When Kev caught up with me I’d got a long way off the road, up in the mountains. He scolded me unconvincingly and introduced me to a very nice couple, Jeannie and Duncan, who took me in for a while. He had to go back and look after the others but he made me promise to stay with Jeannie and Duncan until spring. Then he reappeared unexpectedly on a horse in the thick of the winter sleet with the tent and other equipment.
Kev is (was?) a stocky Canadian – even wears a lumberjack shirt. He’s decided to do a stint as a guide because he’s ‘not ready to go back yet’. Something vulnerable about him gives him immense strength I feel. He likes to appear very tough and taciturn but then I catch him in tears for no obvious reason and I say ‘Are you ok?’ and he gives me a collarbone cracking, one armed hug and he nods and smiles. I feel very reassured. He makes me smile.
Jeannie and Duncan live in an amazingly weather-beaten three-room shack on the edge of a canyon, close to the tree line. The rooms are snowed under with books, clothes and tools. We were sitting on the stoop looking at the godawful weather across the valley. Jeannie came out with coffee. She’s also looks weather-beaten, a tall, bony woman, always in leather and denim, always in her wax cotton hat. She comes and sits down with us.
‘Still got a fair bit more of this shit to come’ she says nodding at the freezing rain, taking a sip. Kev seems preoccupied with something on the steep slope below. I always think he’s got something important to say but he never says it. ‘Lot of crows today’ he says. There’s some commotion in the treetops directly below us – squabbling over nesting sites perhaps, then something much bigger soars out and the crows go after it. ‘Any idea?’ he says turning to Jeannie. She shrugs.
‘Back home I used to be pretty good but every fucking thing looks different here’ she says. ‘I’d say it’s a raptor of some sort...’
‘But not with that crest’ Kev observes. Jeannie nods.
I don’t know. I knew a bit about the wildlife I saw on my walks but I don’t expect to be able to identify things. For someone like Kev though, who spent his entire life living with nature, travelling when he could, or Jeannie, who lived miles from anywhere in New Zealand and never travelled but knew absolutely everything about every organism in her patch, and read up on the rest, it’s a constant frustration. Animals here look familiar but not quite, and you never get close enough to really look at them properly. Sometimes we hear enormous things moving in the forest in the fog or in the night but there’s never any trace of them when we go to look except some flattened undergrowth. Kev says he’s never heard of anyone being attacked and Jeannie says they’ve never lost so much as an apple from the garden all the time they’ve been here, but it’s unsettling anyway. Jeannie says they’re like mythical beasts. Seems they’re here more for dramatic effect or to symbolize something than for any sound ecological reason. Neither of them is sure if I’ll be ok out there alone. Jeannie is doubtful. Kev is optimistic though, like he has something up his sleeve.
What does Duncan think? Who knows? We don’t see much of Duncan. He spends a lot of time looking after the garden and the chooks. He does most of the cooking and general maintenance. He jokes that Jeannie rescued him but it’s not funny. He didn’t cope with death very well for reasons she won’t go into, and you get the impression that if he doesn’t keep himself busy something very bad might happen. He’s a wiry, prematurely bald little man with a freckly pate, a great listener and nothing is too much trouble. You can tell she loves him dearly, but it’s hard to be around him somehow. When the weather improves he goes ‘fossicking’. He used to work on the railways in Eastleigh, which is near Southampton apparently and this backwoods life style, you can tell, is still a great novelty. The only time he looks really alive (besides the being dead and all) is when he’s heading out into the bush, or just arriving home. Still there’s always the feeling (look at Jeannie’s face) that if he spends too much time out there he’ll get lost for good. He’s a constant worry. She immerses herself in her books.
‘He’ll be right’ he says unexpectedly looking up from his tools ‘Stick to the path, you’ll be right’. He turns to Jeannie. ‘I’m heading off now’ he says. ‘Shouldn’t be too long this time.’ He kisses her freckly forehead and heads down into the brushwood. Soon he’s out of sight. She shakes her head and goes back to her book.
‘You really should wait ‘til spring before you head out you know’ says Kev at last. I stare at the scree opposite, materialising and dematerialising in the passing haze.
‘I’d like to get going’ I say. I’ve stopped thinking about it. I just want to be alone. ‘Well I can’t die of cold can I.’
‘You know what we’re worried about’ says Jeannie.
‘You might meet Harry for one thing’ says Kev trying for a laugh. I don’t respond. ‘No, the path is easy enough to find, if you want to, but it’s entirely up to you.’
‘But does it really matter?’ They look at me solidly.
‘It’s entirely up to you’ he repeats, looking away. He’s exasperated with my attitude. Generally he’s very patient, but I’m being adolescent, I know that. But I don’t know what to do instead.
