dark – side – thursday
dark – side – thursday
An ongoing story published each Thursday.
This story started out as a collaborative piece of writing with Helen Keating contributing part one. I wrote part two, and then the story was passed on to others and is still evolving. After my contribution, I decided to continue where I left off, and so the story has several alternative outcomes. Here you will find my version. I hope that you enjoy it, for who knows where it might lead.
The outline of your future path already exists, for you created its pattern by your past.
The Invited : Part 1
The road winds intriguingly as though it knows where it’s going and wants to guide her with intent towards something new, and mysterious.
The invitation had come in a plain white envelope, with no indication of its source in the postmark. The stiff white card inside was printed in her favourite font, an elegant Lucida Calligraphy.
‘You are invited to the Erewhemos Garden on Sunday April 1st. Acceptance may prove to be to your advantage.’
Written on the back were the instructions for finding the place and so here she is, on this country road, apparently in the middle of nowhere. As she goes on the road gets narrower and the trees now join their branches overhead into a tunnel, making the prospect of advancing a little frightening. ‘Why on earth have I come?’ she asks herself, feeling a bit stupid, as if she might be putting herself in some danger, but the mystery of the invitation had been too enticing.
At last, in the gloomy distance, she sees a vehicle advancing towards her. She slows down, pulls into the side of the road as far as she can and winds down her window.
The driver of the large estate car draws level and greets her with ‘Can I help you?’
‘I’m looking for the Garden which I understand is somewhere up here. Are you anything to do with it?’
The woman smiles and says ‘No – and you’ve passed the gates about a hundred yards back down there.’
After thanking her she drives on till she finds a gateway in which she can turn the car round, not without some difficulty. ‘Why on earth have I come?’ she asks herself again, crossly. ‘Am I being stupid?’ But the mystery of the invitation draws her on. Sure enough, as she peers along the roadsides, she sees, set back amongst a thickset stand of trees, two large doors painted to match the thicket beside them, almost camouflaged as if they didn’t want to be seen. There is no name on them, no indication of their existence on the postal map. She stops the car, gets out and turns the large brass handle on the right hand door and pushes it open. There is a notice on a board on the right hand side of the drive that leads on before her: ‘Please close the gates behind you for security reasons.’ She opens the other heavy gate, drives in and then closes the two of them behind her as instructed. She gets back in the car and sits for a moment, contemplating.
‘What on earth am I doing here?’ she asks herself. ‘Curiosity killed the cat, you know! How on earth can all this be to my advantage?’ The only way she can find out is to drive on.
Alongside the gate, the forest had been dense, but as she rounds the first bend in the track, the trees open out into a glade with a stream, and the track almost immediately peters out. She thinks to herself how beautiful it is, then…..
“You have reached your destination.”
This sudden and unexpected announcement from the sat-nav makes her jump. She didn’t remember even switching it on, and sitting there for a moment, completely unnerved, she finds herself preparing to reverse the car, but then a movement in the rear view mirror catches her eye and her heart leaps.
With white knuckles she tightly grips the steering wheel, frozen by indecision. She watches in complete surprise as a deer with two young make their way past, only feet away.
They seem to be totally unconcerned by her presence and she sits amazed, watching the dappled light run across their tan coloured sides as they move into the trees ahead of her. Helen is transfixed, and she switches off the engine, as two more deer join the others. In the stillness she realises that she has been holding her breath. Then she’s aware of the sound of birdsong and, suddenly, of how hot she is. Opening the car door she’s astonished to be engulfed in hot, humid air. But this is April; the first of April, she thinks, and it was cool and spotting with rain not ten minutes ago. Helen frowns, a mixture of puzzlement and disbelief on her face.
Then she notices the red arrow nailed to a post. She can’t understand quite how she’d missed such an obvious sign before. It points to a narrow path that leads through the trees. Curiosity once more prevails over caution, and getting out of the car into the almost tropical heat, she looks around at the woodland with a more intense gaze, realising that there’s a Tree-Fern like the ones she’s seen in Tasmania, and then comes a screech followed by a flash of green feathers. Of course, she thinks, this is a tropical garden. How clever, and she looks up, expecting to see the glazing bars of a geodesic dome, but all she can see between the foliage of a flowering tree is blue sky. These are the Erewhemos Gardens, she thinks somewhat absently to herself, and then she tries to remember where she’d heard the name before, but she can’t.
