An Original Story by Darius Mesmer
It roiled up around me as the soles of my Italian leather shoes pounded the dry hardpan of the unpaved road. I could see the fine, silicate material coating my pants legs, and building up inside the cuffs. I could feel it in my nose and throat, the minute particles coating them to increase my growing thirst. Looking up, I saw that the sun remained high in the sky – close to midday, I thought. I raised one hand to wipe my sweaty brow, and shielded my eyes from the hot sun to look up the road and see what lay ahead.
Exactly nothing seemed to lie before me but this interminable road, crawling its way up this modest slope of a hill and disappearing over the top. I looked to my right and saw the sea of prairie grass and stunted shrubs that had filled the landscape all day; to my left, more of the same stretching to infinity. I lowered my hand, sighed and continued on.
“Where the hell am I?” I wondered aloud – not for the first time this day. “More important, how did I get here?” I could remember nothing about how it happened. All I could recall clearly was suddenly coming awake and becoming aware that I was lost amidst this barren landscape. It brought to mind a time in college, one summer at the Cape…the scary feeling of waking up and finding myself in some neighborhood at four in the morning and without a clue as to how I happened to be there. It gave me the same frightening sense of disorientation that I felt now – although at least I had the excuse of an alcohol-induced blackout to explain it then. But how to explain this?
My mind worked at the problem hard, trying to figure out what had happened. The last thing I could remember was being at home, watching Sports Center as I drowsed in my chair, slightly buzzed – pretty typical of most nights. I recalled rousing myself to go to the cellar to fetch a bottle of wine. And then, this damnable road.
I looked up again, as I trudged on – knowing I would see only the same road marching off into forever. But I stopped in my tracks as I saw something a few hundred yards ahead that broke the otherwise monotonous, barren vista before me. I quickened my pace, almost breaking into a trot to get to the object quickly. Out of breath, and more parched than ever, I quickly reached it, and read:
Far Away 3 miles
The black letters painted crudely on the weather-worn white face of the sign fairly screamed their message in my head. I read it again, and then several more times, as if it were written in another language. “What is Far Away?”, I asked myself. “Is that a town? Or just the next twist in this ongoing hallucination?” Were I in a better frame of mind and physical condition (thirst was becoming a real concern now), I would have laughed at the absurdity of it; but, at the moment, choices were few. I returned to the road, and moved with purpose in the direction of Far Away, to find whatever awaited me there.
It seemed a long time since I had left the signpost behind me, though I have no doubt it had been less than an hour. Fear was once more laying claim to my mind as I plodded onward up the gentle slope. My thoughts raced: “What if it is a ghost town? Or worse, the work of some prankster to put this sign out in the middle of nowhere? What happens if I can’t find water; or a way to figure out just where I am and how I got here…or how to get home? Or, if I have truly lost my mind (the situation suggested that as a distinct possibility), what would happen to me if I blacked out again out here in the middle of nowhere?”
The worst case scenarios capered about in my brain as I walked on, occupying my thoughts so completely that I was unaware that I had reached the top of the rise and could now see what lay beyond. My head came up, instinctively; and my breath hissed out in a sharp exhale of surprise as my brain took it all in.
The sea. I looked down across a sweeping plain that ran from this ridge, to the sea. The bright sun reflected back from the shimmering, blue-green surface of the vast expanse of water. I could now hear the waves gently lapping against the narrow beach in the distance. I stood in shock and wonder at the sudden appearance of it; and wondered that I had not heard the waves before this moment. The land that led down to the water’s edge was filled to each horizon with its own sea of amber. “Wheat fields? Something told me they were wheat fields – golden waves that seemed to ebb and flow in syncopation with the ocean just beyond them.”
There was little enough to interrupt the view…a few small houses, it seemed, and telephone poles and lines that seemed somehow incongruent with the isolated spot. “Is that a windmill? It is!”, my mind cried. I watched the long, wooden vanes, fixed atop the spare frame structure, as they rotated slowly in the breeze that came from the shore. Near the base of the windmill, I could see something else – it looked like the brown, rusted hull of a locomotive engine, half hidden by the wheat that grew up all around it. I took in the quiet beauty of the scene, at the same time puzzled by it. “What circumstances had conspired to create it?”, I thought. “A windmill, a locomotive, a few small shacks…”. Other than the slow rotation of the windmill, there were no obvious signs of movement or life.
