Cottage in the woods - a mirage?

Cottage in the woods - a mirage?

Saoirse Barry of the German Swiss International School tells of a walk to explore an island on the way to a lunch date, and a lovely cottage in a forest. But oh, that bonk on the head ...

As I looked out at the horizon and the blue-green ocean, the outline of the island of Po Toi was slowly becoming larger and more detailed. I skimmed my hand on the water's surface and watched the white splashes coming out from underneath the speedboat as it bumped through the waves. I watched the trail of white foam behind us and smelled the hint of salt in the air, my hair blowing wildly in the wind. I was so glad to finally take a breath of fresh air and get away from the constantly crowded, noisy and polluted streets of the city. It was nice to take a break once in a while and try something new.

I was on my way to meet my friend at a Chinese restaurant on the west side of the island. I had decided to take a boat there and arrive an hour early, to explore the area a little bit before meeting her. I hate being late and timed it to arrive at the small pier on the east side at exactly 11 o'clock, leaving just enough time to walk across the island and make it to the restaurant for lunch. I had always known the main part of the island was quite a desolate area, as very few people had ever lived here. There were only a few houses and shops on the west side of Po Toi. Most of the rest of the island was dense vegetation.

It was a hot July day, and I could feel the warm sun on my face accompanied by a gentle wind as I walked off the wooden pier onto the dirt path. I listened to the satisfying crunch of the gravel underneath my feet as the beach fell behind me and I strolled through the forest. I was a little apprehensive about walking alone, but I knew roughly where I was going. As long as I kept heading west, I should be able to find my way easily enough; besides, the island wasn't very big. I listened to the birds singing and the insects humming, embracing me in a beautiful, dense canopy of sound. It was a far cry from the daily hustle and bustle of the city.

As I walked, the dirt path gradually became indistinct, widening and disappearing into the forest floor, so there was no longer a clear track for me to follow. The pier was well behind me now and out of sight, and there was no going back. I kept heading through the forest. The trouble was that I was having to weave my way between the trees, ducking more and more often to avoid the low-hanging branches while I searched for the easiest way through the undergrowth. It seemed the forest was getting thicker no matter which way I went, and the trees were crowding in on me.

Suddenly, I heard a distinct crunching noise some distance behind me. I turned around quickly, but saw no one through the undergrowth. It might have been an animal, but I now had the feeling I was not alone in the forest. A sense of uneasiness welled up inside me. I kept walking, dodging the trees and pushing the branches aside, but quickening my pace. There it was again! The crunch of a branch - and then what seemed like footsteps, quickening as well. I was seized with panic, and started to run through the forest as fast as my legs would take me, jumping over logs and crashing through the undergrowth and branches that whipped at my legs and face.

Then suddenly, BAM! My forehead crashed into a heavy, low-hanging branch and knocked me flat on my back. Everything went dark. When I opened my eyes, my head was spinning, and mighty sore. I wasn't sure how long I had been lying there - was it seconds or minutes? I got up slowly, feeling pretty sorry for myself and nursing a tender lump on my forehead. But at least I had lost whoever or whatever had apparently been following me, because I couldn't hear anything any more. There was no chirping from the birds or buzzing from the bugs, and that felt rather eerie. There was only silence, ear-piercing silence. And a huge pulsating throbbing in my head.

There was another problem that dawned on me: I was no longer sure whether I was still heading westward. Had I veered left or right while I was running? I racked my brain trying to remember. It was too late to walk back to the pier, and I was already probably past halfway, anyway. Besides, I was afraid of meeting whoever or whatever creature I was sure had been following me. Trees shrouded my view of any landmarks, and I had no idea which direction I was heading. An overwhelming sense of hopelessness began to fill me. I was lost. I checked my mobile phone, but it had no service, and there was almost no battery left, as I had stupidly forgotten to recharge it the night before. I would just have to keep walking and hope that eventually I would reach the shore.

As I walked through the forest, it felt as if I was walking in circles. Almost everywhere I looked, it was almost the same scene: some trees, the same green leaves and a dappled pattern of sunlight on the dirt floor of the forest. As pretty as it was, I found myself longing to get out. I had no idea how far I had walked. All I could do was hope that I was nearly there. The pounding in my head made each jarring step a new torture. Maybe if I just sat down and rested for a little while. I tilted my head back, resting it against a tree trunk, and closed my eyes. Eventually the continuous, pulsating beat in my head died down, so I got up and started my journey again.

I was still feeling a bit dazed and my head hurt; then suddenly I came to a small stream in a gulley. I hadn't realised how thirsty I was until now. I stooped down and cupped my hands to gulp a large helping of water, then another one. It was only then that, standing up, I noticed a small cottage in a clearing not far away. It had white walls, a grey-tiled roof and a small, red wooden door. Outside there was a pile of firewood, a clothesline, and some gardening tools resting against the wall of the house.

I inched closer to see if there was anything there. Then an old Chinese woman came walking out the door. She was about the same height as I, with long, grey hair and a kindly, wrinkled face. She held a wooden walking stick and was wearing old-style Chinese peasant clothes, tied across like a tunic, with worn black cloth shoes. She saw me, smiled and motioned for me to come over. I obliged and walked over to where she was standing. I told her that I was lost and I needed to get to the west side of the island. She seemed to get the gist of what I was saying, and beckoned for me to follow her. She led me to a dirt path and pointed forwards. I smiled and thanked her. Whether she could understand me, I couldn't tell. She just turned around and headed back towards the cottage.

With my head still throbbing, I followed the path and soon saw the village ahead. After the tiring ordeal, I was so glad to finally have reached my destination. I walked towards the restaurant and saw my friend, waiting for me outside. She stood there with her back against the wall of the Chinese restaurant. Once she saw me, she quickly rushed over to where I was. She had been anxious over my delay, and was full of concern for the lump on my forehead marking where the branch had hit me.

I was brimming with excitement to tell her about my adventure. I told her every detail over lunch, which was delicious. We ate fried rice, sweet and sour pork, stir-fried noodles and red bean ice cream for dessert. I savoured each and every bite, as I told my friend what had happened. I told her about hearing noises in the forest, running from a possible pursuer, hitting my head, getting lost and finding the old lady. She was full of questions, especially about the old lady, and I tried to answer each one as accurately as I could. We agreed that we would walk back to the pier the same way I came, and catch the boat back together. Then, I could introduce her to the old lady, and she could help me thank her again, this time in Cantonese.

I showed her the route I took, and we walked along the dirt path together. A cloud was temporarily shielding the warm shine of the sun, and there was a welcome breeze. My friend was chatting to me, but I wasn't really paying attention. I was concentrating on trying to retrace my steps as exactly as I could so that I could show her the old lady's house.

When we reached the place where I had found her, I was in utter shock. All that was there was a ruined old hovel. The ancient grey roof had fallen in, the walls were crumbled in decay, and the rotten door, flaked with red paint, had fallen off its rusted old hinges many years before. Long grass, vines and vegetation climbed over the rubble of scattered bricks and beams. It was plain that the house had been deserted long ago - and no one could possibly have lived there for many, many decades.

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Cottage in the woods - a mirage?


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Kerry Hoo