It comes. A knock, not the kind you hear on a door, then a scuffle.
He pushes himself up out of bed, dresses quickly. I know he’s trying not to wake me, but I sleep lightly. And the first time it happened, he needed to remind me what to do.
The first time, I nodded and said nothing. Couldn’t even bear to kiss him goodbye. I was afraid to touch him. The verse came back to me in an echo of childhood: Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended.
This time I put my hand on his shoulder. He turns to me with a small smile.
I kiss him, his mouth warm with sleep; I reach up to touch his neck, nestle my hand against the place where his hair begins, a little damp like he’s been restless in the night. He likely knew.
This time I get out of bed and light the white candle while he dresses, holding my hair back from the flame. This time he watches me do it, lets his gaze linger over my body, bare and fresh from the lovemaking and the sleep.
“I’ll be back,” he says, like always.
I nod. “I’ll be here.”
He touches my cheek with his hand and then he is gone.
He said to me, one night, almost a year ago now, “I need to go away for a while.”
“To my family’s home.”
“For how long?”
“I don’t know.” He leaned back on my tattered sofa, took a long drink from the glass of whiskey he rarely drank. “I have to take care of some things.”
It would usually be the kind of moment where the most graceful thing to do is say, Gosh, that sounds like a lot, I’m so sorry, take all the time you need, let me know how things work out. Don’t show how much it’s going to hurt to see him go. He thanks you for being cool about it and you never speak again. And that’s the best outcome.
But I knew better. I felt it.
I said, “Take me with you.”
He looked over at me. The tension in his forehead and his hands eased for a moment before they reappeared.
“I can’t ask you to do this,” he said. “I’ll be so far from everything. It’s not safe for you.”
Not safe for me, he said. Nothing about himself. I knew enough by then. What could harm me could not harm him, or at least not as easily. What I needed, he did not need.
You’re probably right. Wow, I’ll miss you so much. Take care.
I did not say any of that.
I said, “There’s nothing here for me anyway.”
He said, “I can’t ask you to come.”
“You’re not asking me.”
“I’d miss you every day.”
“Then don’t.” I took his chin in my hand, tilted his face gently towards mine. “Take me with you.”
He pulled me to him then. And he said, “There are dangers. I have to tell you this.”
“I’ll do everything I can to keep you safe.”
I didn’t know then, of course, but it’s not like I really know all that much now. All I knew was that I’d never felt so loved and I’d be damned if I didn’t follow that feeling to the ends of the earth. Or farther.
It was beautiful when we first got here, to see him melt into his surroundings and be so fully himself. He cast spells around a wide perimeter of the place; then, he cleared the garden beds and the gutters, grew fresh flowers and raised up a vegetable garden. “It will help,” he murmured.
He cleansed the bedroom before he let me step inside, the lace curtains fluttering at the window; he said, the only words of the ritual I could understand, “Go, go.” He set a white candle on a low table before that same window.
And that night, as we readied for bed, he said, “If I get up in the middle of the night, don’t come after me.”
I looked at him. I wanted to ask, for a moment, even though I knew better. His eyes, never unkind, were nevertheless bright with something like the heat of a just-forged sword.
“Don’t look for me,” he said. “Don’t leave the house. And keep the white candle lit.”
It came that night, whatever it is. I still don’t know. He leaves, sometimes for hours, his face going from tender to grim in a blink as he strides out. He returns just before dawn most often, haunted. Once he came back wounded, his shoulder torn open and bloody, and I had the strangest thought: I didn’t know he could bleed. He let me wash and bandage it, and he made soft noises of gratitude. But even then I did not ask.
I only asked, “Why the candle?”
“In case I get lost.”
“You— can get lost?”
He looked at me, holding his shoulder for a moment. Then he said, “I never know. If I could forget— where goodness lives, what I’ve done this for.” He paused. “Where home is. And where, now, you are.”
Another echo came to me then: For the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
I try to go back to sleep, but it usually doesn’t work. I’ll lie in bed, afraid that this is the night the curtains will catch on the candle and burn the place down. Sometimes the cat paces in and out of the room; once in a while in his great benevolence he’ll lie beside me, and I pet him distractedly. Sometimes I read a book or draw a picture. But more often than not I stretch out in the middle of the bed, in the light of one candle, and listen to the sounds of the woods to which I’ve lost him.
Sometimes all I hear is the rustling of leaves, the scrambling of something small. Sometimes I hear a scream like one of a woman. Sometimes I see a flash like lightning.
I lie still in the middle of all of it. I am obedient to what he has commanded. I am protected by nothing but a lace curtain and an ancient magic and an immortal love.
He carries home the scent of fire at the very end of the night. I can smell it when he peels off his shirt, the ruin and ash clinging to the fibers. He stretches out beside me as the candle’s light diminishes in the first rays of morning sun.
I roll towards him, leaning my head into his chest where only the warm smell lingers— smoldering leaves, roasting meat— as though he has burned away everything dead and malevolent.
I say, “You’re back.”
He nods and closes his eyes.
I kiss his lips. He kisses back, reaching his hand into my hair.
I get up to blow the candle out, and return myself beside him, and feel my heart and my blood settle.
For when you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.