Adena Graham’s stirring flash fiction piece takes us into a world that our isolated protagonist is desperately trying to escape. Illustrated by Sam Pash.
Most evenings, when the birds had stopped their daytime gossiping and the valley was thick with silence, she would throw stones into the small stream beside her hut. Their plonk-plink, though made by her own hand, somehow helped her feel less alone; the echo of ripples across the water reminding her of childhood, when her father would take her net-fishing — their wellingtons sploshing through shallow waterways.
What had happened to her father? She couldn’t remember now. Perhaps she was too old for memory, although she had always assumed certain events remained embedded. Certainly, she ought to recollect how her father had come to pass, yet every time she stretched her mind in that direction, it would return to her empty-handed.
Her eyes, keen as a cat’s after so long without the aid of artificial light, scanned the surrounding trees, eager for signs of life. Human life, that is, but it never came. Even the animals seemed to avoid this corner of the earth; but when they did pass through, she would treasure those brief visits. One day, as she was pegging out her washing, a tiger had emerged from the shadow of the trees. She wasn’t scared, even when he raised his eyes to hers, acknowledging her presence. He had dipped his head, then, to drink from the stream. Even now, she can recall the diamond-bright drops of water trembling on the tips of his whiskers. Memories are funny like that – sometimes the smallest details remain the sharpest.
Another time, a baby chimp clung to its mother’s back. The two animals sat for a while on the far side of the stream, and she had found herself quietly humming a lullaby for the mother and her offspring.
How long had she lived here? She couldn’t remember that now either. Her hands, gnarled as the surrounding tree trunks, hinted at age beyond comprehension.
Suddenly it dawned on her that she didn’t have much life left – a week, a month, a year. Whatever time remained, it was running against her. Before it slipped through her fingers entirely, she wanted to find out what had become of her father, but more than that, she didn’t want to die alone.
Saying goodbye to the hut wasn’t difficult. It had never felt like a proper home; it was a spartan, functional space – somewhere to simply be. Sometimes she remembered another home, from long ago, but the key for that house had been lost in time. A long life meant there was a lot to forget – intentionally or otherwise.
As she began to walk, following a path she had never bothered with before, the trees on either side pressed in on her, whispering dark secrets. Brambles caught at her skirt, and roots snaked across the forest floor, as if trying to push her back the way she had come. Dark clouds passed overhead, heavy and menacing, and when the rainstorm came, it left her weak and shivering. Her hands were bloodied from fending off whip-sharp branches, her skirt torn, but she continued to fight her way through. Something, deep in the fabric of her soul, urging her onwards – always onwards. She had no idea where she was going, only that it was, somehow, of utmost importance that she get there.
Eventually, after days of walking, the trees began to thin out and the path cleared until she came upon a vast plain. Undaunted, she headed towards the horizon, empty apart from a small, unidentifiable speck.
Half walking, half running on legs jellied with age, she caught herself humming Brahms. The same tune she’d sung for the slumbering chimp. The closer she got, the more obvious it became that she was heading for a hut, much like her own. Disappointment gripped her chest. Was this it? Was this all the destination there was going to be?
She was upon it now, and it was the same! The exact same hut she’d left days earlier. Wailing in frustration, she flung open the door and tumbled onto the bed – her bed – exhausted and defeated.
A lullaby hung softly in the air – not her voice this time – a man’s, deep and heart-wrenchingly sad. ‘Come back, come back my little chimp,’ it said, and for a brief second, she remembers – in flashes. She is not old. She is seventeen. She sees it clearly now: an accident, the windscreen of a car, shards of glass raining down on her like diamonds. They are all still there, waiting. Her mother, her sister, her father. Yes, her father too – not dead, but alive. Alive and singing. Always singing as he sits beside a hospital bed, willing her to return – urging her to fight her way back to the reality she has left. ‘Come back. Come back.’
I’m trying, she thought. And tomorrow, I will leave this hut and try again. For now she remembers. She has tried to make this trip before, but always it brings her back to the same place. Back to the hut.
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