Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Chapter 13: A Long Walk

 
Neith had never covered this sort of terrain.  She was stunned that rotting leaves and wood could smell so sweet.  The sky was rarely visible through the tree canopy now, but she knew it was growing lighter.  She carefully picked her way amongst roots and shrubbery.  Jamin didn’t look down often.  Neith tried that for a while, hoping to conceal how city she felt.  It did not end well.  She’d discreetly de-barked and de-leaved herself since then – a brush of her pants there, a hair-twig removal there – and was happy when her guide chose to keep his eyes ahead.  He’d heard though, and she thought maybe chuckled as well.  During the two rest stops since, no one had spoken of The Humbling Moment, and Neith was content to leave it that way. 
It would be easier to attend to footholds if there wasn’t so much to take in; birdsong, bird wings, and the occasional hint that water was close by.  All of it teased at the fringe of Neith’s concentration.  So really the face-plant was the forest’s fault. 

Right at the point that she felt rest-stop-ready, the distance seemed to grow between Neith and Jamin.   
The path also became steep.  Adopting the breathing she once reserved for chaperoned jogs through abandoned schools, she pushed upward, determined to match his pace – the guy was at least 50!  After another quarter hour, Neith dared to measure her progress.  She looked up during one of her rhythmic “out” mouth-breaths.  She wasn’t gaining on him, but he wasn’t pulling away anymore either.  What looked like a photography flash sparked close to the trail.  Did Nydia have their own surveillance?  Neith reverted to briefer downward glances as she watched for a repeat.  There.  Not light, something white, moving along the edge of the trail.  Maybe they were getting close to the settlement and crossing a security perimeter.  That would make sense. 

Orrrr the white could be the white feathers of a bird. Which it was. 

Neith laughed at her paranoia – she could see plainly now she had mistaken fauna for technological conspiracy – that was City-think.  A bird with a fanned tail of black and white feathers was flitting from branch to branch, seemingly following this unlikely pair on their bush march.  Neith plugged her inner cheek with her tongue and continued to smile to herself while she leaned on her own thighs for the steep and large steps that now made up the track.  Thirsty and tired, but captivated, she dipped her head to check her footing and then scanned for their little companion.  She smiled each time she found the bird, flirting and constant.  Then it occurred to her this happenstance still might be surveillance – a sophisticated, organic-styled motion capture device?  Neith stopped smiling, and instead donned her design-squint of curiosity.  She moved faster, eager to attempt a closer inspection.  The bird / technological marvel retreated in response – at first only metres from their walkway and then back again – before finally making a clear departure.  Neith took this as a sign.  She gauged the distance between her and the lumberjack of a walking party leader, cupped her hands, and raised her voice so that it should adequately cover it. “Rest stop!” 

She collapsed onto a fallen tree.  She stole a sideways look to the path ahead.  Jamin had stopped, turned, and raised his eyebrows, while dipping his bearded chin into his neck.  He wore amused surprise.  Jamin had called the breaks until now.  But the large fellow hadn’t just lost sight of a petite herald that had distracted him from intense pulling and aching in the region of everywhere on his body.  Neith needed rest and she was saying so.  An archipelago of inconsistent marks in Neith’s vision threatened the onset of a migraine. She leaned back onto a still-standing tree behind its fallen brother and closed her eyes.  She drew up her knees and let her head fall into them.  She could hear Jamin approaching.  When she thought he was within the range of quiet speech she dared the question, “So are we about half-way then?”  She opened her eyes and turned her head to see him pull a flask from his own pack and extend it towards her. 

“No.  And you need water.”  Jamin bounced the container twice, sloshing its contents. 

“You’re right.  Also: meds.  Or I’m going to lose my vision in about 15 minutes,” Neith answered. 

Jamin cocked his head sideways, “Come again?”  So City.  She wasn’t improving on her first impression. 

“I feel a migraine coming.  I typically can’t talk or see so well once they are full-blown.” She hoped it was a migraine, and not her going finch already.  She gulped.  No, it was a migraine. 

