As it’s Christmas, a time of the year for gathering around the fire and telling stories, here’s a starter. An old fairy tale revisited. What happens after the dragons are slain, the frog turns into a prince, the sleeping beauty awoken, the witch pushed into the oven? And how close to actual events are the stories? I always suspect that the truth is somewhat darker. What would happen if the protagonists were freed of the mantle of myth and able to retrace the footsteps of their own tales?
So here’s the first act: If anyone feels like supplying what follows, I’m all agog…
There had been much preparation for this moment. It had started with medication, of course, right back at the beginning, gentle, soothing voices echoing through the numbness. Then questions, friendly faces high across the table; the austerity of the room barely leavened by the garish, drug-induced finger paintings.
That first time, in the dimly-lit examination room in front of the one-way mirror, she had imagined her tranced, unaware fingers smearing down that paper, damp with warm gore, not paint. Something had been released to haunt her, deep in the private hell inside her head and she been carried away screeching by two more figures in white.
Regression, hypnosis, confrontation, role-play, art therapy. If they were different to torture, degradation, exposure, she hadn’t known the difference at the time; kicking, biting, spitting at them, snarling from a pool of piss in the corner. Running, feral and screaming down identical corridors; lying, tears wrung from her until she felt emptied and raw.
Not until she had seen him again for the first time did something break inside her. Instead of the screaming, ravening blackness that she had expected when her defences crumbled there had just been a wave of inexplicable tenderness. Fogged by tears, stumbling towards him, arms locked around his neck and pushing against him as if trying to tunnel into him. He had grown so much by then, awkward, dark and solemn. He had whispered her name once into her ear and then held her head against his bony chest as barking sobs had wracked her tiny frame.
Now, shivering in the drizzle by the big, rented four-wheel-drive, she wasn’t sure if she wouldn’t rather be back in the Institute, wrapped in her comfort blanket of depressants and watching the world go past the window as a blurred mystery. Too late now. Always onwards.
She glanced across at him as he folded the map and nodded once, face set and impassive. How different he was now to the scared boy that she had known. Manhood had hardened his dark, brooding face but it was their shared past that had brought the shadows home to roost beneath its crags. His frame was rangy and raw-boned, his knuckles hammered into weapons by years of being the odd one out in his schools. Close-cropped dark hair descended almost to a point above his nose and accentuated the look of watchfulness in his near-black eyes. He had driven for over an hour in silent concentration. He was not unfriendly but she had learned, in the years spent getting to know him again, that he was almost overwhelmed by the vast silences that filled him; he vented stillness as other men chattered.
He returned her gaze evenly, silently as ever and she found herself wondering, for the first time, what he saw when he looked at her. A pale woman, expression composed. Hair cut short and swept back from her fine features. Only piercing, pale eyes hinting at loss, grief, a past endured rather than treasured. She was shorter than he by a foot, on the wiry side of lean. Before the trip she had been running thirty miles a week, weighted bands at the wrist. She exercised as a penitent, scowling; harried and haunted by noises carried over from her dreams. At least she would be fit for the walk.
She took the first step away from the car. There was a path from here; too narrow to drive but clearer than the shadowed trails that she fled down in her dreams. It was pale against the dim of the forest, glistening with the drizzle, winding sinuously, probing, forcing its way into the dark tangle of moist vegetation. Under the shifting light filtered by the treetops blowing in the skittish wind, it seemed to pulse coldly. Roots pushed up beneath the surface like dark veins through pallid skin. Something nagged at the back of her mind, something about following a trail of…? – and then it was gone. She took a deep breath of the chilly morning air and began to walk.
Arthur Hanselman and Greta Lamonde. Back in the woods for the first time since childhood. She glanced back once as they rounded the first bend: the forest closed behind them and the car, their last anchor to civilisation and sanity, was swallowed by the green silence.