What did I notice first? That the trees described a perfect circle, and I was at the center of it? That the moon I glimpsed through branches was full, but misty and wreathed with drifting clouds? Or was it the whispering?
I sat on dry grass and looked up and out from my circle at the world beyond, gradually realizing that the sounds I had been hearing for some time - wind in tree limbs, wind over grass, wind in the air above - had other sounds within, and those sounds, when I bothered to listen carefully, had sounds within them, like many instruments playing the same tune, except that the innermost voices of all were not making music but speaking. To me.
The voices were trying to tell me something, whispering, constant, insistent, sometimes urgent, they were trying to reach me, trying to teach me, to show me something, trying to make me understand something I had known for a very long time but had forgotten. What was it?The blood in my ears pounded with the words the wind and trees were repeating until I could almost decipher them. I was afraid of their significance. The voices chattered in the rattle of the leaves overhead, in the groaning treetops they cried out and keened, in my heartbeat they chanted, all saying the same thing in different voices, and suddenly I realized there were figures in the shadows, looking at me.
I turned my head slowly. The figures disappeared. I closed my eyes for a moment but they flew open as I heard my name, shouted, once, loud and quick and then there were more of them, beckoning to me to come to them in the shadows. The men were kind, the women were soft and moved gently, but I had come to this place for rest, to forget, I came to weep, I did not come to hear truth, to see other realms, I came to escape.
I heard myself shout “Leave me ALONE!”
Suddenly the grove was empty and quiet and still, and I was alone.
My hands trembled trying to zip my jacket, and my legs were weak as I climbed cautiously to my feet. I revolved slowly in the center of the clearing. Even if I could see no figures, they could still be behind me. I shivered violently, and took a step toward the darkness of the trees. I stopped. That was what they wanted me to do. They were trying to tempt me into the blackness, out of the moonlight. And then?
Who were they, that they came and disappeared so quickly? Why were they here, in the park at night, where no one was supposed to be? Were they homeless vagrants, violent, seeking victims? Members of a cult, assembling here in this circle of trees on the hilltop for some grotesque ceremony?
I turned suddenly. No one. That did not mean they were not there. They had appeared out of the darkness. Kindly men, soft women, inviting me to join them. But I knew better. No. They were mistaken about me, in every way. I was not their prey, I would not be their victim, I was nobody to them and they were strangers to me, strange and, for all their warmth and seductive movements, unwelcome. I wanted to go home, to my safe little hole where I could sleep with all the lights on all night, where there were no corners to lurk in, no shadows to withdraw into, no wind for voices to sing in.
Perhaps if I made a rush at the trees, and veered at the last moment... I could just glimpse the rest of the park beyond the circle. If I could reach the road there would be no traffic, I could run along the yellow stripe down the middle, screaming all the way down the hill to the city so I would not hear them, so they would pursue me, down to the comfort of cars and buses and street lights and storefronts and neon signs and the wail of sirens, where all that threatened me was at least understood, where anything I needed to fear was concrete, known, categorized.
I heard a sound behind me. I spun and shouted, words, any words, to frighten it, to save myself. I saw no one, only the moving shadows under the trees. But I could hear the echo of my own cry receding through the park. And in the echo I heard the voices again, whispering, repeating my name, over and over, overlapping, reverberating, fading, starting over, my name chanted on the crying wind. Who were they? Could they be the ghosts of people who lived here before this was a park, before it was a city, before, before? Or were the voices in my head, memories of people I had hurt perhaps, projected into the trees, people with reason to hate me, or who hated me without reason?
And then there came another sound, different - a voice, an ordinary voice, much closer and without echoes.
“Hey!” said the voice. “Hey –It’s OK. Relax.”
The voice, though unfamiliar, was comforting and very much of this world. But I could not see where it was coming from.
“Who’s there?” I shouted. there…there…there… My voice echoed across the park.
“Relax...relax...It’s Dan Flanagan. You don’t know me, that don’t matter. I’m right over here. Under the trees. Over here.”
