Short story #1
Her name is not important. What’s important is how she walked: step versus step, feet drumming against uneven cobblestone, heels dashing anxiety onto the earth’s unforgiving surface. Above, the sky stared down at her through steely eyes—closed off, overcast, and unkind.
It was a cold day, yet sweat dripped down her back. She knitted her brows and marched forward, blind yet transfixed. Now, she mounted the crest of a long and steep hill. Charging down, she parted the insipid sea of terraced houses and their hostile, overly-well-kept gardens that leered from either side.
It was early. The only sound was her heel against cobblestone, a mistimed metronome, a music box slightly out of tune. The piercing clamour of her steps ricocheted off nearby bedroom windows, shielding carefree dreamers within. Nobody stirred.
She stalked the sun as it began to rise, pushing further down the hill, wishing she could draw that oppressive sky closed shut like a curtain—and sink into nothing, just for a while, into something and somewhere else.
A storm raged inside her, casting feelings here and thoughts there, untethered and colliding; the storm travelled onto her face, to her posture, into the sky, and down into the very earth with each hammering footstep. She became the demon she felt, twisting and grimacing. Worried about what lies ahead, feeling yesterday’s sorrow, feeling regret for all that came before. In flux, transforming, stretching between times and memories, reaching in and out, then snapping back briefly to herself—to her mind, where she felt briefly safe one second, then unsure the next.
Tap, tap, went her heels against the cobblestone. She was halfway down the hill. As she passed a particularly pale, uninspiring house on her left, she stopped. Had to stop. Blinked, twice. Stared.
A branch stretched from a silver, gnarled tree in the front garden of this house. The branch lowered gently. It bowed to her, with a soft sincerity. And then it reached out, extending an open palm. She looked at the branch as it swayed in the wind, signing some hidden message in an old, lost, and forgotten language. She traced the branch slowly, following its path from the garden, to the tree, and then to her own unconsciously outstretched hand. She exhaled shakily.
The branch’s palm, reaching toward her own, revealed a single tangerine.
The bright and deep orange fruit seemed to burn against the backdrop of her grey and tired world, laughing. She peered at the garden, then to the house, then back to the tangerine.
“Can I truly take it?” She asked.
“Of course” replied a voice from nowhere in particular. “Who else could it be for?”
She shook hands with the branch and plucked the tangerine from its resting place. The fruit yielded easily to her touch, parting from the branch readily, without complaint. Something strange came over her, rising and lilting within. She held it, staring at the vibrant peel, staring at rather than staring around or through. It softened in her hand, squeezing her palm back reassuringly.
She peeled the tangerine and ate—ate for the first time in days. Colour exploded in her mouth, vivid and overflowing. She savoured it as it reached each corner of her mouth, then down inside. Immediately, she began to visualise the sky’s rain and sun’s rays that had touched this tangerine, day in and day out. Its sublime journey: how it blossomed, how it reached where it is now. How it grew day by day, fed from seed to bloom. How the tree cared for it.
Now, she could taste each drop of rain and each ray of sunshine distilled within the tangerine. And from there, spreading in all directions like growing, curious roots, her thoughts considered all things that grow, and how they grow. Of the miracle contained in each organic thing—even herself. She saw down into the earth, to the roots that anchor and grow the tree, down into the soil and back up into the fruit’s very cells, and further still.
She smiled, and frowned too, tilting her head. It tasted electric, bright, and kind. A flash of orange lightning that cleared her mind’s storm, sweeping the mist that weighed her down. This smile lingered, dancing on her face; the frown melted away, and suddenly she began to breathe in the moment as it truly was, and all things it offered to her. And as she did, the world changed.
The sky that was closed was now open—where before she saw oppressive grey, now she saw a portrait of brushstroke cloud set against illuminated, gentle light. Colour spilled out onto the canvas of the world as it rubbed its sleepy eyes: shades of reds burst into the grey, overflowing like droplets of brilliant, crimson blood to water. She felt she could reach out and touch the sky, to swirl the painting, feel it between her fingers. It seemed to begin breathing, and she with it.
Suddenly, she realised she was rooted still, and that she hadn’t moved in, well, she didn’t know how long. She looked up and saw she was protected by the gnarled citrus tree, standing over her like a weaving and flowing parasol. She turned slightly and glanced into the garden, which also now seemed different than before. She saw into every drop of labour that went toward organising the garden so neatly, into the efforts and love of a patient, tender gardener—into the mind of a person who kept tidy their own little corner of such a messy world—cultivating this patch of life into an ecosystem, a smile that grew from day to day, unfurling and furling with each season.
How had she seen hostility here? Where was the offence? Who was she holding that tension, that anger for? Who did it serve? No one, and least of all herself.
She looked further, into the garden, to the soil that sustains the blessed tangerine tree, then past the garden-centre ornaments and terracotta statues, past the blossoming orchids and delicate lilies, past the birdbath that had refreshed generations of doves and kingfishers, and finally through the house’s half-drawn blinds. There, behind the blinds, stood a man—mid-60’s with white, flowing hair—returning her gaze. Their warm smiles met, knowingly. She nodded, and he nodded back. She raised her tangerine to him, and his smile widened, deepening endlessly.
They said all they needed with those gestures. Something radiated between them, more than they could say with words.
She popped another piece of the tangerine in her mouth and thought of nothing else but her present and the present. For what else is there?
“Keep moving forward”, another voice said. “Begin again, forever”
Now, her feet sang as they tapped against the cobblestone, dancing lightly, in tune with her joyfully orchestrated breaths, as she stared up at the sky once more. She no longer wished to draw that curtain closed; instead, the sky’s light shined upon each step she took—continually reminding her of that new awareness, lapping like calming and endlessly replenishing waves on a sandy shore.
How unkind things felt at the top of that hill, how impossible her problems. Now, in this moment, she saw one thing clearly: today is a lovely day. In this moment there was time for everything.
The angle of the hill evened, finally. Feeling light, she smiled to herself and for herself, for the first time in a long time. She breathed, slowly—evenly—and enjoyed breathing. Now, it all felt possible. Nothing had changed, but inside she knew all had changed.
My first attempt at a short story. As Ray Bradbury said, “write 52 short stories, and I defy you to write 52 bad ones. Can’t be done. At the end of 30 weeks or 40 weeks or at the end of the year, all of a sudden a story will come that’s just wonderful.”
Well, here’s to hoping eventually he’s right. This one was largely inspired by the book Peace is in Every Step (affiliate) by the fascinating Thich Nhat Hanh, a book on mindfulness. Highly recommended to absolutely everyone.