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I am posting a short story of love, life and gladly made choices. This was an entry in a competition where the first and last paragraphs were provided by the competition organisers. The rest is mine.
They laid the train tracks back to front and this caused a great deal of confusion – you’d think you were on the train to New York and arrived in Kinshasa, or to Shanghai and found yourself lost in Istanbul. The last announcement sounded as I sank into my seat next to the window. I watched as some double checked their destination, while others jumped aboard without a backward glance.
The litany of names thrummed in my head, and I remembered. Remembered when they had been different, when I had been different.
Before I gave up my immortality and thought it well lost for love.
New York had been New Amsterdam, Istanbul once Constantinople. Shanghai in the distant past had been part of the romance of Cathay, before the geographers got their maps right. I had been a Princess when Kinshasa was a fishing village. I had known these places when they wore the swaddling clothes of youth, roamed the streets and listened to the sound of a new world birthing.
I roamed the world as an observer, watching the brief lives of people flit by like bright images caught in a window reflection. My eyes refocused as rain beat down on the train window, and my own face looked back. I was no longer the princess that had enchanted Marco Polo, leading him around the world in a merry romp. Nor was I the light footed dancer at the feet of the last of the emperors. Their bones lay as dry and desiccated as the business reports I had typed this morning.
I had almost given myself to Marco Polo. An adventurer, a seeker of new things. He had found me, for one. But I was not ready to be part of his collection of exotics, a treasure given to a King and forgotten as the next new thing beckoned. But I had not forgotten. Mortality is a curse, the few remaining immortals told me, you will be cursed with remembering all that you have given up, all that you could have been in the centuries to come.
A blessing I had found it. A wanderer over the earth, my stories had become part of me, and one man found his heart stolen by my words. My memories wound their way into his heart, as his poems bound me to him. With the magic of his words he bound me, and for him I gave up my wandering, glad as a ship anchoring at a safe docking after a voyage that has gone on too long.
Their faded words I remember. The immortals whispered you will be diminished, less than you could have been. Never will you celebrate another millennia with your kind, you will be in your grave while we live still. But I had roamed while they had not, I had seen what they had missed.
Love cannot last the millennia, it needs fresh blood for renewal, the freshness of a life lived at frantic pace, sure in the knowledge that life will end. How else could one bear the intensity of giving your soul and thoughts to another? I learnt of the pain of being mortal, the daily hurts and worries that had never touched me.
Like earning a living. I looked at my hands, no longer the pampered hands of a princess, they bore the stains of life now. For despite the whirlwind of love, the reality was that a princess and a poet had to work to earn enough to live. For love, I had cleaned, and for love I had done a hundred different jobs while I listened to the words flow from him. The words of my love, the stories I told to cheer him were woven into poems of such beauty that they drove away the aches and pains of mortality.
The intensity and pain of this short life. I glance at the others on the train, wondering if they too ponder their final destinations. Easy it would be on this train to say yes dear, I am on my way home, and then step through the door into another city and disappear. Your old life would vanish. Some talk on their phones, their faces as glum as only mortals can be. Their emotions change so quickly, as if they are actors behind a curtain preparing for the final scene. Many things might vanish if you choose to go to a different place, but inside you are still the same. To gain a new life, great sacrifices must be made, I could have told them, but I did not.
One stop from my destination, and the rain has slowed a little. I open my bag and get out the book. Fresh from the printers, I look at the back cover first. My love smiles back at me, our children as well. I know it all by heart, I have heard him wrestling for the perfect words so many times that they have wound through me like silken cords.
My children, our children, the unexpected bonus of a mortal life. They roar into the world, so precious and fast. Running with all the energy of their short existence, flowering for only a brief season. All the energy of the immortals compressed by time into urgency, not stretched and faded into lassitude and boredom.
The others had been wrong, I had not been diminished. Immortality takes many forms and I had not lost it. It had been shared. In the words of my love that would live on, and the lives of our children and theirs. Not lost, not diminished, but renewed.
The train slowed to a stop and I grabbed my umbrella. With all the other passengers I got up to continue this life I have chosen.
Rain dripping from the rusty gutters made a curtain between the platform and the tracks.
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