Dawn rose as though a curtain being pulled. It came slowly, the darkness of night punctuated by stars faded slowly into deep blues, purples, and reds before yielding at last to the gentle glow of the sun. The sounds of night gave way to the commotion of day: birds sang, their songs lilting and warbling playfully as they flitted between the branches of tall trees that soared to the heavens, their sturdy branches and thick leaves producing a diffuse glow from above, as though the world viewed through a thin sheet. Periodic snaps and scratches echoed through the trees, issued by the tiny paws of arboreal rodents foraging for their morning meal. The air was rich with earthy aromas that carried on the wind as it rustled the leaves.
The entire world was abuzz. It snapped and clapped and sang beneath the golden light of a gentle sun. Here, in this deep forest, he had spent the last ten years of his life. In all his days, he had never been happier.
His jet-black hair was long and matted now, flecks of gray across his temples and peppered over his frayed ends. His beard was long and unkempt. He’d shaved at first. That had lasted only a year or two, before it ceased to matter. Many things had ceased to matter since he’d fallen into his distant forest. His skin had tanned like a nut and toughened like shoe leather; years of sun exposure, sweat, grime and scars had all taken their toll. Yet he had few regrets, and what few remained seemed to fade with each day that passed. The more he remained here, the easier he found it to look forward, and the harder it was to remember any life but the one he now lived.
There had been one, of course. Long ago…how long? A year? Fifty? A thousand? Did it matter? Time had lost much of its meaning over the long years in his forest. Years? Decades? These were abstract ideas; things used to measure time as if it were miles in a marathon, ticking off vast chunks of it, wishing it away in pursuit of some distant goal that grew only further distant with each passing day. Once, he had lived for years. Once, he had lived for weeks. Now, his life was divided into days; by how much sunlight remained, how long he had to gather food. By months, by how long he had before the nights grew cold and he would need to check the insulation on his cabin.
Hard as his past was to remember, it was what had brought him there. It was years that had brought him to his forest. Twenty of them, ticked off in his absence. It was so strange to think of now, in retrospect: there had been a time when he’d gladly traded away two decades of his life to be frozen solid, sealed into a tin can, and shot off into space. What had happened? Something had gone wrong, but over time the specifics had faded, along with so many other details of his old life, the life lived in years.
He had been revived sooner than expected, that he remembered. There was smoke, ozone, he was in the ship’s cockpit. It was so cramped, and it shook violently as sirens blared and red lights flashed wildly in panic. He hadn’t had much time. There was a planet nearby…class five. His one stroke of luck. He couldn’t have known then how lucky he had been. He’d set a decaying course, assured the majority of the ship would burn up harmlessly in the atmosphere so as not to contaminate the surface. He’d floated out of the cockpit, bounced around by the ship’s tumbling, ricocheting off the corridor walls as though an errant bullet until at last he’d freewheeled into the escape pod. There was pain, his mind fogged by the aching and the fear and so, so many concerns pressing toward the front, demanding precedence. It was as though his inner self sat screaming at the back of his mind. He didn’t have time to listen.
Harness fastened, chest bar down. Feet and arms crossed. Prayer muttered. The hatch had sealed shut and the pod dropped unceremoniously from the ship. He’d never seen his ship from the outside…not up close, anyway. It wasn’t overly pretty, yet as the plasma built up the hull glowed an angry orange, and she was beautiful. There was a beauty in fire; fire was warmth, it was life. In those early days, the days of years, he hadn’t understood that, yet as he watched the fires engulf his ship, glowing fragments throwing off trails of smoke and fury as they fell through the atmosphere, he had watched in awe.
There had been an awful howling as he entered the atmosphere. Flames had shot up around the narrow window only inches from his face, and below the din he’d closed his eyes to block out the searing light, and screamed. Why had he screamed? One never knows how one will react to such a situation until it presents itself. After an eternity of fire and howling, the howl had turned to a hollow roar as the pod plummeted through the atmosphere. He had minimal control; by that point, he was merely a passenger, with no particular destination. He would fall where he may, as though a leaf shed in autumn.
The sky beyond his tiny window sped past in a blur; he had no idea how close he was to the ground until the sudden jerk of the retro-rockets firing nearly shot his knees into his nose. For a time his descent had slowed, momentum eased. Then, their fuel expended, the rockets cut out, and his pod abruptly dropped, thundering nearly thirty feet to the surface below.
