When the young woman awoke in the heart of a hollow tree, the peace surprised her. Vague ghosts of a time before, of a frantic climax, pierced here and there the heavy curtains of her mind. The memories came in jets so blindingly bright that she had to shy away from directly gazing at them. Why was she here? Nestled in a tree away from anything she had ever known. She could not believed that she deserved such peace as now surrounded her. The last wisps of an anger born of a life swindled, of a wounded love, drifted away. And even as she tried to capture them, even as she tried to stop their soaring away with her fingers, with her hands, the feeling was lost.
And as the anger dissipated, it left in its wake a lingering afterthought. An afterthought whose wisdom lay not entirely within her grasp. It whispered to her:
Life’s ephemeral rush garners colour with love. And so forgive. And so forgive. And so forgive.
But anger was all she had left, all she could remember. Perhaps even all she was. She felt as though she might yet scale it like a ladder back into whatever world she had forsaken, or had forsaken her. Defiant in her heart, she wrestled to free herself from the tree’s embrace so that she may reach out and still catch the feeling as it soared away. But the heart of the tree held her fast, weathering her wrath with ease. Above, the wisps of anger coalesced into a silvery cloud. She could still make out its shimmer. If only… But it was too late now, and as she watched the cloud soared ever farther beyond reach. Catching herself before her opportunity waned, she at last grasped the wisdom of the whispered words.
And so forgive. And so forgive. And so forgive.
Silently she extended forgiveness to the source of the anger.
She fell onto the soft clay forest floor. A swift current whisked the sand deep below the surface of her conscious mind, and the emotional sea she housed within, washed over the brim and onto her cheeks.
You might have felt gratitude you foolish girl, she chided herself. Then, she caught herself. Noting the clarity of her insight, she asked herself: Am I dead? For indeed, was it not a prerogative of the dead to retrospect and judge us all too engrossed, too entangled in our own individual lives?
She refused to weigh the thought further. Entanglement, engrossment is the stuff of life, she thought, trying to wreathe herself in the warmth of its promise. That’s right, she thought, retrospective is for those who lost the stuff of life. She rose, invested with a new sense of resolution. She could not believe she would have forgone the stuff of life so willingly. She glanced tentatively at the hollow tree. How close had she been to condemning herself to the tree’s eternal embrace? The anger she had felt was the last fleeting unresolved parcel of her past self. What if she hadn’t forgiven it? Would the tree have released her, then? She shivered violently as she considered eternity in the hollow tree’s embrace, imprisoned by her pettiness, her incapacity to make peace.
The thought did not entirely make sense to her. Was forgiveness not also the stuff of deathbeds. She glanced at the obscure forested night. Had the tree been a some sort of gate, then? Its devious whispers came to her again.
And so forgive. And so forgive. And so forgive.
The words now invested with the treacherous tone of the serpent. Eat the apple, it whispered. Forgo the last of your memories, the last of who you are. Had she been tricked into the afterlife?
Within, she sought outrage, she sought hatred, and came away summoning nothing other than the self-same empty peace as possessed the woods around her.
Stupid girl, she whispered. Despite her peace, she began clawing at the bark of the hollow tree, tearing off shards and rotten mulch which showered into a mound at her feet. Why did you so willingly surrender? She hoisted herself into the hollow, made herself little in its embrace, willing it to return her to a time before she had made the damning choice to surrender. But, no more could she return, than a child be returned to a time before birth. There was a direction of travel to such things that transcended personal will and industry.
Powerless, she crumpled into a heap at the base of the tree. Then, covering herself with the blanket of detritus from the impassive tree, she surrendered once more. And some time later, her sobs eased into the shallow breaths of sleep.
When she awoke, it was still night. And night it would forever be, she thought, mournfully. It had not been quite sleep she had fallen into. Just some kind of emptiness, a hollowness within her like the hollow of the tree. She shivered to think what dwelt beyond the afterlife, for her to wander into. She rose to her feet, upsetting the mulch and bark of her bedding. She stretched and yawn and pondered her materiality. She glanced at her hands. Neither scuffed, nor scratched by her lashing out at the hollow tree. However, as she inspected her hands closer, they seemed to alter. Their fixed appearance did not seem to withstand her gaze. But then again, she could not truly remember how they had been, and perhaps this accounted for their shifting appearance.
There was no distinguishing feature to the forest, around her. Wherever her gaze came to rest, there was more of the same. And so, she picked an azimuth at random and set off wandering this new mysterious realm. None of the trees she crossed were hollow. In fact, they grew to prodigious heights, their foliage merging in the reaches above, obscuring the sky from view.
