After the great bushfires of 2020, I spent a lot of time just trying to recover. I didn't have the energy to rebuild my home. I didn't even have the energy to fill in the insurance claim forms and take photos to add to them. Thank God my sisters were there to help me. One had come over from New Zealand as soon as she heard there were fires in my area; she just drove straight to Auckland and got on the first plane here. The other set up her spare bedroom, so I could live with her when I was discharged from hospital.
Sometimes, it took all I had to move. I needed help eating, brushing my teeth; you name it. As much as I had decided to go home and start again, with sweet potato plots for the brush-tail rock wallabies, and native flowering trees for the bees, I just couldn't get myself there for the longest time.
I needed to manage my pain, which was excruciating enough for prescription narcotics; as well as deal with skin grafts on my hand and feet. I never imagined suffering until then.
It seemed to me, that I had to make a choice: become adept at self-hypnosis, or risk an addiction to strong painkillers. I had tried meditation, sporadically, over the years. I knew how to focus on my breathing to calm my heart-rate. I would home in on the spaces in between breaths, and just pause for a moment before breathing in or breathing out again. I would feel still and quiet.
In those moments, when the pain would briefly lift, I could hear the birds singing. Most Australian birds don’t have the pretty song-lines that you might hear in the northern hemisphere. Magpies warble. Wattle birds screech. Noisy miners are exactly that. Butcher birds are my favourites, and one would visit me when I sat in the back garden after lunch. They can be very loud, but this one seemed to know that I needed the quiet.
I started to appreciate those little things again. My tree-change had ended in such disaster; but I was alive, and I had family who loved me. I could enjoy a little shade and a cool breeze with my afternoon sun. I even started to enjoy food again, once my respiratory tract recovered from the smoke inhalation damage.
In mindfulness meditation, they talk about being present, aware, non-judgemental and grateful. It took a great deal of effort! I was getting there. I knew about natural hedonism meditation too, about enjoying the little things in life; and I was getting there as well.
Sometimes, my meditation practice became so deep, that I would float above my body. I could leave that tortured mess behind and fly away. And so then, it happened. I found a deep, dark, velvety soft place in between my breaths, and I floated somewhere else.
Beyond the Velvet Portal
At first, it was like no place I had ever been. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve travelled, and seen some of the most beautiful places on earth. But the first thing I saw, was a building I had never been to in this life. It’s light stone entrance was flanked by steep flying buttresses, like those supporting Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Ah Paris! The food. The only reason I never gained weight, with all the food I ate there, was because I walked everywhere. Thirty thousand steps each day, sight-seeing and finding restaurants and cafes. Oh!!! But I digress.
The building with the flying buttresses was being built, and the carpenters were arguing with the architect about the vaulted roof. They couldn’t believe it could be supported by “flying buttresses”! I walked past them, into the cool, and saw stonemasons chipping away at columns within; scary gargoyles, buxom women, cherubs, vines. The sound of their tools, being hammered and tapped, echoed with their colourful stories throughout the interior, too much for my sensitive ears to handle. So, I floated back outside.
“Hey! What are you doing in there? Can’t you see it’s dangerous?”
I didn’t realise he was yelling at me; I was in a trance. And then I felt his hand gripping my arm, yanking me around to face him. His blue eyes bore into mine with such hot ferocity. His face was teaming with sweat, beads bristling from sunburnt cheeks and furrowed forehead. He pursed his lips as though he were biting back a curse, and finally shoved me away from the construction.
“Away with you! Don’t come back here distracting my men, and don’t go near the construction site. You hear me?”
Startled, I stumbled away, and found myself in the bustling of market day.
Fishmongers calling out their catch of the day; beautiful lean sardines, curly octopus, sweet mussels. Cheesemongers, too, reached out to me, tempting me with tantalising treats of soft cheeses that would melt in my mouth .. if only I could say yes to their entreaties.
