It's the three of us on the hill, simply aligned: the fact being I am in the wrong place — on the other side of the tree interfering, alas, between me and the house. In this platitude (added to an equally unpractical linearity) I don't see a way to reach the house — that of course would be my natural destination. Inside it I could change position. I could at least sit, without further ado. Sitting would allow me to take my head in my hands and ponder the situation that has started to escape my control. Actually it has totally escaped, I'm unable to say for how long.
Anyway: I should reach the house that is mine, for me I mean, while the tree is just a challenge, an obstacle, something put there to make my life difficult. Life? Not sure... although, since I'm able to jot these reflections, considerations, even plans, I shall still consider myself alive. Should I? Of course. Only, in a kind of interim situation, where reality clues are slightly confused. That's all.
I can't reach the house: that's the problem. I can't. For — you see — we are flat as I was saying. Flat and lined up, like printed characters on a page — and I've landed in the wrong place for some reason, on the other side of the tree. The lack of third dimension makes it hard — or impossible — to bypass this thing separating me from my objective. Unless... well, as you have figured by now (from your somehow comfortable outside perspective), there's a move and a move only I could venture to try.
I should plant my left foot (the one closer to the tree) as steadily as possible, pin it to the ground (if such term applies to the thin line designing this bleak, bare hilltop).... Pin my foot to the ground, I was saying, and fling my body across with all the strength I can summon.... Open up like a window, rotate on my hinge, overcome the freaking vegetation to be slammed — face forward — right in front of the house, in line with the little door.
God knows if the door will open, or if — very likely — it's affected by the general platitude. God? I don't know, I really don't. Then... whereto would it open? I haven't thought that far. For, I see, before I get to the door I've to lunge forward (I will, promise) into uncharted territory. I know there's a void: I can perceive absence — that is why I'm stuck. There's no path, no stairs, no trail, no slope, nothing. There's a void: will it allow my passage? How does void hold? Does it give in? I have no clue. Also, I've no other choice.
Here we go.
I have fallen. No doubt. I was running like mad and I lost my balance. I have tripped, then met the sidewalk. Did I land on my hands, as instinct commands? Something suggests I didn't. Did I roll on the side, bunched in fetal position? I fear it didn't happen. I just brutally collapsed: I was terror-stricken. Those four Danes were following me — barking as if hell had got lose. What triggered their fury, I don't know. What did I do to provoke them? I can't recall, sorry. Usually I'm not afraid of dogs, but those... well, they were something else. Where did they peer out? A gate? A front door? I didn't see them until they were right behind me and — mistakenly, I know — I started rushing. I was taken by surprise... I reacted irrationally. My, they were huge like horses, like cows, with their cartoonish look: black and white, yet not funny.
I must have hit the pavement very hard. What did they do? They didn't devour me, for I'm here.... And I don't feel pain: I wasn't wounded. Was I? I don't feel a thing to speak of. But I'm here, I'm telling you. I'm telling you: I'm here. Maybe they ran me over: they couldn't stop their impetus. Maybe they didn't see me.
They might not have been after me, now that I think about it. Perhaps I was in the way. Sure, I must have been in the way... they only had to bypass me. And I let them, I flattened myself on the ground.
I lost consciousness.
Hell is a series of little hills, dome shaped. Kind of primitive breasts, without the sensuality: believe me, so freaking dry.
The good thing about it — if any — is equality. There is nothing else: an infinity of quasi identical hills, dome shaped, each with a little house plus a little something else. I should say person, human: only, it sounds inappropriate.
The tree? Disregard it. We got rid of the tree: it was a purgatorial feature, a residual, a kind of hallucination. Trees have been disposed of due to their inessentiality. All that is left is hilltops, houses, and us: those prickly, aching bundles of consciousness.
Have you heard of lost souls? Well, the expression applies — though it sounds a bit folkish, a bit melodramatic, in this purified context. Still: it kind of matches reality. There's a bunch of lost souls in hell. I am one.
Oh god (god?) let me revise the paragraph I just finished. Did I say reality? Yes. Yes, it works. I said purified: it works as well. This is a purified reality. Rarefied, though there's an infinity of us... I mean, you couldn't imagine such a multitude: no, you couldn't fathom... yet we are so orderly put, neatly separated, that no sense of crowd is conveyed. There's uncountable humans, hills and houses. But there is nothing else: all the rest is gone.
Demons? Please. The only thing reminiscent of popular myth is this crater shape. I mean, the hilltops are disposed around a concavity, lining up its sides like the niches of a necropolis. Like the steps of an amphitheater. With a Coliseum feeling. A beehive quality. Or, rather, an artichoke look. An onion, maybe. Something overlapping, something concentric.... Maybe a spiral: a maelstrom. A gigantic conk shell....
It doesn't matter. The overall shape, the general perspective doesn't matter. We are these dots on the sides, this pixilation: this is what we are and what counts. There are no demons.
