Samantha Lee’s Picture Choice: Both
It was an odd dream. At least, I think it was a dream. Maybe it wasn't. Maybe it was a memory, the echo of a past life. Maybe once, long, long ago, there was an experience, a traumatic series of moments so relevant, so important, that they seared themselves into my very soul. Maybe, life after life, rebirth after rebirth, the echoes carried through, replaying themselves against the screen of my subconscious, unfurled across my sleeping mind. Or maybe...maybe it really was just a dream.
In any case, I found myself in a field, a rolling landscape of yellow rapeseed and tall grasses. Above, a cerulean blue sky sprawled towards infinity, snow white clouds smeared here and there as if finger-painted by a child. A warm breeze pushed the clouds east, set the rapeseed dancing, and rustled the autumn-touched leaves of the few trees scattered about. Birds chirped, insects buzzed; it was an idyllic scene, one you'd expect to see in a museum painting or a wholesome country movie.
I was on a hill, sitting on a swing. It was an old fashioned swing, just an aged plank of wood hung from a sturdy tree branch by two thick hemp ropes. I pumped my legs, going higher and higher, relishing the rush of air sweeping over me. I love swings, always have, ever since I was a little girl. I used to spend hours playing on a swing just like that one, loving the feeling of rising so high I could almost touch the sky, loving knowing that no matter how many times I fell, I'd always rise again.
I don't have the words to describe that freedom. Ha, freedom - it's an underrated privilege, you know, one that few people appreciate until they've had to pay for it in blood and tears, until they've had to steal it in hidden moments and secret places. The swing was always my means of achieving freedom, the one time where open air and long dead wood would grant my escape from her.
There, in the field, on the hill, swinging, I was happy.
Something moved across the sun, a shadow too quick and dark to be a cloud, the Fates making a mockery of my short lived joy. The breeze became a wind, taking on a chilling bite as its dance grew frantic, a howl hinted in its passage. Slowly, achingly slow, the clouds bubbled and boiled, growing larger and darker as they surged across the sky; cerulean blue quickly disappeared behind steel grey and darkness spread in a slow wave around me. I took a deep breath as silence fell quick and sudden, and fear bloomed inside me.
Ichabod was there instantly, his familiar warmth caressing my aura in greeting, his weight a comfort as he curled around my neck, a pine marten in form. His triangular head nuzzled against my cheek, his paws clenching and unclenching against my shoulder. He chittered reassuringly, his big black eyes gazing up at me with devotion. He was more than a pet, this creature, he was my guardian, a gift from my father, created as an ever shape shifting beast meant to protect and love me when my father couldn't. Papa was prone to overcompensation like that.
A sudden rumble shook the ground and I closed my eyes, my swings growing shallow as my legs stilled and I came slowly to rest. When my toes touched the ground, Ichabod loosened from my neck and slithered down into my lap, his weight growing heavier as he shifted form, his warmth growing hotter with the effort.
I knew what was coming; I'd recognized the signs, they were the same for all my family, after all. But don't mistake me, I love my family. Dearly. My siblings and cousins are my friends and protectors, the ones who taught me how to shoot arrows and throw daggers, who showed me how to fix my hair and choose a gown, who made me strong and loved me unconditionally. My uncle taught me to swim and opened his home to me, sharing its beauty and secrets with me. My best and brightest memories, every moment I can tie to joy and fun and love, all begin either with one of them coming to call on me or vice-versa. Yes, I love my family, but...but not all my family.
A hand, so cold, so very, very cold, came down upon my shoulder, the fingers curling into my flesh. Its grip was hard, like steel, but its touch was soft, gentle. It was not a hand I'd felt before but I knew whose it was regardless. Taking another deep breath, I opened my eyes and smiled. I was free. Finally.
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