Part One: THE ISLAND OF THE HUHUNEEM AND YAHOO
The author describes the beginnings of his first adventure and the near catastrophe that nearly ended it.
When choosing where to start this adventure, I could have chosen to recount stories of my youth. Or I could have chosen to reveal how I got my job at the airline or some of the memorable experiences I did have when not confined to a tin can with wings or the termini from and to whence they fly. These experiences, while meaningful to me, add little pertinent background for what was to come. The best place to begin is the day Flight 1726 departed from Toronto.
The day began not unlike most others in my ordinary life. I’ve always maintained a schedule of when I need to be at the airport, the time we leave, and to where we fly on each flight. I could be in Toronto in the morning, Los Angeles in the afternoon, and on my way to Tokyo that night. Sometimes I wasn’t even sure where I was going, only that I next had to be somewhere at 6:00 am.
My job wasn’t as glamorous as some might think. I woke up in a hotel almost every day and then crisscrossed the planet, barely seeing so much as a spot of it. On this day, though, I woke up in my king-sized memory-foam-topped bed in my apartment close to Toronto Pearson International Airport. Every night I spent in my own bed was the best night. Compared with hotels that clean the sheets daily and maintain strict controls, there was just something about home and sleeping in my own rarely laundered sheets that was more comfortable.
As I looked around the room upon waking, I noted, warmly, the lack of decoration on my walls and the suitcase, always packed and ready the night before, sitting on the floor next to the bedroom door. The air smelled stale as I had been out of my apartment for six days, and the apartment had grown accustomed to my absence. I kept little food in my fridge and rarely had time to cook, so little greeted me that morning, as usual.
But something was unusual that day. Not that it would presage the events to come, but for some reason, I awoke fifteen minutes before my alarm was scheduled to hammer the morning into my ears and remind me that I had places to not be. I mention this only because when sleeping at home after and before a long trip, it was especially rare that I didn’t wake to the despised alarm just slightly out of arm’s reach on the left side of my bed. Waking up before the alarm, however, is somehow equally disappointing. It is, after all, a missed, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sleep for an additional fifteen minutes. Instead, I was awake and ready to take on the world with safety presentations, in-flight sales, and complimentary food service. I turned off the alarm, to avoid mindless morning-show banter, and just lay in bed thinking about how great it would be to sleep for fifteen minutes, perhaps twenty minutes, before realizing that, in effect, I had now overslept.
I broached the cabinet, raided some cereal, and emptied the last drops of milk into a bowl just seconds before it was to expire, according to the label. Rushing, I had a quick shower, brushed my teeth, threw on my uniform, and grabbed my luggage as I locked myself out of my house—I had left my keys on the night table in my haste. No time to waste; that was a problem I’d have to deal with another time. It’s one thing to be late for your flight when you’re a paying guest, but airport public announcements rarely ask if the plane’s steward is in the building. The threat of having one’s bags offloaded means something entirely different to a steward.
No, it really wasn’t as dramatic as that unless I was more than an hour late. An hour before the flight, the whole crew met to discuss and plan everything including the route, weather, duration, any possible turbulence, and the safety equipment of the jet. I inspected a few of the safety features before the passengers began to trudge aboard the plane, and everything appeared to be in certifiable working order. I adjusted my uniform, tightened the laces on my shoes, straightened my lanyard, and took out a torpedo level to straighten my tie bar. My crewmates would often give me a hard time about my proper appearance and attire. We were all required to maintain a professional appearance to keep the passengers at ease and knowing everything down to the complimentary beverage service was being handled to the highest standards, so I always felt my appearance reflected my commitment to the clients and my coworkers. I trusted that my guests and comment cards supported that decision.
I took up position midcabin to assist the passengers. As an aside, the first passenger on a plane is almost never one who needs the most assistance, despite the preboarding protocols and announcements. Usually, the first passengers are able-bodied, thirty-five-year-old couples eager to get to their destination faster than anybody else on the plane. It may seem obvious to most people, but the plane arrives at the same time for everyone regardless of when you board. Waiting in the airport lounge is actually more spacious and comfortable than the airplane itself, and the loading routine is designed to get people on the plane in the most efficient manner possible. Those requiring assistance and those with small children need the most time to settle, and while they settle, the more self-sufficient can settle quickly and easily. In fact, the faster a plane can turn around, the more profitable a carrier can be. All airline employees are incentivized to get the plane out of the terminal and off the ground as quickly as can be.
This trip began no differently. Sure enough, a well-dressed couple jumped up at the first announcement for preboarding and made a beeline onto the plane. I have always been of the opinion that during an emergency, these are exactly the kind of people one would want manning the emergency doors rather than sitting elsewhere on the plane. Their hurry would be an asset if they were in a position to be the first off but a liability to everyone around them if they were expected to wait. Anyway, they positioned themselves almost perfectly halfway between the mid and rear cabin exits, stuffed their oversized carry-on luggage into the compartment, and reclined their chairs.
