Thou, Which Art But Air




by Betsy Horvath


She was amazing.

Blonde hair, no, red.  Green eyes, no, blue.  It all depended on the way she caught the light and reflected it back into my face.  A kaleidoscope of colors.


She couldn’t be real because she was floating in mid-air at the foot of my bed.  She appeared as light and insubstantial as summer mist, and, except for the incredibly long hair floating around her like a cloud, she was as naked as a baby.  But this girl was no baby.

The machines whirled, the morphine dripped, and I watched her.

It sure was a shame that she wasn’t real.

“Of course I’m real.”  Her words echoed in my mind.  Her voice was soft, husky, melodious.  Everything it should be.  She didn’t so much talk as sing, and I think I fell in love right then.  She made me feel better.

“You’re real to me.”  My voice was a whisper, but she heard it and smiled.  I couldn’t stop staring at her.  She seemed young and old at the same time.  She was so beautiful, a lot prettier than the nurses.

“Don’t you want to know who I am?”  She drifted slowly forward until she hovered over me, facing me. If I could have moved, I would have tried to touch her.

“No.”  I was glad my mother had gone off to get some sleep.  This was the best hallucination I’d had in a long time.

“I know your name is Richie.  Don’t you want to know mine?” she persisted.

“No.”  I didn’t want to know anything about her.  I didn’t want her to go away.

“You’re an odd one,” she mused and her forehead creased into an adorable little frown as her long hair swept over me without weight.  Her skin looked white and soft, her breasts, hips, and legs were perfect, but she didn’t have any volume.  A ghost.  A spirit.

“Don’t you even want to know where I came from?” she asked.

“No.”  I didn’t really care.  I was probably seeing her on account of the morphine.  Mom had told me it was a low dose, just enough to take the edge off the pain, but it messed with my head.

“I wish you would stop thinking I’m imaginary.”  She was annoyed, her temper as quick as her smile had been.  “I am as real as you are.”

“Sorry.”  I didn’t stop to wonder how she’d known what I was thinking.  I didn’t want her to be mad at me.

“It’s all right,” she said.  “And although you don’t seem to want to know, I’ll tell you that I am called Ariel.”

I laughed a little at that, or tried to anyway.  Ariel. Of course.  Well, that made sense, didn’t it?

She seemed pleased.  “You know me?”

“I used to read a lot.”  Before.  “I guess I didn’t think about you being a girl when I read The Tempest ,” I murmured.  “’Course I didn’t understand too much of that stupid play.  I don’t think it was even in English.”

I suddenly realized how tired I was.  I wanted to talk to Ariel for as long as she wanted to stay, but couldn’t   I had a hard time dealing with excitement these days.  Ariel seemed to understand and she floated closer, her slim, perfect body no more than a breath of cool air as it brushed against mine.

“I appear as I need to appear,” she said.  “I am what I want to be.  I am what you want me to be.”

“Okay,” I said, struggling to stay awake.

“Go to sleep, Richie.” Her voice was low and hypnotic.  “Go to sleep.  I’ll come to see you again tomorrow.”


“I promise.”  She began singing to me, a wordless melody I did not know and yet instantly recognized.  It soothed me.  When I teetered on the brink of unconsciousness, I felt something soft and warm touch my lips, and an element that seemed to be an important part of me was depleted a tiny, tiny bit.  Before I could wonder too much about it, I fell asleep.


Not only did Ariel visit me again the next evening, she came every night after that until it became a routine I could look forward to.  Sometimes we would talk for as long as I was able to stay awake; sometimes we wouldn’t.

Silence grew more common as the morphine doses increased.  Oddly enough, although I tended to drift in and out of consciousness the rest of the time, when Ariel was with me telling me stories about Prospero and Caliban my mind seemed clear enough.  Or was that just another part of the dream?  I couldn’t tell.  I didn’t want to know.

Every night before she left, she would sing to me, and just as I fell asleep, I would feel a gentle touch on my lips and a slight reduction of that something deep inside me.  I didn’t mention it, although I thought about it a lot. It was enough that she came.

Time passed, the pain increased, the weakness increased, and the morphine increased until one day I finally saw the ending.

Ariel came to me as she always did, and my mind sharpened, pulled back from the haze in which it operated when she wasn’t there.

“You don’t look well,” she observed.

“Let’s just say I don’t think you’ll have to visit me much longer.”

Ariel said nothing and hovered over me, her expression thoughtful.

