At 1.28 am she wakes up, hearing the woman scream. She can hear the scream as it falls along the cliff top. She can hear it cascading down like something from a movie. The cry starts loud and high and ends, fades out dimly, lower and softer. She can’t tell where it came from. She thinks it is from the cliff but can’t be sure. It’s the falling tone that makes her think so.
She imagines some woman throwing herself off the escarpment into the tops of trees and the rocks underneath, or perhaps some man has pushed her. A lover, she has been keeping secrets from and who now wants to be rid of her. And perhaps the woman will drown in the light air on the way down as the scream drowns in the night air too. She listens but can’t tell. The scream had surrounded her and now it is falling.
The scream falls down the cliff-face into the valley below. She can hear the woman scream. The woman must be falling, the scream falls with her. Is it here? The woman should fight back. If it is indeed, a lover, the woman should shield her face with her hands. But the scream is a scream of defeat. A fear-sharp edge of scream which embraces fear as if there is nothing else. Is this what the final scream of courage sounds like as it leaves a body? Is the scream the tearing a person makes when the end of their courage has been reached? The falling off before they have really begun. Is this where all the trouble comes from - a simple finishing of the last reserves of courage?
The young woman swears that she was already awake when she heard it. The scream, the tear. This is not a story, not a scream that you can hear alone. She goes upstairs to her mother and becomes younger than her sixteen years. Mother, Mother, Mummy, did you hear it? The scream?
The mother has not heard it. The mother has been damply asleep, lying next to the step-father. She has been dreaming of disturbing things, things she does not understand, nothing, however, about screaming women, no voices falling off the edges of cliffs. Leave me alone, she says. Leave me alone and brushes her hand against her daughter. Leave me alone. The mother wants to be left alone, to sleep, to find the thing which has disturbed her in the night. To finish the dream. But the daughter won’t go away. Yes, the mother says Yes, yes, what is it? because the girl is her daughter and the daughter thinks she has heard a scream, a woman, in pain.
So then, the mother wakes the step father, and he looks around the borders of the house. Stepping lightly on the dewsoft maidenhair. He looks. He doesn’t see anything, not even the light of the only other farm they can usually see from their house. He listens like an animal, one ear tilted higher than the other. Like a cat. There is nothing. He goes downstairs to the other daughter, and hears her sleeping breath, in out, calm, not disturbed by screaming. Her skin is almost luminescent in the low light.
Then, without warning she wakes, sees the man’s face hardly lit at all in the quiet bedroom and screams screams in fright until the man is forced to turn on the light and calm her. It’s me. It’s me. It seems silly to ask if she had heard a scream, she had been asleep, he could see it. Nevertheless he asks her and she speaks incoherently about a man in a yellow robe, something she has been dreaming he supposes. A man with wispy hair. He comforts her and she turns back to her warm sheets. Mother, mother bed, hold me, comfort me, the man with the yellow robe is here she says to herself. She goes back to the dream, to the man in the yellow robe, who holds her in his arms and strokes her hair. Gently. Gently.
By now everyone else is awake. The two half-sisters, the half-brother. None of them heard anything. The others look everywhere for the source of the screaming which the daughter insists is real, really happened, but they find nothing. They call out into the dark from the balcony, but no one answers their anonymous cries. They think someone might have fallen and have vague fantasies about rescue attempts before they go back to bed, to sleep their unworried sleep.
The step-father privately thinks that the daughter has dreamt it all, although she says she hasn’t. She says she had been watching television and nodded off only for a moment. Was the scream her own? She can’t believe it. Was it she who cried out between the babble of infotainment and advertorials? Was it she who could not stand, any longer, the bouffant hair, the American teeth, the tight blanc mange faces, milky and gelid even on television? She hopes not. The young woman stays awake holding the papery hand of the step-father who is ill and sleepy. Never mind he says to her.
Then the young woman wants to call the police but, as the step-father points out, she is the only one who heard it. The next nearest house has its lights off, they are still asleep, and no one has found any evidence of any commotion at all. No trace of anything. Is she sure? But it is getting very late and she is losing her ability to discriminate. She had been sure.
They do not ring the police. Even the young woman thinks how absurd it would be - the conversation with some police officer. She knows what they would think, bored on the end of the phone.
Deep in the valley, Ruth wakes.
She is used to her insomnia, she has lain with it as long as she can remember. Usually she wakes, reads books, her scientific journals, or works on some theoretical problem which calms her. Mathematics and the tiny cosmologies of physics have a grace and motion of their own which sates her and she falls asleep again an hour before she has to be up. She doesn’t worry if the night consists of small slivers of sleep and large slabs of reading and thinking. She’s used to it and doesn’t fret.