There is us: and it brings some kind of comfort. I mean, not being alone, knowing nothing happened to me that didn't happen to zillions and zillions of others. Others: I never thought this word could contain so much tenderness. I never relished it as I am now. What happened to me happened to.... But what happened to me? I haven't straightened it up, yet. Will I ever? It starts mattering less and less. Actually, it doesn't matter already.
We have fallen. I have fallen on the side, probably the other side of him. I've lost track, and probably consciousness. I have come to, briefly, in the ambulance. I was lying down, I only saw the ceiling, and the light disturbed me. I heard the traffic outside: it was confusing, consuming. Then, nausea overwhelmed me. I must have passed out again.
At the hospital — the emergencies — they didn't let me see him. They said they couldn't: people must be divided by gender. That sounded risible, but I hadn't the energy to debate it: I was flat on my back, nailed down by a horrifying pain. I knew I couldn't sit up, or stand, not even turn on the side. I couldn't move my head or my neck. Tears gathered in my eyes and they made them burn, but I couldn't cry. That was kind of uncomfortable.... The lights bothered my eyes, so I tried to keep them closed.
There were lights over me, like inside the ambulance. Yet sometimes I had to look, to know what the heck they were doing: they came and go, always came and go. I said the pain was unbearable. They x-rayed my shoulders, both of them. After a long time (hours) they said they'd found no fracture. But I couldn't move, I told them I couldn't move. Shoulders? Something was wrong in my back, not in my shoulders. Something was wrong in my vertebras and pain was killing me.
All right, they said. They couldn't dismiss me, then. They will do more exams tomorrow.
I thought I should ask them about him, again, though I was getting indifferent. I was kind of forgetting: about him, I mean. I only felt exhaustion and those tears in my eyes, burning, and a wish for darkness, and the pain. They rolled me in a corridor, on the cot where I lay, a sheet covering me. Very thin: I started shivering but I didn't mind.
Finally, in the aisle where they pushed me, lights where faint. There was darkness, but I could see through the window: the buildings, the lampposts, the passing cars. I could hear the relentless traffic, though it must be night. What time was it?
I heard women's voices around me. Old women, I thought, I don't know why. I couldn't see, for I couldn't turn, anyway I wasn't interested. But the voices rose. Laments. A scream here and there that pierced me, made me shake. I didn't want to hear those screams. But I was at the emergencies, was I?
A lament began: a whine, shrill and — again — relentless. That burned more than the light did. I couldn't bear it. Could someone, please, do something for that woman? Someone should stop her: she would not, by herself. I knew she would keep whining all night, her pitch sharpening now and then, to call for attention. Well: she had all of mine. I couldn't send her noise into the background. I would go crazy. My hand looked for a bell, somewhere: hanging from the metal cot I was on, hanging from the wall. I felt nothing, found nothing, couldn't turn. Then I must have slept.
There's a lamp, and there is a cop. I don't know where I am. I only see him. I hear his voice and the voice of others. They speak among them, then he asks me: "What about the third passenger?" I don't answer, I'm still half asleep. He keeps hammering the same question. The other voices join the chorus. Strange: the phrase repeats and repeats itself, until it sort of breaks the surface, until I understand... the words, not their meaning. What are they possibly asking?
"The third passenger?" I stutter, with effort. "There is no third passenger". "There was", they say, and I gather something weird in their tone, an innuendo, a suppressed laughter perhaps. "No, no," I am shaking my head... that means I can move. I can move, can I? "Think again. Are you sure? What happened to the third passenger?" As firmly as I can, I repeat: "There was no third passenger". Now the cop comes close, his bulging eyes shining an inch from mine. He stares at me, threatening. He shouts: "And your dog? What about your dog?"
I am scared. I had forgot about my dog. Where did my dog go?
I'm awake now. Down is breaking beyond the large window. The night moaners have fallen asleep. I'm awake at the break of down. But why do they say so? Down doesn't break a thing. I haven't seen anything that subtle, that delicate.
Hell has welcomed me without welcome, I mean without formalities. All is so self-explanatory, it gets boring.
It is supposed to. Boredom is one of the punishments, I guess. For which sin? No idea. Maybe those we haven't committed: but it's pure speculation. I wasn't given a handbook, as you can imagine. I was given nothing, and there's no one to ask: the lack of directions, the absence of organization are striking. There are no rules: all has been previously set in order to limit variables. Nothing must been enforced: we have no means to behave inappropriately. We have no means to behave at all.
Each of us is stuck on its reversed dome, side by side with this ridiculous little house that doesn't have windows, but a small closed door and a pointed roof. You could say it was traced by a child: a simplified silhouette. But no. No, because it is perfect: as if computer generated. That's the chill of it....
The houses aren't identical. How so? Where can variation lie? You got a point, there. I don't know where variation resides, but listen to me: they aren't identical. About us? Well, we aren't identical, of course. We are us, though no better identified. We are others: I can feel, I can perceive the otherness. As I said, it reassures me. We are shadows, I mean kind of shadowy. We can move around: a bit, laterally. We can think — at least I believe — at least I think. Do I have proof of others thinking? Well.
