Gladys put both hands on the tree and pulled herself up from the ground. She could see the waning moon through the bare branches. The sky was indigo blue, her favourite colour. The great artist had painted it all for her. She felt it.
“I was here before. I touched this tree once.”
Once, under a tranquil sky.
Her knees were still bleeding. She could see grit and fragments of leaves stuck to the grazed flesh. There was nothing she could do for now. More important things mattered. Like finding out how to get home.
She could feel the bark cracked and dry beneath her splayed fingers. As she stepped back, she let go of the trunk and looked at the medley of colours; brown, red, yellow like flax. There was a tree exactly like it outside her apartment back in England. A London Plane. A beautiful tree. Her favourite. She loved how they shed their outer bark in layers to reveal a multitude of colours beneath. A divine way to rid themselves of pollution.
Impulse overcame her. Her fingers worked like pale crabs, scuttling across the woody surface, peeling flakes from the tree. Fresh bark showed underneath the dead dregs of autumn. Around the trunk she walked, tearing at the tree. As the last flake of old fell, impulse gave way to addiction. Slivers of new green growth fell atop the pile of dead bark.
The trunk became thinner as she worked and Gladys noticed too that it was changing shape. As she peeled, the branches fell around her, exposing the nakedness of the moon. The tree was now a stump of its former self, standing barely five inches above her height. She pulled from the top, ripping lignin strands like threads of celery, until a dome appeared. Running her hands over the smooth surface following the line of the wood, she saw two distinct broad mounds, like shoulders. Yes, the shape she had carved was definitely human. Male.
Carved? Or revealed?
Her nimble fingers set to work again. The fresh bark was still wet. Digging her fingers into the dome, she opened a hole. Forcing more fingers in, she grabbed enough to fold back the wood. Underneath, she saw skin. A cheek. An eye, closed. Black hair, short and curly.
A man’s head came into view. His head fell limp against his chest, lolling on his collarbone.
“Hello? Are you alive?”
Gladys touched his face with her green-stained fingertips. The man didn’t respond. She felt his neck. There was a faint pulse. Placing a finger under his nose, she felt warm air rush over her hand.
I have to get him out, she thought. She tore at the bark, ripping chunks off from his chest, down his torso until finally his legs and feet were free. The man slumped to the ground and lay over the tree shavings, his arms outstretched.
“Wake up. Mister?”
She shook his shoulders gently and his head flopped back, making his mouth open. Tapping his cheek with her palm didn’t work either.
Could he be diabetic? She fumbled inside his shirt pocket and her hand closed around a small bottle. Reading the front, she saw the words ‘Temazepam’ written on the front.
Instinct. She felt his chest. No heartbeat.
“Oh God. Warren, wake up.”
Warren? Gladys felt a jolt in her chest. How could she possibly have known his name? She had never met him before.
Tilting his head back, she saw his Adam’s apple protrude. She pinched his nose with her thumb and forefinger and blew two breaths into his open mouth. Making a fist with her right hand on his chest, she pushed on it with the left. Twenty seven. Twenty eight. Twenty nine. Thirty.
Again, two breaths. She sensed him move and sat up.
“Gladys. My angel.”
His blue eyes were bright indigo, reflecting the sky above. A tear rolled down Gladys’ cheek and fell onto his.
But why was she crying? Over a total stranger?
“You saved my life,” said Warren, pushing himself up. He propped himself up on both elbows.
“You took an overdose,” she said, wiping her wet face.
“Thank you. I’d be dead if you weren’t here.”
She helped him to his feet and he dusted off fragments of wood.
“Do you know where we are?” said Gladys.
“I’m not sure, but I know this place from the back of my mind somewhere,” Warren said. He scratched his ear. “I can’t think when I was here before though.”
“Do you know me?” she said.
“Yeah, I think so. But again, I don’t know how.”
“I know you too. I’m sure I met you in another place once.”
He smiled. “A dream?”
She shook her head. “No. Another place. Back in London, I think. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to go back there. I’m trying to find my way home.”
“Me too. I think I know where to go.”
He took her hand. They climbed down off the pile of wood and walked across the dry earth under the watch of the moon. The sky hadn’t changed at all. It wasn’t any darker. Although the moon was brighter. Gladys stared up at it. She knew time had passed.
