There, before me, lay the campsite which I would call home these next four months. I had just begun to notice the steadily increasing weight set upon my shoulders by the backpack secured onto them; we’d been hiking for at least two hours and I was not used to such extended periods of exertion.
“We’re here,” Jason announced silently from beside me, re centering his own pack between his shoulders as he spoke. I smiled in response to his verbal reassurance that our hike had finally come to a conclusion.
The campsite rested on the well-worn path we had not dared stray from the entire time we inhabited these woods. As we neared the site, I studied the uneven slopes on either side of the path; they had not changed at all throughout the entire stretch of distance we had covered within the past couple of hours between our previous camp and here. To my right, a jagged, upward slope of uneven forest extended endlessly some fourty feet into the air before leveling off towards the top in a constant shadow of leaves. To my left lay a mirrored image of my right, save for the sole exception of an opposite downward slope some thirty yards in depth. We never dared stray from the dirt-covered path we walked now. Even our last campsite had been confined to the same brown earth as this one was.
As we approached, I noticed a site leader briefing the new arrivals on the most basic of knowledge needed for survival; the same knowledge which kept us on this path and away from the trees on either side.
“I do not wish to alarm you,” he was saying as we passed, “but we have reason to believe that these woods are inhabited by a hostile clan of people. I do not have the authority to present to you the evidence of this discovery, but I am ordered to advise you all that entry into these woods is strictly prohibited for both your individual safety and for the safety of your group. Now the duties here are much like those from your previous site . . . ”
I tuned out the rest of his speech. This was my third relocation, so it already seemed I had heard the exact same briefing a thousand times over. I could probably give it myself if asked, though it would have to be with paper and pen.
Jason and I were shown to our tents, and he stayed with me so that I could use his help to settle in if I needed it. I didn’t, of course, but he stayed until I finished nonetheless.
“I’ll meet you by the post in about fifteen minutes, okay?” he suggested as I surveyed the tent for anything I might have missed. I nodded in reply and gave him a grateful smile. It was times like these when I wished desperately for the ability to speak. I had been mute from birth; unable to even cry as a baby and unable now to express my gratitude with a simple ‘thank you’.
“I know. You’re welcome, Claire,” Jason replied as if he could read my thoughts just as easily as I could understand English. Jason turned and ducked out of the tent, leaving me alone for an uncertain amount of silent minutes.
I pulled the boots from my feet and spread out the lightly padded sleeping bag onto the ground, taking the advantage of rare down-time to rest. The moment my body settled into the bag, my aching muscles instantly relaxed and, before I knew it, I opened my eyes to a darkened tent.
I was up in an instant, recalling everything that had taken place before I’d fallen asleep in a groggy four seconds before becoming overcome with guilt. I hated that, for falling asleep without having met Jason as I had promised, I would not even be allowed to say ‘I’m sorry’.
The darkness of the tent slowly began to cast a faint tint of light at the seems, assuring me that morning was soon approaching. I stretched, pulled on my boots, and slowly made my way to Jason’s tent. I felt like I should be kicking the dirt as I walked, much like a kindergartener would do as they approached their parents after being caught doing something wrong.
I found Jason just outside of his tent, tying a line which would later be used for holding fish if he had any luck that day. He turned at the sound of my approach. I could not tell if it was that he read the look on my face, or if he truly could read my mind, but he again responded exactly to what i was thinking.
“It’s alright, Claire. You needed rest,” he assured me with understanding. I paused, a foot away from him, and then wrapped my arms around his waist. He returned my embrace without reluctance. “I went down to the river yesterday after I checked on you when you were sleeping. We shouldn’t have any trouble catching anything today.” I nodded in reply and then began to help him finish the line he’d been working on. We worked in silence only a few minutes before Jason asked if I was ready to go.
As we made our way down the path, I noticed that it began to widen significantly the farther we continued. The sloping forests on either side, however, remained as steep and foreboding as ever. I soon became completely absorbed in studying the trees as we passed between them and, eventually, I began to notice the slightest movements among them. Every time I found myself open to the outside air on the dirt path, I was careful to remain aware that I was not walking unseen. Now, though, as I studied the movements which arrested my attention, I was more aware of a foreign presence in those woods than I ever had been before.
My hand found Jason’s as I began to remember every rumor ever created which claimed to explain our fear of the forests and whatever may inhabit them. My head turned involuntarily to the right, scanning the trees rapidly in attempt to reconcile movement with mover to no avail. I could have sworn I’d seen something shift through the trees. Jason recognized the fear in my frantic movements and, when my foot caught a stray stone, he was ready to catch me before my body could hit the ground. He held me there, unsure of what had caused my panic though he assured me that everything would be alright nonetheless. I’d believed him. I always believed him.
“Is everything alright?” a voice inquired from somewhere behind us. We turned to see a man approaching from the direction which we had come.
“Yes, everything is just fine,” Jason echoed his reassurances.
