Something strange happens when we lose someone special. For me, it began with visions of my mother and sounds and my wife, both of whom I’d lost on a horrendous night ten weeks ago. I knew the illusions couldn’t be real, but every time, they fooled me and made me believe. People say it’s denial, hallucinations spawned from a deep-seated refusal to accept the truth. A coping mechanism. But that’s too simplified an explanation, a label attempting to interpret the phenomenon. I’m convinced there’s more to it.
During the past two months, I’ve had multiple visions of my mother, walking on the other side of the road or rounding a corner in front of me. Sometimes she’d wave or smile, though more often she’d vanish without a trace. From what I’ve seen, I’m leaning toward a temporary link to the afterlife, or maybe an awakening of my own spirituality.
Yet in all that time, I haven’t had a single sighting of my wife, Kristy. I have heard her though, calling my name or insisting that she loved me. And since I’d been informed by a reliable source that Kristy wasn’t dead, the idea of the afterlife still seemed plausible. The sound of her voice was what compelled me to sprint up the seven-hundred-step staircase from Bogliasco village to our campsite at the summit in the first place. Her voice was soft, barely a whisper in the wind, yet it seemed more substantial than any of the audible delusions I’d had before. And when I finally stepped onto the top landing, lungs burning and legs shaking, I heard her again, louder and closer than ever.
My eyes panned left and right, then down the stairs and over the rooftops of Bogliasco township a hundred metres below. A huge bird soared beyond the village, above the breakers of the Ligurian Sea, racing so fast toward me that it covered the half kilometre between us in seconds. At the sight of its wedge-shaped wings, I knew it was a peregrine falcon
As it closed in, it screeched again, and there was no doubt that my wife’s voice came from its gaping beak. Its beady little eyes locked on mine and I flinched at its two-metre wingspan, debating whether to run for cover or stand my ground. But the way it stared at me fuelled my courage and I raised a hand as a perch. The falcon landed on my outstretched arm, the wind from its wings tousling my hair. I tensed, closing my eyes as it shuffled on my elbow, digging its talons into my skin. Colours swirled through my mind, and I forced myself to focus the way Mum had taught me in her Reiki classes.
Breathe. Relax. Let go.
I cracked an eye open. Mum’s teardrop pendant dangled from my neck, glowing like a lit match. The falcon jerked its head down and I followed its gaze, staring at my leg which was covered in blood.
Panic swept through me and I squeezed my eyes shut, sucking oxygen into my lungs. Jagged gasps at first, then slow, deep breaths which calmed my shaky nerves. Opening my eyes, I seemed to be in some kind of trance, transformed into a bird tumbling through the air. The falcon swooped above me and scratched my head with its claws, sending tingles of electricity through my brain.
After a moment, the sensation settled and I looked around. The falcon was gone and I flew alone, slicing like an arrow through the clouds. The air tasted fresh, energising and cleansing me as it whooshed through my feathers. Images of Earth thousands of feet below flashed before my eyes, displayed with dazzling clarity as though the falcon’s incredible eyesight had transferred to me. My tiny heart vibrated inside me like a muffled electric motor, pumping blood through my system at an impossible rate.
In the distance, a gravel path cut through a field of yellow flowers to an enormous tree. At first, the tree looked like any other, then tiny dots of light appeared on its gnarled trunk. The lights multiplied and increased in size, merging and intensifying until the trunk looked like a paper lantern, then the light flowed into the thick limbs and small branches until the entire tree glowed brilliant white.
I dived towards it, the speed of my descent causing a tickling sensation in my groin. The ground approached at an alarming rate, and I pulled back at the last moment, landing on a low-hanging branch of the glowing tree. Once my talons wrapped around the branch, the air shimmered like the heat distortion in a mirage, and an old man appeared on the ground below me. My eyes narrowed as I studied him and he met my eyes, then nodded. His face reminded me of one of those shrunken apple heads I’d seen at the market from time to time, with deep wrinkles and sunken eyes. He looked Japanese and wore a weathered tunic that flapped in the breeze with a whipping sound. He leaned forward in a deep bow, then stood tall, raising his hands in the air. Electricity from the tree shot to his fingers, then he moved his arms in a slow arc, creating a glass dome around us so it looked like we were inside a giant snow globe.
The man cupped his hands together, one on top of the other and extended them toward me, concealing something in his palms. Red light streaked out between his fingers, crashing into the dome with a shattering sound, cracking the glass in a hundred places. He moved his top hand away, revealing a glowing red sphere the size of a golf ball, which he hurled at the side of the dome, creating a hole large enough to crawl through. He walked to the hole, then waved for me to follow him to the other side.
I flew after him, finding myself blinded by a thick red fog as soon as I left the dome. Slowly, the fog dissipated, and the outline of a suburban town came into view. I glanced around at the familiar streets of Parramatta, where I’d spent years of my youth exploring on the BMX bike Santa had given me when I was eight. At the edge of my vision, red mist swirled like a memory sequence in an old movie, just enough to remind me that I wasn’t really there.
I flew towards the huge gum tree in my mum’s front yard. As a kid, I’d climb right to the top of that tree, so high into the light branches that I’d sway back and forth in the breeze and could see all the way to the city skyscrapers twenty-five kilometres to the east.
