delta - ⚔️ #Survival: staying alive, continuing the journey
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The next morning I woke up in the warm rays of the Sun, but could not stand on my feet. No sign of human presence was visible in this area, only bare mountain ridges were marking the horizon everywhere. I was surrounded by a wild, unforgiving landscape wrapped in a queer beauty. A scenery where, compared to Earth, everything seemed a bit out of place. Yet I couldn’t explain what exactly was different.
The people from the city had not followed me on this side of the river and I was relieved to see myself beyond the reach of their weapons. Perhaps they thought I had drowned in the swamp and abandoned their pursuit. I was safe from them, at least for the time being, anyway. Why would the islanders keep such a large army always ready for action, anyway? Were they afraid of an invasion from the sea? We knew so little about them!
The lack of food during the previous few days had made my body extremely weak. I was also tortured by a strong nausea and stomach cramps, probably from the ingested river water. And now, in the bright sunlight, I was also in danger of a sunstroke. On top of that, I had the feeling I could glimpse some eagles rotating very high in the sky, perhaps waiting for my death so that they could feed from my corpse.
With all my remaining strength, I began crawling slowly towards the shadow of a tree, located about twenty meters ahead. Once in a while I would faint, but would come back to my senses after a few minutes and continue my advance with the speed of a snail. When I finally reached the tree, it was almost noon and the sunrays were already burning my neck. As soon as I felt safe under the branches, I sank once more into a painful and numbing sleep.
When I woke up again, the evening shadows were spreading over the ground. Part of the pain and nausea were gone, but I was way too weak to travel. I noticed in the grass, next to me, several fruits similar to oranges, probably fallen from the branches. I decided to try eating one, assuming by its looks that it was not poisonous. Without food, I would have died anyway, so there was little to lose.
I was lucky. The fruit had a refreshing taste and appeared to be full of nutrients. Still feeling pain everywhere in my body, I took small morsels and forced myself to keep eating until I finished it. Then I grabbed another one and managed in about half an hour to chew all of it, too. Soon after that I fell asleep again.
June 17 — The second morning on the other side of the river. I’m still very weak and all my body aches and feels like being made of rubber, but for the first time I can stand up and walk slowly. My nausea and stomach cramps are gone. Returning to the city along the path I used a few nights ago is not an option. The area might be still guarded. I should be recognized immediately and captured or killed, this time not even having the strength to run away. I still cannot understand what could have happened that night to ignite such a violent conflict.
The best plan is to continue the trek along the river’s bank all the way to the sea. Rivers almost always flow towards civilization. I could find food along the way and learn more about this land. After arriving at the ocean, I could go along the shore until I reach the outskirts of the city. I might walk or I could use a raft. I don’t have any tools to build one, but maybe I shall find along the way a village where I could get some help. There could be opportunities to change my clothes with something used by the locals and sneak back in the city without being recognized.
Tying together my coat’s sleeves and making out of it an improvised bag, I put inside it as many fruits as it can carry. They will help me keep both hunger and thirst under control for a while. Due to the unpleasant effects resulted from ingesting the river’s water, I’d rather avoid as much as possible drinking it. I also grab a dry branch and turn it into a long stick, planning to use it like a cane until my strength fully recovers.
With my slow speed, I can barely cover one kilometer or so in one hour. Several large white birds are flying above and dive every once in a while into the river, fishing. Rough, short grass blades cover the land, while isolated trees are scattered here and there. No big animals can be seen along the bank or on the higher grounds. The rocky mountain ridge seems to go parallel with the stream. In a few places, long veins of gold are visible on the bare slopes.
I have to take frequent rest breaks, and use each of them to eat a fruit. My condition is gradually improving and my mind can think clearly again. I begin to inspect my possessions. My watch was damaged by water andhas stopped working. Its glass is cracked, too. However, its condition is not beyond repair and I shall keep it until I have the chance to make it functional again. Luckily, my notebook and pencil were well protected in the flat, waterproof wooden box from my chest pocket. A small, folding knife thought lost had fallen into the stuffing of my coat and will be a valuable possession inside this wilderness, but my flint is gone and I will encounter difficulties if I want to start a fire.
At noon, I take a longer break and spend about an hour on the river bank, taking off my clothes and boots and cleaning them the best I can, given the circumstances. Then, while they are drying in the Sun, I search for rocks that could be used to start a fire. It takes me only a few minutes to find a couple of stones that look useful for this type of job. When I hit them against each other, they produce quite a few sparks. With my little knife, I make a spear out of a long branch and try to catch some fish with it. Unfortunately, without success.
Continuing my inspection of the available local resources, I glimpse some long vines growing farther away in the grass. I cut the longest ones and manage to knit from them a primitive basket that can be carried on my back, releasing my coat from this kind of work. The new bag will be employed to carry fruits or other useful objects I could find on my way. I take with me several more vines to be utilized later as ropes.
