Random Writing 9

The air was hot and thick, and full of the shrill cries of a thousand insects; full, indeed, in every way and therefore somehow more solid, more dense, than the air of home. Water hung there in ambush, waiting to coalesce on Susan's arms, legs, face as she walked through it. She had forgotten what it was like to be fully dry, for every surface of the forest was either dark with damp or bright with drops of liquid.

She pushed on through the trees, following the line of saplings that marked the path of the refugees. It seemed hard to believe that Jonathan had once come the opposite way along this track - it was barely anything, how could it possibly have disgorged an entire nation onto the world? His footsteps could lie underneath this covering of the scrubby vines that grew criss-cross over the path, but were they buried beneath the footsteps of tens of thousands of others? There would be no way to tell, of course, since even the last to come had presumably had their trails covered by now, the actions of the huge earthworms, the vines, the seedlings in their constant fruitless race up to the sun, all contributing to the anonymity of the trail. In a few decades - perhaps, she thought, even a few years - the path would be almost invisible. Even now it was hard to follow.

In places the vines that grew everywhere on the ground had managed to creep into the trees and drape themselves across the path, looking like an unappealing green curtain but actually tight enough to form a barrier. Their woody stems took multiple blows from her machete to cut, and the various strands grew together so tightly that they almost seemed woven. To cut one just release tension to another, and when she came upon such a cloth of vegetation blocking her path she was forced to chop almost the whole thing out, hacking a shape for her body to pass through and taking her pack off her back to get that through the gap too.

What had the path looked like before, she wondered. Had it been here from older times, used enough by the locals to keep it clear, so that when the refugees found it it had been easier going for them than it was for her? She discarded the idea after some thought, realising that if the locals had been using the path they would be using it still, that she might have been able to get a guide to come with her.

A scarlet dragonfly buzzed past her face. She jumped back, startled and unwilling to touch it, and the creature flew on and then hovered a few feet away, almost as though it were observing her. A few seconds it hung there, sparking red in a sunbeam that had managed to break through the canopy overhead, and then it was gone. Susan had not seen a dragonfly since she arrived in Africa, and something tickled in the back of her mind. A pond? Back home dragonflies always seemed to hunt over ponds and rivers, was it the same in the rainforest? There was a lot more water, and it might be that the dragonflies here specialised somehow, perhaps laying their eggs in trapped leaf pools higher up, but then again...

She unslung her pack and delved around in it for a few moments, feeling the odd sensation of her hand drying against the odd fresh clothes inside. Her fingers touched the cool screen of her GPS receiver and she pulled it out, crossed her fingers and pushed the on button. After a few agonising seconds the screen burst into white life, then cleared to black again, then displayed its welcome message. She rested against a tree branch and waited while it searched for satellites - slowly and painfully, but eventually it had found four and gave her a location she was happy with. She recorded it, tucked the unit into her pocket, and began to cast around to the south.

For two hours she cut, hacking her way off the path and into the jungle, hunting for the side path that she knew must have been created if the stories were true. It was hard work, and her shoulder ached with the constant impact of the machete on vine wood, her muscles hot with lactic acid as she lifted her right arm over and over, and swept again and again with her left arm. Each proto-path she found ended a mere meter or two in, though, just a blind alley formed by chance arrangement of the giant trees.

Eventually, though, one path grew without stopping as she cut - two hundred meters down from the point she had started her search, a narrow track that was (once she was past the initial meter or two) actually in better condition than the main path. The narrower track had perhaps concentrated the feet traversing it, she thought, focusing the damage on the ground below. She cut forward faster now, the excitement of the discovery giving her tired shoulders a second strength, and she imagined the young Jonathan, who must have been perhaps twenty years old?, travelling the same path. He would have been tired, hungry, thirsty - perhaps afraid? It was hard to tell. Had their been enemies on their trail, or was it something else that had caused them to leave, caused all of them to abandon that place that seemed to the outside world as though it must have been something of a paradise? Her thoughts took her further, imagining the empress as a young child, tiny brown hand clutched in that of a parent, a handmaid - perhaps another guard, one of Jonathan's troops? She shook her head, annoyed. The whole thing was ridiculous.

Then with a final sweep of the machete she stepped through, and her chest froze, locking her breath inside her, a cold and hot confusing gas that her body was suddenly unsure what to do with. Before her was a wide expanse of water, edged with huge bullrushes in which scarlet dragonflies chased smaller fare. This at least was true. Here was the watering post, the little lake that had saved the refugees.


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