I descended from the ridge, taking in the simple beauty and charm of the place. The azure sea swelled rhythmically before coughing up its white foam upon the dark spit of sand; and the sand was in turn consumed by the great expanse of golden wheat swaying under the prevailing wind. The man-made artifacts sprinkled here and there lent it an odd, peaceful – and yes, nostalgic – air. I was certain that, in any other situation, the feel of the place would have given me an immediate sense of serenity. Instead, I felt the fear rising in my throat as I considered what to do now…how to find my way out of here, get back to my home…to end this absurd dream.
More details came into view, as I drew nearer the windmill. The twin storage tanks made sense (though, in my ignorance of farming, I could not tell if they were for water or grain or something else). And the rusting train engine – well, it at least belonged in the outdoors. But it seemed there were also more random elements – what seemed to be pieces of furniture placed here and there, as one might see at a flea market or estate sale. To the left of the windmill, beyond the tanks, stood a small table and two chairs; and strewn atop the table were some objects I could not yet discern from this distance. Beyond the windmill, where the land began to fall off to the sea, there appeared to be a tall, antique china cabinet; and by it another table and chairs. And…
I stopped, dead in my tracks, blinking to clear my eyes and my mind. For a moment, I wondered if the sun had gotten to me; causing me to imagine I saw something I really did not. My feet began to move again, as if compelling me on while my mind caught up. I came off the ridge onto the level ground of the wheat field, and strode through the thigh-high grasses deep into the field.
As I reached the windmill, it became quite clear: this was no hallucination. There…at the table by the china cupboard…in the chair facing me…sat a young woman in a simple yellow dress. She sat there calmly, quietly; her legs crossed and watching me approach. It was as if she had been there waiting, patiently, for someone to come; and she seemed to be neither surprised nor alarmed to see a stranger, rather than her expected visitor.
I approached the table, and stopped to stand behind the open chair. I opened my mouth to speak, not sure if it was the dryness of my mouth with its thin coating of dust; or just my surprise at finding her here that left me mute. Before I could force the words out, she looked up at me, and smiled and said “Welcome. Please, sit…I am sure you are tired from your travels, and no doubt in need of a cold drink”.
I sat without speaking, as she rose, went to the sideboard and poured water from the pitcher there into a tall, crystal glass. She returned with it, placed it in front of me as I watched her silently, and returned to her seat and her warm, patient smile. I grasped the glass before me with both hands, lifted it to my mouth and drank the surprisingly cold water off in a single draught. “Thank you”, I gasped, as I put down the glass. She simply smiled and nodded.
Restored by the drink, I took in the woman sitting across the table from me. She seemed to be in her mid-30’s, tall and slender with delicate, porcelain skin. Her hair was a chestnut brown, with auburn highlights throughout, and worn up – held in place by a plain brown comb. She wore a very simple dress of canary yellow, and no jewelry…and I had noticed, as I approached, that she was barefoot. Most notably of all, she had amazingly bright green eyes that fixed on me with a look of intelligence, serenity and – something more – was it vague amusement? I held her gaze as she looked at me, smiling; and blurted out: “What is this place? Is it your home? I seem to be lost, and have no idea how I got here…”.
“It has become as a home for me”, she said, her voice soft and somehow soothing to my jangled nerves. “A lovely place, I think…peaceful. I never tire of it.”
“But…where are we?”, I stammered. “I have had some sort of…accident. Waking up, suddenly…in this place…not knowing where I am…how I got here…why I am here…”
She looked at me as my voice trailed off, her eyes never losing the mildly amused look. The saving grace was that her entertainment at my state was masked by her gentle and serene attitude; and by the warmth and empathy in those extraordinary eyes. “Dorothy”, she said, smiling.
I looked up, not sure I had heard her correctly. “What? Sorry?”
Her smile widened. “Dorothy”, she said again – this time louder and more clearly. “You know, the one from the story”.
“From the ‘Wizard of Oz?’”, I asked. “That Dorothy?”
“The very one”, she replied.
“What does Dorothy have to do with this?”, I asked, slightly incredulous at the suggestion.
“Imagine how she felt, waking up in Oz; and not knowing how to get home. What you said made me think of her.”
I nodded, looking at her in bemusement. “Okay, I kinda get that. But I am not sure that is terribly relevant to my circumstance here.”
I immediately regretted my words, worrying that my sarcasm and frustration came through; and that I might have hurt her feelings. But her look remained unchanged, calm, as she said “Well, I dunno. It seemed pretty hopeless for her at one point; but it all worked out in the end.”
