I woke up the next morning, my throat aflame, every breath a stinging reminder that I still lived. If I had to survive through at least one more day of this, I might as well get on with it. My eyes had glued themselves shut while I slept. The tangl...
I woke up the next morning, my throat aflame, every breath a stinging reminder that I still lived. If I had to survive through at least one more day of this, I might as well get on with it. My eyes had glued themselves shut while I slept. The tangled eyelashes tugged at my delicate skin, like tiny needles assaulting my eyelids, as I tried to pull them apart. I flopped onto my back with a moan, every muscle in my body united in protest. Lifting my fingers to my face, I carefully massaged my eyes until the crusty seal finally disintegrated. I squinted against the bright light. When my eyes finally stopped watering, I slowly sat up. I didn’t have the strength to sit with my back straight; legs sprawled out in front of me, I relaxed my shoulders and slumped forward, striking a balance between the opposing forces of gravity and my spine. Exhausted, I rested there a moment, working the stiffness out. I struggled onto my knees, and then my feet.
My mouth was sticky, my lips cracked. I’d heard there was a rule of three for survival: three minutes without air, three days without water, three weeks without food. This was my third day in the woods. My third day without water. I would find it or I would die. My feet felt too big as I stumbled across the uneven ground, the stones and debris battering the soles. I had to stop to rest even more frequently than the day before, but I kept going.
The ground suddenly gave way beneath my feet, and I threw my shoulders back to keep from falling forward onto my face. Black spots flashed before me as my tailbone hit the ground, hard, knocking some of the air out of my lungs. My feet and legs covered in damp soil, I sat on the edge of a shallow ravine, a creek running clean and clear down the centre.
Lurching forward, I landed heavily on the bank below, plunging my hands into the stream. I drank like a dehydrated elephant and almost immediately threw up. Rinsing my mouth, I drank again, very slowly this time. Some of my strength regained, I sat up, took a few more sips of water, and looked around: various tree trunks, the ground littered with detritus, a curtain of green leaves diminishing any kind of long-distance visibility. It was like a prison; no matter how far I walked, nothing looked any different.
"If I never see a forest again, it’ll be too soon,” I said out loud. My own voice sounded foreign to my ears.
It would be dark soon, and I was reluctant to leave my source of water behind, so I decided to spend the night there. I contemplated another attempt at fire-making, but I really didn’t need more blisters and cuts on my hands. Climbing out of the ravine, I curled up at the base of a tree and tried to sleep.
A strange noise woke me up, and I opened my eyes to the dim glow of dusk. My cheek decorated with a collage of dead leaves, I lifted my head slightly and waited for the stupor of sleep to lift.
Leaves rustled nearby, followed by a wet snuffling noise. Afraid to know what had made it, I hesitantly turned my head towards the sound.
There, in the middle of a bush, sat a pair of russet-coloured eyes. Like two glowing embers, they peered back at me from amidst a mass of black fur, the glossy obsidian nose wiggling eagerly at the end of a large, tan snout.
I grasped for any fragment of information that would tell me what I was supposed to do to survive this.
You’re supposed to play dead.
You’re supposed to make loud noises to intimidate it.
You’re supposed to slowly back away, never breaking eye contact.
Paralyzed by fear, I couldn’t even breathe. I stared into those tiny brown eyes, my lungs burning, and waited for a painful and violent death.
But the massive head disappeared, followed by the crunching of dead leaves as the beast wandered back into the forest. I watched the motionless foliage, unblinking, until I couldn’t hear it anymore, and released a slow and shaky breath. Frantic, I scanned the immediate area for a tree that I could climb.
An old oak on the other side of the creek had a bough low enough for me to grab.
