The Waiting Place
Mikaela Nyman (Victoria University of Wellington)
‘Heeelp me!’ What a ride, what a slide. Darkness. Light. Green purple and into the blue blue void. Crash bang thud slip slide thump and a whack on the head – spat out the other side like a cherry pip.
What a ride!
What a crash. What crash?
The first thing I see is a luminous sky, the kind that promises sunshine after days of rain. I’m lying in a sea of silvery grass, tips curled, as if a prolonged drought has punished the country. There’s a murmur, a rustle of stalks against stalks.
I sit up, relishing the sensation of grass tickling my chin. It takes a moment to sink in: there’s no wind, yet the grass is constantly bending, switching directions. There’s no sound besides that rustling, which throbs and drones until my head is filled with angry bees. The scent of scorched earth burns my nose and lungs. Not a tree, not a building in sight.
‘There, there. You took your time.’
I jerk at the unexpected sound, my head snaps back and is left dangling at an impossible angle. Three men look down at me, dressed in white as if they were going to lawn bowls. A closer look reveals they’re three women – no, two men and one woman now. Their features keep altering, changing age and sex at a disturbing speed.
‘It’s always difficult in the beginning.’ Cool hands lift my head and give it a firm push. ‘Better?’ I start nodding, but stop when the wobble takes on a life of its own.
I fear the answers to any questions starting with why or where. As if reading my mind, one of them says, ‘I think you know.’
‘No,’ I want to snap, ‘I don’t. Maybe you could tell me?’ But the words hide under my tongue. Instead I nod towards the grass. ‘How do you stop it? The rustling.’
‘You’ll get used to it.’ One of them pulls a leaflet out of her gown. ‘We’re here to welcome you to the Waiting place.’ Her eyes are dark ponds, not betraying any thoughts. ‘We wish you a peaceful stay, Rohe.’ And with that they evaporate, leaving me with more questions than they’ve answered.
But one thing I now know: my name is Rohe. The leaflet in my hand quivers, causing the letters to dance. The words don’t make sense.
Welcome to the Waiting place. It’s a space for the dead
– or if you aren’t already, you’ll soon join us.
Sharp stalks prick my forehead. I’m lying on the ground, hyperventilating, until my throat erupts in violent coughs. It hurts so much it can’t be a dream.
I struggle to my feet, my joints uncooperative, folding whichever way they please. All directions look the same, not even a trace of sunlight to reveal whether it’s morning or afternoon. I jerk and wobble towards a random part of the parched horizon in the faint hope that there’s some truth to the six degrees of separation. When I check my progress, the wind has tousled the grass and obliterated every trace. Out of the corner of my eye I detect a flutter of white. I swirl around, fists raised, only to face the welcoming committee again.
‘What is this place?’
‘It’s the transition between life, as you know it, and the Eternal resting place. You had an accident. Drunk driver, rainy night. Sound familiar?’
It’s as if I’m riding a crazy slide, hurtling through a pitchblack night towards some disaster I can only sense in my gut. I bury my head in my hands, trying to push the fragments back where they belong. The rain, I knew there was rain. I’m sure there was water too, someone swimming…?
‘You’ve almost crossed over. The other driver and your partner… well, the hospital will switch off their life support soon.’
‘My partner?’ My memory bank is like static on a TV screen on a blustery night.
And then there was rain.
Fragments of images and sounds, but nothing to bridge the gap. I want to ask about eye colour, age and looks. I want to know how long we’ve been together, if we’re married, de facto, or just met. If we have kids, or a dog. If he prefers Thai curry to fish & chips. If he’s made love to me in a soaked tent with the waves crashing onto the pebble beach. Or perhaps he is a she?
I shake my head, until my neck snaps. This time I manage to rectify the bungle myself. ‘So this is why…?’
‘Crash victims are never a pretty sight. You’re not the worst one this week. Your memory’s gone? Typical crash victims.’
When a blackbird gets hunted by a falcon and tries to decide whether to fly up in the sky or dive to escape, it sometimes begins to sing instead. I laugh.
