Authors: Jamie Rowboat
Tags: #Fiction Young Adults
Charlie wasn't there, or at least that's what it felt like to Marie as she crept up to the bed in his tiny hospital room. His body was certainly there, plugged into a vast bank of chattering equipment, but somehow, he wasn't. His white hand was limp and lifeless, with no warmth to it at all. Charlie's parents had gone out of the room for a moment to phone their sons at home and Marie had offered to stay with Charlie until they returned. She had regretted this decision the moment they walked out. Now, she found herself sitting beside him, wishing she could be positive and reassuring, but unable to speak.
"BLEEP," went one of the monitors, jolting her from her thoughts. Suddenly, she felt breathless and trapped in this dead little room filled with manufactured air and sterile light. Evelyn appeared at the door and something snapped in Marie. She jumped up from her seat and went charging out of the door as fast as she could. Evelyn tried to say something as she went passed, but Marie didn't stop to hear what it was. Fortunately, no one followed her as she ran out of the hospital, but the smell of the place still clung to her. She kept running until she finally collapsed in a big heap at the side of a small lane about half a mile from the nursery. She couldn't move, so she just lay there gasping for air between sobs, the tears streaming down her cheeks onto the ground beneath her. She closed her eyes and imagined that she was sinking into quicksand. After a while, it seemed like she no longer existed, having been swallowed up by Mother Earth. She felt like a plant that drops its foliage and retreats into its roots to watch out the winter from its haven away from the harshness of the outside world. She lay there supine, a pair of eyes looking out from the underworld, safe from being herself for a while. Then, suddenly, the sunlight disappeared and, as she looked up, the silhouette of a person loomed over her. She gasped at the appearance, but the voice was gentle and familiar.
"Are you okay, Marie?" the person asked. It was Gemma, looking down at her in a concerned way.
"Mmm. no, not really," croaked Marie faintly.
"I heard about the accident and I was just on my way to the hospital," said Gemma, kneeling down beside Marie.
"Oh," said Marie quietly, before bursting into tears again.
"Come on, let's get you back to my house," soothed Gemma.
"Okay, I'd like that," said Marie quietly, climbing gingerly to her feet. They made their way down the street in the direction of Gemma's home. She was a small woman and Marie was surprised by the strength in her grip, which was firm and reassuring.
"Don't you want to go to the hospital?" asked Marie.
"Charlie's in good hands, the doctors know what they're doing. Anyway, I think I've found the person who needs me at the moment," she said, gently squeezing Marie's hand.
Marie met Gemma the day she came to Marie's school on an environmental project the previous year. They were replanting trees on a deserted plot of land that had once been the local rubbish tip. For some reason, Gemma had taken an immediate interest in Marie and had asked her to help at the nursery during the school holidays. From then on, they had become close friends in a way that Marie hadn't experienced with an old person before. Gemma was like no one she had ever met. Even though Marie was the teenager, she often thought that Gemma was younger at heart and more unpredictable than she was. At times, Marie was amazed at Gemma's attention to detail, enabling the nursery to run like clockwork, but then, she would disappear for days without telling anyone. When Gemma finally reappeared, she would refer vaguely to, 'collecting wildflower seeds in the New Forest with some old friends', before carrying on as though nothing had happened. Despite such inconsistencies, she had been there for Marie when it mattered and Marie had come to trust her advice implicitly. When Charlie came onto the scene, Marie's focus had gradually become dominated by thoughts of him. Gemma remained in the background and Marie was very aware of the subtle support Gemma provided her and Charlie, but she sometimes wondered why Gemma had the desire to do so.
In the relatively small community of Chelmsley, Gemma Granlin was virtually a celebrity. With her slightly thinning, curly, grey hair and faded tweed skirts, she looked like a kind, vaguely unkempt grandmother. In seeming contrast with this appearance, she also ran the most successful specialised nursery in the south of England; receiving orders from all over the country and indeed the world. She had been a member of the board of the local council for many years and was one of the founding members of an environmental movement that boasted Prince Charles as its patron. With his not-so-subtle encouragement, the British Soil Association had presented her with a lifetime achievement award for her work only two years earlier. She was responsible for such initiatives as having street trees planted throughout the county, the introduction of environmental studies at the local schools and the reintroduction of vegetable allotments for council estates. Yet, despite her notoriety, she was a humble, private person. These days, Gemma was 'getting on', as she put it, so she had a team of 'youngsters' running the nursery and her involvement in community matters was negligible.
Gemma's home was a small stone cottage tucked at the back of the nursery compound. It had been one of the caretakers' cottages from the landlord's estate and was little more than a burnt out shell when Gemma took over it. Her home was tiny but beautiful, with a rambling garden full of exotic trees that, in summer, completely hid it from view.
As the front door swung open, Marie squinted so her eyes could adjust to the slight lack of light. The smell of peppermint filled the air and a log fire burned brightly in a copper grate that sat in a stone hearth in the corner of the room. There were two well-worn leather chairs, which had once been bright red, and a small, comfortable-looking sofa in front of the fireplace.
