashing waves of the ocean below. Will was panting heavily beside me while Rebecca recovered more quickly and sprang up to monitor the repaired reinforcements on the left wing. Jacob was already in place to handle the simple controls of the plane and thrummed with power as he monitored the skies around us.
Looking once behind to see the vanishing skyline of the city and the small speck of the thwarted mob, I didn’t bother to sort through the mass of feelings that roiled up. I closed my eyes and focused on my breathing. When I finally dared myself to open my eyes, I gazed out over the water and amazement filled me. The distantly setting sun reflected gold and brilliant orange on the crests of the waves below in encouragement as Jacob, at the front of the plane, looked north towards home.
Ben paused for a breath and set his axe down on a nearby stump. At this rate, he had plenty of wood for the long winter, but some incessant urge kept him stacking more and more in case his brother returned from the south to join him. Hope. It had been many long months since his last message from Jacob - maybe even over a year by now. He did not think he was coming, and yet, he continued to store wood and other supplies in case he did. The wind suddenly blew a bit fiercer and he pulled his coat up higher. An omen? It was nice in the sun – the warm rays an agreeable counterpart to the chilly wind. Summer in the land of ice and snow.
Farther up the hillside his humble home overlooked the wide expanse of waiting ocean and the distant peaks held the ever-present hint of snow lurking on the horizon. He was alone except for the hope of his brother returning. There was nothing left of the town anymore. People had left just as swiftly as their long ago ancestors had once arrived to this land, but only after they scourged the country of those with magic like him. He was relieved that Jacob had departed for the southern cities long before the hatred erupted from the town and spread across their peaceful land.
Like his long line of ancestors before him, he had grown and adapted to this place by understanding and speaking to the elements. Unlike his long line of ancestors before him, he managed to survive. They would have come for him, the town settlers, he knew they were planning to end him, but then the world had started breaking. When fears of spending a winter without electricity, regular supplies, or reliable warmth became a real possibility, the settlers fled and left him alone. He did not mind so much. This was his home. The wind died down and the sun peeked out of the cloud cover to warm his face pleasantly as he gazed over the distant ocean and thought of his brother.
The sky around the plane was dark, ominous, and heavy. Not a star to be seen and the weight of the black sky above pressed down and shrouded the edges of my vision. Suddenly, lighting flashed and illuminated the three other people in the cabin as they desperately called upon the wind and rain to steady our plane. “We can land on the beach,” Rebecca was saying encouragingly as she tried to stabilize the wing.
Over the whine of the propeller, Will glanced despairingly at Jacob and shook his head. “We were so close,” I barely heard him say, “My strength is failing, the elements aren’t listening to me anymore.” Jacob grimaced and grabbed Will’s arm. “Keep fighting,” he ground out in a low yell, “We just have to make it close enough to swim.” Rebecca paled at Jacob’s words but nodded in determination and I tightened my grip on the controls while the others called upon every ounce of magic they possessed to keep the plane in the air for as long as they could.
Lightning flashed again in a deafening crack and abruptly I was tumbling through the air and watching our desperate bodies hurtle towards the unwelcoming waves below. The plane spun crazily as I was ejected and rushed at a slanting angle into the lashing waves to explode into chunks of steaming metal and floating debris. The water was pitch black and nothing reflected off of the endlessly deep and roiling water that mirrored the sky above. For a blissful moment, I spread out my arms to welcome the seamless expanse of darkness and was momentarily surprised to feel the air around me return my embrace until I located Jacob falling desperately beside me and watched as he called on the wind one final time.
