In the middle of nowhere, on a hill that overlooks the world…
The cottage was small; big enough for two but too big for one. This is where Louis lives, he lives here alone. His days are spent tending the garden that grows out back. The garden that his wife, Zoe, had planted and grown. The garden that she had loved so much. He used to spend his days watching her, now he spends them remembering.
Zoe, crouched, stroking the flowers, whispering to them, encouraging them to grow big, to grow strong. Zoe, so proud of the little colony of life she had helped to thrive. He would stand over her and place his hand in the crook of her neck, she would always let out a moan of pleasure… always.
“How much do you love me?” She would ask.
“How long is a piece of string?” He would answer, the same answer he had always given, and she would smile and snuggle into him that bit more.
“I don’t know what I’d do without you, Louis.”
“I promise that’s something that you never need worry about.” He never broke that promise. “We’ll be together forever.”
He woke up one day to find her, silent and unmoving beside him. He had held her tight, rubbing her hands between his, trying to warm them. He had pleaded and begged and screamed, but despite all his efforts time had continued to pass, each second taking him further away from their last night together.
He had spent every day ever since caring for the garden, not knowing what it was he was doing, just copying the things he had seen Zoe do. Little by little he was killing it.
Then one day he found the string…
He was asleep, no longer residing within his body.
He rose up through the layers of sleep, expecting her to be pressing into his side, her warm breath on his neck. He opened his eyes, but once again saw only an empty space and cold sheets beside him.
He ate his breakfast in silence that morning. His thoughts were with his memories. Everywhere he looked reminded him of her, every cup and every piece of furniture, every picture that hung from the walls. He had a memory for each and for each memory he had a hundred more, but without her he had nothing.
It was later than normal when he finally stepped out into the garden to repeat his daily routine of ignorance. That’s when he saw the string, white and fine – it lay draped over the entire garden, over the nameless bushes and wrapped around the colourful flowers. It ran the length of the lawn and lay draped over the stone walls that surrounded the garden.
He never once questioned where it had come from.
He began to clear it up. The string was like fine twine, sticking to his fingers like a web when he touched it. The work was slow and it was almost evening by the time he got round to clearing the last bush. As far as he could tell it was just one long piece of string, wrapped round everything that grew within the four stone garden walls. He had tried snapping it and cutting it, but he couldn’t do it, it was impossible. He had filled an old sack full of it and it was now too heavy for him to lift.
He lowered his head and got to work. It seemed as if the string was unwrapping itself and within minutes he was almost done. He pulled the last length from the bush and stared in amazement.
The string had all been packed away, yes, but he hadn’t reached its end. It led up from the sack to his hand, then up into the sky into the sunset, like he was holding the world’s biggest and brightest balloon. He squinted, trying to make out what it was attached to but he couldn’t tell. He pulled; there was the slightest resistance but the string was reeled in. He pulled again, and again, then spent the next few minutes pulling in great arm-lengths of it; after a few more minutes he stopped, confused. There still seemed to be no end to it, granted he could only see the string for a few metres in front of him, but surely he should be able to see what it was attached to from here?
The sun had become an orange crescent on the horizon, he wouldn’t be able to stay outside for much longer – the cold hurt him too much these days. He took a couple of rocks from the stone wall, placed one on each corner of the bag and wrapped the string around another. Then he retired to the house for the night to think.
He sat in the dark for a long time, listening to the creaks of the pipes and listening to the absence of Zoe. She still spoke to him sometimes, mostly when he was led in bed teetering upon the edge of sleep, that’s when he would feel her whispering to him. The same way she had when they had been led together, the closest they could ever be, each basking in the heat of the other. She would nuzzle into his neck and whisper, her words punctuated by her heavy breathing. He missed that sound most of all.
It was midnight when Louis finally got into bed, tired from all the thoughts and all the questions, tired from remembering.
That night she came to him.
‘Don’t open your eyes…’ Was it just the memory of her voice? No, she was here, he knew it.
‘Do you still think about me Louis?’
“Every day. Every minute and every second.”
He felt her lips against his neck. Her breath made his nerves tingle.
“Am I dreaming?” Silence. “Are you still mine?”