She stopped. Was she making a mistake by leaving the hollow tree behind? Surely, she would not so easily stumble upon it again in these vast woods. She looked back to study it in the near distance. Somehow, she could not believe the gate integral to any further advancement in her journey. Just as life’s path stemmed from the womb, and to the womb never returned. And so she walked onward.
Alas, the forest contained very little mystery to be unveiled. Timeless meanderings had revealed nothing more than would have been revealed by merely sitting still and glancing about. She settled at the foot a great tree. Not from weariness—for she could not sense any variation in her energy at all—rather from a general feeling uninspiredness. Perhaps she slept then. Perhaps she merely shut her eyes and dwelt into the emptiness. Whatever realm she inhabited, there had been no denying the bright flash that had, for the briefest of moments, jolted her back into awareness. She gasped and opened her eyes. There, in the distance amongst the silhouette of trees, she could still make out the trailing tail of light. There was a blinding explosion as the spark collided with a tree. Then the spark set off into another direction and soon disappeared from sight.
Whatever the light was, it was undeniably the anti-thesis of the hollow tree. Bright and alive and… promising. She gathered her hopelessness like so many filthy rags, shrugging it from her shoulders onto the soft clay of the forest floor. Her wayward journey had finally been gifted a bright shining focus point. Immediately, she wondered whether she was more likely to see the shooting spark again if she waited where she sat; or whether the process was random, and thus, less likely to travel the same span of woods twice. She decided on the latter. Besides, there was a symbolism to travelling a path that, in her romantic heart, she could not forgo.
Not so long into her pilgrimage, though spans of time were hardly countable, she came across many such flying sparks, marauders of the night, coursing through the forest at unfathomable speeds. Akin to low-flying shooting stars, they wove through the silent trees. On rare occasions, she would witness one colliding with a tree, and then fly off again in another direction. There was no tethering them to one spot, in order to further study the nature of their essence, and so, every time she witnessed one such collision, she would race over to inspect the tree. Although at first the progress was slow, overtime she grew more proficient at finding which trees had been hit. The trees did not exactly bear traces of the impact, no burn marks to speak of, no shattered bark. Rather, she found the opposite to be true. The collision seemed to substantiate the tree, as though the fleeting marauder helped reaffirm its presence, define it against an inevitable fading into oblivion. What’s more, this substantiation granted her a clearer understanding on the trees themselves. In fact, the trees were not trees at all, but something… else. The trees were distinctly alive, and in a different sense than that of simple flora. She could sense it, feel them extending invisible tendrils to her as she threaded her way amongst them. However, finding no better word to affix to the ambiguity of their nature, she resolved to stick with the word tree. There was a poetry to a forest of trees. A protective familiarity, which helped in warding off the actual truth of her whereabouts.
With time, she learned to distinguish the various states of vanishing, of materiality, in the trees. Some, she could even walk through and barely feel their presence at all. She wanted there to be a way to call the bright marauders’ attention to these vanishing trees, so as to substantiate them before they were no more. But it was a doomed wish. The marauders were whimsical and grotesquely short-handed for the labour of acknowledging every tree. Theirs was already a losing battle.
Once, caught in a forlorn display of pity, she lay at the foot of a vanishing tree, and was unable to bring herself to move, until the tree was gone. What injustice, what dishonour to the life of the tree to simply let it go with no effort of re-substantiation. And yet, there was no one truly to blame for this. For all it was worth, she vowed to remember every last tree whose dying moments she came to witness.
There was no telling how much time she studied the coming and going of the marauders; the substantiation and disappearance of trees. Her mind drifted and, only at times, focused upon something in her environment. And, it was thus that she almost missed a curious and unique phenomenon that arose far in the distance. A flash of such blinding brightness as she had never before witnessed, was illuminating a wide span of woods. And whereas the flashing marauders would normally not linger, even as they collided with trees, this brilliant light did not relent. She only dared observe it in short glimpses. Even from a vast distance, basking in its pure shimmering light seemed to awaken something within her. If I could only dive into it, she thought, drown in its blazing embrace, then perhaps… But the light had, at last, vanished. Leaving only blindness and half-formed hopes in its wake.
