Short Story Project:
Safe Haven
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The following is a collaborative story in progress.
If you would like to participate, contact ArtsForge.
For additional collaborative writing projects, see WordForge.

Story Project
Safe Haven
(see Editor's Note at bottom of page)
I kept running, even after the footsteps stopped. Even after the shouting traffic and penetrating screams faded away. The blinding memory of that knife, sliding from the stranger's pocket, finally stopped cutting at the edges of my vision. I looked around, leaning against the cold bricks of an alley I had never known was here. Trying to get control of my heaving lungs, I became aware that my clothes were drenched…in escaped fear.

Was I still in danger?

Was I even in the same City? Nothing looked familiar. I felt lost in time. I wanted to retrace my steps, but wondered what might be waiting for me back there.

I stepped out into the street, having no idea where I was.

Tao Toy Takai
There was some type of light nearby. I wanted to be closer to light, a light of any kind.

Stepping out from the alley, the half eaten hot dog that had nearly choked me began to make its way back up. I hoped I wouldn't vomit like some drunk in the middle of the street. Maybe the hot dog had poisoned me and I was actually stumbling through a hellish limbo, doomed to eternity tasting bile and sour grease forevermore.

No. That's just life in the City. No reason to get spooked.

My arm hurt a little, and itched. There was a bite of some kind on my forearm. Funny, I can't remember ever seeing a mosquito in the City. Didn't think they could survive. Then a man stepped out of a doorway, an old man with a white beard and a face as red as brick. He looked Mexican, yet had the bluest eyes I had ever seen.

"Come in" he gestured from the shadows. Above the door the weathered outline of long lost letters spelled out the words: SAFE HAVEN.

Judy Sandel

"Old Man" by Judy Sandel

Judy Sandel

Judy Sandel's Gallery

Stepping through the doorway, I felt a change. Maybe it was the smoky interior, or the dry heat, or the dim yellow lights that flickered as if from a thousand candles, but my wet clothes no longer chilled me. I breathed more deeply, realizing how close to fainting I had come.

The old man offered me his hand, crossing the room. I hesitated out of habit. Anyone with that much expectation in his eyes always made me nervous. What did he want? What kind of trap had I fallen into? Am I really that naive looking? Tighten my jaw, look independent, need nothing, no one. My back went rigid.

But his eyes made me remember: A little girl playing on the porch, smelling supper cooking inside, suddenly noticing a hobo standing near by, hunger forcing a familiarity onto his lips. Or maybe it was a kind of divine humanity. I lifted up my hand and walked him to the back door where Mama gave him bread and vegetables. And he shared them with me like they were his own.

Unsure what was past, what was present, I took his hand. And it seemed as if the floor disappeared from under me.

Tao Toy Takai
I felt as if I were floating, through space and time. Colors and light swirled around me. I no longer felt the hand of the old man in mine, but his presence was all about me like a fog. Gradually things began to take shape, and I found myself in a place of lush green. Trees as tall as skyscrapers, covered in enormous leaves, dotted the landscape. Flowers in an endlessly colorful array spread to the horizon. A calming breeze lazily brushed my face. I turned to my left to see the old man gazing at me. His eyes, so blue, were the same deep color as the sky above. His gaze was serene and radiated warmth like the sun. "What do you feel?" he asked, his voice quiet but very rich.

How could I explain this peace, this joy, this beauty? How could I explain the colors that made me feel like dancing? The hushed reverence that the majestic trees inspired? The wind whispered, whispered encouragement to me, whispered kindness... I looked at the old man, overcome with feeling, and the wind carried to him words I could not form.

"This is our place," he said to me, after a time. "This is our world. Here we are free. But we may only come here when we are totally alone, totally empty. This place is filled with the spirits of life," he intoned as he approached. "Once we have been filled, we return to the other world. We return to assist those in need. We return to spread healing to a broken land. We return, knowing we are connected to all living things. We return," he said, touching my hand.

Chris Mueller
Who was this man? I got a strange feeling that he was more than a simple innkeeper. "Maybe..." I said to myself, "maybe I'm in Heaven..." But as I was trying to untangle this web of mystery, I found myself back in the inn.

