How did I get here?
The country house stands, overlooking a gently rolling meadow. The lush, green pasture is occupied by a smattering of dairy cows that are grazing in the early morning sun.
I am on my hands and knees on a hillock, not far from the resplendent house. My fingers clutch at the wet pasture underneath. I am breathless, nauseous, sweating and my legs feel like jelly - as though I've just completed an intense sprint.
How did I get here?
One moment I was...well...I can't remember where I was before now. Was I sleeping? Was I running? Did I fall over and hit my head? My sluggish mind refuses to work. I feel something in my throat. It is a scratchiness, as if something foreign is there. I cough without making a sound. I feel as though I have never existed before this moment. Adrenaline courses through me, tendrils of panic suffocate me. Desperately, I try to latch onto reason before it collapses beneath my feet. Groggily, I rise to my feet. I lower my hands and rest them on my knees. I close my eyes and breathe.
The air on the meadow smells sweet and moist. It is tinged with the dew of the early morning. Almost immediately, the tide of my panic loses purchase and retreats as I strengthen my grip on my calm. A peaceful warmth flows through me and I open my eyes once more.
It is like something out of a Jane Austen novel, a quintessentially English countryside. A meandering brook, lined by weeping willows and a tall oak tree, snakes though the middle of the meadow. I hear the water bubbling and broiling lazily, as if it is inside my head. Though this place is foreign to me, I have a sense of something familiar about it. I have seen it in my mind's eye before. The pasture is greener than any pasture I've ever encountered before. The morning sun rising before me, casts soft yellow shards across the meadow, bathing it in warm hues.
Is this is a dream?
I slow my breathing further, feeling my calm returning. I take in my surroundings more attentively. I hear the sound a church bell ding donging somewhere in the distance. There is the sound of a lawn mower closer by, but as I turn my attention towards the house - the most obvious source - I do not see anyone resembling a gardener in view.
I appraise the country house. It is a noble, three storey, red brick dwelling with crisp white windows, a tiled roof. Perfectly manicured lawns wrap around it and are divided by a wide cobblestone promenade that runs right up to the steps of the house. The promenade is flanked by shaped conifers.
My curiosity replaces my fear and I step forward, gingerly, realising in that moment, that my feet are bare. I am wearing light cotton pyjama bottoms and a navy T-Shirt.
Confusion and bemusement.
What is going on?
Down the hillock and across the meadow, I step cautiously, my feet squelching on the dewy grass. The dew is evaporating beneath my feet and wisps of steam rise. I approach the house cautiously. It appears there are no signs of life in the vicinity of the house. But as I put my hand up to open a large iron gate I hear sounds of laughter and chattering, the clinking of glasses coming from inside the house.
An incongruous image of a flock of flamingos flashes across my mind, but I will it away.
I make my way towards the grand front door of the house. It is clear that some sort of party is in progress - a breakfast of some sort perhaps?
I hesitate before the door, wondering if I should knock. I raise my hand to knock, hesitate again then withdraw. I feel a font of nausea in the pit of my stomach. Something tells me I should leave.
Before I can back away, the door clicks and opens and a kindly faced, elderly man appears.
He smiles warmly at me.
"Oh good!" he exclaims, clearly pleased. "We were beginning to think you weren't coming."
I am too surprised to speak. All I can do is blink.
Do I know this man?
The gentleman immediately takes my arm and gently shepherds me up and into the lobby of the house.
I am confronted by a crowd of people who are assembled in a parlour-like lounge beyond the entrance. The room is populated by exquisite furniture, dark timber fittings. There are paintings on the walls. Portraits of noblemen, dreamlike English landscapes. The guests moving about the parlour are dressed in the luxurious garments from that very Jane Austen period. Women in white, flowing gowns satin ribbons and delicate white gloves. Hair that has been coiffed and primped and decorated with flowers. The men are in jodhpurs and leather boots, navy jackets and ruffles. Everyone smiles and greets me warmly, raising their glasses as the gentleman announces my arrival.
They seem oblivious to my appearance and I frown visibly, confused by their generous greeting. I look down and flinch in shock.
My pyjamas have gone. In their place, I am wearing a gentleman's suit of clothes, like the other men in the room. Leather riding boots, cream coloured riding pants, a generous, mustard coloured jacket over a white shirt with frills that hang down from the neck and dove tail over my chest.
