Rotten Chains (Decaying Gold)

Chloe Shaw, Fly By Night. Digital, 2023

 

By Maya Lerma

 

        There were two lights in a cave, one burning a bright, pure silver, and one dying out in a blooming gold. This was a cave somewhere, buried in some mountain. There seemed to be no god that knew of it. There was not a soul that spoke of it. No one ever came to visit.

        It did not matter to either light whether someone would come for them. One had never learned what it meant to wait for a savior. The other had forgotten. 

        They did not know the cave beyond the cells on either side of their own. For them, the cave was only a prison. They could not know if there were others like them, or even if the hall of cells stretched down the endless darkness. For them, there was only the other. Two cells opposite to each other. Two lights chained to opposite walls.

        The silver one had known only the man in front of her. She wondered if she’d been born here, but she did not bother to ask, because he would not bother to answer.

        A light surely burns brighter as it begins to die, or so she thought, butterfly eyes slowly blinking. She could not quite conceive of an “other.” The man was her only. He burned brightly now. She felt, vaguely, that it must be true for all “other.” 

        The man coughed, a deep bellied, dying cough. The repeating note that had filled their cavern for the past months.

        It was not nearly so grating a sound as the incessant dripping stalactite echoing from someplace in the distance. 

        She admired the man deeply, because she felt there was little else to do but to admire him; but also because he’d learned to tune out that echoing sound. She had never managed it. The resounding of it drove her mad with wondering, the unknowing of how far it stretched. The man never seemed to hear it. Then again, he’d had far longer to question, and far longer to grow tired of it.

        Long enough to die. Each of his coughs rattled his chest, resistant like he couldn’t bear the sound of it. She couldn’t help but flinch at them, a beast’s dying cries. He choked like he wanted to swallow them, but they tore through his throat like he existed only to make noise.

        She so rarely heard him make any sound. It was a bittersweet shock, to have the silence of his cell shattered so obscenely. 

        Even when he did not cough, his breaths dragged through him in an endless racket. His chest heaved like the very weight of it was crushing him.

        His sounds grew faint. She could not be sure if it was her ears that stopped hearing as she fell asleep, or his lungs that couldn’t bear the sounds any longer.

And so time moved on.

        She’d never known light, but she felt it might be the next day. The man woke up and fell asleep like he was his own sand timer, and after some time she’d started to mirror him. If he was awake, then it was surely the right time to be awake.

        She awoke to the sight of his eyes. She knew him for his unfocused gaze, staring haplessly at the ceiling, but now his eyes bore into her with a ceaseless glare. 

        He’d been a warm presence to her, but she’d never known warmth enough to place it properly. He did not care for her any more than the walls of his cell. And now he hated her.

        Perhaps it was because he was dying and she was not. Perhaps it was because she breathed easily as he rasped the last of his breaths.

        Perhaps it was because there was little more for him to do now but hate her.

        She wanted to ask him, but she knew he would not answer.

And so time moved on.

        She pulled at her wrist, letting soreness flood her arms like it belonged there. Blackened metal chains kept them raised off the ground, old yet endlessly sturdy.

        The shackles on her wrists were just loose enough to convince her they might be worried free. It was not good to indulge in this dream. It led only to bloodied wrists and arms more sore than usual. She knew she could not help it, and so she tried not to move at all.

        Again, she could not resist swinging her arms, pulling the chains until they slammed against their sockets.

        Today, she was louder than the man, as she hadn’t been since he started coughing. He’d always tuned her out, the same as that dripping echo.

        Perhaps it was because he was dying, that it was different.

“Quiet.”

        The sound rasped, and for a moment she mistook it for a cough. When his voice registered as more than meaningless sound, her chains shook, before they fell silent at last. It was less that she obeyed, and more that she could do nothing but stare at him.

        He glared at her. She’d begun measuring the life left in him by the strength of his glare. It’d been dulling day after day, but today it was stronger. Sharper. Her own eyes were paper film to his hate.

        He’d once likened her eyes to a butterfly, an impressionist mockery of a real beast’s face. She’d never quite placed his tone as fond or insulting, but she’d never been able to forget it.

        He spoke to her so rarely, she could not help but remember every instance, how he’d looked then and how he looked now. She shifted thoughtlessly as she struggled to place it, chains clanging with the movement.

“Quiet.”

        Now with more annoyance than before. With it, he shut his eyes, as if he could not bear to look at her a moment longer. She wanted to assure him that it was a mistake, that she did not intentionally ignore his demand, but knew she could not risk squandering the conversation. It was not a sure thing that he would respond at all, but if he did, it would be only once.

“Are you dying?”

        She asked, because she could not think of anything more important to know. All of the questions she’d shelved and eagerly awaited the chance to ask him one day were smothered by it. Every time she awoke she felt the acute terror that she might never hear him again, that she would never even get to say goodbye.

        She asked with a senseless hope that he might straightforwardly decline, that he might assure her she was being foolish to think he who had lived so long would die so easily. She knew he heard her question from the scrape of his breath, a slight slip of his lungs in the closest thing to a sigh he could manage. Slowly he sank to his side, turning so that he was laying with his back to her. There was no sound of chains following him. He laid like a stone, like he might never manage to move again.

“Quiet.”

And so time moved on.

        She awoke, blinking drying silver tears out of butterfly eyes. His glare was the first thing she saw once her vision cleared. 

        Relief slammed into her. She would get another chance to see his face. It burned quickly to nothing but vapor at the faintness of his gaze. His coughs came with every second breath, more of a punctuation than a rarity.