Late in the afternoon I feel more and more energetic. My speed has increased to about three kilometers per hour. On my way, I find more orange-like fruits and fill my little basket with them. The river valley is becoming narrower now and the bank has a rocky consistency. Maybe it’s my imagination, but it seems the water course is becoming narrower, too.
At night, I gather dry branches and succeed in making a fire by striking several times my flint rocks on each other. I improvise a torch and try to do some fishing in the dark. My light attracts the fish towards the surface and this time I succeed in catching two of them. They look similar to graylings. While the fish are getting cooked above the flames, I discover a small spring flowing from a nearby rock. For the first time since the dinner at the palace, I am not hungry or thirsty. Soon I dive into the world of dreams.
June 18 — My body feels fully recovered and eager to continue the journey. I eat a few fruits, fill the basket with more, picked up from a tree nearby, and get on moving for a second day. There is no recipient to carry water with me and I shall have to rely on every opportunity along the way to quench my thirst. I’ll drink water from the river only if there is no other option available.
After about one hour of walking, the valley becomes as narrow as the river itself. I’m surrounded now by steep cliffs covered with scattered patches of moss. On the ground full of big stones and boulders, my speed slows down considerably. In the air saturated with mist, inside the wide space from above that is exposed to the sunrays, rainbows take form and dissolve in a silent symphony of colors. The rock walls have an unusual blue tint, almost as if someone had painted them with a giant brush. Could this rock be a type of whinstone?
There are no more trees with fruits, in fact both banks of the river are completely barren here. I take a long break at noon and spend about two hours fishing. My spearing skills have improved and this time I catch five river creatures: two salmons and three graylings. Cooking them takes another hour and it’s already late afternoon when I start marching again.
In the narrow gorge, the night seems to come sooner. At sunset, I find a cave and decide to sleep inside it. Some water drips from a corner of its ceiling and it is more than welcome to alleviate my thirst, as I improvise a cup from the skin of one of my fruits to collect it. The trees are completely gone from the landscape. By happy chance, several thick bushes still grow nearby and I can collect enough dry twigs for a fire. After dinner, a deep slumber grabs me almost instantly.
I sit inside the cave, next to the fading flames and listen to the whispering voice of the river. The waves generate low, rhythmic sounds that combine into a sad and monotonous melody, reminding me of Excelsior’s prow sliding above the ocean waters. The giant moon is preparing to set and suddenly I feel someone’s presence nearby. Lifting my head, I glimpse the dark outline of a standing man.
He takes a few steps towards the cave’s entrance, then turns towards me. The pale light of the dying fire unveils his preoccupied face. The second-in-command stands right here, dressed in his ceremonial uniform. This can’t be happening. Am I awake? No, I can’t be. I must be dreaming. However, dreaming or not, I have to find out what he has to say. I feel this is something important for me.
“How come you are here sir?” I ask abruptly, skipping any introductory remarks.
“How did you find me? Am I close to the shore? Is Excelsior nearby? Am I awake, or am I dreaming?”
The first lieutenant continues to look at me in silence. The whole scene feels awkward and my own words, echoed by the cave walls, sound distorted, as if coming from someone else’s mouth.
“You’re dreaming,” he answers in the end and takes a seat on a boulder, on the other side of the embers. I decide to be patient and remain silent, waiting for him to restart the conversation. For a while, we look at each other and nobody says anything.
Then he breathes out: “I just came to say good bye.”
“What do you mean? Where are you going? Has Excelsior already left the Island?”
I was hoping all this time to escape from this place, reach the coast, and have my ship waiting for me somewhere near. Now I feel the claws of doubt biting my flesh. The first lieutenant doesn’t answer immediately. Another long period of silence follows. Then he goes on, in a low voice:
“I was among the people who died in the fight that took place in the city. They call it Ora Urbo in their language, and that means Gold City.”
“This can’t be true. I thought I saw you next to the captain, crossing the mobile bridge and returning to the ship.”
“An arrow pierced through my back and damaged my aorta. I managed to reach the ship’s deck but died from the internal bleeding a few hours later, aboard Excelsior. The doctor could not save me.”
Long, uneasy silence again. Even though I know I’m dreaming, I feel he is telling the truth.
“I am very sorry for your life loss,” I add, awkwardly, in the end. “I had no weapons with me and could not even join our group to protect its retreat because I was surrounded and attacked by the locals, too. They cut me off from the harbor and wanted to kill me. I tried to take a detour and reach the ship from the quay, but was prevented from doing so by the numerous enemy soldiers there. The locals didn’t even let me reach the shore at the edge of the city. In the end I had to run far away from the coast and here I am now, in this bare wilderness, trying to survive on my own until I can get back to the ocean and to Excelsior.”
