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[String of Stardust]

~Suzette~

༻Chapter 37༺

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     {Now…I cannot help but stare at the skull. The pale flesh long rotted away in this lonely, forgotten corner of the world. I steadily reach out to it—before I stop, and take off my glove. The winter air nearly immediately makes it go numb.

     I reach to him once more and touch the icy bone with my hand. Gently, I caress “his face,” so hard and inhuman. Of course it is, this is simply an object…it is no one. It has not been for a very long time.

     “God damn it!” I shout, the sound of my shrieking resounding through the cave, “Why, if you are right here…why did you never come back to me—?!”}

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     With a rough start I open my eyes to the room as dark as a raven’s feathers, attempting to calm my racing breaths. Yes, it was but a dream…but even in the waking world, it takes a moment for me to realize all the agony is merely imagined.

     Slowly, I turn to my side and stare at the alarm clock, until at last the time comes in view: only a hint past three in the morning. And so I turn to my previous position, attempting to return to sleep after the bizarre dream. Yet, rather than try to forget it as one would normally do with a nightmare, I linger upon the vision, attempting to sear it within my mind…

     I suppose it was not especially notable, mundane and yet still bearing a touch of the otherworldliness of dreams. Although already my memory begins to fail me, I do remember such elements as the shining shards poking through the snow, walking alone in a desolate wood…and most of all the skeleton, and its faded, weathered skull. I cannot quite parse what it may mean, just as any other dream. And indeed, there is little worth lingering upon at all. I have experienced dreams far more bizarre, and nightmares far more distressing; even if, even now, I am still a little taken aback by the despair which overwhelmed me…

     …And yet, I find I cannot bring myself to merely let this dream fade within the depths of my mind. I must remember it.

     The feeling it evokes in me…it is quite like other dreams I have had as of late, and it is becoming increasingly unnerving. Despite all evidence to the contrary, everything feels…familiar. Like a song heard in passing, whose lyrics fade swiftly, and yet the melody lingers on, arising from the recesses of your mind at the oddest times, tormenting you with the mystery of where precisely it came from. Yet, not all of my dreams are this way, but only a few. It quite reminds me of my memories long ago, of Alex—and yet, these are too clearly dreams to be anything more, as those were…

     Presently, I have no recourse beyond attempting to remember as much of each vision as I can, in hopes one day I will discover the answer I am searching for.

     For now, I simply sprawl out upon the bed, so large it feels as though it may engulf me entirely. It is quite warm, in spite of the evening air which fills the room being rather chilly. Yet despite what should be a pleasant contrast, I cannot help but be unsatisfied with this warmth, of my own heat plainly reflected back to myself. It is not a living, breathing warmth…it is not the warmth I so desperately desire.

     In spite of my attempts not to think of him too deeply, it fails, just as always. In the evenings, as I drift to sleep, I specifically attempt to avoid thinking of Hikaru, of the far away lands his travels have taken him; to where even if he returned home right this moment, who knows if he shall return successfully…

     And every single night, I fail.

     All is not as terrible as I feared…for our great distance, we keep in contact to a degree surely not afforded to anyone else on all the Earth. Multiple times a week, we write to one another, almost as though our lives are indeed connected—

     But alas…even so, it is not remotely the same.

     “Mama?”

     I jump a little, startled by the quiet voice interrupting my streaming thoughts. “Mama, are you awake?”

     I lift myself up, and gaze to the doorway, to the small child standing there tightly clasping a large plush bear. My eyes have adjusted to the darkness enough to see she has quite a large frown upon her face.

     “Yes, I am,” I reply, unable to speak much beyond a whisper. “What is the matter?”

     “I had a bad dream…can I sleep with you?”

     “Of course,” I smile, although I am certain she did not notice—if not because of the darkness, then because of the great speed she rushes to the bed, jumping on it to some imagined safety.

     “Are you well?” I ask, and in reply she simply pushes herself under the covers, and mumbles something incomprehensible.

     “It is all right,” I attempt to reassure her, pulling her to myself, gently stroking her hair… Ah, I cannot help but notice the irony of this in lieu of my own thoughts. “I am here now, my dear. You have nothing to worry about.”