        He had shifted slightly. It was the sort of simple movement that was impossible for her, with how closely she was bound to the wall.

        It drew her attention to the shackles on his wrists. Tattered and fragmented. They looked almost a part of him, covered in rot and rust. The chain attached to them was a tattered, rope-like thing, crumbled and featureless. It was easy—or perhaps she made the effort every minute—to forget how they trailed further and then nowhere. Somewhere between the wall and his wrists there was nothing. Nothing that kept him trapped to that wall.

        She’d screamed at him, the day she’d found out. Shouted at him to leave, then begged for him to only move. It was the same day she’d found out that screaming at him could no more get him to speak than being silent.

        She’d had only her thoughts to answer her questions. He did not react no matter how much she slammed her wrists against her shackles, so she could only leave them to fester inside of her.

        The exact time it’d happened eluded her. At some point, perhaps long before or long after her, his chains had rotted and turned to dirt.

        Still he sat there. There were times she nearly convinced herself he was dead, but it was always then that he found something or other to say. It was at those times she could ask her questions. He would usually respond to only one, and if she were lucky, two.

        On the day she considered the best of her life, he told her she was silver. He answered not two, but seven questions, in order to explain to her what it meant. But it had not ever happened again. 

“Please don’t die.”

        She said to his glare. It was an aimless statement, the ones she gave on occasion. They were not created to be answered. 

“I don’t decide that.”

        He replied, hoarse and dull, like he was speaking to the wall. To hear him speak two days in a row was not something she ever thought possible. Desperately, she wondered why it was happening so late, so close to his death. Perhaps it was only because he was dying that it happened at all.

“Please do not.”

        She repeated. 

        Something about it must have caught him strangely, because the sound he made seemed purely involuntary.

        She flinched. It was like the beating of a heart, croaking and breathy. It seemed that it might’ve been a laugh. He did not speak afterwards, and urgency seized her.

        She did what she never did, but it was a strangeness in a strange time. She did what she never did because things were happening that had never happened. She spoke again, a waiting sentence, eager to be filled in with a response. The type she’d learned was useless a long, long time ago.

“You are almost free. You must not die.”

        He blinked at her with his beast-like face. She did not know what a beast looked like, but she rather liked the thought of them looking like him. She’d once told him so, and wondered ever since that day if it might’ve hurt him. It was right after she’d said it that he told her of her butterfly eyes.

        He blinked at her like he had never heard the words she was speaking. She could see incredulity in his dimming glare, and she straightened her back.

“You are more free than I have ever been.”

        She tugged at her wrists to feel the chain’s give. The words left her in an exhilarated breath, like she could not believe she was even speaking to him at all. She wondered if it had been this easy the entire time, if all she’d had to do was watch the way his face moved to tell her his answer, but she couldn’t bear the thought of it.

        He stared at her, glare slipping to a faint gaze. Finally, he said,

“Am I?”

        She was grateful for his answer, but she did not understand it.

“You are. Why do you not leave? Why do you not move?”

        She felt greedy, saying more, asking twice. But it was a rush of feeling she could not stop. To watch the way his thoughts tangled and swayed through his beastly eyes, the way he took in her words, felt like the greatest feeling in the world. This is what it must mean to be living.

“You will understand.”

        He said, and her heart of silver thrilled at another response. The words did not mean as much to her as the fact that they were spoken.

“I do not.”

        She said sternly but with breathless glee. They were careless words, spoken only to elicit response. She regretted it, in hindsight.

“You will.”

        Spoken forcefully. They were ending words. A warning. His tone was stronger than it had been since he’d first started his coughing fits. She could not respond, and so she did not.

        There was nothing left to do but watch him. He closed his eyes, another sign of his unwillingness to hear even another word from her. And so she watched him quietly, his back weak and stiff, his shackled arms weighed with a stonelike stillness. He looked like a dead man, and she realized then that he would not look so different when he was one.

        It dawned on her all at once, that he could not, and would never move. She could scream at him until her voice ran out. She could slam her chains until her arms were limp and her wrists broken, begging him to move like he were alive, even if it meant leaving her behind to see the light of day on his own, and it would not matter.

        His chains had rotted and turned to dirt. Without them, there was only his mind to keep him here. His mind was not as weathered by the rot as it was turned to unforgiving rock. His legs could not move him so much as his mind had chained them. He would never move from that place.

        She wondered if the chains had only broken with his will. If they only broke because they were no longer needed.

        His words whose meaning had once escaped her sunk in with a concise cruelty.

        She did not sleep that night, neither did he. Perhaps he knew he’d have enough time to sleep when he was dead.

And so time moved on.

        She cannot recall sleeping, but she can remember waking up. Silver tears poured down her face, wrists aching and bleeding. The clanging of chains vibrated through her skull, and she noticed them only after some uncountable amount of time. She heaved gasping breaths as she returned to awareness. 

        He burned brighter as he died. Bright as gold. She wept for him with her butterfly eyes. 

        He sneered at her and her heart of shining silver that no chains could conceal. She saw it as nothing but a smile.

        He stared at her like she was death herself, with widened, beastly eyes. Tears tore from him like revenge, but they burned like sorrow. With a hollow laugh he delivered, 

“Child of silver and born of gold. I can share nothing with you but my fate. ”

        There was nothing of his light left to burn, and so it turned to dust, slowly and certain. He lingered there as a body, doomed only to rot. 

        She wept for him for days and nights, weeks and months. Slowly she found she could not weep for him forever. 

        She breathed alone, in the crushing silence of his carcass. For every butterfly there was a real beast with eyes to match. 

        And there was no silver that the air could not tarnish.