“This was my destiny, I suppose,” continues the first lieutenant while looking towards the cave’s entrance, as if he hasn’t heard my words. “My life was not so bad. In the end, sooner or later, we all have to go.”
“Then, can you tell me what happened at the palace while I was exploring the city?” I ask him, full of anxiety.
This time, he turns his face towards me, as if awaken from his own dream. His answer comes a moment later:
“Of course. The dinner feast was going on nicely. The king brought a few musicians with drums, harps, and lutes and we were being entertained with beautiful melodies, one after another. After a while, even his daughter, a charming young woman, came among us from her quarters and began singing a song herself. I suppose the local wine was starting to have a bad influence on some of our sailors. One of them took his gun out and released a shot in the air. The nearby palace wall amplified it into a powerful blast, almost like a thunder strike. Suddenly, all the locals, including the king, ran away.
“Petrified, we stared at the drunk sailor and the captain scolded him vigorously. Our people thought it was only a minor disturbance and were sure everything was going to return quickly back to normal. However, just a few moments after this incident, something huge, shaped like a snake, came from the sky and plunged over the entrance where the king had disappeared.
“Then we realized that perhaps this was the real source of their scare. From inside, the king’s soldiers managed to defend their sovereign with their halberds. I and a few sailors shot at the creatures with our guns, but the bullets didn’t seem to hurt it. An instant later, the monster, which looked like an Asian dragon, flew away, fading in darkness with ample moves that looked like swimming through the air.
“What we didn’t know was that the thunder is ascribed to evil in their society. The unnatural coincidence of the dragon’s attack was blamed on us, too. The locals believe in a prophecy about a group of demons who will come one day to kill their king, disguised as people from a far away land and possessing magic tools that can imitate the sound of thunder. With these magic tools they will summon a dragon from the sky who is going to help them.
“All these coincidences put us in the worst possible situation, especially as it was not obvious to them that we shot at the dragon and not at the king. I suppose they interpreted our gesture as a magic way of helping the huge creature capture their monarch. Now everybody took us for demons or demon-possessed people that had to be killed at once. As I said, when the incident happened, we still had no idea about the local’s interpretation of it.
“The captain was just preparing to walk towards the area where the king had disappeared, with the intention to apologize for the gun incident and ask him about the dragon, when suddenly we found ourselves surrounded by soldiers with swords and halberds. Without warning, they attacked us, with the obvious intention to kill. A few gunshots repelled the first wave, but more and more of them kept coming. Seeing how the violence escalated, we decided to retreat immediately to the ship. You saw the rest of the incident yourself.”
“Then, if I stayed and waited for their mercy…”, I reply in a feeble voice.
“They would have killed you on the spot as a demon.”
“How do you know about all these details from their prophecy?”
“The king’s translator shouted them at us from an open window placed high above when the fight had started…”
I ponder for a few moments whether to ask him more questions about what happens to a person after death, but decide it’s better to stick to the living world for the time being. So, I continue:
“And what occurred after you returned to the ship?”
“After we left the pier, two of their vessels tried to attack us in the open waters. Of course, it was an unequal battle, due to our obvious technological superiority. Excelsior sank quickly the first and damaged the second so badly that it could barely return to the harbor.
“In the morning I was already dead. Still, this world seems to have different laws for those who live in it, even if only for a short time. Although the life had already left my body, I was well aware of everything that was happening around me. I could see the ship, the city towers, the port, the coast line washed by the waves, my own corpse buried at sea, the sad faces of the crew members, and I could hear the captain’s voice swearing revenge. He promised not to leave until he had recovered from the shore the bodies of all the fallen comrades and the locals had paid him a large quantity of gold, as a compensation for their treacherous act.
“At noon, Excelsior approached the harbor again and used one of our harpoon canons to send a message to the city. The captain asked for the bodies of our crew, a payment of at least ten thousand pounds of gold, and an official apology from the king. If they rejected his conditions, he was going to start destroying all their towers one by one, bombarding them from far away so that no arrows from the shore could reach the ship.
“This was supposed to be a good deal for the locals, if we think how cheap the gold seems to be around here, but they were too terrified by the similarity between what had occurred during the previous night and their prophecy. They were still thinking of us as demons. To negotiate with the paragons of evil was unacceptable in their culture, so they refused the terms from the letter. Therefore, the captain began demolishing their towers with the ship’s canons, sending periodically new messages where he explained that we are people like them, and not demons.
“The last time a ship from our world visited the Island was long ago, before the invention of the firearms. For this reason, the people coming from our world never had any conflicts with the locals. As for the flying dragon, I have no idea why and how it came to the palace immediately after the gun shot. Maybe the blast sound attracted the beast, who knows?”
