At last the forest begins to give out. The trees are not so close, they don’t crowd out the smaller plants on the ground so much, and a lively retinue of insects and birds take the opportunity to make a living.
The weather has changed too. The first time it happens I’m looking ahead through the lower branches and I spot something big and bright and golden ahead, covering the ground, almost too bright to look at directly. I wonder what it could possibly be until I almost step in it and realise it’s just the forest floor lit by sunlight. Hallelujah!
I step into it and look upwards into the rays. I can feel my body warming through, front to back, top to bottom. I drop my bag. I open my shirt. What the heck, I strip naked and just stand there, basking in it for a while.
After a while I look around me. The ground is covered in a thick and slightly prickly mat of pine needles. Blades of grass poke through them here and there.
I’ve got some shorts somewhere in my rucksack and I spend a bit of time emptying it out, looking at all my poor damp, crumpled belongings, things I’d forgotten I had here – books, drawing materials, and chocolate! Now there’s a find. I could have sworn I’d eaten it all. I search around and find some cleaner underwear. It’s still early in the day – I can see the path going on some way ahead. It’s like a miracle.
I follow the path through the morning. The trail heads down some, then flattens out, and I’m coming out into a wide valley by dusk. There’s a broad, boulder-strewn river below, the last of the sun laying a trail on it. The mountains I’ve been walking in for what seems like a year form a solid black wall behind. Mist is beginning to come down. I can see less and less and I begin to unpack the tent. I could really do with a coffee right now. I sit in the doorway and watch the dusk come in. The weird calls I’ve ignored all day get amplified at this time and the noises that go with the darkness begin to edge in. Small bodies move in the grass. I can hear the river below. This is the first evening in a long time I’ve not fallen asleep to the steady sound of rain. It’s actually hard to get to sleep.
By morning it’s business as usual – heavy rain makes the view grey and grainy. A packet of coffee and a carton of long life milk turn up unexpectedly in a side pocket of my rucksack. Something funny is going on here but I’m not complaining. Maybe I’m losing it. I get the coffee maker going anyway. ‘Thanks’ I say, loudly, looking about ‘whoever you are.’ Then, as an after-thought ‘How about some bacon? and ooh – some toast and butter, and marmalade?’ Worth a try I reckon.
The rain actually eases off as the day progresses and I pack up and move on. The sun even makes an appearance. At one point I even sing.
There’s a tiny woman in my backpack. Don’t laugh. It’s not funny. At first I thought it was just the product of my fevered, sex-starved, post-adolescent imagination, and I’m still not sure, but we’ve been talking a bit and I feel better so I’m going with it.
It was earlier on today she appeared. It’s been my third day walking along the side of the valley, and I came to a place where the river simply fell over the edge into another gorge way below and I could have just sat and wept. Well, I did weep, and kicked stones over the edge. The only path I could see headed steeply up a slope at an angle from the lip of the fall and disappeared into the haze as the cloud base came down once more to meet me, bringing drizzle and greyness with it. It was about mid morning. I sat on a tussock and looked at the view. I wanted to throw myself off but I knew I wouldn’t die, just hurt myself so what was the point? What had I thought was coming? Did I think now that I was in some pleasant, relatively flat valley I’d find civilisation, a place to stay, people to talk to?
Yes of course. That’s exactly what I’d thought. I didn’t realise until it obviously wasn’t going to happen. Shit.
Some large woolly animals with huge curved horns were looking at me from the khaki coloured slopes above. They didn’t look predatory – they looked like yaks. I asked them what the fuck they thought they were looking at. In return they ambled off, dislodged some stones and I had to run to avoid getting hit. I screamed abuse at them, at the hillside, at the cataract, at the people who weren’t there, at everything. I tore my clothes off and threw them in a tree. I threw my back-pack in the river and it floated away. It sounds very comical now but it wasn’t at the time. I’d had enough. I was getting rid of everything, getting ready to get rid of myself, again.
