‘What happened?’ Maya asked, groggily through a misty veil of uncertainty.
Everything was behind her. She’d been pulled along by distant tides, bobbing on the waves, helpless, too tired to fight the inevitable pull. She saw her memories disappear, like jewels, glittering on the vanishing horizon. Faded memories turned to dust with nothing to nurture but a sense of loss. She wanted to hold tight to the loss, painful as it was, it was the only souvenir she had. The loss was significant, a marker in the sand, a means to help find her way back. The loss had a name and it was ‘Peter’ and if nothing else had ever been real or meaningful in her life she knew that this loss was real, was meaningful. She would find her way back, somehow, but for now she had to adapt to a new ebb and flow. A new reality awaited her, another story was about to unfold and she arrived like a newborn child into the world with nothing; no past, no hopes or dreams only her loss.
‘Well…’ began the woman answering Maya’s question while fussing over the blinds in the room,
‘You had another one of your turns girl. You was sitting in this old chair by the window, looking out into the garden… I say ‘looking’ – your eyes is open but I’m not sure you is seeing anything, least not what’s outta that window. The marching band from my church just down the road make a real noise when they get going and, when the spirit of Jesus is on them, they could bring down the walls of Jericho! But you girl…? You wouldn’t have noticed if they had come marching right in through that door.’
Maya looked toward the open door, even though the binding straps had been loosened her movement remained restrained. She could see a white corridor: someone shuffled past in slippers and a gown followed by two burly men in orderly uniforms.
‘Hospital,’ Maya thought to herself.
‘That’s how ‘not here’ you get sometimes,’ said the women trying to find something else in need of a fuss. She couldn’t find anything; the room was sparsely furnished and regular cleaned. So, rather than have idle hands, she went through the contents of her handbag as if she were looking for something.
She continued, ‘But we are used to you going off to wherever you go, in your head like that; it’s calm and its quiet and it doesn’t bother any of us.’
Maya looked at the chair by the window and tried to picture herself sitting in it. The old chair looked cosy, looked like the sort of chair one could get used to. The kind of chair one could comfortably sit in and ponder for hours. A chair like that was a kind of portal. You sat in it, you opened your mind and off you went. Beyond this room, beyond the hospital building into the town and beyond: beyond this world and it’s myriad stars, its myriad notions, of accepted truths, its lies, its narrow knowledge, and onto new places, new vistas, new visions and new possibilities.
The woman continued as she dug deeper into her handbag, mining for humbugs, ‘…Only sometimes you get what I call ‘possessed’ you know? Like the Devil himself is in you!’
The woman gave Maya a sideways glance.
‘Possessed,’ said Maya, more as an affirmation than a question. She was open to all potentialities. She lay quietly considering this possibility, ‘Maybe I am possessed as this woman suggests? Maybe we all are? After all, how much control do any of us really have over our actions? I’d like to believe that I am master of my own destiny but how much of that is true? How conditioned am I to believe I have free will? If we factor in inherited behaviour, whether it is genetic or environmental, inherited attitudes and beliefs, even memes, then what’s really left of ‘me’? If I’m really not in charge of myself then it’s arguably true that I am indeed possessed, if only by what’s gone before!
The woman, from the depths of her handbag, said hastily but quietly, ‘We ain’t allowed to call it ‘possession’ in here. The doctors won’t stand for it; they is people of science and blinded by their faith in it. They have other explanations for your ‘condition’ and I’m sure they’ll soon be telling you all about it girl.’ The woman leaned in close to Maya and lowered her voice, conspiratorially, ‘Now you listen to me girl. Last night I sat by your bed all night and prayed for your soul! But the doctor…? All the doctor did was stick another needle in you and disappeared again! You hear what I’m trying to say?’
Maya felt a pang of resentment, and wasn’t sure if it was because someone had prayed for her or because someone had stuck a needle in her.
‘Are you my nurse?’ Maya asked.
‘Heaven’s child, no. I’m your carer, I volunteer to come and sit with you: to pray for you and to …’ her sentence trailed off. ‘It’s all thanks to Pastor Joseph Henry at my church just down the road. He said God wants us to not only pray for the sick but help them too; he’s revolutionary like that! Praying is good: praying is the only way to redemption but I have to agree with Pastor Joseph Henry. We gotta act too! He’s a smart man and more pious then Moses. God Almighty speaks through him! I have to say to myself, “Who am I but a lowly sinner to disagree with a man like that?”’
Maya now thought that it was the praying for her that she resented more than the needle.
‘Anyhow… as I was saying before… You had one of your turns.’
‘Turns?’ Maya was puzzled, ‘What do you mean… one of my turns? I don’t remember anything!’
‘Well girl…’ the woman replied, ‘First you start to shake, like from a shiver, like someone has just walked over your grave but then it gets worse until you’re having a full-blown electrocution type shake! Your eyes roll up into your head so we can only see the whites and then, this is where it gets really scary, you start talking in a strange, diabolical language! It’s a lot of babbling, a nonsense jibber jabbering but it all means something – something to you anyway. I can see in your face that it means something but it’s like we’re only hearing one side of a conversation. It gives me the heebie-jeebies! I ain’t no coward girl but I don’t want to listen: I just want to cover my ears in case I get possessed too, but I can’t because by then, the room is full of people yelling instructions and I’m sent here to help: Pastor Joseph Henry asked it of me.’
