Rose’s head drops, jerks, and she’s awake. I’ve fallen asleep meditating, she thinks. It’s been a while since she’s done that. Over the years, an ease of concentration has incrementally developed. Staying awake is—was—easy. Eyes still closed, she circle-sweeps her hands overhead, breathing in. The inner elbow of her right arm burns like a cigarette has been stubbed out on the flesh. Her muscles complain as if, instead of their own weight, each arm carries a twenty-pound dumbbell. Hands together, she touches her forehead. Clarity of perception, she thinks ritually. Then, hands to mouth, she thinks: Honesty in what I say and do. Hands to heart, she bows: An open and compassionate heart toward all beings.
Ritual done, she takes a moment to center herself, to be aware of being aware, before ending the session. The smell of forest loam, damp and earthy, fills her nose. Mixed with it is the faint exciting odor of burning leaves in autumn.
Rose’s eyes snap open. Golden leaves scatter a small patch of earth around her folded legs. Scarlet foliage shivers like flames on an enclosing hedge.
“What the…” Rose is not in her meditation room. It is not August. She looks up. Above her stretches the trunk of a slender pale-barked tree. Yellow leaves, the shape and size of coins, clatter like falling rain as a breeze plays them against a deep blue sky.
Coins begin to spin, the edges of blue growing dark. Rose drops her head into her hands, waiting for the vertigo to pass. Through her fingers, she sees her legs crossed in a half lotus. They are fish-belly white and skinny, shins knife-sharp, skin falling away in crepey folds from her thighbones.
In August, at the age of sixty-eight, fit and fine, Rose sat on her meditation cushion. Now she is a hundred and three, no place she’s ever been before, and it is autumn.
Holy Rip Van Winkle, she thinks.
Raising her arms, she studies herself. Inside her right elbow, sore and ripped at the center, is a raw puncture wound. Several healing jab-wounds orbit it. Tracks on her arms, like a junkie. She looks down. Her chest and belly are covered in a short blue-and-white-print cotton tunic. Tree bark chafes her lower back as she shifts position. Her back is bare.
This is a hospital gown.
Fear that has been gathering like an army on the edges of her confusion pours down in a screaming horde. Rose closes her eyes and raises her hands, palms out as if to stop the barbarian invasion.
“It’s a dream,” she says. Her throat is dry, her breath puffing in rasps over an arid tongue and cracked lips.
Rubbing her face vigorously, Rose breathes deeply several times, then opens her eyes again. Still autumn. Still an ancient junkie. Still in an alien land. She slaps herself, hard: cheeks, shoulders, thighs. At the same time she yells as loud as she can: “Aaaahhhhhhhh!”
Nothing changes, except now her cheeks sting and her throat is filled with razor blades and sawdust. Thirst has become more demanding than the pain in her arm, the sickening spin of leaves more demanding than fear.
This is a dream.
Rose knows this. People don’t wake up on the wrong side of the rabbit hole. She rolls to her hands and knees. Slowly, achingly, her dream-body convinced it is that of an emaciated centenarian, she readies to stand. Arms around the tree, she pulls herself to her feet. The bark is smooth. A breeze blows cool on her bare buttocks.
Awfully specific for a dream, she thinks. This thought injects another dose of terror into her brain. She lets it pass. It leaves a trail of broken glass in her psyche. Rose has had many dreams where she knows she is dreaming. So many, she has devised a surefire test. When Rose is dreaming, she can fly. Letting go of the tree, she raises skeletal mottled arms to the sky.
Rose cannot fly.
She’s back on her knees, sticks and leaves pricking her bare legs.
Asleep, awake, in her meditation room, or in the Land of Nod, she has to have water. Never before has she been truly thirsty. This is it. Water becomes the only thing that matters. After she drinks, she will figure out what is happening.
In the ring of flaming leaves surrounding her, there is a break, a dark triangle big enough for a child—or a shriveled old woman—to crawl through.
Rose crawls through it.
On the other side is a long narrow meadow. Sun touches the grasses. They sparkle with their offerings of dew. Cars honk in the distance. Traffic hums faintly. Beyond the trees, across the cleared area, she sees roofs tucked into the riot of fall color. Rose has never been here before.
No past, no future, the present a mystery, she is groundless, a spark of life in a chunk of meat, part of the duff and twigs. This is the eternal moment of Now. Somehow, she’d imagined it would be more enlightening, less creepy.
Laughter, gay and careless, percolates through the gap in the foliage screening her from the meadow.
Holding to fistfuls of the supple branches, she totters out of her meditation lair. She pulls herself to her feet, stands swaying and blinking in the morning sun. Two boys, perhaps twelve or thirteen, both wearing small backpacks, are walking bicycles down the green. They don’t notice an ancient skeleton in a hospital gown wobbling in the shrubs.
