A college professor runs into more than he bargained for when he finally takes a sabbatical
A Long Overdue Sabbatical
A lonely professor, never married, living vicariously through the successes of his students and fellow colleagues, Ethan Briar finally decided to take the sabbatical due him for years. Ethan’s sudden decision shocked Professor Simpson, the head of the English Department. In all the previous years, Ethan talked about completing the paperwork but the deadline always passed. His colleagues took off for a semester or two while he worked away.
Ethan’s application for a sabbatical was surprising enough—but there was more. Simpson sat down, took a deep breath, holding back the instinct to pinch himself when Ethan promised to return from this sabbatical with a first draft of his novel—another goal he had talked about for years.
Merriford University didn’t hand out professorships but Briar was the type to do as little work as possible at every step of the way. Until today. Simpson admired Ethan for finally showing some serious initiative.
The sabbatical was granted with ease for it was so long overdue. Ethan’s time off was for the spring semester, and summer classes were not required, so he would be free from just before Christmas until mid-August.
He packed the belongings he always left at work because he was there so often and departed the campus after his last final exam on December twentieth. He had to admit this felt weird, and kind of scary, but he looked forward to the writing and solitude the sabbatical would provide.
Three months later, Ethan felt like a fool, with very little written and nothing worth a damn.
Ethan knew writing a book in Merriford was impossible. He had no living family and very few close friends, but the city provided way too many distractions—concerts, opera, art exhibits, and his favorite obsession--movies. A more isolated location was necessary to achieve success.
The cottage inherited from his parents provided the perfect hermitage. Sequestered away in the forests running along the Johannan River, cozy and requiring little upkeep, close enough to the little town of Johannan to make shopping for convenience items easy yet far enough away from the city to remove the temptations that stalled his writing.
It should have been perfect.
But Ethan soon learned there can be distractions anywhere.
March twenty first was the first day of spring that year. An extraordinary amount of rain had fallen since October for this area of Northern California. The normal pattern of rainy periods followed by sunny breaks was rare that year.
But Ethan awoke on the first day of spring to bright sunshine. How uncanny, he thought. As if on cue. The first day of spring is the first decent day for a walk since I came here.
He took short walks almost every day, dodging the rain, much the same way he achieved sporadic exercise in the streets of Merriford, but never ventured out far from his cottage due to the weather. Today’s more extensive excursion on the forest paths, snaking along the river, proved quite invigorating. Just as he was about to turn back, he discovered a narrower, less traveled path leading into an enormous meadow.
It must have been half a mile from the forest to the base of the hills in that direction and covering that expanse was the lush green meadow. Several species of daffodils, various combinations of yellows and white, covered the fields. Ethan didn’t usually take much notice of nature. The literature he studied and his own writing almost exclusively dealt with urban settings and conflicts, but he found this scene breathtaking. Almost supernaturally beautiful. Those words filled his mind though he did not know why. He was a hardcore realist.
Walking across the meadow, Ethan noticed a small cottage, the lone building on this land. Constructed of light grey bricks, opaque, indistinct in direct contrast to the breathtaking display of vibrant color surrounding it.
Must be at least a hundred years old, he guessed.
There were no obvious signs of occupancy. But it was late morning on a bright sunny day so there would be no need for artificial light within. Somebody could easily be inside resting silently thus casting no shadows. The only way to know for sure if anyone was home was to knock.
Why do I care anyway? Ethan didn’t know what possessed him to knock on the door. He was never comfortable making small talk with strangers.
Something about the environment is so inviting. Not just in general. Somehow it seems to be speaking to me, telling me to try something different.
“Rubbish,” Ethan whispered. Letting myself get worked up this way.
When his knock was answered, he was swept away by the young woman who opened the door. Ethan’s six foot two frame dwarfed her. Long blond hair flowed down her petite frame in a fashion as ancient as the simple muslin dress she wore. Her green eyes sparkled in the sunlight, mysterious and deep.
“Yes, sir?” she said in a soft melodious voice.
“I…err…” Well that was just it. He had no clue what to say, didn’t even know why he knocked. Like I was compelled…no, like she compelled me to knock. And now she asks me “Yes, sir?” Is she playing games? “I just wondered who lived here. I never noticed this lovely place before.”
“I just now arrived.”
“Yes, just today, sir.”
“Please, drop the sir. Ethan. Please to meet you—“
“Cora.” She bowed her head. Again, she seemed old-fashioned, out of time.
“Where are you from?”
“Full of questions, are we, Ethan?” She cast a flirtatious smile.
“Um . . . well, yes. I mean--“
“Care to come in?”
Cora led him inside. The cottage was only three rooms. The door led into the kitchen with a table only large enough for a cozy meal for two. To their left was a small living room area which apparently also served as the sleeping area since the only other door led to a bathroom.
