Saint Elmo’s Fire (Short Story: 3130 words)

I can hear the birds chirping,
I could hear them yesterday too,
Though it is cold, dark and wet
I still linger here with you.

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“Come right away, mom is worse,” my sister informed me on the telephone, “please come quickly, she might not live through the night.”

Though I couldn’t remember discussing the illness with my sister before, having spoken to doctors and nurses up until then, I told her I would get there but that it could take me ten to twelve hours to drive, especially in this weather. She said she knew, but told me to hurry and then the connection was lost.

So I called my boss, told him I had to see my mother who might not live till tomorrow and then I quickly packed a bag and was on my way.

It was a Sunday evening in January and like usually in Iceland around that time the weather wasn’t exactly inviting. Driving to the other side of the country in a huff sounded like a seriously bad idea. It was dark, snowing and I felt generally miserable.

So I put on some music, lit a cigarette and drove out of the city.

The car was well equipped for bad weather but that was no guarantee. I called a friend, told him where I was headed and which way I would take and then I was alone with my thoughts.

My mom in her blue jeans listening to David Bowie while baking bread, mom in the winter overall shovelling snow in the driveway, mom in her long checkered shirt reading bedtime stories. Mom saying I needed to do what I wanted and stop listening to what everyone else wanted me to do. “I want you to be a doctor, but it won’t be me living your life,” she once told me.

I was fifteen at the time, impossibly angry at the world and doing things that would eventually jeopardise my future.  I thought about how Mom had pulled me out when no one else would have, or could have. It was mom who smiled and told me to go to the city and show them what I was made of. “You’ll be a great actor,” she said, “you’ll take the theatre by storm, you’ve been acting your whole life, hell I sometimes think that the screams you made coming out of my womb were just for show.”

We had laughed then and I packed my bags and left for the big city and rarely ever visited her after that.

Driving with tears streaming down your face is hard, but the range of view was impossibly bad anyway. It snowed heavily and after I got up on the heath I had to focus completely on my driving just to keep the car on the road.

I ignored all the warning signs. I couldn’t let the weather stop me from getting to her before she passed. So I drove and I drove and I tried not to think too much.

I tried not to think of all those moments, those impossibly priceless moments, that you thought would never end. Those moments that you always took for granted, because not doing so would make life impossibly hard. I tried not to think of the times when I had seen her sad, almost broken, from something that life had thrown at her. I tried not to think of the look on her face when she was trying to be brave for us kids, and not quite succeeding.

The sight got better when I got down from the heath. I was able to speed up a bit, so I cranked up the volume and pushed the limits. There were almost no cars on the roads and although it was slippery I figured this was probably the best part of the drive.

So I drove and I drove and I got stuck in the snow but I pulled myself out mostly by being stubborn. Half way there I was stopped by a patrol that warned me from proceeding. I told the officer I didn’t have any choice, that my mother was dying and I had to get to her.

He looked at me with sympathy in his eyes, nodded his head, told me to be careful and then added that if he could he would have accompanied me, but they didn’t have the manpower so he couldn’t leave his post.

I told him I’d be fine and I was on my way again.

The roads became worse after that, the weather so bad that I wasn’t just afraid I would get stuck in the snowstorm but also that I would be blown off the road and into the snowdrifts that gathered by the side of the road. Left there on a night like this the car might not be found for a long time and after a while the seaside took over and I came close to running the car off the road, so high up in the mountain, and into the ocean.

The idea of killing myself to get to my mothers death-bed seemed so outrageous that I started laughing. I laughed so hard that I was forced to stop the car.

That’s when I first noticed the phenomena. I stepped out of the car, confronting the elements and walked up to the cliff beside the road. It was windy, but I found some shelter underneath a rock slab. I was standing there staring at the snow whirling all around me, trying to convince myself that I could see the ocean beneath the rocks and the horizon far away, when I couldn’t.

The light seemed to dance through the snowstorm and hit nothing in particular. It was lightning, except it seemed to dance uncontrollably through the sky. I had never seen anything like it, but I had rarely experienced thunder in my life.

I sat down in the car again, not used to this kind of spectacle. I drove forward, as quickly as I dared, thinking what kind of reprimand my mother would give me if I managed to get myself killed now. A notion that had me laughing a bit hysterically again.

