A sudden gust of cold wind blew through the trees. I squinted against the spray of fir needles the wind brought down from the highest limbs. I opened my eyes to find myself on a quay between a river and railway tracks.
My knees threatened to give way, and my heart pounded. I looked about frantically. My trees were gone. Where was I? I felt disoriented, then recognized the marsh in front of me. I’d been here before. I still wasn’t sure if I’d come here in a dream or a day-dream, but I’d come with a friend although really, he’d been a stranger. “Omath? Omath? Are you here?” I called for the man who’d brought me here before. The platform seemed deserted. I looked inside the small red and black ticket booth or waiting room that wasn’t much bigger than a tool shed. Nobody was there. I searched both directions up and down the trolly tracks. The trolly was nowhere to be seen. I ran to the river side of the platform where the riverboat docked. The moorings sat empty as if nobody had ever been there.
I started to panic at finding myself isolated in this strange place. I finally looked down and found yellow footsteps painted on the platform. I smiled. I knew how to get back to my own world. Last time I’d been here, I got off the riverboat and followed the footsteps from the mooring to the small building.
Today, I followed the footsteps to the building, opened the door and braced myself for the wind that would buffet me as I passed from this place into my own woods. No wind greeted me. I stood in the empty room. I went out the door on the landward side of the building walked around and attempted to pass to my world through the door from the riverside again.
I spent the next hour trying various combinations to get through the interstice between my world and this, but I remained stuck at the station in this strange world. I finally sat on a bench on the outside of the building facing the trolly tracks. I still had my basket with me, so I sorted through my herbs as frightened tears rolled down my cheeks. Would I ever get home? Would I starve to death in this abandoned station? Would some unseen danger rise up out of the marsh and eat me? Who would feed my dog and cat? I saw weeds growing rampant through my gardens and sobbed for my lost gardens, pets, and family. Nobody would know where I’d gone.
A low hum coming from the tracks in front of me, pulled me out of my fears enough to look up. Off to my left, the trolly was coming. Maybe Omath would be on it. Maybe someone who could help me would come. I stood as the trolly came to a halt before me with much hissing of air brakes and the groaning of something heavy defying inertia.
The trolly was empty except for the conductor and an old man I could smell from twenty feet away. I looked at the conductor. “Omath?”
He nodded and held out his hand to help me and my basket onto the trolley. Not knowing what to do, I got on the trolley. I knew how to find Omath’s family. They might know how to get me home.
I sat directly behind the conductor as the trolly trundled toward the village. I wondered if I’d arrived in some sequential time and Omath would be there, or had I arrived years before Omath was born or years after he’d died? Would anybody recognize me? I finally forced myself to look at the vegetation around me was it bigger than I remembered, or smaller?
A comforting thought welled up. Maybe this is an hallucination, and I’m simply sitting on the bench in the woods. Maybe I have an allergy to leaf mould that triggers these hallucinations. I scowled. This didn’t feel like anything out of Alice in Wonderland. It felt the same as taking the bus into Seattle. I consoled myself with the idea that I’d see a doctor when or if I came to my senses.
The trolly stopped at the red and black station on the hillside where I could hear the sound of falling water echoing off the hillside and between buildings. Still carrying my basket, I disembarked and began the long walk to the top of the hill, following the same route Omath had led me on.
With Omath as my guide I hadn’t seen many people. Today, strangers came to doorways and looked me up and down. Men shouted after me with catcalls and lewd comments. I hurried my steps. I reached the tunnel below the financial district and breathed easier at this sign that I was on the right road and had arrived close to the right time. I slowed a little with my legs aching from my rapid climb.
I heard voices and looked up to see two men blocking my way. They stood with their feet apart and their hands on their hips. Their clothing appeared cleaner and more tailored than that of the men lower down in the city. The fronts of their loose fitting trousers bulged. They said something low, causing the hair to rise on the back of my neck. I felt myself growing angry I tried talking my way out of this tight spot. “Omath. I’m looking for Omath.”
One of the men answered, “Omath,” and spat on the ground.
I took the spitting as a bad sign.