I hear my heart beat in my ears as I try to comprehend what is happening. But I am given little time to process my circumstance as the gentleman host gestures for me to join in the party.
I mingle among the guests, trying to get a sense of who they are and who they think I am, but their conversation gives no clue. A group of ladies who, evidently, think I am very popular draw me towards them. However I immediately notice that their conversation is broken and incomprehensible, like the shards of a shattered mirror. I hear them speak the words but none of it makes sense. Eventually I am 'rescued' by a tall and elegant gentleman with a perfectly groomed moustache and I move to a group of his companions in another corner. They are smoking cigars and sipping brandy. I am given a glass of my own and the man who brought me over hands me a cigar. I hold it in my hand but do not light it. Here, again, I listen to the conversation, but it is nothing but gibberish - words that I understand but they are formed into sentences that make no sense at all.
I feel frustration, anger.
What am I doing? What am I supposed to do?
I look about the parlour as casually as possible, scanning the guests, looking for the gentleman host. In the far corner, among a group of young and beautiful women, one of their number is looking at me.
I am instantly struck.
She is tall, willowy, with flowing auburn hair, delicate ringlets fall on either side of her high cheek bones. Her large and haunting eyes drill into mine and I feel a jolt of electricity as I lock mine with hers. One corner of her lips twitches upwards. She smiles demurely at me from across the room.
Out of the chaotic, incomprehensible conversation that surrounds me, her presence affords an unprecedented clarity. I turn towards her and make my way through the crowd, instantly arousing excited chattering from her pretty companions.
As I approach, she steps towards me gracefully, confidently. She is holding a champagne flute in her hands, from which she sips.
She smiles flirtatiously as I stop before her.
"Are you enjoying yourself?" she greets me in a precise British accent. I am instantly relieved to be able to understand somebody - anybody.
"I'm not used to large crowds," I reply cautiously, searching for the right words to enter the dialogue as casually as possible. "Especially in a place I'm not familiar with."
Her eyes narrow, almost imperceptibly.
"Oh come now," she scolds coquettishly. "You've no need to pretend with me. You've been coming here for years - every summer holiday, since you were a small boy."
I search my memory for some remembrance of any occasion I've spent here. But there are none.
She must have me confused with someone else.
I am unable to finish my question. Flashes of light erupt before my eyes and needles of white hot pain assault me then disappear as if they have never been. I have entered the realm of my memories. I see images of her face before me, moving and shifting as though manipulated by someone unseen.
We are walking in the meadow outside the house, taking in the beautiful morning. We are laughing and chatting like old friends - dear friends. Then we are holding hands. We stop underneath an oak tree. She gazes into my eyes and I see her love for me in return. I am drawn to her. I take her hand then we kiss softly, lingering in each others presence. Then, we are laying together in a bedroom, naked. We are holding each other, skin to skin, making love before a crackling fireplace. I feel the side of her foot sliding softly up my leg as I watch the glow of the flames dance across her body. I savour her touch, the feel of her skin. I cup her breast in my hand and gently devour her erect nipple. We are consumed by passion. Then, I am outdoors again. I am standing on the cobble stones. I see her, astride a mighty horse, preparing to ride away from me, a stiff breeze whips at a long scarf around her neck, threatening to pull it from her completely. She is looking at me with a stony expression. Eyes filled with torment. Tears stream down her face. I wither in her disappointment yet I know not what I have done.
The flashes stop abruptly. I am disoriented for a moment as I am brought back into the moment. Once again, I am in the parlour. But I am completely alone. No one is here, not even her.
Confusion again as I look around, searching.
I prepare to step forward when the gentleman host taps my shoulder from behind me and I wheel around to face him.
His comforting smile settles me somewhat and I let my defenses fall.
"Come on," he cajoles.
The gentleman host leas me through the parlour and into the long central hall of the house to the back door.
"Everyone is waiting. Come outside and ride my horse for me."
We step out through the back door and onto the rear lawn of the grounds. The guests from inside have gathered on the grass, some distance from the house before a group of six horses, five of which have riders astride them. A man holds the reigns of a sixth steed, a beautiful chestnut mare - the same mare from my memories.
