Updated: Aug 31, 2020
In the summer of 2010, I had a visitation. I was not awake, and not asleep, but somewhere in between. An entity of some kind, an abstract mix of red, gold, green and blue, grasshopper-like, appeared beside me. Nothing was communicated directly; the experience was neither frightening nor profound. Shortly thereafter, I felt the urge to write. "Fate Drops In" emerged from that process.
Somewhere in the marshland, a female form takes shape. At first ephemeral and translucent, the body becomes more and more substantial until its dead weight creates a shallow impression in the sodden earth. A dank shiver animates the torso. A low groan escapes the mouth. The eyelids flutter open. Hands push down and heave the body into a seated position. Filth-caked fingers take hold of a robe of rough grey cloth and pull it upwards to reveal a pair of gaunt limbs. The female gets to her feet. She pulls long strands of black hair away from her lips and eyes and looks out upon a landscape of rolling, grey contours.
A question unfurls. What is my name? Moments pass by, and then an answer comes. My name is Asuka. Yes, of course. How could I not know?
Rivulets of freezing water run down Asuka’s cheeks. She edges slowly into the thin mist and walks for several hundred sodden footsteps until she can make out the narrow road which slices straight through the marsh and then curves abruptly away. Directly ahead, on the outer edge of the bend, stands a dark shape; broad, tall and unmoving. Asuka nods and continues onward, her pace now less sluggish. At the bend she stops and stretches out a hand. Her fingers slide along a surface of brittle, blackened wood. She tilts her head back and looks up at the shattered apex of an ancient bough. This tree was once ravaged by fire; ravaged but not devoured, because it had a part to play in stories yet to unfold.
Asuka steps onto the surface of the road. The sensation of unyielding solidity catches her unawares. Images trickle into her awareness; darkness broken by arcs of coloured light, bodies gyrating, fists pumping, faces contorted. The scene shifts abruptly to a darkened street. Asuka looks into a pair of glistening almond-shaped eyes. She brushes the hair from the face of a young female, and hears the question; where are you from? In answer, she kisses a pair of soft lips. The image floats for a moment before drifting away. Asuka shakes her head and pushes a mud-caked hand inside her robe. Her chest is still and cold.
I am here to perform a task. Nothing more.
Beyond the bend, the road runs upwards into the mist. Leafless trees, brittle and bowed, line each side. Asuka makes her way between the rows of dead wood to the top of the slope. To her left, along the edge of the road, are half a dozen stone dwellings. The windows are shuttered, the wooden doors are locked, the lights are out. Steps rise up from a narrow pavement to the entrance of each little house. She goes to the last house in the row. At the foot of the steps is an elongated pool of murky rainwater. Even in the dull, grey light, Asuka can see her reflection without difficulty. She dips a hand in the water and rubs the dirt from her cheek. The fabric of her face has a tight, grey pallor. Her eyes are dark, round and unblinking. She is a poor copy of a living, waking creature. Her body shape is adequate, but her features are altogether too crude. If she is to play her part, she must not stray too far from the shadows, and needs to find her costume.
Asuka’s attention turns upwards to the house. She climbs the steps and places the palm of her hand flat against the door. She pushes, but the door doesn’t yield. She stands quite still for a moment, and then looks down. At her feet is a small round pot. She tips the pot to one side and retrieves a small chunk of dull metal from beneath it. She rests the object in the palm of her hand for a moment, and her gaze tracks to the lock on the door. She slides the key into the slot, turns it, and hears a click. Hinges creak, the door opens inwards, the heat of the room flows outwards. Asuka lingers on the threshold, basking in the sensation of warm air. Then she steps inside and pushes the door closed behind her. The collision of wood and metal resounds around the room, but when the din fades, all Asuka can hear is the dull, rhythmic breathing of a creature sleeping somewhere above.
