‘The beauty of a star-shaped figure—a hexagonal star, say—is
impaired if we regard it as symmetrical relatively to a given axis’
‘I’m at sixes and sevens here…’ Those were the last words she remembered her grandfather saying before his end. The words that followed were garbled consonants articulated by the vowels of bile and halted breaths. Ever since that night almost three years ago—a night crowned by madness and fear—Arethusa had latched onto those final words as a mendicant would the handful of words heard from the divine in the midst of desperate prayer. There was a tremendous gulf between six and seven: Even and odd, unlucky and lucky, aligned and prime, pure and cockeyed. Hexagons were the pinnacle of the geometry of nature, the configuration par excellence, the always duplicated but never repeated Platonic snowflake. Somehow, her grandfather had latched onto a pair of numbers that had nothing in common but proximity. All the rest was difference. The girl felt her grandfather had presented her with some kind of riddle, a riddle to help her carry on or one to drive her mad. If the riddle was destined to drive her to madness, Arethusa vowed to use her wits while they remained to find some bits of the answer along the way
The way was broken earth riddled with ice. If the earth was speaking, its words were a random series of hard consonants and nothing more. Fire was far more precious than food or water. Fire made the ice submit and give up its liquid secret. Fire attracted the creatures otherwise hidden in the depths of the forest. Fire stirred something in the frozen instincts of beasts and made them submit to their own sacrifice. The flames that warmed Arethusa’s fingers and face were the direct progeny of the first fire set under the mouth of the cave. Its embers had never faded. It was here that her grandfather had prayed to Prometheus to give back the gift. A little spark from a pair of stones restarted it all. As far as Arethusa knew, this was the only fire left in the world. Seven years tomorrow and the fire would be half as old as she was.
Her grandfather told her the two of them were lucky. It had been just another camping trip in the mountains when the mushroom clouds crowned the final day like seven kings and queens rising to take their smoky crowns all at once. She remembered the first night when it rained ashes. The second night was full of thunderheads vomiting black rain on the mountain. Fish floated to the surface of the stream to look up at the forbidden sky once more with lidless eyes. Corpses of deer and bears littered the forest like sacrifices too heavy and multitudinous to carry to the altars of the new-crowned monarchs of the dark sky. Scavengers flourished. Then the winter came and never left. Arethusa and her grandfather remained. Her parents were in the sky. Her brother was probably in the sky. Now she remained, alone. Arethusa looked up and out from the mouth of the cave. She doubted if she would ever make it to the sky. There were far too many thunderheads for her to reach the heavens where her family waited. Zeus was angry and Hera had died on her own too much.
Arethusa had been warned never to watch the shadows on the cave walls. Even at midday, the meagre sunlight failed to banish the shadow play. But the flames never failed to cast uncertain shapes on the cave walls. Something about the impalpable shadow play pointed towards life. Arethusa closed her eyes and looked and heard:
—I know the shadows remind you of things from before. I remember taking you to your first play in the city, watching movies on that damned big screen television of your father’s. I’ll never forgive my daughter for him. But this is not for you.
—But it’s fun. It’s like looking at clouds and finding things. Except these clouds are dark and move faster.
—Yes, but these shadows will take you deeper into the cave. Life is out there, out there beyond the dead trees.
—But I thought it was just us, grandpa?
—For now, it is. But soon it will be just you. If you stay here, it will be just you and the shadows. You’ll become a shadow.
—I cast a shadow.
—True. But if you fall into it, you’ll never be able to see yourself again.
—You see me.
—That’s true, too. But there are others.
—Why don’t we go find them, grandpa? Why haven’t they come?
—Now is not the time.
—When is the time?
—You’ll know. But only if you look that way, out into the pale light.
—It’s boring out there.
—It might seem like that now. I’m at sixes and sevens here…gggggg…..kkkkkkkk…. gkgkgkgkgkgkgkg….kah….aaah…
Arethusa shuddered at the thought that her grandfather had presented her with the riddle just to keep her occupied until the shadows took her. Last words were profound words, always. Even his dying concatenation of consonants punctuated by a few merciful vowels could be a clue. The glimmer of cloud to cloud lightning made the cave shimmer for a moment. Specks of quartzite sparkled like jewels geologically tucked away for another Age to hold. Arethusa felt time slipping away. She felt that even the meagre fire would outlive her. The shadows had no beginning or end, just another collection of shapes in flux resembling something or someone. She felt like an old woman waiting to die. Arethusa shivered at the thought and stood up. When she bumped her head, she tried to remember it was herself who had grown and not the cave that was slowly closing its gaping mouth in a slow act of consumption. It had been seven days since she walked out of the cave. Plenty of smoked meat made a girl reluctant to go for a walk in times such as these. Arethusa pulled the bearskin tightly around her wan cheeks. Her eyes braced themselves as she tilted and trudged outward.
