“So goodbye yellow brick road
Where the dogs of society howl
You can’t plant me in your penthouse
I’m going back to my plough
Back to the howling old owl in the woods
Hunting the horny back toad
Oh I’ve finally decided my future lies
Beyond the yellow brick road”
– Elton John, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”
In 1985, the Disney film ’Return to Oz’ was released in cinemas, and a few years later made its way onto home VHS.
I can’t remember how old I was at the time I seen it, perhaps five years old at most. I knew right away that there was something unusual about the film, something especially disturbing. I remember that the first time I seen it, I cried. I remember watching the film, glued in place in front of the television, not out of involvement but out of terror.
Truth be told, it is a bloody scary film. Now before you groan and go to read something else, don’t worry, this isn’t a story of a haunted video tape. The film itself played out perfectly normally, as much as possible. Dorothy didn’t turn to the camera and start screaming while blood poured from her eyes, or anything stupid like that. I’m not interested in telling you stupid stories like you’ve read a hundred times before. I just want to tell you how I felt when I watched this video, and some of the strange things that it reminded me about.
It’s a strange story and I really wonder quite what the producer, Paul Maslansky, was thinking at the time. I know that the power behind the film didn’t really rest with him; instead it rested with the film’s director, Walter Murch. A specialist in sound and editing, Murch worked on editing for films like The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, but Return to Oz was his only venture into directing. I keep thinking that something may have happened to him during production of this film, maybe something that put him off directing any films from then onwards. But that’s just a guess.
My mother got a copy of the film on VHS. I remember distinctly, because she also had a copy of the old Judy Garland musical version. She loved that film. I was somewhat less impressed with it. The sepia opening, for a child who was used to colour television, seemed boring to me. I didn’t care for the dancing and the witch didn’t impress me. All the sets looked just too false, and I found myself not appreciating the film. My mother, though, loved it. When I was an adult, she told me about Judy Garland’s drug addiction and her gradual fall from Hollywood grace, a story that felt equally tragic to anything on the silver screen. Return to Oz, however, wasn’t a sequel. In fact, the only thing that connected it to the musical version was the presence of Ruby Slippers, which were silver in the original book. But my mother was still excited to see it, so she had asked a friend to find her a copy of the film, and we had watched it.
The film tells the story of Dorothy’s return to the wonderful Land of Oz. Or at least, it should be wonderful, but it really isn’t. But she’s desperate to go back, and when we first meet her in the film she is very depressed, miserable and lonely. The very first image we have in the film is her staring sadly into a dirty mirror, and before long her family take her to a hospital.
At the hospital, which it transpires is more of an asylum; Dorothy is introduced to a doctor. Keen to try out the newly-invented electric healing machine, the doctor introduces Dorothy to it, pointing out the machine’s features. ”Here,” he explains, pointing to the voltage meter ”Is its mouth. And here,” he explains, pointing to the switch that will send crackling shocks of electricity searing through the young girl’s skull, ”is his nose.”
She is escorted down into the bowels of the hospital, through tall and towering hallways, and locked within a barren, empty cell. That night, she is strapped to a hospital bed and, whilst the screams of other inmates echo through the hospital, is secured to the electric machine. A storm rages outside, and soon it knocks out the hospital’s power, during which Dorothy is rescued by another young girl. Together they flee into the river at the banks of the hospital, where they…
I mean, Dorothy returns to the Land of Oz. She journeys there in the ruins of an old crate, floating down the river. That’s the way the story goes. But that’s not all that happens. In the old Wizard of Oz film, the one with Judy Garland, Dorothy’s house is plucked out of the farm by a hurricane. We all know that hurricanes don’t move people from one location and drop them, gently and carefully, down in another. If she had been a real person, caught in a small wooden farmhouse in the winds of a hurricane, Dorothy would have died. And maybe she did, and all the rest of the film was simply a hallucination within her fevered and frantic brain.
No, that’s just a theory. In this film, in Return to Oz, Dorothy falls into the churning waters of the river, struggling to stay above its surface, her arms splashing, her mouth gasping for air. And then…
Then she’s in Oz.
And for a few moments, everything seems fine. Everything seems quite happy. She finds a talking chicken called Billina, who offers to travel with her on the way to the Emerald City. Along the way, she finds a tree which distributes lunchboxes, filled with ready-made sandwiches. It’s almost like everything may turn out alright once they get to the Emerald City, because then she’ll be able to get back to her farm.