They were on a flat plane, the ground veined with cracks. The desert was vast. Gladys could see distant mountains, purple under the evening sky. Warren was taking her towards them. She looked back. The remains of the only tree that had graced the arid land lay like the mound of a fresh burial.
“Why were you in that tree?” she asked.
Warren looked at her, his eyes darting between hers as he searched her face.
“I don’t know. But it was something to do with you, I think.”
He shrugged. “Maybe I was there for you to find me.”
They continued, bare soil passing under their feet as miles came and went. The mountains drew closer. Gladys could see a fissure in the rock forming a passageway, and knew he was taking her towards it.
“Warren, I’m scared. Do you think it’s a good idea to go in there? Can’t we go around?”
“It’s safe. Do you trust me?”
She nodded and squeezed his hand.
Shadow fell over them. The sky above was obliterated. Darkness crowded them, like a cloak. All Gladys could feel was the touch of his hand. Where was the moon when she needed it? No moon, no sky. No air.
Her throat felt constricted. Was she holding her breath in the tenseness of the black passage? She tried to call out to Warren, but had lost her voice.
The pain in her throat was growing in the darkness. Without air, she was suffocating.
Help. Help, she thought but knew he couldn’t hear. No one could.
She was going to die if they didn’t get out of the passage soon. Could they turn back? If she ran, she would make it. She could go around the mountains as she had suggested.
And then a pulse in her forehead, carrying with it a thought. A memory. Of a past life.
Warren please. Don’t do this. Stop.
Her tongue was protruding now, scouring the dark space for air. But there was nothing in the void apart from his hand and her.
You made me do it. It’s all your fault. You make me get angry, you bitch!
Her eyeballs were pounding. Her head felt like a pustule, ready to burst. The pressure was too much. She needed release.
Ahead, she saw a slice of blue. The sky. The beautiful sky. Her feet carried her forwards and the moon was waiting to welcome her, like a mother with open arms to her child.
Gladys inhaled, drinking in a rush of cool, soothing air. Warren turned and smiled at her.
“Everything is going to be alright now.”
Gladys clutched at her throat and felt rough skin around her jugular. She felt a loose piece hanging and picked it off. The flake of dried blood was burnt umber like the bark on the London Plane. Nails had done it, hands that had intended her harm.
But it couldn’t have been Warren. He had been holding her hand the whole time, leading her through the blackness. Only a memory. But it had been so real.
“We’re nearly there now,” he said, squeezing her hand.
Wasn’t he alarmed by her injuries? Had he not noticed? Again she looked to the moon for advice, but it hung above her like an innocent bystander.
Gladys didn’t turn back again. She wanted to forget the mountains falling behind her. One thought alone filled her mind. Home.
As they walked, a towering rock came into sight, like a dark pillar silhouetted against the twilight sky. Warren pointed ahead at it.
“That’s where we have to go.”
Gladys looked at it and her hand fell away from her throat. She lifted her chin and walked forth.
But as she looked closer at Warren, she could see blood.
Yes, there was definitely blood on the back of his head. The drops were falling behind him like a trail. She could see an open cut, an inch long laceration.
“Warren, stop. You’re bleeding. The bottle cut you badly.”
As before, she felt a jolt in her chest. How did she know?
She just did. The details were trickling back to her, clearer on this side of the mountain. Green glass shattering over cranium, the pieces falling through depth and mist as she lay amidst a magnesium stearate rain.
He stopped and walked back to her.
“It’s okay.” He held her face in both hands and wiped across her cheeks with both thumbs. “We’ve both made mistakes.”
“What?” she said, pushing off his hands. “What do you mean?”
Looking down, she saw blood on his fingers.
Her eyes were pouring red tears. Like radioactive fallout, they dripped over her clothes.
“Let’s keep going. There’s still time. We’ll make it home,” said Warren.
The rock pillar was looming ever closer and on it, Gladys could make out a white spot. Closer still, a circle. Closer. A clock.
Thirty feet. A distant siren.
Twenty feet. A wailing war cry.
Ten feet. The banshees were knocking.
They were there. Warren smiled as he placed his hand on the hour hand of the clock and turned it back. And Gladys smiled with him.
The London Plane – First published in Monomyth Magazine Volume 10.1 (Atlantean Publishing, 2010)