What They Found in the Forest
by Ljubo Popovich
Elle glanced at her husband, Eric, who was lying naked, ten feet away in a charred circle of twigs. She glanced down in confusion at her own nakedness and at the side of her arm, which was covered in ash from the scorched ground. Vague memories floated to the surface of her mind.
They’d been lying on the beach when all of a sudden everything went quiet. Removing her sunglasses, she’d glanced up as the rhythm of the waves suddenly broke off, as if she had gone deaf. And then the waves retreated from the shore. It was like entering a deep fog, as sleep struck her.
She stood up in the shade of trees. There was a ringing in her ears, which were unaccustomed to the silence of the wilderness. Trying not to shake, she poked her husband’s shoulder.
“Where the hell are we?” he said, sitting up, pudgy, slobbering. “Where’s your bathing suit, Elle?”
“We’re in the middle of nowhere.”
“I don’t remember a damned thing. We were just splashing around.”
“You fell asleep on the beach. You had a sunburn.”
“As you can see, Babe, I don’t have a sunburn.”
“No, that’s impossible. I was going to wake you but—”
“How in God’s name did we end up in this forest without any clothes on?” he asked.
Already, the disconnected recollections faded from her mind. She clutched at them, searching for an explanation. “I can’t believe we were kidnapped, dosed with LSD, and dumped in the middle of nowhere.”
What about the burnt spots where they’d awoken, and his vanishing sunburn? Elle wasn’t ready to draw any solid conclusions from that.
“What if we can’t get back?” The whiney inflection in his voice betrayed his panic.
“Let’s start walking,” she said. “There’s bound to be a road.”
“Those bastards,” he said, spitting, “playing this sick joke.”
They picked their way slowly between trees, stepping over logs and mossy boulders, amid twittering birds and humming bees.
As they trudged with sensitive feet, she ignored his grumbling.
“Goddamn it,” he said. “I’m not even wearing any shoes.”
After two hours, he let loose a string of expletives and sat down on a log. “My feet are all bloody. This is ridiculous,” he said, huffing and puffing, lips aquiver like a child’s.
“Come on,” she urged. “We’ve got to be getting close to a road.”
“Are you kidding me?” he asked. “This doesn’t make any sense. Not a single airplane has flown over us this whole time.”
“If we just keep walking, we’ll come across a road eventually.”
“This could be the middle of Mongolia. The closest road might be a thousand miles away.”
“You say that after three miles!”
“You know, I do remember something,” he said slowly, “but it’s all blurry.”
“It was horrible. Like a nightmare.”
“Did you see them?”
“I didn’t know what I was looking at, I couldn’t comprehend anything, but I sort of felt a presence on me.”
“Is that all you remember?”
“Well, we couldn’t both have the same dream.”
“What’re we gonna do, Elle?” Standing up, he clutched her. Together they stood in the immense quiet, hugging awkwardly, exposed, sweaty, caked in dirt, and he sniveled against her shoulder as she patted his back.
“We’re gonna be fine,” she said.
“I bet they’re trying to teach us a lesson.”
“Listen to yourself. Debt collectors don’t go to this much trouble.”
That night they cuddled in a pile of wet leaves, exhausted and starving. Nearby they’d encountered a stream. After drinking deeply, they’d hopelessly attempted to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together. Eventually they just lay down shivering with their bodies folded up. Sleep came in bits and pieces and was fraught with more fragmentary dreams.
* * *
They followed the stream downhill until they looked back and saw a mountain range, and in front of them a valley that stretched off into more intimidating mountains.
They took it slow, resting often. Hunger led to bickering. “We’ll be able to tell some stories at least,” Elle sighed.
“I would give my left leg for a cell phone right now.”
“As if there’d be a signal.”
They talked to keep their minds off grim reality and dredged up all the old arguments.
On the third day, they snapped two saplings and fashioned crude spears, turning the points against a sharp slab of stone. Five hours knee-deep in the stream, thrusting at every flickering shadow yielded two small fish, which they devoured raw.
They grew used to frustration. It hardened into resentment. It became a battle over every little piece of meat.
“I’m fifty pounds heavier than you,” he explained, taking an extra bite.
“You could lose more than a few pounds.” She snatched the fish head from him.
“Some vacation this turned into.”
“You haven’t had a job for four months.”
“You know I only got the DUI because my co-workers persuaded me to drink too much.”
“You’re too easily persuaded.”
The anger petered out only when they ran out of energy. Only one thing mattered now. Even the determination to get home wasn’t as pressing as their hunger.
