Chapter I : The Original Protagonist
She cried, and God cried with her.
‘Why are you crying?’ she asked.
‘Why are you crying?’ asked God.
‘As if there were not enough reasons to cry. Why am I here? This place is not for me,’ she said.
‘Yet here you are,’ said God, ‘Anything you’d like to do about it?’
‘So why are you crying?’ she asked again, after a pause.
‘I’m crying, because you are,’ answered God.
‘How is that?’ she asked.
‘You cry, so I cry. I’m a god in your world, so I cry with you. In the next best laughing, cheerful person’s world I’m a laughing, cheerful god. See what I’m getting at here? Easy-peasy,’ answered God.
‘You’re somewhat a Buddhist, I see,’ she said.
‘I’m just god,’ shrugged God. ‘What made you cry?’
‘It’s kind of difficult to explain, you know,’ she said. ‘All these bits and pieces in my mind, even though a mess, they make me see all those lives I could have lived but didn’t, and all the things I could have had but hadn’t, and everything I could have been but never had a chance to... And it’s all so real, much more than what I get here. You know what I mean? It’s just… am I in the wrong place?’
‘Why?’ asked God.
‘Because how I am now is not quite right,’ she replied.
‘But why?’ asked God.
‘Because I want to sparkle like millions of stardust butterflies, and wind beneath my wings, and…’ she searched for words, but couldn’t find the right ones.
‘So, you’re bored,’ said God.
She cried some more.
‘I’m cold,’ she said.
‘M’Kay,’ said God. ‘How about this?’
All of a sudden, she was warm. Thick, weighty wool was covering her shoulders, its butter-soft pleats falling down to her knees; intricate ornaments blossoming on the sleeves of what could possibly be the most emotionally protective armour of a coat, its edges raw like love’s first chords, its folds magnificent and soothing like ancient tomes in a hideaway library room.
A tear fell down, sparkling, and found its woolly embrace. She smiled, for the first time today.
‘How did you do it?’ she asked.
‘I’m god, duh,’ smirked God.
Rain was jotting down symphonies on her window. Blurry patches of blue and green with an occasional random flash of red, all instantly swallowed by general greyness. She ran her palm across steamy glass, relishing its coldness, rubbed a drop of water between her fingertips, and struck a line on each cheek. ‘Now I’m a rain warrior,’ she thought, walking away from the window in her fluffy knit pyjamas.
Maybe the rain will wash the dust off her life. Just how wonderful would that be. What would God say to that?
She closed her eyes. As always, they were there. Burning stars of an unknown system, right in front of her. So close, and so many; the blossoming flowers of an eternal tree, their fiery petals stretched towards her, opalescent centres calling her into their depth. And there she was, a crown princess of sorts, about to be shipped off to some safe planet in an odd dimension. Will they manage on time? This ground under her feet was about to turn into dust, perhaps the very dust that now covered her life, muting its colours. The ships, they were on their way. She raised her hands towards the sky, reaching for the blazing petals, daring them to burn her fingertips. Their brightness stung her. This sky was the deepest shade of purple, which could easily be also indigo, or, say, red.
She opened her eyes. It dawned on her that God must have been bored, too.
The rain lulled her to deep, dreamless sleep, and she woke up refreshed to an early, crisp morning; its soft hues, not yet fully illuminated by the first smug rays of sun, offering the prospect of a vibrant day. She crawled out of her warm bed, walked to the window and opened it, letting in fresh air that smelled of yesterday’s rain and just a hint of warmth—the type of smell that prompts cats to blissfully narrow their eyes and smile profusely, as cats do. For a moment, she imagined gathering this smell by hand and running it through her hair to keep in all the promises of the day, about to begin.
Before her was the garden, the field, and then the moorland, stretching all the way out towards a wall of forest in the distance. A routinely familiar sight, which had, perhaps, a peculiar glow today.
She did what she would always do when feeling daring and ambitious: climbed over the windowsill, and jumped onto the ground, landing with her bare feet in the grass, adorned with sparkles of dew. It was that precious moment just after dawn, just instants before the clear droplets are about to vanish into thin air, when they can be collected and kept forever as shiny crystals to later adorn pendants and earrings.
She squinted at the rising sun, letting through her eyelashes elusive rainbow dots, akin to those tiniest shimmering bugs with their intricately webbed wings. At moments like this, everything was perfect. And she could see exactly just how perfect everything was. Holding on to such moments was, however, nearly impossible. She would practice it vigorously, and then just as willingly give it all up, suddenly recalling that the understanding of ultimate perfection undermines the very essence of being alive as a human in a material world. She would then wonder whether other creatures didn’t concern themselves with perfection, being seamlessly woven into the fabric of life with ease, and without questioning.
As she drank her customary coffee out in the garden, she gave herself the rarely allowed permission to ponder over her life. That’s just how cocky she fancied herself today.
Her memory was most confusing. She didn’t know who she was, why or how she appeared here. All she knew was that one day she just walked up through thigh-high weeds to this house on the edge of the moorland—a simple building on the border between human land and nature.
Yet, there were all those fragments and images overflowing her mind. Parallel lives. Ones that could have happened but never did. Snapshots of relationships growing and falling apart. Bits of reality, forever lost in that head of hers—meaningless signals with no destinations.
At first, the noise was baffling. By now, however, she could easily make a distinction between her own thoughts and these superfluent bits, even though it was not always straightforward. Often, meandering memory bubbles floated up to the top of her consciousness, and keeping them in check could be hard work.
She worked out a mental system, a set of exercises that helped her stay sane. It wasn’t a perfect system by any stretch, and failed every once in a while, but it worked somehow, and that had to be good enough.
In broad terms, she made it a rule not to focus on any of the fragments, or go into any detail, in order to keep any of them from sticking atop of her consciousness. To do that, each bubble she categorised, colour-coded and directed to its own neat little spot in an endless library at the back of her mind. Sometimes, the bubbling fragments were terribly curious. Those she wrote down in a squared notebook she carried around, or, if the notebook was too far, on her hands. It looked quite suave, as far as she was concerned. In general, though, she made sure to stay as disengaged as possible, and keep clear the space at the forefront of her mind, where she placed the library entrance. Truth be told, she never managed to shut the entrance door fully. But maybe one day? If she were ever to succeed, she needed all the discipline she could muster.
Which was why she cherished the simplicity and reliability of the routine she had created for herself. Waking up at the dawn or shortly after. Brewing and slowly drinking hot coffee; taking a brisk stroll through dewy grass; tending to the flowers in her small but lively garden, exchanging with them compliments and jokes. Eating a simple breakfast, mainly fruit she grew herself. Then—stretches of identical minutes, filled with reading, drawing, meditations, and long walks through the moors. She didn’t own any complex appliances, did not have a phone, a TV or a computer. She felt safer without. There was far too much noise in her mind already.
Every now and again a small sum, just enough to sustain her, appeared on the modest bank account, which she had instinctively set up to buy magazine subscriptions and obtain some kind of superficial identity in the town. She didn’t know where the funds, transferred anonymously, came from, and was fine with that. ‘This monetary tribute to normality is the least I can expect from life, considering the chaos in my head,’ she told herself, while explaining to the attorney she’d hired to manage all her legal and financial dealings, that the money was an inheritance, left to her by her Japanese grandmother, the only relative she’d ever known of, who had departed for worlds with better styles long-long time ago. This was the only story she ever used as her go-to cover-up.
And so days went by, one after another. She quickly learned how to take care of plants in the little garden, weave yarn out of random weeds, and make an occasional pot of flower dye to sell at a local market for some extra cash to be spent on a new magazine subscription or a pair of glittery rain boots.
Apart from visiting the bank and the market, she ventured into town rarely, only to do her groceries—the long-standing sort. She grew her own fruit and veg, and the town’s postwoman brought over supply of milk and cheese and other bits and pieces once a week or two, with a fresh magazine delivery.
