A Short Story
Alfred had returned home, to his brother’s house, to get away from us, I believe, for a few days. His brother received him rather casually. Two years later, Alfred returned home, to his brother’s house, from a brief outing, laden with a large and heavy backpack, as if he had just come from a mountain camping trip, or was planning one, in the next day or two. It had been already two years, so his brother approached him,
“You know Alfred, I can go on like this for two years, or ten years, or thirty years, or thirty lifetimes, but eventually I’ll get tired of it.”
Alfred understood: he had outstayed his welcome. On that very day, we joined him, there at his brother’s house, although, somehow or the other we, or at least I, knew more or less what had gone on before.
Alfred was the strongest amongst us, the natural leader. That day he looked firm and self-sufficient. He had light blonde hair, which peeped out from his warm sock hat and he wore a warm jersey around his barrel-like chest. He told his brother,
“OK. I understand. It’s no problem,” and hoisted down his heavy backpack onto the snow-packed ground, and opened it. The backpack and its contents were brand new, evidently a donation from a friend in town. Alfred was simple and silent but had such mysterious winning ways.
We had just joined Alfred, at that very moment, it seems, myself some sort of pretentious academic, though I say so myself, John, the eldest and perhaps wisest of our group, a thin man with snobbish features and balding grey hair, balding in the front, giving him a look of intelligence. I was Alfred’s age: in my thirties, or thereabouts, with brown hair and a light beard. Then there was Susie, the youngest, a girl of about twelve, who also had brown hair. She did not say much.
Alfred saw that I was injured in my feet so he took out a brand new hatchet from his backpack and some long nails.
“Your left foot.”
I extended my left foot. A thick layer of ice, or packed snow, was attached to the sole. Alfred hammered a nail through the ice into the sole of my shoe, then another, and then again another. I did not feel any pain.
“Now the other.”
And he repeated the operation, like nailing a horseshoe to a hoof, but this time I felt something and winced.
“They never operated on that foot,” said John, “It has no nails sticking in it.”
I tried standing and walking around, but something was wrong, particularly with the right leg. I trudged and swayed awkwardly in the snow whilst the others looked on in silent sympathy. Tears of rage and frustration came to my eyes.
“It’s not your fault Alf, its this fucking place, so fucking cold.”
I looked around in despair at the snow covered hills in the distance. Why had God done this? Created a place so sunny and warm, now grey and freezing cold? Why had He done this?
I was not sure whether I spoke this or thought it, but the others had understood.
“Here!” said Alfred, giving me a hatchet. He took one himself and began tapping the outer walls of the garden, looking for something, it seems. His patient brother was gone, nowhere to be seen. He was looking for something, and silently, without asking why, why he had left us, and what he was searching for, we helped him, tapping the walls of the garden, the brown brick walls, laden with snow, snow and ice.
I suppose we all knew why he had left us, but we did not know how long ago. Two years did I say? Maybe. He was tired of us. He wanted to get free. We understood. We all wanted the same. That is why we were helping him, now, tapping on the garden walls, looking for a way to get free, at least for one of us, if not for all.
Alfred’s tapping had sprung a leak in some pipes and caused some crumbling of the house walls. My tapping also burst some pipes leading from the reservoir outside. Warm water sprayed down the walls, covered in frost and ice. But it was little Susie who found something. Where she tapped, unseen by the rest of us, the brown brick wall had neatly folded open, like a clacking slatted wall, and revealed a pathway leading through to another wall, surrounding at a distance the garden wall. She walked in, through passages of brick, reaching the far wall. There, the passageway branched out, left and right, punging into infinity in either direction. She became frightened and ran back to the snow-covered garden to find us.
Alfred smiled when she told us of her discovery, but we did not approach the passageway, not yet.
Two years ago, or longer, perhaps, we were gathered in a very different place, an old school or college building, far away from here. We were all gathered in one of the rooms upstairs around a dusty table, and it was the darkest night. The schoolhouse was empty, but for our group and one other. He was a school teacher, someone I knew, perhaps. He was seated at the head of the table. Just next to him sat John, imperious and glistening, his balding forehead beneath the lamplight.
“You are summoned here, before this trinket, to account for your crimes. Should your guilt be proved before this trinket, it shall go heavy against you.”
The school teacher was not cowed by this speech, but he was sweating under the hanging lamp.
“Your ‘trinket’, as you call it, I hold not worth a trinket. You have no authority to judge me.”
He made a brave stand, but things were going badly for him. Alfred, Susie and I watched. Black leafless trees rustled and wailed outside in the screeching night.
“Do you know who we are?” John asked, leaning over the school teacher. “Do you know who you are?”
The school teacher became scared, but we watched in silence.
“There!” cried John, pointing straight ahead.
The school teacher turned his head to the left. He saw it.
“No!” he cried, moaning high like the raging wind outside. His own body dangled in the shadows of the loft.
What became of him, I do not know. Nor do I know how anyone of us came to be here, John, Alfred, Susie, or I, standing in the snow, but maybe we have found a way out, perhaps.