She sat, silent, wrapped from head to toe in thick plastic sheeting, a patchwork quilt of tarps and bags and duct tape. For hours she sat and watched, her silent meditation broken only by the need to eat. With slow, subtle movements, she picked apart a morsel of coarse bread, feeding herself with one hand while sprinkling fine crumbs into the river with the other. When she had eaten, she sat and watched again.
She watched ducks and geese land on the rippling water, saw them sit and preen before labouring back into the air. She saw cranes and herons descend to the river banks, their skeletal outlines soon lost in the jumble of felled trees and exposed roots. She watched small streams trickling through the steep woodland that coated the edge of the valley, the torrent seeming to grow faster and stronger, minute by minute. Eventually they’d tear away a part of the hillside, sending dirt and moss and rotten branches tumbling into the river below. She watched hardy falcons pirouette and wheel through the drenched air. She watched the rain fall and fall and fall, without once breaking its steady cadence.
But most of all she sat and watched the small stretch of river that flowed past her willow tree.
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She’d grown used to sitting like this, cross-legged and frozen in the small canoe, but she’d never managed to rid herself of the dull background ache that radiated through her body, made worse by the water that permeated through the layers of plastic sheeting she wore. Distraction was the best remedy, but distraction made her slow. Elani couldn’t be slow, not again; so the aching in her back and legs remained.
She forced her mind to focus in on the water, to look through the hypnotising pulse of splashing on the surface, into the darker waters below. It was then that she saw it.
Silver scales flicked through the murk to the left of the canoe, and a huge, bloated fish swam into range. She reached into the canoe for her spear, cursing her thoughtlessness for not propping it on the side like she’d been taught. She mustered all the fluidity her aching muscles could manage, slowly lifting the spear into position.
The fish drew closer, and Elani saw that it was a Leaf Wrass, the biggest she’d ever seen. It would be a prize if she could bring it back to the camp. Elani drew back her arm, and as the fish turned side-on to the canoe, Elani powered the spear forward into the water. She met resistance, and pinned the spear further down into the water in response, held it there and waited. Soon the cloud of mud had settled, and she could see into the water. Elani had missed the fish.
It was almost dusk, and the thick grey clouds that covered the valley had started darkening to black. Elani’s missed strike had unsettled the local wildlife, stirring a flock of birds into flight over the hillside. As she sat and waited, their crowing slowly faded away into breathless night, and soon, the only sound Elani could hear was the rain on the water, on the willow fronds, pattering on her plastic sheet. She’d missed her chance, but she still had an hour before she’d lose the day’s light completely. She didn’t want to face returning to the camp empty-handed again. Besides, the fish were more active in the twilight.
She knew it would be futile to wait in the same spot, so she made sure her remaining bread was safe in the dry box, and reached for the paddle laying on the canoe’s floor. Reaching out to the tree trunk behind her, she pushed herself away from the riverbank, her canoe parting the willow leaves and stealing out onto the dark river. She paddled slowly, deliberately, against the flow of the river, barely breaking the surface of the water with her paddle, her tarp wrapped around her body, a dark, indistinct silhouette in the wet twilight.
She was halfway across the river when she saw a distant light. It had just rounded the river’s Eastern bend, and was flowing with the current towards her, too fast to be powered by the river alone.
“God.” she whispered.
She paddled quicker, but the far side of the river flowed faster, and she was having to fight strong eddys and whirling currents, hidden under the river’s calm surface, and as she drew closer to the riverbank, she had to dodge between jagged rocks and stray timbers sticking up from the decayed houses in the water below. She knew the metal canoe would survive a few scrapes, but she was terrified the noise of a collision would alert anyone nearby. She wrestled with the paddle, heaving and turning the boat into the current, making for the shortest route to the opposite riverbank.
The floating light was closing in by the minute, and even in the darkening evening, she could make out a silhouette, a shadow of something, of someone. She was sweating and breathing deeply, using every ounce of strength to pull herself through the water and find shelter in the overhanging trees at the water’s edge. With a last burst of strength she lunged for an overhead branch and pulled herself, and the canoe, along its length, tucking the bulk of the canoe into a shadowed recess between two fallen trees. Rocks blocked her view of the river, and in silence, she waited for the light to come into view.
Seconds turned into minutes, and still she waited, her breath held. She could feel sweat trickling through her hair and into her eyes, warm through the cold constant of rainwater, could hear the sound of her heart beating, when suddenly she saw a glowing green light reflected in the water’s surface.
Slowly, steadily, the aura of light grew larger and larger, until past the rocks came a huge ball of glowing light, blinding. The ball was pure fire, burning even through the torrential rain. Elani was overwhelmed by the sight, almost hypnotised by the sheer power of the flames, the image swelling to fill her mind as she stared. Big broad flames swirled around the raft, crackling and spitting huge vivid colours into the night; and as it drew closer, she could see, in the centre of the raft, cloaked by the inferno, a figure seemed to be kneeling. Thick tree branches were propped up against him, glowing with fire, and white embers smouldered beneath him, undeterred by water and rain. The raft passed by close enough to see the figure’s bowed head, its waxen face, charred and empty in the green light.
A gasp escaped her lips as realisation dawned upon her. It was a funeral pyre. As if to confirm her thoughts, the valley rumbled with a thunderous noise, and the sky was illuminated by an explosion of light. The same green of the raft shot up into the sky, tendrils of lurid green spreading up into the clouds, seeming to ride the shockwave of the explosion. The valley bloomed with rich colour, lighting up the cold, wet night; and then in an instant, it was gone. The color vanished, the light withdrew, and the valley fell cold again.
She sat motionless for a few minutes, watching the pyre carried downriver, lurid green flames illuminating the water as it passed by, nearing the river’s Western bend. Instead of washing up against the river’s edge, or snagging on trees, the pyre followed the river’s curve: slowly, carefully navigating the treacherous current by the guidance of some unseen hand, until the green glow of the pyre had finally pulled out of sight.
She was shaken, and the familiar river seemed alien in the wake of the explosion. Her urge to keep hunting for fish had evaporated in an instant. She no longer worried about returning empty-handed, and knew that the family would understand: the pyre had been an ill omen. She knew there would be no fish today.
Elani turned her canoe to face downstream, and with a last look to the druid’s encampment, high on the hillside, she let the current carry her back towards Shelter.
About the Author
Ryan Law is the founder of Ash Tales. Startup co-founder and marketing dude by day, post apocalyptic author by night, Ryan created Ash Tales to offer the world’s best post apocalyptic fiction a final resting place.