by Nod Ghosh
We’re in the arse end of nowhere and I’m stuck with Monica Snaith of all people. And it’s all because of those bloody mushrooms.
An hour into our walk, we’d left the others and wandered off the track. Monica had seen a toadstool poking through scatterings of pine needles. I’d prodded the red globe of the fly agaric with my pole, and its fleshy body had fallen apart. We’d penetrated further in search of more, Monica taking pictures as we leapt from one mushroom to the next.
The nutrient-dense environment was home to lots of fungi: Amanita pockmarked with porridge-white flecks, tumourous sack-like puffballs and bracket fungi broad enough to support a shelf of books. There were screeds of tiny toadstools on filamentous stalks leaning together like whitebait.
Monica snapped pictures on her phone, giving a running commentary. She photographed basket fungi emerging from the filth, shaggy ink caps autolysing back into it.
‘Liquid death,’ she said. Shit, the woman liked to talk.
Back on the track our conversation intensified.
‘Could you hurt someone, Raewyn?’ she asked, eyes bright under the brim of her hat.
‘What, deliberately?’ I asked.
We’d been discussing atrocities throughout history and the bounds of human cruelty. I put one foot in front of the other, turned to discover the rest of our party had disappeared.
‘How far would you go?’ Monica adjusted her hat. ‘Could you brand someone, for example − a slave.’
‘I’d never own a slave. And − have you seen the others?’
‘You would, if everyone had slaves − it’d be normal.’ She glanced behind us.
‘The slaves wouldn’t own slaves.’
‘That’s not the point. The others will catch up. Could you sear someone’s flesh?’ She turned to face me.
‘I − ’
‘Sometimes I wonder if barbarism is pre-ordained, instinctive, like a fear of snakes.’
Monica was off on one. I couldn’t squeeze a word in. ‘A trait that’d make it easier to harm someone. Maybe it could have a survival advantage.’ Monica kicked a stone. We reached a fork in the path, and stopped. Neither of us had a map. I thought I heard Rachel’s voice in the distance.
‘I couldn’t burn anyone. What about you? Could you harm someone?’
‘Depends. If it was me or them, I’d do whatever it took.’ A smile played on her lips. ‘I’d kill someone if I needed to.’
‘But it’s not a case of you or them with a slave. What if −’
Monica’s eyes were fire-bright in concentration. She talked through me.
‘Yeah, definitely if I had to,’ she concluded, her certainty disarming. ‘I’d kill.’ A shiver rippled down my back.
‘Maybe they were ahead of us,’ I said. ‘I think we should push on.’
‘Which way, d’you reckon?’
‘Uh − feels like that way.’ I pointed; vaguely aware the sun was behind us. We plodded on. Monica kept talking.
After a short climb the trees thinned to nothing.
She put a hand over her eyes and looked around. I followed suit.
‘I think we’re lost,’ she said.
I was unsure how long we’d been walking on unmarked terrain, our feet cushioned by twisting grass. There was no sign of the track. Monica pulled the zipper of her jacket up to her neck. A cold wind was brewing. I crouched down and picked at a blade of grass.
I’d only known Monica Snaith for a few months. I’d met her at Rachel’s. We were both new to tramping. We’d talked about footwear and waterproofs. We discussed work, holidays, all the ordinary stuff. She’d talked about her kids. I’d talked about my house repairs in order to steer away from the topic of family.
My childlessness made me vulnerable, like I was an incomplete person. I wasn’t going to let a gruff woman who kept accidentally kicking my ankle see that.
Monica worked from home. I didn’t really understand what she did; something to do with websites and statistics. She was outspoken, often slagging off people she and Rachel knew. People I’d never heard of.
I wasn’t sure if I liked her.
She was like a feral cat, ready to strike if anyone crossed her. But she seemed to take a shine to me.
Monica pulled her hood over her hat, and waved her phone above her head. Bringing it down, she peered at the screen; her face pursed like a piece of rotten fruit. She walked in a large circle searching for a signal, while I fiddled with my scarf.
When you’re lost in acres of browned off land, studded here and there with grey outcrops of stone, walrus-like in their density, you realise how vast this country is. You get an idea of course, when you fly over the South Island on a clear day. Endless sheets of uninhabited terrain, undulating until it abuts the icing-sugar-coated backbone of mountains that run down the centre.
Velvet creases on Monica’s face betrayed her anxiety. I said nothing, unwilling to reveal my own unease. I wanted to suggest something wise, like re-tracing our steps, or calculating our location using the watery sunlight, the length and direction of the shadows. But I had no idea how to navigate out of there.