Tonight though, she frets. She keeps turning and worrying. She does not know why she has woken so early. Normally she wakes at three. This morning it still seems night, and there is a discord in the air. The sheets are twisted. The stillness that lovers have remarked on has deserted her, and her body is alive with something she cannot name. Her mind full of panthers and lynxes. Stalking and then reappearing, close to her face. They do not make any sort of noise. She cannot call up her friendly spirits, her protecting agents, and she feels bereft and lonely in the world more than she can say. Ruth, Ruth, she says to herself in a gentle voice but her voice sounds strange, and not at all comforting. She doesn’t sleep, nor can she read. She turns and turns and frets about things which can’t be changed. She gets up and makes herself some tea and stares at the night garden. Finally, she turns to the cards. Not that she believes them exactly, but she is lonely and it gives her something to bounce off, something to react to. She is talking to herself through these cards she knows that, but she believes that there is something, many things, about time which she does not understand and maybe through the agency of the cards she will learn something. Her rational, blinkered mind scoffs at these fanciful justifications.
She lives in the valley, believes that she has a guardian angel, three of them in fact, and she talks to the cards late at night when the world’s time is twisted like an insomniac sheet, wrenched around and creaking in the night. Where there are tears and rips in the fabric of things and where she can sometimes slip a card between the many universes so tightly packed together.
She does this with questions. She wants to know whether things will get better. This will be a good question. She will try to understand what the cards seem to say, and although she cannot always understand what is being said, she always tries to be an apt pupil, an attentive conversational partner, if only with herself.
Tomorrow she will go on a journey, and she is anxious in a way that makes her think that she is having a premonition of danger, don’t go, don’t go. She reminds herself that it is always like this before she steps out of the valley, and so far she has always returned, although not always unchanged. The world out of the valley is different, and she is a stranger there. She is a different person, a singular person, not someone who is part of the fabric of the valley, not someone socially related to just about everyone she meets. Someone with a position, however insignificant, in the scheme of things.
Actually, she is afraid of the cards, and she hasn’t opened their tiny box yet.
She has had this box of cards for a long time. They’re small, half the size of normal playing cards. Sometimes she thinks she has the gift of insight and understanding. There is much she understands, but much, even about herself, that she doesn’t. Sometimes, though, she sees, without understanding, in a whole phrase, a whole vision. She did not hear the scream.
She is afraid, because the world does not seem to be hanging together as it should. Something is amiss. Something is wrong although she doesn’t know what. Perhaps it is her. She is too afraid to open the box. She leaves it on the table and goes outside and looks up at the escarpment and feels ill. Perhaps it is the feeling of a scream that she has. Perhaps it was she who screamed.
The next day, in the daylight, the scream has disappeared. In its place is a tenuous grey light which Ruth feels much happier in. She packs her clothes, it’s only a few days, she will be home soon she says, and forgets the prescience she thought she felt on the previous night. She puts everything in a little bag, and decides not to take a camera. She is sick of the idea that everything needs to be recorded. She orders her papers and packs her linen handkerchiefs even though she is a plain woman, who wears plain clothes she likes some lace in her life: lace edged linen handkerchiefs is about the extent of it. And French perfume. An affectation.
She has to catch a train and then a bus, and then an aeroplane, and then a bus, another train and then a taxi. She prefers not to drive to the airport because it disrupts her concentration. If she is on a journey she wants to be absorbed in the process of the journey. In the isolation even a routine journey gives. She has brought with her the work of Chaung Tzu - styled ‘a Chinese mystic’. She knows nothing about him or his work other than that he is a follower, and a deviator from, Lao Tzu the much more famous philosopher-mystic. The train is full of teenaged women talking about clothes. They’re silly, but she doesn’t judge them particularly harshly - this is what young women do at their age. It’s about mating she thinks. Young men kill themselves in wars or cars, and the young women adorn themselves so as to attract a good range of males to choose from. The girls wave at young men out of the window of the train but the young men don’t see them.
Meanwhile the varying ridges and sharp edges of the escarpment file past the window of the train.
Of course Ruth did not die or come to any sort of grief on the journey, and it revealed only what she had taken away with her. She needn’t have gone anywhere, perhaps, to learn about how things were put together. With what tenuous and odd connections things draw strength and cohesion. She had slept little and strange fits of crying had broken up the hotel nights. The smooth table tops of the professionally made beds looked as if made for virgins. Nevertheless, the panthers lurked in the hotel closets and she imagined their fur.
The world remained itself, ordinary, she got on the buses and planes and came home to sit in the garden.
At this time of the year, the poppies were out: big headed and long-limbed like schoolgirls, they stood about with excellent indifference. Oranges hung from their tree, lemons from theirs. She walked into the township and bought bread from the young woman in the bakery, who smoothed back her thin hair with the back of her wrist and passed over the change with the other hand. And Ruth could feel the soft touch of her skin, warm and comfortable. This was the young woman who had heard the scream.
They smiled at each other politely. Warm enough for you today? said the young woman, and Ruth replied that it was, or that it would get hotter, or that it wouldn’t, but the young woman was already serving another customer. Ruth took the bread, went out, crossed the road and bought some milk then walked down the road to her home.
Everything remained in place.
