Noah, Thanisha Chowdhury
CW: death, suicide, war, violence
They smelled his tobacco-stained breath before they heard him, boots booming against the floor.
Sir slapped a piece of paper onto the kitchen table, and dust fled in mobs to the ground.
“I’m gonna go fight in Vietnam.”
Ma kept her face turned to the dishes in the sink. Noah kept his eyes on the corner of the carpet that curled upwards. It was always better to look where there was nothing looking back at you.
“I don’t know, it’s dangerous, ain’t it?” said Ma. “And Noah’s gonna need a daddy growin’ up. You should stay.”
“You jokin’? Look at him, practically a man!” Sir slapped a hand onto his back and ignored the flinch below his fingers. “How old are you now, sixteen, seventeen?” “Thirteen,” Noah said quietly. But Sir had already moved on.
“This’ll earn me some respect, just you wait, fightin’ for our freedom. We can’t have the Reds takin’ over the world now, can we?” He pulled his chest up towards his ribcage, as if there was something there to salvage. “I leave Friday.”
Noah conjured images of monochrome explosions, bloodied faces and thin-legged children stumbling out of villages set ablaze. He looked at Ma, who was still looking at the sink. She’d been washing the same plate for minutes.
“I’ll get your bags ready,” she said, and the tap stopped.
When they walked him to the bus stop three days later, morning dripped down the horizon, muddied behind clouds. Puddles leapt up at Noah’s ankles, laced worry into his step.
He stared at his scuffed shoes, behind Ma’s, behind Sir’s. The slanted roofs and stiff elbows burned glares into his shoulders. He knew just as well as they did he had no place here. He caught his reflection in the window of a store filled with clothes he’d never be able to afford, all patched elbows, calloused feet, stooped stance.
Sir and Ma were far ahead; they’d be worried about him by that point. He turned back to the sidewalk.
Before him stood a storm in the form of a stag, blinding in its stance, formidable in its gaze, with shuddering lightning for antlers that reached to the sky and further.
He wrenched from the path and tore through the birthing crowd. Their mutters fell silent to his ears. The brick beneath his feet turned to lush grass and still, he ran. But his legs knew no divinity.
It found him before he reached forest. Every piece of him caught fire. He tried to move, to pull back any of his limbs and howl, flee into the wood until the shrubs became sand, but he was anchored to the spot, each muscle motionless. The stag raised its head.
You. They have chosen you. The words were rolls of thunder through the fields.
His thoughts melted to white-hot pain, invisible flames that licked at his lungs and skull. He did not struggle, only bite the flesh of his cheek and wait for death to take him.
You will receive your first revelation. It will not be easy. The sky darkened further. But think of it as a blessing. A gift.
“What are you?” He was unsure whether he had thought the words or said them aloud. Either way, the response came after a moments’ silence.
I am like you. A messenger. An angel.
Thunder rumbled, this time not from the stag, but from its home. It had gone. The shower thickened to downpour, each drop a dagger to his skin, but he could do nothing but let unholy sounds tear from his throat. The clouds bled the wrong colors onto the world.
Light flashed behind his eyelids, brighter than anything he’d seen before. He heard only the deafening cries of the heavens overhead mingled with his own ragged breath as the leafy horizon faded to emptiness.
A sea of wide-leafed trees. Men and boys, dirt-caked faces.
Sir with his feet that drag against fallen branches.
Shrieking sky. Earth exploding up in a reach for god.
Sir with his hands at his stomach.
Fingers fumbling at gauze. Uniform, ground, leaves stained dark.
Sir with his eyes open to nothing.
He gasped awake. The stag, it had returned for him, this time without mercy. But the frantic voice at his ears was human.
“He’s awake!” Ma put her palms to his face and somehow, they came away colder. “Look at the state of you, are you okay? Are you hurt?” Sir stood behind her with his arms crossed.
Noah’s thoughts stumbled about and bumped into each other like drunks. He nodded, expressionless, before he pulled away and burst hands-first towards Sir, ignoring the groan of his bones against the movement.
“You can’t go.”
“Let go of me, boy, this ain’t your business.”
Pressure gathered in Noah’s chest. “No, you’ll die, I know you will!”
“What the Hell are you talkin’ about?” Sir tugged at the white-knuckled fists balled in his shirt and looked to Ma. “Will you get him off me?”
“Please, listen to me, it’s not safe. You can’t go, you can’t.”
The burst of an arm forward, and Noah stumbled backwards, stunned. “I’m goin’. God knows this country needs it.”
Sir stormed back towards the town, the buildings that flickered in and out of Noah’s sight. His throat grew tight around sobs. He buried his hands in the ground, tried to grab at something, anything, that would give him a way to bring him back, stop all of it, but he found nothing but mud.
“He’s gonna die, he’s gonna die, he’s gonna die.”
The more he said the words, the more he believed them, and the closer Ma’s eyebrows drew together.
“It’s for our sake,” she said.
“Do you believe me?”
She looked away and her mouth pressed in on itself, chewing at the words she wouldn't say.
The letter came before the answer did, three months later.
It was a blur of punched-out condolences neatly scripted between the margins, and to the top of it all floated the name.
Sir was gone, easy and painless, said the letter. Uniform stained scarlet, said the sky.