Her farm. Where she sat staring into the dirty mirror, her eyes heavy with despair. David Kehr of the Chicago Reader described this film as ’Bleak, creepy, and occasionally terrifying’. You don’t want Dorothy to go home, not to the world full of doctors who want to rip the happiness from her, from the nurses who tie her down, from the towering hallways and electric machines with wide grinning mouths.
Down the River
Soon, Dorothy finds her old farm house, the one which she crashed in her previous visit to Oz. It sits in an overgrown forest. No cheery, dancing munchkins to be found here, only wild vines and twisted trees. Dorothy wipes the dust that has etched its way over the windows, trying to see inside. Then she finds the yellow brick road, only to realise that it has been uprooted, its bricks broken and shattered. The land she wanted to get back to is twisted, nightmarish and hostile.
The old farm house. I grew up in a small village in the rural areas of Cornwall. We had farms around the landscape, and I could climb up one of the small gently sloping hills and look out into the horizon and see only fields of wheat for as far as it went. That was my Kansas.
I think it was late summer when I found the old farm house. I’d gone out to explore, despite my father’s instruction to stay in our house’s garden. I’d hiked my way over the old crumbling stone wall that bordered our garden, and made my way into the fields, venturing as far as I could before the sun would set. I avoided the fields with the cows, great towering things, and the clouds above gradually began to grow dark and pendulous. I’d gone further than I had before, keen to examine a small copse of trees in the distance that I’d never been to before. It was there, down near the foot of the hill, that I’d seen the old farm house for the first time.
I’d hurried down to the house and ran up to the windows. They were etched with dirt; I could barely see anything through them. I stood up on my tip-toes, trying to look into them, and could only make out a brownish haze. I scrubbed the windows, and soon I was able to make out the inside of the house. It was in disarray, chairs tipped over and a table lying broken in the corner. I could make out a doorway leading into another room, but whatever lay through there was out of sight. It wasn’t the same house, the layout was different and the ruins inside it were different, but in and of itself the house was almost a perfect fit. It was like my own version of Dorothy’s ruined farmhouse, transported here not far from my home.
I wanted to get inside. I don’t know why, perhaps simply because it was there or perhaps because I wanted to get further than Dorothy ever did in the film. I pried the window open, and
under the house, the witch lies dead
crawled inside. It felt warm, as if the air itself was hot. There was a soft hum in the air, which I soon realised were coming from a few buzzing insects. It felt stuffy, as if the summer heat was magnified and made heavy. There were no lights, or if there were, the lights would not come on. The room was dyed a soft reddish-brown from the dust on the windows. I crept across the
the house stands atop the dead witch as she rots beneath
wooden floorboards, and sure enough they creaked beneath me. I looked into the doorway to the other room, and found it lead into a kitchen. Several items lay in the sink, cutlery and sharp edges. I started to feel sick. I didn’t want to be here. The air tasted wrong. There was a smell, something I’d never smelt before but I knew it was bad. I turned to leave and wanted to run, but I heard a heavy sound at the doorway and knew it was a footstep. The figure stood in the doorway, a man
the house is marked with death it sours it from below the witch was left her body broken
stood blocking out the sunlight. He wore a thick heavy brown coat, the kind most farmers in the area would wear, but his beard was thick and mottled like wire wool. His hair hung in dense clumps and he stared at me with his eyes, sharp and brutal eyes with utterly intense hatred. He towered above me, a small child of about six years, this giant of a figure. He was holding something in his right hand, I couldn’t see what, only that it was sharp and pointed and stained with mud, had to be mud. The man opened his mouth and roared at me, his teeth crooked behind his mane-like beard, releasing every echo of the old broken house with his words, GET OUT!!
I turned and ran out of the house, charging through the kitchen and pulling myself through the window and out into the field, I didn’t slow down for a second, I tripped and fell into the mud at the base of the window but I didn’t stop, I kept running. I didn’t look back, I ran over the field and through the trees, I was gasping for air and my legs hurt but I didn’t stop running, not until I got home. I didn’t notice it was dark and that the sun had set and that the dark of night had covered the village. I slammed the door shut, blocking out the man and the broken farmhouse forever.
My father came downstairs when he heard me slam the door, and demanded to know where I had been and what I had been doing. I didn’t want to explain, I didn’t want to tell him, and so I lied. He demanded to know more ardently, telling me that it was late and that he knew I was lying. When I eventually did tell him, he marched me up to my bedroom and ordered me to lower my pants and lay over my bed, where he removed his belt and thrashed my butt until I was screaming and crying rampantly. He made me promise, on threat of the same punishment being delivered again, that I would not sneak into people’s houses again. I was still sore for most of the next day, and I had no idea until years later as to why he had grown so angry with me.
