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Story: Albert's Park
By Lachlan Horn
Until yesterday I lived all my life amongst satin and silk, nurtured like a prince. Every need was met but for my need of experience. Of course I had little to complain about but inevitably boredom and curiosity led me to escape. I gathered a blanket and what food I could in my small bag and peeled a corner of the plush carpet from the floor. After prying away the wooden boards beneath and digging diagonally downwards into the ground I crawled inside, pulling the carpet back into place above me before digging deeper into the darkness.
The soil was soft and moved aside obligingly under my clawing hands, making progress seem easy. But hours of digging and tons of even the softest dirt will take its toll on hands and desperate fingers, and eventually the only trail I left behind me were the traces of my blood added to the rest of the organic matter. I had been pushing everything I dug behind me so that it wasn't a tunnel I was crawling through as such but a small underground chamber that moved through the earth with me at its core without light or direction. For all I knew I had dug a circle back to where I started, but I reasoned that the chances of this were slim, and having no knowledge of anywhere else it didn't matter where I might emerge.
I dug and bled and cried and felt unknown sensations of pain and exhaustion. I savoured every new feeling and, though enclosed on all sides with dirt and darkness, felt as if the world beyond was rapidly expanding. Not knowing where or how deep I was, knowing only that I couldn't go much farther in the stale, recycled air, I put my faith in gravity and began to dig against it. I smelt the light and air and life before I saw it. It met all the descriptions I expected: fresh, sweet, intoxicating and many other well worn clichés. I punished my tired and beaten limbs harder as I sensed the world above moving closer and soon enough light broke through to meet the reach of my bloody, searching hands.
When my eyes adjusted to the stunning light I found that the teasing smells I had encountered from below the surface only hinted at the intensity of experience above it. My mind couldn't comprehend the vast quantity of sensual information nor its unfamiliar qualities. It took minutes of gazing and twisting around and back before I could make some sense of order and take in my new environment. I was amazed at how subtly one colour could change to another: I had thought that grass was green, just as the carpet of my house was red. But I was standing in an open space of patchy grass in every shade of not just green but yellow and brown over the dusty, red-brown dirt. Near to my hole a glorious oak tree had long ago broken its own way from the earth and towered above a single bench, dominating the space around it. The wood of the tree was as much grey as it was brown and its base was umber with dust. Gazing up I followed the path of branches above me: the trunk breaking into a few strong and powerful branches, then separating and thinning over and over to create unimaginable shapes. The thinner and more numerous they became the more they dared toward straightened lines and hard angles, corrected only by the flowing hand of nature. The rippled leaves floated at the tips of the thinnest branches to present a blanket of luminescent green outwards and upwards to the sun, whose light tumbled between them, through the branches, and collapsed below in shadows as intricately detailed as the tree itself. The next closest trees were some distance away, emerging intermittently from thick scrub that created a boundary around the clearing I was in and beyond which I could see nothing.
By the time I had restrained my marvel the light was fading and casting orange all around me. I lay my blanket on a soft patch of grass beneath the oak and ate a little from my bag. The air was warm and dry enough that I could sleep as I was. I laid down, shifting until the shape of my body could grudgingly agree a deal with the contours of the ground and gazed up again into the tree, its beauty fading in the dimming light. I traced paths through the webs of branches, finding new shapes in each one. Midway along a sturdy branch I spotted an owl, and as I my eyes narrowed in on it I could see that it was returning my gaze as if wondering similarly on the shape of my world.
'You must see everything that comes and goes from up there,' I said to it.
'Who?' came the reply.
'Who indeed! I wonder the same thing. Who lives in this beautiful world?'
Our conversation ended there but we continued to watch each other for a time as the last of the light fell from the air. As dusk surrendered to night the owl flew away into the fresh darkness. I closed my eyes and turned from back to side and side to back looking for sleep that never came.
There is a peculiar feeling of not being alone that can only be the product of being truly alone and it is the enemy of sleep. The problem of reassuring myself that I was alone was admitting that I was truly alone, meaning there was nobody and nothing between me and what may or may not be about to burst forth from the dark. It isn't logical, but logic rarely survives in darkness.
I remained awake, disturbed and alert, alternating between closed eyes and peering into the night, reverting to one when the other became unbearable. With eyes open I could vaguely see the stealthy pacing of wolves around the boundaries of the park. With eyes closed they began to circle nearer as if I were a drain pulling them in, their spiralling trajectory accelerating the closer they came until they were upon me with a terrifying rage and I was forced to open my eyes and watch them still pacing in the distance, beginning the cycle again. I knew how easily it was to imagine things like this in my situation, but I knew just as well, with my senses running high on adrenaline, that I could see the shine of every eye and hear each purposeful stride and smell my fear and their hunger.
The reassuring beauty of my new environment had turned to menace with the dark and now I lived in a world of little colour. Tonight would not be the night I saw the moon, it had turned its back to reflect distant light elsewhere. The tree was now a charcoal web against a deep sky, the thicket around the park a black wall rising from the dark grey surface of the earth. The wolf shapes were darker still, obsidian shadows circling their prey. Lying there, unblinking, moving nothing but the synapses of my mind, I knew there was nothing to do except to decide whether what I saw was real or imagined. If I accepted these drooling dogs as fact, if I chose to believe in the power of their jaws and the hardness of their fangs then I could be sure of death before I saw the sun. If I decided not to believe in what I saw, to rationalise the wolves from existence, then I could surely fall asleep and awake safely in the light of dawn. It seemed as though this would be the easy way, but I got the feeling it wasn't so simple.
What if, deciding they didn't exist, I shut my eyes and fell asleep, spared of the onslaught of wolves? What if I was wrong? As I lay peacefully dreaming they would creep up and tear my throat from my neck in an instant and I would die ignorant of my fate. I had rested with the intention of waking to the sun, not to sleep forever without dreams. So I couldn't fall asleep.
Was I to go the other way? To accept that I would die that night to the snarls and snapping jaws around me? As frightening as it might be at least I could be sure of what was to come. But again, what if I was wrong? Once I had decided that they must be real, believed fully that I was bound to die, wasn't it possible that I would, from fear and belief, even if the wolves were only wind and leaves? I have heard stories of people dying because they believed they were going to die. It would be preferable, I suppose, to still being alive at daybreak, having surrendered wholly to death, given up on future dreams and hope, withdrawn from all but the physical functions of life. Could I remain alive, believing I was dead?
There was no way of being sure of anything and I am a man that needs to be sure. So I haven't made a decision. I couldn't. I've decided to wait and see. I lie here watching the wolves circle the park. I saw them rushing towards me when I dared to close my eyes, pressing in until I had to open my eyes lest they tear me apart. I don't know what would happen if I kept my eyes closed, I wouldn't know I suppose, so I am keeping them open. I want to see everything. I don't know what is going to happen, but I do know what is happening now and I'll know what is going to happen when it does. For now the wolves are keeping their distance and occasionally I let my eyes wander up and marvel at the intricate beauty of the tree. I can see better in the dark now, if I concentrate I can make out the same colours and shapes and patterns that I marvelled at in daylight. I can see the wolves in more detail as well, they are beautiful in a way, but still terrifying. The owl is back. We aren't speaking but I know he can see in the dark better than I. He seems to have seen the wolves.
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