I missed the official call for this month's Charity Sunday, but I'll chip in anyway, donating a dollar for every hit on this page to my local Amherst Survival Center. They have met the challenges of the pandemic with excellent organization and service, and are providing and delivering food to many area towns beyond Amherst, MA.
You can find the two official Charity Sunday posts at:
This story is entirely fiction, but the characters are drawn from two real people, separated by the same circumstances, several years ago. I got their approval to publish it, so it appeared in Best Lesbian Romance 2011, edited by Radclyffe
The desert under the full moon lay still and serene, as though the storms of war and of nature had never swept across it. With a bit of squinting and a dose of wishful thinking, Lou could almost fancy that the pale expanse of sand was a snowfield. But the distant hills to the north and the ice-glazed mountains of the Hindu Kush far beyond weren’t the Swiss Alps, and only imagination spurred by loneliness could show Meg, in her trim ski kit, tracing elegant curves across the slopes and throwing up plumes of new powder as she raced by. Or in nothing at all, sinking into a hot tub at the end of an exhilarating day, skin flushed by more than the rising steam.
Sand or snow. Made no difference. What mattered was that it was Christmas, and Lou was four time zones away from Meg. No, wait, Switzerland wasn’t as far from Afghanistan as their home in England. Three time zones. Or three-and-a-half—and how had that half-hour bit got stuck in, anyway? Never mind. She tilted her bottle and drank the next-to-last draught of water. Almost midnight here, just mid-evening in the Alps. Meg would be at dinner with friends, or already partying in one chalet or another. That was as it should be, no matter how much Lou longed to be with her. They’d planned the ski holiday long before Lou’s Army orders had come through, and it was better for Meg to go than to sit alone at home. Except that home was where Lou needed most to envision her. To envision them both, together.
Bugger envisioning! Lou needed to see Meg right now, tonight, if only for a moment. Touching her, hearing her, feeling the brush of her soft hair, the warmth of her breath, the accelerating rhythm of her heart—all these were impossible. Lou had chosen to accept that, knowing how hard it would be, even knowing how much she was hurting Meg. Seeing her was just as impossible, and the sooner Lou forgot about what the old Afghani grandmother had said this morning, the better. Mind games, even if the woman hadn’t meant it that way.
Even so, Lou slid a hand into the pocket of her camo jacket. The flat brass box was warm to the touch from her own body heat. The gift had been a generous gesture on the old woman’s part, too generous, really, when all Lou had done was to bring food from the mess tent to the family group huddled outside the hospital complex.
They’d been there for hours, waiting while the doctors worked on two small children with serious injuries. Bringing them food and water had been the least she could do. She had to confess to some slight curiosity as well; sick or injured children were brought in all too often, but this was the first time a woman had accompanied the men. It was she who had tended the children, and the bearded men had shown her something approaching deference.
The curiosity had been mutual, Lou was sure; the fierce old eyes peering out from the enveloping burka had seemed to follow her intently, until, as Lou collected the emptied cups and bowls, rough, wrinkled fingers had pressed the box into her hand. Would refusing a gift be taken as an insult? The woman spoke a few words, her face crinkling into what might have been a smile, and then a nurse came out to lead the family into the post-op tent.
A local civilian maintenance worker had been watching the whole encounter. Lou asked what the woman had said, and after some hesitation he’d translated the words as meaning something along the lines of, “Catch the moon in the box and see your heart’s desire.” He’d started to add something about how foolish women’s tales were, stammered as he remembered that Lou was a woman as well as a soldier, and escaped back to his work with relief.
It was foolishness, of course. A good story to tell Meg tomorrow in e-mail, but nothing worth dwelling on now. Tonight she’d just have to make do with some more serious envisioning of Meg, and that might be better done in her warm cot, except that tents provided very little in the way of privacy.
Lou raised her water bottle in a toast. “Cheers, sweetheart! Merry Christmas! Have a great time!” She drained the last few trickles of liquid. “Here’s hoping yours is a gin and tonic!” Wherever Meg was, she’d be thinking of Lou tonight. And she’d have a g&t in hand. Maybe she was even gazing toward the moon at this very moment, though it might be too low in the sky just now to clear the Alpine peaks.
In Afghanistan the moon soared high overhead, revealing every object, including Lou, with relentless clarity. She shifted uneasily. This perch on sandbags heaped in an angle of the perimeter wall gave her a better view of the desert than was strictly safe, although “safe” was a relative term at best in a world where even a transport lorry full of frozen turkeys for the soldiers’ Christmas dinner had been blown up by insurgents. The holiday had still been jolly enough, with more turkeys rushed in by plane, plenty of sweets and packages from home, and a great deal of singing and chaffing and merrymaking that got as near to boisterous as the lads could manage without proper drinks.
Lou had joined in with her customary high spirits, but the time came when she needed to get away from the noise and forced cheer. If she couldn’t be with Meg, at least she could be alone to think about being with Meg. Now a glance back at the main camp showed row upon row of tents glowing golden with interior light, like a scene from some fantastic Arabian Nights tale.
She turned back to the cold white moonlight and her own thoughts, which reverted, in spite of herself, to the little box. She’d opened it once already, of course, and found a round mirror set inside the lid. When her own face stared back at her, with a bit of her camo shirt showing at her throat, she’d figured, well, close enough. Being here, in uniform, doing her part, was truly her heart’s desire, surpassed only by Meg’s love. The miracle was that Meg, for all her pain at the separation, for all her horror of war—Meg, who was never violent except in her attack on a challenging ski slope or in defense of those she loved—would still let Lou have both.