Most of the remainder of the boarding went about usual. As 1726 was a long-haul flight to Sydney directly from Toronto—a brutal twenty-two-hour trip—most passengers carried as much on board as they could manage: books, electronics, headphones, pens, papers, clothes, snacks, pillows, blankets, even toiletries. As anyone who has been on a long flight like this can imagine, this meant the overheads and under-seat storage spaces were filled to bursting. A giant game of Tetris ensued to try to make sure everyone’s things were stored safely and securely.
My colleague, Justin, lays claim to the international high score. On this flight, once again, he proved it by deftly stacking soft- and hard-shelled luggage, leaving a cyclopean Samsonite wall that couldn’t fit a toothpick more.
Once the plane was loaded with fuel, service, crew, passengers, and luggage, we taxied to Runway 5 and got away clean from the metropolis of Toronto. As an early morning flight, the window passengers were sent off by the lights of the CN Tower and the downtown skyline. The long flight went by in a typical manner. There were a few teeth-chattering bouts with minor turbulence, but nothing worthy of reporting. We knew we were heading in the general direction of a large storm, but reports from aircraft in the area and satellite showed it was well within the tolerances for which the aircraft was designed and capable of handling.
I hesitate to admit it, but somewhere after the first meal service of the flight, I put my head down and fell into a deep slumber, the kind from which one awakes pondering whether he is still asleep and dreaming or if he is actually awake. The air was gravy thick, and the passengers tittered as they looked out the windows into the dark clouds surrounding the plane. It had started to shudder and drop as the storm outside the cabin created bubbles of pressure. The plane shook and the passengers became alarmed. Most travellers will tell you turbulence is a likely hazard for most any flight, and the current turbulence didn’t exceed my own comfort.
I marched down the aisles in an effort to soothe the children on board and to exude the necessary confidence that all was well with the state of things. This was a normal event, one well within the normal range of flight experiences. Little did I worry while meandering to the back of the plane. The plane jolted, the screens flickered, and the captain announced that it looked like we were in for some stronger turbulence ahead and to please stay seated and fasten seatbelts.
Then a bright light filled the cabin, and a loud boom alerted everyone that we had been struck by lightning. I looked at the passengers nearby, their spines suddenly bolt straight and eyes open as wide as possible. They were desperate for reassurance that the plane was going to be all right.
The plane suddenly dropped. I lost my footing and lay sprawled in the aisle near the back of the plane. The sight of a fallen attendant is troubling to passengers. One reached down to help me up. Several others were now filling the air with a chorus of piercing screams. As I scrabbled to my feet, I could see that a number of passengers had suffered minor injuries from the drop and several were bleeding, compounding the panic. One woman nearby had fainted, slumping over the arm of the chair, her head sagging in the aisle. The turbulence had caused a number of weaker stomachs to fail, and the atmosphere was thick, warm, humid, and somewhat foul. The public announcement system, like the screens, was now just emitting static. A warm trickle of blood poured from my own forehead, meandering its way to my mouth and chin.
A number of people had gotten out of their seats, whether from discomfort or to help a loved one or neighbour I could not really say. Suddenly the craft crabbed and jolted upwards. All those near me, myself included, who were not restrained were sent flying into the seats on the left. The plane started to list. The pilot was trying to regain altitude, but a right-side engine had failed. The plane continued to bump and thrash. The oxygen masks fell from the ceiling and all calm was lost.
The plane must have been in pretty bad shape; maybe the engine had fully detached in the storm, or maybe the storm had damaged another engine. All souls on board Flight 1726 felt their stomachs rise, literally, towards their throats as we felt the plane descend from the dark sky into a darker, still unknown, space below. Time passed both in the blink of an eye and as a glacier in slow motion. I can’t honestly say whether we fell for a fraction of a second or for full minutes. It seemed without a doubt now that we were going to go down somewhere in the South Pacific Ocean in the middle of the night in a storm. I was sure the pilot was doing everything he could to make that touch as gentle as possible, but I abandoned my efforts to help discombobulated passengers. I tucked myself into the best impromptu bracing position I could manage, stuffed on the floor of the seating area with several people close by.
The author affects his escape and hopes for rescue from the wreckage.
I know the reader will forgive the gap in my narrative for when the plane struck the water; the deceleration caused a second knock to my head and a temporary period of unconsciousness.
I regained consciousness in an eerily quiet scene of destruction. Once there had been panic and pain. Now all was still, at least as far as the inside of the fuselage. Outside the tube, the storm raged on. As any vessel on an unfriendly sea, the cabin lurched and dropped, rose and twisted with each wave and windy gale. I’m not much for the action of the waves at the best of times. The smarting, flourishing knock on my temple wasn’t helping me to establish my sea legs.
On board, nothing and nobody moved. The crash had made a great shamble of Justin’s Tetrisian achievement. I will not endeavour to account the further description of what I encountered. In honesty, I didn’t, at the time, enumerate or evaluate in detail. The fair reader may choose to skip over the subsequent description of the wreckage if they be of weak constitution. In such a case, I recommend that they avoid only the next paragraph.
