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“Directions” – short story

The saturated soil squelched under his feet and mosquitoes buzzed around his head. He tried to ignore them and focused on the nigh on invisible path instead. These marshes were treacherous under the best of circumstances. What had possessed him to cross them with less than a full day’s light ahead and after heavy rains, he couldn’t say, but he cursed himself for it.

Before every step he prodded the swamp ahead with his long walking stick, searching for the next bank of solid ground. More often than not, however, the tip of the stick sank so deeply under its own weight that he dared not use it for support, even when he was about to lose his balance. If he fell, he might not be able to get up again.

His salvation so far had been his familiarity with this kind of terrain on the one hand, and the lantern fixed on the knob of his walking stick on the other. The descending night drank the lantern’s weak light, but it was enough to tell the difference between murky yet bottomless pools and the tufts of grass where the ground was firmer. Even so, he couldn’t stop for more than a brief rest without getting sucked into the mud. So he pushed on.

The moon was on the rise when he happened on the chance of a reprieve: a fallen tree on a dry bank provided a rare measure of solidity in the quagmire. He wedged the stick with the lantern into the crook of a broken branch and sat down on the rotting trunk. Somewhere in the trees above, an owl hooted.

He pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulders. Normally, solitude was his preferred companion, but in this dreary, wet darkness, the comfort of silence was mere illusion. Still he didn’t regret turning his back on human company. He found the presence of others disturbing, painful and unnatural. It fought the flame of his passion to exceed himself, much like the wind might blow out the flame in his lantern. Panes of glass shielded the flame; solitude shielded him.

A shrill screech swooped directly over his head. He started, ducking instinctively before realising it was likely the owl he had heard before. He tried to detect the bird in the darkness beyond his lantern, but to no avail. All he saw were two pairs of glowing eyes.

He froze. These eyes were watching him. He blinked a few times, praying that his mind was playing tricks on him. But the glaring eyes stared back. A low growl belied his hopes of ever leaving these marshes alive.

One of the animals stepped into the faint circle of light. Too scared to move, he had no other presence of mind but to stare at the sleek canine. Short, tan-coloured fur, floppy ears, a blunt snout. All this perplexed him, but it was the collar around the animal’s neck that broke his stupor.

“How did you get here?” he muttered. “Is someone else nearby? Are you their pet?”

Another growl replied, but it wasn’t the dog. The threatening noise emanated from the shadows, where the other eyes still lurked. As they, too, came closer, he recognised the rugged shape of a massive black wolf.

While the dog bestowed no fear in him, the feral snarls of the wolf chilled him to the bone. Without making any sudden moves, he slowly retrieved his stick and inched back along the tree trunk. Dirty water soaked his fur boots more and more as he reached the edge of the dry bank. The animals followed, their paws silent despite the water. Perhaps he could run? He certainly couldn’t stay! Only a bit further. Just a bit…

His foot caught on a root; the dog bared its teeth and the wolf howled. A startled jerk and he fell backwards, into the mud. He had extended his arm on instinct to catch himself, but the swamp immediately sucked him in up to his elbow and then dragged at his legs and hips, too. Only his face, his knees and one hand were still free. But not for long. If he let go of the stick to grab the tree roots, the lantern would fall and go out. If he waited, he would sink. Unless those animals would spare him such a cruel fate and kill him first.

He was almost relieved when the dog leapt, jowl open. Still, he cried as sharp teeth pierced his forearm. Excruciating pain shot through his limb and into his chest. His heart pounded as the dog bit down harder, trying to tear off his arm at the shoulder. His muscles tensed, as if his body attempted to thus keep itself together.

A tug of war ensued, the marshes claiming him on one end, and the ravenous dog at the other. The pull of both was terrible. The mire had the patience of the unconscious, but the dog was determined to have its share. Very determined…

Inch by inch, he felt his left arm slip from the bog. His right arm bled as the dog’s teeth tore through his flesh. He had no breath to scream, but despite his dread, he found that the pain was no longer as bad as before. The dog growled and yanked at him as if he was a dead bone already. Its destructive tenacity paid off: his left arm escaped the suction of the mud and with it the rest of him. The dog wasted no time to drag him back to the tree trunk to feast.

Yet when the jaws let go, they didn’t clamp down elsewhere. Perhaps it was waiting for the wolf to eat first?

Indeed the wolf approached, but rather than salivating with hunger, it was…whimpering? The black muzzle held his walking stick, the lantern by some miracle still intact and alight. Whining softly, the large animal manoeuvred the stick to prop it against the tree trunk, but shied away as soon as it could and retreated to a safe distance. The dog followed, leaving the astonished human to gauge the unfathomable.

“What—what madness is this?” he whispered hoarsely. “The pet of mankind attacks me only to save me, while the ferocious predator cowers in fear before a weak flame that its paws could stamp out with ease? The world is upside down!”

These last words, he shouted. At the sound, the animals turned abruptly and ran. They left not even the smallest ripple on the surface of the pools as they disappeared into the marshlands, in opposite directions. Within heartbeats, he was alone again.

Quivering from an unknown shock he inspected his injured arm by the light of the lantern. Streaks of blood ran down his skin, but there were no wounds and he felt no pain. Only a lingering sting which told him that the dog and the wolf had not fled at random.

Following the dog’s trail, he would find the safety of a village, where the humans he so detested might help and care for him. Following the wolf, he would find freedom in another wilderness, alone and feared by every living creature, until the internal fire of his passion consumed him utterly. Failing to do either, the swamp would claim him eventually as soon as the flickering flame in the lantern burnt up.

Such were the only ways out of this drowned labyrinth.

He cradled his arm against his mud-soaked chest, and sobbed.

The End

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