The houses had a solidity which she had never noticed before. They sat on the earth so deliberately. Cars went by with absolute purpose and had anyone noticed Ruth they would have seen an unremarkable woman coming home from the shops carrying bread and milk, walking easily in the warm morning sun.
When Ruth reached the front door, there began a terrible screaming. It was as if the fabric of the world was suddenly wrenched, as if all the metal things were abrading all the other metal things. Vision slipped and the door was no longer a banal rectangle of ornamental wood but a rhombus. Fight! Fight! She could hear her own voice in her ears. Fight! Fight against this! She looked at her immobile hands and they became slow and unable to move the key into the lock. She did not know how to fight. There were too many things impinging on her, too many things she did not understand. She could not understand how her ordinary life could suddenly become so twisted, and did not know what it took to straighten it out again. The noise tilted in her ears. She did not feel afraid. She knew that this thing was external to her. She knew that nothing she could do, or any prescience she might have would affect the outcome one way or another, and that, brilliant as people thought her, she did not have the capacity to unravel this thing.
She wondered in this strange warping whether it was just her, or whether the world had in fact shifted and that she was one witness among many. There was no way of knowing. People would not say. Or would say: I had a bit of a turn on Saturday, or, I think I have a migraine coming on, or ... any one of a number of things. But she felt that it was bigger than the circumference of her body and that the tension she felt, the tears, the feelings of foreboding were not a sign of madness but a response to something amiss, something strange in the network of things which she could not understand.
The world straightened again. It might only have been a millisecond, a nanosecond, that it had been adrift but the objects in her house seemed to have a new disposition. It seemed like the house of a stranger and she was surprised that she still knew her way around the house, and knew where all her usual things were. The teapot, the knives.
In the following weeks the young woman on the escarpment often had the sensation that the mountain was shifting. She said to her mother: Was that a tremor? but the mother was taking care of the step-father and simply said distractedly: I don’t think so dear. The young woman went to the job in the bakery and watched the world as if it were about to explode. She didn’t want to go out with her friends because they seemed, for no particular reason at all, to be grotesque. She couldn’t understand them, or what she had ever seen in them. She watched late night television, and let the dark circles grow under her eyes.
After five weeks, both the young woman and Ruth had become accustomed to living in this shifting world. They made allowances - like a sailor becoming accustomed to the uncertain motion of the deck under the feet. It was not exactly equilibrium but it was a way of negotiating the tricky surfaces of things.
In the sixth week the screaming began again.
The young woman on the mountain ran out to the edge of the escarpment looking for whatever wild beast or woman it was in pain. She stood on the edge as much as she dared and called out until her throat became rough with calling. Ruth paced the floor of her bedroom like an animal. Her sleek skin riding over the muscles. The palms moist and vulnerable. She walked in the garden in the night. Brushing the poppies with her dressing gown as she strode with long steps through the weeds and among the over-hanging trees. She was alert, analytical, distanced when the man in a yellow coat stepped into her path. What do you want? Ruth asked him. She was startled, but not afraid. What do you want? It was almost as if she had been expecting him or someone like him.
He stepped forward and at that moment the screaming began again. The earth seemed to be shifting its axis. The young woman on the escarpment shifted and swayed, wild eyed on the edge. What do you want? Ruth called out. What do you want? She looked at his eyes and knew he was part of it. The one wrenching the world around. She did not understand how he was there or what he would do. He came closer and was saying her name, Ruth, Ruthie, in a soft breath like a lover. What do you want? Ruth asked him again. He lifted his hand as if to caress her face or assault her - she could not tell which. She could not tell whether he was evil or whether he was some benign saving force. And then the earth screamed with a wrenching scream again and all Ruth’s passion and sleekness, her fear and her courage combined, leapt into her until she could not tell whether she herself were evil or benign. She stayed pivoted on the ground as the earth shifted and moved. He moved his hand closer to her face and she was suddenly joined with something she didn’t understand. Her hands became strong. She took him by the hair and flung him into the poppies, beating him wildly with her fists. He was an old man and held up his hands in front of his face. Lady, lady, he said. She picked up a stone and beat him with it, smashing the smooth skin of his forehead. Blood ran into his thin hair. She ground his eyes and broke the old yellow teeth of him. She beat him. She could hear herself screaming at him although she could not understand what it was she was saying. She beat him until he didn’t move and no longer spoke. She beat him until she herself was exhausted, and then lay on his body like a lover until her green dressing gown was wet with dew and until the screaming stopped.
The woman on the escarpment cried deep tears, and Ruth stood up. There was nothing more to be done.
Ruth went inside and looked at her beautiful mathematical papers. She moved the figures and symbols around and became absorbed in the beauty of it. The elegant creatures on the page aligned themselves in patterns which were deeply charming to her, which covered any rift. Then she slept, her head resting on her work in the still early morning never dreaming she would see him again.
© 2006 Chris Mansell
Previously published in Westerly (Australia) and The Antigonish Review (Canada)