Bewildering Stories

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chapter 2: “The Forest,” part II
installment 1

by Tala Bar

Part I appeared in issue 94.


The crows were back again the next morning, at dawn; they flew above their heads in disorder, croaking loudly.

“Dar! What is it? What do they want?” Nim rose, confused, halfway to taking an alarm.

“It’s nothing,” Dar replied as she got up, looking around her. From previous experience she thought the birds were leading them somewhere, but she could not tell where this time, so she tried to ignore them. “I want to find our way back to the river,” she said instead, “so I suppose we should go down that way,” she pointed.

“That way” was a direction where the trees’ density became thinner. She then led the way round the hill on what seemed like a blurred path, until a reflection sparkling from far away below them told them it must be the waterway they were looking for. Dar noticed the crows seemed to be following them when they began descending in that direction.

The wood seemed to be stretching down a very long way, much longer than she had thought it should, going on forever. Feeling rather uncomfortable, she said nothing to Nim at first. As they continued on their way, Dar noticed two changes occurring at the same time. One was that the ground was leveling up, instead of going down toward the valley. The other was an almost imperceptible change in the trees. Gradually, the conifers, of which the old wood was made up, were giving place to broad leaved trees, until the former had disappeared altogether. She was not able to identify the new kinds, which she had never seen grow anywhere.

This is not our country at all, she thought, feeling more and more uneasy as they continued on their way. She looked at Nim, wondering how it was that the girl had noticed nothing. Nim seemed sunken deep in thought, and Dar decided she would give these strange changes a little more chance before she said anything to her. A screech startled the girl from her daydreaming. “What was that” she cried, halting and grasping Dar’s arm.

The physician stopped, stood listening more closely. Everything was different. The crows had gone, but the peaceful, quiet atmosphere of the conifers had been shattered. The wood was filled with the chatter of parrots occasionally disrupted with a sharp scream; buzzing insects zoomed around their heads, and a strange, irritating howling of monkeys in the dense foliage above them preyed on their nerves. The former fresh air, lightly scented with resin, had turned into a heavy, sweetly mixed fragrance; the light rustling of the wind among the needles had stopped, they were assailed by a hot, moist, motionless air, making it impossible to breathe freely. High, thick undergrowth blocked their way everywhere. Ancient giant trees surrounded them now, looming to the unseen sky; convoluted creeper climbed their trunks, blossoming with enormous bright-colored flowers, giving them a weird, lively appearance. The sun hid behind the thick foliage above their heads, the golden green light diffused amongst the vegetation.

We must have walked right into Nim’s feverish dream? Dar thought, a shiver running up her spine.

“Oh, how beautiful!” Nim called, trying to run through the undergrowth. She soon found out it was impossible. Spikes and thorns pierced the fabric of her pants, puncturing the skin of her legs; long, sticky tendrils convoluted around her ankles, making her stumble as she tried to move.

“Ouch! Dar, help me!” She fell, stretching her hands to the ground to support herself, immediately pulling them back. “Oh, look at all these ants!”

“Come on, get away from them, they may be toxic!” Dar’s voice was unusually commanding, as she bent and pulled the girl away. “I don’t know how we’ve got here and what we are doing here, but we must find our way out.”

She did not add how unsettled the whole experience was making her feel. Just like that wind that drove me away from the City center, she was forced to reflect, against every rational nerve in her body.

As Nim was cleaning herself, brushing off the ants that were climbing along her arms and trying to pick the thorns that were stuck on her pants, Dar tried to bring to mind anything she had ever heard and learned about the rain forest. There could be real dangers lurking in its wavering shades. Jaguars, harmful insects, leeches sticking their bloody suckers on to one’s legs, meat-eating plants... She would not even know how to treat any injury they might incur. Actually, she had none of her medical instruments with her, and even if she had, she was not sure those latest technological achievements would be any good here... No, the best thing for them to do was to find a way out of that enchanted place, some trail to lead them at least out into the open, if not actually back to their own country.

Something buzzed by her ear; she slapped her face as she heard Nim calling, “Look, up there!”

Stuck in a thick trunk a little way in front of them was an arrow.

“Don’t touch!” Dar cried, as Nim stretched her arm to take it; “it may be poisonous.”

“But how did it get there, I can’t see anyone who might have shot it.”

“There he is!” A small dark figure stepped out from among the trees, carrying a long tube.