"Come and sit down," said Gemma, leading her to the sofa. Marie plonked down heavily and Gemma left her there and walked across to the kitchen.
"I'll make you some of my famous berry tea," she said, grabbing a battered old kettle that sat by the stove.
"Thanks," said Marie, who was now gazing around the room. An extraordinary life of travel was exhibited in this little temple. There were countless photos of Gemma in every circumstance and landscape possible, from Tibetan mountainsides to Irish pubs. Hats of every description hung from an array of hooks and assorted memorabilia covered every inch of available space. There was even a silver compass that showed its age by the dents on its case. Then there were horns, hooves, sharks' teeth, necklaces, bracelets, statues, kites, wooden boxes, metal boxes and miniature boxes, which were studded with precious gems. There were overcoats, undercoats, ponchos, bows and arrows and countless books, which lined one entire wall.
"I'm sorry, but the place is a little bit cluttered," said Gemma, putting a tray down in front of Marie.
"Are you kidding? It's wonderful. I dream of living a life that ends up full of so many incredible memories," said Marie.
"I'm not planning on kicking the bucket quite yet," said Gemma with a giggle.
"I'm sorry, that's not."
"I know my dear, I was just joking. The truth is, Marie, I saw something very special in you the moment I first met you at your school and, having got to know you so well over the last year, I know my intuition was right. When you've lived as long as I have, you learn to notice a gem when you see one. You have a depth in your eyes that still takes me by surprise and I can promise you that your life will be anything but dull."
"But how can that be? It all just seems so hard and meaningless. I open my heart to someone for the first time and they're taken away from me," said Marie with pain and indignation in her voice.
"That's not true. Charlie hasn't died and if I'm any judge at all, he has far too much strength in him to let go of life so easily. No, something is going on and we are part of it. There are no mistakes in the way life works. It may not always be what we want and sometimes it may appear to be utterly tragic, but."
"But how can an accident like this be perfect when it's so hard and cruel for those involved?" interrupted Marie.
"This event, like every other one, is connected to a much bigger picture. Even death is part of that perfect process. If we could see beyond death, we would find the beginning of life and not the end of it. Your body is not who you are Marie. It is the vehicle for who you are and when this body dies, your soul-self lives on."
"But how can you be so sure of that?" asked Marie.
"Because I have spent a lifetime studying the hidden mysteries of life that are contained in many books and teachings that still exist today. I have meditated twice a day for more years than I can remember. To do so puts you in touch with enormous power as long as you then have the humility to serve it. Anyone who is prepared to study such things soon realises that there is far more to life than we presently understand."
"Oh," said Marie quietly.
"But enough of that stuff, words aren't what you need right now. I know you may not feel like it, but I think I should give your mother a call to let her know where you are. If you like, I could suggest that you stay the night here. I think it might be easier for you and you look pretty tired."
"I'd like that," said Marie with a heavy sigh. "I don't think I could face her questioning right now," she added quietly.
"I thought that might be the case," replied Gemma. "Now let me organise some bedding for you, then I'll give her a call," she said, standing up. When she returned, Marie was already fast asleep, so she tucked her feet onto the sofa and covered her with a soft, white doona.
"Good night," she said, kneeling by her side and stroking her hair.
Shamir and his Kanook had been sitting in the arboreal ring for many hours. It was the night after the full moon and, as the daylight waned and a huge, shimmering sphere slowly began to appear on the horizon, Shamir felt his heart lighten. The orange globe rose in the darkening sky and as it did so, his attention was drawn to the centre of the circle, where an orange pool of light was forming. The tops of the great trees were framing its edges with a fringe of broken shadows that looked like the ashes around an enormous bonfire. As he stared into the heart of the golden light, an image appeared in the centre of the circle. At first it was nothing, just a tiny flickering of particles making a shape out of the orange light, but then it started to become much more. The particles began to cluster together making a real form, the body of a young person made out of orange light. To begin with, there was no detail on it, just the outline of a beautiful mannequin. However, in time, the sculptural nature of the form grew and, as the moon left the circle, a young man was left like an offering from nature at the feet of the wizard and his friend. Shamir stepped lightly forward, bowed to the moon and wrapped up the naked figure in the grey cloak that he had slung over his shoulder. Shamir cradled the young man in his arms and whispered a prayer of welcome, before they lifted him together and made their way out of the circle.
The path to the cottage was moist from dew and the forest was completely silent all around them. The cold night air strained their lungs and their puffing and stumbling was the only disturbance in the sleeping woodland. They stopped a few times to rest along the way and apart from a snowy owl that followed their movements for a while, they weren't seen by anyone.
By the time they made it to the front steps of the wizard's cottage, the first glimmers of light were beginning to appear in the sky. Tired from carrying his heavy load, Shamir leant against the front door in an effort to open it without putting Charlie down. As he did so, he lost his hold and stumbled through the door, dragging the other two with him. They ended up in a tangled heap on the floor and poor old Kanook smacked his knee as he lunged inside. He sat on the rug, rubbing his kneecap, as Shamir struggled to put the sleeping young man under the doona. Satisfied that he was comfortable, Shamir checked his pulse.
