I started writing a short story (something I want to do a lot more of), and it’s turning out really beautifully. It’s called Chasing Me Softly, and here is an excerpt:
In Bardam, it is illegal for a woman to run. Some say it is because our bodies are fragile, that we snap bones like dry brush, and if we run we encourage a dangerous recklessness. Therefore endangering all women.
Endangering women eventually leads to the extinction of a species. A good thing to make illegal.
Some say it is because running musses our beauty. Our hair goes wild and sweat streaks the paint on our faces, running dark rivulets from our eyes. Crazed eyes.
Men want something pretty to look at. And since men run Bardam, they can decide such things – that anything that ruins a woman’s beauty should be made illegal. Apparently, we are that sacred to them.
There are other disruptions to beauty that come from running. The dry, cracked lips from sucking the wind like a drug you can’t get enough of. The blisters that pepper your feet. The contours of muscle that develop over time; the definition of taboo written all over your defiled body.
I know of these greater details because I have a secret. A dangerous, marvelous, rich dark secret.
I sneak away from my canopied luxury, my silken prison where I should be resting my head upon embroidered pillows, at night, and I do that thing that makes me a criminal.
It makes me a rebel, and yet I do not do it as an act of defiance. I do it because I have to. There is a frivolous enjoyment about it, yes. The men smoke their cigars in front of their pavilions, or with business associates at the taverns, and I smoke the wind. I smoke the night air with the same pleasure they get from their rolled sticks of husky incense.
But I do it because there is a pounding in my heart that must be met, lest it speed itself into a frenzy and explode in my chest. There is a cadence, a desperate rhythm in its beat that must be matched – with strides, for I know nothing else to match it with – or there is a discord in my head that will eventually drive me mad.
There is an energy in my veins that must be burned up, lest it burn me up instead. There are days that my lashes and brows look darker, as if from charcoal, and thicker, as if from ash. On these days I put down my kit of dark cosmetics without using it, and wonder… Did I forget to remove yesterday’s application, or is this because I have not run in a day or two, and these darkened features are evidence of the energy I harbor, charring me slowly from the inside out? Starting with the delicate edges, but soon to leave me a smoking, shriveled husk?
And so I got out that night, and I run until I can’t breathe. Until I see double-stars, and collapse in bliss and wonder and stare up at the crowded, dazzling, exploding sky. I laugh, breathlessly, because I feel clever for discovering this parallel universe of stars, this secret constellation that the astronomers know nothing of.
Then I revel in the dry brush, which I am only just starting to feel against my blood-hot and wind-cold, feverish numb skin. The dry brush that is like my bones, which break so easily, which could never withstand the way I fling my feet against the ground. The way the ground shatters up through my shins, reverberates in my core, rings in my spine.
Tremors on my lips.
Quivers on my lashes.
In that moment I feel powerful. Liberated. Unstoppable. And I realize the truth: this is illegal because it empowers us. And we must be controlled.
It doesn’t bother me in those moments of clarity, though. Because my secret sets me free. This is me not being controlled. This is me being the mistress of my own destiny, and they are none the wiser.
Perhaps no one has ever had such a simple destiny before: to run. But it is as fine a destiny as any.
It is as great a cause. As impressive a feat. As wondrous a dream.
To run, and run, and run.
And then, one day – one night – they catch me.
Not from behind. No, they don’t catch me like that.
I run straight into the arms of someone I cannot see. I cannot see him, because it is dark, and I am starry-eyed, and the sound of my breaths has drowned out any sounds of his presence.
Sounds of their presence.
Suddenly my rush of dark heaven is cut short, and when I recover from the sting, the shock, the absolute disruption, I realize I have my face in his chest. I can smell the muskiness of him, now that the breathlessness has abated.
He puts me at arms’ length.
Slowly, the liberation pales, and the sweat on my body turns cold with fear.
I have been caught, and there is no masking the gasping breaths, the heaving chest, the streaks of sweat.
The hair that I am sure has gone wild. The eyes that must be crazed, like the stories say.
