custard tart (from 2018)

sunset over water

i found another short story i wrote in 2018 while cleaning out my inbox the other day.

Before I got awakened by a light, I was right in the middle of a vivid dream.

In the dream, I was walking along the sidewalk with my parents. We passed a small shop, and I decided to check it out. The squat, one-story building had a rustic feel to it, with wooden steps leading up to the door. It appeared to be some sort of gift shop. I went inside.

Behind the cash counter stood a centaur — or a unicorn. The image was fuzzy in my mind.

It was a man’s torso on a horse’s body. Sometimes his head flickered into a unicorn’s head. I can’t recall what he looked like exactly, except that he resembled one of those classic centaurs you see in Greek mythology, with a fairly tanned upper body, muscular but not too muscular, and a sleek brown coat characteristic of Thoroughbreds. His face was a blur. I guess in my dream my brain didn’t deem it necessary to conjure up a face for an imaginary creature.

I felt nothing toward the centaur but an irrational amount of skepticism and contempt.

“Psh. What do you think you’re trying to prove?” I asked, in the most condescending tone I could muster.

The centaur fiddled with the trinkets by the cash register and muttered some unintelligible reply. I wasn’t really sure if he’d even spoken. The memory of the dream was fading . . . Slowly but surely, it was fading.

“I’m going to be frank with you,” I said. “You’re not impressing anyone by being here, and no one is interested in your existence, or even convinced that your species is real. I’m not impressed in the slightest, just so we’re clear. I don’t believe in you at all. You wouldn’t be able to fool a toddler, much less me.”

At this, the centaur shrunk into a critter the size of a small cat, and I had to bend over the counter to see him. He hadn’t transformed into a cat; he was still a centaur in every way, shape, and form, only many times smaller. He had also acquired a magenta glow, which pulsated to the tempo of his speaking. He spoke rapidly, defending himself against my criticism. He talked and talked, letting loose a never-ending stream of words that gushed out like a river streaming out of a dark cavern into the open air, words that I could no longer recall on account of the unreliability of dream memories.

That’s when I woke up.

A light in my room, which shined past my closed eyelids onto my retina, jarred me out of sleep. I didn’t adjust the covers or move a single muscle. I opened my right eye a tiny sliver, and glimpsed my room illuminated by a soft white light, casting a watery sheen on my blankets, desk, and potted plants. The origin of the illumination I failed to identify.

My heart rate sped up. I was still paralyzed in bed, unable to even tilt my head to look around. I imagined that there was a thief in my yard with a flashlight and the light was beaming in through the glass window panes. Or I was still still half asleep and this curious phenomenon was purely in my head. No. I wasn’t imagining it.

The wan light neither dimmed nor wavered. I remained in bed, trying to shake off the last vestiges of my dream. The unicorn’s blabber still echoed in my mind. After several minutes of no change, I arose to investigate the mystery of the light.

I went to the glass door leading to my backyard and stepped out into the crisp night. The strange light in my bedroom went out as soon as I laid my foot down in the grass. I didn’t notice, however, because I was too busy marveling at the hot air balloon in my yard.

I blinked incredulously. A slender young man stood beside the hot air balloon and was stoking the flame in the burner, inflating the balloon until it blotted out the light from the full moon. He turned when he heard me step outside, and made an urgent gesture with his hand. “Oi there! We need to leave, now. Hurry and go pack up your things!”

I shook my head.

“That’s right, we need to leave, now.”

“Why–what . . .” I sputtered. This was more insane than the dream I’d just had. I was jolted to consciousness at this ungodly hour by an alien light, and discovered this stranger intruding on my property.

The young man finished tending to the burner and began inspecting the gauges on the propane tanks inside the basket. “Didn’t you hear me? We’re running out of time.”

I was bewildered. “Are you Timothee Chalamet?”

The young man nodded. “That’s right, in the flesh.”

“The guy from Call Me By Your Name?

“Yeah. I swear, it’s really me.” The young man moved into the feeble orange light under the burner. “See?” I saw that he had the exact same tousled dark hair, diminutive stature, and bony facial structure as the famous actor. Comparing his features to my mental picture of Chalamet, they were identical. Maybe it really was him.

“But how–why are you here?” I asked.

Timothee sighed exasperatedly. “I told you, because we’re running out of time.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Why?”

“Look, I’m going to need time to address all your questions and concerns, and right now there’s no time for explaining. We only have a few minutes left, so scurry inside, grab only the bare necessities, and hop into the basket, all right? We should be off already.”

“Okay,” I said without further consideration, and ducked back inside. I shuffled quickly across the hall to the phone, reciting in my head what I would say to the police. That I lived by myself in the countryside. That a deranged man, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the actor Timothee Chalamet, had illegally landed his hot air balloon on my property. That I believed his intention was to coerce me onto his balloon, kidnap me, and sell me to some human trafficking ring. I dialed the local police headquarters, but no one responded. Of course. This was a small village. There wouldn’t be anyone at the operator station at this time. The only other person I could think to call was Siena, but she was off-limits since she had ex-communicated me the previous evening. I was utterly alone.