Even with Jacob’s magic slowing us, the force of the water took my breath away. I was sinking like a stone in a cold weightless peace while I unblinkingly watched the swirl of enraged waters crashing above me, when suddenly Jacob’s strong grip held onto my floating hand and hauled me upwards. I broke the surface with a gasping breath laden so thick with water that I immediately choked. Beside me, Jacob’s eyes were filled with grim determination as he swam one handed and hauled me towards a piece of what looked to be the wing of the plane. The waves battered against us as I gripped the edge of torn metal and gritted my teeth as blood slowly swirled in the water. The dark water was everywhere and I tried not to think of what might be swimming under me as I fought wave after wave as it threatened to pull us under into the tarry blackness
Jacob hauled himself half onto the wreckage and panted heavily as water dripped from his soaked hair. He tensed as a wave approached and reached his magic towards me too late as the wave crashed brutally over us. I felt my grip slipping and Jacob desperately murmured something to the water around us and for a brief moment the water seemed to heed his call and still. Gasping, I made fast my grip on the wing once more. As the rage of the water briefly subsided, I could see the wreckage of the plane floating around us and nothing else. No sign of Will or Rebecca. “His magic was drained,” Jacob said brokenly as he noticed me searching frantically over the debris. “Rebecca?” I croaked desperately as I spat out more seawater. “She was still in the cabin when it hit the water,” he said quietly, “I wasn’t strong enough to slow it.”
The waves were building back up around us and Jacob strained to hold himself on top of the wing as the waters lapped threateningly higher and higher. “Someone must have seen the crash – there is a light shining from the pier,” he said shakily and turned towards me. “We have to swim,” he told me seriously and I quailed at the thought. “My magic will help us,” he said encouragingly as he slid back into the water and pressed his body beside mine to whisper in my ear, “You love this land. It will want you back, the magic will help us.” Slowly, fighting through the pain, and fear, and despair threatening to drown me along with the water below, I slid free into the water beside Jacob as he started to swim.
The pier remained both tauntingly near and achingly far as I swam doggedly in his wake. The surging ocean filled my mouth and nose with water and I fought to keep my vision focused on the distant pier and salvation. The cold water was no longer a shock and I recognized dimly that I was in danger as my limbs became heavy and slow. Unbidden, a memory from my childhood floated through my mind.
I remembered standing on the edge of the great city pier at night with my friends. They were busy chattering and gossiping with each other, but I remained apart. I was enthralled with the force of the waves and the endless possibilities such an open expanse offered. Looking back now, I think the magic and sense of completeness with nature always called to me. In my memory, the moon was shining down on the water and made it something magical and endless and full of wonder.
Now tonight, without the stars or moon reflecting in its dark expanse, the water was a dull black force that was frightening in its ruthlessness. The sounds of the waves were no longer peaceful. Instead, they roared threats and warnings as they smashed into the slowly approaching cement wall of the town pier.
“It’s Ben!” Jacob suddenly choked out in relief and amazement and I looked towards the wall to see a lone figure watching us. We swam desperately closer and my limbs were starting to fail at last when a current began to push us towards the pier and I realized that Ben was using his magic to help us along. The rushing of the water filled my ears and the formidable waves continued to roll their inexorable way towards the wall, but I felt reassured knowing Jacob was swimming next to me.
An eerie glow cast from the single lamp reflected off of the churning water and I watched as Jacob dove under the next oncoming wave and surged through the dimly lit water to reach the wall. He scrabbled briefly with his nails on the barnacle-encrusted concrete before being guided by his brother’s yells to the iron ladder.
The next wave was coming and steeling myself, I plunged through the moving water towards Jacob. A hand met mine once more in the cold and dark and I was being hauled onto the ladder as the water swelled to simultaneously slam us into the wall. Grunting in pain, Jacob did not waste time and started to laboriously climb the ladder with me in tow. The water swelled and departed repeatedly as I finally got my feet under me. The cascading sheets of departing water slid down around us to make it seem as if we were climbing a wall of water rather than one of cement and stone.
Light flashed and I braced myself for the echo of thunder, but it never came. Suddenly, two pairs of hands were holding my leaden arms and I realized it was the light from the lamp as Jacob and his brother hauled me over the ledge and firmly onto the blessed solidness of the pier. Jacob stood shakily and I watched as the two brothers stared in disbelief at each other. “I never thought I would see you again,” Ben finally said and Jacob only shrugged in forced nonchalance. “I told you I was coming home,” he whispered hoarsely. Ben closed the distance between them and embraced his brother fiercely. They were both laughing as rain and tears ran down their faces.
I lay on the pier as the storm that had been following us for days passed by on our journey’s end and moved on towards the distant mountains. I was happy to see Jacob reunited with his brother, but didn’t feel like standing up just yet to join them. The magic of the wild land I had so longed to return to embraced me in welcoming familiarity and all I could do was breath deep and smile.