This house at the edge of the moor, which she just walked up to one day through thigh-high weeds, was a small, cosy affair. Its walls were white, and appeared almost pristine, until one came close enough to see the secret life of the house, gradually revealed. Tiny cracks in whitewash betrayed layers of blue, and then red paint over the stone. The walls, adorned with an ornament of poison ivy, housed a colony of ants, busily trotting up and down. An abandoned sparrow’s nest underneath the grey thatched straw roof was a reminder that the house had had a history before her—the history she could have probably learned if she asked, but she preferred not to, wishing to keep her modest abode a perfect objet trouvé, belonging now to her only.
Inside, past a small hallway, the house constituted of just one room with large, square windows overlooking the garden, and broad windowsills, ideal for drinking tea, reading, or just staring at the moors. The floor of lightened wood, worn by time, caught patches of sun, its warm coarse boards inviting to walk on with bare feet and take photographs of toes, roll in the sun, or throw a bunch of cushions and sit there, drawing for hours.
The house and adjacent garden faced east so that the plants got the most out of light hours. Mornings here were bright and warm. Days lingered long, yet were always snipped off suddenly, unexpectedly, without the sense of gradual fading away: as soon as the sun crossed the sky, it quickly descended to its nocturnal residence behind the town, as if in a rush not to be held back here, over this peacefully monotonous spec of human life, facing wilderness, now left on its own in the darkness.
She enjoyed working in the garden in a dress she’d found inside the single closet, when she had just arrived. The dress was one of the very few items, remaining from past inhabitants, and she liked to think of it as a welcome gift to her. Plain, roomy and breezy, with long straps to tie the simple cuts of material, softened by numerous wears in its previous life, the dress was a beautiful summer wear equation with plenty of space to move, and minimal fuss. The fabric bore marks of long faded plants, bee pollen, traces of years, weathers, and tiny mysteries of gardening, which rendered the garment even more attractive to her. There was no need to be too careful with the dress, which made the loose fabric, upgraded only with the bare necessity of pockets, an even more indispensable piece of attire. She liked it so much that she made a couple more versions for home and moorland. ‘No point in wasting a good design,’ she thought.
The fact that the dress went especially well with her glittery rain boots and a massive, bitey cable knit sweater, picked up, respectively, from a kiddy store section, and the local second-hand shop, made it all the more revered in her eyes. Wearing the dress, she could imagine how the girls in her favourite magazines or some of the nicer bubbles from her unruly mind library must feel. Those girls who smile happily, running through the fields, their hair, flying in the wind, catching glimpses of slowly setting sun; the girls awaited by others, with lives sorted out in a way completely opposite from her own, being easy, easy and non-contrived, effortless, like faded photographs or Impressionist paintings.
Every once in a while she ventured out into the moorland. A narrow, barely discernible path lead from the gate in the short wooden fence, decked out in flowers, right into the whirlpool of tall, assertive grasses.
Usually, she brought along a square picnic basket, picked up at the local market. The basket was sturdy and roomy, woven of seven types of wicker, and lined with hand-crochet lace—the town’s staple product—that gave the basket a charming, treasure box type of appeal. Normally she used the basket to stored art supplies, but on days when a visit to the moorland was planned, she replaced paints and paper with fruits, and bread, baked for the occasion. Along went a book or two, her current journal and to top it all off a plaid blanket, again, from the market.
To properly explore, she enjoyed setting out early, when the night chill had just subsided, but its presence was still sensible. She took a special pleasure in feeling the air gradually getting warmer, filling up with baffling sonic variety of awakening land.
Just like her house, the moorland could appear empty to an untrained eye. It contained secrets soft and cosy, like old charades. All kinds of insects with immaculately designed shiny covers, bending minuscule blades of grass under their weight—an image, which she was to translate about into an intricate piece of jewellery. Preoccupied groups of field mice, hurriedly running important errands. Mole holes, leading to underground tunnels of homes, storage and entertainment spaces for resident and travelling rodents. Her favourite bit was to stretch out in the weeds on the blanket and watch these miniature lives unfold. The little creatures seemed to be exactly where they belonged, doing what they were meant to. That was quite reassuring.
No matter what, she never stayed out in the moorland after dusk. It was clear that she must be back in her garden before the last golden glow of day had faded away. A whole different life began in the moors after dark. Stories were told that as night fell, the grasses rustled under white shadows, rising above the wolds. The shadows were said to have their own songs, too—if it was possible to call them such, with only a few hollow, prolonged, unfinished notes; the songs of longing and loss, meditation on despair. More than once late-night travellers came to town shaking with fear, with a few extra grey hairs on their heads. What those white apparitions were—ghosts, phantoms, or lost souls—and how they appeared in the moorland, no one knew. It was even more surprising that this type of phenomenon could occur so close to the peaceful and quiet town, with no history of wars, diseases or disturbing incidents of any kind to speak of.
Probably the proximity to the moorland was the reason why the house she now occupied had been abandoned. Nobody from the town was foolish enough to settle down so close to the wild grasses, with the forest rising up in the distance, always dark, dark, dark. She, however, didn’t care much for the stories. Small-town folk, what do they know of scary, she sneered silently. She had her own fears, quite far off from the terrors of this town. She herself had never seen, nor heard anything in the moors. Perhaps she, an outsider, was immune to the common experience of the townsfolk with their shared history, and safe in her terrors, which did not blend with theirs.
She usually went to bed early to avoid darkness as much as possible, and to be sure that she was awake with the first rays of sun. Sometimes, however, she could not resist the temptation of breaking her schedule to get up in the middle of the night and walk out into the garden.
There she watched the stars far up in the sky, shining down on her with their piercing, ice-cold rays. Those nights, however, were few. The stars in the sky above her, though harmless, brought back the images of those other ones, ferocious fire flowers, about to devour her, so that all to be left behind was shimmering ash, the dust of life. The stars that arose once she closed her eyelids were too alluring in their opalescent fury, a picture of disturbing beauty.
That’s why she dared to look at the faraway stars high up in the sky only in autumn, and only on those extra chilled, crisp and clear nights that smell of burnt wood; the nights, pure and calm caress of which could cool the most unbeatable of fires. Autumn was migration period, the time that some call fall, attributing it to the descending leaves. But she knew that the term referred to stars that leave their cosmic nests by dozens, hundreds, thousands, and shoot across the sky, desperately and intently. Those were tiny star people that travelled through light years and dimensions and fell into deep, dark woods on thick, colourful blankets of leaves, prepared especially for star people to safely land on. There, reverse causality for you.
Probably, it could have also been possible for her to catch star people in her palms and keep them in an empty jar to light up the hallway. But why would she? Star people could get attached and forget that they undertook perilous journeys in order to be transformed into legible occupants of their final destinations, and then polish professionally, as only bright, spotless star people could, grainy karmas of assigned planets. If happened, that would have been wrong. And, anyways, who was she to meddle with the works of things?
On some nights she spent hours at a time getting lost in shimmering darkness above, memorising combinations of stars, trying to figure out how much they see and know. Those were the nights. The mornings after were akin to hangover, her head heavy with starlight. Yet, she loved it.
Apart from those nights and an occasional visit from the postwoman, her days always stayed the same. She supposed that she could have visited the town more regularly, supposed she could have gotten a job at a local café or lace workshop or library, but she never had. The very notion was uncomfortable.
She never felt terribly at ease with other people, those whose memories were intact, and lives connected. She knew they could sense it. What do you answer if someone asks, say, where is your family, or where do you come from, but you just don’t know? And not only that, but you also don’t care, because fishing the correct answer out of an endless sea of possibilities is a task for an Einstein of sorts. In these matters she was hardly an Einstein. Naturally, she could have made up stories, or picked some of those fragments buzzing in her head, or simply lied, but that would have complicated things, and complexity was way low on her list of priorities. She was unanchored, and tried her best to keep her mind untroubled, and her spirit free, like the wind over the moors.
But there was a bit more to it. She had a pet peeve: unresolved lives. Looking at people, she could in a split second identify what they were meant to be. She wondered sometimes, whether she had a talent of, like, tuning an instrument of a person to help them play the melody of their true selves. She noticed those with clearly unrecognised tunes, and those that could only master the chorus, and those with brilliant and loose sequences of chords, fading into obscurity without purpose or resolution. Sometimes it was sad to see, sometimes cringeworthy. Occasionally, she came across those who had mastered their tunes, like the post-woman. But since she made a conscious effort to limit her social circle and had never been anywhere apart from this town and the moors, such mavericks were usually out of her sight.