He’d have been dead there, his constituent parts scattered across the surface with those of his pod, had it not been for the tortoiseshell. As the final drop neared its end, his vision was suddenly blocked. Airbags deployed across the surface of the pod, twenty in all, and rather than a terrible crash there was a bounce, followed by another, and another as the pod tumbled and clattered across the surface. In the pod he had gritted his teeth, squeezed his eyes shut. He couldn’t see a thing, but his inner ears told him he was cartwheeling across open land, bouncing and bounding as though a dropped ball until at last coming violently to rest against something sturdy and tall.
It is a terrible thing to be both blind to the world around oneself and at the mercy of it. At first, there was nothing: no sight, no light, no sound beyond that of his own breathing, coming in hollow gasps. He’d closed his eyes (nothing to see, anyway) and fought to steady himself, to lower his heart rate, slow his respiration. At last, there was near silence, near nothingness, as his breathing was shaky, but slow. With the panic fading, he found he could just barely percieve sound from beyond the hatch to his pod: the chirping of birds, somewhere nearby.
Fist clenched, teeth gritted, he punched the release panel, sending the hatch of his pod shooting off. The shift from darkness to light was sudden, and he’d raised a hand to cover his eyes as he squinted at the radiance of day. It had been far too long since he’d experience natural sunlight, and his eyes were unprepared. When at last his eyes had adjusted, and he looked blinking into the light, he found his pod had landed in a long, narrow clearing within a dense forest. All around him, fabulously tall trees, thick and sturdy and tall as redwoods, rose from the forest floor and aspired to the heavens. Birds sang in the canopy above, their plumage too distant to be visible, their calls and the crackling of branches echoing through the wood.
Dried leaves and twigs crackled underfoot as he took his first, tentative steps onto a world no human had ever seen. The breeze blew herbal aromas across his nose, the earth beneath the carpet of leaves gave and sank beneath his shoes. He almost felt as though he were being welcomed, yet he didn’t return the sentiment. Not yet.
The first few days were hard. He sat by the pod, afraid to stray too far, lest his rescuers arrive while he was away and leave without him. Of course that was unlikely, but he’d held fast to hope. Surely, they would notice instantly when he failed to make his routine check-in. Surely, they would send someone out immediately. Surely they would scan every inhabitable world along his last known trajectory. Surely they’d find the debris from his spacecraft, surely they’d check the surface of this planet, surely they’d find him. There was no way they would assume he was simply lost, no way they would deem a search mission fruitless, no way any search craft would still take years to reach him, even if they did know where to look.
No, they would come for him.
They would come.
And so it was that he’d lived a life of weeks and years. He crossed off the days, marked the passage of time precisely day by day with his tab, which thankfully had survived the crash. He couldn’t do much with it; no network signal this far from any inhabited system. But he skimmed the computer library, recorded logs, dutifully documented everything. All the while, he stayed close to his pod. He ate its emergency rations, kept its emergency beacon running ‘round the clock. At night, when the sun fell below the trees and the temperatures sank, he would seek shelter within its tiny hull, pulling the hatch closed to protect himself from animals and the elements.
And so he waited. He put his life on hold, clung stubbornly to his existence as he’d known it. He kept his eyes fixed on the beacon, on his tab. He counted off the hours, the days, the weeks…the months…
It is a slow process, acceptance. It takes time, and more often than not it is painful. There is resistance, but humans are adaptable creatures. Most, indeed, have little real understanding of what they are capable of enduring. And so he had clung stubbornly to hope, for a time. Yet as it often does, nature began to exert its will upon him. After a month on the surface, the temperatures had begun to drop. No doubt this planet’s winter was approaching. The days would grow shorter, the nights colder, and his pod would no longer be enough to protect him. Grudgingly, he’d admitted it was time to leave the pod behind.
He’d spent a few days scouting through the forest, trudging through low scrub and sprays of large ferns radiating from the forest floor. High above, the birds darted from branch to branch, their songs echoing playfully through the canopy as they chased one another, hunted for insects, and plucked seeds from the branches. The surrounding stand was old-growth, the height and density of the trees having long denied the forest floor sufficient light to sustain dense foliage. A thick carpet of leaves blanketed the ground, the upper layers crunching beneath his feet as he walked.
