I hit the ground in a crouch, but felt a twinge in my right ankle and wrist even as I rolled over to break my fall. For a second I just laid there, glad to be alive. Then the faces of multiple wolves appeared over the edge of the tracks above, snarling and drooling in rage. I rolled over and tried to get up, and realized something was definitely wrong with my ankle.
I didn’t know if the Protector wolves would come after me or not, and I didn’t want to find out, so I proceeded to hop and limp toward the tree line. The barking above me changed to friendly whines and I looked back to see Channel 9 filming my escape from the bridge.
“Hang on, boy! We’ll have a rescue team here in just a few minutes to save you.” A wolf called down.
I paused in confusion and looked back at them.
“That’s right - just hang in there! You’re a brave lad, and you’ll be just fine. Just a few more minutes and the rescue truck will be here. . .”
From where I stood, I could hear the anchor man narrating for the camera:
“From the edge of disaster, our brave front line Protectors fight to save the life of a young man who has fallen from the rail bridge near the Super City industrial district. So far, no violent predators have come into view, and if this young man is lucky, the rescue team will arrive before it’s too late. . .”
For a second or two I doubted my own sanity and rubbed my head to clear it. But then, like a flash of lightening I saw the alley wall in my mind’s eye and the words “not as seen on TV.”
I turned away and proceeded to limp toward the tree line again.
“Don’t do it, son!” A Wolf Protector shouted after me. “You won’t survive out there!”
“The fallen victim is dazed and confused. . .”
Channel 9 reported.
“He is wandering dangerously near the forest tree line. Will the rescue team be too late?”
My fear of the unknown future was swiftly replaced by a desperate desire to get away from the charade behind me. I hopped and hobbled into the trees, leaving the pleading voices and whines behind.
The rail bridge was out of sight and the sun was high in the sky before I stopped to look at my ankle. It was already swelling and turning purple. My wrist seemed okay though.
My grandfather, my mother’s dad, used to say the mountains were full of streams where he once caught fish. Knowing that water follows gravity, I turned my course downhill, to look for the stream.
A sweat broke out on my forehead, and the pain in my ankle increased until I began to grind my teeth in anguish. I stopped and leaned against a tree.
There, in the half-light of the morning, I experienced the sensation of waking up from a dream. I saw sunlight shining through the tree leaves above me and dappling the ground all around with spots of dancing light. A cool breeze flowed through the valley I was descending and caressed me on it’s way. There were more than a dozen kinds of flowers and a bush with berries.
I spotted a squirrel standing stiffly and completely still upside down on a tree trunk, watching me. He moved quickly and ran down to the ground, where he picked up an acorn and began to eat it. Movement in the distant trees made my heart leap with fear, but then I saw it was a deer. . . no, two deer. . . no, four deer, grazing in a small clearing of grass. Then I heard water. There was a stream near. . . somewhere.
It was so beautiful. Of course, it wasn’t always like this. There were rainy days, and winter days, harsh storms, dark nights and bitter temperatures. But right now it was amazing. I would have liked to walk here with my grandfather, to have fished in the stream and talked with him quietly while we watched the wildlife watching us. I would have liked him to know that I fought for my freedom.
I found the stream, carefully removed my shoe and lowered my throbbing ankle into the water. It was an amazing relief. I laid back on the bank and fell asleep in the sunshine.
When I awoke the shadows were long and the air had cooled down. My foot, still in the stream was so cold I could hardly feel it. But the swelling was pretty much gone. I rubbed it gently, trying to warm it up and looked around. What now?
My stomach growled and I remember the lost backpack with regret. Here I was, with nothing but a bruised or broken ankle to face my new life.
I drank all I could hold and moved into the last few spots of sunshine to warm up before the sun set. From there I looked around me, considering shelter for the night.
On the other side of the stream stood a large tree that appeared to be hollow. It’s outer trunk parted like a curtain in the middle and splayed invitingly open. I decided to take off my shoes, tie the laces and drape them across my shoulders. Then I rolled up my pant legs to wade across. There was no way to hop across the stream. I had to use both feet to keep my balance on the slippery rocks. A few feet into the journey I surmised that my ankle was definitely not okay. The pain was excruciating. Halfway across I perceived my situation was potentially deadly. By the time I finally made it across the stream, I was gasping with pain, and cold to the bone. I fell to my knees on the bank and crawled miserably across the rocky ground toward the hollow tree.
