February 8, 2010

The Expanse: Vertigo

It took a couple of days to adjust to the that enveloping mass of sky that gated the grasslands horizon to horizon. If any fear made itself apparent along his journey it should have been the close discomfort of the forest he left behind, the cramped darkness and ignorance of one's surroundings. His senses were suppressed in such a place, but he felt no inordinate fear until he crossed that small river at the forest edge and clambered up and over the far bank. The vast plains stretched long and treeless before him and he cowered among the grasses, forcing his hands and feet to the ground, processing the heady, agoraphobic vertigo that crippled him in those first moments.

The traveler made little progress after crossing the river boundary; his first hurdle was trying to suppress the feeling that at any moment he could lose cohesion with the earth and fly uninhibited up, or whatever direction sucked him into the heart of that cold, blue, nebulous sky. His unease faded in a day or so, leaving him with the profound homogeneity and a distressing lack of natural direction. He kept his compass close.

The grasses were thin and reedy, dry in the summer heat. The sun beat down unmitigated, celebrated perhaps only by tiny, skink-like reptiles that clung to the heartiest strands of grass absorbing what heat they needed and quickly disappearing. He kept his skin covered in the bare sunlight, trading sunburn for the potential of heatstroke, but his slow, cautious pace and frequent stops to lie in the grass uncovered helped him cool down. Every evening the crickets sang, throbbing and pervasive as he set up camp. During the day his only glimpse of them was their Herculean, wing-assisted jumps from place to place, sometimes crisscrossing in a seemingly infinite network of migration, a constant shuffling of inhabitance visible for miles.

The wind, of all things, was the first marvel that helped dissipate his initial impression of the plains. It originated in some unknown source, beyond the horizon, from deep in the void and swept across the flats and rounded inclines, changing the color and shape of the land by pushing and pulling its strands, a constant shift of hue and light in patches of impact. The entire plain was in motion, but his eyes picked out smaller sections, windows where the bright sides were exposed or a configuration that was as green as any cool moss on a stream bank. He found a focus in the ether.

One night he was awoken by a distant but distinct rumbling under him. It continued for about fifteen minutes or so, stopping abruptly. He became a little distressed at the potential for quakes in the area, but tried to reassure himself that with a lack of structures - natural or no - the danger would at the least be reduced. Still, it didn't feel much like a quake at all; there was no depth, just a trickling vibration across his midsection that lay flush to the ground. His equipment outside the tent didn't seem to be affected at all.

Morning came and he moved on, coming to the top of a small hill and seeing the path of a stream down the valley into a large body of water, perhaps one extremity of a larger lake. Trees were growing in thin copses around the shore and for the first time, the traveler finally saw life other than the skinks and grasshoppers. The lake outcrop was covered with at least ten different species of waterbirds - ducks, geese and herons - floating on its depths or wading along the shore. He smiled and headed down to the edge, rolling his aching shoulders, relieved to have fresh water, fish and most importantly, company.

He set up camp on the shore among one of the copses, short, stout trees that provided adequate shelter from the winds and allowed him to fish peacefully. Dinner was the best he'd had in weeks: white fish with fresh herbs and wild carrot, wrapped in foil and roasted, a sort of camper's en papillote. The birds gave him a wide berth for the most part, but remained numerous and lively until dark. He slept with a full stomach and lungs full of rich, muddy air off the lake.

The next morning was bright and cloudless, as it had been for weeks now. As he washed up in the lake, which was pleasantly luke warm on the surface, he felt the rumbling again on his bare feet, and this time it was more intense. One of his pans rattled down the shore toward the water and he grabbed it, sliding on his shoes and walking out of the copse in the direction of the sound.

It started on the crest of the last hill before the lake valley, the first few wooly heads moved over the pinnacle and down, descending with lightning speed. They were bison of some sort, wide and powerful, pounding the earth with heavy steps in a great line, five animals across. They turned away, heading for the north side of the lake, to the largest break between trees. As the herd approached the lake, the waterbirds scattered, flying over to the opposite end. With the bison, in small aerial groups came smaller white birds, which would land on the resting adults and pick at their hide for bugs and other parasites.

The bison made themselves comfortable for the rest of the day. The traveler tried several times to get close, in particular to see the calfs in the center of the group, but he was warned liberally before he could even get close. Binoculars and an accessible tree afforded him the opportunity to watch their newborn, who would buck and twist around, playfully engaging the other calfs and their parents. When a pair of males started to take interest in the man in the tree, he descended and quietly returned to his own camp.

He spent a few more days at the west end of the lake. The ducks were the first to leave, followed by the other birds the next day. The bison left that night after a full day of sleep, feeding and some rough posturing from the males. Slowly but noisily, they moved off, just as the traveler laid down to sleep for the night. He would be alone in the morning again, he thought, with a long road before him.

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