Wilderness

November 4, 2014 § 2 Comments

The wintry sun sank towards the horizon on my left like an anchor, drifting down behind picturesque huddles of windblown trees and the mountainous rock formations that loomed darkly in the middle distance. Their shadows raced across the dusty road in front of us and flickered over my face; the alternating strips of syrupy golden sunlight and chilled blue shadows reminded me of nothing so much as a cage. Like we were trapped little animals despite our travelling at breakneck speed in the rickety red Citi Golf that Frank had owned for as long as I had known him. I shifted uncomfortably in the back seat and adjusted my seatbelt, then leaned my forehead against the icy glass of the window and gazed at the passing landscape through my eyelashes. The journey was taking much longer than I had anticipated, and the air-conditioned air that flooded the car smelled stale and artificial; I was taken aback by the surge of longing I felt for clean, grasping wind, heavy with the scents and sounds of the world around us. The glass and metal shell of the car felt like a fishbowl, and made the scenes whipping past the windows seem more like paintings than anything else. Everything outside was so still! The flurry of human enterprise that had filled our vision as we had driven out of Johannesburg had been slowly replaced by open fields, farmhouses, and the occasional cow or horse just visible through the whispy grass that obscured the roadside. Later there had been nothing but the soaring saffron mountains standing guard against the faded blue sky, the shadows on their faces sharp and black. And now the world outside blurred with twilight, and I sat up with a jerk of irritable muscles and slipped my earphones down to hang around my neck.
Nicky stretched round in the passenger seat and winked at me. “Sick of sitting yet, Jess?”
“How did you know?” I pulled a sour face. “And now, the question on everyone’s lips…are we there yet?”
I caught Frank’s eye as he glanced in the rear view mirror, and he nodded distractedly. “I think another half an hour or so and we’ll be there. When we see Clarens on the right, we’re supposed to drive on past it for another ten minutes, then the gate to the farm will be on the right. So keep an eye out.”
The half an hour felt awfully long. The light faded as we drove, like falling asleep, slowly at first and then in a great dark rush. I imagined the windows bending in a little as the blackness outside weighed on them. I could almost hear them creak. When we rounded a bend and Clarens came into view it was almost blinding, a town full of glowing lights that curled up in a little valley between the mountains, and the atmosphere in the car lifted perceptibly. The end was near! I shifted to the right side of the car and watched the town drift by, then cupped my hands around my eyes and tried to imagine what the gate would look like, the road dark once more.
The car shuddered, a loud thump reverberating through the silence inside, and I jumped in my seat, dimly registering Nicky’s surprised little cry.
“What was that?” I screamed at Frank, gripping the back of his chair urgently.
“I didn’t see anything…well, maybe a flash of something out of the corner of my eye, but nothing clear,” Frank mumbled, and he tapped the brakes, slowing us down a tad.
“Did we hit something? Is it okay? We have to go back and check!” I demanded, jittery from the adrenaline pumping through my system. It had been very quiet in the car before.
Nicky sounded panicky too. “We can’t just stop here in the middle of nowhere, Jess. This is South Africa. Anything could happen. Check out of the back window.”
I opened my mouth, drew in a breath to retort, then realised Nicky’s logic. “Okay. Slow down some more and I’ll look.” I twisted my body backwards while I slipped the seatbelt off and propped myself up on my knees, leaning towards the back window and squinting at the bit of road that was dimly lit by the car’s lights. The tar looked empty – grey and silent. We kept our places, the car moving slowly but steadily forwards while I stared at nothing out of the back window, until Frank asked, “See anything?” and I shook my head, uncertain of whether it was a good or bad thing. He accelerated with a shuddering change of gears, and as I turned to the front of the car again, I thought I caught the silvery flash of eyes in the grass next to the road.