When the road took me away from the ocean I was relieved. Still the lightning seemed to follow me, making me uneasy to say the least.

I found a gas station and filled the tank, bought a snickers and coffee from a girl who looked so dazed I figured she was high on something. I asked her how she would managed to get home in this weather and she just shrugged her shoulders and said she might crash in the back of the store if she needed.

When I came out the car was flashing with the strange light. I stood there for a moment, dumbstruck. When I approached the car the lightning seemed to dance on top of the roof and vanish into the car antenna and for a while it vanished, except for a dim blue light at the top.

I touched the car handle carefully, afraid I would get electrocuted but managed to hop into the car and drive on without an incident. The lightning still dancing on the hood in the darkness. 

Unfortunately the weather got even worse from there. I had to guess were the road was and putting on the headlights only made it worse. I drove like a madman, speeding through the snowdrifts as if the devil was in my rearview mirror.

Then the good luck ended and the car plowed half way through a large drift and then it slid to the side and got stuck.

I cursed in a way my mother would have chided me for. Normally she didn’t mind bad language, but when it got out of hands she always spoke up, saying that it was unnecessary to over do it.

I hit the steering wheel a couple of times and then I stepped out of the car.

The light was still there, a blue glimmer of light on top of the antenna and when I came out it flashed and a small lightning stood on ends up from it.

I took a few steps from the car, staring at the phenomena. Then I started looking at the damage, wondering what I could do to get the car out of this mess.

It looked hopeless.

I tried to put the car mats underneath the tires but it was useless. I tried pushing the car by keeping the door open but it was hopeless without help. I stood there staring when I noticed the light again. It was dancing on the hood of the car suddenly, a small lightning that turned into a blue hued ball and then it sort of fell to the earth.

It danced on top of the snow for a while before spurting forward. Then it returned to the top of the car and repeated the whole dance.

I didn’t know what to believe but I did know two things, I wasn’t going anywhere with the car and I couldn’t stay to wait for help.

I could almost hear my mother’s words of warning, “Don’t do anything stupid, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do”.

But what I knew was that she would go through hell to make sure she got there, so I took my bag, locked the car and started walking.

And lo and behold, the light seemed to follow me, or I it rather as it was constantly in front of me. After a while I just made sure I stepped where the light was. The snow drifts were sometimes hard to climb, but keeping on the road was easier than going off road and the light seemed to stick to the safe places. After a while I came to a fork in the road. I found no signs, but the light went a certain way and though my memory told me that the road split up here and maybe the right way would be to drive away from the mountain I still kept following the light.

I kept hearing my mother’s voice, telling me to be careful, telling me that she understood, telling me that it was fine. My own subconscious mocking me until I was running but still unable to see anything but my feet and the light ahead of me.

Then suddenly the snowdrift became harder to climb and before I knew it there was a cliff in front of me. I tried following it for a while, thinking I was in a slightly different place than I had first thought but I could still find my way to civilization.

The light still dancing in front of me, sometimes a flashing bright lightning, sometimes just a small blue ball. When I found a small cave in the cliff I was relieved. I decided to stop for a while and think things through. I needed the break, I was exhausted.

She was standing there when I entered the cave. I knew I was in trouble right away, but then again I was already in a jam. I was frantically trying to find my way to my mother. The road trip was like a bad nightmare where you are trying to go somewhere but can’t ever get there. And there I was staring into the eyes of this strangely compelling, yet frightening being. Because I knew right away that she was not a regular girl. She was nothing like the girls I had dated in high school and she was nothing like the girl I had brought home to mom and she was nothing like the girls I had met at the pub since. She was different to the point of not being human at all, I knew this and I knew it right away.

Still I couldn’t stop staring, she was beautiful in a way I had never experienced before. It wasn’t just her cerulean eyes, her blond hair or the royal blue gown she wore. It was something else, something about the light in her eyes, or the sparks that seemed to emanate off her, as if the light I had been following had escaped into her.

It was a moment of perfect silence, even the storm raging outside seemed to quiet down and calm itself for her. I just stood there, dumb and incapable of speech or movement.

She walked towards me and nodded her head, then she lifted her hand and her fingers touched my cheek. I felt the electrical current in me, not just in my cheeks but in my entire body. I felt more alive, more potent suddenly as if I could over win the entire situation, the snowstorm and whatever else the world might throw at me.