In her logic, those without interference (unlike herself) should have been able to perfectly perform their life-melodies, easy as a pie. Yet, the more she observed what it was like for others to be alive, even in her limited and disconnected existence, the more she realised how disproportionately high was the percentage of life-melodies never to be formalized into appropriate notes in sync with the general symphony. Some clearly had no ear for it. Others picked wrong melodies. Others tried writing their own but didn’t have the skills. In most cases it was either one of these scenarios or the lack of interest in different, possibly more appropriate genres. And so she wondered whether there was a profession she could take up, akin to a soul conductor, to give svelte and sound direction to ensure that every tune was developed to its logical conclusion, every note was hit right, and complete, effortless melodies of life would be revealed, fluttering away into the boundless space, showing off the great deed of perfection far and wide across distant galaxies.
Such occupation would have been an easy choice for her. With all those random, ridiculous, confused, fluttering, opaque fragments in her mind, she could pick and choose the already-played melodies and jot them down to apply to the characters coming her way. If she was on it, she could have become very successful. But of course, for isn’t everyone just a fuzzy projection of their initial wholesomeness, seeking to live out the memories of ideal selves? That is to say, everyone apart from her, as, obviously, her memories weren’t her own. But such lack of bias made her even better qualified for the job. She could have been very successful indeed—but she hadn’t pursued that path. She wasn’t able to answer why, exactly. Maybe the idea of orchestrating others’ lives was against her notion of freedom. Or maybe, because to her, people were weird—at least those she came across here. They lived by fictional rules, most of which came down to the following: work should be structured, relationships flowing. Or something along those lines. And she could not imagine them accepting the notion that sometimes one has to toss adopted randomness aside to follow the true path.
Adopted randomness is difficult. Once planted, it grows exponentially, becoming an integral part of one’s life, and then their very self, occupying the space, otherwise allotted for what in common language is referred to as ‘destiny’. Observing the people she met, and going through myriads of rampaging fragments in her mind, she eventually began to see it as obvious that cutting out adopted randomness for most is equally, if not more, painful than coming to terms with the acceptance of giving up on their dreams once and for all. To her, dreams were indicators, note sheets from which to play the melody of one’s life, experimenting with chords and tempo. Naturally, there was a specific set of such sheets for every singularity, and recognising the correct combination for each particular life would have been a rare and precious skill to master and share, but she rather wouldn’t, and so she didn’t. Perhaps she just could not convince herself that the method of repeated knowledge, if applied to life, would have been correct under the universally accepted limitation of obligatory uniqueness. Or perhaps, quite simply, such a job would have been a bit too much human interaction for her taste.
Her take on the whole thing was something like this:
She saw human souls as shiny, pulsating loops of energy, moving in wave-like scenarios. Coming together, they enhanced each other, increasing mutual radiance by doubles or triples, if they vibrated in the same rhythm and frequency. Yet when these loops moved in discord, their shine diminished, by the laws of wave interference. And so she often wondered what could have happened if she sought out those with similar wavelengths. The thing was, as with many theories, she found it hard to apply to practice. Mainly because she longed for unity, but as of yet, her experience with unity had been quite terrifying; and even though she could study all she wished for about human nature in her messy library of memories, she hardly knew anything about herself. Therefore, it was hard to tell whether those with similar wavelengths to hers would come along that often—or ever. ‘In the end, though, isn’t struggle supposed to make one feel?’ she thought sometimes, considering the possible hidden potential of her situation. Nonetheless, she preferred to keep her borders. She probably did not need to; she probably could have taken a different approach and be more plugged into life. But that wasn’t it. Shifting perspectives was not hard. The hard part was believing that a shifted perspective would actually bring her into the reality of which she was just an observer. She was too keenly aware that most things appeared more important than they were, and that the unimportant could all of a sudden mean too much. Yet in relation to herself she never seemed to get a grasp of the unimportant and the important, probably because of all the interference in her mind. She suspected that if vocalised, such lack of regular definition could be seen it as a defect of sorts, which could have made her life harder, and she did not care for it. She had reasons to keep her distance, to be sure.
Even though she avoided society, she was hardly lonely: that would have not been a joyful existence. She had plenty of company when she needed it.
Several times a week she’d hear a klaxon, honking from afar. That was the postwoman on her spotless red bicycle, greeting the day. The postwoman brought her fresh magazines, books from the town’s library, and some foods.
She liked the postwoman’s friendly smile, neatly brushed hair, sharp white blouse, offset by a narrow tie, and stylishly sleek navy uniform with a pleated skirt, always immaculately wrinkle-free, despite long bicycle rides, heavy cross-body bag full of mail, and changeable weather conditions. Truth be told, though, it was inescapably a sunny morning whenever the postwoman visited, as if she had a talent for pushing the clouds out of her route. Otherwise it could rain, and she would not be able to deliver in a timely manner to the town residents and nearby villages their hopes, frustrations, excitement, pain, and whatever else came in those envelopes. No wonder the postwoman was most loved amongst the townsfolk.
For whichever reason, the postwoman liked her, and she liked the postwoman. They just kind of clicked right away, and enjoyed each other’s company. The postwoman knew nothing about her beyond the surface, but that mattered not. They didn’t need to go into much detail to have a certain kind of unspoken understanding. And perhaps this friendship was the reason why she, herself, was on a reasonably all right stand with the town, despite being an outsider, who never made the slightest bit of effort to become a part of its well-tempered life.
With the postwoman she shared her plans, project ideas, and homemade jam. In return she got warm conversation and latest town news. It was generally going to be a good day if it started with the visit of the postwoman. First of all, it was hardly possible for her to receive any bad-news mail; and she loved the freshly printed and snugly packaged subscription magazines from the remote capital, with their matte covers and colourful pages. Sometimes the postwoman stayed for a cuppa tea and some biscuits, and then they talked about the moorland and the wall of forest behind it.
‘I would love to go cycling through the forest, but it’s not really for me. One must have a very good reason go all the way to that forest. There are all kinds of things in it,’ said the postwoman once.
‘What kinds of things?’ she asked.
‘I am not sure,’ answered the postwoman. ‘Dangerous kinds. When I was little, my mother used to tell me that the forest is for those brave of heart; it’s old and dark and full of monsters. Neither she nor anyone in my family had ever been to the forest, but when I was very young I always thought that I would go as soon as I grew up. And when I did grow up I couldn’t muster up the courage anymore. That’s just how it goes, I guess. It taught me not to wait too long.’
Clearly, the forest was just a metaphor.
Sometimes, the postwoman read out lost letters: the ones with wrong or indecipherable addresses, or those whose addressees had left without mail forwarding notes. It was the postwoman’s dream to arrange some of her favourites and publish them in a beautifully bound book. The letters contained a whole other world, lost in transit, composed of extracts of lives which had a very tangible realness to them, yet were nothing more than snippets of writing. She found weird fascination in how similar in concept, yet how different in content those fluttering fractions were from the disjointed, random snatches cluttering her own mind.
One of such undeliverables she had asked to keep. It was meant for someone who’d moved out a long while ago without any forwarding address. Neither the letter’s point of origin, nor sender’s name were mentioned on the envelope. It went like this:
When this letter reaches you, I will most likely be gone. There are places out there, which I have not yet explored, and I need to see each and every one of them. I wish I could have stayed with you, and wish I could come back. But you know that it’s not possible. The only remedy I know of is to keep moving, and so, this is the only thing I can do for now. But never mind, you know it all too well. I just wanted to make sure you realised that I’m as okay as I can be. Maybe one day we will meet again. I hope and prey for this. Don’t forget to check the sky every once in a while. The telescope is on the roof. The blue, flickering star will be me, watching after you, sending you my love. I’ve paid for milk delivery for a year in advance, and stocked up on warm socks for you. Check the upper left drawer. Please take care.