“Oh.  And you have some medication for that?  With you?” 

“Yeah.  In my back.” 

“Do you mean your pack?” Jamin looked confused. 

“The kangaroo pouch.”  Neith resisted the urge to allow irritation into her tone.  She could see this bush man was baffled when she was speaking plainly.  Wasn’t she?  Maybe not.  There was a good chance this migraine was further along than her first estimations; the dreaded Word Salad.  Ah well, it was to be a bonding trip then. 

“Confused.  The ’graines make me salad.”  Jamin looked like she had asked him to explain where babies came from.  She hoped she hadn’t. 

“I’m going to look in your pack now for some medication for you.  Stop me if you don’t want me to.” Jamin’s hands were raised as though approaching a wild animal. 

Neith dropped her legs to swing in front of her and grunted as she threw her head forwards, away from the tree.  Her torso followed the head-throw so that she doubled over onto her own lap, exposing her large backpack.  She closed her eyes again and let out a single hummed note of contentment as she realised she could sleep in that position.  She heard zippers being pulled and the crackling of plastic and paper wrappers as Jamin rifled.  She screwed her face up in disgust at the intrusion to her nap. 

Had there even been mechanical birds in this forest?  Or was that all neurological trickery?  How disappointing.  No, she was sure she had seen a bird, not spots of light.  And not just any bird – a BirdCam.  She’d never seen one.  She wished them to be real.  Or perhaps a magical bird?  A bird loyal to a forest queen who called her home to report who was approaching!   Please yes! 

Jamin would know. 

“Birdth?”  Neith was met with silence.  Definitely Word Salad.  Here she was pretty sure she’d asked, “Was a bird following us?” but it didn’t seem to take long enough.  She could have said anything – that’s what the Word Salad did.  She wondered if Jamin would let this humbling moment rest later. 

Where was Jamin? 

There he was; Neith bumbled at a sound very near.  Jamin clapped a hand on her shoulder and Neith forced her eyes open and into focus.  He was crouched in front of her with a prescription cylinder.  “These?”  He looked desperate. 

Neith nodded.  Then she realised she would need to do more than nod.  She pushed herself upwards and grabbed at the pills.  Then she went to sleep. 

#

Neith awoke to pain.  In her back, at first, and then all over.  She stretched and repositioned slightly in an attempt to alleviate the pressure and discomfort.  That slight movement was enough to disturb her head in its current position and remind her of the cause for her slumber.  Migraine hangover: commenced in force. 

Where was she, apart from in the dark?  Her eyes were open (she was fairly certain), but she could make out very little of her surroundings.  It was as though her hearing returned like a larger, intimidating wave behind the ripple of her deficient vision. She slowly began computing the forest’s symphony.  It was as though she had woken inside the abstract meditation tracks she’d heard played in wellness centres – except this cicada and birdsong seemed to reverberate in her chest.  The chorus was occasionally accompanied by an exquisite and surreal bell descant. 

Whilst lying down, Neith thrust her arms upwards and away from her body in archetypical zombie fashion.  She moved her arms around.  Her fingers were met by a slippery, smooth material.  Ah, she believed she was in a tent.  She fumbled around until she located a zipper, and leaned into the exit as she moved the slider upwards.  She leaned a little too much, and ended up accidentally birthing herself from the tent, complete with a blanket she hadn’t realised was covering her.  It wasn’t quite as dark outside.  Ashen mottled light sliced through the forest canopy. 

“Morning,” Jamin acknowledged Neith’s re-entry to the world of the living with a nod, and Neith endeavoured to hide that he had startled her.  

That’s right, she was en route to a magical land filled with little people.  And it was morning. 

Morning?!  “How long have I been out?” Neith asked. 

“I’d say, at least 10 hours?”  Jamin seemed unperturbed by this.  Neith felt a surge of gratitude for the stranger, who also appeared to be her watchman. 

“And it’s morning?” 

“The birds think so.” 

“Oh, of course.”  Neith’s gratitude was now eclipsed by her embarrassment.  How little she knew.  How childish she felt!

