Tangled Knots – Short Fiction by Helena Farrell


I long to find the thread that will help me unravel, to bring me back to the beginning of myself. Within the crevices of my brain, forfeiting my thoughts, dementia has burrowed deep. I have vanished alongside the untold secrets and mysteries of my life, lost to the shadow of all things. Hiding from myself, I wait to be found. 

Every night the same dream resurrects me from arms of sleep. Standing alone on a beach, I am shrouded in a dull sea mist. On both sides of the shore, dark sinewy limbs of jagged cliff rocks stretch out to welcome the ocean into the bosom of the beach. Monstrous waves arrive at my feet to thunderous applause announcing the arrival of an impending storm on the horizon. Mottled along the shoreline are pebbles, driftwood, and seashells, spitted out from the foaming crests of exhausted waves. As I traverse across the strand, seventy-six years of ageing ripens my bones. At random, I gather pebbles, hiding them deep within the pockets of my skirt until I can hold no more.

Weighed down from life rather than pebbles, I fall to my knees spreading the contents of what I have collected before me. With great care, I spell out the numbers three and seven in the sand. Ruminating on each stone as it passes through my frail fingers, I know it is important for me to remember these numbers, but I don’t know why. 

Sitting back on my bare heels, I stare outwards at the vast grey horizon. A lock of silver hair dances upon my cheekbone, as the sea breeze gains momentum. Coming from across the headlands, I can taste rain on my lips. I sense I have been here before, an obscure memory shifting through the passages of time. Lost and confused, I have nowhere to go, and no one to go to. Panic sears through me. Circling around are millions of grains of sand that sweep into the rising winds. I feel as if the circumference of my life is closing in around me.

Dusk seeps over the black cliffs enveloping the beach. Sinister in presence, the cliffs appear to surge closer as darkness suffocates my mind. I try to make logic out of why I am here. Rain begins to fall upon the labyrinth of my face. As I rise to my feet, the tide begins to pull into its clutches the pattern of pebbles I have arranged. Calling out the numbers, I weave amongst the waves searching for them. I do not notice the sea taunting at my skirt. Currents swirl around my ankles, pulling me under. Wrestling with forces of nature, I try to overpower it with my feeble body. Summoning all of my strength, I surge above the surface of the water gasping for air. A piercing golden beam of light shines upon my face, as a voice resonates from across the bay. 

When I open my eyes, a face is looking down at me I feel I should know. No longer in the water, I am drowning amongst sheets, tearing at the bed clothes. The face belongs to a lady who reassures me I am safe. With a tone of familiarity, she tells me her name is Elizabeth. Relief washes over me as each one of my breathes slows down to a crawl. I stare at her, searching her face for clues as to how I know her. A curtain of tears falls across my eyes, clouding the space between us. Elizabeth touches my cheek. In the upfolds of her lips is a warmth that softens the edges of my confusion. I want to give her the recognition that she sees in me, but I don’t know how. I don’t know anything anymore. All I know is that Elizabeth sees me, not the broken pieces of myself.   

Once Elizabeth helps me to sit up on the bed, she hands me a notebook and pen. I leaf through the pages. Line after line in tumbledown writing are the numbers three and seven. I try to speak, but only ghosts of words I once knew echo across the room. The tangled knots of conversations that were the first signs of my illness, have been replaced by incoherent ramblings. Wearing my days inside out, I live in a vacuum. Shadows lurk in the empty spaces where my memories used to be. The pen begins to move across the page as I find myself writing the numbers, row after row. For the first time I feel in control. 

Elizabeth moves around the room with a sense of purpose I can trust. As my eyes follow her, I become distracted by a painting on the wall behind her. It is the beach in my dreams, only this beach is bathed in calm seas and a cinnamon sunset. Images puncture through the hinterland of my memories. I hear the laughter of a young child, the taste of salt air on my lips. There are sandcastles and picnic blankets, beach balls and seashells. I feel the strong grasp of an arm around my waist. I can smell him. I turn to nuzzle into the nook of his neck and then…nothing. I am back in the room. Breaking my state is a sterile fluorescent light above my head that Elizabeth has just turned on. I cry out in frustration; with a voice I do not recognize but leaves my body regardless. Unfazed, Elizabeth moves to my bedside, soothing me as if she has been here a thousand times before. 

