Sands of Time

Written by Kerry Elizabeth Blickenderfer-Black for her friend, Mary, who she hopes will like it.

7 November, 2013

Tara Strong was an engaging beauty, with wild golden hair that it took a lot of work to tame and ideas equally unruly.  She had a quick, curious mind and the self-assurance that came from knowing that she was loved and respected.  Her parents spared no funds in her upbringing and welcomed her wit and charm to even the most adult of their many gatherings.

It was at one such party, hosted before she’d made her official debut, that Tara overheard something that changed her perception of the world and her place within it.  A conversation between a medieval history professor, Dr. Chrycellis, and an art history candidate, Niles Barkles captured her attention as the pair discussed “The Dance Macabre” and its implications and many meanings. 

To her romantic mind, Tara found the idea of life as a dance exceedingly charming and strangely familiar.  The image of a heavily-hooded specter lurking unseen, awaiting a pre-ordained partner, to dance the soul to its eternal rest, fired within her a passion.  She researched with single-minded purpose dusty tomes from the huge public library founded by Andrew Carnegie, a turn-of-the-century industrialist.  When the resources there were spent, her mother allowed Tara to accompany her to the Hillman Research Library at the University of Pittsburgh where she became fast friends with a research assistant named Heather whose love of literature and art were as fiery as her bobbed red hair.

Most kids her age hung on their bedroom walls pages from teen magazines, but Tara peppered her serene blue enclosure with framed replicas of Holbien and Durer’s woodprints and medieval illuminations by undesignated artists, with snippets of poetry that seized her imagination on hand written scraps of paper taped about the frames.  One was translated from German to read, “Whether rich or poor, we are all equal in death’s embrace.”

By the time that her debut was announced, Tara’s obsession gave route to a revolutionary idea.  She sat at her father’s drafting table in the turret of their red-brick Victorian home and practiced her schooled calligraphy on thick, cream-colored paper.  She hand-calligraphed[O1]  the invitations herself, and the results were fetching, with a line drawing of two figures dancing in the bottom right corner.  The blotting tissues in place, she carefully addressed each envelope.  There was one, however, for whom she knew no address.  She wrote the name, none-the-less, certain that he would somehow receive the card and attend her debut.

Bessie, their domestic, (who the family called their “cleaning fairy” because it suited her bubbly personality) pulled the unaddressed card from the rest when Tara asked they be dropped in the post box.  Tara only smiled and replaced it in the stack, saying, “It will work, Bessie.  Don’t worry.”  Bessie was rather used to the family’s eccentricities, so she smiled fondly at her young employer and took the cards to be mailed.

Tara and her friends looked like beautiful, though very young brides at their Coming Out, a nod to earlier ages maintained simultaneously for sentimentality and ostentation.  It did mark a milestone in the young aristocrats’ lives, though, indicating a greater level of maturity and supposed personal responsibility.  Diamonds were the standard parental gift at such occasions these days, pearls having fallen out of favor a few years back, but Tara wanted an untraditional garnet to wear about her neck.  Her parents purchased one that glittered deepest red, but to keep in fashion and maintain tradition, surrounded it with an oval of diamonds hung from a strand of graduated, gleaming pearls.  Reasoning that unless she spent a lot of time staring in a mirror, Tara would not actually see the stones, and so they also found an excellent jeweler who crafted a matching ring.  It was a bit too large for Tara’s ring fingers, so she wore it on her left middle finger, ironically beneath white silk gloves that complimented her custom-fitted designer gown.

The Cinderella-themed ball was splendid, with abundant elegance, held at the Omni William Penn Hotel.  The girls’ hours of volunteer service were announced as each beauty performed the ceremonial curtsey, blushing with pleasure.  No blush betrayed Tara, however, who gleamed with self-confidence and poise.

Pittsburgh’s intellectual and social elite dressed formally, sipping champagne and dining on the finest cuisine.  Members of the press discreetly mingled, collecting information for a feature article.  A talented quintet performed throughout cocktails and the dinner service, to be replaced with a d.j. for the young people’s dancing pleasure after the traditional waltzes were completed.  Tara mingled among the guests, quirky and charming as always.  She thanked each person for attending, shaking hands and engaging in pleasant conversation, as ever at ease in her self-possession.

It was then that she met him, standing apart from the rest of the guests.  None of the others assembled seemed to notice the tall, dark-haired older gentleman standing near an ornate bronze urn erupting with an abundance of pastel gladiolus stalks.   A member of the quintet took a break, leaving the strings to perform a moving quartet by Shubert. 

As Tara extended her hand to her guest, the colors and the room seemed to mute, as though everything were shrouded and veiled in grey.  The music slowed, sounding tinny and distant.  The laughter and conversation that was moments before active and engaging hushed to murmurs.

Chill like touching a tombstone in February did not prevent Tara from shaking his hand and dropping a curtsy.  “I knew that you would come.  Thank you,” she greeted.  From sunken eyes, he regarded her, a slight smile upon thin, colorless lips.  “Why have you invited me, little Tara Strong?”  His voice a whisper, deep and commanding.  She fought to control her body which wished to shiver.  She boldly looked up at him and said, “I want control.  Of my own, you see.  Just my own.”  That thin smile of his grew wider, revealing rotting teeth.  “Child, you do not want this.  I promise you.”  As ever, she was adamant and headstrong, and would not relent.