     In return, Alexa simply nudges into me a little further—or maybe perhaps more accurately her bear, as she does not let it go for anything. Even so, I see her drowsily nod her head in reply, as she returns to sleep. I continue gazing upon her sleeping peacefully, a small smile now perched upon her face as it seems she has found some comfort; I cannot help but do the same.

     In spite of all that has happened, at least you are here.

     Yet as my thoughts wander, my smile fades…

     …Please forgive me, that I could not make things better for you.

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     For a moment, I take a rest in the main body of the bakery. While I am a tad exhausted—although whether from working, or my general disposition nowadays, I am unsure—some joy washes over me as I gaze upon the bakery. Although it has been open for a couple of years now, I find myself in continual awe; decades of dreams at last made corporeal, in a form more beautiful than I ever imagined. Warm brown parquet flooring, cream colored tiles with a garland of pink and yellow flowers painted across the top; even a few small tables with rosy gingham cloths and vases of flowers, more befitting of a café in Solzédniê than a bakery in Bydlin—although, indeed, that could be said of the entire establishment. Elegant and delicate, although a little less pompous than what one may find in the capital, I hope…

     Ah…it truly is lovely, is it not?

     Soon, however, my reverie is broken by the twinkling of bells as the entrance opens. A tall, thin man with hair an even more striking red than Alexa’s walks in, a mild look of what appears to be nervousness upon his face.

     “Jéyu bon!” I greet, quite elated to see a customer on this rather quiet day. “Your usual, I presume?”

     “Have I ever gotten much else?”

     “My!” I exclaim with a laugh, much more loudly than I once considered acceptable for myself. “I certainly hope your family eats more than my cakes!”

     “We’ll consider it!” he chuckles as I proceed further into the bakery to prepare his order, always the same each and every week: numerous small cakes, and a large bag of dog treats.

     Once I return, already he has placed the two ârzje upon the counter top, and I swiftly give him his sweets.

     “Mâzjêr né,” he replies rather more meekly than usual—yet still, I merely reply “of course!” as happily as always.

     But then, rather than return home, he simply stays in place, looking to the side with a queer look upon his face. I do not wish to shoo him away, as there are not exactly any other customers waiting; yet still, he is acting rather oddly…

     “Forgive me for intruding…” he begins, “I know this isn’t my business. But still, I—I can’t help but notice it seems you’re always confined to this bakery. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you anywhere else.”

     “Bydlin is not the tiniest village…” I chuckle nervously, not quite certain what he means.

     “No, but…everyone I know, I see them in more than one place, at least. Bydlin isn’t especially large either.

     “Does it not get lonely?”

     I stay still for a moment, blinking at this unexpected forwardness. Instinctively, then, I gaze away, and tightly clasp my hands behind myself…

     “Well, I must look after my daughter; her father—he is quite far away at the moment, and even if I have some help…”

     “Of course; I know my eldest is still a nightmare, sometimes,” the man sighs, “But still, do take it from me, at least; if you have been, please don’t isolate yourself. It only makes whatever you’re struggling with much worse.”

     I do not believe I am doing such a thing…am I?

     Yet the slight embarrassment which washes over me, and the phantom tears I feel upon the edges of my eyes, tell altogether a different tale.

     “I shall keep this in mind!” I reply cheerily, attempting to mask my true feelings of the matter. He merely nods his head, and bids me farewell.

     I stand in a slight daze, lost within my thoughts. I do believe he is indeed correct; even when I may spend more time with others, I tend to spend it alone, although I once was never this way…

     And yet, my numerous responsibilities, the emptiness of the bed which I lay my head each night—need I truly—?

     Before my thought may finish itself, another man as thin and freckled, but far shorter than the last, walks in. Soon he comes up and leans upon the counter, curly golden hair falling messily around his emotionless face.

     “Jéyu bon, Oskar!”

     To my relief, he gives a slight smirk.

     “Sâlêzj,” he replies casually, “What’re you up to?”

     “What does it appear to be?” I laugh, attempting to put upon a jovial mood. He merely gazes at me blankly.

     “Same shit as always?”