The man looks down at me, straight-faced as if he was cut from stone. Then he says, very deliberately,
“Was someone chasing you, my lady?”
That is the only excuse. The only excuse for a woman to be running, if she is to escape a prison sentence. And it has to be someone other than her husband, or father, or brother that is chasing her.
She cannot run from a husband, father, or brother.
I feel my lips quiver with half-formed words. Like moths with only one wing each, fluttering for purchase. If my eyes are not crazed from running, they are crazed from the pressure of lying. Of convincing this man, this figure of authority, that there is an excuse for this. That he should not throw me in prison for encouraging recklessness or defiling my sacred beauty.
Nervous, I glance at his companion. Another pair of dark eyes looks back at me, steady as the first. But there is something I think I notice – a twinkle of curiosity in those eyes, unless it is a remnant of my starry focus, playing tricks on me.
I jerk my gaze away, and look directly at the chest that I ran into, remembering my place – and not wanting to broadcast my crazed eyes, and provoke anyone any more than they have already been provoked.
“Not…someone,” I stammer meekly, for who would be chasing me out here, across the dry-brush wilderness? “Something.” And I say no more, for fear that I cannot lie convincingly if the lie becomes any more complex a beast.
“What sort of thing?” I am pressed, but I shake my head, playing crazed and dumb. That will be the most convincing charade, because lie or not it is the truth they want from me. The proper form for me to assume, in any situation. Proper, and acceptable, and harmless.
“An animal?” he asks, and I nod my affirmation.
He could ask me what I’m doing out here anyway, but he doesn’t. Perhaps he is more lenient than some, and more inclined to let this incident pass as a warning. Perhaps, out here in the dark where no one can see me, away from civilization, I have done no harm, and so he is willing to let it go.
Some men do believe in second chances, if for no other reason than that it would be a shame to waste a lovely creature if you don’t have to.
“Perhaps one of the jackals we are hunting,” the man says.
I remember hearing some of the men talking of these over cigars, lately – the jackals that have been haunting the edges of the village, stealing scraps and nipping at the heels of children.
“Amesh will escort you back to town,” the man informs me, and the one with a twinkle in his eye steps forward. “Stay close to your pavilion after sunset. Straying even a little invites an attack.”
I nod vigorously, a promise to do as he says, for I would never wish to repeat another attack. Having to run for my life. Getting stranded so far from the village.
Never mind that I was not attacked. That I ran for my life only in the sense that I must run to live. That I am no more stranded than a dreamer is ever stranded.
Amesh escorts me through the brush, saying nothing until we reach my pavilion. I turn to thank him kindly for his assistance, but by then I am no longer starry-eyed from breathlessness, and it is no trick that I see it – the twinkle in his eye.
It is there as surely as the moon hangs bright in the sky on a cloudless night. I wonder what can be so fascinating, and then have to allow him the fact that he has never seen the wild way a woman looks after she runs. It is likely quite a shock.
“My lord, your staring shames me,” I say, a demure pointer so that we may both return to a proper stance, and never speak of this again.
“I am sorry,” Amesh says, ducking his warm gaze and correcting the misplaced interest. “It is just…” And when he looks back up at me, the twinkle is not completely gone. “They say it defiles you. That it defiles the sacred beauty of a woman. But I find you…strangely beautiful.”
Nothing has ever felt so scandalous as this – standing in the dark with a man who finds my crime intriguing, my wild, crazed disgrace strangely beautiful. He is surely not condoning it, and yet…
I am now as intrigued as he.
“Forgive me for staring,” Amesh excuses himself, bowing. “And please do beware. Of jackals.”
He says this last bit almost as an afterthought, but what else could he have meant? Beware of what, if not jackals? Beware of those who don’t find crimes such as mine strangely beautiful?
He leaves me there at my pavilion, but, wild and crazed and strangely beautiful, I stare after him. My heart skips a beat, the feral rhythm glitching, and for three days, I don’t feel the need to run.