Her grandfather’s boots were still too big for her but Arethusa had spent half of her life navigating this broken world. Her steps were sure as she wandered in the direction she had never taken. She looked up through the skeletal trees and watched as the clouds exchanged their atmosphere-tearing greetings to one another. The billowing thunderheads of the perpetual cloudscape looked as tumultuous as always. But it smelled like snow. Permafrost crackled beneath her steps like so many shattered skulls shattering again.
—One, two, three, four, five, six, seven….1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
No matter which way she thought of the numbers of her steps, of her breaths, of the dead trees she passed, the numbers were empty and more devoid of meaning than the deadest tree. Even her shout at seven was consumed by the snowscape. If a girl shouted in the forest and nobody was there to hear it, Arethusa knew it made no noise. Riddle solved. But not the riddle that forced her onwards and upwards. Zeus was never far but he was not close. Arethusa had a reckoning with the lingering god of the sky. She demanded something, if only a hint. Woe to anyone or anything, be it god or beast, that dared to stand in the way of such a girl as Arethusa. She nodded in agreement as she continued her ascent.
By the time she reached the end of the skeletal tree line, the wind had obliterated her thoughts. She tasted the snot on her lips and remembered she was mortal. Her wind-tossed equilibrium made the smoked meat digesting in her stomach turn into a pernicious beast clawing its way upwards. Arethusa fell forward and vomited on the frozen rocks. She watched the steam rise and deemed it a suitable offering to the motherfucker above who still played with clouds, that deceitful boy who still called himself king. She laughed at his impotence as not a flake of snow had fallen in the midst of all the fireworks. Arethusa forced herself to swallow and looked up. Six or seven more steps would get her there. If it took eight, she vowed to throw herself off the summit, just another one falling into zero.
When she reached six steps, she saw the divide between herself and the pinnacle of the mountain. There was nothing for her to step onto, just a couple of meters between her sixth step and the seventh. As the wind whipped at her bearskin hood, she leaped forward.
When she came to, she tasted the iron of her blood. The salty life-force was refreshing in the midst of the numbing cold. Her gloved hands felt the sharp hardness of the top of the mountain. Between lightning strikes, her ears rang in accord. Arethusa could still smell snow in spite of her broken nose. She pulled off her left glove and held out her hand. She stared at her ragged palm and waited in half-supplication. She watched as the blood left her hand and her flesh began to resemble the mountain. The lines of her hand were like strata betraying the destiny of so many Ages past and to come. Arethusa did not dare look up, the lightning strikes as inconsequential as the wind. As her field of vision tunneled, she counted down from seven:
—S-seven, six-ix-ix, f-f-f-five, f-four, threeeeee, t-t-t-two, wuh-wuh-nnnn….
It fell into the nexus of her shaking palm. To think of the chances, the infinite parts of the complex machine of causality that led to such a deed made Arethusa laugh softly to herself. She leaned down to her upturned palm and looked. The snowflake looked like it had been born of her own hand. In spite of the wind, it had landed and remained on her freezing flesh. Arethusa’s eyes looked into the microcosmic world of each one of the snowflake’s points. Crystal worlds within worlds were hinged together in a frozen dance of perfection. The pale light articulated by the lightning was transformed into multifarious atmospheres in the frozen worlds of the snowflake. She stopped thinking and looked and saw. The wind stopped. The lightning ceased. Not another flake fell from the sky. Words were meaningless in the midst of such beauty. Nothing was large or small. There was nothing around. Arethusa held the universe in the palm of her hand. Just a hint of mischief made her count the sides of the universe in spite of her certainty.
—One, two, three, four, five, six…seven!
Hayden Moore was born and raised in Georgia and has lived in New York City for the past twelve years. In the past six months, he has been published three times for his short stories: twice in Corner Bar Magazine, once in Metonym Literary Journal. He lives with his wife and cat on the waters of Jamaica Bay in Queens.