Eternal by Kaylena Robin Steiner
Footfalls. Dying echoes of sudden movement.
A vast open plain. Winding lazily along its edge, a river. The river meanders towards a small forest. Forest and river meet plain at a copse of tall, leafy, deciduous trees that stand denser than the rest. Hiding in the heavy foliage is a treehouse. Small. Ramshackle. Falling apart.
A rustle in the plains. The man dozing in the treehouse lurches, muscles taut and body rigid. He cocks his head, eyes sharp and wide, gazing over the plain. Minutes of silence pass.
He cautiously stuffs his small blanket in his backpack and pulls on his light jacket. He lowers a rope behind the treehouse and steals down, hand by hand. Once on the ground, he secures the rope behind hanging vines, obscuring it from cursory glances.
His head twitches with every sound that demands his attention as he slinks through the woods, keeping close to the ground. The forest is copious, and his trek lasts hours. His stealthy advance slows him, as does every pause to calm his breath after he hears another rustle. He’s surrounded by forest, yet the rustles match that from the plain. Thinly wooden sounds, bark peeled from a tree.
The weak sun hovers over the horizon when forest turns to stone and water. He follows the stream to a river, and the river to a spring at a waterfall’s base. He drops his pack and wades in, soothing his worn body.
A rustle. He submerges, eyes skimming the area. Nothing. Wait! – Birds erupt from a nearby hedge with a shuddering burst. He gasps in a gulp of water but suppresses a choking cough. Some danger moved them to flee.
He waits. No unusual movement. The heavy silence that followed the birds slips into a lighter bustle of woodland creatures. He slinks to his pack, then returns to the water. The pack bobs above his head as he swims across and climbs up beside the falls.
Protecting his pack from the water, he steps through the falls and into a cave. A shack fashioned from wood and old bricks leans at the back. Inside there’s a makeshift mat of rushes, five books, and food reserves: Neat rows of tins next to a single plate, fork, knife and spoon.
Sinking into the mat, he withdraws his blanket and props the pack behind his head. From the five books he takes a tattered, leather-bound tome. Numbers introduce small sections, each spanning a few sentences. One reads of loneliness. Where is everyone? Then lack of knowledge. What happened? The most recent entry reads of fear. What else is out there?
He retrieves a pen and unscrews the cap from an ink bottle, handling both with delicate care. A few dips of pen into ink, then he writes a number. #113 I am not alone.
The book is closed and returned to the pile. The man turns over and falls asleep.
Footfalls. Dying echoes of trudging movement.
A small forest. Winding lazily through it and along its edge, a river. The river meanders towards a vast plain. Where plain, river and forest meet, the trees are a little denser. Within crowning trees, a treehouse is hidden. A rickety ladder leads up to it.
A branch snaps, a tree thuds, a rustle whispers. Within the treehouse, the dozing man awakens; resting body suddenly rigid, closed eyes now wide. He moves to the edge of the treehouse, examining the forest for a source of the sounds. Hushed minutes pass.
With swift movements, he packs his worn-out blanket and tugs on his leather jacket. He deftly descends to the lowest branches. There he slides down and hangs from his fingertips; He drops, rolls, stops. Muscles tense; senses alert.
He sprints towards the plain. Another thud resounds from the depths of the forest. Closer.
He runs. For hours. Farther than he’s ever been before. A thud resounds closer. The plain seems unending. The river has long since winded away. A thud resounds farther. His breathing is hard, he slows to a jog. Yet he keeps going.
The weak sun is well above the horizon when he stumbles onto a well. He nearly dives in, but he catches himself and drops a pebble first. Before a second has passed, it splashes. No monster roars from the depths.
A distant thud resounds. Taking a leap of faith, he dives smoothly into the water below. Parched, he gulps down water before the creature comes close enough to hear him. A thud resounds, closer. He submerges, covering ragged breaths. Eyes dilated and jaw clenched, his nails dig into his hands. A rustle from the plain. A creature moves above, rustles, runs past. Silence.
