The day of field herbal classes. That was when my life changed.
We left the safety of the city walls and headed into the woods. While I scanned my surroundings for required materials, the other girls giggled and whispered. The gossip never interested me, so I stayed off the side. I was already an outsider, but all their talk made me feel like I didn’t belong even more.
I spent most of my life here, in the monastery. I felt a strong calling when I first joined as a kid, it was all I ever wanted back then. Slowly it turned into following rules and mundane work instead of praying and helping others. I ended up doing what was expected of me, fulfilling my duties and learning my trade. It was now how I imagined it at all. I tried not to lose my hope, but it was getting more and more difficult.
What was even worse was that I seemed to be the only odd element here, everyone else somehow managed to fit in. I couldn’t figure out why I felt so trapped and what was wrong with me.
Sometimes I was praying to God for a sign. The great Wisdom in the sky that created us and was meant to guide us, but he remained silent. I decided to try harder, to change my life in that way, I didn’t know if it will work.
The determination to get the highest mark was driving me, but it was not as easy as it sounded. I had to find and gather precise mix of ingredients and prepare a cream out of them later in the lab. I did not have a plan, merely a conviction that my life is changing today.
Every now and then I leaned to pick herbs I needed. The walk wasn’t long and I knew that soon we will reach less forested area and our class will end there. When I saw the sunlight getting through the treetops more frequently, I knew I didn’t have much time. I looked down into my bag, there were still things missing, but I couldn’t give up.
We reached the meadow and stopped there. Above the tree tops some of the highest towers of the monastery were visible. There was more to the city than just our headquarters but the monastery was the most prominent part of it, the center of its law and power. I was tense, nervously counting my herbs. There was only one left that I needed, I was so close.
“Okay, girls!” – Master herbalist’s loud voice was echoing among the trees. Fifteen pair of eyes looked up to our biology teacher’s wrinkled face in anticipation. “We will stay here quarter of an hour longer, so you can find any remaining ingredients. Then we will head back.” – She said giving us all hope and headed to sit on the only stone in the clearing.
The amaranth flower was a rare plant and it was clear there will not be enough for each girl to include in their recipe. Of course a different cream could be made of the remaining herbs, but that would not secure me the highest mark. During our walk here I noticed several amaranths, but each time too late as there was always someone who beat me to it.
While I was lost in my thoughts of imminent failure a squirrel jumped on the ground in front of me. I smiled to my new friend, the animal paused to observe me too. My eyes quickly moved towards the red colour the animal was holding in its jaw… the amaranth flower, last thing I needed!
I quickly glanced back, the rest of the group was further away, occupied with their searches. I reached out for the amaranth flower in the critter’s mouth as slow as possible, but alarmed, it scurried away from me. I had no time to lose, without thinking I chased after it.
I kept moving further and further away from the group, but the stakes were too high to let it go. The squirrel made its final mistake when it climbed a tree and the flower slipped from its teeth. I picked it up, triumphant and ready to go back. Then I turned around and saw deep dark forest. I sunk in dread as I realized the woods appeared identical in all directions. The forest itself never caused me any fear, rather it had an alluring sense of wild nature, but I lost my sense of navigation and my fears were let loose.
Well done, this time you have surely outdone yourself, I thought. I imagined the angry monastery Masters and what punishment they would choose for my misadventure. So this is how my attempt to turn the wheel of fortune ends up with – straying in the forest. I frowned and clenched my fist, but there was no one to blame than myself. I failed again.
I picked the direction at random and walked forward. At first I tried to convince myself I was still able to find the group, before my absence was noticed, but when the sun began to set, I worried if I would ever find my way back. I spent enough time in the woods that I was sure the class have finished long ago and presumably everyone came back to the city.
What if they did not notice my absence? My stomach curled and I understood there might be something more at stake than a punishment, I could be lost forever. I dismissed the thought, but it was difficult to think of anything else when the bitter cold of the evening surrounded me. I braced myself against the chill, yet the white linen robe provided little warmth and I feared the worst. Am I going to die here? – I thought.
“Stupid flower!” – I screamed and threw the plant in rage and leaned on the nearest tree. My body weakened out of cold and frustration. Tears ran down my cheeks and on my robe. I tasted the bitterness of my recklessness, before wiping the remaining tears with my hand. I tried to calm myself down, but my rational thinking failed me the moment I needed it most.
Soft murmur of a river reached my ears and I stood up hastily, energized with new hope. I knew the river flowed through our city and could become my guide back home. I just needed to follow it downstream and it will lead me to the monastery.
I picked the amaranth flower, put it back to the bag and fumbled my way through the now half-dark forest.
As I was strolling alongside the river the soft murmur of the water, chirping of crickets and rustling of leaves calmed my stress and left me with unfamiliar feeling – a place I belonged. If not for the coldness it would be perfect. I wondered why I could never feel that way in the monastery.
Part of me was still scared, but another part… was glad to be away from the ever-present guards and masters of the monastery. I had never felt so alone and yet I never felt so… free.
I reached a waterfall and hurried my way down to enjoy the view as the sun was about to set. It was stunning – water cascaded over bare rocks and dropped a few meters down. I decided to linger here for a while longer, before going further on my way. It was not often that we would be allowed outside monastery walls and thus enjoying such wonders of nature.
Suddenly my eyes had caught a dark shape floating towards the fall. I squinted my eyes, trying to see better – it appeared to be some kind of dark animal, lifelessly being carried by the water current and falling over the edge of the waterfall. As I watched it, I felt terror gripping my heart – it was not an animal, it was more than likely a human. I blamed myself for noticing it so late. The body didn’t struggle for its life during the fall, it must have been unconscious. I ran towards the shore and froze seeing the cold water at the foot of the waterfall.
I paced the shore here and back, tapping my foot from time to time. I crossed my arms, uncrossed them and crossed them again. I can wait for the body to resurface, I tried to excuse myself.
The river seemed shallow, but I wasn’t even a good swimmer. I tested the water and pulled back from the freezing cold sensation. I paced the shore some more, debating the emergency. I should go in the water. I checked the temperature again, it was still freezing. But I might die from hypothermia. – I tried to reason with myself. – The human seemed unconscious, it won’t breathe the water in. I turned around again and looked at the whirlwinds under the waterfall. But it might drown. I looked up to the sky, I felt so powerless. I wish someone would save us both.
As I debated with myself, the body floated up for a brief moment before being pushed further by the current’s internal whirls. I looked down the river and noticed a place with a lone tree, growing closer to the water, I run towards that. I grabbed the its trunk and extended my other arm to catch the oncoming body. I almost lost it, but in the last moment the water current miraculously pushed it towards me. I almost lost the grip on the body’s wet clothes, but my grip held tight and I dragged the body with all my strength onto the shore.
I rolled onto my back and panted, it was not yet over. I turned towards the body, it was a boy. I was never this close to any male in the monastery, we were usually kept in separate groups and our paths rarely crossed. I moved my face closer to his, I couldn’t sense his breath. I started pressing my hands down his chest, hoping I can squeeze the water out of him. Nothing.