Citadel in the Clouds

By Catherine O’Brien

At that altitude everything slowed, everything but our defiance to be understood and known by the people we existed because of. Blindfolded by the night we proceeded at a funereal pace, one of your hands all slayed fingers queried our future, the other held mine heating our palms with all its might. All around us the snow received yet more snow and the ripeness of our loss walked between us. We telepathically agreed to ward it off by replaying the showreels of our memories. Therefore, our giggles were wholly in context. Our laughter was a riotous explosion when it arrived like a lid dancing a jig on a boiling pot. We must have looked delicious to our predators, two marshmallow figures for main, with snow billowing in soft pillows on a dry iced plate for afters. 

It was excruciatingly difficult to breathe as each breath challenged our lungs to a new level of endurance testing. I knew that sparkling stalactites must have dangled from most of my alveoli. You had done well convincing me not to scream their names any longer, it was weakening not waning (the guilt I mean). It divested me of my ability to think straight and so you were our compass. You, their favourite and only son. 

You were also and still are, an accomplished guide and so, we were unsurprised when our destination despite a veritable blizzard spewing all around us, elbowed its way into sight. The moon had usurped the sun’s position in the sky casting playful shadows on the sombre citadel which meditated in the clouds awaiting our arrival. The surrounding walls ravaged by time begrudgingly stayed aloft despite the odd crumble. As we mounted its granite steps, we saw that the sky had belched stiff meringues of snow coating its soaring steeples with dainty edible hats. Two flags, that of our world and that soon to be ours, flapped and slapped a ceremonial welcome. In that moment, the preceding hours and minutes felt like a thumb print on an already blurry picture. We felt giddy with relief and mounting fatigue.  

Although we were soaked through to the skin, the only visible traces of the snow we carried inside were a light chalk dusting on our soles. A man with a cherubic smile who was a touch taller than average approached us. He held his open arms aloft and spoke in a timbre which knew the hallmarks of the unspeakable trauma we were still tethered to. 

“You are so welcome friends but now you must rest”

We walked together as our gesticulating guide provided an impromptu tour. Richard laughed when he saw the growing brightness of my eyes as they swept over the potato fields which stretched before us on our left. Ears of cheeky corn waved at us from the right. I spied cotton ball sheep grazing on the hills above us and butterflies with mosaics on their backs luxuriated in a world not known to hurt. The countryside looked just as ours had before our world fell asleep, recalcitrant in stubborn beauty. A tractor in combat against the earth was like the snap of impatient fingers jerking me back to life. Suddenly I felt present and exposed to vulnerability with just a fig leaf to cover my modesty. Despite Richard’s efforts to stand in front and block it, I saw the poster nailed to a Sycamore tree. The words seemed alien to me but the faces looking at me could not have been more familiar. We stood on either side of them in pixelated realness. I removed us by gently tearing at the perforated fault lines of our lives until they remained wrapped around one another, hip to hip and heart to heart. I handed you the papier mâché of yourself and stuffed myself in my pocket for later. Richard clacked his tongue in sympathy and we moved on towards the accommodations leaving you behind, yet again. 

You, my dear brave brother, were strong enough to start mopping up the splattered ink of our lives. I floundered. 

“Just because I don’t say it, doesn’t make it any less real”

“Yes,” I said.

I envied you, the horologist tampering with his timepieces setting his own increments within which to deal with it. I longed to learn your secret. In hindsight, maybe it was those magnifying glasses that held all the power and called all the clocks. 

“Eventually, it will pass,” you said. 

I didn’t ask what you meant but I considered and still wonder this, is sadness subject to atrophy? Can it be shrunk to a size so diminutive and light that it becomes too meaningless to be absorbed? Those were the thoughts that occupied my mind. Your conversations about them tapered and I imagined you as a bird. You were soaring above the fields among a structured cloud formation knowing the neat circumference of your personal grief. 

Seeking aloneness not loneliness, I sat in the shade of a yawning Eucalyptus tree. There were no apples which spared me a Newtonian moment to shatter my head full of sadness. It wasn’t until the second hand alighted on my shoulder that my heart began to flurry and time lapsed in the most perfect of moments. 

They applied the subtlest compression as they handed me a crumpled poster. 

About the Author: Catherine O’Brien is an Irish writer of poems, flash fiction and short stories. She writes bi-lingually in both English and Irish. Her work has appeared in print and online. She holds a PhD in English Literature. Her work in forthcoming in Idle Ink, Janus Literary, Five Minute Lit, The Birdseed, Free Flash Fiction and more. She tweets She tweets @abairrud2021.