***

I never could sleep properly when I had been drinking. After arriving at the rented house, perched precariously on the side of a mountain that sloped away into a deep crevice beneath us, we had done the South African thing and braaied and drank the evening away. I grabbed my cellphone from the little bedside table in my room and checked the time with eyes that wouldn’t quite open all the way. 4am – still ridiculously early. I doubted anyone else would be awake. Slowly, I dragged myself out of the cosy bed and into the stark air of the room itself. I stood, trying to think of what I would have for breakfast, and stared absently at the huge window in the back wall. In winter the sun couldn’t be expected ‘til much later, and the window showed only a block of darkness that seemed somehow thicker than the blackness that filled the room. I glanced at my fuzzy reflection on the glass, then leaned closer and pushed my hair back impatiently, trying to make the wild strands that floated around my face lie flat – the others would wake up eventually, and I didn’t want to look too dishevelled. I leaned in further, using the mirror-like glass to run my fingers under my eyes and swipe up the mess of mascara that had gathered there. My mind almost didn’t make sense of the little flicker of motion below eye level, and I stood dumbly for a few seconds before I lowered my gaze to where I thought I had seen the…movement. In the pitch-dark outside the window. I took a hesitant step back, trying to identify what had caused it. Slowly, a tiny figure resolved itself, almost at my feet with just the pane of glass between us – what looked like a mouse. I smiled, mentally chiding myself for my nervousness, and dropped to my haunches rather quicker than I had intended to so that I could have a better look at the little creature. It was still there – standing on adept hind legs, it stretched a questing nose towards me. I tapped on the glass just as the mouse touched it from the other side, and it drew its face away slowly and stared at me. I blinked at it, taken aback by the resentful glint in its eyes, and stood up again. It didn’t move. Suddenly irritated, I lightly kicked the glass with my bare foot. It didn’t respond to the sound of the impact, but when I set my foot down again, it gave me one last lingering look before it turned its body away from the window and made its slow, awkward way into the early morning darkness until it vanished from my view. I shivered and dived back into bed.

