Friday, April 16, 2010

Blue Angeline

It's pretty clear I will never be a sucessful fiction writer so I'm going to post the rest of what I think are okay short stories here. Randomly. I think they are ok stories. Oh yeah, no one has ever understood this one. It's about a guy overdosing. You know when you are on the inside of the thing? That's what it's about. Inside the thing knowing there is an outside, but staying inside.



Blue Angeline


For the longest time, she waits for him to come back. She holds back the tears and waits.

*

Ben wanders slowly through the once fecund yard of his childhood. Once it was a lush and overgrown place. Back then the paths wound between huge aviaries brimming with exotic life. Back then you had to duck beneath low hanging branches heavy with fruit while on the edge of your vision you caught glimpses of scarlet, turquoise and emerald of wing or tail feather. Back then your ears were filled with the cacophony of myriad bird call, while now there is silence. The aviaries, once filled with miniature jungles, now seem filled with skeletons, everywhere dead and dying vegetation. Ben stops to peer into one of the aviaries. He waits for a sign of life, but there is nothing, not the faintest flicker of life. He has not been back since his late childhood, and the lack of life seems harsh and cruel and somehow just not possible.

He wanders to the bottom of the yard, past the pigeon coops that once murmured and cooed and whistled with the flutter of descending wings. He expects to see his father there, on his knees cleaning the floor of his beloved racers. He can still hear the sharp scrape of the edge of the trowel across the concrete floor, the tinny talk-back of the small transistor that was a constant companion, the muttered expletive as skin was scraped from knuckle. Briefly, he wonders how it all went wrong.

Beyond the back fence, once a tangle of native bush and the adventure of a waterfall, there are townhouses. They still look new, and Ben can imagine the young families that live there, their lives filled with the false promise of reality TV. Ben guesses that this is the future of his childhood home, subdivision and invasion. Mentally he shrugs at this; what has passed has passed. And at least there will be life. This is death.

Ben finds a tap hidden by overgrown grass. It squeaks as he turns it, but the water comes through, a working relic from his past. He waits for the warm water to turn cool before cupping his hands under the flow and drinking. He turns the tap off and listens to the water drip into the rusty basin on the ground, the plips like tiny aural jewels. Staring into the shimmering puddle below, he almost remembers something. He tries to remember when it was good, tries to recall the past as he watches the glistening drops fatten at the end of the tap until set free by their own weight.

Turning the tap off a little harder, Ben straightens and heads back towards the house. It was good of the new owners to let him visit. He did not want to go inside the house; that would have been too much. It was the rambling backyard he’d wanted to see. This had been his childhood, and he had felt the need to come back and say goodbye. It was a sentimental gesture, quite out of character for him. But the pull was strong once he had heard the news. He had waited until matters had been settled and he waited longer, wondering from time to time what was happening to the belongings inside, wanting occasionally to come sooner to claim some memento. But all of that was in the hands of others, and he knew there would be no mementos. Memory and the odd sepia photograph that had somehow made its way to him, these were all that were left.

Walking back up the long, curved footpath to the rear of the house, Ben notices that the area surrounding the old fishpond is more alive than the rest of the yard. It appears almost unchanged, a small jungle oasis of Fishbone Fern and Bromeliad, of Elephant Ear, Staghorn and Maidenhair. There had always been something magical about the pond. He was frequently in trouble for spending too much time there, gazing down into water when he should have been doing homework. He can’t think what he did there. What had held him there all that time?

Ben thinks about saying goodbye to the new owners, thinks about asking what they have planned for the property, but the heavy tools leaning against the side of the raised stone wall of the pond – sledgehammer, crowbar, pick and shovel - tell him the answer. Some areas in the yard below have already been cleared. Besides, if he knocks on the back door he will see inside of the house, and he does not want to do that. He turns to leave via the side entrance.

But something stops him. He turns sharply as though someone has called his name. He knows it is some trick of the mind. It has been doing it a lot lately. It’s nothing, he thinks, but finds himself looking at the pond. He feels it is only fair that if he has said goodbye to the rest of the yard, which is already dead, it is fitting that he say goodbye to the one remaining living part.

He walks across and stands in front of the pond. The stone wall is knee height at the front, rough sandstone fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle with miniature pathways of concrete weaving their way over the surface. He remembers being surprised when he was young to find that at the back of the pond, where the ground fell away, was much higher. It is oval in shape, and the walls are concave so that it appears to be a dome, or a giant egg, mostly submerged and with the top sliced off.

