She opened her eyes to a warmth glow, not knowing where she was at first. A fire burned low a few feet away from her. Its quiet crackling sounded alien to her ears.
She realised in a few seconds that she was not alone. Her hand was warmly held by another, and she sat up quickly and drew it away.
In front of her was the man, either kneeling or sitting, for he was almost on the same level as herself.
In the firelight, his skin was alabaster and unmistakable. ‘It’s you!’ she cried. ‘It was you, in my dream!’
His stance, so queer for a reason she could not place, shifted, and he uncoiled himself like a snake.
She watched him take to his feet and pull himself upright, and she could finally see what it was that made his frame so odd.
His feet are backward, she realised.
He didn’t reply or show any sign of comprehension, and she wondered for a second if he could actually speak.
He simply turned and walked back into the dense vegetation. With that same, strange gait, he melted into the surrounding foliage like dew.
She stared after him, and then picked herself off the ground and quickly followed the man deeper into the jungle. She was sorry to leave the fire, but did not want to be left alone now that she had come across another soul.
She could not see him, but could hear him ahead, trampling the underbrush. I can’t see anything, she realised. Even the little starlight that had filtered through the trees earlier was gone. She only now relied on her hearing.
The vegetation around her had changed. The plants were no longer leafy, but had woody stems and thorns that caught in her hair and bit into her skin as she pushed past them, trying to keep up with the sound of footsteps. Like little mouths, she thought.
The thorns ripped through her bare arms and legs and feet. She put her hands out ahead of her as she stumbled. She pitched forward and felt below her several gnarled tree roots, thorny and rough. She was about to push herself up and off of the ground, when they began to writhe and turn under her body, and on her ankle, something clammy began to wrap itself. She kicked, and her free foot encountered what felt like a hand.
She remembered the beach. Is this the same one? She kicked, and twisted around to grasp hold of the hand. Its grip was like a vice, but she bent over as far as she could and bit down hard into one of the grimy fingers until her teeth fairly severed it.
A rage had come upon her, and it was as if she was dreaming again with the same feeling of disconnect and distance from herself. One by one, she furiously bit of all the fingers, slimy liquid oozing over and around her mouth. She only paused once to spit the muddy-tasting liquid out. She remembered licking the blood from the shoulder of the baggage, and she opened her mouth wider to bite into the wrist of the hand.
Its grip slackened, and pulled her leg back, snarling in an animal fury that was alien even to herself.
Something deep inside her had been unbridled, and was kicking and bucking for more blood, more destruction. She began to run her hands along the ground below her, searching for another breach, more foes to sink her teeth into.
She gasped as she was lifted off the ground bodily and immediately began lashing out with her arms and legs.
‘Calm yourself’, came the voice of the man.
She quietened down, her laboured breathing lengthening. She watched herself with the same dissociation.
‘You unsheathed your sword’, said the man softly.
‘I….’ she replied weakly, ‘I….I had to. It wouldn’t let go.’
‘You’re ready now’, he said simply. ‘I’ll take you to what you seek.’
She blinked, not knowing how to reply to this.
‘How do I know that it is what I’m looking for? She asked.
‘You will know.’ He put her down. ‘You will know, believe me.’
Then he turned away again and began walking forward. She followed him, but less frantically now, less frightened.
She didn’t know what had oozed out of the hand she had bitten into amongst the tree roots, but her the skin of and around her lips were numb, and tingled. Soon, it spread to her entire face. The cold air felt like a salve against her skin, but the numbness continued to spread down her neck.
They walked on through the darkness. Their footsteps sounded a quiet metronome, muffled by the soil under their feet. She felt no more roots, and the vegetation around them seemed to be gradually thinning out, for branches rarely scraped across her arms or face. A few hours later, when she stretched her arms out on either side, trying to feel for a wall, trees – some indication of where they were, her fingers encountered only air.
Only air and the enclosing darkness.
The man did not speak to her. She felt that maybe they did not need to speak, for what had needed to be spoken had already been conveyed. Still, she thought, companionship would make this journey so much brighter and warmer.
Minutes trickle away into hours. Hours into…days? Had it been a day in this lonely darkness? Sometimes she would wonder if there existed anything on either side of them, whether the lie of the ground they walked on were a plain, or a ridge. Whether, if they chose to deviate from this straight path, they would be able to wander around, or drop straight off the edge of the world.
Her first reminder of passing time came from a change in texture. Beneath her feet, she suddenly felt cold, hard stone. It was smooth and level, and its surface was unbroken by grooves or dips. It felt strange beneath her feet and after a long while she wondered if the surface had been laid down, the work of sentient minds and busy hands.
Her mind burned for distraction. She tried to hum a tune at first – an old lullaby that she remembered, but that found that it was drawing her into a dream, and so stopped. She could not afford to fall into reverie now and be left behind. She did not know her way in the dark. She listened to the footsteps ahead of her. Sometimes she wondered if that was the only part of him that truly existed, that the rest of him could have very well faded into dust, and she would not have noticed.
