Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Ling and the End

We stand at the edge of the cliff, Ling and I. I look down into the gaping abyss below.

“I can’t see the bottom.” I hear the quaver in my voice.

“There is no bottom. There is nothing down there. You know that.” Her voice is small and gentle.

“That’s where you’re going? Into nothing?”

“That’s where we’re all going.”

I look again. The deep darkness seems to rush up at us both. I take a staggering step away from the edge.

“Don’t go. Please stay here. I know we have to go eventually, but not now. Stay with me a while.”

“Okay.” She puts a small hand in mine. “Soon, though. You must know that I have to go. I can only stay with you a short time.”

A sob escapes me. “Why? I love you so much. Why do you have to go? Why can’t you stay longer?”

“My time was always shorter than yours.” Her green eyes are full of compassion. “You always knew that.”

“I didn’t think about that when I met you. I just wanted you with me.”

“I wanted to be with you.” She turns around. “Look behind you. Look at where we’ve been.”

I do as she says. Behind us, stretching for miles, are the years of joy. I see every time she made me laugh. I see every time she comforted me when I was upset. I see nights curled in bed together and days spent quietly enjoying each other’s presence. I see her fear every time I left and relief and joy every time I returned. I see more than a decade of love.

“All that is what you gave me. Do not grieve that I go. Be glad that I was with you.”

“I must grieve.” Tears roll down my cheeks. “You have to go, but I don’t have to like it. I can’t let you go without feeling the pain that your absence will leave.”

She tucks her head under my chin. “You will grieve. And you will heal. And you will love again. Don’t let the loss stop you from having all those years of happiness.”

I stroke her sweet, beautiful head as we walk back to the edge. “I will always love you. I will never forget you,” I whisper.

“Then I will never be truly gone.” She gives me a last, sweet kiss and lets go of my hand.

I watch with an aching heart as she disappears over the edge of the cliff.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Afalia's Skin

Afalia dozed on a rock, warming herself in the midday sun. Her eyes were half closed, keeping part of her brain alert in case of danger, but mostly she rested, content. Her sticky lizard toes gripped the rock, ensuring she stayed in place. Her scales absorbed the sun’s rays and made her feel sleepy.

An itch near the base of her tail made Afalia squirm. She’d been expecting to begin shedding her skin for several days now. It had lost its usual deep hues and had turned a dull brown, the color of sand. The itch was a good sign. She rubbed her tail against the rock to ease the itch and pull the layers of skin apart.

The itch intensified. Afalia opened one eye fully and turned her head to look at the spot. Rather than the molting skin she expected to see, the base of her tail showed a red, angry splotch.

Afalia opened her nostrils and sniffed deeply. Something was wrong. The itch continued, making concentration difficult.

She stood and carefully climbed off the rock. On the ground, where the sun’s rays were more dappled, the shade cooled her body. But the itch continued. She lifted one clawed foot to scratch at it as she walked. When the claw snagged the swollen flesh, pain shot through Afalia’s body like knives. She carefully avoided scratching too hard after that, choosing instead to endure the itch.

Afalia climbed into a tree not far from the rock and scuttled onto a high branch. “Etudie!” A sparrow poked her head over the edge of her nest. “I need your help!”

Etudie hopped onto the edge of the nest and turned her head to look at Afalia. “What do you need?”

“My tail itches,” Afalia said. “It hurts when I scratch.”

“You’re just shedding skin,” Etudie replied. “It’s natural. Don’t worry about it.”

“No, I don’t think that’s it,” said Afalia. “It smells funny.”

“Relax,” said Etudie. “Just give it a few days. It will be fine. Rub some mud on it if the itch bothers you.”

Afalia sighed. “Thanks, Etudie.” As Etudie returned to her nest, Afalia climbed back down the tree. Mud wasn’t a terrible idea. She headed to the pond.

Afalia skirted the edge of the pond, looking for good mud. She found a spot almost in the water where moss had grown into the dirt. That would work! She walked into the mud and settled herself deeply, working the mossy mud into her skin. It soothed the itch somewhat, although Afalia could still feel the itchy prickles.

“Good, isn’t it?”

Afalia looked around quickly to see who had spoken. A brilliant green frog blinked up at her from the water, only its eyes and nose poking above the surface.

“Yes, it is,” Afalia replied. She worked her way deeper into the mud.

“We don’t often see lizards around here,” said the frog.

“I needed some mud. There’s something wrong with my skin.”

“Will mud fix it?” The frog blinked each eye separately.

“I don’t know.” Afalia sighed. “I don’t think so. It just makes it itch less.”

“Want to show me?” The frog pushed his head out of the water. Afalia saw that, in addition to his bright green skin, he had orange and blue stripes.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“I’m called Bogsi. I’ve seen many ailments. Sometimes I find ways to help.”

Afalia regarded Bogsi and his brilliant colors. “You’re poisonous, aren’t you?”

He let out a large, croaking laugh. “I can be, yes. If you ate me, you’d die. But you don’t want to eat me.” He shook his head. “My secretions can help too. In small enough doses, they ease pain and give comfort.”

Even covered in mud, Afalia’s tail itched. In fact, the itch was working its way up her belly and down her back legs. “Okay, I’ll show you. I don’t know how you could help, though.”

