I took a long, slow draw of cigarette smoke, holding it deep within my lungs before exhaling it into the cool morning air. The sky was a clear and brilliant blue, and as the tendrils wreathed around my head they dissipated and dissolved into the ether, vanishing from all perception like the mists of some ephemeral slumber. I took the cigarette from my mouth and breathed deeply of the cool, clean air. Before me, mountains loomed as timeless and impenetrable as the Earth itself, the standing testament of Mother Nature’s ancient glory. I beheld the vista that had dominated over all the landscape since before the race of man had walked the Earth, and in my heart the wild call of some primeval nature shuddered into life. I felt my neck hairs prickle with a feeling that I could not shake. This was a raw and wild land.
Sophia approached me from behind. The sound of her footsteps was distinctive, a hesitant, trepidatious drawing inward that reflected both her physical pain and the emotional turmoil she was in the midst of. Her sister’s absence and danger were pain enough, a pain made worse by the intimate understanding and compassion which they had for each other that had led them to rely upon each other in their time of need; now lacking, the strength of that connection magnified the desolation of its loss, which once had been a consolation to its owners. Combined with this, the pain of her body’s injury had weakened her as much or more so than the injury itself, so that by now her mental and emotional defenses were at their weakest and upon the constant verge of being overwhelmed. It was in this state she found herself, so desperate for a human contact that she had almost given me her body in exchange for my attention to her, and yet somehow still mistrusting me enough to hold away from me the self-surrender such an action would entail, when now at last she started her approach. It was with the cautious air of a remorseful child that she did so, a lingering, tentative step forward, reluctant to come near me lest her presence should offend and cause my harshness to destroy her fragile hopes for reconciliation. In this way it was different from the manner of a child, I reflected, for though her worth and self-acceptance were not predicated on my own acceptance of the same, yet I perceived that at this moment she was like a child in her need for me and like an adult in her disillusionment and world-weariness. I spoke to give her ease.
“It’s okay, Sophia. You can come up to me.”
Her shoulders tensed, afraid now that I had exposed her vulnerability, but like a starving animal lured to a trap by the promise of a meal, her feet propelled her forward at the protest of her judgement. Her every muscle tensed in trepidation, a state that in an animal would be accompanied by a snarling, growling warning not to touch. I perceived that if I did so this one would be of the snapping, biting kind and not the kind that freezes out of terror or else runs. I held my hand out and she took it, her basic human reason overpowering the instincts of her fear. She seemed to trust my offer of companionship as merely that, and though she must have rightly suspected me of deeper underlying motives, which if we are honest we must acknowledge all men and women have in their relations with each other, she appeared to have decided for the time being that the threat to herself was outweighed by the need she felt for human contact. I let her draw close to me, acutely aware that my body language should not suddenly stiffen, yet in that knowledge finding it impossible to keep myself from slowly tensing. I took a slow, deep breath and let my shoulders fall. The tension stayed. I tried to clear my mind of thoughts about her body before they even formed, to relax and calm the waters of my mind. She sensed the zen-like change in my demeanor, took it for acceptance, and pressed her side against me. I felt the warmth of her flesh and the supple give of her body, the curvature of her breast and waist against my arm, and I became quite suddenly aware of just how much I wanted her. Not just her body, but her feelings, her emotions, all the pain and all the hurt she felt within her, spilling over for the want of any friend or lover with whom to share them; I desired this girl and everything that came with her. I would have it no other way. She spoke, and her voice sounded uncertain and apologetic.
“I’m sorry for what I said about you.”
“Don’t be. You love your sister. I threatened her, and I threatened you. Everything you said is true.”
“If that was the case, you wouldn’t be here. I had time to think on the plane ride.”
“And I’ve realized that I need you. My injury is bad enough to prevent me from traveling alone.”
“You’re asking me for help,” I said, surprised. I had not expected her to come around to me so quickly.
“Then you know that there’s a price?”
“I know. I’m prepared to pay it.”
“I haven’t told you what it is yet.”
“It doesn’t matter. Maria’s safety is more important to me than anything I have to give.”
“If that’s your price, I’ll pay it, but only after she goes free.”
“I see. And what would you say if I told you that I’m not interested in manipulating you?”
“Then I’d say you were probably lying.”
“We’ll just have to see, then. For now, my price is two thousand pounds, and you agree to pay whatever else I ask for once we free your sister.”
“Done. I’ll have the funds transferred the moment we hit ground in Heathrow.”
“Of course you will. I’m glad you finally decided to trust me.”
“Believe me, Naissance, trust has nothing to do with it.”
Her acerbic reply made me smile. I liked this kid. She pretended not to notice, but I could tell my grinning put her off. She didn’t share my amusement.
“Let’s be off. We wouldn’t want to keep Maria waiting.”
The doctor had supplied us well, so there was no need of a stop in town before we left. Instead, we simply paid a local to take us as far as we could go by road and set off from there on foot. Knowing that Sophia would likely struggle with her injury, I insisted on checking it myself before we left. She objected.
“I’m not comfortable with you touching me there.”
“I’ve touched you in less comfortable places before.”
“I didn’t have a choice then.”
“And you don’t now either. Remember that price we agreed on? This is part of it. Now hold still.”