The first thing one notices when looking about the cabin of a crashed plane are not the bodies or the baggage, but the oxygen masks dangling limply from the ceiling of the overhead compartments. Each and every mask hung down from above the seats in the eerie darkness permeated only by some poor emergency lights. The shadows of the cords and masks give the feeling of a dark jungle, with vines dangling from thick foliage. Of course, there were many bodies in various states of burial amongst the piles of luggage strewn about randomly. I shouldn’t like to discuss too much the individual bodies I saw; it is the most difficult memory I possess to think of my helplessness to help them. I checked a few of those nearest to me and found their vital signs were not detectable. I could hear no signs that would suggest to me that any other survivors were hidden amongst the chaos. The smell of the cabin was as chaotic as the dimly lit scene. Food, drink, blood, perfume, and all manner of broken and burned glass and plastic permeated my nasal passageways. This is a scene I sincerely hope nobody ever has to witness for themselves.
Here I found myself, stranded somewhere in an unknown ocean, in a violently rocking aircraft, and becoming no more combobulated. I had to find a way to safety. The survivors of the crash, whatever their number, had already removed the evacuation slides from the doors to use as a life raft as they fled the cabin. I made no effort to adjudicate their actions.
The first escapees may have waited for several minutes after the crash, or conversely, the first one out the door might have seized his opportunity and shoved off immediately, stranding others to share more crowded rafts. My period of blankness would forever keep that knowledge from me. It was not possible to determine whether they had checked on the welfare of others aboard. Perhaps they had, and I was either too buried to spot, or they believed me dead, but I was not amongst those who escaped in the first wave; thus, I was without the best possible conveyance.
Whatever had occurred, I found myself with no ready route of escape and armed with the knowledge that an aeroplane will not float indefinitely on the ocean. And with a storm pummelling her, it will indeed not last very long in a buoyant state. Water was lapping at the doors of the cabin and time was running short.
I began tearing apart the seats nearest the emergency exit. Aircraft seats may be used as floatation devices, but they are not the same as life jackets. The seats, at least aboard this flight, were equipped with a couple arm loops on each side of the cushion and floated like a pillow on the water. If I lost consciousness again—a distinct possibility—my head would not be held above the waves. I knew neither where the flight had landed nor when or if a rescue was coming. Nor did I know how long it would take to arrive. So, I gathered a dozen of the seats and tied four together in a square using some rope that had fallen from the overheads. I then tied eight together end to end as firmly as I could and quickly secured them to my square. Grabbing a couple water bottles, little caring that they were both open, I shoved my raft out the door into the choppy water and jumped onto the middle of the square of four cushions, sinking to my waist but free floating safely, with a long tail of eight seat cushions trailing behind me in a line.
I wish I could have investigated the plane as I cast off, but my first priority was to make my seat-cushion raft as seaworthy as possible. The storm was still blustering and dark. I had no idea what dangers lurked in the water.
The four-cushion square acted as the floor of my boat while I feverishly tied the eight remaining cushions around the outside of the square as a one-cushion tall wall. I intended this to be my little walled raft, floating like an open-topped box in the waves. I cursed the clouds, the rain, the wind, the waves, and the unyielding pains in my body, particularly my head. The rain lashed at my skin and clothes and numbed my hands while I endeavoured to finish my boat. Every gust and wave blew bitter saltwater into my eyes and mouth.
I lashed the seats together as best I could, but found my teacup, which in my mind was supposed to appear like a square-bottomed, open-top box, instead was more of a twelve-panelled wet sock. I found that trying to sit or lie on one or several of the seats just resulted in either falling into the water or into a crevice between two lines of seats. After much effort, I surrendered, lying prostrate on one side of the craft, which was folded in half like a pita pocket. My arms splayed out to the sides in another gap, wrapped amongst the ropes. The remaining six seats more or less sat on top of me, providing little more than a wet, dripping, porous umbrella against the rain. As secure as I felt I was going to get, I strained to look back at the plane that so nearly had become my resting place.
It had not been a conscious thought, but I became dimly aware that the plane was no longer above the waves. Without a means of propulsion, the hulking mass of aluminum behind me had silently tucked in beneath the waves not to be seen by my eyes again. The realization that it was gone left me with a desperation and loneliness only someone who has experienced a similar shock and trauma could understand. There I lay on a pile of seat cushions, completely alone, with no idea where I was, other than in the vast Pacific Ocean, floating in a hurricane. I was rapidly losing hope, realizing that even if a rescue plane was on the way, even if the wreckage could be found, my little makeshift raft wouldn’t look like much more than debris. The depressing reality of my predicament was clear. I had two half-drunk bottles of water to sustain me. If I survived the night in the blowing hurricane, I would still have to survive days floating in the direct, burning, unrelenting sun, somewhere in the tropics, and my fair skin was liable to singe. If my adventure wasn’t to be ended by the water, it would surely be by exposure, heat stroke, or dehydration.
