A fiction piece by Isabel Newcom, senior English Major
There is a thin, sharp-nosed woman walking through the desolate city streets, but no one knows her name.
When the piercing sun rises over the half-crumpled buildings, it lights across her dark hair and colorless skin, and with the same rays, it touches the echo of a plastic bag before the hot, humid air urges the bag and the woman back into the darkness.
Shadows follow her in the broken windows and peer around abandoned cars. They don’t hunt her. They don't chase her. They merely watch, and when they stop, they fade into nothing. This is her city, after all, and when they aren’t watching, they turn to the dust and ash of the broken world around them.
When the moon bids the sun farewell, the woman stops her endless journey through the empty streets to look upwards. She stops, as if someone has called the name the world has long forgotten, and turns her face towards the stars.
The oppressive heat fades into a cool breeze, and the light of the moon brushes away the shadows lingering under the woman’s eyelids. For a moment, the shadows in the windows fade. The city fades. The world fades. It’s her and the moon and the stars, and for one brief, burning moment, she realizes with a cry that she is not thin, she is gaunt, and the shadows aren’t shadows just as the city is not a city at all.
Then the sun rises, and it’s gone.
Her soles ache from the concrete beneath her feet, but she keeps walking. Over and over, around and around. From afar, the shadows watch her weave through the city until the sun falls and the process starts all over again.
None of them really know what she’s doing, but that’s okay, because she doesn’t either.
Although the streets are silent and the buildings are all crumbling to dust, she pokes her head inside every store. With a curious, hopeful look, she steps inside each building, deposits something that the shadows never see, and leaves looking paler and thinner than ever.
What the shadows and the sun don’t see is what the moon does; the satchel bouncing against her hip as she walks is more than just decor against her plain jeans and plain shirt. What she leaves behind flutters out the door as soon as she leaves, floating with the wind out to the overflowing garbage bins long-abandoned and rotting as the metal returns to the earth.
There is one building, though, that the woman never stops in.
It’s tall and mighty, once adorned with gold and marble with chandeliers that glimmered brightly in the evening light, but she does not dare step foot inside it. Instead, she watches from the outside like the shadows that haunt her.
The city is crumbling, turning to ash and dust alongside the gaunt-faced woman, but her satchel still bumps against her hip. Every so often, she looks up at that massive building and pulls out a piece of paper from her satchel. Occasionally, she adds to it, and her neutral expression brightens for a moment, but she always puts it back inside.
Not today, though. Today, her empty stomach is alive with nerves, gnawing at itself with hunger pangs that shoot tremors through her body and into the hands clutching the paper close to her chest. In broad daylight, the shadows watch her stare up at the building. For countless days, she approaches, hesitates, and then walks away.
On a day like any other, the shadows watch the woman take a deep breath and place a paper just inside the entrance of the building.
The next week, when she returns to that part of the city, the paper is stuck to the window.
She grins when she sees it, face aching at the unfamiliar motion, and for the first time, the shadows watch her step inside. Their eyes snap to the satchel at her side for the first time, but the next moment, she is gone.
Each week as she places paper in the desolate buildings, she places a new one inside the tall, once-golden building. Only she knows that the paper has cost her the pounding of her heart and the nerves roiling in her stomach, so she has made that paper into something she promised herself that she would not: a letter.
To the shadows that snatch it up and scour its contents, it is not much of a letter at all. Slowly, the shadows begin to realize that it took effort, sure, but it is not much. It is not enough to sustain this world.
Week after week, the letters reappear, and the woman grins in delight. The shadows grow darker, clinging to her heels as she walks, and the sun is hotter than ever, and she is hungrier than ever, but she is sustained by something unspeakable, something bright and joyous.
She writes her letters carefully, lovingly, and she holds them up to the moon when the nights are long. The moon neither approves or disapproves; she simply is, and the woman has learned that she will not go away. Moonlight is not like streetlights or the glowing beings turned to shadow. Moonlight does not fade. The light of the moon ebbs and flows, comes and goes, but she will never leave her place.
The moon watches as the woman writes her hopeful letters, and she also watches as the other letters begin to turn to ash and dust. Garbage cans overflow and give way under the pressure. The shadows begin to fade away entirely, and the other buildings turn to rubble, then dissolve further when there is no one left to haunt them.