“Well,” she says out loud, “I’ve been invited here, so…….”
So Helen follows the narrow path and is soon having to push her way through ferns and laurel. All around in the humid air are Eucalyptus, Sassafras and Tree-Ferns. A few minutes later she comes to a wide, gurgling stream where she splashes her face to cool off in the sticky heat. and then, wading across to the far bank, she sees that the stream marks the boundary of the forest, for ahead of her, through the thinning trees is a small lichen covered stone building.
Apprehension strikes again, and she pauses nervously to look around and to listen.
Only the frontage of the building appears to be decorated, and she slowly circles it to confirm that the other three walls are indeed just plain dressed stone. Looking up at the ornate facade, it immediately reminds her of the tombs that she’d seen at the Necropolis in Glasgow. It has a classical front with fluted Doric columns. Between the columns, and fencing off the interior is an ornate iron gate that’s painted a deep red and is covered in complex geometric forms that could be tantric or Masonic symbols. Above the columns is a triangular pediment with an inscription running along its length. Helen reads it, and staggers back in shock. “Oh God….. Oh, my God!!” She can scarcely believe her eyes. She knows the name. Oh, yes, she knows that name. Shaking, she sits on a fallen tree.
Though the shock has crowded out all sense of time and place, there is no mistaking the danger implicit in the low growl that emanates from the forest.
Then time seems to dilate. Her whole being feels like it’s dispersing on the wind.
I’m going to die here.
The thought comes out of the blue. It almost seems like not her own, but It won’t go away. In her mind’s eye this single thought flutters and shivers in front of her.
I’m going to die here.
As she sits there, she can see this strange world; this strange place: but it somehow feels very far away. The danger, though, is real enough, but her black fear, has drained all power to flee or hide. She knows, somehow, that behind the red iron gate there is a place of refuge, but this terrible thought has removed her ability to act.
I’m going to die here.
…….Then there is darkness.
In the darkness there’s an animal smell. A sour, bitter stench of animal; and accompanying it, a snuffling: a padding. The sound of dry leaves. The sound of two scratching scrapes: pawing sounds, very close: and sniffing.
In the distance, from the forest, a moan, rising into a howl, echoing through the trees. A howl that grows then suddenly drops in pitch. A haunting sound which abruptly stops, but the echo hangs in the air. It rings in her ears as though time was rewinding it, over and over.
A shadow moves, slowly at first. A slithering, sinuous shadow, barely discernible……in the star light….in the moonlight.
She’s lying face down, with the shadow; the silhouette; coming toward her, crossing the ground: crossing the earth, leaves, and stones. She can smell the damp mouldering earth, inches from her nose: in the moonlight.
Now she is sentient again. Now the ground is hard beneath her; and the stones press into her forehead and she feels the dead weight of her body, pressing into the ground, but the air is humid and there is a great stillness. Silence descends. The place is listening; as she is listening, and she can hear a thumping. A thumping that is shaking her body.
Her heartbeat. She’s not dead: ….. yet.
The shadow……. is unmoving. She wonders if she had imagined it moving. Straining her hearing, beyond the hissing in her ears, and there’s a liquid swallowing sound; a sudden release of breath, and a gagging smell of bad teeth; and she starts to tremble, and her own shallow breathing starts to tremble in time with her heartbeats. The shadow moves. From the edge of her vision she is certain beyond doubt that, right next to her, part of the shadow moved.
Suddenly Helen is aware that this could be her last moment. I’m going to die here……
Then she feels something touch her right arm. Until that moment she was not aware of its position above her head on her blind side. Then small staccato impacts on her arm, then on her hand, then her hair; her face. Warm, and wet, and pungent. ….. Urine. The creature is urinating on her!
She screams, and screams. Incoherent, garbled words, into the darkness.
The Invited: Part 4
Its shadow has gone. How long since her frantic screams, she’s unsure, but their release has left her in a state of exhausted calm.
