The night-time glow penetrated the material of the tent, casting my belongings in a dim, slate grey relief. Something had awoken me. I knew it was not morning or anywhere near. I could just make out the length of my sleeping bag and the bulge of my feet at the bottom of it, and the discarded clothes and other objects filling the space between me and the sides of the tent itself – my socks, my waterproofs, my papers and pencils, my sunglasses and my boots, my hat and my shorts. To my left there were the openings into the rucksack, unzipped, spilling open, revealing containers of coffee, matches, chocolate, toiletries and cutlery, first aid kit and yet more underwear.
I sensed a presence outside rather than heard it. I wondered if I should wake Miranda. Presumably she was in there, buried somewhere among my damp and musty belongings but I had no sense of her. As time had gone by I’d learned to recognise her scent and hear her tiny movements – even her breathing, but the moment was horribly still. I knew sometimes she went out alone at night – to get some fresh air she said, or to clear her head but I knew there was something she was not telling me. I wondered if she was looking for something, or hiding from something, or meeting someone. For some reason this last possibility made me angry and depressed. I lay there on my back, looking at the stitching along the ridge, waiting for something to happen, not daring to move.
She always said she could take care of herself, and she’d told me not to ‘be such an old woman’ but I couldn’t help it. Every time I tried to relax and clear my mind, like she’d shown me, my head just got crowded up again with images of her mangled body and her crying alone and lost and cold out there somewhere. It was like she had no idea how small she was now. A couple of times I’d hurt her just by being a bit clumsy and she’d yelled at me and made a terrible fuss, but then she’d go on at me for suggesting that she was in any danger out alone at night with who-knew-what prowling about out there. I don’t know. It was like she just had to do it, to prove something.
After what seemed like hours there was the unmistakable sound of something enormous shifting, turning and getting up, moving off and pushing its way between the trees. Immediately there was more light and more air, as if the thing had been casting a huge shadow. Then other sounds became audible – the normal night time hubbub of insects and small mammals scurrying around in the leaves. Had they been waiting for it to leave so they could go about their business? Soon after that I heard a tiny person pull open a zip, push her way into the interior of the rucksack and close the zip behind her. I waited for her to settle but after a while I could tell she wasn’t able to sleep either. I asked quietly if she was alright but there was no reply. I resolved to ask her about it in the morning but when I did she claimed not to know what I was on about and changed the subject. Sometimes it seemed like she had only two moods – angry or happy, that was all. Luckily for me she seemed happy most of the time.
Summer was taking on the unmistakable tones of autumn as we moved along. The path she led me along had taken an awkward turn up into the mountains again, through a narrow ravine and along the side of another gorge, which felt wrong to me, but I didn’t like to argue. There wouldn’t have been any point anyway. Miranda travelled up on top of my pack or straddling the nape of my neck, still dressed in nothing but my red silk neckerchief, giving instructions, pointing the way.
At other times she went on ahead, leaving the piece of cloth behind and making me promise not to look as she skipped on ahead, leaping from boulder to boulder, or up into the branches of a tree to get a better look at the way ahead. Later on she’d reappear, demurely, peering at me from behind a log and holding her hand out for her ‘sarong’. Usually she was wearing her evil grin when this happened, but a few times, after a particularly long time away (sometimes she didn’t reappear until after dark) I could see she was cut and bruised and in need of some comfort although she would never admit it. Times like that she curled up into my lap or under my fleece and fell asleep there. I had to be careful not to roll over and squash her.
I didn’t really find out how bad things were until one night I was waiting up for her – a totally soot-black night full of movement and smells. I was really worried about her and lit an extra big campfire because I thought it would help guide her home. It was the first heavy snowfall of the season too and the first real winter night. The leaves were almost all gone from the branches and everything looked stark and spare. I sat there with a piece of meat on a stick, worrying and trying to get it to cook evenly, as she’d shown me (She was a proficient hunter of small animals too). Just below, in a heavily wooded dip full of brambles and fallen branches I could tell there was something waiting. I couldn’t tell what but I knew. I tried not to think about it but as time went on I became increasingly aware of a sweet, fungal stink, like something long dead and yet hot and alive, close by. I waited for the shadows to move.
