We soon discovered why nobody had tried to stop us. They knew no one would be stupid enough to go running out into the wilderness.
It seemed like the best thing to do was to move on as quickly as possible. Miranda agreed. I checked the equipment, took one last look the way we’d come and we set off up the slope into the forest.
Later on, sitting at the campfire, chewing on the bones of some sort of wild chicken that Miranda had chased down, I asked her, just conversationally, if that was how all after-life settlements were going to be. She looked at me with a troubled expression and said nothing. I was happy though. If that was the case then that meant I wasn’t going to be settling anywhere any time soon and we’d have more time together, but I sensed she didn’t feel the same way. It wasn’t because she didn’t want to spend time with me she told me and I believed her. It was just... ‘complicated’ she said and then I just felt sad again because I knew she would have to go at some time. I’ve never been any good at putting things out of my mind.
The night passed uneventfully but I didn’t feel sleepy. I watched Miranda sitting there. She was thinking but she wouldn’t tell me what about. It felt like she really wanted to be somewhere else. Sometimes she looked up or turned around – like I’ve seen small animals do when they’ve heard something inaudible to the human ear, or picked up a scent. Then she turned back, glancing over at me, propped up in my sleeping bag, to see if I’d noticed. I pretended not to. (I remember realising, with some surprise that she was about a foot tall now. When had that happened?)
We kept moving – she insisted on it. She said we’re not out of the woods yet and I thought of making a joke about it because obviously we were deep in the forest, but I didn’t say anything. I was just enjoying the scenery. I’d felt nothing of the ‘presence’ I’d felt before. As far as I was concerned it was just another fabulous spring day.
And I watched Miranda’s little body, no longer very thoroughly covered with my scarf. Its hem barely covered her bottom now and I stayed alert for glimpses of what lay underneath, following her as we climbed whenever I could. I couldn’t help it. Of course she knew what I was doing but I didn’t realise I was so obvious at the time. I felt guilty and horny more or less equally and very immature but after all, there were larger pieces of fabric in the bag. She didn’t have to keep on wearing that one. And it was wearing very thin in places too. She said she liked the colour.
Anyway, we travelled uneventfully for the next week or so and our conversation fell into the same half playful – half serious groove it had been in before. She told me more about her childhood and the friends she’d had and places she’d been when she was alive – things she said she’d not thought about for a very long time, things about her mother and the place they’d lived in when she was little, up in Snowdonia. She told me she’d finally ‘checked out’ in ’74, but she’d done everything, and didn’t regret any of it. I knew that wasn’t quite true but I didn’t argue. She had good memories of the sixties and a lot of parties and festivals. She’d seen Bowie and T Rex and The Small Faces and I was very envious. She described for me some of the parties and the bizarre things that had gone on. She didn’t talk about the drugs specifically but I got the impression that they were heavily involved.
And it was good that summer – sleeping in the sun, swimming in ponds, watching the animals and plants do their things. One morning we watched a vast herd of immense shaggy beasts pass by in the valley below, crashing through the undergrowth and churning up the ground. They were accompanied by tall, stocky grey giraffe-like animals and some long-legged birds. I thought it was all fabulous and Miranda was very excited too. She said she was so happy she could show me all this. Then she told me to keep very still and pointed out another animal, something like a cross between a wolf and a wild pig moving stealthily along, keeping pace with the herd.
‘It’s ok’ she said. ‘They’re not very bright and I still remember some of my old guide tricks, but better safe than sorry.’
I’d never been so scared in my life but I thought it was magnificent. Later on, after dark we could still hear the herd going past. There must have been millions of animals out there on the move, each as big as a bus. I asked her what she meant by guide tricks and tried to make a joke about baking cookies and doing the ironing but she ignored me and said some vague things about covering our scent and camouflaging ourselves but I knew that wasn’t the whole story. She was hiding something. I also asked if the animals were in their afterlives, like we were and she said they probably were. They ate and hunted and mated and migrated just as they had in life because they still had their instincts. But they never died, and they never reproduced. ‘They just keep on going, forever’ she said, a little sadly I thought. I wanted to ask how they could survive being eaten but decided I didn’t want to know.