And this man had put her to bed?!  Her guide must have detected some of her unease, because he added, “I’m sorry…about…moving you…I wasn’t sure what else to do.  And I’m sorry about the pills.  It was like worming a cat.”

Just how far had this trooper carried her?  And did he get any sleep?  And what was with the Old World references?  What was worming a cat?

She shook her head clear.  Focus on the important information; “Are we close then?”
“Very.  I was sore tempted to go sleep in my own bed,” Jamin laughed.  Neith felt her worries begin to dissolve.  Why hadn’t he taken her all of the way then?  “Since I couldn’t ask you, I had to make a call – would the first lass to join our camp in many winters rather come in drugged up and over my shoulder in the evening, or on her own two feet after sleeping off whatever it was that happened to her.  I hope I made the right decision.”

Gratitude was all that remained.

“Migraines,” Neith blurted.  “I get migraines.  My words get all mixed up like salad.  I call it Word Salad, and then I lose my vision and feeling on my right side.  There’s not a lot to be done for it except sleep.  Thank you.”

Jamin nodded again.

Thank you felt insufficient – this man had not only carried her some distance over rugged territory, but he’d also put up shelter, given that to her, and stayed close by in case she woke alone.  She decided they were past small talk.  After all, they had just spent the night together.

“Jamin, you’re a boss.  And a pillar of decency.”

The man laughed again.  “I think those are good things, and so I better tell you to hold to your niceties until after you’ve checked your hair.  Laying you in the tent was one thing, but I didn’t check you over for any bugs you might’ve picked up laying outside while I pitched the thing.  That, you’ll have to do yourself.”

Neith did her best to keep her cool.  She couldn’t – she shimmied a little and double-chin-checked each shoulder.   Pine needles, mostly.  That was the smell!  She skimmed her hands over her extremities and regulated her breathing.  She combed her fingers through her hair, cringing.  She came upon something moist and spongy lodged at the back of head but was relieved to find it was only a mashed portion of toadstool, once she brought it down close to her eyes for examination.

“The compliment still stands,” Neith jested.

Jamin had begun disassembling the tent, but she could see his shoulders moving.  He was laughing again.  Neith quickly began helping him – picking up the pegs he pulled up and bundling them in her hands, then sliding them into a bag he passed her wordlessly.

“So, we’re just going to walk in there then?”  This whole arrival thing had sort of snuck up on her.  Walking in as though that trek had been no big deal would hopefully help her seem less foreign to these southerners.  The last thing she wanted was it to be obvious she’d never been south of where the El line ended; for everything about her to scream City!

“Yep.”

“Alrighty.” 

#

Neith could see the trees were thinning, giving way to Other.  The tall ferns surrounding the path were richer, textured versions of the palm trees she’d seen on the Intra.  There was so much brown and green.  She wanted to draw.

Abruptly, the steep woodland ended and they came upon a shockingly flat grassland, dotted with flaxes.  Neith could see small animals grazing in clusters and a few larger ones sheltering under some bush that spilled from the slope onto their pasture.  So taken with this oasis, Neith almost ran into the wooden fence that bordered it.  Jamin was already on the other side of it.  He was holding onto it as though presenting it to her; Here, a fence.  She didn’t see an opening and was about to climb over when she saw there was a gate suspended between the two arms of a Y.  Clever fence.    She stepped in towards Jamin and worked her way down into the sharp angle of the Y. Jamin released the gate so that it swung to knock the other side of the split so she could pass through.  Neith remembered her grandmother telling her about relic turnstiles for boarding the El-train.  Before internal chips.  This was something else.   
“It’s called a kissing gate,” Jamin said. 

Her marvelling had been evident.  She smiled at the gate’s name.  Although she could see the small door “kissed” either side of the enclosure, the charm of the usual meaning prevailed.  

Seeing the livestock in the brightening light, Neith could now make out sheep, and cows in the distance further inland.  Was that some kind of barn?  There were few other structures.  Was this Nydia?  No honey or unicorns. 

“The cabins aren’t too far now.  It’s mostly flat going.” 

