There once was a young girl, who lived a perfectly ordinary, simple and nondescript life. She woke alone, she ate alone, she worked alone, and she went to sleep in a vast, empty bed. She thought that she was perfectly happy and content.
But one day, as she sat spinning wool, she realised that she felt uneasy. A feeling, a tiny thought, had crept inside her. It was small, vague, like a mist over her mind. She carried on spinning, trying to dismiss the niggling doubt, and for a while she was able to ignore it.
That night, as she lay in bed, the feeling returned with more strength. It slipped inside her and took root. It was unease: a strange feeling that something was wrong, but not knowing what. Nothing is worse than an unnameable fear. She stared up at the ceiling, wishing she could fall asleep and escape. But even when she did slip away, her dreams were full of darkness.
As the days went by, the feeling didn’t leave her. It grew and intensified and became an obsession. A sentence kept coming into her head, pounding endlessly through her brain until it became a constant rhythm drumming in the background: Something is wrong! Something is wrong!
It was strongest when she was idle, so she busied herself around her small two-roomed house. She washed and cleaned and tided and dusted until her house was cleaner than it had ever been; but the foreboding remained. It wasn’t a small thought in the back of her mind: it was in her body, her stomach, her bones. It was everywhere and everything and in every corner of her mind.
In one of her calmer moments, she sensed something above the terrible unease. It’s as though there’s a storm on the horizon: something is coming. Something is about to snap.
Her life stopped. She barely slept. She didn’t eat. She spun wool like a mad woman, driving the wheel so fast it blurred out of sight. She paced up and down, up and down her small house. Every night she tossed and turned dozed fitfully, sobbing in her sleep. Her skin appeared to shrink, sharply defining her bones. Her young face looked gaunt and haunted in the mirror. The terrible unease filled her and consumed her and drove her to the edge of despair.
One night, when the moon was especially bright, she lay on her bed and stared at the ceiling. She was desperately unhappy; she couldn’t escape the awful feelings any more. They had possessed her.
Weak and exhausted, she tossed and turned through the night. In her broken state, it was easy for a fever to sneak past her fallen defences and force itself into her body. She tossed and turned and sweated and moaned until there was nothing left…
…Nothing at all.
She sat up. For the first time in weeks, she didn’t feel uneasy. She felt nothing. She was absolutely numb, and as empty as a burst balloon. She stood up and walked through her immaculate house in a daze. Her eyes were unfocused, staring straight ahead at nothing.
All the time she’d spent cleaning and tidying, all the years she’d lived in her small house: but now she felt nothing for it. She no longer cared. She unlocked the door and walked out, leaving the door wide open and the key still in the lock.
Barefoot, and wearing only a thin nighty, she walked. The moon was round and incredibly bright, like a silver penny suspended among the stars. The world felt unreal, like a painting: totally still and silent, painted in only two colours: silver moonlight and black shadow. Nothing moved and she began to feel that none of this was real: that if she reached out to touch a tree, it was dissolve into smoke in her hands. The thought made her shiver and she increased her pace slightly.
She walked and walked, at first through streets and past dark houses, and then out into the wilderness, over hills and forests and grasslands. She walked without pausing, without resting, a steady trot onwards to nowhere.
Faintly, through her numbness, a thought arose… something is wrong with Time. It’s stopped. She wondered how long she’d been walking for. Followed by another; or perhaps Time is flying past so quickly that it only appears to be staying still.
She continued walking through the unchanging world. The silence was beginning to get to her. There was no breeze to move the trees, no people awake to talk, and no dogs to howl or bark. It was days, or perhaps years, until feeling came back to her. A tiny crack opened in the fog of numbness, and through it came a faint feeling that her journey was almost at an end. Relief, satisfaction, and a weary ache. Some time after this, she came across a little house. Instantly, she knew that this was what she had been searching for.
She had walked past hundreds of houses on her never-ending journey, but in each the windows were dark and shadows seemed to spill from the doorways, like black breath being exhaled from cavernous mouths. She had hurried on past them, uncaring. But this house was different.
The door had been flung open and warm, golden light spilled through. All the windows were lit up, light spilling from every pore of the house. The small crack in her fog of indifference widened, lengthened, was joined by multitudes more; and then, in one great mighty rush, the numbness and emptiness that had been constricting her fell away, and a rush of gladness filled her. The force of the emotion was so great that she stopped in her tracks.