Then she smiled, and it was a radiant smile if I  ever saw one.

“You need my help,” she said. “I will get you where you need to go, but you have to promise me one thing.”

I knew that promising strange women you find in caves in Iceland is a really bad idea. I knew this, and still I couldn’t do anything but. I promised that I would do whatever she asked of me if she just helped me get to my mother.

“You will come and live with me, here in the mountain,” she said. “You will do so willingly and you will love me forever.”

She smiled when she said it, and I didn’t see the absurd assurance in her eyes at the time, I only recognised that same look later.

And I laughed, because an old Meatloaf song came to me and I heard it clearly in my head, so clearly that I half sang the words as I stared into the eyes of this strange woman, laughing I sang:

“I started swearing to my god
And on my mother’s grave
That I would love you to the end of time
I swore I would love you to the end of time”¹

The woman, however, didn’t see what was funny, she just stood there, nodding her head and then she said, “Well, your mother isn’t dead yet.”

This, of course, made me stop laughing and I became very serious.

“I will do whatever it takes just to get there,” I said and I meant it. It seemed like the most important thing in the world.

She kissed me then, and I guess that marked me. It was a soft kiss, she was cold but it was delicate and I felt passion in it, though I was unable to respond to it then.

She put her hand on my head and told me to return to the car. She told me I would be able to get to my mother before she died and then she reminded me of my promise.

I didn’t say anything. I just followed the light back to the car.

And magically I didn’t have any problems with getting the car out of the snowdrift this time. Nor did I have any problems driving to the town where my mother lay in the hospital preparing to die.

I got there just in time.

She was lying in that cold hospital bed, paler than a ghost, but still smiling.

“You made it,” she said. “How wonderful to see you for the last time.”

She was always blunt, my mother.

I smiled and scolded her for being so cold hearted.

She told me she wasn’t being cold, just honest and I nodded my head, sat down by her side and took her hand.

“Will you promise me to be happy?” she said. “No matter what?”

I cried then, tears running down my cheeks.

“Will you promise me that when you’re done crying, you’ll be happy? Do whatever it takes to make yourself happy? And make a few grand babies for me to see? I’ll come look at them, peek from my cloud, or maybe I’ll be a ghost and spook you.”

“Mom,” I said.

“And you’ll notice by the way you never ever lose one of your socks ever again, I’m always there to make sure your socks are in order.”

I laughed. “You know that’s impossible.”

She patted my hand and frowned. Then she started coughing, reminding me of the inevitability of her illness. She looked so weak and now I could see the energy draining out of her. As if she had been keeping herself up all this time on the mere notion that she would see me one last time. Now that she had, she could let go.

“Mom,” I cried, “how can I be here without you?”

“You’ll be fine,” she said. “You’re a big boy,”

I laughed at that. She used to say that to make me do things when I was a kid, too small to do a lot of the things I wanted to do and too flimsy to actually spend time on the things I wanted to be able to do.

“You’re a big boy,” she would say, “you can tie your shoelaces, you just need to spend some time trying.”

It wasn’t until later that I realized that my sister was already in her grave. The sister that had summoned me was already six feet under. I shivered then, and I shiver now.

I buried my mother in the grave beside my sister and each year I bring them flowers.

I never went back to the city. When you make a promise to someone like the woman in blue, you don’t go back on it. And it isn’t so bad. It isn’t what I had hoped my life would become, but our home in the mountain is actually a lot cozier than you’d think. It can be a bit cold here and sometimes dark, but when its summer I can hear the birds chirping outside.

And I’ve grown to love her and our little family of four. She is special, my wife, the laws we live by are stern, but impossibly I’ve grown to love her and her world. It wasn’t love at first sight, but when she came to me as I stood over my mothers grave I felt the comfort in her hand and I felt her cold presence like a big cloud of melancholic amenity.

The children are different from the other children here, but I guess that’s why she wanted me and not someone else. These people here are different from us humans, they hide in the shadows and they don’t like being disturbed, they don’t like being seen.

I guess it doesn’t matter to me, I don’t have much to do back in the real world. This existence is what it is, my socks are always in order and I’m not praying for the end of time especially.

¹ From Meatloaf’s PARADISE BY THE DASHBOARD LIGHT

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