I began to consider more radical alternatives to my situation but succumbed to rest. I kept as hydrated as I could and hoped and prayed against Herculean odds that somehow I would, in some way, be delivered to safety. In no way was I a religious person, and I did not know how to pray to a god, whichever god that would be. I blindly hoped that some power, human or divine, would pluck me from the waves, though I knew the odds were against me. As the water sapped the energy from me and the pain of my injuries began to overtake the adrenaline that had thus far sustained me, I submitted at last and rested my head to the side on a salty seat cushion and slept.
The author awakens in the care of a strange woman on a strange island.
The measure of time can be a fickle thing. Compared to the ghastly excitements on board the carefully engineered vessel that was my previous conveyance, the gentle oscillations of the egregiously named, “Pacific Ocean,” seemed an apprehensive tedium. I bobbed about the waves in a state of alert sleep, as though sleepwalking but while not fully asleep. With little upon which to focus but an endless azure field and surrounded by a wet cocoon of jetsam, I drifted in and out of consciousness. Vaguely, I was aware of my own consciousness, but dragons and krakens, in my current state of mind, would have been no more or less surreal than the sight of a ship or land. The fight had long since left my wearied limbs.
I floated in these conditions for hours or days. With honesty, I cannot truly say whether it was the former or the latter. I was sustained only by the small ration of water in the bottles and the meagre shelter provided by the raft.
My first clear memory—and I pray you believe me when I say it took some time for me to accept that this was indeed a memory and not just a ridiculous dream—was of sensing my leather-upholstered swaddle no longer surrounding me. Heavy, dark air and a solid, slanted deck had replaced the bright, wet environment. Activity around me informed me I was not alone.
Dimly, it became clear I was in a small cave and was being attended to by a small but strong woman. My lips were burnt and parched from the sun and dehydration. I knew I had been given water. A point to note, however: if you happen upon an unconscious person in your travels, you should not give them food or water. They are most likely to aspirate rather than revive. In my circumstance, somehow, I had been resuscitated.
The woman in the cave was clearly attending to many disparate emergencies, of which I was apparently secondary concern. As she flitted about and fiddled here and there, I adjusted to the light that entered the cave through numerous fissures in the rock. I took an estimation of the woman as I could not yet ascertain if she was my saviour, captor, or companion of circumstance. She was short, but with defined musculature like that of an athlete, and was thin and unkempt, with long, messy hair. I hesitate to print this, but in the interest of full disclosure, she was also completely naked. Her back was marked by numerous scars, with cuts and bruises, which suggested to me we were imprisoned together in our subterranean dungeon. She stood stooped and crooked and possessed long, jagged, untrimmed fingernails more resembling an animal’s than a well-groomed human’s.
Sensing there was nobody else around and I was not in any immediate danger, I endeavoured to prop myself up with the ultimate intent to quietly rise to my feet. At almost the first movement, before I thought I had even made the slightest whisper, she whipped her head around and glared at me like a deer in the forest upon the slightest snap of a twig. She and I shared a long, breathless stare as we both took the measure of the other. I could see the bruises on her back continued to her front, on her face, arms, and legs. Her entire body was covered with hairy, almost fur-like matting. One might draw the impression from this description that she bore the appearance of a Neanderthal. I can’t claim to have ever before seen one in person, but she seemed to me more a feral human, with delicate features like a small nose and a flat, near vertical forehead camouflaged behind a tough façade.
I had barely managed to lift my body centimetres off the slab and had found the exertion of staying here was proving too great for my current physical condition. My arms gave out on me suddenly, and with a light, but solid, bump, I fell back onto the rock upon which I had recently laid. My cavewoman companion was at my side almost immediately, raising and funnelling a liquid towards my mouth with a large leaf. She spoke in a sort of whisper saying, “way-o, way-o, way-o,” showing me I should drink from it. Unable to put up a struggle, I reluctantly complied and drank the water. It was dirty and thick with what I still hope was just silt from the stream. The water fell into the cave, not far from my bed, through an algae-plugged hole in the ceiling. Despite the taste and texture, I could not help but drink deeply and greedily from the proffered cupped leaf. As I finished the beverage, which I spilt embarrassingly onto my once again soaking wet clothes, she offered me another and another, repeating “way-o, way-o, way-o” each time.
Finally, I pushed the leaf away, and as gracefully as I could, thanked her but refused any more. Though I thought it unlikely she would speak English or any other language to which I could stake any claim, I could not foresee her reaction to my voice. Her eyes and mouth burst open, and she jumped back, without making a sound, into the stream on the floor. The sudden violence of her action startled me as well, and I jerked away from her. We returned to the stare we had shared before. This time she was noticeably shaken and apparently as afraid of me as I was of her. She silently exclaimed a single word, “Huhuneem.” I’m certain the look on my face was one of pure confusion. My brow furrowed and I repeated back, “Huhuneem?” Her eyes stretched wider as she turned and fled deep into the cave, ducking under stalactites and veering around stalagmites as she ran out of sight, leaving me alone once again in a strange cave, lying on an inclined rock.
