past perfect/future perfect
By Ann Dancer
DISCLAIMER: Legally, the characters of Xena & Gabrielle belong to
MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. I have borrowed them out of pure love,
not for profit.
There is the memory of a kiss shared between Gabrielle and Xena, and quasi-spoilers
for Ides of March and FIN.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: The list would be too long to name everyone, but at its
very pinnacle is Medora MacD, who has been unfailing in her help and encouragement.
FEEDBACK: I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
A vineyard, by the sea. At its edge, just before the cliffs leap down to the surf,
a small house sits, its white walls washed with apricot by the just-past-sunset
light that fills the sky. To one side of the house, two trees arch over a spring
that wells up, clear and bright, into a marble bowl. At the other side stands
a small pergola, covered with vines, their hanging flowers bringing a faint, sweet
perfume to the still air.
In the pergola, the old woman sits with her eyes closed, listening to the
sunset birdsong, the snap and crackle of the small fire in the brazier at her
feet; listening to the rush and pull of the sea, knowing by a subtle change in
its music that the tide has turned to ebb. There is a small table at her side,
covered with a litter of scrolls and a plate holding the remnants of a small supper:
a few olives, some crumbs of cheese, a heel of bread. Her gnarled hands, resting
in her lap, hold a glazed cup half full of wine.
Her face is lined and wrinkled, marked by a long life lived richly, full of
joy and pain, grief and triumph and hard-won peace.
A young woman steps out of the house behind her; hearing the faint rasp of
sandals on stone, the old woman opens her eyes to smile at the girl. Her eyes
are clear and green as the sea in the shallows beyond the surf, before they drop
down to the purpleblue of the depths.
“Is there aught else I can bring you, my queen?” the young Amazon
asks, shaking out the light wrap she carries and draping it over the old woman’s
shoulders. “Shall I fill your cup?”
“Yes, thank you,” she answers, holding out the cup. “And
if you would bring a bit more wood -- I think I will sit here a while yet, and
the evenings are chill, for all that we’re nearly to midsummer.”
“Of course, my queen.” The young woman fetches a small amphora
from the cool water of the spring and pours the cup full; replaces it, then disappears
around the side of the house. A moment later she reappears with an armful of wood
which she stacks by the brazier, taking care to keep it in easy reach of the old
“Shall I bring a lamp?” she asks, straightening from the wood
and brushing off her hands.
“No, I think not. Don’t need a lamp to watch the stars, after
The girl smiles, nods. “If there’s nothing else, then, and with
your permission, my queen, I will return to the village for a time.”
“Of course, go. And Cleis,” she adds, “There’s no
need to return until the morning ... should you wish to stay.”
Seeing the impish smile on the old woman’s face, and the wicked glint
in her green eyes, the young Amazon flushes. “Thank you, my queen,”
she says faintly. She bows slightly, then turns and walks quickly past the house,
disappearing between the rows of grapevines.
I wish she’d call me Gabrielle now and then, the old woman thinks.
She’s so formal you’d think I truly was a ruling queen. Seems like
each one that comes down from the Nation is more formal than the one before. Of
course -- she chuckles drily -- gods only know what kind of legendary
creature I’ve gotten to be up there by now. I lost track of my years, long
and long ago, but it must be more than 70, now. At least that. And all the places
I’ve seen, things I’ve done ... the things I’ve been
... well, I suppose they’re entitled to a bit of awe, at that. I suppose.
It has been a remarkable life, after all.
A scatter of memory flashes through her mind, bright as summer flowers, dark
and cold as winter:
— late afternoon, hot/sweaty/tired, coming into a tiny meadow starred with
poppies, water silking over a short fall into a pool blue and deep as her eyes,
the water running away across flat rocks
‘do you know every perfect place to make camp in Greece?’