Ben kneels down. He brushes a hand through the delicate Maidenhair. He runs his hand over the moist stone at the rim of the pond, crushes lichen and smells his palm. This is life, he thinks, this is life. And then the water itself. He looks into the water as the fish wriggle to the surface, pause, then turn and hurry away. He looks at the surface, the blue glassy surface and wonders again what happened here. How many hours of his life had been taken up doing this? Looking in wonder, wondering. Lost. And then his name called from some other place.

Ben’s hand slides over the edge of the rim and into the water. It’s as cool as it ever was. He rolls his sleeve up and sinks his arm in deeper. He runs his hand over the slimy inside wall and closes his eyes. He’s done this before. This is what he did. So long ago. A lifetime ago.

He remembers something. He found something. He hid something. There was a place. Was it still there? Here in the pond, there was a crevice and it held something precious, something his mother had thrown away during one of their fights. Ben feels around in the dark water, feels the shape of the wall inside fall away. He leans over, reaches deeper. He remembers it so clearly now, wonders how he forgot. A ring. There was a ring. He finds the cavity. So familiar. In reaching deeper he has turned his head to the side, but he looks back again, looks into the water, and reaches deeper.

There is a pull, a force he cannot fight. Ben slips over the wall and into the water, the ring gone, pond not deep, and yet he slides down over the slippery inside wall. He is completely submerged, torpedoing down the interior curve of the egg, and it is not possible that he can keep going. Surely the wall will level out so that he can push off from the bottom. Further down. Further until there is a leveling... and then nothing.

Panic then as Ben free-falls through dark water. He spins and twists and glares out into the inky water. The cool flesh of fish brush blindly by as he sinks and spins and can’t determine which way is up and which is down. He kicks out, scissors his legs and finally sees the white light of the surface. He is upside down. He twists again, and in the opposite direction is the blue light of the surface. Blue light, white light. Two surfaces? He needs to move quickly before he runs out of breath. Blue light. White light. The blue must be the sky, so he kicks out and pulls his arms through the water in that direction, only to realise that he is in fact swimming down, not up. He turns. The white light looks so far away. He feels something pull at him. He gives in to it then, and feels peace as he heads down towards the blue light.

Ben breaks the surface and retches into the air. He chokes and breathes heavily, gulping at the cool air. He kicks to stay afloat and wipes the water from his eyes, and looks around. He is in a cavern, a grotto filled with a deep blue light that seems to emanate from the walls. It is the most beautiful place he has ever seen. And he has been here before.

Ben swims to the side and pulls himself up onto a ledge. He lays back for a few minutes and waits for the dizziness to subside. When he sits up again, he sees that the water has settled back to a glassy stillness, such a deep blue it is almost black. He knows he should be trying to figure out what just happened, how to get back, but he is content for now. It’s the magic of this place. It soothes him. He wants to stay for a while. He removes his clothes and drapes them over a rock. He doesn’t think they will dry, but they are uncomfortable anyway. Naked in this strange place, he just feels right.

There is movement then. A slight movement on the ledge across from him. Ben squints through the light and makes out a shape. Just a few meters away from him, there is a person. They are sitting with their legs pulled under their chin, arms wrapped around their knees. They have lifted their head slightly to look at him. They are still again, and although Ben cannot see clearly, he knows she is looking at him.

Ben,” she says quietly. “You’ve come back. After all this time.”

Ben remembers, and the memory crushes him. Something inside him dies. He was meant to come back so long ago but he didn’t come back. He promised and broke his promise.

I’m sorry,” Ben tells her, knowing how weak it sounds. “I meant to... I’m so sorry...”

Don’t be sorry,” she tells him. Her tone is one of kindness, a kindness that makes the sorrow even harsher. “You’ve come back. No need to be sorry.” Ben knows she is smiling at him. She is happy to see him, happy that he has come back.

Angeline shimmers and glistens and Ben realises there are tears running down his cheeks. A lifetime of memories fall away into insignificance. She was the most important thing, and he had forgotten. He lost his way and simply forgot. How could he have forgotten such a thing? How could he have forgotten such a promise? How could his life out there have taken over?

Angeline slides into the water. She barely disturbs the surface as she glides through the water and suddenly she is next to him. They sit side by side. Her skin is iridescent blue, just as he remembers it, and her face a creation of the strangest beauty, small features pinched and pressed in clay. He thought he knew love, out there, but that was nothing. She waited all this time; that is love.