P.S. Guess where I am now?”
The letter was written on the back of a blurry photograph, not much more than a snapshot, taken in an apparent haste, of a platform of some sort, set amidst open blue water. Lens flares and sun flickers made it nearly impossible to make out the details of what the photo actually showed. She imagined the structure was the base of a quantum laboratory, or an airfield, or a military base. She thought she’d probably never know what it actually was. The postwoman saw no harm in her keeping the letter, and so she hung on to it, using the photograph as a bookmark.
The postwoman was not her only pal. Apart from this congenial lady and the stars on brisk autumn nights—her enchanting seasonal confidantes—she had the garden plants to talk to. She conversed with them whenever she needed advice, perspective, or a just a plain old rant. With the slow, nearly suspended pace of her life she did not need much, and meticulously avoided anything that could disrupt its rickety harmony, so plants were the perfect companions: always present for her, never forthcoming with strangers.
The time to get them at their best was in late spring or early summer, just after dawn, when the first rays of sun touched softly blushing, misty petals, not yet fully prepared for the waking hours, during their daily dew-bathing ritual. That was another reason for her early starts: she would bring a pot of hot coffee out into the garden, take a few deep breaths of sweet air, tinted with the bitter-warm scent of the freshly made beverage, and talk it out with the plants.
She enjoyed the frivolous chatter of bellflowers, the clueless charm of lavender, the cool wit of geranium, and the delicate sweetness of hydrangea. She liked her flowers in shades of blue, the layers of petals almost like a wave of sea she’d seen on pictures in magazines.
When she really needed an insight, she always turned to the wisest conversant in the garden—poison ivy, lining the walls of her tiny dwelling. Poison ivy was a loner, like herself, and just as uninvolved; enough to have the type of understanding none of her other petalled companions could offer. The realness of its perspective was refreshing, at times almost a bit too much so, and the rattle of its leaves was marked by dry straightforwardness of lived experience. She felt that if she ever messed up, the ivy would know better not to judge her.
Her ultimate floral crush, however, was artemisia stelleriana, which she nicked one day from a distant neighbours’ flowerbed and planted at the farther edge of the garden. Even though artemisia usually kept quiet, she always felt at ease in the presence of its nearly monochrome leaves with their ghostly, unreadable elegance—the epitomes she wished she could apply to herself.
And then, of course, there was her Japanese grandma, the one she used in her go-to cover-up story. She enjoyed having this character in mind for the times when she could use a wise and soothing advise, or a tip on good tea making. The Japanese grandma always had the best ideas and coolest puns. She imagined the face, brown of age and marked with lines of all grandmotherly adventures, brightened up by cunning, smiling eyes.
Her Japanese grandmother had lived, and then some. Groomed to become a geisha, she fell in love with a young blue-haired yakuza, got a Seiryu dragon tattoo along her spine, and left her okiya to aid her beloved with dealing opium in Shanghai, China. When the young blue-haired yakuza was ruthlessly slashed to death in a gang fight, thus never to return to their opium den, the warm home she had created for their fearless little family, the Japanese grandma gave up the trade, grabbed all the cash and jewels she could lay her petite manicured hands on, and left for mountainous landscapes deep in rural China. There she established a private nature park type of resort with all kinds of creatures, which she researched, traced down, and imported from all over the world. She soon became so good at it that the fame of rare and exotic specimen, running wild through spacious stretches of ferns, bamboo and pine trees, spread far and wide. Grandma started receiving inquiries about some of the particularly remarkable samples, and, following her heart’s calling, set up a marginally legal trade, breeding beasts of the most awe-inspiring kind, and selling them off to private collectors.
As much as she was revered for her ingenious skills in unnatural selection, the grandma was admired for the impeccable taste she had been gifted with (and which served her well in cross-breeding seemingly unpairable species to the most fascinating effect). Elegant adornments of the resort’s hotel, located on park grounds—a fine sample of Tang Dynasty architecture, with its extensive library of antique books on flora and fauna and artful tea ceremonies—were second to none.
Gran’s ultra-sophisticated receptions attracted the most illustrious and refined teafiles across the seven seas. The festivities, choreographed to perfection by French ceremony masters, were serviced by runaway geishas, caringly sheltered and nurtured by the grandma for her own purposes. Their training was polished by Sohei monks, so that each cup of transparent rosy porcelain was delivered to the beat. The highlight of each ceremony was the animal dance of the newest specimen from grandma’s bestiary, as they brought in tiny plates of gold-dusted red bean soufflés and coin-sized sandwiches to the lacquered tea tables, surrounded by guests, lingering on hand-woven silk cushions.
The rumour (or maybe it was a piece of gossip, carefully planted and masterfully distributed by the gran herself) had it that the vast grounds of the garden, stretching all the way to the mountains, hid caves of immeasurable depths, where species still thrived, otherwise long gone from the surface of the earth. Isolation did wonders to evolution. There was baku, the wonderful creature, trained to sniff out and eliminate nightmares, and used in medical procedures to cure anxieties and rid one of bad memories. There were unicorns of all kinds, proud and ferocious, with fiery manes and bulletproof squamous coats, best fighters in the pack, only surpassed by formidable basilisks, whose eyes were to be covered until their deadly glance was required in a particularly violent battle. The way to the caves was guarded by an invisible yet tangible presence of Á Bao A Qu, sleeping soundly, ready to fence off any offender. It was said that only the grandma could enter those caves as she knew the universal animal language, taught to her by her beloved yakuza, who had it passed on to him from his blue-haired ancestors.
She was fond of the company of her Japanese grandma, growing more and more fond of this illusive relative as the story unfolded, taking on a life of its own, branching out like the tree. The grandma was always calm and cheerful. She always knew exactly what to say. She was one cool gran, and enjoyed refined attires. Her signature garments were nomadic kimonos, woven of the wool of the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary with it nearly supernatural disguise properties, which gran used to escape many an unwanted pursuer. The Japanese grandma paired the kimonos up with multiple layers of protective charms in bright colours, collected during her extensive trade-related journeys, and was a fine, if not actually present, guardian.
…That morning she woke up with a distinct feeling of being okay. She could not put a finger on it just at once, but there it was, tangible, mellow, cocooning her in the warmth of morning haze, jolly golden particles of dust dancing in the sunlight above her. Just like that, everything was right. For a moment she thought that maybe the confused memory bubbles in her mind floated away—but there they were, in their habitual semi-disorder. ‘What could it be?’ she wondered, as she stepped onto the floor and walked to the mirror. She was still herself, the usual, in her fluffy knitted PJs and messy hair.
It had been a while since she’d spoken with God, and she had not thought much about it. Suddenly, a reminder came to her with a breath of fresh air from the open window. She smiled at herself. In God’s place she probably would have been slightly peeved. What was there for her to cry over, really? She fixed herself a coffee, and habitually went to drink it outside in the garden, a radiant tide of purples and blues, rippling quietly.
She watched the sun slowly rise higher and higher over the land; her floral friends stretching their petals out, readying for the day. From a distance, the wind carried over the sound of a klaxon. A minute later, the postwoman showed up, rolling down the hill on the shiny red bicycle, smiling and waving at her.
‘You’ve got mail,’ said the postwoman, as she reached the gate, and handed her an official-looking envelope with a stamp, marking the content as urgent. This was unexpected: never during the time of her residence here had she received any mail besides magazines, let alone an urgent envelope.
The postwoman left quickly, excusing herself with too many deliveries she had lined up on this particularly busy morning. And so she was left one on one with the envelope.
Returning to her coffee, she took a sip, and ripped the edge off the envelope, slowly and neatly. The letter inside was from her attorney, inviting her to meet him at his office at earliest convenience, within working hours.
She went up to town shortly after breakfast. She wore her only marginally official-looking piece of attire: a loose men’s shirt, which she cut, pinned and tucked to transform into something more to her taste. She loved the sensible weave of the cotton fabric, and that particular shade of blue, wearing which is like sporting an offcut of spotless sky, crossed by immaculate white airplane traces of stitch lines. Her outfit was complete with simple strappy sandals and a canvas tote she always took whenever she went to town.