When I did find out, it was in my teenage years. Our family had moved away from the village, into a small house in a large city. The change had been considerable, not just in terms of the building, but of the new lifestyle. It became impossible to avoid hearing about the world around us, and I no longer had my parent’s continual presence to shelter me from the information that you could find on the newspapers or the internet. It was on the evening news that I had seen the photograph of the man in the old farmhouse.
The reporter explained that he had died in prison, serving his life sentence for the murder of four young children, all aged between four and nine years old. He had been arrested a month after my dad had taken his belt to me and made me promise not to venture into stranger’s houses again. In prison, he had committed suicide. The news didn’t say how. I later learned that he had broken off a sharp edge of his toothbrush and swallowed it, slicing open his throat. He choked to death on his own blood.
Dorothy continued her journey down the broken ruins of the yellow brick road. So did I.
When Dorothy arrived at the Emerald City, she finds all her friends. But they have been turned to stone. They stand around the ruins of the Emerald City, their bodies lifeless. The city is abandoned, with only their bodies left grey and stoic. The Emerald City is a mausoleum.
But it’s not unoccupied. In one of the most terrifying moments of the film, we meet the living occupants of the city. It tumbles into view, moving on four legs, each leg ending in a screeching rusty wheel. At first we see its face as a black twisted mass of tissue and muscle, corrupted into a maniacal grimace, eyes peering out with a cold biting glare. Then it lifts its head up, revealing that the previous face was simply a false one, its true face hiding beneath. It laughs, ”Come here!” it rasps in a guttural scream. It laughs, and laughs. More of them appear. Three, four, a whole gang. Dorothy flees, and I would clutch my hands to my eyes, hoping to block them out and just make the nightmarish creatures go away.
Dorothy finds, locked in an old chamber in the Emerald City, a mechanical guardian called Tic-Tok, who offers to protect her from the wheeled monsters. This creature has its own mechanical face, much like the one on the electric shock machine back in the hospital in Kansas. But it is Dorothy’s friend, and it fights off the wheelers and discovers that the City has been taken over by an evil witch called Mombi.
Tic-Tok isn’t terrifying. He’s a friendly, amicable character. The same cannot be said for all of Dorothy’s friends, but we’ll get to that. First we need to talk about Mombi. I didn’t recognise her as a child, when I first watched the film, but Mombi was played by Jean Marsh, who also played the nurse that strapped Dorothy into her hospital bed at the start of the film, and who chased Dorothy into the river to meet her fate. She was, for five years, married to Jon Pertwee, the actor who famously portrayed the third incarnation of Doctor Who. And, perhaps more relevant to this story, played the character of Worzel Gummidge, a scarecrow who was brought to life.
I mention the scarecrow, because Dorothy’s other companion is a prisoner of Mombi’s. When Mombi traps Dorothy in her tower, the young girl from Kansas meets one of Mombi’s failed experiments, Jack Pumpkinhead. Jack is a terrifying creature, taller than any adult actor in this film, with stick-thin limbs which seem to go on forever. It stands unsteadily on elongated legs, wearing a tattered old discoloured coat, its fingers ending in long reaching branches. Atop its neck sits a pumpkin in the place of a head. When the creature moves, it does so in sharp and sudden jerks, pulling its hands along as if they were alien parts of its body. Its voice is sickly sweet, provided by Brian Henson. Brian Henson is the son of the famous Jim Henson, and is now chairman of the Jim Henson Company. His voice is certainly the softest part of an otherwise terrifying creature. If you’ve ever seen The Nightmare before Christmas, you may find some very interesting similarities with the film’s lead character. And at several points throughout the film, Jack’s limbs will break and fall apart, having to be bound back in place with rope.
Dorothy’s only way to escape from Mombi’s tower is to steal the powder of life, which the witch used to bring the pumpkin-headed creature to life. She stores the powder in a glass cabinet, along with her spare heads. Yes, Mombi has a collection of heads. She changes them to fit her mood. They sit in the cabinets, looking for all purpose to be asleep, but each head is very much alive. That night, when Dorothy attempts to steal the powder of life from the cabinet, she accidently awakens one of the disembodied heads. Its eyes snap awake, and in a raspy voice it screams the girl’s name, DOROTHY GALE The other heads awake and start to scream. They scream, and screamed, and screamed. Their echoing cries woke the witch herself, who rose from her bed, nightgown flowing like a spectre, the space on her shoulders where her head should be utterly vacant, a headless figure stumbling towards the young girl, arms outstretched, all the while her heads screamed in terrible unison.
