The image entitled “National Park Desolation” was the prompt for episode #84 of R.B. Wood’s WordCount Podcast. It’s a picture of Bryce Canyon in winter with those incredible rock formations, known as hoodoos.
For this one, Scottish author Bill Kirton and I decided to collaborate again, yay! I’ve written several stories with Bill in the past. You can find most of them in the Related blogs or via my FREE READS page.
“A Matter of Love and Death” is one of our most unusual stories. Bill wrote parts 1 & 3, and I penned 2 & 4. There was no discussion of plot or characters prior to writing each part. As per our previous collaborations, we simply played off each other’s segment.
If you’d like to learn more about our process, feel free to read Bill’s post on it. It’s a great summary of what we did in case you want to collaborate on a project with another writer.
Listen to Bill and me reading the story here. You can also learn all the latest from the Facebook page for the Wordcount Podcast. Please DO LIKE the page. It will give us more visibility and increase our listening audience. Thank you!
Hope you enjoy the story. 😉
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Louisa was different. This was one Joe shouldn’t allow to get away. He talked a good game, so, for someone as ordinary-looking as he was, he’d had more than his fair share of chances. The earlier ones had been understandable, both he and the girls – each one of them – had been in their early teens, not knowing the rules, or even if there were any. They talked for ages, managed somehow eventually to get to what they’d all been waiting for all along, the real reason they were there: the first kiss. Then more kisses. Better kisses, because their curiosity and excitement told them there must be more than that.
He was 18 before it got more serious, when kisses were just the beginning. First Mary, whom he’d chosen because her reputation suggested she’d already done more than he even wanted. It was soon obvious, though, that she was sharing herself between him and Freddy, so he switched to Jenny, then Elizabeth, beautiful Elizabeth. But it seemed he was never enough for either of them. When Jenny told him she didn’t want to see him any more, it was OK because he’d already asked Elizabeth to a party and, to his amazement and the envy of most of the other guys, she’d said yes. He was even more amazed when they became an actual couple. It lasted almost a year, but then, when he went away to college, she found Alan, with his car and skiing. And this time Joe was heartbroken. He actually cried, thought (although never seriously) about suicide. But casting himself as the forlorn lover must have made him more appealing because he got lucky again when Louisa, beautiful, sensitive Louisa – a lover of art, sculpture, painting, poetry – asked if he’d be her partner at a doubles quiz on astronomy at their hall of residence. His way with – often pretentious – words seemed to appeal to her, so when he read some promotional blurb saying that, with no light pollution, there was a clear view of the whole Milky Way from the Canyon, he saw his opportunity to ease their contact beyond mere friendship.
The Canyon had been part of most of his trysts. It suited his ability with Keats, Byron, Wordsworth, Yeats. He’d lulled so many by just lying with them on the warm summer grasses and whispering to himself (but making sure it was loud enough for them to hear):
Oh that the desert were my dwelling place
With one fair spirit for my minister
Then I could quite forget the human race
And, hating no-one, love but only her.
So far, it had worked every time. And, right now, everything was perfect. It was too early in the year for there to be many visitors and yet the blue skies and clear air of the early spring weather had been more like summer, so the chance of being alone with Louisa in such a beautiful place was too good to miss.
When she accepted his invitation to hike Bryce Canyon the following week, Joe seemed genuinely pleased. “You’ll love it.” he said, grinning like a little boy who’d just received a new puppy. He then prattled on for several minutes about stargazing and seeing the Milky Way.
Louisa had suspected Joe liked her. She was just waiting for him to make the first move. It took him awhile longer than expected, but she was nothing if not patient. She didn’t tell him she’d been to Bryce Canyon before, had even volunteered in their astronomy program. Last summer, along with the park rangers, she guided groups through the Canyon—a great way to learn more about the park without appearing out of place when she snapped pictures. Many of the shots were unusable because tourists blocked her view, but amongst the thousands of photos she took, there were enough for her purpose.
Only last week, her mother had nagged her again. “You know, women can ask men out on dates too,” she said. “There’s no reason you have to sit at home with your nose in the books every weekend. Go out, enjoy your life!”
Her mother. She should know. She’d gone out with every Tom, Dick, Dick, Dick, and Harry, and look where it got her. Nowhere. Pushing sixty, twice divorced, and single once again, the woman was all about make-up, designer clothes, and trying to hold on to her youth.
