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If It Takes Forever
By Angelica Sokolovskaya
Down by the rhododendron thicket, by the bank of the river that divided the village in two, under the plum tree laden with late summer fruit is where he first kissed her. The sun burnt their skin even in the shade, but they took no notice of it, as young love knows not how to be prudent. For months they kept coming back to this idyll, their refuge away from the prying eyes of the village folk, as they knew it was dishonorable for them to consort in such a manner: she was from a respectable family, and he was not.
As the days shortened the air became fresh and autumn sneaked upon them caring not for their naïve desire to prolong the warmth and the long, lazy afternoons. One evening, under the plum tree – its over-ripe, broken fruit scattered by their feet, surrounding them with the fumes of sweet plum wine – he cupped her hands in his, lips trembling. The sound of nocturnal animals was getting louder around them, and he knew that soon they would have to start walking back towards the village. But he couldn’t bring himself to talk. For now, he just wanted to hold her and to caress her, before it was too late. Before he told her that in the morning he would be leaving the kingdom to make his fortune. Leaving the kingdom only to come back a rich man and ask for her hand in marriage from her father.
He should have felt ashamed for his reticence, but he didn’t want to waste the little time they had, on guilt. He wished to remember every moment of this evening, as until the triumphant moment of his future return, his life could only be as miserable as it had been before he met her! If there ever was a purpose to him being born into this world, this was it: to hold her, the most beautiful girl in the village. In the kingdom! No! In the whole world!
Walking back towards the village he held her hand tight as if he was trying to mold his palm into hers for eternity. His heart was pounding so hard when he told her about his plans for departure that he was afraid it might jump out of his chest and roll down the path before them. Would she catch his heart if that happened, he thought.
“If it takes forever, I will wait for you.” she said when he kissed her goodbye.
“If it takes forever, I’ll come back for you.” he replied.
And so they parted and the next morning he took to the open sea, to face adventures untold and seek fortunes unimaginable.
And the experiences he was to have would more than match his wild expectations! The world had barely begun to unfold and so there was so much to explore and make a fortune of. From the scorching sun of the Empires of the South, through the mysterious windswept corners of the East, to the frozen lands of the North he experienced magic and horror beyond his imagination. In the Bengal Sultanate spices burnt his tongue, in Japan the cherry blossoms filled his nose, and in the Byzantine Empire the crimson rivers of the falling city of Constantinople gave him eternal nightmares. He wasn’t prepared for the beauty of the world, and even less so to witness the cruelty of it, and so the inevitable transformation from a boy into a man forced itself upon him unexpectedly.
At first, he ate what he could find, steal, or what people were kind enough to share with him. He slept in barns and in gardens, under blossoming trees and under the clear starry night sky. He was humble, patient, and persistent in everything he did and so soon people would get word of him before he’d even arrive in their midst. And before he knew it, he was offered payment for helping out on a farm or in a workshop, running errands for whoever would hire him. He learned what he could everywhere he went but would never overstay his welcome. At times, he had to hide, or fight, or run for his life. Other times he found himself penniless and without a friend, scraping to survive. Once, in Sumatra, he nearly died of fever. Lying alone on a bed of hard boards under flea infested rags, he spent many weeks in a delirium before finally recovering against the odds. He enlisted as a mercenary and tasted the bitter evil of battle, sailed with pirates and shared booty and hoards.
Little by little her face faded from his memory, and the yearning in his heart was replaced by the excitement of a hundred exotic embraces. After some time, he settled down, became a man of substantial wealth and influence, and his old life felt distant. At times he would think of the promise he had made to her but he dismissed it as nothing but a young boy’s foolish daydreams. Surely, she too, had forgotten about him by now. The years passed.
One day when he was sitting in his garden a bird landed on his knee and started singing:
Have you forgotten me, my love?
Have you forgotten me?
For I’ve stayed true to my heart
And shall be for eternity
“What trickery is this? What dark magic forged this bird to sound like a voice of a long-forgotten lover?”
For the voice of the bird was indeed the voice of the one he embraced by the rhododendron thicket all those years ago. Angrily he waved the bird away but that night his chest felt heavy with worry.
The bird returned the next day to sing an even more worrisome song:
If you’ve forgotten me, my love,
Alas, my fate I bear;
Still, I beg the fruit of our love
Be made your lawful heir
“What cruel jest is this? Who dares play such a fiendish joke on me?”
In his fury, he ordered for the bird to be captured and for its neck to be broken to stop it from singing again. But that night, his head felt heavy with sorrow resting on the pillow. No bird came the next day or the day after, and he would have forgotten about the whole unfortunate business altogether if it wasn’t for the heavy feeling in his body, as though he was carrying stones instead of organs.
The more time that passed the heavier his body became until one morning he could move no more for he had turned into a stone image of himself. When the servants found him, they concluded that a curse had fallen upon their master and they believed him to be dead. Hard as he tried, he could not open his mouth to tell them otherwise. They carried his statue out into the garden and placed it under the plum tree where he was to remain forever more.
For years the servants kept their distance from the tragic statue. But little by little, they got used to it, and decades later no one was sure anymore if he had ever really been alive at all. People started to create their own truth and soon his story became merely a legend.
One day, many seasons later, a little bird landed on the top of the moss-covered statue and started to sing a sad song of longing and heartbreak:
In shallow grave I lay, my love
For my heart could beat no more
My open eyes, gazing to the skies
Longing for our days of yore
And open they shall stay until
Your sight I glimpse once more
For you did me wrong, but still I long
For the one that I adore
This time he could not wave the bird away or the one that came the next day and the one after. From then on, every bird passing his garden would sing the tale of the one he once loved, the one he once laid down by the rhododendron thicket in his foolish youth. The one who will stay restless in her grave, forever waiting for his return.