by Tala Bar
The island was much smaller than the one they had been thrown on before; the mountain had taken most of its area and the shore stretched only on a small patch between its base and the lake. Nim, having gathered enough energy from rest, food and sunshine, had rushed forward. Dar lagged behind, watching the girl with mixed feelings of worry and pride. Nunez, bringing up the rear, spent his time looking everywhere, as if studying the air, the ground, the water and the sights in the distance.
“Look!” Nim cried suddenly, stopping on her way. Only then Dar noticed that the cliffs, which she had seen from the shore hanging over their heads, had come down here almost to the level of the lake surface. The water was lapping at the black sheerness, with no sign of the mixed gravel of sand and lava that had made up the shore they had landed on. For a moment, it seemed to her that the only way around the mountain would be to wade through the water; and they did not actually know how deep the lake was at that area. But Nim had somehow vanished behind the protrusion; after a while she came out, seen by Dar who had stopped to look at the dark rock.
“Did you see a way to go through?” Dar cried out to her.
“It levels up over there, if you can cling to the cliff and get your feet a little wet,” the girl replied, pointing, “but you have to look carefully where it is leading to.”
Dar did as Nim had suggested and crossed over to the other side, where a wider view opened before her. The base of the mountain had retreated away from the lake, leaving as much space on the shore as they would need for camping. She could actually discern vague remnants of such occupation, which must have been abandoned some time before. From the shore, a ramp that was a part of the mountain base rose and led up to what looked like a black mark on the sheer cliff dropping down to ground level. Dar wondered a moment, then realized that dark mark must be a large hole. As a matter of fact, could it actually form a narrow opening, an entrance to a cave...?
“It looks like a cave,” Nim confirmed, standing at the base of the ramp and looking up at the black mark. “Shall I go up and take a look inside?”
“Wait,” Dar said, climbing over the rock and standing by Nim’s side, “don’t rush in, there maybe something dangerous inside.”
Nunez had just come up to them, having taken off his shoes and waded through the shallow water. “I’ve been wondering about the possibility of there being caves in that sheer rock; some might have been created by air pockets, you know.”
“Whatever,” said Dar, who knew nothing about geology, “but don’t you think it could be a dangerous place to go in? There could be some disease-carrying bugs, or such, you know.” She was not thinking of wild animals, but rather of the human kind, but was reluctant to mention it.
“I think we should go in and explore,” Nim cried, her green eyes shining with eagerness.
Nunez laughed. “I don’t think there’s any harm in that, do you really, Dar? Not after all that volcanic activity!”
“I suppose not,” she laughed, reluctantly, at her own apprehensions, “but take it easy, Nim, and be careful.”
The girl started climbing up the ramp. It was a little steep and somewhat slippery, and she used her hands to keep a better hold. It was a short climb, though, and soon she stood at the opening. Without pause, she vanished inside and then popped back out.
“It’s very dark inside, but I have an idea there’s something or somebody there. There’s a kind of lump thrown near a wall that doesn’t look like a rock. Sort of soft, like...”
“I think you should come down now, Nim,” Dar said authoritatively, “let Nune and me go in first and check on it.” She was now using his nickname regularly, as if accepting it as his proper name.
The girl came down the path quite willingly, as if the mysterious occupant of the cave not only intrigued but also frightened her.
Dar climbed up the ramp, using her developed leg muscles to hold on steadily to the slippery surface. It was indeed dark inside, especially as her eyes were used to the bright daylight outside. A little of that light had filtered in, however, diffused through the misty atmosphere and turning gray, as her eyes adjusted themselves to the darkness. Then she spotted the large lump lying by one of the walls; she entered, approaching it gingerly. As she bent to check what it was, she immediately straightened, calling out to Nunez. “You’d better come and help me with it,” she said as he approached.
“It’s human,” she said quietly when he came in, “by the beard on his face, it’s a man. He’s alive, but his breathing’s very weak, and I’m not sure whether he’s asleep or in a coma.”
“Should we try to wake him?” Nunez asked, looking around him. Rather than being empty, the place was full with artifacts, strewn around in disorder.
“Can you bring some water?” Dar said instead of answering, “he’s burning up. I think bathing his face may bring him back to life.”
Turning to the cave’s opening, Nunez talked to Nim, who was standing in expectation at the foot of the cliff. He then picked up a piece of clothing from the equipment thrown about and, when Nim arrived with the water, poured some on it and gave it to Dar.
“Let’s get him out into the sunlight,” the physician said after she had wrapped the man’s head with it. “The warmth may help revive him.”
They carried him out, noticing his extremely light weight.
“It’s very strange,” Nunez said, “I noticed many packets of various kinds of food in the cave.”
“We’ll find out what’s happened when he recovers,” Dar replied obliquely.
“Do you think he’s the reason the witch has sent us here?” Nim asked, approaching and looking curiously at the unconscious man lying on a blanket they had found in the cave.
In the sunlight, the stranger really looked a sight, very different from their own disheveldness. He was a dark-skinned young man — they estimated his age as late twenties — even the gauntness of his face and the wastedness of his body could not hide his youth. His sleep was heavy and his breathing sketchy; his skin looked rough, and his parted lips were dry and cracked.
Having put a cold compress on his forehead, Dar proceeded to wipe the young man’s face with another wet cloth; then she noticed his tongue popping out, moving as if trying to lick some of the dripping water.
