This is a serialized writing prompt, explained here: 7 Steps for the Lonely Writer.
Step Ten Thousand. Colla Voce.
The world had not been given back its color, was still the washed-out gray of neither day nor night. But she was herself the image of color. She embodied light. She embodied Life. She did not climb down from the wall, but instead spoke to him from atop it, smiling down at him with her radiance.
Have you come to understand? she asked.
He hesitated. He did not want to disappoint her. Had he missed something? He still did not know what he was supposed to come to understand.
He told her so. He could not lie. Not to her.
And, graciously almost, she did not seem upset over his answer.
Perhaps, she said, you spent too much of your journey wondering what you were meant to understand, and not enough simply observing.
He did not respond, hoping she would say more. He realized her humming, the distant singing he had heard when Time had first frozen, still floated on the air all around him, despite her vocal chords not currently vibrating with song. Perhaps she had sent the song into the sky and it flew about like a bird.
Virgil tells me you did not linger at the party, she said.
She laughed. Your companion, she said.
Something wet touched his foot, sandpaper-rough yet pleasant. He looked down to find the cat licking him, purring with affection.
Virgil? he asked it.
It paused from its rasping licks and blinked its large eyes at him.
Virgil also tells me, she said as the cat resumed its lapping of his skin, that you found yourself among the giants’ worship, but you exited their valley with as much impunity as at the party.
Was I meant to stay? he asked, thinking impunity was a curious choice of phrase.
She laughed again. No, she said. Neither were you meant to entertain the beliefs of the conspirators. You were not meant to be caught up by one thing, but rather to view it all from an equal distance.
What was this all for? he blurted out, frustrated that he still did not understand.
Perhaps, she said, it is best that you see things from my perspective.
And she reached down from her perch, proffering her hand for him to hold. He grasped her slender fingers, her smooth palm, and was elated by her creamy skin. She made to pull him up and he placed a foot against the abrasive wall, and in this way she helped him walk up the side of the wall to stand beside her.
So this is the “edge of the world,” he said.
She laughed a third time, and her laugh echoed around them, cutting off the humming sound of her singing disembodied voice once and for all. The world’s color burst through the gray like paint splattered on a canvas.
Tears re-welled themselves on the brims of his eyelids.
It’s... His voice faltered. He meant to say “beautiful,” but it did nothing to convey what lay before them.
It’s called “the ocean,” she said.
The ocean, he repeated, tasting the words on his tongue.
Something suddenly occurred to him and he wished it hadn’t.
You’ve kept this from them, he said. The conspirators. You’ve kept the ocean from them.
She smiled sadly, shaking her head, never taking her eyes from the ocean’s horizon.
Never, she said. They only see what they want to see.
You mean, he said, that they’ve seen the ocean?
I don’t understand, he said.
Explain, he demanded. And then, in a softer voice: Please.
She sighed. The conspirators, she said, are living a life of mezzo forte, though they claim that they are being denied fortissimo.
He blinked at her, uncomprehending.
These are musical terms, you must understand, she continued. An array of Italian words used to describe a musician’s dynamics. A musician’s dynamics are simply how loud or quiet they play a section of music. But dynamics are so much more powerful when next to one another.
He stayed quiet, waiting for her to continue.
Consider, she said, if a cellist bows a sonata pianissimo, from start to finish. This is the quietest of dynamics, meant to express tenderness and fragility, but if it is all the listener hears, how are they to gauge its true expression? When all is quiet, nothing is truly quiet. You must, in order to appreciate the delicacy of pianissimo, compare it to fortissimo. Staccato is peckish without tenuto, without the smooth melt of legato.
She finally broke her gaze from the ocean and turned to look him in the eyes. He was surprised to find that she was crying... yet still smiling.
Sforzando! she said abruptly, making him jump. Molto diminuendo!
He had never seen this side of her. She seemed manic. She threw these words at him with an air of desperation. And so he did his best to understand. He turned back to the ocean.