— plunging over the lip of the abyss, falling and falling and falling, nothing
but screams and heat and her demon child struggling in her grip, and praying that
finally, finally, she had done the right thing ---
— dancing and laughing and the villagers dancing and cheering and clapping
because they could make music again, oh, how lovely something so simple ---
— time in slow motion, feeling against her cheek the breeze the hammer made
descending, a split second before the world exploded into pain as the nail slammed
through her hand ---
— ‘I’m a bard, why can I never find words for how soft your
mouth is?’ murmured against her lips, before words and thought and everything
disappeared and there was nothing but her kiss ---
— the rain sheeting down and the beloved body hanging, mutilated, the blood
running pale because of the rain, the soldiers watching, rain running off their
— sun slipping below the horizon, half of her soul slipping away with it,
gone, gone for the rest of this life; never again her eyes across the campfire;
her rich laugh, her infuriating stubbornness, the silk of her touch, all gone
Stop that! Gabrielle shakes her head sharply, coming back to the quiet
of the evening, the fire, the cup of wine in her hands. She is slightly annoyed
to find tears on her face, but not surprised. Dear gods, it’s been 40
years and more, but sometimes, sometimes it feels like it was no more than a few
days past. She puts the winecup on the table, wipes her face with the edge
of the shawl Cleis had lain over her shoulders.
Sometimes, sometimes I still have no idea how it was that I managed, somehow,
to go on with my life. I did, but sometimes I don’t know how. Or, sometimes,
why I did. Oh, I know, ‘greater good’ and all that. Well, ‘greater
good’ may give you a satisfied mind, but it doesn’t do much to warm
your bedroll. She laughs softly, picks up the wine and sips, laughs again.
Not that that fire burns so hot any more. For which I’m strangely
grateful. Now ... well, the heart still feels her absence, still longs for her
presence. And yes, at times, the body longs as well.
Still, I didn’t do so badly for myself. Didn’t do so badly,
in the end. Surprises me, sometimes, how rich a life it got to be after all. How
surprising it was to find that I could go on; that there could be life without
her; that there could even be joy without her. It did take a while, though ....
She slips into memory again, in the way the old have, ‘then’ and
‘now’ blending into a present moment of remembering.
— getting off the ship that had carried her from Japa when the first, shocked
numbness had begun to fade, to be replaced by a pain so savage she felt sometimes
as if she couldn’t breathe; knowing that she had to keep moving, the ship
was too quiet, nothing to keep her thoughts from tearing at her, she would go
— Egypt; sun and wind and sand, and the blissfully shocking green of an
oasis; this time she led the armies, losing herself utterly in battle fury, distantly
surprised at the rage that never seemed to burn itself out; distantly surprised,
over and over again, that she was still alive and not caring if she was or not,
it didn’t seem to matter ---
— waking one morning, in Anatolia, and hearing birds; realizing that it
was spring again and she’d forgotten what it was to listen to dawn birdsong
and feel the cool softness of spring air against her face; forgotten what it was
to simply lie in the warmth of her furs and watch the sky turn from pearl to blue;
forgotten how to live, as if she had locked all of joy and color and simple pleasure
behind iron walls and walked away ...
... weeping, then, as she had not done, not even in the dark on Mt. Higuchi, not
in all the endless months since then; weeping for her broken heart and finding
somehow the beginning of healing in the salt bitterness of her tears ---
— back to India then, searching for some way to find the completion of healing,
living with a group of women who followed the teachings of a man called Gautama,
who they called the Awakened One; shaving her head and living a life of utter
simplicity, learning how to be wholly still in body/mind/heart, learning how to
carry that with her in all the moments of her days ---
— beginning the long journey back to Greece, which had stubbornly remained
in her heart as home, the white glimmer of the distant peaks of the Himalaya,
the Abode of Snow, still calling to her, and vowing that she would, one day, return
and walk in them, if not in this lifetime, then another ---
— Greece again, and the years creating a string of hospices across Macedonia
and Thrace and Thessaly; the years teaching poetics on Lesvos, stunned to find
herself as much an idol to her students as Sappho had ever been to her ---
And coming, finally, here, to this vineyard by the sea, this place of rest and
peace. Not -- she smiles wryly -- that it was all that peaceful or restful
in the beginning, what with people coming up from the Academy and over from Lesvos
all the time, and wandering bards who ‘just happened’ to be in the
area, and my dear sweet Amazons so maddeningly solicitous of my welfare popping
up every time I turned around, it seemed ....
