01 Feb If These Walls
Most days the walls are empty.
Bare: that shade of black I hated so much, that I told her made it look like our bedroom was a witches coven, which, in turn, only made her love it more. She said she’d always wanted to be a witch, ever since she was a little girl, and then she pressed herself against me and asked if I had any problem with witches, especially ones who could do this, and it then it didn’t take me long to shut up and forget all about it.
But, some days, if I’m lying very still, and holding the stone in my hands: the walls open.
I don’t know how to explain it. It’s as if the paint gets darker and darker, and somehow thicker, more tangible, as if it expands in all directions, getting deeper and wider and slowly it yawns out in front of me, going back and back until I see them. I think they’re poplar trees, thin and with white trunks, reaching up into this new darkness with empty branches.
Once I see the poplars I know it’s time to get up. That’s when the wall is, I suppose, no longer a wall, but something else, and when I step off my bed the floor is not wood but earth. Cold, wet earth.
The first few times it happened I didn’t go very far, I’d maybe walk a few minutes before turning around. I’d explore, in one direction or the other, this strange and secret wood that appeared in the walls of my home. It seemed, for the most part, to stay the same. It felt vacant somehow. As if something was missing here that was present in the real world.
But as I spent more time there, that feeling grew less and less.
I didn’t think I had much in the real world, at least, not anymore.
Not after Mary had got sick, and grown gaunt, and her skin shrunk around her bones and the hollows of her cheeks. Her wrists turned to pale twigs, her breathing grew rasping, pained. Not after we were told that she didn’t have much longer, that, despite their best efforts there was nothing they could do and that we maybe had a month, at tops. A month to squeeze in what was meant to be a lifetime.
I could only tell her I loved her so many times, only spend so long holding her as she lost weight, try to pretend I didn’t know she cried in secret and tried not to admit how scared she was. Once, she confessed to me, after a sleepless night that she’d spent vomiting into a plastic bowl, in a voice small and scared, that she didn’t want to die, that she was so scared sometimes she couldn’t breathe and she thought she’d do anything to make it stop.
The worst part was I could do nothing: I didn’t know what to say to that, what would help. The truth was unavoidable, real.
I did not know her family well, and at the funeral they seemed to avoid my eye contact. She’d always said they were strange, had never wanted me to meet them, had said that there were things buried there she did not want to uncover. They wore funny clothes, smelt of strange herbs and incense and spoke in whispers at the service. It hurt even more, the thought that there was this whole part of her life I knew nothing about, would know nothing about – and it me then how much we’d still had to do, how much more of her there was to love that I’d never found time to, and I’d had to close my eyes until the feeling went away.
The funeral had been in the morning, and I’d sat by her grave until it grew dark. I’d read parts of her favourite books out loud, parts of Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, Rosemary’s Baby that she’d underlined several times, pages that she’d folded the corners of and left, in her scrawled handwriting, tiny exclamation marks and love hearts. Pages she’d marked with little drawings, cobwebs, cats, moths all packed into the margins.
I loved her for that: always filling the spaces that should have been empty.
Her grandmother had stayed a while, her eyes entirely white – blind, I assumed – and without saying a word. I don’t know if she knew I was there, or if she thought she was alone, but we stood for an hour, at least, together. There was something about her I couldn’t place, she moved as if she didn’t quite belong to this world, as if reality for her was a fluid and malleable thing.
Then she’d bowed her head, said something in a language I didn’t understand, and left, by the tombstone, a smooth, black pebble.
We hadn’t moved in yet. Most of our stuff was still scattered across the country, some at my parents, some in our old flats, some at various friends. Our house was bare, except for the bed, and basic appliances.
I had, at the time she died, nothing of hers but the books in my bag, the clothes in her closet, and a hole in my stomach that I thought would never go away.
And so I took the stone.
I know. I shouldn’t have. But it felt like an artefact of her life, somehow, it felt as if by taking it I could hold on to her for a little longer, could have something that was hers, was meant to be hers, and that maybe she wouldn’t slip away so fast.
I almost felt as if she might come back for it. I had this image in my head that she’d just walk up the stairs one morning, flushed from a run or with breakfast and she’d say that that was her stone, her pebble, and she’d stay a while, perhaps the whole day, that it would give her an excuse to come back from wherever she was and just be with me until she had to go back.
I spent more and more time in the forest. Sometimes I’d go for hours, just wandering round the trees, listening to the faint sound of a brook somewhere, closing my eyes and focusing on feeling nothing.
I discovered a small hill. If you climbed for long enough there was a spot where the trees thinned, and you could see the forest around you, endless white needles from the black soil, stretching on in every direction. I saw the brook I had only heard up until that point, followed the trail it cut.
That was where I saw her.
Washing her hands in the brook, humming something slow and sad to herself.
At first, I thought I might have gone mad: thought that this was where the delusion finally caught up to me, finally dragged me under.
But, no, I was sure, that was her. I was sure my mind couldn’t recreate all of her, the way she bit her lip as she thought, the way she hummed with her mouth slightly open so it sounded a little like singing, the small perfections I recognised but could not name.
I had no other choice. I ran towards her; shouted her name over and over, Mary, Mary, Mary, and she looked up and suddenly seemed so terrified and she shouted that I couldn’t be here, that I mustn’t be here, that this place wasn’t meant for me.
I’d tried to shout back but the noise had caught in my throat, and the air ate my words and I was mute, and I felt my legs grow denser and heavier, and the closer I got the more I could see how scared she looked – I was convinced that she needed saving – and as I grew close I felt the world around me shimmer.
I stumbled, and found myself in bed.
I’d been so close.
