Beneath his feet, the leaves began to swirl, rising from the ground, surrounding the man in a tornado of colors. They stretched and blended as the whirl increased speed. At once, they turned to pure light. A black whirlpool appeared below him, not exactly on the ground but seemingly of it, and in an instant, swallowed the light and the man within, the leaves collapsing in a heap. I was petrified. And true to the meaning of that word, stood as still as the stones around me. My previous thought to intervene if things turned nasty vanished in a puff of self-preservation. Fortunately, greatly relieved, the woman strode downstream, her long black coat billowing in the updraft.
Now, it must be said that the mushrooms I'd eaten that morning to enhance colors and intensify edges are known to affect judgement, so perhaps I may have only imagined an innocent whirligig injesting a man, a person who'd actually, in the midst of its distraction, turned and walked into the woods; the swirling light and black portal at his feet, illusions attributable to anomalies caused by dancing shafts of sunlight through the canopy reflecting off the turbulent water and multi-colored leaves. On the other hand, however, my senses were by no means compromised, quite the contrary. I could distinctly discern the call of distant birds, the various frequencies emanating from the stream, and the muffled whoosh of boots shuffling through piles of leaves. And as far as visual acuity goes, I could focus on a single faraway object with the resolution of a bird of prey scanning the grassland below. I had no doubts that I'd seen what I had.
When I returned to my friends, I recounted my experience. They looked at one another, then guided me into the living room to sit around the fireplace, a comfort after the brisk, moist air of the park. I assumed by their reaction that they didn't believe me. Hell, I didn't believe me. However, they did know who I was talking about. In quiet tones, they told me of their first encounter with the lady of the creek, as they called her.
"We were walking along the path and spotted her sitting on a log just off the trail. Three falcons stood in front of her. In spite of the rushing sound of the creek, we could hear her talking. As we neared, we slowed and finally stopped. The birds seemed to be talking back, they were having a conversation. She then gave each a piece of something from her purse, and downstream they flew. Then she walked into the woods and disappeared. Another time, we were in the woods at night. It was hot and muggy so we went to one of our spots under the canopy where it's cool. We had flashlights so we stayed until the mosquitoes got too bad. As we were hiking home, we spotted a bright ball of white light coming our way. We hid behind a tree. As the ball passed, we could see the woman in the middle of it, but nothing producing the light. And we've heard other stories. Of young men turning old in one night, losing their hair and teeth, their skin wrinkling. Of others who'd run into her in the woods, returning addled in the head, never again the same. And an unfaithful lover who became convinced he was a wild boar and wanted to run in the forest. They locked him up in the local hospital for his own good, but he escaped one night. The police and search teams scoured the forest, but never found him. No one knows where he went."
She was part of their world and they accepted it, accepted the fact of beings, the lady of the creek one representative they knew, who just happen to have access to other realities and planes of existence. We spent the next few hours talking about such things, about alternative realities and aliens and beings from parallel universes in some way traveling to Earth to take up residence or to learn new tricks or simply to interact in whatever capacity they did. Most assumed an ordinary appearance and lifestyle, while there were those who, despite attempts at secrecay, were so outrageous they couldn't help but become known. The lady of the creek was one such.
Later that evening when alone next to the fire, washing another brownie down with a glass of wine, I tried to understand what lay behind the surface, rather than accept the romanticized notion of magicland. You could call it magic, but what does that mean? A catch-word for the inexplicable, the supernatural, a testament to our own ignorance, like dark matter? This wasn't just magic with wizards and faeries and wands. And she wasn't just a witch. It was closer to my understanding of the nature and abilities of a shaman, only a shaman whose roots are not of this Earth. Beings like her existed, in part, on other planes. We have no idea how many dimensions of mind there are. What appears to us as magic, may be to them a common ability of mind in that other world, somehow able to act on ours as though it were simply a projection. And there may be entities who exist soley in those other worlds, but can gain access to ours through some secret door, unpleasant entities, ones who can pull ordinary people into their realm.
My mind raced with the possibilities, comparing speculation with what was real.
I know what I saw; I couldn't be mistaken.
For the remainder of my time in those transcendent surroundings, tempted though I was, I stayed away from the creek and the bridge. I'm curious, but not that curious.
I returned home a week later. While leaving the train station, I spotted that very same woman. And she saw me. Had she noticed me at the bridge? I don't know how, she never let on. This had to be a major coincidence. There's no way she could've known my travel plans. And what would she be doing, covering up a crime? Who knew, except me? That's right, I realized--me.
