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songs sung under the moon

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A wide-brimmed hat protects the witch from the rays of the moon. He stands alone in the rose garden, tending to his flowers, humming a mindful tune.

The rose garden is purple. It looks like the tail end of the rainbow forgot its final stripe, and left it behind in this garden; a deep violet that belongs to the skies. The witch, dressed in dusty lavender, stands out like a solid ghost.

He prunes the rose vines, caresses the blossoms, continues to hum his tune. The garden is big, and the night is young – he is only down two rows. There are twenty. Each row stands for something. The headstones are empty.

When you have lived outside Time’s reach for as long or as short as the witch has, you come to expect nothing and everything. If things happen, then they happen, and there is no anticipation of the new, no fear of the old. There is just you, watering the roses, row by row by row.

Tonight there is a bird. Its plumage is what the witch thinks the Sun must look like, but if he’s being honest that’s just a guess. His memories of the sun are faint. They don’t always seem real. All his memories are: the weeds he cannot bring himself to pluck, the detritus of a rose garden that must have once been bright. Kind eyes.

(Forgetting them would be wise.)

The bird trills a perilous tune, perched daintily atop a rosebud. The witch stares at it for a while, unaccustomed to so vibrant a sight. He finds himself trilling back, melody familiar in his throat. This begins a back and forth, bird and witch, each singing unremembered things.

“What are you doing here?” asks the bird.

“I am tending the garden,” the witch replies.

“Why are you tending the garden?” asks the bird.

“Because if I don’t tend it, these roses will die, and that would be awfully sad,” the witch replies.

“How long have you been doing this?” asks the bird.

The witch does not answer. He does not know.

The bird flits from rose to rose, and the witch cannot help but watch. It is so alive. When it lands on one rose it seems to shake a little gold dust from its wings, sprinkling the petals in sunshine. The petals, the witch is surprised to find, seem to mind.

It keeps doing this, until the entirety of the rose garden is edged with the palest rays of dawn; and then it flies back. It should be dull by now, shouldn’t be so smugly iridescent after shaking all that gold from its wings. But it is as bright as ever, and the witch is both thankful and resentful that he wears a veiled hat to protect himself.

“You don’t need to look after the garden tonight, for I have taken care of it for you,” sings the little bird. It is telling the truth. The witch knows this, with a certainty that sprouts out of untended soil.

“And since you are free for tonight, would you sing with me?” asks the bird.

It would be impolite to say no. But more than that, the witch finds that he doesn’t really want to . What he wants is to agree. Like he has not wanted since the cold started creeping in, and thoughts of kind eyes and warm hands began to seem unimportant, compared to tending to the garden.

So he sings, and this time it is a song he thought long buried, along with whatever lies beneath the headstones. As he sings they find the time for another conversation between quavering notes.

“Are you happy here?” asks the bird.

“I am tending the garden,” he replies.

“Why don’t you leave? Don’t you have anybody waiting for you beyond these gates?” asks the bird.

“Because if I don’t tend it, these roses will die, and that would be awfully sad,” the witch replies.

“What is your name?” the bird requests.

“Yunlong,” whispers the witch. He had not known that answer before he’d uttered it. “Zheng Yunlong.”

The song ends. The sky is a lighter shade than it was before.

“I will be back tomorrow,” says the bird. “Will you wait for me?”

“Yes.”

.

Purple roses streaked with dawn rustle under the moonlight, and Zheng Yunlong waters them attentively. They tilt greedy heads up towards him, and he feeds them as they have asked. As is his duty.

Tonight however, he is waiting. He is anticipating the arrival of the bird, and by the very act of doing so, has let Time trickle in through the front gates. Only a few drops, mind. But there. But present.

He has watered seven rows of thirsty graves, when the bird lands in front of him again. It flaps its wings a few times to balance, and he notices they seem bigger tonight. Brighter too. Like in the time it was gone the bird had requested another piece of the sun for its feathers, and had seen its request granted. What a remarkable thing.

They sing, Zheng Yunlong’s voice a deep vibration of the earth, the bird’s a cadence of the skies. They are well-matched. The song they sing is of Moments and Movements and Monuments. What moments and what movements and what monuments exactly, he does not know. The answer might lay beyond the garden walls. He thinks he knew them once.

“Do you have time for another song tonight?” asks the bird.

“I am tending the garden,” Zheng Yunlong replies.

“When will you be free? Can I convince you to stop for one night?” asks the bird.

“If I don’t tend it, these roses will die, and that would be quite sad,” Zheng Yunlong replies.

“What if I am sad too?” asks the bird.

Zheng Yunlong does not reply.

The bird tilts its little head, kind eyes looking into Zheng Yunlong’s own. Searching through dusty lavender irises for a colour it once knew better than the words of its favourite song. Perhaps it finds what it’s looking for, perhaps it does not. Either way it still takes off into the garden breeze, wings flapping a little golden breeze of their own.

It makes its way through the rows, golden dust falling off its wings in sandy streams, onto roses still streaked with dawn from the night before. The dust does more than streak this time – it paints most of the roses the colour of noon, purple now somehow a lighter pink blushing into honey yellow.

As it flies it weaves and ducks between towering bushes and vines, almost like it is looking for something. At one point it pauses, ever so slightly, next to one of the gravestones. But even then, it does not seem to find what it is looking for.

Rose garden now the third stripe of the rainbow instead of the forgotten eighth, the bird flies back to rest on Zheng Yunlong’s outstretched hand, still smug, tonight with a hint of mischief in the tilt of its little head.

