There are no conditionals within the depths of the human mind. The low drum of gears, the pound of blood in the temples.
My hand reaches for the pen on my desk. The red pen, the one I use to grade papers. Not many people understand the amount of power a teacher has. Even a high school teacher. But you write something on a page, you tell your kids a story--they remember it. They take it with them to college. When they fall in love, when they lay next to their partner they think of it, when they have children for the first time it is there, and then they finally shrivel on their deathbeds and they look up at the ceiling and my notes are there. They don't know why. But I do. My mistress taught me how to make a difference. That's what teachers want. But a difference isn't always desirable she showed me. But it is a difference nonetheless.
I've perfected the red pen slash. The one that cuts through so much more than sentences. This pen takes dreams and throws them down the gutter. This pen takes breath out of the lungs of the newly born.
I obtained it in the most unlikely place. You'd never believe. I bought it from a store. A specialty store. It was one fountain pen of hundreds in the shop. The most forgettable place. It was nothing back then--this pen. Now though, now. . .
See in my fourth year of teaching I was out beyond the baseball field--it is a nice place to go during my free period, my planning period. It is away from the track. Away from the football field. Away from the cock-hard boys and inwardly weeping girls. And beyond the fence are the woods and within the woods is my temple.
That one day, I walked through the gate and onto the trail, much like I had done before. It was spring time. Everything was in bloom. Sad, disgusting bloom. All ready to live short lives before decaying into dust. And that was when I saw her. She was standing twenty paces off the path. Bathed in a light that could never have come from the sun I know and hate.
The light that shone down on this goddess was from another place entirely. It was silver and cool, like the steely gray of winter's morning. The woman herself was wrapped in white rags, her hair was tied up in a handsome knot near the crown of her head. I took a step, and then another off the path. A coolness crept from the tips of my toes and fingers through my arms and legs until it grabbed my very heart. The pungent smell of the forest behind the school lessened each step I took and I knew I was leaving the world of cliches, of bad metaphors, and teenage heartbreak behind. I was entering a pessimists dream. I was going home.
As I came within arm length of the woman she finally turned. I do not believe in ghosts. Ghosts are the sentimentality of those who hope to find loved ones again. To communicate with those beyond the vale. I do, however, believe in death. And this woman--her eyes were not eyes at all, but stretched and scarred skin where her eyes should have been. But then I saw movement there--underneath that pale scarring. Her eyes were back there, the skin just obscured her view.
~I know you're there~
The words were not as spoken as is common from mortals. It was hissed and it was cracked through her chipped teeth. And I thought, as she said the words I saw something else move inside her mouth. Something that was more than a tongue or breath.
~I see your form. I smell your stink~
Among the trees, the skeletal trees of a deathly wood, I searched my pockets for an offering. My hand clasped upon the only two things in my pocket. Keys. And my red pen. I knelt there in front of this demon I would have gladly married, and raised my pen as an offering.
My eyes were lowered, but still, I felt the grate of her fingernails upon my palm as she plucked the pen from my opened hand. She did it in a swift tug, like a young woman picking the flower from a thick stem. It was strange, for that moment, the cold of that Other Wood seemed to drag on my limbs, weigh on my heart, and the pen, as she pulled it away seemed to leave my hand slowly, with great reluctance.
I raised my eyes to the woman, but her attention was no longer on me. It was trained on the pen, my fountain pen. She held it up with both hands. That strange silver light bathing it, her, us, in a cold embrace. I noticed then, I had been holding my breath and let it out. It shimmered and rose up and away, lingering in the air far longer than any breath I had ever seen. It breezed past the woman, her noneyes still fixed on my pen.
But something from my breath must have caught her notice. Whether it was the casserole I'd had for lunch or the pure livingness of it, I do not know, but she stared at me, and I knew she was disgusted--even such a monster as that could feel disgust, yes.
~You offer me this trinket?~
"I offer you my life," I told her.
~What your life is worth is not worth taking,~
I knew it. "My life is worth much to me." I told her.
Her lips parted then. Her chipped and jagged teeth shown an ivory white. Between the gaps of her broken smile I saw, again, some strange movement. I understood then, that she was amused at my words. The smile did nothing to improve her image. Indeed, despite my awed state, I felt a momentary jolt of fear. My life was worth so little to this creature. What pain she might infliction on me would cause her no regret.