The town today was your regular film still: dreamy, enveloped in the glow of late spring, its streets, a sparkling mesh of dragonfly wings, straying off from the broad central avenue. The avenue, cutting all the way through the town, was quiet, with not a soul in sight at this hour when everyone was busy with work or school or something or other.
She briskly walked to the entrance of the attorney’s office—a small gleaming building, just spacious enough to cover the legal needs of this not grossly overpopulated town, and not very officious looking at all with flowerbeds in front of it. At the front desk she was welcomed by a young clerk she’d never seen before, who showed her to the attorney’s room.
‘Welcome, welcome, miss!’ exclaimed the attorney, as she entered.
The office had not changed since the last time she’d been here. Every corner was overflowing with pictures of kittens. Cat statuettes were on the desk and shelves; leafy catnip rustled quietly in ceramic pots over on the windowsill. Three Scottish fold munchkins in grey, white and mocca were keeping themselves entertained: climbing over chairs and sofa, displaying signs of continuous clawing; chasing a translucent robot mouse; rolling around the floor in places, not yet covered by cat hair. How this setup impacted the attorney’s business amongst clients with cat allergies, she did not know.
The attorney himself was at his finest. The most formal thing about his appearance was the collared white shirt, which he wore underneath a grey sweater with a print of a pink Norwegian forest cat. The attorney’s hair was tied into a topknot, his coiffed moustaches adorned with rhinestone kitten clip-ons. A few years back the attorney had retired from the royal capital to spend his days quietly in this town and restore his nerves after decades of big city bustle, but the spirit of the megalopolis courtly culture still ran through his veins. So much so, in fact, that he could no longer compose an outfit without a touch of pink, and his blood had turned from red to magenta—or so he claimed.
‘Would you care for a cuppa?’ inquired the attorney. She was not in a hurry, and accepted the offer.
Sipping green tea out of an ancient cracked clay bowl, a part of a set the attorney received as a gift from a customer he’d got out of a messy pirate debate, she was all ears.
‘You are probably wondering why I asked you to come here so urgently,’ said the attorney with a big, open smile. ‘So I will get right to it. I have been keeping an important package for you, and was instructed to pass it into your possession on the day amsonia blooms, which happens to be today.’
The announcement came as a surprise.
‘Okay… But, who is the package from, and what is in it?’ she asked, not unreasonably.
‘Regarding this, I was instructed not to disclose any further details. And to be frank, I have not been informed much myself. Of course, you have every right to refuse accepting the package, given the anonymity of the source, but I have been ascertained that there is nothing to worry about. As your legal representative, I would not put you in any kind of danger. I can give out this much, however. The package was passed to me for safekeeping soon after you became my customer by the same entity that set up your monthly payments,’ elucidated the attorney.
‘Did you know who was responsible for it all along? And you never told me?’ she was too stunned to be angry.
‘I see how this might be a point of concern, but I have never met them in person, and you specifically wished for no information to be given to you on those matters; whereas the other party involved also requested to hold off familiarizing you with any further details, for reasons which are not known to me. As the situation seemed to suit all sides for the time being, I did not find it appropriate to get more involved than deemed necessary,’ the attorney was all smiles, giving this explanation.
He was quite right. She had never asked for information and, indeed, preferred to stay ignorant of any details on the matter. For the moment all she could do was accept what she had just heard.
‘Hopefully, however, the contents of the package will shine some light on the situation—if, of course, this is what you wish for. So, shall we get to it?’ asked the attorney invitingly.
‘Yes, lets,’ she answered.
‘Very well,’ the attorney’s smile seemed broader than ever. He crossed the room, moved a large oil portrait of a besuited Ocicat away from one of the shelves, revealing an old-school safety deposit box with a shiny wheel handle. Some turns later, the thick metal door opened creaking slightly, a pile of documents behind it. The attorney fished an envelope out of the pile, and handed it to her.
It was a small, puffy manila affair, devoid of address, or name, or any indication of where it came from. No hints here. But somehow, it bore an unmistakable air of significance to her personally.
She opened the envelope. A metal object rolled out on to her palm. Upon closer inspection, the object proved to be a key. A long, slim silver tube, rather unusual in design, with a curious mixture of grooves and holes engraved on it. It was quite unlike any other key she’d ever seen before.
‘What does it open?’ she asked.
‘A box,’ answered the attorney with his signature friendliness. ‘Would you like me to show it to you?’
‘Yes please,’ she replied more willingly than she would have expected from herself.
‘I admire your determination!’ declared the attorney, rising from his chair. ‘Okay then, let’s take a walk to where the box is kept.’
She followed him out, clenching the key tightly in the palm of her right hand. As she was leaving the room, she turned to say goodbye to the munchkins. As she was about to close the door, the grey one winked at her. He had the eyes of God.
She followed the attorney out of the office, and onto a side lane some streets up, to a nondescript looking building. ‘This is where we safekeep all the seriously important stuff,’ announced the attorney. ‘Very few people know about this place, so I have to ask you to keep its location and nature, its very existence, highly confidential.’ She nodded.
They entered through a simple wooden door, behind which emerged another, massive metal door. The attorney opened the latter with a card key. This second door revealed another one, something of a massive motherboard, to unlock which the attorney had to perform a few ninja-worthy code-punching techniques and undergo extensive identity checks, including vigorous retina scanning and fingerprint reading. She wondered whether their small town really needed such high security, but enjoyed the performance nonetheless.
When the door finally and somewhat reluctantly decided to let them in, they found themselves in a hall, which appeared much larger than she imagined the building could accommodate. Its walls were lined top to bottom with rows of metal safekeeping boxes, shining quietly in the rays of sun, which entered the building through narrow windows right below the ceiling.
‘Which one is mine?’ she asked.
‘Oh, yours is none of these,’ declared the attorney, somewhat triumphantly. ‘This is child’s play compared with the security around where your package is. The request was to keep the package at the highest level of safety, and so it has been!’
They passed through the hall towards its farther end, where the attorney had to open yet another door, hidden behind a row of shelves. This time they entered a small room, all white, with walls sloping upwards to form an unusual, rounded shape. As soon as they stepped in, the room filled evenly with white light, radiating, it seemed, from every direction. She suddenly felt warm and cosy, as if she was inside of a giant eggshell, with a thin yet sturdy protective layer between her and the outside world.
‘This is the most secure place in the entire town, if not country,’ noted the attorney. ‘I designed this room myself, using the hottest tips and tricks from the capital, and upgraded it with the newest technologies available. You behold state of art safekeeping, right here—in case you ever need to keep something.’
‘Not at the moment, thank you,’ she said. ‘But I am thoroughly impressed indeed.’
‘Shall we get to it then!’ suggested the attorney, apparently overcome with excitement. She nodded, silently. She was surprised to discover that her heart was pounding away a thousand miles an hour. She realised that, despite herself, she, too, was getting rather excited.
There were no shelves to be seen in the room, but the attorney knew exactly what he was doing. He went up to the wall, knocked with his knuckles a few times what sounded like a musical pattern, and whistled in low tones a short and catchy melody. Immediately, a hidden panel slid open sideways, revealing a brightly lit shelf.
‘There we go!’ said the attorney, his beaming smile almost outshining the light, filling the room.
She went over, cautiously, measuring the length of each step, the sound of her heartbeat reverberating in the arched space. The attorney surely knew how to build up suspense.
Inside the shelf was a box. A perfect cube made of some sort of grey wood.
‘Is this it?’ she asked.
‘Yes, this is what I was instructed to present to you on the day amsonia blooms,’ confirmed the attorney.
‘You say it’s not dangerous, but why is it stored here? And are you aware of the contents of the box?’ she asked.
‘In general terms, yes,’ answered the attorney. ‘I was instructed to store it in the most secure place, which is here, and I can assure you that it bears no immediate danger.’
She was not fully satisfied with the answer, but oh well, she was already here, and the box appeared harmless. If anything, it would fit nicely in the living room and come it handy for storing knick-knacks.
‘I will be taking it, thank you,’ she said.
