New Short Story – Solitaire

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This story came out of nowhere two days ago. Wasn’t happy with the original title, but I like the new one; the story is inspired by the song “The Islander” by Nightwish. If you don’t know the song or the band, check it out. They’re brilliant.

Grey spray exploded on grey rocks under the grey sky. Drops of sea mist descended, sprinkling through the low mist and tickling the Watcher’s leathery face. Early morning condensation dripped from his full grey beard and hung like tears from the brim of his somber brown hat. He blinked, once, as was his wont and turned away from that never-ending bleakness of salt and foam. It was not the first time he had done so; indeed, it was not the thousandth, nor ten thousandth. This existence tugged at him, hushed whispers present every morning reminding him of lives long past. Reminiscences of true sunrises and warm twilights reared their heads upon waking every morning, drawing him the long miles out to the lighthouse at the edge of the world. It was his to remember, his to regret, and his to watch for whatever might come from over those steely waves.

The Watcher trudged back over uneven, rocky ground. His head bent, he stared at the dreary cracks and stones under his feet. Another day without any sign of what he should be looking for. He knew that there was a reason he was out there, knew that despite the punishment, it was not a fruitless position.

After some time, returning to the small house he shared with the Helper, the Watcher found himself next to the small grove of trees. It was the only such copse on the island; he’d had decades to search the place for others, and his conclusion was that each was a marker. They were planted too regularly, too evenly, and the monolithic stones around the area marked it too well. Each of the seven trees signified one of the previous Watchers. A short conversation with the Helper had confirmed it, once he’d known what to ask; it was difficult to get much information out of the Helper unless he knew exactly which questions to ask.

Having a companion in the Helper was useful, he knew. As the Watcher trudged back into the cottage, he saw the Helper out of the corner of his eye, returning from the well to the west. The Helper was a tall man, and quiet, with a full red beard and bright shaggy hair, but his mere company was often enough to keep the Watcher from just giving up, some days. It was tempting, when he rose with the dim sunrise to make his daily pilgrimage out to the edge of the world and watch for nothing.

Sometimes the Helper spoke to him on those mornings, providing him with just enough energy to take those first steps out of the cottage and onto the rocky soil. He reminded the Watcher of his brother—what? My brother?—especially when his nagging brought the Watcher to sit and wait for hours at the sea.

The Watcher shook his head, disturbed at his recollection. He had forgotten his brother long decades ago, some part of his mind knowing that the memory held dangerous things. Unwilling to let the Helper see his momentary weakness, the Watcher shoved his way through the door, past the small kitchen, and into his room. He collapsed onto the bed, holding his head between his hands, and tried to remember. It was difficult, with so many years of the same grey drudgery crowding his mind.

Images bubbled to the surface, slowly at first but with greater detail as the Watcher forced himself to look. He recalled a weathered face, smiling and showing lines at the corner of his eyes. The images kept coming, and that smile vanished, replaced by a vacant stare as the Watcher reached down to brush blood from his cheek.

The memory of his brother’s murder crashed home, and the Watcher wept.

When he looked up, still thinking with rage and sadness of seeing his brother die on the blade of his best friend, the Helper was in the doorway. He looked down at the Watcher with sorrowful eyes, seeming to somehow know his pain. The Helper said nothing, but simply put his hand on the Watcher’s shoulder for a moment. His firm touch brought the Watcher back to the present, back to reality. The memory was in the past.

“I remembered,” was all he said.

The Helper nodded, knowing.

“It was—it was my brother,” he continued. “His death was what started everything.”

“You’re here, because of it.”

The Watcher didn’t respond, though he knew it to be true. He stood up, finally, and pushed his way into the early evening, intending to spend the rest of his night beneath the seven trees, shrouded in the perpetual mist on the island.

His days remained the same, though the new—old—memory of his brother stayed, snug, in the back of his head. He could never quite shake the feeling that the Helper reminded him of his brother, and when one morning the Helper appeared suddenly beside him, as he sat and watched the waves, another memory unfolded.

It was  similar to where he sat right then: he’d been watching, in solitude as had been proscribed, when there was suddenly a man next to him. The Helper made no sound when he approached, at least that the Watcher heard. The waves crashing below were loud enough, and he was expecting no one. The Helper, though, was always almost completely silent when he moved, as if in reverence to the somber mood over the island.