Sitting on the spongy earth I worked my finger round the periphery of my boot, rubbing my sore ankle. A blister was forming. The easy conversation between us had evaporated. The chill in the air began to bite, and the heat seeped through my bottom into the earth.
A halo of black insects buzzed around my head.
Monica stopped circling, and sat on a stony outcrop.
‘Let’s wait here for a bit.’ She pulled her sleeves over her gloved hands. ‘Give the others a chance to find us once they realise we’re missing. Otherwise, we’ll increase the distance between us.’
The Sunday morning walk was supposed to take four hours. You don’t need much for four hours. I’d only half filled my water bottle to save weight. Stupid. I had a cereal bar and a bag of scroggin I’d put together the night before: peanuts, cashews, sultanas and raisins. Monica had sandwiches with meat in them. I didn’t eat meat.
Between us the group had everything. Lynda carried the first aid kit, Rachel a map and compass. But Lynda and Rachel were no use to us now. I had a silver survival blanket that had never been out of its soap-bar sized packet. Monica had a knife with a bone handle and wide blade.
I sipped some water and ate a quarter of my cereal bar. Monica cut her ham sandwich with the knife. Its shining metal made an oily stain on her sleeve when she wiped it clean.
‘So. I can’t remember,’ she said, chewing, ‘do you have children?’
‘Five girls.’ I lied.
‘Oh?’ There was an element of surprise in her voice. ‘Hadn’t realised. Must be a tight squeeze where you live.’ I couldn’t remember if I’d told her where we were. Guess I must have.
‘We’re thinking of getting an extension.’ I played with the cereal bar, considered saving the rest. Knowing food was in limited supply accentuated my hunger. I broke off another piece. ‘Or moving.’ I didn’t tell Monica we’d nearly bankrupted ourselves through five cycles of I.V.F. ‘How about you? Your son’s at uni, right?’
‘Chris.’ I sensed her pride. ‘And Beth will be going next year.’ She showed me pictures of the children on her phone. Beth’s wide-angled smile lit up the screen, Chris looked surly.
‘Lovely. Maybe you should save the charge on your phone,’ I said.
‘No point.’ Monica flicked through the images, showing me birthdays and sporting achievements. ‘There’s no signal.’
I’d wanted a boy. Stupid really, when I should have been glad of whatever came along. I’d used all our girls’ names for a series of goldfish. I’d had five. Not at the same time. The fish died if you so much as sneezed near them. Katherine had been the first. Then Nathalie. I’d had Stephanie, then Bronwen. Delia had perished a few weeks earlier.
I had no idea whether my fish were male or female. Some species have gender specific colouring. But with goldfish, you have to look at the ‘vent’ between their bum and anal fin, feel their tummies. I didn’t like handling them.
I gave them all girls’ names.
I was saving boys’ names for my baby, if and when he put in an appearance.
‘Since their father moved to Dunedin, it’s all up to me, of course.’ Monica folded half of her sandwich away. ‘And your kids? How old are your girls?’
‘Katherine’s twelve.’ I spaced the others at two-yearly intervals, so it’d be easier to remember.
‘What school are they at?’
The lies came easily. I’d often fantasised about where I’d send my boy. I embellished my stories with imaginary difficulties and triumphs. The wind picked up, and ‘Katherine’ acquired more characteristics, as did her sisters. We talked. We shared my scroggin. Monica threw large handfuls of dried fruit and nuts into her mouth, until it was all gone. Soon, I’d created lives for all my children, and between us we had eaten every scrap of food.
Monica looked at her phone again. ‘We have to do something.’
‘What?’ I didn’t want to stop talking about my girls. My fish-girls.
‘It’s been an hour, and they haven’t found us yet. We’ll have to walk out.’
We tried to orientate ourselves using the low sun when it popped out from behind taffeta clouds. Monica scratched a map on the ground with a pointed stone. I wasn’t sure why she did that. We couldn’t take it with us. She decided we would head towards a distinctive patch of conifers, a rectangle, with a narrower strip to one side, a vague pan shape. It felt like the direction we’d come from.
I turned my chin up to look at the sky to check the sun’s position as we trudged downhill. Clouds were thickening in big grey lumps. That’s when I tripped on a jagged rock and lurched forward. Something in my ankle snapped, a metallic, fracturing sound, and then I lost my balance.
Where was I?
‘Raewyn?’ Monica looked blurry. I tried to stand up.
‘Fuck!’ A searing pain bit my ankle.
