The other kids dared me to sneak in and touch his coffin. His body was lying in the biggest room of the small church down the road. The front door was open, but I snuck in through the kitchen window. It wasn't quite dark yet, and the room was illuminated by soft yellow light that filtered through a stained glass window. I was alone. The coffin lay at the end of the room, through a path lined with flowers, and though my nose itched and my heart thumped, I walked it with all the grace a child could muster. I put my hands and face up to the glass and looked at what was left of him. They had dressed him in black, even though he was so full of color it almost hurt to think of it.
My mother said they were taking him to the capital to be buried. He had been important once. "Some kind of politician. He was advisor to the last king after the world fell apart. A lot of people respected him, sweetie. He was a great man."
It was hard to think of him as an important man who wore boring suits. He told us to call him Uncle, though none of us were related by blood. He was an old man, past eighty, at least, and it was hard for him to walk, but his teeth were still even and white and he almost looked handsome when he smiled. Every afternoon when the weather was good he would sit on his porch with some dusty relic and tell us a story. Fantastic stories, about underground palaces and forbidden loves, women who strode the skies and kings whose castles moved through the desert. He said that the stories kept the life in his bones. Adults respected him for what he had been, but we loved him for what he was.
"My grandma used to tell me stories like this," he told me, "a long time ago. I don't know how I would've turned out, but for the stories." The rocking chair underneath him creaked as he leaned forwards, intent looming in the lines of his face. "Some people will try to tell you that only fools and children believe in fairy tales, and maybe that's true. I, for one, believe that dragons exist. Maybe they do, maybe they don't. That isn't the point—how can I say this? The point of the stories isn't that dragons exist, it's a belief they can be slain." He sighed, unable to fit his philosophy to words.
"I guess what I'm trying to say is, being a fool ain't so bad."
My mother used to tell me stories as she rocked me to sleep, but she didn't believe them. And as I stood in the empty church, hands cold and neck aching from bending over to look at a man who was not there, I didn't either.
His fist still grasped the stone, his small orange talisman he always kept in his pocket. Some days he would take it out and watch it sparkle in the light. Once Katrin Jenkins had asked him what it was. "A lost love," he had replied, "and a story for another day." He had winked then, and now his eyes were closed forever. His fingers had grown rigid; they would never give his treasure up.
"Liar," I cried. "You said it could bring back the dead."
A voice rang behind me, long and low. His widow was standing behind me. I hadn't heard her come in. "It did, once," she said, "A long time ago."
I turned around to face her, but I couldn't meet her gaze. Black suited her—it was if she were made for mourning. There was no color in her face and hands, and her hair had long ago faded to white. Her features hung like marble, the fine black lace of her veil was impossibly delicate next to the curve of her chin. I couldn't see the soul in her eyes, but then, I couldn't bring myself to look for it.
Sometimes she would bring us lemonaide and smile while her husband sat on their porch. That had not been the same woman. She had been something else, once upon a time, and I wondered in where she had learned to be so still.
Eying the stone that his bloodless fingers still grasped, she put her hand on my shoulder. Her arm felt as cold as it looked, but her voice held a spark of warmth. "I hate to see him like this, you know." She sighed, staring at something invisible between his coffin and the grey stone of the church walls. "I wish I could bleed for him the way he did for her."
I left her then. It was time for me to leave.
Two days later, the king himself came to pay his respects and take the body to the capital. He was a young man then, hair still golden and skin still smooth. His Majesty kept his distance and bowed his head, saying something short and formal about duty and Figaro. But the woman who had come with him threw her arms around the widow and embraced her like a friend. She was grey and crooked, but her eyes shone like spring. The procession passed, the two women holding hands, the green-eyed lady crying while the widow stared straight ahead. After the funeral, when the corpse had parted along with her friends, she rarely left the house. As the years went by, we saw her less and less, and when she went out she always wore black. The other children thought she was a witch. But sometimes, late at night, I could hear her singing. From my window I could see her rocking back and forth, holding a faded blue handkerchief and sobbing as she sung. I knew she was as human as any of us.
A week before he died, Uncle was sitting on his porch, the glint of the afternoon sun alive in the grey of his hair. He reached into his pocket and soon that stone of his appeared in his open palm. When he held it to the light like that, it burned with every color I could name. With a chuckle, he called it magic, breathing a familiarity into those strange syllables. "My last, greatest, and most beautiful treasure," he told us, looking at his wife through the window. She was waving. "Well, maybe not my most beautiful. But at the very least the hardest won." He brought it closer to the sun, squinting as the light it gave off bent his face into rainbows.
He almost whispered the next words, as if they were something sacred. "It has the power to bring the dead back to life."
We watched eagerly as he assumed his storytelling stance, left hand resting on his knee. "Once upon a time, a beautiful princess lived in a faraway tower. Her hair was as dark as midnight and her lips were red as rubies." He paused. "Her name was Rachel.
"Every day, a knight would climb up the thousand steps of her tower and whisk Rachel away. Rachel may have been a princess, but she had the heart of a hero, and she and the knight would go on many adventures together. One day, the knight asked Rachel to marry him, and she said yes. He found the perfect ring in an old ruin, and the next day he hastened up the thousand steps to bring his princess to his treasure.
