Thursday, September 1, 2011
FICTION: The Other Side By Gerry Huntman
Isabelle was guilt-ridden, scared, but most of all, excited.
She knew the path well, the worn track winding around the trees and shrubs of the mangrove swamp that skirted the eastern side of her property. She hardly noticed the vital smells of the briny forest, the high notes of the rotting vegetation. She knew where every tree root popped up to ambush and trip, and where every low overhanging branch threatened to scratch her face or tangle her long, auburn hair. It wasn’t something she had to think about.
There were other matters that concerned her.
She felt the emergence of the usual churning in the middle of her stomach; the nagging sensation that Chris was stalking her, finally aware of her indiscretions. In the last few—and increasingly rare—conversations they had together, he had a look in his dark, scribbled eyes that hinted that he was aware of a change in her. He’d kill me if he knew half the truth; no question. The small, neat part of her brain that was rational told her that she was in the clear—her husband was fishing with his mates, as he did every Saturday. On the same ugly, predictable basis he would return home to their shack well after dark, and stinking, stumbling drunk. She had at least five hours to herself, which meant five days…on the Other Side.
Isabelle laughed at the butterflies in her stomach. It was like when she started dating, that mix of excitement, fear, and the anticipation of sexual fulfilment. Even the betrayal of Chris, despite the underlying buzz of guilt, added zest to her journey. It was wrong, but it also meant she was alive.
Isabelle shook her head in disbelief, as she had done so many times over the last three months. Her world had changed in many ways.
Every step she took toward the heart of the mangrove forest was further away from the world she feared and utterly despised. As she stepped over a bulbous arch of mangrove root crossing her sandy path, and using her hands to clear her way through cobwebs, she came to the realization that her trail was an apt representation of her life—a continuum punctuated with obstacles and opportunities. More the former.
She remembered, nearly twenty years ago, when she had just turned thirteen and had arrived on the shores of Australia with her Irish parents, looking to a new life. Everything was a shock to the system, but she adapted well, and thrived at school and with her new friends.
Isabelle did well at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, earning a university medal in biology and saw a career—a life—that had no bounds.
Then she met Chris Latham. He was a bit of a rogue, but he was also full of energy and ideas. He had quit uni early, claiming he had learned enough geology to “make a go of it”, and had dreams of making his fortune in mining. Isabelle was swept up in his dreams, his rugged looks, and they became lovers, and then were married. All within a year. She gave up her career to be his partner, and moved north to the port town of Gladstone, where Chris took up a menial job in the aluminium smelting plant, while he searched for the Big Break. Those years were lean. Isabelle formed a tender, nostalgic smile, recollecting the adventurous nature of their lives together, and the energy Chris displayed in every single thing he did. She had loved him; intensely. From the shock of his long blond hair, to the outdoors-toughened muscles of his body. From his optimistic smile, to the blaze of ambition in his blue eyes. Yes, she had unconditionally loved him.
Chris’ ambitions climaxed with the purchase of a hundred acres of land along the coast north of Gladstone, half way to the city of Rockhampton. There was an old excavation called the Wild Cattle Shale Oil Mine and her husband was convinced it was the right starting point for his mining millions. There was an old house on the site—more a shack; Isabelle turned it into something resembling a home. It wasn’t just the couple’s home, it often accommodated snakes, spiders, millipedes, possums and rats. Her opportunity to talk to other human beings, except Chris of course, was the once a week, two hour journey to Gladstone for groceries and mining supplies.
At first, Chris’ enthusiasm carried her through the loneliness, dirt, and creepy-crawlies. She cursed bitterly under her breath—if he hadn’t changed he would have carried us through ALL our hard times, not just back then!
