Mount Barker, South Australia
Where Elisabeth enters the forbidden arbour … The early thunderclouds had disappeared. The sun was warm. The day sparkled and, as I ate, I played with the thought of exploring Gabe’s rose arbour while he was away …
I felt young and alive, as one often does when the remnants of vertigo finally clear. I slurped the last froth of chocolate fluff, tossed seed to the finches falling like leaves from the birch, fed the goldfish in a small pond further on and slipped through a gate in the hedge dividing our yards. In front of me, shrubs rose in layers to a line of conifers, the central avenue pines, each topped by small winged Gabes turning to stare at me. Unnerved, I halted, but it must have been a trick of the early afternoon light. The angels all faced the back of Gabe’s house. A low-flying raven squawked as it almost collided with one of the pines and, startled, veered away. My heart began an irregular beat. The comfort of the seat by the rose arbour beckoned so I made my way to the rear of the garden, glancing, as I hurried between hedge and shrubbery, at the angels, afraid they would be pivoting to watch my progress. But I needn’t have worried, they were motionless, their eyes impassively fixed on the house.
I crossed behind the marble-edged pool at the back of the garden and sank into a cloud-cushion and closed my eyes. Breathing deeply of ozone and sun sparkles, mountain breezes and oceans, I inhaled the spice of forests, mothers and spring. My heartbeat slowed.
I love Gabe. When I’m with him, life is intense and full of possibilities.
His absence hurt.
My emotions swayed. I pictured him by the fire with Aebon: angelic bodies of ivory and ebony, a glimpse of sublime perfection. How upsetting to imagine him becoming humanised while dark Aebon remained angelic.
However, after what he had done to my novel …
As if in a dream, I rose from the seat, kicked off my sandals and stepped into the arbour.
Swags of red and yellow hung motionless from overarching stems of green. Except for the soft fall of petals and light pad of my soles, no sound invaded the place. My worries fell away. I had entered the forbidden bower and it was beautiful. Sun spilled through vermilion and gold onto my bare feet and I was safe.
As I walked on, cushioned by the cool, pliant petal carpet, the arbour began to curve. Its entrance vanished. The light changed to one that threw no shadows. Time seemed suspended yet I was aware of moving, until, around a particularly sharp bend, a dense fall of yellow blooms curtained the path.
At peace with what I’d done and expecting to come out into the real world, I pushed through – and halted with a sudden intake of breath. Before me spread a garden of immeasurable beauty: a forest of towering trees, ferns, verdant grasses, vivid flowers … and Aebon.
My heart lurched. The angel’s proximity held me spellbound. He reached for me. ‘Come.’
The word lit my body. A finger whispered across my cheek. A hand hovered at my waist as, together, we moved into the woods.
We wandered the mossy paths. Birds with exotic plumes and iridescent colours displayed in the trees, insects flashed between the shrubs, rainbow butterflies sipped nectar from high orchid blooms, and skinks rustled out of our way while small deer nibbled plants in emerald glades. A group of unicorns, grazing on pale coral-like lichen in a grove of slender trees, lifted their heads to watch us pass.
I relaxed into Aebon’s presence. I touched his warm cheek, trailed my fingers down the graceful sweep of his wing, was stirred by the power in his burnished muscles.
We came to a lake. He drew me down and we knelt side by side at the water’s edge, caught by our youthful reflections. He dipped his cupped hands in, lifted and drank, then offered them to me. I bent and drew the cool crystal liquid into my mouth and swallowed. I ran my tongue over his palm and raised my eyes to his, questioning, but he drew back. He picked berries from a nearby bush and held them to my lips. His coal-black eyes smoked promises as he wiped the dribbling juices from my chin. I longed to drown in his gaze but he laid a finger against my lips, denying me, and instead took my hand. The music of our laughter joined as we scrambled up and ran, swift as falcons, light as angels: past walls of ivy lit with jewelled beetles, past tumbling streams frothing over miniature rock-falls, hardly touching the paths we followed while birds carolled in the whispering breezes. Our pairing – Aebon’s and mine – seemed so right. I had forgotten Gabe. I had forgotten my age. I’d never felt so alive, so young.
We broke from the garden into a field alive with wildflowers buzzing with tiny pollinators. I halted and stood open-mouthed. In the centre of that expanse grew two huge, gnarled trees. They dripped with fruits, and the scent wafting from them was so delicious that I began to salivate.
‘What are they?’ I breathed, knowing the answer even as I asked.
Aebon drew me to the nearest. Its fruits looked luscious but as I neared I saw that scale and creeping insects infested the tree. Fungus blackened its branches and a touch of decay underlay its rich muskiness. I longed for satiation and Aebon seemed eager for me to eat.
