Thursday, March 03, 2005

 

the child, thirty-eight


James swallowed hard on the pride stuck in his craw. Stooping, he took up his pack and shouldered it. 'Come on,' he said. And he started up the slight incline that led into the dark valley.

'Come on where?' said Lucy. 'I thought we were camping here.'

'Not till I - we - apologize to Forest first. Come on!'

Slowly, Jack chose to follow him, then the other women trailed along as well. Lucy looked around at the others, then followed James also. The three men waited till Stone and Starr moved out, then brought up the rear.

Starr was leaning heavily on Stone's arm. 'Tired?' he asked.

She nodded. The vision, curiously, had sapped her strength.

'Tell me,' Stone added as they neared the top of the incline into the valley beyond. 'The pack of wolves. Was... Was I... one of the wolves...?'

She looked up into his face, read the uncertainty there. 'Why would you be one of the wolves? You weren't ripping up anyone.'

He sighed, gave a slight smile. 'Thanks. I really wasn't sure. I'm never sure if I should speak up. I'm never sure if I'm being a peace-maker, or making matters worse.'

'You weren't making things worse, dear,' said she.

He smiled deeply then, and chuckled.

'What?' she asked.

'Oh, I just like that. You called me dear.' And his arm around her snugged her just a bit closer.

They topped the incline. The others had stopped here, just over the top, and so they had to stop as well. Malachi and his two companions came up and halted behind them also. And they all stared into the deep valley opening up before them. Such a bleak place it was! Had any of them ever before seen such a place of, of hopelessness?

'This is the way?' said someone. Which was simply voicing what most of them were already thinking.

The path ahead of them ran down the incline, down in to the valley, winding round great dismal grey boulders and stunted, twisted, dead-looking trees. A pall seemed to lie over the whole area between the two mountains; a chill deadened the air. The little company could see only a short distance ahead of them into the valley, for the path soon made a bend to the right and disappeared.

Heads turned as they looked at each other, seeing - most of them - their own dismay mirrored on their neighbors' faces. Only Malachi and his two companions seemed undisturbed by the disheartening look of this valley.

James hitched his pack a bit higher on his shoulders. 'Well,' he said, 'come on. Let's go find Forest.'

He led out, and the rest slowly followed, down, down into the valley. They passed by the boulders and reached the corner where the way bent to the right. And then they went on around that corner.

Oh, it was not a pleasant way. There were thorns to tear at their clothing and skin, and rough ground - even holes in the ground - to cause them to trip or stumble. It was exhausting, trying to make any headway that evening.

And then it got worse.

Oh yes, it did. For the sun set. The last rays of its light were abruptly cut off by the high shoulders of the mountain to their right. Sudden dark took hold of the valley, so that when they turned, as they had a few minutes earlier, to look at each other with dismayed faces - they now could no longer see each other in return.

'What do we do now?' said a quavering female voice. That was Linda, both Stone and Starr guessed.

'I think we should go back.'

Was that Jack?

'Back!' cried a voice that must certainly have been James. 'Are you crazy? You want to go back?'

'Well, I don't mean back back - as in all the way back to the Mountain of Spices. I just mean back a little ways, far enough that we don't have to spend the night here in this awful valley.'

'It's not a bit better over there than it is here,' James argued back.

'Not saying it is. It just - feels better back there than here.'

A snort. 'Maybe Forest was right about us.'

'Meaning?' There was a dangerous edge to that word.

'Oh please!' A younger, lighter female voice spoke up now - Joy, likely. 'Are we going to do this again? Is Starr going to be seeing more wolves?'

That brought an immediate silence. And in the silence, Starr began to realize that it wasn't quite as completely dark as she had thought at first. Her eyes were adjusting to the lack of light. And so were everyone else's.

James sighed. 'Look - I'm sorry. Stone is right: there is a way to disagree, and not be disagreeable doing it. Jack. I shouldn't have said the word crazy. And I shouldn't have implied that you were being a, well...' Slowly, he brought forth the word, '...coward. What I meant by what I said - what I should have said instead of what I said - is that there's not that much difference in being here from being back there beyond the ridge. And, that it's a bit dark to go trying to make a move now anyway. Let's just sit down where we are and camp here. If that's agreeable to everyone?'

'Well,' Jack replied. 'All right. I accept the apology. I'm sorry I was starting to argue too. No hard feelings?'

'None.' And the two managed to see each other well enough to shake hands on it.

'Besides,' James added as they all began to lay down their packs, 'we came into the valley to find Forest and apologize to him. We haven't done that yet.'

'Yes,' Joy put in. 'Where is Forest, anyway?'

It was a very good question, and one that none of them seemed to have the answer for. Peering about in the dark for him would do no good. They were just going to have to wait for morning light to look for him now.

'I sure hope he's safe,' Stone whispered to Starr as they too laid down their packs.

'Me too,' she agreed. And wondered - without saying anything aloud to anyone, not even to Stone - if it was possible that Forest perhaps did not want to be found.

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