So, there is a war raging in Gold City and it could last for a while. Retracing my steps is going to be, of course, way too risky. Being dressed so differently from the locals and not speaking their language would betray me as soon as I crossed back the river. On the other hand, what guarantees do I have that once they are sure I have left the swamp, the soldiers won’t cross the river and follow me in this wilderness?
The only relatively safe route I can take is this long, circumventing path, down to the point where the river reaches the sea. Then I shall return to Excelsior by navigating on a makeshift raft along the coast. From the way the river’s course seems to bend, I also have the feeling the road ahead might be short enough to bring me back to Gold City in four or five days. In consequence, not all the news are bad: our ship hasn’t left the Island and might be near the city for several weeks. If I hurry, I can be back on board soon.
“I can only be grateful for your news, sir! You helped me a lot. Now I know what is the best course of action I should take.” I say.
“Happy to do a final good deed! Well, I have to go now”, he says, “I’m glad I could bring you some news about the crew. Take care of yourself. And congratulations! You are now promoted to the rank of first lieutenant of Excelsior!, at least until the ship returns to her home port, anyway.” He fades away and disappears in the dark air of the night.
“Wait a moment, please, sir!” I shout after him. “Can you visit the captain in his dream and let him know I am alive and trying to rejoin the crew a soon as possible?” But it’s already too late, the first lieutenant is gone. And I never had a chance to tell him about my discovery from the forest, about the giant cocoons with people inside them.
I know that this is only a dream, but it feels very real. I can see clearly, through the cave’s open entrance, the cliff from the other side of the river shining in front of me, basking in the pale light of the freshly risen Moon. In fact, this is a moon different from the one we have on Earth, but I shall call it with the same name, lacking a better one.
My own body, as an entity separate from myself, is sleeping on a dry bed of twigs. I cannot stop wondering about what happens to us when we cross to the other side, when our lives end. Are we going to be unconscious, decomposing to dust and waiting to be resurrected at the End of Time, where we shall be judged for our deeds and then either rewarded for our good accomplishments or punished for our bad actions? Or perhaps we are going to return directly to Him, the Source of all Creation, after a short existence in this world where our ego was only an illusion? Are we going to know more about everything by still being ourselves or will our minds, with all their memories, die with us? The image of the cave dissolves quickly and takes my thoughts with it as I plunge into a deeper, dreamless sleep.
June 19 — The morning starts in the same note as the previous one. I eat for breakfast the last fruits from my basket and one of the fish caught during the previous day. I wonder if the first lieutenant truly visited me in a dream. Maybe everything was just the product of my subconscious, the creation of my imagination. Nevertheless, continuing my journey along the river bank looks like the best possible choice under the present circumstances.
I pack up quickly my belongings and get ready for another day of marching. As I keep going, the gorge transforms into a real canyon with vertical walls, almost impossible to climb. The ground is so full of slippery stones that soon my advance slows down to almost nothing. As the things aren’t bad enough, I have the uneasy feeling that an evil presence is stalking me from a distance. I struggle the whole morning with the uneven terrain and can barely advance about three or four kilometers.
Behind me, I hear at regular intervals the distant roar of what appears to be a large prey animal. Suddenly, the little folding knife and the wooden spear don’t seem suitable at all to protect me from becoming the meal of a wild beast. During the early afternoon I decide to stop where I am and fix my shelter in advance. A premonition tells me that the unknown creature will try to kill me after nightfall. I am lucky to find here many pieces of wood brought by the river to the rocky bank. They are not big enough for a raft, but satisfactory for other uses. I need to make a better weapon as soon as possible.
After one hour of work, I manage to put together a primitive ax from a hard stone shaped like a blade, tied with a vine to a solid piece of wood. I jam open the folding knife and mount it tightly at the end of a long stick. It can be used now like a sharp spear that would easily cut through flesh. Looking around for caves, I discover one with a small entrance. Taking the thickest and sturdiest sticks I can find and tying them together with vines, I build a rudimentary door that should prevent any unwanted intrusion inside my shelter while I’m asleep. When everything is finished, it’s already getting dark.
I had no time to search for food, so I eat for dinner the last fish from my basket. It takes me a while to start a small fire in the damp air of the cave. Patience and hard work are needed until I can finally see the soothing light of the flames and feel their pleasant warmth. Then I shut myself inside the small cavern and wait.
Excerpt from "Butterfly's Dream", a novel by Marian C. Ghilea;
photo by Marian C. Ghilea: #Samurai #meditation
(c) Marian C. Ghilea, all rights reserved
12 sample chapters (pre-final draft) are available here: http://nivitx.blogspot.com/2017/08/final-proof-reading-novel-almost-done.html
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