“Cozy,” Ethan said, smiling.
“It’s all the space I need. You can guess my only passion in life.”
Cora gestured toward the remarkable element of her modest dwelling. More daffodils everywhere, just as beautiful as the ones outside, in dozens of vases, arranged in many different configurations.
“Spring is here, all right,” Ethan said. “Wow. You must spend most of your spare time with these flowers. There is not a single petal wilted on any of these arrangements.”
“As I said, it is what I do.”
Ethan fell in love that day for the first time in his life.
That cottage in the depths of the forest became Ethan’s world.
Initially, it seemed more like he was “dating” Cora, even though they never went further than the pub in Johannan. Ethan expected raised eyes and a hushed murmur of voices. The town’s population was sixty four, over half women, so gossip was commonplace. But that didn’t happen. In fact, nobody seemed to notice them at all. Whether alone in her cottage or in public, Ethan and Cora lived in their own sphere of existence, oblivious to outsiders.
Ethan now lived in the eternal present, a world where all that mattered was being with Cora. In practical terms, his sabbatical was wasted. There would be Hell to pay when he returned to the university. On the few trips he made back to his cabin, he found voice mails piling up from Simpson.
Cora bewitched Ethan. From the moment she opened the door that first morning, looked into his eyes and smiled, he was hooked. He stayed with her all day and night with rare returns to his own cottage. Cora’s companionship was addictive. Absence from her caused physical pain, an aching heart.
When Ethan’s rational side kicked in, reminding him he had a novel to finish—hell, to start—he decided why not write it here? Cora obliged, set him up with pen and paper. No computer, but better than nothing. But all he wrote about was his love for Cora. Who else would care about that? He started and stopped many other narratives only to tear the pages out of the notebook and start again.
Ultimately, he gave up on the novel and just spent time with Cora. She told him she was leaving in mid-June and would probably never see him again. Though she did not explain why, this made it easier for Ethan to let go of his inhibitions and simply be with her. He would crank out something to show Simpson over the summer.
The spring months passed with Ethan and Cora sleeping in late, taking long walks, engaging in endless conversations and a frequent and passionate sex life. Ethan could not imagine being anywhere else or doing anything he used to do before meeting her.
There should have been so many questions. Where did she come from? What did you she do for a living, and how did she afford this land? Where was she going in June? Yet in all their conversations, long discussions on the arts, nature, many other subjects, Cora managed to steer Ethan away these questions.
The there was the whole deal with the spring flowers. Daffodils, poppies and lupines flourished all about them outdoors and inside Cora’s cottage as well. Ethan never saw her picking or arranging the flowers. They just appeared. Flowers seemed to be present anywhere Cora roamed, as though part of her nature. But this became another mystery he suppressed.
Around the beginning of June, Ethan started having the strange dreams. A prolific dreamer in the past, he noticed an almost complete lack of them since meeting Cora. His sleep was deep and refreshing, but he never remembered any dreams—until these particular ones began.
The dreams vary but always begin as simple depictions of his perfect life with Cora. They run through lush green hills and meadows hand in hand, falling to the ground and into each other’s arms, making love out in the open with no concern of discovery. In the dreams nobody else is ever around.
In their many walks together, they always avoid one direction, up and over the hill due East of her cottage. He walks that way in the dreams and she does not follow. “No,” she begs. “Don’t go there.” His “dream self” has grown curious of what lies over this hill, while his “waking self” has always avoided it.
When Ethan remembered these dreams later, he wondered if they were merely caused by the anxiety over his time with Cora ending. They had arrived at the month she pronounced would bring the end. But that apprehension alone did not explain what lay over the hill in the dreams.
Once Ethan reaches the top of the hill and looks further East, the world beyond is veiled with dense black mist. He smells an awful stench, rotten meat and smoke. Yet he feels compelled to walk on, the whole time hearing Cora screaming in protest behind him.
“Let him see,” a louder male voice says from beyond the mist.
“No.” Cora answers, still invisible.
“I command it.”
Cora voice falls silent.
The mist dissipates, revealing a large tree about twenty feet tall, flourishing with growth but Ethan cannot discern what kind of fruit it bears. Cora stands before the tree, naked. She pulls a piece of fruit from the tree and breaks it open. Blood spurts from the fruit, covering her hands, dripping to the ground.
The blood flows at an uncanny rate—this small piece of fruit spills out the amount one would expect from draining a large mammal. The blood swirls, boils and rises from the ground, taking the shape of an animal.
“You shouldn’t have come here,” Cora says, taking a bite from the fruit. Blood oozes from the corners of her mouth. Her eyes roll back into her head and are replaced with solid red orbs burning like fire.
The beast standing between them is a dog, towering above Ethan, nearly ten feet tall, with three heads resembling those of a jackal. It roars so loudly Ethan hears ringing in his ears. The dream always ends with one of the enormous heads descending, about to devour him.
