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The First Minute After Midnight

Long, long ago, before physics was invented, there were fairy stories. As a child, Rachel had owned book-cases full of fairy stories. She had read every one of them. She remembered them all. All except one – ‘The King Of The Golden Mountain’.

It was the only fairy story she had been frightened by. The oven in ‘Hansel and Gretel’ had not frightened her, the iron shoes in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ had not frightened her nor had the poisoned apple or the wolf in the woods. But something about ‘The King Of The Golden Mountain’ had left her terrified. So terrified that she could not even remember the story, simply the sense of turning the pages, an image of a wild, raging man, of magical transportations and a sense of foreboding and loss that closed around her like a thick feather cloak, seemingly weightless and yet with the capacity to block out light and air. She had gone back to read it again in the intervening years, with the same result: an inability to remember it and the lingering sense of being alone in a landscape of desolation and emptiness.

She was in the crowded foyer of a theatre, about to see a play about a woman who was really a dog or a dog who was really a woman when she noticed someone buying a packet of sandwiches. Without warning, she was suddenly back in the experience of hospital. In bed, watching the arrival of the thrice-daily meal trays, their contents concealed by metal domes, rising as singularly as pulp-fiction moonscapes from the dun-coloured plastic. Hospital food, she thought, was like airline food – magical in its packaging and arrival out of thin air. It came from a place where there were no kitchens in sight, no fry-pans, no fires, no spices, no connection to the real world outside where bread was baked and soups simmered on stove-tops. It appeared suddenly, without warning, created whole in the way that wishes materialised in the old stories. It was created in some underground cavern by the servants of the genie. It was a sign of the strange new world you had entered.

Rachel thought you entered this world in stages. First there was the packing, a sure indication that travel was required. And how did you select what you needed when you didn’t know where you were going? All of your references were to this world. In packing for hospital, you were packing for another planet. Distant travel to nearby places.

The foyer was the first boundary you crossed. Like the departure lounge of an airport or a ship, passengers mingled with guests, who were merely seeing them off. People who would cross back through the big double doors into the familiar streets where real life continued to play. It was the second time Rachel had done this. The hospital had redecorated its entrance lobby, added a magnificent aquarium. Rachel had sat in the foyer watching the fish, fluid as liquid colour, circling and circling. Occasionally they would swim to the glass boundary separating one element from another and look out into the people moving through air and molecules of a different density. Only the glass separated them. Afterwards, Rachel thought of the fish, looking out from one world into another, divided only by an invisible barrier that they could feel but not see.

After a while, you were called to the office where you gave your details: name, age, address, as if you were being inducted into the army. The details of who you were – female, Caucasian, waiting to have your life changed, written down on the flat white pages, bland as the administrator’s practised expression. Then you were shown to your room, the nurse leading you like a concierge. You were here in the ‘Hotel California’, the place where you could check out, but you could never leave.

One of the things that Rachel remembered afterwards was the experience of waking in this strange new place. What she remembered was that she couldn’t remember it. It was different from waking at home where consciousness came with a slow seeping through of awareness, like the soft, wet colours in a water-painting. It was different from waking after surgery in the recovery room, where you awoke torn by the drag and pull of two different tides – the drugged world of the unconscious behind you and the hard world of reality in front. In hospital, each morning, Rachel would simply be awake. She had been asleep before and she was awake now. It was seamless, there was no sense of actually waking. She had tried many times to recall the experience of transition, but it was impossible. She could not. It reminded Rachel of science fiction stories where people walked through a doorway in one world straight through into the next. The barrier between the two worlds was magic. It existed to separate two worlds which could not co-exist. One was here and one was there. And there was no in between. It was as simple as that.

That was what had happened when Psyche, carried by the West Wind, leaped off the cliff to float to the magic palace of her lover, the invisible god of love. It was the enchanted mansion that Beauty inhabited, far from any known landmarks, where she lived with the Beast whose true face she had never seen. In these houses too, meals appeared without any preparation. The work of the house was done by invisible hands. A few servants might be seen here or there, going about their business, but to say that these were the force which vitalised the house was as misleading as to say that clocks, with their little cogs and fidget wheels, controlled time.

