Chapter 4 - Lost in the Woods

Updated: Jul 13, 2021

Edna mustn’t have died, she realized, for she was awake. She tried to move, but her pain wrapped tightly around her. It seemed to say, “See? I told you you’d need me. You wanted me to go, you did, you said as much, but I knew -- I knew you’d need me again. It’s a good thing, too. What would have happened if I hadn’t been here, I wonder? No, no, no, don’t get up. I’ll take care of everything. You just rest.”


She managed to open her eyes, but the light pouring in felt distant. Her pain must have convinced her other senses to give her some space, she thought, for the world sounded as far away as it looked.


Slowly the light and the sounds, the chill and the scents crept into her mind and whispered, when her pain wasn’t listening, that it was morning. That made it the second time in as many days she had woken up this way. She wanted to snap Highmond’s stupid, gelled mustache.


Highmond.


She tried to sit up but her pain rebuked her. “Oh sure,” it said, “get up, move around, dance a jig. Sure, I told you not to before, but what do I know? It’s just my sole purpose to tell you what not to do.” Edna made one of those noises that starts as a groan, turns into a laugh, and ends in a little cry. She stayed down.


With great effort, she turned her head to one side. Her left cheek plopped to the ground. Slowly her eyes informed her that there was not a single mustachioed, older gentleman - alive or otherwise - to be seen in this direction.


She tried to turn her head to check the other side, but her pain insisted she’d moved enough for the day, maybe even the week. Eventually she forced a compromise wherein her pain would let her flop her right arm around like a fish.


She flopped it, fishily, back and forth for a while. Her arm bumped into a few large chunks of something but none of them, she convinced herself, were any piece of her companionable kidnapper. She sighed, or tried to. It came out instead as a series of small coughs that sent her pain into a frenzy.


But Edna was unbothered by this outburst of pain, content in the knowledge that Highmond was not still next to her and therefore not dead. An argument shouted from some deep corner of her mind that this did not, in fact, mean he was alive, but she closed her eyes and let her pain shoosh it. “You think she needs to hear from you right now? Go! Get out of here! Next time I see you, I’m callin’ your mother.”


Edna wasn’t sure she liked Highmond, but she was sure that didn’t matter. Her opinion of the man had no bearing on his right to live. Besides, he would be in a lot of pain now too, and that might teach him not to go kidnapping women who just wanted to be left alone in their studies to write nasty letters to their unions. Or, you know, a broader lesson.


Either way, something about Highmond was itching at her mind - something from a different corner than the one that thought he might be dead. She didn’t know why yet - hadn’t put the thoughts together into words - but she knew she needed to talk to him. First though, first she would listen to her pain.


In one last, small compromise, her pain helped her to flop her right arm. A final, great flop brought it over her body, rolling her onto her side. Eyes still closed, her hand patted softly around her midsection until it hit the thing for which it searched. She clutched her watch. It tick ticked back at her and pulled her into peace.


Edna wasn’t aware of falling asleep, but time seemed to skip around her as she lay there. The distant sounds of morning became clanks and bangs, that became grunts and “Ahh!”s, that became the crackling of a nearby fire. She wondered if these jumps might be more of the time problems - timenomalies? they would need to come up with a name for them - that plagued Earth the Second. She wondered if it had taken her a few moments to think this or a few hours.


She got her answer when her eyes found their way open once more. It was getting dark again, but the fire in front of her had a warm glow. A shadow crossed in front of it - a tall silhouette that tinkered with a wood and metal contraption built over and around the flames. The silhouette sang a children’s rhyme to itself in a gruff, but fine voice.


Maa, maa, black goat

Have you any cheese

No, but, I talk

Marry me, please

How absurd? Marry a goat?


In a moment, it circled round to the other side of the fire, and Edna saw that it was Highmond. He saw her too, and startled from his song. “Ah! Edna Star! Forgive me, I hope I haven’t woken you. Though of course I’m very glad you’re awake. I was worried you might be some time asleep still, your injuries as they are. I mean it’s been nearly all day, but I knew you’d come around. Knew it! Haha! Splendid!”


