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A Winter Tale, and Dark
A hazy dream, ascending from the depths of the night. He feels he is glimpsing, shrouded by the caliginous fog, Laura’s face: An anguished expression, lips slightly parted, a barely audible whisper, 'Thomas, help me, please ...'
The fog darkens. Now he is awake. He senses a dreadful presence squatting in the darkest corner of the bedroom. An emanation of threat, malice, and evil which he has never known nor suspected to exist. He feels paralyzed, unable to think. A gelid claw grips his heart in a painful clasp which inhibits his breathing. “A few more minutes of this,” he thinks, “and I'm finished.”
He collapses onto the bed, feeling heavier and heavier. A black pall spreads over his mind.
A stillness now complete cloaks the lonely cottage. Outside, the first snow of a late fall is slowly blanketing stunted fir trees.
“How are you feeling, Thomas?”
Boer had finally opened his eyes. He found himself in a hospital room, his bed besieged by monitors busily displaying real-time data on his physical state. A tangle of wires connected his body to the measuring instruments. Ryan Parker was seated in an uncomfortable metal chair at the side of his bed. Undisguised relief was brightening the expression of the slender, energetic middle aged man, a professor of psychiatry at the university in which Boer, an academic psychologist, was spending the remaining weeks of his sabbatical leave.
“Where am I? And why am I here?” asked Boer.
“K***’s hospital,” answered Parker, referring to the small Northern town in whose vicinity stood Parker’s vacation cottage where Boer had been staying.
“You were transported here this morning,” continued Parker. “I had come to the cottage to bring you the mail from the city. I entered after my knocking went unanswered. I found you unconscious in your bed. The doctors have not communicated their diagnosis yet. But your physical state is normalizing.”
“It would have ended badly without your help, wouldn’t it ?” said Boer. “I feel very tired, I need more sleep.”
“I leave you in good hands,” said Parker. “This facility is small but well equipped, and the physicians in charge see no need to move you to a city hospital, which is a good sign. Now go to sleep, I will come and visit you again tomorrow.”
A few weeks later Boer and Parker were seated by the fire in the latter’s study, a spacious, soberly furnished room lined with books handsomely hosted on oak shelves darkened by time. A bay window framed maple trees whose branches whitened by snow reflected the fading light.
“You look in fine shape, Thomas,” said the psychiatrist. What about your state of mind?”
“Better,” he replied. “But I’m plagued by recurring dreams of Laura pleading for my help, not unlike the one that preceded my collapse at the cottage. They make me feel helpless, and guilty.”
Thomas Boer’s wife, in her mid-thirties, had died three months earlier, after a painful illness. Boer had been hit hard by the loss.
“You did everything in your power to assist her, Thomas.”
“I suppose you’re right. However, I feel that Laura's plea refers, not to the past, but to her present state of being, however absurd this sounds: the more so for coming from someone who’s supposed to be a scientist...
“And since we’re at it, hear this. The day Laura died I was at her bedside. She had left the hospital a few days earlier, wanting to die at home, and was lying in bed in our room. Dawn was breaking. The morphine that subdued her pain had made her drowsy. She tried to speak: couldn’t. She smiled, instead. A blissful expression crept over her face erasing any trace of suffering. She seemed rejuvenated. She squeezed my hand, sighed deeply, closed her eyes: and was gone.
“I stood there, stunned, her death slowly worming its way into my consciousness. Then a strange thing happened to me, totally involuntary. A sharp, shrill cry suddenly issued from the depths of my body, so fierce that I found myself spitting blood afterwards. It did not come from grief; it was something alien, soon followed by a second cry, just as violent. The strangeness of it all deepened as a blue dense haze seemed to arise from Laura’s head. It lingered there for a few seconds, then ascended plume-like toward the ceiling and disappeared beyond it.
“There,” continued Boer after a brief pause. “I've finally managed to find the courage to tell someone about it. Am I ripe for the psychiatric ward?”
Parker stood up, a pensive expression on his ascetic face. He then approached the bookshelves, and came back carrying David-Kneele’s ‘With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet’, open to page 19.
“Take a look at this,” he said.
