Photo by Zara Walker

Loss, begin, anew

White frills lined Alice’s baby blue dress. She gently spun a yellow daisy. In the distance, across a long field, past the treeline that encroached to either side, the flush pine forest creating a horseshoe shape, white clouds hung low on an otherwise azure sky. Sunset came on in twilight.

A lone rider approached. He wore a low, wide brimmed hat that shaded his eyes. His chestnut horse trotted unimpeded on the uneven field. Alice watched with vague interest. Her long white stockings covered legs crossed at the ankle. She sensed he had been there before, many times. She couldn’t say with certainty that she had.

“Hello,” he said from horseback.

“Hello,” she replied.

“You Alice?”

“I am.”

“I’m out here to meet you.”

“Seems strange,” she paused. “So desolate.”

“Only appears that way now,” he replied, adjusting his hat so its shadow cut across his face in a new angle. “See them trees? They’re teeming with life.”

She showed a left cheek to the rider. She could see the forest alive with life; birds called in long cackles, twigs snapped underfoot, somewhere an animal roared.

“Are you frightened?” he asked, the back of her head toward him.

She returned his gaze, “No. Should I be?”

“Many are,” he offered with a shrug. “Many come to this place and ask how do they get out. Many don’t have as much serenity in their environment. Nearly everyone asks first, ‘Where am I?’” Beyond his hat, Alice could make out a few of his features in the dusk’s light. His eyes remained a mystery, but his nose appeared crooked and aquiline above a bushy mustache. His cheekbones jutted out prominently, and offset deep sunken crevices beneath. He had leather skin, stretched and baked in the sun. “But you don’t seem interested in that at all.”

Alice’s remembered before the black took over. Severe sickness. Her mother’s soft touch on her hair. Tears. Someone, somewhere, made an announcement. Sad faces around a sterile room. She tried to tell everyone that it would be OK. Her effort made her dad cry. She’d never seen that before. Each moment a flash, then dissipated.

“Well, I’ve got a choice for ya,” he said.

“Before that sun sets, you can either head back through those woods, back to where you came from. Or you can hop on this horse here, and we can ride in the opposite direction, to another part of your journey.”

Alice leaned left, shifting her perspective to the long space behind the horseman. No end to the horizon, only clouds rolling away in the distance. She bit her lower lip. What could she remember about the world behind her?

The smell of disinfectant. The long sleepless nights, laying awake in silent tears, the impersonal pillow and the changing sheets. The metal bed frame, put on wheels for convenience, and the long-armed remote control that flicked through the passive channels, all day spent watching other people’s lives, with the promise that maybe she’d get better. She adjusted her gaze, back to the rider, “I don’t know. Will I still be where I was if I go back?”

“Well,” the guide replied. “You see, those creatures in the forest, they’ll try to stop you. They could turn you around or hurt you. You could get through unscathed, or, well, it could be much worse.”

Alice stood. She felt a soft breeze drift through her fingertips. Another memory floated to her, one warm and soft, but it burned brightly, before she became sick and she could sprint with wobbly legs through the backyard of her grandma’s home. Sometime around Easter; pink, blue and yellow pastels colored the world around her, some on whicker baskets, others on clamshell plastic eggs. Her mother’s embrace, so confident and easy, just a lift from the waist and she felt in a perfect state — Nirvana, temporary, fleeting and so lucid.

The night came on rapidly. Behind her, the silhouetted forest transformed into shapes like broken glass, curved and pointed at odd angles. Each protrusion like a lance, each pair of glowing eyes transfixed on the little Alice in a pale blue dress.

“Will they miss me?” she asked after a while.

The rider shrugged.

“Will I miss them?”

“Do you now?”

A flood of emotions rushed back through Alice, sent through her in waves of senses, the smell of pine trees, the feel of her grandmother’s paper-thin skin, the sight of light streaming through her mother’s curly blonde hair, the stiff sound her pale blue Easter dress made when it rubbed up against a pew, the too-tight constraint of her white tights, the brush of lipsticked lips on her cheek, her father’s firm embrace, eyes bleary with tears, nights eating too much sugar, days in anxious anticipation, and the profound resignation when she understood that she would never really recover.

“I think it’s time to leave,” she said after a while.

The rider nodded. He took Alice’s hand and lifted her onto the horse behind him.

Somewhere, far off, in another land, an EKG gave its monotone wail; doctors shook their heads; and a family lost one they loved.