***

Our three cars moved quickly on the winding roads of the national park, dipping and diving around the mountains that packed the area and caught the sunlight greedily. The movement was soothing, and I felt far less anxious than I had on the journey to Clarens the day before; surrounded by natural beauty, I could feel my muscles gradually relaxing, my breathing becoming deeper and slower. It was positively meditative. I watched with interest as Frank followed the two cars ahead of us, turning left onto a dry dirt road that lead up the side of something between a hill and a mountain like a line on a page. When we reached the top, Frank brought the car to a rather jerky halt, and I eagerly undid my seatbelt and threw the car door open. Now that was better! The wind buffeted me, even in the shelter of the car. I laughed and scraped my hair back into a hasty ponytail.
“Wind! Real, proper wind, not the hopeless little gusts we get in Pretoria!” I exalted, to their obvious amusement.
“The wind is the least of the attractions here. We’re going to check out the vulture restaurant.” Nicky grinned at me. “You’ll love it. It’s fascinating to watch the birds so up close.”
Outside of the car, the gusts of wind snatched the words from our mouths and made conversation difficult. Frank just set off on the little paved path that ran out of the parking area and into the sweeping landscape, and Nicky and I followed him, heads down and hands in our pockets to save them from the wind-chill. We crested another hill and a squat grey building came into view, built in front of a long flat field that eventually tapered off into a sheer cliff edge. Indistinct black shapes moved in the field, clustered in strange formations, and in the sky above us the quintessential dark swoops of birds – like children’s drawings – wheeled on invisible currents of air. They looked as though they were enjoying the wind as much as I was. We picked our way down the other side of the slope until we reached the building, and stepped into the dim interior; it was almost empty inside except for a line of built-in benches in front of a wall of dark glass, and Frank and Nicky’s friends knelt on these benches already like supplicants in a church, eyes glued to the view on the other side of the window.
Nicky spoke in a lowered voice. “The game rangers bring any carcasses they find here and dump them in that field in front of the glass. Then we get to watch the vultures eat them. It’s really quite fascinating, and this way they don’t know we’re here and behave as they normally would.”
We took our places at the glass and watched the two vultures closest to us tear into a desiccated body, all abstract pink and brown. I wished I could get a closer look at them and see the details of their feathery bodies. After a good amount of time spent watching the vultures go about their morbid business, we decided that a closer investigation of the bodies was in order, and as we walked out of and around the little building the birds took off in noisy clouds. The smell was almost unbearable – the wind was just as likely to blow it straight into my face as it was to whip the stench away from my nostrils, and I skirted the foremost carcasses that captured the attention of everyone else. Stepping carefully with what I told myself was an entirely rational fear of treading on or in something gory, I made my wary way across the field and towards the cliffs, my eyes scanning the yellowing grass for bits of bone. The human voices faded away quickly, the landscape seeming to absorb them until all I could hear was the wind and the sound of the birds in the air above. I stopped and stretched my arms high above my head, gazing up at the vast blue of the sky, and when I dropped my limbs again and my vision adjusted to take in the light in front of me, I met the blatant gaze of a vulture standing a few metres away from me. I froze, uncertain of what to do. Were they dangerous? Weren’t they just birds? Why hadn’t it flown away from me when I had unknowingly approached it? I stood as though pinned to the ground, and the creature tilted its head at me strangely. Its neck had a painful-looking curve to it. It hopped nearer to me, wings out and flapping awkwardly to keep it balanced, and I noticed how it seemed to be shedding an alarming amount of feathers as it moved. Was it ill? The thought of the bird suffering gave me courage, and I took a few steps towards it, moving slowly and carefully so as not to startle it. It waited in a manner that I assumed to be patient, watching my approach with beady bird eyes and turning its head to keep me in sight, and as I stretched my hand out to it, quite unsure of what to do to help it but convinced that something had to be done, the vulture leapt towards me and snapped at my hand. It scored a painful cut in the flesh on the side of my hand and I jumped backwards with a startled cry, but the bird only cocked its head to the other side and watched me.
“Fuck off!” I shouted as I cradled my hand close to my chest. It stayed put. “I said go!” I yelled louder and ran at it, swerving at the last second when it didn’t move an inch. I stopped, panting from a combination of fright and sudden physical exertion. I could hear Frank and Nicky calling me; they’d obviously heard my raised voice. I turned my back on the stubborn creature – let it stay ill and injured on the ground then – and began the trudge back to the rest of the group and the cars. When I reached the little building, Nicky grabbed my hand and began the usual fuss over a wounded companion, but I pulled away and glanced over my shoulder just in time to see the vulture soar from the ground and ascend rapidly into the bright sky with powerful wing strokes.

***

The sound of voices and laughter drifted on the icy mountain air, underscored by a current of popular music that blared from the radio they had set up in the braai area. The walls were set with huge windows that opened up onto a spectacular view, and the glass didn’t dampen sound as efficiently as one would hope it to, so the entire mountain was being treated to the echoing sounds of various trendy songs. I sighed and took a drag of my cigarette, then leaned my elbows on the little wall that separated the courtyard between the rooms and the braai area from the rest of the wilderness. It was all so loud. I had barely heard any natural sounds all weekend…and I didn’t drive all the way out to Clarens so that I could listen to a little bit of the city reflected off of the beautiful sloping land that surrounded us. My hand ached dully, and my head echoed the sentiment. I felt like all I needed was silence and darkness, and the cool air in my lungs. The darkness ahead of me looked almost inviting. Before I could change my mind, I flicked the cigarette down onto the bricks at my feet and ground it into nothing with the ball of my foot, then dashed into my room to grab my torch and my jacket. A little walk in the outdoors never hurt anyone. I’d be back before anyone ever noticed I was gone; they were boozing like there was no tomorrow. I just needed to be completely alone for a while.
I walked quickly, planting my feet solidly on the good hard earth, swinging my torch so the beam of light cut back and forth across the path ahead, just in case there were any obstructions. The sounds of voices and music hadn’t completely faded – it was so silent in these mountains that I imagined they could be heard kilometres away – but they were at more tolerable levels now, and the air rushing past my ears felt good and helped to drown them out. I increased my pace, enjoying the burn in the muscles of my thighs and the droplets of sweat that trickled down my temples. As I glanced at the path that the torchlight brought to life in front of me, I caught a quick glimpse of a neat pair of hooves. I slowed down and then stopped, raising the torch a little to reveal a lone Wildebeest with a scraggly coat and crooked horns. The light reflected in its eyes and they glowed in the darkness. When it cocked its head at me I felt numbness spread through my body, and darkness raced across my vision until those two points of white light were the only things in the universe.