‘I don’t remember anything, I don’t even know who I am or why I’m here.’ Maya lamented more to herself than to her carer.
‘It will come back to you,’ said a new voice.
Maya looked toward the open door and saw a small man in a white coat. The man smiled and walked to her bedside.
‘What’s your name?’ the man asked the carer.
‘Adaolisa, but everyone calls me Lisa. It’s easier thank you Doctor Watchfield,’ said Adaolisa.
‘Daughter of God?’ asked the doctor.
‘Well we are all God’s children doctor, ain’t that the truth? But after what happened to my older sister, my parents thought it best to brand me, case there was any confusion farther down the line.’
‘Well Lisa thank you for your time but you have been here all night and, as a doctor, I prescribe a rest.’
‘Yes doctor I was just waiting for someone to arrive; didn’t want to leave Maya on her own.’
‘Maya?’ said Maya.
‘That’s your name,’ replied Dr. Watchfield.
‘Maya,’ she repeated.
‘Goodbye doctor,’ said Lisa and promptly left the room.
‘Now,’ said the doctor, ‘the first thing is to remove these straps, no need to have you tied to the bed now. Makes us look like heartless overseers. The storm has passed – for now at least.’
‘What’s wrong with me doctor? Where am I? I don’t remember anything.’
‘Ah, well not remembering is normal: things usually come back. You just have to give it a few days. Take it easy, drink plenty of fluids, try to get some food in you,’ the doctor smiled.
Maya tried to smile but gave up half way through; it wasn’t sincere. If a smile starts off that way there seemed little point in seeing it through to the end. She concluded that this was just the sort of person she was.
‘That carer, Lisa. She means well, wants to help out, but if you are uncomfortable with her for any reason then let me know. I’ll have her reassigned.’
‘Yes,’ said Maya and added, ‘What did she mean about her older sister?’
‘Oh I think she was possibly referring to witchcraft,’ said the doctor.
‘Yes, some people believe in witches: believe that the devil turns people, and increasingly children, into witches. Sadly, the children are persecuted, often beaten, burnt and tortured by their own parents. Some are abandoned and some are killed.’
‘You mean that the parents believe that their children are possessed by evil spirits they call witches?’
‘Yes, something like that. Often it’s a preacher or pastor who condemns the children … and nobody argues with them! After all, they are believed to have great power, a mystical knowledge passed down to them from God. The flock shows enormous reverence toward their spiritual leaders. Then the same preacher will magnanimously offer to rid the child of the witch… for fee of course.’
‘Do you believe in witchcraft, doctor?’
The doctor laughed softly, ‘No I don’t but more people these days are starting to. People need to point the finger at something for all the wrong in their lives. Governments are too remote, too far beyond the hinterlands of comprehension. Good and evil are concepts anyone can grasp; they help simplify things in a world in which everything is becoming increasingly complicated.
Look, most people are sensible – well, about half of them are. Witches and witchcraft are not officially recognised and it’s illegal to publicly accuse anyone of being a witch. It’s also illegal to extract money from anyone in order to relieve a person of possession and it’s illegal to perform any ritual meant to rid a person of an evil spirit, whether that be a witch, a wizard or anything else. All major churches have denounced the notion, although, secretly I fear, some are only toeing the line. Unfortunately, making it illegal or denouncing it is not enough: several people, children included, are found dumped on waste sites every day. They have been stigmatised, beaten, blamed and cast out by their own families.’
‘Lisa thinks I’m possessed!’ Maya said.
‘Does she now? Do you believe her?’
‘No. I might have forgotten who I am and where I am, but I feel as if I’m the sort of person who doesn’t believe in much at all. I’m not sure I believe that I am actually here! Is this just a dream? Are my words my own or do they flow from the nib of an author’s pen?
Am I an existentialist? No, probably not. Am I a nihilist then? No, probably not. Maybe I’m an absurdist, then? Everything does seem rather absurd doesn’t it doctor? I mean when you look at it from my perspective?
I have just entered this world for the first time. I have no prior knowledge of a life before, here or anywhere else. But I do have this nagging feeling that there is a ‘somewhere else’, somewhere. I just can’t remember where I put it! I wake up here, so I’m led to believe by your behaviour that this ‘here’, is the ‘here’ I belong to. It’s where I’m meant to be found, meant to be. Only of course I might not actually be here here but here someplace else… or nowhere at all. I might not be Maya! But… I know that I AM Maya. Somehow that’s the only thing that makes sense and when something makes sense, I tend to put my faith in that sense…’
The doctor looked at Maya. ‘Considering you were unconscious less than an hour ago, your observations on your own position are unusually cogent. But then again your are a remarkable patient Maya.’
Maya continued, barely stopping to breath as the thoughts, that came rushing in, jostled to get out.
