He had been running across the fields for almost forty minutes and his chest heaved the morning air from his lungs in strong conical plumes. He stopped at the river’s edge, bending over using his hands on his knees to heave back the air. He stared without seeing the state of his patent dress shoes from the brown mud he had been running through. The river sounds were indistinguishable from the rushing wall of noise in his mind. He straightened up a little and moved a number of paces toward a grey boulder. He leaned against it and at once slid down its sharp ridges. On the ground now he looked up staring but could only see the sky. The clouds were still in their morning glory with patches of white against the blue, like the opening scene in the Simpsons. Nevertheless it was now the first thought that appeared to be relative to his current position. But he couldn’t remember the story line from the episode he had watched the night before. He remembered laughing at it, laughing it off, but it was all jumbled in a non sequential mix of episodes, reality and the sequence of what had seemed to happen later.
He needed to wash his hands and kneeled up reaching into the black pool that was trapped by the nature of the river and its relation to the bank. He looked at his these hands; they had become much softer since he had delegated the landscaping part of his business to the two others. He was now what could be described as comfortable to well off.
She had mocked his new clothes, and the “stinking bog hole” he had crawled out of. But she had asked him to kiss her at the end of their first evening when he walked her home. She pulled away suddenly after they kissed and whispered: “Keep those rough and ready tinker hands away from me, you!” Then she slammed the door in his face, went to the window, pulled back the lace and stared at him, without smiling.
He now turned these hands over, examining if he could have seen what was written in their lines. A truth perhaps, a truth written in creases, indicating how he would come to be here now, at the edge of a river, washing their stains away. They were clean again, as if there was no recent past that was obvious from what had been taken downstream.
Despite being unprepared for a run, he reached into the back pocket of his dress suit pants to check for his wallet. There was money in it, about €480, good. But he closed it quickly when his eyes fell on the tiny picture of his son. He remembered their voices, high pitched, childlike, and playful, silenced. She would look out from under her eyebrows whenever she wanted anything. And he wanted to give her everything from the moment he met her. His son was three, talking merrily to himself. He had been. She had been. Their stilled grey faces, in a front room not far away.
A sharp pain of anguish stabbed through him, from the base of his spine up through to his throat. It then crashed down on him in a wave he couldn’t stifle, forcing him to jump to his feet, as if he would drown in it. He vomited the pale contents of his stomach on to the grass; it seeped into the black pool and then flowed on to the river where his hands had just now been plunged. He forced these last thoughts to be behind him and he made towards a bridge, retching occasionally, willing those last moments to be forgotten. He began to gain control of the physical reaction to the memory of what had happened. He had to think. He knew where he could go to do so. He wouldn’t get caught. Then he tripped. His head hit a sharp rock and he fell into the river and drowned there and then.
In his death his eyes were opened. He blinked several times at the bright grey light reflected by his pale new surroundings. He was lying near a raised mound and his back had been leaning against a small outcrop. His knees were curled into his chest. His eyes began to slowly focus but he couldn’t recognise where he was. It was pale and grey. A dead land out to the horizon, shapeless and forlorn.
His mind began to thrash about, looking to remember how he had come to be here, where he was and what had just happened. His mind began to fill with fragments of memories from people he knew. A series came of his mother; he hadn’t seen her for years. Then he thought of his son, whom he had seen in a picture. Then another memory where his son was running and playing in a garden, smiling. I don’t remember that, he thought to himself. He saw his wife, watching him from a chair, her head lain against the rest, her mouth open. Thousands, even millions of memories and images flooded into him as if he had lived a great life that was full and happy. A life of achievement and satisfaction was what he wanted but now he knew it was a life unfulfilled. He must go back.
There was no way back, he knew this now as the flow of memories stopped at the one he didn’t want. He picked himself up and looked around. He took some steps to walk, maybe he would be able to see more about it all if he just walked. What happened to his world he wondered? While he walked his feet crunched into a thin grey crust covering the ground and little puffs of dust rose with every step. He looked behind him to get a bearing, but he could just make out that the shape his body had made in the crust where he found himself began to disappear. It was being folded back into the shapelessness of the rest of his new environment.
Each step he took broke the thin grey crust and under this crust was a fine, white sand. He bent down to touch it, to try to feel or even recognise what it was. But its fine cold grains flowed quickly through his fingers, emitting a strange rustling noise, like a whistle. He stared at its flow trying to focus on the individual grains, but he could not focus on them, as they spilled from his palm. His hands and fingers were thinner, but they were recognisably his own, his nails had grown longer, more pointed. He remembered a ring he once wore. It was no longer there. More memories disturbed him. Uncomfortable and disappointing memories of loss. He wanted to go back.
He couldn’t go back. “Hello!” he shouted in the direction of a hill he had seen in the distance. “Hello!” he shouted again, his voice echoing in the emptiness. He listened to the echo for a moment and turned in another direction to shout, his voice louder this time, his echo responding to him with despair, an echo of the emptiness of this place. He began to run raising a cloud of dust that interfered with his breathing. He stopped running and walked instead, where the dust clung to his feet. He walked towards the hill, he had seen a shadow. It was waving at him beckoning him, a wave of relief.
The shadow waited for him. “Come and see,” it said, in a whisper that felt like a puff of air. What a feeling now to know he was not alone? But was it joy, or pain? No matter, it was a promise of answers. He ran on through the greyness towards the hill, to where the shadow had stopped. He knew he was gelling closer. Whatever it was he thought, it was waiting for him.
“Come closer to it now. It’s all you need to know.” The voice was soft, soothing and comforting. His disquiet was over. Then it appeared to him in a silver glory, of a type that only the dead can know. He was forced to shield his eyes, ashamed that he was here. But the warmth beside this creature was delicious and he wanted to be closer.
“I am the end,” it said as warmth and comfort washed around him. “And this was the beginning” as it raised an arm, covered in silver cloth toward the sky. He followed the movement and the grey sky opened to blue. A sense of love and warmth poured through him as the expanse was beautiful and radiant. It began to shower in gold and all who have lived smiled back at him. He too smiled and laughed as he was shown what life meant at last. It was that simple. Then he knew he had to hide the thing he had done, just now, back then, in the memories of alive.
The sky turned red, the lives disappeared, and he grew colder. He looked for more respite as the brief supreme knowledge began to fade. Then he was returned to the front room of his mock Tudor house on the east coast of the Island he had built for her. On the chair beside the fire his wife sat and mocked him with a truth she had kept from him.
They had been getting ready for the annual party, while they were waiting for the taxi, he began to nail the Christmas lights to the cross beams in the ceiling. He asked her was she sleeping with Jim the landscaper, as he had been told this by his cousin.
“Of course I sleep with him” she hissed, drunk already. “I’ve been sleeping with him for years; Pat’s not even yours.” With the hammer in his right hand he walked forward, stood over her, her eyes changed to acknowledge her sudden future, and he swung the hammer down swiftly between her eyes. Her mouth gaped open, her life taken by him in a blow he enjoyed. His three year old son entered the room and he then killed him with a momentary thrill of power between life and death. He started to float over their lifeless bodies and watched their souls fly beyond him, ignoring his pleas to help him.
He was returned to the Deadland, and it all began to shrink around him, the vast space and dead grey expanse contracting and compacting his soul. He started to cry for all he could not undo. His cries joining a vast cacophony of other voices asking for forgiveness. The sound was not unlike a whistle. Here he lay immobilised beside all of the living who had taken a life, immobilised in a single grain of sand.
As the surf crashed down on a beach in January, each grain moved slowly towards the sea. Thus began the long and painful redemption of a man who could have chosen not to kill his wife and child.