Listening for any sign of the bear, I took a handful of shallow, stuttered breaths, and bolted to the edge of the ravine. I jumped, hurling myself at the other side, but fell short and landed in the soft sand below. My limbs scrambling and slipping in the loose earth of the ravine wall, I used my hands as grappling hooks, digging my fingers deep into the dirt above, and pulled myself out onto the forest floor. I had to jump to grab the branch, but I got a firm hold on the second try. Both hands firmly locked, I walked my feet up the trunk, wrapped my legs around the bough, and pulled myself upright. A spike stuck out from the underside where a branch had been broken off. Grabbing the projection, I pulled myself forward, and silently prayed to be absorbed by the tree beneath me.
I waited, my breath and heartbeat slowing with each passing minute. I let my eyes flutter closed, and decided to spend the night in the tree. It wasn’t that uncomfortable.
A faint rustling sound triggered another wave of adrenaline and my eyes flung open. Even in the quickly fading light, it was easy to make out the shape of the bear, darker than shadow, on the other side of the ravine. It casually strolled to the edge and dropped over. My lungs started to seize, so I put a hand over my mouth to muffle my staccato breathing. After a leisurely drink, the creature climbed out of the ravine in a single, effortless motion. It made its way over to my tree, passing directly below my branch, and I dared to hope it hadn’t seen me after all. Aware that movement might draw its attention, I remained frozen, trying to pinpoint the bear’s location by sound. It didn’t seem to be moving.
The branch shifted slightly beneath me, and a pulse of warm, humid air covered my feet in a clammy mist. I peeled my face from the branch and turned my head towards the trunk.
The bear had its front claws on the base of the branch.
I slowly bent my knees, pulling my feet away from the creature’s various and formidable weapons. It shifted more of its weight forward.
A rush of air brushed against my arm, and an arrow protruded from the fur of the beast’s chest.
The bear howled, leaning towards me. I wrapped my legs around the branch and leaned sideways, intending to hang from the branch until I could get my feet beneath me before dropping to the ground. A searing pain rippled through me as a gash was torn in the soft flesh of my left forearm; I had forgotten about the broken limb extending from the underside. I screamed—a throat-rending scream that ended abruptly as I hit the ground.
My heart was no longer in my chest, but in my head, beating and thumping against my skull. The wound in my left arm surged in time with my pulse. A dull pain emanated from it, rippling through the rest of my body. Lights danced on the other side of my eyelids, and a dry heat kissed my face.
I smelled something cooking and heard sizzling noises close by. I opened my eyes. A small campfire burned a few feet away, a large piece of meat roasting above it on a spit. Likely the remains of bear. There were also two little round pots: one sat on the logs under the meat while the other sat on the ground beside the campfire. Beyond the circle of light from the flames, everything was dark. I pushed myself upright with my uninjured arm.
A man’s voice drifted across the fire, a cascade of meaningless sounds. He had tangled, black-brown hair, which created a halo around his head and blended into his beard. Shining out amidst the dark hair and face were two very friendly, blue-green eyes, which set me at ease somewhat. He pulled a wooden bowl and ladle from the bag beside him, filling the bowl with whatever was cooking in the pot.
“Seinen u hongrig?” he asked, holding the bowl out to me.
I didn’t take it. My common sense told me that it wasn’t a good idea to accept food from a stranger. Especially when he didn’t even speak English and I had no idea where I was. My stomach growled its objection to my decision. The meat did smell delicious, and he could have already done any number of horrible things to me if he wanted to. My hand floated out towards the bowl. The hot, rich broth burned my lips and tongue, but I drank it as quickly as I could.
“Thank you” I said after swallowing the last of it. Seeming to understand my meaning, he nodded and smiled.
He had brought me inside a circular ruin of some kind, possibly the remains of an old tower. The base would have been about twenty feet across. Not much of the walls had survived; they were only a few feet tall—missing altogether in some places—and the campfire had been lit in the centre. Numerous charred logs, broken dishes, and splintered bones littered the ground. The fire snapped loudly; the meat sizzled and some more fat dripped into the fire. My hunger got the best of me.
“Would I be able to have some, please?” I asked, pointing at the meat. He shook his head.