The next morning, with the buildings turned to rubble and the shadows sleepily trailing the woman, she approaches the building. With a smile and another letter clutched to her chest, she climbs the steps and hurries towards the door.
As soon as the door opens, the woman slips the letter inside. Before she can close the door, the paper shoots back out to land at her feet.
Her smile stays, but this time, it is accompanied by trembling hands as she plucks the paper up from the ground.
She shoves it through the door again and pulls the door shut as quickly as she can, but the paper still escapes. This time, her smile fades, and she repeats the motion again but is denied.
Frantically, she shoves the letter inside over and over, but the wind pushes the letter back out. Over and over, she battles against the iron will of the wind, slamming her fingers and hands into the door in an attempt to close it fast enough.
Tears streak down her face as she sobs, but she does not stop trying to push the letter through the door until the door handle turns to ash in her hand, and she is left clutching the letter. The paper crinkles in her hand as she closes her fist tightly, but she can still read the first word through her blurry vision.
Her whole body aches as she curls into herself, scrunching up her body so tightly that she can feel the sharpness of her ribs and the cement scratching against her forehead. She repeats the word silently, over and over again.
Please. Please. Please. Please. Please.
Something cold and wet hits her hand.
It steams against her skin, and she feels cold shiver into her damp clothes. When she unfurls herself, water is falling from the darkened sky, and no matter how hard she clutches the paper in her hands, it turns to mush and tears apart into tiny, white pieces.
Rain brushes the faint silhouettes of the shadows, and they slip away into the universe. One by one, all of the shadows and buildings begin to fade, eaten away by the rain, and the woman rises to her feet shakily as she clutches her satchel to her chest.
“Wait,” she croaks out. “Please.”
When the rain is done, nothing remains but the gaunt, trembling woman clutching her bag of letters and the cement beneath her. The golden, marvelous building - and every other lesser one - is gone.
For hours, she paces back and forth on the familiar concrete, pain rippling down her spine and through her chest. She pulls out a letter from the satchel before tucking it away again protectively, but there are no shadows left in the field of concrete. She waits to fade, just like the shadows, when the sun shines down upon her, but her end never comes.
Her heartbeat is slow. Her stomach is growling. The moon is still overhead.
The nameless woman clutches her satchel to her chest, looks up at the stars, and begins to walk. She veers off of her normal course quickly; instead of walking the old routes of the roads, she forges onward past where the shadows previously swarmed the streets and blocked the shaded paths.
The sun is warm but not hot and oppressive, and as she walks, she notices its gentleness for the first time. Gradually, as the wind begins to blow again as she walks the path out of the concrete city, she notices it toying with her hair, with the flap of her satchel. She slaps it away, cradling the satchel close, but the wind does not particularly care.
Letters fly everywhere, scattering about the endless, concrete land, and the woman makes a noise of fear as the wind toys with them. She manages to grab a few, tucking them back into her bag, but one after another fall to the ground.
The woman watches in awe as fresh, green grass sprouts over the letters, crawling towards other patches of emerald growing from the fallen letters. As more pieces of paper flutter to the ground, the woman stops trying to catch them. From one letter, an oak sapling. From another, a patch of berry bushes. From others, water and rocks and patches of wild flowers and fruits and herbs spring forth above the concrete world.
Stomach growling, the woman hurries over to the bush, frantically shoving berries into her mouth. Sweet and red and warm, the berries make her smile. She may still be gaunt, but her stomach stops gnawing on itself, and relief from that pain is enough to let her slump to the ground.
Exhaustion settles over her as she runs her fingers over the soft grass and watches the tree sapling’s leaves sway in the gentle breeze. Suddenly, she is aware that she does not know the last time she slept. She is not sure that, before, she even knew that she wanted to rest.
As the last of the letters drift to the ground, bright silhouettes appear, glancing around in confusion.
Despite the sleep pulling at her, the woman rises to her feet. Slowly, cautiously, she walks towards the figures.
The figure steps forward and offers out a hand wordlessly. The woman cautiously reaches out towards her, and when their palms meet, the bright figures scattered across the area begin to take shape.
The two women stare at each other for a moment as silence stretches between them.
“I know you probably don’t remember me,” the gaunt woman mutters. “I’m… My name is-”
“Hope,” the older woman says, eyes crinkling as she smiles. “Your name is Hope.”