After waking up somewhere she doesn't recognize, the first person narrator putters about.
| One foot in front of the other, that's all I had to do to get back to civilization - at least, that's what I hoped. My mantra hadn't done me much good in the hours since I'd woken up in the god-forsaken forest I found myself in, but I didn't know what else to do. The sun on the other side of the river I was following was sinking worryingly low in the sky, and the woods around the river weren't getting noticeably thinner. Would I have to sleep in the forest for the night? I had some basic survival skills, but I didn't know how to last long in the woods, in the dark and cold, without any supplies whatsoever. This was not a planned excursion, or anything I knew how to handle beyond putting one foot in front of the other.
Mostly I was hoping for a rescue. I hadn't been gone twenty-four hours yet, but I had appointments scheduled. People would know I was missing, and they would probably be looking for me by now. Of course, who would think to look in a forest of... pine, maybe? They were evergreens, anyway. I lived in Arizona, for god's sake.
All my life, I'd mostly been taught to stay in one place when lost and wait for someone to come to come to me, but besides the fact that I wasn't a toddler lost in the mall, I had found it surprisingly difficult not to panic when waking up in an unfamiliar place with no idea how I got there, let alone stay still. I'd thought I was more level-headed than that, but we learn something new every day. In the end, I'd chosen to follow the river to feel in control more than anything.
The sun was truly setting, and I had another choice on my hands that I was totally ill-equipped to handle. Keep walking and hope the forest ends soon, or find a good spot to camp for the night? My feet were sore and I wasn't sure if I was supposed to be walking (possibly away from rescuers) anyway, so I chose the former. I gathered some sticks because that seemed like the thing to do, even though I had no idea how to make a fire without any sort of starter, then stood around the small collection wondering what was next.
I was in no way tired, pretty awake from my precarious situation, actually, and it would be hours before I'd be able to start walking again without fear of overlooking a root and turning my ankle. I hugged my arms as I looked from my sad preparations to the rest of the forest. The cool breeze that raised my hairs was in no way welcome. I knew that I was only going to get colder when night fell, and I was without shelter and wearing a plain cotton t-shirt and skinny jeans. There was only one thing I could think of to combat the breeze: a fort. If that idea turned out to be as ridiculous as it sounded, then all I would have lost was time that I couldn't use for anything else. I set out to find some bigger sticks.
Big, non-disgusting branches proved harder to find than in my childhood fort building days. It seemed that although the area I wanted to set up camp was dry from a day of sun overhead, the surrounding area must have gotten a downpour before I'd arrived. I got tired of turning over a perfectly suitable branch to find it waterlogged and falling apart. My searching took me farther along the shore with each choice branch I found (I didn't want to wander too far into the forest itself and loose the river) to the point where I wondered if I should have decided to continue on instead of making camp since I was stumbling about under the moonlight anyway.
I had finally found another branch farther down than I had ever gone before when I decided it would have to be enough. I used the branch as a walking stick as I made my way back to the river, in order to follow it on easier ground back to my camp.
By the edge of the river, a black shape stood out in contrast to the pale moonlight reflecting off the lake. A bear, I thought, freezing at the edge of the tree line. Belatedly, I remembered a warning not to camp next to water because it was the place all animals are guaranteed to go to in order to survive. The shape wasn't moving though, as I stood there gathering up the will to back up. The more I looked at the shape, the more solidly the realization came that it was not a bear at all. Four thin legs, smooth shiny hair, and a long, tapering neck. The animal's head was out of sight, but it looked like a horse.
Wondering at the strangeness of a lone horse sleeping by a riverside, I pushed away my fear and took a few hesitant steps forward. The wet slop of mud under my feet made enough noise to wake a horse, I thought, and the fact that it didn't sent doubt creeping through my mind. I held out the walking stick before me as I neared, then poked it at the horse's foot. The total lack of response confirmed that it was dead.
Shying around to the horse's head, feeling vaguely sad about its fate, I considered the question of why a horse would be left dead by a riverside. My first thought was that it was wild, and that I was on some strange preservation. I poked at the horse's shoulder with my stick in case it really was just sleeping, then, when no response came, I took a closer look.
Squatting down brought me close to wet ground which sapped away my body heat, and I shivered. Suddenly, I felt the full brunt of my staved off fear come back to me. I had no resources, no survival skills, no contacts, and no idea how I had come to be in that situation in the first place. The horse before me had died at what looked like the peak of health, even though it was probably more suited to the forest than I was. The mechanics behind my arrival seemed to get more sinister, and I looked around, imaging something watching me just within the black shadows of the tree line. When I had first woken up, I hadn't considered the possibility that I was part of some madman's Most Dangerous Game, but now it was at the forefront of my mind.
I tried to push away my grim, probably irrational thoughts to continue my examination of the horse. If it had taken any obvious human-made wounds, I may have just bolted. Fortunately for my own survival, the body was unmarked. I did, however, spot a different sign of human involvement. Bits of a bridle still hung off its face in strips, though there was no other horse riding paraphernalia about it. So the horse wasn't wild, and in fact had been ready for riding when it died. Its rider's fate didn't look good. I looked at the calmly flowing river, then back at the horse. I could easily imagine someone attempting to cross, deceived by the surface and learning too late that a raging current lurked just underneath. The horse would have drowned, and most of the things strapped to it would have been swept away. Considering the mystery solved, I stood, but I had a new worry to deal with. If I was right, which I could not see how I wouldn't be, then there was a good chance the rider had been in the river and had been taken by it too.
The rider was most likely dead. Still, there was a chance that a human would have been able to keep their head and save themselves from drowning where a horse would be helpless. In an ideal situation, I would have contacted some authority and reported the situation so a search party could be sent out. Seeing as how I needed a search party myself, any good options were beyond me. I looked back in the direction of my 'camp' for a brief moment, then down the river, and I set off. If there was any chance that the rider was alive, washed up on the banks like their horse had been but alive, I was in a position to at least find them. Maybe I had been positioned to find them.
The thought that some sort of divine will had deposited me to this place stayed with me as I searched down the bank and squinted at the side I couldn't reach. It was almost an arrogant thought to have, since I would probably be no help to a person half drowned and on the edge of death, but I was considering every option. I had another thought, that this person I was looking for was just like me, transplanted into this forest by some unknown means. It would explain why they had been unfamiliar enough with the river to misjudge it. Disliking the mystical tilt my thoughts had taken, I concentrated on picking out solid, body-sized shapes amid the mud and rocks and battered foliage on my path. I wanted to stick by reasonable explanations until I had proof that there were none. It wouldn't do to go overboard after less than a day alone in the wilderness.
A few yards later, I came across another disparity in the landscape. The small black patch tangled on a fallen log was not what I had been looking for. I might have taken it for a common piece of detritus if not for its dark surface. The lump of black cloth didn't shine with wet like the materials around it; although, it still felt damp when I tried to pick it up. I peeled most of the heavy cloth away with only minimal fiddling, and pried the rest from under the log by using my walking stick as a lever.
The damp cloth slapped against me as I tried to arrange the surprisingly voluminous folds into shape. Getting wet without a way to get dry was only another addition to a cumulating list of the rules of survival I'd broken. I was frustrated by my own incompetence, but that didn't stop me from pushing through and holding up the fabric to identify. The ripped up black material could have been a blanket or even a shawl, and I wouldn't have been surprised. Instead, I had to deal with the reality that I had found an honest-to-god cloak. It boasted a hood, long draping sleeves, and floor length head to toe coverage for a person a half a head taller than myself. It was ridiculous.
The cloth was a wet, smelly, heavy burden, but I wadded it up and carried it with me as I continued down the river bank.