The men advanced. I looked for an escape route. Walls rose up on either side of me. They could possibly outrun me. Even if I retreated, I still couldn’t get home without Omath. They men laughed and quickened their steps toward me. I set my basket on the ground behind me just as the first man grabbed my arm. I turned toward him ramming the palm of my hand up under his chin as hard as I could. His head snapped back, but he didn’t let go. The second man grabbed the arm I’d just used to hit the first. He wrapped his other arm around my chest. With the two men to hold me upright, I kicked the first man in the crotch. He immediately let go and doubled over. I had one hand free. The man still holding me around the chest attempted to throw me to the side. I’d grabbed him by the back of the neck with my one free hand. As I flew to my right, I still gripped the man by the back of the neck with my left hand. Twisting, I kicked at my opponent’s right leg. I’d knocked him off balance. I could feel him falling, I twisted away with every ounce of muscle I could summon, breaking my arm free as he hit the ground. I’d managed to turn far enough that we landed on the cobbled path with me on top. His grip had loosened to give me enough room to twist my back toward him and hit him in the solar plexus with my elbow. I heard him grunt and wheeze. I finally broke free and sprang to my feet. My opponent tried to lift his upper body. I kicked him in the ribs with my first kick. I leaped forward with one foot landing squarely on his privates. I didn’t bother to watch him drop to the cobbles unconscious. His friend had rolled over and was attempting to rise. I took one steady step on the ground, then landed a good solid kick to the man’s temple. He dropped back to the ground.
My first impulse was to run, but I remembered my basket. I feared that if I attempted to leave anything behind in this world, I’d never make it back to my own world. I grabbed the basket spilling only a few sprigs of catmint. Then, I ran. I ran through the tunnel and around the corner. I didn’t pause to admire any of the waterfalls cascading down the hill. I took the main street in a ground-eating, terrified run.
In my panic, I missed the wye where I need to turn uphill, but quickly recognized my mistake and turned to retrace my steps. Looking back the way I’d come, I saw a few people staring after me. None of the onlookers appeared menacing, so I slowed to a brisk walk, back the way I’d come then took a right turn then a left to climb the stairs that zig zagged up the cliff face, passing behind a waterfall.
My lungs screamed at me that they needed air, so I slowed to a normal walk. Looking behind me, I didn’t see anybody following. The sweat I’d formed while running began to dry and cool my body. I paused on the boardwalk behind the waterfall and let the mist wash some of the salty sweat from my face, but I’d started to feel chilled. A boy about ten, almost bumped me as he ran up the boardwalk. I continued my climb to the top of the hill.
I finally stepped between two trees and looked down a street of beautiful white stone shops. Everything looked clean up here. I saw a couple women going about their business. The boy who’d run past me ducked into a shop.
I felt the muscle in my calf begin to cramp. I limped forward wondering if I could get some tea in the bakery that would ease the chill that was setting into my muscles and stomach. Now that I’d reached the street where I might find Omath’s family, I began to worry, “What if they’re not here? Can I go back to the riverboat? I don’t have any money. They just have to be here.”
I breathed a sigh of relief when I found the linen and lace shop where I’d met Omath’s sister. I pushed open the door. A woman, maybe six feet tall and two hundred fifty pounds, slid off a high stool. “May I help you?”
Where was Omath’s sister? This was the right shop, but who was this person? “Omath?”
She said, “He teaches today.”
I felt the blood leaving my face and wondered if I would faint.
The front door to the shop opened behind me. Still more afraid than I realized, I spun prepared to defend myself against more attackers. “Katrina.” I wanted to hug Omath’s sister.
She smiled and tilted her head to one side, then said, “I’ve been hearing stories about you. How did you get here?” Katrina took the sleeve of my tee shirt and led me to toward the stool. She took my basket from my hand and set it on top of a lacy baby’s gown displayed on a low table.
I sat, grateful for the rest. I shivered and tears welled up in my eyes.
The large woman patted my shoulder and handed me a handkerchief trimmed in lace.
Just as Katrina wrapped a wool shawl around my shoulders, the door opened and two more people entered the shop. I recognized the man I’d seen when I came with Omath. I thought he might be Omath’s father. The woman looked like an older version of Katrina.
I felt slightly stupid as the four adults and the child stood in a circle around me staring at me. The father spoke. “Omath is teaching today. I don’t know how to get you home. How did you pass through from your world? Omath said the passages are closed right now.”
“I don’t know. I was gathering herbs in the enchanted forest, and the wind blew, and here I was or well, I was at the trolly stop.”