It felt as though he’d walked forever, as though his time beneath the trees had become his life, when at last he’d found a suitable clearing. Some distance from his pod, the trees had opened into a narrow patch of bare earth, matted with freshly fallen leaves that rustled in a soft breeze. The light was diffuse and dim, filtered through the canopy high above, the absence of trees in the clearing accounting for the smallest gap in the leaves. Far below, he stood within a dim column of light, the illumination revealing clouds of dust that hung on the air as a haze.
He had little in the way of personal effects, yet moving them to his new home had been the work of a day. At first he’d tried carrying everything, one armful at a time. Hours passed, he’d tired quickly. Yet with the aid of a bundle of sticks lashed to poles, he found himself dragging the last of his belongings through the woods as the sun dipped below the horizon. Through the gap in the leaves high above, he watched as the stars blinked into view, one by one, scattered dense across the dark blue dome of twilight. Soon there were hundreds, even thousands, and in the darkness he could make out the galaxy’s disk: a dark, wavy ribbon stretched across the night sky.
As darkness fell, so did the temperatures, and he soon found himself shivering. After dragging all he had to his name through the trees, he suddenly realized he’d forgotten to produce shelter for the night. Briefly, he considered weathering a final night in his escape pod, but a trek back through the dark forest would be perilous. So, reluctantly, he decided to hunker down for the night in his new home.
First, he would need to make a fire. There was an emergency plasma torch in his survival kit, but with one press of its trigger the device sputtered and died in his hands. Frustrated, he first shook it violently, then gave it a few hard raps across the power cell. Nothing. Not so much as one further spark. Frustrated, he hurled it off into the woods with a shout, then laid his head in his hands.
This all felt very unfair.
As he held his head in his hands, all sounds of his person faded away, and the forest intruded. There was rustling all around him: small noises, snaps and shuffles of tiny animals, likely rodents, scurrying about along the forest floor. No doubt they were foraging, having waited until nightfall to avoid large predators that hunted by the light of day. He could not make any of them out, but he knew enough of biology to paint a mental picture: small, furry, likely quadruped, snouts and whiskers and big, sensitive ears. They might be meek and furtive, but they were out there surviving. They slept by day in deep burrows, dug from the moist earth by their tiny fists. They skimmed along the forest floor in darkness, sniffing out small insects, seeds, or whatever they could find to line their stomachs. They weren’t complaining. They weren’t cradling their heads in their hands, bemoaning their predicament. So, what was his excuse?
Building a fire always looked so easy in the movies. Some fool would rub two sticks together, and poof! Fire. He found it far more difficult. Everything seemed to have been done right: two pieces of wood, a medium-sized branch he had notched, a small stick to strike the fire. He’d gathered dead leaves from the upper layers of ground cover, dry and (he hoped) quick to catch fire. And so, he’d set up his materials, laid the stick into the notch he’d made on the branch, and began rapidly rolling the stick in his hands. Back and forth, back and forth, faster and faster until…nothing. As time dragged on and the temperature continued to fall he gritted his teeth in frustration, yet he resisted the urge to throw up hands in defeat. He furrowed his brow. He kept his head down, eyes focused on his poor stick. His muscles began to ache, but he kept at it. Back and forth, back and forth.
Minutes passed. Then an hour. He cut another notch in the branch, then a third. Then a fourth. At this rate, he reflected glumly, his poor branch would be a mass of holes before he struck. Then, at last…was that smoke? He smelled something: the pleasant aroma of burning wood. It had never smelled better. Encouraged, he picked up his motion: back-and-forth, back-and-forth. Now there was smoke. Not much, just a puff here and there. Then a steady stream. His arms hurt by this point, his fingers raw from rolling the stick, but he again picked up the pace. Back and forth, back and forth. After so much hard work, after so much frustration, he couldn’t suppress a wide grin, laughing giddily as the kindling caught. A bit more ministration, some blowing to make sure the leaves caught fire, and soon half his branch was engulfed in nurturing flame.