He waited for a moment to see if she would speak, but she couldn’t force herself to before his attention span ran out. “Well, not all is splendid of course,” he went on, poking at something over the fire, “We’re stranded, without an airship or even a jetpack, I’ve lost my cane, my coat is ruined, you’ve all the aforementioned injuries, and, you know, Pythagoras is dead.”


Edna didn’t feel her face move, but it must have done something horrible, for Highmond immediately frightened. He said, “Oh! No! Not dead, dead - not all of the chap. I only mean the body it - well - dove us here with. The damage was irreparable, I’m afraid.” The ends of his mustache sank, but bounced back quickly, “It’s not all bad, of course! I’ve used the parts to build us a few helpful things.” He gestured round as he said this.


With great protests from her pain, Edna sat up and turned to look all around. She noticed then that they were in a small hut - absolutely packed with contraptions like the one above the fire. None of them built of anything but metal scraps, twigs, and the sheer veracity of Highmond’s spirit. Maybe some leaves, too. Highmond went on, “Let’s see, we’ve got four walls and a roof, obviously. Shelter’s the most important thing. This,” he moved his hands in circles pointed at the ground beneath them, “is the lounge slash kitchen slash game room. That,” he aimed the circles at Edna - or behind her, she realized - “is the workshop.”


She turned to look. The workshop was astonishingly well-prepared. “Is that a steam-powered circular saw?” Edna asked, unbelieving.


“Yes - well, no, it’s electric, actually, er - please don’t interrupt the tour.” Edna smiled. For all his faults, it was enjoyable to fluster the old man up. He continued, “I think we shall sleep in those corners, there,” his circling hands hovered now toward Edna’s left before swinging round to her right. Following them, she saw an open doorway, trees standing beyond. “And finally, that is the foyer. Please wipe your shoes on the mat and leave them there whenever you come inside.”


Edna looked down. The ground here was the same dirt as outside. She said as much to Highmond. “Yes,” he replied, “well it’s the principle of the thing, isn’t it?” Edna forced the corners of her lips down in a faux-thoughtful frown, nodded her head, and grunted. The grunt was more from the pain than any agreement, but Highmond didn’t need to know that.


She asked, with genuine astonishment, “Was I out longer than I thought, or did you build all of this in a day?”


“Ah! Yes, no, yes you’re quite right. It’s been about a day - a little more. I built a few other small things in addition to what you see here. A handful of compasses, a couple of canteens, a new cane.” His face lit as he said this. He quickly turned and stomped on a lever in the contraption by the fire. Immediately the flames dimmed and a cane flew straight into the air. Highmond caught it with an excess of gusto, even for him. “It’s a bit rubbish, really,” he said, holding it so she could see, “Doesn’t even have a single laser. Still, I think it shall be useful.”


The thing about Highmond that had been bouncing around Edna’s mind clicked into something solid. She was sure of it now, and they would need to talk about it. Not yet, though. Not much later, mind you. Not right before any big, final battles or moments of otherwise uncertain death. No, she’d seen that too much, and found it in poor taste.


She would discuss what she believed with the old man soon, then, but right now she only laughed a little. “Did you say a handful of compasses?” she asked, “Why would we need a handful?”


Highmond blushed, pulling back his cane and inserting it into the machine. The flames grew once more, their warmth returning to Edna’s face. “I--well, you never… no, I suppose we won’t,” he laughed at himself, “I was just having fun magnetizing needles, I suppose. The old silk tie trick. I’ve known it as long as I can remember, but I had never actually needed to use it before today.”


‘The old silk tie trick,’ Edna knew because she had needed to use it, was that if you take a small rod of metal and rub it down a bolt of silk (or a few other fabrics) in one direction over and over, the rod will magnetize. Edna did not know why. Was it something to do with removing electrons? That seemed unlikely, but she didn’t have a better explanation. Anyway, after you’ve done whatever you’re doing to the poor rod, just find a way to float it on some water - usually a leaf - and you have a compass.