I had her sit on a convenient rock and lift her shirt so I could see the wound. It looked bad, but not unbearable. I was confident that someone with her training could soldier through it; I just hoped it wouldn’t become infected. I applied antiseptic cream and replaced the bandage, wrapping it tightly against her skin. My hand brushed her, and she flinched away from the contact. I waited for her to straighten and then finished wrapping. Each time my fingers touched her she would stiffen, and when I was finished wrapping I placed my hands around her waist.
“Let go of me.”
“No. Remove your shirt.”
There was no one around to see us. Sophia looked like she was about to hit me.
“Do you want my help or not?”
Glaring at me with all the hatred she could muster, and a fear that was less well disguised than she thought, Sophia lifted her shirt above her head and removed it. I slid my hands up her sides until my thumbs rested on her breasts, just above the braline. I hooked them under the top edge of her bra and held them there, motionless. She met my eyes, unwavering, knowing she had no power to stop me if she wanted to save her sister. I admired her resolve, and met it with my own. Slowly, I caressed my thumbs up and away from her braline, then slid my hands slowly back down until I again held her by the waist.
“Still uncomfortable with me touching you?”
“Then I suggest you put your shirt back on.”
She did so, and I held her by the waist for several seconds longer, then released her, slowly sliding my hands away from her smooth, pale skin. She dropped her shirt and looked away, but it was too late. I had already seen her blush. She set off brusquely for the trailhead, leaving me to follow after. I noticed that she walked quite well for someone who had suffered such an injury, and I didn’t even try to keep up with her, realizing that her speed was a tactic designed to place an emptiness of separation between our two existences. She wanted to be alone, and I could understand that. I’m a bit of a loner myself sometimes.
As we walked, the forest began to waken deep within me some ancestral spirit that beseeches me come and see my home. The smell of earth and water, the dappled sunlight dancing through the trees, the chirp of songbirds overhead and the sighing of trees, all called to me. I found myself mesmerized by the dew upon a spider’s web and captivated by the burbling of a brook, unable to speak for the sheer wonder which transformed my perception of the world. I lingered, lost in thought, at the pattern of the tree bark or the markings of a thrush, then hurried to keep my measured distance from one of nature’s most mysterious creations. I didn’t want her getting out of sight.
At one point, she stopped, and without realizing it, I came up to her. She was standing with her back to me, enraptured by the liquid fire of the sunlight as it danced and played upon the bed of a small brook that ran across our path. Its sound concealed my presence, and I stood there for the longest time, watching her as she perceived what I had seen all morning, and something more. There was a beauty in the moment that I did not dare disturb, and as her shoulders fell I realized she was crying softly. Her body was in perfect stillness, yet there the sunlight glinted off her face, a flash of light that marked the passage of a single teardrop. I shifted, and the motion gave away my presence, for she looked at me and turned away, aware that I had seen her crying. I stepped towards her, and her voice forestalled me.
“There used to be a brook like this outside my house when I was young. Maria and I would play in it.” Her voice broke near the end, and again I stepped forward to comfort her. She recoiled from my touch and spun on me in anger.
“Don’t touch me! Can’t you see it doesn’t help?”
I backpedaled and apologized.
“You don’t know what it’s like to be touched by a man!” She struck me in the chest. “Just stay away from me!” Her words were hurt, defensive, hurled at me through a veil of tears. I backed off, and she spun around and fled away from me, up the trail and away from the threat that I and all men represented. I let her put a gap between us and then followed after, afraid that she might hurt herself or do something foolish. In this terrain the two were not mutually exclusive.
A small rise loomed ahead, and as she crested it I momentarily lost sight of her. When I reached the top I was relieved to see her black hoodie moving down the trail some hundred meters or so ahead of me. I called to her to wait, but if anything she sped her pace. As I pursued her, the sky above me darkened and a strong, chill wind began to blow, rattling branches and causing boughs to creak with strain. I shouted to her, but the gusting tempest whipped my voice away. Desperate that we should not be separated, I ran after her, into the rain that began to fall as big, fat drops from what was now a leaden sky. Lightning flashed, so close my neck-hairs stood on end and my teeth ached as a deafening concussion split the sky. A blinding, searing light erased my corneas, and in my blindness I felt flaming embers strike my upraised hand. My vision faded into purple and as it started to come back I realized I was on my hands and knees, looking upwards at the flaming pillar of a splintered spruce not sixty meters from where I had fallen. I staggered to my feet and looked around me, terrified by the falling debris which burned with sap-fueled flames around me. I found the trail and stumbled down it, my balance useless for the ringing in my ears. I heard my own voice shouting, felt the driving torrents of the rain that quenched the fires of the lightning as fast as they had been created. The ground beneath me was slick with wetness and with mud. Somehow, in the distance, I saw her.
“Sophia!” I shouted after her, calling her name again. She did not hear or answer. Despairing, I watched as she faded from the world, into the mists of the beyond. Sheets of rain composed a veil that might as well have been an ocean.
Weary, I cast my eyes around and seized upon a shallow cave. Inside I found protection from the storm and room to start a fire. The wood was soaking wet, but I carried plenty of dry tinder and found kindling by splitting one of the larger logs down the middle, revealing a dry interior. I had soon constructed a roaring blaze that hissed and steamed at the water which blew into it. Exhausted from the day’s travel and my ordeal at the hands of the storm, I ingested a quick meal of porridge and was soon asleep.