Gliding down, I shimmered into my human form and landed on Mum’s front porch. The big Balinese pot I’d bought her years ago sat on the landing, empty as always, having never had a plant or even a flower showcased in it. The door was unlocked and I took a breath, bracing myself for what I knew would come next. Tears welled in my eyes as I stepped through the door, my heart pounding as I made my way toward the kitchen. Mum’s body was exactly as I remembered, laying on her stomach on the kitchen floor, one leg straight and the other bent, her knee jutting out to the side. Drool and vomit smeared her face, tainting the smell of her Japanese curry, still on the stove from the night before, waiting for me and Kristy to arrive and celebrate my thirtieth birthday. If I opened the fridge, I knew I’d find the sushi rolls and coffee cheesecake she’d made for me, a lingering tradition from my childhood.
A projection of me was already kneeling beside Mum, calling to her and shaking her shoulders, his nasally voice annoying to my ears. My duplicate fumbled in his front pocket for his phone and called triple zero. At the time, in the onset of denial, I kidded myself that there might be some hope for Mum, but deep down I knew she was long dead. I shuddered, recalling how her body was already stiff from rigour mortis.
The image of Mum laying on the floor like that has played over in my mind every day, bashing through my head like the opening credits from Law & Order. That event took place ten weeks ago, around eight in the morning. I hadn’t slept a wink the night before, waiting up and worried sick because my wife hadn’t come home.
In front of Mum, the last message she ever gave me was scrawled on the white floor tiles with red lipstick; Kai. Wear my pendant. Keep my stone safe and find Hiro. Love always, Mum.
My mind spun the way it had when I’d first found her body and I watched my duplicate scratching his head, trying to decipher the message and process the situation. My duplicate noticed something glowing in Mum’s clenched fist and I shivered, remembering how I had to pry her fingers apart to reveal the two strange stones in her palm, and the weird energy buzzing over my hand when I touched them.
I caught movement in the corner of my eye and turned to see the old Japanese man beside me. I wanted to lash out at him and demand why he would send me to such a painful place. Yet as I opened my mouth, I realised I felt better than I had in weeks, as though seeing myself in the trance had banished the angst I’d been clinging to. The man’s lips moved but no sound came out, and he shook his head, pressing a finger to his mouth. He waved his hand in the air and a ring of fire as big as a door appeared, which he guided me through into another red mist.
When the fog cleared, we stood in the living room of my Sydney apartment. I scanned the room, placing the memory from only a fortnight ago. Fifty or more empty bottles of liquor lined the perimeter of the lounge, standing like trophies along the skirting boards, and huge towers of pizza boxes were stacked in every corner. I cringed at the mess, seeing first-hand how low I’d sunken at the peak of my depression and grief.
Another version of me staggered in from the hallway, this one wearing nothing but a pair of piss-stained shorts and an eight-week beard. A half bottle of rum swung from one hand and a tattered photo was clutched in the other. I glanced at the old man and felt blood surge into my face. He smiled without showing his teeth and shook his head, palms raised to pacify me.
I could describe every detail of the photo in my duplicate’s hand by heart. It had always been one of my favourites. A portrait of Kristy of her on our honeymoon at the Snowtown Yeti ski resort in Japan. The way the snow settled on her wavy blonde hair and the glow of her cheeks made her look like an angel. Her smile was soft and genuine, and her gorgeous green eyes stared right into my soul. It encapsulated all the things I loved about my wife, and the look on her face was the one she gave me when everything was perfect, when I knew with certainty that she loved me more than anything in the world. Thinking about the photo brought the pain of losing her front and centre. An ache spread from my stomach to the back of my throat, squeezing my organs with invisible fingers until I couldn’t take a breath.
My duplicate swigged on the rum, wincing at its sharpness, then slumped on the couch. He looked sick from malnutrition and alcohol poisoning, and I found myself suddenly anxious about my health. He ran a hand through his oily black hair, then reached into his pocket and pulled out the yellow stone I’d inherited from Mum, mumbling incoherent words as he brought it close to his eyes. I reflected on the weeks I’d spent staring at it, perplexed at the fire sealed inside, amazed at how it could burn for two months without heating the stone. I’d tried everything to unlock its power and had no hint of success. The other stone from Mum—a clear teardrop pendant—dangled from my duplicate’s neck. I hadn’t taken it off since I found it.
If I stayed in the trance a few hours longer, I’d see Zac arrive to lead me to a new life in Europe, the life I’m living now, which Zac calls my Healing Holiday. Zac came as my saviour, concerned for my mental health after a recent phone call when I’d mentioned my plans to permanently end my suffering. If it weren’t for that conversation, I may have taken that deadly step in front of the three a.m. freight train I’d heard every sleepless night.
The old man clicked his fingers in front of my face, then pointed to the ceiling at another ring of fire, where the glowing tree from before was just visible in the red mist. The old man’s body blurred and he transformed into an eagle, then flew through the fire ring. I switched to my falcon form and raced after him, eager to learn who he was and how all this was possible. When I emerged on the other side, I spotted him standing next to the tree, back in his human form and calling me over with a wave of his arm. He held a chalkboard and started to write a message. Excited about a way to communicate, I soared toward him as fast as I could. But as I got close, the world around me shook, my body spasmed, and my wings folded against my sides. I tried to flap but couldn’t and I spiralled out of control towards the man.