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Flame Bound

by Christopher T. Garry

part 1 of 2

Anna fidgeted, trying to cover the stems of her shades with a cord that could be cinched to keep them in place. She checked herself in the side-view mirror of her pickup. The floppy cap would protect her ears and scalp from the sun, and it made her dark broad eyes appear more intense. She situated the glasses finally.

The practical khaki, belts, straps and pockets made for a handsome outfit and, along with solid boots, sun-soaked skin on bare shoulders, she was ready for the climb. She thought of her dad briefly, made a mental note to call him for his birthday and sighed. He could be such an ass, but it was his way of caring. Her lip twitched left a little when she thought of the way his ears got red when he started to lose his arguments with her.

She turned and looked up. The low morning light angled through the high tree tops and lit up particulates in a glow. What was it in the air? Pollen, gnats, bits of tree flaking away their bark or the dust of lichen kicked up by chipmunks and birds? It was celestial. It may have been the day shift that was taking over, but the forest was perpetually awake. The timeless blanketing sound of swaying plants, bugs and the occasional small animal made her feel at home.

The truck locks snapped down and she pocketed the remote. Gathering up the gear, she made a determined path towards the trail head and made her way around the ferns and wooden fencing, warning signs and trail rules. It was hard to leave everything behind today, but it had to be done. The family could wait.

As she began her ascent under the forest canopy, almost immediately the sounds of the distant highway behind her gave way to muffling silence interrupted only by the sounds of her boots hitting the trail like a pulse and her breath in her ears. Pebbles tumbled aside knocked loose by tread. Puddles of water trapped by roots and mud vibrated at her approach. She focused on her breathing and found a pace that suited. As much as she wanted to look up, she could not.

Anna wandered in her mind and drove herself forward automatically. The memory of her sister’s voice rang in her ear. It was Jennifer, long dead but still vital, still unbroken. For a moment she was there beside Anna, keeping pace. Eyes gleaming upwards, she outpaced Anna for a moment and turned to tease her along the trail. Print cotton dress, braids and leather sandals glowed in the speckled sun, and the smell of lavender drifted about.

Anna liked when her sister came back to her. She was far easier to understand now in this form, this ethereal memory. It didn’t matter to Anna that she couldn’t see her face anymore. What lingered was the feeling that she was never far apart from her. Not for long at least. Jennifer would visit her whenever she opened her mind.

Anna shifted her pack and she felt Jennifer’s hands on hers over her shoulders and she imagined the pack was all the weight of her sister’s frail frame. She breathed deeply, closed her eyes briefly and plunged on, holding her tightly.

The trail turned upwards, it was like climbing stairs, the fallen branches, roots and rocks all descending to meet her as her boots became heavier. The forest darkened around her. Massive trunks rose to terraced plant life, with ferns and moss growing at unlikely heights in the folds of high, twisting branches. Fallen logs embedded in the forest floor nursed saplings, their roots making what they could of the bedding and rotting wood. Nests of insects, burrows of animals, droppings, half-eaten leaves and game trails were everywhere. All told the signs of life here.

* * *

The rising sun marked the hours, and at last Anna came to an outcropping. Only three other hikers had passed her going down and she passed one going up. Going further, the trail would bend around to the east, skirting along a high rocky ledge. She was high enough for a view of the far valley opposite of where hikers entered the park, around the other side of the mountain.

She breathed hard, beginning to cool down. The land rolled out in front of her at a scale that was hard to comprehend. She could see the train trestle that crossed the valley at the far end several miles away. It was a fragile toy at this distance. Below her, rivers merged and creased the canopy darkly before wandering to the west. Above her, the snow line was getting closer and she could see cloudy mists still lingering in the shadowed parts of the tree line.

Lowering her pack against a tree up the slope from the path, she leaned into it and took in an oat bar. She had no appetite; it always seemed to disappear on trips like this. The water and air seemed to fill her more with what she needed than any food did, although she knew better.

She tucked the wrapper, fixed the pack, and put on a sweater. She watched the tree line on the opposite mountain. Occasionally she would spot movement of the trees and she imagined wolves, bears and eagles moving about.

With her head on her pack she was sitting almost upright in nearly the same position that dead hikers were often found frozen. She chuckled at the morbidity, closed her eyes and quickly descended into a meditative state, lowering her breathing and feeling the rush of blood in her ears. After several minutes she lingered just beyond a threshold where she thought she wasn’t asleep at all. Her ankle twitched and made her aware of the forest for a moment, but then it slipped away again.

Images from her previous night came to her in a jumble. Her son. An argument. Over something. Career, maybe. She did not understand her or her son when they were like that. She imagined they formed a circle with their arms and rotated oddly, teeth bared. She had come to the forest to think. But now she was too tired to think about it.

The furious night seemed a hundred years ago and thoughts swirled as she processed the new problem at hand, what to do with the wall in her dream that had grown up around her.

She didn’t feel trapped, but she felt puzzled. The wall could not be felt and receded when she pushed towards it. The wall faced her when she tried to go around it. Vaguely aware that she was dreaming, she adopted a solution-minded resolve and decided to test it.