“Let’s see,” Boer began after perusing a few pages. “The cries I emitted would correspond to those used by Tibetan lamas to crack the sutures of the skull of the deceased, enabling her soul to leave the body and enter the afterlife. I would have unwittingly employed this same technique, then. Are you asking me to take this literally?”
“I lack the courage to do so” replied Parker, smiling. “But there are striking similarities, don’t deny it.”
“How should we explain this? By assuming that I was being guided by a knowledge I do not know I possessed? For I certainly do not recall ever having heard or read about such practice.”
“However, since we seem now prepared to entertain the most extravagant hypotheses,” resumed Boer “if we were to pursue this approach, where would it lead us?”
“Let’s try this, Thomas”, answered Parker. “Focus your thoughts on Laura while I ease you into a light trance. Then describe aloud whatever reaches you.”
Parker’s soothing words, the dimly lit room, the warmth from the fireplace, slowly coaxed Boer into a twilight state of mind. What appeared to be Laura’s voice suddenly intruded into his consciousness: “I'm dying, Thomas. The second death. My mind is muddled, my memory is fading… Now I have to flee .... they are after me... they are horrid, murderous… help me if you can...”
Boer ceased to speak, sighed wearily, and slowly returned to ordinary awareness. “What do you make of this?” he asked finally.
“It brings to mind the Bardo Thodol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which I presume you are not familiar with?”, replied Parker.
“Definitely not”, answered Boer.
“According to this text, a person’s consciousness, severed from the body by physical death, enters a transitional state which can lead either to liberation and Nirvana, or to a new birth. To achieve liberation, the surviving consciousness must realize she has now entered the ‘clear light of ultimate reality’. If she can embrace it fearlessly, understanding that this ‘light’ and her own essence are one and the same, she may attain Nirvana.
"But very few ever reach the level of spiritual development necessary to arrive at this insight. Most of us will instead experience this reality as an otherworldly domain inhabited by angelic presences and terrifying demons.
“The possibility of liberation exists even then, if we are helped to realize that these beings are just personifications of our hopes, fears, and evil pulsions: but in most cases we’ll panic and flee these apparitions.
“Perhaps we’ll perceive in the gloom what appear to be caves and seek refuge there only to discover, before losing consciousness, that they are wombs which will funnel us into a new life somewhere in the universe.”
“I am hardly an expert on such esoteric texts”, concluded Parker apologetically “but I hope I managed to give you an inkling of how events are believed to unfold according to this tradition.”
“In terms of this scenario,” said Boer after a while, “Laura is unable to achieve liberation. Her pleads for help, her terror, show she is fleeing demons of her own making.”
A new thought struck Boer. “I told you of my experience of an evil presence that preceded my fainting in the cottage,” he continued.
Parker assented silently.
“Is it conceivable that this presence resulted from my telepathic reception of the experiences that my wife was undergoing? That this presence was not a self-induced hallucination, but rather the projection into my mind of the demonic beings that poor Laura was herself creating?”
“Well, other interpretations are certainly possible, of course,” replied Parker. But your suggestion makes sense within the context we are adopting here.”
“Laura says that memories of her earthly existence are fading, which suggests she is about to reach a point of no return,” Boer said after a pause. “We might as well follow this approach to its terminus,” he added. “What’s next, then?”
Parker picked up an English translation of the Bardo Thodol. “Among the Tibetans, the reading of this text,” he said, “serves to guide the consciousness of the deceased through the post-mortem transition. It is supposed to begin immediately after death, whereas Laura passed on months ago. However, reading the book might be of value still, for all we know.
“Try and re-enter a state of trance, Thomas, and I will read aloud the passages most appropriate to Laura’s situation. This is the best I can think of”.
Ancient words from a remote spiritual landscape resonated within the room, while the logs in the fireplace slowly turned to ashes.
Finally, silence ensued.
Boer opened his eyes. “I saw her through the gloom,” he began. “She was fleeing in terror, a soul among the many that were seeking refuge. She stopped for a few moments, as if hearing something only vaguely familiar. If it was your voice she heard, it failed to hold her. She then resumed her run toward a faint light on the horizon.
“I fear we lost her, forever.”
A somber Parker nodded in agreement.
© 2015 John Paul Quester