Why I even bother to move, I don’t know. There’s no escape. Keep your dignity until the end, the Three advised. My body will decompose over the next six days and when I’m in bad enough a state, presumably on the seventh day, I’ll be taken to Eternity. Just like that, as if it was the next train station down the road.
Without any warning a wall rises out of the ground in front of me. Standing next to the rammed earth structure, I manage to latch my fingers onto the top of the wall and try to heave myself up. But my arms are too weak and my feet keep sliding down. Bouts of laughter trickle across. Reverting to the most basic of tools, I start digging out footholds in the wall with a sharp stone.
‘Hey, you! There’s a stile further down.’
A grinning face, patched with dirty gauze strips, beams down at me. There’s a gaping hole where the nose should be, no lips. Even at a distance the stench is unbelievable. My horror must be visible, because the figure begins to tug at the gauze in an attempt to cover up his face.
‘Sorry, pal. Didn’t realise you’re a virgin.’ He fumbles and something comes off the side of his head and lands next to me. It’s an ear, or what’s left of it.
‘Just released, eh?’ His voice is kind, but I can’t bear to look at his hideous features. ‘So the Three told you to meet your fate with dignity and all that bull. Said you’ve got six days. By the end of the week you’ll have rotted away and your scraps will be taken by the cleaning squad to the big E.’
‘The cleaning squad?’
‘Imagine what bad apples they must’ve been, doomed to clean up rotten corpses for the next eternity.’ A hoarse hiccup escapes his chest. ‘But look at this body!’ I try, but there’s something about decaying bodies. ‘Twenty days and counting. I’m Henry by the way.’
Now that I know his name he’s not half as scary anymore. Although, I can’t figure out why someone would want to wrap himself in gauze and hang out longer than necessary in this godforsaken place.
‘This,’ he says in a theatrical voice, throwing his arms wide open as if welcoming me into his kingdom, ‘is where you can catch up with your loved ones before you disappear into the void.’
‘How do you know it’s a void?’
‘It’s not like anyone’s come back to tell us otherwise.’
Who am I to question the truth of what he’s saying? I’d love another chance to catch up with my partner, to hear what happened. Who I was up to this point. And then there’s something nagging at the back of my mind about forgiveness.
‘Are you sure they’ll end up here?’
‘I’ve seen the reunions, all the evidence I need.’
Henry is waiting for his wife, who was terminal with cancer when he fell off a ladder. ‘Stupid, really. Up the ladder, paint brush in hand – and bang!’ He slams the left fist in his right, but the gauze muffles any sound.
‘No point hanging around here. All the action is this side. Come! I’ll lead you to the wall crossing, just follow the sound.’ And with that he disappears.
I can hear his feeble attempts at whistling, which must be hard when you don’t have lips. More a dissonant hiss caused by his breath flowing through his teeth. Perhaps teeth are the last bits to go. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a dead person, somehow I think I’d know if I had.
The ladder is within reach when I hear a clearing of throats behind me. The Threesome, displaying a collective frown.
‘You don’t know what you’re about to do. If you cross that wall, there’s no return.’
I hesitate, which is all it takes for one of them, shapeshifting from bearded patriarch to youngster, to place a hand on my arm. ‘Don’t disgrace yourself, there’s nothing you can do.’
‘I’d like to see my partner. You told me he is on life support.’
‘He may arrive tomorrow, there’s no need for you to make a spectacle of yourself.’
A spectacle is the last thing I want, yet how can I be assured that he’ll get here soon? There’s no guarantee, they tell me. I start climbing. Reaching the top of the wall a thought hits me.
‘What’s my partner’s name?’
Three moonfaces tilt towards me.
‘Come on, give me his name. Please,’ I add.
‘His name is Leander, Rohe.’ And with that they merge with the grass, leaving me with the flimsiest of keys to unlock my past.
Four days later I’m questioning the wisdom of my decision. It feels like I’ve landed in hell. This side of the wall all bodies, as I can’t bear to call them people, are well overdue. It’s like diving head first into Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Rain, zombies and a single face with a name. A limited memory is a curse. The few bits and pieces I own are on constant replay in my mind in the hope they might trigger other, more important, memories.