The room is bisected by a narrow stairwell of bare boards. A glass cabinet packed with bottles and glasses stands against the wall to the right. Between the cabinet and the stairwell are a sofa and a wooden coffee table. An empty bottle and an upturned glass are lying on the floor. Of most interest, though, are the four framed photographs stacked in an untidy pile at the end of the table. Asuka makes her way across the creaking boards. She picks up the photos and examines each one in turn. Then she places them in a line, face up, arranged to reflect the passage of time. The first is a portrait of a very young creature of indistinct gender, and indeterminate facial expression. Next comes a grinning female, perhaps half-grown, brandishing a spade on a sun-kissed beach. Then comes the same creature, taller and formally dressed, sitting beside an older female. The two of them are grinning broadly, and bear a striking resemblance to one another: long black hair, pallid complexion, high cheekbones, frightened eyes. The final photo is of the younger female fully grown. She's wearing a broad-brimmed hat tilted to one side, a black leather coat draped over a dark top and skirt, black leggings and a pair of leather boots. Her face is free of make-up and she’s leaning towards the camera, right hand on her hip. As in the first photo, her expression is a mask of indifference. Asuka picks up the image, and her head turns towards the open door at the far end of the room, where a small kitchen leads to a bathroom.
In the bathroom Asuka places the photo on the shelf below the washbasin mirror, and turns on the tap. Warm water runs onto her hands. The corners of her mouth twitch upwards. In the mirror, behind her reflection, she sees a shower cubicle. She pulls the muddy robe over her head and drops it into the washbasin. In the shower, she saturates herself with warm water, washes herself clean with flannels and soap, and then stands under the stream of water a little longer, arms akimbo, eyes closed, head back. When her eyes open and her head rocks forward, she runs her fingers over the soft, pale grey surface of her torso and legs.
Time to go upstairs.
She turns off the shower and rubs herself down with a large towel. She retrieves the photo from the shelf, walks back to the living room, and climbs the stairwell up to a square landing with a door on either side. She leans to her left and listens; breathing, heavy and rhythmic, the sleep of the drugged. She leans to her right, hears the silence and feels the absence, so she pushes down on the handle and goes inside. Opposite the door is a single bed, neatly made up. At the far end of the room are a closet and a full length mirror. Asuka glances at the photo one more time and tosses it onto the bed. She goes to the closet, throws open both doors and fishes through the hangers and shelves to find what she needs; a dark skirt and matching top, black leggings, and a black leather coat. The boots are standing at the centre of a line of footwear along the bottom, and the hat is alone on the top shelf, waiting for her to take it down. Asuka dresses herself in front of the mirror. The hat is the final touch. She puts it on and straightens it up. Not quite right. A slight tug to the side and down. That’s better. She tilts her head. Perfect. She closes the closet doors.
Time to leave.
Asuka goes out onto the landing and shuts the door behind her. She lingers for a few seconds and listens to the sounds of a creature in the depths of sleep. Then she descends the stairwell and lets herself out. She closes the front door quietly, and does not forget to take the key from the lock and put it back under the pot.
Sally squints at the pale morning light. Her throat is parched, her eyelids are heavy, her skull throbs, her stomach twists and churns. She wants to roll over and hide under the covers but the pain and nausea won't let her go. She slides out of bed, grabs a green dressing gown from a chair, and stumbles across the floor. Sensations seep back from the depths of sleep. A rickety wooden bridge shifts and shakes in the wind, fingers clutch at ropes on either side, wooden slats bend and groan under her weight. On the far side a female in black, her wide-brimmed hat tipped to one side, beckons with an outstretched hand. A clap of thunder high above. The sound of rain falling. The bridge tips violently to one side. Sally lurches forward and grabs a metal handle. The door swings open. She staggers out onto the landing and leans against the frame of her daughter’s bedroom door.
Connie is not in there.
