It has been such a long time since I last walked among the inhabitants of this little town, far away from the great cities. I find myself amazed at the simplicity in which they live their lives in here, not dwelling even once on the tribulations of day-to-day life, as those who live in the bustling cities do. Life has a different rhythm, which I have come to appreciate as time goes by, although unfortunately, I currently lack the time to stop and enjoy it. I must meet someone.
As usual, no one in town pays much attention to me. Just another face in the crowd, with nothing remarkable about it. And yet, on this occasion, something catches my attention. A red ball has bounced right to my feet, and running after it, a little girl, of no more than nine years, with onyx-coloured hair like her eyes, her skin tanned by the sun. Her baggy T-shirt and pants move with every step she takes in my direction.
I stare at her in silence, before contemplating how she reaches me, bending down to take the ball in her hands. When she does, she stands up and smiles at me from ear to ear, befitting a cheerful, sociable child. I attempt to walk on after checking to make sure she has the ball securely in her hands, though I have barely taken a step when the little dark-haired girl blocks my path, staring at me with great curiosity.
“Hello!” says the little girl as she looks me up and down with her dark eyes. “My name is Sarah, how about you?”
I click my tongue with a mild trace of annoyance, since while I find children adorable, I have little patience when it comes to their inherent curiosity. Especially when said curiosity gets in the way of my plans. Still, having witnessed first-hand the persistence of children, I muster up my patience, breathing out a deep sigh. It will be better on the long run if I answer her inquiry now.
“My name is Helaine,” I reply to her question, trying not to express my surprise and bewilderment, for in all these years I have been visiting the village, no one
has ever come up to have a chat with me. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Sarah.”
“So what are you doing here, Helaine? Do you have family in town? Maybe I know them! I could walk you to their house!” Sarah starts talking without holding back, unleashing her curiosity, just as I feared would happen, which is why without letting her notice, I roll my eyes, bending down to be at her level.
“I have come to pay a visit to a friend,” I decide to be frank with her about my intentions, since first and foremost, I feel children should be given the same amount of honesty and truth that they give to others. “So, I do fear I cannot be late for my appointment, now can I?”
“Of course you can’t! Mummy always tells me it’s rude to leave people you know waiting!” the tan-skinned girl immediately shakes her head as soon as I ask the question, and I feel relieved to know that, at least for the moment, I have managed to avoid her questioning. “Will I see you soon? Will you come to town again?”
“Who knows, Sarah…” I reply in a slightly mysterious tone, before standing upright, reaching out one hand to ruffle the long wavy hair on her head. This causes her to giggle instantly, enjoying this action. “But I promise you we will see each other again, sometime in the future…” I guarantee in a small voice, before I continue walking towards the house where I am to meet this person.
When next my eyes behold the village, it is in a disheartening moment. An illness has devastated the place. As I walk down the silent main street, I clearly hear the coughs emanating from the houses, with their lights providing a sharp contrast with the cold, nocturnal atmosphere. I stop in front of one particular house, picking up a voice I am familiar with.
I easily get inside as, as usual, the doors are wide open to the neighbours. I climb the stairs, heading towards the voice that coughs more and more seriously. I now face a closed room. On my left I can discern the figures of two adults, who, with their backs turned to me, weep and silently comfort each other. After a few seconds of hesitation, I quietly open the door and enter the room.
Standing before my eyes now is a sixteen-year-old young woman, with coal- black-coloured hair and tanned skin, delirious on a bed, dressed in a sleeveless white nightgown. I recognize her instantly, approaching the bed with slow steps after making sure I close the door behind me. I sit on the side of the bed, gazing at Sarah’s face, whom I hadn’t seen since our previous encounter. Her face, covered in sweat, looks visibly pale, and as I place the back of my left hand on her forehead, I can tell she is in an intense feverish state. Within seconds, her deep ebony eyes open, resting on my face, and an exhausted, but happy smile graces her lips.
“You’ve come…” states the young girl nearly in a whisper, before her body is shaken by a fit of coughing.
“I did promise you I would, remember?” I tell her in a soft voice, before caressing her hair, as I did such a long time ago.