I stared at her for a moment, aware of my eyes going wide as I did so. The words escaped my lips before I could call them back: “Sorry, but what has that got to do with it? Dorothy was fictional…a character from a children’s story!”
Her sweet, sincere smile merely grew broader as she said “Of course! Isn’t it great?”
I decided to abandon the topic. And wondered, not for the last time, if something was terribly wrong with this young woman.
“I’m sorry…I have been rude”, I said (in my clumsy attempt to change the subject). “I am Martin…Martin Blackledge”. I extended my hand to her, across the table, smiling.
She grasped my hand, with a firmness that surprised me; and shook it enthusiastically (an action which did not surprise me). “Nice to meet you, Marty. I’m Claire McConnell.”
I smiled at her use of ‘Marty’, as I had not been called that by anyone since my mother passed away almost 20 years ago. I was ‘Martin’ (a properly serious name) to all who knew me, including my father who had never called me anything else.
“And a pleasure to meet you, Claire” I said. “Do you live here? Is this your property?”
Her face brightened and a soft laugh bubbled up, the lyrical sound of it filling the air around us. “No sir”, she said, still chuckling. “Not my property. I will say it has come to feel like home to me, and it is a comfort to my spirit. Like you, I am just a visitor passing through. We are not the first; and I have no doubt we will not be the last.”
I gazed at her, puzzled by the response and the reference to others. “Passing through?”, I asked. “What does that mean, exactly?”
“Not unlike you, I think”, came her reply. “For me, it was like waking up from a dream and…finding myself in a dream. I was suddenly here…or near here. And it was that way with the others also.”
“How many others?”, I asked.
She shrugged her shoulders, and smiled. “I was never very good with numbers. They come, they go. It is like this place is a sort of way station.”
I felt my voice grow strident as I spoke again, the anxiety growing in line with my confusion: “A way station? To where? From where? Where do they go when they leave here? And, more importantly, how do they go when they leave here?”
“To be honest, I am not sure”, she said, a look of honest bewilderment on her face. It seemed to me the look was more from a sense of the silly question I had just asked, rather than her not having an answer. I wondered, once more, whether there was something fundamentally wrong with Claire. “They just seem to…disappear. Like they reach a point in time when they are done doing what they came here to do, and they just go.”
“What they came here to do? I did not come here to do anything. I just woke up here, through no fault or planning of my own”, I replied.
She smiled, like a tolerant mother teaching a very simple lesson to a small child. “So”, she said, “by that logic, you assume that since you did not choose to be here, there is no reason behind it? No lesson to be learned or value to be gained? That is a rather arrogant position to take, Mr. Blackledge…if I am not being too bold in saying that.”
I stared at her with a bit of an edge this time, and said: “I have heard some of that New Age psychobabble before – that there is some fatalistic reason things happen to us; or that we are exposed to people because they are meant to teach us some lesson. Frankly, I think that is a load of bull crap concocted by weak people to explain a world they refuse to exert control over. And Martin Blackledge has never been one of those!”
I immediately regretted my tone, knowing it would upset or anger her – my sole contact in this place. But to my surprise, the tolerant mask of her face remained in place as she said: “Well clearly, sir, you face an ironic dilemma; for you are undeniably in this place, against your will by your own admission; and you are utterly unable to will it to be otherwise. What harm, then, in seeing if there might just be something worth learning from the experience; since it is clear you must be here, by your choice or not?”
I opened my mouth to speak, but said nothing. I had to admit there was nothing, really, that I could say that would alter my circumstance. And perhaps that was, after all, a good enough reason to stay silent.
We sat together at the small table for several hours, the conversation flowing effortlessly with interruptions only to refill our water glasses. She told me about her home – a small town in rural Texas called River Bend, about 60 miles north of the sprawling DFW airport. I laughed at that, telling her I thought of Texas as billions of square miles of prairie, scrub plains and desert – with large metropolitan areas plunked down in the middle of them. The very idea of a river town defied my mental image of the state. She got the joke, and laughed – a pure, unforced joy expressed fully in the sound of it.
