Path of Awakening

by Joanne Galbraith

I stared at the forest.  My heart thumped, adding a base note to the chorus of whispers rising and falling around me.  Wispy, white foliage covered silver trees, waving back and forth as if compelled by an ocean current.

“H—hello?” My voice carried on the wind with a musical quality I’d never heard before.  Am I dreaming? A path of flat alabaster stones lay before me in a twisted pattern around the chrome tree trunks.  Tiny white star flowers dotted the emerald grass on either side of the pale road, shimmering as they swayed in the gentle breeze.  Rain and honeysuckle perfumed the air. I looked up.  The unblemished brilliance of the white sky sent needles of pain through my eyes.

Footsteps crunched along the stones behind me.  I whirled around, folding my hands over my mouth to stifle the scream building there.  A middle-aged man, wearing a pearlescent white suit and an ice blue tie approached, staring not at me, but into the distance.  His shaking fingers fidgeted with the buttons on his shirt.

“I don’t want to see,” he muttered, pushing his platinum blond hair away from his creased forehead.  “Please, I don’t want to look.”

“Excuse me.” My words chimed like notes in a bell choir.  “Can you please tell me where I am?”

He scurried past without so much as a cursory glance.  A tear trembled on his white lashes.

I started after him with tentative steps, surveying the trees for what had frightened him.  A woman appeared from the opposite direction.  Her pink mouth gaped open in silent horror as her vacant eyes stared forward.  She wore a long, white dress that reflected the light with tiny sparkles as she staggered nearer.  Her hair, the same shade of blonde as the man’s, was piled in loose curls on top of her head.

“Miss?”  I positioned myself in front of her, fighting the panic welling in my stomach.  “Can you please help me? How did I get here?”

The young woman stopped, uttered something unintelligible and pivoted to face the opposite direction.  I walked around to face her again.  She wiped a tear from her face and began to sob.

“Are you all right?”  I reached a hand out, but snatched it back when I noticed her eyes.  They began a pale gray, but as I watched, deep blue bled across the corona. Her white skin blushed pink.

I backed away, holding a hand over my frantic heart. Please, please, please.  Somebody help me.

After a brief pause, the woman smiled so wide her whole presence reflected the joy in it. She gathered up her satin skirt and ran in the direction the man had gone.

“Their eyes see naught but their own paths, fair lady,” said a bright, male voice with the same musical quality I’d heard in my own.  “They are but wanderers, just as you are.”

My breath hitched as I stared at the man who stood a few feet down the path.  He wore shiny pants with blue and white stripes running down the legs, a sparkling white jacket and matching bowler hat.  Sprigs of light blue hair poked out below the brim.  A whimsical smile brightened his narrow face.  He leaned forward, both arms held straight, his hands resting on a white walking stick with a glass ball on top.

“Who—who are you?” I asked.

“Forgive my manners, milady.  I am Shay.”  The man took off his hat, rolled it down his arm and caught it in his hand.  He bowed, sweeping his arms out to the sides.  His walking stick remained upright although he no longer held it.  “I am your humble servant while you remain here.”

My eyes darted from Shay to the surrounding forest.  “Uh—where is ‘here’, exactly?”

He straightened, returned his hat to his head and took hold of his walking stick again.  He cocked his head and regarded me with raised eyebrows.  “Why, this is the Path of Awakening.”

“Awakening?  So I’m asleep?”

“No, my dear.”

I shook my head.  “I don’t understand.  If I’m not sleeping, then what do you mean by Awakening?  And why is everyone dressed so strangely?”

“Do you not care for your dress?”  A note of sadness tugged at his mellow voice.

“I’m not wearing a—” I dropped my gaze.  My words derailed in my throat.  I wore the same dress as the other woman, shimmering in the brilliance from the sky.  My skin drained of color, as pale as the soft fabric hugging my body.  “What’s happening to me?”  I held my arms out as if they were demons.  “Am I dead?”