When Miranda suddenly reappeared I shrieked with surprise and she laughed at me but it was not funny. One of her legs was badly mauled, cut down to the tiny violet bones in a couple of places and I made her lie still, shivering and stuttering, wrapped in my scarf as I tried to make her more comfortable. I kept saying ‘I thought they couldn’t hurt you here’ but she just shook her head. Maybe that was just on the boat. She kept saying she was sorry, over and over again, and how she’d make everything alright. I sat up with her all night as she passed in and out of sleep and the creatures, not one but many, waited outside.
‘What’s going on?’ I said when I saw she was awake the next morning. The wind was roaring in the tops of the trees and had thrown off every last leaf, but our camp was settled in the curve of a small corrie, a bowl scooped out of the hillside and the air around us was still. The first sprays of the new day’s rain splattered against us unpredictably, bringing down tiny twigs and flecks of bark that floated in my coffee cup. Miranda huddled down next to the embers and hugged her cup of coffee. She didn’t say anything. She acted at first like she didn’t know what I was talking about but then gave up the subterfuge. She was extremely tired and in a lot of pain.
I knelt down to make it easier for her to tell me without having to shout but she looked away so I got up and bad-temperedly stomped off, ostensibly to find more wood. I heard her tiny voice behind me as I went. She sounded like she was might have been saying sorry but I kept going. More likely she was yelling at me not to be so melodramatic.
When I got back I was briefly panicked because she was not where I’d left her but then I heard her calling to me from inside the tent. It was raining more steadily now so I decided to join her in there.
She looked absolutely wretched, and if anything, even smaller than before. I got the fire going and put some coffee on to brew, then went in and sat with her. She sat on my leg, leaning against my belly, pulling my fleece over herself.
She said ‘I might not be around much longer. You know that don’t you.’
I said I didn’t and what did she mean. I had an idea what she was getting at but I didn’t want to say it.
‘I’m not really a guide’ she said. ‘I did used to be... I’m sorry.’
‘But, you said...’
‘I know. I’m really sorry.’
‘What about what you said about Kev? You said...’
‘I know. Gabriel, I’m sorry. I was there when you set out. I overheard...’
I look at her, not sure what to say.
‘Lie down with me will you?’ she says.
‘I need to keep an eye on the coffee’ I say and moving her gently aside I step out into the now heavy rain. I knew there was something. Now I don’t know what she’s up to at all. Obviously I can’t trust her.
When I go in with our drinks I find she hasn’t moved. She’s just sitting there, focussing on nothing, huddled in my clothes. ‘Here’ I say and put the little beaker down beside her. ‘Careful, it’s hot.’ She nods.
‘I just wanted some company’ she says quietly, after she’s taken a few sips, ‘before I go. I just didn’t want to be alone. I’m sorry. I’ve put you in danger. The next settlement we come to, I promise...’
I take that to mean we could have stopped before now. I don’t know what I think of that. Actually I’m not so sure I wanted to stop anyway, not now I have her around. I tell her so and she smiles a little. ‘Thanks’ she says. ‘You’re sweet.’
‘I mean it.’
‘But you shouldn’t have been alone, not all this time.’
‘I’m used to it. It’s ok. Anyway, I’m not alone.’
‘Still...’ she says and drinks a bit more before lying back down. The rain has passed and a little sunlight illuminates our bed.
‘I’ve never had a woman before, of any kind’ I say. ‘I don’t need anyone else. This is all I ever wanted.’
‘I don’t think so’ she says, and can’t help herself laughing at me. I can see why.