Seated on the ground now, and wiping her face on her sleeve, Helen can see a shadow, though from her former position close to the ground, it was broken up by the unevenness of the leaves and stones, but now, the shadow of the cast iron gate crosses the ground in front of her. It’s geometry, though broken by the drift of leaves and stones, is clear enough. She leans forward, grasps the ornate ironwork and uses it to pull herself, rather unsteadily, to her feet.
The moon is high in the night sky. It looks like a harvest moon, and the light from it glints on the painted edges of the gate. It is only now that she realises that she is inside the tomb. She has no recollection of how she got there.
She tries to rationalise her situation. I was outside, standing: no sitting, in front of the tomb and it was daylight. ….. Bright, hot and sunny. I looked up at the inscription and squinted. Oh, ……the inscription on the tomb!
The thought of the inscription, was that real? and the black fugue starts to return, but she grips tightly onto the iron gate, squeezing it painfully until her fingers are numb. This is real. It must be real. She explores the smoothness of the paint, picking at a rusty patch and pulling off a flake of paint with her thumbnail. It jams under her nail and she winces. She lets go of the gate; and pulls out the sharp fragment. This place is real. She can still smell the urine. She starts to heave, but then with sudden determination, grabs hold of the gate again. I’ll not be defeated by this, she thinks, and she manages to calm herself.
On an impulse she puts her hand into her coat pocket. The card is still there. The invitation. What did it say? To your advantage! How can this frightening experience and the purpose of this place, possibly represent an advantage?
She turns, trying to take in her surroundings. The moonlight is filtered by the gate and some tall ferns, but it reaches across the floor of the mausoleum and catches the edge of a low shelf or plinth on the back wall. Helen decides that she would be safer away from the gate and from whatever lurks outside. Feeling her way with each step she makes her way to the back of the tomb where she sits, trying not to think about what else might be there.
Her mind is in a turmoil. In one sense she understands why she’s here.
The mausoleum is dedicated to her mother.
She doesn’t know where or when this place is, but she’s been invited here to be confronted by an inscription that reads, ‘Dedicated to the Memory of Rachel Forbes, Born 22 February 1921 Died 17 May 1955.’
That’s my mother, no doubt about it. She thinks. Yet I can’t feel that this is anything other than a dream. It’s just too impossible, all of it: impossible. I’ll wake up from this nightmare soon.
Oh, please God, let me wake up!
Helen’s thoughts start to head in a downward spiral. The tears run down her face and she sobs. She thought that she had dealt with the loss of her mother, but the yawning chasm of it had never, ever closed, over the years. There were so many unknowns. She never knew how her mother died. She was just six years old and always thought that she had been taken ill. At least that was what her grandparents had told her; taken ill and died; that’s what they said. That’s what they’d always said, but she had always believed that she was somehow responsible. Deep down, the thought had lodged in her mind. All she could remember was that she’d been naughty and that her mother had sent her to her grandma’s. That’s all she knew, and she’d buried it into a great void of uncertainty and unknowing, that surrounded her mother’s death.
Her tears flow for the emptiness of the years.
The Invited: Part 5
She falls into an agitated sleep of dark places with cast iron gates at every turn blocking her way, and closing down the spaces. Always she comes back to the same scary and ominous place surrounded by tall gates. First it seems there is a way out, but then she is confronted by a red gate with the paint dripping and pooling on the ground. Then it starts to flow towards her. In it she can see, reflected, the moon, hanging there, accusing her like an all knowing red eye: ever present and watchful. The moon grows and grows, engulfing the dark forest until it fills her vision. Until it burns her with its pallid light.
Helen awakes with a start, and in confusion. The sun is shining directly into her eyes and it sparkles with a thousand points of light that create shimmering radiant rainbows around every splinter of light. Even when she tries to peer through her fingers the light is revealing her retina, orange-red and veined. She feels that it is examining her very soul, Turning her inside out, opening her up to scrutiny. She hears metallic sounds in her ears and though she tries to move, her limbs resist and she struggles to break free. Then her wrists are suddenly very painful. She looks down and sees that she has blood on her sleeve. She has banged them, somehow, on the edge of the stone slab on which she sits. Her left wrist has an abrasion that is beaded with droplets of blood. She sucks at it and this makes her realise how dry her mouth is. She is parched. She looks up. The sun is sparkling off the leaves of the trees which are covered in dew and she longs desperately for a drink of water.