Right out of the television screen, Dar thought, remembering films she had seen about the Indians of the Amazon. They had been, of course, long gone by now, together with their forests and their wild way of life. Still, there was no television screen out there, in the jungle, and the strange man was standing in from of them as large as life. Coming out of the thicket, he stopped to stare at them, much the same way they were staring at him. Could he have believed them a pair of ghosts, as they had believed him to be? Dar thought. He was completely naked, as Dar knew was their custom, except for a few leaves that protected his genitals. He was short and slightly built, his head covered with short, straight, black hair.

“Monsters! You averted my arrow,” he said darkly, adding a kind of chant they did not understand.

Nim looked at Dar. “He called us monsters!” She cried. “He said we had averted his arrow! How could we understand his language?”

“I don’t really know,” Dar said slowly, ponderously. “Perhaps we only hear his thoughts...”

“But why did he call us monsters?” Nim insisted. “If he could hear our thoughts...”

“Nothing is very logical here, is it?”

I’ll try to talk to him, then,” said Nim and turned to the man. “We’re sorry about your arrow,” She said; “where did you want it to go?” She knew she had spoken in her own language, but he seemed to understand her perfectly.

The monkey has long gone by now,” he said.

Dar was sure he was uttering the same mysterious guttural sounds she had heard him chanting, but they caught their meaning perfectly, without a need for translation.

“You eat monkeys?” Nim asked, astonished.

“Don’t you know anything, monster?” He said rudely, is if knowingly not believing in what he was saying. That was the moment Dar had decided they were both dreaming, and knew that whatever the dream, they were going to wake from it some time.

“We are not monsters!” Nim insisted, then fell silent. The hunter seemed to be considering, while all three of them were examining each other.

“All right,” he said at last. “But where have you come from?”

“Very far away,” Dar said. She knew they would never be able to explain to him.

Perhaps, she thought, they would meet someone of his tribe who would be able to understand.

“And where do you want to go?” He asked after some thought.

“Anywhere out of here!” Nim cried; “we can’t find our way out!”

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘out’,” he replied, “but you can come with me to Camp.”

“Yes,” said Dar,” we’d like to come with you.”

“Oh! That would be lovely!” Nim cried, with a mixture of excitement and astonishment.

The man started walking in fast, small steps, and the women followed him quickly, though not very easily. They could see no obvious trail they would have been able to find by themselves. After a long, hard, unmeasurable walk through a dense thicket of trees, shrubs and crawlers, they came out into a small clearing. A stream of water ran on one side of it, vanishing into the undergrowth. Could it be a tributary of the Amazon river? Dar reflected, then she caught the absurdity of it. The Amazon basin had long gone, the forest cut down completely for farming, cattle ranches, mining...

The river itself had probably spread wildly over the whole countryside, turning it a huge system of bogs and marshes, poisoned by all the chemicals poured into it by Man. How, then, can we be standing in that forest, here and now? She had no answer.

A fire was burning in the center of the clearing. Between ten and twenty people were scattered around, some doing various chores, others idling about. An old woman sat by the fire, smoking a long-stemmed pipe; other women were preparing various kinds of food, two of them kneading a wet mixture, flattening it and spreading it on stones, which had been heated by the fire.

One woman who seemed to Dar very young, not much more than a girl herself, sat in a hammock suckling a baby. Children of various ages were playing a game that involved running about, and a few men of all ages were sitting together, deep in conversation. Two or three of those were intent on making arrows. All were naked, hardly the tiniest of cover hid their innocently displayed sex.

A strange calm of unawareness enveloped the place, disrupted when the three emerged out of the forest.

“Monsters!” Was the only word Dar was able to discern, when women, men and children jumped up of their separate occupations, collected in groups while exchanging excited words to each other, pointing out at the two women.

“Are they afraid of us?” Nim whispered in Dar’s ear, moving closer to the physician and taking hold of her arm.

Dar hugged her. “They don’t look very harmful to me. Let’s just stand quietly, see what happens.” She noticed the old woman still sitting by the fire, peacefully smoking her pipe.

The hunter approached that woman. “Old Mother,” Dar thought the man was saying, bowing his head. The rest of his words were lost to her.

The old woman drove him away with a motion of her arm, at the same time signing to Dar and Nim to approach her. As they did, Dar stared at her curiously. Was she of some importance among the people of that tribe? As the hunter left them to join the other men, she realized he had done his job; the old woman was now taking over taking care of them.

“I welcome you, strangers,” the woman said. In contrast to the hunter’s voice, which was high and sharp, the old woman’s was low and thick; but it had a penetrating quality, carrying a marked character of command. She was very thin and all wrinkled, and Dar thought she must be the oldest person she had ever seen. She bent her head in front of the sitting woman, as the hunter had done.

Proceed to installment 2.

Copyright © 2004 by Tala Bar

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