We’d been in the city for a year. I’d been enrolled in a new school. It was far larger than I was accustomed to, and some of the boys at the start of the year had been brutally mocking. I was labelled as a farm boy, and treated as an outsider. Over the course of the months, though, they had forgotten about my difference, and soon I was simply one of the other school kids.
I’d seen him in the school yard. I didn’t know his name, but he was a bright kid with a splash of sunlight blonde hair. I think he must have been about eleven years old, but to my young eyes he could have been older by an infinite number of years. He was a Big Kid. As a Big Kid, I tried to avoid him, because he and his friends were loud and boisterous. He was in the upper years of school, and as a result he didn’t have to wear his uniform. None of the upper years did, and so the Big Kid would wear whatever he wanted, usually a white t-shirt and jeans. I don’t think he’d ever spoken to me. I barely even noticed him. But because of what happened, I remembered him.
It was summer. I was off school, during the start of the summer holidays. It couldn’t have been more than a week since school had stopped, and it was still a few more weeks before we were due to head away to the seaside to spend our holiday in the sun. It was already a nice enough day, the sun was warm and there was a cool wind (DOROTHY GALE) in the air. My mother had taken me into the city centre earlier that day, as she had wanted to pick up a few items from the large post office, where packages were sorted.
I was feeling rather sour, as my mother’s venture out to do the daily shopping had interrupted my time for watching morning cartoons. Nevertheless I had trudged along, on the promise that if I behaved we could rent out a film from the video rental store that evening. It had been a long time since we had rented out Return To Oz, and the film had faded from my memory. I was excited. I was keen to see what we could find in the dark little video rental store. My mother was already certain that she wanted to rent out the Judy Garland musical version of Wizard of Oz, and relive her love of the classic. This was years before Blockbusters came here to England, and video rental stores were still small little stores owned by enterprising individuals looking to break into a new market.
My mother parked the car just a few yards from the store, and we got out. The wind (DOROTHY GALE) was starting to pick up, and it was starting to feel a little cold. I grabbed my coat from the back seat of the car, and pulled it on. My mother looked over to me, and said ”I’m going to pop into the bakery for a moment”. The bakery, I should mention, was on the street corner, two stores from the video rental shop, with a small barber shop between the two. ”Wait here”. She indicated to the front of the video store.
I waited. I wasn’t going to argue, and I certainly wasn’t going to disobey. The promise of watching a new film that evening was enough to ensure that. I waited for what felt like an age, but I’m sure was no more than a minute, when I heard the shouts from the other side of the street. I looked over. It was the Big Kid, in his white t-shirt and jeans, his bright blonde hair shining especially bright in the summer sun. He was on a bicycle, along with three other friends. I recognised all of them from school, but just like the Big Kid, I didn’t know their names. They were shouting to each other, circling around on their bikes, doing small tricks. One of the Big Kid’s friends would make his bike hop, back and forth. Another would swerve his front wheel, standing up tall on the peddles.
The road was quiet. After about a minute, the group moved into the road, riding around the parked cars. It was a peaceful morning, about eleven o’clock, and the boys were cheering. One of them made his bike hop up onto the pavement, spinning the handlebars around as he did so. Not a single other sound broke the summer day.
I watched the Big Kid and his friend doing their tricks for a moment, and then turned to look at the window of the video rental store. The window was full of posters, and I was curious to see what films they were advertising. I looked from one to another, barely noticing when the sunlight dimmed somewhat as a cloud passed in front of the sun. The next light brush of wind (DOROTHY GALE) felt a bit colder, so I wrapped my arms around myself and waited for my mother, when I heard one of the Big Kids friends cry out.
The truck must have taken the turn on the road too fast. I didn’t see it turn, but when I heard the cry I turned to look and seen it tearing down the road. It was a huge truck, massive, towering and ferocious. Its carriage smashed into one of the cars on the far side of the road. The boys in the street started to turn and run, panic in their steps. One dropped his bike and ran on his feet instead, the scream of the truck’s brakes suffocating his own scream.
The Big Kid didn’t move. I don’t know why he didn’t move at the time, I realise now that he was rooted to his spot by fear. His shirt whistled around him as he stared at the truck, eyes wide, mouth open, a scream echoing from his mouth. He tried to raise his hands to cover his face, as if his thin arms would defend him from the monolithic ten-wheeled truck that was charging out of control towards him. He was screaming, and screaming, and screaming.