She smiled at him. It was involuntary, genuine. Realizing this, Edna was struck with a sudden image of his - she felt - inevitable death. Grief came knocking at her soul. It had arrived too early, but her pain thought she should let it in, embrace it as the old friend it had come to be. Pain would think that. She and grief are sisters, and, though each is unique, they are so close as to be commonly mistaken. But Edna knew them well, and could tell them apart from their dress and their demeanor.


Still she considered letting this too-early guest in. Would it not be rude to turn grief away? And after she’s made the trip? No. Edna would need her wits now, and grief did so love to play with those.


Finding the way closed, grief tried looking for a spare key. There must be something here about Pythagoras, grief muttered, turning up bits of yesterday in Edna’s head. The unwanted guest would succeed, Edna knew, if she allowed this to continue, so she tried to ease her concerns for the turtoid.


“Highmond,” she said, after a short pause, “you seem to think the other Pythagorases are alive. Do you have any idea what’s happened to them?”


Highmond was still smiling about compass needles, but it vanished now. “Well, nothing for certain, I’m afraid, but I have a hypothesis.” He looked at Edna, who nodded for him to continue. “Yes, well, I climbed a tree - the tallest I could find. An oak, I believe, based on the... No, sorry, unimportant, you’re right. Then, having determined that we were travelling north yesterday--”


“All the compasses,” Edna provided.


“Yes,” he laughed a little, “all the compasses, indeed! Anyway, from my tree, I looked for smoke. There was none I could see to our North. In fact, the only smoke I could see at all rose from our East - though that looked more like it came from a town.” Edna’s face went quisitive at this, so he explained, “Several small, spread out sources rather than one large source.”


With this, it all clicked into place in Edna’s mind, but she restrained herself from finishing his thoughts. He had done all the work here, he deserved the grand reveal.


Highmond took a deep breath and began, “All this I say, I say, well, to say, you know, that I believe Pie must have put out the fire before landing! Now, probably a few of its other bodies perished - what with the fire and the crash that must have ensued, but our Pie is a tough old turtoid, I say! Therefore, I suggest to you, somewhere to our north, a small platoon of turtoids awaits! Likely, the dutiful chap is hard at work repairing the dirigible even now, which is good because we’ll have a long journey westward once we get to it.”


Highmond stopped, letting out what little remained of his breath. Edna took this as the cue that he had finished, so she gave a little clap, saying, “Very well done, Highmond, I am relieved and impressed.” He beamed at the compliment from her. “But I must ask,” she continued, “how do you know we have a ‘long journey westward’?”


“Ah, yes,” he said, his smile growing. He raised a foot onto a low part of the contraption by the fire, pushed his sleeves up, and leaned in. He paused momentarily, glancing about, trying to decide if any other options were available to him as he milked this line for all he could. He briefly considered abandoning his current tact, going instead with a sort of spinning cane flip thing, but decided against it. He opted to lean in even more, until he was almost all the way bent over.


Finally he said, “Because I know where we are.”


“Oh?” Edna said. It was an actual surprise to her. How had he worked out where they were when the people who lived here weren’t even sure of that?


“Yes, well, I--” Highmond cut himself off, then said, “Have you got the Japans on your world?”


“We have,” she said, “Though we just call it Japan.”


“Right, well that’s to my point, actually. The Japanese, at least on my world, don’t call it either - er, not in their own language. In fact, the land has gone by several names throughout history.”


“Okay?” Edna was no longer playing dumb to give Highmond the right of his own reveal. She honestly wasn’t sure where he was going.


“When you got the names of the pterosaur chaps yesterday, you might have noticed I turned a bit odd, yes?”


“To say the least...” she started absently, while the gears rolled into place. Then it hit her, like the ground had a few hours ago, “Oh! You don’t mean?”


“In fact I do. Those were all names of the Japans. Most of them are out of use now, but nevertheless...” He gave her a look like a child who knows they are right but has never been told so by adults.


Edna was too busy filling in the other puzzle pieces to notice or address his look. She spoke slowly, accelerating by the syllable, “And when you asked where we were, they all gave their own names! Highmond! Highmond! That’s amazing! That’s fantastic! You’ve done it!”


