Liana Vrajitoru Andreasen and Florin Enescu
Liana Vrajitoru Andreasen is originally from Romania and currently lives in McAllen, TX where she is an Associate Professor at South Texas College. She has published stories in Fiction International, The Raven Chronicles, Weave, Thunderdome, The Horror Zine, The Willow Review, Mobius etc. She received two Pushcart nominations for her literary work.
Student in Psychology, 2nd year, “Alexandru Ioan Cuza” University of Iasi, Romania
Student in Physics, MSc program, 1st year, “Alexandru Ioan Cuza” University of Iasi, Romania
Master of Arts in Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, “Alexandru Ioan Cuza” University of Iasi, Romania
Master of Arts in Social Work, University of British Columbia, Canada
Bachelor of Arts in Social Work, " Alexandru Ioan Cuza " University of Iasi, Romania
Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering, Thermal Machines, "Gheorge. Asachi" Technical University of Iasi, Romania
I lost it. I don't have it anymore. I had it, I held it in the palm of my hand a few minutes ago, and now it's gone. The tendrils of my memory reached toward the sensation of holding it and I distinctly remembered that it was cold in my palm. A little thing, an almost insignificant weight. And yet...
The blurry red and yellow of the leaves startled my painful eyes as I looked down, trying to retrace my steps. I had no memory of getting to this place. It could be anywhere. I just had it... just a moment ago—an hour ago? Or was it yesterday?
Oh God, where am I? I could feel the chill of the wet mud touching my skin, sucking my heat without remorse. First, I need to clean my eyelids of this mud, and try to register the the details of this place. The sky is red, but is it sunset or dawn? I strained to take in the noises: I could hear some crows in the far distance, and leaves were whispering a strange, autumnal music.
I raised my hand and touched the scarred bark of a tree. It hurt my palm to touch it. As my vision cleared, I could see now what I had already suspected: I was in the woods. My first reaction was to cry for help but I was frozen with fear: I was lost.
“Hey!” The sound was thick like the mud, muffled. It seemed close, very close.
I turned, and my body ached as I let my back rest heavily against the trunk of a tree. The roots were pushing against all that was tender in my muscles, and my breathing seemed to stop for a moment, with pain I didn’t even know I had.
“Hey! Do you have it? Do you still have it?” I heard again.
I turned my head and looked. Nobody was around.
“You dumbass, did you give it back to them before they dropped you here or do you still have it?”
Then I knew: the voice was coming from the branches above.
“It’s safer in the trees,” he said when he saw I’d seen him. I could see a moving mouth as his face pressed itself against a branch. An ugly mouth, cracked. An unshaved cheek, one with the tree bark.
“Who are you?” I said. My voice was broken, as if I hadn’t used it in days.
“Are you sure your bones are all there, man?” he asked and hissed with laughter. “Do you remember how you got here? Pretty soon you’ll value your life more than you thought you did.”
“Life...” I muttered. “I was trying to kill myself, that’s what I remember.”
He nodded, and his eyeballs bulged through the branches. Then his head retreated among the leaves, and a hacking cough could be heard. He popped his head back out from behind a different branch.
“Life, eh? Now you see it, now you don’t!” He opened his big mouth to laugh.
“Yes, you remember trying to off yourself, don’t you? Trust me, they all do. Now tell me,” he said in a crescendo, “do you still have it, or your ears block me out when I say that?”
I tried to avoid the thought of suicide, but I didn’t quite succeed as my reasoning popped up again:
“It? You need to be more specific than that. If you’re referring to my life, yes, it seems I still have it. Not that I care too much, thank you. You, on the other hand, seem kind of cuckoo; would you calm down, please, and tell me what this is all about.” I was still feeling groggy, trying not to throw up. Nausea—reminding me it was my best friend.
Another one who thinks that his problem is bigger than mine. They all think that, myself included. I assumed a relaxed, passive position, ideal to convey that I was a good listener. I even raised my hand to relax my collar tightness and discovered—in this particular case—that around my neck there was a rope. Great. OK then. I loosened the knot a bit and with all my strength I emitted a candid smile:
“Can you tell me a bit more? I’m trying to make sense of it.”
