chapter 2: The Forest
by Tala Bar
Chapter 1, “The Land,” concluded in issue 93.
They reached the top of the hill panting and gasping. They had been passing through an evidently newly formed country, which was obviously and depressingly barren of all signs of old vegetation. Stretches of frozen lava lay among uprooted boulders; it was too early for any growth to form on it. Standing now at the peak, however, looking around them in the light of the slanting sun, an unexpected surprise awaited them, and their hearts gladdened to see a bit of green.
“Look, Nim,” Dar pointed,” there’s a bunch of trees over there, on top of that hill next to ours.”
Nim looked, silent for a moment. “I think I know that wooded hill, but it used to be much closer to the Estate,” she said ponderously. “It was left untouched, sort of luxury for the people living in the villas, you know, who could afford to pay for trees not to be cut down. I went there a few times with Col; it was nice to play among the trees. But they did not look very healthy; they were all yellow-brownish, with the pine needles stiff and brittle. They used to fall off, cover us all over... I didn’t think they would last much longer, then... such a pity...”
“They will now, though. Look, they seem to be growing green again,” Dar mused. “If you’ve noticed, the air has become much clearer and cleaner after the upheaval... You know what,” she added, “we’ll climb that hill tomorrow, go through that wood.” It must be a nice walk, there.”
In the City, before the Catastrophe, there used to be very few green patches; every bit of precious land had been used for building. And since the upheaval, she had not seen one tree standing on her travels, except the couple of cypresses at the villa neighborhood.
They sat down for the evening meal, Dar measuring their rations severely. They could not afford to run out before getting a new supply. Even in the fields, they had found very few remnants of crops growing, most of it buried under the upturned earth.
The sun was almost down; it was natural for them to stay where they were, not venturing further at this hour. Looking for a flat spot for camping and sleeping, they found a suitably wide ledge just below the summit, sheltered by a steep cliff that rose above it. The ledge protruded over the valley below, and Dar stared down with fascination. It looked like a land of mystery. The valley was filled with colorful, misty air, giving it an atmosphere that looked foreign to this earth. There was something sinister in the sight, and she savored it on her own, not turning Nim’s attention to it.
The girl had spread the blanket on the wide ledge, and Dar joined her for their scanty meal. They drank water from the bottle they had taken from the house, having filled it from the brook just before they had left it behind. They had to be stingy with the water, because the bottle was already almost empty. They munched their dry supper in silence, and soon after settled for the night. For a long time before she fell asleep, Dar pondered the stars, still not completely used to see clear, dark sky at night.
The women rose at dawn, as they had done since venturing on that trip. They had no water for washing and, having delayed their breakfast, started their climb down the hill toward the wooded one. By now, they were seasoned travellers, well used to walking a ways before eating. They walked easily, their initial blisters dried up, their muscles toned and strengthened and their joints turned supple by mere use. Climbing the next hill was just a continuation of what was by now a habitual exercise.
They soon found out there was something different about that particular mountain. According to Nim, it had been pushed away from its original geographical position; they could see now that it also looked different in texture from the rest of the country in their view. Dar, having given it some thought, reached the conclusion that the hill had been untouched by the recent calamity. The rocks were imbedded in the earth, not lying about uprooted as everywhere else. There was plenty of soil in the crevasses, which was covered with fresh, green, natural vegetation. The sight astonished Dar, who had been used only to artificially grown plants.
“It looks so green!” Nim mused. “Last time I was here it was all yellow and brown.”
“From the acid in the air and lack of sunlight, of course,” Dar explained. “I have a feeling all that has changed forever, now.”
In mid-morning they reached the edge of the wood, which was situated at the top of the hill. Walking in the shade of trees was a new experience for Dar. The atmosphere felt cool and the air scented; she breathed in deeply, refreshed after the heat of the sun out in the open. Scattered sun rays penetrated the thicket, playing among the needles and tiny leaves of the mixed conifers; they created a motley of dark tints, throwing dancing shadows on the ground. In some of the bright spots, seedlings were peeping out from among the rocks, but the standing trees looked old, and some of them felt really ancient.
“I like it so much here, Dar,” Nim cried, excitedly; “there’s such sense of peace, the sound of the trees rustling in the wind, and the smell of the earth.” Dar turned her ear to her surroundings, while Nim continued, “Even birds, I think, chirping... There were very few birds in the Villa Estate. I did view some on television. Have you ever seen any birds, or wild animals? In the zoo, I mean.”