     My, admittedly somewhat artificial, cheeriness vanishes in an instant.

     “You need not speak so disrespectfully,” I huff in annoyance, “You do realize how much I have strove to do the ‘same shit as always,’ yes?”

     “Pšyke,” he apologizes, “I didn’t mean no disrespect…didn’t realize you’s so high strung today.”

     “I am not high strung!” I exclaim a tad more passionately than I meant to, “Is it simply too much to wish to be left to my bakery in peace?”

     He frowns as though he truly is regretful, at least a little.

     “Forgive me…guess my choice of words wasn’t too good,” he sighs. “Although…”

     “Although?”

     “I only say that cause I am worried about you, y’know.”

     I take a deep breath, gazing into his eyes. Surely this is not about—

     “You’re barely around anymore. Even Florence said he ain’t seen you too much lately, beyond pickin’ up and droppin’ off Alexa.”

     “You as well?” I sigh, putting my hand to my head… “My last customer expressed similar thoughts…”

     “Yeah,” he replies flatly. “Everyone can see it.”

     “W-Why is it your business? How do you not know I am merely a private person?”

     “You never was when you first came—”

     “I also did not have a child and a business…have you somehow forgotten, Oskar?”

     “Course not,” he frowns further, looking genuinely sorrowful. “But even with that, y’seem…off.”

     “Off how?”

     “Well—”

     “Lady Suzette!” a voice calls from within the kitchen, “Can you come and help me?”

     “Of course!” I reply to Helena, the youngest baker of the bakery—and the only one scheduled to work today beyond myself. “I will be there in a moment!

     “Sâ pšyku, Oskar, I need to—”

     “Wait!”

     I stop in place, rather taken aback by his tone. “…Yes?”

     “I’ve a proposition for you.”

     “A…proposition?”

     “Why don’t you go to the Harvest Festival in a few weeks? Maybe you can even bake somethin’ for it, or just relax, but…I don’t know, at least somethin’ that ain’t purely work.”

     “I have thought of it before…” I mutter to myself. Although, that was in years past—I had entirely forgotten this year…

     “Well, just think about it, okay?” he shrugs, “Shit, you could bring Alexa too—I bet she’d like playin’ with the other kids, with her mom around.”

     Suddenly, my embarrassment turns to abject shame…

     Yes…Alexa truly only gets to go out and enjoy herself with Florence; I mostly stay at home…

     “W-Well, vwârdnie, Oskar. I shall think about it.”

     “Vwâ,” he answers halfheartedly. Then he goes along on his way, and I return to the back of the bakery once more.

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     Slowly, I walk along the small dirt path which leads to our home, out of Bydlin and to the forests upon the outskirts. Not too slowly, however, as Alexa pulls me along behind her, with such force it feels as though she is trying to pull my arm out of its socket.

     “And then we went to this big bookstore! I didn’t even know those were a thing!”

     “Oh?”

     “There were so many, I didn’t know what to choose!”

     “Then is that not a book you are holding there?” I say facetiously, as with her other hand she holds what is clearly a large tome, neatly wrapped in a simple brown paper.

     “No, no, Florence got it! I didn’t have to!”

     “Then what did he get you?”

     “That’s why we got to get home! Than I can show you!” she exclaims even more loudly, pulling me with even more force.

     “Do not pull my arm out first!”

     In spite of my protests, she does not listen a whit; but luckily, we soon return to our home, nestled largely by itself within the trees.

     Yet once I open the front door—

     “Oh gods!” I jump, startled by the sight before me: an inhuman specter sitting upon the sofa. After a moment, I realize who it is; but not before—

     “Go away!” Alexa screams, throwing her book across the room, crashing it into the other wall!

     “Alexa, what are you doing?!”

     She starts running, yet not before I can grab the back of her dress, abruptly halting her.

     “Whatever’s scaring you, I’m going to make it go away!”

     Without even gazing upwards, all I hear is the sound of a woman losing herself in laughter…

     “Alexa, my eyes simply played a trick on me…” I sigh, “And, besides—if there were truly an intruder, you should run away, not towards them…”

     “But—”

     “No ‘buts!’” I say sternly, swiftly turning her around to face myself. She gazes up to me with glossy green eyes, as though she is about to burst into tears.