My only plan at that point was to get inside and try to cover myself with as many leaves as possible without moving my ankle anymore. Everything else could wait.
When I awoke it was pitch dark outside. I was feverish and cold at the same time. My whole body was shaking. I had sore places I had not noticed during the day. The wrist I’d landed on now hurt miserably. My knees both felt bruised. And a splinter I’d acquired in the palm of my hand while hiking down to the water had begun to fester and ache.
But my hearing was working just fine. Every noise of the night was unfamiliar, and therefore frightening. Bugs of some kind were working on the interior of the tree where I lay curled and cramped. I could hear them gnawing at the wood, and occasionally scurrying from one spot to another. My skin crawled with them. Outside something large and heavy was walking past me and would surely find me. I heard it stop and snort several times, and guessed it might have caught my scent. With my luck, it was probably an angry ostrich. It passed by and went down to the water and drank.
Another creature of some sort was on the outside of the tree, scraping or scratching at something. The activity was magnified by the hollow of the tree, and sounded unusually loud inside where I lay listening.
The number of creatures around me multiplied until the racket was less frightening and more awesome. At this point I noticed dawn was approaching. The forest was waking up. Many different types of animals came to the water to drink.
As it grew lighter outside, I got glimpses of dear and elk through the opening of the tree. One even approached the tree to sniff at the leaves spilling out around me. It snorted in alarm and complained to another fellow elk, who came to examine the scent of me as well.
I held completely still, fascinated with creatures I had never seen before. I wondered if these large mammals had to fight off the ostriches, and who would win in such a fight. The elk eventually lost interest, got their drink of water and moved on. Rabbits hopped by. Squirrels leaped and ran up and down trees.
At last, in stiff misery, I made a move to sit up and readjust my throbbing ankle. A shooting pain made me gasp aloud. Instantly, the forest was silent. Every creature of the mountain that had been so busy with morning was now straining to listen and identify my own sounds. What was I? Where was I?
Then I heard motion again and froze into place. What creature was coming to the stream now? The steps were light and measured. They stopped right in front of my tree. It was a pair of human legs in loose woven trousers and feet wearing hand stitched leather moccasins. A face appeared in the opening of the beech tree and then exclaimed in surprise.
A man with a short black beard peered at me with laughing, friendly eyes. He was dressed in a roughly woven, off-white shirt, and a dark-brown wool jacket. Everything about him looked handmade and authentic.
I was overwhelmingly relieved to see him, but when I tried to reply, I discovered that I had no voice. The cold of the night and the harsh breathing of my frantic run the day before had left me hoarse and weak.
“Hello?” the man said again, inquiringly this time. “Are you all right?”
“I’m not sure,” I whispered hoarsely. “I had a fall.”
Somehow he got me out of the tree without hurting me too badly. Soon, I was wrapped in the warm wool jacket and leaning against a log with my feet stretched out toward a fire.
“I have to leave you for a while to go and get some things to treat your ankle, but I’ll be back.”
“And food?” I whispered hopefully. He grinned and nodded.
“What about the ostriches?” I asked the question that had been gnawing at me.
The man looked dismayed and surprised. He came over and squatted by the fire, adjusting various sticks and branches as he thought over my question.
“You’re afraid of the ostriches?” He asked me at last.
“Aren’t you?” I asked.
“No,” he answered. “No, I’m not.”
“Oh.” I said, unsure of what to say or ask next.
“Why are you here?” he said, with a curious smile.
“They chased me. . .” I stammered, unsure of the answer. He waited in silence, not offering any suggestions. It was weird how in my awkward hesitance I realized my answers had always been supplied and suggested by my dad, my teachers, and the media. This man was waiting for my answer — mine alone.
“I wanted to be free,” I said at last. “to know the truth. The Protectors aren’t really protecting us — they’re just controlling us. And the Wolves are everywhere: in medicine, and education, and politics. . . even my dad. I just wanted to know the truth. And they were going to — to do something to me for asking questions. So I ran.”
The man smiled. He put his hand out to squeeze my shoulder and said, “The mountains are home to people who ask questions and find answers. No ostriches will bother you while I’m gone. Stay warm, and look for my return when you see the sun at the top of that hill.”
I nodded, and he turned away, walking swiftly through the trees.