Sally breathes in the silence. She wraps the dressing gown around her and makes her way down the stairwell. The living room is bathed in shadow, but she can make out the bottle and glass lying on the floor. She must have knocked them over when she hauled herself out of the armchair. She edges around the sofa to the coffee table. The photos are laid out in a neat line. Was that how she left them? And why are there only three? The light is too dull to see the images clearly, but Sally knows them all too well; the beautiful baby, the happy little girl on the beach, the proud high school graduate. But where is Connie all-grown-up, Connie with attitude? She knows she had the photo the previous evening because she spent some time talking to it, and the conversation didn’t go well. Maybe she threw it away, frame and all.
Sally shuffles out of the living room and through the kitchen. Her bare feet slip and slide on the clammy surface. What did she spill on the floor last night? At the bathroom doorway she flips on the light. And stops dead. Something is lying in the washbasin. She takes a moment to allow her eyes to adjust, and then stretches out a hand. She grasps the cloth and slides it out of the sink. The material is coarse and caked in slime. She holds it both hands, arms outstretched. It’s a robe of some sort, but who the hell would wear it? She glances around, eyes now wide open. A filthy bath towel is lying at her feet. The shower cubicle is wet and smeared with grime. The robe falls from her hands. She swivels around. A trail of muddy footprints leads back through the kitchen.
She checks the kitchen, back door, and windows. Nothing is open or damaged. She switches on the living room light. The trail of mud leads across the floor to the front door. Sally sucks in air through her mouth. She runs to the door, pulls it open, and lifts up the pot. The key is there, where it has been every day and every night for the two years since Connie disappeared. So she can let herself in. No need to knock. Or explain herself. This is her home. The pot drops from Sally’s hand and smashes to pieces on the stone step.
Why would an intruder put the key back?
Somewhere in the house, a beam creaks. Stay calm. It’s just wood expanding, or contracting. Sally runs up the stairwell, and throws open the door to Connie’s bedroom. She lets out a long, low groan. The missing photo is lying on the bed. She shuffles across the room and stares down at her daughter. It’s only a matter of hours since she was yelling at Connie, enraged by her defiance, telling her to get out of house and never come back. Now she looks into her daughter’s eyes and sees abject supplication.
Connie needs her mother.
A smile flickers at the corners of Sally’s lips. She goes to the closet and yanks open both doors. It’s still full of clothes, but someone was here rummaging around. And some things are missing. The boots are gone. And so is the leather coat. And she took the hat. The damn hat. Sally marches back to the bed and picks up the photo. What the hell are you playing at? The urge to replay the furious exchange of accusations and bitter complaints sparked by Connie’s decision to drop out of university is almost irresistible. But God knows she did enough of that last night. So she fast forwards to the endgame; Connie lounging on the sofa, mouth turned down, eyes narrowed. A teenage provocation in torn blue jeans. She’s holding her phone in both hands only inches from her face. She taps in a message with her thumbs, springs up onto her feet and walks out through the front door, without a word of explanation, not so much as a goodbye.
Sally’s breaths come short and shallow. She retreats back down to the living room, opens the front door, and slumps against the frame. She knows what’s coming, no matter how much damp air she sucks in.
Connie stands directly in front of her, on the top step, back turned, wearing a jumper and jeans and carpet slippers, phone pressed to her ear. A bass line pounds. An engine roars. A red BMW pulls up outside the house. The passenger door opens. Connie runs down the steps and gets into the car.
Sally’s fingernails dig into the palms of her hands. Here comes the moment when Connie slams the door and is gone without so much as a glance back. This time though, something is not as it should be. Before the door shuts and the car whisks her away, Connie’s head turns towards her mother. She smiles and winks, as if to say it’s all a game.