“I have lived on the same patch of land since birth”, she said. “My grandfather bought it after World War II, when they were still growing cotton in that area. He thought farming was the perfect life, after what he had seen in Europe from D-Day on. He never really made a go of the farm – stayed pretty much dirt poor, in fact. But he was the happiest and most well-liked man I ever knew; the kind of guy known in the small town for his integrity and generosity. My dad did better, turning the land over to breeding horses. So, I have been around them all my life, starting with a pony when I was five years old.” She smiled, her mind turning inward to some distant memory of it, and I sensed she was off somewhere for a few moments before returning to our dialogue.
“What about you, Marty? What’s your story?”, she asked, her eyes focusing on me after her brief reverie.
“Not much of a story to tell, really”, I replied. “and certainly not as exotic as yours. I grew up in a city in central Massachusetts – a former mill town. It is spelled W-O-R-C-E-S-T-E-R, as in Worcestershire sauce; but the locals all pronounce it ‘Wooh-stuh’”. She laughed and clapped her hands in delight at the exaggerated New England accent. With such an audience, I was encouraged to continue.
“I came from a large, traditional Catholic family – nine kids, which essentially meant my mother was either pregnant or dealing with a newborn – or both – for the better part of twenty years. If she is not a candidate for Sainthood, I don’t know who would be. My dad was a semi-skilled laborer who never made much more than ten thousand dollars a year – that is, when he could hold a job. He was a pretty hopeless alcoholic, and abusive – more emotionally than physically – to all the kids and my mom. I didn’t know him very well – until he came home after having a massive heart attack…‘scared sober’, you might say. Anyway, he was home only a year before he had ‘the big one’ and basically died with his head in my lap in the back of an ambulance on the way to the hospital.”
For the first time, her smile faded a bit; and her eyes reflected a look of…what exactly? Sadness? Empathy? But her next question was more one of curiosity, as she asked “Why were you in the ambulance? How old were you?”
“I was 19, and a freshman in college”, I said. And I guess I was there because my mom had already started to treat me like the man of the house. Maybe because my dad was gone so often? Not really sure why. But after all those years of raising all those kids, and running the household, she had started to become very dependent on others.”
“Ah, so you were the oldest then?”, she asked.
I laughed. “Actually, I was a middle child…three older sisters, two older brothers…and a slew of aunts, uncles and cousins in the area. But I had an independent streak, I guess – had my first job at 14 and got stinking drunk for the first time that same year. I guess I was following dear old dad’s example on the latter. I was also the first one to break from the herd and go to college. Suffice it to say, I was very mature very early; so I guess it was not totally out of whack for my mom to look to me that way.”
“But college…going away to school must have been a relief to you? Living there, where all you needed to focus on was yourself?”
I laughed at that, and did so until tears flowed down my cheek and I could barely breathe. She looked at me in clear confusion, but waited patiently until I could catch my breath and explain. “The reality could not be further from that image. I did go to a great school, in the local area. My tuition was nearly completely covered by scholarships and loans, but what remained I had to pay for – tuition, my car, gas, meals, the books and other expenses…so I went to school full time and worked 30 plus hours a week on top of it. Shortly after I started, my mother got sick; and by the end of sophomore year she was rapidly declining – a rare and fatal immune disorder called Scleroderma. I had to take a leave from school to help care for her – and bring enough money into the house to help cover expenses and pay for her medical care. It was three years later before I could return to school…after she died.”
She nodded, listening to the story with that same empathetic look I had seen before. I continued. “After college, I went to business school nights and weekends while working full time days. I got married to the first woman I had been in a serious relationship with, and a year later we had a child – my daughter Alexandra, and then a second daughter, Nicole, a year after that.
I finished my MBA program in record time for a night student – 2 ½ years – and then fell into an unexpected situation. I went to work for a consulting firm, in the heyday of growth during the late 80’s and early 90’s. Three years later. I became the youngest Vice President in the firm; by then making obscene money – over half a million a year. But the travel and long hours ripped the heart out of the marriage. We held on until the girls went off to college – trying to keep things from getting nasty. When we separated, it led to my estrangement from the girls; and those relationships remain pretty distant to this day. But hey – at least I had my health!” I chuckled at my own little joke, noting it not induce a similar response from her.
Instead, she held my eyes with hers and posed a very serious question: “Marty, what gives you joy?”
I was not quite sure how to react to the question. I say back, considering it; feeling a bit threatened because it was a question I could never really answer. I stammered a bit, as I said “I don’t think about it a lot, but I reckon I am not very different that most people I know. Who is really happy, after all?”
