A woman becomes part of a mysterious worldwide disappearance during a great war in this short story by James Hatton. Illustration by Oliver McAinsh
It was December, a month before Tom was due to return, when she saw a strange rippling light in the sky off the coast. It would be the war, she thought, some explosion perhaps, far off. Sal, the black retriever, barked, unsettled.
She tried to put out of her mind the grainy newspaper images she had seen of lead-coloured aircraft, smooth and elongated, almost like eggs, that had ghosted into the sky and the Standing Men who had appeared later on the ground in wide circles, tall, long figures in silhouette, their features never clear. In their secluded life here, miles from anywhere, it had all seemed so far away, until Tom had become part of it.
The rippling light vanished eventually and she walked back to the house, telling herself the man from Pearson’s would be coming in the afternoon and she would ask him about it. When he didn’t turn up, she presumed he had been taken ill or the van had broken down.
When he didn’t show again the week after, she rode the two miles in to the village to pick up the supplies herself. She saw no one on the roads and the village, when she got there, was deserted.
The lights were on in Pearson’s but at the meat counter, flies clustered on rotting cuts of meat. The newspapers were all a week old, front pages full of headlines about the war. The other shops were just the same, lights eerily on, the hum of electricity the only sound, but no one anywhere. She knocked on the doors of houses and waited in vain for them to be opened. She cupped her hands against windows and peered in at the empty rooms. She could only think that an alarm had been raised that hadn’t reached her and everyone had been evacuated.
She went back to Pearson’s and dialled the number for emergency services, but there was no answer. They would be busy, she presumed, with whatever they had to take care of. Not knowing what else to do, she took what she needed from the shelves and left the money on the counter with a list of what she had taken, enough to last her until Tom came back. Then she rode off. She looked back nervously at the empty village and tried to tell herself that everything would go back to normal once the all-clear had been given.
The day Tom was due home, she put on make up and the blue dress she was wearing the day they had first met and waited for him. She put the dress on again the next day and the days that followed, until she had to ride into the village again because she was running out of food.
There was no change. She picked up the phone in Pearson’s and dialled the number for emergency services once more. Again, there was no answer. In the eerie silence, she carried packets and tins from the shop and loaded up the panniers on the bike, taking as much as she could.
A few days later, she caught sight of herself in the bedroom mirror. There was some strange play of light in the room, like the reflection of rippling water on a wall that made it look, for a second, like she wasn’t quite there. She stopped for a moment, then went back to what she was doing.
When she glanced at the mirror a second time, she saw herself veiled by this light. She brought her hand up to her waist and found that her fingertips felt only empty space. She moved, trying to get away from it, but couldn’t. When she turned to look at herself in the mirror again a moment later, the light had gone, and she could feel her body once more.
It was always Tom’s absence she felt first when she woke up, but there was something else the next morning, some sense of displacement, when she pushed off the duvet and saw that strange rippling light. She reached down and felt empty space then the strange smooth contour, concave like the inside of an eggshell. An image flashed into her mind of the smooth silver ships of the Standing Men and she knew, somehow, that they were doing this to her.
For a while she fought against it, frightened, but was surprised by how easily she gave into it, letting the light wash over her, feeling the relief in disappearing, the oblivion.
Over the next few days, she glimpsed them sometimes, shadowy figures completely still in a wide circle around the house.
* * *
For a while she flickered in and out of sight. She was like a ghost, the way she climbed up the shelved beach from the water’s edge, not disturbing a single stone, then went silently through the woods with Sal by her side, sensing her now more than anything else. It was like a radio signal slipping. She was still there, but disappearing from view. She could feel that, eventually, she would slip completely into this other plane of existence and if Tom came back, they would be lost to each other. While she was still able to, she wrote Tom a letter explaining what was happening to her and left it where he would find it if he came back.
* * *
Early one evening, she heard someone coming along the beach. She had disappeared completely now, living among memories and dreams. She had seen visions of Tom so many times that when she looked up, she wasn’t surprised to see him.
Sometimes they spoke, her and these apparitions. They would walk along the beach together like old times.
‘Tom,’ she said, and when he didn’t look up, she knew today was different. She realised he had finally come back. It felt so cruel. She followed him to the house, wanting to reach out and touch him, but unable to. She watched him read the letter.
‘Catherine,’ he said. ‘Are you here?’
‘I’m here,’ she said, but he couldn’t see or hear her.
