Saturday, March 2, 2013

Fic: Three Minutes

Three Minutes

In the morning, there are three minutes before night dissolves completely, and she hears the voice beneath her bed, a fraction of a story told this way since she was seven.

His voice has never changed, while hers has been the little girl's questions, the timid thirteen-year-old afraid to speak up in class but whispering encouragement at dawn to heroes unseen, seventeen and leaving for the last day of school--

Her husband snores before the alarm wakes him, while she listens and murmurs an observation on vengeful fairies with too many teeth.

He is nearly faded -- she can count the seconds in her head with complete precision -- when she says, as she did at nine and fourteen and twenty-two, "Please, show me."

He's never there when she peeks. The story ends mid-sentence. Another day must pass.

The next, she whispers, "Enough! Show yourself!"

It was the part where the fairy bears aloft the sword belonging to a long-dead magician. Before it can strike, he replies, "No, Ava," and she pounces over the side of the bed but he is already gone, and there is still one minute left of night.

Her husband wakes and reaches for her but she says she's hungry, starving, she'll make them breakfast. He rolls on his back and mumbles about pancakes.

There were two beds when she was growing up. Perhaps three? Did the story begin when she was in her crib, babbling alone? Her mother said what a happy baby, smiling, cooing to herself in the empty room. She learned to speak so soon. Knight and horse, the poor beggar, the mountain of gold.

There was a bed in a dorm room and a roommate who thought she talked in her sleep. When she visited her boyfriend, his bed was silent in the morning. Returning the next night to her room, the story began again where it left off.

A home, a husband, a first bed to share. The story never ending. A thousand tendrils, each explored to ripeness, some loved more than others. Favorite characters lived and died, and some visited again.

She taught English to middle-schoolers to who didn't care, and everyone she knew was writing a book. They asked when she would write one. She said she had no ideas.

The pancakes burn on one side, but he eats them with a happy smile. When they kiss before comfortably hunkering onto the sofa and the Sunday paper, he tastes like maple syrup. She flips pages, listens to him read aloud bits of his section. He has freckles, and she is sure she never liked light brown hair, preferring it darker. But there was his voice -- when he came over to her in the school cafeteria, asked if he could sit down. It was deep, calm.

"You have a storyteller's voice," she tells him after he reads her part of an article on travel in Guatemala. He grins, pleased with himself. She asks to hear more, teasingly smiling. He does, thinking it is the prelude to something else, inflecting his voice with seduction, waggling eyebrows at her.

She finds him, suddenly, to be not charming at all. His voice is not the same. Not the same at all. When he puts down the paper and comes across the sofa for her, she stiffens.

Later in the afternoon, he makes a joke. About how the underside of their bed is the cleanest in the entire town. Murderer of dust bunnies!

She bites her lip. There was nothing, nothing special, beneath their bed. Again. There has never been a single sign.

But the next morning, the story. Floating up, a whispering net of words. The voice.

It takes longer to wake her husband than she would like, but then he is in compliance, warm and relaxed, moving over her. The story ends, prematurely.

She is wracked with guilt. Never has she felt more dirty, more the betrayer, though her husband kisses her forehead before he leaves, gathers him to her, says, "Love you, Ava."

She calls in sick to work and goes back to bed but of course the voice is gone.

It's a long day and night, and she is glued to her keyboard, tapping out the beginning of the story, what she can remember. Was she four, five? Memories of the gray-painted floor in her room, the shabby white curtains, the king whose daughter rode away on the back of a spotted horse, hands tangled in its mane, to be the queen of its vast, grassy kingdom.

 When light through the curtains begins to show, she has been in bed for hours, silent. Exhausted.

There is no voice. She peers through sleepy eyes at the clock, counting minutes to sunrise. The time passes, the sun rises, and she is alone.

Has she made him angry?


Is he gone forever?

She cannot think of the word "forever."

Perhaps an equinox, or full moon (no, it is a month past the vernal equinox, and the moon is a sliver of paper). Perhaps asteroid showers, an earthquake in Chile whose repercussions are felt in Manhattan, or the dog downstairs barking too early.

Going to work, she holds her breath for an entire day.

Dinner, television, jokes. They go to bed, his fingers brushing over her shoulder until they are still, and he is asleep.

The next morning, she lies in stiff terror, heart beating against the cage of her chest.

It's the only sound in the three minutes before dawn.

The weeks will pass as they always do, but the afternoon sunlight seems too white, too hollow. The rain is no comfort. Books are empty pages, flipped in time to t.v. commercials, put down at dinner, at bedtime. Her shoes collect dust in the hallway; she wears green socks with brown pants.

She notices how early the sun rises, how filled with light their tiny bedroom by half past six.

One morning, trailing a hand through the slices of morning light, she says in a voice so quiet her lips barely move, her tongue is a mouse:

Deep within the woods, a prince opened his eyes and saw the sword beside him, as it always was, his hand clutched tight around the hilt.

(What does the prince dream, or suffer nightmares-in-waiting during the day?)