‘Now where should I put my faith? Should I invest it in you? I mean, you might not even exist, right? You, rather than tell me who I am, tell me that it will all come back to me. Which could suggest that YOU don’t know who I am. This whole experience could be the dream within the dream scenario right? Or do I put my faith in God, or, just to be safe, the Gods? What of destiny? Am I the sort of person to rule out destiny? I think that depends on how one defines destiny. If by destiny we mean that God or some other supreme being is dictating our lives, then probably not but if we mean pre-determined by the laws of nature, causal determinism, then possibly! Oh but then I’d be the sort of person who believes I am just an automaton, a wind up toy with no will of my own. I’d be a would-be self-deceiver; there is no self! No I’m not that person, am I doctor?
Faith in me, myself and I, then? I’m the sort of person that is open to any possibility, an explorer, a traveller and a survivor. To have got this far I must have good instincts; I should trust my instincts. For example, I believe I am Maya. I believe I must find my way back to my ‘here’ of choice.
I think, if it’s me that’s thinking at all, then I’m an optimist.’
Maya stopped and looked at the doctor openly, not expecting a response.
‘Well I’m glad you have it all figured out Maya,’ said Doctor Watchfield patiently. ‘It’s true that no one knows where you came from, where your ‘here’ is exactly. But here is where you have been for the past two years. You were found back then, wandering the streets and suffering acute amnesia. Since that time we have come to recognise that you follow a pattern of recovery and then relapse, which has kept you here. During your remission periods, you begin to build a picture of who you are or might be. You do this in the same way that you have just demonstrated, through deduction and reasoning. Then you begin to remember things, events, people, places. But we believe that your memories are, at the very least, confused with delusions. Some may be true whilst others just … well delusions. Then when you are stronger, you pretend to play along with us, make out you are well on the way to recovery. But it’s a ruse; a deception intended to hoodwink us into a false sense of security, Maya. Once you have us fooled you try to escape. But your escape attempt is not a physical one – you don’t try to leave the hospital. Instead, you go into a state akin to a fit or, as Lisa puts it, a state of ‘possession’. It looks to us as though you are trying to get to another realm, some other dimension that you believe exists.’
Maya frowned. Was she the sort of person to believe in other dimensions?
‘No need to worry now. You need rest. Plenty of time to work on your recovery. Don’t worry, we will fix you Maya,’ said the doctor as he left the room.
‘I’m the sort of person that needs to be fixed,’ whispered Maya to herself.
‘No, I am not that person!’ said her instinct.
Lisa walked out of the hospital grounds and made her way toward the church. Sometimes in life you just had to make things happen. She knew that her opinion would be met with disdain, even mockery but she was certain that hers was the only way. She was sorely tempted to say nothing at all, to carry on as if nothing had happened but she couldn’t, not with all this righteousness just bursting to get out. Did Jesus give up at the first hurdle? No he did not. Jesus, hungry, isolated and in the company of Lucifer himself did not yield to temptation and nor would Lisa. She stopped outside the church and looked up at the crucifix. ‘God give me strength,’ she muttered and went in through the doors.
Peter woke with a start. He heard a crash at the front door and something dropped to the floor from the letterbox. He was back! What the hell had happened? He remembered being on the spaceship, talking to Maya, her declaration of love and then…he, she, everything sort of vanished.
He’d woken up from a dream, nothing more. A vivid, somewhat incredible dream with a beautiful woman, some aliens and a ragged old chair that was supposed to be some sort of portal. It was quite a dream though, especially the bits with Maya in it. Well at least now he was sure, it was only a dream, probably brought on by stress and junk food. Peter stood up and stared at the chair. The other pieces of furniture in the room looked at him, pensively.
Over by the front door Peter picked the flyer up from the doormat. It read, ‘Bring your unwanted furniture to the Good Samaritan church on Lacklustre Lane, Saturday 3rd. Your unwanted items can make a real difference to the poor and the needy.’
‘Right!’ said Peter striding back into the living room, ‘You lot are going to church.’
The coffee table cowered by the lamp and the bookcase groaned inwardly; he didn’t like change. The armchair knew everything, always had, it’d lived it all before. ‘Still,’ it thought, ‘be good to get out.’
Joseph Henry was a busy man, he had a healthy congregation and it was growing: God was back on the agenda and, as a minister, he himself was in high demand. For years people had spurned religion, demonstrated an active contempt for the word of God, but now, now belief was in the ascendance. . God tapped into the spiritual vacuum created by an ever-growing disenchantment with consumerism and its empty promises. In short, God is something people can believe in. God gives hope. God gives forgiveness. God gives holidays.
Joseph Henry’s faith was stronger now then ever before, it radiated from him and it was not only infectious but propagated optimism amongst the flock. Even so, when
Lisa walked into his office his own optimism waned just a notch. She was a well-meaning, active member of his church but, at times, her fire and brimstone could be exasperating, ‘Too God for God,’ he thought.
‘Lisa! What a pleasant surprise. How is it going at the hospital? Everything ok?’
