The weather was fine, just right for biking along the Katy Trail. The heat spell earlier in the week had broken, just a little, and though sweat was still forming a track down her back, a slight breeze sent cool fingers up her spine.
Unlike the first two days of her trek, when the heat and the humidity actually spurred her to ride faster just so she could get to that evening’s B & B, today was so pleasant that she set a leisurely pace, stopping frequently to enjoy the scenery. Now the sun was starting to set and according to the milestone makers along the way, she was still a long distance away from the night’s lodging. She should push on, but convinced herself that a few minutes of walking wouldn’t make that much of a difference.
On her left a field of new corn waved as far as she could see, when she could see it through the cracks in the trees along the path. The late afternoon light highlighted the bugs flitting about among the wild flowers by the side of the road, and a dragonfly would occasionally hover in front of her face as if to tell her to have a care, fragile things were underfoot. All right little bug, she told it. I’m not going to step on you or your kin. On the right were the typical Missouri limestone cliffs, with a thick, dark picket of trees, bushes, and vines hiding the base of the cliff from view. She tended to avoid that side of the road because of the overhanging branches and the very real threat of ticks, though the shade yesterday would have been welcome.
She came to an old, abandoned dirt road that led to a surprisingly sturdy looking rust and wooden bridge over a stream near the path. She never could resist a bridge and walked onto it a little ways, peeking over the sides into the clear waters. The trees grew thick and wild along the water, and the colors were a dark blue-green mixed with lighter green, tipped ever so slightly with gold, colors common for late summer in Missouri. Returning to the path, she grabbed her water bottle and started to drink, wishing she could stick her face in the stream and open her mouth like a fish, swallowing the cold non-plastic tainted liquid from its tempting depths; but she knew that the water likely contained god knows what contaminants from the nearby farms.
With her mind focused on pesticides and a rare steak at journey’s end, a movement to her right caught her eye and what she saw caused her to choke mid-swallow. For a moment, a hasty half-experienced moment, it looked like one of the trees had eyes.
After she recovered from her coughing, she looked more closely at the tree but there wasn’t anything unusual about it. No eyes looking back, no waving arms or menacing air. Just an ordinary tree. She moved closer to peer through the thick vines next to and surrounding the tree and caught glimpses of hill leading down from the trail; at the bottom of the hill, a glade had formed between it and the limestone cliffs. Just as she reached out to push the vines aside for a better look, a golden brown shape burst through the trees, startling her again, and almost making her fall over backwards. She turned around and just got a glimpse of a large bird, a hawk or an eagle, taking off across the field, sun shining on its feathers. Well, that explains the eyes, she thought. The breeze picked up and she shivered a bit, though the weather was still very warm. Chastising herself for her foolishness, and suddenly aware of how much the sun had gone down, she grabbed her bike and headed off fast, much faster than she normally would ride on the loose crushed limestone that covered the path.
She didn’t get far, though, before a shadow moved out of the forest and directly in front of her bike — a squirrel from the looks of it, but she couldn’t really tell because she was too busy trying to brake and maneuver around the creature. She lost control of the bike and hit the solid green wall next to the path at a fast rate, fast enough to break through the vines, sending her flying out, down the hill and into the glade she’d just looked at a few minutes before. The bottom came quickly, too quickly, as she desperately tried to maintain control; somewhere along the way she hit a branch or a rock or a bush, who knows, and she flew over the handles of the bike and felt pain, too much pain, and then darkness.
When she woke she was in bed at the B &B, curled up under a lavender sprigged down comforter, looking out through the lacy windows at the sun just starting to break through. She could smell bacon cooking and faintly hear others stirring and knew she should get up; but it was pleasant lying in the soft mattress of the antique bed, warm and drowsy, listening to the birds just starting their morning sounds. However, she had to get up if for no other reason her kidneys were telling her she needed to relieve herself, now. Throwing the comforter back she ran to the bathroom, sitting quickly on the surprisingly cold seat and began to pee.
The warm urine pooling underneath her woke her suddenly and she lay there astonished and ashamed that she had wet herself while in bed, something she hadn’t done since she was a child. She made a move to sit up, but her body wouldn’t respond. At first she thought she was still dreaming, having that classic nightmare where you’re running and running but not really moving. Gradually, though, she became aware of the darkness around her and could smell the musty smells of earth and grass, and knew this was real and wasn’t her bed. Where she was, she wasn’t sure, but her head hurt, pounding in time with her heart.
She could feel pain in other parts of her body so she wasn’t paralyzed, or at least, paralyzed completely. However, when she tried to move again, the most she could do was shift her arms about and lift her left shoulder a little off the ground. She was afraid to try much more because if her spine was injured she could paralyze herself permanently from the movements.
As her mind continued to clear, she became aware that night wasn’t completely dark; there was a sliver of a moon in the sky somewhere and faint signs of its light trickled through the dark shapes around her. She could see outlines of trees and bushes and a brighter glint showed her twisted pieces of metal not far from where she lay. She recognized it as her bike and assumed that somehow she must have been in a bike accident, but she couldn’t remember what caused it or even where she was.