Another night, a few days I suppose later on, we were sitting by the tent looking out across an infinite ocean of grassland with patches of woodland and pools of water like islands randomly scattered across it. It was a clear night and everything was picked out in silver, and quite suddenly I realised there was a sound coming from across the way. I suppose I’d been dozing or maybe just thinking. Miranda looked up at me to see if I’d noticed. The sound was so subtle, like the wind in the trees or rippling the water. It was hard to tell where it was coming from. We sat very still.
‘Best not to disturb them’ she said and nodded a little to our right. There was a ghostly movement in the grass. When I looked directly at it there was nothing to see but I knew they were there. I could feel them somehow. It was as if I could perceive their feelings. It was as if they were nothing but feelings and I could plainly feel them passing by - sad, confused, lonely, and yet wondering vaguely if perhaps things might be better somewhere else.
‘Where are they going?’ I whispered to her.
‘Home’ she whispered back to me and cuddled my arm, like she was suddenly very cold.
‘Where’s that?’ I said.
‘No one knows’ she replied.
Gradually they passed by, in little groups or lone individuals. The yearning in them so strong by the time they came parallel with us I swear I could almost see them – just the merest trace of a person, a feint grey sketch, all substance erased and just this one thought left – to find a place to rest.
The next day we packed up and moved purposefully on, as if we had somewhere to be, but I could see Miranda was even more preoccupied than usual and I knew what she was thinking. She was thinking ‘That’ll be me, one day.’ And she didn’t know if it was better to keep going like this for as long as possible, with me, or to just give in to it.
Anyway, before long it looked like the decision was going to be made for us. Some of the lost were less content to pass peacefully into oblivion.
Something woke me up. I still don’t exactly know what. It was like a sudden drop in temperature or pressure. The woods were utterly silent. I glanced around looking for Miranda and there was just enough light to make out her tiny crouched form staring fixedly at the entrance, waiting, petrified.
I said ‘What’s happening?’ and she just said ‘They’ve found us.’
I got up and slithered toward the door on my belly but she leapt on me and begged me to be still. I wanted to ask what had happened but she fiercely shushed me and made me lie flat.
‘They might not have seen us’ she said in a desperate shrill voice but then there was a sound, a deep groan that I felt through the ground rather than heard exactly. I thought maybe it was a machine, something huge. It reminded me of the sound of the engines, thrumming constantly in the background when we were at sea. But we were in a forest, on a mountainside. And in any case it wasn’t a mechanical sound. It was a voice, or many voices. We felt it become quieter, moving away down the slope and I thought it had gone but then there was another sound, harsher somehow, rushing across the place where we were lying flat on the ground, sweeping down through the tree tops and then whining back in from another direction, flattening us again. I whimpered a little from the pressure in my skull.
It happened three more times that night and each time was like it might never end. I waited in dread for the next one and we were both sat rigidly upright when the dawn came, staring at the doorway (as if something like that would bother with a door.) By morning I was utterly incoherent and we sat in the sun, twitching at every sound.
As soon as there was enough light we packed everything up and moved on.
After a lot of seemingly random scurrying about I had to ask her if she knew where we were going. For the first time since I’d left the boat the path seemed to be petering out and Kevin had told me the most important thing was to stick to the path, whatever happens. Now, here, there seemed to be a whole maze of weak, twisting, overgrown paths, and places that looked as if they might once have been paths but were now just random clearings among the trees. Time and time again we came to places where the way was blocked and I knew we were in trouble. Miranda said nothing to me but her movements had an increasingly frantic pace and she began to mutter to herself. When I asked her what was happening she told me to let her sort it out and there was nothing I could do. She looked at me with contempt and exasperation, then tried to apologise when she saw the hurt expression on my face but there was no time to talk. All too soon the sun was motoring off into the distance again. It was too late. The path disappeared altogether and we came to a slope of boulders, come down among the trees off the side of the mountain above. We hopped and slipped and staggered our way some way up. I knew she no longer knew what she was doing. We were just trying to get out into whatever remaining light there might be, as if that might stop them, whatever they were. She still hadn’t told me.