She railed at the shadowy figures that sometimes flickered into view in the distance, standing in their wide circle, hating them for what they had done to her. She would run towards them but even though they seemed to remain motionless, they were always out of reach.
In time, her anger subsided and she found a strange pleasure in being able to watch Tom live his life in their house again. He would speak to her sometimes, telling her he loved her, explaining how he had heard of disappearances elsewhere and that much of the country had gone missing.
Then, one day, he turned and seemed to look at her.
‘Catherine,’ he said. ‘I can feel you.’
Whether or not it was his imagination, it filled her with hope that she might be able to free herself from the light that rippled over her. She fought against it like she had at the beginning, summoning up the details of her body, as if she could sculpt herself back into the world through the sheer force of imagination. She imagined the stones pressing against her feet. Miraculously, she felt them slip, heard them click against each other. And Tom, walking next to her, turned again, narrowing his eyes.
There was a connection, but then it was lost. She gave up, exhausted from the effort, feeling more distant from him than before.
Then, one morning, she saw the rippling light on Tom.
‘Tom,’ she whispered. ‘Can you hear me?’
He stopped and looked in her direction, but that was all. At the mirror, she watched him touch his face and his body where the light played. Perhaps, she thought, he would slip into the same plane of existence she was in now, and they would be together again. She carried that hope with her for a while but soon saw it wasn’t to be.
He faded until she could see right through him, see the trees he walked by, the sea, the beach, the sky. She felt even more distant from him now, separated by something she couldn’t understand.
That night, lying next to him in the bed, she breathed in the air he breathed. Then she slept, knowing that when she woke, he would have disappeared completely.
* * *
It was like a sickness. Or something worse. She wondered if what she was experiencing was death itself, this vacuum that seemed to pull her into a million pieces, fragments of her, scattered and alone.
But then, she slowly woke to an awareness that she was no longer reduced to atoms. She was becoming whole again, and the world around her was re-materialising. The sky deepened. Trees leaned against it in the breeze. The sun shone, falling in a glitter on the sea.
Intrigued by this change, she began to wander. She passed through empty towns, the cars covered in dust, the interiors of buildings frozen in time. She saw from the tops of mountains. She felt the weight of water on the ocean floor. She wandered far and wide in search of nothing, time flowing through her, inseparable from who she was, that strange light still rippling in her and over her. Sometimes the Standing Men were there, sometimes not, but she sensed a curiosity, almost a warmth, in the way they circled her now.
When she finally arrived home, she felt the restfulness of the house, the small quiet shifts of life around her, the change of the seasons, the beginnings and ends that came to things and then started again. The air was musty and damp. Rain had got into the timber of the front door, making it swell and split. She had to force it open. She felt the carpet beneath her feet, the give of the stairs. Sensations, she knew, that were just tricks of her imagination.
She saw herself in the mirror sometimes and looked with interest at the woman who stared back at her; an older woman but not old yet, hair grey and wonderfully long. Her eyes shone. Her mouth was pale, lips flecked with lines. She marvelled at how her imagination added these details. She was like a sculptor, shaping herself back into existence.
Through the window, she saw birds high up, black specks flying in a loose V, going wherever they went at this time of year, their lives a cycle that hers was not. Hers was stasis, frozen by this light that cloaked her.
Some old need to be moving towards something stirred within her, taking her by surprise. What purpose it had now, she didn’t know.
She went out, driven by that need to live again. In the woods, she startled a fox. It froze, watching her, then darted away into the trees. It made her go cold. It couldn’t be. It was a memory, surely, of another time. But it had felt so real.
Then she saw the Standing Men in a circle around her, the shadowy, tall figures, closer than usual but still unclear. All of a sudden, she felt the rippling light leave her. It flowed away from her like running water and surrounded the Standing Men. She watched them turn and walk away through the trees, taking the light with them, disappearing into the woods. Then she sensed a shift around her, like a tremor, and felt with an incredible certainty that it signalled the return of the disappeared.
She walked down to the beach. The morning sun brightened the stones. She felt it on her face, closing her eyes then opening them again. The earth seemed renewed, cleansed, and she knew by some intuition that it would be the same for everyone who had disappeared like she had. It would be like they had been reborn. The old tendencies that had brought destruction would have come to an end and something better would have taken its place. She felt it in her now, calling her, something as true as the call of the birds overhead. It brought with it a belief that she would look up, sooner or later, and see Tom walking down the beach towards her.
The Disappearance is from The Hope Issue – Issue 16. Order your copy here
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