‘Shit. Are you okay?’
Monica helped ease my boot off.
‘Something feels wrong. Just here.’ I pointed, and yelped when she squeezed. Hauling myself up on our hiking poles, I tried to walk. It was hopeless. I collapsed after a few steps and sat down with a thump. My head was throbbing.
‘I guess you won’t be walking anywhere.’ Monica stood up. A pang of fear stabbed my chest. Was she going to leave me? Would she be able to find me again?
‘Maybe I should get help,’ she said.
I willed her not to go.
‘We should stick together.’ There was an absence about her voice. ‘But − ’
She was freaking me out.
We were stranded. We’d be there all night or longer. I felt sick with pain.
Monica paced away from me and back again.
My ankle throbbed.
I saw two of her, but they merged into one. I extracted two paracetamol from my pack and forced them down dry, shivering. A gasp of autumnal sun raked my shoulders, then the sky took on a darker hue in what I presumed was the east. I wound the silver blanket around my shoulders.
Monica was crouched next to me. She was talking about Chris and Beth. How could she do something so ordinary? We were going to die there. Even if she didn’t, I surely would. I couldn’t focus on what she was saying. All I wanted to do was sleep.
She took the bag her ham sandwich had been in and ran a finger through the crumbs and grease at the bottom and licked it. Pig meat resembles the taste of human flesh. I couldn’t remember where I’d heard that.
‘I’m starving,’ she said.
I. Just. Wanted. To. Sleep. Her eyes were wolf-like in the violet light. Her face appeared flushed. She stood up and shuffled from one foot to the other, looking uncomfortable.
I tried to say something, but the words tangled in my throat. I was so cold.
When I woke up, Monica was rummaging in her backpack. She walked back to me.
‘How’s the pain?’
‘Still there,’ I said. ‘What’s the time?’
‘Don’t know. My phone’s low in charge. You were right. I shouldn’t have used it. We might need it.’
‘But there’s no signal.’
‘It’s getting dark, isn’t it?’
‘Not really.’ There was an edge to her voice.
‘We’re going to die, aren’t we?’
‘Don’t be silly,’ she said. ‘They know we’re out here.’
‘Will they find us?’
‘Of course.’ Monica sounded cross.
‘You’re just saying that aren’t you?’
‘No.’ But I knew from the crack in her voice that she was.
‘We’re fucked, aren’t we?’
‘We’ll be fine.’
‘Don’t leave me, Monica.’
‘I might have to.’
She went back to her bag, and pulled her knife out.
‘Look I’m sorry, I didn’t want to do this, but I have to.’ She drew her knife from its sheath, turned it in her hands. The light was fading, but there was still enough to see her. Indecision crumpled her face.
I looked behind me, but we were on our own. I tried to raise myself. My ankle throbbed. Monica crouched and unzipped the bottom compartment of her pack, pulled something else out.
‘Look, I’m sorry.’ She turned to face me. ‘I have to do this.’
‘But − ’
There was something in her hand, pale, the size of a brick.
I froze as she lurched toward me, tucking the object under her arm.
It was a roll of toilet paper.
She half walked, half ran past me, down towards the trees, until I couldn’t see her anymore. My breathing slowed.
I didn’t like Monica. Sometimes your mind plays tricks when the body’s in distress.
If it hadn’t been for her wanting to photograph those fucking mushrooms. If we ever got out of there, I didn’t want to see her again. I didn’t like her. I didn’t want to tell her I’d made up my fish-girls. I didn’t like her, but right then, all I wanted was for her to hold me.
‘HEY!’ Monica bounds up the hill. ‘I’ve got reception!’ Breathless, she continues. ‘Down there.’
‘They’ve been looking for us. Lynda knows this place. I described that pan-shaped copse.’ She stops next to me, her relief palpable. ‘They’re getting help. Reckons they can get you down tonight.’
She drops her things. A moon has risen, almost full. A white ribbon of tissue unravels as the toilet roll somersaults down the slope.
It feels like we are not alone. Perhaps my fish-girls have been with us all along.
We will get out of here. Tonight.
Everything will be fine.
Nod Ghosh lives in Christchurch, New Zealand. Publications include a novella-in-flash ‘The Crazed Wind’ (Truth Serum Press July 2018), inclusion in anthologies Sleep is A Beautiful Colour (U.K. 2017 NFFD), Landmarks (U.K. 2015 NFFD), Love on the Road 2015 (Liberties Press) and various online or print journals.
Further details: http://www.nodghosh.com/about/.