Time has slipped her mind. How long is it now, since I came here? She shakes her head as if doing it will break the spell. Break the unreality of her being…..here……wherever here is.
A strange, but familiar sound breaks into her thoughts. It’s the sound of a drip; a drip of water, every five or six seconds. She waits and counts. Six seconds and there’s a plop as if water is dropping into a pool. But the sound has a strange echoing, cavern like quality that seems to be measuring out her time, and distracting her thoughts. She looks around for its source.
The coming of daylight has now revealed the interior of the building in which she sits. It is not quite as she remembered from yesterday, but then, she was standing outside. Now she sees, in front of the gate, in the centre of the rectangular interior is a stone plinth which carries carved scroll work, similar to the iron work of the gate, but more floral in quality, for she recognises what looks like honeysuckle flowers. Another plop of water causes her to rise to her feet, but then the world spins and in that moment she sees fleetingly, her room at home and everything seems suddenly insubstantial and unreal. With a hand steadying her against the wall she tries to grasp why such a memory should suddenly intrude into this stone mausoleum.
The metronomic plop calls again like an invitation to quench the dryness of her mouth and she edges slowly along the wall, past the stone plinth. As she reaches the far end of the tomb, Helen is amazed to find that it has an opening, with steps going down under the plinth. She stands motionless for a few moments until she’s certain that her dizziness has receded and then taking the few hesitant strides to the sandstone plinth, she looks down the steps.
The plop of water comes, she is certain, from down those steps and she peers……into the darkness below.
The Invited: Part 6
Another watery drip, louder now, comes from the bottom of the steps, but then a fleeting movement beyond the gate catches her eye. A large animal approaches. At first Helen is unsure what it is because of the undergrowth at the edge of the forest, but when it comes towards the red iron gate she recognises it as a leopard. It pauses just a few feet away and sniffs the air, then it turns and stares directly at her. Helen edges behind the sandstone plinth and they eye each other. Strangely she feels quite calm. The big cat has droplets of water in the fir and whiskers of its head and it briefly shakes itself before looking back into the trees from where a trumpeting is heard. Helen finds herself standing by the gate, looking towards the forest with the same calm intensity as the leopard.
A gazelle dashes past and then Helen sees the smoke. The forest is burning.
She stands, watching the leopard. The leopard whisks its tail and then gives a low, deep growl before turning back to look at her again with an unblinking stare. It looks at her as if it knows her, as if to say, it’s time you were moving.
Smoke reaches their nostrils. The leopard lowers its head and pads silently off, following the route of the gazelle.
Helen continues to hold on to the gate.
Up to this moment she hasn’t stopped to consider what her options might be. She doesn’t have to think things through, though, because she already knows that her car isn’t really parked where she left it when she arrived here. She knows that somehow she is no longer just twelve miles from home; that it probably isn’t April the first anymore; not even April!
She’s certain that the building; this tomb, that she stands inside, is a memorial to her mother. She has a vague sense that it could have been built by her father who never came back from Australia when she was about seven. She knows that this place is Tasmania. She visited here when she was twenty when she came to look for some trace of her father. How she got here….. Helen shakes her head….. Perhaps I’m not really here at all ….
She rests her head on her arms. Perhaps dying here won’t be that bad…..
As she looks out through the ironwork of the gate she can see a broad column of smoke rising over the forest and a cockatoo flies out of the trees. Soon other birds join the exodus and an echidna is overtaken by small wallabies and a group of deer. From the forest there comes a crashing and a trumpeting sound and a large tree-fern topples. An elephant; several elephants, come crashing through the edge of the forest. Helen looks blankly at them. You’re in the wrong dream, she thinks to herself, there are no elephants in Tasmania!
The two enormous grey beasts are real enough, though, and come directly towards Helen in her mother’s mausoleum. Feeling the ground shake, she backs away from the gate, but it’s too late, the first charging animal suddenly veers in front of the other and with no space to turn, it collides with the corner of the building. The red gate parts from its hinges and hits the ground with a ringing sound; screeching across the floor towards her, throwing up dust, stones and dry leaves. The column next to it tumbles into pieces and blocks of stone drop down from above with a tremendous roar. Helen falls backwards down the flight of steps and lies, stunned in the darkness, against a cobweb covered door……
The Invited: Part 7
She dreams about a cat, and then a car crash.