Katrina began to poke through my basket. “I could use these herbs.” She picked up a stem of cat mint and sniffed.
Her father nodded. “Enchanted forests are dangerous.”
The little boy bounced on the balls of his feet. “I know what to do.” He ran around a corner behind some shelves. I heard feet running up stairs probably taking two at a time. Within minutes he came clattering down again and ran up to my side holding a small silver pipe that looked as if it might be a whistle. He showed his whistle to the adults then stuck it in his mouth.
Katrina placed a hand on her son’s shoulder. “Johan, I don’t think that is going to work.”
Johan blew a long low note on his whistle. I guessed the note to be a low A on the musical scale.
I stared. “I was singing a song while I was working.” I sang a line of the ancient chant. “Where has he gone? a down-a down-a down. Where has he gone? a dilly-dilly-down.”
Omath’s father scowled at all of us. “She must have opened the portal with her song.”
The large woman said, “Maybe she’s like Omath and vibrates on a universal frequency.”
I didn’t understand the comment about universal frequencies. “I want to go home, but I don’t know how.”
Omath’s father said. “I’ll take you to the portal and play the whistle. You can chant. Maybe the door will open. Maybe you can pass through like Omath. Come. I’ll take you.” He chuckled. “I think you might be safe in the city by yourself now, but perhaps those who should know better might want to get even with you for beating them.” He turned to his daughter, who was sorting the herbs out of my basket. “Katrina, give us some money for the riverboat, and something to pay for those plants you intend to keep.”
Katrina reached below the counter where she was sorting herbs and pulled out a small box, opened it and took out several wooden coins.
I stood and handed the wool shawl out toward Katrina.
She said, “No, you keep it. The herbs are worth more than that to me. Or would you like a different one? Something in brown maybe?” She gestured toward a stack of soft shawls on a shelf.
I looked at the shawl in my hands. Woven in two shades of blue wool, it felt exceptionally soft. At home, this would cost near a hundred dollars. “This is beautiful. I love it, but it would be expensive in my world.”
Omath’s mother wrapped it around my shoulders again. “Herbs such as yours are hard to find here. This smells so exotic, they are worth the price of the shawl and more.” She held a stem of lemon balm to her nose and sniffed.
I smiled at the ordinary comments about herbs. “I sometimes put that in tea, and I use lots of it in bouquets because it smells so fresh.”
“Come. We must try to get you home.” Omath’s father held open the door.
I put the wooden coins in my pocket, knowing I’d need them for the riverboat, and followed my escort out the door. “What is your name?"
“Like your son.”
I fell silent as I struggled to keep up with Mr. Omath. My muscles still felt stiff and threatened to cramp as I walked downhill. As we passed, people paused in their chores and turned to stare. I saw people looking out windows. I pretended I didn’t see. Once, Mr. Omath scowled and jerked his head toward the path behind us. I saw a shadow slip behind a building. A chill slid down my spine. “Is this part of town dangerous.”
“No part of town is dangerous, and no part is safe. You are with me. We can pass unmolested.” We turned down a flight of stairs beside a waterfall that was more falling mist than water. “Katrina does not come here alone.”
I breathed easier once we entered the stone station where I paid for our riverboat tickets. The ticket seller glanced repeatedly at Mr. Omath out of the corner of his eye, but he didn’t say anything that would tell me what he was thinking. We walked down a flight of polished wood stairs inside the building then out through double doors to the quay to wait for our boat. I began to worry. What if I couldn’t get through the portal? What if the whistle or my song doesn’t open the portal? I decided to practice my song and hummed a few notes.
Mr. Omath nudged me. “Not here.”
I fell silent and watched as the quay filled with more passengers for the boat. Most of the people dressed in wool. Men wore loose fitting pants with tunics over the top. On their feet they wore high topped shoes with soft soles. The women wore long narrow dresses with shawls much like the one I wore. The crowd huddled together at the far end of the quay, as if they wanted to get as far from us as possible.
The quay began to shake and the water in the canal in front of us started to churn. I looked upriver, waiting for the boat to come into sight. It finally appeared from behind a rock face, sailing majestically between rows of buildings. The buildings appeared to be slightly smaller than the riverboat.
