Chapter 1: Alone
An uneasy feeling hovered over me all day.
I was never the kind of girl who frightened easily, but today was different. Something was wrong. I was edgy from the moment I woke up. Distress occupied my every thought and I wondered where Hell had frozen over. I moved apprehensively through my work day and the bad vibes intensified with every passing hour. Even the short, three block trip home from work took longer than normal. I walked slowly, alert to every sound and movement around me. Once in the safety of my own home, the anxiety persisted despite my best attempts to relax. I tried everything: reading, my favorite music, aromatherapy. Nothing eased the feeling that something terrible lingered close by, not even a third glass of wine. As I prepared for bed, the knot in my stomach roared warnings that someone watched. I lived my entire life guided by my instincts and they always served me well, so I crawled out of bed and checked the deadbolt. After finding the door locked for a second time, I tried to convince myself I was being crazy. That theory wasn’t cutting it. I was alone in my dark bedroom but invisible eyes definitely burned holes through me. Exhaustion finally overcame paranoia and I succumbed to a restless sleep, but only after memorizing the shapes created by the moonlit shadows falling on my wall.
My body lay dormant but my mind remained edgy, leaping from one erratic dream to the next. They started as harmless and bizarre: shapes and colors swirled together like a drug cocktail gone bad. When the shapes focused, they formed a clear and distinct picture. I stood alone in the woods when a massive grizzly bear appeared in a small clearing among the trees. It reared upright and pawed the air in my direction, poised to attack. Dangerous teeth stood at the ready to shred whatever predator would become a threat. The creature growled fiercely for one moment. As I looked into its eyes, the snarling suddenly ceased, and a feeling of despair began to flow from the colossal animal. It stood vulnerable and unprotected from its normal habitat among the trees. Despite its strength and power, the bear wept silent tears of grief, suffering as greatly as any human ever had. Its eyes betrayed any deadly nature, replacing danger with an intense agony I had never experienced. The feelings of desperation crushed my heart back into reality and jolted me awake, gasping for breath.
Either this dream was merely a continuation of my restless evening or my agitated feelings from earlier were a signal of the impending dream. Either way, I was relieved to have it over. I waited for the anxiety to disappear before opening my eyes. Instead of finding the familiar view of my bedroom ceiling, there was nothing but green and brown as far as I could see. I blinked quickly but the scene remained the same. I was not in my bedroom safely tucked under the covers. I survived the nightmare but faced a harsh reality. I was alone in the middle of a vast forest, curled into a tight ball on the damp ground.
With each breath, the crisp air filled my senses and seized my chest. The aromas baffled me. Everything smelled so…alive: pine, moss, damp earth, with slight undertones of rosemary and citrus. In my immediate sight line, still lying on my side, I saw life: foliage, plants, and shrubbery. Hulking pine trees towered above, some easily two hundred feet tall. This was the wilderness and I had no idea how I got here. Panic took a tighter hold on me with every new glimpse of my surroundings. Every breath intensified the fear building within.
“Ok Kalinda, just relax. Get a hold of yourself and take a minute to refocus.” Maybe if I spoke to myself the silence wouldn’t seem so overwhelming. “Close your eyes and let's do this again.”
I held my eyes shut for several dread-filled moments, until spots began to appear. I was not afraid of being alone, but the idea of being desolated sent icy chills throughout me. Maybe if I stayed still long enough I would fall back to sleep and this would all be gone.
“NO! You can do this! Get it together! You are stronger than this!” I began to regain my composure slowly. One eye peeked open first and then the other, but nothing changed. I still lay on the ground, alone in the middle of nowhere, staring at a blanket of sideways trees.
Fear jerked me into a seated position and I froze at the sight of an unfamiliar backpack on the ground, inches away from where my head had been. The dark mass had a sleeping bag rolled up and secured neatly to the front by its straps. Great. What am I supposed to do with this? I snatched a stick from the damp ground and poked at the bag. (Like that would help me somehow?) The bag barely gave way beneath the point of the stick. My inquisitive nature got the better of me and I decided to investigate. I fumbled across the straps with trembling fingers, unhooked the sleeping bag and pushed it to the side. The huge pack seemed ready to burst; the zipper pulled tight by the contents inside. Wonderful.
I stared at the bag, not sure if I really wanted to find out what it contained. Every nerve in my body tingled a warning to leave it alone: it didn’t belong to me. What if there was something inside this bag I didn’t want to see? Curiosity won out over fear and I decided to look inside. The bag must have been meant for me because there was no one else here, right?