She’s in an ambulance. The sound of the siren wailing in and out of her consciousness. Her head hurts.
The cat is familiar somehow, and very large. It rubs its face against hers and she buries her nose in its soft fur and then she climbs on its back. In her dream she has an overwhelming urge to pee, and so she lets go. The wet cat slips from between her legs and turns to sniff at her wet panties. Then it sits there while she drags the wet pants over her brown sandals. She smells the pants as well, and hears herself say, “Poo-wee!”
“Helen…… Helen! Can you hear me, Helen?”
She knows that her eyelids are fluttering because she gets flashing glimpses of the inside of an ambulance with a man in an orange jump suit bending over her, though she’s puzzled as to why she’s dreaming about such an event. Then she’s confused by which way up she is, until she realises that the ambulance is on its side. In her dream she is suddenly thinking about other strange incidents.
Elephants and leopards in Tasmania.
This leads her to dream about a wet cat. The cat is standing, dripping, in a large rectangular sink and Helen has to stand on a chair to turn off the tap but the tap keeps dripping. Dripping…..
She hears it again.
Another echoing ‘plop’.
She raises her head to find that she’s covered in dust and there’s a piece of stone on her left ankle. She pulls her leg out from under it with no great effort, as fortunately the shattered piece lay across several steps and her foot was in the void beneath it. Even so her leg feels bruised and her head aches where she landed against the door. The light is dim and there’s smoke in the air. She turns herself around and sits on the piece of rock. Above her the top of the tomb has saved her from the partial collapse of her mothers mausoleum, but her way back up the stone steps is blocked by the large pieces of masonry that fell from the roof. She notices that the red gate that nearly took her legs off has fallen across the top of the steps and prevented the larger pieces from sliding down on top of her. She realises that there is no possibility of getting past the gate which bows under the weight of stone above it.
Again the watery plop comes from behind the door.
There isn’t much space but she manages to get to her feet and then leans against the door. It appears to be similar to many of the church doors that she’s visited over the years with long hinge plates and vertical planks of wood held together with hemispherical bolt heads. There’s a black door knob on its right hand side that’s pitted with rust. She tries to turn the knob and despite appearances it turns easily, so she pushes against the door but it doesn’t budge.
She feels that the place is mocking her. All the while there comes the regular drip, drop, of water from behind the door and it starts to build up her anxiety and frustration, and she kicks at it and shouts hysterically , “Open sesame!”
The laughter that follows comes in great breathy convulsions that grow into sobs of desperation and turning away, she clambers over the stone and up the steps to where the iron gate blocks her way and she pushes up at it, furious at her entrapment. All she succeeds in doing is dislodging more rocks that rattle down the steps behind her. She wipes the dust out of her eyes and stands blinking rapidly as her tears leave muddy streaks down her face.
The Invited: Part 8
She sits back down on a stone step in the smokey gloom of her mothers mausoleum, surrounded by broken brown laterite; dust, and dead leaves, and thinks about the crumpled invitation that sits in her pocket. She wonders momentarily, who had sent it, but forming at the back of her mind is the growing certainty that she already knows the answer to that question. It seems completely absurd, but she knows.
…….and this line of thinking is giving her strength. She is in control of her own destiny now, and only by her own actions can she discover what advantage can be had by taking this journey through to the bitter end. “There has to be a way out”, she says to herself and she carefully returns to the bottom of the steps over the jumble of rocks, to confront the door once more.
Grabbing the rusty doorknob again and shaking it fiercely, the door moves a fraction towards her. With all her strength she pulls at it with her foot on the frame and there’s a grating and grinding as it inches open, though she has to stop several times to clear rock fragments that snag under the bottom of the door. She quickly realises that if she’s going to get the door open wide enough for her to get through, then the large stone that bruised her ankle is going to have to be moved. With a six inch gap the door is hard up against the piece of rock, and although she attempts to squeeze through the gap, she can’t turn to get her shoulders through. The stone has to be moved but she struggles to get a grip on it, let alone lift it, and swinging the door hard against it just forces the rock up against the wall.
