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THE RED PILLOW

by

Edward Vukovic



Alone she sits, watching wave upon wave of listless moths flitter against the glass. They mimic themselves, each other, the golden butterflies they hate so. She watches as each one closes in, searching for the prized divinity that is the light inside. She watches them clatter into the window, dusted wings cracking brittle under the stress. They hurl themselves, again and again and again, and she smiles at the fruitlessness of their efforts, and then turns out the light.

What now? The days have run together forming one copiously long ode to monotony. Her leg still bruised, still blistered and sore rests on top of a heap of pillows. The milky light from the moon outside falls gently upon it. An image of a biting wound, deep and pure. She stares at it, wondering what it would be like to be shot or maimed in battle. To be sliced by a knife or a bayonet. Her brother died in the war. He was thrown from his horse after a mine exploded. She recalls the letter her mother received. Remembers the emptiness, remembers the...

Turning away, she glances at the wall. It beams at her, smiles with such impurity. She is sick of this wall. Is sick of this room. She hates this room. It's more than a bedroom. She feels caged, violated, oppressed. Her mother's manic attempts at decorating it only add to its benevolent foreboding. She thinks of her brother again. What did his room feel like? His tent, his hospital room. Was it as bad as this?

The moon's paleness shines in, reflecting images of herself. Shadowy images. Images of a cripple, an invalid, a wretch. Her leg hurts under the bandages. She moves it a little, just shifts the pain to another place. The windowed emanation fleetingly rests upon it again, upon the pillow beneath it. Red, dull and yet it feels vibrant. Almost warm. She watches as dust mites cruise along air currents. The red background contrasting the haze of her pain. Compounding her loneliness. Her brother must have felt alone. Like she did now. His bloodied pillows real. His pain…dying.

The clock beside her bed tick tocks its way along, keeping time, keeping score. Its insistence that time continues unquestioned. Tick tock, tick tock, imagined hooves battering into sullen fields. Eyes closed, she sighs, exhaling herself. She misses her horse. Misses the wind plucking her hair as she rode over the dreams of the forgotten ones. Her horse's chortling in rhythm to each fevered step, each loving slap.

She lays still, remembering riding through the forest, across the marshes, leaping over creeks and embankments. Her brother with her, alongside her, guiding her. He would always ride off, challenging her to keep up, taunting her, calling her silly names. He was so graceful on a horse. Any horse. She could never keep up, no matter how hard she tried. Her leg aches.

Shadowy winds creep through unwatched form the doorway. They play with the mites, twisting them for their own perverse pleasures. They will not rest tonight. She wants to turn onto her side, but the pillow prevents her. Inhibitory. It clutches at her, clasps her sweatiness with its lace fingers. She moans a little, bemoans a little. Velvet and lace. Only her mother could think of combining the two. She strains and wrenches the pillow out from under her leg. It bites, forlorn and angry, and then relents.

The faint trickle of perspiration excites her. And disgusts her. It slithers onto her sheets, an exhalation of numbness, intermingling with the silk, with the dried blood. She stares at the window, the moon staring back. Both alone and tired and wishing for sleep, for a change. She picks at the bandage. Fingers nimbly working away the seams, delving through the streams of darkness, through the sodden fleshlessness. It wasn't a bad break. Worse than she first thought, but hardly bad. A snap, a slice, a pound of flesh. Her romantic notion of agony. She twirls her fingers in the material, ensconcing them. Warm and cold.

A moth slams itself against the glass. Stunned, it momentarily wonders why the light hurts so, and then spirals downward. A broken wing. It searches frantically for respite, for solace. But the ebon offers nothing. And the moon only watches from above, soulless, sullen.

