BEYOND THE GARDEN: A LOVE STORY – A short story by Chin Li
By Chin Li
As he turned the corner, the garden came into view. Out-of-focus at first, then, in an instant, sorting itself into sharp relief against the gloomy sky. Walking up the rugged path made him feel unexpectedly tired. He went through the open gates, and suddenly heard running footsteps. There must be at least several people, but he couldn’t see anybody. He was puzzled. How strangely the world is behaving this morning… There in front of him was the empty tomb, with its gaping entrance, mournful and inviting. Vague memories began to form: mere fragments, all jumbled up. He was about to go in, but was stopped by the whining noise of aeroplanes overhead. On the far side of the garden were the two towers, standing erect on the horizon. Dense black smoke was billowing from one, and the other was bracing itself for the imminent cataclysmic impact that was approaching with manic speed. Silhouetted against the burning inferno were the three lonely crosses. He felt sick – the fumes of aviation fuel were scorching every inch of his inside. A searing pain gripped him and he gasped, losing his breath. At that very moment, a still small voice whispered behind him.
“Master, Master – is it you?”
He turned; his eyes fell on a beautiful, familiar, but frightened face.
“Yes, it is you, Master!” Her face lit up. “Please don’t ever leave us again! Please don’t ever leave me again!” A teardrop glided down her cheek as she spoke.
He reached out his hand and caressed her face gently, and then ran his fingers through her long, smooth, flowing hair. He was unable to say anything: he couldn’t find any consoling words.
“Master, how will the love story end?”
“That was a very long time ago,” he said. But he wasn’t sure what he was saying.
“Time has nothing to do with it – you told me so.” She said quietly, searching for certainty in his eyes.
“If only I know what that means…” He sighed.
Just as he was about to take her hand, a mighty swarm of fierce horsemen, all clad in desert garb and each wielding a red crescent, thundered past. Without warning, one of them bent down and swept Mary off her feet. She screamed, but her voice broke into smithereens, instantly scattered by the Four Winds. He lunged forward trying to grab her extending hand. It was too late: his fingers touched hers, but only for a thousandth of a second. He was violently knocked down by a cavalry of heavily armoured knights. Stumbling, rolling, tumbling, tumbling down… Darkness. He lay there motionless, concussed.
Dust storms. Battle-cries. The wail of death. Churches were burning, mosques were burning. Rivers of blood everywhere. The moon dimmed, and the seas disappeared as corpses soaked up all the water.
At long last, he came to and found himself at the bottom of a pit. His face was cut; the blood had now dried. He tried to scramble up, but stumbled again. Only after a long while did he manage to get out of the pothole. He thought he was looking for something, but wasn’t sure what or why. Yes, there was a lost dream somewhere. He was still wondering about it when a train rumbled past. Then, not long after, another one came and stopped. Everybody on the platform got on the train, orderly and in silence. He followed: he had to go somewhere. As he glanced at the expressionless faces of the other passengers, a feeling of incomprehension began to trouble him. He had been feeling extremely tired since early morning, and desperately needed rest. Walking from one carriage to another, he felt uncomfortably watched. In the end, he found an empty compartment, sat down and promptly fell asleep. Dreams soothed him, even though his mind was still agitated when he woke up. He looked around, and saw sitting across from him on the other side of the aisle the only other passenger, a young woman in an over-sized trench coat, staring out of the window at the receding scenery. He was startled – it was Mary. Her long hair was tied back and her look severe. He hesitated, and then moved over to sit directly opposite her.
“Are you well?” He asked.
She turned and stared at him for a while, then said:
“Yes… as well as can be.” Her voice lingered in the air: she was unfathomably sad.
“I think we can get away from all this, right now.” He spoke in a low, conspiratorial voice,
“There’s no point in it anymore.”
She turned her head back to the window, as the train was slowly coming to a stop at a desolate camp surrounded by dense barbed wires. There were checkpoints, and long queues of people, young and old, men, women and children, waiting patiently to cross over to the other side. She rose, walked past him without looking and got off the train. He couldn’t move. He could see that her heart was like still water: no ripples… frightfully deep and dark. He knew he had to let her go. It’s so difficult to explain everything, he thought to himself. An immense weariness overcame him, and he fell asleep again.
So impossible to think except thinking continues almost by itself I’m not going there again it’d be too damned hard it’s completely beyond my grasp I can almost smell it “almost” is the operative word as nothing’s exact it’s always just almost we’re almost there but not quite we’re almost human but not fully the world’s almost perfect but it can never be we can never redeem time we’re almost never in time but almost always being dragged behind it yes behind time that’s the state we’re in and time doesn’t look kindly on us when we’re trailing along without the right tempo and the water has simply taken control of the land creating inlets and passageways and so the land has changed shape an aubergine’s lying in the basket don’t know why it’s smiling at me I know I bought it in the market this morning and that was the only thing I bought but not sure why an aubergine and not a carrot or watercress now they’re all away I can relax but it’s so cold in here better go and put on something warmer no I can’t go have to stay here keeping watch they’ve left me here on my own to see if she would come and rescue me from the menace they’ve laid around me I know they’ve done that even though they did nothing because doing nothing is the whole point and they did it so well I’ve got to keep watch of that tree on those barren hills why this shiver coming down my spine and the cold’s making me want to sneeze I mustn’t sneeze or else I’ll break the silence and the silence is my only strength my eyes have to be trained on those hills to make sure they wouldn’t get there…
Suddenly a loud officious voice jerked him back into consciousness: “The next station is Kelvinbridge.” A couple of fashionable young ladies got up, each holding a big shopping bag, getting ready to alight from the train. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed, with a slight annoyance, the copies of Metro they left behind: one lying on the empty seat, and the other had just fallen off on to the floor. No one seemed to care.
