Short Fiction ~ Flora Jardine
Dusk thickened to darkness as I drove north. On my left the hills turned black as the sun sank behind them. I longed for sleep. Why had I set out so late, so tired? But I knew why: I wanted to get this journey over with, to fall into a motel bed and sleep until noon with no need to get up early to drive to the funeral.
I switched my headlights on, as did the other drivers. The highway narrowed here to two lanes with a concrete divider. The lights of oncoming cars were intermittently blinding. Up ahead, I saw brake lights congeal into red blurs. Traffic slowed, then stopped. I pulled up behind the car in front. Oh great, I thought wearily. A collision ahead? How long would this take?
At the moment, no one knew. Curses would be flying within each vehicle. Those with radios would be tuning in to traffic reports and those with smart phones checking other media. I had neither radio nor cellphone. I abhorred cellphones, and my old beater of a car had silenced its own radio. As long as the car started and stopped I hadn't wanted to spend money on getting frills fixed, but now of course I wished I had. How long before the line would move again? I was sealed off in a box, knowing nothing, hearing no news.
I turned off my engine when others did the same. Then came sirens: ambulance and police approached from up ahead and had to snake around vehicles blocking the two lanes which formed the highway in this section between cliffs. One cliff rose like a wall on my left and the other fell sharply to the right, all the way down to the snaking shoreline of the inlet below.
I swear aloud. I have no flashlight, no phone, no radio, nothing to read, nothing to eat and little water in my bottle. I did have a pillow though, so I tilted my seat backward and tucked it behind my head. Breathe, I told myself. Stay calm. Nothing to do but wait and possess oneself in patience.
The wait, I learned, would be long. Someone official-looking was going from car to car, telling drivers that there had been a multi-vehicle pile-up ahead. Do NOT try to turn around, he said at each driver's window. Someone had tried that and was now wedged between other cars and the divider. People were honking, tempers flaring. Then a helicopter appeared. “Jaws of life” were being employed. With nothing better to do, I got out of my car and walked near a group of drivers milling on the roadside. I overheard details from someone's radio. It was going to be a long night. I hadn't brought a book, not even a newspaper. I had left home in a hurry. Every time I do anything in a hurry, like the times I've rushed from one lifestyle to another, disaster follows.
I returned to the car, tilted the seat and tucked the cushion under my head. Breathe, I advised myself again. I began counting down, doing visualizations. I was so tired I drifted off ...
Someone rapped on the window. I jerked awake, glaring. F-- OFF I wanted to snap, but I saw that it was a good Samaritan with a tray of take-out coffee and muffins.
“Sorry to startle you,” she said, unforgivably polite when I was so irritable.
“No ... it's fine ... sorry ...” I stammer. “Do you know what's going on?”
Neighbours from the scatter of houses up the hill had decided to bring coffee to those stuck in the jam. It would be hours before the road was unclogged, it seemed, before the wrecks were towed away and the accident analysts had finished investigating.
“Thank you,” I say to the Samaritan, and she moves on to the next car. So here I was, sealed alone in a box, with nothing to do but think my thoughts. Thoughts ambush you at a time like this, savage things springing out of wilderness. I shut my eyes and began drifting once more. I think someone came to the window again, but I feigned sleep – half-feigned it, for I was half-asleep. A feeble breeze had arisen. Shadows of tree branches swayed hypnotically over the line of vehicles. I thought I heard someone opening my right-hand rear door, and remembered that the doors weren't locked. I was too tired to bother about it now. My limbs were leaden, I hadn't slept properly for days; it had been a bad week, after hearing that Jacob had died.
In the distance I heard voices shouting, and someone was crying. I heard a sound behind me, as of a body dropping heavily into the back seat, adjusting its bulk. Had someone slipped through the non-locked door? Nonsense, I told myself. Breathe. Sleep, if possible.
The body in the back was very still. I glanced fearfully at the rear-view mirror but saw only shadows. I heard breathing -- or was it my own? Who was there? This was a silent question; I didn't speak aloud. There's no one there, I told myself. I didn't speak, but someone did. There was a presence.
“You'll miss the funeral,” I heard.
I didn't answer. Jacob is dead, I thought. I still couldn't get used to it. Some people slip out of life easily, predictably – but not my ex-husband Jacob. It wasn't his style. When we got divorced he seemed strangely more inside my life than he had been for years, and now that he was (apparently) dead, he seemed more alive than ever. But why do I say “apparently”? I know he's gone. I've seen the obituary. I've spoken to his relations, colleagues, friends – the ones I failed to avoid, at least.