I remembered my arm and looked down at it. It was bleeding. But not just a little bit as if I had accidentally drawn blood by scratching what had been a mere bug bite. It was a red pulsating fountain, pouring out my life essence right before my eyes. The pain began to register and I tried to yell for help. The last thing I remember before I passed out was a smoky view of the ceiling with a mirage of the old man's visage looking down at me.

Tim Hess
This time I awoke without the peace of dreams to bridge my way. Or had the Old Man been real? I was parched, dizzy, and couldn't move my arms or legs…

I was on a dirt floor, still in the "Safe Haven". That much hadn't been a dream. But it was no longer night. Light from a very bright sun streaked across the floor, warming my neck and ear. I tried to lift my head to see out, but was too exhausted.

Then it struck me. The City buildings across the street were 30 stories tall. They would never let the naked sunlight make its way to a ground floor window…

Pain began to grow again, knocking at the gate of my fear and bewilderment. With a great strain I turned my head to view my throbbing arm and…I found no arm. From what I thought was my shoulder sprouted a massive wing, spattered with blood. But my fingers, I could feel my fingers. How could this be? With great effort I unclenched my hand and there, at the end of the great wing, I saw feathers of unspeakable beauty unfurl.

Tao Toy Takai

detail from "Ladder"
I lay engulfed in beauty, immense beauty, beauty that reached beyond where my hands once ended. I became very aware, content in growing awareness. A calm flushed over my body like an ocean tide in the moonlight.

The odd and unspoken man had called me not by my name, but as a part of a larger body, an "us". He said "we" were here to help. As I watched my body change and mold in a slow and graceful mitotic dance, I began to contemplate. Slowly, all of the hustle and bustle found in the vomit of City life had an answer - a divine understanding had descended upon me...

Bjorn Størm
And there, all about the room, were other birds, singing in voices from a thousand languages. Birds half human, half angelic, with light for feathers and eyes that danced like moons behind shifting clouds. Within their elaborate cages, they preened and posed, blending into the complex shadows of the smoky room.

I let my wings gently open and, with a single touch, open each cage, one by one. The singing grew louder, becoming frenetic, until the sound hurt like thunder or a chorus of gunshots. Frantic birds filled the air, and I was forced back to the ground, not wanting to injure my precious wings.

Tobin James Mueller
The pain in my ears began to spread, focusing once again in my arm. I tried to force it away, returning to the memory of song, to the caged birds' beauty. In the vastness of the depository of the soul there is a glimmer of hope that such music will accompany the final metamorphosis, when our minds are able to fly like a bird.

But the room darkened too quickly. I saw myself as if from a great height, sprawled upon the ground like a dusty crucifix. In my moving my hands I felt the coolness of silken dirt. My hands. Looking left and right I saw the edges of a wood platform box with a feathering of many colors tasseled and encircling. I raised my hand to touch it. And I smiled, realizing I'ld been grounded in this world the entire time.

Judy Sandel
I had heard of such boxes, filled with sacred earth, used in ceremonies of healing. The tassels, the spinning crystals that projected cages of light, the beautiful feathers, the old Mexican… He must be a shaman of some sort. Perhaps I had been wounded by my attacker and became delirious while running through the City…

I relaxed. Surely the Safe Haven was a place I was meant to be.

Tobin James Mueller
Or so I thought.

My mind was a flowing, moveable mosaic. Colors bled into one another. My eyes saw one thing then another in continuing rapid succession…as if my vision were the only sense involved. It would have been easy for me to integrate the new information and still feel "sane", but something told me the sights I saw were transient. The key to sanity was my inner trust..my ability to let go, as my mind painted things I had never seen before and my body experienced sensations that I had only dreamed.

I could touch the box in front of me. Yes, that was real. Though I could no longer see the old man, I had a strange feeling that he was still there and I wanted to light a candle to him, hoping he was a spirit that would slip onto my shoulders when summoned. I needed to feel the warmth and security of his hand in mine. The sound of birds trilling and singing hazed over my thoughts and brought a new trance upon me when I had hoped to become lucid enough to walk back into the chaotic but familiar streets of the City. I can't do this right now. I am not ready for a transcendent experience. "I want to wake up now, my elderly guide. Please lead me back," I yelled, and listened for echoes, but there was no response.

