It hurts. If you want to know the truth of it, it hurts like hell. Maybe when I was little, and came off the jungle gym, and had to have about a million stitches (that’s what I told my friends, anyway), it hurt something like this. I have to be careful, quiet. Not whimper or cry out as I curl over the notebook. My fingers still work well enough to clasp the pen, at least. I have to persuade and bully them, but they listen to me. Just. The pages of my notebook are wet, and sometimes they tear, gentle as I am, but I will manage. I will write this, amongst the notes about location and exposure settings and focal lengths. I must. Someone must know what happened here. Although, if you find this – but never mind. I wish I had been more of a writer, so I could make you understand all this. If I could – I barely understand it myself. I believe in photos, in snapshots of life. Less cumbersome than words. I wish I had my cameras, my lenses and filters, to reveal the truth of the world. But they are gone, lost or broken or taken. So I will drag the words from my brain and leave them here on the page, and hope there is time.
The light was lying low and rusty when it happened. The shadows were pooling at the bases of the trees and rocks, and I was aware that it was almost time to retreat, to leave the bush to its own secretive night-life. My back ached under the weight of my pack, full of lenses and filters, maps and water. Maybe it was that which unbalanced me. Or the shadows misled me. I crouched, waiting to take that shot, the perfect one, firing off one after another, holding my breath as the light hit the water below me, splintering into a million shards of red glass as a breeze came, then stilling slowly, and joining, until I looked through the viewfinder at a lake of blood, and the hills around were stained gold and black. I had something here, I knew it. I just had to keep shooting, because maybe the last would be the best. Then, in the twilight, I would pick my way back to the hut, cook a pack of two minute noodles, and wait for sunrise to see the world made new again.
Eventually the lake turned dull and flat as a blinded eye, the light faded to ash. I rose to my feet and stretched, feeling my joints clicking into place. And fell.
I’m quite sure I screamed. I know that I tried, but I think maybe I landed so hard it was knocked out of me as a gasp. Panic gathered at the edges of my lungs, making me wheeze as I tried to grab branches, roots, soil – anything to slow my tumble down the slope. Unseen rocks gouged me where my shirt rode up, and my pack assailed me, now slamming the back of my head, now jabbing the small of my back. I couldn’t stop. Every tree I grabbed shed branches, a leaf, but nothing slowed me. For one teetering moment I found a hand-hold of stone, but I was sliding too fast and I lost my grip, ripping a fingernail away in a new flash of agony. I glimpsed the rock starting to tumble after me through one dirt-crusted eye and thought, maybe I’ll fall forever.
I don’t know how long or far I fell, in the end. I must have blacked out at some point. I know it was full dark when I landed, which I guess means I hit my head on something, or something hit me. I couldn’t have fallen that long and survived. I wish I had fallen that long, now.
I had to stop writing for a moment. I’m sorry. These interruptions. But if they see me – well, maybe they won’t know what I’m doing, but I think they might. And then they might be angry. And I don’t want that. It’s so hot here – every breath has the sickly weight of a sauna. The pen is hard to grip, tries to slide from my grasp, conspiring against me. But I have it still, and they are gone, for now. Let me finish this. Please, let me finish this.
It was dark when I opened my eyes again. Deep bush dark, all whispering trees and the rustling of small creatures making their own way through the night. My chin was pressed into rich, forgiving earth, and I knew if I turned I would see, through the trees and the punga, the stars embroidered over me. I could smell mulch, and another, deeper smell that stirred something in me, raising goose bumps on my skin. Something unseen cackled – a bird I supposed, wondering about kiwis and kakapos. I moved to roll over, and instantly panic washed over me, drowning the sounds of the bush. I couldn’t move. The scream that had been wedged in my throat took full flight, and I bellowed fear to the night. When I stopped, shaking and terrified, I realised something. I could feel myself shaking, feel the hairs fighting to be free of me. I tried moving again, experimentally, and the wave of relief when I felt my toes wriggling against each other almost made me weep. I squirmed and wriggled, but I couldn’t move further. The panic crept back past the relief, and I writhed and twisted wildly, but I was as firmly pinned as an avalanche victim, which at first I supposed I was. How simple that would have been. I couldn’t even raise my eyes to see the night sky. I tried yelling again, screaming for help, begging. Nothing. When I stopped, the sounds of the bush crept back, rich and unconcerned. A morepork cried out. Something moved not far from me. I closed my eyes and waited for dawn.
Light brought no help. I was astonished to find that, rather than a smothering blanket of earth and rock, I was pinned, as far as I could see, beneath the stretching roots of a tree. Some unknown thing I had not seen before, knobbled and brown with richly crevassed bark, and smelling of that unknown deep scent. I couldn’t understand it. I wriggled, and stretched, and tried to twist my way free, tearing my t-shirt and finding I had lost one of my boots at some point. The tree only seemed to force me closer to the leaf-scattered ground.
They came in the hours of twilight, while I disconsolately watched red-tinted rain drip from the coiled leaves of a fern, my cheek pressed into the dirt. I had given up the struggle to free myself, and merely clung to the dull hope that I might be missed before I either starved or succumbed to dehydration. As I licked rain from the corner of my mouth I heard rustlings, and mysterious, purposeful noises in the deep bush around me. I tried to lift my head enough to see, tried to cry out, but I seemed more tightly bound to the earth than ever. Then I felt movement beneath me. Something was worming its way underneath me – many somethings. My heart jumped at this new terror, and I tried to buck and kick away from them, but even my voice, worn thin and hoarse with shouting, was not responding. Under me, the things tightened and lifted, and suddenly I was in the air, mouth open in idiot shock, eyes bulging with fear. Around me were them.