‘Perfect!’ exclaimed the beaming attorney. ‘Would you like to open it now?’
She paused for a moment to think about it.
‘Not here,’ she responded. She wanted to give herself some time to reconsider.
‘Very well, miss,’ said the attorney cheerfully, his smile as broad as ever.
She smiled back, put the key she still had in her hand in her tote, and carefully took the box out. It was not as heavy as she imagined, and very smooth to the touch. By weight or sound she found it difficult to guess what was inside. She placed the box in the tote. It was just about the right size to fit in.
The attorney clapped his hands three times, and whistled the melody from before in reverse, which caused the open panel to slide back, and the light inside the eggshell room to fade. They made their way back through the long hallway and triple doors onto the street, seemingly transformed. It was still the same lane, with the same houses, and tree shadows, and birds, now somehow all looking like a setting of an animated picture. Then again, in her world, what wasn’t? Images of ice cream melting out of the cone onto the fingers—sugary pastels of happiness she’d never experienced—flashed through her mind. She shrugged those off, trying to concentrate on the present, and followed the attorney over to the main alley.
‘Would you perhaps prefer to go back to my office and examine the contents of the package there?’ suggested the attorney.
‘Thank you very much, but I think I’ll be making my way back now,’ was her response.
‘As you wish, miss!’ grinned the attorney, his white teeth glittering in the sun, his topknot about to split into two of joy. ‘Good luck!’
They said their goodbyes and parted like friends. She liked the attorney, and particularly admired the uncanny power of his facial muscles, allowing him to keep on smiling the way he did. She would never be able to keep up with him in terms of smiles, even if she tried.
‘What a lovely town this actually is,’ she thought to herself, hurrying down the street. She was tempted to stop by a café for a frozen latte and a coffee-table perspective, but decided against it. What would be the point of backing out now, when she had already accepted the box into her possession? It probably wasn’t anything much anyways. Yet, who was it who’d left it for her, and why all the secrecy and super-secure eggshell rooms? Such were the thought that preoccupied her all the way to her tiny house. She hardly noticed how feet carried her down the road, winding down through green fields, tall weeds, tangled bushes ringing with bird songs, all green and sparkling in the glow of the afternoon, waving their twigs towards her. The incident was so amusing that for a brief time it almost wiped out the mess in her mind, overtaking the perpetual semi-confusion she’d grown accustomed to.
She reached her house when the sun was still high up in the sky, but the day was already winding down. She wondered whether it would be wiser to open the package in the garden or inside, and decided on staying in. She wanted to do it by herself, unobserved by any witnesses, not even the flowers. She was curious to find out what was inside the box and what was the meaning of this whole affair, mainly because nothing of the kind had ever happened to her, and was least expected.
Without further ado, she took the box out of the tote and set it on the low table by the sofa, across from the empty fireplace. In her bare room, the box suddenly became a point of order, punctuating the system of lines and angles of the walls, ceiling, floor, and few basic pieces of furniture she owned. The whole scene was a great study in composition, and she couldn’t resist the temptation of taking a photo of it. Keeping one eye on the box, she fixed herself some tea, and took a sip, then put the cup next to the box. Inhaling enough air to get the excitement down slightly, she drew the key out of the tote.
It took her a moment to find the keyhole. Finally, she noticed a small opening in one of the corners of the cube. She ran her hand over the satiny matte wood, which felt soothing under her fingers, and tried the key. It fit flawlessly. She turned the key, and almost jumped up at the barely discernible sound of a click—up to the last moment she was certain that the whole thing wouldn’t work. Yet, everything turned out to be perfectly functional. She kind of wished this type of order could be applied to her mind. Strange memories of moonlit landscapes and coming of age parties raced through her mind, framing her perception.
She took another sip of tea, and lifted the lid. It came off easily, in the most ordinary way, hardly more exciting than opening a shoebox. That startled her nearly as much as the fact that the key had actually worked. By now she was almost expecting light to gush out upon the opening, or some kind of similar dramatic effect. ‘So far, so good,’ she said to herself, and looked inside the box.
Its contents constituted of an envelope, placed on top of folded textile. She took both of the items out, and set the envelope aside. She always had an affinity for fabrics, and was keen to examine the material first. It was woven of hefty yet soft wool, and felt old and faded, its colour akin to the shades of ash, or fallen leaves, catching deep-night starlight. Some parts bore embroidery of tiny, accurate stitches, at times resembling an ornament, at times just running across the fabric without any apparent purpose. Precise as the stitches were, there was no mistake that the work had been done by hand. Or hands, perhaps, as some bits of the embroidery seemed older, with thread darkened by time and wear, and some appeared much more recent. Carefully, she unfolded the material. It draped over her knees, wrapping her in warmth. She saw now that she was holding was a coat. Long and loose, with broad sleeves and panelled collar. The stitching she noticed earlier formed shapes and patterns. ‘How old must it be?’ she wondered, stroking the coat, asleep on her knees.
Taken by the garment, she nearly forgot about the envelope on the table, and only noticed it again when she reached for another sip of lukewarm tea. Today was the day of envelopes all right.
‘Let’s have a look at this,’ she addressed the coat. The coat was silent, which she took a sign of consent.
The envelope, too, was old, and plain, its sturdy paper once white, by now a bit yellowed by time. It bore no embellishments or inscriptions, just a wax stamp with a barely discernible monogram formed of two curved lines. She’d never come across this sign before, but its outline had certain serenity to it, which she could relate to on some basic level. Anxious not to damage the paper, she went over to the desk and took out a paper knife, which she vaguely remembered she saw in one of the drawers when she had just moved in. She couldn’t help but thinking how funny it was that this item, which had never seen the light of day through all the time she’d spent here, would be of use now.
She slashed open the flap of the envelope quickly and precisely, and found inside several folded sheets of paper of the same make and quality, filled with neat, if obviously calligraphed, writing. She took some more sips of cold tea, and started reading. Birds were singing it off outside. She had to turn on the light, as the sky slowly grew darker and darker, as if the indigo blue of the shadowy forest behind the moorland had bled out onto the velvety celestial dome.
I trust this find you well. This letter has been waiting for you for a long while, and as I am writing it, I wonder when will the time come for you to read it. I also wonder what you will think of it, but I have no doubt that you will be able decide what’s right. You’ve always had the smarts. It runs in the family. Let us see if you have also inherited the recklessness.
You may find it difficult to relate to some of the things I will say in this letter, may even be scandalised by a few, but I ask of you to go with it for now and read on to the end. On my side, I promise to keep the content to a bare minimum to save you from unnecessary musings.
It has so come to be, that some years after you, my dear granddaughter, have entered this world, fate or chaos laid out the circumstances in a way that no one could have predicted. Through times of wanders and searching, after much endeavour, I managed to built a nest for our family in the loveliest of places—a patch of land between mountains and sea, where balmy greens stretch out to the highest of skies, spotlessly blue in summer, painterly with strings of rain in autumn, splendidly sparkling with millions of snow flakes in winter, softly illuminated in spring. Our home was surrounded by the garden, stretching far and wide as eye could see, and tended to by the most revered botanists of all four corners of the earth. It was as precious and refined as a Chinese miniature painting, or a well crafted espresso. It was the decadent hideaway, guilty pleasure of the greatest and the most powerful. I did my best to keep the nature of the garden secret, for I knew full well the dangers of this world, full of envy.
Yet, concealed as it was, the word about splendour and success of our family had reached unfriendly ears and had not been taken well by some, the influence assigned to us through close proximity with the world’s finest bothering more than one mind. As a result, our family had accumulated multiple powerful opponents, who combined their forces to damage my reputation, double-crossing me on every possible occasion. Eventually, we were ostracized and had to go into hiding.
As it stands, you are not aware of all this. We had to temporarily switch off your entire awareness of your previous self by erasing your memory. I will be honest in saying that it was a risk. You may be shocked by it, and I can only imagine how this information must make you feel, but done it must have been for your own safety, and we had your consent. I owe you a detailed explanation of the circumstances, and you shall receive it upon our reunion. For now, however, I must ask you to bear with me.
