A rude awakening
When the man reached the surface, he became aware of a bright light and strange metallic sounds. At first he thought it was a rescue helicopter come for them, but then the sounds didn't fit. He heard voices, some familiar, some not, and the sound of beeping machines. He found it hard to open his eyes, the light was so bright, and in one terrifying moment he realized the woman had slipped from his grasp.
He tried to dive back down, but strong arms held him. He thrashed and kicked, to get free. His voice felt like ash as he tried to tell them she was down there. He had to go back; they had to help him save her.
Then a sharp sting in his arm, and he felt the sounds withdrawing. In the blackness of unconsciousness he thought he saw her face, hair billowing as the water dragged her down, green eyes wide looking up at him, saying farewell. He tried to swim back down, but no matter how hard he tried he couldn't get far below the surface.
Every moment she sank further and further away. The man didn't understand why he couldn't break free of the surface and dive down deeper. And then finally she disappeared into the deep, deep black of the ocean and was gone. As she fell, the key came loose and followed her down, in slow motion, into the abyss.
His lungs filled with water as he cried out, screaming for her. He kicked his arms and legs with all his might, and there was pain, great searing pain from all over his body.
The light grew brighter once again, and his hands reached up to rip away something hard and plastic in his mouth, making him gag. He tried to speak, full of grief, full of panic.
“Where am I?” His voice sounded strange to him, muffled, broken. And then he heard a familiar voice again.
But it was not her voice, it was the voice of another woman - his sister -calming and reassuring.
"John you've been in a car accident. You've been unconscious for three days. Listen to me, the doctors are trying to help you, you're hurt, John stop fighting them... please... stop fighting."
The man couldn't make sense of what was going on. He'd been drowning, not in a car accident. He was drowning and his woman came to save him - but he'd lost her...
"No!!" He screamed as his world collapsed around him again.
"Getup John. John get up,” a voice inside his head insisted.
If he could get up then he could wake up and this nightmare would stop. He would be in bed, and the woman would be next to him and all this would go away.
"Get up John,” the voice said again.
He forced his eyes open and saw his sister, saw the hospital room, saw the fear and relief in her face. She's not real he told himself, this is the dream, and he demanded to stand up. Nurses came to him, begging him to lie back down. But he was relentless. He was going to stand and force himself to wake up.
With enormous help he stood, leaning heavily on both nurses and a walking frame. The pain from his hip and leg was incredible, and he marveled at the power of this nightmare to engage his body in such a macabre way. He could manage but one step, and the agony of it took his breath away.
As he stood for one brief moment, a distorted face appeared through a window. The man that looked back was a stranger. His face - swollen, battered and bruised - was covered in sutures and looked dully back at him. The man was flanked by nurses on either side, leaning heavily on a walking frame. In one terrible moment, he realised the man looked at him, not through a window, but back at him from a mirror. He gasped in horror just before the world went black and he collapsed.
The next time he awoke, the room was quiet. He tried to roll over but his leg was in some kind of restraint. He called out to the woman to release him, but when he opened his eyes, he saw the monitors, and the dimmed lights of his hospital room. Although he was still confused, although he couldn't piece together what had happened, he knew some things with cold, hard certainty.
He had been in an accident. He hadn't been at sea. The woman wasn't real. He was alone.
"Get up John,” the voice insisted again, ”get up."
And so he did.
The nurses rushed to his side, the minute the monitors started to beep in alarm at his movement. This time they didn't fight him, this time they silently assisted, and on this occasion he made two steps before the blackness claimed him.
On the sixth day after his accident, John managed to walk with assistance to the bathroom. The doctors said his recovery was remarkable. And his sister Rose told him the story of his accident, quietly, reverently, because it was the story of a man who should have died.
John had been driving back from town to his home, when for some inexplicable reason his truck left the road, and without breaking slammed headlong into a tree and started to slide into the gully.
As fortune would have it, his seat-belt broke, as the force of the crash flung his body sideways. The tree and truck met with such enmity that the truck's steering column was forced through the driver's seat, pulverizing the top of his femur, smashing his hip and snapping the tree in half, like a twig. The truck's battery was later found deep under the roots of the tree, while the radiator disintegrated on impact.