Edna jumped up and hugged him, forgetting her pain and her waiting grief. The joy of having solved - or seen solved - an apparently unsolvable problem too profound to be denied. It coursed through her, pulling back the curtains of her soul, beating the dust from the corners and the rugs, opening the windows so the world in all its beautiful fullness could race in. She had seen the light of the fire, but now she felt it. She had known its warmth, but now it touched her. Everything was real again.


This, Edna had to admit, was the brilliant part of adventures - the part she never got anywhere else. Apparently unsolvable problems abounded in the world, and brave, brilliant people ticked away at them slowly - a generational toil that may one day pay off without ever being noticed or celebrated. Here though, it was fast and always noticed, and she made a point to celebrate it.


Highmond was taken aback, shaken by this show of enthusiasm, but he soon allowed his excitement to take over - let its hair down. He began to jump about, shouting things like “I say!” and “Haha!” and “The Japans!” After laughing - openly, joyously - at him for a minute, Edna tried to join in his jumping, but that was a bridge too far, her pain informed her.


She sat back down, panting and patting her injuries. It wasn’t long before Highmond - old man that he was - plopped down across from her, sweat pouring from his brow. He tried and failed to catch his breath for a moment, laughing noiselessly at the elusive air.


Eventually, when they’d both had a moment to pull themselves back to themselves, Edna asked, without the breath to be anything but casual, “So how do you know all this about Japan?”


Some invisible structure in Highmond collapsed at the question. His chest sank and his face fell. Even his mustache seemed softer. He did not hesitate though. “My husband was Japanese,” he paused now, but only for a second, “and a historian.” He laughed there. It was a bitter, cold laugh - at once distant and too close. Tears welled and fell. He spoke through it all, “Yet again, it seems, he taught me exactly what I needed to know.”


Edna looked inside, at her own waiting grief. It seemed so small and selfish to her now. She began to cry as well - little, quiet tears. She didn’t know Highmond well enough to know how he would like her to act in this. She told herself if she tried she would only fail and make things worse. For a time then, they just sat there - in a silence that wasn’t silent at all.


She pulled the watch from her pocket and squeezed. She wished, not for the first time, that it would open - that she could see the face of the friend who had been through everything with her. She knew it wouldn’t though, it never had.


Instead, Edna rolled the watch round her fingers. It tick ticked in her hand, falling rhythmically between every few beats of her heart. Without thinking, she held it out to Highmond.


This surprised her. She had never offered the watch to anyone. Why would she? It was a watch. She loved it because she loved it. What good could it do anyone else? Still, it felt right. Like the watch - like time itself - wanted to go to the old man, to give him the only thing that would ever really help him.


After a small forever of Edna second-guessing herself, Highmond finally looked up, seeing the watch through bleary eyes. There was none of the confusion in his face that she’d expected, only a deep gratitude.


He grabbed the watch, but he didn’t take it from her. Instead they held it there together, and in that act - that moment that stretched on through ages and lifetimes - Edna knew she liked Highmond. How could she not like a man, who - even here, in deepest grief - had not taken the comfort she had offered all for himself? Somehow he had seen her own pain too, when he could barely see two feet in front of him, and he had chosen to live in it with her.


Slowly, the tick tick of this shared solace bridged the gaps between them, until both somehow felt they understood the other and were understood by them. They looked into each other’s eyes and smiled. It was a tiny smile, but it was - and that was enough.


And in that exact moment - where time itself seemed to wrap them in each other’s friendship and comfort - a wall of their hut exploded. The force caused a torrent of splinters and leaves and yanked them back to the world. The other walls lurched and threatened to collapse, but what was left of this one was apparently sufficient to hold them.


Through the hole stepped two gleaming, silver, European knights. Two more came through the door, like sensible home invaders. One of the two less sensible home invaders stepped forward and took off her helmet. Edna saw she was Japanese. Even so, when she spoke, her voice was a harsh british accent. “Right. You lot are comin’ with us.”

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