What is to become of me? Change has pursued time vigorously over recent weeks. Across the floors of my mind memories lie, resembling shattered pieces of a broken mirror. In those shards of reflection, I see images of who I once was. Isolated and lost to an alien world, my entire body has fallen through the cracks in my mind. Folding in on myself, I am disappearing from this world.

Fingers of dawn curl around the corner of the curtains, turning the page over on a new day. The smell of breakfast traps the hunger pangs in my stomach as Elizabeth places a tray on the table in front of me. Putting the notebook to one side, I pick up a spoon. My mind goes blank. What do I do next? I sit in a pool of hopelessness as the seconds pass me by. Loneliness ripples around me.  My cheeks flush, my heart aches. I don’t know what to do. Tears flow deeper and heavier. Travelling further into the emptiness of myself, I sink into a sadness from where there is no return. Easing my withered body against the pillows behind me, I close my eyes to the world. My body is raging against the dying light of my mind. Spiralling into darkness, I am forgotten. I am no longer who I am supposed to be. I have become unremarkable. 

A sigh leaves my body taking my lungs with it. I am no longer comfortable in life. There is a quiet unease within me as how to cope. I feel a hand in mine. Elizabeth sits beside me. The tray has disappeared and in its place a picture frame. Her eyes are swimming in despair, their rims rusting with weariness. Pangs of guilt prick at my subconscious. In the picture before me are three people, a man, woman, and child. Splinters of awareness fracture though the fog of thoughts which envelops me. I rub my finger across the image of a family full of love and laughter.  Recollections come flooding back. A child’s laugh, an arm around my waist, sandcastles, the beach. Several times I glance between Elizabeth and the child in the picture. Through the glass on the picture frame, I trace freckles across her face. The same smile, the same eyes. A hardness inside me begins to soften. It is Elizabeth, my Elizabeth. Dropping the picture on my lap, I place my hands on either side of her face, pulling her forehead towards me to meet mine. It is my turn to wipe away her tears, to ease my daughters torment. At last, it is my turn to see her. 

We stay like that until her tears melt like snowflakes. In the space between us lies the picture of Elizabeth, my husband Joe and I standing at the doorway to our new home. Over my shoulder, on the red brick wall to my right are the numbers three and seven. Number thirty-seven, the number of home. In that split second, I am home. 

Hours stretch across the known and unknown, bleeding into one another until time has no boundaries. A dull haze obscures from my mind’s eye the comings and goings of the day. Lurking behind the corners of myself, memories are both out of sight and out of reach. During the day, a lovely lady called Elizabeth takes care of my needs with a grace and dignity that would make any mother proud. As my compass, I allow her to navigate me through the epoch of my affliction. Tethered to one another, there is a connection between us that I am at a loss to explain. 

As the evening thickens, a veil of stars falls across the night sky. Elizabeth kisses my forehead, squeezes my hand, and turns off the light. Left alone, I slip into the black, where I swim in sleep, drowning in dreams. However, there is no more tearing at the sheets, no more screaming numbers upon wakening. The same dream persists in haunting me, albeit different. I find myself back on the beach, but it is calm, the shoreline empty of pebbles. The tide nips at my heels like a playful puppy. Fingers of seaweed tickle my toes as the water laps around my ankles. I wade waist deep into the curling cold waters. Feeling reckless and indifferent I take one last breath and dive deep into my disease. No longer do I fight the sea, crushing my tired bones. No light comes, no echoes from across the bay, as my lungs fill with darkness. 

Everything stops. I surrender. I am free. 

Helena Farrell won the Writers by The Sea short story contest

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