Normally, if I were at the market, I would have accounts with all my vendors, and they’d let me have a taste of their glorious fresh produce. I’d have a little cash, just in case there was a new vendor. I looked down to where I would normally carry my handbag. It was at this point that I had a strange out-of-body feeling of Deja-vu. On the one hand, I was still me, the self-assured woman of 2020, who had left a prestigious job as executive chef in a famous hatted restaurant in Sydney, to go bush. On the other hand, I was also me, but not. I was another woman, in another time, and the cash I carried was not polymer but coins. I felt them inside the pocket of my shift, and counted them in my mind. Somehow, I knew I had a lot of money in that pocket.
It was coming to me now. I was on my way. I had left. I was free, but also looking over my shoulder. This was the time between knowing you can bear no more, and not knowing what the future will hold. Now, I was hungry. And thirsty!! I haggled with the boulanger and the fromager for some bread and cheese; and, spying a young girl selling pear cider in the corner, I made a beeline for her.
It felt good to be so self-sufficient! For too long, I felt like I had lived in a stuffy castle being told what to do and who to marry. Weaving. Ad nauseum. Embroidering. Ad tedium. Sewing. It was endless!! My only relief was when I’d escape to the river nearby, sneaking out through the servants’ quarters so my father wouldn’t catch me, and stealthily stepping into a little boat underneath to make my way across the river to the one I loved.
We had met on one of my escapades, when I was about 10. I had been sneaking out whenever I could, just for a taste of freedom in the forest. Whenever I returned, my father would whip me for being such a disobedient, disrespectful and disgraceful daughter. I should know my place!
I escaped one sunny, dappled morning, and ran to our stable. I loved my pony, my beautiful Basque horse, whom I called Gaston. He was a feisty one! There, in the stable, was a boy tending the other horses. I spoke to him; I can’t remember what I said, but I remember my hoity-toity tone. He brought me down a peg, and we laughed! I helped him muck out the stables and feed the horses, and then we brushed every one of them. I think it was one of my happiest days! He shared his lunch with me (his first meal of the day), and we played along the river’s edge. I got my first real beating that day, but I felt that it was definitely worth it.
We would meet whenever we could, and he would tell me stories of unicorns. I fancied myself the maiden that would tame the wild thing; and dreamt that I would pat it’s long nose and kiss it, forehead to forehead (the way horses do). The unicorn would let me ride it into the night. And then, I would see him in my dreams. The unicorn would become fuzzy, and then the fuzziness would become my love. My friend became my unicorn, and then became the one whom I adored.
When we were about 11, we found an old run-down manor house. It was overgrown with vines and weeds, but there was furniture and a fireplace, and a beautiful staircase leading to bedrooms. In one of the rooms upstairs, there was even a dressing table and chair, and on the dressing table I found an old gilt mirror. In another room, my friend found an old-fashioned harp. I’d never seen anything like it before; it must have been an antique! We played house, until the sun started to set, having no idea of the time. We ran to our respective homes, vowing to keep our manor house a secret. I got another beating that day, when I finally made it home just before dinnertime.
My father was furious, not only because I’d disappeared (and for so long). He was angry because he had negotiated my bride price and dowry. He had wanted to introduce me to the man he expected me to marry. I hurriedly washed and changed into my prettiest gowns and slippers, and ran down the staircase to the great hall.
I stopped, dead in my tracks, when I saw him. He was old! He was ugly. He was repulsive. And he was my betrothed. You can’t fight your father, when you’re a medieval maiden. We sat, next to one another, at the banquet that was prepared in our honour. I could smell wet dog on his clothes. His odour was revolting. I tried to catch glimpses of him from the corner of my eye, to see if I could grow to love him, but his beard kept collecting crumbs and spills of wine. He drooled and dribbled. The only thing – and I mean only – that I liked about this old man, was the little golden lion that he wore on his sleeve. He caught me looking at it, and bellowed (in a voice that could raise the suckling pig on our plate from the dead) that it represented his holy right to rule. The lion could only be worn by the king or his heir. He was the king’s eldest remaining son and the heir to the throne. I nearly blurted out that he wasn’t my king, but my mother kicked my shin from under the table, distracting me.