When you left me, he said to the ocean and to her, it felt as if all the color in the world left with you. With your dress. With your smile. This wall we’re standing upon, it stretched forever, just... dead stone. Gray. I hated it.
He sensed her nod slowly by his side, and she took his hand again. His heart skipped a beat.
And do you think, she said, that the wall would have seemed so unpleasant if you hadn’t had me to compare it with?
He shook his head wordlessly, and the tears finally fell.
And, therefore, on the opposite end of this vast spectrum, she said, the color of my dress and the brightness of my smile might not have left such an impression of happiness upon you without that of the wall to compare them with.
Yes, he whispered.
Some, she said, call this “opposition in all things.” But I find that crass. Misleading. A tidy scripture of ignorance, more about all that Heaven-and-Hell, Jesus-and-Lucifer nonsense than about actual Life. But I cannot deny that they are on to something. Let us, instead, take a page from Tchaikovsky and call it dynamics.
He considered her words for a moment and said, So these ten thousand steps. You knew they would take me to places unpleasant. To the partiers, to your statue, to the conspirators. And... did you know of the giants?
I did, she whispered.
What exactly were they? he asked.
He waited for more, but that was all she had to say about the beasts that were born from the earth. He supposed not all things came wrapped in tidy bows of explanation.
So all this was meant to help me understand... the ocean?
Not exactly, she responded. Think of the ocean as a metaphor. You and I, we can leave right now. You see that sailboat down by the shore?
It’s meant for us. And Virgil, if Virgil so chooses.
His laughter was hesitant this time.
But I had to be sure, she said. If you and I choose to leave this land, together, forever, there’s no coming back. And the dynamics of our relationship, the dynamics we may sing to one another, one-on-one at sea, might seem like a lot. But I needed you to understand that there are bigger things.
Like giants? he asked.
Like love, she said.
She rested her head upon his shoulder, her fingers still knitted with his, and he could smell her hair, tainted by the salty breeze.
I wish you had told me, he finally said.
He felt her stiffen. How was I to explain something such as this?
With your words, he said. But this way... those ten thousand steps, Virgil, the giants, the partiers... Somehow I find it hard not to view it all as some sort of... test.
She lifted her head from his shoulder, looked at him.
No, she said. Please try to understand—
You’ve said that already, he interrupted.
And are you? Trying?
Yes, he said.
She paused, holding his eyes in her own, holding his hand in her own.
I will be at the sailboat, she whispered. Please try—
To understand? he said, unable to hide the desultory tone of his voice.
Without warning she stepped into him, and he found himself embracing her, something he had dreamt of for far too long. She was as warm as the custard of her dress.
Please, she whispered once more. Please know that I was not trying to hurt you. I was trying to... to... I have seen people fall apart for things that seem so trivial to me after living this life for so long—a hundred hundred lives, ten thousand—and I could not bring myself to see the same happen to us. I needed you to—
To understand, he said, and this time it was not a question.
Yes, she said.
You needed me to understand... dynamics?
Yes, she said, laughing softly, sadly. Yes. In a way.
After some time, she pulled away and left him on the wall. He sat on its rough lip and watched the ocean, watched her, in her yellow dress, pick her steps down to the shore and to a sailboat with white sails furled.
He thought of it all, in dynamics. Crescendos, decrescendos. The sun, the night, the fog, the clouds. The giants, the conspirators, their bandages, the discarded hills. The partiers, the pop! and hisss! of beer, the crunch! of a broken nose. The humming melody flitting about like a lark, the soft and insistent Mew!
He sat listening to the music, and poco a poco he began to understand.
THE COMPLETE STORY:
Step 1. Ten Thousand Steps.
Step 2. A Companion.
Step 3. A Drunken Detour.
Step 4. The Hills Have Eyes.
Step 5. Her Graven Image.
Step 6. The Earth, Flattened.
Step 7. Back to the Beginning.
Step 10,000. Colla Voce.