“Is it difficult for you? Skating, I mean.”

The crowd erupts into cheers as Yari settles into the final act of her score, leaping into a triple axel. Wisps of ice, hardly visible, spark to life beneath her skates, crackling in the air around her with the sharpness and luminosity of a growing flame.

Ayishah glances up for a second before promptly turning her attention back to her phone. The announcer, excitement brimming beneath his voice, proclaims something that Ayishah can’t seem to care enough about to listen to. Must be Yari’s posture, or her footwork, or maybe she’d fumbled the landing somehow. Either way –

“Ayishah, are you feeling the pressure of the competition this year? Yari Jung seems to have become a fan favourite after last year’s regionals, and we’d love to hear your thoughts about this rising star!”

“One question at a time.” Ayishah scoffs, getting up from the bench. “Is skating difficult for me? No, it’s not. It’s the easiest thing in the goddamn world.”

“Oh, what makes you say that?” The journalist, adjusting her microphone, follows Ayishah toward the stage entry.

Ayishah rolls her eyes, slipping on her earphones to catch the familiar melody of her programme. It’s like all they know is how to be stubborn. “I was being sarcastic. Anyone who says skating is easy is either terrible at it, or lying. Take your pick.”

Flashing lights. The voices of the crowd keep overlapping – all the screaming and chanting melding together into one noisy, cacophonous trainwreck. Besides, these journalists who are insistent on probing into every minute detail of her life certainly aren’t helping. The world is spinning at 1000 miles an hour and Ayishah desperately wants to get off the ride before vertigo gets the better of her.

“Ayishah, what are your plans after taking home this championship?”

What plans? She wants to say.  How about you get on that rink? Tell me if you’re capable of thinking about anything other than the way gravity churns in your stomach and how the ice snakes under your skin.  

She wants to say it, so she doesn’t. 

“Then, I’ll just have to win the next one too.” Ayishah clicks her tongue, an air of finality around her. “They’ll be calling me up soon. Now, buzz off.”

Her mother had named her Ayishah, eyes blinking apart slowly to the unforgiving sheen of hospital lights 19 years ago. According to her grandmother, she’d almost whispered it under her breath, clutching her stomach with her free hand, feeling for a presence of life where it had long escaped from her.

“Ayishah.” She’d said. The nurses were running tests on her, crowded by her side. “My baby is well. She’s alive.” She cradles a then-infant Ayishah in her arm, pressing a kiss to her temple, feeling the tender skin against her lips. Her hair is sticky with sweat, her eyes sunken with the weight of childbirth. Her body struggles to adjust to the cold disconnect of the hospital – from the food, to the staff, to even the stubborn mattress currently cushioning her limp, bone-weary body.

With her ear to Ayishah’s chest, she listens to the rhythmic thumping of her heart against her ribs. “Ayishah, my darling.” She coos, pinching her cheek. “Come alive, now.”

Ayishah glides on the ice, the numbing cold weaving itself into strands of hair, crawling beneath her sleeves. Light sparkles off the glitter of her costume, a thin, frosty halo seemingly emanating off her with every move. For a split second, the cheers of the crowd consuming all but the hum of adrenaline in her ears, she feels immortal. Everlasting.

Music. Ayishah gets into her starting position, bending backward – the back of her head mere inches off the ice. Her hand grazes the rink, numbing the tip of her fingers.

The audience quiets down into a dull, motionless buzz. Peace, at last.

She falls, for the first time, at age 5.

Holding onto the ledges of the rink, she treads carefully onto the ice, legs crossing over one another like a startled fawn. Her mother is chatting up an old friend by the bleachers. She’s a parent, too – out with her family, her son tearing through the rink with a brazen recklessness that only a 7-year-old boy could achieve. Ayishah is, similarly, left to her own devices.

Breathing in, she inches forward, releasing the safety rail one finger at a time. She puts one foot in front of the other, before falling directly into the ice, the back of her head hitting against the rail. The chill bites sharply into the back of her neck, her body jittering in response.

Cushioning her head with her palm, Ayishah grabs onto the railing, steadying herself once more. And she laughs, bursting into a fit of giggles. The boy, having seen everything that’s happened, stops in his tracks, before shrugging it off to continue his very important task of dashing into a full sprint across the ice.

Her gaze sharpens. One foot in front of the other. Balancing herself with her arms spread out like an eagle’s wings. The harsh, but merciful calling of the ice. She makes it just about 7 steps forward, a newborn fowl navigating through foreign terrain, before falling on her back again, her weight thrown off-kilter.

She laughs, waving her hand at her mother. “Mama! See, mama! I learned how to walk!”

Her mother, just now noticing what her beloved’s gotten up to, rushes to her care, pressing Ayishah’s face into her shoulder. “Ayi, be careful! What did Mama tell you about running off on your own?”

Here’s what’s left unsaid: You learned how to walk? You already have. How absurd – to be taking your first steps for the second time.