Miranda and I made it to a relatively large clearing just as the light failed. We sat on a rock too small and craggy to pitch a tent on, surrounded by thorn scrub and watched the night move in among the trees. The forest here was like a spruce plantation. Ranks of tall, perfectly vertical black trunks surrounded the clearing on all sides and receded endlessly into the wet fog, apparently into infinity. I looked up at the canopy of sea green needles above, merging into the haze as night and drizzle descended on us. There wasn’t a breath of wind. I felt her reach for my hand and huddle against me. ‘I’m so sorry’ she said and began to cry, slow heavy tears. ‘I have been so selfish’ she said. All I could do was hold her close and stroke her hair. I said ‘It’s ok. We’ll be ok’ and she just looked at me with an expression that simply asked how I could be so dim. But she was grateful for it. I sensed that.
When nothing happened immediately I asked her what it was we were running from and, because she knew there was no point wasting time hiding any more she sat up, dried her eyes and told me I wouldn’t see them probably. They would come for us, cautiously at first because they were afraid of us too, and they couldn’t see very well or move very easily, but when they knew where we were, and how alone we were, and how powerless... Then they’d come. I asked who ‘they’ were and she told me they were the lost – her kind, the hopeless and the despairing. The way I looked at her I suppose showed my scepticism. They sounded tragic, certainly, but not dangerous. She shook her head. ‘You don’t get it’ she said and at that moment I saw the first movement among the trees at the foot of the slope. She saw it too and at the same time I heard that same low mournful note echoing up and down the valley below, hunting for us it seemed, blindly, casting about.
‘What’s doing that?’ I yelled over the row. We heard it coming up towards us again and crouched down against the rock as it came down. I looked up and all the trees were bending and twisting as if something was trying to wrench them down. But of the thing itself, all I saw a darkening wave in the air as it went past – nothing more.
‘Despair’ she said. ‘Endless despair’ and I was immediately aware of figures watching us from the edge of the clearing, barely distinguishable from the silhouettes of the ferns and brushwood they stood amongst, but undoubtedly there. They were just pale forms standing about in the undergrowth with just the trace of a face – just a smudge for eyes and mouth. I never saw one move but every time I looked back they were a little closer. I swung around and found they were standing all around us, just a few feet away, and with that impossible clamour in the air, swirling like a tornado above us, thrashing the branches about, I stood up and yelled at them. I stood up and I screamed ‘Fuck off! Fuck off and leave us alone!’
Everything stopped. The noise tailed off and settled to a hum. They were all very close. Miranda was crouched at my feet transfixed and shaking somewhat, waiting for the worst and I stood there watching them all, staring them out, not taking my eyes off them. Eventually I couldn’t stand up any more and I crouched down but I watched them all night, with Miranda sat there beside me, waiting for a move that never came. When the sun came along she was asleep and I carried her out of the clearing and along the ridge and onto a well-worn path, exactly where I knew it would be.
After a while I pitched the tent and lit a fire, all the while letting her sleep. Then, by mid morning I had to lie down too, just as she was blearily beginning to move about. She let me sleep.
Later, when we had both recovered a little she said ‘It’ll be a bright night tonight. No clouds. They won’t be back tonight.’ We knew they’d watch us but they weren’t going to try anything. I wasn’t even sure now that they were going to do anything to us. They just seemed to want to look at us. I was sure they weren’t like the first group we’d seen, out on the savannah. The feeling was quite different.
