This story is by Lisa Hoenisch and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The sky lightened from charcoal grey to something more akin to ash. An ever present haze hung across the area, but despite that fog, the weather washed over him in a comfortable embrace. Alistair opened the windows in his small, beloved cabin and carved another tick mark into the doorpost to his room. He ran his calloused thumb over the rough scratches and sighed. Three hundred sixty-four, he mused, tomorrow will mark a full year since I saw her.
The isolation of his mountain home may cause some to envy him, but for Alistair Montesque, the quiet hurt like a curse rather than soothed like a retreat. For longer than he cared to remember, the young man lived in darkness without anyone else. He never understood how he came to live such a dreadful existence; to his understanding, one day he just appeared. Then he encountered her. Elizabeth. A woman unlike any person he ever knew. After he met her, everything changed. He found himself living in ever increasing quantities of light. Colors touched his senses, though faded and often barely distinguishable. He began to recollect a life apart from the darkness, though his memory still contained innumerable gaps. She materialized one day a long time ago and claimed to want to free him from his prison.
He resisted though because of his fear and confusion, which resulted in a grave injury to her midsection, but his soul settled in her presence. He now understood she was his savior. He needed her. After their last battle almost a year ago, though, she abruptly disappeared. Oh! How he missed her! His former hatred contrasted starkly with how much he now longed for her presence.
He remembered only in vague fragments how he came to be here, and upon his arrival he initially waited for Elizabeth’s return. Hunger, cold, and the fear she may never come back compelled him to explore his surroundings and eventually build himself a cabin. He fashioned everything to furnish his home by hand from the few things he brought with him. A sword, a knife, a flint, and a canteen.
Despite its lonely simplicity, this place made for a rather comfortable life. A few close shakes with a wolf and a bear unsettled him a bit, but otherwise he lived quite alone in a peaceful place. He thought food, clothing, and shelter should provide contentment as well. He spent a number of years with few to no friends; this should be no different. He ached in the very depths of his being though that he no longer had anyone, not even an enemy.
Today, waking up hurt more. The gravity of emptiness pulled his shoulders down and compressed his joints. He wished he could sit and wallow, but if he wanted to eat, he must get out of the cabin to hunt and forage. He rarely uncovered more than a game bird or two for meat and just enough roots and berries to sustain himself. At times, he experienced hunger pains, but usually he found exactly what he required.
Daily trips into the mountains caused Alistair to doubt they held any further secrets, but he packed for the day’s journey with the hope of finding something to capture his attention in spite of his discouragement. He glanced quickly at his mountaineering equipment but decided to forgo that for today. He loved a good climb, but he often found the hunt more difficult when he carried such an extra load.
Climbing alone reminded him of just how much he longed for companionship. He needed a friend.
Alistair wandered mountain and valley alike while a deepening restlessness stirred in his heart as though he should move on from this place. In his many excursions into the range, he found no other place to go, so he tried to dismiss the feeling. The dull nagging turned to a frantic scream when he discovered a leather suitcase in a clearing. He opened the case to find items that appeared much like Elizabeth’s belongings. I must find her! He would search the entire mountain range. Despite his love for his cabin, he would abandon that willingly to reunite with the woman who so intrigued him.
With renewed hope and a sense of purpose, Alistair took up the suitcase and rushed home. He put his find in a room he built specially for Elizabeth and went to his own room to pack for a long trip. After nearly a year alone, a slim chance for fellowship invigorated him and in moments, he set out again.
He hoped perhaps the first place he remembered existing in this world might lead to some answers. He returned there to find the haze deepened. He ran into the mist, but the fog bounced him back out. Peeved, he punched, kicked, hit, and thrust his sword into the odd barrier, but nothing made a difference.
Fine! He screamed in his head, I’ll go the other way. He broke into a slow jog along an alpine path and ignored the uncomfortable buzzing in his ears, the result of too much exercise and not enough water. He followed the route to a river flowing through the valley. Until now, he never even thought to cross the water, but perhaps now he ought to do so. He rested on the bank and considered his options while he drank from his canteen and gnawed on a piece of jerky.
Finally, he determined to find a calm, shallow place in the river and attempt to walk or swim across. He walked for hours until he found what he sought. He stuck his feet into the cold water and took a deep breath, Please be here somewhere, Elizabeth. I need you. He waded halfway across before he looked up and noticed that on the other shore, the gloom again thickened. He thought about continuing on, but in his heart, he knew to keep going would prove futile.
For weeks, Alistair continued to explore the countryside, but everywhere he went, he encountered the same barrier. One night, as he sat by the light of a low glowing fire sobs ceased hold of his body. Lonely despair ate at him like the wolves howling out into the misty night. He knew he must return to the cabin, but he hated the thought of surrender. He wanted to fight on for as long as necessary, and then the thought came: What if I never find her? The thought hurt so much he curled up into a ball and fell into an empty sleep.
The next morning dawned cold and dreary. Alistair halfheartedly made himself breakfast and ate huddled under a blanket after which he set off slowly toward his cabin. His entire being ached this morning. Body. Mind. Soul. Nothing seemed capable of ever easing his burden. What he most longed for was clearly impossible.
A two day trudge brought him back to the clearing Alistair now called home. The familiar sight of home brightened his spirits somewhat, and he let the weariness fall away, bringing his shoulders up just a smidge. It was not at all the relief he hoped for on his journey, but it was enough for now.
Dusk settled, or what passed for dusk in this strange place, and Alistair built a fire to warm the house and cook his dinner. On his return trip, he managed to kill a sizable game bird and find some wild parsnips. As the meat started to sizzled on the spit, Alistair’s stomach rumbled in a way his depression hadn’t allowed in months. He wondered about the hunger until a knock sounded on his door.
The isolated man nearly jumped out of his skin in shock and hope. He rushed to answer and glanced out a window. He hardly contained his surprise and joy as he opened the door with a smile. “Come in, Miss Elizabeth, come in. It has been so long, I began to think you would not show up.”