Six weeks later, the clouds broke and the winds died to a biting breeze that swam through the world like a cold, wet eel.
Rain still sprinkled the waxy fronds, but now the wet was tempered by slivers of sun that sent puddles of light and warmth to the jungle below. The children searched for sunspots each morning, like birds rooting out worms, tracking the sky for rays of light and then journeying to find them.
Emma sat alone in such a spot, high in a tree on the edge of the valley. She sang to herself and sucked contently on a swollen blue fruit, her bare skin soaking in the subtle heat of the sun’s rays.
Her hair was tied in two tight knots at either side of her head, the flowers and their green and yellow stems wound up so tightly they looked like little round cakes swirled with colorful icing.
She’d been to this particular tree many times before. It had quickly become of one of her favorite places to escape and think. It was taller than most, its top peeking out from the cover of others around and Emma loved how it allowed a wonderful view of the world in every direction.
Its tentacle-like branches were thick and venous, the bark routed out long ago by burrowing insects. As a game, she often followed a single line with her eyes to see how far she could track the bulging vein before it became lost in the mess of others.
Perhaps most importantly, her tree was the best place to watch the mysterious cave that had captured her imagination all these stormy months.
Without Pin to limit her travels during the rainy season, Emma often ventured beyond the waterfall and past the rocky cliffs that bordered the edge of the wide valley. She loved the thrill of solitary exploration and was constantly amazed at the discoveries she made, like the colony of bugs that disguised themselves as leaves, or how the swollen purple knots on trees would burst and release sweet, clear sap when pierced with sharp stone.
But her most fascinating discovery during this time was the wide mouth of a large cave that cut into the center of the tall cliffs high above the valley floor.
Since discovering it, Emma had come to the tree almost every day to watch the cave from across the valley as sheets of rain poured down around her. The more she stared into its dark opening, the more she was sure something—or someone—would emerge suddenly. But nothing ever did.
She didn’t tell Adam about her tree or her cave. They were her discovery and she wanted to keep it that way. She liked having something of her own; a place to escape Adam’s incessant questions and Pin’s constant grumbling. A secret place she could be alone, and let her imagination wander in peace. Somewhere she could hear and feel the world around her.
She’d had such a place back on the Tian— inside the walls, where she was free to travel as she pleased. She’d loved having a place that only she could squeeze into, where she could sit and listen to the electric whirs and hums of the ship and imagine they were the heart and breath of some elegant beast floating through space to a paradise lost in time. It soothed her to imagine she was someplace else. She missed that.
Emma eyed the cave with delicious anticipation, scanning the area around it to determine how she could reach it. The only access point she could see was a thin ridge that ran along the side of the cliff no more than five feet wide, and very uneven.
At the time of its discovery, the force of the winds and the wet of the rain made scaling the cliffs to reach the ridge far too dangerous. One false step would have seen her tumbling to dash against the hard earth below. But now that the worst of the weather had passed, Emma was determined to make the journey up to the ridge and across to the lip of the cave where she would finally enter and learn what secrets it held.
Not wanting to waste any more time, she took a final bite of fruit and let the empty husk fall to the ground, stories below. Then she let herself slip to a branch beneath her where she could cross over to the next tree next over, and then onto the next, moving through the foliage until she would reach the tree line close to the edge of cliff.
She shivered suddenly as she made her way through the branches and couldn’t remember the last time she felt more anxious, or more excited.
Adam never let Emma out of his sight.
He’d promised Pin that he’d follow her months ago when, one night, neither of them could sleep for the sound of far off storms. The two of them sat perched on the edge of the shelter, watching lightning spark miles away as Emma slept, safe and dry in the shelter behind them.
“Adam, I fear for the girl,” Pin said quietly as Emma’s sleeping breath filled their tent. “I don’t know why. She’s capable, and smarter than both of us combined, but she’s curious, like a dog nosing itself into a hole in the ground. The more it digs the more chance it’ll find something it don’t expect. I think someone should be there in case she ever finds something that aims to take a bite out of her.”
“Emma’s good at slipping away,” said Adam with a shrug. “She likes to be on her own sometimes, I think.”
“She don’t need to know you’re there for you to be there,” said Pin with a wink.