He lay there, relishing the feel of her against him. He could feel sleep creeping up through his limbs, before long it would be behind his eyes, pulling him down… down…
‘How much do you love me?’
It was the best night’s sleep he’d had in months. He got out of bed, full of energy and purpose and flung open his bedroom curtains. There it still was, the bag and the string, solid and real. He skipped breakfast and got dressed, not even stopping for his customary coffee before heading outside. With the sun behind him he could see what he was dealing with a lot better. The string led off up into the air in front of him, gently rising up, up into the sky, getting darker and thinner the further it went. As far as he could see there was still no end to it.
He touched the string. It still had the same sticky texture and the same resistance to it. He laughed, loud and long. He could almost hear her whispering.
‘How long is a piece of string Louis? Show me.’
He began to reel the string in once again, wrapping it around his forearm and shoulder, the same way he had seen cowboys do it, the same way he had done since he was a little boy. Over and over and over again, and over again, dropping it into the bag when there was too much for him to hold.
The sun climbed, warming the earth and his aching joints. Noon came and went. The string had almost filled another sack and still he had no view or clue as to where it might have come from. He considered stopping for something to eat, but he could feel her, just behind his shoulder.
‘Show me Louis… show me…’
He didn’t stop, he couldn’t.
The day passed and still the string had no end, it was infinite. The sack had filled long ago and he had started to just drop it on the grass by his feet. He worked until sunset, until the light had begun to fade, then he retired into the cottage for the night. He sat in the same chair that he always sat in and thought the same thoughts that he always thought, or at least he tried. His eyes were drawn to the window and out into the night sky to where the string was waiting. He couldn’t bear it any longer, he stood and looked out the window, searching for the string in the darkness, but it was invisible to him.
Invisible or gone?
He rushed outside. There was the bag and there was the pile. He hurried over and fumbled round until he found it. It was still there, still leading up into the sky. He couldn’t bring himself to let it go again, couldn’t bring himself to risk losing it.
The night was cold and he had left his coat inside; but that didn’t matter, he worked in the dark. His movements were clumsy at first but after a while he had worked out a routine and his body warmed to the task.
The wind began to pick up, and just as the string rose the rain began to fall.
He didn’t notice when he started shaking, nor did he notice when the blisters on his hands burst leaving bloody sores.
He worked throughout the night, only stopping to wipe his hands clean on his pants, and when the first rays of light began to creep up behind him he saw that the string was piled around his legs, almost up to his waist. He squinted up into the sky, his vision blurred for a moment and he had to shake his head to clear it. He looked up again and blinked; there was something there, it was just a speck, a tiny black dot but it was there. He smiled a tired smile.
‘Show me Louis…’
Was that her breath on the back of his neck or the wind?
Louis swallowed and licked his dry lips, let out a deep breath and nodded.
Little by little the tiny black dot in the sky began to grow, imperceptibly at first but more and more with each handful he pulled in. He was happy, the wind was warm, birds were singing and Zoe was here. Suddenly Louis grabbed at his chest; pain flared through him and he lost his grip. He collapsed backwards into the string, his right arm raised up at the sky. All his work was lost, everything was gone. Everything.
He lay there, unable to do anything else, praying that the pressure in his chest would subside. Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out. He had no idea how long he lay there before he was able to once again stand up. He looked up, balancing on legs that no longer belonged to him. The dot was still there and he looked in amazement at the string, it wasn’t floating off, it wasn’t moving. He grinned.
His left arm was now almost useless, dead, but the pressure in his chest had subsided. He found he only needed one arm to pull it in anyway.
He started work again, each movement bringing fresh pain to his chest. He wanted to give up; he was ready to give up. He slid forward onto his knees, unable to stand any longer, the string hung from his arms and shoulders like a shawl. He was so tired. He felt her then, her lips against his neck, her arms about his chest, her words inside his mind.
“How much do you love me…”
He struggled to speak. His body was heavy and his eyes wanted to close, but he still had hold of the string. Through the pain and the lack of breath he worked, the shape coming closer and closer still, dark against the bright sky. He coughed, wincing with each spasm that shook his tired form. She held him tight and he never stopped his work.
Closer and closer…
“Show me…” She kept him warm.