Though I’m grateful for them now, gods know. That last bad fall convinced
me, finally, that I really did need some help, hard as it was to give in to it.
Getting old is ... it’s not that I mind being old so much, it’s just
that it’s so damn inconvenient. She sighs. Well, I don’t know
that I think there’s really much more of that left, in any case. The threads
of this life have been well woven; time for them to be tied off and the next set
put on the loom for the next life’s weaving.
She drains the last of the wine and puts the cup on the table. She brushes
her fingers over a scroll, then gets stiffly to her feet and steps slowly to the
edge of the pergola. It is full dark now, and she looks up, catching her breath
at the splendor of the starry night. I still reach for her, when I see the
stars. Still ....
She cocks her head, listening to the sound of the surf, farther out now on
the ebbing tide.
And so goes life, my life, any life -- like the tide, like the moon. Wax and wane,
ebb and flow, depart and return.
She stands for a moment longer, then turns back to her chair.
Ahh, pffftt. Careful, old woman, you’re on the verge of being dreadfully
maudlin. She builds up the small fire in the brazier; pulling the wrap more
snugly around her shoulders, she sits down again. Should have asked Cleis to
bring out a blanket. I’m cold. But I’m not ready to end the evening,
not just yet.
She watches the fire flicker, a lifetime of fires flickering through her mind.
I can watch the past, in my mind, as if I was reading a scroll, but the future
... the future stays hidden. I do wonder, though, what the next weavings will
be; what colors, what shapes.
I don’t believe in the Fields any more; don’t believe that
I’ll meet Xena on the other side of Charon’s ferry ride to walk away
into some pastel forever-after. But there was that promise, that we would be together
for always, and I do still believe that. I just wonder what that means. We could
be together and not know it ... but I wonder if we will still recognize each other
somehow. Mostly ... mostly I wonder if we will ever find our souls in each
Watching the flames at her feet, she feels herself slipping into a trance, finds
herself in some kind of altered state which blends this moment -- the crackle
of the fire, a faint breeze on her cheek, the taste of wine lingering on her tongue
-- with visions, bright and clear as new coins, of places and people she knows
are not a part of the life she has lived.
— late spring, a stable warm with hay and clucking chickens; a mare lurches
to her feet, the new foal finally getting his legs under him and staggering to
his mother and beginning to suckle noisily. The woman rocks back on her heels,
looks up with a tired smile at her sister leaning against the wall.
‘You needn’t have come, y’know”
‘Oh, well, but I wanted to. Couldn’t leave my favorite sister to mind
her first foaling all by herself, now could I?’
They laugh; each hears an echo of laughter not their own. Neither of them says
anything. It’s happened before; they’re used to it now ---
— he chews on the end of his quill pen, scowling at the paper covered with
scratched-out lines, hears steps pounding up the stairs and welcomes the interruption.
He throws the quill down and gets up from the desk as his friend bursts into the
room. There is a chord that hums between them; that neither of them tries to name.
More than friends, but not lovers, never lovers. But something.
‘Ho, brother of my soul,’ he laughs. ‘Take me away from
here. This play is mired like a wagon sunk in muck to its wheeltops. I need diversion.’
‘And you shall have it, boon companion, as best the City and I can
provide. Get your cloak, and come along then!’
Laughing, they thump down the stairs, arm in arm ---
— they sit by the fire, waiting for the teawater to boil, two wandering
yoginis met by chance, dharma sisters traveling together now, for a time.
‘Have you ever seen the other ones?’ one of them asks.
‘No. Some can see their past lives; I cannot. But we have done this before,
you and I; though I can’t see the times and places, I know we have been
‘Nor can I see those things. Not that it matters, really -- there is only
this moment, after all. But I am happy to be in this moment now, here, with you.’
The other woman smiles at her across the fire.---
— crouching in the mud of the foxhole, they wait for the end of the endless
bombardment, wait for the signal to advance.
The fire snaps; Gabrielle rouses enough to put the final piece of wood on the
coals, and falls again into her waking dream, almost as if searching still for
something more; hoping for a glimpse of that lifetime that might be the fulfillment
of a long-ago promise. Might be. Could be.