“Yes, fool, you have your life, more or less. That’s really not what’s important. I ask you, do you have it, what they gave you just before you crossed over,” the man said and slowly made his descent from the tree. He dangled first, puffing and giggling as his eyes bulged again, looking at me, then he landed, splashing me as he planted his rugged boots in the mud in front of me.
“The cuckoo has left the nest, how about that?” he said, and I could not be sure if he was talking about himself, or me. He pulled at the rope around my neck with thick, red fingers, as if to test that it was sturdy enough to have killed me. “Do. You. Have. It?” he said, pulling the rope, and me along with it.
“Stop that! How am I supposed to remember anything?”
Yes, there had been something in my hand, I was looking for it... I looked at him and slapped his hand so he’d let go of the rope. I pulled it over my head and threw it at him. He laughed.
“What did I have?” I said. “I know there was something I wanted to make sure I didn’t lose... I just remember it was cold.”
“Yes, they gave you something, didn’t they. I’ll tell you what it is. Everyone coming here has one thing, and that thing is time! They must have given you something like that. A watch. A clock. A cuckoo clock, since you like calling me that. A sundial, maybe? Or a rooster. I don’t care what the object was, but you had time with you when you came here, and now we both need it. I’ve lost mine long ago.” His eyes sparkled mysteriously for a second, as he looked far beyond the trees. “Maybe you don’t care about your life. But time—heh—time, that’s something you lose when you need it the most. Then you won’t get it back. Or you’ll never finish offing yourself, if that’s what you prefer.”
I looked at him and swallowed hard, as if the mud around me had entered my throat. My anxiety skyrocketed and I tried to breathe slowly. My reasoning is my only escape. If this is Purgatory then they scared us pointlessly back there. Is this creature, whatever he is, telling me he’s struggling to find time, like Capital Time? Doesn’t he know that time and space are entangled in one fabric? But then again, maybe this guy is some kind of twisted, new Einstein. He’s got a different perspective; didn’t he say I crossed over? I must try to buy some… time until I find out more about what’s happening.
“Listen, mister,” I said, and as if on cue, he turned his back to me. “Hear me out,” I continued and he nodded, still not looking at me. “Do you think that finding whatever device I had in my hand is the same as finding time? Were they the same thing, if time were lost then you wouldn’t have time to find time. I suggest you tell me more about ‘them,’ and maybe that’s how I’ll remember more about ‘it.’ Who are they and how do you know about them?” That’s when my experience as a therapist kicked in: “tell me about your experience.”
The “creature” turned and came really close to my face, and his eyes impaled mine for one moment. Indeed, this guy looks nuts, even crossover-ed.
“I don’t want to waste time finding it, man, telling bed time stories to one who didn’t want to wake up ever again.” He shook his head disappointedly, taking two steps backwards.
“Look”, I said, “you cannot waste something you don’t possess. If time is lost then we have an eternity to find it. That means we have plenty of time. Isn’t this a paradox?”
“Shut up you fool! If time is lost—and it is lost—then eternity doesn’t make sense.”
“But if time was gone, mister, then we would be frozen… forever. You couldn’t say anything, I couldn’t say anything, we couldn’t even think of finding it.”
Before I could move out of the way, he slapped me hard.
“What was that for?” I blurted out. My eyes filled with tears, and I covered my hot cheek with my palm.
“You’re trying to pull my leg,” he said, completely unfazed. “How about thinking of the fact that you didn’t have time to react before I slapped you? Then he screamed: “Wake up! Wake up and realize that if you lost it, damn you, we’re doomed here!”
This ‘cuckoo clock’ has lost his cuckoo alright. I have to be more careful. For a man without time, he’s pretty fast.
“How do you like your paradox now?” he said, his voice softer now. His hand dove into his dirty pocket. He took out an apple and then he fished into his other pocket and took out a little knife. Methodically, he started peeling his apple. “Do you think this apple here exists or not, if you think you’re in Purgatory?” He looked at me and winked, then threw an apple slice into his mouth.