Mr. Omath led me forward. The last time I rode this boat, I sat near the door where I entered, but Mr. Omath led me up a flight of stairs. Forward and aft from the stairs, we found two elegant lounges with plush chairs and carpeted floors. We sat in two easy chairs facing each other on the starboard side of the boat.
I remembered my last trip. The boat had passed under a waterfall. I leaned forward. “Won’t we get wet at the waterfall on this side?”
Mr. Omath rapped on a glass window. “It’s dry here.”
I took a deep breath, feeling somewhat impatient with my taciturn guide. “What does Omath teach?”
“Properties of Energy Wave Mechanics.”
I looked around and considered my circumstances. I’d just passed from my nice solid world to this strange place. “Do you mean energy wave as compared to solid particles?”
“He teaches Properties of Solid Mechanics next term.”
I wasn’t sure this made sense. “If he can teach energy wave mechanics, I think that may be way more advanced than what we understand in my world, why do you live as you do making things by hand instead of using machines.”
“When you’ve mastered mechanics, you have time for art.”
I looked at the weave in my shawl. The woof was almost turquoise, and the warp was closer to a periwinkle blue, giving the shawl a depth of color that I’d never seen from a machine. The hand spun threads varied in thickness adding texture to the garment.
I looked out the windows on the port side of the boat. Stone buildings drifted past the windows. “How did you move the stone for the buildings.”
“Why do you speak English the same as I do.”
“I was born in Nottingham.”
“Where are we now compared to Nottingham?”
I felt my forehead pucker. “How did you get here.”
“Long ago, we knew the portals and came through to escape. We were called witches and wizards because we practice wave mechanics instead of solid mechanics.”
I thought I understood, partially. “Ah. My family fled to the colonies, but then they were persecuted there too.”
“Safer here. Everybody uses energy waves.” He swung his hand in an arc to take in the whole of the riverboat.
The boat dropped and surged forward through a series of locks until we reached the river. We sat in silence for most of the trip. I sensed that my escort was content to watch the scenery outside our window. After we passed the last waterfall down to the river and the boat righted itself, a man in a uniform set a small pot of tea and two cups on the table beside us. He didn’t speak, and Mr. Omath didn’t look at him. Once the server had disappeared, Mr. Omath said, “You may pour.”
I poured two cups of tea and began to think that for the proprietor of a bakery, Mr. Omath commanded a great deal of respect. But then, perhaps, I, with my strange clothes and being an outsider, was the one who caused people to bow and withdraw.
The sun hung low in the sky when we reached the quay where I’d arrived in this world. I wondered how much time had actually passed here, and more importantly, how much had passed at home. The deckhands tied the boat at the quay as Mr. Omath followed me down the stairs to the main deck. He nodded to a deck hand. “Wait here. I’ll go downriver with you.” He took my arm and led me toward the red and black station.
I watched the yellow footsteps painted on the landing that led toward the station.
“Sing.” Mr. Omath said. He raised the whistle to his lips and blew a long low note.
I opened my mouth. “Where has he gone? A down-a…” My voice broke. I bit my lip. What if I couldn’t sing in the right key? I tried again. “Where has he gone? A down-a down-a down.”
I placed my hand on the door handle to the station and looked at Mr. Omath.
He nodded and kept playing his note on his whistle.
I took a deep breath, stood up straight, took a firm grip on my empty basket and sang. “Where has he gone? A dilly-dilly down.” I pushed the door open. “Where has he gone?” I stepped through and fell flat on my face.
I pushed myself up off of the floor. My hand sunk into moss. I dropped back down on the forest floor and lay there, feeling profoundly thankful to be home. I came to my senses soon enough and scuttled my way on all fours backward out of the portal. Once clear of the place I’d fallen, I stood and looked for my basket. It had rolled away and come to rest against a blueberry bush. I picked it up and returned to my house. Shivering and hurting all over, I limped into my bedroom and crawled into bed.
I’m not certain how long I’d slept. When I awoke, my first thought was that I’d had a strange dream, fascinating and frightening all at the same time. I grabbed the covers to pull them off and my hand felt the blue wool shawl. I stroked the beautiful wool and thought to myself. When you enter the enchanted forest, stay on the path and don’t sing.
If you wish to read about my first visit to the place I call, across the way, here is the link: https://delindalmccann.weebly.com/blog/shadows-from-across-the-way-by-delinda-mccann