     “I just wanted to protect you…”

     I lean down, and pull her into an embrace, overwhelmed with a strange feeling of pity and frustration.

     “My…you realize I am the mother here, yes?” I pull away from her, keeping my hands upon her shoulders, “I am the one who is meant to protect you, not yourself with me.”

     Alexa nods, still appearing rather dejected.

     “Stay here while I go open the curtains,” I tell her, as I straighten my posture and go into the dark parlor. The specter, meanwhile, has ceased her laughter, and merely looks to me with surprisingly blank violet eyes.

     I go to the center of the room, opening the curtain of the large window, before at last going to the edge where Alexa’s tome has unceremoniously landed, hoping it did not harm anything in the process. To my relief, all is mostly well; unfortunately, however, the book itself could be better, with the wrapping torn in fragments and the edges of its cover bludgeoned from the force of the wall.

     “You may come in,” I say, slightly exasperated, and Alexa rushes towards me.

     “My book…”

     “See,” I wave the volume in front of her, “This is what happens when you are not careful.”

     “C-Can you fix it?” she mumbles, disappointment washing over her already unhappy face.

     “I shall do my best,” I weakly grin, and run my fingers through her hair. “It is merely the cover which seems to be harmed, none of the inner pages—so please do not cry, all right?”

     She quietly nods.

     For a moment, I stand in place, trying to gather my thoughts from the madness I have accidentally started.

     “Alexa,” I gaze down to her, “Please go attend to your room, and I will try to fix your book. And…please be careful.”

     “All right, Mama,” she concedes, before slumping through the house.

     I sigh; I feel a little terrible sending her off when she is already upset, yet hopefully this will teach her not to act so rashly…and, besides, I have a visitor.

     Swiftly, I turn around to truly face her. Still she delicately sits upon the sofa, her manner bearing the poise of the most elegant of noblewomen.

     “I definitely wasn’t expecting that,” she smirks.

     “I should be saying such to you…” I say while frantically looking about the house for anything to flatten Alexa’s book with.

     “Here, give it to me.”

     And thus, I turn around and hand the book over to Maiden Moon. With one hand she holds the tome, and with the other she flattens it as easily as one might a single, thin sheet of paper…

     “Mâzjêr vrémond né…”

     “Yes,” she replies flatly.

     I sit across from her and instantly find myself sinking into the chair, suddenly overwhelmed by a wave of exhaustion from the day…

     “You have certainly arrived early…” I say, “Is all well with Hikaru?”

     “As ‘well’ as ever, I suppose,” Maiden Moon replies with an exaggerated roll of her eyes. “It’s simply boring watching him sleep.”

     I widen my eyes in disbelief, “It is already evening there?”

     “It has been for some time, and will be for longer still.”

     I gaze upon the ground, a slight whirring within my mind…

     Of course, I knew he is very far, yet that is certainly…quite far.

     I close my eyes, and merely take a long, deep breath enjoying at last having the rest enough to fully fill my lungs with air. I feel myself drooping downwards, nearly falling into slumber.

     It appears rude to essentially ignore her, letting the blanket of sleep slowly envelop me—no, it certainly is rude…yet regardless, just as always I suppose, if everyone is to be believed, I would prefer to once more be left alone. Especially as it is Maiden Moon here…

     Her and I are on much more amicable terms with one another, perhaps one may even call us friends, now…that said, it is difficult not to look upon her, and not see all that I lack. Her tall, slender, ethereal form, her ability to see all the world, her ability to do wondrous feats I surely cannot even imagine—and the fact that she remains the one at Hikaru’s side… As utterly loathsome as it is, occasionally it is difficult not to wonder if he truly would prefer all to remain this way, by the side of one much more beautiful and remarkable than myself—

     “Now you seem just like him,” Maiden Moon interrupts with a sigh.

     “What is that to mean?” I ask, my eyes once more shooting open as she interrupts my thoughts.

     “You seem as miserable as he,” she frowns, leaning backwards and crossing her arms. “What’s wrong?”

     “…With myself?”