Looking at them standing around in that clearing the night before, the only thing I’d felt was emptiness and loneliness and cold but they were attracted by our warmth and liveliness. They wanted it and hated it at the same time and if they got close enough I knew they’d extinguish it. I wasn’t sure whether they understood that, or anything, for that matter. They just had to come and find us, to be near us, to look at us. I wondered where Miranda fitted into all this.
After several uneventful nights she began to tell me a few things. We’d been travelling along broad ancient roads cut into the hillsides and with traces of cobbling still visible in some places. We were making good time, beginning to talk more normally, as we had before, but I knew she was keeping things from me.
We were sitting looking into the embers and she said ‘That was very brave of you, back there, swearing at them.’ I knew she was being sarcastic but I pretended to take it as a compliment.
I said ‘I was just sick of waiting for them to do something.’
I suppose I was being a bit cocky.
‘Well you were lucky’ she replied after a while. ‘We both were.’
‘Well it was a lot of noise and so on but really, what could they do?’
‘We were lucky’ she said again, looking intently into my face.
I couldn’t accept that. I’d been the hero after all. ‘I don’t know’ I said ‘I just thought they needed a bit of standing up to. I think they responded...’
‘You confused them. That’s all. They didn’t know what to do about you. And yes, you may be right. Maybe they’ll just leave us alone now. I don’t know.’
Something about her tone brings me back down to earth, or wherever. I want to know what she knows about them, what her connection with them is and she begins to prevaricate again but I push her for an answer.
‘You know them don’t you.’
She looks away, then finally, she nods.
‘Ok. Are you one of them?’
‘In a way, yes. But it’s not that simple. Gabriel please...’
‘Why aren’t you with them. Why didn’t you stay with them? I mean, I don’t want you to go, but...’
She sits and says nothing again but I think she will talk eventually so I wait. We sit and look into the embers a bit more and I decide to get up and throw some more wood on, to keep it going a bit longer. I stand up. They’re still out there. I know it. She knows it. It occurs to me that maybe she fell in love with me, like in those old stories about squaws and cowboys and now she’s trying to protect me from her people. Maybe that’s it. I can’t ask her though. It would sound ridiculous.
‘The thing you have to remember Gabriel’ she says at last, almost inaudibly ‘is that nothing’s cut and dried here. It’s not them and us, or you and us rather. It’s all rather confusing...’ I watch her trying to formulate her sentences, explain to me without getting herself into even more trouble, because she is in trouble. I can see that.
‘But you are one of the lost spirits, right?’
‘It’s not as simple as that. Please Gabriel. I’m trying to...’
‘You’re nearly lost, or something. You said something like that. Is that why you’re so small?’ And I see her begin to cry. I reach out to her but she turns her back on me and curls up. She looks especially small now and I suddenly realise it’s because she’s far away. It’s a trick of perspective. She doesn’t shrink and grow at all. She gets further away or closer. How strange. I sit down and want to cry a little too. It all seems too terrible but she turns on me and says, very fiercely ‘Don’t you start’ and I’m not sure if she’s joking. I look about to see if they’re closing in again. I can’t see anything.
‘I...’ she begins, leaning back ‘I just sort of hitched a lift, you know? With you. I liked the look of you, so I... We do that some times. Like a final fling, you know?’
‘Did you want to trap me, get me lost too?’
‘I don’t... No. Not really. You don’t... we don’t, think, exactly. It’s not planned. We don’t think “Ooh I’ll have him. I’ll make him one of us.” It’s not like that.’
‘But you could have.’
‘Could have what?’
‘Made me like you. Couldn’t you?’
‘You looked like... I thought you might be. I don’t know...’
‘You thought I looked hopeless. But I’m not, am I?’
She says nothing for a while, then looks up at me and says ‘Make us a coffee will you?’ and I can see exactly how she was when she died, that sadness on her face. I know it. I’ve seen it before.
I get the coffee pot out and find some water. She just sits and looks into the newly roaring fire.
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