by Alan Delaney
part 1 of 2
He started at sunset in a grove of holly trees deep inside the forest. His clothing was scant but functional and he carried no food save what berries and mushrooms he could find among the undergrowth. The darkness and the cold soon set upon him as the waxing moon sank into the horizon.
He was alone, hungry and fearful. He had little experience with forests and had never been this deep inside one before so every creak, every groan, every snap of a twig held deep, primeval fears for him. He was surrounded by shadows on all sides but none that would show their face to him. All he could do was sit and wait until the night was over. Soon, his weariness overcame his fear and he fell into a fitful sleep.
It was well past dawn when he got up, but the sun was still low and the air still cold and biting. He was shivering uncontrollably and arose with difficulty. He tried moving at first to warm himself up, but as the blood began to flow in his veins again his movements became more purposeful.
He did handstands against tree trunks, used their branches for chin-ups, and tested his long-forgotten climbing skills on some of the nearby beeches. He had lived a sedentary lifestyle for far too long and was becoming aware of just how unfit he really was. He felt that now was as good an opportunity as he would ever have to start getting himself into shape.
As the sun got higher and the air became warmer, he went exploring. Many of the trees he knew only from pictures, but he had studied them well and could tell most of them by name. Unable to think of anything better to do, he decided to undertake an informal study of them.
He looked at what fruit each bore, which looked easier to climb, which grew tallest, and so on, but it was nothing more than a mechanical device. He could feel nothing for the trees beyond a mild, fickle interest, and it was a game he could easily dispose of.
By late afternoon as the sun began to sink he was bored. Though he had no watch and was not skilled at telling the time by the position of the sun, he felt that this would be the time that he would be returning home to sit in front of his television. With a sudden, brooding horror he realised that he was missing his favourite TV programmes.
A sense of longing came over him as he began to appreciate the magnitude of the sacrifice he was undertaking. Today there would be a soap opera; later on, there was a film at the cinema that he had been looking forward to; tonight his friends would be sharing a drink without his being there to join in. He sank despondently against the tree and wallowed in his loneliness until the darkness crept over him.
The second night was colder than the first, and when he awoke from another fitful slumber, barely able to move with the cold, he knew he would have to improvise or his undertaking would end prematurely. That day was spent searching for a warmer place to stay.
Eventually, after he had decided what he needed to do, he built himself a shelter of branches covered with a large mound of leaves that would serve as a resting place. He climbed in and examined his handiwork proudly. He had achieved something today and the first step of his journey had been done. He was on his way.
That evening a great melancholy came over him. He had learned something about himself today and had instinctively reached for his mobile phone to tell his friends about it, but it was not there. Suddenly he felt lost and naked — no phone, no credit cards, no filofax, no personal organiser.
He was alone, separated, lost. Misery and despair set in, and he slumped against the trunk of a tree, unable and unwilling to do anything more than reflect on his predicament and wait for the end to come.
Soon the air chilled and the stars came out, but this time he was ready for it. He climbed inside his new shelter and, in the warmth and comfort afforded by the roof of leaves, he fell into a deep, sound sleep.
Some days later, he decided to build a sundial. First he needed a way of keeping a keeping a regular beat. He built a crude rope by stringing several blades of grass together and suspended a rock from it to use as a pendulum. Then he drove a twig into the ground in the centre of a shadow of a young beech tree, counted out a hundred motions of the pendulum, and drove in a second twig.
This he continued for several more hours until boredom set in and he lost count. Still, he looked upon his handiwork with pride. It was crude, wildly inaccurate and would probably need to be adjusted once he had an opportunity to test his counting, but it was still an achievement of sorts.
That evening he realised that today was Saturday and that he had missed the day’s football. He distantly wondered how his team had done before settling himself onto a favourite branch to watch what promised to be a fabulous sunset. It didn’t disappoint.
The next day he returned to his sundial and was pleased to see that it needed little adjustment. He retained his interest long enough to expand it further and could even make a decent guess as to when midday hit, from the position of the marker twigs.
Later, when he had lost count once more, he replaced the existing twigs with large stones from a nearby stream. He was even able to make a guess as to what time they represented and wrote these times on the stones in mud. He stood back from his handiwork and admired it once more and then spent the rest of the day thinking what he would tell his friends once he returned home.
About a week later, he woke up and realised he could not remember what day it was supposed to be. He worked it out, after giving it some thought, and then decided that he needed to keep a calendar.
He picked up a large handful of mud from the stream and brought it over to the base of a large chestnut tree. Then, he marked out the shape of the moon as he had seen it on that first day. From there he marked down the successive stages of its size and wrote the days they represented next to them. He looked at his handiwork, admiring it, and spent the rest of the day looking for better and more lasting ways of keeping his solar and lunar records.
He even sat up well after the darkness and cold had set in, staring up at the waxing moon, as though waiting for it to tell him the answer to that question. He slept soundly and dreamt primitive and simple dreams in his leaf hut that night.