     She raises her eyebrow, a look of mild befuddlement upon her face.

     “No, the weather.”

     Now I too frown, face growing warm with embarrassment.

     “You are simply the first one today to ask what the issue truly is, rather than merely prescribe a solution…

     “I suppose it is simply…” I trail off once more, attempting to gather my scattered thoughts.

     What…is the matter?

     I gaze to the floor, attempting to string each one out, one by one.

     “Should I not be happy?” I whisper, “I have practically all that I ever desired, my greatest of dreams have come true; a daughter, a bakery, friendship, a home of my own, free from that stifling life I once lived…should I not practically live in a constant state of elation? I am happy with these things, and yet I find myself often listless, easily flustered, sorrowful—

     “Everyone appears to be rather upset with me, saying I need to leave the house more, the bakery, explore Bydlin; yes, that does sound enjoyable, I suppose, and yet…I do not quite know. My mind remains foggy, and…

     “Ugh, it is so frustrating!” At last, the dam bursts, and all my tears begin rushing outwards. “Why must I be so eternally, dreadfully pathetic? Never satisfied, forever weak, dutifully waiting for one to return that, who knows if he truly wishes to, or if he’s merely entertaining a sad, poor woman—

     “No,” Maiden Moon interjects. “It’s definitely not that, at least.”

     “Oh?” I turn my head upwards, gazing into her eyes with a look I must imagine seems crazed. “Are you so certain? Why would he care for myself, when he has you? Is this some game, or do you merely pity me as well…!

     “Why then must he be so far away, remain so far away—is it truly for my own sake, was it ever?”

     She narrows her eyes and purses her lips.

     “He’s a complete dumbass…but he is also utterly obsessed with you. Not that you’d be remiss for being done with the former.”

     “That is the issue,” I sigh, “In spite of everything, I still wish he were here…am I truly the fool?”

     At last, her gazes drifts away from my own. “I think we all are,” she says with an odd quietness.

     “D-Do forgive me,” I mumble, “I suppose that was…rather uncalled for.”

     “Well, at least you’re insufferable as always.”

     “Sâ pšyku…”

     At this, she does a rather irritated sigh.

     “You’ve truly the mildest standards for ‘uncalled for.’”

     “O-Oh…” I whisper even more meekly, not sure quite how to respond.

     After a moment, Maiden Moon speaks up once more.

     “Have you told Hikaru any of these things? He seems under the impression you’re perfectly fine and satisfied.”

     “I do not wish to worry him so, to show I am so weak—”

     At this, Maiden Moon merely buries her face within her palms.

     “Insufferable.”

     I frown…

     It has become so difficult to parse all my feelings, to describe them; and it hardly seems to help, but…

     “Mama!” Suddenly, Alexa bursts from the dining room, returning to the parlor, “I’m finished!”

     “I’ll return later,” Maiden Moon sighs. “Let me know if you have a letter by then.”

     And with this, she disappears with a puff of light.

     “Mama…?” Alexa asks more softly, coming up to my side. Suddenly, she…puts her palm flat upon my face?

     “Alexa, what are you—”

     “Why are you crying?” she pouts once more.

     “I am n—”

     “You were, I can feel it!”

     I sigh…well, I suppose I cannot tell her I was not.

     “It is nothing, truly,” I reply, before swiftly changing the topic so as to not linger upon it. “Would you like to show me the book Florence got for you, now?”

     Her eyes widen, and almost appear as though they are sparkling from the enthusiasm. Soon she finds the book, marvels at how it looks precisely the same as when she procured it—and then jumps to my side, a large happy grin upon her face. Apparently, this is a historical text about famous knights throughout the ages, back when they truly existed; I suppose, out of all the things she has heard from faerie stories, this is the element that has come to fascinate her the most…

     Although it appears she wished to read her book to myself, predictably I am the one who must read most of it to her, as such a text is far beyond her level. Luckily, she does not appear to mind the slightest bit, eagerly grasping on to each and every word with the passion of a disciple with a priest.

     As for myself, it is quite a relief having a small distraction, before I at last must face what I have been avoiding all along…the words I do not know how to say, but must find the strength for regardless.

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