Only I could detect that hidden note of defense which tainted his words, and I knew he did not trust this man. I’d never seen him before, but we had just arrived at the new site so there was no way I could have familiarized myself with every face. Still, I instantly understood Jason’s aversion to this man. There was a strangeness to his posture and the way he formed his words; something unfamiliar about the way he walked. He was not like the rest of us. As I had assumed, the man did not recognize the sharp tone of Jason’s reply. Only someone who knew him as I did could pick up on the distrust underlying his polite words. The man approached us slowly as Jason steadied me on my feet.
What concerned me most about this man was not the fear incited by his presence, but rather my attraction towards the mystery surrounding him. I was compelled to understand him while determined to fear him. Another movement from the high slope arrested my attention. This time, Jason was aware of it as well. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed his gaze find the same spot mine rushed to encompass.
“Do you see that?” the man was mumbling from somewhere behind us.
I turned to see him standing on the edge of the path, looking down into the opposite slope as if he had encountered something truly extraordinary. I barely noticed that I had taken an unconscious step forward until a slight rustling of trees brought my gaze back towards the upward slopes. Instead of focusing on the trees this time, my eyes were now fixed on Jason; his back turned towards me as he scanned the treeline. Why hadn’t he turned? Surely he had heard the stranger’s mumbling.
“Claire,” I turned again to see the man waiting for me at the edge of the path. His very position seemed to earn my distrust, yet I could not curtail my curiosity.
I tilted my head to one side, wishing I could ask him how he knew my name. The stranger merely beckoned with one hand, and I realized that I was already moving to join him. Once I reached the path’s edge, he pointed somewhere into the distant drop of ground – towards the point where the earth just began to level out into interlocking patterns of shadow and light. There, I could barely make out the faint silhouette of some unknown object which lay on the forest floor below. I looked up at the stranger and furrowed my brow, but he merely inclined his head towards the very spot in question and I returned my gaze to the shadow below. Suddenly, it shifted, and I knew then exactly what the silhouette belonged to.
A child lay on the forest floor, writhing from some unknown pain. My mouth fell open into a silent gasp. Absolute fear set in, and I immediately turned to the stranger. His eyes were locked onto the child as if nothing on earth could tear them away.
“She needs you,” the stranger prompted me with eerie calm.
My heart throbbed, sprinting at an uncontrollable speed which I feared my pulse could not contain. I needed to call out to Jason. I needed his help desperately, but when I turned to face him I was horrified to find that he stood motionless with his back still offered to me. I opened my mouth to cry out for him to turn around, but could never muster any volume to my voice; even now. I could not understand what evil kept him in his cold and placid stance.
Frustrated and frightened, I approached the ledge as I monitored the girl’s movement below. Glancing back at Jason once, I felt as though I was a child standing at the edge of a busy street and looking over my shoulder to see if I was still beneath the watchful gaze of a protective father; knowing that I was not allowed another step while I considered to do just that. However, with Jason’s refusal to acknowledge my existence, I suddenly felt abandoned and alone.
I threw an accusing glare at the stranger and, suddenly, I was moving. The stark juxtaposition of the harsh dirt of the path and the soft bed of the forest earth was startling. I had already managed to climb down the first ledge and was preparing to attempt the next one before I even realized what I was doing. My balance seemed terribly unsteady, and it took nearly everything in me to keep my concentration in tact.
By the third ledge, I found myself peering over the side at the place where the child had once been. What had begun as intense fear now set in as pure panic seeping into my veins and taking control as I searched for the girl and found nothing. There was no possibility that she could have moved from that spot quickly enough to be lost into the woods again. A maddening thought crossed my mind slowly, churning my blood into sickening whirlpools: had she even been there at all?
Suddenly, the earth gave way beneath me and my foot crashed out from under me, sending my reflexes into immediate action. My leg snapped backwards, away from the crumbling ldge, and came to settle beneath me as I retreated into an abrupt crouching position. Fearful of rising again to my feet, I remained there for an immeasurable moment until a faint sound reached my ears.
Somewhere in the close distance to my left, I could barely make out the noise of pronounced breathing. Slowly, cautiously, I turned my head towards the sound and my eyes widened immediately when they fixed upon its source.
There, no farther than twelve feet from me, rested the most magnificent and beautiful creature I had ever encountered; but for every note of beauty possessed by the animal, an even higher scale of fear arose in my heart as the wolf slowly barred its teeth and produced a low, menacing rubmble from its throat.
My head whipped back around, searching for the place where I had begun my descent, and paused. The stranger was peering at my stance from the safety of the path above me. I pleaded with him through my eyes, willing him to help. As soon as I fixed my eyes upon the stranger, I felt the breath shoot out of me as if I had just fallen from a great height. The pleading helplessness drained from my expression and malice took its place immediately.
“It’s alright,” the beguiler smiled and beckoned me to continue.