Once more, she came to witness the brilliant event. This time, however, she had been ready for it. She would not allow herself to succumb to awe, as she had before. And, with her wits about her, she succeeded in gleaning much from the enduring flash. The phenomenon, as far as she could surmise, surfaced from a curious convergence of many marauders, who collided with several trees in a focused area. The resulting cataclysm generated a sphere of such brilliance, that it appeared to capture the restless marauders. This convergence lasted for many moments, before the inevitable disbanding. She could not, however, pinpoint the stimulus, the raison d’être, behind the unique phenomenon. Was it the trees that attracted the whimsical marauders? Or, was their convergence a mere coincidence? The details, for the moment, mattered very little. Having observed the phenomenon twice already, and in such relatively short succession, made her take heart. For, sooner or later, she would certainly succeed in catching one such event before it dissipated.
She rested, then, her mind full of hope.
After what she gauged to be roughly the same interval of time that had separated the first two occurrences, the woman opened her eyes. She rose to her feet and began to wander, acting on the same supposition that the phenomenon was more likely not to hit the same area twice. Patiently, she awaited for a third manifestation. And when it came, she did not waste a breath. By sheer luck or happen-stance, the phenomenon was near enough, this time, for her to reach. And with the voracious swiftness of one who has everything to lose, she bridged the space between herself and the blazing convergence. From tree to tree she darted, using each in turn to shield her eyes from the blinding light. Then, she was through, leaping the last lengths of woods and plunging deep into the light’s embrace. Let her be illuminated or let her be consumed—she dove.
The world burst into life around her, bustling crowds shifting hastily on the platform of a train. They had hopped off against the warnings of the ticket collector. The stop, he’d said, was too brief. They would never make it back in time. And indeed, as they skipped restlessly from one foot to the other, awaiting their tea and sandwiches, the great blaring whistle of the train announced its imminent departure.
We smiled at each other, then, she remembered. She remembered. She remembered! And, faithful to her memory, the two smiled at each other. Sweaty, unbathed and giddy with adrenaline, they smiled broadly. No heart could contain the crushing love she felt in that moment. They snatched their pre-paid sandwiches, forwent the tea and ran off together. Laughing. Laughing. Curse the tea. Curse the sandwich, curse the train! They were together. And they were laughing. And they were laughing.
And then it was gone. The memory dissipated, and she was left laying onto the soft cool clay of the forest floor. Blind. And, she wished the blindness would endure forever, for what else was there to see? What could ever come to better such happiness as she had seen? As she had remembered? Then, the trees began to trace themselves against her recovering retina, and she was torn between heartfelt gratitude and bitter heartache. To have remembered such a memory, was both too wonderful for words and a torture, of such inhumane cruelty, that she could not even name it.
The young man collapsed into the seat next to the bed. He sighed, just as the blue vinyl cushion sighed beneath him, releasing the tension slowly. He still held a thin sandwich wrapped in a thin film of plastic. Its orange cheese and cold-cut meat, spilling over the sides like outstretched tongues. He was dirty, unbathed and sweaty, for he had just ran to catch a train that wasn’t there, alongside a girl that wasn’t there. Well, not as she had been. He leaned over and grabbed one of the two teas that awaited untouched on the windowsill. He wondered if he had done everything right. It was imperative that he remember every detail. How else would he make a compelling case for life. Life over whatever realm it was she now inhabited. He leaned over and seized her cold hand in his. Delicately, he wrapped her fingers around the lukewarm paper cup of the tea.
We never did get to taste that tea, he said to her. It wasn’t that the word taste was so terribly sad, but that’s about how far he managed to get without crying. Wouldn’t change a thing about it though.
Just then a nurse poked her head into the room.
Everything ok?, she asked with a kind smile. Thought I heard a whistle.
A whistle? Oh, the young man said remembering. He reached over to the small pile of items he had brought to faithfully re-enact the memory, and retrieved a train whistle. He blew into it faintly. Sorry.
How is she doing?, she asked, kindly.
The young man glanced over to the girl laying in the hospital bed.
Oh, you know, he said in a whisper, then sniffed. She just needs to find her way. He nodded. She’ll make it.
Faithful, please be faithful, she repeated over and over again under her breath.
As time flowed by, invisible and uncountable, she marvelled at the marauders dance and found herself clinging to the promise that the phenomenon would come again. Feverishly, she prowled the woods, trying, beyond reason, to predict the next site where the event would arise.