Was it two or three years ago when it all went wrong? she wondered, as she jumped over a boggy patch on the track. She quickly performed the mental calculation and realized it was over three. Well over. His prediction of a bull shale oil market went acutely wrong, and he misjudged the extent to which his multinational competitors were willing to go to ruin the smallest of companies. After four years of struggle Chris and Isabelle were in financial ruin—and they couldn’t even afford to sell the land—it was worthless. Half of it was mangrove swamp; the other half was beyond improvement. The mine could not sustain a viable business. Chris took a part time job at the smelting plant again and often frequented the Grand Hotel before heading off home. He was tired, drunk, and completely spent of dreams. Isabelle’s deep green eyes started to moisten at this recollection—he changed, his very soul was torn to shreds. What was worse, he was trapped in his failures.
There was pity at first—Chris had cried like a baby a few times at night in her arms, and she remembered comforting him with words, such as, “things’ll turn around, Chrissie, they always do,” and, “let’s sleep on it and see what we can do with this property... you never know, maybe we can start another business!” The look in his eyes were unconvinced, sterile; self-pity was the only thing that was tangible.
One night the disappointment and shame drained completely away. It was like Chris had turned into a different person. He was angry. The world had acted unfairly to him (not us, she observed, to him). He lashed out at everyone and everything, especially when he was drunk, and the most accessible target was Isabelle.
She was smart and a real fighter, but the emotional rollercoaster of the previous years in her isolated, subtropical home had eroded the edge she once had. She wasn’t prepared for this new Chris and she had been knocked off balance from the start. She remembered the turning-point night he had come home—pissed again—and there was a stillness about him, much like a volcano that was ready to erupt and all the animal and bird life had fled the locale. There was a smouldering of coals in his eyes; she could almost discern two faint, glowering embers in the half-light of their dining room. Her instincts screamed out to her to say nothing. She prepared the cheap sausages and frozen veges and placed the plate in front of him on the table—quickly, like his placemat was radioactive. Along with the beer.
The next thing she remembered was waking up on the floor, tasting her blood in her mouth and in agonizing pain with a dislocated jaw.
At first Isabelle found it in her heart to forgive him, and imagined that Chris, shocked with the realization of what he had done to her, would find the spark to return to his former self. Over the next weeks the beatings continued; embarrassed lies before sceptical but silent doctors at Gladstone Hospital; fear for her very life. And still she genuinely believed there was a miracle around the next corner. As the weeks turned into months, and then years, Isabelle adapted, learning how to avoid the sledge-hammer fists and demeaning words…most of the time. The fear of the closed hand, or worse, was ever hovering above her like a dark cloud, pregnant with thunder and lightning.
Her hope of seeing Chris turn back into the man who she remembered was crushed, replaced by a numb resignation of her state. She was in a hole so deep she could not see over its edge.
Isabelle was most damaged by her loneliness. It was not just the lack of human contact, but it was also the change in Chris. As his depression deepened their love making grew less frequent, and less satisfying for both of them. This fed his depression and her loneliness. When he turned into an angry and abusive man, the love making disappeared, and the vacuum was filled by a nightmare. His touch was no longer tender and instead it repulsed her. Whether he noticed it or not didn’t matter; he took it when he felt he needed it. Resistance meant beatings. Years of—yes, out with it! Admit it! Rape! She was grateful that she had difficulty conceiving; the thought of children coming into her nightmare world overwhelmed her.
She had thought about ending her life. More than once. It emerged like a dark, unstoppable predator when she had been abused. It eased away with time but returned when the cycle returned to the fist. It took her a long time to realize that there was still a spark of survivor in her. It was like a pilot light that was buried deep inside, which was only discernable at her low points. It whisperingly compelled her to wait, to seize the opportunity when it arose. She often forgot the words.
Isabelle finally listened to her pilot light three months ago. Inexplicably, unexpectedly, she decided she wanted to wander the swamplands that skirted the eastern fence line of her land. Now, as she traversed a difficult part of the track, thinking about that moment when she first made the decision, she knew she was fated to make the journey. And she had repeated it many times since.