She followed close behind as I left to hail a cab. Approaching on the sidewalk, smiling seductively, she offered to share. I tried to turn her down, fear tightening my chest, but was unable to speak the words. I threw my duffel in the trunk; she tossed her shoulder-bag next to it. We got into the cab; I gave the driver my home address, and away we went. Still pretending I didn't recognize her, I was about to ask where she would like to be dropped off when she squeezed my hand, gently but firmly. My mind clouded over. A warm sensation coursed through my body, scrambling my thoughts. I forced myself to look out the window at the traffic and buildings, trying to break her hold, but it only served to increase the intensity of emotion. It was like receiving a transfusion; I was losing all strength of will, struggling as I did. She spoke to me of times past, when we knew one another, another life, another reincarnation. We were lovers. Had I forgotten; it was so long ago, she offered. I had no idea what she was talking about. Of all the women I've known, I didn't remember her. Besides, she had to be lying; she was the lady of the creek. Once away from the crowded streets and traffic, what would stop her from vanishing me?
By the time we arrived at my street, confusion and anxiety had rendered my will inert. The driver removed our bags, placing them on the sidewalk. I paid him, he grunted, then drove off, leaving me alone with the witch. I scanned the neightborhood but saw no one. Any moment, I thought, it would all be over. I'd end up some weird place where people go when witches dematerialize them. Bracing myself for the inevitable, she startled me by asking which house was mine and could we go inside to reminisce, maybe have a drink. I didn't know what she was up to, especially regarding once having been close; maybe she needed more secrecy to work her magic tricks.
We grabbed our bags and walked up the steps to my front door. I couldn't believe I was doing this; was I spell-bound, in a trance? My trembling hand fumbled with the key. She smiled, apparently my nervousness amused her. Annoyed, I felt a surge of resistance rise to the surface. I would not go gentle into that dark night.
When we entered I directed her to the living room while I proceeded to the bedroom to drop my duffel. I stood there, tranfixed, wondering what to do. Lock the door? How childish. And what good would that do? I needed to confront the situation, but that might bring things to a head prematurely. Biding time, playing along with her game might be the wisest choice. I sat on the bed to analyze. She must know I recognize her from the bridge. That's what this is all about, after all. Why, then, pretend to be an old, long-lost girlfriend? Maybe she'd seen me out of the corner of her eye, and in some unknown way entered my mind and therefore knew all about me, including my future destination and how I would get there.
My head was beginning to hurt. Away from her touch, I found my strength of will returning. Whatever the hell was going on, I needed a drink, and the booze was in the living room. I walked down the hall, anxious yet resolute. As I stepped across the threshold, the air seemed thick like water. She was standing by the windows, facing out. Desperate, I went to the bar and poured a glass of scotch. As I put it to my lips, I heard her say, "Well, when are you going to knock off this charade?"
"Charade?" My legs turned liquid. I drank deeply, savoring the taste. The alcohol had an immediate effect on my travel-weary bones.
"Yes," she demanded. "Pretending you don't recognize me. After all we went through together. That summer in Venice. Trying to keep it going while attending different schools. Then Christmas break at your mother's estate. We tried. But that spring, when you quit to go to Nepal, I never heard from you again. And now, meeting like this. And you act like you don't even know me. How could you?"
She started to cry. I almost dropped my glass. I poured another and drank. What the hell is going on? I needed to be direct, but at what cost? I turned to face her. She stopped sobbing and stared into my eyes, and I stared back, remembering what had happened at the bridge.
"What are you talking about? I've never been to Nepal and my mother never owned an estate. You've mistaken me for someone else." There, I chose that path. Cowardly as it was, I couldn't get myself to lay it all out. Accuse her of witchery. Let her know that I knew who she was and why she was here. But it was only a matter of time, of moments, before it would come out. So why did I hesitate? My life was on the line, I felt. A more than sufficient excuse.
She approached, drying her eyes with a hankie. Eyeball to eyeball, she glared. "You bastard," she spat, bitter and hurt.
She's good, I thought. She almost had me convinced. "Calm down, please. This can all be straightened out. Here, have a drink." I poured one and handed it to her. She drank, then went to the couch to sit. The sun shone through the window directly onto her face. In spite of her dampened features, she looked radiant, beautiful in fact. I sat near, but not too close. Her energy was palpable, a tingling sensation mingled with that of the scotch.
"Do you even remember my name," she asked, softly but with a tinge of indignation. I confessed that if I couldn't remember her, how could I recall her name.
