The roof of my little shelter had twisted in the night. The broken cut of bole had slid aside and reddish light shone down upon my unshielded face. I had thrown my arm across my eyes at some point but the powerful rays turned my flesh to a transparent orange haze through which I could see the outlines of my bones. The thought of the forest through which I'd passed came unbidden to my mind and all hope of sleep fled, hidden, and not to be regained.
With a groan I pulled myself to my feet and stared around me at the grim and fecal landscape. The last light of the day had not hidden anything that was disclosed by the bright morning sun except a breath of coldness which had not been present even during the darkest part of the previous night. I looked toward the ash of my unattended fire with an eye toward warmth rather than the desire for light that had been my main concern this past night.
I stirred the ashes with the toy of my boot and was rewarded with a few winking embers. With the remains of some burnt ends of sticks around the edge of the shallow fire-pit and splinters I shaved from some of the larger pieces of wood I had gathered but had not used I managed to coax the children of fire to life once more. I rubbed my hands over the growing flames and stamped my feet as the unseasonable cold began to settle firmly on the day. I ate the last of the previously fresh food, now grown stale, wilted or holding the first tang of corruption among the unsalted or dried meat I had brought with me.
At least the coolness of the day had worked to diminish the foul and unclean smell which emanated from the surrounding wasteland. As I stepped out beyond the edge of my small sanctuary, the bare and ruined walls that were once a dwelling, I found that the ground had begun to harden and the mire no longer promised a painfully difficult traverse.
With my short splinter-spear taken from the bole of the blasted tree I made better time, though to what destination I could not name. The cold increased and after an hour's walk, during which I found a field of stumps set evenly in the ground, some orchard severed almost to its roots, I stopped and pulled my rolled blanket from where it was tied to the bottom of my pack. It worked well as a poorman's cloak and I wrapped it around myself and my pack, looking, I am sure, as if I were some strangely deformed hunchback.
The land all about was flat and, once past the sad remains of the orchard, nearly featureless, and this was nearly my undoing. As I strode across the filthy brown landscape I had my eyes on the horizon looking for any sign of habitation or even any feature that would break the monotony of viscid slush which formed the outer skin of the earth, I failed to watch what appeared beneath my own feet.
One moment my feet were sloshing through the cold mud and the next I was stepping out over a gouge which ran snake-like from north-east to south-west as far as my eyes could see. I lost my splinter-spear I'd been using as a staff and fell full-bodied down with arms flailing like the blades of a windmill. It was, luckily, a short fall of only ten or twelve feet and the bottom of the gouge seemed even more thick with viscous mud than the ground above it. I arrived with a splash and concussed myself slightly with the force of my arrival. Spitting out a mouthful of the stuff I tried to wipe my face clean with a hand even more befouled than my lips and I began to sneeze out a brown spray in a series of stinging explosions that left my nostrils raw if not bleeding.
As I pushed myself to my feet I felt a rough surface beneath the mired floor of the gouge and worked my fingers around a firm edge of material. The mud did not want to release its prize and it took several minutes to unearth a square, short-sided wooden box about three feet long and a foot wide. The sight and feel of this work of man made me look at the gouge with care. There was an evenness to the distance between one wall and another, the floor seemed as level as could be expected in this medium of mud, fetid water and filth, and the height, barring some slippage, was also regular. Someone had dug this roofless tunnel through the earth; the small, short box was an artifact left behind.
I approached the wall at the point where I'd fallen and examined it. The surface was wet, ice-cold and muddy. Reaching out with the box in my hand I scraped at the surface and a clot fell away revealing ribs of wood as if they were the sides of a ship. Between the planks the mud protruded, pushed as if by a great hand to force itself out into the gouge.
Lightly, I ran the edge of the box along the wooden planks. They were slick and the clean line was covered in oozing mud within moments. Slowly I put more pressure against the plank. At first it did not yield but anger at my situation, frightened, cold, lost in a terrible land of nightmare, all this brought a flash of red to my eyes and a terrible strength that such incipient madness which had taken hold of me can bring. The small box cracked and split, I dropped the splinter-spear I carried in my other hand and brought that up against the plank, dropped the breaking box and with both hands pushed and pushed. My fight sank into the mud till they found some purchase and with legs, aback and shoulders I pushed. The mud was oozing forth in thick lines of the filth on either side. I did not hear the crack as the plank snapped.
The plank split in two and my hands pushed the jagged ends into the wet earth then the force I'd applied came back upon me. The world was silent except for the drumming of my own blood, the wild beating of my heart and the wall of the gouge vomited a tide of the clinging mud that pushed me back, snapped the revealed wooden ribs and buried me in a heavy, choking wave.
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Copyright March 2014 By Jason Zavoda