From then on it was an obsession, finding her. I’d spend days in the wood, looking for any signs, climbing hills, mapping the whole forest in my mind, following the path of the brook until it led to a stream, following the stream until it led to a lake.
Just a vast, black landscape dotted with white trees.
If I turned before entering the forest I’d be able to see my body, still lying in bed, facing the ceiling, and it was the same when I returned. Sometimes I’d come back to find my parents, or friends huddled around me, in foetal position, eyes wide open, and they’d be talking to me softly, telling me it was okay, that I was okay, and I’d have a moment before I climbed back into my skin and bones that suddenly felt so heavy, to watch, as they smoothed my hair and held my hand and I did nothing but stare into space.
As I went deeper into the forest it began to change. The trees got thicker, taller – and the spaces between them shrank.
I also began to get the feeling that I wasn’t alone. Not just that Mary was here, somewhere, but that something else was.
I could sometimes smell it, the goat musk sharp and acrid amongst the cool dirt. It was something heavy, that bruised the bark of the trees as it passed. It could smell me, the heat and scent I left, I knew that much, and I’d often retrace my steps, heart-pounding, as I made my way back to the bed, to find that it had torn the trees behind me, uprooted them and stripped them of bark.
I imagined what it would do if it found me, what it would do if it found something that wasn’t made from cold wood, that was flesh and bone and warm.
The longer I spent there the more present it grew. I’d see huge antlers through the gaps in the trees, a humanoid figure making its way to the base of the hill I was climbing, hear low moans from somewhere behind me. I figured it didn’t want me there, that it was out to find me, or worse, Mary, before I could find her. If I hadn’t wanted so desperately to see her I might not have returned, but it became a compulsion.
If the walls wouldn’t change I’d just wait. I’d move my thumb over the surface of the stone in long, slow circles, keeping completely still, as if moving would somehow break the spell the stone was casting.
The beast got smarter. Faster. I’d know it was waiting for me when I came and sometimes I’d have to double back on myself, waiting for the sound of it crashing through the trees to fade, or for it’s low and mournful groans to fade entirely.
Sometimes I felt like there were more than one, and I’d hear the groans echo, bursting from the trees in the distance at various points, a whole pack making that strange sound. Searching, perhaps, for eachother.
At my worst moments I thought they were maybe communicating about me, that they were somehow all grouping together to find my position, that one would come crashing through the trees, all rotting skin and teeth and it would pin me down and try and burst me open like a fruit, and when these thoughts came I’d have to steady myself against the trees and breathe.
But I kept going.
I next found her by the shores of the lake. She was washing her hair, slowly, pulling it tight and then wringing it with her hands. I watched her for a while, before saying something, watching the way she pursed her lips slightly as she concentrated, the way her back arched when she leant back.
I moved out from behind the tree and asked her what I’d been thinking this whole time, asked her what she was doing here.
She said she was waiting, that she was waiting here for me but that I shouldn’t be here, not yet, that I have so much more to do. She kept going, telling me that I was wasting it all by being here, that this was a sad and lonely place and I should not have come, should not come.
She said if I stayed here too long I’d forget why I came, my memories would leak from my mind like gas, I’d forget there was anything outside the forest, that I’d forget that the world wasn’t just endless black soil and black water, and that she’d hear me, not saying her name but moaning into the night, and as if on cue there was the noise of a beast in the distance, and I realised what a lonely sound it was, how confused and sad and searching it was.
She said that she’d wait here for as long as it took, but that I shouldn’t return until I had to, until I had no other choice.
She said that she loved me. Said that she knew I loved her but there were others who needed love too, and as she spoke the forest grew thin around me, as if it had the texture of smoke, and behind it I could see my parents, and my friends sat around my bed, talking in whispers, holding my hand, stroking my hair, watching over my body as it stared wide-eyed at the ceiling and did not move.
I told her I was scared, that I didn’t want to go, that if I became a beast at least I’d be with her and she shook her head.
I tried to say something, one last thing, but I couldn’t think of anything fitting, of anything that could sum up everything I wanted to so much to say, as I opened my mouth it wasn’t in the forest, but in my bed, and then I was sat up, sobbing, heaving, so much I couldn’t speak or breathe and I could feel arms around me, and could hear their words, and although I couldn’t turn off whatever had just sprung open inside me I knew at least that I was loved.
I stayed like that, for a few hours, sobbing so much I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think of anything but her, until slowly I settled. Centred.
I took the stone back the next day, placing it where it had been left all that time ago. I could have sworn though, that when I went to leave, in the spaces between the trees on the edge of the graveyard I’d seen, just for a second, the figure of her grandmother, those white eyes fixed on me, as if watching.
I’ve renovated the house since then. Painted over the black walls of the bedroom. I take it day by day. Sometimes I find myself wishing I had the stone, and I’ll catch myself lying in bed for hours, seeing if I can will myself back into that place – but for the most part, I’ve put it behind me. I’ll see her again when the time comes, and until then I have to keep myself busy.
I imagine the low, sad moan I heard so often in that place, and know that I have to find my reasons not to join them.
That each day I have to find reasons not to join the beasts between the trees.
The small room that was going to be the nursery I’ve now filled with her books. I painted it black, which I feel she would have wanted.
From time to time I’ll come into it, pick a book at random and flick through; less to read the book itself and more just to see her handwriting, her tiny drawings and thoughts packed into the margins.
Sometimes, if I’ve had a rough day, or have only barely made it out of bed, I’ll find something new in the margins, the ink still fresh. A little note, or heart, or thought, and I’ll know she’s not gone, really, and if I close my eyes and concentrate I’ll be able to hear it faintly, the melody she sang by the lake with her mouth half-open.
And I’ll know that she’s singing for me.