Isabelle was guilt-ridden, scared, but most of all, excited.
She knew the path well – the worn track winding around the trees and shrubs of the mangrove swamp that skirted the eastern side of her property. She hardly noticed the vital smells of the briny forest, the high notes of the rotting vegetation. She knew where every tree root popped up to trip, and where every low overhanging branch threatened to scratch her face or tangle her long, auburn hair. It wasn’t something she had to think about – and there were many other matters that concerned her.
She felt the emergence of the usual churning in the middle of her stomach; the nagging sensation that Chris was following her, finally aware of her indiscretions. In the last few – and increasingly rare – conversations they had together, he had a look in his eyes that seemed to indicate that he was aware of a change in her. He’d kill me if he knew half the truth; no question, she darkly thought. Her brain told her that she was in the clear – her husband went fishing with his mates almost every Saturday, and he never failed to return home to their shack well after dark, and ugly drunk. She had at least five hours to herself, which meant five days… on the Other Side.
Isabelle shook her head in disbelief, as she had done so many times over the last two months. Her world had changed in many ways.
Every step she took toward the heart of the mangrove forest seemed like a mile further away from the world she feared and despised. As she stepped over a bulbous arch of mangrove root crossing her sandy path, using her hands to clear her way of cobwebs, she suddenly realised her trail was an apt representation of her life – a continuum punctuated with astonishing changes. She remembered, nearly twenty years before, arriving on the shores of Australia with her Irish parents, looking to a new life. For a thirteen year old it was a shock to the system, but she adapted well, and thrived at school. She had made many new friends.
She went to the University of Queensland in Brisbane and did very well, gaining a university medal in biology and saw a career – a life – that had no bounds.
Then she met Chris Latham. He was a bit of a rogue, but he was also full of energy and ideas. He had quit uni early, claiming he had learned enough geology to “make a go of it”, and had dreams of making his fortune in mining. Isabelle was swept up in his dreams, and his rugged looks, and they became lovers, and then were married. All within a year. She gave up her career to be his partner, and moved north to the port town of Gladstone, where Chris took up a menial job in the aluminium smelting plant, while he searched for the Big Break. Those years were lean but Isabelle smiled, recollecting the adventurous nature of their life together, and the energy Chris displayed in every single thing he did. She loved him; intensely. From the shock of his long blond hair, to the outdoors-toughened muscles of his body. From his optimistic smiles, to the blaze of ambition in his blue eyes. Yes, she unconditionally loved him.
Chris’ ambitions climaxed with the purchase of a hundred hectares of land along the coast north of Gladstone, about half way to Rockhampton. There was an old excavation called the Wild Cattle Shale Oil Mine and he was convinced it was the right starting point for his mining millions.
There was an old house on the site – more a shack – and Isabelle turned it into something resembling a home. It wasn’t just the couple’s home, it often accommodated snakes, spiders, millipedes, possums and rats. Her exposure to other human beings, except Chris of course, was the once a week, three hour journey to Gladstone for groceries and mining supplies. At first, Chris’ enthusiasm carried her through the loneliness, dirt, and creepy-crawlies…
She cursed bitterly under her breath – if he hadn’t changed he would have carried us through all the hard times, not just back then!
Was it two or three years ago when it all went wrong? she asked herself. She quickly did the calculation and realised it was over three. Well over. His prediction of a bull shale oil market was depressingly wrong, and he misjudged the extent to which his multinational competitors were willing to go to ruin the smallest of companies. After four years of struggle Chris and Isabelle were in financial ruin – and they couldn’t even afford to sell the land – it was worthless. Half of it was mangrove swamp; the other half was beyond improvement. The mine could not sustain a viable business. Chris took a part time job at the smelting plant again and often frequented the Grand Hotel before heading off home. He was tired, drunk, and completely spent of dreams. Isabelle’s deep green eyes started to moisten at this recollection – he changed, his very soul was torn to shreds. What was worse, he was trapped in his failures and couldn’t even afford to escape it.
There was pity at first – Chris had cried a few times at night in her arms, like a baby, and she remembered comforting him with words, such as “things will turn around, Chrissie, they always do” and “let’s sleep on it and see what we can do with this property… you never know, maybe we can start another business!” The look in his eyes did not accept the comfort; the only thing that was convincing was his own self-pity. Then one night the disappointment and shame drained completely away. It was like Chris had turned into a different person. He was angry. The world had acted unfairly to him (not us, she observed, to him). He lashed out at everyone and everything, especially when he was drunk, and the most accessible target was Isabelle.