I tried to lift myself up to explore the cave but found I could not muster the energy and lay back down to rest. The wild cavewoman didn’t return, and I fell back to sleep on my rock on the floor of the cave.
Stranded in a cave, the author meets more natives of this place, but not all of them are like the feral runaway.
Gradually, strengthened by the subterranean water, I pulled myself back together in the dimly lit grotto. Though it was sparsely, to put with a mild sense of humour the exaggeration, decorated, it was evident this cave had been lived in for some time. While nothing existed to cause one to believe a civilized person called it home, the twigs, moss, and leaves were arranged in such a way that suggested some areas were used for rest. A pit against a wall, near where I first saw the wild woman, led upwards to a fissure in the ceiling. A low rock wall surrounding the pit showed this was used for fire. My indulgent stone bed was posited against the wall opposite the fire pit. Nearby, the aforementioned stream trickled from the ceiling—which was thick with falling stalactites—roughly twelve feet above the ground, falling to the middle of the floor and out in a sinuous stream to my left towards a brightly illuminated part of the cave. I took this to indicate the mouth of the cave. This entrance was opposite the direction the woman had fled.
The air was thicker than before now, and I noticed that at the entrance, where the stream trickled out, a pool of water lapped gently. I shambled over to the water—after surveying the path the woman had taken into the depths of the cave—and carefully tested it. It was warmer than the stream water, and the seaweed and salty aroma suggested to me that beyond the entrance lay the expansive ocean. I smelled my fingertip to confirm my suspicion. Judging by the layout of the room, and the proximity to the gathered accoutrements, this was likely to be high tide. The water appeared shallow around the bend of the cavern entrance, which had shrunk from its height inside to just slightly taller than my measure. From the light that shone brightly on the dark rock of the right wall, an opening to the outside existed ahead and to the left.
I found myself faced with three options. Ahead of me lay an opening to the sea and whatever hazards awaited me out there. It was clear from her direction that my companion did not believe this to be an attractive option. Behind me, a room devoid of all but a stone-age culture—and water—awaited the possible return of either the woman or our captors. Beyond that beckoned an unknown cave system and perils I could only imagine.
No choice shone forth as obvious, but I decided to go towards the light. At the very least, I would be able to try to ascertain my position. Though stable and safe, the unknown cave to which the woman fled repelled me, as did a fear of dark, unknown passageways. My sore feet and ruined shoes contributed to negating that option. I carefully plodded forwards towards the entrance. I inspected the water with the tips of my toes and bent over, checking for any sharp objects or sudden depressions into which I could fall. I could see, but still I proceeded as though blind, feeling every nook and cranny of the portal, alert to every flicker of light from ahead or slosh of a wave behind. With each step, the reverberating waves grew in volume and the sun’s rays grew brighter. The thick, musty smell of the cave gave way to a light sea breeze as I reached the mouth of the cave.
I squinted at the bright sun that reflected both agonizingly and with a resplendence I can scarcely describe. As I acclimatized to the bright daylight, it finally occurred to me that I was alive. A discombobulating mess of emotion struck me at that moment. Once more I realized I had lost track of time. Its relative passing was a forgotten memory as I stood and digested some of the fates that had befallen me. I suppose in my dumbfounded stupefaction at my good fortune, I was vulnerable to the same people from whom I had just escaped in the cave. I had a moment of clarity as I thought about what my survival meant and wondered what my survival meant to the others from the plane. I knew some, or maybe all of them, would never be seen again, and I paused, unable to wrap my head around the magnitude of my thoughts.
I surveyed the scene, and I found myself on the right side (looking to the sea) of a horseshoe-shaped cove. The near side of the cove presented a rocky cliff a few metres tall, craggy and jagged. Somewhere around the horn to my right, invisible to me, I heard a small cascade of water fall into the sea. Apart from my rocky perch, the cove was surrounded by a thick deciduous forest. A sandy strand ten metres wide separated the water from the trees. The opening of the bay was about half a kilometre wide. The water was the colour of a robin’s egg, and a slight breeze created only the smallest waves that licked at my feet and the sand all around the beach. In the distance, two-thirds of the way around the harbour, at the edge of the forest and the sand, was a dark pile of rectangular cubes and rope. The only apparent anthropogenic disturbance in sight was this eyesore of debris, this jumble of wreckage. It was amongst the most beautiful sights I had ever seen, my salvation from the sea.
Several metres beyond my seat-raft, out of the thick forest, something astonishing appeared. A red-brown horse stepped from the brush onto the beach and slowly performed his own reconnaissance. He swept his gaze gradually from left to right, and as his gaze passed about halfway around the cove, his attention was drawn to the detritus. He did not spot the human interloper on the far side of the beach but cautiously moved towards the heap of aeroplane seat cushions.