In the side pocket of one boy’s pack is a red plastic water bottle.
In another incarnation, she might have said, “Excuse me” or “Good morning.” What she does is point and croak, “Water.” A cartoon, the tattered old prospector crawling across the desert sands toward a mirage boasting a single coconut palm, unrolls in her mind, and she laughs, a dusty “Huh, huh!”
The boys stop.
“Did you hear that?” says the boy with the water bottle.
“Gunga Din,” Rose says, and wishes she hadn’t. It will be incomprehensible—insane—to a modern boy.
“There!” The other one points a finger at Rose. “Hey, lady, were you the one screaming?”
The nearness of water gives Rose the initiative to let go of the bush. She takes two staggering steps toward the boys, both frozen, mouths agape, eyes round. Reflected in those eyes Rose sees herself as the boys must see her. Hair uncombed, leaves clinging to a filthy stained hospital gown, gaunt and wobbly and batshit crazy.
“OMG,” says the nearer boy, a nice-looking kid with shiny brown hair falling over his forehead, his wiry frame covered in the ubiquitous baggy cargo shorts and a green T-shirt. “You okay, ma’am?”
Rose can think of no short answer to that. She opens her mouth to say, “Could you please let me have a drink of water?” What comes out is “Unh, unh.” A withered arm with a bony hand claws at the air. The boys flinch back.
“Aden,” says the boy who has the water, “you go tell the people at the nursing home one of their patients got away. I’ll stay here and make sure she doesn’t get more lost.”
“You sure?” asks Aden, eager to get away from the specter that is Rose.
“Pretty sure,” the water boy says.
Aden straddles his bicycle.
Nursing home? Got away?
“No,” Rose cries feebly. “Help me!” Her knees give way. As she falls to all fours, the hospital gown parts in back and slides down her elbows, leaving her naked.
“Go! Go! Go!” she hears the water boy yell, then the sound of bicycle tires throwing gravel as Aden leaves.
No longer able to hold her head up, Rose stares at the grass, panting like a dog.
A tentative hand lands on her shoulder. “Water, ma’am. I’m sorry there’s not much.” Gripped in a brown young hand, the bottle appears beneath her face, the spout near her mouth. Rose wraps cracked lips around it and sucks.
“You have to bite down to get the water to come out,” the boy says.
Rose bites down and, like a suckling calf, works her throat. A couple of tablespoons of tepid water reach her before a gurgle lets her know the bottle is empty. She keeps sucking convulsively until the boy gently pries the spout from her lips. There isn’t enough water to reach her throat, but her tongue is sufficiently wet. It no longer feels like beef jerky.
“Can you stand up?” the boy asks.
Rose nods. With his help she makes it shakily to her feet.
“Let’s get you fixed up,” the boy suggests. Matter-of-factly, he draws the hospital gown up around her shoulders. Moving behind her, he says, “You’ve got yourself all undone.”
Her gown is tugged straight as he ties the two ties in the back.
“Amazing boy” is all Rose can manage.
“When Dad’s aunt Clara got bats in her belfry we kept her at home,” he says. “There. Good as new.”
“My belfry is emptying. Bats are flying the coop. Mixed metaphor,” Rose says. “You—somebody—tell me where this is.” Rose feebly waves an arm and feels the gown pull open over her bottom. “This is so weird … It’s not summer. What—I don’t know…”
“You’ll be okay. Aden is going to get people to help you. Want to sit down?” the boy asks kindly.
Rose doesn’t want to sit down, but realizes she can no longer stand up. He helps her to a boulder near his fallen bike. Without his hand gripping her arm, Rose would collapse.
“Hey!” comes a shout. Two men in white coats burst out from an arch of trees a hundred yards away. “Hold her!” one of them shouts as they trot toward her and the boy.
“White coats,” she murmurs. “Where are the butterfly nets?” Terror slams into her, snatching the breath from her lungs. “No! No,” she begs, and clutches the boy’s hand. “There’s been a mistake. Don’t let them take me.”
“You’ll be okay now,” the boy says soothingly. “They’ll get you some water to drink, and get you all set.”
The men arrive. Both panting, both overweight, alike to one another as Tweedledee and Tweedledum.
“I think she’s super dehydrated,” the boy says. “I gave her some water, but it wasn’t much.”
“Thanks, kid,” the nearest Tweedle says. “We’ll take it from here.”
Rose can’t run. She can barely stand.
Expertly, they flank her. Each takes an elbow and a grip on the corresponding shoulder. Effortlessly, they lift her until her toes are skimming the ground, not like she’s a person, but like she’s a sack of lawn clippings being dragged to the curb.
Copyright © 2019 by Nevada Barr