Richard found himself alone save only for the snow, slowly falling from the sky and landing on the ground around him and the exposed skin of his outstretched hands. It did not seem to Richard to be snow at all as, though he was dressed only in a light jacket and shorts, there was not a single hint of the cold that Richard had believed accompanied snow. He found it rather remarkable.
Even more remarkable was that the snow that landed on his hands stayed only for a moment before dissolving away into nothing before his very eyes. It was as though it had never existed. He looked at the snow falling and the snow on the ground with a confused, almost crazed look, reaching his hand out every now and then to test the snow again. Every time it was the same result. It simply dissolved when it hit his hands while staying on the ground below with no adverse effects.
Richard had never seen snow before in his life, having only ever known life as a farmer in a remote area in the middle of Australia. He had lived mostly alone, finding company with his cattle and his dog. His face was lined and tanned and covered with a stubbly, greying beard. Beneath bushy eyebrows, his blue eyes seemed to be piercing the snow at his feet as they moved from place to place, worriedly surveying his surroundings.
He felt himself shiver despite the lack of cold as he looked out into the vast emptiness ahead of him, everything being grey or white except for himself. He felt as though he was in a desert of snow upon which nothing could ever grow at all. It was overwhelming for the poor man to think that only moments before he was smiling at his big, black dog chasing a rabbit into a bush, the Australian sun beating down upon him.
For some time Richard stood, his face changing with any given moment. One moment he seemed confused, then he looked angry and even, at times, content. His face was unemotional as he finally turned to walk away. As he did so, he suddenly stopped in his tracks. Richard’s eyes bulged as he realised that he was wrong. Something could grow in the white, snowy desolation around him.
Snow-capped mountains burst silently from the ground, racing silently skyward. He tried his hardest to keep his vision trained on the white tops of the newly forming mountains, but his eyes were incapable of processing the speed at which the mountains were growing, soon sprawling in the distance and covering as far as the eye could see. He looked at the beautiful mountain range ahead of him, holding his breath as he did. As he finally let his breath out, he sensed something happening around him.
Richard’s head darted from side to side and, to his astonishment, he saw something growing out of the snow. He watched as the trees changed from small saplings, having sprouted from an unforeseen seed in the ground somewhere underneath the infernal snow, into large oak trees, taller than any trees he had ever encountered and topped, as the mountains had been, with even more snow.
It was a wondrous sight to behold, indeed, and yet Richard still appeared to be confused and even, unfortunately, rather angry.
Out of the darkness that the trees created came a strange noise that suddenly filled the area surrounding Richard. It was not a startling noise. In fact, it was rather pleasant. As he stood in awe at the new environment surrounding him, a melodious tune carried from somewhere far in the distance. It was unlike any music that had ever graced his ears. The music sounded as though it was being created by the voices of a thousand people mingling together in perfect harmony. The tune was so intensely beautiful that it may not have been the voice of people at all. It could well have been angels.
Unaware of time, Richard stood gaping at the newly formed mountains and oak trees, listening to the angels singing, their voices mingling together to create a wonderful tune that would live in the hearts of any who heard it. Richard’s face began to soften for the first time since becoming engulfed in snow.
He surely believed himself to be the only person to have the great honour of hearing such an angelic song. That was until he heard the quiet crunch of footsteps on the snow behind him. With unforeseen reflexes, he quickly twirled around and came face to face with a most peculiar woman.
The first thing that Richard noticed about the woman was the emerald dress that she was wearing. The colour stood out wondrously against the white and brown from the snow and the trees. The dress was not designed for colder weather, and Richard moved to take off his light jacket before suddenly remembering that the cold did not seem to exist where he was. Seeing Richard reach for the jacket made the woman laugh melodiously, her laughter mixing with the song surrounding them causing Richard to tremble. Richard saw that the woman’s red hair was blowing in a breeze that he did not feel. The gallantry of which Richard held himself in such high regard faltered when he looked upon the woman’s face.
It was long and gaunt and her expression, though laughing, appeared to be grim and emotionless. Her skin was pale, almost grey, and her brown eyes were boring into his very soul. It was her eyes that gave Richard the most pause, for when he looked into them he saw something fearsome. Something hostile even. The woman’s face did not go with the wonderfully beautiful emerald dress and flowing red hair.