Gradually she became aware of sounds in the woods around her, the slight rustle of a breeze through the leaves and what sounded like small night creatures searching for food. She wasn’t that worried about in the woods at night, but she was anxious for morning to come, bringing people with it, and hopefully help.
She drifted in and out of sleep, or perhaps unconsciousness, but eventually the light increased and her surroundings became more green than black. She could see she was in some kind of small glade, with a hill on one side and a cliff on the other. She wondered if she’d fallen off the cliff, but careful searching showed a faint break in the vines that covered the top of the hill and disturbances in the bushes along the hillside to her location. It was the sight of the hill that began to stir the fragments of her memory and she recognized enough of her surroundings to know she was on the Katy Trail, and this led to fuzzy recollections of her deciding to take a week and bike the Trail. She still had no idea of how she got there, but that wasn’t important as long as she could get help. The Trail was widely used. There would be help.
Her head hurt a bit less, but she was thirsty and she kept her eyes on the break in the vine, waiting to see the shadow of someone walking past. The morning came and went and the only movement was in the glade itself, birds and squirrels going about their business as if she didn’t exist. Her thirst became stronger and she looked to see if her water bottle had fallen near her but couldn’t see it in the weeds.
As she waited, she tried moving from time to time to see if the temporary paralysis had let up but she still couldn’t shift more than her arms, and one shoulder. Trying to do more caused pain sharp in her back and shoulders, enough to make her almost black out; it also left her legs feeling numb, which scared her and her fear just made her more thirsty.
In the afternoon she awoke from a half sleep by voices faint, but moving closer. Relieved that she was finally going to be found, she started calling out but her voice was so weak from lying there for so long. Still she kept calling out, pleading with the people to help her but as they got closer she could hear the sound of bicycle wheels and know that there was no way that bike riders would either see her or hear her.
Their shadows passed quickly, too quickly, and still she called out, desperate to be heard. She kept calling long after they were gone. She was still calling as the night drew in and the shadows become longer, stretching to cover her in a blanket of chill darkness.
She was thirsty, so thirsty, and beginning to panic a bit about how long she was going to be lying there before being found. She knew she’d be found. Quite probably the next day, when she didn’t show up wherever it is she was supposed to be for the night. She knew it. She really did. Another night of dark shadows, except this night the normal sounds of the forest seemed more deliberate, as if it had just become aware of her presence. No breeze rustled the leaves of the trees, but they rustled just the same — from tree to tree, moving in a circle around her. There was no menace to the sound, but there was a calculated deliberateness about it that was more frightening then the sound of a slavering bear would have been. She felt around until her hand touched on a rock, which she grabbed and held tightly in her fist. She tried to keep her eyes open, peering into the gloom at every fresh noise, but she dozed sometime before morning and when she woke, it was full light again.
That day the surrounding green seemed thicker, more vibrant. Rather than a single shade of green, she began to pick out subtle differences of color in the bushes and trees, the weeds, and grasses around her. Rays of sunlight filtered to the forest floor, motes of dust floating about in the light. Birds would land on the branches of the trees near her and cock their head from side to side, looking at her with shadowed eyes. It should have been an idyllic scene but there was an otherworldly feel to it that made her uncomfortable. The feeling grew as the morning ran into afternoon and eventually towards evening and no shadows came to darken the break in the vines.
It was just as the light was beginning to fail that she realized that her surroundings weren’t the odd note in that glade. She was. That night she didn’t try to sleep or stay awake and drifted in and out, without being able to tell the difference. She’d long ago dropped the protective rock and her thirst was so great, she’d grab at blades of grass to suck and chew, hoping to get a drop or two of moisture from them. But the grass near her was more brown then green, and the bitter taste just made the thirst worse.
Morning came and she was only dimly aware of her surroundings but it seemed as if the forest was drawing near her, closing her in. She lifted a blurry eye to the top of the hill and noticed that vines had filled in the break she’d made when her bike had crashed through. She knew that somewhere inside she was alarmed, but it was as if another person was experiencing the fear and the desperation, and she, her aware self, was a detached observer. Mid-day, a sound broke through her filtered awareness — a harsh, ringing sound foreign to the glade. At first she thought it might be her imagination or another bike rider going by too fast to see either wrecked bike or rider behind shadows and weeds. As it continued, though, she recognized the sound — Beethoven. Ta-ta-ta-dum. Ta-ta-ta-DUM. Over and over again, the four familiar notes sounded. It was her cell phone, which she’d programmed to play Beethoven when it rang to impress her friends but secretly, she would have preferred Steppenwolf’s Born to Be Wild.