Lisa took a deep breath, weighing up her options, she was convinced of her assessment of Maya right up to this moment but now, standing in front of the great man, she felt her resolve wane, quite a lot. But that was to be expected, she must not fall at the first hurdle, doubt was the Devil at work. There was nothing for it, she must say what she had to say and let the dice fall wherever they fell.
‘The patient is a witch,’ blurted Lisa.
‘Unpleasant?’ asked Joseph Henry.
‘No, I mean that she is possessed by Satan. She’s a REAL witch’
Joseph Henry groaned inwardly.
‘Now Lisa, you know that we left all that behind; it’s just superstition. And it’s dangerous! It will not do to talk of such things. We have an ever-growing, multi race congregation today and talk of witches will do nothing but cause suspicion and contempt. My goodness people would up and go someplace else, like the Baptists down the road. The Baptists are always looking for a way to recruit my members. If this kind of mumbo-jumbo got out, well, my followers would go there of their own accord.’
‘But reverend, I seen it with my own eyes! She’s got the Devil in her and if we don’t intervene then there will be hell to pay. God only knows what spells that witch is weaving. She could spell the end of me, she could spell the end of us all, but not before raining pain and despair down upon us!’
‘So what exactly do you expect me to do about it, Lisa?’
‘You got to exorcise her Pastor Joseph! Saint Peter himself said: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the Devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” That witch is going to devour me first: I can tell it, pastor!’
‘Yes, the Devil is a powerful force it’s true and you are correct: we must be forever watchful, but a witch? Come on, that’s just superstitious hocus-pocus gathering way too much credence. Lisa, many people, children even, have been condemned by unscrupulous, immoral men to boost their power and for monetary gain. People are beaten, burned, starved half to death, even abandoned by their families or killed because some fool says they are witches! I can’t be a part it Lisa. I have my reputation to consider,’ said Joseph Henry.
‘Just come and see her with your own eyes, is all I’m asking,’ pleaded Lisa. ‘Just come… and bring some of that holy water, just in case?’
Joseph Henry sighed, he had a busy day a head of him: people were already turning up with their unwanted items for the poor. He had to oversee the operation, get his volunteers organised, meet some of the more distinguished donors and talk to the reporter from the local paper.
‘Ok, ok,’ Joseph Henry relented, ‘if only to set your mind at rest. As it happens I have had some experience with this sort of thing. But, even though the Devil does, I admit, get through, it’s very rare, very rare indeed. It’s more likely that the poor women is deranged.’
‘Oh thank you Pastor!’ Lisa gushed.
‘What’s her name?’ he asked.
‘Her name is Maya,’ replied Lisa.
‘Maya?’ queried a voice from the door.
Both Joseph Henry and Lisa were caught off guard and turned nervously to face the voice.
‘Oh I’m sorry sir; I didn’t see you standing there. How can I help you this fine day?’ said Joseph Henry, hoping that the man had not been standing there long, or, if he had, that he was not the reporter from the Evening Echo.
Peter took a couple of steps closer to the Evangelist, ‘Yes, sorry to intrude. I have some old furniture for you. I needed to know where you wanted me to put it so I came looking. Then, as I found you, I heard this lady say the name Maya! It’s an unusual name. I, um, knew a women called Maya once but I … I lost her.’
‘You mean she’s dead?’ blurted Lisa.
‘No, no I don’t think so. Do you mind me asking, who is your Maya?’
Joseph Henry and Lisa looked at each other, eyes wide. Lisa’s eyes said, ‘What do I say?’
And Joseph Henry’s eyes said, ‘Don’t say she’s a witch.’ There was a long hesitation before Joseph Henry turned to Lisa,
‘Why don’t you explain? You know more about …Maya,’ he suggested.
Peter came closer, his heart racing at a thousand beats a minute. Despite his internal anxiety he stayed calm, interested but casual on the outside.
‘Well she’s a patient at the Princess Fiona hospital. I sit with her sometimes, mainly during the night,’ reported Lisa in her best, clipped, official voice.
‘Do you know anything else about her?’
‘No, nobody does, least of all her. The doctor said she was found wandering the streets with severe err forgetfulness.’
‘Well what does she look like? Is she, would you say, young, like me, about forty years old, slim build and of Indian extraction?’ asked Peter.
‘Yes I’d say so,’ said Lisa.
‘My goodness! Well, I wonder if it could be her? What are the chances? Can I visit her? I mean would that be allowed?’ said Peter.
Peter was beginning to feel more and more detached, as if he was looking down on this scene from a gallery up in the gods. There was his body, down on the stage, footlights blazing, acting in a play, lines rehearsed, delivery impeccable, so totally convincing that the other players were without suspicion. And yet his mind, his fluttering birdlike conscience hovered high above it all, barely aware now of his body’s actions, of the words that slipped from his mouth like polished pearls. Up here in the gods, Peter faced clambering mania in one corner and hope in the other. He had to quell them both, at least for now. He had to find out if Maya was alive. Then, even if he did find her, he had to figure out if she, or anything else, was real.
Reality had become, to him, a slippery fish; every time he tried to lay his hands on it, the fish slithered away, back into the murky, elusive waters of irresolution. He worked on the premise that everything that had happened to him before his divorce was real, whereas pretty much everything since was of a dubious nature, to say the least.