“That’s nice, that’s nice,” I grimaced. “I’m not hungry. Look. Unless you give me a straight answer, then I need to get going. This is a swamp, damn it, I have to get to a civilized place. If all you want to do is talk in riddles, just show me how to get out of here and—”
“Listen!” he shouted, sprinkling pieces of apple and saliva. “You’re not going anywhere until you give me that watch!”
Suddenly, the little knife he was holding looked sharp.
“But what on earth do you need it for?”
“If you wanna know, I was bonkers like you once. Yeah, cuckoo, like you said. But not the way you said it. I was the cuckoo who had pushed everyone around me out of my nest. Except, that didn’t help. They didn’t go away, so I wanted to be done with everything for good—the morons and bitches around me, waking up every day before dawn for work I hated and to see people I despised. I was going to shrinkers and such. I took pills—they had funny colors, those pills. But you think I had time then? That’s what you think? You think day after day of the same means you have time? Yeah, I was nuts to think that. What, you one of them shrinks? You’ll live here enough and you’ll sober up. That’s what I did.”
I looked at him pleadingly.
“Look man, I don’t have a watch. I feel like I had one before I woke up... here.”
“No, no, I don’t expect that you have it with you, mister,” he said mockingly. “You think you’ll be sitting here and it will just show up? No, no way, no how. You have to find it. I will help you look for it.”
“And then what?”
“Then time will come back to you, and you’ll understand.”
His bloated body did a little dance, waving with his head and shoulder for me to stand up.
“Is there anyone else here, or just… you?”
“Now he doesn’t like the company, eh? Just me an’ the trees. It’s simple, ain’t it. Like me or not, I’m your shadow, like the angel and the devil on your shoulders. I’ve got time. I’ve got the empty kind of time, and I’m sick of it, so we gotta get moving.”
I stood up. After all, I could see there was a big difference between dying peeled by a little knife and strangled by the rope. And frankly, I was easily bored. Something interesting might arise after the first step, I reasoned. Isn’t curiosity—the automatic therapist started to roll his argumentation—the first step in the healing process?
I took a 360 degree view of the forest. Hmm, there’s a path about ten trees distance from the one I chose to swing from, presumably, though that memory is still fuzzy. Let’s say I did that, for now. But why have I chosen this place to die, with a path nearby instead of a place deep in the forest, far away from any intruder. A sort of staged suicide? But the past is the past, let’s see about the present. Should I take the path or wander aimless through the forest? Does it matter? A path comes from somewhere and goes somewhere; this is its purpose—linking a past to a future. Avoiding uncertainty, trying to order the Universe toward a predictable design. And we wonder why we’re so easily bored. The other choice, leaving the path: not so comfortable to my psyche, not offering finality or guarantees, but at least giving me a clean slate. Damn! Comfortable prison of fixed destiny versus confusing, myriads of choices. Isn’t that the essence of freedom? Bah, a tendency to think in dichotomies is a sign of borderline personality.
STOP! the other facets of my mind screamed, if you’re keep being so drawn to philosophizing, you’ll just be a watcher of life. Stop these futile chains of reasoning; they led you to the end of the rope. And you are not even free—you have to find a watch. That will give time to this cuckoo man and that, hopefully, will give you your freedom.
“OK, let’s search the path, maybe and probably the watch is lost somewhere on it. There’s one direction, two ways. We could start looking to the right. If nothing is found, we’ll look to the left. Here, we’ll place a stick in the ground as a sign, our starting point.” That’s damn analytical, isn’t it!
The man looked at me as if to say it wasn’t he who didn’t understand me, but me who didn’t understand him. He laughed, then his face became very somber:
“You’re thinking in the same terms as you did before. If this square way of thinking put your neck in jeopardy, then do you really want to apply it again and again without changing anything? That’s why people are condemned to repeat their mistakes all over again”—he talked more to himself than to me, as if he’d just had a great revelation regarding human psychological patterns.
“And how and what would you think then?”