‘Where are you, Richard?’ the woman asked, scanning his eyes as he was doing with hers. Her voice, in opposition to her beautifully melodic laugh, was coarse and deep. Richard’s eyes betrayed his caution and unrest as he regarded the woman suspiciously.
‘How the bloody hell am I meant to know that?’ Richard asked. Richard was obviously frightened by the appearance of the woman in the emerald dress and was far blunter then perhaps was cursory at that moment. ‘While we’re at it, just who the hell are you?’
‘I am not important,’ the woman said, her raspy and abrasive voice somehow managing to follow the slow tune of the melody still going all around them. Richard rudely snorted and crossed his arms, looking at the woman with undisguised annoyance.
‘Yeah, well who is, love?’ he asked, once again overstepping the boundary with his bluntness. It was a credit to the poor woman at the other end of the tirade that she did not reprimand him for his brutish manner or even react in a manner that would, in this case, be justifiable. ‘Just answer the question. Who are you?’
‘I am no one,’ the woman replied, furthering her earlier response and answering in a polite manner. There was a pain behind her words, however. A pain of a not forgotten past, perhaps. Or maybe simply the pain of no past, present or even future.
‘Well, congratulations on that one, eh?’ Richard replied untactfully, his voice now bitingly sarcastic. The woman never lost her composure, something Richard could perhaps do with trying himself from time to time. ‘Just cut the crap. What the fuck is going on here?’
The woman’s nose scrunched up at the unnecessarily vulgar language streaming from Richard’s mouth.
‘It is not for me to say,’ the woman, whose dress sparkled a vibrant green on the spots where a snowflake had landed and dissolved into nothing, illuminating the snow around her, making it almost seem as though the snow was actually grass. Richard let out a grating and entirely unnecessary laugh.
The melody of the angel song surrounding the two of them quickened, as though someone had been observing the conversation and altered the beautiful song in reaction to Richard’s now hostile behaviour. The song took on a dangerous quality. It was now far less peaceful than it had previously been. It was no longer the beautiful song of angels, and Richard had no one to blame but himself.
‘Well, why are you here then?’ he asked, his tone now faster and deeper. While the face of the woman remained impassive, it had to be alarming to her that Richard would act in this hostile manner. The only indication that she had reacted to Richard was her muscles tensing slightly as he spoke. Who can blame her, really? How much abuse can one person take? ‘Just tell me right now, alright? What the hell is going on here?’
‘It is not for me to say,’ the woman repeated, her voice now wavering on the edge of breaking. Richard was being unkind. The wind picked up as Richard’s face started to contort in anger and his arms raised to rub his scalp which he could feel through his close-cut greying hair. The woman’s red hair started to move about much more quickly and erratically, and soon appeared to have a mind of its own. ‘I do not like your tone, Richard, and I request that you cease hostilities towards me and allow everything to take its proper course.’
‘My tone?’ Richard asked, letting his irrational anger get the better of him, his hands now gesturing wildly. ‘It’s fucking snowing! I’m from Australia for Christ’s sake. And you’re worried about my damn tone?’
Richard had gone too far this time.
Snowflakes stopped in mid-air and the wind that Richard could not feel ceased blowing as the world began to rumble around them. The woman in the emerald dress stood unwavering as Richard looked at his feet, surely concerned that at any moment the gates of Hell would swallow him up for his unbelievably rude and childish behaviour. The gates of Hell unfortunately did not open to swallow Richard. What did happen was that the snow started to evaporate, flowing from the ground in rivulets of water towards the sky from whence they had fallen. It was as though it was raining upside down. The trees went into reverse and became smaller, eventually turning back into a sapling and then into a seed that was clearly visible upon the earth that had appeared from beneath the snow.
The mountains began to disappear next. When they had first arisen, pushing their way out of the snow, there had been no noise at all, however this time there was a great, unpleasant scraping sound as the mountains forced their way back down into the newly visible earth.
The angelic melody began to shift and change once again, as though the angels had been replaced by druids. The sound was low and melancholy. A funeral dirge. It was as beautiful as the original melody that had caused Richard to soften.
The woman in the emerald dress had not moved from where she had stood before, and her brown eyes had not left Richard for even a moment as her hair violently thrashed of its own accord around her body. She looked every inch a beauty to anyone who would look upon her. Except, as it would appear, Richard who looked to be more confused than ever before as he covered his ears with his hands, attempting in vain to block the grating, painful noise.