It was on a Saturday afternoon, that first time, just following a heavy tropical rain. The sun had made an appearance and the humidity instantly hugged the land. The sandflies swarmed ravenously, and Isabelle could hear the plop-plop sounds of mud crabs moving about the disturbed wetlands. It seemed the right time for a walk. She had followed the one and only trail into the heart of the mangrove swamp, and a half hour into her journey she heard a faint, discernible hum. It reminded her of the sound of electricity substations, or mains lines. She stopped and determined the sound came from her right. She left the path and after a dozen paces, Isabelle heard it loudest emanating from a small clearing, separated by two large trees. The sound actually came from both the trees. She passed through the gap between them, encouraged by the same compelling voice of her pilot light that had lured her on the track in the first place.
The hum intensified and the swamp transformed before her eyes. What were mudflats surrounded by mangrove trees and shrubs, was suddenly altered to tall conifers and a myriad of giant ferns. It was darker and cooler than in the subtropics of her normal environs and the acrid smell of briny water was replaced by the wholesome, thick scent of the vegetation of a rainforest. She again looked for the source of the humming sound, and saw the two points where the trees had been, now replaced by small ferns, distorted as if she was looking at them through thick lenses. She continued walking down a slight grade, and noticed a clearing with a small, well-tended cottage, with a pretty English garden surrounding it.
As Isabelle approached the cottage the front door opened, and a tall man in his late twenties passed through the doorway. He was already looking at her—almost as if he had expected her all along. As she got nearer she had an opportunity to study him better, and her breath was taken away. He was just over six feet in height and had a body of a gymnast—perfect, well toned, vital. He had short dark brown hair and his eyes were light hazel in hue—something she had never seen before. His face was beautifully sculptured—rugged and yet his lines indicated a gentle person, sensitive, artistic. He smiled. It almost melted her heart there and then.
She remembered their first conversation, almost word for word.
“At last, a visitor!” he had said, in a tone that was inviting. His accent was odd—his English and diction were perfect, but the accent was untraceable.
Isabelle found it difficult to respond. It never occurred to her to ask why a house existed on her property, nor one so well constructed and maintained.
The stranger sensed her confusion. “My name is Barron. I welcome you to my abode. Would you like to share some tea with me? You look unsettled…perhaps some Earl Grey will invoke a calming atmosphere and allow me to explain what is happening.”
Isabelle was dumbstruck by his odd choice of words. Her instinct was to run, to hide and regather her sanity, and yet she was mesmerized by Barron. “That's a German name, isn't it? I think it means ‘freeman’,” she observed.
He chuckled; a genuine, honey-smooth laugh. “Not a common name, I believe. It is an apt name as no-one can be more free than I.” There was a tinge of irony in his voice.
Isabelle realized that his response spawned more questions, but before she could talk he gently grasped her hand and led her into his home.
That day was the best she had for as long as she could remember. The interior of the cottage was as homely and inviting as the exterior—it had an old world charm, with walls covered in colourful oil paintings, all in the Romanticist style of the Nineteenth Century, her favourite. The kitchen had a wood-fire stove, but of a modern design, and to her surprise she saw the kettle was just boiling, and a silver tray was on the small dining table with freshly baked lamingtons and lemon tarts nicely lined up for High Tea. There was the mouth watering smell of bread baking in the oven, yet it could not hide the scent of lavender pot pouri throughout the living area. The cottage seemed to have a feminine charm about it, something she herself would have ideally loved to own, and yet this most masculine of men was also at home. She had wondered if she was dreaming.
Barron didn’t say much over the first few hours; instead he offered tea, and later lunch, and asked questions that allowed Isabelle to open her heart and speak of her life, and her troubles. She was hesitant to recount Chris’ beatings and rape, but as the cuckoo clock sounded for the third hour, she broke down and told Barron everything. He listened, cried with her, comforted her with words and gentle caresses of her hand; he empathized—completely.
Eventually the fear of coming home after Chris’ return shook her out of her fantasy. Barron smiled, understanding. “Isabelle, my dear. Please visit me again. I am always here. I have nowhere else to go.”
