You walk on a trail beneath naked branches. They are dark against a cloudless moonlit sky. You’ve come home by treading this woodland path since you were a child. Now you are grown and you are returning after having been too long away.
A thatched bungalow appears through the trees. The thatch is a rough mass of shadows in the moonlight, and you remember Dad up there, putting the finishing touches to the top ridge. He died the following winter and Mum followed suit three days later. Some say she died of a broken heart but you know different. You remember digging their graves in a clearing in the wood.
You haven’t visited that clearing in years.
You reach the front door of the bungalow. The painted stain is peeling. You open it in smooth silence.
A rug runs the length of the hallway and your feet make no sound as you reach the door at the end.
All is dark.
You stand before a closed door. Yellow light, which brightens and darkens in unpredictable ways, issues from the gap near the floor.
Within the room there is a lit fireplace. Flames lick and dance as the wood burns. Stretched shadows from a poker, shovel and brush jitter on the wooden floor.
There are two chairs, both are empty.
You enter the room with the bright fire and two chairs. One creaks as a woman shifts her weight back and forth, making it rock. She is half lit and half in shadow. Her hair hangs like a grey veil across her face. A glint of light near her feet draws your eye. You see the exposed steel on the toes of worn boots.
You had to leave those boots behind when you went away.
Her hands, although lumpy with arthritis, move with speed and skill. She has a hook and yarn and is working on a thick cord. The hook stabs and pulls and twists in quick succession. You admire the texture of the individual stitches as they spiral around the cord. The cord falls over her legs and is coiled into a large pile between her feet.
“Who’s there?” she says. Her head tilts as if to listen. You cannot see her eyes. “Is it you?”
You stand beside the rocking chair, looking down upon her greying hair, not unlike the thatch on the roof.
There is a sharp crack from the fireplace and a flaming splinter of wood lands on the floor next to the coiled pile of crocheted yarn. All her movement stops. She hooks one side of her hair over one ear, and leans forward, smelling the air. She reaches out with a steel toe-capped boot and crushes the glowing ember with a squeaky scrape under her sole. A black smear joins other smears there on the floorboard.
The firelight throws the wrinkles on one side of her face into deep relief. The shadows animate her expression so that it seems to change with uncanny speed: a sneer, a grin, a grimace, a frown. You can’t see the other, darker, side of her face.
She inhales deeply, then smiles or frowns or grimaces. The wrinkles push up in waves from the corner of her mouth to her eye, which is cataract white.
“Back again? Will you sit?”
You sit in the other chair. You hear the creak of the rocking chair and watch as the crochet hook pushes, pulls and twists at the end of the cord: three times as she rocks forward, three times as she rocks back.
Her face is grown old. Where has the time gone? How long have you been away? You cannot bear to look at those deep wrinkles on her half-familiar face. Instead, your eyes move down to watch her hands.
The cord grows.
After a while, she says: “It’s time, don’t you think?”
You stand at the threshold to a dark room. The hearth is unlit and cold. You see the dark shapes of chairs on either side of the fireplace.
A breeze blows in around you, through you.
You hear a creak. Your eyes move to the rocking chair.
It’s still and empty.
The sound comes again, from on high, near the ceiling. You look up.
A straight, thin line draws itself from a wooden rafter to a dark shape that hangs a couple of inches above the floor. The breeze has set the shape to swinging and then you hear a clump as something hits the floor. The steel toe of your old boot seems bright in the dim moonlight. The exposed foot is naked and surely there are too many bones inside that bag of skin.
You know you are too late, just like when Mum left to follow Dad, but you rush forward anyway. You reach up, and somehow miss, slip past, as if you’re nothing but vapour.
You stand looking up at the rope and notice the stretched spiral of stitches in it. You are confused and lost as you relive old memories that are too hard to process.
You turn. Entering the room is a woman. You know she has made the journey through the dark wood, past the dark door, along the dark hallway and into the dark room. Her skin is smooth and young, her eyes dark but bright, just like you remember, just like before you left. There is no hanging form beside you as you step forward to meet her.
You reach for and take her outstretched hand.
She pulls you to her and then you are held. You wrap your arms around her.
For the first time in what feels like could be forever, you feel warmth.
In her arms you are, at last, home again.