Within seconds, the beautiful, snowy landscape was replaced with something much more arid and dry. Steam rose from great cracks in the ground where bones and the seeds that had been oak trees were strewn across the landscape. The sky had become dark with clouds that threatened to unleash a terrible storm upon all those who dared to stand beneath them. Finally, the incessant grating noise ceased and Richard tentatively pulled his hands away from his ears, only to be assaulted by the new, sinister tune.
‘What the bloody hell was that?’ Richard demanded angrily, apparently too stubborn to learn his lesson. ‘Is this some kind of a joke?’
‘I assure you, there is no joke,’ the woman said, her voice now dark with anger. Sand and dust floated around her body, never quite daring to touch her. ‘You must fall in line, Richard.’
‘Fall in line?’ Richard asked, showing just how dense he was.
‘Yes,’ the woman said gently. ‘You must fall in line, or risk being Replaced.’
Replaced! That is harsh, even if Richard does deserve it.
‘What does that even mean?’ Richard asked roughly. He scoffed. ‘Replaced. You can’t just replace someone.’
‘I think you will find that to be incorrect,’ the woman replied, her harsher tones now softening somewhat. Instead of making her seem more peaceful, she was far more menacing. ‘Replacement is a very real threat to you, Richard. You are doing everything incorrectly. If you cannot grow and change, He will be forced to Replace you.’
‘So you think I’m just going to do everything you want, then?’ Richard asked, the insensitive tone creeping back into his voice. The woman’s brown eyes flashed dangerously and the man almost took a step back, but steadied himself.
‘Yes, in fact, I do think you are going to do just that,’ the woman replied, her hair once again flowing around her as if it had a mind of its own. ‘He forced you to be, so you must follow Him. If you will not do so, you are of no use to us.’
‘You’re bonkers,’ Richard said in a quieter tone. ‘Absolutely bananas. There’s only two people here, love. You and me. That’s it. You keep talking about “we” and “us”, but it’s only you. No one created me but my parents.’
‘Is that true?’ the woman asked, her tone a wonderful mixture of amusement and annoyance. ‘Were you really created by your parents?’
‘Of course,’ Richard replied, rolling his eyes.
‘Tell me a memory of your parents then,’ the woman challenged, her hair settling down once again.
Richard paused. It was a long pause, and it was clear that he was using what little brainpower he possessed to think of a response. As expected, he could not find one. He looked positively frightened.
‘You don’t have one, do you?’ the woman said triumphantly. Richard looked completely lost. It was as though he was mourning a loss that he didn’t understand.
‘It doesn’t prove anything,’ Richard replied defiantly, shaking his head. ‘You’re still crazy. There’s no one else bloody well here. Look around. I’m stuck in some weird, changing world with a woman who belongs in a hospital for her own damn safety. I should turn and run as far away from here as fast as I can.’
‘It will never be far enough.’
The woman’s voice was colder and harsher than it had been before, and rightly so. Richard was clearly unsuitable. The dirt and dust that had been floating around her suddenly burst into flames and tendrils of fire began to lap at her emerald dress and red hair, giving the impression that she had burst into flames as well. The fire threatened to touch her, but never dared do so.
The woman reached out to an unchangeable and terrified Richard, who had become frozen with fear. Her hand was wreathed in flames that never deigned to touch her and emitted no heat. Slowly, her fingers closed in on Richard’s stubbly cheek. One finger touched his skin and the woman in the emerald dress smiled as Richard screamed.
Moments later, it was snowing again. The woman, her emerald dress and her red hair had disappeared. The snow was falling onto the ground below, slowly piling on the parched ground, soon making it unrecognisable.
A boy, no older than seven, appeared out of nowhere. He was not quite dressed for the non-existent cold weather. In his youthful, naïve eyes there was a growing wonder that had not been present in Richard’s. As before, the mountains shot skyward, the snow-capped peaks reaching beyond the boy’s sight and the trees sprouting from the ground, the woman in the emerald dress with her red hair stood in waiting, a smile playing on her sad, gaunt lips as she saw the potential in the unsuspecting child.
A developing mind with few preconceived notions …
He would do nicely.