It’s good to see you, Ben,” Angeline tells him. She really looks at him, looks closely, looks at the changes. She has not changed at all. He wants to look away. He is self-conscious, ashamed of the changes and what they represent, but he continues to look back at her and is almost overwhelmed by his love for her.

I can’t believe you waited,” he tells her quietly, and she smiles at this; she kept her promise.

Angeline puts one arm around his shoulders and slowly they lay back. They wrap each other in their arms and one of her legs finds its place between his and it’s all so familiar now. So comfortable, so right. Ben closes his eyes and feels that sensation again, like he is being drawn down deeper and deeper. He opens his eyes and looks at her. Such beauty, he thinks, how could he have forgotten? He wonders if she will want to know what happened, what it has been like out there, but the weight of her limbs, her flinching fingers, her heavy and regular breath tell him that she is sleeping. He smiles to and he sees her smile in her sleep.

Ben opens his eyes. He wonders how long he has been asleep. Angeline is still lying against him. From time to time she twitches, and he wonders what she dreams about. He wonders what she thinks of him, and what she thinks of his broken promise.

And then a thought sears into his mind. It shocks him with its cruel clarity. He screws his eyes shut but it is still there. He opens his eyes again, and this faintest of movements wakes her. She moves her head back, her cheek still heavy against his chest, and looks at him with that familiar inquisitiveness.

Are you going back?” she asks. There is nothing in her tone. It’s a simple question, nothing more. No persuasion, no disappointment, no resignation, no hope, nothing. It’s as if she heard his thought. Except for the tilt of her head, she has not moved.

Ben thinks about his life out there, and strangely, the memory of it is not quite there. It’s like trying to recall a song you once knew, a name you can hear the sound of without quite recalling it. What is he forgetting? Is it her? Is she somehow making him forget? Is she letting him make the choice while taking it away from him? Does it matter? After all, he owes her. He made her wait so long.

And then through the falling sensation that has not quite gone away, Ben starts to wonder how long it has been since he was here. There is something strange about the easy familiarity. Can something from so long ago really return so easily?

How long has it been?” he asks her. “Since I was here I mean.”

She moves her head back and her fingers move up and around his neck. “I don’t know,” she tells him, her voice sounding distant. “What is time to me? I waited. I will wait, if you go.”

She is caressing the curls at the back of his neck. This, too, seems familiar. Ben doesn’t know what is happening to his memory. He feels there is someone waiting for him out there, but there is just a shadow where there should be a face. He thinks there is more than one, but who are they? Who is he? And then this other thought: has it really been so long?

Angeline,” Ben says, feeling like it’s been a lifetime since he said the name, even though it has always been there. “It hasn’t been so long, has it? I’ve been back. I have, haven’t I. I keep coming back.” He closes his eyes hard and the memories come back. Sometimes he has been here with her, sometimes he has walked by the pond in his dead past and merely caught a glimpse of her. But he has been back. He has kept his promise, in a sense. He knows, now, that he has been back

Yes,” she says. “You’ve been back. But you have always left. Don’t you remember?”

Yes,” he tells her quietly. “Yes, I think I remember.”

There is a single, distant beat, a dull thud like the single beat of a giant’s heart. Her fingers tighten around his neck, and he feels the metal of his mother’s lost ring against his skin. Something has shaken the serenity. They lay together in the blue light of the grotto and wait, knowing that there will be another beat.

Ben has the faintest memory from out there. This man-made pond, those tools lying against the side, the stillness surrounding the pond like the stillness of a cemetery on a hot summer day. He sees it as a ghostly, two-tone flash. Death all around… but, it suddenly occurs to him, not death. Just a kind of eternity where everything is part of everything else. It’s not so bad, he thinks, you just have to stop resisting it, this flow, this flux. The falling is not falling, but simply the unstoppable force of life and death, and it’s all the same, and our emotions and desires, our fear and our love and our hate and all the things we think we’ll miss are all there. That’s the truth of it, Ben realises. It’s all there, even if we can’t recall what it is. Ben smiles to himself, reassured that there is nothing to fear and that nothing will be missed, and he gently strokes the back of Angeline’s head.

Another distant beat. And another. Slow. Ben hears his name. So distant, such a familiar voice. The question is not asked, but it is there.

Not this time, Ben thinks, I’m not going back this time, because I understand now. He feels the weight of it again. He feels himself sinking deeper and deeper.

*

And on the outside her tears finally fall as she realises that this time, he is not coming back.

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