So: 'bye Jacob. Hello, figure in the back seat. (But don't be ridiculous: there's no one in the back seat ...) With nothing to do, nothing to read or write with or listen to, nothing to make or fix or clean or acquire or throw away and no one to talk to, I occupy myself with phantoms. I encounter entities.
A line of cars is immobilized on a ribbon of pavement on the edge of wilderness, tree-covered cliffs above, finger of choppy ocean below. Bats flit. Above, hawks and owls watch. Wilderness meets technology and makes edgy adjustments. A presence sits behind me.
“You shouldn't have taken Leah away from Jacob,” it mumbles, speaking in unearthly tones. “And you shouldn't have abandoned Winter.” I knew the presence would be accusatory. “And why embrace poverty? To prove what?”
Maybe because I was just lazy. By the time we separated I had fallen out of love with Jacob, but too late for we were more deeply entangled than ever by things stronger than love: time, shared past, secrets known to no one else, memories possessed by no one else. When we met, Jacob was a rising playwright and director, then a professor in the Theatre Department, an academic, but by the time we divorced he had become a religious “nut-bar”, as I called it. How could someone so brilliant, so sparky, fall so low, fall for all that? Become snared by a sect? His new wife was one of its members of course. It was some sort of creaking, limping, deranged Christianity blended with imports from eastern or ancient places, god knows where (by which I don't mean “god” in the sense Jacob meant god).
I taught at the same university, in the Philosophy Department. A waste of time, said my relatives. Philosophy! What's that even for? But I studied the relationships between philosophy and history, art, and neuroscience, and “what's everything else for?” I'd ask my interlocutors. While I dived into the history of ideas about conservation ethics and hermeneutics, colleagues were gossiping about my husband's new paramour. Newest, that is; there had been others.
Then there appeared the “charter” we had to sign at the university, for equity and diversity, only they didn't call it that back then. Same stuff though, which I called phony ideological brainwashing and was consequently called before language police on the ethics committee. I resigned on the spot. I took our daughter Leah away (named after a distant poet great-aunt from my husband's European female line whom he'd never heard of but I had discovered) to live in a small apartment in another town. There, I never found another job teaching philosophy-history-neuroscience. (It's a small niche with few berths.) I went to ground. I changed my name and became a “free-lancer” carrying my colours on a changing flag -- meaning I was poor from then on.
Leah came to resent that, naturally. When in early adulthood she re-united with Jacob and
moved into his big house, she too joined his sect. She would be at the funeral, of course, if “funeral” was what the sect called whatever it had.
You shouldn't have taken her away as a child, said the figure in the back seat.
I jolted out of my half-sleep. Who spoke? Did someone speak? Up ahead a group of stranded drivers sat on folding garden chairs which someone had produced from their trunk. They passed around a bottle. Not everyone was unprepared for disaster, I saw. Their murmurs lulled me back into a doze.
And you really shouldn't have betrayed Winter. How could you?
Ah, Winter, and I had loved you so much. Winter was our dog, rescued from the pound. Here comes winter, we'd say when he bounded in from the backyard, for his coat was white as snow. We said this when he first arrived and it became his name. Once Jacob got religious he ignored Winter. Animals didn't figure in his cult. As a playwright and director Jacob was used to creating worlds and characters, directing their doings and interpreting their thoughts. It was easy for him to adopt a new pantheon, a new cast of characters, to throw out the old props and bring in new. To him it was his god-like creator's right.
But then, I did the same when we divorced and he re-married. Our heavily-mortgaged house was sold and the apartment building I found for Leah and myself didn't allow dogs. I found a new owner for Winter, but she found him “too big” -- she didn't like dog-walking after all – so she gave him back. I had to leave him with friends who shut him in their basement all day. Then I found a new family with a yard he could run in. When Leah and I took him there he looked at me with infinite puzzlement yet an underlay of understanding, or at least resignation.
Leah was crying. Get in the car, I told her briskly, holding back my own tears. I did visit Winter once to see that he was okay. The new family were not unfriendly when I knocked on the door but I could tell they didn't want this to become a routine. It was the last time I saw Winter. Driving by the house later on I saw a “For Sale” sign, and later a “Sold” sign. It was already empty. Winter was gone.
Tears streamed down my face now, as I reclined in my driver's seat. Was he okay? Why hadn't I tried harder to find him? Two hours had passed here on the highway under a starless sky. It was past midnight, the witching hour. Was there a witch in the car with me? There was something. A figure from the past, the unconscious, the world of archetypes? I had studied neuroscience, remember, so automatically I accepted all of those, while still denying anything was there. Only my own remorse.