She stared deeply into his eyes. “I would like that…but I can’t just come every day. I…have obligations…”
He nodded. “And you have guilt…and fear. I like you Isabelle and I too am lonely. I have patience and I can wait. Come whenever you want to. Next time I will tell you some of my story.”
Isabelle remembered parting from Barron that first day. She left, waving an affectionate ‘goodbye’ and retraced her steps to the strange clearing with the hum. She wept all the way home, not knowing exactly why. What surprised her was according to her watch, she had visited Barron and returned to her home in just over six hours, but according to her wall clock at home, she had been away only ninety minutes. Other clocks verified this, and the sun was still above the horizon.
The second time she visited Barron nearly didn’t happen because she had mixed feelings about the stranger. He had been the perfect host, ideal confidante, but he was also incredibly attractive—physically as well as in character. Aside from her fear of her liaison being discovered by Chris, she feared that she would succumb to something more than what she had first experienced with Barron. It was a mixed feeling—of shame and acute excitement. Over the seven nights that separated the first visit from the second, she had dreamed of Barron almost every time she had slept, and, she admitted to herself, on numerous occasions whilst awake. She swore a dozen times that she would no longer visit the cottage, as her motives had changed and they were immoral, lustful. But when the waves of loneliness set in—and they came depressingly easily—the oath was conveniently forgotten. And so when Chris left in his truck for his fishing mates, she showered for the second time that day, shaved her legs, wore her best, lightest dress, and set off for the secret clearing.
They made urgent, passionate love and Isabelle experienced sensations and depth of feeling she never imagined was possible. They talked some more—and made love again. She learned from Barron that time was different where he lived—that one hour in her world was twenty-five in his. Nothing surprised her any more; she accepted the impossible was now plausible; immersion in his strange world was better than her miserable life with Chris.
He did talk about himself but never in depth and rarely with specifics. He was a stranger in the queer place where he had built his cottage. On one occasion he even admitted he was “alone in this entire world”, whatever that actually meant. She rarely probed him, for fear of bursting the bubble that she had found herself in; as time progressed, she knew that as long as she was on the Other Side, and accepted what was there, the bubble was sound, impregnable. What satisfied her the most was that single certainty.
On one night, only a few days ago, Barron described a little about the world they were in. He said that the sea was far away and the rainforest was primitive and had creatures that were strange and lethal. She admired the preciseness of his language—having been science trained—and also laughed at the quirkiness of his phrases and expression. It didn’t diminish him; in fact it so much more endeared Isabelle to the stranger who was now her lover. He added that the clearing surrounding the cottage was protected by a type of force field, much like the humming device that Isabelle used as a gate.
As Isabelle heard the familiar hum off the track, and she stepped toward the two mangrove trees that provided the gate to the Other Side, she thought again about Barron, and what constituted the man. He is perfect. More than perfect because perfection had a benchmark in her world and Barron exceeded it. She was first worried about this—wasn’t it a truism that many a woman got bitterly disappointed after wedding the perfect man? Wasn’t this the case with Chris? She shook her head in reply, battling the thought, arguing that the differences between the two men were like chalk and cheese—Chris was never perfect, and she had loved him for his strengths (as long as they lasted), and Chris was not otherworldly. She laughed; perhaps it took a man from another world to insure against disappointment.
She located the trees that served as the gate posts and wandered through, entering the ferny land of the Other Side. She skipped down the gradual slope and ran around a clump of evergreen trees, revealing the familiar, serene cottage. As usual, Barron opened the door, smiling, his eyes glinting with his penetrating, knowing gaze.
Isabelle approached the cottage with her usual rising excitement, slowly shedding the trepidation she had carried with her from Back There. Although never entirely. While healed in many ways, she could not completely remove the guilt of her affair, nor fear of her murderous husband.
She passed into the cottage garden, smelling the wafting perfume of daisies, jasmine and lavender. Barron smiled again. “Darling, welcome back. The kettle is already on the stove.”