Ah.   

Neith followed Jamin across the field, through another kissing gate, and then along a track that hugged the coastline at their right with sharp bush to their left.  The day had truly broken now.  Neith could make out more than silhouettes of people, moving in and out amongst the promised cabins nestled into the hillsides.  The flatland here was dedicated to gardens, with shelters and installations forming a thick semi-circle around the periphery, with only a few larger buildings interrupting the centre.  Neith couldn’t see how deep the housing went into the trees, but she knew there was at least a second layer behind those at the front. 

Neith was hungry.  Would it be too much to ask for food? 

Jamin spoke over his shoulder: “You’ll be staying with Elle.  Her place is this way.  You need to stay there until told otherwise.” 

Neith turned this way and that, hoping to spy a child.  She found only adult forms – all appearing wary or outright cold towards her.  She attempted to simultaneously take in the unusual architecture.  She wasn’t sure what she was seeing. A wind chime sounded. Neith looked up at shells and other found objects suspended from a branch overhead, tinkling in the light wind.  Back to the buildings; what was that?  One looked like an old train carriage.  She was pretty sure it was an old train carriage.  And over there, a circular building?  Nothing was uniform, building to building, or within buildings – there was clay here, wood there, and unidentifiable materials everywhere – all of which seemed to defy their difference to unify and create a synthesis of colour and texture.  It was much like the forest surrounding it, in that way.  Neith saw a few hammocks in the trees, and smiled.   

She needed to draw. 

Neith stopped smiling when her eyes settled on a particularly scathing stare – the kind that looks as though it should be emitting lasers.  The source of the look was a male dressed much like Jamin, but closer to Neith’s height and weight.  His hair was lighter and thicker than hers and he had a more pronounced bridge in his nose.  And oh yes, the laser eyes. 

They kept walking.   

“Pay him no mind,” Jamin said softly.  “Here we are then.”  Jamin gestured ahead towards a modest dwelling on the tree line.  Neith could make out a tall, very old stone wall running alongside it a ways, along with a few other mounds outside she was unsure served any purpose.  Jamin moved aside as though Neith should pass.  That is when Neith truly took in the scene. 

She saw a blonde woman sitting on a large log with a young child on her lap.  The woman appeared to be nibbling his fingers.   

A child. 

Being nibbled. 

What was this place? 

She had never seen a human this small in the real before.  Ever.  She had avoided even archived footage.  Unless a kid was in a piece of fiction – and therefore something she lumped in with it, as fiction – she hadn’t seen one.  She cocked her head and reassessed exactly what was going down.  It became clear actual fingers were not being eaten.  The woman was carefully biting off this little child’s fingernails.  Neith had never seen anyone bite off another person’s nails before.  She realised her study of the scene was pronounced, probably rude.  The woman looked up through a halo of fair flyaways at her brow.  She continued carefully nipping and tearing the whites of fingernails off those tiny fingers.  So tiny. 

Neith had to say something. And soon. 

“Well, that’s one way to do it,” she smiled as she spoke. 

The woman spat a nail into the garden and replied.  “For the record, I don’t always do it this way.  I have some clippers around here somewhere.  But this one,” she bounced the tiny-fingered human on her lap, then squeezed him so that a squeal issued forth, “has misplaced them.”   

The soft and shiny curls on the child’s head were a thing of wonder.  They were a shade or two lighter than the colour of his mother’s braid. 

“But could I be mad at you for even one minute?!  No!  Because you’re delicious.”  The woman spoke to the child…the mother spoke…muzzling into the boy’s neck and raining kisses on his cheeks.   

“No eat.  Yucky!”  The child’s voice surprised Neith.  She may have gasped.  Of course they were going to talk, Neith, get a grip.

“I’m not going to eat you or your nails!  No!  You’re right!  Yucky!”  She chewed off a pinky nail, spat it in the garden with exaggeration, and then released the boy.  He promptly ran towards a tree-swing behind the house and set it swinging, Neith still agog. 

“I’m Elle.  You must be Neith.”



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