Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Catherine stopped again to catch her breath. She couldn't believe how out of shape she had become. There was a time when she was always outdoors getting exercise, whether it was camping or playing volleyball or running. How long had it been since she'd entered a marathon? Lately, all of life's many demands kept her busy running an entirely different kind of race. She couldn't seem to find time for herself anymore. There was little enough time to sustain the barest existence. These musings caused a pang of anxiety to rise up in her. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, willing her worries away. How had matters of basic survival come to absorb her every waking moment?
But these were precisely the thoughts Catherine came here to forget. She had not suffered an anxiety attack in nearly twenty-four hours. She was determined to enjoy her brief escape from the rat race, if only for a few days. She tipped her head back and breathed in as much as she could of the crisp, cool air that surrounded her. It smelled of earth and life. She looked around then, suddenly aware of the strange silence. As her nostrils drank in the sweet and pungent aroma of the forest, her heartbeat could not help but slow down. The beauty and tranquility were having their effect. Why couldn't all of life be this simple?
Catherine picked up her overstuffed backpack and hefted it up onto her shoulder, resting it on the left side now because the right shoulder was beginning to ache. She felt another wave of annoyance at this reminder of how poorly things were constructed these days. The strap had broken within the first hour of her using it, unable to withstand the weight of her camping gear. She should have chosen a more practical pack, she thought, but she had been swayed by the colorful designand the sale priceof this one. Besides, its bright orange-and-yellow pattern gave her a feeling of security, just in case there were hunters in the woods. Not that it was hunting season, but one never knew. But as it happened, she had not encountered anyone at all since setting out on her little excursion. There was a lonely, isolated feeling to the place that convinced her no one else was around. At first it was disconcerting, and she had been tempted to turn around. But it was not an overly exhausting hike to the campsite, and she was sure to find someone there.
With her racing heart calmed, Catherine resumed hiking, but at a slower, more manageable pace. She was nearing a high point in the mountain and veered closer to the steep edge so that she could observe the views below. The trees were thinning out now, perhaps because of the elevation, and this made the sight even more spectacular. Clumps of trees gave way to fields of green, spotted here and there with patches of wildflowers.
As Catherine gazed at the scene below her, she was once again struck by the curious silence surrounding her. Listening more intently, she noticed that there were actually sounds to be heard, such as the twitter of a bird or the rustle of a squirrel, but these seemed to blend into the background as seamlessly as the foliage. There were no conspicuous sounds, no noises that would indicate purposeful activity or any other synthetic clatter clashing with the natural progression of things. Catherine pondered this, marveling at the perfect harmony that seemed to exist among the plants and animals compared to the chaos associated with more intelligent beings.
Even as Catherine was thinking these thoughtsironically, right in the very midst of thema bird suddenly flew out at her from a nearby bush, startling her. She lost her footing and, unable to catch herself, stumbled over the edge of the mountain. There was a split second of absolute clarity where she realized she was not going to be able to stop her fall, and in the next instant she noticed the thick, solid branch peaking out from beneath the fallen leaves that was rushing up to meet her. She only had time to perceive these things, not to react, or to move, or even to feel alarm. And then everything went black.
Catherine opened her eyes and looked dumbly around her in utter confusion. Where on earth was she? Something was not quite right, yet she felt remarkably calm. She sat up tentatively, remembering the fall and aware that she had sustained injuries.
The very first thing she noticed was that all of the forest from the tiniest blade of grass to the tallest treeappeared to be buzzing with life. She was suddenly struck with how curiously vibrant the colors were, and how pungent the aroma around her. It was almost as if the trees were speaking to her, even as the gentle wind rustled their leaves. Things seemed more distinct and noticeable than before. She wondered if she had suffered a concussion.
As she observed the forest around her, Catherine had the oddest sensation that she was no longer alone. She looked more carefully at the plants and trees, scanning them for signs of life. But aside from the foliage, she saw nothing.
She got up slowly, brushing off her shorts and checking for injuries. Her wounds appeared to be minor, as she was able to move about without suffering additional discomfort. Yet she couldn't shake the feeling that something had changed. She still had the impression that she was being watched. She called out, "Who's there?" but there was no response. She wondered vaguely why whatever it was didn't manifest itself. Yet for some reason, she still wasn't afraid. In the midst of such radiant harmony, it was hard to conceive of any real danger.
Her voice, when she had cried out, sounded foreign to her ears. Something about the valley she had fallen into called to mind the enchanted forests of her childhood fairy tales. She realized that she ought to make her way back up the mountain and find the trail, but she was captivated by the little forest nook and didn't want to leave. What would it hurt to look around for a few minutes? Just off in the distance, she spied a field of brilliant colors that begged to be explored. She spotted her backpack on the ground nearby, and had half a mind to set up camp right there. Why should she leave this enchanted spot to set out for a public campground? This would be real camping, where she could open the flap of her tent without nudging a tent right next to hers.
As Catherine considered this, she walked toward the field, surveying the area around her with a great deal of curiosity. A prettier campsite could not be imagined. There was a tran-quility to the place that seemed to promise sanctuary. It had everything the public campground had except electricity and, perhaps, water. But even as this thought occurred to her, she suddenly perceived a very faint soundso faint she could only just identify it as the sound of rushing water. As she followed the sound, she discovered with joy that it was, in fact, a waterfall.
