I originally wrote An Arrow in the Side of in 2009, and I’ve tinkered with it to bring it up to date. It’s a little fantasy story about love and purpose and it was inspired by, and named for, this song.
An Arrow in the Side of
Her vases were filled with peacock feathers, pink lilies, sunflowers. Yellow china teacups and saucers lay scattered on a soft cream rug that boasted swirls of gold and royal blue with artfully hidden turquoise seashells. A crystal chess board gleamed handsomely on a richly-coloured wooden coffee table. A caged bird rustled overhead. The room was warm and wide.
She dipped into a pale green bergѐr chair, her back bolstered against a plump pink cushion so that she sat straight as an arrow with her bare feet crossed on the coffee table. I chose a chair opposite her, an orange easy chair that was far too big for me. I felt stumpy in it, small. I waited.
She twitched the wide brim of her sunhat. Played with the curly blonde ends of her hair. Sighed a deep sigh and stretched to bring her hands over her knees, gripping them, then sitting back with a soft ‘flump’ against the cushion. Hummed a little something. I waited.
After a while, she daintily brought herself to her feet, tugged down her dress, and padded over to the record player. Carefully removed a record from its case. Ran vigilant hands along the clean-cut, vinyl edges. Played it.
A violin piece I’d never heard before spread itself lazily around the room, a cool ghost in the warm air. She looked at me as if for approval, and I said nothing. She stepped slowly back to the seat. Lowered herself down. Turned to face me and gazed at me from under feathery eyelashes.
“Now, then. Where were we?”
I blinked at her. “I didn’t think we were anywhere, as of yet.”
She smiled slowly, her teeth perfectly white. “Of course, of course. But you wanted to have a bit of a chat, didn’t you, sweetie. I remember.”
I forced a smile of my own. It was disconcerting, being called ‘sweetie’ by somebody who looked so much younger than me. I often thought about how this girl was probably older than the Earth, older than time. The things she’d seen.
I forced myself past the thought and tried to make my smile reach my eyes. “Yes,” I chimed. “Wanted to have a chat.”
She gestured to the tea set on the rug, set up like she’d been having some kind of tea party before I arrived. I wondered if the guests were still in the room.
“Would you like a cup of tea, my darling,” she asked, “Or perhaps something a little stronger?”
I raised my hand to decline the offer and saw her smile become fixed, eyes widening, and so changed my course of action; instead, I broadened my already aching grin, and diverted my hand to my glasses. “Tea would be lovely,” I said. “Thank you for asking.”
She occupied herself with the tea set and I tried to calm my over-stretched muscles and mind. This room was like a cave, the walls meeting at a domed ceiling, prone to cool drafts from nowhere in particular through the otherwise temperate air. And that music kept rolling on and on, dancing across the walls and invading important and private thoughts. I tried to think of clever arguments to questions I knew she’d ask and came up blank.
She slid one of the bone china teacups in front of me and brought over the now-full teapot delicately, feet padding along the floor with a soft rhythm.
“Shall I be mother?” she asked.
She poured without receiving an answer. I took my tea black, no sugar. She knew that and passed the steeped tea to me while she added milk and sugar to her own cup.
Silence between us. The bird continued to fidget, the music continued to play. She stayed standing, thin arms crossed on the backrest of her chair, the delicate cup in one hand resting on the top of her other arm. The cup just have been scalding her skin but she didn’t seem to notice. The cup, her arms, her face were darkened from the shadow of her hat.
I cleared my throat, twitched my glasses nervously again. C’mon, I goaded myself. Like a Band-Aid.
“So. The thing is. I quit”, I said too loudly, and immediately took a long swig of too-hot tea. When I resurfaced she was giving me a kind, bright smile.
“Oh, honey. Business like this, it’s not easy to get out of.”
“It may not be easy,” I said, “but I’ll do what it takes. I can’t do this anymore.”
Under the shadow of her hat, her blue eyes had become cold. Her round face had become an abrupt and icy marble, statuesque. I sank further into my chair as she set her teacup on its saucer on the coffee table and advanced. Her hands were soon on my armrests, her shoulders hunched, her nails sharper than I’d first noticed.
“We had a deal.”
“You signed a contract.”
She straightened up, everything about her harder, sharper. Her teeth were like knives, her elbows jagged.
“So, little one. Why the sudden change of heart? I thought this was all that you had wanted.”
I thought quickly, decided the best way forward was honesty.
“It was,” I said. “It is. And it was really an honour, while it lasted. My job was everything to me. I’m seriously and eternally grateful.”
She continued to stare down her nose at me in disgust, her eyes so navy now they were almost black.
“Not only did I carry out my side of our agreement by giving you a purpose in life, child; I gave you one of the most prestigious positions my business has to offer. In time you would have become godlike.”
I was stuck on this one for a second. The seemingly perfect deal I had made in a drunken, pointless past. Purpose. Prestigious. Godlike. I managed to shake the thought.
“I still want all of that,” I said, meekly, aware of how badly she’d take the next bit but unsure how else to go on. “But. You see. I’m in love.”
Promptly, suddenly, the room was full of a heavy cold. The bird, the music, the scratch of the needle; all had stopped. There was cold movement all around me, a presence I could normally have seen but not today, not anymore.
I wrenched my thoughts away from invisible, groping fingers and looked at this girl in horror and revulsion. Her skin was waxy, now. Her teeth were sharp spikes, her eyes dark sockets, mouth wrinkled with primordial fury. I noticed she was now too tall, too thin to be real, like she was hollow inside. I stood up through a sea of cold and backed away behind the easy chair, trying to stare her down.
“You think love gives you a higher purpose?” she growled. “You think any duties to this person make you exempt from your job? You think they own your soul? You know that I do.”
I cringed a little, tried to hide it.
“They make me feel like I don’t need a purpose anymore,” I said. “I just am. I can just be. I don’t need any of this anymore. I intend to marry them and, when I say my vows, I have to promise my body and soul. Body and soul,” I said desperately, watching her sharpen and rumble, her hair now a tempest across the angular coral of her body, her hat blown somewhere across the floor.
“And what did your little fiancé-to-be think of this job of yours? Do you think they’d still marry you if they knew how you got by?”
“I told them,” I said. “I told them everything. They love me.”
She towered for a second, then sat back down, her breath knocked out of her in a sigh. Her eyes were light blue again but screwed up in displeasure. After a few deep and purposeful breaths, she looked away in disdain. “So. You’ll be wanting your soul back,” she said.
“Yes, please,” I said, still half hiding behind my chair.
She seemed tired, disappointed. She put her feet back up on the coffee table. “Then you’ll have to give me something else in return,” she said.
I had been expecting this. I had thought about everything of substance that I could offer, weighed up everything in my life. I was prepared. There was nothing I wouldn’t give.
“It’s the least I can do,” I said, and meant it.
She pondered this one, twirling the blonde ends of a curl. The bird had begun to sing again, haltingly, beautifully.
“I get to decide. But I won’t tell you. It’ll be a delicious little surprise one day. I’ll take everything I owe from you and more, and you’ll never see it coming.”
I winced, but could see no reason to complain.
“Done,” I said.
“Done,” she said. “You’re done.” She took another deep breath. “It’s a shame. You made a fine reaper. The dead are going to miss you. Until you return to them. One way or another, now, you’ll be with them soon.”
The bird chirped overhead as I left the room and I found my love outside, waiting for me.