The walls of the city shuddered under cannon fire and smoldered with flames. Its defenders, too weary to march, stumbled through the streets to barricade the crumbling gates. In a dark cellar, the weight of their footsteps sent soft rains of dust cascading down on the faces of a young man and woman who sat huddled there. Somewhere in the cellar was a candle whose wick had drowned in wax a long time ago.
It was in the ringing silence left in the wake of a cannon blast, when the city shivered and held its breath, that she told him, “I believe it now—the three thousand years.”
The three thousand years? He had heard the folktale all his life, heard the bards spin stories of the long, slow turn of the wheel of rebirth. Believing it had always seemed to him like an act of desperation: it was the story beggars told themselves to pretend that someday they’d be reborn as kings. But now, at the last moment, his heart began to change. Three thousand years…he could wait longer than that to see her again.
Sound ebbed back into the city. Soldiers barked orders. The cellar shook as a dozen boys who had been convinced to die on the walls like men ran overhead. Waiting in the cellar, they had become numb to this, and the only things real to them now were the sound of their voices hovering in the dark and the awareness of their hands, sweaty and cold, intertwined in a grip tight enough to defy death. The enemy would take the city, post their ash-black flags to flutter in the howling wind, storm the houses and the halls and the cellars, and kill them both—but they would not let go.
She leaned her head against his in the dark and said, “I had a dream last night…three thousand years long.”
“Then tell me what you saw,” he said. It was a folktale for desperate people, and he had become desperate.
So she began to tell her dream to him, and in her voice he forgot the suffocating night of the cellar, the sharp pain of his wounded leg, the cries of the city as it died. They had been through a moment like this once before, he remembered, in the early years of the siege. Whispering to each other in the dark, she had told him of the places she had wandered in sleep, soaring citadels of glass and beasts that glided like shadows beneath the surface of frozen lakes. They were only dreams, yet when she told them, he had felt that if he waited enough lifetimes he might see them with his own eyes. So he listened to her now, and the dream of their future spread out before him like reality.
“After this life we’re born as songbirds, but you live in a forest an ocean apart from mine. Every day you fly as far as you can from the tree in which you slept, driven to search, although you do not know for what. You might have known it if you’d seen it, but you don’t: you never reach the shore. Far away, I nest in the hollow of a dead oak and stay there as winters come and go. Each day at dusk, the both of us whistle to the winds, but the winds are too weak to reach across the waters. We die on the same day after three years.”
“We have two thousand and nine hundred ninety-seven more to go. We’re born as foxes next. You grow lean, your bones a hard frame for your skin, because the hunt almost always escapes you and you wander alone in the mud and snow. We live in the same wood, but it is vast and winter never leaves it. A hundred miles away, I grow gray and blind before I ever become old, and after five years I lay down for the last sleep. The tip of my tail touches a twig that you broke eight months ago, while you were wandering with a hunger and a yearning that food couldn’t feed.”
“In your dream,” he asked, “do we meet again?”
“Almost,” she said. “We go two hundred years without passing each other, until we are reborn as silver fish. One day you find a stray current and let it take you to shallow waters. You see a gray gleam not too far away. Just when you might have come close enough to see what that gleam was—just when you might have seen me, waiting among the bright reefs—a fisherman’s harpoon comes for you and the water tastes of blood.”
She fell silent, but he didn’t know what she was thinking.
Her fingers felt cold, and so he wrapped her hand with both of his own to warm them. “Go on,” he said.
“We live and die and live again for centuries and centuries. Once we are swans, and you are traveling through a land you think is empty when you fly across a lake echoing with ripples. You go on, knowing you can’t stop searching. You do not realize that I have just landed by the shore. I do not realize that the fleeting shadow passing over the reeds is you. Then we are leviathans, for a time, and we spend decades drifting through the deeps of the ocean. In a black trench where no light comes, I wait and wait. Once you come down, and we glide past each other and our sightless heads nearly touch, but it is dark as black ink and we are only faint shadows to each other.”
Her voice was almost too soft to hear as the walls of the city finally thundered to the ground, and the trumpets of the enemy called out, clear and cold. Heavy drumbeats pulsed through the air, announcing with a steady trembling that the city was at its end. This much had become clear to him: the lives they were to have after followed the pattern of the life they lived now.
He remembered how they had met by chance in the early days of the siege, years ago. He had gone with his brother to fight on the plains outside the city walls, and seen him fall to his knees with a black arrow in his heart. He had carried his brother home on his shoulders; then, when he had cremated him, carried him to the temple in his arms. It was in that hour that he had met her, the daughter of a priest. Something had made her sit on the steps outside the temple that day, and something had made a sparrow perch on the branch above her head and cry its bitter and sweet song, and they met with the sudden sense that she had been waiting for him, and he had been searching for her. For a brief moment, all had felt justified.
But the shadow of the siege had hung over them all this time, and every one of their memories from the first to the last had a red tint. Soon the city would be destroyed, and the world would justify what he had come to believe in his most fatalistic moments, that being happy was other peoples’ duty, and his was to lie forgotten in the dust. That she would lie there with him only made it worse.
He didn’t know how she could tell him these lifetimes slowly, patiently, as if the knowledge of them didn’t hurt her. But she had always been like that. In the long-ago red dusk when they had whispered their dreams, she had smiled at the remembrance of the things she’d imagined and told him she wanted to see the wide world when she grew older. Yet in the next moment she said she knew that in this lifetime she would not grow old. Her smile had dimmed slightly then, but it had not disappeared. “We’ll have to wait”, she’d said, “just for a small while.” Sometimes he thought she knew the way and winding of eternity itself. Time couldn’t frighten her. But it frightened him.
Shouts and screams echoed down the street as the enemy marched through the fallen city.
“Tell me of the end,” he said. “Tell me…after three thousand years, do we…”
“After three thousand, we are finally born as humans again,” she said. In her voice he thought he could hear her smiling softly. His heart rose. “You are the son of a soldier, and when you come of age you wear his armor to war. I am the daughter of a farmer, and when she dies, I till the fields she left behind. One day you hear your captain say that there is a field of roses in the valley nearby. I hear news that an army is camped in the mountains above. When you try to fall asleep that night, you find you can’t. You feel that you must do something, but you do not know what it is. I sit by my fireplace and sense that I am living in a moment that will not come again.”
“And then?” he asked.
The door slammed open on the floor above.
“Tell me. I come down from the mountains, don’t I? I meet you in the field—I must.”
Their hands were twisted together so tightly they could feel each other’s heartbeat, fast and insistent, against their palms.
“You fall asleep,” she whispered, “and so do I. When I wake up in the morning, the coals in the fireplace have become cold ash, and you have already marched away.”
“That can’t be.”
“But you are.”
“I know,” she said. “But there will be another three thousand years for us.”
Footsteps drummed overhead. Doors slammed open. Hoarse voices shouted.
In the darkness he tried to hold on to the memory of her face, the way she’d been on the steps of the temple, in the moment time had been kind to them. He imagined that moment coming again. “Another three thousand…and then we must be done with waiting. We must find each other.”
“No,” she whispered. “There will be another three thousand. And another after that, and another and another until the world grows old. But we will come closer and closer each time—”
A blaze of light blinded them as an enemy soldier kicked open the cellar door.
“So you must wait for me—wait for the years to fly past us, wait for us to wander through an unfathomable number of almosts, wait for a time where you and I—”
One day, in two separate forests an ocean apart, two songbirds began to whistle to the wind.