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Home: 25 years ago
Pomegranate season was her favourite time. She liked the way the fat balls would hang from the trees, dangling their temptation over the walls of gardens, enticing you to quickly swipe one as you strolled back from school. All her friends did it too, and although a few owners would come out and make a comment, most of them did so good-naturedly, disappearing back into their gardens with a small smile and a wry shake of the head. School kids.
She liked the perfume that they left on the breeze, the stickiness of the juices as you cut through to the little scarlet gems – and the intricacy of mining out those jewels.
She walked home without her parents now she had turned 11 – that still gave her a little thrill – a feeling of independence just around the corner; the awakening of something she couldn't yet grasp.
As they turned the final corner before her home, she smiled when she caught sight of her little sister Laila stomping around the garden on her chubby legs. Laila squealed as she saw Eve, her leg-speed increasing to a pace that her coordination couldn't yet keep up with, sending her stumbling onto the grass. Eve swooped in, school bag slung across her shoulder, and, still laughing, swung Laila around, eliciting the bubbling brook of giggles to which toddlers alone hold the secret.
"Look, Laila – for you, sweetie." Eve offered up the ripe pomegranate that she had stashed away for her baby sister.
"Pom pom," gurgled Laila, grabbing the fruit, and setting off determinedly to the kitchen where, she already knew, help would be on hand in the form of a sharp knife and a willing family member.
Eve glanced around the garden before following Laila inside. Everything was ripening – the figs hung heavy on the trees now, and little pockets of sweetly scented jasmine air were everywhere. She liked helping her parents in the garden. Not so much the cutting back and pruning – she actually rather preferred the wild abandon that the honeysuckle, hibiscus and bougainvillea strove for. But she loved seeing things that had been planted many weeks or months before shyly peering out into the world for the first time.
She heard the strains of her mother's piano playing as she turned back towards the house, and she smiled again as she wondered whether Hugo was home yet: he'd promised her a trip down to the beach with him and his friends once he got back from school. Eve ran up the steps to the verandah, and into the house to find her snorkel and mask.
The house was always full of music, whether drifting out from the cassette player, or from her mother's hands at the piano. Right now, her mother was playing the Enigma Variations again, the notes echoing around the house. She smiled warmly as Eve came in, allowing her hands to continue drawing the beautiful melody from the keys.
"Oh I love this one, Mummy! Tell me again about why this one is special!" Eve said.
Her mother smiled, knowing that Eve already knew, but that there was pleasure in this repetition, these little rituals. She managed to keep the music flowing as Eve ducked under her arms and clambered up onto her lap. Eve was getting too gangly really for that now, but her mother always just opened her arms a little wider, and made it possible.
"What is so special, Evie, is that the parts at the end are saying, on paper, the exact same thing that was said at the start. But the magic is that they sound completely different; when they are played out loud, they say a completely different thing!"
"That's not possible, Mummy!"
"That's the magic, Evie – they are saying something different to you, because you can now hear them differently. The music has taken you on a journey, and without that journey, the start and the end would sound the same to you. But with that journey, you can hear the difference. Magic! Life always finds a way."
The fug of death filled my nostrils, permeating me from the inside. The air was too thick to breathe in. It was a moment strung out like the unending stammer of the machine gun. A soldier ran at me, wild eyes screaming, his ragged breath close enough to share my air. The pop of small arms fire, and he lurched sideways – a red water-bomb exploding on the side of his head. My feet slipped on the heaving mass of failing life carpeting the ground. I was standing in the middle of the battle.
And then I was floating. A witness. A survivor. Invulnerable yet impotent. No bullets could pump into me up here, but I had breathed in the insidious death. My hidden wound would do its silent work.
The sergeant in charge was drunk on blood: ordering suicidal attacks and brutal butcheries. A little girl ran off into the woods. The sight began to unpick the seams of my own sanity. My brain distended painfully to accommodate a new comprehension of normal, like a balloon bulging too far, too fast. He couldn't be judged. And then it went quiet.
There was now only one soldier left. Him. Only him. Me. Only me. A witness. And a perpetrator. My wings unable to beat strongly enough to keep me above all of this, away, I floated slowly down to corporeal reality. The world around me was cloaked in silence. Unbearable silence. Incensed fumes, perfumed with death, wafted upwards, an incantation to some god, somewhere. A tiny gnat danced in a smoky beam of light.
I was taken to a side door – brushed stainless steel. Clinical, cold. I took in the raised platform that the entire carnage had been enacted upon. A stage, a modern-day gladiatorial arena to entertain and amuse. Stage hands were humming to themselves as they knelt underneath the creaking structure, tinkering with this and that; one taking time to sweep the floor.