Ma stared at the white between the lines, tears blazing silent paths down the hand pressed to her mouth. Noah, behind her, read the words as many times as the branches had leaves and still, they echoed off his skull and back into the wooden table. The day on the hill, the stag, its light, it had been right. His blood fled to his throat.
Outside the window, lightning flickered. It hadn’t stormed since the day Sir’d left. This was no coincidence.
He had to go. This time he would prevent it. He’d keep time from folding itself into tragedy and drive a sword through fate’s heart.
He was the only one who could.
“Ma, I’ve gotta go out for a bit.”
She remained stony, unmoving. He ached to leave her as a statue, but she had said it herself: it was for their sake. And for their sake, he would bear the heavens’ wrath.
When he climbed to the hill, they hummed in approval.
“I’m here!” If only his voice wouldn’t quiver. If only he could be the hero. “And I’m ready!”
Empty house. Quiet night.
Dark woven into the folds of her nightgown. Restless silence.
Bare feet on cold floors. Crumpled corners. Fingers trembling around rope.
The room holds its breath.
Scrape of wood on wood. Toes in the air, still, an arrow pointing to the ground.
Candle extinguished, along with her breath.
He was running before he was on his feet. Dirt sucked at his steps, and no matter how loud the wind whistled past his ears, the house on the horizon would not grow larger fast enough. He prayed to every god he could think of, and when he ran out, to the oceans and the sky.
He found her in the bedroom, floating like a spirit. She wore rope as a necklace and ice on her skin.
Noah crumpled to the floor and howled. Outside, the trees were silent.
One day, two deaths. He prayed that a third would follow soon.
The house was made of shadow and empty breaths. They traced his steps and rustled the growing pile of papers on the counter, fluttered the doors open and shut, like the beating of a dying heart.
Of course, he was one of them. He let dust cast itself in heavy blankets across what remained of life, and himself lived off sips of memories.
The stag appeared next closer than ever before, staring in from the corner of the kitchen through the millions of eyes that it had sprouted. Noah sat gaunt-faced at the table, letter in one hand, rope in the other, eyes blurring together somewhere between. Torrents beat against the roof.
The glow beckoned, and this time he needed no words. Whatever the heavens had left to show him, he would bear, be it for even the faintest form of meaning. He could prove that he was more than an echo.
A silhouette, thin and shaking against the night.
Face turned upward. Sky turned downward. Water rippling grass like boulders into the sea.
World lit white. Screams from storm and boy. Feet lifted from the ground, toes grazing earth.
When the fields faded back to mortal, an outline laid broken among the weeds,
limp-limbed and staring at God.
The next time he heard thunder, he locked every door and window he could find. The winds howled in protest.
The corner of the room lit. His eyes stung with the suddenness, but his legs did not shake this time. There was only a tiredness that settled between his shoulders, heavy, aching, deep.
You are not going?
But you must. The gods have chosen you, remember?
“They picked wrong. I’m not the right one.” He buried a fist in his singed hair. “I ain’t holy like that.”
You are. You have the blood of gods in you.
“I don’t. I’m a kid, that’s it. I don’t need a god’s blood. I need my own.”
The rest of them will die if you don’t go.
He stared, as best he could through watering eyes at the stag.
The rain, the flood. You know they are not prepared. The world flickered. Neither are you. You can choose to die the hero or among the townsfolk.
For a few moments the only sounds were that of the clouds growing angrier outside, water sloshing against the wooden walls, threatening to drown.
The light softened. It is not the most terrible thing. Remember that you are part of something much greater than yourself.
That was all he was. A vessel. A messenger. Nothing but an insignificant piece in a mechanism that would march on without him, just as it always had.
He looked down at sharded night that lined his arms. On the other side of the crying walls, the sky was still screaming. He thought he could hear something like a wail.
“I’ll go.” He stood.
You have done well.
The light extinguished. The only illumination that remained was the occasional flash through the curtains.
He looked to the door, still with a wardrobe pushed against it. There was only one direction left to go.
He was born of the storm, destined to die of it as well.
Rain drove tiny knives into his skin as he dragged himself through the floods. Water replaced the grass that had once kissed his knees, lapping higher and higher with each step. He had not brought a coat; it would only be more for others to clean up in the morning.
Wind blew at him from all directions. He planted his feet into the hilltop and turned his face to the sky. It gazed back, clouds black and spun together like chain-mail armor. He closed his eyes and breathed out.
When the light took him finally, it was behind his eyelids more than anywhere else. He rose like the clouds and sank into the earth, each vein under his skin crackling with violent currents. There was no pain, not this time, only release in its most blinding form. The world shrieked around him.
Or maybe it sang.
A thousand steps through a thousand eyes. Kaleidoscopes of brown and grey. Showers on the stone and wood.
Among the crowd, a boy. Back turned. Eyes to the ground. Adrift in a sea of stares.
You, reborn. A messenger. Pushed forward by the clouds and the winds. Closed circle, open sky.
He sees you.
Thanisha Chowdhury is a writer from Virginia. When she’s not asleep face-down in an open book, you can find her drawing trees on her arm during class, browsing forums about linguistics, or trying to get her world map to stay on the wall.