What a jerk.
As I sat there sulking, a disturbing gurgling noise rose from my stomach. I had thought this was over with. I vowed never to eat another berry.
“Excuse me, I have to use the, um, woods,” I said, pointing at the trees. Before I had moved, he was at my side, grasping my left upper arm and pulling me up. I noticed the bandage around my forearm. He pointed to himself, making sewing motions with his fingers. I pulled my arm away and shuffled into the darkness.
“Thank you,” I called over my shoulder.
I didn’t have time to dig a hole, so I made do with kicking dirt on top. A fistful of leaves later, I headed back to camp, desperately wanting a shower. I attempted to don a cloak of nonchalance, but my burning face advertised my embarrassment as blatantly as a flashing neon sign. The man had returned to his spot beside the fire, so I sat down across from him, unable to meet his gaze. The bowl sat where I had left it, refilled with broth. I drank its entire contents.
The man stared at my wound, finally pointing at it.
“Yes, thank you again,” I said, holding up my bandaged arm, still avoiding eye contact.
His eyes swung skyward. “De verband. O nödigen vandele.”
I smiled and nodded. “Right.”
He stood, picked up the pot from the ground as well as his bag, and walked over to me. The bag landed on the ground beside me with a thump. Setting down the pot, he removed a pouch and some gauze from the sack. I peeked into the small vessel. It contained what looked like water.
“Ï nödigen vandele hėt,” he said. He pointed to my arm and then held his out towards me. Confused, I held out my arm. He smiled. “Yä, gėt.”
The wrapping stuck to my skin as he unwound it, revealing a gruesome mountain range of stitches in my forearm, covered in a thin layer of green paste. He dipped a piece of gauze in the water and wiped the wound clean. I looked away.
“I’m Wynona Philliston, what’s your name?” I asked as he applied new paste to the wound. He looked up at me. “Wynona,” I said, pointing at my chest. I pointed at him. “You?”
“Radulf,” he said gruffly. Radulf wrapped a new bandage around my arm and then gathered his things, returning to his place across the fire. Something seemed to occur to him just as he was about to sit. He picked up a fur blanket and held it out to me, and I accepted it. With his palms together, he tilted his head and put his hands against his cheek. Sleep.
He lay down on the ground and covered himself with his own blanket. Once he began snoring, I lay down and pulled the fur over me. For the first time since waking up in these forsaken woods, I slept soundly. I trusted him somehow.
Radulf woke up early. I heard him shuffling around, packing things away in his bag. Eyes closed and breathing steady, I pretended to sleep. The blanket cushioned me from the cold morning air, the fur caressing my cheek with every breath, tickling ever so slightly. I felt safe in my dome of warmth and dreaded the thought of emerging.
I dipped in and out of consciousness a few times before realizing that I hadn’t heard anything for a while. Had he left me there? I lurched upright, suddenly very awake.
Radulf sat cross-legged across from the cold fire pit, staring at me. He stood up, walked over, and handed me a bowl of leftover broth. The cool liquid felt smooth and refreshing as it rolled down my throat. A few more mouthfuls and the bowl was empty. I handed it back to Radulf, who rinsed it out with some of the remaining water and put it away.
“Din vap,” he said, pointing at my bandage. I held my arm out to him. He unwound the bandage and wiped away the green paste with the rest of the water. After spreading new paste on the wound, he re-bound it with a fresh piece of gauze. Reaching into his bag, he pulled out a pair of leather slippers that matched his own. He tossed them to the ground beside me, the leather soles smacking against the dirt. Radulf put everything else back in his sack, swung it onto his shoulder, and gave me a hand up. Before disappearing into the trees, he stopped and turned back to me, eyebrows raised in expectation.
“Väl?” he said, gesturing in front of him.
I pulled on the slippers, tugging on the drawstrings and tying them around my ankles, like his, and picked up the fur blanket. Wrapping it around my shoulders, I hurried after him.
