Title: The limit of dreams
Word Count 1652
The Limit of Dreams
At first he did not see it. He was not looking at his feet. But he felt his foot kick it into the gutter. Red leather, heavy, it glittered there in the mud. He reached quickly to take it, and it was cold in his hand.
“Sir--” he shouldered through the crowd. He thought he had seen-- he was almost sure he had seen--
“Sir!” Bush had a good loud voice. He used it now. “You dropped your money, Sir.”
The man turned. He was dressed fine, lace cuffs, silver buttons, velvet. The effect was rather spoiled by his frown. It was entirely spoiled by his ill considered wig and his wall eye.
“Not I, It's not mine.” The voice was slow and cool with disinterest.
“My heavens, you are an honest fellow.” The man made it sound like a defect. “But I say again, 'tisn't mine.” .” The man gestured at the crowd on the street. “No telling who lost it, or when. Indeed, I would venture to say it is yours, lieutenant. Fair and square.” The man smiled. His teeth were disturbingly neat and white. He gave a decisive nod and turned away.
Bush stood in the road. People streamed by, incurious. They jostled him with baskets, splattered him with mud. A woman with a donkey and a pannier of eels cursed him comprehensively. . He was a shabby lieutenant in a strange city, far from home. And he held in his hand more money than he had ever had to himself.
An hour later he was still not drunk. Bush had found a tavern and a kindly dark corner where there was a trace of a breeze from the open door. He had commenced drinking. But they must water the damn stuff down, he realized. It was making his head ache. He paid, nonetheless, and went back out into the tropical twilight.
It was green here, with growing things, hanging moss, and palms, just like the pictures in books. The air was alive with alien birdsong, and the sky was blue going to purple even as he stood to look. The beauty was that of land, strange to him after so long, and stranger still for being so unlike home. It took him like a strike to the throat. William had always expected the tropics to be kindly. He had imagined a place where it never snowed, he had imagined fruit, maybe monkeys. He had thought it would be somehow soft. But this place was not soft. You could not sit or lean against a tree without being bitten or poked or stung by something. And the heat rose from the ground, and it poured from the sky, and the light burned. He had not expected that.
There were monkeys, in fact. They were loud and dirty. There was one on a chain at the smithy. It looked sad. The smith said he fed it fruit. And there were little lizards scrambled everywhere, looking at him with jeweled eyes. He had caught one earlier today, just to look at it close. It had looked back at him, from the fold of his fist, with outraged intelligence. He had felt the belly of it soft and cold and strange, heaving against his palm. It had bitten his finger, but drawn no blood. Still it had pinched.
“All right,” Bush had said. He had opened his hand gently and let it run away.
Now he rubbed the place on his hand absently as he considered. He need not return to the ship until tomorrow evening.
The inn he found was far enough from the docks to try for respectable. He stopped at the counter, to pay a a broad man with a pink face.
“I would like a bath.” At the thought of it, suddenly his skin was itching and crawling. The thought alone was delicious. The pink man nodded.
The room was small, but it was clean. The bed was good and tight, if not quite long enough. It had a wool blanket. He could not imagine wanting that, but the sheet beneath was fair enough. There was even a rectangular pillow stuffed with feathers. There was a window open to the dangerous airs of the night. William closed it carefully. And now the men with the bath came, bumping and sloshing. They were glowing with the heat, he could smell their sweat over his own.
He dropped his clothing to the deck--- the floor. It made a sweaty slap. But still he shivered a little without it. He peeled his stockings away last of all. He would dress clean from the skin out tomorrow. And he could afford to have these things cleaned. There was water in the tub, cool from the well, and cans of hot to pour over himself. And the soap was big enough to cover his palm. Some places brought an old bar, mostly used up. This one was clean looking too.
William set the cans where he could reach them, and stepped into the bath. It was big enough to fit his feet if he folded his knees sharp. The water felt good. He leaned forward and rested his cheek against his knee. There was no hurry.
No hurry and that was strange. His time was his own-- no need to share a room, no need to spare the water, or flip a coin to see who got the water first. Not since little boyhood, such lazy comfort. He reached behind and drew his queue over his shoulder. The ribbon came free. He dropped it in the water, to wash too, and he worked the tight braid loose. His hair came down, into rumples like hills. It always wanted to curl, but there was so much of it that could only bump. It felt strange like that, all loose and floating. He washed his feet slowly with the soap. He had been wearing his good shoes today and had a blister on his heel. He poked at it absently, the blistered skin felt sore in a far off way. It was himself, but seen small, as through a spyglass.
When his feet were as clean as they could get he rested them against the wall They were pink to the ankles from his scrubbing. With a sigh, he slid down until the water lapped at his chin. He let his eyes close for a moment. The water moved against him softly, it rose and fell against his skin as his breathing slowed. He was not asleep, but close to it now. Foolish to sleep in a bathtub when there was that lovely bed not two steps away. He would get out in a moment.
Half asleep then, he slid the soap over his abdomen. A kindly touch was rare, his own had to do. Two years ago the doctor had sewed up William's hand. He had been kind. He had tried not to hurt. He had patted William on the shoulder, said he was a 'brave boy.' William had wanted to speak up and say that he was 19, and not, therefore a boy. He was an acting lieutenant. But the doctor had given him something that made the words come slow and stupid, so in the end he had said nothing. Still it had been kind.
And two and a half years ago-- Amy.
He had kept his promise, the promise he had gasped out as they rolled in the grass, swollen from kissing. She had asked if he would write to her. He had, he had written. And she had replied, for a while. And he had thought of her every day since. He had thought of her shamefully often.
He thought of her now-- there was time to do this slowly. Slowly, oh. It was different this way, under the water, with the soap. She had kissed his face, she had drawn him close, she had let him in, there on the grass, with the dawn coming up. First, and first always.
Her skin had been soft, and her hair all around his face, and her voice in his ear. She had been freckled everywhere, beautiful as a hens egg. She had been strong against him, but so soft where he kissed her. And she had found the soft skin of him too.
His hand was moving more rapidly now, he could not help-- so good this way, as if it was not just him. His head rocked back at the last,as his hips came forward, and his breath stilled, his mouth open on the sound of her name, oh. Amy.
The bed was good when he climbed into it. He wanted the blanket after all. It was colder now. There was a spider, immobile by the edge of the window. She must make a good living here, William thought. Plenty of winged insects for her to eat. Tomorrow he would buy things for his sisters, write a good long letter. They would want to hear about the lizards, and the monkeys. Don't forget the monkeys. And he supposed that he would send them the balance of the money after all, most of it anyhow. He could explain that he had tried to return it, had not known who dropped it.
He had all day tomorrow. He would look at the monkeys again. Maybe bring the smith's monkey a bit of fruit or bread or something. Tell about that in his letter. Maybe he could find a place where the drink was not so weak. He could pay to have a shave, a good one, with hot water. The pillow was soft under his cheek. His thoughts were spinning away into nonsense, spinning, spinning wheel, spider, monkey, egg, Amy. Amy.