Uncharted territory

I knew what it was before I opened the envelope. I just knew, like I knew that my son was dead before the policeman told me. Quietly, taking a deep breath, I sat down at the kitchen table, and placed the envelope before me. It was morning. It was daylight. I was alone.
The snow fell outside. I watched it through the windowpane, the grey, wintery morning casting a soft light across the room.
Time – slowed – right – down – to – a – second – by – second – heart – beat – thud – thud – thud. My ears were ringing. I wanted to vomit. I wanted to hide, to run away as far from this place as possible.
Breathe, I told myself. Keep breathing. You can do this.
It felt surreal, to be myself and yet observe myself going through this act where death is depersonalized. Like receiving a tax bill. A piece of paper, that’s all it is, I told myself, nothing to fear. My hands trembled a little – I saw how they shook – and then I took the envelope and opened it. Thud – thud – thud. My heart was pumping so hard I felt dizzy. I began to read, very meticulously, very slowly. Yet my soul still gasped for air when I came to Alex’s name. There it was, his name on his death certificate. An administrative formality that cut through my heart like a knife.
There was no covering letter, no recognition of the devastation his death had left behind. When you have had to bury your murdered son, not knowing yet how exactly he was killed, a document which arrives in the post giving the day and estimated time of death, with no condolence words from the registrar, seems crude and heartless. Zero recognition for what I felt, for what his father and siblings suffered.
‘I must keep this safe’, I told myself, ‘I must place it with his other documents, with all his papers.’
Somehow, in a strange way, to carefully file his death certificate was an act of love, like it had been to file all his exam results, his school reports, his medical notes, his X-rays, his military papers, his baby vaccination booklet. I didn’t know how to do anything else with this certificate. The carer in me did not stop caring when Alex died; the mother did not stop mothering.
I re-read it several times, hypnotized by the regularity of the print, not taking in what was written yet not needing to. It could have been in braille for my lack of true understanding. I realized that administrative closure on my son’s life had no more bearing on my grief than a rocket ship landing on the moon.
And it is this that I have leant, that the harsh reality of death wears many masks, and that this missive was one of them. For in my hands was a document which purported to sum up an entire life, an ocean of grief, an eternal loss. I felt utterly lost as I searched for some sign on this certificate that would help me navigate this new future without my son. I found none. One had little to do with the other such was the poor representation on paper of the reality of what would now be the rest of my life.
That morning I wept as I had done on so many other mornings, alone and in despair. Then I got up, went to my little office, and filed the death certificate along side my son’s college one and his infant growth chart. And I have never looked at it again. Some things are too painful and bring no healing. This, I knew, was one of them.
I had entered uncharted territory the moment my son died and for this journey no map existed, no signs would lead the way.
As the stillness of the moment settled on my shoulders and I looked up again across the trees and snow-covered garden, there seemed to me to be someone close, behind me. I turned, haltingly, half expecting to see him standing at me side. No one.
‘Oh, Alex’, she whispered. ‘Sweetheart, please tell me you are ok.’
Tears make no noise, Alex. That’s why they are like snow flakes. No map, my darling, just trembling hands and a broken heart to guide me on my way.

The King’s Lake

The trees swayed gently in the hot breeze and the King turned and looked towards the town far below him.

“Send for the builders!” he boomed. “Send for the carpenters, the stonemasons, the plumbers! I want a lake. A big, vast lake, a lake for me to swim in!”

Servants ran, bells rang out, the town crier was summoned.

“The King commands that all the men in the village build him a lake!” announced the chief advisor narrowing his eyes. “A BIG lake.”

“But it is harvest time, the men are in the fields, they must bring in the corn!” replied the town crier, afraid, shaking, falling to his knees. “It must wait. If we don’t bring in the corn, the wheat, the fruits from the fields, this winter we will starve and our children will die.”

The chief advisor shook his head.

“The King has spoken.” And with that he clicked his fingers and the town crier was sent away.

The next day a long procession of men carrying work tools made its way to the castle gates. The women went to the fields and continued with the harvest, but it was hot, and the small children cried, and the animals in the farms protested at being left alone.

“We have come to build the lake,” said the men to the gatekeeper. “We are here to do as the King has ordered. Where shall we begin?”

The gatekeeper pointed nervously to the far side of the valley where the forest lay virgin and pure and the birds and wild beasts lived.

The men looked at the araucaria forest, green, lush, beautiful, and sadness filled their hearts for the forest was sacred and revered and loved.