She smiled and nodded, and then said: “I half expected that answer, more common to the people who pass through here than you might expect. Most seem to struggle with finding and embracing joy in their lives; claim it is something they want and yet do nothing about it. It is a choice, I think – like my dad always said ‘you wear the same clothes to be happy in’”. She blushed mildly, and laughed at this thought, before going on. “I know that sounds a little corny – but I do think people have more choice in the matter than they acknowledge. It is almost as if they prefer to wrap themselves up in their unhappiness as if it were a warm and comfortable blanket.”
I nodded, and said “I am sure that what you say makes sense. But sometimes life exerts a force of its own…you get busy, wrapped up in the events of the day, or busy with their jobs or whatever…”. I listened, almost from outside myself, and my voice trailed off as the inanity of my statement sunk in. I tried to change the subject. “You talked about the people passing through here – how many have done so in the time you have been here?”
She thought about this for a moment, with that slightly vacant look of someone doing a calculation in her head. After a few seconds – which felt much longer, to me – she looked up, smiled at me and said “I would guess somewhere between four and five hundred”.
My chin fell, and I am sure my face expressed utter shock. “Five hundred? How can that be? How long have you been here? How long do they stay?” My mind raced, confused; and I stood staring and waiting for her response as the information sunk in.
“Some of those who have come and gone have done so in the same day”, she said. Others, it seems, have stayed weeks or months. The time thing is the funny part about this – not ‘Ha Ha’ funny but odd funny. It is really hard to keep track of time. I mean, I never seem to get hungry…not really thirsty either. I do drink water with people as they come – they seem to want or need it, and to not do so would just be rude. And I also sense that time runs faster here…that it could feel like I was here for ten years, but only a year had passed in the outside world. Hard to explain, but that is the way it seems to work”.
I was stunned again, and at the same time starting to feel as though I were being “pulled down” by a sudden weight on my shoulders; and might not be able to stand – or stay awake too much longer. I felt my tongue moving slowly, my mouth dry and my tongue thick, as I spoke. “May I ask, Claire, how old are you?”
She smiled at me in a benevolent way – as a parent might with a small child they were especially proud of. “I am 34, Marty…I think; but as I said, it is hard to know how much time has passed since I came here. Maybe I am much older.”
I started to speak again, finding it hard to muster the strength to do so. I felt as though I might fall on the spot into a deep sleep. It was becoming harder to focus, to find the energy to stay in the conversation. Before I could get the words out, she said “It’s starting, Marty”.
“Starting?” The question came out, the words slurred as if spoken by a drunkard. “What is ‘starting’? Why? What does it mean?”
“You will leave soon. You have made your decision”, she said cryptically. “It seems, when visitors do, they soon succumb to extraordinary exhaustion…numbing… irresistible. I see it in your eyes…is that what you feel?”
I nodded, unable to move my tongue or mouth to speak. She went on, her voice growing louder and the words flowing out at a greatly increased pace. “Marty, listen. When people come here, they come to deliberate some important choice…make some crucial decision about their lives. I am sure that is the purpose of the place – a ‘way station’, yeah? I do not always – or even often – know what the decisions require; but it is clear that when they make a decision, the disabling fear comes over them and they fall asleep. Most of the time, I do too. And when I wake, they are gone.”
“I do not know what decision I have made”, I said. And tried to explain; but could not really get the words out. She came closer, held out her arms and wrapped me in a warm, firm embrace. “It is okay, Marty”, she said. “I am here, and will stay with you until you go. I do not know what choice you might have made; but were I to guess I would think it is to find your happiness. The stories you told me say you have struggled to find, to hold and to embrace joy. It is not your time to move on from this life…you have important work to do yet. Keep that in your mind, Marty. Your choices will guide you to where you were meant to be. Now lie down there in the grass; and if it is okay, perhaps I could lie with you? These moments never fail to make me sad.”
I immediately, and clumsily, dropped to my knees as if I were a wildebeest felled by a tranquilizer dart. I lay back, plopping onto my back. I was vaguely aware of Claire lying down, her dark hair cascading across my body as her head rested on my chest. I could hear her whispering something as if from far away, through the dark veil of the coming slumber: “Fare well, brave traveler”, she said. “Return to me when you might.” The world closed and folded in around me, and all went to dark.