‘But you know what I mean don’t you?’ I say and she nods but is not convinced. She’s older and wiser. Thinking about it now it’s just ridiculous, but at the time...
After we’ve sat there a bit longer she says ‘Shall we get moving? It looks like it’s brightening up a bit’ and so we do, packing up all the equipment, collapsing the tent and extinguishing the fire. She climbs into one of my long red hiking socks and I put her in my hood and we’re off.
Within a few days we come upon our first signs of human habitation for what seems like months – some fields of what were once cabbages and corn – now just severed grey stumps, then an orchard, and then, unexpectedly, the settlement itself, which at first sight seems to be a tall, oddly shaped hill, all peaks and lumps with smoke rising from several places in its summit. As we get closer it looks more and more like one of those massive gothic cathedrals but apparently made of soil and wood. Its steep, terraced sides are overgrown with an unruly embroidery of vegetation interspersed with ramshackle sheds and fences and other, less explicable constructions – masts and scaffolds. Our, by now, broad and well-worn path leads across what appears to be a moat and Miranda says ‘I’ll be in here if you need me. I’m not supposed to be here’ and I hear her burrowing around down in the bowels of my baggage emitting tiny cries of pain, trying to get comfortable. I approach what appears to be a cave at the foot of the hill, pausing a while to take in the people working on the near vertical allotments above. A rampant pumpkin vine swings dangerously over the opening, strung with enormous fruit.
At the gate, two what seem to be guards observe me indifferently as I pass inside, into a tunnel that is almost too low to walk upright in. The heat and the smell are overpowering but not unpleasant – roasted meat, meths and some sort of perfume, like stale after-shave, and it’s very dark. The only light comes from a few feeble and flickering kerosene lamps along the walls. A steady stream of fresh air flows in with me. Gradually, after a few twists and forks in the tunnel I come across more and more of the occupants, sitting in huddles or engaged in some activity – cooking or needlework or perhaps writing, settled among their belongings, looking indifferently at me as I pass or minding their own business. Most seem to be in robes or other loose fitting garments and all seem to be more or less grimy and dishevelled. I’m told later that this area tends to be occupied only by the most ‘useless’ members of the community. A stiff wind whistles past. Moving on, there are more lanterns and the atmosphere lightens too. There is a hot, greasy, smoky gloom about the place and a rich fug of spices and incense and bodily odour. A larger chamber, as big as a small church and apparently carved out of the solid rock is crowded with people in more colourful garb, making jewellery and crockery and food or playing music or games, chatting and smoking and eating. Above us the ceiling is invisible in the smoke and shadows but seems very high indeed. The wind carries the smoke up into the roof.
After a few more bewildering turns in the tunnels, a lot of stair cases and ignoring some low and ill-lit side passages (with yet more desultory residents) we finally come out in a huge chamber, a great dome-shaped space with yet more traders and artisans milling around, some very finely dressed indeed. I wander about among them. Several offer me smoke or drink as I pass but I have no money. I begin to feel that I need somewhere to stop and rest and think. I notice there are small shadowy openings arranged around the perimeter of the chamber and I make for one of them. I sit down and open my pack. I ask if she’s ok in there and she gives me an impatient whisper in return ‘I’m fine. Close the top.’ I look around to see if anyone saw. Some people were looking vaguely in my direction. Should I be worried? I can’t tell. I don’t feel relaxed, that’s for sure.
I find myself something to sit on and think about having a brew. I look about. Nobody seems very interested in me anyway. I look up and see that the ceiling is really extremely high and I realise I can see daylight above, far above, through a tiny opening. That must have been the smoke I saw rising from the summit. Behind me, from the darkness the cool air streams in. It’s like a huge stove, or one of those termite nests you see on the wildlife programmes, with its own air conditioning system. As I sit and marvel at the engineering two heavily armoured figures suddenly blot out my view. I can’t see their faces or understand what they say but the message is clear. I collect up my belongings and follow them.
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