This "safe haven" suddenly felt like a prison. I could not understand what has happened to me here. Oz-like experiences are not my thing. I wanted to go home, watch TV… but how do I get out of this maze of impressions, sights, sounds, blood, spirits, out of this alternate Christ Story? He paid a price for us, didn't he?..I asked myself. I do not need to redo his experience in any way…unless…

Judy McCann
Unless I had been dreaming. Not quite hallucinating; surely one cannot go through changes like this. I must have been running away from my terrible ordeal hoping to be dead. Dead is really where I wanted to be, away from family and friends. Where no one else would have to touch me.

I no longer wanted the safe haven of this place. Insanity would surely follow if I did not try and come to my senses. I started to panic, trying to lift my head…

Melanie Sabatini
It was as if the rape was happening for the first time, as if everything before had been just a premonition, a mental replay recalled of a movie I should never have watched. Now it was no movie, but an event. Live and real. And I was not strong enough to stop it.

I felt the fire rage through my skull as the faceless assailant wrenched handfuls of hair from my head, smashing me twice against the dirty brick of the alley wall. Then the falling, falling through vertigo gates into nausea and ceaseless motion.

The assailant was masked. And his eyes, so dangerously quiet as they peered out from woolen holes, reflected the half-eaten hotdog he jammed down my throat to stop my screams, choking me. I pulled on the fabric of his disguise with all my might and he hit me, once. Could I give up so easily? With his knee squeezing all breath out of my chest, he dug into a backpack for something I thought would be a knife. I went limp, knowing my life was over. But it was not a knife. It was a syringe, smudged and discolored. He plunged it into my arm, right to the bone, and the world went away.

Tao Toy Takai
...It really happened.

I understood. My memories were no less painful, but they were no longer frightening.

Each remember sensation of this tragic and horrible experience was now tempered by my visions in the Safe Haven. What occurred in this place is still a mystery, but its effect on me is no longer full of panic or tinged with desperation. Here, I was able to come to grips with what had been done to me. Somehow, it freed me from the shame. I could stop running.

I am so thankful I found this place that helped me release myself from the past. And for the healing. And the peace I felt when surrounded by the wonderful vision of loveliness I had seen.

These memories will always be with me as the extremes of despair and of joy.

Judy Sandel
EDITOR'S NOTE: Safe Haven was ArtsForge's first attempt at collaborative fiction. When we posted Toy Takai's initial paragraphs, I had no idea they would spark such interest and cathartic participation. Although the piece displays a narrative struggle between those writers who wanted to take this work into the realm of metaphysical fantasy and those that kept bringing it back into a more tactile world, the whole became a fascinating journey to watch.

Also, when this began, I had no idea several of the contributors had actually experienced similar "tragic and horrible" episodes in their own lives. Mustering the strength to retell their story, through fiction, has proven to be a benefit to them. One of them has given her consent to let me post a portion of her email. Her note is one among many this piece inspired:

I personally was one of the co-writers of Safe Haven. I consider Safe Haven any place or any person who lets you express your true feelings, who helps you enter your inner thoughts and contradictions in a nonjudgmental way.

When I look back at my life, I realize I have known many Safe Havens. I will always need these places to heal, meditate, and face my ego and phantasmal thoughts. I thank Tobin and ArtsForge for providing one more avenue of healing, one more friendly hand, one more place to reconnect to the world. All images of this patchwork story have symbolic meaning for me. And knowing that other people were writing alongside me, people who have gone through similar pain, brings to each word an added depth and sympathy that I never expected to feel. This has been very rewarding.

To submit additions to Story Project #1, please send your text as an email to ArtsForge and identify the story by title. Please say if you do not want your name or email address posted.

If you are interested in illustrating any of these story panels, please submit art to us as well as any textual additions or seed story ideas.

All text edited by Tobin James Mueller.

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