Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Suggestion Box, Vol. 3: "One Thousand Words" List #22

Suggested by: Jess R.

The List:
-Baxter Higgins
-Moscow, Idaho
-Post WWII
-A pillar candle

The Result:
"In Loving Memory"

His shoulders slumped and his knees bent and swung as he walked, like old, rusted gate hinges after years of use. His eyes twinkled keenly under the brim of his hat—not that anyone saw. The smooth black bowler was uncommon enough that the sight of it would send folks skirting in a different direction. The town of Moscow, Idaho was not quite large enough to swallow such a man as he.
"Whatcha got there, Higgins?" A voice hailed him from the doors of the bed and breakfast.
He lifted his eyes, but the robust woman who made the breakfasts and supervised the cleaning staff wasn't even looking in his direction. She stood, chatting merrily away with the young college student staying in the place. When she did finally divert her gaze, Higgins almost waved and answered her, but he caught the dark sneer on the student's face. He dipped his head again and continued on. As he passed the pair, he could hear the young man ask, "Is that dirty old coot a friend of yours?"
The landlady laughed. "No, that's just Old Baxter Higgins; he's something of a town staple. He's one of the few here who has survived both wars, dontcha know?"
"And he came all the way back to Moscow?"
The mention of war sent cold shivers down his spine. Baxter hunched his shoulders even tighter, holding the package in both hands before him as if to remind himself why he even bothered to leave home today, anyway. The glittering red paper crinkled under his hands and he ventured onward with renewed purpose. They saw him as a man well past his fifties, wizened and embittered by not just one but two World Wars... When in fact he had not seen either of them.
They saw him as a familiar figure in this small town; the truth, though, was much stranger. He would never have remained if it had not been for her.

He traveled down the path that would take him to her dwelling, hardly noticing the soft white snow swirling from the grey clouds as he lost himself in the memory of her. She had seen him enter the room at the Yuletide ball two years prior, and had immediately greeted him with a kiss. It was only much later that he realized how hideously malformed he had become. Out of all the people in Moscow that night, only she could see the man beneath the wrinkles, the prince in pauper's clothing.

Baxter tapped his cane on the cobblestones of the street. It irked him that he should need it, but the enchantress's curse had been as thorough as it was brutal. The psyche of a young man in his prime had been thrust into the brittle frame of a man on his last legs. When she looked at him, though, he could feel his true self slowly working its way to the surface again. Prince Bastian, if he only understood it, could have spent more time with her, and perhaps he would have been wholly restored. Now he would never know.

He arrived at the edge of the forest; he was almost there. His shoes crunched in the snow. He could see trimmings on some of the wild trees: glass balls, garlands, even some tinsel. It was always the most magical part of the season, she said, seeing the forest resplendent, as if the woodland creatures secretly harbored admiration for the human convention of trimming the tree.

He found the bench that was their customary meeting place, marked by three pillar candles, which he stooped to light. Positioning his withered body carefully, he sat with as much princely grace as he could muster. Setting the gift on the seat next to him, he began speaking.

"It's getting near time for the ball, Princess."
She always blushed when he called her that—which was why he never bothered to learn any other name for her. He closed his eyes, picturing her flowing white gown, the one with the rosebuds, and her pale-pink shoulders rising from it.
"They still don't see," he murmured. "You saw right away, but nobody else—" the words caught in his throat, and his chin trembled. Bastian continued.
"How?" He choked. "How could you see me? How did you know I was a prince under a spell? I dare say you could have been the one to break it, if—" he could not bring himself to finish. She was so close to him, barely ten feet away. He could picture her wide eyes and gentle smile fixed on him, allowing him to continue on his own terms.
"I'm sorry!" He blubbered at last. "I know I say that every time, but I want you to hear it; I want to keep saying it until I have atoned for the abominable way I treated you, Princess."
Indeed, rather than welcoming her and seeking her out as he should have, his reaction to having such attentions paid him was to withdraw and rebuff her. Surely she was just patronizing him; the magic was too strong, nobody could see the prince under the monstrous exterior.
"I didn't want to believe anybody could see me for who I was," he admitted softly. "I told myself that your kindness was a farce." He stared at the ornate gravestone, etched with her name. The last date engraved upon its surface had been two years ago, when she had suddenly taken violently ill.
Bastian had worried about her then, but not enough to overcome his pride. He was still ugly, after all. The magic of true love's kiss really existed in his dimension. It could have saved her—saved them both. In the end, she gave up her life, and a loneliness such as Bastian had never known settled over him.
He dug the end of his cane, making little furrows in the grass.
"I..." How should he say this? "I've been doing better," he told her grave. "I've been looking for someone who sees like you do; by... By being kind, like you were, Princess. You taught me that much: kindness means nothing if not given, and it means more if reciprocated. I treat others with respect, now, regardless of their status. You taught me—" his voice caught as tears spilled from his eyes. "You taught me to see the prince in everybody. My own subjects wouldn't recognize the way I behave now!" He hung his head. "I'm sorry! You were right; I'm so sorry!" The light of the candle flames glinted off his tears.

Footsteps crackled in the frozen grass behind him. Baxter turned, but his weeping eyes beheld nothing. His heart, however, felt the presence of her spirit, standing there, dressed as his best memory of her, watching him mourn.
A warm breeze—quite impossible for the dead of winter—brushed past his cheek, and one of the pillar candles extinguished. He could well imagine her smile as she did this.
Baxter Higgins stood up. He carefully placed the package on the grass before the stone.

"Merry Christmas, Princess."

Previously in This Series:
#15 "Rendezvous"("Soul Mates" Part 6/"Serenity's Light" Part 2)