He scratched his chin with the end of his walking stick. “Would you allow me the pleasure of your name?”

His voice swirled around me, penetrating my thoughts with its calm, steady tone.  The tension eased out of my shoulders.

“My name?”  I held cold fingers to my temples, searching for it.

“Surely you must know your name.”

“My name is—it’s—oh God, why can’t I remember?  I knew it a moment ago.”  I paused, staring at Shay.  My pulse leaped.  “You did something to make me forget.”

“Be well, for your journey has begun.  When you have walked your path and chosen your own Awakening, your name will return to you along with the hues that have, until now, adorned your skin.”

I inhaled the sweet air and exhaled slowly.  “But I don’t want to be here.  I want to go home.”

Shay twirled his stick, then held it with both hands across his thighs.  “Do you remember what happened to you before you arrived here?”

My brow furrowed.  “Of course I do.  I was…”  What was I doing?  Was I with someone?  Was I at home? I couldn’t recall a single detail about my life before finding myself there.  My chest tightened.  “How did I get here?”

“I do not know the precise circumstances of your arrival, only that you must have come to a river you do not wish to cross, nor do you want to stay on your shore.”

“A river?”

“Metaphorically speaking, milady.  A choice you must make, but do not wish to.”

Hot tears trailed down my cheeks.  “Please help me.”  I pressed my hands over my eyes and sobbed.

“There, there, don’t despair.  All will be restored at the end of this path.”  His strong arms encircled me.  The warmth of his touch soothed my skin and eased the ache in my soul.  “We must go now.”

Reluctant to leave the safety I felt in his embrace, I hovered close to him.  A tiny sound came from the distance.  I turned my head toward the meek cry.  “Do you hear that?”

“I hear only you, milady, as this is your Awakening.  What is it you hear?”

“A child—crying.”  I wiped my tears, a knot forming in my stomach. A howl rang out in the distance, a haunting sound that sent cold fingers creeping up my spine. I turned to Shay, hardly able to breathe.  “You need to help the child.”

“I can do nothing but walk this path with you.”

“But something is stalking the child, I can hear it drawing near.” I grabbed Shay’s arm and forced him to meet my stare. “Please!”

“If the child is to be helped, then you must offer the aid yourself.”  He pulled his arm free, stepped back and leaned forward on his walking stick.  “Lead and I will follow wherever your path takes us.”

I stared into the distance where the bright sky met the white feathery leaves of the canopy.  Prickles danced along my skin and all of the little hairs raised to attention.  Despite the light, the unknown trail and the beast that lay beyond daunted me.  “I’m afraid.”

“The only question you need answer is: will you go to the child, or will you walk away and leave the beast to his pray.  Does your fear outweigh your desire to offer comfort?”

The pained cries came again.  My rapid breathing slowly returned to normal.  Can I walk away?  Can I live with myself, knowing this child needed me and I did nothing? My quivering legs began to carry me along the white stones before I realized I’d made the decision to go.

Shay fell into step beside me, swinging his stick.  A wide smile bowed his lips.

He hummed a cheerful tune as we moved through the whispering trees.  We sped along the cool, smooth stone, covering ground with impossible speed.  Silver-winged insects spiraled around me. Their buzzing added a pleasing harmony to Shay’s melody, yet its beauty did nothing to lighten the weight on my heart.

The sky dimmed to gray as if a shade had been drawn on the world, a force drawing me toward the darkness building in my mind.  The trees dispersed to reveal the edge of a dark red canyon before me.  Thick, white fog filled it to the brim and prevented me from assessing its depth.

A shiver raced through me. “Is there a way around?”  I wrung my hands as the urge to move forward gripped me by the throat.  “I need to get across.”

“There is a bridge, milady.”  Shay pointed to a dark shape that parted the fog further down the canyon.

I gathered the fabric of my skirt and sprinted toward the dark line in the distance, clinging to the hope that crossing the chasm would be as simple as making my way across an overpass.  Upon reaching it, panting, I cursed myself.  I know better than to hope for such things.