 Ayishah feels the throb of her every nerve, every vein. She’s acutely aware of every movement – the pulsing of her heart, the pull and tear of every muscle, the blood pumping in her ears. The spotlight follows her keenly. The cameras are rolling. The crowd’s faces are blotched out, muddled together into one vague, muddy mess under the blanket of darkness.

A distant calm washes over her like a stray wave. She feels the absolute immensity of everything in the universe, and she feels nothing at all. The music swells into a crescendo as Ayishah circles the rink, building momentum – and she leaps.

One. Two. Three spins in the air. In that fraction of a second, gravity is putty in her hands, the world becoming hers to mould. She lands, exhilarated, and springs into a toe loop.

One movement after another. One step into the next. Maybe this is what everyone’s living for – these fleeting moments of invulnerability, this unrivalled courage to take on the world and hold it in your palms. The short-lived idea that maybe, just maybe, we could be anything other than human.

The first time a boy tells Ayishah that he’s in love with her, she hardly acknowledges him, watching the waves retreat into the ocean before crashing back onto shore, bubbling up the slope one inch at a time. It’s night-time then, and she’s out past her curfew, crushed cans of beer far behind them. She tilts her head toward him, watching the moon’s reflection in his eyes.

“I love you too.” Liar.

Yan Jin (or Jin, as she likes to call him) chuckles. He pulls her in, her head pressed against the thick of his shoulder. “Please, no need to spare my feelings, I insist. Let me down easy.” She feels his arm thrum, ever so slightly, when a laugh escapes him. “It’s a bit more embarrassing if you have to pretend to love me.”

Ayishah’s eyes widen. She shoves herself away from him, the corner of her lips twisting in frustration. “I- Shut up. I do love you. You don’t get to decide that for me.” Lie, again.

Jin smiles, heat rising to his cheeks. He turns toward the ocean, as if embarrassed to even look at her, watching the clouds part in the face of the midnight breeze. “Ayishah, don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t know if you’re ever capable of loving anything more than you love figure skating. It’s just the way you are.”

When Ayishah returns that night, drunk and dishevelled, she buries her face into her pillow and screams. Somehow, I’m the one that’s heartbroken here. She groans. And I wasn’t even the one that liked him!

Turning to face the ceiling, Ayishah takes a deep, earthly sigh, and pulls out her phone. Next competition’s in two months. She opens Youtube. Types “Medvedeva Grand Prix Programme” into the search bar. Might as well start early.

A spin into a triple toe loop. Arabesque. Footwork. Double salchow. Triple axel. The routine rings, clear as day, within Ayishah’s mind. The music hums into a slow, silent rhythm.

Triple toe loop. Ayishah feels the sting spread along her knee. She grits her teeth, smiles for the crowd. Glides along the rink with her arm reaching out, so close you could almost skim the edges of her fingertips.

The music starts to pick up its pace again, notes crashing into one another as the chorus chases its rhythm. Footwork. Ayishah twists her feet, circling them, naturally, along one another. She winces, biting her tongue, when her skates scrape against the back of her right ankle.

Sloppy. She twirls, feeling the anxiety boiling in the pits of her stomach. Hopefully they didn’t notice that.

The thing about performing in front of millions of people is that the audience can just as easily make you invincible as they can sink you. The more you try to drown them out, the more you start to lose yourself in the noise.

The double salchow is passable. Ayisha bites her lip, skating along the edges. She should be slower, calmer. The music is reaching its climax. She’s running, but she doesn’t know what she’s running from. Triple axel.

She leaps.

Everything on the way to the hospital is a blur. She remembers her back against the ice, her head throbbing against her left arm. She remembers feeling betrayed, remembers yearning for the bone-chilling embrace of the ice as they lifted her onto the stretcher. She remembers the audience. God, she remembers the audience. Her mother appeared by her side not long after that. She remembers “Ayishah”. She remembers “It’ll be okay.” She remembers feeling numbed by those words. Feeling cheated by that haphazard lie.

She’ll remember that for the rest of her life.

When the words “career-ending” leave the doctor’s mouth, Ayishah sees white. She doesn’t process it, can’t process it. Her hearing goes first. Everything thins into a sharp, screeching hum in her ears. She goes blind with frustration, with rage. She nearly tears herself out of bed, sweeping everything off her bedside table as they crash to the floor – and when she stops in her tracks, realising that her legs have become too weak to even step foot out the bed, she weeps.

She weeps for so long that she feels the sorrow carve its way out of her heart and leak into every corner, every crevice of the room. She screeches and yells until her throat goes hoarse, until she has nothing left to give.

Then, she sleeps. Her mother cradles her in bed, pressing a warm cloth to her cheek. In the deep of the night, as the crickets chirp and the world goes quiet, she dreams of a world where she’s floating above it all, feeling the ice against the soles of her feet, burying herself amongst the clouds.

And when she wakes, she’ll find that the sun has risen once more, and she would have to learn to be human all over again.

Written By: Natalie

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