So mad had the wait driven her, that she mistook every flash, every impact of a marauder against a tree, for the coming of another convergence, of another memory. Her emotion swelled, endlessly soaring and plummeting with every hope found and every hope lost; wearying her to the point of collapse. Time flowed sluggish in anxious anticipation. And, by the time a true convergence took place, she had withdrawn so far within her pain, that she had almost stopped believing in its coming. In the end, the event had indeed been faithful in its promise of regular occurrence. She almost leapt to her feet when it, finally, dawned on her that the flashing light was not just another fleeting marauder.
She ran at such speeds through the woods that the trees began to blur, praying that she may not be too late. Just as the marauders substantiated the trees they collided with, the memories were her sustenance now. A sustenance without which she would surely wither just as the trees did. Her mind did not even register the last instants before she dove with complete abandon into the brilliant sphere. Into another memory.
A park, it was raining.
Where were you?, the young man said.
I… I’m sorry, she answered. I didn’t think you would still come...
I almost left, you know.
The two of them studied each other, weighing the intricate balance of emotion that would release them of their respective states of annoyances and repenting, so that they could move on to enjoying their time together. For an instant, the whole affair teetered on the brink and it did not seem as though there would be forgiveness between them. But then, she sneezed. And somehow that restored everything. She sneezed again and then they laughed.
Here, I got you these, he said pulling a bouquet of wet, withered flowers from behind his back. She took them.
Thanks… they’re… they’re… thanks. Then, laughter as weightless as a drizzle trickled between them.
Not that you deserve them. Come on, he said, let’s go home.
Miserable, but miserable side by side, they walked across the park towards home. Home, she thought. Home! The word was honey, was colour, was warmth, was love. She clung to it as the memory faded. She repeated it over and over again until it had been bled of all its meaning. The dark forest of trees took shape around her once more.
More than a few heads poked through the door this time. Patients and visitors alike stopped to observe the curious phenomenon taking place in room seventeen. Then, a loud voice came from behind them breaking the spell.
Excuse me. A few had to leap aside so as to not get sloshed by the grey soapy water, as the janitor drove his mop right through the amassed spectators.
I’m sorry, the young man said immediately.
Sorry’s not going to clean this mess, you know.
The young man glanced about, as though only awaking to the mess he’d made. He was soaked to the bone and shivering. He looked confused for a second and was about to offer to clean up to mess himself, but the janitor was the faster. He took the withered flowers from the young man’s grasp and placed a dry towel there instead.
How is she doing?, he asked, looking over at the young woman laying motionless in bed.
Oh, you know, he said in a whisper, then sniffed. She just needs to find her way. She’ll make it.
I’m sure she will, the janitor said with a wink. Now get dry before a nurse sees you and decides to put you in a sickbed too. Gently, he moved aside the watering can the young man had used to simulate rain and with a sigh that said: It cannot be helped, he mopped the floor.
When she awoke, she found that she had not moved from the area where the memory had arisen. Immediately she sensed that something had changed. She could feel it more than see it, although there were certainly hints wherever she looked. The woods had grown darker. But, that was not all. The marauders too had lost a measure of brilliance, and although they still travelled at unfathomable speeds, their path did not as often connect with the trees. And the trees! Everywhere she looked trees were silently vanishing. And yet, at the same time, she felt herself more substantiated, more defined, more…alive, than she had felt since her arrival in these woods. Were the two related somehow? She felt more than a pang of guilt at the thought.
Distressing as it was, with the impending arrival of another memory, she cast aside the conundrum, and rather focused on exploring the forest. The only fact she could be certain of was that the convergence would most definitely not hit the same place twice.
She tried to convince herself that time had not stretched on longer than the other times, but as she kept wandering and wandering, despair finally overwhelmed her better judgement. Had she missed it? Or, was it that the convergence had not taken place at all? Both prospects frightened her. Suddenly, the growing obscurity of the woods, the diminishing collisions between marauders and trees, the fading of the marauders themselves, and now the absence of the convergence; it suddenly all seemed too coincidental not to be correlated.
No, she said aloud, surprising even herself, it’s my turn to be faithful. I’ll wait. There’s no hurry. I’ll wait. I’ll wait.
The doctor spoke clearly, and not without compassion. And the young man, sitting across from him, suffered nobly as he welcomed every wounding word like razors into his raw and vulnerable world.
Time is not on our side. I’m afraid that if she does not come back to us soon, the doctor was saying with all the cotton and care in the world, for all the good it did, she might cross a threshold, beyond which… she will have incurred… too much brain damage. Beyond that point… even if she were to return… she would not be the person she was before the accident. Do you understand?
