Her bare feet lightly touch down on the bed of coals, moving forward. They should stop in heated agony, but onwards they move despite burning soles as she counts steps toward blistering burns.
How oddly beautiful it is, a lake made of flames, so different from usual cool waters, so different from what she was used to but no less serene. Her feet move forward, toward the heat, not backwards away from it, and the flames lick the inky blackness all around them. Never had she imagined it would be like this, so oddly calming in all the oblivion.
She stands naked, for the first time not feeling unnatural in that skin. Walking toward the shoreline, embers growing warmer, she moves closer to the immense heat of the lake–a real beach in reverse, always warmer and never cooler. Yet no less relieving, somehow. This is expected–elements remain the same no matter where they lie. Her skin is still soft, the sensations on it similar, but her reactions different, her thoughts drifting instead of jumping, the way they used to do.
Memories attempt to pry her, but her mind rejects their insistent nudge. She tries to remember the faces of those she left behind, but there is no lurch of mourning in her stomach, and they walk as mere silhouettes in her mind. Her death is even more elusive, erased from her like chalk in the rain, or aluminum melting in flames.
“You weren’t expecting to come here,” says a voice, a soft comforting one. Why should anything be soft, here? Everywhere she expects harshness and sharp knives’ caress, but she can’t find that. All that she can find is her solitude.
“I didn’t believe in this place.”
“Many don’t.” The man sits down, legs dangling into lake-flames, gazing up at her with fire reflected in his eyes. Who knows what color they are behind those grinning reflections. Is his identity lost forever to fire?
“Then I’m here because I didn’t believe?”
He says nothing. His head tilts from side to side, noncommittally.
She cups her hands in the flames, so different an effect from water–running over her fingertips, trickling downward like tears. Fire winds up, fantastically, drastically into the air, then fades away.
“It doesn’t feel like punishment, somehow.”
“Why would it? We are subjects of a war. The commanders on this side need not punish the lot they are given, since they did not create the rules. But it frightens some. Many try to suicide-dive into this lake, before knowing that’s what they’ve chosen to do forever.” How does his voice remain so soft?
“Everyone is here?”
Pause. “There are segments. Different actions lead to different places, like tracing tree branches to all their separate endings.” Trees look like fire in her memory, now. “But we don’t know what happens to them. This place is different.”
“Neglect. They neglect us because we didn’t believe in this place, either. We have no use in their war. Your crime was merely doubt.”
“No one ever comes to us?”
A hesitation. “No.” This man is naked too, but how natural it seems when bathing in flames, lip-smack over skin, over and over again.
She looks up into the blackness above, where there are no stars, no mystery. “Would he be disappointed in me, for being here?” She shivers unnaturally, the curiosity and concern rankling against what she is becoming.
“How could he be?”
She looks down, into those eyes, suddenly connected. His gaze, like his voice, is gentle and thoughtful–how did he find her here?
He stands, tall and imposing, with flames as his sky and embers his stars. There is compassion buried deep under the world, where they say that nothing but magma and helltorture exist. He turns, he is leaving.
“What color are your eyes?” she asks, finally, after gazing into them for too long, lost in that sea of iris, sea of fire.
Smiling, he says, “The same as yours.”
Taken aback, she finds her reflection before her, deep in the flames, eyes just the same as the ones in the mirror, but wreathed in smoke.
His feet are leading him away; soft soles over coals, digging into the deep powder, same as her own.
“I love you,” she says, so naturally–as natural as being naked with a stranger, in a world engulfed in fire.
He turns his head, smiling. “You too.”
“How will I find you again?”
“Encounters here are seldom, random, impossible to plan or fathom. But I will see you again. That is always more likely by the shoreline of this eternity, than chasing after the one who will be in the Clouds.
“I will see you again. Rest assured, I know it as deeply as I know the patterns of your irises.”
He melts away, into black, into the nothing-sky.
Her centurion slips away from her as quickly as her own identity; a lifetime of indecision rendering her elusory. Your crime was merely doubt, he had said, and she knows she should feel despair, but it does not come.
She turns to face the lake, contemplating but avoiding thoughts of eternal suicide-dive-into-flame-lake. To spend forever missing her Sun way up in a blue sky, impossible to reach him; and also missing her solitary Flame-Man, eyes of fire and lips of magma and tar, just like her own, with flesh just like her own, who will wander forever rehearsing his speech. Perhaps it could be worse.
Her fingers dig into the soot and come up dingy as she stands. Purpose guides her feet away, though she does not know if it is her own, or a new will replacing what she once was. The answers she craves are external, have nothing to do with the silhouettes retreating from the grooves of her memory. Thoughts float and drift like smoke over lake and shoreline.
She has forgotten the color of her eyes.
She will never know again.
Mel Staten is a storyteller born and raised in Massachusetts who currently peddles her writing and drawing for a living. She has a degree in Studio Art and resides in Natick with her partner and three [very] fluffy pets. You can find her on Twitter: @melanixies.