Trees must have grown here at some stage, now the ground is bare mud, the earth raped of its cover. A collection of ramshackle shelters made of broken sticks, mud and pieces of torn clothing huddle together along the wall. Not all shelters are occupied; there are plenty of ghostly remnants, relics of previous owners. The shelters carry on forever, as I discovered during the first two days while I was still relatively energetic. What lies beyond our makeshift camp is anyone’s guess.
Tired to the bone I stumble through grey days and equally grey nights, only to realise that I, too, have become one of them: a decaying corpse. I cry myself to sleep, wondering how on earth Leander shall recognise me, afraid I won’t recognise him in the first place. I have an urge to set out a candle for him, but there aren’t any candles to be found. The daylight never fades so candles are superfluous anyway. I ponder what irreparable damage to my brain the car crash may have caused.
‘Most likely extinguished it,’ Henry wheezes. ‘One of my students once wrote in an exam: The body consists of three parts – the branium, the borax, and the abominable cavity. The branium contains the brain, the borax contains the heart and lungs, and the abominable cavity contains the bowels, of which there are five, namely a, e, i, o and u.’ The last bit disappears in a coughing fit.
He’s rancid, reeking of formaldehyde solution and alcohol, laden with chemicals, what’s left of his body close to petrified at this stage. Dirty strips of gauze cover the worst holes in his armour, and there are a few. Any day now and the cleaners will come for him. I’ve been lousy at making friends, the crowd is far too competitive for me. How I’ll manage without Henry I can’t imagine. He assures me I can have his memories, his stories. But I’m useless at retelling other people’s stories. I need my own, yet they won’t come to me.
‘When I was in primary school my mother used to make sausage rolls for our picnics on the beach. You could always tell her state of mind by how heavy she’d been on the curry.’ Henry’s childhood reminiscences are like a string of pearls that he holds up for me to see, each new memory as shiny and flawless as the previous one. Memories laden with smells and feelings, in the hope that it would jog my memory in return.
‘Maybe I didn’t have a mother.’
Henry takes my hand. ‘Everyone has a mother, Rohe. Yours made you Marmite sandwiches for lunch. She was good at sewing and made you pinafores and skirts for school, remember? Although you felt awkward wearing homemade clothes when your friends wore store-bought ones…’
I listen to his croaky voice, not caring that he makes it up as he goes. For the first time since I came here, I drift off to sleep with a warm purr in my stomach instead of the constant flapping of wings.
When he hears my partner’s name is Leander, he entertains me with a story from Greek mythology. It’s about Leander, who in the darkness of night swam out to his true love, one of Aphrodite’s high priestesses called Hero. Every night Hero lit a light in her tower to guide him. One night Leander was caught in a storm and the gale extinguished the light.
‘…and Leander couldn’t find his way to his love, so he drowned,’ I whisper before Henry has a chance to finish.
We look at one another and I can see my surprise reflected on his face.
Possessions I have none, but no one here seems to own much. Hawkers came rushing as soon as I hopped down from the wall that first day. Gauze, formaldehyde, alcohol and bags of boric acid, sodium chloride and phenol – for sale to the highest bidder. Who knows how they got hold of the chemicals in the first place. Within seconds I had a bag of phenol in my left hand, a pile of gauze in my right and an ugly face shoved up against mine.
‘What have you got?’
Searching through my pockets I came up with nothing. Impatient tongues clicked against rotting gums.
‘Skills, hon, what skills can you offer?’
‘I think I’ve got decent managerial skills.’ Snorts and grunts greeted my offer. I tried again, ‘No, wait, I’m pretty sure I’ve done modelling.’ The howling, my God, I thought it would never cease.
‘Good one, good one. What’ve you got? Talking bargaining here.’
I told them I was probably a good typist. They started to stir, someone snatched the phenol from me. I tried to offer administration skills, cooking skills…
‘Stories, stupid! What do you think we do all day long? We don’t need food or money. Have you seen any cars, TVs, or computers?’
