Heileen - Ch. 2
The sun finally came up. As a strip of light made its way through the opening, I got out. I found out then that the entrance was not in the shade at all – at least not all day long. It was facing east, and the sun rising behind the trees on the other side of the stream made my heart leap up! I grabbed an apple and went down to the stream. Although my body still needed warmth, it felt good to dip my hands in the water. It was reviving. I sat down next to it, and started to exercise. Can you imagine: me – who’s always hated the idea of getting into a room for the sake of gymnastics! But of course this was not a room in a school, and if I didn’t like P.E. lessons at all, on the other hand, I had always loved being out in the open, surrounded by Nature, and the feeling of being in good shape. I resolved that, if I did manage to let a few days pass without being discovered, then I would take the time to run around, climb trees and do all the things that would make my body feel well. I just needed to feel safe. I started munching at the apple and making plans. My spirits had risen considerably, and I felt better than I’d felt in days. The novelty of the place and of my situation was spurring me on. But I needed to have it all well thought-out.
After eating the apple, I carefully hid its core in the dirt and stood up. I then crossed the stream by stepping on some rather convenient stones and began climbing up the other side. There the trees were closer together, and little light was coming in. It was cooler than by the riverbed, but I had warmed up by now. I was going farther away from the house, and I felt confident in walking away from the tree, too, because the rucksack would be well hidden in there. With all the thinking I had done the night before, I now let my mind wander, without paying much attention to what came to it. I was just walking, rejoicing in the beauty of the day, the sweetness of the air, and – later – the warmth that the rays of the sun, now stronger, were carrying. The wood was alive, and I wanted to experience the most of it.
I was watching with interest a couple of squirrels run up the tree in front of me, when a sharp cracking sound from behind forced me to stop in my tracks. I hid behind the tree, and looked in the direction of the sound. Some other squirrels ran past me, oblivious of my presence and – it seemed to me – not at all scared. This reassured me a little, but I would have to be more careful in the future! So I started thinking of my situation again. Since I had wandered quite some way from the tree, I resolved to keep walking until keeping an ear out for the sounds of possible pursuers, while looking for a more permanent place to hide. And – of course – while looking for food. If I thought about it, I could still feel the dismay of the previous night, when my prospects had seemed rather bleak. I needed more warm clothing and a blanket. Could I risk going back to the house? Not for a few days. When I had planned all this, I had actually considered going back sooner or later, but that would be after my parents had moved; that meant waiting for at least another six days, provided they would go as planned even without me. I thought that was rather likely if they did not want to lose their jobs, but that would also mean that the house would be locked, and with it, my bedroom window. But no – now I remembered! Of course the house could not be locked up! We had animals that needed to be taken care of. Surely they had thought of somebody who could do that, maybe living there, too. And then the door wouldn’t be shut. Or – even if these people did not live there, then the place would be deserted at night, and I would have enough time to break in, and take what I needed. Why hadn’t I thought of hiding things in the barn? I could have done that during the night, and then it would have been so much easier. Yes, I had been naïve – if not dumb altogether – and I felt I was going to regret it sooner or later.
Well, since thinking of warmer clothing or blankets was not going to be of any help, I might try seriously to look for food. Since I had not taken the sandwiches with me, I would have to either hunt or fish. I did not want to set any snares. This would take time, and the people looking for me could easily detect them. Moreover, I did not think I would stay here long enough for them to be of any help. I had the sling with me, though; I never left the house without it, and had gotten into trouble at school more than once because of it. If I could catch a squirrel or a bird, I would then just have to light a fire….
