I stood in the center of nothingness – white, frigid nothingness. Where was I exactly? Why was I here? I did not know. I blinked my eyes for the briefest of moments and I found myself standing, shivering in a land of white, of cold, of fright. The coldness of this foreign area seeped into my skin and into my bones.
There was nothing in sight, not a pebble or a stone, not a dry, tattered leaf or a wilted weed. There was only the sound of my lonely, beating heart, throbbing within my chest.
I dropped to my knees, hearing the soft, white ground crunch like crumpled paper. My throat and lips began to burn not like fire but like a freezing, numbing thing. I felt something form inside my stomach, climbing up to my throat and chocking me with its sweltering touch. The thing in my stomach finally reached my lungs, creating a blanket of cold around them. It reached my mouth and spread across half of my face. Painfully, it touched the soft, tender flesh under my left eye and scorched my skin; singed my flesh and dug deep into it.
A deep, throaty, guttural howl echoed, making my heart jump out of my chest. I began to panic even more when a strange animal appeared from far away in its full form, in its wild, animalistic appearance. It bobbed its head as it ran. My chest squeezed and I felt my tears prickle on the corners of my eyes. The animal was swift and huge! It walked on all fours, and it was as white as the nothingness around me with two gold orbs for eyes. It had a big maw with long, jagged fangs all around. It was no ordinary animal. It was a beast! And it was coming for me!
I wanted to move, to run, but only then did I realize that my hands and feet were frozen, stuck to the ground like the roots of trees. The beast was just a few feet away. I could smell the scent of its gleaming, white fur. The beast roared. Its voice sent a chill through my body.
Somebody, save me!
I tightly closed my eyes. The beast was near, so near I could hear it pant, and smell its trickling saliva from its frothing black mouth. Its paws beat the ground like drums, shaking the earth as the distance between me and the beast shortened. My heart kept on thumping and beating against my ribs, as if it was ready to leap out of my body and run away from danger. The beast was just two steps away from me now, opening its jaw wide, baring its knifelike teeth. I could not scream even if I wanted to. It growled, my heart stopped, and I knew I was good as dead.
* * *
I woke to the touch of the river water, sweeping through every nook and curve of my body. It matted my black hair on my cheeks, my neck, my arms. It tickled my sun-kissed skin with cold.
Lying on the moss-covered rocks, my body ached and longed to be moved, to be stretched until I could hear my joints creak in satisfaction. My knees wobbled and gave up on the task before I could lift a toe. The rocks near me drummed and someone – a man with a strange web-like burn under his left eye – came to me and pulled me up.
His touch felt like the crack and roll of thunder. He asked me, “What are you doing here, girl?”
My throat was too dry and too parched that I could only make one tiny sound. His touch came on my arm again, and I felt the tremor of my voice, shaking in my throat. “What is this place?” I asked. His eyes – brown as mud and sharp as knives – regarded me with a look of discontent. “D-do I know you?”
“No,” he said too quickly, “who are you?”
A fistful of air lodged into my throat and I could not speak.
“You are Maya, then.” It was not only his touch that seemed like thunder, but his voice as well.
“Maya?” I repeated.
“Yes, and I am Buwan. I will take you to my master’s home and you will like it there.”
“Your master’s home?”
He pulled my arm with a strength that could have dislodged my shoulder from its socket. “Come,” he said, but the crack of thunder was not there. There was a kind of softness in his eyes which replaced its sharp edge. I could see them pleading me to come. There were unspoken words quirked on his lips, as if he wanted to tell me more.
I walked behind Buwan, and noticed the length of his legs, how they made him look so tall. “We are heading to the Woods,” he said.
The dirt-covered road converged into a forest. The giant trees loomed over us, guarding their territory, putting any possible threats into a maze that would result to their untimely deaths. The branches and leaves compressed into what little space they had, and, ultimately, they covered the sky like a quilt with holes. The inside of this forest felt like a dome with only the few number of pebble-sized exploding sunlight to guide our way through it.
I followed the direction of the sound of his heavy footsteps, but the shaking leaves and the crying distant animals distorted the sound until I could hear mumbles, whispers, hisses, and, clear, understandable words. I shook my head.
Surely, this is just my imagination, comforting me from the possibility of me being lost in the Woods?
I could not hear Buwan’s footsteps or his breathing. I was certain that I had lost him.
Though I knew I should be afraid and cry for help, I did the opposite. There was much life in this forest that the thought of fearing it seemed so amusing. I felt the undergrowth, the roots of trees pulsing through me like they were my own heartbeats. And I felt one with the Woods. I felt the thick vines crawl on the ground, racing to coil around my legs and arms, to bury me in their stems and leaves.