As it was, though, the appearance of the Helper kept him going. Whether it was uncharacteristic benevolence on the part of the men who’d sent the Watcher to this bleak exile, or simple luck that the Helper found this island, he was willing to accept his presence.

That day, feeling the dust grating on the stones under his hands, and occasional sprays of water tickle his bared feet, the Watcher knew that something had started, and the memories were just the beginning.

Thoughts of the Helper’s appearance brought other things to the surface, images he’d long forgotten. He remembered his own arrival on the island at the end of the world. He recalled taking his first step off the little boat, escorted by four armed men, shackles still binding his hands and feet, chains still clinking in the wet air. They led him to the house he now called home, and only there did they remove his restraints. With eyes averted, three of them went to the grove of trees—one was only a sapling, at that point; the Watcher supposed the previous man had only died recently—and the fourth gave him his directions: You will remain on this island, vigilant and always seeking. You will know your faults for what they are, and know your punishment. You will be the Watcher, until they come from the endless sea.

The man had ignored his questions, then, in fact acting as though the Watcher no longer existed. He did not even acknowledge it when the Watcher fell to his knees and begged to know who “they” were. The guard merely turned and left, gathering the other three in his wake. They were the last humans the Watcher saw, at least until the Helper.

That memory in turn ignited another, as the Watcher made his slow way across familiar cracks and flourishing mosses back from the endless sea. Standing on one foot for a moment, balancing, he suddenly remembered the first time he’d ever been on a boat. The lapping of the water against the wooden sides of their little rowboat, his brother, so much bigger than he at that age, manning the oars—it flooded into him like a roaring wind, heedless of the result. The Watcher lost his balance and planted his other foot on a patch of moss, his boot rubbing it away from the rock underneath.

There were emotions that went with that memory, but he couldn’t quite grasp them; they seemed foreign, something for other people to understand but forbidden to him in his lonely exile.

Later, another recollection came to him, this time while he sat in the midst of the seven trees. The Helper was wandering around, gathering brush for firewood, but the Watcher merely sat with his thoughts under the bent boughs overheard. He felt a solace, among these testaments to old Watchers. It was almost comforting, knowing that he was not the only man to suffer this existence.

Amidst such fatal thoughts, a bright sun broke through the clouds of his mind. He knew that the boat was the trigger, the stepping stone, and again he found himself reminded of his childhood. He saw faces full of pride, with shining eyes. Blue and brown, they looked upon him the same way. His parents, he knew, and remembered that his father shared that same bushy red beard with his brother, and he saw his mother’s dark brown hair falling to her shoulders and held out of her face with a bright red scarf. It sobered him, thinking that they must be long gone by now. They were years older than he, and he was—with a shock, the Watcher realized that he didn’t know his own age. Struggling with this, trying to place himself, he went inside the cottage.

The Helper was eating, with a clay mug of water at his elbow. He looked up at the Watcher’s entrance, somehow with an expectant look in his eyes. The Helper always seemed to sense his mood, and knew when he wanted to talk.

“How long ago was it, when you came here?”

The Helper merely looked at him for a moment. He took a bite of the mash before him, as if emphasizing that he could do so. Only after washing that food down with a swig of water did he respond.

“I came to you seventeen years ago.”

Emboldened by this straightforward answer—the Watcher had one clue, now—he asked another question. “How long was I here before you came? Do you know?” His voice sounded strained. It had been a long time since any sort of excitement was present in a conversation between them.

This time, the Helper was silent. He took another bite.

Sighing, exasperated, the Watcher took a seat at the table. Perhaps another angle would be better. “Did they tell you how old I was when I was sent here?”

Again, the Helper was anything but helpful. “You know the answer to your own question. You do not need me for that.”

The Watcher grumbled in reply, wondering how he was supposed to know the answer to that question when he asked it in the first place. Perhaps there was some way he could figure it out, using the knowledge of the Helper’s arrival seventeen years past.

Casting his attention once again into the depths of memory, the Watcher began eating the meager meal of bread and fish before him. It was the normal fare; on the island at the edge of the world, there was no room for variety. His weathered fingers broke apart the slice of bread while he examined memories, discarding so many copies of the walk to the sea and back. It seemed that those took up his whole mind, with the exceptions of the few newfound memories of his past.