"A lot has happened since then. In my life. It's been pretty crazy." I acquiesced to the game. "I've forgotten a great many people I once knew. You have to forgive me."
"It's Maryann," she said. "Maryann McGurty. And I'm not referring to your present life." She finished her drink and put the glass on the sidetable. "I've made a terrible mistake," she said quietly as she stood. "It was a long time ago, I admit. You were a different person then. So strong and sensitive. It's too bad, we had something wonderful back then. But, now,..., it's just too late. Perhaps if you could return to that time, it would all come back."
One long broken-hearted gaze that stabbed me to the quick abruptly changed to one of anger, she grabbed her bag and let herself out. An overwhelming silence engulfed the room. I leaned back in the couch and drank some more. Am I crazy? I wondered. What the hell was that? With another sip of scotch, strange unfamiliar emotions emerged, painful aches of longing and fleeting sensations of happiness. Losing myself in the confusion, suddenly overtaken by regret, I put the glass down and stepped quickly to the front door. Opening it to see which way she'd gone, I froze in shock--all had transformed.
My street, my home these past eight years, was completely different. Gas lampposts stood where telephone poles used to be. Horse-drawn carriages parked in place of cars. One open self-propelled vehicle raced by at what must've been five miles per hour carrying two well-dresed gentlemen wearing bowler hats. The asphalt road I knew from memory was now hard compressed dirt. Terrified and amazed, I backed away and turned, but now even my home had changed. Instead of paint, there was textured wallpaper above wainscoting. Gas lamps sat on antique end-tables. A colorfully cushioned chair of the same vintage stood where my recliner once reined. The long deep couch had turned into a short stiff settee, brass buttons bordering its edge. The wall to wall carpet exchanged for print throw-rugs over a smoothed planked floor. A chandelier hung from the living room ceiling. It was all very Victorian, too much so, as though taken from a handbook. Thankfully, the scotch was still sitting on the floor where I'd left it. It was the only thing that stayed as was; that in itself was a curiosity. Hands trembling, I poured another and closed my eyes while drinking it down. I tried to shake it all off as a drug-induced hallucination, but when I scanned around, the transformation remained. I went to the window. Two men and a woman sauntered by, dressed in distinctively mid-19th century garb. That tore it.
I ran back to my bedroom, it too had morphed into something out of an old english novel, and my canvas duffel into a leather satchel. I emptied it onto the bed, looking for my cell-phone. My clothes were not only periodized, but appeared used as well. They were not something I would've owned at any rate, but I guess I had no choice. And the phone was gone, naturally. Glancing in the bureau mirror, I freaked. The clothes I'd worn that day--jeans and sweater--were now those of an urban dandy, circa mid-1800's. My hair was long but trimmed and I sported a handlebar mustache.
She's done this. But how, in God's name? Should I go out to explore? Find out what else had changed? Had the whole world traveled back in time or just this one area? Or was traveling meaningless and unnecessary as all times existed simultaneously, parallel to one another? Could there be some kind of impassable barrier separating the time realms? How can I get back?
Terrified and unable to think clearly, I ran back to the front window. Across the street on the sidewalk, she stood, the lady of the creek, a being who proclaimed to be a former lover from another time and place. She stood there in a flowery, ankle-length dress, a white shawl covered her shoulders and a wide-brimmed hat with a ribbon around sat atop long flowing curly red hair. I should've been angry, but she radiated aliveness, and, despite the direness of my predicament, I couldn't help but think how beautiful she looked. Peering directly into my eyes, she smiled sweetly, disturbingly. At once, the air about her appeared to thicken, light refracting towards her from all points. A familiar well of empty blackness emerged under her feet. I wanted to run to her, to ask why, to plead for my life, if need be. I would never tell anyone what I saw at the bridge. Besides it being unbelievable, no one seemed to care. Except, perhaps, for the man's relatives and friends. Maybe that was the problem; maybe he also was of her kind. She feared retribution. But, I didn't know who he'd been or who his family was. I was just a visitor, a passer-by. Why do this to me?
The black portal intensified; she waved and smiled. She mouthed the words I somehow heard, "See you later, my love." And suddenly the vortex drew her in and she was gone. I stared at the spot where she'd stood, half-expecting her return. But after watching others walk over it, I retired to the settee and the bottle of scotch. Bewildered beyond comprehension, I removed my frock coat and draped it over the chair. A wallet fell out. Not the familiar one my sister had given me for my birthday, it was long and worn. When it fell to the floor it opened, revealing pictures. Hesitantly, I picked it up and removed them. They were black and white, in that old fuzzy style. And there we were, Maryann and I, standing by a canal in Venice, in front of a museum in another picture, and at the entrance way of a gigantic house. There were others, but that was enough for now.
