The Best of Times Short Story Competition

Spring\Summer 2006 Results


Copyright © Travis de Valle 2006

It was a dream; I could see it almost instantly this time. At least it seemed that way; it’s hard to be sure of these things when time so easily blends into itself here. It’s a strange sensation really, as if past, present and future were encompassed on a boundless sheet, rising and falling in a manner so fluid and artful that after a time it feels unnatural for time to behave in any other way. Yet there it was, the inevitable flaw set to trigger my mind’s awakening. Always the place is the same: the lake, the trees, the darkness, and Susannah’s figure amid it all, but after two months I suppose I’ve learnt to look for the signs. Last night it was one of the trees, a sort of oak I think; it flickered on and off among the grove as if controlled by an unseen switch. Tonight it was the moon. I could see its light reflected off the black of her hair through the darkness, while ripples of moonlight danced and parted as she waded through their beam across the lake. Yet for all its beauty, and however deeply I wanted to believe it, again I was left with only deception. When I looked above me I saw only darkness; no moon, no stars, only the black of the night sky and the deep, overwhelming ache as she was lost to me again. Desperately I called out to her, but always she seemed deaf to my words. Far off in the distance I heard our baby crying.

I awoke in a cold sweat; the wailing of our nameless child still ringing in my ears. A name; it was so simple a gift and yet I could not even give her that. Struggling with sleep, I stood shakily, grasping the crib beside the bed to steady myself. She lay on her back, scrunching her face with displeasure and pleading at me with clenched fists.

I raised her to my chest and rocked her gently, soothing her with my whispers. Her unbroken cries receded into short bursts, and finally to silence. Outside our apartment the wail of the city continued uninterrupted, undisturbed. I envied that city in a way; it was not in its nature to stop for moments like these, to cease, or to linger, or to feel; always its procession of life and sound moved onwards. I studied the tiny face of my daughter, catching the unmistakable shot of green in her eyes. I felt my body tense as a deep aversion both took and left me in an instant. There was no comfort to be found in those eyes; I had not wanted any of this.

The next day I sat waiting for Henry in his living room. I suppose I was thankful he had invited me here and not to his office, but then I had never taken pleasure in meeting Henry at any time, least of all now. Still, a promise was a promise. I gazed around the large expanse of the room distractedly, only half noticing the many artworks, carvings and tapestries that seemed to clutter it impossibly. My eyes fell on a small portrait in the corner; it depicted the silhouette of a man at its centre while on either side of him were a mesh of colour and objects. Randomly and chaotically they blended and collided with one another while the man stood fixed and motionless amongst it all. It was Susannah’s work. I remembered she had given it to him the day we all graduated: Henry and I in psychology, and her in fine arts.

"I still love that painting." The boom of Henry’s voice startled me as he entered the room. "I always thought it was meant for me you know. A testament to the triumph of modern man, surrounded by the marvel of his creations." He smiled his conceited smile, as if half expecting an applause for his entrance.

I turned to the painting again; to me it seemed the man’s head was bowed in disillusionment, left hollow in world bereft of substance.

"It’s good to see you again Lachlan. I was hoping you’d come."

"Of course," I said. "I suppose it’s about time I got out of the house!" I winked at him and we shared an awkward laugh. After a moment he sat opposite me and furrowed his expression in a look of contrived seriousness.

"So how are things anyway? Don’t think I’m putting any pressure on you, but…well I suppose we were all hoping you’d be coming back to the practice soon. I mean, we all miss Susannah terribly, but surely after two months the thought has at least crossed your mind. If memory serves me you’ll be thirty-two on Sunday; now’s not the time to be throwing in your career, especially with a baby to support." His words were slow and calculated now. I could see he was trying to play to my reason but my only reaction was a mingled feeling of disgust and evasion.

"I don’t think I’m quite ready for that yet, Henry," I replied. "I mean with the baby and these dreams I’ve been having, it just makes it hard to…"

"Ah, now about these dreams," he interrupted. "I remember you saying they were lucid, is that right?"

"Yes," I said, regretting my slip immediately; this was the real reason I’d been asked here. "Each night I become aware of them, and always it’s the same place."

"Well surely you realize this is very unusual. I mean, two straight months, Lachlan! It’s unheard of! And what about this place, do you recognise it?"

"It seems familiar," I murmured, "but I can’t place it." In truth I had been puzzling over the lake and grove since the first of the dreams, but as much as I struggled with it I couldn’t remember ever having been to such a place.

"And the woman? You say it looks like her?"

"It is her," I said.

Neither of us spoke for a moment; we sat regarding each other in silence. I could feel Henry dissecting me; I was his patient now, not his guest, and we both knew it.

"How is your baby?" he asked quietly. I stiffened in spite of myself. "Have you found her a name yet?"

"No, not yet," I said.

Henry paused for a moment.

"She has her eyes you know."

"Yes I know."

Henry’s expression changed now, his usual air of confidence had dissolved and a battle for words looked to wage within him.

"You know, when Susannah passed…" he began.

"I’d really rather not talk about it Henry."

He ignored me.

"…We all felt her loss; I mean no one could have known that having the baby would…"

"Stop it, Henry."

His eyes smouldered like embers and I felt my face contort as a flood of emotion consumed me.

"All I’m saying is no one is to blame for what happened, Lachlan."

I left, slamming the door behind me.

I watched her again that night; wading through the lake’s vast blackness. Her back was turned, facing the grove and as she began to turn I felt a deep longing overwhelm me.

"Susannah!" I called out desperately, but it was hopeless; I was an observer here and nothing more.

I had tried many times to move towards her, but always the result was the same; the impulse was unexplainably suppressed and I was left wondering why I had not moved. It was a strange sensation; I did not feel a prisoner to the dream, and yet I knew I was not free. The rules of reality did not apply here and I was a fool for trying to live by them. I gazed over the landscape again; the hanging branches of the trees, the stillness of the lake, there was something familiar about it all and still I could not discern it. When could I have known such a place? I sank to my knees, bowing my head into my hands, swallowed by the hopelessness I felt in all of this. Henry had been right; I was a coward, blaming others for the life I was afraid to live; blaming her when in my heart I knew she was a gift born from adversity. My thoughts were interrupted by a sudden feeling of intense warmth, flooding my face. It seeped though my skin, stimulating and vitalising every molecule until at last my entire being was soaked with it. As I drew my hands away from my face a great brightness collided with me and there, in place of the dark and shadowed scene of my dreams was a radiant and vibrant world, vivid with colour and light. The lake emitted a deep, luminous blue, while the trees were hued with the palettes of autumn. I stood transfixed, awed by its beauty and, at last, by a wave of recognition. She moved towards me, graceful and slender, her black hair flowing and her left arm outstretched. I took her hand and for a brief moment I felt a wholeness and peace I had once thought lost to me.

"She’s calling for you," she said. Far off in the distance I heard our baby crying.

Nursing our daughter in my arms I searched through the cardboard boxes under our bed. Finally my fingers fumbled across the canvas and I drew Susannah’s painting out into the light. There, beneath the autumn grove and the lake’s waters was a single word.

"Neyda," I read. "She said it meant sanctuary."

It was a beautiful name.