Gloria looked up at the moon from her weathered rocking chair on the patio. The cold white sphere cast the world around her in a delicate silver glow like the faelight of her childhood fairytales. The light sparked something inside her, causing her to struggle to her feet. As a child, she had loved looking up at the moon. How had she forgotten that? She found herself drawn back to the past as if by frozen hands that dragged at her, pulling her down into the inky black waters of some unknown lake.
Her heart raced, but it was an unsteady rhythm that left her gasping for breath. Still, there was something there, deep inside of her, something that was desperate to escape into the moonlight. Thoughts that hadn’t crossed her mind for many years floated to the surface like bubbles in a fizzy drink, leaving her feeling strangely giddish. She had dreamed of flying to the moon as a little girl. Vaguely, she wondered when that dream had died. Had it, or had it just hidden itself away in the dark corners of her mind where that little girl still clung to existence?
For the first time in too long, Gloria took a moment just for herself. She bathed in the light, breathing it in deeply and letting it soak through to her core. Her skin tingled, and to her fevered mind, she could see her fingers quiver and shrink, receding down to the chubby cocktail sausages of her younger years. The wedding ring melted away, as did all other memories that tied her to the here and now.
She felt the wrinkles that lined her face melt and run down her skin like makeup in the rain. Each year was stripped from her in delicate layers that dissolved in the moonlight then reformed as shining butterflies that fluttered away into the night until the sky was filled with their brilliant forms that outshone the stars. She watched them and giggled. It was a sound that her throat had been unable to make for decades.
As the years were stripped from her, Gloria felt a weight lift from her shoulders, giving her the feeling that she was floating. She had known a hard life, and had increasingly become a hard person. That little girl had long since grown up, but she had also become smaller since leaving childhood behind. She was worn, her existence faded and hollow, a bloated yet empty shell of the person she had always dreamed she would be. No little girl dreamed of being old and alone. None dreamed of washing clothes for pennies each day for decades. None dreamed of a loveless marriage with a fat and balding labourer, or of the early death of that unloved yet central pillar of her life.
There had been children. Three of them. As a girl she had doted on dolls and spent countless hours caring for her teddies. Reality had never seemed to mirror that nurturing joy and she had found herself a poor example of motherhood. She had been spread too thin to care about her own life, so there had been little spare to pass down. They had all long since flown the nest, their existence compressed down into a single poundshop Christmas card each year. Her eventual funeral would be the longest time they would spend in her presence since they had clung to her dress as children.
No, Gloria was barely a person, and it was a nagging knowledge that always gnawed on the edge of her mind. That little girl had dreamed of love and happiness, of adventure and purpose. In those days she rode the waves of feminism, confident that she could achieve anything she could set her mind on. Reality had different ideas. The poor, naive little girl would be so disappointed in herself. The thought stung. She could feel herself bleeding out from emotional wounds that she had plastered over and ignored since the day that little girl’s smile had faltered and never returned.
Why should it have returned. Her parents had died in a car crash, and her uncle became increasingly free with his hands. Hardening her heart had been the only way to keep going. Frank had offered her an escape, and even knowing that he wasn’t right, she had clung to that chance. He had been cold, fat, and loved a pint with the lads more than he had ever loved Gloria, but he had been a good soul. Still, the emotional neglect gnawed away at her just as painfully. Shutting away that need for friendship and love had numbed that pain, numbed her, until even her own children couldn’t make her feel again.
Her thoughts all spiralled through the desolate ruins of her memories, greyscale ghosts and fragments of people, places, and part felt experiences that slipped past her like half observed photographs of other people’s lives, her consciousness pulled past them all to the single speck of vivid colour that was the event horizon of the little girl’s grin.
She realised that she was crying. When had she last shed a tear? When Frank died? No. She had needed to be strong back then for the children. Emotion was a weakness and she had led by example, burying anything human away deep inside herself. Maybe the tears had died with the girl. That innocent caterpillar had cocooned herself away but had never emerged again. She was no butterfly but a perpetual seed of lost potential.
