Melanie woke up shivering, her forearm resting on the bare stone. It was still dark, something that didn’t seem to change about this mountain range; it had been well over a week since she had seen the sun, only a shade longer than she had been in the mountains. She was lost, that much was clear. She remembered at one point having a map and compass, but the compass never seemed to point north, except on days of its own choosing, and the map seemed to correspond to almost any set of mountain passes except the one she was currently in. She had thrown both into a crevasse and waited for the slightly echoey splash as they hit whatever river traced its roots to these mountains. That little splash had left her with a feeling of serenity that lasted for about five minutes, after which she began to worry that she needed the map and the compass.
Gradually that had been replaced with other concerns, most importantly why the sun refused to come up. She wondered if the range was simply too high, that the towering rocks on either side blocked the sun’s light from entering its canyons. That didn’t seem likely, though, since it was not the grey half light of shadow, it was dark – almost pitch black – most of the time. She could see only a little way in front of herself in the prime daylight hour and could barely see her hand in front of her face the rest of the time. She worried that she was walking in circles, but as each part of the canyon looked more or less the same it was hard to confirm it.
For all that she worried, though, it was not so bad here. She had food enough to last her until she wouldn’t need food anymore, and she kept her brain occupied with concocting stories or singing songs. She talked to herself, and since there was no one else around to look at her as if she was mad, she didn’t worry that she might appear so. In short, she wanted for nothing, and though the darkness was occasionally frustrating, she was to all intents and purposes content with her situation for the majority of the time. Except when, as now, she woke up shivering.
The small fire she had built had gone out before she’d managed to get to sleep, but that was usual. Nothing stayed lit for any time here; it was as if the mountains were afraid of light. The small warmth the fire provided usually allowed her to cook something and kept her warm enough until she got beneath the blankets. By the time she woke the temperature was such that she didn’t read the fire. Except on certain days, and she couldn’t predict which days they would be, when the temperature stayed low and she woke shivering, her cheeks nipped by cold. Today was one of those days.
She withdrew herself, sliding beneath the blankets entirely, feeling the bearable softness of the fabric on her face and the damp heat of her own breath as it was trapped in the small space. Her body heat kept the inside warm and she thought about returning to sleep, flinging herself into the arms of that numbing oblivion, but moving inside the sheets had made her feet cold and her brain was reporting that fact as something to be addressed. She curled into a foetal position, sighed, and squeezed her eyes shut. Her feet felt cold against the back of her legs. Her arm was trapped uncomfortably beneath her. Sigh sighed again, moved her arm and rubbed her feet together to warm them. It was no use; sleep eluded her. It was not so much the cold feet or the uncomfortable position. It was not even the hard ground beneath her or the rocks like giant teeth that hemmed her in. It was the nagging shadow that was always at the back of her mind that now settled heavily on her heart.
“I need to get out of here.”
This was her constant thought on days like today. It seemed a ridiculous proposition. She had no idea how to get out of here, nor did she know where here was. She also had no clue as to why she would leave when she had more or less everything she needed or where she would go instead. Anyway, what if going somewhere less dark and less prone to cold, and maybe with less rocks, was not better after all?
“I must have been going somewhere.”
There was that. She’d had the map and compass, after all, so she was clearly aiming for a destination before the equipment had failed. Where had she been going? She didn’t know. Everything was a blur, a blur encased by rocks and their jagged peaks. Thinking about it made her head start to throb, a noise which travelled along the blanket and beat mercilessly like a drum in her ears. She emerged from the blankets and it was still cold, so she went back in again. Her brain called for sleep, to forget her troubles, whatever they were, and to wake when it was warmer. Her body defied her brain, refusing to be comfortable, and her brain defied itself by thinking without permission. She sighed and longed for the dream world that was much better than this one, but she knew she wouldn’t gain it again today.
Cursing her body, her brain, and the dark shapes of the mountains around her, she emerged from the blanket sand stood shivering in her shirt sleeves. She shook herself, washed in cold water, trying to ignore the protests of her skin, and dressed. Managing to coax a little flame from the embers she made tea, packing away her blankets whilst she waited for the water to boil. She ate a little bread, but it tasted like ashes. The tea was warm but not really hot enough; it was more effective in warming her fingertips than her insides. She considered going back to bed, but decided against it. Instead, she picked up the rucksack and began trudging along, tea in hand, meandering forwards in what she hoped was the same direction as she had been walking before.