The essential thing with ‘The Afterlife’ apparently is to keep going. Even if you don’t know where you’re going, the thing that gives you the chance to try again is wanting to. You can get utterly lost, cold, hungry, thirsty, but you can’t die. The real danger is to give up. Then you really are lost. I remember Joe talking about ‘lost spirits’ and I smiled sceptically, it sounded such a cliché, but there they were, in the water you could see them sometimes, and now, sometimes, especially at night you can hear them in the trees, whispering. He said that some people, faced with an afterlife, and the prospect of going back again to do it all over again, can’t face it and get lost. They allow themselves to wander off, or allow the already lost spirits to take them. At any rate they gradually lose themselves, who they once were, and merge into the place – the forest, the desert, the ocean. Eventually, they disappear altogether.
At first you can still talk to them, hear what they have to say, why they couldn’t go back. They are usually the ones whose lives were so horrific, and who feel so powerless to do anything to change it that it doesn’t seem worth the risk to go back. Most are thankful that it’s finally all over. They are the abused, the tortured, the addicted, the chronically sick. Clearly that isn’t me. I’m not self-pitying enough to presume. I just somehow didn’t get my life together and I stopped trying. I really do want another go, although I’m not exactly sure what I’d do differently. But I’m not going to give up. I think Kev knew that about me, but I had to try the idea out.
Now I’m up here I feel sure someone’s with me. Whoever it is she’s not very stealthy. A couple of times I’ve heard rocks falling or branches snapping and then a small female voice swearing - I’m almost certain. Maybe it’s just my imagination. Maybe I’m just comforting myself. I’ve never been this alone before for so long.
Is there supposed to be some parallel between the ordeal we are set in the afterlife and what went on in life or not? All my life I avoided trouble by going off alone. I wasn’t running away – I just didn’t know what else to do.
So I've gone off on my own here too. The forest here is getting worse. I’m not sure I even have the path, the way is so strewn with broken wood, needles and bits of bark and the branches are so low. One minute I’m crawling under, next, clambering over them. I’m down under the canopy, dead brambles bind everything together, and dense mats of fallen needles fill the spaces. It is a dead, silent place, no light, only the cold water seeps through, dripping off the branches. I can’t see where to go.
It’s not that I wanted to spend so much time alone when I was alive. I really wanted to be like the others, in a way – go and see people when I wanted to, go out, do things, maybe see a band – get a girlfriend for fuck’s sake. I don’t know. I didn’t really get on with the other boys. I hated football, and the way they talked to girls like they were idiots. I’d like to have thought I could have been more like them though, if I’d wanted to. I’d like to have had the choice.
My pack, usually so uncannily light, is bulky and impractical today. Suddenly it feels much bigger, that or I’ve shrunk somewhat. I slump down on the forest floor and wonder vaguely if I have lost myself after all. I said to Kev that I wasn’t going to give in and he seemed to believe me but maybe I was just kidding myself. Why did I think anything had changed? I always give in. I lie back and look up through the branches. Squinting, the light that gets through looks like stars in a dark sky. Kevin seems to think it’s very important not to lose that sense of self if I’m going to go on alone. I call to whoever she is again but it’s just the sound of water and wood. I’m getting sick of it. It occurs to me that maybe she’s another one of the passengers, set off alone, like me. Maybe I should go back for her.
I don’t know how long I’ve been going. Time here is hard to pin down. You feel you can account for the last day or so, but beyond that is uncertain. The more you try to keep count the more you can’t remember if it was the day before yesterday or some time last week. The days seem to go on a lot longer than they should too. The seasons are interminable. Space likewise. I’ve literally no idea how far I’ve come, or in what direction. Sometimes it feels like I’m on a loop, going around and round on the same bit of mountainside endlessly. The trees and rocks here look much the same as the ones I saw at the beginning. The mountain tops and the sky, the rain and what little there was of the sun, all just variations on the same theme, over and over. Even the snowfall was thin and short-lived.
I feel it’s been maybe about three months. That feels about right. A couple of weeks of sun down on the coast but then just colder and colder and wetter and wetter the higher I climb. Three months of winter, maybe more. That’s how it feels, just trudging through a freezing wet forest, over these jagged escarpments, wading through freezing streams or black sulphurous mud. I don’t know if I really want to go on after all. Ok, my life wasn’t a tragedy, but is it worth repeating? Can I really make it be different?
I feel the lost spirits about. They’re everywhere, always. Do they sense my mood? They sense company. I sense they want company. Do I want to be here forever? Maybe. Why not? I put the tent up and look out. What light there is, is fading. ‘I know you’re there’ I say quietly but she won’t answer. Maybe I’m insane but I’m sure she’s out there. I lie in the dark and listen to the water. I can hear it running under the ground sheet. Later I can hear something small snuffling near the tent, looking for food maybe. I turn over and there’s silence.
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