“You don’t need to look after the garden tonight, for I have taken care of it for you,” proclaims the bird. It rings of truth, again.

“Will you sing with me then? I know a song of Memories a little cat taught me. I think you know it too.” Zheng Yunlong finds that he does. And they sing. This song sounds like yearning, tastes of lonely streetlights and empty pavements, reminds him of dancing through one, with the hand of someone he trusted warm in his own.

“Do you ever miss the outside world?” asks the bird.

“I am tending the garden,” Zheng Yunlong replies.

“Do you remember why you began taking care of the garden?” asks the bird.

“If I didn’t tend it, these roses would die, and that would have been quite sad,” Zheng Yunlong replies.

“But why you?” asks the bird.

“Who else?” Zheng Yunlong replies.

At that, the bird looks terribly sad. The claw wrapped around his finger tightens, but it does not hurt. It feels warm. Like a hand.

The breeze flips his veil up and away from his face, and without it in place the bird seems bigger and brighter than before, and Zheng Yunlong is no longer afraid of its light. Want surges through him with a sudden force. Before the bird can take flight again, he asks,

“What is your name?”

“Ayunga,” comes the reply.

“Ayunga,” he tries. “You can call me Yunlong, if you like,” he says, and it almost feels like words repeated.

“Yunlong. I will be back tomorrow. Will you wait for me?”

“Yes.”

Always.

.

Standing in a sea of noon roses, alight with yellow that Yunlong has trouble believing, the garden that he has been tending is purple no more.

The air is still and sombre, and the roses he tends to seem sulky when he adds the fertiliser to their soil. They refuse to look at him, and the headstones watch in judgemental silence as he goes through their rows. It doesn’t really seem like they would be awfully sad to see him go.

He is kneeling on the ground by row sixteen when a gust of wind knocks his hat off his head, and he turns to see Ayunga, almost half his size now, blazing like a star in his own right.

Like this they are eye to eye, though Yunlong is just a bit taller, tilting his head down to look at Ayunga directly. Yunlong is overcome with a sudden strangling vine of memory, telling him he has seen Ayunga like this before.

Without knowing it they are singing again, a confrontational kind of song this time, one of two wildly different characters at war, unalike yet still fundamentally the same. Yunlong feels torn apart by some seed he does remember ever having sown, but is now growing and growing and growing inside of him, scrambling to reach the sun that is Ayunga.

“Where are you?” asks Ayunga.

“I am tending the garden,” Yunlong replies.

“Where are you?” asks Ayunga.

“You won’t find me. These roses would die, and you don’t want that.” Yunlong replies.

“Where are you?” asks Ayunga.

Yunlong is silent.

Ayunga takes off with two great flaps of his giant wings, for a second covering Yunlong’s field of vision entirely, making it seem like in front of him stretches the afternoon sky he once laughed under. Deep laughter echoes in his ears. Laughter that was not his own. Laughter he had loved to hear.

Soaring across the rose garden, Ayunga’s wings whip up a flurry of winds, sending gold dust raining over the roses with a vengeance. He is looking for something, Yunlong knows. Something hidden in these tired rows.

Suddenly a great crack sounds from across the garden, and Yunlong looks over to see that the wind has caused one of the older, already damaged headstones to crumble to the ground, revealing behind it a single, red rose.

He runs over, reaching it at the same time as Ayunga. Everything in him screaming this is important. This is the reason I am here.

It must have been in bloom once, but as they look at it, the final few petals are falling to the floor, leaving the ground around it a bloody pool of discarded red. Only one petal remains, clinging desperately onto the stem.

“Sing with me,” pleads Ayunga.

“Of course.” Yunlong replies.

And they sing. It is a song that covers Yunlong with a blanket that smells like home, with laughter that rings of love. With every note another memory sprouts in Yunlong’s mind. More and more, until there is a garden of his own in his head, telling him everything he has missed. The memory of stumbling into the purple rose garden, furious and alone after a fight with Ayunga about something stupid; seeing the lonely spirit on its gravestone, reaching out to help it.

Then – Ayunga, pulling him back, warning him away, so frustratingly worried even in anger. Hands warm around his wrist, hands torn away by something new, something thorny and afraid. His own eyes glazing over in purple, but not before watching Ayunga shrink into a tiny, golden bird, flung out of the garden.

And then – Time, standing still. The only thing that mattered was the garden, and the roses. It would be awfully sad to see them die.

The spirit he’d seen before stands in front of them now, a blurry shape of sadness that watches them through resigned eyes.

“Who are you?” they ask, together.

“I am the tender of the garden. Of the living that died, of the graves eroded,” the spirit replies.

“Why did you do this to us?” they ask, together.

“Because if nobody were around to tend the garden, the roses would die, and those who once lived would be forgotten, and that would be awfully sad,” the spirit replies.

“Can you let us go?” they ask, together.

The spirit does not reply. But the final rose petal falls to the ground, and the already blurry edges of the spirit blur even further, until the spirit is gone.

Yunlong looks desperately over to Ayunga, only to find his wings growing larger and larger, and golden dust falling off of him like a waterfall. It falls and falls and falls, until it falls no more, and before him stands a man and not a bird.

The sun is rising, but the moon is still in the sky, watching over its rose garden. Yunlong is looking into kind eyes he has always known, warm hands held in his own. Laughter spills from warmer lips, even as he meets them with a kiss.

The rose garden is red now, and as two lovers reunited stand in its midst they whisper plans of staying, of ensuring it is remembered, of maybe opening it to the public. They don’t notice the sprout at their feet, where a purple bud is peeking, ready to bloom.