Evidently, I have been invited to participate in a contest. A single long course has been prepared beyond the rear fence of the country house. As I walk out among the group of guests, I search the gathering for her and find her standing with her friends once more, a little way off from the rest of the guests. She does not acknowledge me as I approach the animal. I pause to look at her - the cacophony of images of us together echoing in my memory - her expression is like stone. It is devoid of emotion. She is looking in my direction but her eyes pass straight through me. It is though I am not even there.
It chills me.
I turn to the horse. Its large eyes focus upon me and widen as I step forward. Without warning, the steed issues a guttural screech and rears up on its hind legs, tearing the reins from its handler who panics and furiously shoos me away. The mare’s nostrils flare and steam issues forth from them. It kicks and bucks wildly. planting its hooves into the ground before me, leaving deep impressions there. I look down to find blood bubbling up from them, staining the pasture. The mares screeches pierce my ears and I reflexively block them with my hands.
I back away from the frightened animal, into the throng of guests who, in turn, recoil from me simultaneously with thinly veiled disgust. They stand around me and I am separated by a wide circle. They fix me with disapproving glares. They shake their heads slowly. I feel the pressure of their distaste weighing me down, making my movements sluggish. Nausea foutains in the pit of my stomach. Acid creeps up my gullet, burning at the back of my throat.
The gentleman host is suddenly beside me. An expression of sympathy in his kindly features gives me a momentary comfort. He takes my arm firmly, but gently and leads me away from the group.
"Come on son. Come to the house. It wasn't to be."
I look for her in the gathering of guests. I find her and am stung. She is looking at me through anguished, tear filled eyes. Hurt dictates her posture - something akin to betrayal and my heart aches with the shame for that which I have not done. I try to go to her but the gentleman host won't let me go. His grip is too strong.
All at once, the brilliance of the colours of the meadow around us fade and turn a ruddy grey. The lush green of the pasture and the foliage in the tress wilt as though someone has taken a bucket of dirty water and splashed it over everything. The warm hues from the sun become a stark and garish white, causing shadows from the house, the trees and the contours of the meadow to lengthen and take on a foreboding malevolence. A coarse wind whips up. It stings my cheek. Dark clouds gather across the sky which choke the sun, choke the light.
Fingers of tightness begin to wrap themselves around the inside of my chest and I struggle once more to draw breath. The gentleman host leads me up the stairs and into the house where he gently deposits me into a lounge chair in the parlour. He leaves the room.
I can feel the panic beginning again. Waves of panic roll towards my shore, gathering height and breadth, overwhelming my senses. I look down at my hands. They are quivering uncontrollably and I shake them furiously, trying to rid them of their incapacity. My heart thuds in my ears, softly at first, then louder and louder on the back of rolling thunder that creeps across the sky outside the house.
What is happening?
I squeeze my eyes shut in a vain attempt to refocus, to try and close out the chaos. When I open them, I jump in my seat. The guests have filled the parlour once more. They are all standing around my chair staring directly at me. Their expressions are blank, lifeless. All of them hold the shattered remnants of their champagne flutes by the stem. Ruby red blood drips from their hands, curls around the broken glasses and falls to the floor.
She kneels before me now. Her delicate fingers have intertwined in my own and she holds them tight. Her anger and disgust have gone. Love and warmth radiate from her and it washes across my being, colliding with my fractured state, beating the waves back. Chaos and anarchy hold on, refusing to give ground, but they are rendered impotent by her strength. The thunder collapses. It is reduced to a low thrum, a distant protest. The howling wind is consumed. Quiet is restored. All that remains is the soft, slow beating of my heart. I gaze at her and feel her glow. She has salvaged me.
Suddenly, from outside the house, a chilling, animal scream erupts through the gulf of silence, rattling the glass panes of the parlour windows, threatening to shatter them. Every single guest in the parlour gasps without making a sound. Every hand relinquishes its grip on the champagne flutes. They clatter and shatter silently to the blood stained floor.
There is a guttural gurgling that follows for several seconds after the scream dissipates and the sound of something breathing heavily, forcing air noisily through its nostrils.
I move as though I am underwater. Releasing my grip on her fingers reluctantly, I struggle in the chair, eventually rising to my feet. I am no longer dressed in the clothes of a gentleman. Instead, I am wearing a ripped and torn navy T-Shirt and blood spattered pyjama bottoms.