That was when I heard her voice – it was coming from the river and it was swearing at me. I could only just make her voice out above the muffled roar of the water below, but I could tell what it meant. I went over and looked. I couldn’t see the bag but one of my red socks was on a rock in the middle and there seemed to be a tiny, pale pink woman with long red hair wearing it, shouting at me. I could see her mouth opening and closing. She seemed really pissed off at me, or really scared.
It took quite a while to sort it all out. The water must have been close to freezing, mist was settling, the rocks were very slippery to walk on, and yet jagged to stumble against. I splashed about, trying to get out to where she was, all the while pathetically conscious of how tiny my willy had become. No woman had ever seen it before (except family obviously). I found it hard to concentrate.
I managed to get out to the rock she was perched on and she pointed further on. I tried not to look at her too much. She didn’t have anything on either. I tried to concentrate on where she was pointing. I couldn’t make out what she was yelling. I went to pick her up but she wouldn’t let me. She got very fierce about that. I got down, lowering my self into the frigid water and put my ear close to her. ‘Bend down further’ she shouted. I crouched down and felt her surprisingly warm little body jump onto my shoulder and settle on my neck.
Rising carefully to avoid slipping, and wading in the direction she had been pointing I couldn’t help being aware of her legs spread either side of my neck. I thought how typical it was of me to be in this much trouble (to have got myself in this much trouble – I had no one else to blame) and still just be thinking about sex – with a woman only ten inches tall at that. Between her legs seemed very hot on my skin indeed. I was glad my willy was shrunken. The alternative would have been intolerable.
She’d been pointing at the rucksack of course. It was lodged between two rocks with water rushing between them at the very edge of the drop. I felt my way forward gingerly, reaching forward as I went to steady myself. The water was remarkably calm near the edge, and there was a deep pool I had to swim across a couple of strokes. I could feel her hanging onto my hair at the back and making encouraging noises.
The bag floated remarkably well – it was designed that way she told me later, and everything in it was dry. I waded back to the bank with it in tow, her standing on it looking very proprietorial, like a mini whale hunter with her catch.
I didn’t say anything as I towelled myself off and found something dry to wear, then I went and retrieved my other clothes from where they were, hanging soggily in the leafless, stunted tree or scattered on the ground beneath. When I came back she had covered herself with one of my shirts, which was a relief because it meant I could talk to her properly, without worrying about getting a hard-on. I sat on a hump and looked at her long, oval, rather serious face and pale grey eyes. She was covered in freckles. Then she looked at me a little sideways, cool and naughty at the same time, and I thought she was rather attractive, in an odd sort of way.
‘I’m so sorry’ I said ‘I didn’t know you were...’
‘I know’ she said quickly ‘I should have...said something...before.’
I was glad she seemed as awkward as I did. ‘Haven’t you got any er...clothes?’ I said, trying to be chatty, trying not to offend her.
‘They don’t really work at this size’ she shrugged. ‘Physics...’
‘I didn’t think physics really applied here’
‘I don’t know. I suppose it must do... a bit’ and she looked around as if there might be an answer in the grass.
I was glad she didn’t know everything and seemed as uncomfortable with the situation as I did. I felt stupid enough as it was. She smiled at me in a tentative friendly sort of way and I got out some biscuits and the coffee making paraphernalia for us. ‘Can you eat?’ I said and she smiled and nodded enthusiastically.
It turned out she’d been in my backpack almost all the time since we’d left Jeannie and Duncan’s place. She told me Kev had arranged it so that I’d have a guide without being aware of it and reminded me how dangerous it was to travel here without one. Guides apparently get some special tricks as part of their training to keep the wildlife here at bay and keep the travellers safe, but it’s a risky business all the same. As she talked I watched her trying to move to get comfortable without exposing herself. She did it very elegantly considering. She would have been quite tall if she’d been normal size, taller than me I thought, and quite slender, and probably quite a bit older than me – maybe thirty or more. Her voice was small but very clear.
‘So, what are you, exactly?’