The slippers were too big, with a big pocket of air in front of my toes, but they protected my feet from most of the bits of debris covering the forest floor. They couldn’t protect me from tripping or stubbing my toe, however, which I did often. The bugs climbed up under my jeans, stopping every few inches for a snack. Flying insects swarmed around my head, landing on me, driving me mad with their endless buzzing. They crawled inside my ears, up my nose, and in my mouth. I smacked them through my pants and swatted them out of the air, but it was useless.
The day started to warm up. Pulling the blanket off my shoulders, I folded it over my right arm. When my arm got too hot and sweaty, I swung it over my shoulder. Then I hung it over the other shoulder, and eventually back over my arm. It didn’t matter where I put the blanket, sweat inevitably followed, the fur sticking to my skin like fruit flies in syrup. An impossible situation, but I didn’t know how to ask Radulf to stuff it back in his bag.
A thousand bug bites later, I started lagging behind. Radulf must have noticed because he stopped walking, put down his bags, and opened the sack. I spread the fur out on the ground and sat down, thankful for the rest. I itched all over. I tried to ignore it, but my hands had already rolled my pants up past my knees. I ran my hands over my legs, moaning in relief.
Radulf came over and handed me a small slice of meat as well as his water skin. It may have been dry, tough, and cold, but in that moment it was the best thing I had ever tasted. I shoved it all in my mouth and did my best to chew through it. The water tasted stale and leathery, but it was wet. And clean.
Done eating and drinking, I returned the water skin to Radulf. He grabbed it, took a long drink, and hung it back over his shoulder.
The itch had returned to my legs, much worse than before. The bites had all grown into large solid mounds under my skin. I grazed them gently with my nails, trying to relieve the itching without aggravating them further.
Radulf walked over and pulled me to my feet. Crouching down in front of me, he tugged my jeans back down over my legs and tucked them into my socks. He stood up and produced a rag from his sack, tying it around my head to cover my ears. Smiling, he smacked me on the back and packed the fur blanket away in his bag.
After walking for what seemed like forever, we broke through into a clearing. Ten feet wide, the corridor cut its way through the trees, with two parallel trails worn into the forest floor. We turned right, towards the sound of waves in the distance. Now I would be able to figure out where I was and how I could get home.
Forest melted into village so seamlessly that I didn’t even notice the transition take place. The buildings—dome-shaped structures consisting of round stones and turf roofs—were perfectly at home among the trees. Moss covered the walls, camouflaging them against the backdrop of wilderness. Beams protruded from beneath the turf, evidence of a wooden skeleton beneath the soft tissue of the roof. We headed down a small path that led to one such house, and Radulf casually walked in. An older man sat in the centre of the room, chopping vegetables on a roughly-carved table, decorated with many years’ worth of dents and gouges.
The man looked to be in excellent shape, and eagerly enveloped Radulf in a hug. He tried to speak to me, but Radulf interrupted him, I think explaining that I didn’t understand; the man’s scrutinizing gaze made me uncomfortable, but he made no further attempts at communication.
The two of them chatted for a while, Radulf changed my bandage, and the man gave us each a hot bowl of stew. After exchanging the leftover meat for rations, they embraced once more and Radulf and I left. The road made for easy travel, and soon we had left the village far behind.
That night we made camp, and Radulf passed me my evening rations: a strip of jerky, dried fruit, and a stick of hard bread. The latter reminded me of biscotti, but without the sugar. My jaw muscles ached by the end of the meal.
We sat in silence, watching the fire. I thought about my apartment, and how displeased I had been with it—it was too small, too many floors up, needed to be repainted. What I wouldn’t give to be back there, with my windowsill herb garden, the noisy plumbing, and my squeaky bed; to be able to curl up with a book on my over-sized corduroy armchair. It seemed so luxurious to me now, and so far away. I thought about my mother. I remembered how it felt to have her arms around me, comforting me, and how she always smelled like jasmine. I remembered sitting in her kitchen in the middle of the night, drinking tea in our bathrobes, when my heart had been broken. How the constant clicking of keys as my mother typed out her stories had been a comfort to me for as long as I could remember. I thought about what she must be going through with me missing.
