This is a mistake. I know it as soon as I set foot in the place.
It’s beautiful in its way, I suppose. Grey-gold rolling hills; trees still green even in this biting cold. A clear powder-blue sky with the green-and-pink ring of dusk on the horizon. But it’s not where I need to be.
I kneel down and put my hand on the soil. It’s ice-cold. In an hour or two it’ll be covered in frost.
I spread my fingers, pushing aside the tall, dry grass. Absently, I notice it is grass, not dead stalks — every blade still pointed even as it cracks under my fingers.
Between the blades, there’s another kind of leaf: a spiky-eared rosette trying to prick my fingertips. It, too, is dry and dead. At its centre, a silver flower sits.
I pluck it, and on impulse put it in my mouth.
Spiky. The taste is nothing but old straw. I bite down, feeling prickles dig into my gums and tongue. Taste sweet nectar, like the soft essence of honey. This flower has died useless and alone.
I spit out the thistle flower, and the metaphor. That’s a taste I’ve long since had enough of.
Overhead, the night sky is coming out. No evening star, here. Instead, there’s a bright line of moonlets across the sky — red drops in the sunset, like a half-healed incision. Then stars, in scattered constellations I don’t recognise. A great, misty cross: two galaxies, meeting in the sky.
It’s cold, now, and even though I don’t feel it any more I suddenly want nothing more than sleep.
I close my eyes, open them, and I’m there.
Lying in a cosy bed, warm as far as the frost on the tip of my nose. Bright yellow sun streams through a crack in the curtains, cutting across white plaster walls.
In the next room I can hear voices. The sound of breakfast being made leaks under the door. A knock. “One egg, or two?”
I don’t like eggs, and they know it.
A second voice cuts in. “How about mushrooms? The chooks didn’t lay this week.”
Straight away I feel it. That click, that wrench as things re-shape themselves around me.
The first speaker knocks again. “You sure you didn’t want eggs? I can probably find some …”
But it’s not about the eggs, either.
I spring out of bed, throw that metaphor out with the old sheets, and pull on clothes that weren’t here a moment ago. Jeans and a hoodie and shirt like I remember.
The memory stings, and I change my mind. I do go out into the house, and start a load of washing for the sheets, and have breakfast. Smile and laugh with my sisters around the old plank table. Watch Zarra the kelpie chase his tail. Pick up a hoe and an axe, and garden and chase sheep and fix a fence until every muscle aches with honest work.
They roll out a good dinner for me, because of course they do. I eat as well as everyone else, because I really do need it. But by the last slice of pavlova the tears are choking in my throat.
I go up to my mother, who isn’t, and hold out my arms. She leans in to hug me. I start to tell her, start to try to explain, but she pats me on the back and says “I know.”
And she does, and I burst into tears. “But you aren’t — you can’t really —”
“I know.” She hugs me again. Lets go, enough to find a tissue and dab at my eyes. “I know you’re making all this up. I know I do this because your wanting it makes it so.” She hands me another tissue, and I wipe my nose. “But we’re still your family, now. And it was still good to see you.”
And she raises an eyebrow, and I shake my head, and she nods, because we both know it’s time.
Outside, under the galaxies and the string of moons, I say my farewells. All of them — Mum and Dad and brothers and sisters and cousins and licky Zarra — are gone all too quickly.
Then I walk out into the grass on my own, look back one last time, and step up into the sky. I turn around on the way up, just long enough to make sure the chooks start laying again. To add in a few missing insects. And some presents, under pillows — just enough to be magical, just small enough not to make a mess of life.
Then I’m past the red moons and the weirdly Sun-like star, and planets, and comets, and out. Out where I can see the big X, see the two saucers of galaxies cutting each other in space. There’s nothing here but time, and sparkly points of blue and white and gamma in the distant superclusters.
Time enough to figure out where I do need to be.