out of the quagmire

By: alexanderlewin

Feb 05 2017

Tags: ,

Category: Photography, Short Story

2 Comments

A peace descended upon the day as the haste and activity of the morning had worn itself out, the various essential maintenance and construction jobs in the vicinity had paused and he let fall his book and sank back into a lassitude that would have been blissful if it had not been the result of utter fatigue. The corner of the room in which his bed was placed was suffused with a gentle but penetrating sunlight, and this was no doubt responsible in part for the vivid nature of the dream which overtook his awareness almost as soon as his head reached the pillow.

He was being sucked down into a quagmire, slowly enough to contemplate the wretchedness of his situation and the fact that this was exactly what he deserved: a slow and solitary death, drowning in a noxious slime. But as he was sinking, he could feel a contrary force pulling him up and out, and after a process akin to a particularly difficult birth, he was deposited in the midst of a dry patch of grass and rushes. Blinded by the grime and beyond exhaustion he was unable to perceive who or what had rescued him from his stinking grave, but here he was savouring his every breath and the freedom of his limbs, as he dragged himself away from the mire and towards drier and firmer earth, towards the rising embankment.

To make his weary way up this steep bank became his only possible course of action now, the only means to his salvation. Having been rescued from a sordid and ignominious death, he was now getting reacquainted with the responsibility for his body and soul. Only along the path that ran on the top of the bank would he find somewhere to rest and properly recuperate from his ordeal. And only on that path would he be able to reach his spiritual home, whatever that might turn out to be. But the effort to climb even an inch of this grassy slope seemed more than he could manage. Frequently he was forced to lay back and rest, and closing his eyes he would sink almost immediately into a vision of delight, one that exuded the supreme spirit of fulfilment, an end to sorrow that was endless in its promise.

And this was, he recalled with a shudder of mingled pleasure and disgust, the very reason why he had left the path and found himself sinking in the quickening slime. He had beheld a scene of Edenic loveliness in the distance and was sure he could discern a safe route through the swampland, made up of dry tussocky mounds, that would lead him safely to this paradise of desire. Now that he was well and truly in the midst of this unquenchably joyous realm, he understood the dreadful urge to death that had propelled him precipitously down the incline. Through a diaphanous light irradiated with membranous pinks candied yellows and crystalline blues he could make out fleshly towers and pinnacles, buttressed with ramps and scaffolds of quartz. Everywhere an appalling fruitfulness that threatened to engulf the senses with the glut of unhindered growth and a bloated diversity. Everywhere a menagerie of disparate creatures living in a propaganda of harmony, even whilst being devoured by their loving enemies. Everywhere husks and shells and thorns and tongues and florid members seeping and spouting and oozing viscous solutions. Everywhere a frenzy of delight turned monstrous. And suffocating under the weight of this corporeal fecundity, drowning as the generative fluids filled his chambers to brim and bursting, he woke with a garbled scream and found himself back upon the slope. Heaving in wrenched-off breaths, his eyes adjusted to the normality of grass-green and sky-blue and cloud-white and the brown swamp still not that far below him. So he turned back to his task of crawling up the embankment, turning from the ease of temptation, the ease of death, towards the struggle of a will to serve the better part. For above him was the path of repentance, this he was remembering with an increasing certainty, a path hard but true.

As he edged his way up, he would, every now and then, let his face drop into the dew-soaked clumps of grass, revelling in the fresh sweet stalks and stems and the satisfying crunch of dirt between his teeth; all of which helped to appease his hunger and refresh his soul. Eventually, when he had long ceased caring whether he lived or died on this hill, he arrived at the summit, the plateau, the scar of sandy pebbles that was his way home, his destiny and his doom. Not that it was at all easy to discern, but not far from this exact spot, not that long ago, he had left the path to follow the vision of delight that he had spied across the swamp. He now returned to this path, ashamed but determined to start anew, if only he could summon the necessary strength of will and purity of intent. And so he began to stumble along, dragging his feet, unable to settle into a regular rhythm; always he seemed to be out of step with himself. Lurching along in this manner, still covered in patches of grime that stubbornly clung to his body and his scraps of clothing, he was a very sorry sight indeed.

