by Jane Downing
A labyrinth is the stuff of myth. Frightening creatures lurk there, and tricks are needed to find your way out. The one at Wandiligong was called a maze, the domesticated form offering a fun day out, not an odyssey of any kind. Merrilees and her sister and their kids spilled out of the car, eager and excited.
They were the second lot in the short queue at the ticket counter. The group ahead gave Merrilees time to scan the entry prices chalked on a huge blackboard hanging on the wall. Darcy tugged at her hand but she held onto him firmly. His cousins were dashing ahead, then threading back through tables and chairs in the adjacent café, as if practicing their maze skills. They jumped back to the counter in triumphant leaps once the teenagers in the first group had finally finished buying individual tickets.
“Can we have a family ticket?” Merrilees asked, half-hoping for, but not really expecting a positive response. The young woman behind the counter looked up. And down and around. Two adults, three children: two women, two puffing and panting little girls and an almost three-year-old boy begging to get to the maze already. She looked flustered, the ticket-seller, as she sold them the reduced-cost family ticket.
“You realise she thought we were lesbians,” Paige said after they were out of hearing distance.
The sisters looked at each other and broke into identical earthy laughter. “No she didn’t!” Merrilees said, even as she thought: yes!
Paige insisted on a photo before they entered the maze. She herded the cousins in and a passing adolescent took the shot. Merrilees was the older sister but Paige stood taller and straighter, an arm flung over the shoulders of her fair-haired daughters, each with matching tulle skirts poking out from under their jumpers. Darcy had taken after his dad. He nestled his dark head into Merrilees’s neck and wrapped his legs around her waist. In the photo he is a shiver of movement: he is urging his mother on with little jockey-stabs of his heels into her flesh; his whole body is saying it’s time to go.
This was a glorious day for the excursion. The road into Wandiligong had been golden, with the flames of the autumn leaves licking away every last skerrick of the long hot summer in the high country. As the family brushed through the entrance into the maze, the fresh scent of pine rose from the cypress hedge that formed it.
“Look for a rose bush, and then there’s something to find in the very middle,” Paige instructed the kids. “Don’t use the little doors – follow the pathways between the hedges.”
They didn’t need any more urging. The three cousins surged forward.
A sudden and disproportionate fear grabbed at Merrilees’s throat. There’d been nothing ominous, nothing casting a shadow over the day, and yet, a maze is a labyrinth, that thing of myth and superstition, a metaphor as well as a real life puzzle. There is a threat lurking: those who enter a maze may never find their way out.
Where had her alarm been dredged from? She tried to shake it off, but there it was, unavoidable, stark and screaming in her head. He’d be lost. And she’d be lost. “No Darcy, you stay with me,” she shouted ineffectually.
She took some quick steps to catch her son, but Paige held her back. “Let them have their fun.”
Yes, Merrilees agreed, that’s what they’d come here for. Her heart beat wildly under her forced smile.
The kids were now dwarfed by the hedge: points of bright colour splashing along a green tunnel. The maze went straight for some way then the cousins had to choose left or right. Merrilees felt a little better when she saw all three cousins branch out along the same path.
The sisters had to break into single file to turn the same corner. The hedge needed a trim, except in the patches it was old and dry and brittle. They’d come here as children themselves, not long after it’d first opened. A time before they’d started to wonder about the future and what they wanted to be when they grew up. Merrilees tried to remember herself as that child.
Time collapsed into questions.
“Do you ever feel like you’re living someone else’s life?” Merrilees asked.
Her sister instantly had a trite diagnosis. “Imposter syndrome. It’s a thing.”
“No, it’s more than that…”
Laughter came through the hedge. Cul-de-sacs were places to laugh at. The three kids re-materialised and pushed back past their mothers, retracing the last loop.
Children were, if nothing else, distractions. Conversations rarely got finished these days. Even thoughts spluttered out in ellipses. The sisters parted at the next intersection, following distant voices.
A platform appeared up ahead. Merrilees climbed the wooden steps and surveyed the maze from the top. It curved and danced in the sunshine. Her son was in there somewhere, but the hedges were too high, or Darcy too short, and he was hidden. He was wearing his puffy red coat. Red stood out against green. She squinted. No, nothing. She stopped herself worrying that he was lost.
She pulled the tourist pamphlet they’d picked up in Bright from her pocket and read in this moment of quiet. It said there were two kilometres of pathways, and reminded her there’d been twenty-five years of dedication and nurturing to get it to this size. She looked over to the blue of the mountains they’d driven through to get here. She closed her eyes and breathed in. Cool air, and what? The taste of carelessness and freedom? Of carefree childlessness.
A pair of crows cried mournfully. She opened her eyes and found where the call had come from. The birds clattered onto the roof of a gazebo out in the gardens that surrounded the maze and called again. Big birds, ravens more likely. Calling nevermore.