You may have found the life you had to live up until now too plain and simple for your liking, and may have felt yourself to be in a wrong place. This is not an uncommon feeling for one of our kind, and it should serve you as a proof of where you truly belong. We are adventurers, explorers, the type, they say, descending from the titans of Atlantis, but more on this when we see each other next. What is important now is that you hold on to this feeling, as it will guide you home.
If my calculations prove correct, when you receive this letter, the time should be about right to make a move, and this move is yours. Your fortune reads wonders. Perhaps you have already noticed something unusual in your destiny. But in order to piece it all together, we must be reunited. For mutual protection, I cannot give you any precise instructions. However, I have faith in you to find the way. It has all been laid out for you.
The only directions I can give you are these.
You must leave immediately upon reading this letter. You must make your way discreetly. Avoid big roads, cities, anything or anyone that may lead you astray. Destroy the letter and do not talk to anyone of what you read here. Make sure to wear the coat—it and your natural cunningness are your best protection. Make sure to take with you the key to the box that you received the coat and this letter in, as it will come in handy.
The meeting point is the secret entrance to the grounds of our glorious former home, and you must reach it in exactly a year from now, on the day amsonia blossoms.
Now, the decision is yours, and I trust you to make the right one.
I shall see you then.
She put the letter aside. What was this supposed to mean? Was it a joke? How can something like this be real? A grandma? A garden? This was in her imagination, and she never told anyone the details of the story in her mind. The one she used as her default cover-up when needed was a very basic statement about a grandmother. But how could she have come up with the details? Could it be that she somehow reconstructed the erased memories into a coherent narrative? That is, of course, under the premise that what the letter said was true? Or had her imagination given birth to some warped reality? And was that even possible? Who were the enemies the grandma, if the author of the letter was, indeed, her grandma, referred to? What was the danger to her? How could they possibly erase her memories? And would she give consent to something like this? She must have been very stupid when she was younger. Now that the box was open, and letter read, what was there for her to do? The letter said it was time for her to reunite with her family, but there was no mention of any family other than grandmother. True that she had never thought of including any other relatives in the story she’d been making up in her mind. But why did the letter say nothing about them? Who were they? And if her own memories had been switched off, where had all those other memories and images come from? Questions were endless. For a moment, it all became too much. She closed her eyes, and, ignoring the gushing fragments of lives, now clearly not hers, tried to steady her breath and focus. Enormous, terrifying stars were stretching their petals towards her, burning away all other images. She opened her eyes.
The easiest solution would be to speak to the attorney. But it was too late to go back to town now, and she would never catch him before the closing hour. For the first time she regretted not having a phone.
- I guess it’s me on my own with this today, - she said out loud.
She looked around. The coat was still there on her knees, the envelope still in her hand, both tangible and real. She ran her fingers over the coat once again, then picked it up, and held it, feeling the weight of the fabric. Rough, heavy wool had a certain grounded quality to it. She put the coat on. Perhaps it was just her imagination popping a placebo, but she instantly felt better. The coat is protection, said the letter. She walked over to the mirror. The garment fit her perfectly, its length just right, its loose folds creating a warm shield, its stitches leading to the life not known yet the one she was keen to discover. She twirled a couple of times, the fabric following her movement, sweeping her into a tide of excitement.
She stepped outside. Amongst other flowers, tiny amsonia blossoms greeted her, fragile reflections of bright stars up above. She thought how she’d never paid much attention to them. The sky was taller than usual. She sat on her garden chair for a while, conversing with the flowers. They offered no opinions, but their quiet whisper soothed her. Hours went by.
Stars changed their positions in the sky, geometrically precise metaphors of creatures and objects, unconcerned with her worries, leisurely rolling around celestial sphere.
She was cosy and warm in her creaky rocking chair. Why would she possibly leave? Yes, she did not have any connection to this place, no family or close friends, but now that it came to this, she was realising how spoiled she’d been by her life here. She wasn’t bothered by anybody, and had everything she needed. Moreover, she was discovering that in her own way she was happy. A restless, contrived, happiness, but happiness nonetheless. And that was worth a lot in her eyes.
At the same time, she could not say for a fact whether her life would have been so comfortingly simple without the messy memory bubbles in her head. She strived to keep her existence as uncomplicated and low profile as possible in order to stay stable and sane. But was it a great fit for her?
She tried to focus on what she knew to be facts. She hadn’t any recollection of her previous life—again, under the premise that what the letter said was true. Yet, under the same premise, she had somehow constructed a perfect mental image of a life, which she would have had if she were to choose one. She had no idea whether it was a projected ideal, or rebuilt knowledge. She did not know where all the fragmented, disjointed, yet such vivid memories, now occupying her mind, came from, or how she could be freed from them, and her own memory reinstated. Surely, clarity would be nice.
The sound of bird’s chitter interrupted her ponderings. She had never stayed out in the garden this late at night at this time of the year. She was safe here, but being exposed to raw, unhinged darkness, which the light in her tiny house had nothing on, made her feel uneasy. She wrapped the coat around herself tighter, and looked over at the moorland. Everything was quiet. Quiet and dark. By now, even the stars were gone, hidden behind a layer of clouds. The only lighter spot over the forest betrayed the location of the moon. She quickly went back inside, and locked the door. She then took off the coat, folded it neatly, and placed it next to her pillow, together with the letter and the key. Slowly, she brushed her teeth, changed into her knitted pyjamas, and crawled under the blanket. She was hoping that a good night’s rest would give her some sort of idea of what to do next. Sleep came reluctantly, shallow and unsatisfying. Tried as she might, she did not have any dreams that night.
In the morning it rained. She woke up later than usual, and was surprised to see that it was nearly noon. The day looked soulless and grey. She was unimpressed. As much as she generally enjoyed rain, that was not the weather she would have expected for an important time like this. There were no clean, fresh colours of the morning, and even the plants looked weary.
She wasn’t keen on getting out of the house, but told herself she’d better. She threw on the shirt from the day before, and her grey-day favourite: slightly cropped hakama-style trousers, pleated out of butter-soft wool, with a fitted belt and plenty of swoosh. The trousers, made to order for her by the town’s tailor, combined fine craftsmanship with comfort and ease, and thus were rather suitable for the take-control type of situation she found herself in.
Running up the muddy road in her shiny rain boots, she realised that it was probably the first time they’d seen actual mud, a water baptism of sorts. She smiled. Somehow, being outside lifted her spirits.
Upon reaching the town, she headed straight for the attorney’s office. The same young clerk from the day before was at the reception. She asked if she could see the attorney real quick.
‘I’m afraid he is not in,’ said the clerk apologetically. ‘He left on holiday yesterday and won’t be back for a few weeks, maybe months. He took a sabbatical and said was going travelling.’
That piece of news came out of the blue. If the attorney was going away, why had he not mentioned anything to her? Yes, she did not require his services regularly, but was it not common courtesy to at least let her know? She asked the clerk just that.
‘He must have sent you a notification via post, as he usually does,’ answered the clerk. ‘He sometimes forgets about things like this until the last moment, and I have to remind him.’
Maybe the clerk was right. She had no way of knowing.
‘Is there any possibility of contacting him?’ she asked, annoyed that with all the commotion yesterday it hadn’t crossed her mind last night to ask the distant neighbours to use their phone.
‘We can try,’ said the clerk, reaching for a massive phone book in matte black cover to look up the number. She tapped her foot as he dialled.
There was a moment of silence as they waited for the attorney to pick up. Then, another moment. And another. She could hear the rings on the opposite end of the line, and grew more and more anxious with each one, as she peered at the clerk, holding the receiver. For the first time since their initial encounter the day before she paid closer attention to him. He was young and slender, with almost mathematically refined features that made it difficult to describe or remember his face. He was wearing a perfectly ordinary grey shirt and black cardigan. Yet, his slim fingers were laden with massive rings, and his jet-black hair was kept in place by a hairnet.
The clerk held the line a little longer, then hung up.
‘There is a voicemail saying he won’t be reachable for at least the next four weeks,’ he explained. ‘Would you like to write down his out of office number in case you wanted to try later?’