“I was not so keen on going there before the upheaval, though my sons...” her voice broke and she stopped. A trip to the zoo, she remembered, was the last time her family had gone on an outing together... Her sons were disappointed, because the animals did not look very happy in their cages. Not enough space could be spared for them, with the endless growth of human population. The land, she had heard, was simply too precious to keep mere beasts on it, when it was needed for more blocks of flats for people... Stirred out of her reflections, Dar looked around her. All this empty space! All these trees...
“I see what you mean, Nim,” she whispered.
The wood certainly seemed as if it had been naturally growing, rather than planted. Dar tried to think why that should be so. Perhaps, in very remote days, it was a sacred place, a site of worship and ritual, which would prevent people from destroying it. But what about now? Why had it not been destroyed with the rest of the earth? Were the wood and the hill still standing because they were sacred? Was it possible that Earth itself...? But that was nonsense! The earth had no conscious mind to think and decide for itself... Dar’s naturally rational mind rejected such fancy on the spot!
They followed a narrow path meandering among the trees, walking round the top of the hill rather then straight up to it.
“Come on, Nim, let’s sit down and have something to eat,” Dar stopped, inviting. They had not bothered assigning meals to certain times of day, eating when it was convenient.
“I am too excited to feel hungry,” Nim gasped. She went on walking among the trees, touching their bark, caressing the branches, whose needles were arranged like circular fans. “They are soft now, not brittle like they were when Col and I used to come here,” she said in wonder.
“We can climb through the wood to the top, see if there’s a clearing there,” Dar suggested, putting words to action with Nim lagging behind her. At last, they reached the top. They could see the sun shining hot from high above, and knew they would not be able to sit out in the open. Dar, inexperienced at standing on top of wooded hills, was surprised to discover they could see nothing of the view, which was blocked by the thick clumps of trees. So, instead of looking at the distant view, she paid more attention to finding a clearing for them to camp.
They found one, a little down the slope on the other side of the mountain. It was relatively leveled, with a flat surface of rock at the center. Dar looked around her.
“You know,” she said, pointing out some fallen dry twigs,” we can make a fire here, for a change.” They dug a pit in the earth by the side of the rock, putting more stones around it to prevent the fire from spreading. Having collected twigs and some thicker dry branches, they opened a tin of vegetable, poured its content into the pot and put a dry bar of protein in it. It made a deliciously rich soup, the first hot meal they had had since they began their trip.
“I’d like to stay here forever!” Nim cried, satiated. She rose and stretched, absorbing the exquisite atmosphere that had enveloped them. Dar smiled. It was good to see the girl so revived. She was still very thin, almost gaunt, but the haunted look in her eyes had vanished, their green sparkled in accord with the prevailing hue of the forest.
“I’m sorry we can’t stay here forever,” the physician said, her voice echoing her smile; “for one thing, we are running out of water and I haven’t seen any source of it here. We’ll stay the night, but tomorrow we must try to get back to the river.”
They sat late by the fire, having no shortage of fuel. Talking about everything and nothing in particular from their previous life, Nim commented at one point, “I’ve been thinking of the Amazon forest, you know. I used to watch programs about it on television... it was so fascinating...”
“Well,” Dar replied, rather drily, “I don’t think much of it is left by now, with all the trees being cut down and the land turned into such poor farming land no one could make a living out of it.”
“When we learned about it at school, I always dreamed I could go and live there,” Nim mused.
“Those trees would take thousands of years to grow again,” Dar explained. “Don’t forget the rain forest was created when Earth’s climate was different, and that is not going to come back now.”
“I would still like to see it as it was,” Nim said in a very soft voice.
Night came soft and warm, the fresh, tangy scent of resin even more distinct at this hour, almost intoxicating. The two women spread the blanket over a heap of dry needles they had collected, and, lying on top of it, they looked up at the few stars that peeped between the branches.
“They are so bright,” Nim whispered, half asleep, and Dar did not bother to answer. The light breeze made her feel as if she was hovering over the hill, looking down at the conifers, thinking of Nim’s comment about the rain forest of the Amazon...
Copyright © 2004 by Tala Bar