I apologize to the reader. My knowledge of equines is not extensive. To my eyes, the horse’s behaviour seemed unusual for an animal of its constitution. He moved around the pile calmly and deliberately, warily keeping an eye on the forest, as if expecting something to disturb the discovery. The horse settled to the ground with his hind feet positioned forward, as a child sits to play with a new toy. He reached forwards and grasped one cushion with a hoof. He held the pillow between the hard part of the hoof and the softer top, which I have since been informed is called the pastern. He looked at all sides and was clearly confused and awed by its composition. I marvelled at this great creature and gasped at the display of dexterity by the beast and the careful, studious nature it was demonstrating.
An eagle called out from the skies above me, and the horse glanced over in my direction. It seemed to me he was acknowledging the bird’s presence rather than showing alarm. The horse noted me and rose confidently to its feet. The sorrel walked with no great urgency across the beach. I felt it unlikely he would be able to manage the steep cliff around me. I decided to work my way towards the animal.
It might not have been the wisest decision in my current state to try to scale an unfamiliar cliff face on an island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean with not a soul around save a curious horse and a strangely behaving wild native woman who had fled into a dark cave. I hope the reader will excuse the folly of my action at this time. It would have been wiser to wait until the tide was low and instead explore the relative safety of the cave from which I had come. My curiosity overcame reason, and I set out towards the beach. The water directly beneath the bluff was shallow. Like the cliff above the tide, the rocks were sharp and slippery, covered with barnacles, seaweed, mussels, and a variety of other marine life to which I remain ignorant to this day. My brine-soaked hands blistered quickly and were cut upon the rock. My feet suffered no better fate as each hand and foothold proved treacherous.
I would love to report I handled the cliff like a seasoned climber and scampered to the beach without incident. I’m afraid that wasn’t to be. After about ten metres of scaling, hands and feet aching and bleeding, an important foothold suddenly gave way. Flailing with both arms, I failed to grasp anything more solid than a gnarled tree root that tore from the escarpment easily and caused me to crash with great impact on the acuminous shelf a metre below. A peaked stone scythed through my pants and thigh. Several smaller gashes covered my arms, leg, and back. The shallow water of the ridge, not more than a foot deep, changed hue gradually to a crimson red. I tore the left sleeve off my already haggard white uniform shirt and tied it over the cut on my thigh as a bandage to stem the bleeding.
From this vantage, I could see that the cliff dove deep into the water at this point along the rock wall. I decided rather than continuing the punishing crossing, I would dive into the water and swim for the beach. It was roughly two hundred metres to the nearest sand. In spite of the throbbing of my hands, feet, and mostly my thigh, I swam as hard as I could towards the sand. I picked up speed when a large fish brushed in front of my leg and I realized I was a glowing beacon for sharks if the water was deep enough. In a rare turn of good luck, there were none around. Still, I swam for shore as a man being chased by an armada of great whites. I suppose fear and the associated rush of adrenaline helped to push aside the pain and got me to shore faster than my swimming skills would otherwise have allowed. The beach shallowed for the last fifty metres, and I was able to touch the ground and keep my shoulders above the water.
Ahead on the beach, the horse had made much faster time than I and was watching me intently from the shore. I could hear it neighing, but each sound had a distinct tone and rhythm, not like a normal neigh and whinny, but something entirely more complicated and intelligent. As I emerged from the water and incrementally celebrated my burgeoning security, both she, for I could at this point see my mistake in believing the horse was a male, and I were measuring each other thoroughly. I found myself focusing on the noises she was making and the poised, assertive position she took on the shore. She seemed to focus on my clothing and hair. As I drew my waist and leg above the water, she seemed to whinny a word that most closely resembled “Yahoo.” Had I not thought I knew better, I would have said she was voicing the word with astonishment.
As I approached the animal, I adopted a cautious pace. I had ridden horses before, but only a handful of times. I was certainly not an expert in dealing with wild mares. I grew ever more conscious of my size and capabilities as compared to the powerful beast before me. By my estimate, I had the advantage of mind and dexterity, while my counterpart possessed size, strength, and speed. I approached the horse with humility and caution and spoke in soft tones I intended to be soothing. I did not succeed in soothing the sorrel nag. As I whispered, she reared back and repeated the same word, “Yahoo,” with an even greater tone of awe and incredulity. I put my hands up to simultaneously show I wasn’t a threat and to defend myself in case she was to strike. She settled her front legs back on the ground and stood a few feet outside of my reach. I suppose I expected a wild animal, this close up, to smell something between a zoo and a wet dog. The horse possessed no ill pungency but rather an almost faint flowery fragrance.
We stood apart for a moment or two more before I took a step forwards and staggered to the ground, stung by the pain in my leg. She swiftly closed the gap and stood over me. I reached up, intending to use her leg to stabilize myself and stand again. She batted my hand away and neighed to me in a manner that convinced me she was telling me something; again, I made out the same word as before, but with a note of contempt. I cowered in fear, completely at her mercy. She stood over me, a tower of flesh and muscle.