"How's his heartbeat?" asked the elf.
"It's quite stable and his breathing seems strong," said Shamir.
"Good, well we can only wait and see what happens now. Let's hope his character is strong enough to cope with the change."
"Yes, let's hope so," said Shamir quietly.
"Now, I might go home, but I will ask Ayou to come round and sit with you. That's if you don't need me for a while."
"No, I'm fine, you go home and nurse your knee. I'll send news when there's some to send," replied Shamir. With that, he gave Kanook a big hug, before helping him hobble to the door.
Charlie woke up to the smell of toast and he felt comfy and snug in a warm bed. It wasn't until he opened his eyes that his mind started to race and fear began to rise in his chest. Before any thoughts could take hold, a soft voice interrupted their flow.
"Don't worry if things don't make sense at the moment. A lot has changed, but you are perfectly safe," soothed the voice.
Charlie slipped back into the comfort of sleep for a while. It was quite a few hours later when he finally opened his eyes again to see someone kneeling beside his bed in a room he had never seen before. An old man of at least seventy, with a craggy face and bright diamond like eyes that twinkled like tiny wise stars. He wore a grey shirt with pearl-coloured buttons and faded green pants that were tucked into a pair of felt boots. As Charlie began to focus on the room, it became clear that he was in a log cabin of some description. The house comprised of one room with a lofted ceiling. This was supported by one large beam and four cross beams that stuck out from its length like fish bones. There was a large selection of walking sticks and staffs, which sat in a sculptured box by the front door and the kitchen table sat beneath a hanging rack of pots and pans, which had been cleaned so thoroughly they shone like large Christmas decorations. There was another bed at the other end of the cabin, which sat on a mezzanine floor above the rest of the room. The space this created beneath it was the old man's study. In this little nook sat a beautiful carved desk, which was pushed right up against the wall, with a worn leather chair tucked halfway underneath it. Little sketches and handwritten notes covered the wall in front of the desk, yet somehow, like the rest of the cabin, it looked organised and functional.
"Hello there," whispered Shamir. "Before you try and speak, you are quite safe. You are somewhere you will not recognise, but you are in no danger. My name is Shamir. I won't try to explain anything yet, but feel secure in your bed and we will talk in a while. Here now, Charlie, drink this special tea I've made and it will make you feel more comforted," said Shamir, as though he had known his name all his life.
"Mm," said Charlie, "I don't know how much longer I can lie here. My muscles are aching and I really feel like moving around. Is there any reason that I can't? I'm not dead or injured or something, am I?"
"You are certainly not dead, Charlie. You have moved, but you are certainly very much alive. If you feel like getting up, that is exactly what you should do. But remember, your body might feel a bit weak as it has had quite a jolt," said Shamir.
"What do you mean I've moved?" asked Charlie, lifting himself up onto his elbows.
"I was going to explain everything to you when you had settled in a bit more, but since you wish to know, I will try to make things a little clearer. You see, Charlie, you've had an accident."
"Yes, I can remember that. I came off my bike riding down Flexford hill with my girlfriend Marie. But then it all goes blank."
"Well, in that crash, your physical body and your soul body have become separated."
"My physical body and what. what the hell are you talking about?" demanded Charlie.
"Charlie, I don't mean to patronise you, but if I try to explain that to you now, it will only sound confusing. The experience of life is far more diverse than humans are able to understand. Much that happens in our lives, which seems unexplainable, is in fact a piece of a jigsaw that fits perfectly, if only we could see the whole picture.
"You mean, I've left Earth?" asked Charlie.
"No, you are still on Earth, but you have come to a place that humans haven't discovered yet. It is a valley that has been hidden from view for hundreds of years and, for some reason, you have been brought here."
"But why me?" said Charlie.
"I don't know, Charlie, but I promise everything will become clearer to both of us in time. Just try to go along with things for now, if you can," said Shamir gently.
"I'll try, but it all seems pretty freaky to me at the moment," said Charlie, looking quite concerned.
"Tell me, Charlie, are you afraid of me?" asked Shamir.
"No, not at all."
"Good, well at least that's a start. I wish I could explain it in a way that made everything clear, but I can't," said Shamir scratching his head.
"Okay, I can tell that you're trying to help me, but can I ask one thing?"
"Yes, of course, ask anything you want to," said Shamir.
"Will I ever be allowed to leave here so I can see my parents and Marie again?"
"That's such a difficult question to answer, Charlie. You see, only two people have ever survived the transit into this valley out of twelve who have been brought here. I don't say this to scare you, but just to illustrate the difficulty of the situation. What I can tell you, is that it is entirely possible to travel back to the human world from here because I've done it and returned. The problem is, the only person who survived the journey here before you, died before she was stable enough to make the journey back," replied Shamir.
"Mmm, so you're afraid I'll go the same way," said Charlie.
"Yes, exactly," answered Shamir, lowering his head.
"Well, I'd better hang with it then, freaky dream or not," said Charlie with a wry smile.
"That would be good," said Shamir, exhaling deeply.