Born to Be Wild, she laughed to herself, looking around at the tangled and frenzied growth surrounding her trying to catch a glimpse of the phone’s silver color, struggling, weakly, to move, to find the phone. Just like her water bottle it was buried in the bushes far out of reach, too far to help; useless for anything other than providing a break in the forest noises. When it stopped ringing, she sank back, too tired to be frustrated, and only mildly curious about the identity of the caller and if they would leave a message. She mimicked her voicemail recording, faint, hoarse sounds coming through dry and cracked lips, telling the other person, so sorry, but she wasn’t available at the moment. Yes, I’m lying at the bottom of a hill surrounded by trees and wild things that don’t like me much, and I’m hurt, and I want to go home. The call was really important to her, so please, leave a message. And while they were at it, could they also send an ambulance, pizza truck, and beer wagon?
More birds gathered around her that afternoon, as if their weight would force her to get to her feet and leave. This glade was their space, their tiny bit of land carved out from the reach of man, hidden by cliff and thick growth. Her being there was a disruption, an abomination. I’d leave my friends if I could, she whispered, her voice barely more than a wisp of sound soon vanished.
I’d leave if I could. I’d leave if I could. I’d leave if I could. I’d leave if I could. Again and again she repeated the words out loud, and finally in the silence and stillness of her mind.
That night as darkness fell she found her leg twitching, first one and then the other. Slowly, carefully, she found she could move and she pulled herself to her feet, and eventually, haltingly, up the hill until reaching the white path shining in the moonlight. She was tired and sore but could walk and she moved down the path for what seemed like a long time until she saw a farm with lights on. She would have cried with joy but there was no water for tears so all she could do was stumble to the door and knock weakly against it. The farmer opened the door, eyes wide with shock when he saw this disheveled, exhausted woman in front of him, begging weakly for water. Please, water.
He led her into the kitchen, his wife helping, and poured her water from a pitcher on the table. The pitcher was glass, she noticed, and the water so cool that beads formed on the outside from the warm humidity coming through the open kitchen window. She was too weak to hold the cup, so the farmer held the water to her lips and the first sweet wonderful drops fell into her mouth and down her throat. She sucked at the water desperately and when he took the glass away, she almost screamed in frustration.
More, she cried. More, please.
Again, he held the glass to her lips and again she tasted the moisture. Again he would draw away and again she would beg, but at some point her thirst lightened just enough, barely enough, and she began to think that she might live, after all.
She woke with a start, and with the faint hint of moisture on her lips. When she saw by the light of a new day that she was still in the forest, she beat at the ground with her fists and swore at the trees and the birds until she ran out of words strong enough, but neither the forest nor the birds seem moved by her anger.
In the tree just above her, a flash of gold, brown color showed a large hawk perched on a limb, peering down at her intently from cold brown eyes located above a nasty looking beak. She thought about finding the rock again, but what was the use? She was going to be dead by morning. Her injuries and the lack of water and food were going to kill her and the birds might as well have what was left—she wouldn’t need it anymore.
She lay still, completely still, only her eyes moving — from tree to rock, from bird to flower. She could see the veins in the leaves nearest her, and marveled that she hadn’t noticed how delicate a leaf was. How many times had she stepped over leaves or walked on them, or pushed them impatiently out of her way without really seeing their beauty? As she breathed in the scent of the forest no longer seemed so musty or stale. There was a bright freshness to the green around her, a smell of life in the dirt.
As the day wore on, she also looked at the birds that hoped about, flashes of color from gray feather and red, and the brown feathers of the hawk never leaving the perch above her head. She could see the edges of his feathers, tipped with a light white. She could make out each individual hair. The sun fell on her face, and it seemed softer somehow; warm and comforting. She thought about her life and her family and friends and how she’d miss them, and hoped they’d miss her, but any grief or regrets were tempered by a growing weakness that brought a tranquility she seemed to project and which echoed back at her from her surroundings.
I never knew that dying could be so peaceful, she thought. With a sigh, she looked one more time around the glade, the place that had seemed so foreign but now seemed to welcome her as one of its own. As the darkness in her mind grew, she could feel blade of grass and feather on wing move close beside her, as if to provide her comfort on her trip.
She was remembering that moment in the glade two months later, as she was packing her purse with belongings from the table near the hospital bed she’d occupied for so long. Her movements were still stiff, unsure, and the doctors said her recovery would be a long time coming, but everyone agreed that it was a miracle she was alive.
A bike rider out for an early ride had spotted her hand just barely piercing the shadow of the vines that surrounded her. He’d knelt down and touched fingers to her wrist, expecting to feel nothing but cold from the blue-tinged skin. When he’d felt a faint pulse he’d been astonished, but no more than the paramedics and the doctors when they realized that she had somehow crawled up the steep hill where she’d fallen, in spite of her serious injuries. Yes, it was a real miracle she was alive.
She looked one more time around the room and smiled at her mother who was packing a suitcase with the rest of her items. Among them was the dirty, torn shirt she’d worn when she’d been found and which the hospital had stuffed into a bag when she’d been brought into the emergency room.
“Dear, should I throw this away?”
“No. No, I’d like to look at it.”
She held it in her arms and breathed in the faint musty smell of dirt and grass. As she pulled it closer to her face, lost in memory, something scratched at her cheek. Putting her hand into the folds of the collar, she pulled out a feather. A single feather, golden brown, lightly tipped with white.