Still she continued to neigh with various inflections and tones. It seemed crazy to me even in the moment. I felt like the noises she was making were a form of language unlike I had experienced before. Repeatedly, I picked out the familiar word. As she pawed at my shirt with curiosity and confusion, I endeavoured to replicate the word. I translate the word into a Latin script as “Yahoo,” but the sound involves the passing of much more air through the mouth and a sort of assonant stutter around the soft consonants. I mimicked the sound as best I could, but in a typically Indo-European manner, I added a raised inflection at the end to indicate a question. This spooked the horse more than I anticipated. She pulled back a few feet from me entirely. She and I stared at each other again, and she repeated the word almost perfectly as I had, inflection and all, while bobbing her head. Suddenly, thrusting her head forward, she repeated it in the tone she had used before while pointing her front left leg towards me. I interpreted this to mean she wanted me to echo her. Still at her mercy, but more amazed than afraid, I obliged as best I could, with the upwards inflection. This to me indicated an uncertainty. As I later discovered, it had an entirely different meaning to her. We practiced this several times. Each time, she bobbed her head and thrusted it forwards with the correct resonances. Gaining confidence, I dropped the intonation and spoke it most compatibly with the way she had.
I had risen to my feet by this point, though it caused great pain to do so. It occurred to me that she was identifying me. I was to discover later that my entire species were Yahoos. At the time, I took it to indicate her identification of my person. I pointed to myself, recognizing that her front leg was likely pointing not to me to take a turn, but to indicate she was referring to me. Once more I repeated the word to her, and she stomped her foot twice on the ground and expelled air through her nostrils noisily, as if exasperatedly saying, “Finally!”
Amused by this exchange, and utterly incapable of walking away both literally and figuratively, I pushed the issue a little further. I pointed my right hand towards her and said, “horse.” She looked at me with derision but immediately sensed what I was doing and bent her leg in such a way that I had never before seen a horse do and pointed towards herself and said “Huhuneem.” If it pleases the reader, I will skip the intricacies of the pronunciation. It is difficult to translate to a written script such as this. It will have to suffice to say it took a great deal more practice before I achieved the foot stamp of approval.
I had formally been introduced to Huhuneem, or Hue, as I came to think of her. Not your average name for a female horse, I believed, but much easier to wrap my tongue around. The question arose, what to do next? I was in too great a pain to stand up straight, much less walk, and here I found myself face-to-face with a magnificent and obviously intelligent horse on an unknown island somewhere in the South Pacific—I would suppose—Ocean.
Not more than a moment later, a sort of horn sounded. Hue’s ears, which had been lying flat back on her head, perked up and rotated towards the forest, from whence the sound had come. She was in a hurry as she lifted a hoof towards me and importuned me to follow her. Out of instinct due in part, I credit, to my injury, I reached towards her back, either to try to ride her or to use her as a crutch. I can’t specifically recall my intent, but this drew a sharp rebuke, and she struck my hand forcefully. The blow caused me to cry out in pain, and having lost my support and being unable to catch my weight on my damaged appendage, I once again fell to the ground. Hue looked back with a mixture of tenderness and abhorrence, as though somewhat sorry for causing injury but unimpressed at my exasperatingly frail condition.
The horse apparently decided I wasn’t the greatest priority. She left me crumpled on the ground like my cushion raft. It seemed likely, through all I had been through, that I would see this animal again. After all, how many people could be in this place near enough I could hear the horn blast that called her.
I rested on the beach as the wind picked up and the waves grew into small breakers. The tide receded some, revealing the entirety of the sharp shelf upon which I had been gored. My poor beached body, having washed ashore, been laid upon a slab, and shredded and pulverized by the cliffs, deserved a rest. I dragged it towards a large chunk of driftwood, lay back, and drifted into a pleasant afternoon nap on the sandy beach.
The author meets more locals who bring him back to their home.
I woke with a start as the light on my closed eyelids fluctuated several times. Three completely naked and unkempt souls circled, gawking and prodding at my person. They intermittently blocked the sun and consequently woke me. As the woman I had met in the cave, they were diminutive in stature. I would notice this later, as this was hardly evident looking up at them from the ground. They possessed a wiry musculature, which I supposed they owed to a primal existence. I found myself most concerned, apart from my own welfare of course, with the distinct and regular bruises and scars, particularly across their backs. Their bodies were covered in hair. Two males and one female cautiously scanned me as if I was the threatening party. All three possessed long, black, lank hair on their heads. The men had thick hair on their faces, arms, legs, backs, and chests, while the woman was covered in the stubble that would more naturally occur amongst the women of my home, if not for frequent interference. I shall avoid the salacious details.