Eyes closed she dreams awake, and sees the ground rising to meet her. Sees the cracks in the earth, the rockery outcroppings, stalwart and vengeful. She sees her leg buckle as they meet. Sees her bones crack like the twigs underneath. How often she revisits this moment. Yearns to see a different ending, a rewritten conclusion. Sometimes she sees her brother falling. Sees him tumbling into the dust and shards of metal of a country so far away. She feels him as she watches. She feels his pain, feels his fear, feel his suffocated breaths. She sees the vermilion sky above melt into the rust of the ground beneath. It is always red. Always…

The sweat stings her eyes, but she won't wipe them. She can't. Her fingers are still enveloped in the bandages. She won't allow herself to wipe them anyway. She wants them to sting. The pain is wonderful, is needed. Especially after seeing what she sees. After hearing of what he went through. Her pain is not real pain. Not forever pain. Not dead pain. The pillow glistens in the faint light, as dutifully bloody as her bandages. The lace twirled and stretched, the velvet worn. It is a tired pillow. A sad pillow.

She should sleep, should rest and convalesce. Her mother declares it to be what she needs. Her horse didn't get any rest. It too broke its leg. But it has no bed to lay on, no laced pillows to prop its pain. No. It no longer needs to worry about its pain, or anything else. Her father saw to that. Her mother says it's happier now. In a better place. She wonders if it is with her brother. Is he in a better place too? When she asks her mother, she doesn't get a reply.

The bones are probably healed by now. It has been three weeks. The days have melted into one another though. And the thought of a week actually ending seems foolish to her. The clock knows nothing of weeks. Knows nothing of days. Only minutes and seconds and hours. One long procession of clicks and clacks and a recurring illusion of time. And the pillow never leaves her either. It too is constant. A reminder of her pain, perceived and otherwise. Its scorn alive and biting. Its hatred…awake.

She lays still, ears tuning in to the sonorous melody of breath that escapes her. She listens to herself. A gentle rasping breath, the air scratching her as it enters the dim of her room. She exhales harder, blows into the light of the moon, and watches the dust mites dance once more. The scraped tune is laboured, almost alien to her. She doesn't recognise it as her sound. Closing her eyes once more she stops. No breath, no sound. No strangeness. She holds it and holds it and holds it, until the pressure is too great. And once again the dull rhythm is back in place. Her brother stopped breathing too. But he didn't start again.

She wriggles a little, shifts places once more, trying in vain to comfort her pain. Her leg nudges the pillow, knocking it off of the bed. A flutter of red in the dark and then gone. And now she cannot achieve any semblance of comfortability. Not without the pillow. She turns and twists and shimmy's again, moving her body into a position allowing her to at least try and reach the fallen pillow. She stretches, her sinewy arms groping hopelessly for a faint trace of matted lace, or a patch of worn velvet.

She stretches and strains, and leans further into the darkness, into the shadowy depths of her room, her prison. Head venturing deeper into the blackness, she continues the search, her leg aching from the movement, throbbing in unison with her forced breathing. Teeth clench, eyes roll backwards, peering, piercing, her heart plays hopscotch inside her chest, one step here, two skips there, one leap here and each frantic sweep of her hand comes back with nothing.

The pain grins as it grows stronger. She can feel the bandage becoming damp again; can feel the tickle of red. The pain means nothing to her though. Not right now. Her leg can wait, it can bleed all it wants, it can stain her mother's precious sheets. She needs the pillow. Her pillow. Garbled gasps echo throughout the still air. Even the draughts have ceased. They too can feel the loss of it, stymieing themselves as an act of mourning.

She leans further and further, extending herself beyond herself. Inch by inch by inch. Her hand brushes something on another sweep. Soft and pliant, innocuous and malicious, yielding yet steadfast. The pillow. A flicker of hope. She strains again, struggles once more, stretching that little distance farther, until she topples. Her arms flail, looking for things to grasp, to cling to, something to stop the inevitable. She tries to twist, wrench her body back onto the bed, but can't. A glimpse of a vision… A moth falling with broken wings. The floor lovingly accepts her, catching her so tenderly, so painlessly, so miserably.