The truck bore down the street, and even though it was almost thirty foot from where I was standing, I felt the air hit me in a hard gust (DOROTHY GALE) as it charged down on the Big Kid. The truck didn’t even collide with him, it simply poured over where he stood, his body buckling underneath it, folding like it was made of paper. His head, at the height of the top of the wheels, was tore free. There wasn’t much blood, but the force of the truck colliding with the Big Kid ripped the boy’s head from his shoulders and sent it hurtling across the road. The Big Kid’s head struck the road, and suddenly it was nothing more than a hunk of meat, like a prop in a movie.
I wasn’t screaming. I couldn’t. My throat simply wouldn’t make any sound, except for a series of wheezing gasps as I tried to pull enough air into my lungs. I couldn’t scream because I couldn’t breathe. But there was screaming in the air (DOROTHY GALE) and I couldn’t figure out who was screaming. Then I realised. It was the head. The Big Kit’s head, swaying lightly as it lay on the side of the road, in the gutter, emptying his last sounds from the ruin of his throat, an awful scream that rattled from the severed neck, just for a few short seconds. The truck had stopped where it was, its brakes bringing it to a stop all-too-late, but beneath its wheels the Big Kid’s body twitched for a few moments more, his arms playing out the last moments of his muscle memory as he tries to feel around in the empty air above his shoulders. The witch kept a collection of heads. She changed them and would wear a different one depending on her mood. And after a few short, terrible seconds the movements ceased, the screaming stopped. The Big Kid, who had less than a minute before been a living person, was rendered into pieces of unmoving matter. Human meat, broken apart and empty. My mother ran from the bakery over to me and pulled me out of the way; hoping that moving me out of the scene would push what I’d seen from my mind. But it wouldn’t work. I closed my eyes, but the image didn’t go away. I could still see the Big Kid’s head, the side of his face ripped and caved inwards like a dessert bowl, his eyes in the wrong place and his mouth open as he let fall the last echoes of his scream.
Dorothy, of course, had fled from the witch’s twitching, lurching body and her collection of screeching heads. She had run away and escaped the horrors. I wasn’t quite so lucky. Some things, I couldn’t escape from. They would hold me in place and exist in the space between the blinking of my eyes.
With the powder of life, Dorothy was able to throw together a mass of assorted items in the witch’s tower, a sofa and a moose’s head and other random junk, and brought it to life. Creating an assorted mish-mash of a creature. It was called the Gump and, like Jack Pumpkinhead, was a jumbled homunculus of items.
Dorothy flew away on the winged Gump, flying across the deadly desert. The deadly desert. A mass of sand at the border of Oz which, if you so much as touched the sand, would cause you to turn into sand yourself. Several of the wheelers pursued Dorothy, and when their wheels touched the sand, they collapsed. Their bodies yellowed, cracked and fell apart, their bodies sifting in the wind, the lines and curves of their faces shattering and breaking apart.
The Gump rips apart in the air, its wings breaking and Dorothy and her friends crash-land onto the mountain of the Nome King. A sinister creature formed of living rock, the Nome King was played with austere and stern decorum by Nicol Williamson, a Scottish actor who forged his way through many respected Shakespeare roles on stage and screen, before his death in 2011. Williamson also played the doctor, from the hospital back in Kansas. That both the sinister doctor and his beastly assistant had been incarnated in Oz, actors and all, makes me all the more sure that the dark and sinister Oz of this film is but a flash in Dorothy’s memory as she drowns in the river during that storm.
No. She doesn’t drown. No matter how many times I try to remind myself of the story, I keep thinking that she drowned. I’ve seen the film many times as an adult, and yet each time I watch it I find myself thinking as she falls into the churning waters of the river, ”It is here at this point that she drowns”. I know in my conscious mind that she doesn’t. But each time I think back on this film, I remember Dorothy slipping beneath the thrashing waves, her skin wet and cold, gasping for air, drowning beneath the weight of the water.
No. Dorothy does not drown. That’s not the story in the film. I keep remembering the film differently, I keep thinking that she drowns, but she doesn’t. She doesn’t drown. Dorothy does not drown. She goes to Oz and rescues her friends, who have been captured by the Nome King. She goes into the Nome King’s treasure chamber, where he has turned all of her friends into ornaments, and she brings them back to life. She, little Fairuza Balk in her first film role (she didn’t drown she went on to be Stacey in American History X she didn’t drown) She brings them all back to the Emerald City. And the Nome King…
The Nome King dies.