Her tears ran down her face, ran down the years that seperated Gloria from herself and finally rejoined the salty streaks that stained the rosy cheeks of her past. Like a stream, those two lines connected them, making them whole for the first time. The butterflies flew around them until everything else was lost to sight, enclosing them in their own personal shell of self reflection that pulled past and present closer and closer together.
Gloria stood face to face with herself and felt burning shame wash through her. Eight years old and so full of hope. She reached out a shaking hand, and like a mirror, her past did the same. Identical hands met, yet where Gloria trembled with insecurity, the girl who would become Gloria, or perhaps the real Gloria that this feeble old woman would rise from like scum atop a pond, held out her arm calmly, confidence radiating from her plump pink skin. What had happened to her? Life. It chewed up optimism and spat out the bitter husks that couldn’t be digested.
“I am so sorry.”
The words were little more than a choked whisper but they held a weight and depth that couldn’t be expressed in any other way. They contained a lifetime of regret and cold voids of every missed opportunity, every word ever left unsaid, every tear suppressed.
Her past didn’t answer. All of her words were already etched into history. There were no words that could make things better even if she could break free and exist beyond a fragment of memory.
The girl didn’t break free. How could she? Instead, she looked her future in the eyes and smiled. If Gloria thought that her four simple words contained her entire life then that smile expressed all of humanity. How could the twitch of muscles, the upturn of lips, say so much? It unarmed Gloria, stripping away her doubt and her sadness.
Que sera, sera. Whatever will be, will be…
She had loved that song back then, singing it in off-key tones to her toys as she pretended to put them to bed. The song played now. It didn’t come from anywhere in particular, and Gloria couldn’t be sure that it wasn’t all in her own head. She was the song. Nothing else existed. She mouthed the words and the girl did the same. It wasn’t a song, but a universal truth. The past was the past, and the little girl had already lived her life, would live it forever, and never again.
Every moment was the past. Gloria became aware that just beyond the cocoon of butterflies stood an unmoving crowd, an uncountable number of Glorias that had lived their passage of life then sank into the memories of the next. They were all her, and she was all of them. Their presence was reassuring. She had always feared that she would spend this moment alone.
The regrets were still there, nothing could change that, but maybe in another life she would do better. Maybe she wouldn’t. It didn’t matter now.
She moved her fingers, interlocking them with the girl’s. Gloria returned the girl’s smile. It felt good to smile. She had forgotten that. The girl squeezed her hand tighter, comfortingly, and Gloria understood. She nodded.
Her past self closed her eyes. Her body began to glow with the same light as the butterflies. She stepped forward and embraced her future, the light outlining Gloria as the two became one. It shimmered then stretched as the butterflies added to the glow. Even the ranks of her every self dissolved and blew towards her like leaves on the wind. Every petal of light swirled around her then settled into position across her shoulder blades until two white wings resolved themselves and stretched out.
Infinity stretched out in every direction. Gone were the crumbling mortar walls of the houses and the tarmac streets, as was the lone bird feeder that hadn’t been refilled since Frank had died. Only the pregnant fullness of the moon remained. Gloria had always looked up at that singular, watchful eye, and had made many wishes upon it until her sense of wonder had hardened and her wishes were transferred to the bottom of wine bottles. Those wishes called to her now.
She fluttered the wings tentatively. Vague memories of first steps rose up from the depths of her mind. She had learned to walk, and had taught others too. Then they in turn had passed on that independence to their own children. Whatever her mistakes, life went on and the world continued spinning. Everything would be okay.
That thought buoyed her. With the confidence given to her by the girl, she opened her wings and stepped forward. She felt young again. Nothing but her true self remained. Everything else had been left behind. They weren’t important. She breathed her final breath and rose into the sky, weightless and free. Gloria flew towards the moon without a care.