Rachel remembered that Psyche, when she first came to the palace, had come in fear. So had Beauty. Both of them offered up to their fate by their fathers. The Master of Beauty’s house was terrifying in his appearance, shambling, bestial, ugly. Psyche’s husband was invisible, the most frightening guise of all. If they had been able to run, they would have run. Who would not? They had to stay, they had entered another world.

All through the early days of terror, they had to stay. Through the fear of their lives, their physical safety, their sanity, they had to stay. Day by day, they stayed. And as they stayed, something began to happen. Each of them, through something they could not name, could not truly see, could not understand, began to be embraced by love.

And there it should have ended. And would have, but for the outside world. How easy it was to remember what never really was. How could you remember your old home, for instance as populated by anything other than happiness and smiles? How could you remember that your beloved father gave you away? And when the sisters approached, spreading their lies and doubts and deadly machinations, how could you not trust? And, not knowing how changed you were, how could you know that you could never go home again?

That was what none of them knew, thought Rachel. She had taken out of her library, the old book containing ‘The King Of The Golden Mountain’. This morning she had read it again, for the third time.

It was about a father who had lost his money and inadvertently promised his son to the black dwarf who rescued him. The son was cast out into the river where he floated downstream to an unknown country. Here he found the magical palace, where the maiden had been bespelled into the form of a snake, coiling and writhing on the floor. She had waited twelve years for him. To break the enchantment, he had to submit to the twelve black men who would visit him at night to beat him, torment him and pierce him with instruments. He was to stand silently, to endure, to make no response. On the second night, another twelve men would come to do the same dark work and on the third night, there would be twenty-four and they would cut off his head. But their powers would cease at midnight, at the first moment of the new day, at Cinderella-time when all things were transformed, even though it was dark, even though there was not yet the knowledge of the light. If he remained stoic through this, steady, enduring without uttering a word, then the maiden would be freed from the spell. She would come to him with a flask containing the Water of Life, sprinkle some on him, and he would be alive and well and as whole as before.

He agreed. He did it all. It was a bargain. He understood his part in it. He understood his reward. Happiness in recompense for sacrifice. That was something he understood. And so he broke the spell. The snake became the beautiful princess. There was joy and jubilation. Their marriage was celebrated with dancing and feasting and he became the King of the Golden Mountain.

But it was the same old story, the hero wanting to go back, to visit the country, the family, the life he had come from. To say ‘It’s me. I’m back.’ To be welcomed into their arms. ‘I’m here. I’m real.’ To reclaim them. And to reclaim himself.

He was warned of course, as they are always warned – that it is dangerous, that the past is a marshy territory, never what it seems to be, that the pathways are mischievous, that what you have lost is never what you find.

Through all the months of chemotherapy, what Rachel focussed on was reclaiming herself. Her hair came off in soft and strangely frightening clumps in the shower as if it had no anchor. Nothing whatsoever kept it where it was supposed to be, where it had always been. Her hair said more clearly than anything else that Rachel’s world had come unhinged, that her own personal physics had cut loose and was headed for parts unknown.

Rapunzel’s hair had been able to bear the weight of the witch and later the climbing Prince as she let it down over and over from the tall tower. Rachel’s hair could not even bear the weight of Rachel. It was leaving her in dark cloudy masses like the last migrating birds of winter. Rachel reacted by cutting her hair off. Cutting it into a crew-cut, so that all that framed her face was a shadow and then later, nothing. She saw her face as if for the first time, saw the angles and bones that had been hidden by the heavy mass of hair. It was oddly freeing. Her friends loved it, said she should always keep it short. Rachel acquiesced shyly. But Rachel realised afterwards, that behind all this, what she had always been thinking was, ‘It will come back, it will grow again.’ She had gone through the whole experience thinking that she would come back. That she would come out the other end of the tunnel and meet herself, Rachel, smiling in the sunshine.

The King of the Golden Mountain went back. The snake-princess had grudgingly allowed it, given him the magic ring that would transport him to his old home. But on one condition – that he must never use it to wish her away to his old home. He agreed. In his nagging, blinkered need to go back home, he would have agreed to anything. And perhaps he meant it at the time.

He went back to his old world, his old home, his old family and friends. But they turned him away. They denied him. They didn’t recognise him. He had no existence in this old world. He was dead in it, just as surely as he had been alive in the new one. He was distraught. He broke all his promises. He sent for the snake-princess, who came against her will and disowned him. He was doubly disowned now. He belonged neither in this world nor the other. He was desperate for his new home, for the strange palace of the King of the Golden Mountain. He was destitute, bereft of the ring that carried his magic.

