I stopped lighting candles and turned to look at her when I realized that we were already the center of our own flickering little galaxy. Her eyes gleamed like emerald stars as she said: "I don't ever want to leave this room." And I said: "We never will, I promise. We'll stay together here till the stars have long ago collapsed to cinders," as I crossed over to the silk sheets and lay at the foot of the bed. The lilac fumes of the candles were mixing with the scent of our sated bodies and to me this sweet hybrid smell was the unmistakable signature of our love. I wanted to distill it and give it to the world as a panacea in little green bottles like eyes labeled: Amor Aeturnus. Then she said: "You shouldn't promise what you know isn't to be," as her fingers danced like a spider along the seam of my back, "that's how you got into trouble before."
Outside the windows a cold wind moaned through the night and silvery shapes paced here and there in the distance, luminous among the leafless trees. Inside, the walls glowed a warm reddish pink from reflected candlelight. I lay back down beside her, saying as I moved: "This time I'm going to get it right. I've waited too many years for another chance."
Looking around the room, I recognized it from the house I had grown up in, yet it had the quality of being both familiar and strange at the same time. A beautiful Italian chessboard with large metallic gold and silver men was on a table by the windows. I could vaguely remember having seen it before, but it seemed out of place in that space, time. The walls were adorned with several large and bizarre paintings of insects posing for portraits. One wall displayed a green mantis kneeling before an altar on which were scattered the viscous remains of a recent sacrifice. On another wall a black spider dressed in a mourning gown with veil sat staring out a window into the distance, crying into eight handkerchiefs at once as a spent hourglass sat on the desk beside her. The third wall showed a bee reclining on a divan clad in a purple and ermine bodice replete with an Elizabethan nit catching collar, wearing a crown, holding a scepter in one hand, an orrery in another and looking out imperiously. In the candlelight they seemed to move within their frames while through the windows in the last wall loomed the woods and the silver shapes, squirming through the trees like larvae within the ribs of the forest's corpse.
When I turned back towards her she had just taken the first drag of a cigarette and was watching the smoke exude into the room. After a moment she asked: "Remember when we used to stay up all night in this room, drinking wine and writing haikus to one another?"
"Of course," I answered.
And then she asked: "Will you write me one now?" I lit a cigarette of my own and picked up a pen and paper, but nothing came to me and I was left staring down at a blank page.
Then I found myself standing naked at the window, shivering in the draft and asking her: "What are those silver things in the woods?"
"I wouldn't worry about it," was her reply.
"I think they're getting closer. I don't like the look of them."
"Is there anything you can do about it?
"Then why worry?"
"I'm not, I just don't like not knowing what they are. I hate not knowing things." I took an old, leather bound book out from the shelf next to the window and absently began leafing through its gold-rimmed pages. "That's why my life is spent with my nose buried in books instead of actually living. Since you, I have read hundreds of books and had zero lovers. I keep trying to figure out the universe, but there is wisdom uncontained in books and knowledge which remains completely occulted from me." I waited for her to say something but she didn't. To escape the silence beneath the wind, I said: "I'm getting emptier by the day and still pining away across a leviathan of time." She remained silent. I looked down and read the lines on the page before me as the wind seemed to echo them aloud, chanting along as I read:
And what is not a dream by day
To him whose eyes are cast
On things around him with a ray
Turned back upon the past?
She stubbed out her cigarette and said: "You're going to make yourself lunatic thinking like that. We're together now. That's something." I closed the book and put it back on the shelf, whispering more to the wind: "But what if tonight in this room is all we have?" Then she said: "Come here, I want to show you something," and lifted the covers to invite me to lie beside her. I walked over to the bed, stubbed out my cigarette, lay down beside her and read the piece of paper she handed me:
Tiger and Dragon
push the limits of passion
red and orange fire
I laid the poem on the table and said: "It's beautiful. If only your astrology books had boded as well for us as your poetry." She only said: "Prideful Dragon and reckless Tiger: never an easy fire to contain."
Then she sat there silently, waiting for me to let go of the past like some origami trifle I could carelessly loose upon the breeze, but unable to stop myself, I asked: "What happened to us?" She shot me a disapproving look, but I went on: "We used to be incapable of getting out of bed for more than a few hours a day."
"Please, don't." she said. "I can't go over that all again. Not now. Not here. It's too exhausting to make all those circles. I'm not a compass."
"You said I was the love of your life, your soul mate, more times than I could count."
"I guess I was wrong." Then after a pause she said: "I'm going to enjoy the moon for awhile. If you behave, you are welcome to join me. If not, I think you should go," while folding her arms and turning her gaze up towards the skylight, unconcerned that it wasn't her house. I was almost certain the room had never before had a skylight, but didn't say anything.