The Watcher finished his meal and told the Helper that he was going out for a walk. The Helper, for once, nodded and walked out the door right behind him. The Watcher looked at him in surprise. The Helper never walked with him.

“Can I help you?” he groused, irritated that he would not be alone with his thoughts this one time.

The Helper was silent for a time, as they walked past the seven trees and out into the twilit crags and rocks. Finally, he spoke. “You seem troubled, today.”

The Watcher snorted. “When am I not troubled? I’ve been given a life sentence to a pointless existence.”

The Helper shook his head, unperturbed by the Watcher’s brief flash of anger. “More so, today. You have questions. It has been years since you have had questions.”

Was it really so long? The Watcher wondered at that for a moment. When days seemed to meld together into one long eyeblink of monotony, it did not surprise him. When he couldn’t even place his own age, how could it?

Clearing his throat, the Watcher responded. “Yes, well. I do have questions.”

“Ask away, Watcher.”

The Watcher glanced at the other man, noting the sarcastic tone when he addressed him as “Watcher.” The Helper had never shown any sort of tone before.

“A question. Yes.” The Watcher had to clear his throat again. It had been some time since he’d spoken to such an extent. “Did the other Watchers have Helpers?”

“Some did, I suppose. Though they probably weren’t called Helpers.”

Something about that tickled the Watcher’s mind, but he pushed it aside, intending to take full advantage of the suddenly free-speaking Helper. His feet carried him forward, toward the small grain field that they maintained. “I just feel like you know more than you let on. You know how long ago I came here. And how old I was.”

The Helper simply nodded. “I do. And so do you.”

Frustrated, the Watcher ground his teeth. In his anxiety, another memory bloomed. He knew it immediately, needed no clues to figure it out. It came in a flash of steel and blood and screams, the shouts of a man—a murderer—and a woman. The begging unnerved the Watcher, now, as it didn’t when it happened. Then, all he’d known was revenge, a pure and raging desire to punish the man who killed his brother.

Those two lives, taken by his hands, had purchased him his life on the island. With the completion of this newest memory came the knowledge of a number. An age.

He felt grimness cover his face, and realized that the Helper had left him. He looked back, but in the swift darkness could not see him. Shrugging uncomfortably in the presence of gathering shadows and vivid images of death, he turned his feet away from the grain field. He found himself, some time later, at the edge of the sea. He sat down on a rock a few paces back from the precipice and closed his eyes against the black surf stretching out below and away.

The dim light of dawn woke him from uneasy dreams of red beards, crinkled eyes, boats, and chains.

He stood and stretched, grateful that, for once, he did not have to make the long trek out to watch. He moved forward and took up his usual vigil.

The Watcher sat, his legs dangling over the edge of the rocks. He enjoyed the precarious perch as much as anything out at the end of the world: it brought a thrill, sometimes, as it did today. An expectation of things about to happen. It let him avoid despair when he watched, in vain, day after day for boats, sails, anything to appear on that steel horizon.

This new day, with the waves crashing below and spraying higher than usual, he could almost remember what it was like to swim, to sport about under the melting summer sun. Warm memories bubbled up, rekindling a brief contentment inside of him. He recalled, for the first time in decades, a beautiful young woman with locks blowing free, drying in the noon heat of the shore of a lake. He could not remember her name, but he remembered her, and she was important to him.

For the first time in fifty-four years, the Watcher smiled.

As the muscles on his face strained to remember how, and his lips began to curl upward, his eyes made their own discovery. Black shapes, no more than dots at first but growing quickly into squares above bleak hulls, sped from the demarcation of grey sky and iron sea. The Watcher’s smile grew, knowing finally what he was seeing, what he was meant to see.

Dead sails, tattered, over raging seas. A distant fluttering emerged in his stomach, but it could not overwhelm the relief that he had remembered happiness. His hands gripped the rock underneath him, seeing seven ships draw ever closer. One for each decade of his bleak existence, one for each new memory.

The Watcher felt his arms begin to shake as understanding took him. One for each tree, all those miles behind him. With a smile, contented, knowing, the Watcher remembered how to swim.

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