“The past is never dead. It is not even past.” - William Faulkner
“Time has no independent existence apart from the order of events by which we measure it.” - Albert Einstein
Chapter 1: Paradise
Light streamed in gently through the tall, arched window. Birds were singing outside. Lena opened her eyes thinking that she was going to die, but not just yet. She got up, pulled on a summer dress and shook her hair. The only dark part of the house, a set of narrow spiral stairs, led her down to her living room, which was filled with light. A cup of coffee was waiting for her by the stove and the open door to the patio invited her outside. All the flowers in the garden seemed to have opened up. A pair of cardinals made a nest above the entrance, and three little birds’ heads stuck out. Squirrels chased each other and jumped recklessly from one branch to another. Huge violet irises and flimsy poppy flowers swayed along the path that divided the garden in a half and ran towards high reeds surrounding a marsh. The sun was hot, but a light wind caressed her skin. Her younger son, Orion, chased a bunny. Her older son, Guy, worked on his homework at the patio table near his father, who cut strawberries.
A butterfly sat on Lena’s arm. She felt tempted to touch its wings, but just then, a sudden movement in the garden diverted her attention. An avalanche of mice ran in from below the fence. They were followed by a cat whose skin had torn while squeezing through a small opening. The cat covered the distance to the toll reed, where he disappeared in a fraction of a second, flashing his bloody flesh, but he did not make a sound. A clump of the cat’s skin remained attached to the wood. Lena got up and ran through the garden to see where the animals were coming from, but as she tried to step through the gate she was stopped, as always, by a barrier of still air.
An impenetrable wall of mist divided her garden and house from the outside world. Nothing and no one had managed to get through it until now to the outside world if the world was still there. Yet the animals must have come from somewhere. Something must have existed behind the fence.
Lena returned to the patio deck and sat at the table where her son was doing homework. The garden was quiet again. Cardinals sang, and her husband set the strawberries on the table. She looked up and saw a small plane climbing in the sky. It cut the air with a grey band of exhaust, smaller and smaller until it disappeared. Right then, at the exact moment when the first plane was gone, another plane appeared and repeated the same trajectory.
“These planes are all the same,” Lena said to her husband.
“They have always been the same,” Camil answered, not even looking up.
“But not like that.”
“How so? What are you trying to say?”
“I guess, I would like to know what’s real,” Lena said slowly. He looked at her surprised.
“I would like to know,” she continued, “why we are sitting in this paradise-like garden and can’t go anywhere. Why planes keep crossing the sky in exactly the same way. Why blue jays don’t come to eat the cardinals’ chicks, and why so many mice just ran in here panicked as if escaping cataclysm.”
“Something went wrong,” Camil murmured.
“Something did,” Guy raised his head from his homework. “I have also been seeing things.”
“Like what things?” Lena and Camil asked together.
“In the evenings,” he started slowly, “I walk to the back of the garden near the marsh where the frogs are croaking. One night, I heard a different kind of noise coming from there, like something gasping for breath. Then these sounds transformed into moaning, like when you are in pain, and I heard someone whisper. I saw shadows of people crawling out of the marsh. They were surrounded by mist, exhaling these low, barely audible sounds. They seemed terrified.”
“And what did you do?”
“I said I hear you” Guy muttered, “to appease them, so they wouldn’t get angry.”
“The ghosts nodded and withdrew back into the reeds. They are stuck somewhere. I’m not sure if they’re dead or alive. I think this marsh, or maybe this whole garden is some sort of in-between zone. I thought I might be one of the ghosts, that it’s not by accident I find myself following along the edge of the marsh night after night.”
“You know how it goes,” Camil said seriously. “If you need to get out of this, imagine yourself out of it. Stay to the front of the garden, in the daylight. Something didn’t work out and the edges are porous. Things are getting through.”
“What do you know?” Lena asked.
“I know that this is a safe place,” Camil answered. “We are where we wanted to be. We’re together, and that is good.”
“We are where you guys wanted to be,” said Guy, looking away.
“I thought so, too,” said Lena, “but I’m not sure anymore.”
