Chapter 1 : Prologue
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Time healed none of my wounds. I had very little of it when I was alive and during my time in the land of the dead it betrayed me even more. Perhaps I expected too much from something so benign, from something so inanimate; it was indifferent to me and my troubles. Time was as dead as I was.
Dwelling on thoughts of the past always took me to the same place, where the heart of the white world rotted slowly beneath the hill. Vivid grass tickled my feet as I felt the slow and irregular beating of its heart. My heart. If I closed my eyes, I could imagine an engorged heart buried underneath the surface, throbbing as its veins turned black, spilling an inky substance into the white earth up into the grass. The darkness within me would one day poison this entire world, cracking its immaculate surface until the souls of the dead fell through the chasms. I would be their downfall.
My burden was a heavy one. My untimely death had taken me to this world, where I was trapped beyond the grasps of life. Those that passed through this place repeated questions I had asked after my arrival and I was none the wiser even after my long imprisonment. We found each other, the newly dead and the veteran, desperate in our quest for answers and knowledge, the meaning of life. I could not give them what they wanted.
They always left me behind, the dead. They passed through the white world like passengers on a train; I was merely a stop on the way to their final destination. I understood the ways of this world, as it understood me, and it was clear from the very beginning that this was my stop. Where my companions remained unchanged, I grew and aged, time weathering me in ways that had no impact on others. I changed with the world around me, my bones growing as trees formed woods and forests, skin forming like still water. And at the centre of it all was Strawberry Hill, the green island in the middle of the perfect lake; my rotten heart beneath my unblemished exterior.
Peering into the lake, I saw only my reflection. Those striking blue eyes belonged to the young girl that I once was, the woman I had grown to be and who I would become. The image never rippled, the smooth surface surrounding the hill perfectly round. Staring out into the distance, I watched as the forest formed before my eyes, immaculately circular around the lake. Trees grew tall, like limbs stretching up into the sky as though racing for an invisible finishing line, pushing and shoving other trunks and branches out of the way. They were taller than any tree that grew in the living world, and I was always surprised when the growth halted; I expected them to grow into infinity. Arms split, branches developed and a canopy slowly spread out across the forest, casting dark shadows onto the white earth beneath it. This dense wood served as a waiting room for all who came here. Possibly many of the dead who entered the white world got lost in the trees, forever searching for a way out but the Orchard had no end. Idly, I wondered if they’d one day end back where they started but never realise. How else could I explain why I did not belong to the fruit trees in the Orchard? How was it that I had the power in my aged hands to send the dead into the next life? I didn’t even know where I sent them, but they never came back. Never.
I often found myself unable to leave the hill, dark thoughts rooting me to the ground along with the strawberry bushes, their scent taunting me as I longed for the freedom of the orchards. I would glimpse images in the lake, fragments of memories or snippets of life in the land of living. Sometimes I could not bear to look at them, for I rarely liked what I could see. Every moment reminded me of all that I had lost, of all the grief and guilt that I had to shoulder. Storms would brew in watercolours above my head and rain would fall like heavy teardrops into the pure lake, disappearing without a trace. Thunder would rumble with my roars and lightning would illuminate the white lands beyond the forest.
The powers I possessed in the white world were useless against the trysts of life. I told this to those who begged me for help, who demanded that I give them the key to immortality. I could only guide them, advising them to bide their time, but in a land where time made fools of all its inhabitants, time was not an attractive answer. Seasons changed in mere moments, on whims and fancies, time eluding all laws. It could not be trusted. I was the bearer of bad news, the grim reaper, and it made for a lonely existence.
I had to learn not to become too attached to the people who crossed my path; inevitably, I was the one who sent them on. It did not do to get upset about such things. I was an irrevocably permanent part of this world and I had long ago accepted that I could not move on myself. Friends were denied, for the heartache of losing those I loved over and over again would be altogether too devastating.
Emotion always found me in the end; whether it was through haunting visions of the past or briefly finding myself walking among the living again, it sought me out. There was nowhere for me to hide, for the white world worked in ways that I had not yet understood. Images of my brothers appeared on the glassy surface of the lake, magnetically drawing me to watch. I wished I could bury the past, forget the pain I had caused, but for as long as I remained in the white world my past would haunt me. It would never let me leave.
AN: After a year of leaving this alone, I've finally got to rewrite it as it should have been written the first time. It's a companion story to Sitting in the Orange Tree, but I'm trying to write it so that you don't need to read that first. If there's anything confusing, please let me know and I'll try and clarify. Thank you to Rachel (PenguinsWillReignSupreme) for being my rock, as always. I couldn't do it with out her! Please leave me a review if you have time, I appreciate all feedback.