She and I go to the front door of the house. The gentleman host follows. Together, we step out onto the stoop. The gathering clouds have blotted out the sun completely. Harsh shards of light pierce through the clouds, striking silently upon the ground. The meadow has completely disappeared now. The landscape has transformed from soft, rolling pastures to harsh rocky scrub. Brittle trees. Spinifex grass. Quartz topped boulders. There is dust everywhere.
My love is beside me, tightly holding onto my arm.
The bone chilling scream shatters the tranquillity again, shaking me to my bones. I search desperately for the source of the sound. It seems to be coming from all around. Then my eyes flick to my right, just in time to see a huge African elephant thundering towards the house in a full gallop. It bobs its head, as charging. Its long tusks scrape the earth, causing sparks to fly off agates of exposed quartz. Blood seeps heavily from a ragged gunshot wound in its left ear. It is a gaping hole through which I can see daylight.
The elephant slowly thunders past me, its monstrous form eclipsing the sun. There are grievous wounds all over its back and down over its flank. Blood drips freely from them, staining its hide. The broken ends of long poles - spears perhaps - jut outward from some of those wounds, quivering in the air. The elephant swings its damaged trunk, similarly injured by heinous wounds, as it passes by and rounds a bend, disappearing from view.
My jaw falls open in unmitigated horror. I cannot breathe, the scene before me has sucked all the air from my lungs. I cannot comprehend what I have just witnessed.
Once again, for a third time, the demonic animal scream assaults my ears. I am momentarily confused, thinking that it was coming from the elephant.
But it is not.
Hooves strike the gravel and rock. Air blows through flared equine nostrils, the metal components of a bridle clink loudly. The chestnut mare hooves into view, galloping crazily towards me, veering sickeningly from side to side, completely out of control.
I am transfixed by the mare. Like the elephant before her, she has angry welts and vicious cuts all over her back. They weep blood, which falls to the earth - leaving a trail behind her. My horror is complete. Everything moves in slow motion. The galloping mare. Her breath, visible in the air around her snout. Her head is in shadow as she approaches me. I notice she is shaking her head in panic, as if trying to dislodge some sort of irritant.
And then I see why.
The mare passes in front of me, out of shadow, into full view. Her eyes have been hollowed out. I can see clear through to the other side - ragged fleshy cavities are all that remain. Blood streams down over her snout where some has clotted and hangs in string like crude vestiges, drying in the air.
I fall to my knees on the stoop of the country house. I want to vomit but I can't. My loves hand falls to my shoulder while, her other hand rises to cover her mouth. Grief floods through both of us as the stricken steed careens into to the trunk of a tree, glancing off it violently before continuing on its crazed trajectory, away from the country house.
My paralysis consumes me. The sky grows dark. Angry forks of lightning pierce the black clouds. Night falls like a blanket over everything. The scream of the mare rings hollow in my head, taunting me as it grows distant, ever distant. My throat burns and I choke on something foreign that wasn't there before. I can no longer see...
I am falling through an inky blackness, tumbling and falling. I try to open my eyes but I can't. Beams of light puncture the darkness, blinding me. I hear the screeching of tires on a wet road, as though they are far away from me. Headlights splash across a country house. The desperate sound of an air horn. The scream of an animal.
And then I land on something soft - a bed? Motion ceases. Sound ceases. Everything ceases.
I try once more to open my eyes and, with a supreme effort, I prevail.
A bed. A dark room. Soft lights. The sounds of beeping - methodical, rhythmic beeping.
Sounds of mechanical breath. A tube of some sort hangs right in front of my face and, through the subsequent haze I become aware of, I realise the tube is going into my mouth, down my throat. A hand holds mine. Delicate fingers entwined in my own. Slowly, I blink. A crusty grit is in my eyes.
I turn my head slightly, slowly.
She is here, sitting beside the rail of my hospital bed. Love and warmth radiate from eyes that are filled with tears. I look at her and try to speak, but she gently 'shushes' me and raises her other hand to stroke my brow.
A man steps into my field of view, coming up beside my love. A kindly faced, elderly man. He wears a white coat. A stethoscope hangs around his neck. He holds a clipboard under his arm.
My eyes widen in recognition. Panic assails me again and I try to speak. But the breathing tube down my gullet prevents me from doing so.
The doctor leans down, close to my love and speaks softly into her ear. I crane my neck to hear what he says.
"I'm very sorry Ma'am. I've just had word..."
My grief and my anguish are absolute in that moment of pause.
"...The mare did not survive."