His efforts had left him drained, yet he couldn’t rest; not right off, anyway. With the branch burning rapidly, he piled on a few more, building something of a pyramid to channel the heat before adding a few sturdy, reasonably dry logs. As the fire burned bright, the logs creaking as their bark crackled and curled from the heat, he sat back at last, spent. Having spent his evening taming fire, he found the acts of rolling out his sleeping back and heating his prepackaged dinner to be trifling. As the flames flickered, the embers floated up through columns of heat, seeming to dart about through the night as though fireflies. Even above the light of the fire, the stars were visible, suspended in the milky way that cracked the sky. He remembered that night well, for years. It was the first time he’d found this place beautiful.
The next day, he’d set himself to work. In the morning he’d whiled away the hours foraging for sturdy branches, fresh foliage, roots…raw materials. Over the course of the afternoon he lashed poles together with root fibers, covered everything in conifer branches for insulation. The entire structure was roughly cone-shaped, set about the base of one of the younger trees in the forest. Even now, it was fairly tall…no doubt it would pass for a mature tree on Earth, despite being dwarfed by its elder brethren here. No doubt it had managed to take root and grow due to the large clearing around him. No doubt, thanks to his tree, one day that clearing would be no more.
When at last his work was finished he had stepped back a few paces, sighing as he wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his filthy hand. He might be scuffed and scraped and covered in soil and pine sap, but he’d made a game stab at building his first house, and it had gone well. The structure was surprisingly warm and spacious; after staking out the edges of his lean-to, he’d thought ahead and done some digging. With the small, collapsible shovel he’d salvaged from his pod’s survival gear he’d managed to dig down a good three feet. Now, he was shielded from the elements. His humble home might be little more than a slapdash tipi set around a tall tree, but it was his. He had built this, with his own two hands. He was more than a little pleased with himself.
Over the next few days, he’d spent some time exploring his new surroundings. Judging by the almost impossibly wide rotting logs he’d found in the treeline nearby, no doubt one of these ancient giants had fallen here, long ago. Now, what had laid in its immense shadow was bathed in sparse light, which nurtured the juvenile tree that propped up his home. Beyond the clearing, there was little else to see…trees and more trees. Yet there was also so much. Every step brought a discovery. A species of fern he hadn’t seen before. A strange insect perched upon a leaf. As he adjusted to his new reality, it felt as though his eyes had been opened. For the first time, he began to truly appreciate the fact that he now gazed upon a world no human had ever seen before.
By now, his prospects for rescue had begun to grow dim: it had been nearly two months, and still no contact. He’d nearly run out of food, and the days were growing noticeably shorter. Though he’d yet clung to hope that he would be found, he was forced to admit this may not happen, and survival was his first priority. So, once again he’d set himself to work.
Food came first, though it was hardly easy. He’d never hunted before; indeed he had never eaten meat, yet after his meal packs ran out he knew he’d have to find a suitable replacement for all of that protein. He had considered agriculture…briefly. Humans on Earth, he reasoned, had taken thousands of years to slowly domesticate crop species like wheat and corn, so likely he wouldn’t have time for that. That left but one option, and he didn’t like it. But he had little choice. Survival came first.
Hunting always seemed so easy in the movies. Burly, hard bitten men with impeccable features would stroll out into the forest, fashion themselves a bow and arrow, and a short time later they’d be happily feasting on a freshly killed deer. He hadn’t yet seen deer, or anything resembling such an animal, in his forest. And that was the least of his problems. How should he even start? Would it be best to use traps, or a weapon he’d wield himself? Having never previously killed anything larger than the bacteria on his teeth, his immediate instinct was to do neither. Of course, then he would go hungry. It was him or them. He decided to try a weapon.
A brief perusal of the surrounding area proved modestly fruitful; he rounded up branches, sticks, fibrous roots to use for twine, and stones of various size and compositions. On the day he made his first attempt it had rained hard, the stinging droplets pelting the moist carpet of pine needles, permeating the soil and filling the air with a thick, earthen aroma. With the pitter-patter of the raindrops as background noise, he had tested his bow, with hilarious results. His fingers kept slipping off the fibrous string, the nocks of the arrows wouldn’t hold to the line even after he’d knotted it. Time after time he’d draw back, fingers gripping the string close to his cheek, imitating the draw of Olympic archers he’d seen, yet when he released the arrow would clatter against the bow, then fall to the ground.