Adam looked at him quizzically for a moment then let out a monstrous groan. “Oh, I don’t want to follow Emma all around all day, staying out of sight. Why should we be so worried about her anyway? If she wants to be on her own, let her. There’s nothing out here to hurt her anyway.”
Pin frowned and rubbed his beard. “And what if Emma took a fall? Broke both her legs and couldn’t walk? Who would hear her cries for help in storms like these? Why, she’d be left to the not-parrots, who’d peck at her until she was nothing but bones. Do you want that to happen?”
Adam thought about this for a moment and then rolled his eyes. “Fine,” he relented with a huff. “I’ll follow her as best I can. But I want something in return.”
“And what could you need out here that you don’t already have?” Pin asked, eyeing the boy quizzically.
“A spear,” said Adam quickly as though he’d been waiting some time to ask. “For hunting.”
“For killing you mean,” said Pin seriously. He looked down at Adam and gave the boy a hard stare as though coaxing the truth from him.
“I guess so,” Adam said, relenting. “And so? You kill fish don’t you?”
“I do,” Pin answered thoughtfully.
“So, there. Why can you kill fish, but I can’t have a spear for hunting? I have to learn some time, don’t I?”
“You do,” answered Pin in the same thoughtful manner. Only this time he looked out into the storm with a grave face. “I don’t mean to say you can’t learn to take care of yourself, Adam. Lord knows I won’t be around forever to do it for you. But you’re just not ready for the responsibility of a weapon yet.”
“Killing is a serious business. Probably the most serious business there is. And nobody—especially someone so young—should be forced to do it until they’ve got a true understanding and love for life in all its complexities.”
Adam looked down, disheartened, and Pin put his arm about the boy’s shoulders. He knew Adam didn’t understand what he meant, and, in a sense, that was the point. The time would come when Adam would need to provide for all of them. Pin was already in his sixties and not a single day passed that his body didn’t remind him of his age. But he felt too responsible for the kind of adult Adam would become to give in to his boyish blood lust just yet.
Then again, what could a boy, alone in the universe, hope to learn about life? Would he ever fall in love? Have his heart broken? Become a father? Pin realized that, out here, Adam would lead a very different life than any other boy who had ever come before him.
“I’ll tell you what,” Pin said finally, squeezing the side of Adam’s arm. “You show me you can watch after Emma and I’ll think about teaching you how to carve a spear. Maybe even show you how to use it if the blasted sun ever returns.”
Adam nodded reluctantly. Then thunder crashed and they both watched the clouds flash pink and purple as electricity arched somewhere above them.
Since that night, Adam kept his promise, tracking Emma whenever she vanished into the jungle alone. He learned her routes and made sure to watch her from afar whenever she settled someplace.
Lately she’d been coming to the same tall tree, deep in the valley. Adam climbed up another tree and watched her from a distance, bored and lonely.
He couldn’t help but resent Emma for wanting to be alone. It hurt him in a strange way, like she thought he wasn’t good enough for her. Why would someone prefer to be alone? He didn’t like being alone. It was boring.
The more Adam watcher her, the more determined he was to convince her that being with him was as good as being in her silly tree. He found he was desperate to know what she was thinking about. Did she think of him when she was alone? He didn’t know why, but he hoped she did. He hoped she spent the whole day thinking of him. Maybe even missing him sometimes.
While he couldn’t read Emma’s thoughts, he knew she spent long periods staring out at a large cave in the cliffs, high above the jungle floor. It was so high, in fact, that it could only be seen in full from the trees. You could walk right under it and never know it was there.
Rows of jagged rocks hung down at the top so it looked like a great mouth full of teeth, ready to chew whoever entered it. It didn’t seem like any place he would want to visit, so he was surprised when Emma left her tree one day and moved through the branches towards it.
She was out of her tree and out of his sight so quickly he wasn’t sure where she’d gone at first. But then he caught sight of her pink skin moving among the dark green fronds and knew it was her.
Scrambling to his feet and cursing her speed, he jumped to the tree next to his and tried to keep up without losing sight of her.
“Where are you going now?” he huffed as he struggled to catch up with her. She’d never gone this way before.