In short, the night was a total disaster. From my perspective. I think my parents were well-pleased with the king’s praise of my beauty and form. I had only just started to grow from my girlishness to womanhood, and I just wanted to run upstairs to my room and hide, I was so embarrassed. The adults drank and made merry into the night, and then to the wee hours. When I awoke, I had been mysteriously carried to bed, and my fine clothes and slippers had been exchanged for a light muslin slip I wore to sleep in. I was knackered.
I managed to awake with the rustling of the servants as they prepared breakfast. I snuck out in my usual way, and found my friend in the stables. The king’s horse was huge. In every way, from every angle, that animal could knock your eyes out with how amazingly big he was. Huge. My friend already knew the king was here and why. I ran to him and wailed on his shoulder. Quietly, gently, he placed his hands on my upper arms and moved me away. He was so grown-up, suddenly. And I was still just a child, with a child’s fancies.
We had one year together after that; and our friendship stretched and widened, and deepened and soared into an intricate, intimate mutual love. One year of my betrothal before the king would expect me to sail to him and become his bride. My mother took great pains to keep me busy, knowing that I liked to disappear and play tomboy in the trees, and who knows what else I got up to?
Mother and I painted tapestry designs and sent them to Belgium to be made by the finest needleworkers in all of Europe. The first one we designed, was of two ladies together. One played a portative organ on a table, with the other listening. Mother said that it represented her and me. I have to listen to my Mother! I wonder if she knew that her playing was awful? I included a unicorn for my love, and a lion for the king; though I didn’t tell Mother about the unicorn (being for my sweetheart). I just said something about the legend of the maiden being necessary to capture the unicorn for the king. She liked that!
We came up with five more designs, and sent them to Belgium. Meanwhile, I told my love about the tapestries and that each depicted the choice I had to make. When I met the king, my sweetheart and I were just children who played together as friends. As that final year progressed, we felt such strong emotions, and deep desires for each other.
Now, I had made my courageous choice. I had salted away coins, and woven simple garments as a disguise. I had sewn a simple peasant bag, and placed in it everything I thought I would need. And then, I had a last meal with my father and mother. I looked upon them, not as harsh ogres or as bullies; but as people who were, themselves, trapped in a world they could not escape. The nobility of our land had to play politics. We had to do our part for the good of our family and our servants. I broke with tradition.
And so, I found myself on the river’s edge, this beautiful, raucous day. Waiting. Hoping. Searching and dreaming. My heart filled to it’s fullest, with love. When I saw his eyes, I could see there was a problem. His watchful gaze darted left and right, and back to me, seeming almost paranoid in his vigilance. In hushed tones, he said, “We need to get out of here, out of sight. We’re not safe.” I bundled up the picnic I had bought at the market, and we ran for a boat bobbing on the river. Quickly stealing it, we stole away across the waters to our freedom.
It was only when we had crossed the river, and run all day through the thick of the forest to our manor house; that we stopped, and he told me his fears.
The Royal Guard had arrived to take me to the ship that would carry me away and make me a princess, and one day, a queen. When my parents discovered I was gone, the search widened from our chateau through all the outbuildings and stables. The soldiers rode on horseback through our vineyards and fields, scaring our cattle and goats, and trampling the fowls in the vegetable gardens. They rode along the river, and it was a miracle they didn’t see me. They couldn’t make it through some of the forest, because of the thick undergrowth and overhanging branches, so the servants were sent out. My love was sent to look for me; all the while, planning to meet with me and run away with me.
Suddenly, a fright gripped my chest. What would happen to my parents if I didn’t return and marry the Crown Prince? The terror had it’s fists around my throat, choking me. Gasping for air, I wheezed and panted, until I found myself … back here.