John had seemingly blacked out before the accident, and only came too briefly as a nurse who had been in the car behind him, fought to keep him alive. The car had to be held by a winch to stop it plummeting further into the gully while the nurse tried to stop the bleeding. The emergency team could not free the man easily, because the truck ran on gas.
Three times he died and three times the nurse revived him inside the precarious cabin of his truck. In the end the team of rescuers decided to risk sparking an explosion because the man was not going to make it back a fourth time if they didn't get him free.
“John, you were airlifted by helicopter and underwent a series of operations to put your hip back together again and sew up all the cuts on your face and head. You suffered a severe concussion and are lucky not to have brain damage,” his sister said.
He was indeed, fortunate to be alive.
John accepted the facts as they were given to him, though he felt no connection to this story that was his. No matter how hard he tried, he could remember none of it; not the accident, not the rescue, not the three days he lay unconscious in hospital - none of it.
One thing he could remember, however, was that in those three days, he had lived another life, and he had loved.
His homecoming was grim. The reality and shock of what had happened hit him afresh every day. Each painful step reminded him not so much of the accident, which he still could not remember, but of the life he had briefly lived on that other world, now gone.
Every morning he would roll over in his empty bed, the space the woman should occupy, vacant, mocking him.
There was a hole inside the cave where the dragon had lived in his chest; a hole that gaped wide, waiting for the winged beastie to return and take up its lodging; a hole that she had put there, his gypsy witch from the other world, when she set the dragon free with her love; a hole where once there was only a locked prison.
His homecoming was painful as much for the dependency he felt on his family, as from the void that existed at the heart of him that wouldn't heal. He was angry, he was weak, he was an invalid and he was terrified that he would remain a cripple.
As a man of the sea and adventure, to be grounded, literally on land was humiliating. To be unable to walk without crutches or a walking frame was frustrating beyond the comprehension of able-bodied men. He could not work, he could not walk and he could not drive. He was completely dependent upon others for his well-being. While he had no financial responsibilities to pressure a hasty return to work, he could think of little else. He wanted to get back on his feet and out to sea.
Everything irritated him, and it seemed that no-one understood what he was going through. He was sick, not just in body, but in his heart, his open, gaping heart that would not close. But he could speak to nobody about it.
How do you explain that while your body was smashed in an accident and you lay unconscious you lived months in another world, felt passion and experienced love? How do you bring yourself to speak of this to anyone?
The pettiness of the more able stung him and their unkindness drove him to fury. He didn't want to be in this body, in this world without her. But he had to be. He could not put his family through more pain, and he could not give up. His only option, the only option he considered, was to recover and resume work. Hard, isolated work at sea had always been his panacea. It would close his heart and harden him again. It would distract him. Working away in the world of men and danger would focus his mind; stop him thinking about the woman he loved, who didn't exist.
So he labored at his post-operative physiotherapy, he did the exercises and bit through the pain. He used his anger to make his body heal. He pushed away every negative influence; every downer of a person who wanted to keep him weak was flung out of his life. They had no place in the world he was forging for himself out of the misery.
All the plans he had made before the accident turned to dust, holding no meaning for him. The roots he had started to set down were withering; the property he owned that he used to speak about with hope and joy was like lead in his mouth; the relationships of his past, infuriating. He could no longer take in the beauty of the place he had chosen out of all others to make his home. His old life, in short was dead.
What made him even angrier, what made his blood boil with impotent rage, was that he was starting to forget her and that other world. Where at first that life stood in stark contrast to this world, it now started to blur. Where once his life with the woman had seemed reality and this life a dream, as time passed the feelings and images of that life started to dim.
One morning he woke without remembering her right away. When he did over a hot cup of tea, just before midday, the bile rose in his throat. He was losing her. Day by day she was slipping away. He felt like a coward, he felt like a traitor. Somewhere, in another world, she was waiting for him to rescue her from the bottom of the ocean.
But he couldn't find his way back. Soon he wouldn't believe she was even real. Soon this world would take over, and the magic she brought would disappear from his existence.