‘We’re gonna buy the farm this time, y’know,’ the tall
one turns his head and says.
‘I know. Nobody’s gettin’ out of this one, I don’t think,’
his friend answers. He pauses, then: ‘Lissen. I know guys aren’t s’posed
to say stuff like this, but I think we’ll be dead in an hour, and I just
want you to know you’ve been the best buddy a man could have, and ... and
... and I love you,’ he finishes in a rush, his blush dark enough to show
through his camouflage paint.
The other man looks at him for a moment, then slowly reaches across his rifle,
hand up, palm out. His friend reaches over and their hands meet, palm to palm,
‘Love you too, buddy,’ the tall man says. ‘Love you too.’
Then they hear the shrill whistle signaling the advance, and they’re clambering
out of the foxhole, running and running and one of them trips a land mine, and
the world turns over and fades away ---
— Kathmandu, her favorite bookstore. Leaning against a book rack, flipping
in distraction through a book she knows she’s interested in, but can’t
concentrate on enough to know whether or not to buy. The bell over the shop door
jangles; vaguely she hears voices, the shopkeeper making recommendations; vaguely
she’s aware of someone walking down the other aisle. A moment later she’s
snapped out of her reverie by a loud exclamation; she turns, startled, and looks
up into the eyes of a woman on the other side of the book rack -- and is lost.
Gabrielle’s eyes open, take in the cold ashes in the brazier, the faint
graying of the sky to the east; she blinks, disoriented for a second, then shakes
A silent shout of joy wells up in her from somewhere deeper than the sky and explodes
against her heart. She thinks she can’t breathe, but finds herself making
chat with a stranger, this magical, crystal-eyed, silver-haired woman, feeling
like she’s standing inside a rainbow, feeling that the very air is chiming.
And then the woman looks at her watch, says something, walks abruptly away, and
she’s stunned, whispering ‘oh, don’t go’ as she watches
the woman walk to the front of the store, pay for her books, and walk out.
The jangle of the shop bell breaks her paralysis, and she puts down the book she
is still holding and walks quickly up the aisle. By the time she reaches the front
of the store, she’s running; bursting out the door she sees the other woman
halfway across the street.
‘Wait! Hey, wait! Wait!’ she yells, but the traffic is too noisy;
the woman doesn’t hear, and disappears down an alley.
The next day then and she’s walking through the airport, still cursing herself
for not running after the woman sooner. She sees the rest of the trekking group;
Hugh is talking to someone whose back is to her; that’ll be the one who
got waitlisted in Bangkok, I bet, she thinks; the one I haven’t
talked to yet.
The person turns and it’s the woman from the bookstore and a look of astonished
elation runs across her face; and time stops, and she stops and she’s inside
the rainbow again, hearing the hum of that forever-deep chime again. Then she
walks the last few steps to the woman, a slow smile lighting her face, and holds
out her hand.
‘Remi,’ is all she says.
‘Chace. Chace Graham,’ the woman responds, and takes her hand ---
No, no, I’m here, not wherever -- whenever -- that was. Here. But dear
gods, where was that? That was impossibly vivid. More than dream, more
than vision. More. Will that be what waits, some time far ahead and far away?
I think it is ....
She smiles, feeling the smile of that faraway self as she smiled at the woman
with the blue-crystal eyes. And then slow tears come, fall slowly down her face.
Well. Well well. I believe I’ve just been given a most precious gift, I
do believe I have. Which I gratefully accept. Thank you, blessed ones who sent
this, whoever you are. She brings her hands together under her shawl against
her heart and bows, as she learned to do in India.
“Thank you. Thank you,” she whispers aloud, then wipes her face
with the shawl.
I should get up and go in the house, but I’m too stiff to move. So I will
just stay here and doze until the sun gets up enough to warm my old bones.
Or 'til Cleis comes back from the village. She’ll have a fit at finding
me still out here, dear fussbudget that she is. Well, she can have her fit. I’ll
I wonder -- could I find my way back into that last lifetime I was just
shown? Find out what happens next?
As her eyes drift shut, she hears, as if from a great distance, the sound of the
surf, and knows that the tide has turned from ebb, and is coming in again.
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