16. The Man in the Valley

August 2008

Melissa and the others woke with the light the next morning, but no-one was in any real hurry to rise. Daniel rolled his sleeping bag over to the fireplace and poked the fire back into life, throwing another ruined strut onto it.

After some time, as the sun’s rays began to warm them, they began to move around and make plans for the day.

“Vi, what do you say we fly around a bit, see if we can spot anything?”

“Okay; it’s worth a try. You and I can take my plane, fly light to save fuel. We’ll let the others stay here in case Jay makes it back, alright?”

There was general agreement, so the others helped Vi and Melissa prep her plane for take-off. The road made a fine runway, and in no time they were airborne and heading towards the hills. They flew west and south, following the mountains as they headed inland. Occasionally they circled low over plumes of smoke, but they were always farm houses, or burn-offs of crop stubble; never the sort of campfire a lone man might make.

Late morning black clouds began to roll down the mountains, frighteningly quickly.

“I don’t like those clouds, ‘Liss,” Vi said. “That looks like the front that didn’t show yesterday, and it looks every bit as nasty as the forecast said it would be. We need to head back.”

Melissa nodded mutely. There was nothing to say. They turned and flew back towards their camp, racing ahead of the weather. They landed, and the others met them at the plane.

“Weather’s looking nasty, and I’m getting low on fuel,” Vi said. “I think we need to head for town now, or we might be stuck here for days. Sorry ‘Liss,” she said, looking apologetic, “but as soon as we refuel, and once the weather’s blown over, we’ll come straight back, I promise.”

The others all murmured agreement; there was nothing else to be done. They packed their gear back into the planes and took off back towards town as the weather rolled down the hills behind them, flashes of lightning and rumbles of thunder off in the distance, rain turning the mountains grey and blurry.

They were flying over the plains and braided riverbeds just out of town when Melissa had a sudden strong feeling of being watched. Her vision faded out, and suddenly she was looking down over the mountains, back where they’d been, as rain poured down around her. She looked down and saw a man standing on a hill. She saw – impossibly for this distance, but distance didn’t seem to matter here – she saw the man look up at her. Jay will be here shortly, she heard – again impossibly. She was far too far away to hear anything from this man, yet, there it was.

“‘Liss? ‘Liss, are you alright? ‘Liss?” said Vi.

Melissa shook herself, and looked around. She was back in the cockpit of Vi’s plane – or, still in it, or something.

“I just had a weird… I don’t know – dream, maybe?” she said. “I saw a man who said he was going to see Jay – back up in the mountains.”

“That’s nice,” said Vi. “I’m sure he’s okay.”

Melissa was suddenly feeling a bit more hopeful – the dream had seemed strangely real. Who knew? Maybe it was? But conversation was still stilted and quiet for the rest of the flight back to town, and the plane was running low on fuel by the time they landed. The clouds had followed them the whole way home, and it began to rain as they taxied towards Vi’s hangar.

Jay had been walking for a few hours when the weather closed in. The sun, which had been climbing up the sky, suddenly disappeared, and Jay looked up to see black clouds rolling across the sky. He shivered; the air was suddenly chilly without the sun, and a cold breeze had sprung up. Jay pulled his shirt collar up and looked around for any likely shelter. There wasn't much; this whole valley was pretty desolate but for the occasional scrub thicket. He'd just have to keep moving.

He carried on, along the path down the side of the valley. He had forgotten, in the sun, just how cold he could get with no jacket or footwear. A rumble of thunder up in the hills spurred him on, and he started to walk a little faster. He had no idea if there was anything better ahead, but there was nothing where he was, and it was too far back to the old man's shack. He put his head down and pulled his shirt tight.

Drops of rain started spattering on the track ahead of him, as another rumble echoed down the valley. The wind was really picking up too; the riverbed would be a little more sheltered, he thought. He headed for the middle of the valley where he'd last seen the gully.

By the time he reached the stream it was raining properly; not pelting down yet, but a steady progression of raindrops spattering around and on him. The rain had obviously started in the hills a while before, as the stream had picked up a fair bit more water – it was still only a very small stream, but it had a definite flow to it, and he couldn't see the puddles and dry spots that had been there the day before. Still, it'd take a lot more rain than that before he'd need to be worrying about the creek rising.

Another wave of clouds rolled across the sun, blocking out even more of the light. It was midday, and it looked closer to midnight. Jay slowed down; it was getting difficult to see where he was going, down in the shadow of the riverbanks.

It started hosing down and, at the same time, lightning started flashing over the hills. Each flash was followed directly by a deafening crash of thunder; the storm was right overhead. Jay looked around again for shelter, but he couldn't see anything from down in the gully. Something white in the bottom of the stream caught his eye, but this was no time for sightseeing. He climbed up, out of the gully, to look for shelter.