She looked very amused. ‘You mean am I a fairy?’
‘I don’t think so. I can’t fly. I can move surprisingly fast when I have to. Can I have some more of your coffee?’ I set the cup down on the ground and watched her drink, her little red head over the edge of my cup, her little freckly hands on the brim. She covered herself up again and sat back. ‘There’s a lot of odd ways people are here' she continued, ‘I think a lot of the legends and myths and fairy stories in the world are based on things people have come across here.’
‘I’ve heard that’ I said, and we sat and looked at the river for a while.
‘Maybe you’re a nymph’ I said. She laughed a little and fidgeted in my shirt. ‘Maybe’ she said. I didn’t realise what I’d said until later. It was so embarrassing.
We sat in silence for a while, sharing my coffee. I lit a candle.
She told me she’d spent the whole journey in my pack. It was designed so there were ways through from one compartment to another and she could burrow about very quickly in there without me knowing. I asked about the clean laundry and the food. She said yes, that was her, but wouldn’t explain how she did it.
We sat and looked out for a while. Evening was coming down fast. I wasn’t sure what to say next. It did seem a very odd situation, even by the standards of the afterlife so far. I tried hard to think of something intelligent to say but I couldn’t think of anything.
‘Did you used to hike a lot, you know, before?’ she said eventually. I wasn’t sure what to say. I thought about my drunken stroll into oblivion on the South Downs. I didn’t really want to tell her about that.
‘No, not really’ I said ‘Why do you ask?’
‘Oh, I don’t know – you seem very at ease with it. You know – most people would have gone bonkers by now, given up.’ I look down at her beside me and she’s huddled in the shirt looking up at me. ‘Actually, do you mind if I...’ and she shifts toward me on her bottom, struggling to keep the shirt in place. ‘If I could just...’ and I feel her snuggle up against my leg.
‘Oh I’m so sorry – you must be freezing. Why don’t you let me...’
I looked about for something warmer for her to wear. ‘Maybe in my pocket?’ I suggested. I had a hooded sweatshirt on with big pockets at the hips. I held one open. She looked in doubtfully and I knew what she meant – a bit too close for comfort. Then I had a brainwave - ‘What about my hood? Can you get up?’ After a moment’s hesitation she literally jumped at the chance and was up on my shoulders remarkable quickly, like a squirrel. ‘You really can move, can’t you’ I said.
‘Physics’ I heard her say as she got herself settled up there. ‘Excellent’ she said at last ‘Now I don’t have to shout.’
I looked across the river, at the screes beyond. It was nearly dark. It was the time each day when I was most likely to see dark things moving about, shadows shifting, never sure if they were real, or just my eyes making things up. Sometimes I thought I saw lights, or eyes. There were a couple of nights early on when I just sat rigid half the night, watching, waiting for the moment when they – whatever they were – would rush forward and mutilate me, but nothing came and I quickly got used to just getting into the tent as soon as it got dark and shutting them out. Now I could feel the tiny weight of her up there on my back and I felt safer.
‘Sometimes,’ she said, after a while ‘I used to sit up on the top of the pack like this when you were walking along. You never noticed me did you?’ I said I hadn’t. Or had I noticed there were small transparent panels in the rucksack she could look out from inside? What had I thought they were for? I had to confess I had noticed them but not given it much thought. So much here seemed inexplicable. I said she certainly had a very cosy way of getting about, apart from the grubby underwear of course. ‘And the getting chucked in the river is not much fun either’ she said. I apologised again but I could tell she was just having me on.
‘And I don’t mind your underwear’ she added. ‘You don’t smell too bad anyway – for a bloke.’
At the time I thought Kev was some sort of genius – to give me a female companion, but in such a way that nothing could possibly happen between us – it was a very good idea. I thought what it would have been like with a full size woman accompanying me. I knew it wouldn’t have worked. Of course in reality I was just desperate for company and she knew that. I didn’t ask too many questions because I was afraid she’d disappear and leave me alone again.
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