She became aware of her physicality, which felt alien to her now. Her body was stiff and frozen. The sudden cold and darkness brought her quickly to her senses, out of the amniotic embrace of unconsciousness and into cruel awakening. She gasped, inhaled water, and coughed. Her mouth was sandy, and her lungs burned, and she felt like she had not breathed in a very long time. The water that she had been lying in was frigid.
She rolled over on to her side and pushed herself up with her hands onto her knees. There she sat, breathing heavily on the shoreline, dripping and cold.
The waves lapped at the shore calmly, and there was no sign of mist. She stepped back, away from the water, away from the softer sand that reminded her of ash. As she did this, she realised that she had no dress. Only her petticoat remainder, clinging to her shivering form.
She came up close to the rock embankment. It was cold, and even the gentle breezes from the sea seemed to cut right through her body. She began to walk, and at a much faster pace. It would be the only way she would stay warm now. It would also save her time.
Time, though. Time was of no importance if she did not know where it was that she was going. The nagging pricking doubt in her mind was chafing at her resolve. What am I looking for, and where is this place?
She had had the dreams throughout her life. As far back as she could remember. But what was memory? Couldn’t the memories also be dreams?
Between the dreams, she told herself. It was between the dreams that I knew something awaited me. What had planted the burning and visceral yearning for her search? Wasn’t it the dreams themselves? So much so that every time truth condensed on her wakening eyelids, it whispered, ‘There is more than this’.
In that way, the dreams themselves had led her beyond.
But beyond towards what, exactly? What was it that she sought? What waited for her along this wide and empty beach, which no sun warmed and on which no soul tread besides her?
And who was she?
Disturbed, she pushed the questions away and focused on blowing on her cold fingers to warm them up as well as she could.
She had to get there; the burning desire from inside her that was vague and complex was impossible to ignore. They would be waiting for me there, she thought. And yet, another part of her whispered, who do I mean by ‘they’?
She kept her brisk gait, the night breezes billowing through her thin petticoat. Her arms were carpeted in goose flesh.
When will dawn be? She wondered. Here was long night, the sacred dark that stretched out into the star-spangled ether that was the horizon. It kept a calm and sobering vigil of the world. And yet, had it no end? The previous day felt to her like it ended centuries ago. The night seemed to have held its breath and gazed at the puny world, gazed at dark sands and black water, at constellations that traversed the same spherical path with no end.
She walked and walked, surveying the horizon for the comforting filament of dawn, for that virginal blush to creep into the sky.
What if I might be dreaming right now? she wondered. How is there any way to tell? She suddenly felt hyperaware of her surroundings. Of the stars irregularly reflected in the water, of the curve of the beach ahead of her, their varying shades of black. Acutely conscious of the breeze, of the fabric of her petticoat brushing against her skin, of the soft scrape of the sand on the soles of her feet with each step she took, of the utter desolation that surrounded her, of the screaming silence.
But listen. Was that something in the breeze?
I’m not alone, she thought. Not anymore. It was not a feeling, but a knowing.
She turned all around herself, trying to see in the darkness. Blurry silhouettes and shadows. She could not see much except the black softness of the sand and the mercury-like gleam of the water.
After a few moments, she began to walk again, keeping her senses alert. She could hear her own quick breathing; she could feel her tamped down anxiety rising like bile from deep in her gut.
She began to break into a faster stride, and – was it just her imagination? – she thought she could hear another footfall. It was out of step with her own and audible, but she could not tell from which direction it came.
She forced herself to keep from running. In the naked starlight, she could see very little. Whoever it is, they don’t seem to be chasing me, she thought. Even so, her senses were alert and sharp, and the silence that lay thick and sluggish over the beach, that lay apnic-like between the breathing of the waves made them far more acute than usual.
In her periphery, she became aware of movement. It was slight – so slight, that at first that she thought it was only the shadows of the shrubs and vegetations as the starlight reflected off of them. But soon she realised that there was an outline, bluish black and angular, that was keeping up with her.
She stopped and watched and, as if simultaneously, the movement had stopped as well. She could not make out the outline any longer. Its shape had blended into the vegetation.
