I have just a few things to tell about the last part of the journey. The weather was bright and the path was broad and rutted, suggesting that something with wheels travelled this way. When I’d started out the trees had still been leafless and the spring sunshine lit the woodland floor intensely, illuminating the cushions of moss and piles of leaves and the elegant nodding flowers that emerged through them, sometimes in their thousands. Later on I came across massive ruins half hidden among the trees and ferns and I once spent the night in the roofless shell of a vast chamber, under a monstrous tree that had rooted into the wall. I didn’t get much sleep because there was too much murmuring and movement in the stones. It was quieter out under the sky.
I never did tell the others what I’d seen on my way to the retreat. I wasn’t even sure it had really happened. One spring day Jim had taken a party outside around the wall on one of his ‘nature rambles’. I went along as well, for a laugh. He admitted himself that he wasn’t very knowledgeable about plants and animals, but found it fascinating and wanted to pass on some of the observations he’d made over the seasons. He needn’t have bothered. Half the party had gone back before we were even a hundred yards from the main gate and we hadn’t even begun to descend the rocky path down into the trees. The other half were too scared to concentrate. What they imagined was down there I never really discovered. Jim was mystified as well, although he too had been warned of the dangers lurking ‘out there’. He’d never witnessed anything conclusive but swore nevertheless that ‘things’ lived out there. Some days the place was swarming with life and you could hardly take a step without crushing something. Other times, under apparently identical conditions, there was nothing – nothing but the sense of being accompanied by something powerful and unfriendly as he put it. I asked if he believed in God. He said he used to. I mentioned what Joe had told me about the lost spirits and he said he thought that sounded plausible. Some of those bright, silent days, the place had felt very ‘busy’ nonetheless. There was a ‘clamour’ to it we couldn’t explain.
We never really became close, Jim and I. He liked to tell you things, often at great length and mostly you just had to listen and as time went on I got a little tired of that. He was a bit too much like my dad to be honest so in the end I was glad to get away.
And so I walked. The high broadleaf forest covered itself in leaves and then gave way to a flatter landscape of meadows and streams and marshes.
My final encounter with the lost spirits happened a couple of months later. I’d been walking solidly, doggedly determined to arrive at wherever it was. Every day I awoke with the sun, made my coffee, thought a little of Miranda and packed my things together. Then I started walking and I didn’t stop until it was getting dark. That’s how it was. It had been maybe eight years since my death, or more perhaps. Often it seemed like much more. I could barely picture what life had been like.
All around me the land became arid and the heat more intense. The plants were brittle and grey and the air smelt of lavender and pine. I was really very content.
I came across more settlements along the way, as Miranda had told me I would. Mostly they were quiet, gentle communities made up of a few houses or shacks in various styles and with or without gardens or fields. Mostly people were friendly and generous and offered a place to sleep and food if it was available. Some places were lively with music or brightly coloured ornaments and plants. Other places were rather serious and inward in temperament. I usually stayed for just a single night, used the shower, perhaps did some chores and treated myself to a meal but I had no wish for luxury or company. In any case I’d never felt entirely alone even in the most deserted spots. The spirits were everywhere. Some evenings as the sky turned purple I could feel them resting in the stones and the trees around me, aware of my passing but profoundly unmoved by it.
I found a rocky place surrounded by some extraordinary trees with thick grey trunks that branched only at the top, making an impenetrable dome of spikes way above my head. The leaves were like thick grey claws. I found a place where a rock had fallen against the bark and there was blood leaking away, red and sticky. I sat among them for the night and looked across a vast stony plain at the mountains in the distance.
In another place, I found what appeared to be a fortified town, deserted and still. Its thick white walls enclosed a cluster of low box-like dwellings, all built against one another without any streets or pathways in between. In one I found an iron stove, in another, a small ceramic pot. I climbed up through a square opening in one of the ceilings and walked across the flat roofs. The place felt like it had been deserted hundreds of years ago, perhaps thousands. And yet the walls and floors were not silent. All night I could hear them talking among themselves and I had to leave in the dark and lie down nearby in the open until it got light.
Finally there was a place where I sat beside a cool clear pool under some palm trees and took all my clothes off to swim. The spirits there were more tranquil and when they came to join me I sensed they simply wanted to pass the time. I never saw them properly – just from the corner of my eye I would sense a movement and turn but there’d be nothing to see. That seemed to amuse them. They told me things about the world they had come from, the things they remembered. Their memories were mostly of hardship and brutality but they told me about it without any real bitterness or recrimination. It was too long ago. That was just how it had been for them at that time. It was nobody’s fault. I told them what I could remember about the world I’d come from and that kept them amused for a time but none of them seemed to envy me. As I lay there under the night sky I could hear them gossiping to each other about me, patronisingly agreeing that I had a lot to learn about life. By morning they were silent again and I moved on.
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