The soldier was led down the wooden steps. Broken, confused, blood on his hands. The sergeant shook his hand, and I felt the callouses. "I hope we'll be seeing you next time, boy; you did good out there!" He hit my shoulder hard, barked a laugh, and left me there. Alone. I was free, but floundered under the weight of what I had done. Had it been me? The wrench from one reality to another was agony. Dislocation from oneself. And no quick push to shunt the joint back into place.
I stumbled out of the theatre of war, past the old façade of crumbling gargoyles and plasterwork – posters already advertising next week's show. A crowd of screaming women were ordered away by uniformed men: the women's distress clashing painfully with the expressionless eyes of the guards. Their tidal wave of grief crashed over the building, and left behind the flotsam of despair and loss. Thousands of bits of crumpled paper stranded on the coast between hope and reality. The papers jerked in the breeze, so fragile, so vulnerable. I knelt slowly to pick some up. The heaviness of their meaning made them difficult to lift. Letters, photographs: moments and faces lost forever. That abrupt lurch one takes from existence to non- existence in the space of a breath.
London: the present
I'm going to see a psychotherapist. I still find that fact slightly amazing. I've never felt the need before, but now I do. I just can't keep everything together at work, and these nightmares; they are clinging on to me all day, restraining me in another place, another time. I'm feeling stuck – as if my feet are caught in thick treacle, just yards from where I actually need to be. I can't move them.
She has come highly recommended, this therapist – Claire – with all sorts of accolades to her name. I just need her to get me moving again. I have so much on at work, and I know that people are beginning to see me slip, to be nagged by creeping doubts when I'm asked to take on important pieces of work. I hate that – I want them to see me as they always did – as competent, capable. If that is what they see, then that is what it is easier for me to be.
But these nightmares are relentless now: I had another last night. I sat up in bed abruptly, like a free diver kicking desperately to regain the surface. The shroud of the nightmare still clung to me as I clutched at my throat and gasped to refill my lungs. The legacy of the dream dripped off me in glistening droplets that lurked in the shadows of the room. I turned and clicked on the night-light beside my bed. Most of the shadows then retreated, but the soft glow of the lamp was not enough to obliterate them all. Some simply tucked themselves behind the chest of drawers, the stool and the pile of clothes on the floor. They always do. I see them. They never leave me alone. The dark places in the shell of who I am.
Turning to the small notepad and pencil beside my bed, I wondered how to make sense of any of this on paper. Still, I started to write. Hesitantly at first, trying hard to grasp at the fleeing remnants of my nightmare. After a few moments I stilled my hand, letting the dream come back to me, claim me, inhabit me. When I opened my eyes again, my hand sped across the page, the limits of human mark-making frustrating me, as the images started to pour out.
Should I tell Claire about this dream? She had advised me over the phone to write them down, but last night's was so graphic that I feel uncomfortable about sharing it. I'm not sure I want her to see so much.
I climb out of the chill of my bed, kicking off the sweat-stained duvet that never keeps me warm enough, and wander to the shower that never seems to wash me clean.
I had the strangest sense that as I looked out of the train window into the night, another world, another reality was somehow just there, just beyond the glass, millimetres from my fingertips on the pane, hurtling along just as I was, keeping pace in an entirely different realm. Was it looking in on me here, pressed to the glass as I was? Was this invisible barrier between me and the night also the boundary of something beyond?
The window was the strangest thing. Something you usually can't even see, which light passes through. And yet, when the light levels are so much darker on one side, you can not only not see through, but also everything around you is reflected back to you – an illusion of the fullness of this reality, this room, this life.
Home: 25 years ago
As Eve dived down into the water, she felt at home. With the water cocooning her, holding her, she looked for the fish. They soon found her, collecting around her in a small shoal, clicking their curiosity through the muffling liquid. She grinned over at Hugo, a stream of air bubbles escaping from her snorkel and wiggling upwards. Hugo smiled back, and then took out the little bag of breadcrumbs they had brought with them for the fish. Within seconds, the space around them was alive with flashing colours, eager streaks of vibrancy. Gentle clown fish – curious, but never wishing to stray too far from their protective anemones – the grumpy-looking groupers, striped zebra fish, the darting lyretail anthias in their orange swarm, and the stately emperor angelfish. The parrot fish always ignored them unless they got too close, preferring to carry on breaking off tiny bits of coral with their beaks – a noise that could be heard reverberating through the water.
She loved this – loved watching this dance of nature, coloured in such spectacular palettes. She had always liked the contrast between the stark sandiness of the landscape outside and the overwhelming burst of colour that came as you put your head under the water. A kaleidoscopic garden. The way the fish just hung there suspended in front of you, free of gravity in this other world. And she loved these times with her big brother.