Free! She thought with joy. She embraced her emotions, remembering the unique touch of each of them. Taking another step, she winced. Mentally examining her body, she was shocked. I must’ve walked a long way, she realised with surprise, because I’m aching all over. My bones, my hips, my back. She tried to touch her toes but stopped before she’d even reached halfway, gasping with pain. What’s happened to me?
She turned her attention to the house, placing her fists on her hips and scrutinising it. And the more she gazed at the house, the more she recognised it. It was just so familiar – she knew that, if she went inside, she would know exactly were every little thing belonged. That’s the window to the bedroom, she thought. And she was right.
She headed for the house again, but found herself hobbling. I hurt all over, she grumbled. But despite her aches and pains, she hurried towards the house as quickly as she could. I know this house. Why?
She walked through the open door and was not surprised to find herself in a living room. She turned to close the door and saw that the sky was no longer as black as coal: like ink that washes out of a garment, the darkness had begun to fade away. Colour had returned to the world. And soon the sun will rise, she thought, and her heart lifted in happiness.
She closed the door. The key was in the keyhole so she locked it and slipped it into the pocket of her nighty. Turning around, she peered around at the little living room. A fire flickered warmly in the hearth, and an old rocking chair stood close to the fire. A door led off to what she knew was the bedroom. The lady chuckled. I love that old chair. She hobbled over to it and slowly sat down.
Half-finished knitting sat nearby, as though it was only a minute ago that that it had been laid down by its owner. It just seemed so natural to reach out and pick it up. It uncoiled to become a long pink and yellow scarf.
Without thinking, she slipped the thick needles between her knobbly fingers and began to knit. Soon, the clackity-clack of needles filled the warm room. The lady smiled, feeling a strange but pleasant sense of dejá-vu. Soon she was rocking back and forth, humming a little song to herself that she didn’t know she knew. Absentmindedly, she thought, yellow and pink; they’re her favourite colours.
She slammed her feet down and stopped rocking so suddenly she nearly tipped herself off the chair. The thought stopped her in her tracks. At first, she was confused. How do I know that? How do I know that this scarf is the favourite colours of someone I’ve never met? Then she began to worry. What on earth am I doing? I’ve walked into someone else’s house, and now I’m just sitting here doing their knitting! She looked down at the long mess of wool. I don’t even know how to knit! On the verge of hysteria, she tossed it to the side and stood up, panic thrashing in her heart.
She caught sight of movement behind her and turned, startled and afraid. A mirror hung on the wall and, for a moment, the lady stared at it in disbelief. Her feet walked forwards without her consent. Shock stopped her thoughts.
She was old. And not even middle-aged old; she was ancient. Her skin was dark from years of hard work in the sun and so heavily wrinkled she resembled an apricot stone. Her eyes looked like they’d shrunk backwards into her head and her lips were small and puckered. She looked like a happy woman, though – not bitter and mean. Her eyes twinkled mischievously and her lips curved up in the corners. Hours ago, I was a young girl. I don’t understand!
She had opened her mouth and was examining her teeth when the loud creak of the bedroom opening made her freeze in fear. There’s no time to hide! She thought in a panic. An old man shuffled through the doorway. She stood, frozen in position, ready to run or fight or apologise… but then she looked at him: really looked at him. His hair was thin and as grey as a rainy day, framing his heavily lined face. His eyes were wise, old, and so warm. When he saw her, his eyes lit up with love and he smiled. She knew him.
Without realising it, she smiled in return. An unexpected thought hit her: I love this man and he loves me.
Suddenly, she understood everything. The scarf. Her sudden aches and pains. Her reflection. I know this house because it’s my house; I know this man because he’s my man. That scarf is for my youngest granddaughter, and she’ll be six in a fortnight. I know all this because this is my life. I’ve walked through time into my own future.
Her husband opened his arms and without hesitating, she went into them. Cocooned in his warm embrace, she realised that not only was this her life, but this was the life she’d always wanted.
She thought back to her old house and her old life. She’d spent it alone, doing the same thing day after monotonous day. She’d seen no-one, spoke to no-one, loved no-one. Totally alone.
And then the uneasiness made me change. Made me leave. And I walked through time until found a time I was happy. And here I’m determined to stay. I’d rather be ancient and happy than youthful and alone.
She closed her eyes and breathed in the familiar smell of her husband. A smile curved her lips.
This is my life. I’m home.