Tenderly, he took my shoulders and guided me to a low-hanging branch. He slipped my dress off and kissed my bare skin. The desire in his eyes jolted me. My hunger was almost unbearable and it was for more than just the fruit. I stepped out of my panties.
Aebon knelt. ‘Take one, fair maid,’ he murmured against my thigh. ‘Take one and eat.’
I dropped my eyes to his. ‘You too?’
He shook his head. ‘This food is not for angels.’
I touched a fruit and jerked away. A maggot had oozed from its bloated flesh and I realised I was already stuffed with more than enough from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and, before Aebon could speak, I had broken away and was running to the other tree. Its fruits were smaller. The scents drifting from them spoke of eternity. I raised my hand and seized one … and was plunged into night. A great gust of wind flung me back to the edge of the forest. I crashed onto my back and screeched as a sharp pain knifed through my hip. Gabe’s face streaked past, huge and livid, his mouth a howl that mingled with the roaring gale.
I screamed for Aebon, but he was already there, a murky heaviness pinning me to the ground. He slammed into me.
‘Yeowww!’ His yell echoed mine. He threw himself off and leapt to his feet. A tirade of expletives burst from his mouth. ‘Elisabeth,’ he hissed. ‘What in Lucifer’s name are you doing here? I thought you were a young, innocent maiden, sent for my enjoyment! You have made a fool of me!’
I shrank back. My nakedness, my age, the enormity of my stupidity burst through me, but, in spite of my pain and terror, my body still flickered with desire.
‘No!’ I howled. But my denial sped away on the wind. I clawed at the ground, wanting to stand and face Aebon, but could find no purchase.
Dark beasts flowed through the trees, watching us. Their mouths slavered, their eyes flamed, they growled and whined with an eagerness that set me quaking.
‘Aebon, please,’ I gasped. ‘I was deluded. Gabe – ’
He bent and grabbed my hair, yanked my face close to his. ‘Gabe? He wouldn’t have allowed you to come here, Elisabeth. You have violated this place.’ He thrust deep into my mind. This time, my scream carried above the wind. The beasts drew closer.
‘You withered bit of slag! Who do you think you are to play so frivolously with my affections? You sicken me! You have offended the garden, pray it lets you live!’
He dropped my head and vanished.
I lay writhing with shame and agony, longing for obliteration. But some small spark remained. I owed Gabe an apology, I needed to find my way home.
Struggling to my feet, I lurched along the swirling edge of the forest, gasping at the pain in my hip. Sharp stones hurt my feet, hail and sleet lashed me. Jagged red lightning ripped across the sky, bright enough to show me the path into the trees. Gritting my teeth against pain and fear, I turned in and was soon swallowed by the gloom. The monsters raged on the edges of my vision, keeping pace with me, lunging if so much as a toe strayed from the track. Stray brambles ripped into me. Vines caused me to trip and panic that I’d be trapped and held. The air turned thick and foetid. I passed the lake. Once so smooth, so clean, so pure, it now writhed with savagely bright algae.
My hip had loosened, so I began to run but missed my footing and tumbled into a ditch where I lay numb and exhausted. Ice seeped into my bones and great, damp clots dropped onto me from overhanging branches. The beasts reared and plunged above the sludge in which I shivered, and even though none touched me, I sensed their grim circle closing in. A lurid green mist seeped from the ditch. I coughed and began to choke. Terror of asphyxiation drove me to my feet. I clambered out and screeched at the beasts to back off. Wildly I looked around. The path I’d fallen from was only a step away and in the distance I glimpsed a faint yellow blot. I ran for the familiar flower, eyes fixed on its faint hope, trying to ignore the terrors lurking at my side.
The path twisted. The beasts ran closer, bellowing their eagerness and I thought that I’d rather throw myself into the ruined lake than allow those ghastly brutes to have me. But somehow, the single yellow bloom remained ahead, a beacon of safety. It widened and became a curtain of roses. A thundering growl set me leaping for the sweep of foliage. I plunged through and crashed into amber peace. Silence screamed in my ears. My soul howled. The soft light was too bright. Eyelids knitted tight, I fell to my knees and huddled on the petal carpet, trying to catch my breath.
‘Been somewhere, Elisabeth?’
I’d never heard a voice so icy. I raised my head. The angel towered above me, statue still, his eyes blazing with scorn. I burned with shame and grief. How easily I’d been led. How arrogant I had been to think that I could consort with angels. I attempted to climb to my feet but collapsed and sank into oblivion.