“Remember the Japanese movie, Afterlife, where, after they died, people were given three days to think of one single moment of their lives they wanted to live for eternity? I think something like that happened to us. But I only remember the movie. I don’t remember what happened to us.”
Guy lowered his head.
“Bullshit!” said Camil, irritated. “We are not dead. We’re just happy, and that can’t be taken from us. We just are.”
“Then why can't we remember?” Guy lowered his voice to a whisper. “Why don't we have any idea what’s happened to the world around us? Why can't we go through the gate? Why are there are so many stupid butterflies?” Guy was interrupted by Orion running up the stairs of the deck after a huge multicolor butterfly. The butterfly sat on the corner of Guy's laptop, immobilized.
After that morning, they were silent for many days. They served each other meals and embraced each other good-morning and good-night. They moved like ghosts between the rooms of the house, changed clothes, brushed their teeth, and always gathered on the patio surrounded by the beautiful garden. The days were sunny and hot. It did not rain, but an invariably sweet breeze made things enjoyable. Flowers never withered. At night, a choir of tree frogs lulled them to sleep, and a multitude of stars were visible in the clear sky. There were no city lights or car noises. It was as if they were the only happy family in the whole universe. Days, or years, might have passed; but then, strange things started to happen again.
As Lena cut tomatoes with a perfectly sharp knife – tac, tac, tac – on the wooden board, she suddenly saw a shadow moving swiftly out of the corner of her eye. It might have been outside or inside on the windowsill. A squirrel? She went back to cutting, and then again, in a fraction of a second, a dark figure moved along the bottom of the window. She opened the window and looked around. Nothing. Slightly hazy air turned into a dense mist at a distance beyond the house walls, but the visibility was still considerably good by the window frame. The smoke bushes’ branches, with their surreal flowers, moved in the wind, and the leaves of poplars produced a familiar sound that she remembered from her childhood. A cardinal couple sat, as usual, on top of the bush immersed in their singing, unaware of anything except each other. There was nothing shady, nothing dark, nothing that could have run along the windowsill giving her a fright. But the shadow reappeared several times the next day; and then, something more alarming happened.
Lena heard a scratching overhead. It grew in intensity, turning into a tussling and then a thumping. It sounded like metal on metal, hitting itself repeatedly, as if a mad creature were venting its anger somewhere inside the walls above. It was hard to tell how large it was. Camil took a ladder and slowly opened the flap leading to the space below the roof that had been home to a family of bats for many years, but then the noises suddenly stopped. A stream of light moved through the wooly pieces of insulation, yet Camil found nothing.
Then the noises started again. Someone or something was trapped. Lena perceived desperation, rage, and then, discouragement and tiredness. She climbed the ladder that Camil left by the opening to the attic and knocked.
“I am coming to help you,” she said.
She pushed up the cover to the attic and pulled herself in. As her eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness, angles and shapes emerged and arranged themselves around her. She smelled an acidic scent of mold that reached her in waves. Darkness vibrated. A fluorescent light shone in the back where the roof connected to the floor. Illusory figures of objects that Lena would not be able to name emerged there for seconds and disappeared. As her eyes slowly got used to the light, she noticed the abandoned old trunk of a huge tree, twisted branches and lianas, flowers, birds, and insects, and various other forms of life of whose existence she did not even know of: a rainforest grew in her attic. What she saw were not plants and animals themselves, however, but rather contours taken of them, without material content, like holograms. These contours transcended one another like in a gigantic puzzle, where figure-ground perception was hard to distinguish. Her head swam with dizziness, and she saw the shapes ebb and flow in circles, ascending in a spiral and simultaneously flowing down. Then, suddenly, Lena saw a pair of shiny eyes a few feet in front of her, surrounded by white fur and pointy ears. She jerked and stepped back down the ladder quickly, closing the cover above her. As she withdrew into the safe space of her house, she realized that what she had seen was an old, white raccoon.
“It’s a raccoon,” she said to Guy. “A large, old female.”
“How did she get there if nothing can get through from outside?” asked Guy.