I was still trying to recollect how to light a fire with sticks when I arrived at a clearing. This one was different than the one close to the hollow tree. It was more alive with birds and small animals and had a different smell. I soon realized I had come very close to a pond, and the dampness of the area accounted for the strange sensation. There were many ducks on the water, and I saw plenty of fish swimming in it. The presence of birds and fish meant that I would not have to skin an animal – provided I caught it first, of course. I had never done that before, and was very much afraid I would not be able to, with the small jack-knife I carried (this had gotten me into even more trouble than the sling). There were many pebbles on the edge, and I collected some, which I stuffed into the pockets of my skirt. Then I took out my sling, chose a round pebble, aimed at a duck and – whoosh! – away flew the pebble and all the ducks together. They eventually settled back on the water, and I was able to aim again and again, until I finally managed to hit one. I was so excited I cried out, remembering too late I was supposed to keep quiet. Besides, with all the racket the hunted ducks were making, I doubt my cry would make any difference! I had caught the duck on the right wing, and it could not fly away. I undressed, stepped into the water and dived closer. It kept flapping its wings, trying to escape, but managed only to move in circles. I grabbed it by the feet, and swam ashore. I set it down, wondering if I would ever have the courage to kill it, and started to put my clothes back on. They stuck to my body because of the water, and I realized, that – duck or no duck – I would really have to light a fire. The animal in question was looking at me. It had given up trying to fly away, but it could still walk – I suppose it was just too afraid to do so at the moment. I undid a string from my shoes and used it to tie its feet. With that taken care of, I took some time to collect sticks. I had to walk away from the pond, to where the grass was much drier, and so was the wood lying around. I then made myself comfortable – my legs bent under me – and prepared everything as Pa had shown me. It took ages to even get it right, and much much more to see a whiff of smoke rise from the dry leaves I had used as kindling. If I could just make it burn without extinguishing it…
I sat back holding my hands above the flames. It had worked! I felt worn out; I was not cold, nor did I feel wet anymore. Only then did it occur to me that it must really have passed a lot of time. I glanced at the watch: four o’clock. I had been careless again. I could retrace my steps to the hollow tree, of course, but I doubted I could get back before sunset, as much as I doubted I could find the way in the dark. And I hadn’t eaten yet. I went back to retrieve the duck. Unable to move, it had sat there all this time, but it seemed to have recovered some strength and – what’s more – the wing didn’t look broken at all. It would actually flap both its wings from time to time, trying to fly away. So I released it. Much as I was hungry, I had been thinking about it while lightning the fire. I had never killed an animal – had always loved them – and I felt I could not do it. Maybe given some time, when I would really need to kill something in order to survive. Maybe with a fish it would be easier.
Now that I had a fire, and there was no chance of going back to the tree and the sandwiches, I resolved I would try to catch a fish. I went back to the drier area to check: the fire was burning and didn’t seem in need of immediate attention. So I picked a stick and sharpened one of the ends with my knife. I was warmer; my hair – which was short to start with – had dried out, and I felt all right. I went back to the pond, removed my shoes and my socks, and set to the task of catching fish with a stick. The fish were big and slow, absolutely not afraid of coming within inches of my feet. Some even ventured to pick on them, curious. I had to learn by trial-and-error; it was hard to gauge the distance because of the distorting effects of the water and the deceitful rays of the sun, now on my back. After a while, though, my efforts were rewarded, and a sizeable silvery fish wriggled from the stick. I removed it, banged it on its head, and put it aside. Now that I had learnt, I wanted more. I caught two more fish in this way. At the end I cleaned them, stuck them back on the stick, and returned to the fire, collecting more wood on the way.
The place were I had built the fire was at the edge of the clearing, next to the trees that would shelter me during the night. The warmth from the fire was so nice I indulged for a while in the idea of keeping it up until morning, but I did not dare do that, lest I be discovered. So I hastened to cook the fish before the sun set. It felt like camping, and I could actually envision my family and myself doing that. It had never happened. My father was the practical type, and although he felt I should know how to care for myself, we’d never put my knowledge to the test. Life could be uncomfortable enough by itself if you didn’t work hard; there was no need to make it more uncomfortable by going camping. I ate two of the fish, wrapping the third one in a large leaf, and hastened to put out the fire. I felt sorrow to see it go – it had taken so much to light! I covered the ashes as carefully as possible, retrieved the fish and stepped into the thicket in the direction I had come from. The sun was just setting.
I did not walk far for fear of losing myself. I just wanted to be away from the clearing and surrounded by trees. I found a spot sheltered by a slight incline, wrapped myself as well as I could in my jacket, and set to spend my second night alone in the wood. Eating had made me feel better, and the pungent smell of the fire on my clothes was soothing. I remembered how we used to spend winter nights by the fireplace at our house. Mom would cook dinner and after that I would help to clear the table. Pa would sit on the rug in front of the fireplace, and we would sit next to him. He would then start telling stories to pass the time. He said it reminded him of the old days, when there was no television and people used to spend the evening like that. I usually ended up falling asleep with my head on his lap, and they would have to carry me to my bed.
Tomorrow I would try and catch some more fish, although – now that I thought about it – there must be some also in the stream next to the hollow tree. I would then return to it, and – if there was time – start walking in another direction. I still had to find a better place to stay. This time, though, I would not make the same mistakes. I would carry my pack with the food, the water (although the pond had been clear, its water had not tasted as good as the stream’s), and the extra clothes. There was no point in leaving behind something that, should I find the right place, I would then have to go back to retrieve. And I would look at my watch to make sure I would not have to spend another night outside. I eventually fell asleep thinking of Windy, and whishing I had him here to hug.