From my bedroom came the noises of rustling clothes and clunking drawers. Alarmed, I set the phone down and rushed through the hallway back to my room. The intruder had ransacked my closet. I went outside and saw him tossing my suitcase into the hot air balloon’s basket. “Get on!” he called.

If I was going to get murdered, so be it. I needed to get my suitcase back. Resigned to my fate, I strode through the grass and clambered onto the hot air balloon just as it lifted off.

It was a bleary afternoon. The kind that makes you want to close your eyes and doze off in your chair. The kind that wraps around you like a mother’s warm embrace, tinged with concern. The kind where the sun’s sublime tones refuse to be extinguished by the encroaching dusk. The kind that feels like it lasts forever.

It must have been six thirty p.m. when I set out for the village on my bicycle, and the sky was still bright.

In my left hand I held a wicker basket lined with parchment paper. It was for carrying the goods I planned to buy at the square, which included soap, tea, blackberry jam, dates, mackerel, olive oil, and honey. My right hand clutched the handlebar of my bike. I pedaled at a leisurely pace, savoring the summery atmosphere of the evening and the breeze blowing past my ears. The peach trees on the sides of the path grasped at each other with spindly, sparse-leafed limbs. A brook murmured faintly in the distance. The sun began its descent and the western sky took on a reddish orange hue. The few squirrels that dared venture out from the sanctuary of the peach orchard sat behind clumps of grass, chittering, digging for long-buried nuts.

Normally I went to buy stuff on Saturday, but I had run out of soap and I couldn’t very well go without soap for a week. I’d also been meaning to replenish my stocks of chrysanthemum tea and blackberry jam. Might as well pick up the rest of the things on my grocery list while I was at it. I liked buying groceries. I lived a little ways away from the center of the village, over the hill from the wineries and fruit orchards, so it was nice to ride my bike to town and admire the scenery along the way.

I arrived just as the sun dipped below the horizon, and I had to rush to get to all the places I wanted to buy goods from. I went on a little scavenger hunt amidst the quaint shops and farmers’ markets. After half an hour of traversing the streets and dumping items in my basket, I managed to cross everything off my list except honey. There was a lovely beekeeper who provided jars of raw honey in the Maria Galilei marketplace, and I was a loyal and frequent customer of hers. We were actually good friends. I hurried over to greet her before the vendors packed up shop. When I got to her usual spot, however, she wasn’t there. Instead, there was an old man sitting behind all her wares, selling jars and jars of honey with relative ease, with a practiced air about him, as if he had the job every day. My friend was nowhere in sight. I approached the old man, hoping to inquire upon her whereabouts.

“Hello,” I said.

The old man smiled gently. “Welcome.”

“Are you taking over for Siena?

“Ah, yes. I am.” The man gestured at the rows of multi-sized jars of honey in varying shades of dark amber and bronze, their lids festooned with ribbons, laid out in front of him in neat stacks. “Would you prefer acacia or clover?”

I gave the jars a quick once-over. “Clover, please.”

The old man began to package my order. He had kind eyes with creases at the corners. His nose was prominent and Romanesque, sticking out an inch or two above the plane of his face, and a sun hat obscured his head. A few strands of gray hair dangled out on his brow.

As I handed him the money, I asked again about my friend. “Did Siena tell you when she may be returning?”

The old man adjusted his hat. “It’s hard to say. Siena went on a trip. She did not tell me where, or for how long. She figured her retired old neighbor would be perfect for the job, and I used to be a vendor in this marketplace back in my day.”

I felt strangely indignant. “Siena never told me about a trip,” I said, frowning.

“Oh, did you two know each other?”

“Yes, we were friends.”

“Did you know her quite personally?”

“Yes.”

“Ah. I see,” the old man whispered. His voice had dropped and he avoided meeting my gaze.

My irritation increased. “Well, thank you for the honey. Good night,” I said bluntly, preparing to leave. I couldn’t wait to go home all of a sudden.

“Hold on a minute.”

I looked back at him.

The old man was fingering his hat uncomfortably, with an almost sheepish expression on his face. “Now, there was this one thing. Siena wanted me to– you see, she wanted me to convey a message to anyone who inquired after her.” He paused.

He appeared unwilling to go on.

I waited patiently.

The old man inhaled, then said, “Siena wanted me to tell you . . . not to come to this marketplace anymore. She told you not to buy honey from her and not to try to contact her. She said she has cut off all communications with you and would appreciate it if you did the same.”

I stood there, shell-shocked. The old man flushed a deep purple and began sorting the stacks of honey. I turned around slowly, shuffled to my bike, and biked out of town with my basket.

In hindsight, I should have stayed and asked for clarification. It certainly would have saved some grief in the future. But I was just so stunned that I didn’t think of asking any questions. I accepted the ultimatum as it was presented to me and ran away with my tail between my legs. Maybe I had always known this was coming and that’s why I accepted my fate so calmly.

I went home and cooked myself pasta. I watered all my plants, restocked the pantry with the goods, and put out fresh dishes of mackerel for the stray cats. Then I showered and brushed my teeth. I watched an old film before bed.

That night, an inexplicable light woke me up.

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writing · painting · software

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silkthyme

silkthyme

writing · painting · software

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