This story is by Agnes Theresa Chang and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Amara fell before the bronze portals. Words that had mocked her for decades rushed through the sands and whipped around her: If you think yourself so worthy, go fall down before these doors… Before the last sighs had disappeared into the desert air, she picked herself up and fell again. Then again.
The message was different for all who were herded before the doors. Most heard silence. Some were told to embark on journeys that they never came back from. Amara was told to fall down.
Finally, she threw herself down into the doors’ shade, hands behind her head. A memory surfaced from the dredges of her subconscious.
You were told to do what? the Town Leader, twenty years ago, had asked her. Wisps of white hair blew in the breeze and bushy eyebrows waggled in disbelief.
To fall, Amara had replied, a five year old standing her ground.
No one has received those instructions before. No one – none!
Behind the Town Leader, a boy, one of her Peers who had heard nothing from the winds, was eavesdropping on the conversation. His blue eyes danced with ideas.
The next second, he had closed those brilliant blue points, stilled his body, and had fallen straight into the doors before anyone could stop him. Some Middlings assisting the Leader had whisked the boy to the medicine home before the rest of the group could gather and gawk.
Amara frowned. Her Peers: an unfailingly polite group whose company she shunned. They were somehow empty, and seemed fine to be so – in a way that a flower in a greenhouse might never seek the sun outside its glass walls. She alone in her year had heard words from the wind. She alone was called, again and again, to the foot of the doors, by the emptiness within her that cried to be filled.
Then the integration into her community had arrived, freeing her from their company.
When the sun’s elongated rays swept lazy arcs across the sky, Amara picked up her books – she was a Reader at the Youngling school – and made her way down the main road to where it hunkered down before an adobe structure: the Black Sage, the eating hub of the small town.
A steady thrum of voices and music greeted Amara when she pulled back the threadbare curtain that served as the tavern’s entrance. Candles were set in the corners of the cozy space, both beating back the encroaching darkness and adding a haze to the already smoky interior.
Sitting at one of the termite-eaten tables filled Amara with a sudden sadness that she could not account for. Not desiring to take in anything substantial, she ordered a single drink, which she gulped down in a single draft.
It was when she set down her glass that a figure across the room drew her eyes, a graceful figure with a floppy hat that shadowed his face. The next moment, the hat was pushed back and a pair of brilliant blue eyes emerged that directed its gaze at her. She was staring. She quickly looked away. Her heart began to beat and an unreasonable urge to run away surged from within her.
So, plunking down a few coins on the table, she ran away.
Thank God the moon is uncovered tonight! Amara thought, walking down the moonlit path. The light shrouded the sands with a glistening layer and scoured the amorphous contours of her heart.
Back before the portals appeared all over the world, she heard that the planet was inhabited by plants crowned with full green canopies, rocks that stretched to the skies, and towering ice chunks that bobbed out in the oceans. Now they had the sand, their coyotes and saltbushes, and the mystery of the portals, which, once opened, promised the reinstallation of what they had lost.
But, Amara mused, when the land was touched by the softest of moonlight, as on this night, she would opt for her world over whatever the portals would usher in. She yearned to reach out to the beauty around her, but ended up touching a hollow ache within.
Amara did not return to the Black Sage for many days. Her parents took note.
“Aren’t you going to eat out, Amara?” Her mom asked.
“No, I’m staying here with you and dad – you know to keep you guys company. You’re getting old, and who knows when I’ll move out.”
“Daughter, we’re fine,” her dad interjected. “Go out and interact with your Peers. Didn’t you invite Shanii over before? Go visit her – I know her parents would be delighted to have you over.”
Shanii! She exclaimed inwardly. When had that friendship ended, only a decade ago? She persisted in eating all her meals with her parents.
One day, Amara came back after her community service – a day of plowing and seeding the cracked grounds at the outskirts of town. She was examining her dust-coated body and caked fingernails when she looked up and saw a graceful figure leaning against her house fence.
He quickly straightened as Amara approached, looked at her, down at the ground, then up at her again. Amara could feel her chest contracting and her face flushing underneath the dust.
“Hullo,” he said softly, a flush also touching his dark skin. “I hadn’t seen you at the Black Sage for a while, so I asked the owner where you lived. I hope that’s OK.”
Einead. Amara’s mind flashed to a bulky man in T-shirts that never seemed big enough to cover his stomach, sweating behind the countertop and wiping glasses with a worn-out rag. Like a second father to her, he always lent a grave ear to her ruminations. He had once accompanied her to her front steps on a night when the moon had hidden its face, then walked away into the distance, a stately figure in a too-tight shirt.
“Amara,” she said, raising a cupped hand to her chest in formal greeting. Strange. When had she begun trusting in Einead’s judgment?
“Tristan,” the boy replied, grinning, also raising a cupped hand. The other held a thin tome, which he also raised. “You seem to like books. Care to read this with me?” He looked at her from under that floppy hat, his eyes very open and very blue. She could almost fall into them.
“I’d love to,” she heard her mouth utter. Tristan’s grin grew wider.
With easy strides they walked, shoulders bumping occasionally. In the silence between them, Amara was aware of every pebble on the road, the purple shadows they cast, the scraping of their shoes. With no guidance from the other, their legs led the pair to the foot of the portals, in whose shadow they sat.
Tristan opened the book and read first, his voice a melodious ripple across the desert sands; when he was tired, Amara took the book from his hands and picked up from where he left off. A deep dusk slipped into their midst.
When the Beloved gazes into the eyes of the Lover,
he sees his reflection in them,
how much he is loved.
Thus he falls more in love with his Lover.
“What kind of crackheadedness is this,” Amara demanded, snapping the book shut.
Tristan shrugged. “I found it in one of the crates my dad brought home from his travels. He buys antiques and paraphernalia from over the world.” He laughed. “A peddler had sold him a small soap bar cut into a nude woman – it was a present for my mom. She threw it out the door after my dad left on another trip.”
Amara flipped through the pages. “This is ancient,” she said at last. “I mean, just listen to the language! Whoever falls in love with someone?” Love formed in the matches set up by the Town Leaders. It was not something someone fell into. She looked up and was caught by his blue eyes.
How cherished she felt within that gaze! How sincere it was! He would search the ends of the world for her if ever she became lost. She felt herself falling… and beyond, the portals opened.
Then he was gone. For the first time in her life, Amara stood before the open doors, which emitted heat so intense that it threatened to crush the silence and darkness within her. As long as Tristan was the key, the doors would stay open, the world would return to its former striking state, and she would become renowned worldwide.
But all Amara longed for at that moment, for all eternity, was her Beloved, Tristan.
Her first step seemed to alert the portals of her intentions, for started to drawn inward and the other side became an inky void. Amara trembled before the darkness, briefly, and then plunged in.
The bronze doors, silent in its opening, silently shut after the girl’s passage.