I spend the next few days out on my own, coming home just to sleep and check the house is still there. I leave a note for Kevin or whoever so they won’t worry. Each evening I go out into the garden to find someone’s been watering my seedlings. On the fourth day I find flowers in a vase from Sonia but I still don’t think I can face her. Shouldn’t I be the one sending flowers anyway?
I decide to explore the river. I start in the tidal channel at the front of my house (assuming that’s what it still is) and in my sandals and shorts, wade up through the pools and riffles along the edges and under the overhanging vegetation until I am deep into the forest. With each step, tiny iridescent fish scatter then follow, scatter and follow. I stop and watch them search among the disturbed sediment. Deeper down, larger fish loom ominously. I may come back with a mask and snorkel. It’s certainly not cold.
Further up I find the water emerges from a deep gully and I can’t follow it because of the tangle of vines and tree roots in there. Instead I climb up onto the edge and try to find a path along the top. It’s very slow going and eventually I have to move further into the trees where there is less undergrowth. With relief I break out into an area where the canopy is too dense for anything much to grow on the forest floor and I can wander about freely, looking up the towering trunks to the branches a hundred metres above. I stand still and wait. Nothing happens. Not a sound, and yet it’s a strange, fizzing, living silence, like I can hear the sap gurgling under the bark and the fungi creeping in the soil. There’s ants - charcoal black but with golden abdomens in a line all the way from the ground to as far as I can see up one of the trees. On another tree a vine clings completely flattened against the bark. The leaves shimmer like silk. The trunk is as wide as a house and rises almost perpendicular out of the forest floor. The vine is like a tiny green thread embroidered there.
I head on into the forest, trying to keep the sound of the water on my left. Everywhere, the more I look the more I see things alive – a tiny porcelain mushroom here, an emerald beetle there, and then unexpectedly I am in full sunlight again and suddenly the magnifying glass glare of every single tiny drop of moisture seems to be scarring my retina. I can’t see a thing and the heat and humidity turns my clothes to wet dish rags. The stink of rotting vegetation makes my brain slide sideways. Slowly the over-exposed scene resolves itself and I find a giant tree lying on its side, so massive I can’t see over the trunk. Many smaller trees lie broken underneath it and a throng of saplings and vines and all manner of weeds stand around and crawl over it, feeding off of it. You can almost feel them clamouring for the space, for the air, for the light, rejoicing in it, flinging tendrils and flowers into it with total abandon. The air is live with birds and insects. All around, the rest of the forest stands about like the pillars of a ruined cathedral – mute witnesses to the vegetable cannibalism going on down here.
I follow the trunk up to where the branches begin two hundred yards along and find a mass of lost and dying vines and epiphytes lying on the ground, bravely trying to carry on living down here in the mud. I find an orchid and a bromeliad lying on their sides still fixed to a broken branch and I decide to take them home with me.
It suddenly occurs to me that I might be in danger. Supposedly I can’t be killed and yet if a jaguar or a dinosaur came and chewed me up and crapped me out could I still come back from that? It doesn’t sound very likely. I pick up my babies and head back the way I came.
Kevin comes by at dusk and finds me trying to contrive some sort of framework for my branch, to keep it upright. It’s not cooperating. I’ve filled the bromeliad’s central reservoir with water and a tiny jade frog has popped out from between the leaves. I’ve called him Wally.
Actually I’m knackered from carrying the thing back all that way through the undergrowth and across the river and I need to stop but I don’t feel I can just leave it lying on its side like this, not after giving it so much hope. Kevin takes hold of it so I can really get in there to wedge rocks around its base. I’m almost in tears with the exertion.
Once we’re inside making a drink he says ‘You could have just propped it up against the wall for the time being.’ Now he tells me.
I have a shower and he puts some music on. There weren’t any speakers for the player for some reason but he’s been able to scrounge some up for me from somewhere.
My fingers are still very sore so he chops the veggies for the curry. He has some fenugreek seed for me from Ross, some to plant, some to grind up for flavour, some to sprout for salads. I’m endlessly grateful to them all.
I ask him how the monk is doing and he says he’s making a good recovery. Apparently I went at him with some broken glass. I don’t want to know. I remember thinking it was the only weapon available at the time.
‘What religion is it?’ I say, once we are settled and the curry is simmering away to itself.
‘The monks. Who do they worship?’
He shrugs ‘I don’t know. Does there have to be a religion?’
I take a moment to mull that one over. ‘But what about the building itself? It’s a church or a temple to something isn’t it?’
‘Not necessarily’ he says.
‘But I felt it’ I say, ‘when I went in there, like a presence... I felt, I don’t know...’
‘Beauty? Love? Peace?’
‘Yes.’ But immediately I think also fear, horror, darkness. I want to ask him what the carvings mean but I don’t want to go there just yet. It’s nice here, like this – peaceful, generous, good-humoured. I don’t want to spoil it.
‘It’s a powerful place alright’ he says eventually and I expect him to add something to that but he doesn’t. He just gets up and puts the rice on to boil.
That night I have visions of a frozen place – terribly dark and unbelievably cold. I’m in that tent – the standard issue one. There’s a cool grey green light on everything, like an old black and white photo. All I can see is my sleeping bag with my legs in it, and various things scattered around – food wrappers, clothes, bits of kit. I’d given up trying to keep things tidy a while ago. I just stayed like that, in a nest of my own junk, waiting. What was I waiting for? I don’t remember. I just remember the cold and the loneliness.
That’s important. There was someone supposed to be there. That’s how I remember it – a terrible feeling of being lost and alone, and of how I’d been so stupid to get separated from them like this. I remember passing the time thinking how I should have been more careful, and that now I’d never see them again and I remember crying a lot, grizzling in the dark. I think I spent most of my time though sleeping, just letting time pass, but then I’d wake up and there it was again – no one.
I lost that feeling later on. By the time I was in the war zone I didn’t feel that at all. I was alone and I had to survive. I just had to keep going. I’d forgotten who it was I had lost, or that there had ever been anyone to lose.
I wake up abruptly and find Kevin sitting beside me telling me I was crying in my sleep and I can’t help it, I just have to hold onto him, and he says it’s ok, it’s ok, and shhh, but I plead with him that they can’t make me leave, not now, and I’m sorry, so sorry, and all in all he doesn’t know what to do. After a while he prises himself loose and I watch him get up and go to the phone to call someone up. I think he’s calling for someone to come and take me away but he calms me down and tells me Sonia and Miguel are on their way over and no one is going to make me go anywhere. I try to believe him but I know there’s a silent ‘yet’ there. We go down and he puts more coffee on and I find some music to listen to. It’s going to be another one of those nights.
So I sit down to write now. The computer is up and humming and I’ve spent the last couple of days or so transcribing my long-hand. I’ve also begun to work on a plan for a big painting of the forest clearing. There are no sizeable walls in the house without things on them so I’ve had to tape my paper to the floor up in the bedroom – three big sheets arranged lengthwise under the far window. Somehow I want to contrast the darkness and peace of the forest with the frenetic pace around the fallen tree – a diptych perhaps.
Sonia didn’t come over that night. She thought better of it. Miguel came over on his own and punched me in the face. It seemed fair enough. I deserved a lot worse. After that the three of us sat around and played backgammon until dawn. I couldn’t concentrate though. Once morning came they were fidgeting and I told them they could go. I lay down on the sofa and wondered what to do...