This morning he’d woken up in the armchair satisfied that all the recent, inexplicable occurrences in his life were (he didn’t want to use the word ‘crazy’) stress-related. They had been just dreams – fantastic, beautiful, breathless dreams. ‘Acceptance’ was textbook step one to recovery.
But now? Now he found himself actively chasing after those dreams!
‘I’m sure if you speak to the doctors they’d be interested in letting you see her. I mean nobody knows anything about her: you could maybe shed some light. And God knows we need some light right now.’
‘Hallelujah!’ said Joseph Henry.
‘Indeed,’ said Peter.
‘Oh…’ said Joseph Henry, ‘You can leave the furniture in the community hall and God bless you.’
‘Yes I will. Thank you both,’ replied Peter and left.
‘That was an unexpected development,’ said Joseph Henry, gaily.
‘Indeed,’ Lisa replied, not entirely without sarcasm.
Later that evening, Lisa returned to the church. She wanted to do her bit, help to sort out all the donated items ready for dispatch. The following day the items were going to be dished out to the needy, desperate and destitute. But before that happened Lisa wanted to see if there was anything she particularly needed. Not that she was depriving the less fortunate. No, she would never do that, but there was just so much stuff that it was like Aladdin’s cave, nobody would go without …not even herself because, ‘The Good Lord has provided for us all, ain’t that the truth?’
Peter walked up the steps to the hospital entrance, hands shoved deep in his pockets against the biting cold, head bowed against the wind. Someone ran down the steps to meet him.
‘I’m Doctor Watchfield; we spoke on the ‘phone…’
‘Yes, thanks for seeing me so soon…’
‘Not a problem; this is quite a breakthrough for us … Lets get inside where it’s warm.’
As Peter walked through the door and into the lobby of The Princess Fiona Psychiatric Hospital, he had an uneasy feeling. He was, after all, walking straight into the cuckoo’s nest – exposing himself to scrutiny, and his scrutineers were trained to spot signs of mental irregularity. He was, he thought, undoubtedly experiencing some sort of reality impairment; one foot in and one foot out, but which foot was in and which foot was out? He had no way of telling. That very uncertainty, should it leech out during his conversation with Doctor Watchfield, could have him put straight into a padded cell.
He concluded that the best course of action was to play along with whatever reality he found himself in. This reality all seemed very normal to Peter: nothing otherworldly or too alien about it.
Peter was ushered into a small office on the ground floor where he was offered tea and a chair.
Lisa was alone now, all the other helpers having trickled home to their families leaving her to finish up. She cruised amongst the donated items laid out in the community hall, running her hands over polished table tops and the moulded carvings on backs of chairs. Piles of linen, cotton sheets, and polyester pillowslips, woollen blankets, gingham cloths. Rows of steam irons lined up like soldiers, microwaves, toasters, kettles and teapots – a field of wild teapots of every type, colour, shape and size.
Lisa took her time wading through the massive teapot gathering: she was looking for the Holy Grail of tea pots, the tea pot from which Christ could be served, should he come to tea. And there it was: simple, yet elegant. Bone white and standing in the classic pose, with one hand on its hip and the other pointing skyward like a pudgy fencer getting ready to fight. Bone white except for a dainty row of buttercups around the base and the lid. Yes, this was indeed the Holy Grail.
Lisa made her way into the familiar church hall kitchen and made herself tea in the new teapot. While it was brewing she spent some time looking for a throne on which to sit and drink her tea. Like Goldilocks, she tried out more than a few of the donated chairs; some looked comfortable but were not – deceivers, using any means to trap their prey. Lisa soon became wary of any good-looking chairs and sought out a chair that was nothing at all to look at but which comfortably accommodated her ample proportions, a rare occurrence in Lisa’s life.
The tea stayed in the Grail, stewed and cold and forgotten. Lisa, weightless, free of any of her normal bodily aches and pains, free of any of her normal fears and resentments, free of sin, free of virtue, floated. Like a baby in the womb Lisa felt that overwhelming sense of contentment, safety and freedom that comes only to the blameless, to the ‘yet to be born.’
She closed her eyes and gave herself over to the chair.
‘Yes indeed this could be quite a breakthrough,’ reiterated Doctor Watchfield. ‘Maya has been with us for two years and so far, we are no closer to knowing anything about her. We have her on the missing persons list. Her face and story, what there is of it, gets circulated around the media, social and otherwise but well…’ he threw his hands in the air, ’Nothing. Until now that is.’
‘Well…’ started Peter cautiously, ‘we’re not sure that we are talking about the same woman yet, doctor. Maybe we should pay her visit? Would she mind?’
‘Yes, yes you are correct of course, but I’m afraid a visit may not be possible yet; we don’t want to alarm her. She’s prone to … um, episodes.’
‘Yes, indeed. But I do have a recent picture here with me. On my phone; isn’t technology something else? Yes here it is. Is that ‘your’ Maya?’
Peter looked at the picture. What he saw was without a doubt the Maya of his dreams, but she had none of the spark and lustre of the woman on the spaceship. This version was, it seemed from the picture, dead inside.