She manifested a writing plume and drew on it, but the ink faded. She raised a deer rifle and shot it, seemingly without any effect. She turned from it and found it facing her. She looked up and lifted slowly off the ground, but the wall extended up with her.

She paused briefly. Her chest collapsed, she closed her eyes and the wall went out of sight. She breathed in for what seemed to be several minutes in order to suck the wall inside her. She opened her eyes finally to find herself freed of it, still dreaming and high above a clearing. She could hear... something...

* * *

Anna lurched awake. Above her a few dozen yards to the right there was a crashing. Something large was tumbling through the brush, crushing the saplings and smaller trees and cracking through dry undergrowth. It sounded discordant and out of control.

She scrambled up, grabbed her pack and backed toward the trail, taking a mental inventory of repellents and weapons, ropes, and first-aid. The hulk was initially dark and amorphous but suddenly cleared the brush over the path she had come up. For an instant it was airborne, silent and spinning.

It was a bear. It was upside down briefly and quite out of control. Possibly unconscious, she couldn’t tell in that quick glimpse. With a massive crash it destroyed the young tree on the far side of the trail and disappeared over the slope.

Anna staggered at the surprise. She moved cautiously to the edge of the drop-off and fingered the shattered stump. Below her she could still make out violent motion and rising dust along the clear path of destruction the animal was leaving. Then there was silence.

Her mind raced. Bears were uncommon in these parts. Especially one that large. What in the world was it doing falling down a mountain? Why was it out in broad daylight? She turned and looked up the broken path it had paved on the way down. Several points were evident where the animal must have fallen fifty or a hundred feet or more without hitting anything. Surely it could not have survived that kind of drop. Yet she wondered about its flailing movements as it passed in front of her.

Anna deliberated about checking on the animal. The dust had cleared and there was no movement. It was too far to discern much of anything. She could not see a body, although it must have settled around three hundred yards from her down the slope.

She bent down, undid her pack and checked her supplies. It was enough to get her out of most any ravine, start fires, set traps and clean and cook anything she caught. There was already food for about forty-eight hours. Water for half that. It would be dangerous to leave the path, especially venturing down such terrain. If she decided to or had to stay overnight she could do it.

She stowed her sweater, closed up, stood and looked down the drop-off. Clearly she could not follow the same path. She swept the area and determined that she could safely descend if she started several hundred yards off to the west, back along the original trail. Once the terrain leveled out she could cross back and see where the animal had landed, if it was still there.

She muttered to herself as she started down that she was being ridiculous. There was no real practical reason that would benefit her by knowing whether the animal was intact.

If it were dead there was nothing she could do to bury a massive animal like that even if there was any need to do so. If it were only injured, she had no reasonable expectation that it was safe to approach. On the other hand she could not imagine going home and not knowing whether the beast was safe or not.

The idea of it dying slowly and alone was incomprehensible. She had had to destroy Muster, her dog from a few years ago, because of tumors. Every animal she ever had, they all looked at the veterinarian trip as punishment. It didn’t matter how many times they went and came home safely. She could not help reading guilt in the dog’s face. They simply don’t understand what’s happening to them. Muster took his last shot with just as much fear and indignity as his first.

And then there was the isolation of her sister’s death.

Her lot was cast. For now the sun was high and she continued to back herself down the west slope as carefully as possible. Her hands worked quickly, feet occasionally crossing, muscles extending, lowering her weight deliberately and steadily.

She stopped every fifteen minutes to assess progress and make adjustments. The landing zone, as she came to think of it, was still off to her right, obscured by rocks. She did not let her mind wander. There was nothing to think about worry or contemplate until she got to the bottom.

After an hour she had descended to the elevation she wanted. She was covered in dust and had a few scrapes on her shins, forearms and one on her forehead from a momentary slip where she bounced her head on an exposed root.

She loosed her water bottle again, drank and got her bearing relative to her mental landmarks. She estimated the direction of the river to the south that would probably be her exit route. The valley was far less visible from this lower altitude, so she could not see nearly as far. The landing zone remained to the east and she began to deliberate how to approach it.

Bears have tremendous burst speed, up to thirty miles per hour, and she had no hope of outpacing any such animal that decided to charge her. She decided to approach from upslope, since that would give her the advantage for visibility. If the bear was quite mobile and could see her sooner, it would be more likely to wander away. If she surprised it and it was downslope from her, she expected it to feel less cornered.

She sheathed her utility knife above her ankle and slung her rope out of the pack loosely over one of her glistening shoulders. She set out again and as she paced slowly forward she tried to be conscious of how disruptive she was. The heat rose off the low brush and grass. This, along with the lower altitude and direct sun exposure, made her work harder. Despite best efforts her boots were still crushing and grinding loudly and she grew impatient with herself and lack of rational options.

In her mind her sister chided her gently for being driven by passion. She smiled, since she would not have it any other way. She had to remain open to possibilities.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2013 by Christopher T. Garry

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