I loved my family. Despite the unreliability of my memory—owing both to age and circumstance—I want it to be known, before beginning, that I did, at least, love my family. Which is why I shall squander the last vestiges of my consciousness upon this document in the hope that it may absolve them of the things they stand accused of. Deep down, I know it’s a meaningless gesture; the last hollow cry of a wasted life; but I owe it to them to try. For love.
We were a sprawling, free-wheeling bunch of perhaps two dozen; we sang, we danced, we were happy; each day was like summer. I lived with them on a farm people used to make movies on—Spahn Ranch, if I recall correctly. It was far from the city’s pollution, out among the great plains and wild flowers. And everything was free, everything was open to us—it was a world apart: away from the false idols and corrupt policemen; away from the pain, the unbearable agony of the everyday. With my family, with him, reality itself was soft. It bent and warped at the edges, allowing me to glimpse the strange secrets that lay beyond. Memories of my time there are, at once, my last consolation and the cruellest twist of the knife.
I met my Father somewhere around my fourteenth birthday, near the end of the 60s. I had run away from my birth parents; they caught me with a pack of stolen cigarettes and wanted to send me to some dumb all-girls teenage Christian class; so rather than sit through that, I left. God, I don’t know what would’ve happened to me if I hadn’t met my real Dad. Probably would’ve ended up begging for food—or worse. But he took me in, gave me a place to sleep, made me part of his family. He, who was so very high above me: a famous musician who had released an album and even written songs for The Beach Boys. Although, to be fair, he had his oddities, too. He was nebulous: at once full of storms and smiles. I learnt a lot from him.
I worked during the day, side by side with my brothers and sisters. They were runaways, like me, which made them all the more precious. We fed animals, watered vegetables, cooked food, gathered supplies, washed clothes, and so on. All the necessities of modern life. Father had his music business to attend to in the city—how he braved that miserable cesspit is beyond me—but we were happy to look after him. It was hard at times, I won’t deny, but far better than the gilded chains offered by my birth parents. At night, though… that was when the real magic happened. After dinner, he’d gather us all around a campfire to tell us stories and sing us songs. He’d tell us of his visions of the future: about how the outside world was an evil place, bent on our destruction. It made me feel scared—not for him—but for his enemies. We would’ve done anything to protect him from them. And that bound us even closer together.
Like all families, we had our rituals. You know: brush your hair in the morning, some wine after a long day’s work, picnics on Sundays. But my favourite ones, the ones that meant the most to me, involved mushrooms. Whenever he found some—wherever he found some—he always shared them with me; which was extra special because not everyone was allowed them. Just his favourites. And when I partook, it all seemed to make sense: the crazy helter skelter of the world was explained by how the shadows ran across the moonlight. Each grain of desert sand was pin-pricked with meaning, colours buzzed in and out of perception, alien patterns danced through my mind. And when the time was right, he’d tell us (his select few) secrets hidden from everyone else. He told us of the end of days, of how the universe was going to break out into a cosmic war, of how they’d torture us if we were ever so stupid as to leave him. Of course, we swore to stay with him forever. They were better days, then, such things were easy to say and beautiful to contemplate.
But as time passed, I needed to eat more and more mushrooms to attain that open, trancelike state. And, to match my appetites, he produced ever more potent substances; which submerged my consciousness deeper into the magic, deeper into the enchanted labyrinths of my mind. I began to suspect that there was some further secret hidden within myself, some riddle that, when solved, would grant me powers untold: where I could heal the sick, change the course of the stars to suit my will, chop mountains down with the side of my hand. Anything I wanted. When I told Father of my suspicions, he merely smiled and gave me more mushrooms to eat. Seeing how important it was to me, he allowed me to set aside my household responsibilities to better focus on my dreams. And to my everlasting regret—it worked. After weeks of dreaming—whole days where I’d do nothing but eat the mushrooms and sleep—there was a light pressure at the edge of my mind, a slight snap, as though I’d pushed through a barrier; through the membrane separating the world above from the world below.
