This is part one of a short story. For the concluding chapter, see here.
I pushed against the thick water with tired arms and cringed as icy droplets splashed against my neck. I pulled the rough rope with raw fingers and felt the heavy object behind me lurch forward. My legs were numb from the cold and kicked in a slow demented rhythm beneath me, first the right, then the left striking out against the dense water like a drunken kung fu fighter. I couldn’t remember how long I had been swimming, and as my breath blew silvery mist across the surface of the water, I gazed at the horizon. It seemed far, far away; just a thin line of dark blue which cut across the view from left to right, and it seemed unreachable.
My arms pushed a way forward through the water, my legs kicked numbly against the emptiness beneath, and my fingers clutched at the thick rope and pulled. The weight moved. I pushed, I kicked and I pulled. The weight moved. Push, kick, pull. It moved. Push, kick, pull. Move. Push, kick, pull. Move. Push, kick, pull. Move. I breathed. Silvery mist flew out across the silent water. I turned my head. Pain shot through my neck, and I stopped. Push, kick, pull. Move. I turned my head again, this time more slowly. I saw the horizon. Push, kick, pull. Move. Turn, I saw the horizon. Push, kick, pull. Move. Turn, and I saw a boat. I stared. I saw a boat. My movements slowed and somehow my numb body turned to follow my gaze as suddenly the narrow boat slid into my open arms and I clutched it in an awkward embrace.
It was a wooden boat and as I touched the side it felt smooth against my raw fingers. The rope was tied to its bow in an ancient knot. I traveled along the side until it curved closer to the water. I reached up, curling my fingers over the edge, and took a deep breath. I was exhausted and I knew that I only had one chance to get myself out of the water. With all the strength that I had left, I kicked against the cold water and pulled my heavy body up over the side. I rolled into the boat, relieved and lay there for a while, not moving. The boat rocked gently from side to side and I sensed that it was still moving forward. I looked up at the sky and waited. Slowly, feeling returned to my legs, first as a rush of warmth, then painful tiny tingles which grew into hard stabbing jabs of pain and a throbbing ache that washed from hips to feet and back again. Finally I could wriggle my toes and stretch my feet and, sitting up, I rubbed my legs with my hands and slapped at the cold flesh until the sensations returned to normal feeling.
The boat was still moving slowly through the wide expanse of water, and mist hung low across the horizon. Lying in the bottom of the boat was a blanket and an axe. No oars. Ok. I wrapped the blanket around my body and seated myself facing forward and surveyed the view. The horizon was broken now by uneven lumps of land, some stretching out long fingers across the water, others with tall, pointed peaks which disappeared into the mist, and small scattered islands lay like tiny dots in the distance. I shivered and wrapped the blanket tightly around me, rubbing my skin dry with the rough wool. Suddenly, I felt the full weight of my exhaustion and started to cry. I gasped as deep sobs jerked through my body, and stared with wide eyes as I realized how close I had been to death in that icy water. I tried not to think about it. It was too horrifying and confusing for me to make any sense out of it. I just knew that I had been saved, and I was immensely grateful. I felt that I was safe enough in that boat, no matter where it went, and I decided to lie down and sleep. I moved the axe to one side and lay down in more or less the centre of the boat. The bottom of the boat was clean but for a few dry leaves, and it curved slightly under my body, but it was not uncomfortable. Wrapped in the thick wool blanket I felt warm and safe for the first time on my journey, and within minutes I had fallen into a deep sleep.