The evil witch, Mombi, she is captured by the heroes. But the Nome King dies. Dorothy’s companion, the talking chicken called Billina, drops an egg into the Nome King’s mouth. The Nome King, at this point in the film having become a gigantic creation of living rock, gags and chokes. He rasps the words ”Eggs… poison…” and crumbles. His entire body breaks apart, slowly. Chunks of rock falling away, taking his face with it. Eggs, poison.
Eggs, of course, are not poison. In the film, they are only poisonous to the Nome King. I never did understand why, and when I was a child I didn’t even realise that it was a condition purely to the Nome King and not something that would affect any of the other characters, human or otherwise. The statement was simply a proclamation, a warning. Eggs, poison. Whilst his face turned to rock, churned, boiled, and fell apart like pebbles. Poison.
My mother served me a plate of scrambled eggs for lunch. This was two weeks before we moved to the city, away from our village home. I had lived in a small village for my entire life; we had no more than thirty buildings and a single main street with its local shop, pub, school house and church. Surrounded as we were by farmland, a large number of our local produce was agricultural. Local beef, pork, and eggs. I pushed the plate away. ”Not hungry?” asked my mother. I shook my head. Poison.
I found the nest during summer. It was hidden in the roots of an old oak tree, near the back of the church hall. It had been built by some of the stray chickens, who had nestled down amongst the gnarled and twisted old roots of the rotting tree. I’d found it one morning, whilst on my way to school. It had been raining the night before, and my rubber wellington boots were flecked with mud. It was the sound I heard first, a bleating cry. I stepped through the soggy grass and leaned closer, peering through the shadows of the old tree roots. The nest was wet and full of dirt. Two chicken eggs sat in the dirt, their surfaces glistening from the rain. The third egg lay in pieces. Bits of its shell hung like a deflated balloon. The infant chicken had been born too early, it was premature and half formed. Its body looked like a wet mess of string. It’s skin was oily and black, and seemed to be made of muscle fibre. Its head was too big for its neck, and hung limply to one side, its eyes open far too wide. It was twitching as if on a string, trying to breathe, struggling to live. The rest of it was only partly there. It was a premature birth, a foetus of a creature more muscle and tissue than life. Its egg had cracked and spilled the chick into the world, rejecting it. Poison.
We didn’t have a cafeteria at school. It was too small a building. Instead, the local store would send a van to the back of the schoolhouse, where the teachers would collect our meals and bring them into the gym hall, which also doubled as the auditorium, despite it being significantly too small to qualify as one. We sat and ate our lunches, those who got our lunches from the school van and those who brought a packed lunch together. My mother had made me some ham sandwiches, with the crusts cut neatly off.
I sat with three other kids from my class. Chris was a keen football fan, and would usually rush through his lunch in order to finish early so that he could hurry into the yard and kick a ball around for a while. Josh was a quiet, bookish sort who had long black hair and a set of strong braces which shone each time he smiled. And then there was Gary, who didn’t speak much, but followed the rest of us around quite eagerly.
I chewed on my sandwich for a while, not really speaking. Chris was talking eagerly, about the football match that he’d watched on the television last night. I didn’t care about football, and his descriptions of kicks and goals seemed almost like an alien language to me. He took a bite out of his sandwich, and continued to talk, spraying bits of food as he did so.
I turned to Josh, wanting to tell him about the nest that I’d found. I told him about the chick, laying squirming in the muddy ground gasping for life. Josh shook his head, ”All chickens are little when they’re born” he said. I tried to explain that it wasn’t simply a baby chick, that it was half-formed and dying, but I was only a child and wouldn’t form the description properly. At best I could explain that it had been ’born wrong’. Chris took another bite out of his sandwich, and made a soft coughing sound.
Josh said that maybe a fox had found the nest and was eating some of the eggs, and that maybe it had left the dead chick behind. I tried to explain that this might be possible, when Chris coughed again. I turned to look at him. His face looked wrong, brighter, and puffier. He coughed again and again, louder, and began to motion towards his throat. A few other kids from nearby turned and noticed, as Chris’ coughing became more insistent. He dropped his sandwich, one he had got from the lunch van. It fell open, the slices of bread separating to show the creamy white shade of its contents, egg mayonnaise.