She was smart and a real fighter, but the emotional rollercoaster of the past years in her isolated, subtropical home had eroded the edge she once had. She wasn’t prepared for this new Chris and she had been knocked off balance from the start. She remembered the night he had come home – inebriated again – and there was a stillness about him, much like a volcano that was ready to erupt and all the animal and bird life had left the region. There was a tangible smouldering in his eyes; she could almost discern two faint, glowering embers in the half-light of their dining room. Her instincts told her to say nothing. She prepared dinner and placed it in front of him on the table. Along with the beer. The next thing she remembered was waking up on the floor, tasting her blood in her mouth and in agonizing pain due to a dislocated jaw.
At first Isabelle found it in her heart to forgive Chris, and even imagined different scenarios where he would redeem himself, finding the spark to return to his former self. Over the next weeks the beatings continued, embarrassed lies before sceptical but silent doctors at Gladstone Hospital, and fear for her very life. And still she believed there was a miracle around the next corner. As the weeks turned into months, and then years, Isabelle adapted, learning how to avoid the beatings and demeaning words… most of the time. The fear of the fist, or worse, was ever hovering above her like a dark cloud. Her hope of seeing Chris turn back into the man who she remembered, was crushed, replaced by a numb resignation of her state. She was in a hole so deep she could not see over its edge.
Isabelle was most damaged by her loneliness. It was not just the lack of human contact, but it was also the change in Chris. As his depression deepened their love making grew less frequent, and less satisfying for both of them. This fed his depression and her loneliness. When he turned into an angry and abusive man, the love making disappeared, but the vacuum was filled by a nightmare. His touch was no longer tender and instead it repulsed her. Whether he noticed it or not didn’t matter; he took it when he wanted it. Resistance meant beatings. She suffered years of rape. She was grateful that she had difficulty conceiving; the thought of having children being brought into her nightmare world overwhelmed her.
She had thought about ending her life. More than once. It usually entered her mind when she had been abused. It eased away with time but returned when the cycle returned to the fist. It took her quite a while to realise that there was still a spark of survivor in her. It was like a pilot light that was buried deep inside, which only briefly flared when she was at her low points, compelling her to wait, to seize the opportunity when it arose.
Isabelle’s survival instinct finally emerged from its dark place about two months before. Inexplicably, unexpectedly, she decided she wanted to wander the swamplands that skirted the eastern side of her land. Now, as she traversed a particularly difficult part of the track, thinking about that moment when she first made the decision, she knew she was fated to make the journey. And she had repeated it many times since.
It was on a Saturday afternoon, that first time, just following a heavy shower. The sun had made an appearance and the humidity immediately imposed itself on the land. The sandflies buzzed ravenously, and Isabelle could hear the plop-plop sounds of mud crabs moving about the disturbed wetlands. It seemed the right time for a walk. She had followed the one and only trail into the heart of the mangrove swamp, and about a half hour into her journey she heard a faint, discernible hum; low harmonics. It reminded her of the sound of electricity substations, or mains lines. She stopped and tried to determine where the sound came from, and found it coming from her right. She left the path and after ten metres, Isabelle heard it loudest in a small clearing, separated by two large trees. She discovered the sound actually came from both the trees. She passed through the gap between them, encouraged by the same compelling voice inside of her that lured her on the track in the first place.
The hum intensified and the swamp transformed before her eyes. What were mudflats surrounded by mangrove trees and shrubs, was suddenly altered to tall conifers and a myriad of giant ferns. It was darker and cooler than in the subtropics of central Queensland and the acrid smell of briny water was replaced by the wholesome, thick scent of the vegetation of a rainforest. She again looked for the source of the humming sound, and saw the two spots where the trees had been, now replaced by small ferns, distorted as if she was looking at them through thick lenses. She continued walking, down a slight grade, and saw a clearing with a small, well-kept cottage, with a pretty English garden surrounding it.
As Isabelle approached the cottage the front door opened, and a tall man in his late twenties passed through the doorway. He was already peering at her – almost as if he had expected her all along. As she got nearer she had an opportunity to see the man better, and her breath was taken away. He was just over six feet in height and he had a body of a gymnast – perfect, well toned, vital. He had short dark brown hair and his eyes were light hazel in hue – something she had never seen before. His face was beautifully sculptured – rugged and yet his lines indicated a gentle person, sensitive, artistic. He smiled. It almost melted her heart there and then.
She remembered their first conversation, almost word for word.
“At last, a visitor!” he had said, in a tone that was inviting. His accent was odd – his English and diction were perfect, but the accent was untraceable.
Isabelle found it difficult to respond. It never occurred to her to ask why a house existed on her property, nor one so well constructed in the middle of nowhere.
The stranger seemed to sense her confusion. “My name is Barron. I welcome you to my abode. Would you like to share some tea with me? You look unsettled… perhaps some Earl Grey will invoke a calming atmosphere and allow me to explain what is happening.”
