Inward Bound

Jennifer Hanning

Eliza sat at her lounge room window, resting her gaze on the deep blue lake that edged her sloping lawn. Anyone seeing a snapshot of her now might think she had the perfect life, only she knew that was far from the truth. The feeling of emptiness deep inside told her that something was missing ... something she would not find by looking out – so she closed her eyes.

 

Breathing deeply and slowly, she began the journey to the centre of her being. With her external world shut out, she was able to penetrate below the surface of her mind. She ventured deeper, mentally pushing aside filmy veils that served to obscure a wealth of knowledge. At last, she reached the ultimate depth. There she found not a veil, not even a heavy curtain, but a solid door glowing in effervescent violet light. She tried the handle. It was locked.

 

Determined to find the answer she so keenly sought, although she was not at all sure of the question, she moved her awareness from side to side. Nothing but darkness surrounded the luminosity of the door. She turned away and began to wander back along the path by which she had arrived. Now she noticed that other paths branched out; some inviting, some menacing. Instinct guided her along a meandering path bordered with the soft blues of forget-me-nots.

 

At the end of the path, she entered into a meadow bathed in sunshine. Colourful wild flowers grew cheerfully alongside a brook that tinkled over rocks and stones. On a sun-warmed rock sat a young woman. Although her back was turned she seemed strangely familiar. Eliza watched the sunlight dancing and playing in the golden hair that cascaded down her back. She touched her own grey locks. The young woman turned – and Eliza gazed at herself, in another place, another time.

 

"Am I welcome?" the young one asked.

"Am I?" the old one responded.

"I hardly know you." The young one softened her words with a smile.

"I barely remember you." The old one tried to smile back.

 

They were silent for a long moment, lost in contemplation of each other. A range of emotions flowed between them; happiness, optimism, disappointment, expectations, fear, hope – each vying for supremacy.

 

"Did I disappoint you?" Eliza asked the young one.

"The question is ... did you disappoint yourself?" The young one smiled gently. She held out her hand, around which was wrapped an ancient key on a chain. "I have held this key for you since you ventured from me to find yourself," she said.

 

As Eliza reached out, the young one pulled her hand away. "Not until you can tell me the meaning of life. You must go now." She began to turn away.

"Help me," Eliza said. "Come with me."

The young woman turned back. She gazed deeply into the old one's eyes, smiled and extended her arms wide. Eliza stepped into her embrace and closed her eyes. Warm energy coursed through her, flooding her entire being with joyous life.

 

The old woman, young again, found herself wandering in a field of poppies. Her skirts were long and she held the ends of a shawl that wrapped around her shoulders. At the edge of the field, she came to a forest. Hugging her shawl closer, she stepped out of the sunshine to walk amongst the trees. The air was fresh and uplifting with the scent of pine. Small animals scurrying in the undergrowth and the sound of sweet birdsong assured her that she was not alone. She lengthened her stride effortlessly, enjoying the fluid movement of her young, nubile body.

 

In the distance she saw a cabin in a clearing, wood-smoke curling from the chimney. A bare-chested young man in army pants sat on a stool beside the cabin door, smoking a pipe. As Eliza watched from the shelter of the trees, he tapped out the remains of his tobacco, and strode into a ramshackle shed, returning a moment later with an axe. He placed large chunks of wood onto a chopping block and spliced through them effortlessly.

 

Silently, Eliza moved forward to another tree. She stood still, admiring the rippling movement of his muscles as he raised and thrust his axe. Feelings she had not known for decades began stirring deep down inside her. She walked into the sunshine and approached the man. He looked up and Eliza gasped. It was her husband, Charles; not the old man he should now be but the young man with whom she had fallen in love; the young man who had fallen so deeply in love with her.

 

With a cry of joy, she ran towards him, her steps as light as a ballerina's.

"Come no closer!" Charles called.

She stopped. "But, Charles, I love you."

Charles thrust his axe into the chopping block. He straightened and placed fisted hands on his hips."Do you remember our wedding, Eliza?"

"Yes, of course. It was the happiest day of my life."

"For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others..."

Confusion began to seep into Eliza's happiness. "Charles, I'm sorry. I know I did wrong but–"

"You're too late, Eliza."

With horror she watched him transform slowly from a virile young man to a bent, wrinkled, balding old man.

"Look at me," the old man said, "and yet I am the same. Are you?"

He turned and began to limp and shuffle to the cabin door.

"Charles, wait!"

 

Eliza tried to follow him but she felt as if she were running on a carpet of marbles. The cabin shimmered in waves before her eyes and her stomach heaved. She made it to the door and once she had dragged herself through, the churning inside her ceased. But the cabin was empty. There was no furniture, no utensils, no sign of life. And yet the fireplace at the end of the single room burned with cheerful flames. She stood in the centre of the room, turning a slow circle.

 

"Charles, come back," she called. "I would do anything for another chance. I would give up all my worldly possessions, dress in rags, if only you would let me love you again."

Eliza waited ... and waited.

A sudden breeze rustled dead leaves through the open door. She closed the door and walked to the end of the room, sinking to her knees in front of the fire. Tears flowed freely down her cheeks.

 

"Charles," she sobbed, "where are you? Where did we go wrong? What did I do?"

 

As she gazed deep into the flames, the fire burned larger and the room surrounding her receded. Images began to appear in the flames; pictures of Charles and herself in the early days of their love. She saw them picnicking by the river, his back against the trunk of a weeping willow, her back against his chest. Then they were bicycling along country lanes, laughing and singing. The war was over and life was carefree. She saw their wedding day, the two of them standing close together with eyes only for each other, eyes that shone with dreams and happiness. She saw their cosy cottage on the outskirts of town and their wonderful, sweet-natured children.

