Prompt: Cutting the string | Word count: 1000 | Genre: Fiction
The room was round. The cool stone wall at her back was curved so the room must be round. She knew if she opened her eyes she would see one large window and an open vista beyond. She knew the deep window seat carved into the thick wall would be worn smooth from time and much use. The room would be softly lit as if from a gentle fire or a dozen candles, but she would never find the actual source of light or warmth. It was always this: emptiness and silence in a high stone tower.
She knew her name was Nicole. She knew when she opened her eyes she would be drawn to the window and when she looked down she would see trees and a garden and a maze. She would hear voices, and they would lure her out of the room, and she would find herself in the garden or under the trees. She never saw a door or stairs or knew how she got out of the room in the tower.
Her eyes opened. As she knew she would, she saw a lush green garden bordered by trees that spoke of age with their tall, stately presence. In the garden was a maze, and in the centre of the maze was a white stone bench. Before the bench was a plinth in matching stone, with a large empty urn made of the same stone as the bench and plinth. From the urn, anchored by a long slender string, a red balloon floated high and still.
She frowned at the distraction of voices. They sounded muffled, far away, as though only a few out of many broke through to her hearing. “... hear… Nicole… you… come… us…” They were a persistent hum in her awareness.
She closed her eyes again, and the voices faded into silence. The memory of greenery eased into black nothingness and she was left empty of sight and sound, the vivid red of the balloon the last image to fade from her awareness.
Time passed. How much she would be unable to say. She would open her eyes, see the room that became familiar all over again, look out at the garden from the window, and know she had done these things many times before. The voices would speak her name amid other indistinct phrases, and she would feel compelled by them, but didn’t understand what they were asking of her. They wouldn’t leave her in peace unless her eyes were closed, and when she opened them again she would find herself back in that room, looking out the window once more, at the garden, the maze, and the floating red balloon.
About to open her eyes once more, she knew that this time, like other times before, she would be standing in the garden. She could feel the stone tower behind her. She knew that this time, like other times, she would move away from it’s dense solidity. Sounds gradually entered her consciousness: birds twittering as they flew about, leaves waving in a barely-there breeze, small creatures rustling through the underbrush. She could smell the green of the grass, the bursting fullness of the flowers, the sharp tang of pine needles. The sun laid a cloak of warm yellow over her eyelids, preparing her for bright daylight when she looked at her surroundings.
It was pleasant to feel air moving around her body as she walked, the long skirt of her dress brushing her legs, her hair moving against her cheek. Her feet pressed into the soft earth, a reassuringly physical testimony to her presence in the garden. Of their own volition those feet took her across the lawn to the entrance of the maze. Her eyes were drawn to the balloon hovering above the lush green garden. It’s crimson presence against the calm blue sky was a jarring note she couldn’t ignore. As she approached nearer to it, the voices grew more distinct.
“...darling… please open… don’t leave...love...”
Again, she felt compelled by the voices. It was they who kept calling her to leave the black silence and enter the round stone room over and over again, or wander between the living walls of the maze. Neither scenario offered respite, no way of leaving or wresting control over her situation. The voices asked something of her, and she was weary of it, of their persistence, of trying to understand them, of not being able to respond. She was tired of trying to make sense of it all and failing.
Fighting the temptation to close her eyes on the jarring presence of the world around her, Nicole continued into the maze. She took each turn unthinkingly, somehow knowing her way to the centre.Her awareness of the stone tower receded as she went deeper into the twists and coils of shrubbery. The green walls reached far above her head, seeming to touch the sky. With each step the voices grew clearer.
“You have to… eyes. ...hear us...don’t leave… back to us Nicole.”
At last the open space at the centre of the maze was before her. There was the cool, white bench she had seen from the window of the stone tower, and there was the urn and the crimson balloon. Standing here, the rest of the world might not exist. It might all be a fabrication of her mind, a relic of dreams from long ago. If not for the insistent presence of the balloon and the increasingly persistent voices emanating from it, this spot might be a tranquil haven.
Knowing at last what she was there to do, she found in her pocket a pair of delicate sewing scissors. As she stepped up to the urn, suddenly the voices fell silent. With relief, she cut the string and watched the red balloon float free, taking with it all the colour and sound of the world around her. As it faded, she closed her eyes, and was at peace.