"But the way to the ring was hard, and had not been walked in centuries. As the knight, heavy in his armor, was walking across an old bridge, it snapped. But the princess noticed the rope as it was breaking, and she pushed her knight to safety just in time."
"But in saving him, the princess fell down the chasm herself, deep into the darkness the bridge was meant to cross. The knight watched helplessly as the woman he loved fell further and further into places he could not reach.
"When he found her, she was already dead. He carried her back to her tower, up the thousand steps, and laid her on her bed. Because he was responsible for the death of the princess, the knight was exiled from the kingdom. But before he left, he gave the court magician his entire fortune, his lands, and his titles, to cast a spell on the princess. He wanted her never to age, never to be disturbed by the world, until he could find a way to bring her back.
"The knight wandered for many months, searching for a treasure of legend that would bring his princess back. The love that animated him was like a knife in his soul. Love like that is a bruise, an all-over ache, and his guilt became a weapon he turned on himself. He couldn't let the pain dull; it was all he had left of her.
"The months became years and the knight had saved many women, some of them princesses, some of them paupers, but none of them were enough. He became more reckless, his rescues more daring. People called him a hero, but his bravery was only a disguise for cowardice. He lived so much in the clouds and the legends that he did not even notice when the world ended around him.
"Then he found it, a whisper of a legend in some dusty tome in another forgotten kingdom. Somewhere in the mountains that formed the shape of a star, there was a relic that would bring the dead back to life. It was only a story-- a fairy tale, really, but after living without magic for so long he believed in it more than ever. Six months later, he stood at the mouth of the cave, not knowing what it would contain.
"It wasn't so much a cave as a volcano, really, and it was almost too hot to bear. He had to leave his armor at the mouth of the cave. He couldn't see well because of the steam, and the sweat on his hands made it hard to grasp the rocks he needed to climb. But he made it to the treasure with only one eyebrow singed off and two fresh bruises on his leg.
"The treasure." Uncle repeated. "This." And he held the stone up to the light one more time, his eyes sparkling with a secret pride. When he smiled like that, it caused all the wrinkles on his face to rearrange themselves. I wondered how the legendary jewel had fallen into his hands, but I would never get to ask him.
"As the knight laid hands on it, he could see that the stone was cracked. He hoped the stone contained enough magic to bring his princess back to him. In later years, he wouldn't remember how he came back to the tower or the shocked looks on the servants' face as he made his way up the thousand steps of the tower for the final time.
"Rachel lay there, exactly as he had left her. With a nervous expression, he laid the jewel at her feet and knelt at the side of her bed. The stone floor was colder than he remember. He could feel magic rising in his blood, the force of it moving through him like a faraway song. A windowpane shattered, and some of the glass cut his face as it fell.
"He didn't notice the blood on his cheek, and he could no longer feel the cold of the stone floor. All he could see was the beautiful woman who stood before him, her face wrapped in fire and her eyes shining brighter than diamonds. When she smiled it was like the rose and the thorn together, and when she said his name it recalled him to life.
"'You're hurt.' she said, as the cut on his cheek healed and the rotting wound inside him began to close over. He wanted to tell her something, but she burned the words from his throat. 'Don't apologize. You were my hero-- of course I wanted to save you.' She bent down to kiss him, but it was a chaste kiss, full of chivalry and embers. 'I don't have much time before I leave, but I want to tell you that I love you.' Her features began to fade into the magic that surrounded her, but she was singing with joy at the sight of him. 'I've wanted to tell you that for so long.'
"Soon all that was left of the princess and her bed was the stone. But as the knight picked it up, he noticed that the crack was gone. The stone was whole again." Uncle stopped. His story was finished, and the silence fell upon us like twilight.
"What a sad story." The words left my mouth unbidden.
"I never thought so," he replied, "and I've had a long time to think about it."
"But... he goes through all that trouble to save Rachel and she dies anyway!"
He shook his head. "You missed the point, then. It was the knight who died, not the princess. She saved him, not the other way around."
Owen Townsend, who was three years older than me and lived up the street, ran his hand through my hair. I thought I loved Owen then, but one day he would leave me for Katrin, who baked him oatmeal-raisin cookies and waited for him after school. He tried to comfort me then, but I don't think what I needed was comfort.
"Don't worry." Owen's words held all the confidence of a twelve-year-old boy who has just realized he knows everything. "It's just a story."
Uncle laughed. "Just a story! What's that supposed to mean, eh?" He put his hands behind his head and rocked back slowly in his chair. "On the contrary, it's the truest story I know. You don't see any cracks in the stone now, do you?"
He fumbled with his cane some and pushed himself out of his chair, trying not to show how hard it was for him to walk as he made his way back into the house. That was the last time I saw him. The face in the coffin doesn't count.
As I grew older, the voice of his wife continued to haunt me late some nights when the quilt my grandmother knit was not enough to keep out the chill. I heard her voice still when I wandered through the university library, searching in vain for a record of a princess named Rachel. I could hear it whenever the king told me of his late father, the sand of Figaro thick in his now graying hair. I can hear it now, in the state cathedral, as I stand before the grave of the best man I ever knew. The woman he loved is buried beside him, the woman who saved him still clutched to his heart.
Oh, my hero, so far away now. I mouth the words, too afraid to speak them aloud. She always sang the same aria. Here, now, alone but for the ghosts, I wonder where it was from.