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Excerpt from Doors of Death and Life

by Brenda W. Clough
©1998 Brenda W. Clough all rights reserved

July was winding down. Swim team was over at last. Annie and Davey tolerated day care only because Julianne promised to take an entire month off. “We’ll go to Uncle Ike’s cabin in the mountains and have fun,” she told them as she set paper plates on the picnic table. “Right, Rob?”

“You’ll have fun,” he said with amusement. “I’m going to clear brush and redeck the boat dock, remember?” Julianne’s oily brother Ike had a sweet deal going – Rob did repair and maintenance on the cabin in exchange for vacation time.

Julianne said, “Promise me you won’t commit to some last-minute building project, Rob, okay? I don’t think I could face driving alone all the way to West Virginia with these three wild Indians.”

“My calendar is clear for August.”

“If I catch a fish will you cook it, Dad?” Davey asked.

“I’ll catch two,” Annie said.

“I’ll cook everything, okay?” To prove it Rob neatly flipped all the hamburgers on the grill and dropped the kettle lid down again. “Dinner in five, Jul.”

“The telephone!” Annie ran. “I’ll get it!”

“No, me!”

They wrestled for the cordless phone until Rob plucked it away. “Hello?”

“Hello, Rob? Carina here.”

“Carina?” Rob handed Julianne the spatula and stepped into the house. With the sliding door shut, the kids’ uproar was barely audible. “How’s Ed? The newspapers don’t tell you anything.”

A soft quacking noise came out of the phone. It took Rob a second to realize that Carina was crying. The very concept was shocking. “There’s something – something terribly wrong with him, Rob.”

“What? That’s impossible. He can’t still be recovering. It’s been weeks now – “

“Be careful what you say,” she cut in sharply.

“Who’s paranoid now?” Rob tried to joke.

“I went to see him today. It’s the first time they let me in. And he’s different, Rob. He hardly recognized me. He’s like a zombie.”

“This is unbelievable, Carina. That doesn’t sound like Ed at all.”

“Can you do something, Rob? You know, check it out? Please?”

He knew exactly what she meant. But Rob felt he had to say, “You know, Carina, it’s possible that Ed wouldn’t want me to butt in. We haven’t communicated in months.”

“I want you to butt in,” she cried. “Rob, I’m afraid he’s lost his mind. Is that ... possible? For him?”

“You remember old Gilgamesh?” Rob said reluctantly. “I always thought he was missing a microchip. It was seeing his drystone wall that made me think different.”

Carina blew her nose. “Julianne left a message on my machine. She said if there was anything you two could help with, to call. Well, I’m calling. I need help, Rob.”

“If you put it like that, of course I’ll try,” Rob said. “But it might take a while. Do you have a pencil? Write this number down.” He was pawing through the files on his desk as he spoke. He read a Virginia phone number off one of his home improvement contracts. “I’m going to be building a front stoop there the day after tomorrow. You call me, anytime between nine and four.”

She sighed. “You have no idea how good it is, to talk to someone who believes me. Thank you, Rob.”

They hung up. Rob went out to the patio again, where Julianne was shifting hamburgers onto plates. “Take these,” she said, handing him the platter.

The twins were already bolting down their share. At the head of the picnic table Colin sat in a clip-on high chair, gumming a hamburger bun. “Is that gross!” Annie said with delight. “He’s slobbering it all down his front! Eeeew!”

“Eat, Annie. Davey, you want tomato? Don’t make a face like that, say ‘no thank you.’ Jul, that was Carina on the phone.”

“Oh? How’s Edwin?”

“Still in the hospital.”

“Daddy, I’m finished,” Annie interrupted. “Can I go see if Jennie can play?”

“Phone her first. She’s very worried about his health.”

“I don’t want my bun,” Davey said. “Can I give it to the lamprey here instead?”

“No, stick it in the bird feeder.” Distracted at last, Rob had to ask, “When did Colin become a lamprey?”

“When the twins saw that nature show on PBS about sucking fishes,” Julianne said reasonably. “But shouldn’t Edwin be better by now? I thought bouncing back fast was his whole stock in trade.”

“She’s afraid he’s mentally ill. So she asked me to look into it.”

Julianne stared across the picnic table at him. “Rob, can you do that? Make diagnoses? I thought you just ran around trying not to force people to do stuff.”

“I don’t plan to diagnose anything. I just want to pop into Ed’s head and look around. But it’ll take some doing, because I’m trying to find out something fairly subtle. So I wanted to warn you.”

