I drag my feet through silt and sand. The water is ice cold, my skin has no heat left, no warmth from within. My blood has stopped flowing. Stopped dead. The shredded nightdress, weighed down with seawater, hangs from my shoulders, where the grey skin is torn and crumpled. My hair, much of it torn out in chunks from my scalp, hangs down my back and sticks to my face.
I know that I’m dead. I have to be. I came into contact with the rudder of a ship, I drowned, I was dragged for miles by the riptides.
The light is soft and blue, like the hour or so before dawn. I find myself walking along a beach. I can’t feel any pain, though I think my arm is broken. I can feel no sensations whatsoever. I cannot even feel the sand under my feet as I walk, and I leave no footprints. I don’t know this place. The island is dark and shapeless. There are no signs of houses, no boats, no harbour. Just dark hills and a solitary path. So I follow the path.
I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know what purpose a dead person could have. I think I am being led by nothing more than an instinct to move my limbs. I don’t even know if I could change my course if I tried. I don’t try. I just walk. Around me the fields of grass and reeds are moved by a swirling wind, the sound is muted and the sounds of the sea around are whisper soft. I feel scared, and yet I don’t understand what could be worse than dying. My greatest fear has happened: what is there left to be afraid of? And yet I am wondering, where is this place, and what is at the end of this path? I don’t understand how to think of this future, when I had thought my future had come to an end.
I realise that this must be the afterlife, but it makes me angry. If there is a life after death, it should be a destination, not another journey. Not another lonely walk through half-darkness, without purpose, propelled forward by the passage of time snapping at my heels. Where are the gates, where is the door, when will the clouds open? Or, where is the peace, and the dark and silence. Where is the end? And where are the rest of the dead? I’m not the only one. I’m not the only one.
The path goes on, the hills never change. The wind whistles and the sea whispers. The dawn never breaks, the sun never rises. Time is not passing. But still, my footsteps are carrying her somewhere, and now I see a convergence of paths. Ahead is a crossroads linking several other paths, they seem infinite. The landscape has no horizon, but the sky hangs above and the land stretches out below, and there are a hundred paths that meet in one great circle at the epicentre. I am terrified, even more afraid than I was when I saw my own death staring my in the face as I jumped from the bridge and plummeted into the cold, cold sea. I’m scared, but I keep walking. I walk toward the circle.
Now I see them. Now I see the other dead. They move slowly, and I can see that there is one traveller for every path. They all walk in the same manner, as though dragged down by some unseen weight. Some of them look alike – dressed the same, or wearing their hair the same, or they are of similar ages. Some are dressed in a white nightgown, white satin with a lace trim. It is the same gown I was wearing when I drowned. The one that is now clinging to me in tatters.
I turn to the nearest traveller as our paths grow closer. I am looking into my own face, I see my own eyes grow wide with fear, like a reflection. She, the other me, is just as pale and just as dead as I am but her skin is clear and tight, her hair, though wet, it smooth and intact. She has no wounds on her body but four small incisions. Two on the wrists, two further up, just below the crease of the elbow. There is no blood, but the white nightgown she wears – not satin, just cotton – is stained pink and red. She’s not a perfect reflection. She’s too young. She’s only seventeen or eighteen. But those are my eyes gazing back in numb confusion from her face. My face. I try to open my mouth to speak, to ask the question, but the words will not leave my throat, and the younger me turns away.
I look to the other side and see an old woman, limping along her path. She is tall and slim, but bent, and her limbs look twisted, it looks like one of her legs is broken. A large wound on her head has left her downy grey hair matted with dark blood, and her face is bruised. The old woman won’t turn to look at me, but I see something familiar in the woman’s profile. Something in the nose and the chin, it reminds me of my mother. But it isn’t my mother – she’s too tall, and her features are too angular. I’m glad that it’s not her. As she walks, a ring glints on her finger. No – two rings. I look down at my own hand. My own hand is unrecognisable, the skin blue, bloated and lacerated. But my wedding and engagement rings are still intact and in place. A gold band and a diamond that gleams in the half light. The same jewel glints on the hand of the old woman.
I begin to understand that all the walkers of all the paths are myself. We are not all alike, but it is the same body and the same soul, the same look in the eyes, a look of quiet pleading. I know the look, and I know what it means. It is the look that comes when I ask ‘what’s left for me’ and the answer won’t come. And so I plead with my reflection in the mirror, I ask myself to be kind, not to push me onwards despite the nothing that I face. I ask for it all to stop, and something changes in the face in the mirror. She nods back at me, she is determined. She begins to make a plan. Six years ago, she takes a pair of scissors and she cuts into the plastic part of a safety razor. At first, she just wants to see if it is possible, but now she knows. She knows she can remove the tiny little blades, and that they don’t hurt much, but that they’re sharp enough. She runs a hot bath.
Forty years from now, she has just climbed to the top of the stairs. It was hard, and took her longer than it ever had before. Her limbs ache. She doesn’t want to go to bed. She’s afraid of her dreams, and she’s even more afraid of the moment when she wakes up, forgets what her life is, and then, slowly, remembers. She stands at the top of the stairs. She doesn’t want to go to bed. She turns around, and lets go of the bannister. She closes her eyes.
Three days ago, she has just got married. She’s on her honeymoon. She isn’t truly happy, but she has her place in the world now. She has her purpose. She waits in the hotel room, she waits for her husband to return, but he doesn’t come back. He doesn’t answer the phone. He’s packed up all his things. He’s left her a pile of money on the dresser, and a note that says ‘I’m sorry’. She walks along the motorway all night. She sees the sea, she sees the outline of the huge bridge through the fog. She walks along the edge of the road, finds her way to the middle of the bridge, climbs up the huge metal beams along the side, climbs over the wire fencing, stands balanced on the very edge, holding on. The sea looks cold, but she’s already cold. She’s been walking all night in just her satin nightdress. She lets go.
But there is one thing I don’t understand. Why do I wake up again? Why do I emerge from the water, why do I come here and why must I meet myself, a hundred more of me, a hundred deaths, and none of them at peace? I reach the centre of the circle. I am surrounded by myself, and they are all looking at me with those eyes that ask for it all to end. I want to be off this island, I want to get away from all the eyes watching me, from all the sadness, from all the wasted lives. I wanted death to be peaceful, to be an ending, but here I find only more fear, I see even less purpose, even less sense to existence. But there is no peace, just chaos, a void, and I haven’t returned here for I never belonged here. And it isn’t an ending because there will always be a path that I never took. Some of the paths lead to the same place, they lead here. But I wonder if there if there are others, paths that lead away from this place. I turn around, and look behind me. It is the first time I have ever turned back, looked over my shoulder. I can see the horizon. I can see the sand, and I can see where the water meets the sky, and where, in between, the sun is beginning to rise.
I run, back along the path. Hands grasp at me from all sides, voices cry out, they beg me not to return there, they beg me not to leave them. But this isn’t the place for me, or for any of them. They have to see that. They have to see that none of us belong here.
I reach the sea, and I swim. I swim and I see the sun rise. I go under. The water feels cold, it threatens to fill my lungs, but I am only underwater for a few moments. I am kicking my legs, I am feeling the blood rush to my limbs, life fighting in my veins. I emerge again, into fresh sunlight. I can still see the bridge, there above, looming. A boat is coming toward me, the driver blasts his horn. I swim sharply away as the boat turns, and comes to a halt. Hands pull me out of the water. I’m alive.