My body was as tight as a bow string, sweat dampened my shirt and the back of my neck. Settling into the uncomfortable settee, positioning a pillow behind my back, I took a long pull on my drink. Had I been somehow drawn to that bridge that day? Where did the idea to walk that way come from? By what force of nature was I swayed? By what other-worldly affinity? I hadn't seen my friends for ten years. Their home was the first place I ever ate psychedelic mushrooms; that was part of the reason to go there in the fall, to relive that time. And what am I to do now? Is it true? Had I actually known Maryann, the lady of the creek, in a former life? I wasn't sure I believed in such things. Had she made the whole thing up to mess with my head? As some kind of bizarre trickster game?
I don't know, but if and when she does return, I'll be here.
Two weeks later, his friends from Massachusetts went to visit him in the state sanitarium. It wasn't what they expected; he was asleep, lying quiet and still. They spoke with his doctor, explaining as much as they could.
"You see, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia; he suffered recurring visions and hallucinations. He tried to commit suicide at least once that we know of."
"Yes, I know," said the doctor. "We have his psychiatric records. Please continue."
"He was having trouble adjusting to the medication, so he quit, deciding to go it alone. Afterwards, he started messing up at work, imagining co-workers out to sabotage him, talking to people who weren't there, stuff like that. His job was all that was keeping his head together, so after he lost it, he began to deteriorate. That's why we asked him to come up, spend some time, relax with people he knew, friends who cared. One day he went to town by himself and scored those mushrooms he used to take. Wasn't hard, not in our area. At first, we didn't know he had them, but we suspected as much after his experience in the woods, and searched his room. We found them stashed in his shaving kit."
"Tell me about this experience, it might help."
"Well, he took a walk in the woods one day and returned with a tale about a witch by the creek who made someone vanish into thin air. We were scared, we didn't know he'd taken mushrooms. We thought he was just having one of his events, as he called them. So, we humored him, thinking it was best--maybe we were wrong--making up stories about the woman he thought he saw, trying to settle him down. It seemed to work at the time. About a week later he insisted on going home. We tried to talk him out of it, but he was adamant. We put him on the train and phoned a day later, but got no answer. Several times since, we tried to reach him. We were just about to come down here, to find out what was going on. We didn't know if he was all right or not until your call."
"It's difficult to say if humoring him was right or not. Had you challenged his delusory belief, he might've withdrawn into paranoia or become extremely agitated, potentially violent. One must be careful in these circumstances."
"It was lucky our number was in his wallet."
"Yes," replied the doctor. "He'd been walking the streets, stopping people, asking about a woman with long red hair, a lover from long ago. After knocking on doors, someone called the police; he was arrested and delivered here. At first, he seemed almost coherent, but it soon became clear that his perception of his surroundings and the staff was very different from reality. He'd comment on how quaint everything was, and feared being lobotomized. He tried escaping, so we put him in this secure wing.
"I believed that returning him to his former medication would free him of his delusions. However, schizophrenia has been known to intensify beyond the reach of commonly accepted drugs, and in some cases, even degenerate into total dissociation, incurable by any means. That may be the case here, it's hard to say at this point; time is needed to assess. He's withdrawn ever more deeply into his mind, barely able to communicate. However, his EEG readings indicate intense Beta wave activity, as though interelating with his surroundings as well as other people, while yet in a comatose state. It's as though he's been drawn into a completely self-sufficient fabrication. A make-believe world consistent unto itself. Those moments when he's been able to converse, however, when awareness surfaces, he wants to know how to get back to his time or where the red-haired woman is. He's desperate to find her. We don't know exactly what that means at present--the time thing--or who she could be. A girlfriend, perhaps?"
"We don't think he has one; at least, not prior to visiting."
The doctor nodded. "All we can do is monitor his condition, get him onto a regimen that's effective, that shows positive results, and hope for the best. It's all we can do. He's had a psychotic break, caused by what, who knows, maybe the mushrooms, but possibly something else in conjunction. He's lost in another world, in another time. He actually believes in it, as a physical reality. Some day, hopefully, with the proper medication, he'll come out of it. Meanwhile, we'll keep him here."