A high pitched wail escapes Sally’s mouth. She turns away and hurries to the bathroom, where she falls on all fours and sniffs around the mud-encrusted robe like a tracker dog. The aroma is all too familiar; the marshland on a wet winter’s day. But Connie wouldn’t survive two hours out there, let alone two years. Sally’s vision blurs, the room spins. She grasps the edge of the toilet bowl. Two long stomach convulsions are followed by several minutes of retching and gasping. When her breathing slows and the white floor tiles come back into focus she pushes herself up and turns towards the washbasin. In the mirror, looking back at her, is a middle-aged woman balanced precariously on the edge; hair soaked in sweat, mouth caked with vomit, eyes underscored by deep, dark lines. She tries to smile, but can only manage a tight grimace.
Sally retreats to the living room, slumps down on the sofa, and makes a call. She has time to lean over and lift the empty bottle from the floor before Barbara answers.
“Sally, this is not a good time. I’m on my way out, taking my daughter to football practice.”
A young girl’s voice chimes in. “It’s a game Mum, a real game.”
“Yes, of course it is, darling. Sally, please wait. I’ll be with you in a moment.”
Barbara’s voice falls silent. Sally sniffs at the open neck of the bottle. Car doors slam shut. An engine starts. Barbara’s voice returns.
“Sally, why are you calling?”
“I’m having a difficult morning.”
“Any suicidal thoughts?”
The young girl again. “Oh God! It’s a patient. Mum, we’re going to be late.”
Sally licks the outside of the bottle neck. “I’m not considering killing myself just yet.”
“Excellent. So we have some time to play with.” Barbara sniggers. “Talk to my secretary tomorrow. Make an appointment. I’m sure we can clear up whatever it is that’s making your morning so difficult.”
“I haven’t told you what happened yet.”
“It is Sunday morning, Sally.”
Sally knows Barbara is about to end the call and will almost certainly switch off her phone for a least a couple of hours, so she gives a rapid fire account of the day so far; the filthy garment, the missing clothes, the photo on the bed, the key under the pot. Just the cold, hard facts; nothing about the vision of Connie, certainly not the wink and the smile. She does, however, conclude with a hook, the killer observation. “Connie may have been in the house last night.”
A moment of silence is followed by the sound of Barbara sucking in air. “Have you been drinking?”
Sally puts the bottle to her lips and tips it upside down. A drop of vodka drips onto her tongue.
“Sally, I really do have to go, so here are my observations.”
Sally moves the phone several inches from her ear.
“First, stop drinking and take your medication. For God’s sake, how many times have we had this conversation?”
“Second, the person in your house last night was not Connie. By the sound of it, your intruder was a homeless person. Do not leave a key under the plant pot. Lock and bolt your doors at night.”
“Third, sorry to be so direct, but I’m a professional and a single mother, it’s Sunday morning, and I am trying to spend a little quality time with my daughter, so I simply don’t have time to soften the blow. Besides, you already know what I’m going to say.” Barbara clears her throat, but her voice wavers. “Connie is not coming back because dead people do not come back to life.”
A moment passes before Barbara continues, her tone a little softer. “You are not responsible for Connie’s death. Grief and guilt can play terrible tricks on the mind. Connie’s death was a tragic accident. She fell and cracked her head on one of your stone steps.”
The sharp jab of an index finger ends the call. Sally springs to her feet and hurls the phone at the wall. “Do you think I’ve told you everything?”
She goes to the front door and pulls it open.
“This is how it happened.”
Sally thrusts out her right hand. The base of her palm pushes against her daughter’s lower back. A torso bends, knees buckle, a body falls forward, a skull smashes against stone. “'The bitch mother from fucking hell,' that’s what she called me. Right here, on the top step of my house.”
Sally’s head turns to the left. Dull light dances along the shiny glass surfaces of the drinks cabinet. She shifts across, takes out a fresh bottle of vodka and a glass, pours a large measure, and downs it in one.
“I hardly touched the foul mouthed little cow. How dare she pretend to fall? And pretend to be dead.”
Sally pours again and drinks.
“I saw her leave. I’m the only one who knows. She’s out there, somewhere.”
