by Monim Wains
Weeds and vines caught his ankles as he trudged through the undergrowth. He needed to stay quiet, unseen and unheard, but it was too difficult to slow his breathing. He panted and grunted through every step, drowning in the heat. The air had baked his lips dry and hard, but his skin was slick with sweat, beads dripping off the tip of his nose.
He stopped for a second, leaning on a tree for some strength, grateful for the shade. His chest heaved and collapsed with his sighs for breath. He sucked the last of his spit out of his cheeks and swallowed. A thick lump of goo climbed down his throat. He tried to stop the noise, holding his breath in bursts as if he were hiccupping. He needed quiet, so he could listen.
His eyes searched left and then right, turning back to the direction where he had been coming from. His sight could only see a few metres before the tree trunk and the bushes became impenetrably thick. He tried to wrestle his breath back under control, softer now, and turned with his ears instead.
Dead silence. The curtains of green were as if they had trapped the air in place. A cacophony of branches and bushes and shrubs and trees, all rooted, frozen still. He tried again, listening with intent, eyes and ears together. The scene was almost meditative, as he began to feel his heart in his chest, bursting, blood rushing in his ears. And then, maybe just, as he stretched his ears to hear, the faint whisper of wind swimming above the canopy. Underneath it all, the faintest buzz from the mud to the sky, of a million unseen insects and creatures, writhing and humming all around.
His eyes flashed open as wide as they could, snapping onto the noise. Before he knew it, he was running again, propelled by the fear. A wave of cold terror spilled down his spine as his gaze locked ahead. He couldn’t bear to take a rest. The noise was probably just an animal, but he couldn’t take the chance. It had taken him so long to get out. So many nights of dreams picturing this day, rerunning the scene a hundred times in his head. Now, finally, when he had plucked the courage to fling his spirit out, he couldn’t turn back.
He could remember the routine, the everyday he had to endure. Out of his mind, out of his control; living on another’s will. How could he have let himself get so trap–
His neck whipped him down, pulling on his head. There was a blur and a second, just enough for him to throw his arms in front before they slammed into the ground, the whole weight of his body crushing down on his bones. His ankle was knotted in a vine, tangled tight.
– because it was too scary, too dangerous, too unknown.
Routine was safe, expected, comforting.
His eyes gushed with tears, washing clean streaks down his face. His panting morphed into a gasp, a noiseless sob, as he felt the blood spread out of his elbows.
No. Not today. Not anymore. He clenched his jaw as hard as he could bear, almost biting through his teeth, pinning the fear in his throat. He turned to his foot. Thorns had torn his skin at the ankle. The sight made him shudder. Shock and adrenaline trembled through his fingertips as he worked the vines away. The rush erased the pain; so he took it, springing up again, and going. He didn’t stumble again.
And all the way he went, calves burning with the strain, weighed down by the shirt pulling on his shoulders, heavy and sticky with muck.
But the light was growing brighter. The air felt lighter, lifting away as the leaves began to thin. A soft murmur began to crawl beneath the numbness of the silence. The salt he could taste from the sweat on his lips turned into salt in the air as he neared the clearing. Louder it grew, from a rustle to a foaming to a rush of the waves. The gulps of air he was taking became suddenly cool, washing through his lungs.
And then he burst through, dazed in the open. The sun beamed off the land and right into his eyes. He blinked hard and held up his hand for some shade. The feeling beneath his toes had suddenly changed to grains of sand. He had burst out of the choking walls of the trees, onto the beach.
And there lay before him, far off in the distance, the very curve of the earth, wrapping around the waves. A horizon so wide, so impossibly distant, of a myriad journeys and voyages to be. The wind was a gale out in the open, sending a chill through his ribs as it wicked the sweat off his skin. His teeth began to chatter as the space became apparent; a long stretch of open air to his left and to his right; the sea in front domineeringly vast.
He could go anywhere, for once. For once, he was free. Lost. And beautifully so.