I looked up and saw an enormous full moon smiling down at us with cool platinum rays through the rectangular aperture above the bed. Just below Luna and to her right, Venus and Saturn lay alongside each other, all three bodies in perfect linear conjunction; as if the two wandering stars had come to a momentary rest together, gathering before Luna to bathe in her wisdom and beauty. I timidly ushered a lock of hair from her face and back behind her ear and said: "Luminous, like you my raven-tressed temptress." "Always the flatterer," she replied, as she smiled up at the sky. I lay back and said: "I've always loved the moonlight."
"It's beautiful," she said, "but even tonight, it has nothing on sunlight shimmering across the dark, wavy surface of a lake."
"I think the moon is more beautiful than that," I said.
"Really, how so?"
"Because of her mystery. Her light is subtle and gentle and you can't always be sure just what you're seeing. It's the same with candlelight or firelight; they're shadowy, full of potential. I prefer that to the obviousness of sunlight."
"You realize of course where the moon gets her light from?" she asked, turning towards me with a smirk. As she did the wind took voice again, serenading us through the windows with an old familiar song: The moon tells me a secret, my confidant …
"Yes," I answered, "but the moon takes the reflected sunlight and transmutes it into something better, like lead to gold. You don't get that from sunlight alone, only sunlight tempered by the alchemy of the moon."
"Sunlight already is gold and lead doesn't shine, even when polished."
"Yes, but nonetheless I still prefer the gentle mask of moonlight to the lucidity of sunlight," I said, that being all I could think to say. She smiled again and said: "My handsome poet, my deluded dreamer." And I said: "I'm sorry. You're right, I just want to enjoy every moment we have here, no matter how long it lasts." Taking my face in her hand, she said: "It's okay. I know how much it hurt you. I'm sorry for that. I always have been." And then she held my face before hers and, as I tried to fix her forever in my memory as she was at that moment, I realized that her irises were the jade afterglow of supernovae, that her pupils were great black holes and in my image reflected in those bottomless pools of climaxed star, I saw that I, like a godforsaken planet, had long ago hurtled past the event horizon.
I sat up to take a sip of wine, inadvertently pulling the bed sheet with me and exposing her serpentine lines. She lay there unabashedly and said: "That'll cost you a sip of wine." I handed her the glass and watched her throat lift to welcome the heavy indigo liquid. As she drank, a large drop slipped from the corner of her mouth and ran down her neck like ink before diving into the hollow at its base without leaving a trace. I picked up the pen and paper and started writing:
cat's eyes trace your curves
taut anticipation stalks
coiled for the pounce…
I gave her the sheet of paper, she read it and said: "Magnificent. Will you remember it in the morning?"
"I doubt it, I never remember my dreams in the daylight," I said.
"How sad," she said.
I took a sip of wine and lit us both a cigarette. As I passed one to her she asked, "How long have you known this is a dream?"
"I'm not sure, it didn't come all at once."
"I've known all along."
"I'm not just dreaming you?"
"No, we're dreaming each other. Me in my bed, you in yours."
"Will you remember it in the morning?
"Yes, perhaps. But it won't be the same then."
"Maybe if I were to remember it I could recite it like an incantation before bed and we would be magically transported back here each night."
"It's beautiful to think so," she said.
Through the window, I could see that the silvery shapes had gotten much closer. They were now just behind the tree line and seemed to multiply and elongate, picking up speed as they circled like hungry wolves looking for a crack to slip through. I turned away and saw a large leather armchair in the corner of the room opposite the windows. In it sat my long dead Italian grandmother wearing her blue dress and with her nylon stockings sliding down her shins below the hemline like two snakes shedding skin. She was trying to knit a pair of tiny socks, but her hands were no longer certain of their strokes and the socks were a disordered mess. She looked shriveled and decrepit; as if her body had died weeks before but no one had bothered to inform her mind and so it kept stumbling along, unaware of the inappropriateness of its ongoing existence. She looked up at me with her ashen eyes and said in a whisper: "Such a nice couple … are you my brother?" I shook my head no, and she said: "For the baby!" indicating the ersatz socks. I asked: "Grandma, what baby?" but this confused her and she put the needles down in her lap and cleared her throat. Impatient with her presence, I said: "Grandma, you shouldn't be here."
"That's what you said when Pop took us to the circus," she replied. "You said, 'Lena, you shouldn't be here, you're too young, you're just a baby,' but I wasn't the one who cried when the clowns came out and made Pop take us home."