A stone path, barely wide enough for one foot, stretched to the other side of the expanse.  This is crazy.  I don’t even know this child. “I can’t walk across that.” I held my stomach as it churned with vertigo.

Shay came to stand beside me, peering over the ledge.  “Why not?”

“Because I might fall.”

“You have my promise that, even if you fall, death will not find you.”

I edged closer to the path.  My legs wobbled beneath me.  “I don’t know what’s down there.”

“What we imagine is often more frightening than what is.”

“No.”  I stepped back.  “There must be an easier way.”

Shay hopped onto the narrow bridge, spun and faced me with his walking stick centered on the stone.  “The most beautiful moments in our lives often lay beyond the most difficult roads.”

“How can you know that?”

“Because I’ve walked many a path in my own life, and accompanied many others on their journeys.”  He teetered, swung his arms and grinned.

I gasped.  “Please get off of there!”  I shook my head.  “I don’t know you.  How can I trust you, or any of this, to be real?  I don’t even believe there is a child, or a beast.”

The cry came again as if in answer.  I took a tentative step toward the overpass, searching the ragged tree line above the fog for the source of my torment. My fingers clenched into fists. “Who are you?  What do you want from me?” My voice echoed back a few times before fading.

“Is the unknown that lies at the bottom of this divide more frightening than knowing a child might be harmed?”

I took another step.  “Why are you doing this to me?”

“I am not doing anything other than keeping you company.  You would not be here if you did not wish to make this journey.”

“That doesn’t make any sense!”  I shook m y head and pressed my palms over my eyes.  “I told you, I just want to go home.”

“Are you certain of that?”

Swallowing past the lump in my throat, I dropped my hands and studied Shay.  Once a coward, always a coward. The words stabbed through my chest and into my heart.  “I—I don’t know.”

A deep, rumbling growl rose above the whispers.

I choked back a scream and spun around. My breath came out in short pants as I searched the trees behind me. I gathered my arms around myself. “It’s coming closer. Please! What do I do?”

“You can choose to succumb to you fear and stay on this side, or resurrect what you have lost, cross this bridge and embrace the child.”  He jumped down and stood beside me.

What have I lost? The child wailed. The sound rattled through my bones.  I can’t stay here. I know I can’t. It’s almost here.

With arms outstretched for balance, I mounted the stone path, fixed my eyes on the far side of the canyon, and placed one foot in front of the other.  A soft breeze carried my hair away from my face and filled me with euphoria of a sort I’d never felt before. Like whiskey on a February eve, warmth spread through me.  I’m doing it.  I’m really doing it! I smiled as I neared the end of the bridge.

When I made it to solid ground, I spun around and jumped in place. “That was—incredible! I feel like I can fly.”

Shay stepped off the path, his arms raised in triumph. He took my hands in his.  “Well done, milady.  Your accomplishment has brightened you.”

Pain tore through my right arm.  I groaned, stepped away from Say and cradled it to my chest.  “My arm—it hurts.”

“I’m sorry for your pain. Take comfort that your Awakening has begun.”  He gestured toward the distant trees. They didn’t resemble the cheerful silver and white ones from the other side of the canyon, but supported a tangle of gnarled black trunks lined with blue thorns.  A midnight blue sky glowed above the new forest.  The black grass swirled in the frigid breeze.

Goose bumps broke out across my skin.  “I can’t go in there,” I said, licking my dry lips.

“Why not?”

“Because I might get lost, and it’s so dark.”

“You need only ask for my help, and I will walk this path with you.  If you choose to go on, I will accompany you.  If you choose to stay here, I will disappear.  Would you rather walk the dark path in the company of a friend, or stand alone?”

My chin quivered, but I forced it still.  “Asking for help is like admitting failure, that I’m a coward.”

“No.  Asking for help shows your strength, that you deem yourself worthy of another’s compassion.  Are you worthy?”