“Those silly assumptions you carry with you don’t apply here. Look at the tree that you were supposed to be hanging from. No branch broken, no rope hanging from it. Touch your neck; you’ll find it’s not broken, in case you haven’t noticed yet. Where’s the sun? I see here only a dimmer, foggy light, and this hasn’t changed since I found you. Wrap your mind around this, then: if there’s no time, the laws of continuity are senseless. Conservation doesn’t have a sense. Everything changes—except maybe your simple-mindedness.”
Damn, he managed to slap both my body and my Ego. There is at least one continuity: I must walk a thin line, just like before I came here.
“OK, what do you want me to do? We must follow some rules,” I said.
“And you’re thinking that yours are good because they make sense to you? You need a little demonstration, brother. Take the path to the right; just walk that way, and I’ll take the left.”
I walked carefully, turning my head to look now and then—one never knew what could happen with a lunatic behind. He did go to the left and I saw him disappearing behind some trees. Now I could focus on my problems—where I was and where the nearest highway was, to ask for help. The trees, the wind and the smells of decaying leaves reminded me of the days I had spent hiking on the Northwest Coast. Good times back then. The trees were similar—very tall Douglas firs; I recognized them from their scarred bark. The air was fresh. The ozone and my fast walk made me feel hopeful. Hmm, basic physiological response. At least I am on a path to somewhere, “I’m on the track” as they say. I’ll find people and they’ll help me, I assured myself. Positive thinking.
There was a hushed noise of steps among the leaves. Someone was coming—a man. This man was taller, well groomed. Thank you, Lord. My heart pumped faster as I said to the stranger:
“Hello there. Do you mind telling me where you’re coming from?”
“Hello. Yes, I can tell you where I’m coming from,” he said, and his eyes looked straight at me with a knowledgeable frown, freezing me in place. “I’m coming from you. You took the path to the right and I took the one to the left. You look different, and I’m sure I look different to you, but we’re the same, you and me. You’re the same you, and I’m the same me—and more than that. We may be the same,” he said, a distant dignity in his voice. “See, your intricate reasoning can go in the garbage bin, for all it’s worth. The laws are not the same here, my suicidal friend, try to understand.”
I remained frozen for a while, as my mind couldn’t cope with its futility. It was fear, too. I couldn’t hold my balance and I raised an arm to lean on a tree. The scarred bark hurt my hand, again. I’m still stuck.
“What are you trying to say?” I said, feeling my blood rush to my head, rubbing my eyes until they hurt. “That I have no use for reason here at all? Am I supposed to look for time in madness?”
“Is madness not what brought you here?” the man said, his face dead serious. “Then yes, perhaps it is madness that will save you. Sometimes, as you are trying to solve a puzzle, it is irrationality where the answer lies, the ability to not rationalize, not to tie dots together in some algorithm. Perhaps the trees are the cause for your confusion.”
“I’m missing the forest for the trees, you’re telling me? Are you saying that I’m in some kind of loop outside of my mind?”
“No. Do not force me to call you an idiot,” he answered with a vague smile. “You’re in ‘some kind of loop’ inside your mind. Has it occurred to you that thinking is not the same as living?”
His words cut deep. Finally, he spoke my language and for the first time I started listening to him carefully. Ever since I could remember, that was my biggest fear: that the more I dug for the truth, the more I would sink. I used reasoning, perhaps too much of it, but I always stumbled over this paradox—judging whether my judgment was flawed. Alright, his way out makes sense, I suppose. If everything falls apart, then I’ll take the shovel and clean my way through the debris.
“What would happen if we strayed away from the path?” I asked, “Where do all directions go?”
“I’ll save us some time,” he laughed. “I’ve tried this already. If you follow the path, or the way you think is the actual path, you’ll find your chosen tree again. If you leave the path and walk inside the path’s loop, or outside of it, those loops will lead you, in about the same amount of time, to the same tree. There’s no way out, no way in, just because there’s no out and no in.”
My mind followed the same path as it did before, the one I had used before to find a way out:
“What if I killed myself? Maybe this would be the way out?”