It would shock her mother to know Louisa was still a virgin, but she had no intention of divulging that little secret. Her sexual experience, or lack thereof, was nobody’s business. She had more important things to think about anyway. Polite, old-fashioned, and ethereal were words many people used to describe her, and that suited her just fine. Unlike her mother, Louisa would find meaning in her life, even if it was a short one.
Joe meanwhile was ecstatically, ridiculously happy. She’d said ‘yes’! And even though his plans for lying with her on warm grass took a knock when a couple of unseasonable snowstorms blew through, his mood never dipped. He was a Romantic. He knew all about what they called the pathetic fallacy, when poets saw changes in nature in human terms. Trees hung ‘weeping’ over rivers, streams ‘sang happily’ as they flowed along, grasses ‘whispered’. “Fake emotions’ the professors at college called them, but Joe knew better. The snow was a sign, a cold, chaste mask, underneath which the spring flowers lurked, defiant, ready to break through the sterility.
For Louisa, it was also a sign, but of different things. She’d chosen a few of her pictures, put the rest away and spent her evenings looking at them, comparing the views from bends on the trail, the steepling canyon sides, the occasional high slabs jutting from the rocks around them, slippery now with their skim of virgin snow.
The days, dragging for Joe, carefully measured by Louisa, crept by and in each of them, they thought only of what their hike could mean and where it might lead. When at last, they sat, with just one other couple, in the shuttle from the parking lot to the start of their trek, Louisa took his hand and leaned her head against his shoulder.
Joe was transfixed by her beauty. Mary, Jenny, Elizabeth, none of the others could match her. Also, with them, he’d never felt the same as he did now in this desolate place. This was the world of his Romanticism, wild nature, untouched by material things, crowds, the filth and evil of cities. This was his dwelling-place and Louisa his one fair spirit.
At the start of the trail, they stopped and, in the huge silence of it all, they just looked. The other couple had disappeared. Louisa took his hand again and they turned to look at each other. She sighed and closed her eyes. Joe leaned to her and, his lips soft, left two kisses on each lid.
‘What was that for?’ she said.
‘A poem I was thinking about,’ said Joe.
‘And there I shut her wild wild eyes,
With kisses four.
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.’
‘Beautiful, she said.
‘Not really,’ said Joe. ‘It’s Keats.’
‘I thought you liked him.’
‘I do,’ said Joe, ‘but it’s from La Belle Dame Sans Merci.’
‘It’s not exactly a happy ending sort of thing. He always – well, not always, but often enough – goes on about love and death. That one’s about a fairy who seduces a knight. He gets obsessed with her and well, just forgets everything else. That’s what I’m feeling like with you.’
She said nothing. Just stared at him, a frown on her face. He put a finger on her lips and said,
I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.’
Louisa raised her hand, took his finger from her lips, kissed it, and they turned to walk away up the trail.
When it came to the surreal rock formations of Bryce Canyon, or the hoodoos as they were called, she felt insignificant. And yet, she could never stay away for long. This place constantly pulled at her as if it held the meaning to her existence. It certainly offered her one thing, confirmation that she was but a speck in the universe. Louisa had waited for a sign, so when Joe asked her to go with him to the Canyon, she’d hoped he might be able to help her conquer her fears and, once and for all, crush her unbearable lightness of being. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Joe would not share in her glory. He was after worldly things—love, romance, probably sex.
She couldn’t blame him. That was his destiny.
Hers was to live life beyond merely existing at the surface level.
As they walked hand in hand along the trails, the hoodoos towered above them, menacing in their presence even as snow continued to fall on their craggy columns. Louisa could not imagine life on earth without them. That’s why she had to take part of them with her. It was the only way, really, for as much as Keats and all the poets of the past could move her, nothing could move her in the same way as these majestic and other-worldly rocks.
And that’s all they were really, rocks that had the power to bring tears to her eyes, to make her feel unworthy of anything she might ever be able to create in this lifetime. Unlike Joe, she wanted more than just to read poetry or to have it read to her. Louisa wanted to be poetry.
By her estimation, she’d amassed enough explosives to blow up a respectable section of the Bryce Amphitheatre, the most visited part of the Canyon. Akin to the Flavian Amphitheatre of old, or the Colosseum, as it is better known, it was here where battles, executions, and public displays of degradation played out in front of more than 50,000 spectators on a daily basis.
Louisa hoped her modern-day performance could reach as wide an audience.
Did you like the story? Feel free to be honest. 😉