 

She sees herself riding over waves of clouds, whispers of a thousand dreams. Sees the world beneath her spin and twirl like a balloon in a neon breeze. Her hair floats whimsically on the effortless musings of the wind. Her heart tap tap tapping its way along to a song only it can hear. She looks down, her horse galloping madly, happily, the sheen of its coat reflecting her smile. Butterflies flap sagely about her, dreaming of honey-scented suckle fests and the fresh taste of spring. She is happy as she rides. Happy at her freedom, her joy compounded and exaggerated. But…

This is all wrong. Her horse snorts and bray's like an ass. It smells vile, like carrion left in the sun. Her eyes dart this way and that, watching as the butterflies darken and grow. Fierce, they whisk the clouds away, replacing them with thunder and a flurry of red. They laugh as they work, and flapping their wings they echo the thoughts of madness.

She falls. Her horse falls. Together they spiral, winding downward through the hail of black and red. Each sermon her mother imparted floods her thoughts. Brimstone and ash, fire and darkness. She falls farther and farther, deeper into the skyline below. She looks at her leg. Or where it should be. There is nothing there now. Nothing save a scrap of her pants, bloody and stained. Staring at it, she feels the heat of the storm crash upon her, feels it ravage the night, tear at the day, shred the Earth of its life.

She crashes into the dust and ruin of the storm. Her horse falling next to her. It looks despairingly at her, seeking succour, hoping for relief. It looks pained and tired. It looks…forever. Her heart crippled, limps from one beat to the next, no longer exuding the confidence it used to, no longer pumping. The storm rages evermore, the ash of defiance fanning itself across the sky. Her eyes hurt, her body hurts, her soul hurts. She sees others lying nearby, some moaning, some crying, some motionless and silent. She thinks of her mother, thinks of her father, and then of herself. Friendly memories stumble before her, then die in a fevered flame.

Men are clawing at her, speaking, shouting, lifting her up. She watches them, listens to them yammer back and forth. They are only young, maybe her age, maybe younger. Boys more than men. They say things to her, incomprehensible things, and sighing they carry her away. The sky is awash with gritty browns and silent crimson. Echoes of pained screams fluster the tumult, or add to it. She is unaware of what is happening. She just wants to ride. Ride over her fields, over the grass and the trickling streams by her farm. Free. The two men lower her onto the ground, and talk to each other, standing over her. Their shadows glowering over her, at her. They move away, and a woman replaces them.

She sees her mother peer at her, bible in one hand, syringe in the other. A nurse? Taking up her arm, she plunges the syringe into it and leaves. She tries to call out and ask her why she is dressed as a nurse, but there is no response. She feels tired now, and cold. The storm seems so far away, and her body aches so. She turns her head and sees her reflection in a cracked and grimy mirror. Except that it's not her face. It's her brothers. And he is lying on a pillow caked in blood. His reflection looks at her for a moment, smiles and closes its eyes.

 

She opens her eyes, and pushes against the floor. The cold wood pushes back, and together they combine to lift her back onto the bed. She is cold, the window is open, and the breeze blows the moonlight in once more. Turning she sees the pillow hiding in the shadows of her bed. A quick movement and it is back onto the bed, underneath her leg once more. She stares at it. Examines its worn skin, its matted lace trimmings, its beautiful red colour. It seems to her that it is watching her too. Watching and smiling. It is happy where it is, propping her up, dilating her pain.

A moth flutters in through the window and rests upon her arm. It muses over its situation, decides on a course of action and wanders back out into the night. She closes her eyes, smiles and tells herself that she should get some sleep. A million thoughts vie for first place in her mind as she drifts through the soft darkness. She shifts a little, and lets her leg rest properly for the first time in a long while. The clock tick tocks onwards like it always does. And she decides to tell her mother not to worry anymore. There's no reason to. Her horse is in a better place now.







ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Edward Vukovic is an as yet unestablished writer living in the western suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. He has spent much of his meagre 26 years travelling around the countryside, amassing memories which he then proceeds to obliterate in a drunken haze. This notwithstanding, he still manages to churn out pieces of fiction that may or may not resemble aspects of his life and the lives of those he has interacted with. He has completed a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Professional Writing, is currently undergoing the arduous task of obtaining his honours, is working sporadically as an editorial assistant for Overland, is also working on his first novel, and believes that one day, he, like so many before him, will find that elusive perfect beer. May his search bear fruit, or more accurately, yeast and hops.



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