A silhouette appeared at a window in the castle wall.

“Cut down the trees!” ordered the chief advisor from the tower. “And then dig!”

The men walked to the valley and began to cut trees. They cut 1000 trees, and then another 1000, and then some more. By the end of the week, the forest had disappeared and in its place was a barren piece of land. The trees were piled high and ready for burning.

“Set them alight” ordered the King. “I want the world to know what wonders I build, what vision I have, how powerful I am!”

And so they burnt the trees and the night sky was filled with flames that danced orange and red and blue and were seen in all four corners of the Kingdom and beyond.

When finally darkness returned the night seemed blacker than ever before.

But the King was not pleased by the sight of the fire. It made him hot and angry and he shouted at the gatekeeper to tell the men to work harder.

“Sire, the men have not had much rest, and they need to sleep and return to their village to see to their crops and be with their wives and their children,” replied the gatekeeper. “They must go back or else they will starve when the winter comes.”

So the King took his sword and thrust it into the gatekeeper’s stomach.

“If bleed you will for the villagers, then it shall be when I command!” he said as he turned the sword deeper still and the gatekeeper fell to the ground and died.

“Send for the women! They too shall work! No one shall rest until my lake is built!”

And so the next day, and the day after that, and for the next two months, the men and women of the village worked day and night to dig a hole big enough to make a lake. And because the children were too small, or too weak or too frightened to bring in the harvest by themselves, they did not, and the fields that had once been full of crops became damaged and the harvest was lost.

Then one day, when the last stone had been rolled out of the hole and the villagers could sit and rest, the King mounted his horse and he rode down to the valley to survey his lake.

“Where is the water?” shouted the King. “How can I swim if there is no water?”

“But sire,” replied the town crier, “there is no water. To fill it with water, we would need rain.”

The King laughed and hit the town crier with his whip.

“Imbecile!” he ridiculed. “Rain? I shall not wait for rain. YOU, you all, shall bring me water.” And he pointed to the West, where far, far away, lay the sea. “That’s water, and you – ” he snarled “will bring it here.”

The villagers gasped and some stood up in protest.

“It cannot be done,” they said loudly, raising their fists. “We have worked long and hard, and we wish to return to the village.”

The King raised a black eyebrow and took up the horn at his side and blew hard and long into it. All at once, the gates of the castle opened and 500 horsemen rode out, carrying spears, swords and shields.

“Get me water to fill this lake!” shouted the King over the heads of the town’s people as if speaking to the sea. “When I return I shall swim in my lake, and be warned – anyone who refuses, shall be strung up from the castle walls and left to rot.”

And so, with armed soldiers watching their every step, the men and women walked the miles to the sea and picked up water in whatever containers they could carry. Some women had buckets, some men had cauldrons, some only their hands cupped together to carry the sea water back to the King’s lake.

In the village the children and old folk began to go hungry. They ate the feed that was meant for the animals, and so the animals grew thin and died. The children cried for their mothers and fathers, but in vain, for their parents were too far away to hear. And the old folk worried and gave their food to the children, so they too grew weak and eventually fell to the ground and died.

Weeks passed and at last the lake was filled and little waves lapped against the parched earth around its rim. The men and women looked on as the first clouds of the autumn were reflected in the black waters, and with down-cast eyes they began to walk back to their village.

The King clapped his hands when the chief advisor told him the lake was ready.

“Prepare my chariot!” he ordered. “I shall bathe. I have suffered in this heat and grown weary of watching how slowly my vision came to life. To endure such torture is to be holy indeed.” And as he said so, he swept back his silken cape to reveal his muslin kaftan embroidered with jewels and pearls the size of pomegranates.

The chief advisor clicked his fingers and the chariot was brought to the castle courtyard. The King stepped into it and with one crack of his whip, the horses reared and began to gallop in the direction of the lake. His servants followed, on foot, running in the trail of dust behind him.

In the village, the men and women hugged their scrawny children and wept for the dead grandparents and loss of their animals.

“We shall not leave you again!” they cried, as they held their little boys and girls close to their chest and promised to never let them go.

Down in the valley, the King stepped into the waters of the lake. He smiled as he felt the coolness touch his body.

“At last!” he said, pleased to sense the water against his skin. “I am great indeed. A lake fit for a king, only for a king. No one shall swim here except for me.”

And with that he thrust his whole body into the water and dived below the surface. A moment later he re-surfaced, his face contorted in pain. He let out a scream.