Isabelle was dumbstruck by his odd choice of words. Her instinct was to run, to hide and regather her sanity, but she was mesmerised by Barron… “That’s a German name, isn’t it? I think it means ‘freeman’,” she observed.
He chuckled; a genuine, honey-smooth laugh. “Not a common name, I believe. It is an apt name as no-one can be more free than I.” There had seemed to be a tinge of irony in his voice.
Isabelle realised that his response spawned more questions, but before she could talk he gently grasped her hand and led her into his home.
That day was the best she had had for as long as she could remember. The interior of the cottage was as homely and inviting as the exterior – it had an old world charm, with walls covered in colourful oil paintings, all in an early Nineteenth Century European style – particularly Romanticism, her favourite. The kitchen had a wood-fire stove, but of a modern design, and to her surprise she saw the kettle was just boiling, and a silver tray was on the small dining table with freshly baked lamingtons and lemon tarts nicely lined up for High Tea. There was the mouth watering smell of bread baking in the oven, but which could not hide the scent of lavender pot pori. The cottage seemed to have a feminine charm about it, something she herself would have ideally loved to own, and yet this most masculine of men was also at home there. She had wondered if she was dreaming.
Barron didn’t talk much over the first few hours; instead he offered tea, and later lunch, and asked questions that allowed Isabelle to open her heart and speak of her life, and her troubles. She was hesitant to recount Chris’ beatings and rape, but as the cuckoo clock sounded for the third hour, she broke down and told Barron everything. He listened, cried with her, comforted her with words and gentle caresses of her hand; he empathised – completely.
Eventually the fear of being home after Chris’ return shook her out of her fantasy. Barron smiled, understanding. “Isabelle, my dear. Please visit me again. I am always here. I have nowhere else to go.”
She stared deeply into his eyes. “I would like that… but I can’t just come every day. I… have obligations…”
He nodded. “And you have fear… and guilt. I like you Isabelle and I too am lonely. I have patience and I can wait. Come whenever you want to. Next time I will tell you some of my story.”
Isabelle remembered parting from Barron that first day. She left, waving an affectionate ‘goodbye’ and retracing her steps to the strange clearing with the hum. She wept all the way home, not realising exactly why. What surprised her, however, was that according to her watch, she had visited Barron and returned to her home in just over six hours, but according to her wall clock at home, she had been away only ninety minutes. Other clocks verified this, and the sun was still above the horizon.
The second time she visited Barron nearly didn’t happen because she had mixed feelings about the stranger. He had been the perfect host, ideal confidante, but he was also incredibly attractive – physically as well as in character. Aside from her fear of her liaison being discovered by Chris, she was also deeply moral and feared that she would succumb to something more than what she had first experienced with Barron. It was a mixed feeling – of shame and acute excitement. Over the seven nights that separated the first visit from the second, she had dreamed of Barron almost every time she had slept, and, she admitted to herself, on numerous occasions whilst awake. She swore a dozen times that she would no longer visit the cottage, as her motives had changed and they were immoral, lustful. But when the waves of loneliness set in – and they were something that came depressingly easy – the oath was conveniently forgotten. And so when Chris left in his truck for his fishing mates, she showered again, shaved her legs, wore her best, lightest dress, and set off for the secret clearing.
They made passionate love and Isabelle experienced sensations and depth of feeling she never imagined was possible. They talked some more – and made love again. She learned from Barron that time was different where he lived – that one hour in her world was twenty-five in his. Nothing surprised her any more; she accepted that the impossible was now plausible; immersion in his strange world was better than her miserable life with Chris.
He did talk about himself but never in depth and rarely with specifics. He was a stranger in the queer place where he had built his cottage. On one occasion he even admitted that he was “alone in this entire world”, whatever that actually meant. She rarely probed him, for fear of bursting the bubble that she had found herself in; and yet, as time progressed, she knew that as long as she was on the Other Side, the bubble was sound, impregnable. Perhaps what satisfied her the most was that single certainty. On another night Barron described a little about the world they were in. He said that the sea was far away and the rainforest they were in was primitive and had creatures that were strange and lethal. He added that the clearing surrounding the cottage was protected by a type of force field, much like the humming device that Isabelle used as a gate.
As Isabelle heard the familiar hum off the track, and she stepped toward the two mangrove trees that provided the gate to the Other Side, she thought again about Barron, and what constituted the man. He was perfect. More than perfect because perfection had a benchmark in her world and Barron exceeded it. She was first worried about this – wasn’t it a truism that many a woman got bitterly disappointed after wedding the perfect man? Wasn’t this the case with Chris? She shook her head, combating the thought, arguing that the differences between the two men were like chalk and cheese – Chris was never perfect, and she had loved him for his strengths (as long as they lasted), and Chris was not otherworldly. She laughed; perhaps it took a man from another world to insure against disappointment.