‘My God, what happened to her?’
‘We don’t know. I have to say that this picture has caught her in a pensive mood. She is usually very bright, very challenging, and very deep. But, you know, she can be funny too. She has a lighter side. Maybe you can tell me where you met her, how you know her …um … something about her life before she wound up here?’
‘Well I don’t know her that well, doctor but I can tell you that she is a doctor too.’
Doctor Watchfield leapt up, banged the table with his hand and exclaimed ‘I knew it! Not a medical doctor I’ll wager. A scientist or philosopher… is it?’
‘Well yes, and both, I believe.’
‘Well, that’ll be easy then. She must have been published! We just need her full name and poof.’ Doctor Watchfield made an upward motion with his hands, a mini nuclear explosion, ‘Everything will become clear!’
Peter was treading a thin line between giving the impression that he knew Maya better than he actually did and not knowing her that well at all.
‘Perhaps I can explain what happened with me and…um…Maya? Put things in perspective and all that.’
‘Yes, please do: mustn’t jump the gun.’
‘Indeed,’ said Peter, not for the first time that day.
Peter tidied up his actual experience with Maya. He cut out the armchair and its magical portal properties. Cut out the alien space ship and the aliens themselves, replacing them with a top-secret research station and lab technicians respectively. After that the story he told was a plausible, if unusual, one of research into consciousness and belief mechanisms, probably (although he couldn’t say for sure), for military use. He’d been picked to participate in the project after replying to a cryptic ad in the local paper. He never knew Maya’s full name but over several sessions, the content of which was and still is top secret, they formed what he’d like to believe was a romantic bond. Then, one day, it was over. He was shipped out at night and brought back to his home.
He’d thought about her over the years, tried to track her down, but due to the nature of her work she, like the research, was classified …untraceable. Which, he speculated, was why the hospital was still in the dark now.
‘So you see doctor, I’m not much use to you. Other than, perhaps, acting as a catalyst? Maybe seeing me will jog something in her subconscious?’
‘My goodness! Well all of this seems to make sense somehow. She has an acute knowledge of psychiatry… of philosophy too, and can at times run rings around us. My goodness, what a shame: what a loss to the world. What do you think happened to her? Do you think she acted as a guinea pig; you know, some experiment that went wrong?’
Peter shock his head, ‘I don’t know, but anything is possible doctor.’
Joseph Henry peered down upon the sleeping form of Maya. He’d taken Lisa’s shift, the night-watch, and nobody seemed to mind: a dog collar got you a long way in this world. He picked up a pillow from the chair by the window.
‘With the power vested in me by almighty God I denounce you a witch and I command you to leave this body immediately,’ he said gravely and with as much authority as he could muster.
‘You’re a minister?’ said Maya groggily. She’d been hovering around in that ethereal, woolly place between wakefulness and sleep where dreams collide and intertwine with consciousness. Half awake, half asleep: part lost in a tumbling, graceful city, made more compelling, more beautiful by the wisdom of its decay, and partly in her hospital bed. She slipped seamlessly from one to the other, alternately running through a maze of crumbled columns, past grand openings into impoverished courtyards overgrown with vines, their fruits lying in abundance upon the crazed floor… and then …listening to the deep, quiet, but righteous voice, mumbling mystical incantations by her side.
‘Yes,’ answered the sonorous voice. The voice’s affirmation brought her swimming back from a dusty, elm-lined promenade where, just seconds before, a black, cancerous, form like Lucifer had slithered on it’s belly, from behind a tree, beckoning with a bony, arthritic finger.
Maya opened her eyes, sad to leave the tumbling city behind but intrigued enough by a minister mumbling spells over her supine body.
‘Am I the sort of person who requires a clergyman?’ asked Maya sitting up and looking at Joseph Henry with her usual speculative eye. ‘I don’t think so. I don’t think that I am the sort of person who puts a lot of stock in superstition. So why are you here? Am I dying? What’s all this nonsense about witches anyway?’
Joseph Henry bristled at the assumption that he and his brethren peddled superstition but he tried to hide his bristling; didn’t want to be seen to bristle. He said nothing. He considered himself a master of chaste emotion: keeping all the bubbling and seething on the back burner, out of plain view.
‘Ah…! exclaimed Maya suddenly, ‘I get it! You were sent by Lisa.’
Joseph Henry believed in giving nothing away so that people saw a good, patient, God-fearing Minister and none of the pride or irritation or anger that blazed like sporadic fires within him. Maya saw a dark, brooding shadow cross his brow, like a petulant storm cloud on an otherwise sunny day. She smiled.
‘My name is Joseph Henry. And yes, you are right, Lisa did send me. She wanted me to watch over you.’
‘Like the Good Shepherd?’ asked Maya.
‘Well like a good Christian helping out in his community, let’s put it like that?’
‘I don’t believe I’m the sort of person who disapproves of ‘good deeds’: on the contrary, I think we should all be charitable. The world, I suspect, would then be a better place. But the Christian thing? No, I think I disapprove of organised religion. You shouldn’t think in terms of being a good Christian – you should always be a good person. Religion, like witchcraft is superstition – more elaborate, more organised – but still superstition.