“I want to go home,” I said quietly.
Radulf looked up at me, the firelight casting shadows over his face, contorting his features. He looked menacing. “Ï näbegreffen—”
“I want to go home,” I said louder, cutting him off. My throat tightened. The flames before me blurred, distorted by the film of tears, and I tasted salt on my lips. I plunged my face into my hands.
“Win—ona?” My name was said slowly and hesitantly, like trying an exotic delicacy for the first time. From between my fingers, I saw Radulf crouching beside me, a worried look on his face.
“I’m sorry,” I said, sniffling. “Maybe you’re doing everything you can.” I looked up at him, wiping my wet cheeks in futility. “I shouldn’t lash out at you. You’ve been helping me, and that probably hasn’t been easy.” Radulf patted my shoulder. Despite the awkwardness of it, the sentiment comforted me. “It’s just been really hard lately,” I whispered. My throat tightened. As the tears started falling, he put his arm around my shoulders and my head fell onto his chest.
“You’re my only real friend,” I said, and I knew it was true. Not just out here in the wilderness, either; he was my only real friend in the world, other than my mother. Her face reappeared in my mind and I started sobbing.
I don’t know how long I sat there crying, but eventually the sobs slowed and gave way to a throbbing in my head. Eyes still closed, I rested against Radulf’s chest, taking comfort in the solid arms encircling me.
The next day was unbearable. Radulf had awoken me early, and we had quickly abandoned the road, instead spending the entire morning trudging through mud and swamp. Right in the thick of it, I had tripped, submerging most of my body in the disgusting water, as well as the slippers that I had been so carefully keeping dry. Our only break for the day was for ‘lunch.’ I swallowed my last mouthful of rations as Radulf handed me the water skin, then he saddled up and trudged off. I followed after him, miserable; the bugs wouldn’t leave me alone, I was cold, wet, and tired—not to mention completely lost—and now, on top of it all, an incessant throbbing emanated from beneath the bandage on my forearm.
By the time we finally stopped to make camp for the night, I was so tired, I didn’t even want dinner. I grabbed my blanket from Radulf’s bag and lay down as close to the fire as I could without getting burned. The water from the swamp had long since dried, but had left me cold from the inside out. My left forearm was the only part of my body that felt hot.
Radulf refused to let me go to bed without a clean bandage, and made me sit up while he changed it. I took a sharp breath as he cleaned the wound, an unexpected amount of pain shooting up my arm. It was red and swollen, and quickly disappeared beneath a fresh application of Radulf’s concoction and a clean bandage. He handed me my food. My stomach churned at the thought of eating, but I forced down the rough, dry leather. Finally, he let me sleep.
I woke up shivering. The fire had long since burned out, my fur blanket insufficient protection from the cold morning air. Radulf waited for me, the camp already packed up. When he saw that I was awake, he came over with his pot of water and unwrapped the bandage around my arm. His brows came together, making little valleys in the skin above his nose, as he unwound the gauze. A foul yellow discharge coated the inside of the bandage, the wound even more red and swollen than it had been the previous night. The sickly sweet stench of the pus unsettled my stomach.
He mumbled something under his breath.
Rummaging in his bag, he grabbed a small vial and held it up between his thumb and forefinger. He held the stoppered bottle close to his lips, upending it in a drinking motion, and then tossed it into my lap. I removed the cork, but hesitated. After a quick a swig I looked back at him, unsure of how much I was supposed to take. He started cutting gauze into little strips, and nodded at the bottle, so I finished it.