Chris tried to stand up, but couldn’t, tripping as he did so. Josh rushed forward, trying to slap him on the back. ”Help!” he shouted. Chris was clasping at his throat now, his face flushing from a pale red to a deeper, more blood-like shade. He was growing frantic, and began to panic. He was wheezing for air, the breath trying desperately to fill his lungs. But he couldn’t, and without any air he would (drown) choke to death. But that wasn’t right, that wasn’t what was killing him. I knew what was killing him, it was the poison. The eggs in the sandwich. The teacher was running over, but Chris had fallen to the floor at this point, his rasping gasps for air filling the small hall. He twitched, thrashing for air, his skin turning a darker shade of red, and I thought about the chick which was doing the very same. I grabbed the teacher’s arm, ”It’s the eggs” I said, insistently, my eyes stinging as I felt tears in them, ”The eggs. They’re poisoned.”
Chris was taken to the local doctor’s clinic, where they found the obstruction in his throat. A large piece of egg shell, almost the size of a small coin, which had burrowed its sharp edge into the side of his throat.
I still don’t think the film is cursed. The whole cursed movie thing doesn’t work, not in reality. It may have been the director’s only movie, but that doesn’t mean anything about it was unusual. I don’t think the video I watched was haunted. No, this definitely wasn’t the movie that was haunted. It was me.
By the time she goes back to Kansas, Dorothy’s journey is over. She has found the rightful heir to the throne of Oz, and helped her reclaim the world. We learn that the hospital burned to the ground during the storm. The doctor died in the fire. Burned to death. The Nome King died, so did the doctor. Both characters, both played by the same actor, met the same fate. But Dorothy was home, and she was wiser and more confident now, her sadness was gone. She could carry the memory of Oz with her forever.
I wonder if that was her curse as well. That poor little Dorothy Gale would forever return to Oz.
Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road
I stood on the road where the truck had struck and killed the blonde-haired kid. This was about a month ago. I was in the city for business. I had just finished a new project, the shooting of a new film. When I was twelve, I watched a movie called Cinema Paradiso, a classic of modern Italian movies. It follows the story of a man who grows up in a small village, and to who the local cinema has a major impact on his life. He goes on to grow up to become a respected film director. There are similarities between our lives. When I had finished my fifth feature film, I’d begun to wonder just what kind of influence the films I had watched as a child had on me. How they had shaped me into who I was. The character in Cinema Paradiso is bolstered by these; they give him strength and a means of escape. For me, there was one film that terrified me. And that’s what brought me back to the street where the Big Kid had died in the truck accident.
It was only coincidence that had brought me here. I had two weeks to go until editing would begin on the film, and I needed a break. A way to clear my head. The editing was due to take place in our main studio, but by sheer coincidence my hotel wasn’t too far from where the truck accident had occurred. That evening, I walked to the street. I thought it would maybe look the same. I didn’t really know what I hoped to find. I didn’t want to drown out my memories, maybe I just wanted to see them one last time, in order to say goodbye.
The video rental store was long since gone. The bakery was still there, though. The young man behind the counter told me that he couldn’t remember a video rental store being there on the street ever since he had moved to the city, some seven years ago. Time had changed. I had expected to still see the marks of the tires from the truck in the road. I didn’t. No black scorch of burned rubber, and no dash of blood in the gutter where the head had landed. The city had changed. It had moved on. Only my memory remained.
There was one last place I had to go.
My home village in Cornwall had changed perhaps more drastically. I drove there in my white Sedan, and when I pulled up into the village’s main street, I realised that time had ravaged the place far worse than any hurricane could. I was determined not to let the weight of time dissuade me from what I intended to do, though. I parked my car and looked around. I tasted the air, and looked around. I had drove through the smooth hills, which were once full of wheat, but were now empty. My Kansas was gone. The air tasted different. This, I thought, was my own return to Oz.
The post office was shut; it had closed many years before. The small corner shop was now a Safeway, and even so it was a small one with only a single check-out. I went into the local pub, which I had never done when I was a child here. The man behind the bar barely took notice of me. All around me, the people seemed old, as if history had chewed on them and left their wrinkled faces gnawed. I didn’t see any children here. The bartender told me that there weren’t really any young families around here anymore. No work around here, it seemed. Only the old people who had once worked the farms, waiting for the dust of the earth to reclaim them.
Being in the village was painful. I felt like a relic, something that the past had forgotten. Time had moved on. I had moved on. The village had not. It had struggled, it had lost. I didn’t want to stay for too long. I knew I wanted to make this quick, before being here became too painful, before the ghosts of my memories began to hurt me. I left the pub, and started on my walk.
