Axe to Grind 2021—2nd place winner: "Lacuna"
By Chris Barkley
Geronimo was George’s first word. He raised a chubby fist and proclaimed it to the midwife with such gusto, that even she – weary and grey – felt a frisson of adventure.
After Geronimo, George went back to babbling. Babies emerge with every word, choose the one that suits them, and watch the rest evaporate like mist on morning water. That is why they cry.
George’s geronimosity grew with every year; on his sixth birthday, he became the first to ever leap the local ball pit on a tricycle. The onlooking children squealed and cheered – all but one. Her name was Verity and she lived next door to George, who, until then, had hardly noticed her. She rolled her eyes, returned to her carefully scheduled play routine; she was building a structurally sound tower with foam blocks. George wanted very badly to knock them over, but knew what was best for him and refrained.
When George was ten, he tamed a wolf. On his sixteenth birthday, he scaled El Capitan without a rope. On his twenty-first, he leapt the Grand Canyon. When he landed on the other side, he looked about for Verity. She’d been there to roll her eyes at every one of his stunts, studying him as carefully as one of her architectural designs. Pushing through the crowd, George found her sitting in the shade under an overhanging crag. She handed him a beer. George went to bite the cap off, but Verity passed him a bottle-opener.
“Did you see?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “You leapt the Grand Canyon.”
“Yeah,” said George. “I did.”
Verity nodded, sipped her beer and said, “You should wear more pads.”
George looked at her like a dog just bonked on the nose. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“I know,” said Verity.
That night, they smoothed a blanket out on the red rock beside the abandoned jump site. George lay there with Verity and, side by side, they named the space between the stars.
“The Leap,” said Verity, pointing to the space.
“The Leap,” George said, tasting the word. “That’s very good.”
She looked over at him, thought about rolling her eyes, but kissed him instead.
Then, they did the thing which humans tend to do when left alone under stars.
Afterwards, George asked Verity what her first word was. It wasn’t a question you asked of just anyone. A first word is a moth’s wing, a footprint in tide-soaked sand. But there, in the night, breathing in the scent of George – motorcycle oil, sweat and dust – she gave it to him.
“Vigilance,” she said.
“Geronimo,” George replied.
And the words floated there, above them, like thoughts left to wander.
Years passed and Verity worked as an architect while George went travelling, seeking new geronimous ideas. The time they were apart was like the moment before a sneeze. During those times, the question of “Why?” always returned to George. Its answer was a lacuna, echoing in his voice like wind over a cove.
Preceding his effort to tightrope the Golden Gate Bridge while on fire, Verity met George in a San Francisco bar and asked him “Why?” again. There was a note in her voice that had not been there before, as if she were asking the question of herself at the same time.
He replied, “I want to be remembered.”
“When will you be happy?” said Verity.
“Anyone can be happy. Nothing great comes from being happy.”
“Why do you want to be remembered?”
George gave a sardonic laugh. “Don’t you?”
Verity was quiet for a while, then said “I wish you were less geronimo.”
He leant back, rolled a strand of hair, and said, “Okay.”
Verity circled her finger on the tabletop. She glanced up at him. “Sorry.”
The next day, George’s stunt was as lacklustre as a flaming tightrope walk can be. When extinguished, he announced he would be retiring, because he had someone whom he valued more than geronimosity. Loving, he had realised, was a process of forgetting.
He went to find Verity.
She’d watched George cross the tightrope from a café nearby. When he approached her, she passed him a coffee.
“Did you hear my announcement?” he said.
“Yes, they played it on the radio.”
“What did you think?”
She traced that little circle on the table again, and began to cry.
After that, they revolved like lovesick moons. They continued to meet after George’s stunts when they would drink, talk, and then drift into weighty silence. Verity no longer rolled her eyes, and George no longer boasted.
They always understood the space between them.
There was no plan for the future. Verity’s buildings took on a fierce sorrow, like shards of rock overhanging white waves. Once, she was commissioned to build a gallery and formulated a series of curved pieces, that, when looked at from a certain angle, resembled a tower of foam blocks. When asked about her vision, she said she’d simply built a question.
George became a war correspondent. He once ran into a flaming building and saved a family during a live broadcast. When he emerged, his shirt was cinders and his back ragged with burns, but he didn’t seem to feel it. Upon returning home, he went straight to Verity. They booked a hotel room, drank wine, and spent the night together.
“You’re like… a word that’s always on the tip of my tongue,” said Verity in the morning.
“Okay,” said George.
She said nothing else, so he held her hand.
Nine months later, he received a phone call.
When the baby came, George drove Verity to the hospital. Speeding through traffic, he realised that, for the first time in years, he was nervous.
They had a girl. The midwife, with a surprising amount of biker tattoos, said it was the cleanest birth she’d ever witnessed. She passed them their daughter. Then, the child spoke her first word, and forgot all the rest.
Chris Barkley is an award-winning writer, with prose published in TSS, National Flash Fiction Day and the WotF 35th anthology. He has been shortlisted for the Cambridge Short Story Prize and his poetry has featured in Agenda and Wet Grain. He has also won The Stage Award at Edinburgh Fringe. After graduating from Warwick University with a First, he is currently studying an MSt in Creative Writing at Oxford University. His twitter is @TufferBarkley and his website is ChrisBarkley.co.