“The water! The water! It hurts my eyes!” he shouted, furious, enraged. “The sea water burns my eyes! I have been deceived! No one can swim here, this lake is not fit for animals!”

The servants shook with fear by the banks of the lake and the chief advisor smirked.

“Sire,” he called to the King, “it is quite easily changed.” He helped his King out of the water back to the chariot. “One lets the water out, and puts new water in.”

The King, his eyes red and stinging, looked at the chief advisor.

“Your thoughts are worthy of your status as my advisor. Yes. We shall refill the lake.” And he turned to the soldiers and servants standing on the shore. “Get me the villagers, their work is not yet done. And then break the banks of the lake to the south of the valley, let the water run down to their hamlet. It is by their hand that I have been caused pain today. They too shall know what pain is.” Then he cracked his whip and stormed back to the castle.

That very night the soldiers went to the village and forced the men and women to leave by holding swords to their throats. Slowly the villagers walked back up to the lake, and as they did so, they saw a huge wall of water descend towards their village. Their children still slept in the houses and the villagers cried out.

“No! Our children shall be drowned!” they pleaded. But the soldiers would not let them go and made them march towards the empty lake.

Under the moonlight, as the stars shone and the village was swept away and the children drowned, the men and women stood by the banks of the lake and wept. They wept for their children, they wept for their parents, their animals, their crops, the loss of hope. Their tears rolled down their cheeks, fell to the ground, and ran into the huge crater that hours earlier had been a salt-water lake.

The hours passed and the wept tears filled the huge hole in the earth. The night was filled with despair, with cries of sorrow from broken hearts. The King watched from his window, but because his felt nothing but festering anger, he did not care.

For ten nights and ten days the villagers wept until they could cry no more. On the eleventh morning the sun rose and its yellow light sparkled brightly on the surface of the lake.

The King ordered for his chariot to be brought again.

“Today I shall take a swim in my lake!” he thundered. “And all shall be there!”

And so the servants, the soldiers, the villagers and the chief advisor watched as the King stepped into the lake water and dived below the surface.

This time, as he lifted his face out of the water, he smiled. He felt no pain. His eyes did not sting for tearwater cannot hurt those who feel no compassion.

“I am great indeed,” he said as he lay back in the wept-lake and floated on the suffering of others, comfortable and pleased at what he had done. “Yes, I am great indeed.”

As darkness fell

Whistling through the aloe leaves, the wind took a sudden turn and fed itself through a cracked window pane of the cortijo. It swept the floor and climbed up the wall on the far side of the room, brushing aside the cobwebs and tickling the back of a gecko that watched the wasps against the fading sunlight. It then seeped slowly under the door of the bedroom and came to rest above the painting that hung in the farthest corner of the room. Nothing stirred. The air hung still, and the wind, now tired, breathed in the dust and musty smell of the furniture, and settled on the human’s skin.

Asleep, on the old mattress, lay a dog, sprawled across its owners’s legs. It snored and twitched, but otherwise lay motionless. The human, whose eyes were closed, barely moved as his skin sensed the wind fall onto it. The room grew darker, as the light outside turned from ash to grey and finally slate black.

Stars shone, far, far distant worlds, barely visible through the mist that now rose from the river and ran up the embankment past the terraces covered in mango and avocado trees. A dog howled across the other side of the valley and the rattle of cars crossing the bridge echoed up the hill, the noise rustling past the large leaves of the trees and bouncing off the walls of the barn. Then all was quiet.

And as the moon rose, the human opened his eyes and surprised, looked around him.

‘Come,’ he said to the dog, putting out his hand and stroking the fur. ‘It is time.’

With little more than a turn of his head, he rose from the bed and passed through the walls of the cortijo, followed by his dog who stayed at his side. He hovered above the roof of the house, smiled at the beauty of the palm trees in the moonlight, and then was gone.

In the kitchen, where the lights burned and a saucepan filled with tomato soup bubbled on the hob, there sat I.

‘Perhaps,’ I thought, ‘this time I will write.’

The wind heard me speak, as did my son. He was far above me, flying through the shadows playing hide and seek, like he used to amongst the trees and shrubs when he was a little boy, his dog always close by.

‘Yes, yes!’ he laughed. ‘What’s there to stop you? Why, look at me! I always wanted to be like Peter Pan!’

And he swooped past the tallest pine tree and flipped twice over with fearless glee.

I turned to my two dogs who lay at my feet. ‘We shall see, shan’t we?’

And with that I lit a candle for my boy, and began to write.