The young man nodded. However, inwardly he had shelved the doctor’s words. Every single one of them. All neatly preserved and assembled in the same order. There would be a time to unwrap their unmerciful truth later. For now, he had memories to re-enact and he had to do it just right. There was no time to lose, now less than ever. And he could not allow the doctor’s words, his grim message, to corrupt the execution of the memories. It was fine for the doctor to abandon hope. But if he abandoned, who else was there to uphold it? Hope would not be abandoned then, but forever lost. Precarious as his hold on hope already was, it would not do to waver in the slightest, for there would be no retrieving it.
Without noticing his departure from the doctor’s office, he now crossed the threshold into room seventeen. His wife lay there, just as he had left her. Bless her faithful soul, he thought. And me, arriving late, betraying her, of all things. And now of all times.
Just you wait, he said. The path is always darkest in the moments before the coming of light. You’ll see. With this, he went to work. The normally empty room was now crowded with labelled boxes. After organising them in just the right order, he walked over to the door, dragging a chair behind him. He carefully jammed the chair under the door handle and tested it.
Now, he whispered with a melancholy smile. Let’s find your way back.
I must have lost my way, she whispered to the fading trees. That’s all. I’m sure it will come again.
Deciding that a moment of rest would work wonders on her fading disposition, she settle into the nook of an old barely substantial tree. Why hadn’t it come, she thought. She tried to conjure the memory of the previous memories that had graced her otherwise sombre afterlife wanderings. But even this she abandoned, when nothing, not the slightest detail of how it had been, drew itself before her mind’s eye.
In her darkest moment, as she felt herself slowly drowning in the obscure woods, as she drifted away into the last embrace; something flickered in the air before her. She opened her eyes and saw that it was a tiny orb of pure white essence, falling to her. For a moment, as she observed the spark fall, like a snowflake on a windless day, she could not understand. She thought that she had, at last, succumbed.
She felt endless gratitude for the few memories that had been offered to her. Memories of a life that was no longer hers. She took a deep breath and, with the last of her strength, stretched out her hands to gather the tiny orb of light, embracing the singular beauty of the moment. Then, from everywhere at once, a shower of such tiny sparks fell. And despite being on the brink of surrender, she was not beyond savouring the dazzling spectacle.
What a way to go, she thought, at peace.
Then, as the tiny orb of light touched her hands, she closed her eyes and welcomed the empty darkness therein.
The young man danced. Cradled softly in his arm was a delicate white dress she had worn at their wedding. And how beautiful she had looked, there, surrounded by all whom they loved, all who loved them. The floor was wet yet again, but this time it was by the sheer number of fallen tears. Without missing a step, he leapt into the next memory, the one when he had trusted her and had dived into the open sea despite all the monsters he knew awaited there. And the next. This time she was the one trusting him, as they walked onto a narrow bridge, suspended above a fathomless abyss. And the next, and the next. They shared an ice cream cone, because hers had fallen to the ground even though he had told her not to hold it that way. They met for the first time again. He held her into her arms as she received the news that her grand-father had died. Then, she held him. Then, he held her. Then, they were yelling at each other, even though they both had forgotten why. And she left. She left angry. And he ran after her, because… because how can you leave angry; how can you fall asleep angry; how can you go without reminding someone, every living moment, how much you love them; when you can never know when you might see them for the last time…
And then he saw her, he called after her but she would not listen. He saw it all again. He lived it all again. The screeching tires, the car that would not stop in time. He screamed her name, and if only he had not been so petty, if only he had listened to her, if only he had forgiven her; she might have heard him in time. He screamed her name there on the street corner. He screamed her name by her hospital bed.
There was a thunderous crash as the car connected; as the hospital room door burst open. Then it was over. The young man could no longer go on, because he had reached the end. He was down on his knees on the dirty soaked ground, crying, holding her invisible body in his hands screaming: please, please, please.
It’s ok, she was saying. Shh, she was saying. And all he could feel was that it was unfair. It was all so deeply unfair. That she was the one consoling him. That it had to happened to her, of all people. That it had to happen after they had fought over the stupidest thing.
I forgive you.
She had said it with such nobility then. But this time, she said it with such a frail voice that he almost missed it. For a moment, he could just glare at the janitor and the nurse who were standing by the busted door and the mess of boxes, frozen in place, glancing not at him, but at… her.
What, he said with a sniff. He wiped his tears away with the back of his hand. What?
Then, the frail voice spoke again, and there was no mistaking its origin.
I made it… I found my way.
Copyright © 2021 by Etienne Robert