‘Thank you,’ she said, noting down the digits.
No answers for her just yet. Then again, if the attorney knew more, would he not have said something? She would have liked to wait for him to get back from holiday and ask a few more questions, but there was a sense of urgency to this whole business. She wondered who was taking care of the munchkins while the attorney was away. This, however, didn’t seem terribly important for the moment.
She said goodbye to the clerk, quickly left the office building, and headed straight for the bank a block down the street. There, she took all the available funds from her account, briefly mentioning that she was going on a luxury holiday.
She then went over to the bookshop, and purchased a topographical map of the area, a notepad and some pencils. In a sports store she bought a compact sleeping bag and a sturdy waterproof backpack with pockets and flaps, which was big enough for everything she might have needed, and small enough for her to carry, even if packed up to the brim. In a grocery shop she got some basic long-lasting snacks, mainly nuts and crisp bread, and tossed those in the backpack. Finally, she dropped by the post office and bought a pack of envelopes and enough stamps to go a few months, as well as some extra pens and pencils just in case.
As she was leaving, she ran into the postwoman. The postwoman’s uniform was still fresh and tidy, despite the rain. That lady truly had some superpowers.
‘Oh hi there!’ saluted the postwoman, clearly happy to see her. ‘I just dropped off another letter for you, from the office again.’ So apparently the attorney did notify her of his departure. Not that it mattered by now.
‘I will be gone for a while,’ she told the postwoman. ‘But we will have to catch up over tea when I’m back!’ Whenever that might be, she thought with unexpected sadness.
‘Oh, that’s sudden! It doesn’t have anything to do with yesterday’s mail, does it?’ asked the post woman.
She considered what to answer, then said:
‘Yes, I received an invitation to stay over from an old friend, who now lives by the sea, so I will go for a change of scenery.’
‘That sounds lovely,’ smiled the postwoman. ‘You’ve always wanted to visit the sea. Well, do take care, and send me some holiday pictures. Oh, and if you might need it, please take this,’ the postwoman reached into her pocket and took out a compass—she’d seen the postwoman use it on occasion. ‘I always carry it around just in case I need to deliver the post a bit farther out, and so far it has never failed. I took really good care of it, so it is very precise,’ said the postwoman. ‘And no, don’t worry about it, I have another one, so take it as a traveller’s lucky charm!’
She took the compass. It was quite heavy for its small size, and fit snugly in her palm. With a clean white face, framed by basic direction signs, a wind rose, and a sharp hand, it was a fascinating object, and could come in quite handy. She thanked the postwoman for her thoughtful gift, touched by her kindness. They hugged goodbyes. So, she was leaving.
She hurried back to her house down the muddy road, the sky above her slowly clearing up. Something, somewhere was set into motion. The delicate balance of her postcard-friendly world that she had maintained for so long had been tilted once and for all, it seemed. Even so, there was no use giving this much thought right now. It was what it was, and maybe in the end she would manage to bring her mind to order. Right now, specifically, chaotic images inside her head were particularly unpleasant, all dark alleyways and shotguns. She could almost feel the weight of metal in her hand. Or was it just the compass she was holding?
It was nearly four o’clock when she reached home. As she walked through the door, it was clear that her ownership of this place was slowly yet surely diminishing, escaping like air out of a faulty balloon. A little longer, and it would be completely gone. She still had time to prepare for departure: quickly sweep the floor and empty the shelves of any personal items; luckily there weren’t many. The square wooden box, sitting comfortably on the table, she filled with whatever small objects she didn’t have the heart to destroy, but could not take with her; then buried the box in the garden behind the house, making sure to smoothen the ground and cover it with grass and leaves. Not that she was really concerned that someone might discover it, little as there was to discover. It’s just that she liked the idea of leaving no traces.
Into her backpack, she put her dresses, pyjama (she wasn’t about to leave without it!), underwear, socks and a few handkerchiefs; tied sandals to one side of the backpack, and stuck an umbrella in the pocket on the other side. In smaller pockets she packed some basic beauty supplies, a mirror, the topographical map she’d bought, and the paper knife, possibly the sharpest object she could lay her hands on. Into larger pockets went her journals and the photograph with the letter—the one the postwoman let her keep. She took some seeds of her garden plants in tiny vintage boxes she’d been collecting, and packed those too. She tried the backpack on. It was just about the weight she could carry for longer distances. Good. In the picnic basket she threw the blanket and some fruit.
When she was done with packing, she took her time to water the flowers. Then showered, and got dressed: pleated hakama trousers, fishermen sweater, rain boots, which she gave a proper scrub. She put the key to the box onto a thin chain, and hid it under the sweater. Then made tea and took it outside into the garden.
By now, it was getting dark, and the sky had cleared up completely.
Slowly sipping on her tea, she read again the letter from her alleged grandmother, memorising it line by line. It was not the simplest of tasks, as there was not much memory space left in her mind with everything else going on, but she had her tricks. The letter surely did not give a lot of information. ‘Avoid big roads’, it said. Well, at least that much was clear. She could figure out the rest as she went along. Making sure she understood everything correctly and could recite it to herself, she folded the sheets of paper into a miniature boat, lit a match, and set the letter on fire. The old sheets of paper were aflame in an instant. The paper boat burned quietly in still air, with only a faint smoke rising up and vanishing into nothing—a miniature Viking ship carrying her past to Valhalla.
The envelope she kept, making sure to hide it carefully into a secret pocket of her rain boots so as not to damage the mysteriously monogrammed wax seal. Memory bubbles of underwater seaweed forests floated up, weirdly comforting. Steadily, the sun was making its way westwards.
She finished drinking her tea, brought the cup back to the kitchen. She took her time to wash it. It was her last chore here.
She went into the room. The coat, beautifully faded, was waiting at the head of the bed, like an ancient creature with a life of its own, resting peacefully. Politely, as if not to startle it, she unfolded the coat and put it on. Threw on the backpack and took the picnic basket. Made one last round of the house, checking that everything was neat and tidy and in its place and nondescript. Closed all the windows, shut down the lights, and locked the door behind her. The moon was rising out of the forest in the distance.
She walked over to the edge of the garden, weighing her steps, picking up a few flowers on the way; turned to take one last glance of her dear house and garden, blew a kiss goodbye, and opened the gate.
She stood still for a while, looking at the land before her. A gust of wind ruffled her hair. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and stepped forth.
She entered the moorland just as the last rays of sun faded away.
She walked through the grasses, following the steps she’d taken so many times before in daylight. A content, confident moon was shining high, its cold light changing the colours of the weeds from golden to steel blue. It wasn’t warm for the time of the year, but the air was calm, and everything seemed tranquil. No one would be here at this time, so she had a bit of a head start. ‘Avoid big roads,’ said the letter. And so she will. There were no big roads in the forest.
By midnight, she made it halfway through the moors. She had never been this far out before. The grasses here were taller, reaching nearly to her shoulders. She could easily take a break here, unnoticed. She found a flatter patch of ground, unfolded her sleeping bag, and stretched out on it, resting her head on the backpack. She was to get up before dawn, and hoped that sleep would come easily. This time it did not keep her waiting, and moments later she dozed off.
She was awoken by a sound. Long and trembling, so high it was nearly impossible to hear, it was piercing through the air, the ground, her clothes, her skin, its violent vibrations reaching to her innermost. She was terrified to the point of being tempted not to open her eyes, considering whether, if she just pretended she wasn’t there, the sound would go away. But that was against survival instincts, and very slowly, so that the movement, subtle as it was, would not reveal her presence to the source of the sound, she opened her eyes.
The moon was shining in the sky, so bright that it took a moment for her eyes to adjust. And then she saw them: vague, white, translucent shadows, floating over the moors. Could it be that those stories, which scared the townsfolk so much, were real? She had not prepared herself for that. Trying to pace her heartbeat, she figured it was best to wait out until the morning, lying as quietly as possible. It would still take some long hours, but there seemed to be no better option for her. She was not about to confront the white creatures, thank you very much.
And at this moment she realised that there was faint white light emitting from herself. It was her coat, glowing.