I still struggle to describe them. They stood silently around their tree – their trap. I could feel them watching me, evaluating me, although I could see no eyes. They were – are – vaguely bulbous, like daffodils waiting to flower, but bursting from their tops is no spring bloom. Instead serrated, leaf-like appendages move over each other softly, creating whispers that I think is their communication. Tendrils whip between them, in constant motion, and here, I think, are their senses – of sight and taste and smell and vibration. I have not discovered how they move – stopping, they seem rooted, but in motion they disturb nothing, sliding as smoothly over the earth as a hockey puck over ice. Watching too long hurts my eyes. Now they observed me, as you might observe a new purchase, a car or a microwave. I stared, my mind reeling with the sheer otherness of them, and stopped trying to scream, and waited.
The first one to touch me did so almost tenderly, a few of those tendrils floating down onto the raw skin of my back. It must have instructed the tree somehow – I don’t know how, and even now it sounds like the ravings of a lunatic, but haven’t researchers found fungi working as communications systems within the roots of trees? Maybe this is some freakish – or inevitable – evolution of just that. But however it happened, the tree released me, and I thumped to the ground, groaning as yesterdays bruises and gashes burst into new life. It kept a corral of roots around me, and the thing – the creature – leaned over me from beyond it, and laid one of its tendrils on my belly, where my shirt had torn. I watched, fascinated, as this delicate thing landed on my flesh. It stayed there for a moment, its weight almost imperceptible, then some communication passed between the creatures, a shivering of those fleshy leaves.. I felt it thicken the air, and they moved forward to encircle me, the roots sinking into the ground to let them pass. I watched them creatures come, wide-eyed as a child at a carnival. They leaned over me, tendrils drifting towards my skin, and the panic came at me like a wolf at the kill.
I guess I blacked out. I think I remember the pain hitting me, vaguely. The mind has a wonderful way of protecting itself. I know I woke gasping and trapped loosely but securely beneath the tree. All over I stung, as if I had swum through a swarm of blue bottle jellyfish. Whimpering, I began to scratch, but my hands were engulfed by tree and I was held still. I wept and swore as, in the dark, my body ached and exploded and contracted with the pain of a thousand infections.
They have just been again. At first they came only once a day, and it scares me that they are coming so often now. It scares me, too, that I can move freely in the cage formed by the ever-moving roots of the tree, and am no longer held bound in its arms. I soak in the sun when it makes its way through the canopy above, and if it rains I shelter closer to the twisted, moaning trunk. It is always warm – in the early morning steam rises from the ground around me, curling tendrils above the chocolate-smelling mulch of dead leaves, and I have never felt cold. Food appears – raw fish, a dead possum. Berries. I eat them all. I am hungry a lot. My body has taken on a new and grotesque appearance, and I investigate the bumps and lumps curiously. I don’t think I broke anything on my long fall, but surely that can be the only explanation behind my strange metamorphosis. At times I have shooting pains that convince me I have shards of splintered rock gouging at my insides, and I scream and panic and scratch at myself until the tree pins me to the ground. So the days have passed – I’m not sure how many, only that the cycle of waking and sleeping seems unending. I should have tallied the days in my journal, maybe. But I’m not sure it matters. I don’t think I will be telling the tale of how many days I survived in the wild bush to anyone.
They have been back four times since dawn. My body bulges suspiciously. I think I am beyond frightened now. I stare at them as they gather around the outskirts of the tree, and wish whatever they were waiting for would come. I tasted blood when I coughed this morning. I find I have grown too cumbersome to walk, but must crawl, and my breath catches uneasily in my throat when I breathe. I must stop my writing. They are coming back again.
I spat into my hand after they left,, and the pooled blood was a milky pink. My lungs struggle with the air, and I feel as if I were six again, trapped beneath the pool cover and about to drown. I want my mother to come rescue me. Or anyone, really.
They have been back, and gone, for the sixth time. I am gasping so much it is too hard to lift my hands to scratch at the rash forming on my skin. They were excited by it, touching it, leaving a trail of fire behind. My fingers struggle to hold the pen. I have a strange suspicion of what may be happening, as I stare at odd shapes outlined in the curve of my hands, and bulging where my wrists once were.
I must write quickly. They came again, and were slow to leave. I think this may be the last chance I have to write. Already, on the back of my writing hand, dark shapes move agonisingly below my trembling, straining skin. On my arm – on my arm, I felt the skin tear about an hour ago. I couldn’t scream. It is all I can do to drag ragged breaths into me, past the cloying sap in my chest. The soft, pale leaves of the newborn glisten when I move. I think I can hear them coming back. My clothes are gone. I am not sure when they were taken, but on my back, in the midst of pain is wetness, and when I move I feel unseen things move in unison. They are coming back. It won’t be long now. I – another one has come through. The tearing of my skin borders on exquisite. This one is on my chest. I can feel one budding beneath the skin of my cheek – I have investigated it as far as my twisted fingers will let me. I am afraid. I cannot write much longer. They are coming. The tree supports me, so I will not fall and crush a little one. It is so hard to breathe. I can see the veins in my legs tracing green, and moving next to them shapes waiting to be born. I tried to hold my breath, and the panicked pain they gave me is too much to be borne. I gasped air back into my treacherous lungs. I can feel skin being parted again. I can see the sky – day is bleeding into the dusk, and there is a sickle moon in the depthless universe. I am so afraid. Not of death, not any more. I am afraid they may not kill me. I am afraid there will be no end to the pain. I am afraid I am more than the incubator – that I am the nursery too. I am afraid – they are coming back. I can hear them coming, feel the innocent excitement of the things within me. I cannot write anymore. I hope I am strong enough for what is to come. Or weak enough. They are here.