My fingers quivered as I reached for the zipper and slid it open. Inside the bag was a jacket. I slipped it on and tugged the zipper to just below my chin. It was a perfect fit. I glanced down to my feet and realized I was wearing boots. They were definitely not mine. I lived at the beach and had never been hiking. I was out of my element. Apprehension returned as I forced my attention back to the contents of the bag.
This had to be a mistake. The things inside the bag felt out of place in my inexperienced hands: a compass, lighter, first aid kit, pocket knife, an assortment of rations, mess kit and a canteen of water. The items in this bag were all useful considering my location, but they could not have been meant for me. I knew nothing about hiking, apart from what I had seen on television. I took a sip from the canteen but decided I had no appetite and returned the food to the bag. I decided to keep out the compass, knowing it was necessary to find my way home.
I unzipped the small pocket on the front of the bag and deposited the lighter. Inside I found a piece of paper folded neatly into a square. After unfolding the paper, I read the note and tried to comprehend its meaning. The words caused tears to overflow. Desperation replaced loneliness. Every muscle in my body froze in fear for my survival. I read the note one more time, trying to decide if this was real, blinking all the while to keep up with the falling tears.
I know that you will find everything you will need to create and to nourish.
Chaos and order must coexist if you are to maintain balance in the
universe. You MUST dissolve your attachments, your feelings and ideas and all
other binding emotions. You MUST swallow your despair and dwell in the secret
shadows. Take good care of yourself. I will come for you when it is time.
The note slipped from my hands and fluttered to the ground. I pulled my knees to my chest and locked my arms around them, overwhelmed by the need for human contact. Vulnerability brought on the comforting motion of rocking back and forth, which took me back to my childhood. Before my mother died, she spent hours rocking me to sleep in her lap. Her arms were safety and security. I never missed nor needed her as much as I did right now. I had been without her for most of my life, but that pain faded over time. In this moment, the ache was unleashed, forcing me to relive the experience and all the suffering that went along with it. The sense of emptiness and the uncertainty in my future, once locked away and resolved, had been reawakened in this one small piece of paper.
The page became a blur on the ground as the tears fell and once again I closed my eyes, trying to make sense of the words. Maintain balance in the universe? The secret shadows? But the last part overwhelmed me. I could see the words through closed eyes just as easily as if I were looking at them, their image burned into my brain.
I will come for you when it is time.
When it's time for what? And who was 'I'? And how was I going to be found? The panic alarm inside my mind, my gut instinct, rang vociferous warnings. I sprang to my feet as trepidation raced through my veins. If someone put me here, I most certainly wouldn’t wait around for them to come back and get me.
I grabbed the compass from the ground, reattached the sleeping bag to the pack and flung it over my shoulder. I had no idea of my location but the weather was colder than home, so I headed south. I looked to the compass and pointed it in the direction of the S. With the weight of the bag on my shoulders, I began to run. I focused on my goal so intently my surroundings were merely a blur. Sheer terror kicked me into full throttle.
My feet barely touched the ground as I ran. I moved gracefully, floating across the forest floor despite underbrush and fallen tree limbs which should have blocked my path. I navigated the thick growth instinctively, leaping, ducking and gliding easily between natural barriers. The questions that burned in my mind fueled my motivation to continue to run, even when my body wanted to give up. I persevered for hours, until I could finally take no more. My muscles hammered a fire that spread through me with every step. With each breath, my heart pounded out of control, almost exploding from my chest. I needed a break to regain my composure.
I stopped short, threw the backpack to the ground and leaned against a tree for support. My legs throbbed more severely while standing still, so I dropped to my knees and rubbed them for relief. They were almost completely numb, but that pain could not compare to the constant pounding in my head. My mind once again flooded, overwhelming me. I dropped my head into my hands and stroked my temples, knowing the ache would not go away with a simple rubbing.
I dug the compass out of my pocket and checked my direction to be sure I was still on course. My unsteady fingers fumbled to loosen the cap of the canteen and I took small sips. If this was my only source of water I had to be conservative. The fire in my legs migrated to my mouth, but no amount of water could extinguish it. I felt like a boxer might feel between rounds. My body reminded me I wouldn’t be able to keep up this pace for long.
I never delighted in outdoor activities like camping or rock climbing. Then again, the opportunities didn’t present themselves, either. All I had ever known was life at the beach. I had a small apartment and I happily kept myself sheltered from the outside world. First hand experiences taught me to rely only on myself, all the time. My father left when my mother became pregnant. My mother died when I was eight years old. I spent the next ten years being moved from one foster home to the next. These things all defined me. Independence. Determination. Self-sufficient. Just me. I never let anyone in because I never knew how long they would be around. Now, after twenty-four years of practice, I would have to put all my self-reliant energies to the test. This situation would be a challenge, even for me.