The next sensation I felt was an explosion of pain in my temples. The world I saw inside my mind flashed hot and white…and then red as I tried to push my way up to the surface of full consciousness. Claire was gone; as were the grass and wheat and windmill. My head was on…a concrete floor, matted blood in my hair and on my face, and a small puddle of the same blood all around my head. The pounding pain and explosive light show in my head continued as I fought to rise. Only then did I realize I was in my own home, in the cellar. Sudden understanding flooded into my brain, through the fog. The wine…the stairs…they had always been rickety…easy to misstep…maybe I had too much to drink. And then Need help…call emergency…Claire…I am fighting…fighting to stay here. I somehow found the strength to get up, stumble across the cellar room to the table with the phone…and dial 911.
I slid on my sunglasses, as the morning clouds parted and the intense glare of the sun reflected off the shimmering lake to my left. I knew, from the map I bought, that this was the Lake Ray Roberts dam; and that the massive structure and vast expanse of the lake were the result of work done by the Army Corps of Engineers. I chuckled and shook my head. Only in Texas, I thought, could they turn a narrow river into this oversized reservoir and recreational lake. I knew River Bend was just a few miles ahead.
It had only been 4 days since I left the hospital, recovering from a mild concussion (really more like a major headache; and taking on blood for the three pints I has lost in the fall. My boss had expressed concern – maybe they had been driving me too hard and I should take a few days off. I agreed to do so – not for any mental or physical reason, but because I…needed to know…to understand. I had called directory assistance, but that was ineffectual…“no listing under the name McConnnell around River Bend or this area of North Texas.” So I told my boss I wanted to take a couple of weeks, from my massive accrual of vacation time.
I needed to know if she was real.
Ten minutes later, I was pulling into the Town Center of River Bend – a quaint but unremarkable square lined with the low level, wood frame buildings housing antique stores, home cooking restaurants and used bookstores. The white bandstand and the old courthouse building made of stone completed the scene. It could have been any small town in the state. The only distinguishing mark was the old stone bank building, which was once said to have been robbed by Bonnie and Clyde.
I walked into the Courthouse building to see if I could get some help tracking down the McConnell family. I turned into the first office to my right, with its wooden door; and the center panel of frosted glass that had been carefully stenciled to say“Town Clerk”. I entered, and walked up the reception desk, behind which sat a simply dressed lady with bleached blond hair that made her look like a stock character in movies about the south. She looked up, pushing her pencil (I think she had been doing a Sudoku puzzle) behind her ear. But it was her words that surprised me: “McConnell, right?”, she asked with her soft southern drawl.
“Yes, ma’am…but how could you know that? I just got to town and have not yet told anyone what I am looking for.”
She merely smiled, produced a printed map entitled “McConnell Ranch”. I thanked her, took the paper; and turned on my heel to walk out, puzzled by the short exchange.
Five minutes later, I drove through the black iron gate that had swung open after a brief discussion with the male voice at the other end of the intercom system. I was curious about the quick extension of the invitation to a complete stranger.
As I entered the last two hundred yards of the graveled drive, I saw what looked like a large parking lot standing before the large ranch building. There were at least a dozen cars, trucks and SUV’s parked there – with a smorgasbord of states represented on the license plates. I parked in an available spot, left my beige Taurus rental car and walked up to the very ornate front door. I found the doorbell and pressed it; and was surprised to see the door open almost immediately. I walked in and saw an oaken desk straight ahead…an odd piece of furniture to place in the two story open foyer.
As I walked up, I was treated to a warm smile from the nattily attired lady with the rich, chestnut-colored hair sitting there. Before I could ask my question, she glanced at the hardbound ledger before her; then looked up smiling and said only “462”.
I blinked, at a loss as to what she might be telling me. My eyebrows raised, and I said “Excuse me? I don’t understand. What is ‘462’?”
“You are 462”, she said, her placid smile never altering. “Many people have come here to see her these past two years. We have never understood what is happening; or why. It is as if they are making personal pilgrimages of sorts, with our Claire as their destination.”
I stammered, saying “So, the cars…outside…they are all here to see Claire?”
“Most of them”, she said. “Mine is there; and Claire’s mother…and her brother. The rest are visitors…actually a slow period for us right now.” As I heard her words, the room began to spin, and I felt a chill as I considered what I had heard. Two years, I thought. How can that be? She is here, and there, all at once?