The kept to the shade as much as possible, but their skin still burnt and peeled. It took weeks before they became bronzed. All their fat melted away. Then they both weighed about the same and the soles of their feet finally became hard, but they looked and smelled like animals.
Every day they spent hours wading through the river in search of fish, but their ribs still jutted out and their legs were dense clusters of wiry muscle.
“Maybe I should’ve gone on this wilderness diet five years ago,” he chuckled, patting his flattened abdomen.
“You’ll gain it back in a week,” Elle said. “Once we get back.”
It was difficult to measure time, since they were constantly on the move. Eric paid attention to the moon, commenting on its gentle waning every night.
“It’s been a month,” he said.
“No. Barely three weeks,” Elle said firmly.
“I can tell by the moon.”
“I can tell by something else. I’ll tell you when it’s been a month.”
He grunted. The moon stared down at him. It could have been his imagination, but it seemed to have just a hint of yellow, like a harvest moon. But he’d never seen it like that so high in the sky. The more he peered the more it unnerved him.
It wasn’t something they talked about anymore. What was the use of inventing theories and explanations for where they were and how they got there? Any time they spent worrying about it was time they could have spent gathering food.
After floating down countless miles of river straddling a giant log, and climbing cliffs for a better view of the landscape, Elle glimpsed the first sign of smoke.
It was far, but if they followed the river they would come to it eventually.
* * *
Crouching in shadows, they watched a haggard old man feed his meager fire, arranging twigs into a pile. With awe they saw him tear the skin off a dead rabbit with his teeth, disembowel it with his fingernails and dangle the little clump of meat over the flame until the scent made them salivate.
Retreating to a safe distance they consulted.
“He’s naked like us,” Eric said.
“I wonder how long he’s been here.”
“I knew we got sent back to the Stone Age.”
“His beard is only a few months old, I’d say. Let’s go talk to him.”
“I don’t know,” Eric said. “Seems risky.”
For hours they watched the man tend to his fire. Most of the time his lips moved as if he were talking to himself.
“There’s two of us and one of him,” Elle said. “If we bring spears we should be okay.”
When she convinced Eric to accost the old man, night was falling.
“We come in peace,” Eric yelled, extending his hand and setting his spear down slowly. Elle stood behind him, shielding herself from view. Understanding dawned on the man’s withered face by degrees, as if he couldn’t believe his eyes. Graciously, he motioned for them to sit.
Though the man, whose name was Vaslav, spoke no English, he talked compulsively at first. They understood nothing of what he said, but as a sign of good will they accepted some of his food and gathered a few sticks to add to the fire.
They tried to find out how long Vaslav had been lost, but the only information they could gather was his name. After resting for the night, the three of them started walking. Vaslav followed them passively, as if he had resigned himself to being lost long ago.
* * *
The routine was much the same. Vaslav never gave up trying to talk to them.
“To answer your question,” Elle told Eric, “he’s not from the Stone Age. He knows about wristwatches. He slapped his wrist this morning and pointed to the sun.”
“Still, doesn’t help us much.”
“You could try to be a little positive.” She glared at him. “We’re actually spending time together for once.”
“Sure you don’t like Vaslav better?”
“Think about it. We don’t have to pay off any debts. I don’t have to go to work. Life got a whole lot simpler for us.”
“You’re just assuming we’re stuck here, then? At least I haven’t given up.”
Suddenly, Vaslav patted him on the shoulder. Eric jumped, brandishing his spear.
“Stop freaking out, dear,” Elle yelled.
“You never call me ‘dear’,” he said, relaxing.
Hesitantly, she hugged him. Vaslav laughed and winked.
The river was their guide. No matter how far it wound, they never left its side. But when they came to a mountain, Elle usually decided to climb it. Above the ocean of trees, at the peak, she spotted another plume of smoke.
* * *
A day and night passed before they found the fire. Approaching the clearing cautiously, they saw dozens of people gathered. Dressed in deerskins, they were talking and whittling as sparks flew into the sky.
When they called out, the villagers welcomed them. Liam, the tall, broad-shouldered chief, came forward and spoke in an Australian accent.
“Finally someone who speaks English,” Eric said.
Soon enough they were given skins and rabbit-fur moccasins to wear. Elle’s eyes filled with tears as she caressed the crude garments. Long ago she’d forgotten her nakedness, but covering herself again was like gaining back a portion of her humanity.
That night they learned how good simple food well prepared could be. “I know you’ve questions,” Liam told them, “but tonight you should rest.”
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Ljubo Popovich