In the weeks that followed his return, he drove himself relentlessly to reclaim his independence. He returned to the gym and started to challenge his damaged leg. The more he helped himself, the more positive people were drawn to his life. Likewise, whenever he gave in to self-pity he would draw it from others like a magnet.
Day by day he grew stronger; day by day he reclaimed more of himself; day by day he rebuilt a life of sorts; day by day he gritted his teeth and did what had to be done, until one day he no longer needed a cane - until one day he could walk freely.
John got himself a gig offshore to test his sea legs, he put his land on the market and he looked at moving away to anywhere normal people weren't; to anywhere that wouldn't remind him what he had lost. He was doing what he had always done when the pain got too much, he was running. And this time, if he had to run to the ends of the earth to harden his heart again, if that's what it took, he would do it. He was cutting his ties and going to grow some calluses over the parts of him that were vulnerable, the parts that were still wounded.
And so he went, back to sea, with legs still not quite ready, with a heart that felt like it was torn in two, and fear.
For the first time in a long time, he felt terror when he looked at the sea.
When he returned from the sea it was with mixed feelings; it hadn't been as bad as he'd feared, but he hadn't gone anywhere near as well as he'd hoped. His body wasn't quite ready, he had a lot further to go, but now he really believed he could work again. He'd had to cut his time short because he needed to get stronger, but now he had a goal. He'd also decided to hold off on uprooting himself, realizing he might need the support of family for a little longer.
He'd come back, and that surprised him because he still had the urge to run.
Something significant had happened to him while he was away; he'd decided that his time with the woman was just a hallucination, created by the head injury. The woman was just a fantasy, a detailed, wonderful, fascinating illusion.
“She's not real,” he whispered to himself every day, as if it were a mantra, “she's not real.”
It was cruel, heartless even, but necessary if he was to live and get better. The alternative was not worth thinking about.
And so the woman faded from his mind, and was relegated to the rooms inside him where other lost dreams dwelt. Every now and again she visited him in his dreams, on occasion they made love, but even that became less frequent as his belief in her diminished. Like all mythical creatures, she could not survive his disbelief and so she became insubstantial and was blown away by a cruel south wind, like a dandelion.
Soon she was replaced by other dreams, and his mind wandered to other pastimes. On occasion he drank too much, but there was no one to complain about it. He tried to chase skirt, but nothing worth mentioning came of it. He did lots of things that he used to do before the accident, but most didn't stick.
That is except diving.
His first dive was confronting. This was something he really loved. He'd been a commercial diver when he was young and he'd been good at it. It was hard to be pulled back to the level of a less experienced diver, when his mind was eager and his body remembered. Still he was grateful to be able to do this at all. And in the water he began to feel free again.
The months went by, he worked again for short stints, his body got stronger, and he started to let his friends in. Occasionally he went out, but usually he chose the company of one or two mates and a few drinks at home. He even laughed on the odd occasion.
Within six months he was pretty sorted. Maybe not completely whole, and certainly not how he'd felt during his time in that other world. But it was pretty good. After all there were a lot of people much worse off than him, and let's be frank he could have been a lot worse off himself, if not for the help of a handful of people who fought to keep him alive.
It was peculiar to go past the accident site every day and still not remember a thing. It was as if a big black hole had sucked that memory right out of him. Maybe it was through a black hole that he'd been drawn into that world; the world of the fantasy woman and the make-believe life.
He thought about that less and less now, because forgetting helped him live here, now.
It was completely unexpected then, when he read a story in the local paper on a Friday morning in November. The story caught his eye because it was about a group of free divers. They'd been diving off a local bay, preparing for the state championships when a treasured keepsake had snagged one of the female divers. He knew the spot well as he'd often dived there himself. The team had got the girl free, but the keepsake had fallen to the bottom of the bay. Despite several attempts, the free divers had been unable to locate it. A photo of the item was included. The story went on to profile a couple of the male divers who were short-favorites to take the title.
He'd been reading absent-minded up to the point where the keepsake was described. He had to pinch himself to make sure he wasn't dreaming. For it was a key on a leather cord.