Turning away from my grandmother's ghost, I put out our exhausted cigarettes and asked: "How about a game of chess?" She nodded and we sat down and began a game, with her playing gold and going first, while from the corner my grandmother cleared her throat again and repeated, "Such a nice couple." I remembered back to when I had taught her to really play instead of just moving her pieces around the board chaotically, how she had made me promise her that I would never throw a game out of chivalry and how — because of that promise — she had never beaten me.
The wind was louder by the windows and no longer sang to us. Instead, it howled mercilessly. "They're getting close," I said, motioning towards the windows as I uncharacteristically castled queenside. She said: "I know. Try not to think about it," as she castled away from me. We played on, trading sips of wine and a pair of pawns and a bishop each. I looked over towards the armchair for my grandmother but she was gone. In her place was a blue dog with piercing eyes of ash. He was lying with his head on his forepaws, intently watching us. A few more moves and I went up a bishop, the dog barking his approval as he sat up to get a better view of the board with a few wags of his tail, before settling back down on his paws. I reached for one of my rooks before stopping to ask, "Would you meet me back here?"
"Whenever the stars are aligned," was her answer.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw flashes of grimy teeth and sallow eyes here and there among the now yellow tinged streaks of light. They had advanced beyond the trees and covered half the ground to the windows. Then she said: "The moon is gone," as she casually took my other bishop, leaving an irreligious board. I looked up through the empty skylight and saw that Luna had carried her retinue off with her to seek the shelter of darkness on the other side of the globe.
Then my pieces began acting insolently and incoherently as if they had forgotten how to play. Looking down, I saw that several of my pawns had sprouted a sextet of legs each. I had to keep a close eye on them to prevent them from wandering mindlessly to threatened and exposed squares like cockroaches surprised by the kitchen light late at night. We played on and I soon blundered away a rook as the dog snickered at me from the armchair and her pieces seemed to acquire supernatural abilities. What had earlier been an ordinary rook took on the added attributes of a knight and this powerful new hybrid piece began decimating me as my pieces became heavier and more loathsome with their incessant sprouting of unwelcome appendages. I was having trouble lifting them with one hand and had to sacrifice my queen to stop the rampaging rooknight while the wind rattled the windowpanes and they filled up with golden-white light.
I looked at her and said: "I still love you. I always have." And she said: "I still love you too," as something luminous scraped against the windowpanes and we grabbed each other's hand across the board. The dog bolted upright and growled at the windows a few times before leaping from the chair and disappearing into the floor like it was an opaque pane of inky water.
"Can't this carry over into tomorrow?" I asked as the wind burst open the windows and extinguished every last candle in one massive gust.
"Only here can love outshine pride and the past be forgotten," was her answer.
"I want to see you in the sunlight," I said emphatically.
"Not this time around."
"Because soon I will wake up in the arms of another man and you will awaken and find that you are still a hollow breaker of oaths." Then she moved her queen forward and said: "Check." Looking down at the board, I saw that my king was hopelessly cornered by her now eight legged queen and a serpent-tongued knight. Moving my king out of check would have cost me my other rook, so I reached up for him and gently tipped him over and laid him on his side.
By now, not only outside the windows but even the walls and ceiling of the room were swirling in an ever tightening maelstrom of intense golden light. It became so bright that it hurt my eyes. She took my hand again and led me to the bed as the storm engulfed the walls. One by one, elements of the room were swept up and disappeared in the blinding light as the storm's eye winked away to infinity. The paintings the candles the wine the glasses pen paper armchair chessboard: everything vanished except the bed.
She swept me up in her arms and legs, wrapping me in the silk sheets, and we kissed as if pitted against a speeding hourglass whose last eager grain heralded oblivion. I held her as tight as I could and stole a few last kisses from her lips and her eyelids in a hopeless attempt to stop time. Her limbs were everywhere around me, multiplying as they entwined me in their cataclysmic embrace. It became impossible to breathe as she swallowed me up within her, consuming me body and soul. All I could see of her was endless black hair and myriad shining eyes. She held my face to hers as her dark image burned golden-white around the edges and said: "Look at me my love. It's okay. Let this happen. We'll meet again someday and I will always love you. There's nothing to fear. You won't remember any of this."
And as the onrushing light conquered and devoured our fleeting island universe, I looked into those burning green eyes for as long as I could and knew, even as she said those things, that none of them were ever to be.
Justin Phillips was born in New York City and raised in Westchester. He majored in theater at Vanderbilt University and later went to law school for some unknown reason. He is now a writer and former lawyer (five years in recovery) who recently completed his MFA in Creative Writing at The City College of New York. He teaches English at City College, walks dogs, and plays golf and chess among other interests. "The Lucidity of Sunlight" is his first published story.