At last, he sadly shook his head.  He opened his black tuxedo front.  Inside was lined with thin pockets, each holding what looked like glass test tubes.  He ran his thin, pale fingers along the tops until one glowed with a warm yellow-orange light.  Before touching it, he leaned very close to Tara.  “Are you certain that this is your wish?”  Without hesitation, Tara nodded.  “Yes, with all of my heart.”

He removed what was a slim hour glass from the compartment.  Its golden orange glow pulsed, and grains slowly spiraled through the slender center.  “You may not have the vessel, only the sand,” he said, his voice a rumble like gravel being turned at a gravesite.  She removed her left glove and held out her hand.  The fine grains made a glistening color fall as they settled into her palm.  As she closed her manicured fingers around this treasure, he stepped back, bowed formally from the waist, and then walked straight-backed out the door.

Tara resumed interacting with the guests at the ball, the music and color restored to their former glory, perhaps even a bit more vibrant.  The chill stayed with her until the dance concluded, and the guests considered as part of her eccentricity her clenched, ungloved hand.

Once home, Tara carefully tried to place the sand into a lidded crystal dish, but to her dismay, only a few grains would leave her opened hand, despite shaking it over the dish forcefully.  It was a further surprise that those few grains seemed to disappear before they collected in the cut crystal dish.  Tara closed her fingers around the little mound, but she was startled when the sand continued to filter through her clenched fingers.  She enlisted Bessie to help her tape closed her fist.  She toyed with constructing gloves with stuffed fingers to disguise her dilemma, but such was the importance of maintaining this posture that Tara was willing to sacrifice many activities.

She learned western reining instead of English riding since it could be done one-handed.  She studied how stroke survivors adapted when losing the use of part of their bodies.  Her grades and involvements continued with success, though she began to play Tabor and drum or tambourine instead of flute and piano.  Her family shook their heads indulgently, amused by this newest “Tara craze,” assuming there was some long-range investigation being conducted, privately relieved that she had moved on from her obsession with the ‘gothic.’ 

In the coming years, Tara pursued degrees, always with her hand bandaged.  Acquaintances assumed she was injured, and she did not otherwise enlighten them.  She took a volunteer position as a tutor, delighting in broadening the young minds with whom she came in contact.  Sky diving, mountain climbing, and world travel she enjoyed, experiencing much that her compatriots could only claim as goals on their bucket lists.  She was a philanthropist, active in supporting the arts and educational programs.  She lent her back and enthusiasm to many mission trips, imagining that her labors would enrich her own understanding of the human condition.

When one fine autumn day on the way to visit her mother at the University, she happened upon Dr. Crycellis, who happily greeted Tara.  Tara smiled at the round faced lady in return, exchanging pleasantries.  When they reached her mother’s office and Dr. Crycellis was about to excuse herself, Tara asked, “Do you still teach about the Dance Macabre?” 

“Yes,” was the reply.  Dr. Crycellis curiously regarded the thin young woman before her, noting the bandaged hand and a glimmer that seemed to emanate from it.  “Why?”

With a laugh and a twirl of gypsy-inspired skirts, Tara recalled the party at her home so many years before when an overheard conversation inspired a life-changing obsession.  “Whatever do you mean?” Dr. Crycellis asked with amusement, but their conversation was cut short when Tara’s mother arrived to join her for lunch.

Watching the women exit to enjoy their luncheon date, Dr. Crycellis again noticed a golden sparkle fall like a blood drop from Tara’s bandaged hand.

As the silver door engulfed the women in the elevator, Dr. Crycellis turned to her office.  She was startled, though, by a gaunt, well-dressed man who was standing behind, also intent on the closing doors of the elevator.  A bit of golden-orange dust floated toward the ground just outside, striking against the dulled silver rectangles.

Dr. Crycellis bit down on her lip, considering, then with a deep, shaking breath addressed the man who stood as still and impassive as a marble sculpture.  He started when she said his name, the name calligraphically written so many years ago on Tara’s debut invitation without an address.  “Mr. Death, how are you, sir?” Dr. Crycellis inquired.  He did not answer but acknowledged her greeting with a nod.  “Are you here for me?”  No, he shook his head.  Dr. Crycellis’ gaze revisited the elevator doors.  “For one of them?” she guessed, dreading the answer. 

Her attention was pulled from the dark visitor by the sound of sirens outside.  The bus hit mother and daughter.  It was years before Dr. Crycellis again beheld Mr. Death.

However, it was with a heavy heart that the next day Dr. Crycellis wrote a eulogy for her friend, Dr. Strong, and her vibrant young daughter.  Part of it read, “Tara Strong sought to claim the sands of her own destiny by smashing time’s hour glass, keeping each grain safely within her protected grasp.  She lived a full, productive life, never noticing the golden grains escaping.”  She concluded, “Perhaps we all should fill our days with vivacious activity, knowing that in Death’s dance, we are all equal.”