She walked till midday, when the darkness had become more of a greyness and individual features of the mountains around her could be seen. Some had fissures, like cracks in plasterboards, running up their length. Others had slides of loose shale at their feet. All were grey and home to no life but her and some briar-like shrubs, which grew like patches of hair on a mangy dog. One of these caught her attention. It grew at the edge of a long incline down into the deeper ranges below. It had red berries on it, small and round. Bright red, almost blood coloured. She’d seen it before. No other shrub in this place bore any kind of fruit. She had been here two days ago having a conversation with herself about whether the berries were poisonous and whether she should eat them even if they were. Scanning the ground, she found the remains of her campfire. The urge to scream overtook her, so she did, standing above the incline and screaming till her throat was sore and her lungs hurt. A fit of coughing followed.
When she had regained normal breathing and wiped the tears from her eyes she saw something unexpected. Far below at the end of the incline was a light. It was very faint, perhaps nothing more than a small candle, but she could see it clearly all the same. It bobbed up and down slowly and she wondered what it could be. Will o’ the wisp? She told her brain off for being ridiculous. Suitably shamed it told her that it was a light that was bobbing about and that it was becoming brighter, which meant it was getting closer. That was odd. There seemed to be two options – run away into the darkness and hide or wait until it arrived and see what it was. Curiosity got the better of her, so she waited.
By and by it approached. As it got closer she noticed that it was being carried by someone, and that it cast an orange glow around him. He walked with purpose, like he knew where he was going.
“Hello?” she called and he looked up.
“Hello,” he said and doubled his pace to reach her.
The orange glow of the lamp he was carrying made her smile. It was refreshing to have the surroundings illuminated. Then she saw how dirty her hands were and hid them behind her back.
“Hi,” he said when he reached her, “my name’s Robert.”
“Melanie,” she said, “or Mel.”
He nodded and smiled. It was a good smile.
“You don’t happen to know the way out do you? I lost my map and compass in a river.”
“These?” he asked, producing them from his bag, “I found them a few days ago in one of the caves.”
He handed them back to her and she took them, glad to see them again, though she hadn’t missed them at all until she’d seen them.
“The needle on the compass was sticking,” he said, “but I fixed it.”
She looked down. The needle whizzed around in its casing and then settled on ‘N’. She turned it round in her hand, watching the needle move only by millimetres.
“No problem.” He smiled again. “There’s a way out just over there.”
“Thank God,” she said, “I’ve been in here for over a week. Couldn’t find my way out. I’ve been walking in circles.”
She nodded, blushing a little.
“I was like that my first time. Trick is to remember to bring a lamp.”
He adjusted a dial on the lamp and the flame doubled in size, spreading yellow and orange light across the canyon. It was a wonderful sight.
“How do you keep it lit?” she asked, thinking of her own fire.
“You just have to keep refilling it. Are you ready to go?”
She nodded and fell into step beside him as he crossed the canyon to a small opening in the rock which she hadn’t seen in the dark. He shone the light through it revealing a large cave beyond. He ducked beneath the opening and then picked the lamp up so that she could see to clamber after him. The cave was wide with a slope that turned to the right. It was covered with loose rocks and hidden dips.
“You might want to take my hand. It’s a bit uneven.”
She reached out and took the hand he offered her, gripping it tightly. His skin was warm to the touch.
“Sorry if my hand is cold,” she said, nervously.
“Feels alright to me.”
He lead the way, moving slowly down the slope, taking a zigzagging route that avoided the worst of the unevenness and the rocks that could trip you if you weren’t paying attention. She felt like she was going to fall a few times, but each time his grip tightened and he kept her on her feet. They turned the bend and ahead she could see a cave mouth, opening out at the base of the range; green hills populated with trees filled her vision, and birds swooped in the blue sky. They stopped out of the cave and sunlight streamed down, blinding her. She shaded her eyes from the sun, gripped Robert’s hand tighter, and descended from the mountains. She didn’t look back.