Once rested, I could appreciate the tremendous beauty in this place. There were different depths to this wilderness. The taller covering of trees gave way to lower shrubs and bushes. Wildflowers were everywhere and the air smelled clean and pure. I took a deep breath and felt the crisp air fill my lungs. I never knew the air could feel this satisfying, so uncluttered by life and untouched by human contaminants. It was incredibly fulfilling given my recent expenditure of energy. If I were at home I would take in breaths of heavy air, so thick it would have choked me.
My heartbeat slowed to an almost normal pace and the pounding in my head lessened to a dull throb. I heard the songs of nature singing, birds and crickets chirping. Many unfamiliar sounds in this strange world surrounded me; I couldn’t distinguish one from another. The sky peeking from between the tree-tops gleamed a fantastic shade of blue, not the gray blur I perceived at first. Occasional clouds floated by, darkening the sky momentarily before drifting away and revealing the sun. Under different circumstances, this adventure in the woods might have been an enjoyable first for me. I could get used to the serenity; I might have to if I couldn’t find my way out of here.
Motionless and completely composed, I heard a familiar sound. Water. Somewhere in the distance it flowed freely. I got up in search of the source, grabbing the backpack as I made my way. It would be risky to leave it unattended; I might not be able to find my way back. My trusty compass returned to my pocket after rechecking the proper direction. The water flowed toward something. A pivotal memory from the survival shows I used to watch-all life needs some form of water. I started off slowly, not up for another run, and took very careful steps; the sound of the water drifted from deeper into the woods.
dwell in the secret shadows
Further into the woods the trees gave way to dense shade underneath their broadening canopy. Using the sound of the flowing water as my guide, I continued to walk deeper into the rough. Within a few steps, the trees parted and revealed a creek just a few feet away. Overhead, the shade disappeared as the trees parted and transformed into blue sky. A small clearing of lush, green grass lay on the opposite side of the creek.
Being here reminded me of my nightmare with the bear. I stepped cautiously toward the water source, realizing this creek meant I would not be alone in the forest. I had no idea what might be hiding in this wilderness. I felt much safer here with the clearing in front of me than surrounded by the forest. I knelt down to the water, my eyes still fixed on my surroundings, took some into my hands and began to drink. My canteen remained full for now, but if I followed this creek I could replenish my supply when necessary.
Despite my urge to continue moving south, the sun began to set just beyond the clearing and soon it would be dark. Plenty of daylight remained for now but if I could establish a fire in the clearing, it would make a good place to stop for the night. I hadn’t thought about eating at all today, but if I wanted to continue in the morning I needed some energy. I went back to the tree line and began to gather sticks and dried leaves. Kindling filled my arms and I took them to the edge of the creek. With my boots and socks removed, I rolled my jeans up to my knees and began making trips across the water. The narrow creek was shallow: it was just calf deep, but the bottom was slick. I made each trip across slowly to avoid falling. The last thing I needed was a soaking wet pair of pants.
Once all my materials were across the creek I started building a fire in the center of the clearing. I began to work, layering leaves beneath twigs and repeating, mimicking the steps I remembered from television. I reached into the backpack nearby in search of the lighter. My fingers brushed against the folded up note, sending chills through me. I preferred not to look at the paper again; the words were etched into my memory. I originally decided to save the note to make sense of it when my head was ready. This was not that time, so I pushed it aside and my fingers made their way to the lighter.
The fire started easily and I stared into the bright flames as it grew, enjoying their warmth. My feet were dry, so I put the socks and boots back on, positioning my feet in front of the fire as I worked. I reached for the bag and unzipped it to remove the mess kit and pocket knife. This tiny blade certainly would not be much in the way of self-defense but I felt more secure knowing it would be available.
Among the assortment of food pouches I found beef stew. That would be tonight's meal. The smell of the cooking food made me realize I was hungrier than I thought. It disappeared in a matter of minutes and I pulled out the canteen to wash it down. After cleaning up my supplies it was time to rest. I added a few more logs to the fire, unrolled the sleeping bag, took off my boots and climbed in.With nothing left to do, I struggled with my thoughts. The flicker of the flames comforted me and kept me warm. As I looked to the sky, brilliant stars shone alongside the moon. My mother used to tell me each individual star represented one soul. She always found the brightest star and pointed it out to be me. In the years since she died, when I looked at the sky and found the brightest star, I knew it was her. She stayed with me always and she was here tonight, watching over me and keeping me safe. I had to take comfort in that thought; otherwise the flood gates of fear would open up and swallow me whole. If I hoped to get any sleep, I had to calm my thoughts and be in a safer place. There was plenty of time for questions in the daylight. I returned my attention to the stars and began to count them, until I finally drifted off.