He looked ahead as he moved and noticed the cave in the distance, looming larger as he left each tree behind. He was suddenly struck with a great fear.
“Oh no,” he said and picked up the pace. “Of all places, not there, Emma.”
Emma grimaced and set her bare foot carefully on a rock to her right. She pressed against it twice to test its stability before shifting her weight and pulling herself up with the tips of her fingers. They shook under her weight, but her footing stayed true and she managed to get one step higher on the cliff and closer to the thin ridge that lead to the cave.
The cliff was slicker than she’d anticipated and for a moment she considered giving up. But when she looked down, she was amazed at how high she’d climbed already. The ridge seemed so close now. Two more good steps upward and she would be able to touch its edge with her fingers. Maybe even pull herself up and over the side.
She squinted as the wind picked up and the rain changed direction, whipping against her face. She focused on keeping her breathing steady as she looked up at the cliff and searched for another jagged rock to hold onto. When she found one she raised herself on her toes and strained to reach it. Her fingers brushed against the rock’s smooth underside, but she couldn’t quite wrap them around the top. So she stretched her body as much as she could until, finally, she let out a deep groan and her fingertips folded over the edge of the rock.
She smiled and shifted to find a new foothold when her toes slipped out from under her and she felt her legs swing away. Emma screamed and dug her fingers into the rock above, her one-handed grip the only thing keeping her from falling to the ground below.
She felt her fingernails buckle and split under the strain and kicked her legs twice as though swimming against the air would be enough to push her body back against the cliff face. Looking down, she panicked, her deep, even breaths turning to thick gulps of air. She shut her eyes for a moment, overcome with fear.
Open your eyes! her mind screamed out. Open your eyes and find a foothold, you fool!
She ignored her mind and slowed her breathing. Then, eyes still closed, she listened to her body as it swayed back and forth. She searched for her center; that place inside where she could regain control over her movement and strength.
Her fingers screamed in pain, but she buried the feeling until it was a like a dull noise in the back of her brain.
Open your eyes now, her mind said again, only this time its voice was like a whisper. Open your eyes and find a foothold. You can do it.
Emma opened her eyes. Scanning the cliff quickly, she saw a thin vertical crack running through the rock to her right. It had been mostly concealed by a thick red bush that grew from it in long coils of prickly branches. In one move she kicked her right leg up and stuck her toes into the center of the bush, forcing her foot through until she touched rock.
Needle-like thorns dug into her flesh but in the moment she didn’t feel their sting.
With her right foot secure, she pushed herself up until she could wrap her other hand around the jagged outcropping above. Then, with both her hands as leverage, she brought her left leg up and secured it to the rock. With her body stable, she pressed herself to the stone wall and let out a long, hot scream of relief.
What are you doing?! her mind wailed, berating her. You should have never tried to climb. Not in the rain. You could have died!
The pain in her fingers suddenly flashed through her body and her feet pulsed angrily. For a long time Emma didn’t move. She couldn’t. She just clung to the stone wall, breathing out great gasps of air in utter disbelief that she’d managed to survive.
Finally, Emma drew enough courage to look up. The stone walkway was within reach, mere feet away. She’d done it. She’d made it!
Slowly she let her right hand relax and loosen its grip on the cliff. Then, pushing up on the edge of the crack with her right foot, she caught hold of the ridge and pulled herself up and onto it. When her feet were over the side, she rolled onto her back and stared up at the sky. Rain flowed over her face, disguising the tears than ran down her cheeks.
“If you’re going to visit this cave again you’ll need to find another way in,” she said to herself, laughing out loud.
Finally, Emma sat up. Bringing her knees up to her chest, she began picking thorny barbs from her feet; careful to find them all for fear of infection.
When she finished, she let the rain wash the blood from their tiny wounds and looked along the stone walkway to the massive opening that lead into the heart of the cliffs.
Her heart raced in anticipation. What would she find inside, she wondered. An underground lake perhaps? Maybe Pin could move their camp inside the cave to avoid the rain? She smiled at how happy it would make him to be free of the wind and wet.
With that thought to guide her, Emma got to her feet and slid along the ridge toward the cave, being extra careful to keep her back pressed against the rock for safety.