She waded into the water to clear the mud off her skin. Bogsi paddled near and peered at the itchy places. He looked at her tail, and her legs, and her belly. His large eyes blinked independently, giving him an odd look of concentration.

“Yes, very interesting. I see your predicament.”

Afalia scrambled back to the bank and squirmed into the mossy mud again. “Yes?”

“Your skin has got to come off. All of it.”

“No, that’s not it.” Afalia scowled. “This isn’t what shedding skin feels like.”

“You misunderstand me. I don’t mean you’re molting. Your skin is diseased. You need to get rid of it.”

“Get…rid of my skin?” Afalia stared at Bogsi, nonplussed. “I’m pretty sure I need it.”

“You might be surprised,” the frog replied. “Anyway, it’s doing you no good as it is. It’s trying to come off, itself.”

Afalia twisted her head so that she could see the itchy spot, which had now grown to encompass most of her underside. Sure enough, the inflamed skin was beginning to split, and not in the way it did when she molted, peeling back the surface. Deep cracks had appeared, running down into the muscle beneath.

Afalia sucked in a breath. “I can’t live without my skin. It’s going to hurt if it comes off, and then my body won’t be protected.”

“That skin is diseased. It’s hurting you by being attached.” Bogsi hopped so that he was nose to nose with Afalia. “Give my back a lick. My secretions will calm you, and dull the itch. And ease the pain, when it happens. Because this process is going to be painful.”

Afalia’s eyes grew wide. “What happens after my skin comes off?”

“I’m not sure. But you’ll heal. You’ll be rid of this problem.”

“I do want to be rid of it. It’s getting worse by the moment.” Afalia considered her options. Bogsi did seem to be correct: Afalia’s skin was going to pull away of its own accord if she didn’t do something. “Okay, we’ll do it your way.”

Bogsi nodded. “Are you ready?”

Afalia shook her head. “I’ll never be ready for this. But I suppose it has to be done. Will you help?”

“Of course.” Bogsi turned so that his back was to Afalia, and she licked. He tasted sweet and tangy, and she was overcome with a feeling of peace and calm. The world seemed slightly fuzzy.

“We’ll do this together.” Bogsi’s voice broke through the fuzzy, foggy world. “I’ll pull. You push.”

Afalia nodded. She hooked a claw into the place where her skin had split along her belly. Bogsi wrapped webbed fingers around the edge. Together, they tugged the skin away.

The feeling was as bad as Afalia had suspected. It was like fire and ice all at once. She felt parched and hot, then freezing and wet. She tried to cry out, but choked on her own sobs. A muffled whimper escaped her throat as her skin ripped open along her belly. She was glad for Bogsi’s secretion. Without it, she didn’t think she could bear being torn apart this way.

She felt him tugging at her leg and suddenly something popped free. Fearfully, she looked down. As much as she didn’t want to look at the place where her muscles and bone now stood naked in the mud, she had to know how bad it was.

Her leg was gone. Her small, greenish-brown, lightly scaled leg had been replaced. Attached to her hip, and definitely part of her body (she could feel the mud against it) was a large, emerald leg with scales so thick and large they were like armor. Enormous curved talons sprouted from her toes, deep purple in hue. She wiggled them, and they shimmered slightly.

“It’s working!” Bogsi tossed aside the dull skin of her old leg. “Look how much you’ve done! Let’s keep going.”

Emboldened by the change, Afalia wriggled and tore at the rest of her skin. It came away in sheets and in ribbons. Every place the old, brown skin tore free, her beautiful new body emerged. The pain was immense, almost unbearable. But it felt wonderful, like picking away a scab.

Finally, the last of the old skin fell away. Bogsi’s wide frog mouth stretched to an enormous grin. “Just look at yourself!”

Afalia scrambled to the edge of the pond and looked at her reflection in the water. Her scales were mostly emerald, although her belly was a bright yellow, the color of a canary. Like those on her leg, the scales themselves were thick and hard, like armor. She tapped a purple claw against them and found that they didn’t give at all. But they slid smoothly against each other when she moved, light and flexible. Her snout was long and tapered, ending in wide, flared nostrils. Her teeth had even changed: they now protruded over her mouth, her four pointy fangs. A yellow crest ran over the top of her head.

But best of all, when she turned, she found that two enormous emerald wings sprouted from between her shoulders. She rolled her shoulders and found the muscles that controlled the wings. She shook them out, and their tips stretched widely away on either side of her body.

“I’m a dragon!” Her declaration of the obvious made Bogsi chuckle. “I have wings!” She took a breath and breathed out through her mouth. She wasn’t at all surprised when a jet of flame shot from her throat. “I can breathe fire!”

“I told you that old skin had to come off. Aren’t you glad you listened to me?”

Afalia took several steps around the pond. She’d have to get used to this new body, and especially the wings.

“The transition will take some time.” Bogsi spoke her thoughts aloud. “You’ll have to learn to fly, and to understand your new body. But you’ve made an excellent start.”

“Thanks for all your help.”

Bogsi watched from the pond as Afalia leapt into the air, beat her wings, and took off on her first of many flights.