Wait a minute. He slid back down the bank to look at whatever it was. It was a skull, sitting upright at the bottom of the riverbed, water flowing over it. I've seen this before, he thought.

He jumped up and hauled himself out of the gully again, looking around. Towards the coast, if I remember correctly. He looked down the valley; through the eerie light from the sunlit fields far further east, shining in under the clouds. There!

A mound, standing up a few meters in the middle of the valley, a scraggly tree silhouetted off to one side. And on the mound, a man, silhouetted against the glowing sky. About time he showed up, Jay thought.

Jay stood straight, looking up into the rain for a moment. He looked back down, at the man still standing there, and started walking towards him.

“Jay.” the man said.

“The tattoos tip you off?” Jay said. “Who are you?”

“Why are you here, Jay?”

“No, why are you here?” Jay said, a little miffed. “I've been doing my best to survive, stuck in this godforsaken valley with no shoes or jacket –” he sniffed – “and you're going to ask me why I'm here?”

The old man frowned and stepped down from the mound, towards Jay. Jay tensed, but the man just took off his long coat and dropped it over Jay's shoulders.

“Try that,” he said. “I'll light a fire.”

Jay sniffed again, still a bit miffed, but feeling a bit happier.

“Sit yourself down,” the man said, pointing to a reasonably seat-shaped rock. He cast around him for firewood, finding a small log nearby, and some scrappy branches and twigs under the nearby tree. He places then in a pile in a clear spot in front of Jay, then sat cross-legged before them.

He held out his hands over them, facing downwards, and slightly cupped. He lowered them to almost touching the pile of sticks, then closed his eyes. His lips moved as if he were praying, then lifted his hands up quickly. There was a spark, a lick of flame, and a small fire was burning. Jay looked, open-mouthed. He had just seen a man conjure fire out of nothing.

“Who are you?” he asked the man, again.

“I have no name. Or rather, I have many names, but most of them are unpronounceable, and they wouldn't mean anything to you anyway.”

“Surely there's something I can call you?”

“Well, you can call me Huki,” the man said.

Huki. Was that some kind of joke? Jay thought. Well, it was appropriate enough in this weather. Another flash and rumble from the hills brought him back to the present. He huddled close to the small fire, and looked at the strange man who had rescued him.

The man was tall, even without the mound's height adding to the impression. He looked like an old tribal leader, brown-skinned, flat-nosed, the moko across his face. The tattoos blended into the wrinkles in the man's weathered face, and gray-white hair was brushed back from the temples. Jay was almost surprised that the coat wasn't a feather cloak – not that he was complaining.

The man was looking at Jay with the same kind of appraising expression that Jay assumed he currently had. They sat like that for a long moment, each weighing the other up.

“Now, you need something from me, something beyond survival, but you need to tell me what it is. I can tell you why and how, but first you need to tell me what.”

Jay thought. What did he need? Then images of the gorillas deep underground rose up in his mind; he still owed them his life and his help.

“I need –” how to word this? “I need the ability to walk into a certain place, and open a door.”

The man looked genuinely surprised, then he smiled. “You're stronger than I thought, you know that? No shoes, someone else's coat, no food, twenty leagues from anywhere, and it's not yourself you're thinking of. You're a better man than I'd realised.”

The man paused. “Okay, I can help you. Lean forward a bit.”

Jay leaned over the fire. The man reached across and placed a hand behind Jay's head. He looked into Jay's eyes then, before Jay had time to realise what was happening, had whipped a stick out of the fire and stabbed Jay in the forehead with its glowing end.

“Ow! What was that?” Jay yelled, jerking back.

“It's alright, it's not deep. I barely broke the skin,” the man said, eyes glittering. “It's your third eye; I just unclogged it for you. It'll take a few hours to start seeing again, and a while longer to settle down. In the meantime, I suggest you sleep.”

Jay's forehead was stinging, and he was feeling a little dazed. The man's words were ringing in his ears, echoing, bouncing back and forth and around inside his head. His vision began to dim. He lowered himself over onto his side and lay, still watching the man with what sight he had left. But the man made no further move, and Jay's vision returned, so he felt it safe to do as the man had suggested. He had his cloak, after all.

He awoke in full dark, and groaned. The fire still glowed gently, but it couldn't account for the pounding heat in his forehead, or the sweat on his face, or his dry swollen tongue.

“Shh.” The other man – Huki – was sitting beside his head with a bowl of water. Where had he found the bowl? Huki held the bowl out, and lifted Jay's head to help him drink. “Slowly, Jay, not too much. You just have a slight fever.”

Jay drank, then dropped his head back. He slept again.