“Oh boy.” She scowled at what was left of her hamburger. “You know, this stuff makes me really nervous. What is it going to entail?”

Rob had thought about the most innocuous way to put it. “I’ll go to bed this evening, and start. If I’m still asleep tomorrow morning, don’t worry about it. Just carry on with your day. It will be totally unremarkable, Jul. I’ll just lie there. No fireworks, nothing to see.”

Julianne got up and began stuffing used paper plates into a garbage bag. “I saw a T-shirt the other day – I really should go back and buy it. It said, ‘My NEXT husband will be normal.’” Rob laughed, and reached to help her with the plates.

To minimize family disruption Rob kept carefully to the summer evening routine: a bath for Colin, bedtime stories for the twins, the final drink of water, kisses all around. Only after everyone was asleep did he begin. The simpler stuff he did was pretty straightforward, but complex tasks with the weirdness got odd. Rob knew this was a signal processing problem. The power was too strange for a normal person to handle directly. His brain had to manage it at one remove, as metaphor or symbol.

So when he lay down on his pillow and set out to assess Edwin’s mental health, Rob was not surprised to find himself in a forest. Huge towering trees formed a rustling green canopy high over his head. They weren’t oaks. He had worked enough in carpentry and construction to know that. But they were oak-like trees. Strong gnarled roots bulged out of a deep velvety carpet of moss at his feet. Not a sign of human habitation marred the forest. There were no roads or paths, no gum wrappers or empty soda cans, no distant engines roaring or airplanes buzzing by above. It was an extremely Tolkien-like forest. “Very appropriate,” Rob said. “It was Ed made me read LORD OF THE RINGS.”

Rob set out in a direction that felt right, untroubled by his bare feet and boxer shorts. He could hardly have climbed into bed beside Julianne wearing jeans and work boots. The trees were people, of course. This was the forest of humanity, every person a green and growing member in it. He was used to it now, walking through a living metaphor.

When he touched the rough lichened bark of a tree in passing, the tree said, “Hey, watch it with the fingers, buster.” Able to walk and talk and act, these trees could have been taught by the Ents. But mostly they talked, a steady murmuring chatter: “Is it ever going to rain? I’m sick of dry soil.” “Look at this guy, over here!” “Where ya goin’, man?” “So then I said to her, I said, what do you mean, those are my roots?” Trivial, but not unpleasant – like eavesdropping on a crowd at a shopping mall.

But there was always more to this inner place than Rob could fathom. In this case for instance, what did the birds stand for? They flitted everywhere, jewel-bright as birds rarely are in Northern Virginia, but too high up for Rob to glimpse distinctly. It was a mystery.

He walked a long way, but a dreamlike telescoping of time occurred so the length of the journey didn’t weigh on him. In this place, whatever aspect it took, he never got tired or bored. He listened to inane tree chatter, ate a wild strawberry, and watched birds. Somewhere high above the leaves the sun reigned in an endless noon, but down here it was shady and cool. He almost forgot why he came, in the pleasure of rambling up and down the mossy green valleys.

But then in a low place the forest opened out into a glade. Rob recognized it immediately as an old beaver pond. The beavers had dammed up a creek, backing the water up into a pond which had gradually silted up. Now only a rather swampy meadow remained, closely surrounded by the sort of tree that likes the wet. “Not willows, but very similar,” Rob said, examining a long trailing branch.

He pushed through the tangle of twigs into the open. After the cool forest shadows, the sudden glare made him squint. His bare feet squelched into warm muddy water. Immediately he tried to step back, to go around, but somehow the branches behind him were tightly intertwined and he couldn’t get through. He could only go on.

But there on the other side of the water meadow was a tree that didn’t fit in – not a sort-of willow, but one of the tall quasi-oaks from further up the hill. There was nothing to distinguish it from a thousand other oaks, but Rob recognized it instantly. He ran to it, splashing through the rank reedy grass. “Ed?”

He pushed past the strong green willow shoots and touched the oaks rough trunk with both hands. “Ed, it’s me, Rob. Talk to me.” Nothing. Edwin wasn’t talking. And all these trees talked a blue streak. Or was it that he couldn’t talk? Rob leaned his forehead against the trunk, feeling, searching. Edwin was there, deep inside, but he was in trouble. Suffocating in quicksand. Drowning in muddy water. Buried deep under dead leaves. Of course this tree shouldn’t be here. It should be growing further up, in drier terrain. Was this distress only that of the tree? What did this imply for Edwin? “Ed, you’re being cryptic,” Rob said in exasperation. As if in response the branches above him rustled, though there was no wind. This was all the data he was going to get.