Another rustle from the plain. A creature comes slowly, sauntering. It moves past. The rustles are unending, eternal whispers of fluttering pages.
A thud from the plain. A creature shifts. Footfalls. It stops. Sniffs… It passes. The unending whispers, the page-turning, cackling rustles fill the well. As the thuds fade, the rustles retreat.
He counts to 3’600 before he ascends. The sun hits the twilit hour. He pauses mid-climb, gesturing at darkened stars. A mindful self-dialogue in a silent medium, calculation expressed through handheld words.
The rope sways as he contemplates, and his legs hit the wall. His hand should hit the wall but touches hollow space instead. He flinches but moves into the hole. He unhooks the torch from his backpack and switches it on, poised for a fight.
Within he finds bedding. Timeworn and tattered. Food reserves unlike his own. Stale bread and old tins. Rotting tins, he discovers, when he opens one.
He rummages through the belongings, setting what he can use aside. Then he goes through the rest. Eventually he sighs and sits back on his heels. Closes his eyes, his face falls.
He takes a tattered, leather-bound book from a pile of five in a corner. He gently unscrews his pot of ink, delicately dips the pen. #113 There was someone else.
He lays on his back and sleeps.
Footfalls. Dying echoes of idle movement.
There is a river. It winds lazily along a plain, then meets a forest. A treehouse hides there, in a copse of lofty trees. Gravity sends siren-whispers to the sagging roof and it sinks lower.
Footfalls from the forest floor. Eyes open, alert and awake, staring at the treehouse ceiling. He tenses his body into rigidity. He gingerly rises, scales to the roof, then scrutinises the undergrowth.
Minutes of quiet forest. Merely birds and small woodland creatures. He withdraws, packs his warm blanket and throws on his dark jacket. From the roof he flies to the nearest branch. Then the next. And the next. He leaps, flies and glides through the upper boughs of the trees.
Sporadically he hears footfalls, whispers, rustles. Then he pauses and observes. His brows furrow deeper each time. He inspects his ears. With time, he inspects his eyes.
The forest ends and he alights by the riverbank, keeping cover in the bushes as he follows the river. He walks for hours, farther than ever before. The weak sun is half-hidden behind the horizon when he unearths a building. It’s stone, with stained-glass windows, a bell-tower, and a steeple.
He enters stealthily, poised to fight. Inside it’s dark, so he lights torches as he shadows the walls. The light offers brilliant pictures; the walls are covered in images.
He runs his fingers over the deadened artwork. Globes. Over and over. A sphere of green and blue, evolving from ice to cold, from cold to nature, from nature to heat. Creatures are depicted above each globe, performing activities. Farming, judging, fighting. As the spheres burn hotter, the figures become fewer and their activities shift. The paintings gradually worsen, reduced to clumsily created and poorly displayed murals, until the last globe is simply encased in flames with one creature left.
His fingers linger on some images, a puzzled expression on his face. One creature holds a torch like his own. He shrinks from the image and moves on. He rubs his eyes, as though trying erase the confusion. Exhaustion seeps from his body like a second aura. Blood seeps from cuts received from branches and slippery rocks.
The room holds mostly chairs, but he finds a place to sleep in the back: A long open box, perfectly suited for his height, with a pillow and comfortable padding. Next to it are five books, four bound in leather with gilded edges. He takes the first book, a tattered, leather-bound tome. Pen dips deftly into ink and he writes. #113 I am the last.
He retrieves his blanket, turns onto his side, and sleeps.
Footfalls. Dying echoes of determined movement.
River, plain and forest. The forest holds a house. The house does not groan, even as it falls apart, as the ladder creaks, as the roof sinks. It makes no sound at all.
The weak sun is bright when the man startles awake. Brows furrow, he chews his lip.
He hears nothing. There is no rustling. No woodland creature hums: No birds chirping, no cats mewling, no bugs skittering. No sound at all. The silence screams.
Footfalls echo within the treehouse. Eternal whispers of page-turning rustles. They do not fade.