As his train was slowly grinding to a halt, he saw another one arriving at the opposite side of the platform. The doors of the two trains opened at the same time, and passengers began to stream down towards the exit. Then he caught sight of her, sitting behind a window on the other train. The same over-sized trench coat, the same severe expression on her pallid face. He rose and made a dash for the door, just in time to jump off before it shut. But her train was already starting to move.
“Wait!” He shouted, trying to sprint across the platform. She turned and mouthed I love you from behind the window, tears streaming down her face. He felt his heart breaking into smithereens as her train disappeared into the darkness of the tunnel. He stopped, panting, wanting to swear but did not dare.
He had no desire to get on another train. Wearily climbing up the escalator that didn’t work, he emerged into the brightly-lit lobby of the subway station where adverts on the walls were blinking seductively at him. Just next to the ticket machine two boys were punching each other ferociously as a group of girls stood watching and cheering them on. Several station staff were going about their business as if what they were seeing were just scenes from a television soap. One of the boys threw the other to the ground, and was kicking him hard in the head. The girls became deliriously ecstatic, screaming “Let’em have it, let’em have it!” But the boy on the ground managed to grab the foot of his tormentor and brought him down as well. Somehow, he pulled a knife out of thin air and plunged it right into his opponent’s chest.
Everything was moving too fast: more cavalries, desert hordes and Royal Marines. Drones. IEDs. Shadowy shadows shadowing. The fallen boy lay inert: the knife buried deep in his body, his right hand still gripping his Kalashnikov. That was meant to be his guaranteed invincibility, but it had not fulfilled its promise. Standing there watching all this, his longing for Mary became unbearable. He didn’t want to find out whether the boy was still alive. Suddenly the name Lazarus jammed into his mind, bothering him greatly…
The countless horses that came and went had kicked up such a huge sandstorm that everything was now hidden from sight. Dust everywhere; the noonday sun had given up and simply disappeared. Despite the dust, and despite being shrouded in eerie silence, he could see from the window how the South Tower began to crumble down, noiselessly, almost majestically, with office papers showering like confetti. It was a surreal scenario. People round about him were also staring out of the window at what was happening to their neighbours, frozen in complete helplessness. He saw fear in everybody’s eyes. No one spoke. Some people started rushing down the stairs (all the lifts had stopped); others were desperately climbing up, hoping to reach the safety of the roof. He knew there was no escape. An oppressive heat rose from deep below.
The crowds were thickening. It was a spectacle not to be missed. The logs were stacked high and she was tightly tied to the pole at the centre of the pile. Men and women, old and young, even children who could barely talk, were excitedly waiting for the bishop to give the order for the fire to be lit. It was oppressively hot. He tried to find a path through the crowds. People pushed him back, cursing and threatening him with their fists. The stakes were high – no one would want to give way so another person could get a better view. He was frantic. The order was now given, and the fire began to spread, first slowly and then gathering speed, and in no time the whole pile was engulfed in smoke and flame. The inferno heat…
He started to swear wildly, tears flowing down his face; and he felt his strength ebbing away. He was squashed by sweaty smelly bodies. His gaze fixed helplessly on the slumped frail figure on the burning stake, trying desperately to catch her eyes. Oh Mary, Oh Mary kept echoing in his mind.
A woman standing next to him calmly opened the window and jumped, without any hesitation. He didn’t know her. Before she disappeared, in slow motion, she turned and looked at him. She was still clasping her mobile phone to her ear saying repeatedly, desperately, “I love you, I love you, I love you…” Her voice rose up as she fell, and then faded away slowly. Hearing her voice was strangely comforting. He knew that was the only choice: to jump, to take fate in his own hand rather than waiting passively for someone else to light the fire. He had no mobile phone; he had nobody to phone. He just went. As the up-rushing air buoyed his body in descent, he saw that he was not alone. Three, four, five other people were coming down as well: some above him, some below. Although his brain couldn’t really cope with the rapid acceleration of the fall, he was acutely aware of thinking about Mary, just before he hit the ground.
How will the love story end? She asked. He didn’t know. He didn’t want it, but neither did he want it to end. He found it hard to understand himself. Why am I me? Why am I not you? He sat there, mesmerised by the flickering images on the television. A disproportionally large skeletal head of an emaciated child was staring out from the screen, but the eyes were unfocused. He couldn’t tell whether it was a boy or a girl. Flies were buzzing around the child, attacking the gaunt face with impunity. Why am I me? Why am I not you? He reached out his hand trying to sweep away the flies, but they turned and attacked him. Their bite left a hot, stinging pain in his palm and he withdrew hastily. Then he saw her looking at him quizzically, as if asking Why couldn’t you have done more? He closed his eyes, Oh Mary, Oh Mary, as he hit the ground.
The ground was not hard at all: it was muddy, and soft, and drenched. The nauseating stench of putrefied flesh. Everywhere. Everywhere. He kept as low as possible, crawling on all fours. The sound of artillery and gunfire pierced the air, cutting worlds asunder. His rifle had long disappeared, but he didn’t want to take another one from the many dead soldiers lying higgledy-piggledy in the trenches. He didn’t need any – he would never be able to pull the trigger. The Great War – the war to end all wars. He was longing for Mary’s still, small voice.
After a while, his back was so sore that he couldn’t crawl any longer. Straightening up, he saw that the garden was still deserted and quiet. There were no more running footsteps. Dusk began to gather itself, and a light breeze brought relief from the oppressive heat of the day. There was only silence. Pure, unadulterated silence. The three empty crosses were standing guard outside the garden gates. Then he remembered. Slowly he walked towards the one in the middle, with absolute certainty that he could do it again…