There has to be a way………..and she looks around for a possible solution. Something to lever the rock away, she thinks, and looking up at the gate above her she sees that when the elephant dislodged it, the hinge bar was pulled bodily out of the side of the column. Aren’t gates normally designed to lift off the hinges? And she climbs up to pull at the hinge bar. It proves to be heavier than she anticipated and the one end is out of sight, but with much tugging and edging back and forth, it slowly moves away from the gate. With it now dangling down at an angle, it has to be lifted back up so that it can be pulled out. Summoning all her energy she gives it a final heave and it clatters down the steps to land between her legs.
The heat of the day is building and the smoke from the fire is making the air very unpleasant and oppressive. She flops down on the rock and leans against the wall, panting for breath and covered in perspiration.
In the heat she dozes, and once again sees the wet cat in her minds eye. Its name is Willow, though how she knows that a cat from a dream is called willow she’s unsure. Then the cat is wrapped in a towel and she’s trying to dry it, but Willow keeps jumping out of her arms, and then it curls up on the rug in front of the fire, so she crawls over and turns on the fire……
An extraordinarily loud crackle of burning forest, followed by a dull thump as a nearby gum tree explodes, awakes Helen, and she looks up as a shower of sparks drifts down into the stair well. Thick smoke can be seen above the broken gate and the air is heavy with choking fumes. Standing the hinge bar from the gate on its end, she manages to manoeuvre it between the rock and the stone step, and then after several attempts manages to rotate the rock away from the door.
The Invited: Part Nine
She peers into the darkness through the gap between the frame and the door, and then sets about moving all the small rocks and stones that have tumbled down the steps. The door grates open. Further crackles and dull thumps from the forest above, momentarily catch her attention and looking up, she sees a vortex of smoke, and a fierce flurry of embers billow past. She hurriedly brushes away the glowing ashes that smoulder on her sleeve, and turning back she goes through the open door.
It’s dark, very dark; and close by is the sound of the water plinking and plopping. As her eyes adjust she sees the droplet catch the light, and then the ripples draw expanding circles caught in the light from the door. Kneeling she scoops the water, smelling its freshness, then cupping her hands she drinks in its sweetness.
After washing away the dust from her face Helen sits with her back against the rough stone wall. “What the hell am I going to do?”
Her voice echoes back, and she realises that the sound comes not from a simple tomb-like room, but from a much larger space. She stares away from the door, into the darkness and thinks that she can see a glow, coming from far away. She knows now that there is only one way to go, or she’s going to die trying.
Standing, she starts to make faltering steps toward the dim light, feeling her way along the uneven tunnel wall. After twenty paces she turns and looks back and sees more sparks and embers swirl through the open doorway. Then a cool draft comes out of the darkness and the air clears. The pool of water glints and ripples in this unexpected breeze and the sudden change of atmosphere confirms her belief that heading into the darkness is the right decision.
As she makes her way slowly forward she starts to see images in front of her, and then there’s a strong smell of gas. The cat runs off, out through a door and she follows it into the kitchen. It leaps up onto the cupboard that’s next to the big rectangular sink and then it jumps up and through the open kitchen window, knocking the window bar which immediately causes it to bang shut.
She goes to the door, reaches up and pulls out the key then goes into the backyard, locking the door behind her, As she turns she is thrown to the ground. The ground came up to meet her and the vision spun.
Her wrists hurt again. She feels trapped. Her arms won’t move.
The ambulance is the right way up now, but the man in orange is in a heap on the floor, then the smell of gas; much stronger now.
She remembers the gas fire with its ornate surround, she remembers the wet cat that she washed in the big sink after peeing on it. She remembers turning on the fire to dry the cat, but it didn’t light, then Willow ran off and she remembers going to Grandma’s.
The policewoman was very nice, but she kept asking the same questions. “Did you turn on the gas fire, Helen? Why did you turn on the gas fire? Why did you have to wash the cat, Helen? Did the gas fire light when you turned it on?
She remembers that her grandma wouldn’t let her go back home. She remembers hearing the explosion that killed her mother. The coroner said that her mother had returned home with the shopping and that she must have turned on the hall light.
Helen saw all this; acted out before her, as she lay on the cold rock floor of the tunnel and she screamed and screamed, and tore her clothes.