After reaching a point beyond his own imagined capacity, he found himself standing and staring at a wooden shelter built just before the verge dropped away down the embankment. Inside this rudimentary half-open hut was a bench which was as inviting a sight as he could remember ever having seen. Within minutes he was lying with his back facing the path, lost within a deep dreamless sleep. He couldn’t be sure how long he slept, since it was daylight when he entered the shelter and a similar daylight when he slowly roused himself from his stupor. One reason that he had slept so well was due to the fact that someone had placed a pillow under his head and covered him with a heavy brown felt greatcoat. The pillow turned out to be a bundle comprising a sheepskin waistcoat and some denim breeches. Muttering a mantra of thank-you’s under his breath, he stripped himself of his rotting rags and donned his new outfit. He was so overcome with gratitude that he didn’t seem to mind that he was still lacking any form of footwear. In fact he saw this act of generosity along with the appearance of the hut as signs that he had passed some kind of stage on his path of repentance, and that to carry on his journey barefoot was a more moderate continuation of his penitence. His good cheer was compounded by the discovery of a package of food wrapped in paper stuffed deep in an inside pocket of the greatcoat. This parcel comprised some kind of goat’s cheese, a hunk of black rye bread and a small paper bag filled with dried fruit. He sat back down upon the bench and sampled a cautious portion of each of these foods, concerned that he might overtax his system which had been deprived of food for so long. He washed down his humble meal with a few swigs of the cold tea which he had found in a clear corked bottle placed just under the bench. Exhausted once again, but this time for different reasons and in a conspicuously different manner, he collapsed back into sleep.

He awoke refreshed and re-born; he folded up his old rags and left them upon the bench, and pocketing his food and half-empty tea-bottle, he was soon up and back on his way along the golden path. As he walked, now noticeably more upright, with a far steadier stride than before, he became gradually aware of a rather strange fact. Namely, that he couldn’t actually recall the last time that night had fallen. True enough, the sun rose and reached its zenith every day and then sank into dusk, at which time he invariably found an identical wooden shelter in which to spend the night, and the equally invariable supply of food and cold tea; but at this point he would fall fast asleep and not wake until the morning, sometime after dawn each day. This realisation caused him no little concern and he resolved to stay awake this very night and observe the descending darkness, to reassure himself that he wasn’t trapped in some bizarre dream. But try as he might, he was unable that night and every night thereafter to stay awake in order to see the actual night come down. In time, he forgot to even try and his concerns over the reality of his situation evaporated, like the wispy clouds that littered the sky which greeted his every morning’s awakening.

The days passed, the walking continued, and the man became light and empty and totally surrendered to his fate, no longer plagued with fantasies of escape or of hedonistic bliss.  If you had been able to ask him and he had been able to formulate an answer, he would have said something along these lines: “This eternal pilgrimage on the infinite path is my bliss, now and always and forever it has been so.” And then one day, one day amongst a cluster of days, a stack of days, identical in almost every respect; on one of these days, something happened which tore a rent in the fabric of his new reality. The first sign of a tear was when he came to examine the food parcel which as on every evening he would find on the bench in the shelter which itself would emerge just when he was about ready to stop walking and rest up for the night; the night which of course never actually came. Things had come to such a pass that it was now by no means certain if the shelter appeared when he was ready to stop and rest, or if he was ready to stop and rest just when the shelter appeared. Unlike the usual fare on offer, bread and cheese or fruits and berries and leaves, the food this day was inside a warm mess tin. In fact when he succeeded in carefully opening it up and removing the spoon from its housing on the lid, he noticed that the stew inside was piping hot. So hot in fact, that he had to wait to eat it, because the first spoonful burnt his tongue. This whole experience left him utterly nonplussed; and as with his ruminations over the non-appearance of nighttime, he set to wondering about the situation that he found himself in; its strangeness in comparison with what little of a former reality he could bring to mind. Needless to say, all this mental exertion, combined with the soporific effect of eating a deliciously hot stew, had him falling asleep almost before he was ready to lie down and when the morning found him awake once more, he could barely recall his concerns of the previous day.