She hugged her shoulders, trying to smooth the gooseflesh on her arms, trying to coax some heat into her fingers.
‘Is anyone there?’ she called out finally. In the sacred quiet of the silent world, in that silent hour, her voice – profane in the night – made her jump.
The only response was the ringing silence. Am I imagining it? She asked herself. Maybe it’s just the starlight. Maybe the footsteps are the blood in my ears.
She stood there a few more minutes, unsure of herself. She turned her neck to look out over the sea. The horizon did not herald dawn. I can’t wait for it, she decided. I have to keep going.
A she began to walk, she could hear the heavy footfall once again. It came like the fall of a judge’s gavel. A finality. I will be dogged, she thought – and it chilled her – I will be dogged from the shadows. Whether it be real or not.
She steeled her will, but her pace increased on its own. Ahead of her, the beach stretched on, into the endless horizon and the endless night, with the stars above scattered like shards of broken glass from some celestial mirror. There was still no sign of the moon.
She realised that the strip of beach she walked on was narrowing. The tide, again? It was too soon. She looked dumbly at the water lapping at her feet. It can’t have been more than an hour or two.
She did not like the thought of moving up the beach, closer to the vegetation, closer to the thing that melted into its mottled darkness. She watched it as she climbed onto the small rocky embankment. It moved. She could see its silhouette blot out the starlight against the vegetation. It seemed tall and somehow gaunt.
She tried to walk along the embankment, but the rocks were sharp on her bare feet, and cut into her naked soles, so she hesitantly stepped down into the grass on the other side.
It was silky soft after the rocks, and strangely pleasant to walk on after the course texture of the sand. She kept her gaze on the thing that moved just a few feet from her. It seemed to be mirroring her movements, for it now stood still, almost as if watching her with curiosity.
She did not want to meet with it, and yet she must. She could only just distinguish the stature of something that looked human; limbs, a head, shoulders…and yet something about it was strange.
She took a few steps into the vegetation, and to her surprise, it moved backward, and melted into the deeper shadows. She did not have the courage to follow.
I must keep going, she told herself. The old chorus of pushing forwards.
Keeping close to the embankment, she began to walk again, and the footsteps began once more, almost as an echo of her own.
The air was colder here, and dewey with moisture from the sea and vegetation. She could no longer see her strip of sand now, the tide had swallowed it up, had taken it into its arms and engulfed it. It’s going to cover the world, she thought absently, and shivered at her own suggestion.
This strange being that follows me, has it been doing that from the very beginning? And what is it?
She was afraid. She was afraid of it, but she also needed to confront it. It might have answers.
She began to walk inward again, hoping to catch a better glimpse of it, but the vegetation was too dense, and she could hear and see it dimly walking deeper in. Leaves rustled, twigs cracked, and she thought half in relief and half in fear, It does exist, then. I’m not just seeing things.
She continued to walk into the vegetation, realising how effectively the foliage blotted out the scarce starlight. She kept a firm grasp on her rising sense of alarm as the plants began to become taller than her, their leafy heads towering above her head now.
Darkness, and cold. She could barely make out the dim stalks of the plants around her, and the world seemed to be filled with mottled grey and blue.
I shouldn’t be walking this far into it, she thought. Yet she persisted, the darkness drawing her like an opiate.
She used her hands, holding them out in front of her, to feel her path through the plants. Branches scraped and caught her hair, and she had to stop and detangle the catches each time. She glanced over her shoulder once, thinking about abandoning her detour. Behind her was the same blue-black mottling that was the foliage. She couldn’t see the sky, or the stars. The jungle seemed to have engulfed her. She didn’t know in which direction she was walking, and she did not know if she was following the figure any longer. The thought I can’t turn back flashed through her mind but she bit down against her nerves. I must be sensible, she told herself. She stood still and listened. A light breeze rustled the vegetation, but she heard nothing else. She sat down where she stood and drew her knees up to her face, trying not to cry.
I could wait until morning.
Though she knew there would be no morning. Where before there was only the unending beach, now there was an unending jungle.
Curled up, she breathed into her closed palms to warm her hands. After a while, she lay down.
To be continued…