They did it over and over again – coming up to the surface to take in enormous gulps of air, and then kicking downwards to rejoin the colourful throng below.
With the breadcrumbs finally finished, she saw Hugo turn the bag inside out and shake it. Everything looked so comical and slowed down that she grinned again. Hugo glanced over at her and gestured to the surface. She nodded back, and they pushed off from the bottom and rose back up to the air.
They lay on their backs on the sand, drying off in the bright sunshine, laughing and discussing which fish they had seen that day. Eve was learning all their names from Hugo, and could identify most of them now, but there were always one or two new ones. He knew so much about them all – their feeding habits, where they laid their eggs, whether they preferred living alone. She always listened intently to him as he taught her about them, but what really captivated her was simply watching them all dance.
Enanti: long ago
A Golden Age
Once, a long time ago, there was a prosperous, peaceful land called Enanti. It knew nothing of terror or darkness. It was a place of light and learning. Its main city, Albedo, was glorious, filled with fountains and open squares, and famed far and wide. This was a Golden Age. And the land was twice the size it is now. It traded freely with other countries, and the people lived in harmony and peace.
Outside the main city, the land was richly wooded, with rivers full of bounty, and settled with many towns and villages. People travelled easily between all parts of this land, forming a cohesive, unified community. The leader at the time, Eferon, had a council, whose members were wise and fair. Everything was in balance, and life was rich.
The dark mist
Something was causing increasing numbers of deaths around the world – festering and growing like an infectious disease. News footage showed a loose ball of dark mist rolling along the ground, and simply absorbing any people in its path. It was terrifying. It would appear and form from nowhere, kill, and roll onwards.
As it developed, this vapour took on more form, killing more and more. It started to be shaped like a strange, dark, lizard-type creature – immense – that would open its jaws and swallow people up. As it ate, its thick tail rose upwards in ecstasy.
The mist was growing in strength by the day. It was targeting certain people: it consumed those who had lost hope or were in despair. For some, it seemed just a mere day of those feelings was enough to conjure up the mist, which would appear and consume them.
I was in a dark bedroom that I shared with another girl. There was a packing case on the bed, and we were staying there to attend a school assessment day. The room had a big, wooden, built-in wall of heavy-looking wardrobes, with dense velvet red curtains. I was sitting on the floor, my friend lying on the bed. The mist started to appear behind my friend – looming out of the darkness. She couldn't see it. The atmosphere plummeted. My friend started to speak: "Everything is going wrong " and the mist loomed higher behind her, drawing itself up for attack. But then she smiled, and added, "But I really don't mind – it will all get better at some point."
In an instant, the creature disappeared, but it left behind a tangible sense of dread and spiked adrenaline. We had found out how to thwart the creature, and we raced up the stairs to inform others.
The setting above ground was vastly different – an old- fashioned tea-party was in full swing. Parents were being fêted by the school and staff, all grating smiles and simpering. Soon it was time for the parents to leave, and just we children remained to be assessed.
There was a dark feeling beneath this school façade. My skin prickled and I smelt the bitter tang of danger. It was some form of research/experimental/torture facility. With their eyes blind, our parents had left us here, and we were alone.
Home: 25 years ago
Under a canopy of stars
"But I'm scared of the dark, Daddy! I don't want to do that!" Eve said, loudly.
"But Evie, sweetheart, that is exactly why we are going to try it. We will all sleep outside in the garden together, look up at the stars together, and show you the dark is OK. Together. OK? And if it gets too much we'll just all come inside," her father replied.
"Can I sleep next to you?" she asked back.
"Your little camp bed will be jammed up so close to mine that nothing will be able to get between. Promise". He smiled back at her.
"And can we have hot chocolate?"
"We can do better than that!" he laughed.
And they really did. That evening they set up all the little camp beds in the garden, and built a fire in the middle which cast flickering light out over them. And they did have hot chocolate, which Eve's mother heated over the fire in a little pan, stirring occasionally and tasting. And Eve's father gave them each long sticks they'd collected from the garden earlier, and then produced a large bag of marshmallows to toast.
"You've got to have marshmallows with hot chocolate!" he exclaimed, "and it is actually the law to have toasted marshmallows when you have an open fire."
Eve grinned up at him, and shook her head in mock exasperation. He tried to tickle her on her side, and she collapsed in giggles.
Excerpted from "The Shifting Pools"
Copyright © 2017 Zoë Duncan.
Excerpted by permission of EyeStorm Media.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The dark mist,
Crossing the field,
The flooded maze,
The ice bridge,
The field of covered bodies,
The Sea Holds Dreams,
Breathing in the sea,