The crunching sound of the leaves beneath his boots was deafening; the contrast of the silent valley broken by his presence. He felt almost ashamed to be disturbing something so untouched by man.
He stopped a moment to take in the natural sounds around him; the wind rushing swiftly but softly through the southern beech trees. The sweeping rush of the Wairaurahiri river. A pair of snarky birds playing or fighting; there was no way to tell. He pulled in a breath of the cool, clean air and mused that he may be the first person ever to stand in this spot. Guaranteed, he was one of a very few who had.
Continuing on his journey, he followed the river to the Foveaux Strait. Jones was to meet him there with his boat and they would make the trip across the strait to Stewart Island.
The rough trail began to lead him closer to the river and he knew that soon he would be traveling along its edge. This would be his means of travel all the way to the Strait and his journey on the tough inland terrain would be done.
He broke the tree line expecting to see the quiet beauty of the Wairaurahiri river and the majestic Kepler mountains.
What he did not expect to see was another person.
The moment he spotted the seated figure by the waters edge he froze thinking he might startle them; but they made no reaction to his presence.
Did he hear me?
Stepping closer, he contemplated what he was going to say. “Um..” he cleared his throat, “is everything alright here?”
There was no response from the still figure.
He took a step closer, all the while taking in any information he could observe. It was then that he noticed two bright red braids extending from the deep green knitted cap.
Her jacket was a light wind-breaker that closely matched the green of her stocking cap. He could see the quality of the material from his position a good three yards behind her.
She was experienced, that was clear, but he could not tell why she was just sitting there. Was something wrong? Was she injured? He looked to the left and right to observe anything that might be out of the ordinary. Nothing.
He stepped forward again until he was directly behind her. She had not moved, save for the steady rise and fall of her shoulders as she breathed. So he reached out a hand and lightly touched her shoulder.
The contact startled her from her reverie and she sucked air in quickly through her teeth and spun around defensively.
He stepped back, hands raised with his palms up to show her that he wasn’t planning to hurt her in any way. Realizing her over-reaction, her defiant scowl melted into a sheepish expression marred by a pink stain rising in her cheeks.
“I’m so sorry.” He spoke quietly; not so much for her benefit but for the nature surrounding them. “I didn’t mean to startle you, I only wanted to see if you were alright.” His low voice sounded alien to him. He hadn’t spoken in…what?…more than 5 days?
“No,” her voice was unsteady, “it is I who must apologize. You were only being kind.”
The melodic lilt in her voice was comforting and familiar, but one he hadn’t heard in years.
“You from Waterford?”
She tilted her head in curiosity “Kilkenny, actually. You know Ireland?”
“I lived there for a time.” He paused for a moment contemplating whether he should give any more information to this perfect stranger and decided that at least his name wouldn’t hurt, “I’m William…well, Liam to most.”
“Is that short for Sabrina?”
The corner of her mouth turned up in a sly smile “No. Just Brigh. B-r-i-g-h.”
He chucked a bit, “You are irish, aren’t you?”
” ‘Fraid so,” her quiet laugh matched his.
They stood for a moment just staring at each other. Their mutual shock of finding another person in this pristinely undisturbed environment still reverberated in the air. Taking in her appearance he noticed, as he had before, that she was an experienced hiker; if the fact that she was even in this place didn’t give that away then her clothes did. Brigh had the fair complexion and red hair easily associated with the irish, but her eyes were unique. They were the color of dark amber and, it seemed, the longer he looked at them the brighter they burned.
Conversely, Brigh was making her own assumptions about Liam. What struck her most was his stature; he was very tall and thin. He’s almost too thin, like a reed. If she hadn’t run into him in this wilderness she never would have pegged him as “outdoorsy” let alone a hiker who was worth his weight in salt. There was something in his face, though. Trustworthy was the only way she could put it into words; which was certainly strange for her, as her trust for people was limited if not non-existent.
After what seemed like an eternity of silence, Liam finally broke the silence “So, is everything alright? You seemed…” He paused to find a word that fit, “…preoccupied.”
Brigh looked down at her feet and let out a soft sigh, “I’m alright. I was just in that place…” she stopped, realizing she was speaking to a complete stranger; but still, there was something about him. About this place. This time. Her pride didn’t matter much anymore. Her privacy didn’t matter. She belonged to this place.
So she looked up and continued, “I was just wishing.”
“I was wishing I had another life. Wishing to be someone else; to be something else.”
“Something,” the word came as a sigh. “If I could stretch my arms, they would become branches and my legs would become roots. I would dig into the rich, unspoiled soil and live out my days as a tree amidst this paradise.”
He watched her as she spoke and it seemed to him that she was speaking more to herself and to this place than to him. Her eyes slid across the landscape and drank in every bit of grace. He stayed silent and waited for her to speak again.
“I would pull myself into a ball so tight that I’d become a seed. I would plant myself here and spread every part of my body into the soil. Then I’d reach to the sun. My leaves would be soft and my petals would be lavender.” She smiled to the sky, “I wouldn’t be the most beautiful flower, though…a wildflower, perhaps. Quiet and tall.”
She turned slowly and resumed her seated position next to the waters edge. Liam wanted her to continue, but he didn’t want to break her reverie. He moved slowly to her side and sat next to her, looking upon the grandeur of the sweeping landscape.
“I’d unravel my leaves and take the sun into my core. If I were a flower, or a tree, I would sway with the wind; let her caress my limbs and sing me to sleep. I would bask in the silver light of the moon and turn my face to greet him every evening.
And the sun…oh, the sun! He would bring a warmth to my soul and a smile to my face that I cannot seem to find in this body.”
Tears had begun to slowly stream down her face and Liam wondered what pain had created such grief.
He didn’t have the right words of comfort. They didn’t exist in that moment; so he leaned closer to her and put his hand against her back. She responded to the gesture of a friend and leaned into his shoulder.
They sat that way and watched the sun slip quietly behind the ragged line of mountains.