I felt confusion wrinkle my forehead as I once again faced the creature whose land I was now defiling. How could this stranger urge me onward in the face of this terrible danger? I scarcely had time to register this thought before the wolf charged. Stunned, I was unable to rise from my knees. My hands remained pressed palms downwards into the earth beneath me. Even as my heart threatened to beat itself free from my chest and blood pulsed violently through my wrists, I was locked into this one position as death fast approached me.
I memorized every detail of my attacker in mere seconds, as if the short ticks of the second hand had been long, stretched hours before me. I watched as its muscles coiled and uncoiled beneath its white-stained silver coat, rippling with rage. In the final moment, as the creature took his final stride in attack, I was released from the tethers which locked me to the ground. I threw my arms over my head while my moth opened into a soundless scream.
My entire body was drained of feeling, but I could hear the sound of tearing flesh as the wolf’s claws found immediate purchase into the soft skin of my back. Shortly after the sickening impact, however, my ears picked up on another, more familiar and oddly more comforting sound that I struggled to recognize. Among the snarls and shreds which assaulted my hearing, the sound I could faintly pick out over the violence was entirely human; a voice crying out in frustrate exertion.
Blood began to sting my eyes and I wondered if I had suffered a head wound so profound as to distort my thoughts. It wasn’t until I felt a reassuring grasp fall onto my hand that I realized what had happened. The wolf was suddenly calmed, his body heavy and almost limp with sudden weariness. I was somehow being dragged out from beneath him.
Jason’s voice rose from beside me, urging me to move. I could not comprehend what had allowed him to manage the wolf without he himself being killed in the process. I forced myself to follow him back up to the path, though I was slowly beginning to regain feeling in my body.
With every move I made, I became aware of another wound I had suffered during the attack and it wasn’t long before I realized how badly I had been injured. I looked back at the wolf and was taken aback by what I saw. I could not tell if he was living or dead, nor whether the thick splotches of blood covering its coat were left there by me or if Jason had managed to bloody him with the wolf’s own flesh.
After what seemed to be hours, we finally reached the path and with it, what I expected to be safety. However, as soon as I placed my foot back onto the path, I knew that something was horridly different. There was a deadly silence covering the ground, and every nerve in my body was strung tight; as if each was fitted to a bow and set with an arrow. Through the silence, the forest seemed more alive than ever. I knew that the path we stood on was no longer a safe haven.
“We have to move,” Jason warned.
I stole a glance at his face as he began to pull me along, and I knew that he was quietly taking stock of the events that had just occurred. I was grateful that I hadn’t gotten the chance to look him straight in the eye since I forsook the path. I wasn’t sure if I could bear to see the wrath and rejection I was sure to find in his face.
Another glance backwards sent an automatic intake of air past my lips. Lying in the place of the stranger who had coaxed me to ruin, was a body. More surprising than this was the figure of a woman, dressed in some strange fabric, stooping over the corpse. Jason pulled me more forcefully in the direction he was leading. I could pick out the faint music of moving water now as we walked.
Another curve in the path blocked us from the hideous recent past and I was standing in direct view of the river. The lower slope had gradually risen to the level of the path in order to meet it and provide ample ground for the river to extend into almost dizzying coils and turns before us.
I had never before known anything apart from the familiar path and foreboding trees which encompassed it. I’d never imagined that I could merely brave the endeavor of crossing this river to find a bright, fresh, and new forest completely opposite in design from the others. I wondered if this had always been Jason’s hope in spending so much time around water. If we could get across, I knew there would be more camps in these new woods. We could leave the dreariness of what we were used to behind.
I scanned the bank for anything which could aid our crossing. There were several rafts as well as slender boats docked there. Jason turned to face me, taking both my shoulders into his hands and looking sternly into my face as if I were a child. What I saw in his eyes was nothing what I expected. Instead of anger, accusations, or disgust, I saw an incredible sadness I had never seen before. Jason interrupted me from trying to make sense of my expression by asking me systematically what I thought I was capable of in terms of crossing the river. He was simultaneously taking in my appearance, and I looked at myself for the first time since I was injured.
I immediately felt my stomach churn. I looked just as the wolf had, and could not determine which gory splotches belonged to me and which belonged to my former foe. My head was swimming, and I wondered if I had been thinking clearly at all since the attack. It wasn’t until Jason forced me to look at him again that I realized he was asking me something and pointing to one of the boats. I could only assume he wanted me to go there and I nodded dizzily, but that wasn’t enough for him. The demanding tone of his voice as he spoke again made me realize he had been repeating himself.
“I asked if you could make it to that boat, Claire.”
It was delayed, but the shock of seeing that Jason had escaped the attack unscathed save for a few incisions on his arms alarmed me.
“Oh God,” was all I could say.
I saw myself now – as clearly as anyone would have from the outside looking in. I was drowning in that river; not now, but in the near future. I would never make it across. I couldn’t answer his question truthfully. I would leave out the second half of my answer, and merely nod again, indicating that I could make it to the boat . . . but no farther.
At least I couldn’t tell the truth if I had wanted to. The mute make excellent liars. My response satisfied him, and he took my hand to lead me to the boat, the river, my drowning, and his survival.