The sound of the water gurgling over the rocks is lost beneath the thunder of my own heartbeat as I stare in shock at the little building. I’m not sure what I feel; fear and hope fight each other for supremacy over me but their effects are just the same. My knees wobble and I sink to the ground, shaking.
The blue thread of smoke wavers a little as a slight breeze catches it, and then settles back into a steady line. I make my legs work and walk very slowly down to the stream. The water is noisy, and my thirst is suddenly unbearable and I drop to my knees once more, scooping handful after handful of icy water into my parched and foul mouth. Thirst quenched, I back away but the sound is soothing and I stand a few paces away, before tiredness creeps up on me. I am exhausted and now one of my most urgent needs has been met, something in me gives way and as if bewitched, I curl up on the soft mossy ground a few yards from the stream and close my eyes. The voice of the stream becomes my lullaby and I drift off, aware how foolish this may be and yet not caring any more.
The sun far above has shifted a few finger-widths when I wake and I am thirsty again and I return to the stream to drink.
As I dip my hands into the fast flowing water, I catch movement out of the corner of my eye. Someone is emerging from the hut. I freeze. I have no time to run, no time to hide. Like an animal, my only refuge is staying completely still.
The figure is clearly that of a woman, and by her long white hair, an old one at that. She wears long robes of simple design and muted greens and browns but for me, she looks……beyond human. She seems a goddess to my starved and frightened eyes.
She is watching me, as if she was long aware of my presence by the stream and as if like a gracious host, she has waited for me to wake up. In her arms she carries a large bowl that steams, and as I catch a whiff of the steam, I let out a groan of pure desire. I smell things I can no longer name, for the words have been so long unused that they have become dormant, sleeping in my memory like winter bears in mountain caves. But the smell is like every delicious foodstuff I might ever have smelled and I feel my dry mouth fill with saliva and I groan again.
Nodding to me, but not speaking, she places the bowl on a flat rock on her side of the stream and turns back and disappears into the little house again.
The steam rises, and the soft breeze carries the scent of the food to me. Saliva spills out of my mouth and down my chest, and I whimper. The food calls to me, calls so seductively but is this a trap?
As I watch the rising steam, my body acts without my conscious consent and I wade through the bitterly cold waters to the other side. I crouch, and see that there is a large carved spoon embedded in the food and I lift it to my mouth and cram in the hot stew as fast as I can, hardly chewing but letting the taste overwhelm my senses with bliss and swallowing to make room for more.
The bowl is soon empty and I drop the spoon with a clatter and wade back to my side of the stream. I should run away, I know this but my legs are not wanting to work any more. The shivers I’ve been feeling are growing and I ache all over. It seems so cold, and my rags of clothing are soaking wet too. I huddle up, trying to get warm, pulling tufts of thick moss to cover myself and I close my eyes and lose consciousness as the fever takes command of my body.
My last thought as I slip into darkness: was the stew poisoned?