I slept fitfully and woke up in the morning with a healthy appetite. I was also stiff with cold, but counted on the sun to warm me up later. I ate the fish. I did not taste as good as the day before, and I had nothing to gulp it down with, but it was OK. I then dug a hole to hide the remains of my breakfast and walked back to the pond. The sun was up and warm. Thank God for another beautiful day! I did not dare think what I would do in bad weather… The fire had darkened my stick – I had used it as a skewer. I was starting to look for a new one when I remembered that fire was supposed to harden wood. And so it was that I caught four more fish, spiked them back onto the stick and made my way to the hollow tree. Before going, though, I made sure I drank plenty of water, as I had no means of carrying it.
I walked back in the direction I had come the day before, but after an hour (I did remember to check the time) I decided to make a detour: if I headed south for a while – that is if I turned left – and eventually turned west again, I should find the stream sooner or later. I would then be able to follow it to the hollow tree. This would allow me to see another part of the wood – retracing my steps was of no real use. So I walked pleasurably for another hour or so. The wood was unchanged, except for the fact that, after a while, it started sloping down again. That made sense. My house had been built on top of a hill, and was surrounded by the wood, with the exception of the area – northwest of the house – where the road was and, on it, other houses. As far as I knew, only this area had been settled, leaving the rest of the wood untouched for generations. The original settlers were Nature lovers and had tried in every way to pass that love down to the following generations, ensuring that the wood be preserved. So that now – even in the second half of the 20th century – not many people were fortunate enough to enjoy such beauty. There were some campers and several hikers coming in on the weekends, but generally the wood would be left to itself and its animals. Today the birds were singing, the trees were whispering in the breeze, and the small animals were running busily around – and there were no hikers to be seen.
I turned right as planned and kept walking. This area was full of birch trees, and the sun cast long rays of light through the foliage. It was majestic. After a while I stopped. The ground was rising more sharply on my right, and there was an entrance of some sort, partly hidden from the foliage. I bent to look closer. The hole seemed to be large enough to host a human being, and I thought it went on for some feet, although I could not see more than a few paces away. Bingo! I thought I had found exactly what I was looking for. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw a cavern, tall enough in most places that I could stand, the ceiling sloping sharply near he entrance and then again towards the end. Little light got in, because the entrance was small and hidden by the foliage, and I wondered whether something could be done about it – maybe a hole a little higher up to let wood smoke out?
I was so stunned I had to sit and collect my thoughts. So I stepped out and sat on the ground. I would have to go back to the hollow tree immediately to retrieve my stuff. I wanted to sleep in the cave this same night. I would have been warmer and more sheltered. It was now ten in the morning. I could reach the tree, eat something, and leave soon after. I just needed to be back before sunset. I was so happy!!
And so I left, walking west as fast as I could, sure I would find the stream soon. At I began to despair. Surely I hadn’t walked so much the day before? And of course I couldn’t have missed it! The ground on my right was now sloping gently, and I hoped the stream would do the same. I was getting tired, and was worried of having to climb up some steep incline. I kept going, but I couldn’t see any sign of water. I had almost resolved to stop for a rest when I heard it. Water was rushing nearby. I renewed my efforts and reached it. It was the stream I was looking for: yesterday I must have walked much more than I had thought, but now that I knew where I was, I had only one more hour to go. I stopped and, before going on, took the jack knife out of my pocket and – with it – carved a deep mark in a tree nearby. It was larger than the others, so I was sure not to miss it on my way back. I then crossed the stream and turned right.
As I had hoped, the going was easy enough. But I had been tired already, and was tiring all the more every minute. When I finally reached the hollow tree, it was all I could do to drop to the ground and lie there for a while. I had to fight hard not to fall asleep. After a few minutes, I stood up and went to the stream to drink and splash some water on my face. Thus revived, I went back to the tree. I stepped in to retrieve the food. The sandwiches had become prey of some very voracious ants and other vermin, and were now completely covered by them: no chance there. The apples were in much better state, and I resolved to keep them for later. I had to eat something if I wanted to restore my forces, so I got out and searched a nice spot to build a fire. I still had the fish with me. I could cook them all; eat part of them and save the rest for tomorrow.
I tried hard; I did everything as I had done the day before, but – try as I might – the fire wouldn’t start. My hands, reddened and excoriated already from yesterday’s work, refused to roll the stick as fast as was necessary. Or maybe the leaves were not dry enough. Or maybe it was just me… I was so depressed I could not think straight. When at last I managed to get hold of myself, it was clear I could not get to the cavern this very day. I would have to spend the night here. The hollow tree was a good hiding place after all – better than being out in the open – and I needed to rest. The sun was still up, and would be for more then a couple of hours. I resolved to be brave about it. Besides, what else could I do?
I threw the sandwiches away, burying them in the ground a little away from the tree. I then cleaned the natural shelf as well as I could, and proceeded to make the place as comfortable as possible. I refilled the bottle at the stream and – once back – sat down facing the sun – one apple in hand and the book on my lap. Since I did not want to use the torch at night, I might as well use the time left to read, as long as there was light.