Well: it is a matter of faith. I have faith. I have faith and it is very strong. Does it sound ridiculous? Faith in what, you ask. It doesn't matter. Not here.
It wasn't my dog. It was his dog. It rode in the front, niched in his lap, between his torso and the handles. The leash loosely tucked against his palm. The dog was used to riding: it never moved, never attempted to run. It was a good dog.
Where is it, now? It must be ambling lose, in a part of town I don't know.... Just a transit zone, but where were we going? Darn if I can remember. I couldn't trace my way in that neighborhood, especially on foot. Will the dog? Will it find its way home? That would be a miracle... If not, will it go stray? Will they catch it?
By the way, where is he? Is he fine? Did they let him go? Did he hurt himself? I can't remember. Actually, I have no way to know. I shall ask them again, but will they tell me?
Will the dog be able to retrace its way? Will it go stray? I don't know, but I have faith.
I know this is the punishment for those sins I haven't committed. I know. I don't need anybody to explain me about hell, or why I am in it.
It was time to turn the page, but I haven't turned it: that's all. That's how it happens. You should turn the page, move on and move over, but you are stuck: you can't get yourself to start the freaking act — the one thing you have to perform, the one sentence you have to say. Such as: I leave. Keep the dog if you like.
You postpone and postpone and don't do it. You cannot turn the page: then the book slams shut.
Now I know we were going to a party, on the hills. A friend of his held it. Birthday party. But we never made it there. Talk about a celebration: and now I'm stuck in hell.
Dawn has finished breaking, its cute little show is over. A plain, feeble light spreads itself in the sky. The town's waking up, still nobody moves on the cots. I don't see a soul around — way to speak.
Let me explain you what I've done for the last half hour. I have rolled myself on the side. That took fifteen minutes. Actually I'm approximating: I have no way to tell time. All feels like eternity... yes. I am pulling from my hips, trying to lift my torso in order to sit up. It seems impossible. I can't tell you the pain, it just... let's leave it at that. I am pulling from my hips with an otherworldly effort. I didn't know I could be so brave... I am not brave, in fact. I just want to get the hell out of here. The hell out of here, before they come around, before the moaners awake.
Then the party has come to mind. I mean: we were there. On the hillside: a villa, and vines in the backyard. Rich people, at least I think so: my recollection is vague. I was feeling uncomfortable. I knew I shouldn't be there. Not then. Not with him, perhaps.
Not at all: but there I was, and with me there was a crowd. I knew no one, besides him. We took those pills on the early side. Tables were lined against the wall, in a hall: a corridor. It was truly a strange villa — huge, ancient. On the tables there was food, but I only noticed the bowls of fruit. The mountains. Salads bowls — kind of — but footed, reminiscent of some old fashioned painting. Topped with pyramids of fruit, caramelized: sculpture like. Everyone grabbed greedily at those brownish decors, biting into them, making ecstatic faces. I wonder what was in them. They were totally fascinating, but I didn't touch them.
The stuff we had taken was working, and I wasn't hungry. I was thirsty, though. I had lost sight of him. Somebody else was at my side.
We were climbing stairs — small, turning round and round. Also my head was turning, I was dizzy: my left palm dragged on the wall, kind of pushing it. My right hand held the rail, and also a glass of wine. I managed both. Climbing was kind of hard, but I really wanted to get there: on top, I mean. The guy who was with me — I'm pretty sure — was ahead, then he turned back, encouraging me. He must have.
I was holding my glass of wine — burgundy — when I landed myself on the roof. Fresh air did me good.
Music rose from the backyard. From the garden, huge: a park with woods and copses. Music was very loud, and I liked it. The guy grabbed me and we started dancing, and I started laughing, my eyes on the glass I held high up, like a flag. We danced on the roof — that was kind of flat... it actually sloped towards the center... I know I pulled towards the center. We turned, hugging and dancing, pulling towards the center — I held my glass very high, very tight: it shone in the darkness and it made me laugh. It made me happy.
Then, a strange thing occurred. Then I was in the glass. I was in the glass. There must have been a kind of window on the roof. How large was it? It was round, transparent. Concave: the bottom of a dome. Not sure — but almost.
I was in the glass. We danced on the window. I looked up, at the starry sky. I remember no moon at all. I looked down: I could see the hall with the tables, all those nibbled pyramids of dark. I could see people under my feet. We kept dancing and turning.
Then we crashed.
I have been able to stand. I am not walking: only dragging my feet, sole flat on the ground, to minimize shaking. Something between my hips and my back is disconnected, and it screams out loud. I should scream out loud, but I want to get to the front door no matter how. I stick to the wall, hang to the wall, push against it. I have found my purse on the cot, untouched. I am carrying my purse. I only need to get to the door, hoping no one will be there to stop me. Then I'll understand where I am. Then I will start walking. Home, I mean. Home.
Toti O'Brien's work has appeared in Sein und Werden, Synesthesia, Siren and Bird's Thumb, among other journals and anthologies.