Cozy Flash: “Up the River, Over Mountains, Across the Sea”

Balary pauses at the place where the gentle river, running along the stretching toes of the Turadin Mountains, begins its descent into the sea. They delay, entranced by a strange thicket that tugs at the boundaries of their perception, until the sun lies low in the sky and the day holds no more potential for travel. They sigh, relieved to have procured a little time, however oddly. One more night to reflect on the decisions that have brought them this far, to remind themself of the things they carry, and to insist that others’ regret need not be one of them. But soon, too soon, dawn will come and with it the necessity of a choice.

Up the river, over mountains, or across the sea.

Behind are the remnants of a life. It was satisfying, in the way satisfaction emerges from solving a difficult puzzle. The hiding, shifting, and changing at the behest of circumstance and setting worked for a while, until some noticed. They put the pieces of Balary together, and did not like the picture it drew. Then came torches, and Balary ran.

Toward the river bordering mountains by the sea.

Up the river is the man. He is loving, in his way, if love exists in the stick as well as the carrot. When love is equated with protection, gods help the child he cannot surmise how to protect. Even a child can taste when the air is laden with disappointment. Oh! The ways love is twisted by misgiving.

The ways young Balary twisted under his disciplining belt.

Over mountains is the woman. She is comforting, in her way, to the extent that comfort can be found amidst a process of becoming. She adored the Balary of boots and sweat and swords, watching without understanding the softening, loosening, relaxing. Who would adore the Balary of braids and lavender and silks? As one tension dissipated, another began.

The harsh words that pinioned a soul searching for release.

Across the sea is unfathomable. They say the gods of Earth and Sky, when separated from one another, cried the seas into existence. Such a manifestation of grief can only bring grief, the old women intone, stirring pots atop stoves. We are children of Mother Earth and Father Sky, the old men agree, not meant for the watery depths. Balary heard such talk as a child up the river, as a lover over mountains, and in a variety of forms in a town left behind.

The pressures of Earth and Sky foisted on a child of neither.

Balary sits in a place where the trees tower above, filtering the light into flecks that adorn the ground like ephemeral jewels. They gather their knees into their chest, protecting themself from the gathering dark. The soft cadence of the river is punctuated by crashes of sea meeting shore. From here, they can glimpse the soaring mountains above, feel the force of the river behind, and bask in the stretching waters before them. They long for this moment to last forever, where they can be everything and nothing at once. For a while, they ignore the choice that increasingly looms large, expanding to block out the sun.

Up the river, over mountains, or across the sea.

As Balary lingers, the sky deepens and the water shimmers in the fading light. And it is there, at the edge of day and night, that they glimpse the fairy. At first, the creature is a flash of green light in the corner of their eye, flitting into and out of view. Balary turns slowly, afraid that any movement might cause the fey being to flee. But their concern is unwarranted. They face the fairy to find that the creature awaits them. It stands jauntily on a branch, gaze piercing them like an arrow. One of its bare legs is crossed lightly over the other, and it leans comfortably on the bristly trunk, a hand pressed flat against the bark. Balary draws a long breath at the beauty of its lacy wings. There is an energy in the air, as if the grove is sparkling just beyond the edge of mortal perception. The fairy does not speak, and neither does Balary. Balary simply waits. Or, at least, it feels like waiting at first.

After an unmeasurable time, Balary realizes they are no longer waiting. They are absorbing, existing, reveling. They are.

The world reorients. Everything that once seemed opposing begins to align: man and woman; Earth and Sky; river, mountains, and sea. The sparkling of the fey land overlaps with the mortal wood, and Balary, for a moment, senses the whole. The fairy smiles slightly, before shifting its position so that it is fully embraced by the dancing light. Slowly, the fairy and its glittering realm fade back beyond Balary’s perception, leaving only the last grasping ray of the sun on the grove’s whispering leaves.

Balary watches the spot where the fairy stood for a few more moments, though they know it will not return. Their gaze eventually wanders back to the ever-shifting waters of the sea. Taking in the constant motion of the waves, the path of the moon which encompasses both light and dark, they long for such ease of movement. A path that traverses the whole.

Balary knows what they must do. Truth be told, they always knew.

Up the river, over mountains, across the sea. Balary laughs, shaking off the constraints they were never quite able to bear. There, at the edge of the world, Balary makes their last decision: to refuse the terms of the choice. Balary instead resolves to build something anew: a possibility that they were not given, but others would be. Beginning alone will be difficult, they think, but they are comforted by the certainty that they will not be alone for long. Others will come seeking what Balary will build.

A home at the edge of the Turadin mountains, where the river is embraced by the sorrowing sea.

— Jenna Hanchey

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