It was getting a bit sweaty in the confines of a long shadowy passage. The maze felt suddenly deserted. Merrilees walked more quickly, catching up. The story of her life. She turned a corner, but still no-one, friend or foe. She pushed down her panic and cheated – bending slightly to get through a secret door in the hedge. She hoped this route would take her back to the raised platform. It was a vantage point, a spying place. Once there, up at the top of the steps, she still couldn’t see what she was looking for. The hedges of the maze were too high. She waved her arms about, hoping that perhaps her lover would see her.
The air around her shivered and a huge ache of loss unravelled in her chest. The disproportionate pain surprised her. She and her partner were only finding their way through a maze. They’d only been lost from each other for moments.
Merrilees plunged back down the steps and through the labyrinth of paths and branches and choices left and right. The scent of the cypresses was heavy and cloying. A cobweb brushed across her face. So no-one had been down this passage before her today. No-one had triggered the spider’s well-cast radar.
A head appeared above the tall hedge to her right. Merrilees laughed and a child, a sweet looking boy, grinned down at her. At the next corner her surmise was found true: the child was riding high on the shoulders of a teenager.
“Is this who you’re looking for?” asked the young man with a faint moustache and an untroubled smile.
She knew she was being unhelpful with her laugh at the absurdity of his question. Her lover would also love the joke of it when they finally caught up.
Before she could be more helpful, a woman pushed past her from behind. “What have you been doing?” the mother asked as she took the child from the shoulders of his saviour.
“Mazing,” the child said firmly. “Running and mazing.”
The mother and the teenager passed a smile one to the other.
“You are amazing,” the mother agreed as she lowered her son to the ground and he ran out into the honeyed light chanting, “a-mazing, a-mazing I will go.” The woman ran to keep up. At the first t-junction they paused together. The boy reached up to hold her hand. “Which way, Mummy?”
Merrilees turned away. She had not found the one she was looking for and this scene of maternal perseverance was saccharine. She was surprised to touch tears running down her cheeks.
She asked her own ‘which way?’ at the next intersection. Her rational brain was telling her not to panic. The maze was an enclosed space. She was an adult – she would find, or failing that, she would be found. What was the worst that could go wrong?
To avoid the increasing claustrophobia of the long and winding passages which did not contain her lover, she pushed through another cheat-door and looked around the rose gardens surrounding the maze. No-one. She called an apologetic warning and let herself into the men’s, but he was not there. And then the women’s toilets where the face in the mirror was not hers.
She’d been brought up by her mum not to make a fuss. She steadied herself against the sink in the Ladies. Looked again at the reflection. The short blond hair, the threaded eyebrows, the chin of someone who had gained and lost weight… None of the features were hers. The porcelain was like ice under her hands. When was it time to make a fuss?
The sun went behind a cloud outside and the shadows across the mirror cleared and she was herself again. She cleared her careering thoughts with a dose of sanity. There were no such things as body shifts nor parallel universes, and if there were it’d be about Hitler having won and steam punk and drama, not about personal wars with regret. She grimaced, watched her lips twitch in the mirror and made them smile. She took her mind game to the extreme to make it completely absurd. If the labyrinth had sent her the wrong way in history, maybe the Lizard People from Teradoctoral 12 were about to storm out of the maze and amaze them.
The hand on hers was warm. “What are you doing in here?”
Merrilees leant back into the familiar smell.
“Have you had another of your turns?” her lover asked between kissing her ear and her cheek.
“No, just a bit flustered for a bit.” Merrilees paused, now calm. “Have you ever regretted choices you’ve made?”
A look of mock concern hovered over her lover’s face. “Are you breaking up with me?”
“Oh no, never,” Merrilees laughed before the look could settle. “A silly feeling came over me in the maze. Like I’d lost something too big to put into words. Then I remembered you. And now I’ve found you again.”
“So all’s well that ends…”
“A cuppa at the café then?”
A greying man put down a bread knife at the food counter. “You’ve found each other. Good. We haven’t lost one yet,” the man said jovially.
Embarrassment washed over her at the realisation her frantic search had been clocked on the CCTV. But then Merrilees could only focus on the man’s last word. Yet.
“I’ve never liked mazes,” she mused once the coffees had arrived and she was sure the staff weren’t listening; there was no need to offend them. “Not even when I came here as a child.”
“You didn’t tell me you’d come here before.”
Merrilees saw something just out of the corner of her eye: something so vivid and yet so trivial at the same time, just a nano breadth away and yet unobtainable. She tried to locate the memory of coming here with her parents and her sister. It was not there.
“I just felt something like déjà vu,” she tried to explain. “I’m sure I’ve been here before, but don’t make me swear…” Nevermore, echoed in her head.
“More like démen jà do you mean?” her lover joked without looking up from the plate between them.
“I have not got dementia!” she protested as her lover offered her a mouthful from an impossibly tall sponge cake. The wedge tottered on a fork towards her. She tasted the sweetness of the jam and cream and knew a child would have loved it too.
Jane Downing’s short fiction has been published around Australia including in Griffith Review, The Big Issue, Antipodes, Southerly, Island, Westerly, Demos and Meniscus. Her novel, ‘The Sultan’s Daughter,’ is forthcoming with Canberra publisher Obiter in September 2020. She can be found at janedowning.wordpress.com.