The next morning he awoke to find that his leaf hut had been disturbed by a strong gust of wind. He immediately set about building a better shelter. He collected up more leaves and added more branches to the hut. He then collected up some large stones and placed these on top of the branches to weigh them down and keep them in place.
In a final flash of inspiration, he pulled up enough large clumps of grass and moss until he had given the whole lot a lush covering of green that would surely survive much of what the elements could throw at it. He even had enough time at the end of the day to put the finishing touches on his sundial.
That night he sat up on his favourite branch listening to the sounds of the night without fear and watching the creeping movements of the moon with something approaching admiration. His sleep that night was deep and sound and his dreams serene.
Two weeks later, he was bored. Unable to think of anything else, he discovered the trees. His curiosity had gotten the better of his fear, and he dared himself to climb to the tops of the tallest ones he could find.
Climbing to dizzying heights on branches that were little more than twigs, he could finally get a glimpse of the sheer vastness of the forest that he had made his home. Dark greens, light greys, bronzes, browns, dirty yellows and all manner of autumn colours stretched out around him in every direction as far as he could see.
He was awed and humbled by the experience, but there was no loneliness or fear in the sight; rather he recognised that here he was among friends and that the trees were his protector and shelter. For the first time he realised where he was and was pleased at the recognition: he was home.
That night, when the air had become too cold for him to stay up in the tree, he climbed down and went to where his shelter was located. Upon getting there however, he found that it was gone. Instead, he was standing before the mouth of a large, dark cave in the middle of the holly grove that seemed to be beckoning to him, urging him to set foot inside and explore its murky depths.
He took another look around, wondering for a moment if he had gotten lost somewhere. The night was dark, quiet. The usual chirpings, footfalls and calls of his nocturnal companions were not there. Instead the whole forest seemed to be holding its breath, watching him, waiting for him to make his move. Inhaling deeply, he took one last look at the forest around him and stepped inside.
The cave was small, pitch-black, and smelled very old indeed. Far off, on the very edge of his consciousness, he could hear faint breathing noises as though the cave was the lair of some large, sleeping creature. The sound caused his skin to crawl and the hairs on the back of his neck to stand up straight but he felt compelled to venture inside regardless.
The cave sloped downwards gently, and loose pebbles rolled down the path before him as he walked. The cave grew smaller and the slope steeper, but no matter how far he walked, the sound of the breathing got no louder or softer.
Soon he understood why this was: the cave itself was alive, had a consciousness all of its own, and the breathing noise was that of the cave itself — a cave so ancient and so revered by its explorers that it had assumed a life all of its own. Upon recognising this, his fear dissipated. He relaxed his mind and concentrated on his descent.
The slope grew ever steeper until he was no longer walking but sliding on his legs and using his hands as brakes. The descent was long and tiring and he was aware of a more ancient and more malevolent fear welling up inside him.
The cave was forbiddingly dark and seemingly endless. He looked behind him at the way at he come, thinking for a moment to quit this, to stay away from the unknown depths of the darkness and go back into the light from which he had come.
He had walked a long, long way through the darkness, but when he looked around the mouth was only a short distance behind him, almost close enough to touch. He also saw with surprise that it was not the dark, cold autumn forest that he had left but a bright, warm, spring meadow.
In the distance he could hear loud, happy voices — a picnic, or a party perhaps. Someone was out there in the meadow, enjoying the warm sun and the company of friends. He turned again to face the deep, endless darkness before him, cold and alone. For a moment he felt sure that he had come the wrong way, that there was nothing at the end of the cave but a sheer drop onto the rocks far below.
Fear swelled up like bile in his throat and threatened to choke him there and then. He tentatively felt in front of him with his foot but the ground ended right there — he was standing at the edge of a precipice. He looked behind him once more. The voices were approaching. The loud, happy laughter of a woman rang out clear and echoed through the cave.
It was a test. It had to be a test. Leave or leap — those were his options. Everything he had been working towards for the last several weeks depended on what he decided upon now. It had all come to this. Taking a deep breath, he turned back to the darkness, shut his eyes tight, and leaped.
There was no weightlessness, no sound of the stagnant air rushing past, no sensation of landing, nothing. After a short while, unable to understand what was happening, he opened his eyes once more.
He was standing next to a wall in a brightly lit area, though he could see no light source. A smooth grey wall loomed high above his head and disappeared into the overhead gloom. Underneath him, the ground was smooth and warm. It was also empty except for a small mound of charcoal pencils lying next to the wall.
He looked around, trying to understand. From his position he could see only the ground he was standing on and the wall by his side. The rest of the area stretched out into the endless darkness. All that was illuminated was the small space in which he stood and the wall that loomed high before him.
Dimly, subconsciously, he was aware that someone or something was watching him, something powerful, something ancient. He looked back at the pencils and the smooth wall and understood — it was another test.
He picked up one of the pencils and began writing.
Copyright © 2009 by Alan Delaney