The picture of it sat him on his arse.
It was his key. The key she had taken with her to the bottom of the ocean in that other world, the world he'd convinced himself couldn't exist, just as she couldn't exist. And now, now when he'd just got himself back to an almost even keel, it shows up here?
He was sure his heart did a flip then, and he instantly became agitated. His mind raced and he began pacing the floor.
It took him all day to decide what to do.
First light the next morning, he grabbed his gear and went diving.
Conditions were less than favorable and the water was churned up and cloudy, but still he dove. He dove with purpose, through the shallows, over the ledge and into the deep. On that first day, he turned up nothing, but he was committed to the task. The key in the story had to be his key, it had to be a sign to him that everything he'd experienced was real, that it had meaning, and that it wasn't over; that there was a link between worlds. If the key had gotten through, couldn't he get back?
He returned to that spot seven days straight with no luck. But he wasn't deterred. With the stubbornness of a highlander, he fixed his mind on his target and pursued it with resolute purpose. Even when he was called offshore to work again, he wasn't distracted, and poured over topography and tide maps of the bay, trying to work out the most likely resting place of his quarry, so when he got back he would have a better chance of success.
What was exasperating was that when he returned someone else had found the key.
Hadn't destiny meant him to find it?
Wasn't its resting place a signpost to the portal back to that other world?
When he thought about it, he realised how ridiculous his expectations had been. It was just a coincidence. Maybe his subconscious had seen a key like that before, and it had entered his hallucination.
Well, that was what he convinced himself so he could sleep again.
It was some weeks later that he started to feel like the whole fairy-tale was finally behind him. He wasn't going to be tricked by any freaky coincidences, and he wasn't going to talk himself into some mad scheme to find a make-believe portal back to anywhere.
He'd even got interested in a cute girl at his local gym. He hadn't got up the nerve to ask her out yet, she'd probably say no anyway, but he was going to give it a go. She seemed nice, but different to the average woman he came across. She was seriously fit, but seemed sad. From their brief conversations he gathered she'd been through a rough time of late. There was something a little wild about her just under the surface and that interested him, and she had flashing green eyes.
It was a Monday morning when he finally summoned up the courage to ask her out. Nothing too high risk, mind you, just a cuppa, and maybe breakfast. When he did it, it kind of blurted out of him. She smiled up at him, with a gypsy twinkle in her green eyes, and said,
"Sure, why not."
So that day, the man - John - asked a woman of this world out to breakfast, and she said yes, and his heart felt happy.
On that first morning, they talked for two hours. They talked easily as if they had known each other for much longer. They walked easily as if they knew each others stride, no rush, no hassle, just two people walking in time.
On their first night out, they laughed a lot, and they kissed. These were kisses that took the breath away. The man was surprised, the woman relieved.
On their second night out, they stayed at his home, a timber cottage with a wild, beautiful garden. Over a hot cup of tea the woman told the man a story, and it went like this:
“Once upon a time there was a
girl who was afraid. She was only little, and she was very sick. Her mother had
taken her across the world to see doctors who said they could save the child's
life. The little girl knew she was very ill even though she was only two years
old. She knew she was dying because people who were already dead would talk to
her, as bold as brass on a daily basis.
“In that country the little girl met lots of relatives who made a fuss of her, and who treated her differently because everyone knew she was sick; and most likely cursed. In the village her grandmother came from they still believed in the evil eye and the presence of the devil. When the little girl talked to dead people they felt the shadow of evil pass over them.
“When the little girl first started to have her treatments and stay in hospital her mother stayed with her, so that when the little girl opened her eyes the first thing she would see would be her mother.
“The treatments hurt a lot but the little girl never cried out. She was told to be strong, so that's what she was. She saw how scared the adults became when she cried or complained, so she tried not to. Things had to be very bad before she would say a word.
“After a while she noticed her mother was not there when she awoke in the morning. Some days she did not see her until late in the afternoon. There were always good reasons and the little girl was so overjoyed to see her mother it wiped her feelings of fear and loneliness out of her mind.