A pounding on the door woke him from his troubled sleep. His head throbbed, his mind a fog of random images. When he sat up, a sharp pain in his neck stabbed him flush, accentuating his hangover. The settee was far too short to nap in. He sat, rubbing his neck. Again with the knocking; it wasn't just in his head after all. Forcing himself up with the help of the settee arm, he staggered to the door. Taking a deep breath, he opened it. Standing there in all her glory was Maryann. She smiled and brushed past into the living room. He watched her detachedly, then closed the door. She sat on the settee and without so much as a howdedo said, "I heard you've been looking for me, Johnathan. Have you decided to apologize?" She sounded more hopeful than the hurt anger she'd felt previously.
He stood blank-faced in the threshold, staring in disbelief, his feelings in turmoil, his numbed mind trying to focus. "What do you mean, apologize? You brought me to this time, changed everything, then left me to fathom it out by myself. Are you some kind of witch? Never mind how, why is what I want to know." On the table sat a pitcher of water, he poured a glass and sat at the other end of the settee.
She smiled demurely, amused at his naivete. Then said, "No, I'm not a witch. And yes, it's true, we were lovers in a former time, this time, the one you see about you. When I was here last."
"Last time you were here? What do you mean by here? Here in this era?"
"No, Johnathan." She looked at him directly. "Here on this planet. My people can travel through both space and time. I've come from far away, on the other side of the galaxy. You appeared different then, but there's no mistaking the inner self, the inner being, a form of eternal energy. It stands out to our eyes. What you call reincarnation, we know to simply be a fact of nature, of life. And back then, we met, fell in love and had a long relationship. My lifespan is several times that of yours. As well, my appearance is quite different than what you see; we have that option."
He sat transfixed, or rather, stunned. It was a lot to process in such large lumps. He mixed a shot of scotch into his water glass, hair-of-the-dog is what he needed. It jolted him into some semblance of coherency. He faced her and attempted to speak, to ask something, anything. Finally, he stammered, "You're from another planet? And we met, another me, back then; I mean, now? But how can you return me to this time? Change everything? And why?" He forgot his drink and stared at her in amazement, wondering if she was indeed telling the truth.
"Yes," she said, "I am telling you the truth. I drew you to me at that creek. The man you saw was from our home; he wanted me to return with him, but I refused. I came here to find you, he pursued, a suitor professing love. But I loved him not and told him so, told him of my purpose. We argued. I sent him away. I knew your thoughts even while you visited your friends. Our meeting was no accident."
"Why didn't you approach me then?" He was questioning her story. He needed certainty and a residue of irritation tempered his tone. Being hungover didn't help his mood any.
"I'd only just arrived. It wasn't the right time. I wanted you to be home."
"Well then, why draw me? What's the point of that if you weren't going to talk to me?"
"I don't know," she said, flustered. "I knew you were there, at your friends. I put the idea in your mind to walk in the woods, in that direction. I don't know, Johnathan. I wanted to see you, know for sure you existed."
"But where have you been all this time?"
"I had other responsibilities on my world. That's all over now. I've seen to it." She didn't elaborate or seemed to want to.
She moved closer, taking his hand. As before, he lost all will. And somewhere deep inside, he remembered, he knew her as in the past, the past that is now the present. The smell of her long curly red hair, the deep blueness of her eyes, the shape of her face, all conspired to bring back very long lost times and places.
"Maryann," he whispered, "don't ever leave me again." They kissed, tentatively at first, but then with growing passion. He felt joy and understanding. Why his whole life had been such turmoil made sense now. He accepted what she told him, putting off for later explanations as to details. A being from another world, his lover, now and forever.
"No, doctor, we haven't heard from him. How can he be gone? I thought he was in a secure wing."
"Yes, well, that's the mystery, how he got past security. I don't know, it's not possible. I sent my people to his house. We searched it for medication when he was admitted. They tell me everything is as it was then, including his duffel bag, still on the bedroom floor, unpacked. So we don't think he went home. We have no idea. You're the only people he knows, apparently. If you hear from him or he shows up, please let us know. We're worried. He's in no condition to be wandering around lost."
"Yea, we're pretty much his family. We don't think he has any other friends; he's never mentioned anyone else. His parents are both dead and he has no siblings. I don't know what to tell you, doctor. Don't you have security cameras? Surely they taped him. And how could he have evaded the security guards in his confused state? I don't understand."
"I don't either, nobody does. That's the thing. No one saw him and the cameras didn't pick him up. I have no explanation. It's as though he vanished into thin air."