I will never harm you. The words distantly echoed out of the crevasses of Murphy Woods’ mind, but the waves of pain rolled them out to sea, unheard.
Blood bubbled up through his fingers. He dug his nails deeper into his gut and pushed his flesh back into place. He hesitated to think that the hem of his shirt had been stuffed down into the laceration, but he wasn’t certain of anything except the liquid warmth spreading across his hand.
The shadows of the overhead branches played across his face. A few birds danced through the drying leaves overhead. Their chirping, so delightful in years past, wailed explosively in his ears.
Blood, his blood, softly trickled down onto his forehead. He leaned his head back and stretched his gaze up to the sharpened stick that had cut him. The sunlight glistened along its crimson coating.
A groan rolled around in the back of the old man’s throat. I will never harm you. Bitch was a liar after all.
He relaxed his head against his stone pillow and thought of Avalonis.
Avalonis. Of Avalon it translated. Whatever the hell that had meant to her. Hadn’t meant a thing to him.
Overhead, the forest blurred. The branches twisted out further, the leaves fattened and flattened themselves into broad umbrellas. The sky paled from sapphire to azure. The song of the birds and insects surged in his ears.
Brazil. Forty damn years ago. The locals wouldn’t take him any further up some unnamed tributary, so he’d gone alone. He’d taken his only backpack, machete, compass and camera. Spent days winding film in and out of that thing, cheerfully cursing the mosquitoes.
And Avalonis had found him.
He blinked and stared at her through the veil of memory. Here had been this girl, with skin and hair as bright as moonlight, tiptoeing through the rainforest. She’d been singing, and he was suddenly sure that the local fruit couldn’t be trusted.
She twirled through the trees like a witch dancing between the raindrops, laughing and singing and gyrating over the mosses and flowers.
All Woods did was give this girl a ride, when they had found roads at least. He hadn’t heard of any missing persons or any plane crashes in the area. He’d guided this girl – who barely spoke a word, and smiled as if every moment was the happiest of her life – down to the river, down to the road, and out to the ocean.
She’d walked out knee-deep into the waves and began her dance anew. The waves crashed around her, splashing high and outlining the curves on her body, but never raining on her. Higher and higher they came, and the wind whipped them all the faster.
Woods glanced up at the clouds boiling overhead. He brought his gaze back to earth, feeling the tension drawing up through his body. The storm had arrived.
Avalonis was gone. He’d swum out as far as he dared, but the girl was just gone. Crying, he’d crawled out of the ocean, and the water dripped off his clothes.
Drip. Drip. His blood tasted like salt as it slid down from the stick onto his face. Had it been real? Had that dream where the tree came to him dressed as a middle-aged woman been real? That’s when he’d first heard the words: I will never harm you.
The earth would never harm him, he’d been promised. People certainly could and would, but not the world.
It had just been a dream. He tried to sit up again, but agony pushed him back down onto the dirt. The branches shifted over Woods in the breeze, and he strained to hear her voice in the wind.
It had just been a dream.
But the tsunami, eight years later...
The wind rolled through the trees overhead, only to be replaced by the rolling of the waves. He’d been out photographing and surveying some reefs off the coast of American Samoa. He cocked an ear to the wind, waiting for her song. He always imagined it, but had never heard it since.
There was no time for a warning. Some underground volcano had rumbled awake, a fault line had shifted, and there were eight massive waves ripping through the ocean. The roar overtook Woods and became his universe.
Before the first wave smashed their boat, the air darkened and the world grew cold and foggy, despite how the equatorial region. He’d always assumed it was just fear. But, for just one slow heartbeat, it tasted like the misty waters of the north Atlantic. Of Avalon.
He’d grabbed a life vest in both hands and clung. The massive arm of the tsunami instantly crushed the boat and all its passengers in a crackle louder than thunder. It shoved him overboard and into the sea. He’d clung to the life vest.
Underwater, sound faded away. He looked up and saw the wave over his head, curling through the sea like dozens of tornadoes tearing through the prairie. And he heard her voice, curling through the water.
Overhead, the waves rolled, tearing apart the surface of the world. Woods stared, lost and less than a nail clipping against the power of the sea. Then he heaved out all the air in his chest. He didn’t want to prolong this. Tiny bubbles rose toward the surface to be crushed by the fury above.
He’d bobbed to the surface and floated through the other waves, tossed around like a seed in the wind. Sometimes, he’d been helplessly dunked and jerked back to the surface again. He’d just clung on. His lungs had never once stretched or burned.
Half a day later, he was picked up by a navy vessel with no more than a light sunburn. The ocean had just pushed him into its path, and they’d seen the bright color of the life jacket.
The pain pushed through his memory, or was it reverie? Was he truly dying out here? Or was he somewhere in the Pacific, mad with the sun and dreaming of dying in the forest?
Never harm him! Pah! He glared at the stick and its stain.
Gravity tugged the last drop of his blood and it crashed down to his forehead.
Never harm him. Never harm. The sun slipped free from his gaze, sliding into dusk, but the golden leaves still danced in its glow for one last shining moment.
The wind curled over the hill, bringing with it her voice as it kicked the leaves into a rustling chant. Woods stretched his gaze up one final time. The clouds were piling on top of one another, and the world was fading to gray.
The shadows lengthened over him, and he heard the echo of her song on the wind. A chuckle finally rumbled in his throat.
The world had promised no harm. She had never promised him immortality. His grip slackened against his wound. The tension throughout his muscles eased, and he thought of Avalonis.