A bit later they heard a new sound, a mewling, whimpering as if of a small bird inside the roof of their porch. And then, again, the desperate noise in the attic.
“He wants his mommy,” Orion explained. A baby raccoon was stuck inside their porch roof while the mother could not get to it, unable to leave the attic.
No one was surprised. Orion always knew what was where in the house.
“What a mess!” Camil said.
“How could we be mixed up with a bunch of raccoons walled up in our paradise residence!” Guy laughed sarcastically.
“Let's get them out!” Lena looked with hope at Camil.
Camil went to the basement and brought up a metal trap. They threw in marshmallows and put a small bowl of water inside. But the raccoon didn’t enter the cage. She didn’t eat or drink the water. She just lay in the corner where the roof met the attic's floor at a narrow angle, looking, and listening to her baby whine. They were amazed that both animals could survive that long without food and water, separated from one another. Each evening, though, the baby raccoon sounded weaker.
On the morning of the seventh day, Lena heard sharp blows from the porch roof. She ran outside and saw Guy hitting the side of the house with an ax.
“Careful!” she shouted as a bloody snout emerged from the hole.
“I killed him!” Guy grabbed the baby racoon’s head in despair.
“Take him down!” Orion yelled, appearing at the door.
At his little brother’s urging, Guy took the raccoon in his shaking hands, climbed down the ladder, and placed him on the grass. The animal stumbled half blind, the right side of his head sticky with blood. Flies surrounded him immediately, but he stopped whining, and bounced happily along the side of the house.
“Flies were also not supposed to be here,” Guy said, still breathing fast.
“Now, we need to get him to his mother,” Orion insisted.
Lena ran up the staircase, climbed the ladder to the attic and opened the cover.
“She’s going to get into our house,” Camil said.
“She’ll hear her baby outside and leave,” Lena was convinced.
“They will never leave. It is impossible to leave here. You know,” Guy looked at both of them from the bottom of the stairs.
But the raccoons indeed disappeared. They left. There must have been a way out. The divisions must have been porous, and things were getting through.
“We need to find out…” Lena began.
“You cannot find out since there is no out.” Guy murmured. “We are living in a glimpse of our own memory, precisely the one that you chose for our eternity,” he confronted his mother,
“You could have chosen the whole world with airports and oceans and mountains. But you chose our house with the patio and the garden and all of us in it. We are asphyxiating! It is all your fault!”
Lena covered her face with her hands.
“Then it is my job to get us out of here!” she said. “There must be a way.”
Lena walked around the garden, thinking. There used to be more than the house and the garden. She remembered a road through the prairie and a forest with a big meadow at the end. The road started right by a gate. If only she could get through! She made a circle around the house and there was the garden again. Guy was leaning over his laptop typing something and Orion was playing with an earthworm. He hung the worm on a stick and tried to carry it. The earthworm fell and Orion repeatedly tried to pick him up. Camil was hitting a tennis ball against the side of the house. Lena went to the kitchen to cut tomatoes.
“Lunch is on the table!”
“Coming!” Orion shouted joyfully.
“I need to take a shower,” Camil said.
Guy didn’t say anything, nor did he move. Lena waited a little, then approached him, grabbing his hair gently.
“Did you hear? Lunch.”
“OK. I will just finish the paragraph.”
“What are you writing?”
Guy looked at her.
“I’m writing down what I heard,” he hesitated. “Sometimes by the fence at night, I just hear moaning. But other times, I can actually make something out. Either that, or I’m hearing it in my head.”
“Will you let me read it?” Lena asked.
Guy shook his head.
Orion placed an earthworm on the table in front of them and the creature tried to get away, bending its body in the shape of a tall wave, stretching and bending itself again. But for some reason it wasn’t able to move forward.
“What did you do to the earthworm?!” Guy berated his brother.
“I was gentle with him,” Orion replied seriously. “This is just another glitch.”
“Hmm, maybe you’re right,” Guy observed the earthworm.
“Right about what?” Camil came down drying this hair with a towel.
They were silent.
“Right about what?” Camil asked again.