Despairing and penniless, attempting to return to the Golden Mountain, he met three giants, squabbling over an inheritance. He stole it away from them – a magical sword which cut off heads, a cloak of invisibility and boots which would transport the wearer instantly to wherever he wished to go. He knew where he wished to go.

He arrived at the palace of the King of The Golden Mountain on the eve of a great celebration. The snake-princess was marrying again. He had on his cloak of invisibility. He passed by the guards, the guests, the snake-princess. No-one saw him. He passed by like mist.

After her chemotherapy, Rachel had expected the world to be wonderful. After the task of wrestling with the dark angel, although Rachel had always thought it felt more like dancing, a strange, whirling dance where you had to concentrate on the steps, she had imagined she could rest. Her hair would grow. Her body would become strong again. The old Rachel would bloom. Instead, it seemed that all of the usual or unusual troubles and trials that space themselves out in a life had gathered in clusters to attend Rachel that year. They came, one after another in groups and larger groups. Rachel, who was used to picking herself up, picked herself up, although more and more wearily. She went back to her old fairy stories and read them over. No-one had told her about this. And neither did they.

Rachel was used to being optimistic. It was not a facile optimism, it was hard-won. She had grown up sandwiched between parents who loved her, boundlessly, as they loved both their children, and a sister who hated her, relentlessly, simply because she had been born. Rachel drank in both, the darkness and the light, as a plant takes in whatever is given it. What happens when you feed in two such substances? Does the one cancel out the other, as an acid does an alkaline solution? Do you end up with nothing? Rachel felt she had come close. But in some way that she knew could never fully be understood with language, Rachel had reclaimed the light, she had reclaimed herself, she had reclaimed hope. But in this year after chemotherapy, for the first time since adulthood, she could feel it fading. Rachel had read somewhere that when the body is deprived of food, it begins to cannibalise itself, to eat itself up. When the soul is deprived of hope, does the same thing happen?

The King of the Golden Mountain was enraged. The guests were feasting, his pain meant nothing to them. The snake-princess was supping at her wedding feast, laughing and happy, he did not exist for her. He made himself visible. He roared his betrayal. He took the magical axe he had stolen and ordered it to cut off all their heads, the heads of all the people he had once loved and cherished. He ended up standing alone in his castle, once more, and never as he had imagined, the King of the Golden Mountain.

Rachel finished reading the story in the light of her bed-side lamp. She had taken the book to bed. That was what fairy-stories were after all, bed-time stories to hold you through the dark. But not this one. Rachel could see why she had always been frightened of it. It was the most terrifying story of all. It was the one without the happy ending. The one about the loss of hope.

Rachel had thought that she had done all that she was supposed to. She had befriended the chemotherapy. She had kissed the Beast. The transformation was supposed to happen. She saw now that it had been too easy. The chemotherapy had been ugly, but it was on her side, just as the Beast and the invisible Cupid had been in fairy tales. What she had not embraced was the loss. Just as Psyche and Beauty and the King of the Golden Mountain had wanted to go back, so had she. But how could you embrace loss? It was like embracing absence, the unknown, the darkness. It was the letting go of all that was old and past. And how could you trust in letting go, when what you might find was a vacuum? Rachel turned off the light. The past did not exist, she saw now. If you went back to the past, you would not exist.

Rachel lay in the dark. She had read books that talked of being transformed by the light. But Rachel understood now that that was wrong. Light was not what transformed you. Transformations took place in the dark. Like Jonah in his whale, like Daniel in the lion’s den.

She thought of the King of the Golden Mountain on the third night of his test. She imagined him, in pieces on the ground, waiting for the first minute after midnight. She could feel the changed interior of her body, with its dark, mysterious caverns. She remembered lying in the narrow bed in hospital, the alchemist’s palace, feeling the chemicals drip in, trusting blindly in her body, in her ability to take them in, to make them part of herself, a part of her wholeness. She had betrayed that trust now, she realised. In the months of disappointment, in the losses, in the loss of hope, she had failed to see the real task. The real task, she now saw, was to wait in the darkness, without clocks, without signs, without indications of light. The real task was to wait in the darkness and, not knowing whether it would ever happen, trust in the first moment after midnight.

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