“One day her mother brought two new friends to meet the little girl. They came from a convent where one of her aunties was a nun. One was a very pretty, tiny woman, who wore callipers due to childhood polio, the other a dwarf with the kindest smile she had ever seen. It was their job to sleep at the hospital in the little girl's room so she wouldn't feel alone.
“Little by little the child came to love these two women, but they didn't stop the ache in her heart for her mother, who didn't come as much anymore or her father who was far away in another country working to pay for her doctors.
“Sometimes the little girl got to play with other children who were having the same treatment, but sooner or later the children died and she would be alone again.
“The doctors always praised the little girl because she was so strong; and so brave and she hadn't given up and died like the rest of the children. But this did not mean the little girl was not afraid. Even when the doctors said they thought she would be all better soon, the little girl felt dread.
“One day the little girl dressed in her best dress to wait for her mother. The doctors wanted to give them some good news. She was very excited. Her dress was red and had a little cape. She wore her white stockings and black shoes and waited. Hoping today would be the day she would get to go home.
“When her mother didn't arrive in the morning as expected, the little girl's companions took her outside to play in the courtyard. They scattered coloured, foil bottle tops across the tiles and then made a game out of catching them before the wind blew them away and then stringing them together to make a necklace for the child's mother.
“The game was in full swing, and the little girl's giggles were like the sound of tiny bells in the air, when she looked up drawn by another sound. It was the sound of a large aeroplane. Although the plane was high above in the sky, the little girl was convinced her mother was in the plane, returning to their homeland without her.
“The little girl's giggles turned to sobs as she collapsed, inconsolable to the ground. Her mother did not come that day, nor the next, or the next. It didn't matter what the doctors told her she knew she had been left behind. She knew it was because she was not strong enough, because she had cried, because she hadn't hidden her pain well enough - that was why she was abandoned.
“The little girl developed a fever that became a lung infection and began to lose her grip on life. She had no reason to live, she had not been strong enough, special enough to keep her mother with her and she was so tired.
“As the infection gripped her and the doctors fought to keep this their best guinea pig alive, the little girl dreamed.
“She dreamed that she was able to leave her body and all the pain behind. She dreamed that she could fly into the sun. The sun was light and love and an end to suffering and the little girl rejoiced to be free. She flew through the sun and into a valley. This valley was so beautiful it made the girl weep for joy. In the distance she saw a cabin by a river and a quaint bridge. In the garden was a fair man, cigarette in his mouth and hat on his head tending the garden.
“As the little girl's feet touched down on the bridge she became a woman and knew she was home. The man raised his face in a welcoming smile as if he had known she would come. The woman laughed, running to the man's open embrace and she whispered a familiar phrase into his hair.
The man's love made her strong again. His touch reminded her of who she was,
who she would be and gave her the courage to return. He promised her he would
be there, that he would wait for her. And so the woman found a way to return to
the body of the little girl, and the pain and live.
“In the morning when she awoke, once more a child in a hospital bed, her mother's face was the first thing she saw. Her father’s hand the first thing she touched.”
Her story over, the woman closed her eyes.
In a voice as soft as a whisper, the man asked her what those words were she spoke to the man in her dream.
"I always say... "I'm so glad I'm home John, it's so good to be home at last... I’d always thought John was my guardian angel, and the place I was, the other world, was heaven."
The man was silent; his heart felt like it had stopped beating.
"So when you found me in my world, I slowly came to realise that you had somehow crossed over to me, and that a love I thought I wouldn't experience in life was now possible."
"I had a dream that I would lose you; that you would be pulled back to your world, so I had to find a way to follow you. I didn’t think it was possible, I didn’t think I could face the next day without you, let alone find a way between worlds. But even in the depths of my despair, I remembered the little girl in the red dress that I once was, and I knew I had to find the strength and power within me to follow you."
"How is this possible?" he asked her, ”how did you follow me back?"
"That my love is another story, for another time. Right now I need to give you something."
The woman looked up at him with tears in her eyes, lifting a key from around her neck.
"I believe this is yours... I am so glad you kept your promise to me, and waited until I finally found my way back home to you."
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