And isn’t this absurd: I killed myself once for the same reason, to get myself out of my life, and now I want to do the same thing, to get myself out of this place. I couldn’t fit in so I got out. Getting in, getting out, I thought I was a first person player, choosing to commit suicide, only to show myself that I was a cowardly master of my own destiny.
He pondered for a while, watching me closely.
“So you fell in love with a rope,” he said. “There must be other things you can love… You once thought that death solves everything and this didn’t turn out to be true, did it? If you enjoy so much waking up with a clouded mind and your face in wet cold mud, then go ahead. I said, start living, I didn't say start dying.”
I looked at him and shook my head.
“What are you thinking now?” he said, and his smile was odd, as if he already knew all of my thoughts.
“I think I finally understand,” I said.
“Then, have you found it? Do you have it? Isn’t this the question that started it all?”
“Do I have time?”
“Some call it that.”
“Yes, I remember,” I said. “It was a watch that I was holding in my hand when I came here. But what of it? I really don’t have it. What is it for?”
“Do you really think you can find time inside a watch?” he said. “You held what you wanted to hold, but you must know this by now: you never really needed it.”
My thoughts were swirling—but didn’t he say—
I took a deep breath:
“Just tell me this: you said that they gave it to me when I came here. Who are they, for the love of God? Where are they? If this loop is mine, who are they?”
“If you don’t know it by now, I can’t help you. In fact, my work is done. I have no more answers for you.”
“You’re going to leave me here, just as I was beginning to—”
“Look behind you.”
I turned my head, and what I saw bewildered me. The trees were gone, and a large mirror stretched from ground to the sky—or so it seemed—and I saw myself, distorted, blood on my face, fingers digging into the flesh of my neck. Why did I have to be reminded of the demons I held in my soul? Is this what it had come to? Leaving me alone with the Me that I hated?
“What on earth?—”
I turned back to face the other man, my guide, but he was no longer there. My heart sunk, and the deepest sense of despair overtook me. If this is who I am, the man in that mirror, why should I not find my rope again, find the branch I had left behind, and do it?
“Where are you, you son-of-a-bitch?”
What else had he said, that failed oracle, that scumbag preacher of life? He said he’d “come from me.” Was he claiming that he was me, then? That all of this was me? The trees? The path? The… branch? How could I listen to him if he was my own, feverish conscience? That’s what he had said, that he would be the devil and the angel on my shoulders… And yet…
I lifted a trembling hand and reached toward the mirror. My fingers went through it like air, and I stepped inside of it.
I was at the edge of a huge river, dark and boiling with the rage of unseen currents. What now? Why is he showing me a river? Does he mean… does he mean that this river is also part of me? Is it my own rage I am facing?
“Help!” I heard a voice distinctly. “Help me!”
I recognized the voice at once! It was the woman I was pining after, before I put the noose around my neck… The one I always thought intangible, like all others. I jumped into the water, yet I could not see her at all. The water was dark. Without warning, everything was dark, and two more voices followed. I knew them too! They were friends of mine, drowning, screaming for me to find them. The voices were swept away by the currents, as I was struggling to stay afloat, until they could be heard no more. Yet other voices took their place: I heard my mother, I heard my father, and soon enough hundreds of voices of drowning people were all around me—I recognized neighbors, those I used to play with as a child, girls for whom I’d written poems that I hadn’t had the courage to give them, friends who stuck with me, and friends who stabbed me in the back. The water was flowing mercilessly around me, like Time Almighty itself! Yet I could not see one single person. How could I save any of them? How could I save them when I couldn’t even save myself? If only I had more time with them, in that life…
Then, a thought crossed my mind, like a dagger: time was all they had given me! There never was a watch after all. Wasn’t a watch, a clock, a cuckoo clock mere representations of the time we thought we had? A reassurance we gave ourselves. All the people in my life, they were the ones who’d given me my time on this earth. Who had I been in isolation? What time would I have counted as mine without all the voices around me, the people I had thought insignificant, asking me to be someone for them, someone to love, to hate, someone in whose eyes they would look, to mark every moment they had on earth, in their turn? A man alone is a man without time, outside of time. I knew right then that I had given it away, and I could have it all back if only I could return to my memories and have the gratitude to love again the people that I had loved, the gratitude even for the anger, the frustration and the burdens that being with people had meant, instead of throwing the past away because of the pain it carried! That was the key to having time, the acceptance of all that I was, all the reflections in all the mirrors the others’ eyes had given me. Instead, I had chosen to look in my mirror alone, and I had lost the eternity they had offered. But was it too late? I started swimming, swimming vigorously as if the strength of this one moment could have given me back all the lost time, and the strokes of my arms in that hateful water could have pulled back from the abyss all that I had given away.