I watched her and thought about how beautiful she was. Beautiful in the way of a sunset, or a particularly violent storm.

“Ariel,” I think I said.  “I love you.”

“Ah, Richie,” she sighed like the breeze.  “I don’t know how to love.  I don’t know what love is.”

“It doesn’t matter.  I love you anyway.”

“You don’t know how evil I am.”

“You’re not evil.”  I knew it.

“You are so young and innocent.”

“I’m sixteen.”  Age was a relative thing.

“You don’t know what I am.  What I’m doing.”

“Sure I do.”  It had taken a while, but I’d finally gotten it.  “You’ve been stealing my soul.  A little bit at a time.”

Ariel looked shocked.  She floated back and forth over the bed and I watched her anxiously.  I hoped I hadn’t upset her.  That was the last thing I wanted to do.

“You know?  How could you know?”

“It’s not like you were trying to hide it.”

She came closer to me and stared down into my eyes.  Her long hair drifted above and around her, weightless in the air.  “And you’re not upset?”

I would have shrugged.  “I’m not using it.”

“Richie.”  She seemed confused and disoriented and determined to explain.  “Don’t you understand?  I’m taking advantage of you!  Don’t love me.  Don’t even like me.  Hate me for what I’m doing.”

“I can’t.”  Even if she really was an illusion brought on by the meds, even if this conversation was only happening inside my head, she was the most important thing in my life. I loved her, no matter what she was.  No matter why she was there.

“Why do you want my soul?” I asked.

She waved a hand.  “I want to feel.  I want to know the way of humans.  To finally understand.  I’ve watched and watched, but I’ve never felt anything.”  She stared at me.  “I want to be like you.  Regardless of the cost for stealing a soul.”

“What if you don’t steal it?”  I was fading.  The machines whirled.  My mind drifted further and further away, despite Ariel’s presence.

“It would be mine.  Freely given.  I would have feelings and emotions permanently, not just as the result of sorcery.  But what human would accept eternal nothingness for me?”

“I would.”

I thought that would make her happy, but instead she looked even more upset.

“Richie, if you lose your soul, you will cease to exist when you die.  You will not continue.  Your flame will go out.”

“It’s all right.”  At that moment, lying in that cold hospital bed, I didn’t care if I continued or not.  I was so tired. So very, very tired.  And, although things were blending together in my mind, I knew that Ariel was real to me.  I could give her what she wanted the most.  I didn’t have to wait for everyone else to make the decision for me. It made me feel almost…powerful. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t helpless.

“You don’t know what you are saying,” she protested, but moved a little closer anyway.  “You don’t know what you are offering me.”

“Yes, I do.  If you want my soul, take it!”  I whispered.  “It’s yours.”  I closed my eyes and waited for the endless sleep I was sure would come.  I wanted it.  I welcomed it.

Her hand ran down my cheek.  No longer just cool mist, now it had substance.  Slight, but there.

“Oh, brave heart,” she murmured.  “Oh, generous spirit.”

I knew she studied me, her wonderful hair flowing around us both.

“Sleep, sweet Richie,” she whispered.  “Sleep.”

Her mouth fastened on mine.


I woke sometime later, surprised.  Clear-headed.  Light.  Insubstantial.  There was a painfully thin, bald body on the bed.  The machines hummed a monotone.  The monitors showed flat lines.  The doctors and nurses rushed in.  A woman beside the bed screamed and cried and clutched.


I felt bad for her, but when I tried to touch her, my hand went through her body.

What was I?

“A gift for a gift,” Ariel sang.  “One soul, two spirits.  Yours.  Mine.  Ours.  We are bonded.  We are free. This is what I have searched for all of these many, many years.  This is what I was promised, but never given.”

“Will we feel?” I asked.


“Will we share?”


“Will we need to steal again?”

“Never.”  She smiled.  “That is your gift to me.  You gave me your soul and in exchange I returned part of it to you.  You and I are one now, sweet Richie.”

“I’m free?” I whispered.  “I can move?”

Her smiled broadened.  Her laugh was music.

“We both are.  We both can.”  And I saw that Ariel was not just a girl.  She, he, it, was water and fire and air and earth.  Spirit.  Breath moving over the ocean.  And now I was likewise.

“Love freely given is the greatest gift of all.  Come. Come with me, sweet Richie.  Come with me and fly.”

So I did.



© 2013 Betsy Horvath