My hostess saw my expression, rose from her seat and came around the desk to where I stood, gently placing her hand on my shoulder. She spoke, in a soft and reassuring voice: “I have seen that look before, and I am sorry to have seemed insensitive. Many people have come through those doors to see her, and most are shocked to find out the truth. Some have come more than once. Wonderful things have come of it – at least four couples that we know of met here and married. One of the early couples returned last month with an 18 month old daughter – and she was named Claire. Sometimes I lose sight of the importance of all this to the visitors; and for that I apologize.”
She went on to explain that Claire had fallen ill to an unusual virus, leading to a disease that the doctors could never fully explain. After just a few days, she fell into a coma, and had never come out of it. The visitors started to arrive about three months later. She was moved back home, along with a hospital bed, life support equipment and a live-in nurse…because her mother wanted her home, hoping the familiar environment might help. There have been some few times since when Claire showed signs of awareness. She seemed to be most responsive to certain visitors, whose presence evoked some small reactions – fluttering eyelids, a change to the heart rate. We don’t really know if they were hopeful signs or just random events. Over time, her parents and family had become less hopeful…but had not surrendered hope entirely. The visitors told them many of their stories; and soon became the greatest source of confidence that Claire might one day return to them.
I sighed, and muttered “What a tragedy…and 34 years old…so young…so much life to live yet.”
She smiled again, at my words; and said “Not 34, dear. Claire is a couple of months away from her 34th birthday. But close enough, I suppose – though when it is a woman involved, you would do far better to err on the proper side of the age discussion”. She ended the sentence with a soft, warm laugh.
“But she said…”, I began, and then let the words fall off as I considered what I had just heard. The lady smiled, and again touched my arm. She said, softly “May I take you in to see her?” I nodded, mutely, my emotions a mix of fear and anticipation. She turned to lead me down the hall.
The room we entered was cavernous – fourteen foot cathedral ceilings, windows that stretched nearly from floor to ceiling and allowed in light filtered through fine white curtains that billowed from the circulation of air from the two fans on the ceiling. There were two rooms adjacent to it – a bathroom, and a smaller anteroom in which I could see the nurse sitting. Around the perimeter of the room were a dozen people – men and women of all ages and in a wide variety of attire; from jeans and cotton shirts to suits and dresses; and one elderly man in a clerical collar. A small child – perhaps not yet three years old – bounced on her mother’s knee.
In the middle of the back wall, centered between two of the large windows, stood the bed; and in it the fragile form of…Claire. She was impossibly thin, perhaps the result of atrophy over her time in this condition. She was surrounded by equipment – tracking vital signs, delivering oxygen through the tubes running into her nose. I began to feel an overwhelming surge of pity and sadness at her state; and then noticed the same relaxed, pacific expression on her face that I had seen at the table in the wheat field. It was clear she was at peace…and I imagined her sitting at the table in the field, talking to the latest arrival to her way station; or merely awaiting them. I smiled at the thought.
An elderly man, in a simple suit, sat next to her bed; doing little more than drawing comfort from being close to her. He glanced in my direction, seeming to know that I was a newcomer to this place, on my first pilgrimage. He rose from the chair, and gestured for me to come sit…and I saw and sensed nods and general expressions of agreement from the others about the room. I nodded, whispered “thank you” – and moved slowly toward the side of the bed. As I got close, I could now make out the sign on the wall above the head of the bed. It appeared to be a work of needlepoint and said, simply:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
I recognized it as the “Serenity Prayer” by Reinhold Niebuhr, most often associated with Alcoholics Anonymous. I had repeated the words often, since I learned them from my father’s final year and his involvement in AA. But I think I truly read, understood and saw the value in the words for the first time as I took the chair by Claire’s bedside.
I leaned in close to her sleeping form, and gently took her hand (hoping that was okay) and whispered so only she might hear: “Claire…it’s me, Marty. I did not have a chance to thank you before I left Far Away. Our encounter, and your advice, has made me start to think about things…about life…and finding what you may from it before you move on. I know I need to find serenity… and courage; and I know that I have made that choice. Time will tell if it is the right choice; but I trust it will be. And I have you to thank for that.” I felt a tear tracing a path down my face as I completed the thought; and was shocked to feel her hand move, almost imperceptibly, in the form of a weak squeeze of my finger as it sat against her palm. My eyes went wide, and I nearly leapt from my chair before a sense of joy and relief washed over me. All I could think was She heard.
I stayed for a few moments longer, whispering disconnected thoughts of gratitude and gently squeezing her hand in return. Then, I rose and moved to one of the chairs along the wall. And I waited.