He was frustrated. He was hungry. Angrily, he’d broken his makeshift bow across his knee, scattering the pieces into the woods, where they clattered through the underbrush. This had been foolhardy; he had never been a hunter. He’d never even held a bow before in his life. He was a builder, a maker of things: an engineer. And it was that skill that would keep him alive. It had given him warmth, given him shelter. It would feed him as well.
The trap was simple enough to construct: a forked branch shortened and sharpened into a stake, a small piece of sturdy wood for a trigger, and a noose woven from guy wire lines he’d taken from his pod. The hard part was placement: he had enough line for three traps. He had to make them count. For several days he observed the local wildlife. Most of the ground-dwelling animals were small mammals: tiny, furry things similar to rabbits, rummaging about through the carpet of leaves strewn across the forest floor. They seemed partial to dense beds of lycopods that thrived in the sparse sunlight afforded by gaps in the canopy above. Taking note, he carefully set his traps, then retreated to his shelter to wait.
The waiting was agony. He’d sat for an eternity perched on a log outside his makeshift hut, his stomach gurgling as his mind wandered. He stayed as still as he could manage, listening carefully to the sounds of the forest. Beneath the lulling drone of the wind through the trees, he could hear rustling in the forest floor. His forest was abuzz with activity, it was alive. Yet still he waited, anxiously, for the telltale snap of one of his traps.
As the sun inched toward the horizon, at last he heard it. Ambling hungrily through the brush, he’d found one his snares triggered, a tiny rabbit-like creature thrashing furiously as it hung from the noose. For a moment he smiled, reveling in his sound planning and fortune, yet the smile vanished as he realized what he was about to do. He’d never taken a life before; he even refused to swat at insects. Now, he’d captured a living thing. It hung from a noose of his own devising, squirming, eyes wide, yelping loudly as it fought to free itself. Its struggles were hopeless, of course; each movement only served to tighten the slipknot at its throat. Eventually it would suffocate. Its death would be slow, agonizing, its final moments defined by panic and pain. He’d done this to survive, yet now he regretted it. His forest had given him so much…what right did he have to take something so violently?
No. Still he clung to old preconceptions. Though he’d been marooned for so long, though no sign of help had materialized, he’d refused to accept reality. Even as his body was hardened by life in the forest, his mind remained on the world of his birth: he still spent his days surrounded by skyscrapers, having breakfast in his apartment, wearing clean clothes and skimming his flexi for the day’s news. That had been his life. It had been good, safe. It had been a life of moral decisions, of right and wrong. But here, in this forest, there was no right and wrong. Nature allowed no room for such distinctions: there were no moral concerns. There was only survival. That was the way of nature, and now he was a part of it.
That night he’d eaten well. The tiny creature had been easy enough to dispatch. It had been messy, but then he hadn’t a proper weapon back then. The meat on the creature’s bones was meager, tough and gamey. But it had kept him alive, and as he recalled, it was the best thing he’d ever tasted.
Looking back on that day, so many years later, he realized that it was that day that he became part of the forest. He remained a man; he still lived in his dwelling, which he’d built up and improved over time. He still wore clothes, now made of animal hide he’d tanned and stitched himself. He still used tools, and every now and then he’d still fire up his emergency beacon. Yet, as time passed and the years dragged on, he’d done so less and less, until at last it’d become an annual occurrence, almost a ritual: a reminder of who, and what, he had once been.
His concerns now were so simple. When he felt inclined to work, he’d fashion more tools, repair the roof of his shelter, stitch clothing. When he was tired, he slept. When he was hungry, he foraged or hunted, and he ate. Once he’d accepted his new life, his place in the forest, he found he thought of what had once been less and less frequently. Eventually, he came to wonder if there had ever been another life at all. He began to feel as though this was how things had always been.
He’d never planned for this. When he’d left his home years earlier, it had been to see the stars. Yet though his efforts had left him stranded alone on a strange world, he found he harbored no regrets. It hadn’t been easy to put his old life aside, to forget who he had been, yet once he did, he understood what freedom truly was. And now, as the sun fell below the distant treetops, he smiled, for this, he decided, was where he truly belonged. His forest had become a part of him, as he’d learned to be a part of it.
Every Saturday in March, I will be posting a new short story as part of Short Fiction Month 2018. This story began as something of a stock theme of mine: an astronaut stranded on an alien planet. I’ve written numerous short sketches that began with a human explorer crashing on a strange world, but this one really took on a life of its own.