When you can't escape, when you're without distraction and night's pressing in, remorse rules. It arrives in full panoply of Latin and French etymology stemming from “morsus” -- morsels, bites. Remorse gnaws, chews at you. It sits in the back of your car when you're helplessly trapped at a scene of carnage.
There was an old woman who lived in the apartment next to mine and Leah's. At first I was friendly to her, but soon found her impossibly needy. Of course she was, being old, lonely, unwell, shaky, frightened of falling, frightened of death. Her need was bottomless, and my energy shallow. Too often when she knocked on my door I pretended to be out. I turned off the phone. She wanted to talk, which is to say to complain about how hard life was, but there was nothing practical I could do for her -- until there was, because one day she actually had sunk deeper into illness. But I didn't know and didn't answer the phone. Then, she was dead. She hadn't been seen for some days when the building manager found her body sprawled on the floor of her bedroom.
I had failed her too, as I failed Winter. Somebody should strangle me for moral failure. Maybe that's what the man in the back seat was planning to do. Had he slipped in under cover of the general confusion of the situation, marking me out as victim? Why not? I deserved to die alone.
I sat in the darkness. When the sun had dropped behind the western hill and no moon rose I had thought about the tales I used to tell Leah. Father-sun, I said, and Mother-moon had gone behind a cloud-curtain into their private world, their mansion away from the eyes of watching humans. How easily such tales flow off the tongue, I'd say to teen-aged Leah much later: you could see how ancient cultures developed myths around heavenly bodies, and how they got elevated into religious iconography. Leah had frowned. She was forming her own views about what was myth and what was real.
Loneliness was real, the need to escape others was real, remorse was real, failures of compassion were real. Jacob believed in a Judgment that came after death; I experienced it as present in this life, continuously. Was the man in the seat behind me judging just where to plunge a knife into the back of my neck?
Jacob dipped and ducked and wove around us during those years of separation, assaying semi-reconciliation. I held back, censorious, dismissive, hard-hearted. I lost track of what might be going on in his traitorous head. Sleeping with actresses, stage hands, students ... all that was nothing new (not in a man who felt free to create his own worlds) but to get into bed with a whore-ish cult, a gang of mindless, misogynistic, nature-hating, corporate-sponsored, devil-fearing idiots – that was unforgivable. He'd gone mad. Yet now I in my remorse want forgiveness. I want what I declined to grant. Faced with betrayal one's first response is to betray, literally to “hand over”, like I handed over Winter for convenience, and handed over the old lady next door to loneliness, trading compassion for privacy.
And now I'm the aging one. Soon I should be retiring, acquiring hobbies, going on cruises, but retiring from what? A free-lancer doesn't retire, doesn't, to be precise again, “retreat”. I couldn't retreat any further than the withdrawn position I'd already retreated to. Leah felt I'd traded her home for my principles. Yes, but I'd been preserving the principles for her too. She didn't want them though; she lives by different principles. We don't see each other, much.
Long since knocked off the academic wagon I do “independent” research, outside the machine, writing free-lance on the margins of my discipline. I'm a failed philosopher (and how's that different from a successful philosopher, ask sarcastic friends). Few in the field have heard of me, but I treasure anonymity. I like to pass through crowds unknown and invisible. I only wish I was unknown and invisible to myself. And now I have a witness in the back seat, who knows things. Who is this who steals into people's cars in a traffic jam under cover of night, invading and asking damning questions?
He makes me contrite, rubbing at my sins as they rub away at me, grinding down my peace of mind.
Just before dawn breaks over the line of cars, I fall into a real sleep, a deep sleep. Later, at the moment of waking, stiff behind the steering wheel whose rim digs into me if I turn this way or that, I hear something shifting off the back seat, like the weight of a body. Was that the car's back right-hand door clicking shut? Is the figure who wasn't there leaving then? I refrain from looking, in case he comes back, intending to kill me.
I jerk into full wakefulness and register a creeping dawn light. Then I hear a muffled shout. A cheer: the line of cars up ahead is finally beginning to move. I yawn, stiffly. I drink the coffee donated last night, still sitting in the coffee holder, cold but welcome. Adding sugar I can pretend it's an exotic summer Starbucks concoction. I am somewhat restored; released from immobility I'm free to take part in the death rights ahead of me today.
Where did you go when you went religion-mad, Jacob, I ask as I slip the car into gear. Speeding up I add, and where are you now? You won't be at your funeral, that's for sure, and I will skulk anonymously and invisibly: we'll neither of us be there. Where you've gone is and will remain unknown, the after-life a blank eternity, like my this-life future. As I start driving the ribbon of highway is the very image of a long road ahead -- going where? I don't think I'll ever get there.
Flora Jardine writes fiction, plays and satirical humour on the coast of Vancouver Island, Canada.