His father will find him, someday.

(Why should that frighten a grown man? No, he is a hardly more than a boy, fifteen, if that)

She rolls over, not wanting to go on.

No one asks her to continue.

She gets up and pads to the living room, turns on her laptop, sits cross-legged in her bathrobe on their scratchy sofa and writes. Not about princes who sleep with swords in their hands, but about a knight and his horse. The first story -- that she can remember -- comes out in stuttering syllables, but the paragraphs progress, smoother and smoother, until she is flying through pages.

Six. Six pages, and the story isn't barely begun. But it's getting late, and she must go to work.

All day, between classes, at lunch, she scribbles notes, bits of scenes, dialogue. When she arrives home, there is more work to do: homework, papers to correct. As she writes comments atop headers, in the margins, she tries not to think of the story, but after dinner, it's the only thing she can think about. Her husband, who made croque monsieurs from an old baguette, is secretly happy that she is in bed, sitting up, glued to her laptop. He always wondered why his wife did not write. Now she is writing something. He brushes crumbs from his chin and calls to her, asking if she would like some green tea.

Coffee, she answers.

And so the week rolls on, a flurry of words rushing from imprint upon her brain to screen. She must make a timeline, then a tree, to connect the stories, to see the connections as she never has before. It is as if revelations are coming, revelations that her mind has been slow to ponder.

She preferred the voice, she knows at long last. Whatever it told her did not matter. She loved the stories, was entertained by them, but it was the voice, all along, which captured her heart.

It will take her ages to write all of the stories, to weave them together. She wishes she had started sooner, when she was a girl, but perhaps this is her penance for having frightened away the voice. Maybe when she is finished, it will return, and give her more stories.

"I promise," she whispers one morning after a month, "not to ask again."

The next morning,

There is still silence. Her heart breaks, even as her husband smells her morning hair and touches her neck.

It takes so long to write the book, to remember the words, that months become two years, then four. Each morning is silent, still, and there is no husband to pull her to him. She wonders if this is manic behavior, or schizophrenic, or anything which might be unhealthy but then the book calls her again, and can it be truly unhealthy to write what our brain has bound in love since we were little?

When it is finished, she is mid-sentence. The words which were his last linger in the whiteness of an empty page, and she writes, finally, "To be continued."

An agent. A publisher. Another two years.

At a small book signing, the man who was her husband puts down a copy, and she signs it and hands it back and they both smile and he says, "Well, you did it." She can't say anything in return because what has she done?

The book must be destroyed, but it is too late. A second printing, demand for more. It is to be continued. How to tell the world that she doesn't know how it ends, if it ends?

A second book, each line a struggle. The children in her classes pass around the first one, try not to behave as if they are interested. Some look at her as if she is someone new, not their teacher.

Midway through, the plot becomes a tangle that she cannot undo. She stares at knots on the page without fathoming how to slip them apart.

After weeks, she whispers one morning, "I don't know where it goes from here."

The next morning, three minutes before dawn proper, she is slumbering in the world of knights and pages, of armor dented and rusted, and fields dusty and trodden by the hooves of five hundred horses.

He smells her morning hair, touches her shoulder, and says softly, "When Sir Bertram came across the maid in the hollow by the broken fence post, he got off his horse and drew his sword, for a maid could be a witch, or a man, and he had experience with both."

She wakes, stiffens, and he continues. The words are breathed into her ear, a hand searching for hers on the bedsheets. Her fingers twine with his, and she closes her eyes. There are three minutes, three minutes to make up for years, and time crumbles and fades.

Before the sun stabs through the curtains, with the seconds still graven into her mind, she whispers over her shoulder, "Let's make a new story, together." And as he begins to slip away, he says, "Yes, my dear."


The book you held last night on your lap -- just finishing this chapter before bed! -- is full of breaths, exhaled in three-minute increments, ink on the pages capturing the pregnant moments before dawn. The dream you dreamed afterwards is to be continued. He is waiting for you to remember, for you to whisper, in words like falling snow,

I don't know where it goes from here.


  1. Loved this. Struggling to articulate it (I've eaten way too much chocolate in the last ten minutes!).

    There's something archetypical going on here for me. The journey to find yourself and the sacrifices involved. That sort of thing.

    1. I hate when I read something I like and I can't properly put into words why or what stands out. And honestly, that happens *a lot.* And I have no rapid consumption of chocolate to blame.

      Thank you, Mr. Newman. :-)

  2. Becky, this almost moved me to tears, damn it!

    I think you've captured the essence of the ephemeral here - that so many try to articulate - that moment when the story is the driver, and you are only the pen holder.

    Beyond that - speechless. (When does your collection come out - this is your headliner).

    1. That's the best, really, when you're only the pen holder. :-)

      Thank you *so much*, Chris. Just last week, I stumbled on a review on the web that said, in two sentences, that I couldn't write. It was a dismissal. It haunted me for days. But I think I'm over it, and your words really, really help.