The branches grew quiet, but still there was a rustling noise, stealthy at first and then bolder. The muddy water around Rob’s ankles quaked. Alarmed, he turned. The willows were walking, shuffling their roots through the soft marshy soil. Slowly they closed their ring tighter around the oak and around Rob. And now their whispery voices could be heard in the rustle of their long boughs: “He’s staying, you stay too.” “You read the book? Stronger, older, deeper – that’s us.” “Closer, boys, closer!”

Hastily Rob shinned up Edwin’s tree. A big branch forked off above and he clambered onto it. The willows crowded close around, giggling and hissing. When they interlaced their branches almost all the daylight was shut out. In the cruel twilight Rob could feel the oak quivering under him. Something had to be done. Oh, for his gas-powered chain saw!

Rob stood on the branch and leaned his back against Edwin’s trunk. He was the master here – he had to remember that. A long willow whip slid casually around his neck, and he tore it away. “You are making a big mistake,” he said.

“Ow, that hurt!” the willow complained.

“He’s threatening us,” another one giggled.

“Let’s hear your defiance, little one,” a third willow whispered. “Before we pluck you apart, root and branch.”

Rob smiled. “You can’t hurt me. This is my place, my country. You are within this land, but I contain it.”

The willows shuffled their roots, unbelieving. “What’s he talking about?” “Aah, let him show us.” “Oh, but we have this oak – that will be almost as much fun as a meat person.”

“Don’t count on it,” Rob said. “Do you think I’ll leave Ed to you?” The power answered his will, boiling up under his hands, surging through the muskeg. This was his country, every bit of it, and though he couldn’t fathom everything his power was invincible here. The land rose at his silent command like a cake in the oven, up and up until the marshy dip became a tall hill crowned by the oak. The willows slipped helplessly downhill with the water, tumbling over to show their roots.

Behind him a voice said, “Rob? Rob, are you there?”

“Ed?” Rob turned and almost fell out of his own bed. Julianne bent over him, dressed in her purple terrycloth bathrobe. “Jul – shouldn’t you get ready for work? What time is it?”

“Rob, I’ve been to work. Are you all right? It’s ten o’clock at night. You’ve been lying there without moving for twenty-four hours. I couldn’t stand it any more.” She was trembling, her hands clutching at the lapels of her robe.

He jumped up and hugged her. “Poor girl, your hands are like ice! There’s nothing to worry about. I feel great.”

“You were in the exact same position I left you in this morning, like a crusader carved on a tomb. It was creepy. I didn’t want to get into bed with you.”

“We certainly can’t have that!”

From across the hall came a sleepy squawk. “Colin’s lost his pacifier again,” Julianne said.

“I’ll fix it. You hop into bed and pull up the covers.”

It was always tedious restoring the pacifier, because Colin would wake up unless somebody held the thing in his mouth for a minute or two. A good recipe for a backache, but Rob was glad to see the baby for a bit, and to think. He untangled the pacifier from a bumper pad and popped it into Colin’s questing mouth. Only half-awake, the baby sucked energetically, making a rhythmic rubbery squeak.

Rob had done a number on those willows, but that might or might not have any effect on Edwin’s real-life situation, whatever that was. Rob’s inner space was a living entity, with a kaleidoscopic quality that often precluded plain answers. There was no point in going back – he hardly ever got back to the same place when he went in. I found out all I could there, he realized, but I still don’t have any hard data. Something’s definitely wrong with Ed, but I don’t know what. And there’s something wrong with his situation, but I don’t know about that either. Carina is not going to be satisfied with this. I have to find some other way.

The frantic sucking slowed down as Colin drifted deeper into sleep. Rob let go and tiptoed out. Back in the main bedroom, Julianne turned on her pillow to watch him come in. She said, “I wish I’d known that being in on this weird stuff was going to be so scary.”

“There’s nothing to be scared of, Jul.” Rob climbed into bed beside her and turned the light out. “I’m a very powerful person – you have no idea how powerful. I can never get hurt doing stuff. In fact my biggest job is to not hurt other people by mistake.”

Her hands were warmer now between his own. “As long as you’re sure you’re okay.”

He smiled down at her. “What can I do to show you I’m fine, huh?” She laughed, and returned his kiss.

Notes on Doors of Death and Life
Novels to Come

©1998 Brenda and Larry Clough Last modified 30 October 1998