Dan Flanagan? Did I know that name? It seemed I had heard it, at least. Daniel Flanagan… The trees swayed in fluctuating shadow. I thought I could see a face, or at least a patch of darkness lighter than the rest.
A person? What to ask? “Where do you come from?” I said, quietly.
And I was answered.
“Ah…” said the voice under the trees. “That would be telling, wouldn’t it?”
I took a step backward. I was not going to move in the direction of that vague apparition. And yet my fear had subsided, drained away somewhat. If the voice came from a person, a vagrant or a drunk perhaps, or even a night marauder, at least it came from a real human, solid flesh. Or, even if it were some creature of fairy tale, a ghost or a banshee or a Rumpelstiltskin, then at least it was there, all I had to fear was it, and I could be relieved of the worst fear of all - that it was in my mind and I had created it, without knowing how.
“Where you going?” said the voice. There was no answer to that question, at that moment. “What’s the matter, lost your tongue?”
“I’m going home,” I said, all in a rush, I who had no home, not any longer, not after what had happened earlier that night.
“Home?” The voice chuckled, then laughed, then laughed louder and then screamed in mirth and as suddenly stopped, and the park was empty and silent, quite silent, not even an echo. My momentary relief faded like an echo, as fast.
Now I wanted him back, vagrant or drunk, a human, a link to the land of living things.
“Flanagan!” I shouted. Where had I heard that name? “Daniel Flanagan!”
When the last echo faded all was silent for the merest moment, and then again the wind sounds, and within the wind the voices. I crouched, shivering. Perhaps if I listened hard, I would understand. Perhaps if I understood and responded I would be allowed to leave this grove, this circle of trees I had not even noticed I was entering. Through the gasps of my own breath I strained to decipher the words that floated in and out of each other on the wind like wisps of smoke, like strands of cloud, like blood floating in water.
All I heard were disjointed syllables, not words, swirled on the wind. But gradually the sounds resolved and the voices grew more distinct and as I listened harder I realized the words were names, and that some of the names were also familiar to me, though I did not know how.
“Hey!” shouted another man’s voice, “It’s me, William James Mallory!”
“This way,” called a woman, softly, “It’s Sarah, Sarah Goode…”Goode…Goode…Goode
“Hurry, this way, it’s Doctor Foss –“
“Come on, it’s only Sam Cartwright – “
“Mona Diamond – “Foss…Cartwright…Diamond…
I sank to the ground, overwhelmed. I clasped my hands over my ears but still I heard their voices, calling out names, dozens of names, some I knew, some I had never heard, name after name… Who were they? Were they the spirits of people who had gone mad on this spot, perhaps, who lost their reason here in this grove, the insane of the ages, surrounding me? And suddenly they seemed to be all saying the same words and the voices swelled in the wind and the wind swirled all about me, crying the same words, shouting, singing the words over and over in the wind about my head, inside my head.
It was unmistakable. My name. My own name, in a hundred combinations, harmonious and discordant, now strident, now gentle, voices like my own, a voice like hers who was alive and is now dead but still tormenting me, calling to me, crying out my name, accusing, cursing, and all at once I reached my end. I had no more courage, no more will. I took the same knife that I had plunged into her naked body in her warm bath and raised it high and screamed my scream and plunged the knife once more, deep into the very heart of the source of the voices inside myself, and as I felt it slice I saw them coming out of the trees toward me, the men kindly, the women soft, and their murmuring grew louder and their laughter more shrill as the moon went out.
The next morning I horrified an elderly couple walking their dog. That evening I horrified the city when the news of my two killings, of her and of myself, were broadcast far and wide.
And now I loiter in the grove with Daniel Flanagan, the man who made himself famous murdering runners for fun, and Sarah Goode who poisoned her family all at the same meal, Mallory the Amusement Park murderer, Dr Foss the demented surgeon, Cartwright the steroid killer, Mona Diamond who ate her husband, all those like me who made the decision to take the lives of others and found no peace from it after all. Together we linger in the grove, waiting, waiting.