They did not stop to rest or sleep. The only thirst she felt was her yearning for her destination. Is this just another dream? She had not eaten or drank anything since the very beginning. And when had it begun?
How long have we been walking? It felt like yesterday that she had bitten the strange hand, but it could have been longer. Weeks? Maybe a month. She was not sure. She had tried to scratch notches into her arm to make the passing of days, but with no differentiating day and night, she found it difficult to keep track. Am I losing my sanity? She found herself frequently wondering. Eventually, she let go, giving into the flow of walking and wherever it would take them.
A day, a month a year. Here, they seemed to be all the same. This was the sarcophagus of Time, into which dropped all the fleeting moments of the universe.
The stony ground eventually gave way to a surface that was so silky smooth, it felt like glass. It was pleasant against their feet, and she savoured the feeling. Her face felt numb now, but the tingling feeling had passed.
Intrigued, she drew a hand across her face. Her skin felt rough somehow, and she immediately assumed it was loose soil from her struggle on the tree roots. She scrubbed her cheek with her fingernails, trying to scratch whatever it was off. They scraped across millions of tiny abrasive bristles that seemed to be embedded in the skin of her face. She felt panic rising in her, the same panic of what seemed to her to be ages past, her time on the beach.
She increased her step, until she caught up to him. Still that strangeness of the heavy tread from his backward feet.
‘There’s something on my face’, she told him.
She couldn’t see his expression in the thick blackness, but she imagined it to be firm and set, like his reply:
‘Yes. It must be so.’
She was confused for a few seconds, her pace slowing. Then, in a burst of indignant nerves, she caught up with him again and said, ‘But I don’t like it. Is it something I can remove? Is it dirt, or sap?’
His gait never changed, and she grew steadily more annoyed at him, at his silence, at her own confused nerves that refused to quieten.
‘Answer me!’ she snapped, ‘I’m tired of not knowing what is happening or what I’m searching for. I’m tired of having to dream about lives that I can’t remember. I’m tired of not knowing where I am, or what I am.’ Her voice rose to a yell toward the end.
He turned on her with a suddenness that frightened her. She had become used to his footsteps and passive invisibility, used to his silence. Now she found herself bodily lifted into the air by her neck. His hand gripped her lower jaw. In shock, she dug her nails into his arm, but it had no effect. She had no time to scream, only to stare into the vacant dark with wide, frightened eyes.
She heard his voice from inches in front of her face, and instinctively screwed them shut as she realised that it was not the voice that she had been hearing from him all this while. This voice was darker, deeper and issued forth in a whisper that was closer to an animal’s growl than anything human.
‘Nobody gets to choose’, said this voice, softly but with a razor’s edge. ‘We’re all tired, aren’t we? We’re all tired of walking along this path. Do you want to know the secret to all this? All of it? It’s that we’d be better off dead. No, it’s that we’d be better off not to have even lived at all. It laughed, low and breathily. The truth is that it would be better for us to never have existed – and it is this fact, this truth that we push away, that we turn away from – that it would be better for us all to simply remain in the darkness – to stay in the dark, the deep…warm…darkness…Mmmm…’
Silence for a few seconds, and then the wiry arm released her.
She fell onto the hard, smooth floor and lay there rubbing her burning neck and chin, full of the thick bristles.
She was barely conscious of the footsteps moving away from her. She lay on the stony ground in the utter darkness and felt the tears streaming from her eyes. When the footsteps came back toward her again, she heard that it was him this time, in the voice that she had recognised for so long.
‘Get up’, he told her, not unkindly. ‘You’ll always get answers like that from him, and I know you have many questions. He answers well enough – not for one who seeks, but one who believes he knows all there is to know, and who has long since striven to quench the eternal fire within himself.’
She felt a warm hand in her own, and looked up, but she saw only darkness.
What if none of it exists, she thought for a few split seconds. What if it’s just me in here?
‘What’s happening to me?’ she asked tearfully instead.
‘You’re changing’, he said simply. He tugged on her hand and she took his cue to stand up. On her feet, she wiped her wet face with the back of her hand. ‘What does that mean?’
‘We will have to find out. It’s not just you. Everything changes.’
Without waiting for a reply, he turned around and carried on. She heard the familiar sound of feet against floor once again. After a few seconds, she followed.
She passed her hands over her face from time to time, and was surprised and a little panicked to find that there were little filaments growing from the bristles, and that the bristles themselves were growing longer, out of her skin. She was terrified of what was happening, but she did not bring up the subject to the man again. Have a little faith, she told herself. It’s only change. Maybe it will be temporary. The dark, once so cold and threatening, now seemed like a patient confessor to her struggles of understanding.
To be continued…