The world seemed to contract, to fold back in on itself; perception warped, senses mingled. And I appeared to myself in a land of colour: shimmering mountaintops and stone oceans and burning clouds and mushroom trees and great dollops of creamy flowers and snaking rivers and purple grass… and all of it had been created especially for me. I knew, deep within myself, that this strange planet was my own. That I could do with it as I pleased, shape it into anything I could imagine, that reality was a thing upon which I could write in the language of the Gods. That this place was the wellspring of all things: the foundation on which my life—my family, my Father, everything—was built. I felt like I was in Eden. Free to live and move as I liked; eternal and timeless; my long years of banishment were over. I was Eve reborn.
I walked by the river, trailing my fingers through the cool water, as time slowly unwound and lost its meaning. I am not able to recall how long I was in the garden. It seems I was there, at once, for a lifetime and only a few seconds. When I returned, one of my sisters told me I had only been asleep for a few hours, but those hours were millennia from my point of view. Which makes it difficult to recall precise details; so much of that strange land is coloured in the texture of dreams—malleable, fluid. I remember learning secrets: the meaning behind philosophy and art, divine mathematics, which could calculate the end of time. I saw the forces that shape life and death running together through the snaking river around the forest; the cyclical wheel which turns all things. I sat beneath a tree long enough to feel its emotions as it bent against the breeze. I was on a plane above the mortal world.
As the sun set (for the first time or for the millionth, I remember it both ways) I heard trumpets ring out over the hilltops to herald the arrival of the night. It was beautiful: galaxies and nebulas electrified the sky, and there were so many stars, so many constellations that the horizon seemed to be threaded with silver. I sat beneath my tree and stared up at it all, and suddenly I saw beyond them, to the patterns swirling in the moonlight. And the pattern encapsulated everything: the garden, my life, everyone in the entire universe; as it flickered and pulsated to strange melodies. It occurred to me, as I watched the pattern change, that I was watching something conscious: that I was staring out at the face of something which could only be described as Divine; that I was both part of it and separate; that this pattern was only an image, constructed so my brain could see without disintegrating. That the stars in the sky were its many thousand eyes, that the world was its mouth, that people were its body. And when, finally, I’d seen it, for one terrible instance, the thing spoke to me and laid bare the horrible truth behind my reality. When I’d listened well, when there was no possibility of taking it back, it cast me—screaming—from the garden, with the knowledge I was being trapped in an illusion, in a glassy reflection of its world.
Afterwards, when I’d returned to the Ranch, the dream lodged itself inside my heart like a splinter. Even after I’d put aside the mushrooms and returned to my normal duties, I could no longer see my family in quite the same way; it had taken them from me. I felt a scream growing louder and louder inside myself until it reached such a fever pitch that I could no longer stand to live. So I left. In the night. Like a common thief. And later, when I read about my family on every newsstand across America, of the terrible things they’d been driven to, I could not accept it. I carved an ‘X’ into my forehead when they went to trial; to mourn them, to sympathise. I felt nothing but pity for the poor actress, no matter how misguided she was. But I knew it wasn’t my family, it was the force behind them. The shark swimming below the surface of reality, waiting until its food was ripe to feast. That was the thing responsible for the murders, not my family.
My own life became an empty blur. Lacking the courage to kill myself—too afraid of what waits after—I drifted from place to place, without a home, without my family; I saw no one and was seen by everything. Which is how I prefer it—so nothing can ever be used against me ever again. I am a phantom, an abstraction, the knowledge I possess alienates me from humanity. And as the years passed malignantly, I kept my distance. For how could I return to a normal life after what I’d seen? There is nothing for me in this world. All I can do is mourn the past and ponder what might have been.
I see the signs, of course: a lingering cough, a tightening of breath. I can feel the cancerous masses expanding inside my lungs, their choking grip tightening around my throat. My perception has started to change again: the sky’s gone from blue to pink, the trees from green to orange, the clouds from white to red. Shapes are losing their definition: a car is now a monstrous confusion of metal and glass; stranger’s faces are blurs of teeth and eyes; buildings gape like gigantic mouths, swallowing people whole. I know that when my story is finished, I will return to the garden once again. And I also know that I won’t have to wait very long.
For when the end comes, when I leave reality behind to plunge headfirst into the dark ocean, I will not look upon the light with love. Rather, with a fear that scrapes the very depths of my soul.
Harman studies psychology. He has published around thirty short stories in various magazines and anthologies including in Flame Tree Press’ Newsletter, Etherea Magazine, and After Dinner Conversation. Also, he’s got a play in development with a Sydney based theatre company.