Sands of the Lethe
It was at Artillery Ridge, tucked into a pink sleeping bag, when Iona first felt a man die. She closed her eyes to the blue nylon of her tent and opened them to grey canvas and the smell of rain. She rose on legs that were not her own, wiped a face thick with stubble and opened the tent to see hundreds more. Some had men sitting before them, cleaning long guns with dirty rags. Others crouched next to the remnants of fire pits, spooning cold porridge into their mouths.
Iona looked down at dirty hands and rubbed them together for a warmth she could not feel. A man in a uniform of a brighter blue than her own trudged through mud pathways, proclaiming they would march in half an hour.
She woke with a scream in her throat, flinching from echoes of gunfire long since silenced. Her parents told her it was just a dream and she believed them, even as she rubbed away the lingering ache in her shoulder and neck.
The second time, Iona was fresh into college, on the far side of the country where the history was less recent and less red. She’d always dreamed of San Francisco and now she was here, in the comfort of her new dorm room, watching the lights of the city dribble into the bay.
On her first night, she dreamt of a woman waiting in bed for a man. The silhouette of beams and cranes of the still young city hung silent against the first light. The man walked back into the room and smiled at her and called her baby doll. She held out her hand to him when the bed began to shake. The man shouted but his words were lost in the roaring of stone and steel. She tried to cry out but the floor gave way beneath her and the ceiling gave way after that and all she could feel was falling.
Iona spent the rest of the night walking along the beach, convinced that the ground was beginning to sway.
The third time Iona felt a man die, she was twenty-two, sitting in a chair in her parents’ bedroom. She held her father’s hand and listened to the deep, hollow echo in his chest. She didn’t think it sounded like a rattle.
That night, she dreamt of strained breaths and glazed eyes and a pain so immense she could not help but moan with the weight of it. The only solace she felt was the soft warmth of a hand in her own, even if she didn’t have the strength to lift her head and see to whom it belonged.
The next day, after his body had been taken away, she met with a doctor who gave her pills and she never dreamed again.
The fourth time was something she didn’t like to think about. There had been life growing within her, and then there wasn’t. The doctors couldn’t give her a reason. She had done nothing wrong, had taken all the right pills, ate all the right things. It just happens sometimes, they said. She wondered what the difference was between something just happening and fate.
Some years later, when it was her turn, Iona closed her eyes and welcomed the darkness she had become so familiar with. Amid the pain in her chest and the dullness brought on by the palliation, she drifted off, deaf to the cries around her.
She woke and saw an ocean. Her feet sank into white sand and she recalled someone once telling her about a far shore. She looked around and found she was not alone. Down the beach sat a man, looking at the waves. She went to him.
“Where are we?” she asked.
“The last stop before the end.”
“What are we supposed to do?”
“Walk.” He nodded down the rest of the beach. It disappeared over a distant bank and she suspected that’s where she would disappear too.
“Why aren’t you walking?”
“I don’t want to,” the man said. “Not yet.”
“How long are you going to stay here?”
“Until I feel the pull of the water.”
Iona frowned. “I don’t understand.”
The man dug his hand into the sand and held it out to her. She cupped her palms and accepted it.
“People aren’t supposed to stop. We’re supposed to move. We’re supposed to walk. Sometimes people don’t want to and so they sit here and wait. There’s nothing to wait for, nothing else is coming. But if they still choose to wait, after a while, the water pulls them in and spits them back out. This beach is what’s left,” the man said.
Iona sifted the sand through her fingers, letting it fall.
“How long have you been here?”
“I still remember things. Where I was when it happened. The last thing I said to my wife. What my kids were wearing. I’m just waiting to forget. That’s when I’ll walk the rest of the way. I’ll leave when everything’s gone.”
The man said no more and looked only at the slowly rising tide. Iona said good luck to him but he didn’t respond.
The way down the beach was farther than she would have thought but she took her time. She knew she should probably think back on her life, on the dreams she had as a child, or the first time she fell in love, or the day she saw true happiness, but she wanted to feel while she still could. The shifting sand beneath her feet, how she would sink before taking another step. There were no footsteps she could walk in. The sand was flat and smooth as a dune. She wanted to walk all over it, to destroy its perfection, but she decided the time for that was past.
There was no sun here and the light stayed the same from when she reached the end of her walk to when she started it. When she crested the bank, the soft light and the beach and the water melted away into nothing. There was no border between what was and what wasn’t. There wasn’t a ledge to jump off or a door to open. It was neither dark nor light. It was nothing and it was where Iona wanted to go. She stepped forward and continued to walk until what was left of her was gone and she ceased to be.
MK Roney is a writer, photographer and editor from Phoenix, Arizona. She attended Johns Hopkins University for her BA in Writing Seminars, where she received the Robert R. Arellano Award for Excellence in Writing, and has just recently finished her Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Oxford. She has been published in Chapman University’s literary magazine Anastamos and Black Coffee & Vinyl Presents: Ice Culture. She’s currently working on a collection of science fiction and magical realism short stories, and is freelancing as an editor while she travels the world and sleeps on friends’ couches.