Catherine stared at the waterfall in amazement. It was just like something from an exotic island. She could smell the water as it exploded over the cliff's edge. She approached it timidly, almost wary of its incredible magnificence. At any rate, she thought, she could wash the many scrapes that dotted her arms and legs in the sparkling spring. She removed her shoes and socks and tentatively dipped her toes in the little, churning stream at the bottom of the falls. It was cool but not cold, so she plunged her feet in. She bent down to scoop water over her bare legs. The flash of a silver trout caught her eye as it passed and she jumped, half expecting it to pause at the surface on its way by to speak to her, just as the one in the Brothers Grimm Tale of the Fisherman had. She laughed at the thought. Yet it would not have surprised her.
Catherine let the water, cool and soothing, trickle over her legs. She gathered several more handfuls and splashed them over the cuts and bruises on her arms. She realized that she was thirsty, too. Carefully, for the bottom of the stream was lined with sparkling rocks, she stepped closer to the falls, leaning forward to scoop some of the freshly falling water into her cupped hands. It tasted as sweet and refreshing as she imagined, and she swallowed several mouthfuls in large gulps. She was surprised how thirsty she was and drank until she had her fill. Then she simply stood there, admiring the majestic beauty of the waterfall. It was truly enchanting. But if she was going to make camp, she knew that she would have to find her way back to the trail soon.
Catherine cautiously stepped from the stream and looked toward the forest from which she had come, when she suddenly noticed that the sun was unusually high in the sky. This seemed strange. Wasn't it later in the day? She tried to remember roughly what time it had been when she fell, but she couldn't. Yet she had already eaten lunch and was fairly certain that the better part of the day was behind her. By all counts, it should have been late afternoon. How, then, could it now be coming on midday? Surely she had not lain unconscious overnight! But just then it occurred to her that her stomach was empty. She once again had that strong sense of unreality and wondered if she had suffered more serious injuries in the fall than she originally thought. Perhaps she had a head injury. She vaguely remembered the large stump sticking up out of the ground. She felt around her head for bumps.
But at present it seemed more important that she eat something. Her backpack was stuffed with food, but just at that moment she spotted shimmering patches of red scattered about in some of the bushes nearby. Upon closer inspection, she saw that they were raspberries, and they were so plentiful they were practically falling off the branches. Looking around, she could see that the lush bushes were growing everywhere all along the little stream. Catherine tentatively picked one of the berries and touched it to her tongue. It was tart and sweet, just like a wild raspberry. And the bushes were overgrown with them. What a find! There were so many berries that, without ever taking a single step in either direction, she was able to eat her fill.
While Catherine was gorging herself on raspberries, a strange notion came into her head. She began to think that the berries had appeared as a result of her desire to eat. But after considering it, she rejected the idea as preposterous. The berries had been there all along; she had simply not noticed them before. The waterfall had absorbed all of her attention.
But there was no denying that there was something special about the place. Contented by berries, she returned to the stream and sat down on the bank. She watched the running water flash and sparkle as more gleaming trout passed by. The sight of them pleased her. She stretched out on the bank lazily, resting on her side so that she could gaze down into the gurgling stream. How pleasant it was to simply watch the water trickling over the glimmering rocks as it rushed along its merry way. How benevolent its cheerful sound, tinkling contentedly as it hurried off towhere? Catherine felt peaceful and serene as she pondered this. She suddenly couldn't remember what those things were that had bothered her before. After a while, she rolled over onto her back and looked up at the sky.
But what madness was this? Suddenly the sun was sinking into the horizon!
Catherine jumped up and looked around. She was yet again assailed with a nagging sense of unreality. How could high noon so quickly have turned to dusk? How long had she been lying by the bank, staring down into the water? How was it possible that she, Catherine, a person who normally couldn't sit still for a moment, had wasted an entire afternoon looking at water?
She decided it was time to leave the strange little forest glen and quickly surveyed the area one last time, looking for the direction from which she had come. She wandered all around, searching for something familiar or for some evidence of her footsteps. But try as she might, she was unable to find a pathway out, and it was quickly getting dark. She would have to wait until morning. She was surprised to find that this did not disturb her overmuch, but she regretted not bringing her backpack with her when she had wandered off. At least then she would have had supplies. How would she manage to get through the night now? In a little while, it would be too dark to see and she would be left fully exposed to the elements.
Or would she? With a surreal sensation of awed disbelief, her eyes fell upon a little nook at the base of the foothill that rose up to one side of the waterfall. At first glance it appeared to be a shallow cave, just the right size for her. Catherine approached it with interest. It was indeed a small alcove that had formed out of the earth. Upon closer inspection, it appeared to be the result of erosion, for there was a large tree sitting directly above it. All along its inner cavity could be seen smooth, wooden roots, jutting out here and again over the ceiling and walls like sturdy brown beams. The cave did not recede so far into the earth as to frighten or alarm, but was just enough to protect someone from the elements. The floor was covered with large, crisp leaves that had apparently fallen from the tree above. Finding the little alcove filled Catherine with a sense of well-being. She was beginning to believe that this forest really was enchanted. It was certainly the most enchanting place that she had ever been. She went to work immediately, gathering more leaves from the ground outside the cave and stuffing them into the corner where she planned to sleep. As she rushed to prepare her little nest before it became too dark, she suddenly caught, from the corner of her eye, the sparkle from a lightning bug. In that same moment, the last bit of the sun disappeared behind the mountain.
It was fully dark now, but look! More lightning bugs were one after the othercoming alive, blinking so brightly (for her benefit alone, she now believed) and so frequently that her campsite was kept in a steady stream of soft light. Catherine stared, openmouthed, at the wondrous spectacle.