Please feel free to be defensive. I think I’m the kind of person who likes an argument.’
Joseph Henry put the cushion back and pulled the chair closer to the bed. He sat down, leaned back and gathered a sermon, ‘You’re right in one respect: religion is organised whereas superstition rarely is. Superstition offers nothing but fear, fear that if you do this thing then that bad thing will happen. Religion, on the other hand, offers a sense of community, belonging and purpose.’
‘You mean religion is organised superstition?’
Joseph Henry dampened the fires within him. He suddenly recalled receiving his first bible: it was a gift from his father, faux leather binding and tissue thin pages tinged with red. He’d opened it randomly and smelt the new print leap up off the page like the breath of God. Young Joseph Henry, already captivated by the magnitude of the Bible could now read it for himself. On that random page he read, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ He knew, absolutely then and there, that he would believe forever, he would uphold his end of the bargain and in return he’d spend eternity in the presence of God.
‘Religion centres around a belief in God,’ Joseph Henry retorted to Maya. ‘Superstition has no centre: it attaches unnecessary credos to the supernatural. Old wives tales do not have a heart; they do not rain judgment down upon us! Believers in old wives tales do not have a shared consciousness and a belief in the betterment of mankind. There is no nucleus, no ‘modus operandi’, no morality, just caution designed to inhibit, not broaden; not at all like the Church. When people are hungry, when they are sick, when the devil turns them out of their homes and onto the streets in mid-winter do they find solace in God or do they turn to a rabbit’s foot for comfort? There is only one choice surely? Only God can light the way!’
Maya blinked, ‘Religion is the opium of the people. Dulls the pain and numbs the senses. Gives hope where otherwise there is nothing but despair. But I would rather see a world where spiritual anaesthetics were not needed. A world in which all people can breathe without a mask, walk without a cane, think without fear! Raise their heads above the parapet, climb out of this fortress, this mental prison and pursue knowledge without consternation or fear of retribution. There is no need for constraints if we employ the best of our humanity. No one should be in a position where they need to pray for anything, we can solve our own problems.’
‘You underestimate the power of prayer,’ said Joseph Henry leaning back in his chair feigning confidence but sensing he was being deliberately wrong-footed. He was used to preaching to the converted, they came to him in droves, all wanting nothing but soothing confirmation of their chosen belief.
‘Ah yes, prayer – about prayer?’ Maya asked. ‘Rather than call upon knowledge and medicine to cure the sick you ask an imagined superior being for intervention. How is that reasonable?’
‘Well now you are getting into the murky waters of metaphysics and faith. You don’t know for sure that there is no such being. It’s a question no one can answer outside of faith alone. So the odds are, quite literally fifty, fifty. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe not, so why not pray?’
‘Do you believe in evil spirits? You just tried to exorcise me, so I think the answer must be yes.’
‘The devil walks amongst us everyday and he is sly and full of cunning. A master of disguise, if you will. My job is not only to preach the goodness of God but also to warn of the perils that lie in the undergrowth. The Devil presents himself as temptation, as fear, as pride, jealousy and as lust. But also he can be the wolf in sheep’s clothing, hiding in the weak, in the sick and in our children. We have to be wary, ever vigilant and never slip into complacency.’
‘So I’m the sheep and the Devil lies within me?’
‘I believe so.’
‘And that’s not superstition? Your religion is built on fear, on reprisals and guilt. You preach damnation. You pounce on mankind’s frailties; turn them into sin. Your religion, has devised an omnipotent, unknowable God and we, mere mortals, can never truly comprehend Him because he is beyond our comprehension. In ancient religions, their gods were knowable. They worked hard to know them, to reach the gods in the heavens. Those gods were fallible but more perfect than us and man aspired to be like them.
Your God ‘works in mysterious ways’ yet, plenty of mortals have testified to knowing what he wants of us and it’s those very testimonies that make up the backbone of your religion. It’s flawed by design! ‘God wants this’ and ‘God wants that’. No one knows what God wants, if anything at all!
If I were God I would not leave the moral health of mankind in the hands of sanctimonious men. If I were God I’d encourage discovery and exploration of our world and the worlds beyond what we are accustomed to. I would say, ‘Keep an open mind, never assume anything and don’t succumb to fear of the unknown or superstitious gibberish’. If I were God I’d say, ‘Come and find me, but pack for all weathers’.
I would not attempt to thwart discovery, hinder progress or blind mankind to finding knowledge by gouging out his eyes! What sort of God is that? A jealous God? A God that abhors our very nature? The very nature that he himself ordained?
No Pastor, I don’t think I’m the sort of person that needs a priest or organised religion to offer me false succour.
If YOU want to muddle one dangerous, unfounded belief with another that’s your business Joseph Henry but don’t dare to rain your judgment down on me!’
Maya stiffened as Joseph Henry stood up and paced to the window staring blankly out into the rainy sky. Inside he was incandescent with virtuous rage. What the hell was he doing? What had possessed him to come here tonight in the first place? Hubris? Did he believe that, confronted with this woman, this woman that Lisa had already denounced, he would receive some celestial wisdom: that God would show him the way?