The school was the closest, so I went there first. It was a poor decision. The building itself was barren. The sign at the front, with the school’s name that had once been boldly etched on it, had been taken down. The building was abandoned. Without children to teach, there was no use of the school any more. I learned from the man who owned the local pub that the hall, where Chris had choked on the broken piece of egg shell so many years before, was still occasionally used for village meetings. But the classrooms had long since been abandoned. I walked around the building, peering into the rooms. They were all barren, emptied of furniture. No desks, no chairs. One held an old blackboard, its surface covered with dust.
When I got to the church, I realised before I even before I stepped into the yard that the old oak tree was long gone. I found an old priest with a shock of dirty white hair tending the front of the church. When I asked him about the tree, he told me that it had caught a disease several years before and was cut down. I walked into the yard, and sure enough, found the dry old patch of ground where the tree once stood. The ground felt harder than the soil surrounding it, and rose in a steady lump, like a despoiled grave.
The old farm house had been demolished. It had been concreted over, as if to prevent anyone else from building there. At the foot of the hill, a large square patch of grey concrete was almost lost amongst the tall grass. I almost stumbled across it, because the years had pushed the details of the location from my mind. When I found the patch of concrete, I half expected to find a small plaque as well. Perhaps a dedication to the four children who had been murdered and buried there. There wasn’t one. The concrete itself was cracked and old by then, with bits of weeds and long grass peeking its way through like nature’s own fingertips. It was almost, I thought, like the world wants to forget.
I felt tired. The journey had been painful, bittersweet. I felt that I had made my homecoming, and felt the sadness that it would bring. I wanted to leave, soon. The memories were too strong, ones that were so powerful for me but that the rest of the world had done its best to forget. I had made my journey. Or so I thought. But I wasn’t yet done.
The sun was starting to set by the time I reached the river.
I don’t know what brought me there; I had no idea what guided my steps. I’d forgotten that the village had a river. In the daylight, I thought, the river might look beautiful. But with the sun starting to dye the sky red and slip down towards the horizon, made the undercurrents of the water look dark. My feet had brought me here, almost unbidden, as if I was following a trail that was laid out for me a long time ago. This is where my broken, ruined yellow brick road leads me.
And that’s when I remembered. This is where she drowned.
I didn’t remember it all at once. The images came first. Her face, with her eyes wide in terror, the water splashing over her skin and making it glisten, her mouth full and unable to take in enough air, her short black hair slick against her scalp and in utter disarray. The water kept washing over her face, the dark cloak of the current covering her for a few fleeting moments before she broke the surface again, only to dip back into its icy embrace again.
I was on the bank of the river. I was clasping onto her arm. But it was cold on a winter’s night, and her coat was too wet, and I was wearing gloves, and she kept slipping. I couldn’t hold on. I couldn’t get a good grip. I wasn’t strong enough. I was only six years old, and she was four, and the river had her. The river held her in its grip and the water was like fingers and it had a better grip on her than I ever could. She was crying, shouting for me to help, the water was weighing her down and stopping her words from escaping.
She was drowning, and I was panicking. I was meant to look after her. She was my sister, and I was her big brother, and I was meant to protect her. I was meant to look after her. And she was drowning. She had fallen in and hit the water with a splash, and that splash was so loud that it had broken the world.
And I’d forgotten.
Maybe not forgotten, I think my mind had forced the memory out. It knew I couldn’t cope with it, not when I was just a little boy. I remember my parents and their tears and the ambulance that was called and my parents telling me over and over that it wasn’t my fault. But it was. I was still that little boy who had made himself forget that he was standing on the riverbank, clutching onto the girl’s arm as she was drowning.
This, I realised, was why I had come here. I needed to make myself remember. I had to find the source of my fear. Remember what it was that had kept this moment from my mind. She drowned. In the river, she drowned. I hadn’t remembered it, I’d made myself forget. And that memory had seeped out into the movie. That, I realised, was my secret. I’d kept it all locked up inside me, but the memory had found a way. My little sister’s ghost wouldn’t be forgotten. Each time I thought of that damnable movie, each time I tried to remember Return to Oz, I remembered Dorothy Gale drowning in the river. But it wasn’t Dorothy, it had never been Dorothy. It had been my little sister.
And she was my ghost. Not some sinister, skulking figure that thirsted for revenge. But she had been there, always, in my shadows. Haunting me, until I made my own journey into the past, made my own return to Oz. That film was important to me, I knew it now. I’d never be free from it. Even when I tried to say goodbye, when I spoke my lost little sister’s name on that riverbank, I knew that she would follow me forever. I couldn’t leave her behind; I couldn’t lock her away again. Return to Oz bound us together forever.
Because my mother, who had loved Judy Garland, had named my sister Dorothy.