The box in Lou’s hand still felt warm, but it was just too bloody silly to think that there was anything mystical about it. Still, Meg was bound to ask, if Lou told the story, whether she’d tried it by moonlight. So as long as she was here…
Moonlight glinted on tiny mirror chips set into the metal between inlaid ovals of lapis lazuli, while the stones themselves, so vividly blue in the daytime, looked almost black. Merely a trifle, actually; its like could be found in any market in Lashkar Gah or Kandahar, or, for that matter, on many a flea market barrow on Portobello Road in London. Nothing special about it, except, perhaps, the borrowed glamour that moonlight seems to cast on ordinary objects.
Lou’s fingers still shook as she fumbled to undo the brass clasp. Just the cold night air, of course. Before lifting the lid all the way she shifted around on the sandbags until the moonlight came over her right shoulder. Then, with a catch in her breath and a touch of defiance, she opened the box all the way and tilted the round mirror to catch the moon directly in its center.
The white orb hung there, clear and sharp. Lou started to breathe again. Then a mist crept across the glass, and the moon’s image spread to fill the whole surface. Condensation, of course, from her own breath. She fumbled with one hand to find a handkerchief to clear it, gave up, and was about to try with the elbow of her jacket when the mist began to dissipate on its own until only a few drifting wisps remained. The light, much softer now, still filled the entire mirror.
A blurred scene began to form, or to emerge, as though it came closer; or as though Lou herself moved forward into it. The surroundings were vaguely familiar, but all she could focus on was the figure standing in the center, head bowed, smooth russet hair swinging forward against her cheeks. Lou knew the scent, the softness, of that hair, as well as she knew anything in life; and she knew the feel of the lovely body beneath, exposed entirely to her gaze, as well as she knew her own flesh.
“Meg…” If only she would raise her head! But the figure moved slowly, face still hidden, down a step or two. More tendrils of mist floated around her. “No…don’t go…” Meg kept on, sinking gradually downward into something denser than mist, water that lapped about her body until only her head, shoulders, and the upper curves of her breasts showed above it. “Meg…”
And then Meg leaned her head back against the edge of the hot tub and sighed. Lou could hear that sigh inside her own head. And now she could see Meg’s face, that particular blend of eyes and nose and lovely lips, of gentleness and strength and elegance, that for Lou would forever define beauty. And love. And home.
There was sadness in Meg’s expression, and dampness on her cheeks that might have been due to the hot, humid air, or might have included a tear or two. She lifted her head, raised an arm from the water, and reached out to a tray beside the tub. Lou hadn’t noticed it before, but now she saw the glass, and knew beyond question what it contained.
Meg held up the drink. “Cheers, Lou darling! Merry Christmas!” She took a healthy draught of her gin and tonic. Then, more softly; “Keep safe. Please.” She drank again, uncharacteristically deeply, and added, “I’m truly proud of you, right where you are. But…oh, I miss you so much!” She emptied the glass, closed her eyes, and leaned back, sliding a little lower into the water.
Lou needed to reach out, to brush the tears from Meg’s face, even more than she needed to breathe. She felt torn into two separate beings. One clutched a brass box in the cold Afghan desert; one floated through the steam rising from the hot tub and sank into the water so close to Meg that their legs intertwined. As heat rose from her feet all along her body, the colder world retreated, until it was just the faintest of memories.
Lou couldn’t make her voice work, but her fingertips could feel the curve of Meg’s cheek, and throat, and shoulder. Meg sighed. Her face relaxed, and her lips curved into a smile. “I can almost feel you here with me,” she murmured, eyes still closed. “Are you thinking of me now, sweetheart?”
“Thinking” didn’t come close to describing it, for either of them. Meg seemed not to find it strange that her arms could go around Lou, and Lou’s around her. They clung to each other, moving gently together in the slow swirl of the water, bathed in a warm current of love and joy. No dream could ever be sweeter, Lou felt—until Meg opened her eyes and looked directly into Lou’s. “I can even see you, darling!” Meg’s voice held more delight than surprise. ”How lovely!”
That was the sweetest moment of all. And even when Lou felt the pull of that half of herself left behind in the desert, and knew that she was drifting away, not from Meg, but merely from that particular time and place, she held the image of Meg’s loving smile in her heart.
The night was dark again. Lou still held the box, but the moon was so low in the sky that only a sliver of it still showed in the mirror. Tilting the lid brought the bright disc back into its center, but accomplished nothing further. Lou drew a deep breath, rose slowly from the sandbags, and started back across the compound toward the clustered tents. In spite of the cold air, warmth still suffused her body, lingering until her bed could capture and preserve it.
She was too tired, and too much at peace, to try to analyze what had happened, except for a fleeting thought about what she should tell Meg. Or, perhaps, what she should ask. Just a humorous tale about the old Afghan woman, and a joke about an “envisioning aid”, and a light account of her “dream” might be the best course.
It was mid-morning before Lou had time to write even a brief e-mail, and by then Meg had beat her to it. Dearest Lou, Meg wrote. The strangest thing happened last night! It was like the most marvelous Christmas gift! I was in the hot tub in the chalet, thinking of you, and…well, maybe it was just that drinking a g&t in all that heat made me lightheaded—I should know better—but I can’t believe it. I don’t want to believe it. Please don’t laugh; just tell me where you were last night, and whether you were thinking of me.
Lou felt warm all over again, and a bit lightheaded herself. You tell me yours and then I’ll tell you mine, she typed. It’s long story, and I only have a minute now, but if there’s any laughing to be done, we’ll do it together. Always.