Yes! He had believed that God would point to the Devil in the room. As God’s conduit, he alone could channel the divine. Nevertheless, as soon as he had glanced down upon the sleeping form of Maya he had been shocked by the malevolent, sinister, energy seeping from her very core.
Lisa had been right: Maya was possessed! She was the Devil’s concubine – a witch doing the Devil’s bidding.
‘I can see right through you!’ Joseph Henry turned and glared at Maya. ‘I can see your lurking, twisted, darkened form peering out at me Satan! Get thee behind me!’
The door to Maya’s room opened and Peter stood aside as Joseph Henry strode out in a furious temper. He had time to recognise Peter but said nothing. His words had turned to dust in his mouth.
Adaolisa woke to a hard slap to her face. Shocked and unaccustomed to physical violence she screamed out. Then came another slap, followed by a third. Lisa tried to stand but her legs were not her own. She carefully wiped the hair from her eyes, noticing that this hair was not her hair. She peered upward, a long way up into the desperate, frightened eyes of her father.
‘Witch!’ he screamed exchanging hand for foot, a slap in the face for a kick in the stomach. Lisa bought her knees up to her chest, they were not her knees; it was not her chest.
‘No,’ whispered Lisa through gritted teeth that felt to small, past swollen lips still too thin to be her own.
A woman’s scream, her mother’s raised and rattled voice rose through layers of panic to place her own condemnations at Lisa’s feet.
‘Witch!’ she screamed and with a violence Lisa had never witnessed in her mother before her mother brought a heavy club down upon her leg. Snap went the bone.
Blackness. Oblivion. But, not for long.
Now sprawled out in the yard, the morning sun rising out of the sea, the air thick with acrid smoke belched from cooking fires, she sensed the apprehension of the village. She saw her hands that were not her hands, and knew that somehow that she had become a child. Not the child of her youth, but another child. Another child who had lived in her parents’ home. Her older sister, the one condemned a witch by the community. The one nobody ever spoke of.
How could this be? It had to be a dream, a lucid dream or, and now she felt real fear, was it a spell placed upon her by Maya? Yes, that was a real possibility and if this were true then her only hope was that Joseph Henry would break the spell. Then another thought, as cold as ice crept into her mind and closed the door. What if the life she remembered, her life, her memories, had never really happened at all? What if a trickster had placed all of that in her head, maybe the Devil himself? What if she’d been taken over by evil forces? What if she WAS a witch after all? She began to pray.
Living as they did in a small fishing village, cut off from the rest of the world her parents were part of a tight community that policed itself. Villagers fished with nets and small boats and sold their catch for a pittance. Times were hard and ever since their first child had turned three, things just went from bad to worse for Lisa’s parents. First the fish dried up, then her father had to sell his boat to put food on the table and then came the fever. Everyone in the village caught it: everyone except this three-year old child. That’s when all eyes fell on her. That’s when the people of her village realised that they had a witch in their midst.
A priest was summoned: a man known for his courageous, ceaseless battle with the Devil. The priest, a small, well-fed man with round cheeks and good shoes was sympathetic and reassured them that he could cure the girl; rid them of the witch that had come to dwell in her body and, in doing so, save the villagers from more misery. Sadly though, redemption came at a price. The villagers, poverty stricken through illness and ill fortune, tried to barter but the priest could not help – surely they understood this? He must charge a fee to support his ministry; there were so many who needed his help. The country was big and riddled with witches: without his aid evil would prevail. His price was too high.
It was decided in a meeting of elders that the girl must be taken to the city and abandoned there. Some protested, said she should be hacked to death or drowned or tied to a stake and burnt, but it was argued, sagely, that even her ashes could muster up some tribulation and they had all the tribulation they could handle. The witch child would be driven to the city and dumped on wasteland, but not before crippling her, they didn’t want her to return.
‘Maya?’ Peter reached for Maya’s hand. She looked up at him,
‘What do you remember?’
‘I remember you, Peter… and … and I think we may be in love. Are we in love Peter?’ Peter smiled, relieved,
Oh yes, we are deeply in love: you love me and I love you …absolutely.’
‘We need to get out of here.’
‘Where should we go?’
‘Not sure, but I have to get my chair back!’
‘Is it important?’
‘Very,’ said Peter.
A silent ship, out in the universe, far beyond human knowledge and far beyond the reach of human gods waited for its course to be decided. The craft was home to all that remained of an ancient species, their original planet long gone. A new planet was currently under construction but, in the meantime, its people were exploring the universe.
The inhabitants of the silent ship acted as one, with one voice, one consciousness and one ambition: exploration of the universe and the unravelling of mystery.
Maya, one of their guides, had disappeared during a routine mind probe on another of her species. This, everyone agreed, constituted a mystery and warranted a full investigation. The problem of locating her was less ‘Where on earth was she?’ and more, ‘Which earth was she on?’
The course was finally set for Earth Parallel Octillion 42, a neighbouring earth to her original Parallel Septillion 1, which is where they had first recruited her.
To be continued…