Ethan woke from the dream, sweating and gasping for air. Why do I have this dream every night? What does it mean?
Cora lay next to him in deep sleep. This was a rare moment, Ethan realized. She always seemed to be awake before him in the morning. When he did wake up in the middle of the night he fell almost immediately back to sleep. He sat in bed, lucid and alert, for the first time since beginning his relationship with Cora. Instead of spooning her and falling back to sleep, and likely having the same dream, Ethan pondered its meaning. What could he do to appease the part of him fighting with this vision and its purpose?
Of course. It came to him so easily all of a sudden. The dream is linked to that lousy mist filled world on the other side of the hill. I need to walk there. Really walk there. Prove to myself it doesn’t exist. Cora will never allow it. She refuses to go there.
His only logical course of action was taking that walk, over the hill, alone, now.
The temperature never dropped much below fifty at night now that summer was looming, so Ethan wore only a light jacket over his pajamas. He slipped on his top-siders and walked outside. A cool breeze greeted him. He could stand another layer of clothes, but he did not want to risk waking Cora, so he headed into the night with resolve.
On one hand, he felt like a moron. The clock read a few minutes past three A.M. when he left. Why am I wandering out into the cold dark night on this futile errand instead of staying in Cora’s warm bed? Yet at the same time, another voice spoke, you need this. It is the only way to be sure. And that second voice won the battle. His soul felt lighter, and there was a spring to each step he took further from Cora’s cottage.
Trepidation overwhelmed him at the top of the hill. Afraid of what lie beyond, Ethan forced himself to look out into the horizon.
The mist was there. Just like in the dream.
To Ethan’s relief, the similarity to his dream went no further. The mist appeared black, but that could just be because it was night, but he didn’t smell the foul odor, and there was no tree.
Ferocious growling came from within the mist. Like a very big dog. It couldn’t be—
There was a shadow moving within the mist. Something was headed his direction.
Ethan’s spine jerked, his pulse rose, but tremendous relief followed seconds later. Cora stepped out of the mist. Am I dreaming again? How is this possible? She was asleep and I would have known if she managed to get up moments later and followed me.
Cora donned a long black cloak with a hood over her head, covering much of her face. I am dreaming again, he thought. She could not have changed clothes, arrived here before me.
Walking toward him, she shook her head and said, “No, Ethan. This is not a dream this time. You couldn’t leave it alone, hmm? You just have to know the truth.”
“What is this place?”
“In time.” Right in front of him now, she opened her right hand. She held several pomegranate seeds.
“The fruit from my dream?”
She nodded. “You must eat these to earn the knowledge you seek.”
“I just have to eat these seeds.”
“Yes. Chew them and swallow the seeds.”
Ethan shrugged. He ate the seeds as instructed. They tasted normal until the moment he swallowed. As they passed down the back of his throat into his esophagus he swore he tasted salt—blood?
An instant later, the three-headed dog from his nightmare appeared from the mist and stood next to Cora. It bellowed much louder than in his dream, each head in its own voice, creating a confusing and dissonant chorus. All three heads thrashed around in opposing directions as though battling with each other. Smoke exhaled from its nostrils when it panted. The animal did not attack, however, as in his visions. Cora seems to be controlling the monster.
“Meet Cerberus, Ethan.” The creature roared, seeming to understand her, all three heads in unison this time.
He stared in silent awe, trying to remember where he heard that name before. Mythology was never his best subject, always getting Roman and Greek mixed up, but he knew that was where he heard it. Cerberus--
“Guards the gates of Hell,” Ethan finished his thought aloud.
Cora threw back her hood and cast a wicked smile. Her eyes were now the glowing red orbs from his dream.
The air smelled of smoke, sulfur and burnt meat.
Cora chuckled in a husky chilling voice. “You have known me by my common name and earthly incarnation during the season I am allowed to roam the world. My proper name is Persephone. Heard of me?”
Ethan scanned his memory of mythology again. Persephone was the Greek goddess of spring, beautiful and innocent, abducted to the Underworld by Hades.
“Keep going,” she hissed, reading his thoughts.
“Zeus was your father and eventually ordered your return.”
“Hades tricked you into staying behind.”
The Fates ruled that anyone who eats or drinks in Hell is forced to remind there forever. Hades tricked Persephone into eating…
“Nine pomegranate seeds,” Ethan whispered.
“One for each month I am compelled to live in his wretched realm.”
“All the months except spring.”
“And because I ate these seeds...”
“Hell is waiting beyond the mist. You see, Hades is not beyond bargains. Notice it is six days beyond the beginning of summer. I get six extra days if I bring someone back.”
I will be in Hell one month for each of those damn seeds. “How many seeds did I eat?”
Persephone cast a wicked smile. “Twelve.”