‘Or checked any mirrors lately?’ cackled a lopsided hag with singed red hair. ‘We’re bored to bits. Give us a yarn! What’s your story?’
‘I can’t remember…’ And with that the gauze was snatched out of my hand.
Instead they thronged around a dishevelled woman who was telling the crowd that the skeleton is what’s left after the insides have been taken out and the outsides have been taken off. She earned herself a few laughs and half a roll of gauze, but the majority stirred and grumbled, hungry for more.
It seems I’m left to retrieve my memories, or founder.
Henry mostly drinks his formaldehyde, the liquid gushing out of the holes in his tattered frame. He’s taken pity on me, allowing me to piggyback on his good fortune.
‘Where I come from, there are great tides. They only exist because of jealousy. The ebb and flow of the ocean,’ he explains as he sees my baffled expression.
There’s the ocean again: a black mirror, someone swimming, perhaps crossing the water to see me?
‘Are you listening?’ As I nod he continues, ‘The jealous moon pulls the oceans from the Earth towards it, because there’s no water on the moon. Nature abhors a vacuum.’ He frowns. ‘And now you made me forget where the sun comes in.’
I smile to make him happy. I’m not sure these kinds of stories were part of my former life. Inside me the night creatures are stirring.
I wish I could take a photo of us: Henry on a makeshift table, pouring formaldehyde down his throat, me on the ground below, catching the proverbial manna from heaven as it gushes out of his body. Afterwards we indulge in a bit of dusting – phenol, acid, chloride, with some alcohol thrown in for good measure. The first time is the worst, he remarked, as I gagged on the formaldehyde. With gentle hands he helped me wrap myself in gauze afterwards, to keep my limbs in place, he said, as I hid my face against his chest.
My skin has already turned a sickly green and has started to melt away, leaving holes that expose the underlying muscle tissue and bones. It’s fascinating to witness the gradual decay. I’m glad there aren’t any mirrors in this place. Leander, what’s keeping you?
There’s commotion by the stile. Throngs of hawkers press against the wall, taking turns to heave each other up to look over to the other side.
‘What’s going on?’
‘Newcomers.’ A crippled old man waves a crutch in the air. ‘Over there, by the main entrance.’
I crane my neck and stare in the indicated direction across acres upon acres of silver grass. I had forgotten about the monotonous rustle, the peppery dryness of the air. This side of the wall the grass has given way to mud. A damp earthiness, mixed with the stench of chemicals, clings to everything. Where the dampness comes from remains a mystery, it hasn’t rained since I arrived. Suddenly, there’s a stretching of the sky canvas and everyone freezes mid-motion, eyes on the sky. I see two people crouching on the ground, about ten metres away. One in a torn yellow dress, the other in a black T-shirt.
A mighty roar breaks the spell. ‘Is that you McLeod?’
Unable to see who’s on the other side, the crippled man barks like a wounded animal behind me. ‘Elli? Ellinor!’ Others chip in. ‘Barry Stevenson, come to mummy!’ Names fly through the air, gauze in all shades of brown and grey flutter from the motley crowd. I’m hanging on to the wall, with my chin resting on top of it, unable to utter the name that preoccupies my thoughts day and night. I can see the looks of horror on the newcomers’ faces. They don’t know that we can’t cross over to them. They turn around and scarper to the howls of the crowd.
I’m pretty sure neither of them was Leander, but how will I know?
Eons later one of the newcomers enters our commune. The young man’s paleness is enhanced by a shock of raven hair, a meticulous goatee like an exclamation mark on his chin. He wears a black T-shirt with an Amnesty logo over his heart, a candle in barbed wire. Despite an ugly gash across his right temple, he is Michelangelo’s David in a sea of lepers.
By coincidence, he and I end up face to face in an opening between the mud-and-stick huts. In a flash I know I’ve seen him before.
‘You! You drove the car that crashed into us!’ I see a flicker of recognition in his eyes, but he shakes his head.