The bottle moves towards her lips. But the motion is interrupted by the sound of an engine roaring, and the monotonous thud of a bass line. Sally steps into the doorway, and there it is, drifting by in cacophonous, full colour, slow motion. The bright red BMW.
Sally’s car is opposite the house, one of a line of vehicles parked along a stretch of mud on the far side of the road. But by the time she pulls away, the BMW’s tail lights have disappeared into the mist. She knows this road intimately, how it runs downwards in a straight line for about a mile and then bends sharply to the left and continues on to a small town on the edge of the marshland. She drives at high speed, headlights on full beam. There is no way off the road for at least five miles and the BMW can only be a short distance ahead. She approaches the bend, accelerator pressed to the floor. She’ll hit the brake at the last moment, ride the apex like a professional. The sensation of damp mud and coarse cloth between her hands returns. The stench of the marshland on a cold winter day fills her nostrils. Time slows to a crawl.
Asuka is waiting beside the blackened tree stump. The final act of the drama is close at hand. She knows her part well, it’s simple enough. And once her role is played out she will leave the stage. Must it always be like this; a cameo appearance followed by annihilation? Asuka pushes her hands down into the pockets of the leather coat. What would she do here with no task to perform? She could exist in the little house, which will be vacant very soon. Take a hot shower every morning. Asuka tips her head back. A glint appears in her eyes. The creatures in this place are led by the nose from one desire to another. They follow the breadcrumbs dutifully, but never glimpse the path.
Asuka’s existence may be fitful and brief, but her purpose is never in doubt. Her freedom lies in never deviating from what is necessary. Sometimes she connects creatures to one another. Other times she nudges them apart. Or, when a creature is required to make way, she facilitates a timely end. The maddening guilt of a mother who thinks she caused the death of her daughter is not for Asuka. After all, it was not the mother who put the girl on the edge of the top step, shifting her weight from heel to toe. And the girl went over only when she felt the contact in the small of her back. Why did she wait for the nudge? Could she have decided to fall earlier, or not to fall at all? Could she have avoided cracking her skull on the third stone step from the bottom? Or was the finale written indelibly into her personal story, so when she arrived at the crucial moment she knew what to do? Whatever the imperfections of her existence may be, Asuka does know the answer to these questions. And she knows also that she has done nothing more than enter a house through the front door, take a shower, and put on some abandoned clothes.
A winged shadow glides by, just above Asuka’s head. Her fingers run along the brim of the hat. She tips it a little further to the side, and steps out into the centre of the road. One more step to the right. Pull up the collar of the coat. Tilt the head. Harden the line of the mouth. Dull the eyes. Put the right hand on the hip, and lean forward. The mist lifts somewhat, perhaps so the finer points of Asuka’s work may be clearly seen. And then the roaring engine is upon her. Brakes squeal. Rubber screeches. A pair of terrified eyes stare out over the steering wheel. Asuka stands her ground, and holds her posture. The driver drags the wheel to the right, the shiny metal bumper misses Asuka by the breadth of a hair. The back end swings around, the vehicle slides sideways, the driver's side slams against the tree stump. Shards of shattered black wood explode into the air. Flesh and bone smash against hard surfaces. Steam rises, and for just a moment, metal groans.
Asuka crosses the road and peers in through the front passenger window. On the far side, the glass is smeared with blood. The creature's head is broken and bleeding. Her eyes are wide open and unblinking. Asuka walks around the front of the car without giving the dead driver so much as a second glance. She stops only to take off the hat and drop it onto the bonnet. Then she trudges back across the marsh, to the patch of earth where she awoke only a brief time ago. She strips off her clothing and stands on the threshold between this world and the one which spawned her. Again the question; could she stay or must she go? Asuka embraces the necessity to return. She lays down on the sodden earth and feels it soften and sag. The sensation passes upwards until her body oscillates like a wave. She floats, neither upwards nor downwards, but into insensibility. Thoughts, reflections, feelings, all slip away, and take with them her sense of self. Until the next time.