“Have you come to visit one of your fellow friends?” questions my young friend, earning a nod from me. I watch her close her eyes in exhaustion. “I’ve lost countless of my friends to the epidemic,” she explains with obvious grief, struggling not to burst into tears. I remain silent at her words, allowing her to vent to her heart’s content. “My parents have given up on me: they don’t think I’ll make it through tonight.”
Silently watching her, I continue to stroke her hair, before pulling a bundle of herbs and medicines out of my grey trench coat. Taking advantage of having a glass of water on her bedside table, I mix the herbs and medicines into it.
“You are going to recover, I promise,” I assure her, holding the glass in my right hand, before helping her to sit up slightly, so that she can swallow the liquid. “I have come to take care of you.”
Sarah smiles weakly, before slowly ingesting the beverage I have so quickly prepared. Once she finishes, I gently lay her back on the bed. I cast my gaze at the clock on the wall above the bedside table, watching as the time goes by. After a few hours, I hear her breathing calm down and she stops coughing, so I gently get up from the bed, not wanting to wake her. Having ascertained that she is better, I can exit the house, so that I can meet the person I was coming to visit.
Several years later, I come back to the town. Once again, I must visit another friend who lives there. The main street is decorated with all kinds of flowers, wreaths, and colourful ribbons. I hear the excited voices of the townspeople: a long-awaited wedding is taking place today. I feel myself being overcome by curiosity, a trait I have ended up taking from the black-haired girl, and I make my way towards the church.
Once there, I gaze in marvel at the bride, whose snow-white dress contrasts remarkably with her tanned skin. She walks slowly towards her soon-to-be husband, being led by who I assume, is her father. The woman stops in front of the young gentleman in a suit, with her father standing aside. Then the veil covering her face is slowly lifted by the groom, and to my delight and surprise, I behold a twenty-five-year-old Sarah, smiling from ear to ear, just like she has done in all our encounters.
I discreetly place myself at the bride’s side, although as usual, no one there notices my presence. Except, of course, my young friend, who grins joyfully at the sight of me. However, I cannot stay much longer, and she seems to understand this, as she nods her head, grateful that I have taken a moment to partake in her happiness. I return the gesture with a brief but gentle smile and begin to walk out of the sacred place.
Time passes by slowly once again, and I slowly walk towards the house in which the person I must meet, lives. The town has hardly changed, maintaining that same rhythm of life that amazed me so much in the beginning. As I expected, the door is open, so I invite myself in.
The entrance and the hallway are filled with photographs: a family with faces full of happiness. I smile slightly at the sight of those smiles, before I make my way to the room upstairs, and stand still in front of the closed door. For a few seconds I stare at it, before getting rid of all my doubts, and I stretch out my hand to the doorknob, turning it to unlock it.
Now, with the door open, I contemplate a face I know well, marked by time.
“Hello, Sarah,” I greet her in a faint voice, approaching her bed with soft, careful steps. I see her grinning from ear to ear once again, and I take her right hand in both of mine. “I come to see you this time,” I confess to her, and my dear friend nods as she listens to me, understanding my intentions.
“So, my time has come…”
“I fear so, my dear,” I immediately confirm, squeezing her hand firmly, giving her the warmth and courage she so desperately needs. “Are you ready?”
“I am,” the elderly woman, whose onyx hair has turned grey, replies positively. “Will it hurt?”
“No. It will be like falling asleep, I promise.” “Please don’t leave me alone.”
And so, as I hold her hand tightly, Sarah’s life, which has taught me so much about human happiness, optimism, and curiosity, comes to an end. I walk with her on her journey, without letting go of her hand at any point. She, who through the innocence and imagination of childhood was able to see and talk to me, now rests in peace.
Fear not the end. For I am always there, watching over you, even if you cannot yet see me, or even feel me. You will, though, when the time comes for you to go. I will take your hand and accompany you on this journey. And I hope that when I do, you will welcome me as an old friend…
Texto de Begoña Rivero, mención especial del XXVI certamen de relato corto en modalidad inglés.