Isabelle’s mouth formed a wide grin. “As usual; how do you—”
Her words were cut short by a loud rustling of ferns behind her. She quickly turned and saw Chris running into the clearing, holding a shotgun with a knuckle-white tight grip. His face was red with rage, his lips curled back, revealing his yellow teeth in a snarl.
She cried out, “No!” which was all she could muster.
Chris rushed past her, muttering “bitch”, and then directed his shotgun toward Barron. “You scumbag! Sleep with my wife? Sleep with this!”
Time slowed for Isabelle; every detail turned starkly clear. Barron didn’t seem shocked or afraid for his life, and he lifted his hand as if to carry out some deliberate action. She couldn’t understand what Chris was saying while in this slow-motion state but she saw spit slowly stringing and flying off his lips, and the redness of his mad eyes. The shotgun fired, smoke slowly billowing from its muzzle and then the shot visibly flying toward Barron. Isabelle tried to scream but she was as slow as the world around her, and she tried to scream again when she saw the shot impact Barron. Clothes, skin and flesh shredded, flinging a scarlet spray of thousands of droplets into the air, like a flower unfurling its petals.
Time returned to normalcy. Chris snorted and stepped closer to Barron, lying on the doorstep, eyes open, still breathing. “Don’t move, Belle, you’re next,” he spat. He lifted his shotgun again, aiming for the slumped man’s head. Barron lifted his hand again. The cottage shook. Chris noticed it and paused, lifting his eyes to see what was happening. The cottage shook again. A quarter of the building instantly turned into shiny, copper-coloured metal. Chris stepped back, a look of shock on his face, the first time focusing on anything other than his rage. The metal hummed—a lower pitch than what Isabelle had heard at the gate. Chris gulped, his eyes started to bulge, and he was about to scream out in pain when he, with a light whoosh sound, turned white hot and transformed to ash, falling gently to the ground, while his shotgun oozed into a slag heap on the cottage porch.
Isabelle didn’t care about Chris; she rushed to her lover, and knelt beside him. He was dying. It was a miracle he wasn’t dead already.
Baron touched her lips with his fingers. “Do not speak, Isabelle. Do not speak. I will be gone soon. I need to talk to you, to tell you something.”
Isabelle started to sob uncontrollably but when she saw the earnestness in his wonderful hazel eyes, she paused, nodding her head.
“Darling. I have never lied to you, but I left much out about myself. I am a Wanderer, and that is my prime purpose. I journeyed to this world but something went wrong. I was doomed to die because I was so far away from my home and there was no way to return; a slow deterioration. I probably only had a few of your months left. Your husband has only hastened my end.
“I have lived a very long time and I have reconciled myself with my fate. I devised the gate to stem my loneliness and to allow me to impart a gift on your world.”
Isabelle managed to croak a question. “My world?”
“I know you have often wondered where we are. This valley is your world, but millions of years in the past. The gate travels time, not space.” He stopped momentarily, caught in a spasm of pain, fighting the seductive urge to close his eyes. “Listen, Isabelle. As a Wanderer I was not human, not the man you see. But I can alter my biological matrix as easily as my surrounds, and believe me, Isabelle, I am as human as you now know me. In every way. Including knowing loneliness and love. I love you, Isabelle.”
Tributaries of tears streamed down her face. “I love you too, Barron.”
His destroyed body started to shake. His eyes began to roll. “I have a gift for you Isabelle. And your world.” He shakily lifted his hand again.
The metal area of the cottage altered again, and a sliver of white light suddenly encompassed Isabelle’s lower torso. She looked down and heard a rapid heartbeat. Not hers. She sucked her breath in.
“Go now, Isabelle. When I die all that I have brought with me will perish as well, including the gate. I live in you now, and when she grows up she will change your life forever, as well as your world.”
She wanted to stay with him, but he waved his hand urgently at her. Isabelle kissed his ice cold lips and picked herself up.
She ran, sobbing, through the gate to her world, but not before she looked back, one last time, at the Other Side.