(first published in The Cabinet of Heed, Issue 36,July 2020, and not to be confused with A Cloud Forest Tale, also archived here and first published in The Fiction Pool Sept 22nd 2017)
Two days after our landing party left the ship, we entered the clouds that we had seen from the shore. It was a relief at first: we mariners are generally ill-shod and not great walkers. We had grumbled as we’d sweated up that barren, rocky valley under the blazing sun, so it was sweet to step at last under trees and walk on the soft moss that lay over everything. But the relief did not last. The trees of the cloud forest seemed strange-looking, not like the oaks and pines of home: more than anything, they looked like giant heathers. The thick mist that hung everywhere in the forest was confusing: we could not navigate by the stars or the sun, and had to cut marks on the tree trunks or the mossy boulders in order to know our return route to the ship. Every hour of our march, the lieutenant called a halt and commanded Hando, the trumpeter, to blow a blast, whereupon the lieutenant would read a paper proclaiming that the island was now the property of the Emperor and the islanders were now his subjects. A futile procedure since the mist and the trees deadened all sound, and the natives who had first gathered on the shore, when our ship sailed into the bay, had quickly dispersed and had not been seen since. Still, we were glad of the brief rests.
There was discontent over the water supplies. The lieutenant insisted that we retain what was left of the drinking water that we had brought with us, saying we would need it for the return journey to the ship. There was no running water in the forest, but water could be squeezed from the dripping moss. Men grumbled that the moss tainted the water. Some men secretly continued to drink from their leather water bottles. The lieutenant noticed my brother, Odd, drinking from his water bottle: he hit him with the flat of his sword and then deliberately pierced Odd’s bottle.
On the evening of the third day, we came across one of our mossy marks on a large boulder: proof, it seemed, that we had walked in a circle. The lieutenant claimed it was a natural mark, made by a falling branch or a bird (we had seen no animals). Then Odd found a mark on a nearby tree and swore that he had made the mark himself yesterday. The lieutenant swore in return and drew his sword. Odd turned to run, and the lieutenant hacked him down. As the lieutenant stood over Odd, I ran the slayer through with my pike. The bosun carried an arquebus, but by the time it was loaded I had fled into the mist and the quiet trees.
* * *
I had escaped naval justice, but my case was not a happy one: I couldn’t return to the ship and so had to stay in this strange heathen place. Food was my immediate difficulty: none of the plants and shrubs in the cloud forest were familiar to me, so I had to proceed by trial and error. I made many errors and grew weak with hunger. Some berries I found had tasted sweet but proved poisonous. With my pike and knife, I had previously cut branches as a makeshift shelter from the constant dripping moisture. I lay there retching, and moving in and out of consciousness.
How long I lay there I do not know. Perhaps I would have died there, but I wakened to find myself bound and carried in a kind of litter. I was a prisoner of the elusive natives. When they saw that I was conscious, they fed me on a nutritious paste (made from the roots of sapling trees, I later discovered). Afterwards I slept, until we came to a halt among some huts on the edge of the cloud forest. My new life had begun.
The natives call themselves the Ku (which simply means ‘the people’ in their language). They are not unkind, though I am subject to some teasing. The teasing has its roots in what they see as my clumsiness and my ignorance: for example, I have no skill in constructing the marvellous nets they use for both trapping birds and for fishing, and I have only slowly learnt to recognise the edible leaves, roots and berries which form an important part of their diet. Initially, I had hoped that some prestige might attach to my ownership of the pike and my sailor’s knife, but the Ku have no concept of private property. None of their women have welcomed me to their bed. When I was younger, I used to help with the fishing and with maintaining the two cisterns where they store the rainwater that falls in their brief wet season. Nowadays, I’m only fit for gathering firewood.
Whenever I stepped beyond the cloud forest, I used to scan the horizon for a sail – another thing I was teased about. Now, after thirty seven years, a ship lies again at anchor in the bay. They tell me the Emperor is overthrown and the Sun Palace is a ruin used for storing dung. They offer me free passage, but I find I am content here with the Ku in the gentle cloud forest.