***

The morning sun felt good at Frank’s back, though it seemed glaring to his tired and sensitive eyes. He rested his coffee on the little wall of the courtyard and stretched upwards, pulling his muscles tight. What a hangover. He heard Nicky open the door of their room. “Any sign of Jess?”
“Nope,” Nicky answered him as she placed her cup next to his, and mirrored his stretch. “I’m guessing she was just in a solitary mood and went to bed early. It’s not like her to sleep this late, though…should we knock on her door or something?”
She glanced at him. “Frank?”
He was transfixed by something ahead of him. She followed his gaze and gasped. Jess! It was unmistakeably her, her long hair hanging ragged over her face. She lay in the dry grass at the edge of the dirt parking area, and as Nicky watched in horror, the girl reached out a filthy hand and dragged herself forwards, the rest of her body trailing, limp and unresponsive. A strange metallic smell drifted towards them. Nicky grabbed Frank’s arm and they rushed down the steps towards Jess, flinging frantic questions at her before they reached her. “Where have you been? What happened? Are you okay? Can you speak?”
Between the two of them, Frank and Nicky hoisted Jess up from the ground by her upper arms, almost choking on the stench. It reminded Nicky of blood; it filled up her nose and mouth until she could almost taste it. She scraped the hair out of Jess’s face and flinched at the blood that plastered her eye shut – noticing the wound on her scalp, she felt a little better. It would be alright. Head wounds always bled more than usual. That was probably the source of the smell, too. “Jess, can you talk? Can you tell me what happened to you?” Jess hung heavily between them, her feet bent awkwardly against the ground. Her bottom jaw flopped open and an awful groaning, growling noise emerged from her mouth, then she snapped it shut again with an audible clack of teeth.
Frank jerked his head in the direction of the house. “She’s clearly traumatised, Nicky. Let’s get her cleaned up – she smells awful! And then we can try get her to talk. I have no clue where the nearest hospital is, so it’s probably worth treating it ourselves if we can.” They carried Jess between them as she stared around wildly, her limbs unused, and they entered the courtyard.

***

After Nicky had bathed Jess and treated her wounds – superficial but numerous – they had put her to bed. She had spoken not a word, instead emitting weird animalistic noises in response to any questions they had asked her and flapping her lips in a strange imitation of speech. Nicky and Frank hoped fervently that a good sleep would solve the issue; her behaviour bordered on the truly bizarre and made them both uneasy. They slept lightly that evening, hyper-aware of any sounds that might emanate from her room, though it seemed that she passed an unusually silent night. In the morning, Nicky tapped on the door and let herself in. “Jess? Are you up yet? How are you feeling today?” She watched the mounds of blankets on the bed slide away like stage curtains as Jess sat up slowly.
“Yes, I am up. I feel much better today, thank you.” Jess stated carefully. The metallic scent tickled Nicky’s nose again.
“That’s great, Jess! I’m glad to hear it!” she said brightly. “I’ll just leave you to get dressed, and then you can come and have some breakfast and chat to me about what happened last night, yeah?” She nodded encouragingly at Jess and waited for her response.
Jess cocked her head to one side and surveyed Nicky with one blank eye, her neck crackling audibly. “Yes.”

Nicole Best

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