 

She saw Charles' despair when the stock market crashed and his business failed... his bitter disappointment in himself as he became less able to provide for her and the children. Then, enveloped in her own misery and dissatisfaction, she saw herself turn away from Charles – into the arms of Howard Nexton.

 

Eliza dragged her gaze away from the fire but her reawakened memories were merciless. Her life continued before her eyes, playing out onto the blank wall before her like a moving picture. The luxury mansion, the designer clothes, the expensive jewels, first-class holidays – her privileged life of indulgence with Howard. Two people, married together but not as one.

 

Her children appeared on the wall. She watched them grow into adulthood deprived of love from their father but sustained by wealth from their stepfather. She saw them cultivating their own materialistic lives, driven by the environmental influence of arrogance and capitalistic ambition.

The images continued relentlessly; Howard's death, leaving her an extremely wealthy woman. A bed of roses life that declined gradually into a wasteland existence of idleness and apathy.

 

Eliza struggled against being drawn into the depth of loneliness evident in the eyes of the woman growing old before her. The hardened face began to wrinkle and become drawn as if it were being sucked in by her skull. The confident posture transformed as if moulding itself into an attitude of defeat. She sensed rather than saw the saddest emotion of all – regret.

 

And then the cabin appeared on the wall, Charles' humble home. The empty room in which she now sat contained nothing but the bare necessities. Amidst threadbare furniture and chipped crockery, she perceived truth and integrity, traits of a man long forgotten.

 

In the corner, Charles, old and sick, lay in bed, watching her. Moving closer, she noticed his pallor... skin clinging to bone. She could hear the rasping of his breath, the rattle in his chest. But most of all she was drawn to his beautiful blue eyes. They stared out from the image on the wall, straight into hers. She moved nearer still so that she could almost touch him.

 

"Can you forgive me?" she whispered.

"No," he wheezed. And died.

 

Eliza stared at the wall for a long time after the picture of Charles faded. Her tears ran freely, releasing her pent-up sorrow with the flow. If only she could have her time again she would stay true to her vows, true to her man. They would give each other strength and comfort; they would overcome struggles and hardships together.

 

When she could cry no more she glanced around the room. She imagined how the cabin would look had she stayed with Charles. She would have made soft cushions and rugs and pretty curtains for the windows; she would have infused the evenings with the welcoming aroma of nourishing stews and oven-warm cakes. Wild flowers in jam jars would have sat on the windowsills and joyful laughter would have filled the air as their children grew strong and healthy on home-grown food and fresh air. It could have been a home filled with love – and the promise of serenity in old age. Instead, Charles had lived alone... had died alone.

 

With no sense of purpose or direction, she wandered outside and into the woodshed. Her eyes fell on a rope and she knew what she must do. She had ruined Charles' life and had no right to her own. She took the rope, picked up the stool from beside the door and went back inside. In the corner, above the spot where Charles had died, was an exposed beam. She stood on the stool, looped and secured the rope.

 

Just as she was about to tie the knot around her neck, the leaves gathered and rustled furiously around the legs of the stool. She frowned, puzzled; the door was closed so there was no breeze. The fire suddenly flared up, blazed brilliantly... and just as quickly, died down. Another movement caught her eye and she turned to see the door opening slowly – but all that came in was the late afternoon sunshine. Eliza waited. All was quiet, and yet she somehow heard that what she had been about to do was not the answer. She jumped down from the stool and, leaving the rope where it hung, walked out into the sunshine.

 

She walked back through the forest and into the poppy field. As she walked on, she felt her young body once again becoming old. Each step made her more weary and she lay down for a rest amongst the poppies – and fell asleep. She dreamed of Charles but he was ageless, faceless, and without shape. She didn't know how she recognised him, she only knew that he was smiling. And his smile was for her. On waking, she felt a deep sense of peace and love. Sensing that she was not alone, she sat up – coming face to face with her younger self.

 

"What have you learned?" the young one asked.

"That love is eternal," Eliza replied. "Everything else dies."

The young one smiled and handed Eliza the key.

"How did you get to be so wise?" Eliza asked.

"You always were," the young one replied, "but sometimes wisdom gets smothered by desire."

 

Eliza hugged the young one goodbye but realised as she disappeared that it was really a hello. She felt the young one's presence inside her, loving and guiding but more importantly, understanding and accepting.

 

Once again navigating her way through the veils, Eliza came to the luminous violet door. She inserted the key, knowing that what she was about to experience would stay with her, be part of her, forever.

 

She entered through the doorway into a brilliantly soft, white light. The softness flowed over her, enveloped her, and melted into her. It flowed through her whole body, filling all the spaces in her old joints with comfort, cleansing and purifying from the inside out. The soft light filled her body, mind, and spirit with the healing balm of love and forgiveness.

 

"Thank you, Charles," she whispered. "Thank you, my darling."

 

Filled with warmth and energy, she emerged from the violet room and began to retrace her steps through the veils, aware that she was taking the light back with her. By the time she opened her eyes, returning her gaze to the world outside her body, the way to move forward was clear. Regrets and sadness were useless and living in her lonely mansion was a waste. She would spend the rest of her life, no matter how long or short, trying to make herself worthy of Charles' love.

 

The first thing she would do would be to contact her children. She must somehow find a way to give their father back to them.

 

The End