Friday, 11 April 2014

The Long Walk

You know the road, the feel of the gravel underneath your feet, the way that the sound of your steps echoes off the sky. You know the road.

You're not here so often now, with the nights drawing in and the chill settling on the promontory. The mist is descending, dropping deeper with the passing of the days. Soon it will be winter. The Long Walk stretches out in front of you, four miles from your front door to the small town cemetery, taking you along the old harbourside. You make the trip alone.

It wasn't always this way, and there's pain in the memory. Silence now was birthed by constant chatter then, and small, boisterous footsteps that played around you and your regular, easy tread. You dressed her in yellows and pinks, because she liked them, but also so you could see her at night. She disappeared from the road often, lost herself amongst the trees. She followed the crickets and their evening song, only to be distracted by the deadwood fungus that grew into fist-sized bowls amongst the moss.

Questions. Who's buried at the graveyard? No-one we know. Why, she asked you, why do we go there? I like the walk, you said.

You tell yourself that you're one with the stillness but in truth, it weighs you down, threatening to smother you. The air is heavier than you remember, or maybe you aren't as strong as you once were. Your thick woollen coat is a necessary burden. The sleeves are too long and there are tears under the arms, but as long as you turn your palms to the earth, the wind can't get in. In a world of few faces, a nod is as good as a wave, and far easier than learning your way around a needle and thread.

She would sing sometimes as you walked, making up songs from what she saw or repeating tunes she had heard on the radio. When the fog surrounded her, only her reedy voice remained, tremulous on the high notes. You took baby steps, your nerves taut, until she stepped back into view. The energy in her tiny frame terrified and amazed you in equal measure.

They told you the practical things, what to feed her, how to get her to sleep at night. They never mentioned the questions and the questions are constant, at least a hundred different ones every time you take the Long Walk together. What's this creature? Where does it live? Why is it doing that? Is the forest really alive?

You answered some as you walked, and some you left as mysteries, because wonder is the best part of being young. Of course, you knew that the forest was alive, but how could you explain the passage of centuries to a child? So you explained that the trees were always asleep when you passed, and it takes a practised eye to tell slumber from death. This just confused her more. She had no words for death, not yet.

In an effort to distract her from her questions, you tried to find other things to occupy her time on the walk. Mostly she had no attention for them, but you were able to show her how to press flowers inside books. In the springtimes, there were bluebells, and occasionally sunshine.

Those sleeping trees open up on your right and give way to the waterside. An ancient fishing boat lies bloated on the wet sand. It has the pallid hue of a peeling corpse. You walk over to it as though it is a lost friend, and in some ways it is. You know the name, 'Mary', without needing to see it painted on the side. In your mind, you can see the stout, smiling crew of four that took her out on the lake in the days when there were still shrimp to be caught here.

There were three shops on the harbour back in the day. The first sold groceries, including the shrimp caught on the lake. The second was a post office, and some of the storefront still remains. The glass has been painted white or boarded over, but some of the shimmering silver letters still remain above the door. Next to them, you can see the keening shadows of their lost companions.

The last of the three was an old-fashioned milliner. For a few years, the summer glades had been popular with city types who wished to get married among the willow trees. The milliner's windows had never been covered and three stock mannequins remained in place behind the glass, lace bonnets still tied atop their heads. Featureless and statuesque, they might have intimidated a girl of lesser purpose, but she was fascinated by their stillness, the sense of time captured like a ship in a bottle. She would press her snub-nose up to the windows, and leave breathy palm prints in her wake as she danced away.

More questions. Do people work here? They did once. Why did they leave? They had somewhere else to be.

Her nose wrinkled then, obviously dissatisfied with your response. It was the only time you remember this happening. You tried to distract her with stories about the harbour people you'd known, but she'd fidgeted and glanced back furtively, as though some greater truth was being exposed behind her.

From then on, she ran ahead every time to look in the milliner's window. You never stopped, but you slowed your pace so that she caught up with you as you passed by. She would cover her eyes and then stare at the scene anyway through her pudgy fingers, as though daring it to change. You watched as the pearlescent mannequins beckoned to her, and she seemed to ache to join them.