I studied him for a long time, his deep ocean eyes full of concern, the smile that made me want to return the expression.  I didn’t want to be alone anymore.  Something deep within my soul told me I’d been alone for too long.  Am I worthy? I didn’t know, but I wanted to be.  “You’ll really go with me?”

He bowed.  “You have my oath.”

“Is the child in there?”

Shay offered me his hand and I took it.  “Yes, but we must hurry. I see its haunting presence in your eyes.”

I started to ask what he meant by ‘its’, but a snarl rumbled the ground beneath me and stole my thoughts away.

As we ran toward the twisted forest, the wind whipped my hair out behind me.  By the time we made it to the first of the trees, the snarl had evolved into a roar, and the earth’s shaking made me nauseous.

My muscles ached. I gulped air and struggled to breathe through the terror.

Shay ducked into the trees and I followed after him. I twisted my body to avoid the worst of the thorns.  Some still tore my skirt and scratched my legs.  Others raised welts along my arms.  The darkness thickened as we wound our way through the trees, as if I pushed my hands through spider webs made of shadow.  We moved deep into the forest. The sounds of the beast grew faint. Eventually, the dense mats of barbs forced us to crawl beneath the branches.

“What is the beast?” I asked when we made it to a small clearing dotted with phosphorescent purple flowers.  “I’ve never heard anything like that before.” The wet scent of decay hung in the air, like a bog in the spring.

“Oh, but I think you have.” Shay stared into the starless sky. “It represents something you wish to overcome.”

“So it isn’t real?”

“What you see here are physical embodiments of your fears.”

“What am I afraid of?”

He turned sad eyes to me.  “He is your dark burden to bear until you find the courage to leap beyond him.”

He? A twinge of recognition gripped me. A name lingered in my thoughts, but I forced it away.  “And this place—what does it represent?”

“This is the heart and soul of your path, the end of your journey, where you must make your final choice.  It is up to you to mend your soul, or to let it die.”

It’s so dark here. I stooped and picked a purple flower, stroking the supple petals with my fingers.  “There’s still life here.”

“And within you.”

What is life?  Pain?  Loneliness?  Cruelty? I crushed the flower in my hand and tossed it away.  My nose ached.  Wincing, I rubbed it and my fingers came away bloody.  I inspected my arms and dress, and found them unblemished.  “My nose is bleeding, but the thorns never touched me there.  All of the scratches are healed.  What’s happening to me?”  The throbbing in my arm worsened.

“Your time is upon you, milady.  You must hurry now.”  Shay took hold of my good arm and led me to a black hole in the ground.  The child sobbed within.

“Who’s down there?” I asked.

“One who needs you.”

My eyes darted between Shay and the hole.  “You can’t ask me to go down there.  And what can I do anyway? I’m hurt, and I’m just a woman.”  A tear hung on my lashes before dropping onto my cheek.  I tilted my head forward, allowing my hair to form a platinum blonde curtain around my face.

Shay placed a warm hand on my shoulder.  “That someone uttered those words to you is horrific enough, but that you’ve grown to believe them brings sorrow to my heart.”

Numbness swept through me.  “It doesn’t matter.  He’s coming.  He’s stronger than me and I can’t survive this world without him.  I’m a high school dropout housewife who doesn’t have a useful skill to her name.” The full weight of my life crashed in, filling me with crippling agony. I crouched down in the grass and hugged my knees. “I can’t do this.”

The growl thundered through the trees, closer and closer.

“That is the illusion he wishes you to believe, but you have proved him wrong.  You have walked a dark path, not for me, but for the one who needs you the most.  You have reached out to another for aid, deemed yourself worthy of compassion.  Now, reclaim what he has stolen from you.”  Shay took my face in his hands and forced me to look at him.  “Take a leap of faith.”

Tiny screams echoed in my head, a suffering so deep within I’d forgotten it was there.  I stepped away from Shay to find two bright blue eyes staring at me from the shadow of the trees.  Such beautiful, familiar eyes that had always filled me with terror.

