Five minutes ago a nurse came in to check on the machines that whir and beep and keep me alive. The sight of her pure white uniform and dark hair brought back a memory of my mother that I had quite forgotten. I’ve been told that when an old person is dying they can sometimes recall childhood events as lucidly as if they’d happened that same day. Scientists attribute this ability to chemical changes in the brain as it begins to shut down – the most recently formed memories go first, they say, then those from weeks, months, years and decades ago. And so on.
I guess it’s true. The nurse said something when she leaned over to adjust the oxygen mask, but it was my mother’s voice from another time and place that I heard.
“Wake up, my little man, something wonderful has happened.” She kissed me on the forehead.
“Hmm,” I murmured, still full of sleep, “have The Twelve decided?”
“Yes.” She placed a finger over my lips. “But we will discuss that presently. Come out onto the balcony when you have dressed, I will wait for you there.”
She rose from the side of the bed and left the room in a rustle of soft white silk. I heard the large hallway doors open as she stepped outside to the cool dawn.
When I joined her some minutes later she was seated beside a small table placed against the parapet at the centre of the balcony.
“The Twelve have made the decision we hoped for,” Mother said. She reached out to fasten a button on my tunic that I had overlooked in my haste.
“Does that mean–”
“Yes.” A deep voice from behind us.
I started and felt Mother place a reassuring hand on my wrist. It had been so long since I had seen Father that I no longer expected him in our presence. He made an impatient beckoning gesture with his fingers and I looked back to Mother. She smiled and placed something in my pocket. It felt round and hard, like a marble. I walked over to Father.
His blue uniform with the high neck and gold buttons was the adult version of mine, the trimmed dark beard and broad chest entirely his own. He placed a finger under my trembling chin and lifted my head, turned it from left to right, verified that I was indeed his son. He nodded, pleased.“Is there anything you would like to know?”
“When will you begin, may I watch?” I asked.
“The Twelve requested that I proceed without delay,” he said. “They say I may use an assistant, though they know I have no need for such a person. But you may accompany me, if your mother agrees.”
I looked back to Mother in disbelief. She smiled and nodded her assent. Father placed his hand on my shoulder. “Come, then.”
We walked down the broad staircase from the balcony to the garden. Father was silent as we strode along the gravel path towards the raised pavilion at the end. The pungent scent of chestnut blossom wafted through the garden. My head spun, I felt I was dreaming.
When we got to the pavilion I looked across to the distant white-tipped mountains and noticed the early morning mist still clung to the lower reaches of the valley below.
“Will it be as beautiful as here?” I asked.
“Yes,” Father said, “the first in our own image. It was a difficult decision for The Twelve, but it was the right one.”
I was still unsure of how The Twelve’s proclamation would be carried out. “Will it be loud?”
Father smiled at me – a rarity. “Do you remember the tree falling in the forest and no one being there to hear it?”
I realised the naivety of my question and looked down, embarrassed. I still had much to learn.
“It is time,” Father said.
We walked to the font at the centre of the pavilion and he directed me up to a step where I could see over the top into the dark still water. He stood behind me and placed his hands into grooves in the stonework that seemed to have been cut for his fingers alone.
“It is beginning,” he said.
I watched, enthralled. An image formed in the water. Columns of smoke turned and spiralled into a tight mass, then turned again, quickened. My heart beat stronger, something was about to happen. The sweet-scented breeze blew against my face.
I became aware only of the turning image, and Father’s hands. The smoke contracted into a tight knot and for a fraction of a second the water turned black. The image exploded with a flash and rumble that shook the ground and the wind blew up a gale.
“Be strong, do not look away,” Father said in my ear. Had he not spoken then I would have backed down and fled. In the periphery of my vision I saw the sky was now a leaden storm-filled black. Despite my fear I defied him and glanced up the garden. Mother held on to the balcony. Her hair and dress were blown about her in the howling wind, she was ecstatic.
“Concentrate!” Father had noticed my distraction.
The shaking subsided. When I looked back to the font the image had changed. I saw a solitary blue and white planet suspended in space against a background of stars.
“There, it is done,” Father said. He removed his hands and stood back.
I continued to look at the image. I don’t know where the question came from. “Is it mine?”
Father looked at me, perplexed. “No. Don’t you have the gift from your mother?”
I stood down and walked to the wall overlooking the valley. I reached into my pocket and removed the object placed there by Mother. I gasped when I saw the miniature replica of the planet Father had just created.
“It is a beautiful world,” I said. “Will it last for ever?”
“No, not for ever,” Father said. “It was made in the image of our own, after all. It will have troubles, but it will endure. The end won’t come for a very long time.”
I held the marble between a finger and thumb and placed it in my sight, just above the twin moons of our own world that were still visible at that early hour: a precious jewel in a three-pronged crown.
“I would like to visit it some day,” I said.
For once I saw a flicker of doubt cross Father’s face. He – the seer, the all-knowing one – had displayed a sign of weakness. But it was only fleeting and he quickly turned to me and said “Yes, perhaps that would be good.”
“May I show Mother?”
He waved an open hand towards the balcony where mother stood looking down at us.
I remember nothing more.
The machines are livelier now. The beep has become more insistent and the nurse is concerned. The doctors are here, and some people I do not know. It must be serious but I feel no fear, I am removed from it all.
Maybe this is how it ends; a gradual detachment; a gentle slippage into dreams; we think about something and it happens, and then we are no more, but without anxiety, it is soft and welcoming. We are set free.
Yes, that must be it.
I see the garden again. Mother stands on the balcony with her arms outstretched. She looks beautiful in white and her long hair waves in the breeze.
I run towards her. It cannot be an illusion, the sensations are too vivid: the fragrance of the trees, the crunch-crunch of the gravel under my feet, the world held tight in my hand.