Once I met a girl who carved the world flat just to tell me I was beautiful.
It went without warning, in the morning when we left our sheets and searched for a bed of leaves beneath my mother's apple-tree; I settled crooked as she leaned against my side, and even as my muscles cramped I wouldn't shift her burden from my shoulders even to walk a free girl again. I was the real Atlas, the true one so willing as to ask to bear the weight of the world on her back for all of time, and you wouldn't know it to look at a ghost like me.
August, I said to her, and when I waited for her calling voice to come back I couldn't stop thinking about the way the russet leaves were crumbling under our spines with every movement; it was like we were grinding gold dust, collecting fortunes with every breath that I felt her lightly shake against me. It seemed like a waste, all this precious metal for a kid too haunted to wear the jewelry that would slip straight through her neck, but I couldn't stop myself from saying, Thank you.
And she said to me, What are you thanking me for?
Most things, I said, Most things like feeling the cold and looking at the sky without thinking about what you're lying on like it's too real; it must be important to do that and I've always wanted to learn.
Her eyes kept wandering over the sky, and I wondered if she was looking for a face in the clouds that wouldn't make things seem so fractured. There were other girls before, who didn't sculpt so well, that left me standing on a precipice refusing to live inside a story anymore. I am not pretend, that's not what I'm trying to say; I am only made up of dictionary passages and the way words fit together, and I don't play out like the other kids on a cinema screen. I just sit and offer pages, inscribed visions in ink; not always quite lucid. That was disorientating for them, I think, and I cannot begin to place fault because even I feel uneven and tilted on my best of days.
It's not quite about learning, August said, It is too much about forgetting.
It was always certain that she knew me too well; knew that forgetting was something I could never do.
I told her, Sometimes I wish I could forget to keep quiet when I'm thinking and just say it all aloud. Maybe then people could understand some more.
You could always say it after, she whispered, and I thought that she must feel fragile in that moment; maybe we both did, because as I remember it now even my memory takes on a delicate shell and I write more carefully than you can know. We knew that our words were taking us someplace where there were not any left to take us home, and yet we spoke on.
I feel like it's too late, I said; it became a confession as my voice grew smaller and smaller, and I was an empty space waiting for somebody just to say, 'I can see you'. I took courage in that small thought, and told her, It might be important for people to notice what isn't there.
I'm putting italics there now but I'm sure that back then my voice did nothing more than break, a little desperately, mostly sadly, and clusters of stars rolled up in the corners of my eyes. It was like watching night appear in the lightest sky, and it made me cry faster for the way I could not follow the world like it so tirelessly followed me.
Her voice was brave, and she said, Look over here.
I turned my head, and her face was obliterated by the lights of suns a billion miles away; she wiped at my eyes, and rested her hand on my cheek, and when I opened them again she was smiling.
I can see how beautiful you are, August told me. I see it when you're taking walks in your head, and when you're crying in a pile of leaves, and when you're making a place in my heart.
She said, Don't believe that you're anything but the brightest ghost I have ever known.
I guess maybe that was how I heard her saying I love you, and my spine unfurled like all the pages opened at once and laid themselves upon the girl next to me, joining their brother leaves below us; a weight was lifted from my back, and I was no longer Atlas.
The world was carved by the simplest words, and divided among the men left to carry it. All left to me was flat and did not matter, because I was not bearing any burden - I was holding the love of a girl, and she held mine, and we left the world to spin as it always did, on the backs of nine billion people who could walk past these two phantoms and not know anything of how they loved.
For the first of moments in my lifetime, I could forget and not be forgotten, and I did not think to cry as I pressed the smile of a ghost to one of a sculptor; it was beautiful, it was wherewithal, the means I found in all the pages of my dictionary to finally give me a sort of peace, and it did not end there.
This kind of story has no ending.