“I’ve been here before, haven’t I?”

“You’ve been here many times, though you’ve never made it across the bridge.  I’m so proud of you.”  Shay placed his hands together.  “I believe in you.  Do you believe in yourself?”

My head shook as I looked toward the beast.  The eyes of the predator leapt to blue flames.  Adrenaline flooded my body from fingertips to toes, hot and bewildering.  The downy hairs on the back of my neck prickled.  I’d lived in his shadow for so long I’d forgotten how it felt to have the sun on my face, to close my eyes without wondering if he would rape me in a drunken rage again, to clean the dishes without fear that the noise would send him into a rage.

No more.

“I made it here by myself.”  I threw an accusing finger at those eyes.  “I did it without you.  I will be free of you this time.”

Shay offered a little bow as I stepped to the edge of the hole, held my breath and jumped in.  My leg snapped as I landed.  I uttered a scream of agony. Tears flooded my eyes as I writhed on the floor.

“Help me,” a small voice said with a sniffle.

I forced myself still and listened, unable to see past the halo of light cast from the hole above.  “What’s your name?” I whispered.
Footsteps crunched the gravel floor.  “Maia.”

Her familiar voice brought flashes of memory to my mind.  The back of his hand across my face, the sting and throb that came after.  His fist connecting with the back of my head, the tumble down the stairs, his voice, sneering.  “You can’t leave me.  You’re nothing without me.”

I closed my eyes.  I don’t want to see.  Please don’t make me see. Unseen hands squeezed my lungs, but I forced myself to breathe.  “Why have you been crying, Maia?”

“I think you know.”  She settled in the gravel beside me and took my hand.  “You’ve heard me crying for years, but you’ve never listened until now.”

Sorrow overwhelmed me, and I sobbed, drowning in the flood of black memories.  Maia held me until I had no tears left.  “I’m so sorry,” I said, then pulled back and stared at her face.  My own face at seven years old, covered in bruises, my red t-shirt ripped and hanging from my body.

“You couldn’t stop Daddy, but you can stop him.” She smiled and wiped away my tears. “You know what you need to do.”

I nodded as she faded into the darkness again.  Pale peach washed across my skin, chasing back the pallid white.  This is my life. I’m not nothing. A smile bowed my lips.  For the first time in my life, I felt truly alive.

***

My body lurched and I groaned.

“She’s coming around,” a woman said.

I opened my eyes to a white ceiling, every part of my body announcing its pain at once.  My right arm and leg itched and felt heavy.  Something soft covered my face except for my mouth and eyes.  I reached up to touch it with my good hand.  Bandages.  I shivered, turning the ache into one giant agony.

A man dressed in a white coat flashed a light in my eyes.  “Pupils are normal,” he said.  “Can you speak, Mrs. Tanner?”

“Yes,” I croaked.  The copper taste of blood coated my tongue.  “Where’s my husband?”

“He’s in the hallway with a police officer.  I’ll get him for you.”

“No.”  I grabbed the doctor’s arm before he could move away.  “Police.”

The doctor put his hand over mine, his brown eyes softening.  He nodded before he went out the door.

An officer wearing a dark blue uniform pulled up a chair beside my bed and took off his hat.  His chestnut hair stuck up a little.  Familiar deep ocean eyes shone down at me as he smiled. “I’m Officer Shay, Mrs. Tanner,” he said.  “Do you remember me?”

I nodded.  “You came to see me the last time I was in the hospital.”

“Yes, that’s right.  It was six months ago—the day you fell off your bicycle and broke your jaw.  And the time before that when you cracked three of your ribs falling in the bath tub, and the first time when your neighbor called us because they heard you screaming.”

I looked away for a moment, unable to cope with the reminder of my cowardice.

My husband, Jon, appeared in the doorway and cast a warning glare at me.

Officer Shay leaned closer, blocking my view of him.  “Are you ready to tell me what happened to you last night, Mrs. Tanner?”

I swallowed hard.  “Will you help me?”

The End