“Ah,” she cried with relief, dropping some of it purposefully on the parched tongue, “his instincts for life still work, so I am sure he’ll be all right.” Putting the tips of her fingers to his neck, she checked his pulse. At the touch, the man suddenly opened his eyes, which were large and brown, their whites encircled with red; there was a wild look in them as he turned his head here and there, as if searching.
“What – Who – Who are you? What are you doing here? Where am I?” The questions escaped his mouth in a babble of speech, the hoarse voice emitted from his dry mouth difficult to understand.
“It’s all right, we’re friends. First of all, can you drink some water? You’re bone dry,” Dar said in her best, coaxing, doctor’s voice. With Nunez’ help she lifted the upper half of the young man’s body and, pushing his head slightly backward, held the water bottle to his lips. He grabbed at it clumsily, having no control over his movements; Dar looked painfully at the thinness of his arm and hand. Some of the water spilled on his face and down his neck, and he shut his eyes as if absorbing its cool freshness. Nunez grasped the bottle and held it firmly to the man’s mouth, and he started sucking its contents greedily.
“That’s enough,” Dar stopped him when he had drank half the bottle; “you shouldn’t fill up your belly too much at first. Take it easy.” They laid him down again, and Dar gently wiped his face and neck. “Can you tell us you name?”
He looked at her, blinking in the sunlight. “Zik,” he said, his voice still rough and dry.
“Good,” Dar replied. “I am Dar. This man is Nunez and the girl is Nim.” She talked slowly, clearly, letting the words and the names sink in his confused mind.
“You’d better rest a while now, Zik,” Dar continued in the same manner, “and when you recover a little, you’ll have some more. Then we’ll make you something to eat. You haven’t eaten for a long time, have you, Zik?”
He shook his head slowly, closing his eyes with a sigh.
The three wanderers stood for a while in silence, looking in wonder at the stranger who had joined them in such a strange way. Dar could not form any idea about him, having seen him purely as a patient. Nunez turned to Nim, signing to her to step aside.
“We’d better go into the cave, I fancy I saw some edibles there we can use.”
When they had gone up and inside, Dar sat down by her patient. Carrying him outside, she had noticed his body was soiled, but for the time being it was best to leave him be, until they could help him down to the lake to wash.
The other two came back after a while, carrying some stuff on their arms. “There’s so much there, I don’t know why he almost starved himself to death,” Nim cried, and Dar shushed her.
Nunez had brought another blanket, and they put the provisions on it, for Dar to see the treasures they had recovered. There were many kinds of dried food bars: synthetic protein, plain and sweet carbohydrate, lumps of dried fruit and bags of dried vegetables. Best of all were the fuel packs, to help not only making fire but also sustaining it.
“There’s still more left in the cave!” Nim added, looking at the findings with her mouth salivating. “He must have gone through some kind of trauma,” Dar said without taking her eyes away from Zik.
‘How come he was alone on the mountain, in that cave?’ she had to ask herself. His face seemed tortured, his mouth was continually twisting, his fists clenching and unclenching.... What could it have happened to him to cause all that? She hoped they would hear all about it when he recovers.
They used one fuel pack to make fire and cook soup for Zik when he woke up, from one of the carbohydrate cubes. “It will be easiest for him to eat first, and it won’t do us any harm as well, after our own fasting,” Dar explained.
It made a nice, sweet porridge, and Nim was the first to taste it and approve. Dar could barely stop her from finishing it up. “We’ll cook another lot later, but that’s all for now; we still have to think about the future.”
By the time they had had enough of the porridge, having left Zik his portion — they were happy to use proper spoons they had found among his things — the young man opened his eyes.
“Oh,” he said weakly, looking at them in amazement; “I thought I’d dreamed it all up, like all the other dreams I’ve been having for such a long time.”
“You’ll tell us all about it later,” Dar said firmly; “now it’s time for you to have something to eat.”
She fed him with a spoon, until Nim volunteered to take over. The girl did her job enthusiastically, though not very skillfully; but the man was grateful, and soon finished his light meal.
“Nune, you may help Zik go down to the water, now, to wash and clean,” Dar ordered the older man in a friendly way; “Nim and I we’ll go look for some clean clothes for him to wear.”
“How do you think he’s come to be here, all alone?” Nim asked in wonder the same question Dar had asked herself before; they were making themselves busy in the cave, putting things in some order.
“We’ll know it all from Zik, I’m sure, but I don’t think he can tell us much about it tonight, so we’ll have to curb our curiosity for the time being. He should go back to sleep and digest his meal first,” Dar answered.
Coming out of the cave, they found Nunez had brought Zik back and laid him on the blanket. Zik was obviously trying to stay awake, to draw the greatest benefit from the first human company he had had for some time; but his weakness had taken over soon, and he fell asleep again. Nunez covered him with another blanket they had found in the cave.
“It’s going to be chilly tonight,” he said, “shouldn’t we take him back to the cave?”
“Let’s wait for sundown and see how it is,” Dar reasoned, “it may be good for him to stay in the fresh air, even if it is a bit chilly...” She had something on her mind, but was not ready to have it out.
They covered Zik with an additional blanket when evening came, without him awakening; they had decided it would be best if Dar stayed beside him, while Nunez and Nim went into the cave for a warm night’s sleep.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2004 by Tala Bar