Your stomach knots, even now, when you remember the time that you took your eyes off her for a moment to find that she wasn't orbiting you like she usually did. You'd glanced back, expecting her to be a footfall or two at most behind. Instead, she had wandered a distance away to the lakeside opposite the shops, where she was trailing her fingers in the water.

You'd covered the distance between you more quickly than you would have thought possible, for you aren't a man given to speed. As she leaned over, the ink-coloured water seemed to swell, form hands and reach for her.

You scooped her up, your arm around her waist, foisted her out of harm's way with a single rough movement that caused her to cry out.

What are you doing? I wasn't going to fall. I wanted to do the sort of things they would have done. She pointed at the milliner's window, where the alabaster dolls were lined up to watch. Why are you so fascinated by them? Because they call to me.

Voices lost in the quiescence. In the aftermath of that day, you became a hawk, always twitchy by the harbourside, but you wouldn't give up your daily toil. Your footsteps were marked; the Long Walk owned you the same way that the sinister effigies puppeted her. Meanwhile, the line that marked her height climbed the wall by insouciant degree, and her face twisted and soured with the one question that she never asked. You could feel her eyes on you as you sat by the kitchen fire reading. When you turned the pages of your books, dessicated flowerheads fell out and turned to dust.

At last, when she could take it no longer, when every question she asked was drowned out by your heavy footsteps, there was a single one that remained to wound you. Why don't I have a mother? She was lost. Is she dead? No reply. Is she a ghost? Like the ones at the harbour. Is that why you go to the graveyard every single day? I like the walk, you said again.

You wouldn't tell her more, how could you? As her anger caught fire, grew arms and legs, she snapped aside the branches she had once studied so thoroughly and crushed the fungus cups into their fibrous bases. You knew her intent, and it was all you could do to match her pace.

The headlights hovered in the distance, but they were coming fast. She sprinted forwards, elbows and knees askew, ready to meet her oncoming destiny. The gravel underfoot pulled at you, every step a jerking torture, but you were there before the cones of light could snatch her away and swallow her whole. You were always there.

The car thundered past, lost to the night. Beside you she lay, tearful and furious. You were worried, but not unduly. You knew she would forgive you in time.

No cars come this way anymore. These days, they can take the highway, and they leave the road to you. You aren't as nimble as you were either. Limbs that took such firm, decisive steps now trudge. The wind cuts through you, threatens to turn you around. You force one foot in front of the other and proceed.

At last you reach the corner and turn sharply upwards towards the cemetery. You open the catch with unconscious ease and the gate creaks before falling back into place behind you. In the distance, you can see shadows as you approach. For a moment you expect them to be the milliner's lace-draped children, blanched and faceless, but with each step they solidify as the church's volunteers go about their work.

They've done well too. The paths are marked, the weeds removed and the hedges are bursting with fat roses. The willow trees are tended, salacious beards of catkins stroking at the grass. Looking around now, in the lengthy shadow of the church itself, you feel that it is better kept than it has been for many years. You aren't a godly man, but the thought pleases you all the same.

The group gathers around, lowering their spades and whispering to one another that the time has come. In the middle of the group, a child grown to woman stands in front of a flat marble stone and pulls a book from a worn jute bag. You look past her at the gravestone, and you recognise your name.

Her friends form a respectful circle around her, smiling at the edges and looking down at the worn turf. She flicks at the pages with a blunt-edged thumb and a single pressed bluebell falls out, resting by the stone at her feet.

'I hope you can hear me, Dad,' she says. 'I hope you understand. I'm sorry. I miss you every day.'

You are close enough to put your hand upon her shoulder, though in life such moments often passed you by, and this one is no different. She turns away, leaving the small dried flower in the grass. You are reminded again of the things she did in her younger days. She has indeed forgiven you, just as you hoped she would. She still takes the Long Walk.

Knowing that, you breathe out and it's like the whole world is exhaling with you. The breeze whips around you in an eddy, lifting you upwards and away, spreading you to the four winds. But you know that this is not the first time this has happened, and it will not be the last. You'll be there again, the feel of the gravel underneath your feet, the sound of your steps as they echo off the sky.

You know the road.