Until much later on, during the same day, or perhaps on a different day, when he caught sight of a whisker of movement somewhere in the middle distance along the path, which was turning terracotta under the rays of the slowly-setting sun. At first he was so stunned, more stunned even than when he had burnt his tongue, that he could neither stop to consider what he had seen, or quicken his pace to try and catch up with whatever it was. But he did recall his hot stew and his burnt tongue and wondered if this blurred shape up ahead might possibly be his mysterious benefactor? And with this connection slowly forming in a mind that was long unused to such calculations, he bestirred himself and attempted to change his pace to a steady trot in order to apprehend the mystery that now presented itself to him; promising an answer to the riddle of his existence. But as in a dream, it was almost impossible to make himself run, and the more he tried, the more sluggish his limbs felt, the slower his progress became; until he was forced to slow to a complete halt and lower himself to the ground, where in slow-motion he collapsed in a heap and slept the sleep of the dead.

Strangely he woke up finding himself walking along the shining path, walking with a renewed determination, as if a goal were in sight. And before too long, this goal revealed itself, in the form a blurred stirring motion in the undergrowth to the left of the path, opposite the embankment. He made straight for the spot where he had seen the movement and noticed a faint trail through the bushes and upwards into the tangled undergrowth. He followed without fear, without even a stirring of curiosity; it was more as if he was being led somewhere that he simply had to go. The incline evened out, the trail widened, becoming more defined, the growth of bushes and saplings less dense, and although he could not make out the figure whom he had initially been following, he knew for sure that he was heading in the right direction. After some time he entered a clearing, in the centre of which was a cottage plucked straight out of a fairy tale, with its chimney smoking and its front door ajar.

He approached and tentatively he entered, calling out a hesitant greeting in a voice croaky from disuse. The room he found himself in was a well-lit kitchen with flowers on the window-sill and a bowl of steaming soup upon the table. By the side of this was a hand-carved wooden spoon and a piece of slate on which had been written in chalk the words “HELP YUSUF”.  “Thank you!”, he grunted, although he still wasn’t sure to whom, and he sat down on one of the three chairs around the table and proceeded to slurp at the hearty soup. He pushed the bowl away when he had finished and rested his head in his folded arms and drifted off to sleep, only to be woken what seemed like seconds later by a coughing sound coming from somewhere within the house. He got up and went to investigate and leaving the kitchen he was faced by a flight of wooden stairs leading up to what turned out unsurprisingly to be the bedroom. The room was dominated by a large bed with the covers turned back invitingly and a handwritten note on one of the plump pillows, with the same message, although more skilfully written: “Help Yusuf”. He needed no further encouragement and was soon removing his clothes and slipping onto the indescribable sensuality of a freshly-made bed. As he turned his head on the pillow, getting settled into an ideal position, he noticed, just before slipping into unconsciousness, a hand-drawn map inside a wooden frame propped up on the bedside cabinet. The map depicted a a wooded area at the centre of which was a small cottage with a smoking chimney. And surrounding the green woodland was an oval strip, a golden road that went around and around for forever and a day.

 

al
February 2017

 

Photograph courtesy of Rosie May Lewin

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2 comments on “out of the quagmire”

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed the short story. I could feel the struggle and the relief, the taste of the hot stew, the comfort of the bed, brilliant!

    • Thank you. You may be pleased to hear that this story is currently being transferred to the small screen in a series of adverts for Premier Inn. Or did I dream that?


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