I would have liked to be able to tell Henry I stepped away with dignity, instead I howl, ‘You liar!’ and hurl myself at the bastard. Mud slinging must have been one of my strengths in a previous existence, I’m winning until I lose my right arm in the skirmish and have to let go.
It’s when I bend down to retrieve my limb that I hear the cheers.
‘Best one this week!’ A roll of gauze is put in my hand. A small bottle of formaldehyde is placed at my feet, next to a bag of chemicals with a ‘Good on you!’
I’m exhilarated. Finally, I’ve found a way to earn my living. If living is what you would call this limbo.
Hate is a powerful driver; it carries me through the next few days. Henry is utterly unimpressed.
‘This is not why you chose to stay, remember?’ he rasps, unable to move from his den. His deteriorating condition gives me any additional justification I need. With a doggedness I didn’t know I was capable of I pursue the hooligan in black T-shirt through muddy alleys, confronting him whenever I can.
‘You were there, I know you were.’ Those eyes, glassy green like a breaking wave, I recognise them. ‘Remember what happened, or were you too drunk? Did you call for help?’ My anger consumes what little energy I have left, but I couldn’t care less. Cheered on by passers-by, consumed by the thought of revenge, I forget I wanted to find out what happened that fatal night.
‘Get away from me, you mad bitch!’ He gives me a shove, trying to physically remove me without having to touch me more than necessary. He disappears down the lane while I’m still struggling to regain my balance.
Soon the mere sight of me sets him running. His discomfort is my reward, my sole reason for being. I lose track of the days.
Hauling my loot home after yet another successful confrontation, I find a deserted shelter and a neat pyramid of bottles and gauze next to my rag pile bed. A small clay heart nestles where I usually rest my head. A high-pitched sound pierces my mind, black wings cloud my vision. With a groan I drop to my knees, bags and bottles scatter around, and within seconds the air is thick with chemicals and fumes.
My forehead rests against the heart. It’s so smooth. How long it would have taken Henry to craft it, I can’t even imagine. I think about his fingerstumps covered in soiled gauze, his stories that could lift the lowest spirits, his good-natured chuckle still hiding in the hut’s corners. My sole memory of someone I’ve known. I want to cry, but inside me there’s only a dry ache.
I remain where I am until I can’t breathe. I sit up and take Henry’s clay heart in my maimed hands, wishing I’d known him in my previous life. Ungracefully I unfold my body and struggle to my feet, I have to lean my back against the wall to control my shaking legs. With an unsteady hand I try to shove the heart through a hole on the left-hand side of my chest. After a couple of attempts, I finally manage. With nothing to stop it, it rattles around in the hollow of my ribcage, hits my pelvis and falls out of another opening. Before I can catch it, the miniature hits the floor and shatters.
This time I cry.
I have forgotten why I chose to stay. Lying on Henry’s bed, I let the hours slip by. No one told me what to do to speed up the process, all anyone ever cared about was clinging on, resisting the inevitable. For what? I now wonder.
Every now and then I hear commotion emanating from some corner of the shantytown. Silence reigns in my quarters. No one ventures to my door anymore. I wish for the mercy of the night, but grey dusk is the only constant here. With no eyelids remaining, I’ve resorted to covering my eyes with a rag to get some peace.
Suddenly, there’s a noise by the door. Scavengers, I rage, can’t even wait til I’m gone. Then I see the barbed wire candle on the black T-shirt and if I’d had a heart it would’ve stopped.
He’s almost out the door before my damaged voice box manages to croak his name. I see his pale face with its exclamation mark goatee. Two green pools size up the scraps of humanity left among the rags on the floor. Those eyes, no wonder I recognised them.
‘The candle,’ I whisper. ‘It was for me, Leander.’
But he’s already gone.
Mikaela has recently started her PhD in creative writing at Victoria University of Wellington. Her poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction have appeared in various literary journals and magazines including Turbine, JAAM, Sport, Lumiére Arts Reader and Blackmail Press. She is currently working on a novel set in the Pacific.