Taking out his knife, he cut the stitches. I gasped in pain as the blade touched the tender flesh. Radulf wiped at the now open gash with a fresh piece of gauze. I screamed through clenched teeth as he applied more pressure, forcing the gauze down inside the cut in my arm, exploring every crevice. I tried to pull my arm away, but his hand was locked around my wrist, and I had no energy to fight him. He continued wiping and pressing, sending a blazing pain up my arm with every stroke. Bile tried to escape on the coattails of my screams. At last, he stopped. Instead of re-bandaging it, he grabbed a bowl from his bag and left the camp. Looking down at my swollen forearm, I whimpered at the gaping flesh, now scrubbed raw and bleeding. The nausea took over; my stomach contracted. I turned around and vomited on the ground. Wiping my mouth and covering the puddle with dirt, I hoped that Radulf wouldn’t know.
He came back a few minutes later, sat down beside me, and pulled a flask out of his bag. The bowl was full of maggots, and he poured an amber liquid from the flask into the bowl with them. He swirled them around, quickly scooping some out with his fingers.
“No,” I said, pulling my arm away. Grabbing my hand, he pulled my arm towards him with a power I couldn’t match even at my strongest. The liquid he had poured over the larvae dripped into the wound, stinging the exposed tissue. He scooped the maggots onto my arm and held on tight so that I couldn’t take them off. I watched their pale, fat bodies wriggle around in my flesh, and just barely fought back the urge to vomit again.
Finally, seemingly satisfied, Radulf gently removed them, one by one. I could feel myself disengaging from my body, just a fraction of an inch, as if I were occupying my body, but didn’t live there; whatever Radulf had given me had gotten into my system before I threw up. I watched as Radulf separated the flesh in my arm with his fingers. Holding the wound open with his pointer finger and thumb, he stuffed the bits of gauze down into the gap. I could hear myself screaming, but only felt a shadow of the pain in my body. Packing the wound, applying the paste, and bandaging my arm, Radulf finished quickly. He helped me lie down on my back, my left arm out, and covered me with the blanket. With his warm hand on my forehead, I floated away into darkness.
I awoke encased in frost, cold permeating every part of me. My skin was icy, my muscles taut, and my bones aching. The fire to my right radiated heat, so I rolled closer. My face tingled from the flames, but the warmth was only skin-deep, like oil burning on a glacier. Pulling my legs and arms in, I tucked them as close to my body as I could to trap any heat, but there was none there to conserve. I wondered if Radulf was still awake. I opened my eyes and, using all my strength, sat up.
“Het seinen brad,” he said, almost in my ear. “Ï seinen hier.” Putting his hand on my chest, another behind my neck, he gently forced me to lie back down. I heard the metallic chirp of dripping water, and then felt a cold, wet cloth on my forehead. The water rolled down my skin like little rivers of ice. I tried to push it away, but Radulf shushed me and held my hands. The cold covered my cheeks, travelling down towards my neck, fading away at my jaw before starting again on the other side.
“Radulf, please,” I whimpered, shivering. “It’s too cold.”
He shushed me again. “Het halper,” he said softly, and then whispered, “Ï nä veten veit andra göre.” I drifted in and out of sleep, but each time I came back, the cold was there, waiting.
Water seeped into my mouth. I swallowed eagerly, suddenly thirsty. Opening my eyes, I looked up at Radulf, hovering over me with a water skin.
“More,” I breathed, barely making a noise. Radulf poured more water into my mouth. After a few mouthfuls, he stood up and hung the water skin around his shoulders. Bending back down, he sat me up and put my arm around his neck. With one arm under my knees, the other behind my back, he stood up, lifting me from the ground. His body swayed back and forth as he walked.
“No, Radulf,” I said weakly, “I can walk.” He ignored me and kept going.
Pressed tightly against his warm body, I listened to his heartbeat, accompanied by the gentle whooshing of his breathing. His heart tapped rhythmically against my head, his chest rising and falling to a slower but steady pace. Cradled in his arms, I fell asleep.