I opened my eyes to see bright blue sky above me, interrupted by green leafy branches which drifted by in graceful sweeps. I lay still for a while and breathed in the crisp air. I could smell grass and sweet flowers and I heard the twitter of birds and caught their movement in the trees above. I sat up and looked around. The boat was drifting slowly down a wide river, lined with tall trees and thick grassy banks. The sun was shining overhead and my body felt surprisingly strong, warm and refreshed. I smiled and breathed a sigh of relief. It looked like my troubles were over… but it was then that I saw him. He was old and grey and he was sitting on the very back of the boat. His wiry body was hunched over and his chin rested on his fist like a primate Thinker pondering the mysteries of life. I was dumbstruck. How long had he been sitting there? How could I have not seen him before? Was he dangerous? At this last thought he turned his gaze directly at me, his small black eyes seemed to contemplate me without emotion, but with a fondness you might reserve for an old friend. His head was bald save for a few patches of coarse hair, and his baldness made his large ears look even bigger. His grey skin hung in tired folds around his bony body and his tail was almost white at the tip. I had seen Baboons before when I had been traveling in South Africa and I knew that they could easily kill a human, but this one didn’t seem to be aggressive – at least not yet.
I was a little unnerved by his familiar gaze, so I looked away and took a deep breath. I wasn’t sure what to make of his sudden appearance. I turned my attention back to the river up ahead. The boat was moving through the deep water at a slow steady pace as if pulled by an invisible force. I had no idea where we were going, but the boat seemed to have a navigation all of its own as it maintained its even position between the two banks, and as the river turned around a wide bend, the boat effortlessly followed. The trees began to grow thicker along the river’s edge; their limbs grew longer and stretched out over the water, dipping their giant leaves into the silent surface. The sky began to darken as dense foliage stole the sun. I shivered a little and glanced back at the Baboon, but he had not moved. He was still sitting, hunched over, staring out across the starboard side. I ducked as leafy branches scraped across the boat and lifted a heavy bow up over my head as we passed through a thick patch of foliage.
Suddenly a piercing screech tore through the quiet air and I leapt in my seat and quickly turned to look for the source of the noise. Another screech followed, louder and more shrill than the first, and then another and between the leaves whipping by I saw a screeching monkey leaping about the boat. This was not the Baboon that I had seen earlier, this monkey was smaller and quite young with thick black hair and a bushy tail, and he raced from one side of the boat to the other screeching and gesturing wildly. His movements were manic and unpredictable as he turned around and around in circles, leaping this way and then that like a rat caught in a cage. His erratic movements made the boat sway wildly from side to side and I tried hard to steady the boat and fend off the invasive branches at the same time. I was suddenly very, very nervous. This monkey was unpredictable and aggressive, and although he was relatively small in size, I knew that he could do a lot of damage. As if he heard my thoughts the monkey turned and glared at me, showing me a mouthful of razor sharp teeth and let out a low hiss as if to warn me against making any moves in his direction. He needn’t have worried; I had no intention of getting any closer to him.
I avoided looking into his eyes and concentrated instead on keeping the boat steady as we rocked our way through the dense forest. I saw sunlight up ahead through the thick leaves and worked to part the branches as they scraped against the front of the boat. As we drifted into the sunshine it was like emerging from a long tunnel. I smiled into the golden light, relieved to feel the warmth on my face again, and to see the wide river open out before me. Behind me it was all quiet, and slowly I turned around to take a look. There was no sign of the monkey, and at the very back of the boat the Baboon sat quietly, his back hunched over as he looked out across the water. Sensing my gaze on him, he turned to face me and as his small dark eyes looked into mine, I saw a tear run down his cheek. I felt a lump rise in my throat and I looked around for answers. In the bottom of the boat I saw the axe. I stared at it. My eyes flicked up to meet his and he held my gaze without expression. I looked again at the axe. I looked up at him and I saw him give the smallest, almost undetectable nod. I drew in a sudden breath and slowly let it out as an indescribable sadness swept over me and tears welled up in my eyes. He blinked and turned his head to gaze out across the water. I sat there like that for a long time, staring at the bottom of the boat with quiet tears rolling down my face.
This is part one of a short story. For the concluding chapter, see here.
Misha Hoo is an Australian writer with a passion for nature, spirituality and exploring the human experience. Her poetry is forthcoming in Crack the Spine Literary Magazine, she is the author of Tarot in Black & White and is regularly featured in the Connect Magazine. Misha is completing her BA in World Religion and English Literature at the University of New England.