Then, I was on the other side, and the sun was rising.
As I came out and shook the water off, all of me felt suddenly real, natural, as if all my life I had been destined to step out of that water, onto that river bank, renewed, without restraints. On an impulse, as I looked at the grass I was stepping on, I pushed my soaking shoes off and felt that warm grass, that blissful green caressing the soles of my feet. I screamed like a child, like a liberated baby, no longer aware of all that has been holding me back: the judgment, the pain, the burdens. I started running, and crying, grateful for the tears that washed my face clean of all the darkness.
“I am here! I am here!” I shouted.
The grass stretched upward on a small hill, and on top of the hill there was a house. “There! There!” I shouted, although what I thought I would find in that house, I did not know. I did not want it to make sense, and I wondered in what universe I would ever have accepted an impulse like that… before. Me, who had always asked questions first, then taken a step. Me, who had turned around in my head and read into every smile, every frown, the words and the looks of those around me, always trying to make them cohere, like pearls fallen from a broken necklace.
Right before reaching the house, I stopped. This was all too easy. Could the answer be just that, letting go? How was that meant to give me my time back? How would that help me put the pearls back on the string? The thoughts that I had left behind me when I had stepped into the mirror, all those thoughts came flooding back.
Just then, the door opened and a little girl came out of the house. It wasn’t anybody I knew.
“Oh, you’re here. Mom, daddy arrived home earlier today!” she shouted toward the door. Then she hugged my right leg, climbing with both her small, red shoes on my foot. “Daddy, Daddy, let’s play the ski lift chair again, please.”
Oh God where am I, who am I, what is this? I don’t know, nothing makes sense but… Somehow I was glad, having the arms of this small being around my leg, completely trusting and depending on me. Nothing made sense but this was that I really felt made sense. I entered limping through the door, and I saw a woman: beautiful or ugly, that had no meaning, but the fact that her face radiated when she saw me—that was beautiful.
“Hey, mister, can I have the other leg for myself?” Oh, it looked like a 1950’s American cliché. But this candy was so sweet, I couldn’t help myself and I took it. After all, was there anything valuable I’d be losing from my previous life? I decided to play along. Reasoning? It didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was this feeling of happiness flooding my heart. I asked myself whether I really had a choice, because everything seemed to flow so naturally: no hard feelings, no elaborated algorithms to drain my energy.
“Sure, if you both hug my legs I’ll have more stability.” Oh yes, indeed. Stability meant time, the kind of time I was looking for.
Time has passed; my daughter is tall as I am now. My wife gave me love and I returned her the favor. I still love her; even if she passed away years ago. As long as I live she lives inside me, guiding me with her loving smile. Sometimes I stay on my balancing chair and look at the green grass. Life is beautiful, all these moments make life worth living. During this afterlife period I felt joy and sadness, felt full blown happiness and felt miserable; these are the pieces of the puzzle called “My Life”. We are just ephemeral structures, borrowing bits and pieces from the Universal soup in which are all immersed. Now I have only one thing left to do in my life, and this means that I have to close the circle. Somewhere on the grass there’s a mirror and through its looking glass there’s a forest. There… there’s a man who is lost inside his reasoning. He’s so hell-bent to get the rationality right that he doesn’t know what matters most. I must play the cuckoo man role, the cuckoo who announces that it’s time to ask for time. I stand up from the chair and take a deep breath. There’s a time for everything, and now it’s time for me to go.