Saturday, 31 October 2015

A Halloween Ghost story of sorts

The Returned
By Daniel Hansen

His hand jerks and waves over the tiny corpse, discharging the fat bluebottles with a reluctant buzz. A young robin, red breast towards the sky, feathers dishevelled. The fact that its tail is completely missing greatly deepens his already deep unease. The small bird is scooped from the undergrowth with one hand while the other hand smoothes the out of place feathers. It weighs practically nothing resting in his rough palm. A shallow grave is dug with a boot heel.

How can he be here? A quarter of a century has passed and it is still sooner than he thought he would be back. His wife had pulled the car over for their picnic but it had to be destiny or fate that brought him here. He had said he was just going to go urinate. What difference did another lie make now anyway? She wouldn’t come look for him when he was gone longer than was needed to void a bladder; instead she would be sat, sulky faced, in the car. The scorching sunlight, filtering through the leaves in hot white patches, does nothing to lessen his disquiet.

The path to the lagoon is over grown, the brambles no longer kept at bay by the regular passage of legs. Why did no one visit the lagoon any more? It could not have lost any of its tranquil and turquoise appeal. Of course he knows why. Its pine lined shores have haunted him for twenty five years and he has been nowhere near it. A single gagging sob forces its way out of him and he sits down hard, dirt staining his white shorts.

A fallen branch is employed to ease his passage down the bramble-choked path. The swatting branch helps but still curved barbs catch at his clothes and flesh, as if the very thorns are protesting his decision to go down there. Is he really doing this? His mind firmly repeats instructions to turn around, but his defiant legs keep taking shaky steps forward. Ahead the path curves and he is all too aware of the dreadful vista awaiting him. With mouth dry he presses on.

His eyes snap shut against the panoramic opening in the forest; the contrast is still startling. A luminous aquamarine mouth gaping from a beard of ominous towering black pine. The tongue in his mouth extends, it is abruptly thick with acrid flavours and he drags a salty forearm across its lolling pink form. Stinging eyes are forced open and set to search for the most terrible detail in this view. It lies ahead, the raised rocky mouth of the shallow stream that weakly delivers its waters into the lagoon over a wide fat lip of stone. The sensation of its smoothed and worn rock bed beneath bare feet returns to his memory with such startling strength that he steps back and stares dumbly down at his sandals. “The waters never got quite deep enough to cover the tops of my feet.” he says aloud.

It is this wet stone platform that has been the stage for a looping parade of ghastly nocturnal imagery, perpetually disrupted the sleep of his adult life. The crimson wetting the rock further, diluting into a fading pink mist as it reached the water. The sun bleached floral patterned dress, clinging to small tanned legs. He is awake now and these pictures are yet more vivid than his dreams. The limp sun hat, draped over his skull like a wilted daisy, is employed to mop up the sweat trickling down his ample forehead. His eyes slide away from the mouth of the stream to the expanse of the lagoon. His damp brow furrowing, he squints at something stirring beneath the surface. A scarlet ribbon, rising up, up from the depth of the lagoon and spreading out in a claret cloud as it reaches the surface. Dumbfounded he stares at the red spot, startling against the perfect turquoise waters, then he notices another band of scarlet snaking its way upwards. An involuntary whimper is emitted as he spies two more red clouds pooling on the lagoon surface. The red spreads out before his eyes and bleeds together, turning the whole lagoon a brilliant deep crimson.

For the second time his legs go out from under him, only this time he is sent sprawling forward, snatching pointlessly at the air until face meets dirt. There he lies, a helpless toddler; his brown and cream stripped polo shirt ridden up to his armpits, puffy, hairless white back exposed to the sun, and nostrils and mouth crammed with soil. The peaty scent takes him back to that geranium filled room, their number so great that the air was pungent. Amongst the geraniums, all dressed in black, was every living member of the family.

He has no clear memory of that room as a whole, his mind so dulled by emotion that he only took in details. Great Auntie Lena picking the salad out of her sandwiches with shaking hands. His elderly Uncle Rupert, his suit jacket looking like the night sky, flecked as it was with crumbled meringue. His cousin Stephanie, her dark hair in a tight bun, sat straight backed at the piano mastering Satie. The dried grass cuttings clinging to the knees of his little brother Thomas’ trousers where he had been playing outside. His deflated parents sat hand in hand, sunk into a red Chesterfield, faces pale but a quiet rage burning in their eyes. From that room was born the question that had always plagued him, a question of fault. Family members softly spoke lines of possible comfort; phrases like, “You can’t watch them all the time,” and that “It was just a case of tragic bad luck.” His parents were not among these softly spoken family members.

Years later, sprawled on the ground, dirt in his face, the question is still as persistent as ever. Was it his fault? Not by direct action perhaps, but by omission? He had always carried the guilt so it did not seem that amiss to also carry the blame. A muddy spit ball is hacked out onto the ground and the previously buckled legs find their strength again. There is no surprise when, risen from the forest floor, he sees that the lagoon is turquoise again; not even a fleck of red. He can sense the change from down in the soil; something has arrived, he can feel eyes on him. His skin crawls into icy bumps, his gut feels like a piece of fetid meat, gnawed and torn by writhing maggots. His hammering heart crashes blood so violently down the body’s vessels that it makes his vision bounce, and his breath come out in ragged little stutters.

A hollow, steady knocking suddenly pounds out from the stream mouth and echoes out infinitely across the lagoon. Silence, then the knocking comes again; five strong, purposeful raps. He knows exactly what it is, a spirit knocking to be let through into our world and he will let her in. The tears flow faster than the stream ahead, burning hot lines down the fear-chilled flesh of his face. He moves forward, towards the knocking. The unworldly rapping is ringing out from a point in the stream mouth hidden by a ceanothus in full pale blue bloom. Unconsciously the ceanothus bush is reached, his body moving with one motivation now; to be forgiven or to be punished. The knocking is so loud now it is the only thing left in the world, drowning out his own shakily whispered, “Come.”

Breath held in his lungs, he steps round the bush to confront the entity that has brought him back; to gaze upon the ghost he has allowed to return. In front of him, stood in the middle of the stream, grand and silhouetted, stands a huge stag. The beast’s antlers form the illusion of holding the pale sun in place in the sky. It raises one leg and then cracks out another five haunting knocks across the surface of the rock with a dense chipped hoof. There is no comprehension in his mind why she has chosen the form of a male deer, he just understands it is her. He sinks to his knees in front of the stag and he begs forgiveness through saliva and tears. His hand sinks into the tick-bitten hide of the animal, then his face joins the hands and the pleas are muffled. The deer’s ears flick violently, discharging a fly from its resting place; its black eyes, though gently weeping, show no sign of forgiveness.