“Do you hear them as well?”
The crack and roll of thunder in Buwan’s voice broke into my thoughts, and I screamed. I screamed so loud that I could feel my vocal cords snap. The vines, which I thought were just part of my imagination, wrapped around my legs like snakes. Buwan gripped my shoulders and shook me so hard that everything around me spun.
He asked me, “Well, do you hear them, Maya?”
I could not see his face, but the tone of his voice gave me an idea that he might look like a frightened animal, and I knew his eyes were wide.
“H-hear what?” I asked him, my leveled voice breaking into a whine.
“I hear them, Maya. I hear them as if they are talking to me.” He shook me again. “D-do you not hear them? They sing to me sometimes, telling me that I should run far away! You are an Indio just like me, Maya. You should hear them too. Tell me, Maya! Tell me you can hear them!”
A what? Indio? What was he talking about?
I shoved him hard. The feel of his rough, calloused hands on my arms was still there, and I shook and trembled. I was afraid. This time around, I was afraid for my life. I turned and ran. The Woods was not as friendly as I thought it was a few moments ago. The low branches of trees scraped my face and exposed limbs. Sharp stones pierced the soles of my feet, and leeches dropped from leaves and landed on my body.
Buwan’s heavy footsteps had stopped following me a while ago. I was certain I lost him and he gave up on chasing after me. I looked head-on and sighed. Light! There was light up ahead. The Woods’ maze ended and I jumped into the golden light of the day.
I laid on my stomach, hearing myself pant with relief and fatigue. The dirt and pebbles stuck on my skin like tree sap. I turned over and stared at the blue sky with my arms open wide. More danger would probably come my way if I stay like this. I stood and limped my way through the dry, dirt road; for the sole of my right foot was in more pain than my left.
I looked for any kind of body of water to wash myself into and scrub the soot off of me. The search was slow and the moon’s ascent was fast. In the end, I could not find water or food. Although I saw some coconut trees a while back, I knew I could not climb a tree that tall and slim. I limped my way, again, through the dirt-covered road with brown, sick-looking bushes lining both sides of it. I needed to rest my sore feet but I also needed to look for shelter, now that the crescent moon was out.
I needed to look for some branches and, probably, some banana leaves so I could build a sort of tent. Some old, dry twigs should help me start a fire, and stones as well. The dirt road was just riddled with twigs and stones. I arranged the twigs to form a tiny tepee and tried to start a fire with two stones I found. I gave up on this task after striking the stones sixteen or seventeen times without even getting a spark.
No banana leaves and fire, I sat on the road and felt the chill of the night air. This might be better though. I could attract dangerous men like Buwan if I did have a fire, or worse! I could attract that beast again when I was in that—nothingness.
The ground shook, and the twigs and pebbles bounced. When I heard the barks of dogs a few yards away from me, something was coming. I hurriedly stood and ran, knocking the teepee-assembled twigs into disarray. Whether my feet hurt or not, hobbling was not a good idea if I wished to outrun the dogs heading my way.
Although I ran fast, a dog still caught up with me and locked the back of my leg in its jaw and squeezed it tight. I yelped in pain and beat its head with my weak, trembling fists. I cursed and screamed at it, “Let go!” Another dog came. It pounced and opened its mouth wide. It bit me with a loud snap! My skin tore open and I felt the rush of blood spilling from the wounds.
The blood in my veins turned cold. For a moment, the beating of my heart blocked all sounds and I stood frozen.
“What have you captured this time, you mutts?” The stranger’s voice hinted amusement and interest. “Is that a runaway you have there?”
The dog that kept biting my arm pulled and turned me around. I bit my lip as the pain thrashed from my arm to my shoulder.
“Let me go,” I whispered, feeling weak and faint that I was ready to collapse.
“Good job, mutts.” He patted each dog’s head. “Do not let go of her just yet.” Though there was almost no light, I knew he grinned, flashing his teeth. His fingers traced the shape of my jaw and burned my flesh with cold. “You are going the wrong way, girl. Did you not know that?”
“T-then, wh-which way is the right way?” my voice rasped in dehydration and hunger. I sounded so weak, so out of breath!
His fingers left my jaw and he laughed – a deep, throaty laugh that could have woken up the dead. “You are coming with me, you Little Thorn,” he calmly said, but I felt no calmness or peace. Panic washed over me. His thumb traced the skin under my left eye and he pressed it, hard. “An Indio, aren’t you?”
My throat closed in and I could not breathe. What did he mean?