The stillness was a fragile thing.
Even as the tall trees shed their dry leaves and they drifted down, slowly undulating in the breeze, time was frozen.
The only anchor to reality was the sound of our steps, Tobi’s and mine, crunching on the forest floor as we walked.
It continued to stretch, this silence, and the air hummed with tension. I wondered who would break it.
It was like a butcher’s cleaver raised over a cut of meat and poised to swing, its trajectory inevitable, but suspended.
No. The idea of a butcher’s knife seemed too…heavy.
This was a delicate situation.
An archer, with his arrow nocked, feet planted, and back straight.
I wondered about this archer as we continued to walk; would he meet his target? or be off the mark by a few inches?
Maybe he wouldn’t even fire at all.
In the end, my impatience won.
“Are we taking a walk now?” I said and my voice was gruff. Could he hear how badly I just wanted him to talk? Did he also feel how the silence had turned from fragile to heavy?
For a fraction of a second, I wondered if Tobi hadn’t heard me. He continued walking, his profile still tilted toward his leather sandals.
But then the corner of his mouth lifted and his face turned slightly towards me.
Suddenly, every muscle in the archer’s body was taut with tension, and his sharp eyes were slitted in concentration.
“Walks are very healthy, you know,” he said, and his voice was the soft, velvety murmur I knew too well.
“Easiest form of exercise.”
My answering smile was wan; of course, he would try to defuse the situation.
But the archer was impatient now; he had been standing for too long, his arms were burning with strain, and his back would soon start to ache.
“Tobi,” I said. There was no humor in my voice now.
His inhale sucked all the air from my lungs, and I could not pull another breath till he gave it back.
We stopped walking now, deeper into the trees.
“I love you, and I am selfish for it,” he said, and for a second all I could hear was the sound of the arrow slicing through the air, sailing past the target, wildly off the mark, and into the thicket beyond.
My breath came back to me in a great gust, and his voice seemed to echo in the silence.
I tried to isolate the two things I was feeling; in my chest, his words had taken up residence, and like a long-abandoned house suddenly remodeled and occupied, it was a stunning, breathtaking thing. But in my head, there was a dull sense of dread, and the trepidation just barely overshadowed the warmth in my chest.
I would be detached.
I love you
“Why are you selfish for it?” I asked and was surprised at how neutral my voice was.
Tobi chuckled, but it was a dark sound and there was no humor in it.
“I’ve told you, but I’ve mostly said it to know if you feel the same” a small, guilty smile.
A heartbreaking smile.
“And I think some part of me wouldn’t have been…satisfied if I never said it aloud.”
If I never said it aloud. There was an almost foreboding note at the end of his statement.
He stepped closer to me now, and the tips of his sandals were pressed against mine. A gift from him a few months ago that I wore almost every day.
I focused on not thinking about the words I had to say, not thinking about If I never said it aloud, and looked instead into the warm honey of his eyes, and admired the fullness of his lips. I would not see the darkness of the skin beneath those eyes or the stark way his cheekbones framed his angel’s face.
A tired angel.
“Are you telling me this now because of the appointment yesterday?” my voice was just a breath above a whisper. I almost didn’t want him to hear it, didn’t want him to confirm it.
He said nothing, but I saw a muscle in his jaw twitch.
It was all the confirmation I needed. The dread was a living being now, churning in my belly.
“What did they say?” I was surprised I could speak, and that my voice was not as perforated as I felt.
“Half a year. Maybe less.” his voice was low as well and rushed. Like he also didn’t want it to be real.
Half a year, maybe less.
It felt like something was pressing into my chest, slowly and inevitably, like a tank. Crushing my sternum in the most excruciating manner possible.
This was not dread, this was a vacuum, like everything in me was being broken, then sucked into an abyss, leaving the hollow, brittle shell that was now me.
I didn’t know when my hands rose to cup his face.
Suddenly I hated this disease with a passion that shook me. Hated that it had so much power over us, over him.
It felt like the breath in my absent lungs had frozen.
“My tired angel.” I didn’t know when the words slipped out, a faint whisper, but he heard them.
His mouth curved upwards, just slightly.
A heartbreaking smile.
Then we were kissing.
The kiss was soft and warm, and alive. The cocoon of his arms enveloped me, and it felt like he would absorb me into himself.
I saw now where my archer’s arrow had gone; it had sailed easily past the target, no, that was a mediocre goal, a child’s plaything. I now realized, too late, that he hadn’t missed.
He’d been aiming for a much more devastating target.
Then I was furious, and I kissed him with that fury, even though it blistered our lips.
He would not die; he had suffered enough.
He had suffered enough. Surely, there was some kinder force in the universe that wouldn’t allow this to happen; he was here, alive and holding me, kissing me back with just as much fervor as I was kissing him.
He was too alive to die.
But I knew, even in this moment of fury and shredded rationality, I knew it was a futile thing, my obstinacy.
Then I was crying, and we were crying together.
He held me, we breathed as a singular entity at that moment, and we were fused.
I pulled back to look at him, at his beautiful eyes, seeing the evidence of our tears, and I knew his sternum lay in tatters, just like mine.
“I love you,” I said, and my voice cracked and burned.
His face was twisted, emotions at war, and I reached up to stroke it.
God, I loved him.
Now I had to lose him.
“I know.” was all I said. A hollow whisper.
I know how you’re feeling, I know you are empty because I am too.
In the end, words were useless; there would never be enough breath in this world.
So, I kissed him again, and in that press of lips, there was no relief.
But there was an understanding and that was enough.
Photo: Erik Witsoe on Unsplash