Their bodies, by means of violence, not birth, possessed numerous deformities. Both men showed telltale signs of broken noses and cauliflowering of the ears such as would be seen typically on a professional boxer. One had a scar across his left eye as if he had been struck with a bat. None of the scars were particularly clean, as would suggest a blade or the puncture of a bullet. It was also clear none of the scars had been treated with stitching as the wounds were particularly wide. They didn’t speak but seemed to whinny and neigh in a manner reminiscent of Hue.
It is certain my evaluation of these people fell far short of what they had ascertained about their interloper as I have denoted the features that would be of remark to one such as me. I could only believe they were most interested in the same details—but in reverse—in me. I had short brown hair, blue eyes, stubble on my face that on takeoff had been freshly shaven but was nonetheless much closer shorn than theirs. My body was virtually untouched by scars. I believed they were mostly intent on focusing on my clothes and skin, which, being of a fair complexion, must have seemed quite the rarity in this land. I have tried many times since, but I can only imagine what I would think if somebody similar to me in core body, but possessing materials of which I could scarcely conceive, was covered in a skin of a tone unprecedented in human history or memory. It would cause quite a stir to see an unaltered person with glowing green skin. Perhaps this is not a fair comparison, but I digress.
The observant reader will remember that I fell asleep in the afternoon, somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, on a bright, sunny day. I received some criticism about this action, failing to protect myself against the damage of the sun. I believe this criticism misplaced, even humorous, considering my physical condition and recent events. My skin, at least those parts visible, was saturated with a scorching scarlet sear. The evaluation of the natives of this island must have been one of curiosity and disgust. Every part of my body was in great pain from one or another injury.
I certainly felt myself at their mercy and physically intimidated, both by their relative health and statures. My defensive instincts at what would occur next clearly were misplaced. I tried to introduce myself, but the words escaped as barely more than a hoarse exhalation. These people were afraid, constantly turning their attentions to the bush and the beach at every sound, small or large. Like skittish deer, they reared their heads back and scanned their surroundings cautiously and with such a degree of care as to cause me to assume these were perhaps equal prisoners to the first woman I had encountered in the cave. A thought occurred that I might have washed ashore in some sort of penal colony, though I was unaware of such a place existing in the modern world. These people were in an awful hurry and terrified of something. Fear is as contagious as the flu, so I began to listen carefully for sounds from the bush.
It was only thus for a couple minutes before they, recognizing the wound to my leg and my obvious inability to stand, offered me a metaphorical olive branch. It is here that I made my error. I saw a group of possibly dangerous, certainly fearful people, and assumed the stick they thrust towards my prone and terrified body was an act of hostility. I batted the stick aside sharply yelling, “No!” and shielded myself lest they repeat the attack. To this they responded with an incredible diversity of emotional responses. They seemed angry, distressed, concerned, and confused and recoiled from me a couple feet.
The smaller male recomposed the quickest. He picked up the stick, which in honesty, was a thickly foliated branch from a nearby tree. He said, “Way-o” as he gestured to me to grab onto the branch. I remained suspicious of these people, but I knew I was very much at their mercy. I heeded his gesticulation and propped myself back on my feet. This revealed the back of my arms and legs, which had not been exposed to the sun and were lily white in comparison to the sunburnt bits. My hosts seemed resigned to my unusual colours and physique and must have interpreted this as within the acceptably preposterous normal of the present situation. The branch they extended was not usable as a cane or crutch. I was in no condition to make a long walk, or really any sort of perambulation, with these inhabitants. The larger man and the woman caught me on the first stagger. As with an athlete being helped off the playing field, the two of them took my weight on their strong, broad shoulders and helped me hobble off the beach into the brush.
Quickly, they all but carried me along the dense forest floor, just out of sight of the beach but always within earshot. They walked on stones, twigs, roots, and fallen trees, though their feet were completely barren of footwear. They moved with a rugged gracefulness. In spite of the burden presented by their arm candy, as I began to think of myself, they swiftly jogged between the trees. At times, they even used low branches to swing over particularly rough ground. We were moving far faster than I thought possible through such terrain. I would not say their motion was graceful; it seemed appropriate and natural: perfect for this environment. Suddenly, we were next to the sharp rock cliff. If not for the beach, I would have lost my bearings entirely during the run, but the vertical wall of rock in front of me was immediately recognizable in its geology.
In front of us was a thin crack in the rock, scarcely large enough to edge through sideways. The crack did not extend very high; it was perhaps as tall as my nose, two metres or so from ground to top. The smaller man disappeared quickly into the crack, like a mouse into a woodpile. My attendants wayo-ed that I was to follow, and quickly. Their panic was as obvious as their distress at my slothfulness. They prodded me into the crack as a cow into a pen. They watched their backs, covered our tracks, and jammed me through. I crouched and twisted with great pain, scrabbling, with the walls close on both sides for several metres, into a new, uncomfortable darkness.
I hope you’ve enjoyed these first five chapters of On Swift Wings. To continue your adventure, please consider purchasing a copy of the book.