She easily located the trees that served as the gate posts and wandered through, entering the ferny land of the Other Side. She skipped down the gradual slope and ran around a clump of evergreen trees, revealing the familiar, serene cottage. As usual, Barron opened the door, smiling, his eyes glinting with his penetrating, knowing gaze.
Isabelle approached the cottage with her usual rising excitement, slowly shedding the trepidation she had carried with her from her world. Although never entirely. While healed in many ways, she could not completely remove the guilt of her affair, nor the fear of her murderous husband.
She passed into the cottage garden, smelling the wafting perfume of daisies, jasmine and lavender. Barron smiled again. “Darling, welcome back. The kettle is already on the stove.”
Isabelle’s mouth formed a wide grin. “As usual; how do you…”
Her words were cut short by a loud rustling of ferns behind her. She quickly turned and saw Chris running into the clearing, holding a shotgun with a knuckle-white tight grip. His face was red with rage, his lips curled back, revealing his yellow teeth in a snarl. She cried out, “No!” which was all she could muster.
Chris rushed past her, muttering “bitch”, and then directed his shotgun toward Barron. “You scumbag! Sleep with my wife? Sleep with this!”
Time seemed to slow for Isabelle; every detail became starkly clear. Barron didn’t seem shocked or afraid for his life, but he lifted his hand as if to deliberately do something special. She couldn’t understand what Chris was saying while in this slow-motion state but she saw spit flying off his lips, and the redness of his eyes. The shotgun suddenly fired, smoke slowly billowing from its muzzle and then the shot visibly flying toward Barron. Isabelle tried to scream but she was as slow as the world around her, and she tried to scream again when she saw the shot impact Barron.
Time returned to normalcy. Chris snorted and stepped closer to Barron, lying on the doorstep, eyes open, still breathing. “Don’t move, Belle, you’re next.” He lifted his shotgun again, aiming for the slumped man’s head, when Barron lifted his hand again. The cottage shook. Chris noticed it and paused, lifting his eyes to see what was happening. The cottage shook again. About a quarter of the building turned into shiny, copper-coloured metal. Chris stepped back, a look of shock on his face. Then the metal hummed – a lower pitch than what Isabelle had heard at the gate. Chris suddenly gulped, his eyes started to bulge, and he was about to cry out in pain when, almost instantly, he turned white hot and transformed to ash, falling gently to the ground, while his shotgun fell as a slag heap on the cottage porch.
Isabelle didn’t even think about Chris; she rushed to her lover, and knelt beside him. He was clearly dying. It was a miracle he wasn’t dead already.
Baron touched her lips with his fingers. “Do not speak, Isabelle. Do not speak. I will be gone soon; in minutes. I need to talk to you, to tell you something.”
Isabelle started to sob uncontrollably but when she saw his wonderful hazel eyes, those penetrating, all-knowing eyes, she paused, nodding her head.
“Darling. I have never lied to you, but I left much out about myself. I am a Wanderer, and that is my prime purpose. I wandered to this world but something went wrong. I was doomed to die because I was so far away from my home; a slow deterioration. I probably only had a few of your months left. Your husband has only hastened my end.
“I have lived a very long time and I have reconciled myself to my fate. I devised the gate to stem my loneliness and to allow me to impart a gift on your world.”
Isabelle managed to croak a question. “My world?”
“I know you have often wondered where we are. This valley is your world, but millions of years in the past. The gate travels time, not space.” He stopped momentarily, fighting a spasm of pain, or perhaps fighting the seductive urge to close his eyes. “Listen, Isabelle. As a Wanderer I was not human, not the man you see. But I can alter my biological matrix as easily as my surrounds, and believe me, Isabelle, I am as human as you now know me. In every way. Including knowing love. I love you, Isabelle.”
Tears streamed down her face. “I love you too, Barron.”
His destroyed body started to tangibly shake. His eyes began to roll. “I have a gift for you Isabelle. And your world.” He shakily lifted his hand again.
The metal area of the cottage altered again, and a sliver of white light suddenly encompassed Isabelle’s torso. She looked down and heard a rapid heartbeat, coming from her womb. She sucked her breath in with shock.
“Go now, Isabelle. When I die all that I have brought with me will perish as well, including the gate. I live in you now, and when she grows up she will change your life forever, as well as your world.”
She wanted to stay with him, but he waved his hand urgently at her. Isabelle kissed his lips and picked herself up.
She ran, sobbing, through the gate to her world, but not before she looked back, one last time, at the Other Side.