By Leonie Rauber
The fog is alive and it whispers to me.
Its voices are everywhere, encasing me like the billowing vapor that makes the mists. I step forward, and the fog parts as if I were Moses and it the Red Sea. But it swirls, settles on my arms and fingers and face and hair. It smells wet. I shiver and draw the thermal blanket tighter around my shoulders.
Out, I tell myself, I’m getting out.
I climbed this mountain, trudging through deep mud, over sharp rocks, around a corner to the right. For days, I encountered only ever the same landscape consisting of only ever the same colors: white fog, dark ground, dirty stones, green pine trees.
The pine trees are giants, stretch far into the sky, their tips vanishing in the mists. With every step I take, a new looming silhouette appears in the glaring wall of fog.
I wonder, sometimes, can God see through the fog? Or has He averted His eyes from this heartless place? God sees everything, they say, but why would He glance upon lifeless surroundings like these?
For here are none of His creatures. No bird singing in the branches, no worm digging through the dirt, no deer searching for something to eat. Those damned trees alone keep me company.
Along with the whispers.
They intensify the more time I spend in their presence. At first, I thought them the rushing of the sea, though now I discern unintelligible words that echo in my head, accompanying me wherever I go.
But I will return to Him. I’ve outsmarted the mists. They want me to get lost in them, want me to live out my days between the pines. Yet, I found a cliff. I keep it to my left, so I won’t lose my way. It will lead me out of here, eventually, it has to.
Although it’s no more than another swirl of fog. Not solid ground but mere clouds that would let me tumble to my death if I only stepped a little further.
They would love me to.
I won’t give them the satisfaction.
It’s afternoon, my watch says, when I hear the call for the first time.
I spin, squinting. Is someone searching for me? My heart jumps and accelerates. It hammers in my throat, constricting it, making it difficult to breathe.
Did they find the plane?
For a second, panic swallows me. What did they find on the plane? Apart from my pilot. Did they look in the back?
I hesitate, but the whispers grow louder. They still speak in indistinguishable words, but now they sound powerful enough to make me raise my arms and wave.
Here! I scream.
Over here! It’s a woman’s voice. They found me.
I stumble back the way I came, rush past pine trees that I met before, barely glance at the cliff. I don’t care.
My steps falter, though, when I remember my pilot. I might be saved, but she won’t ever be. She didn’t make it through the crash, had spit blood long before her ragged breathing finally stilled.
But I won’t join her in her fate. The lightning didn’t kill me, and the fog won’t either.
I wave again, waiting for someone to step out from behind the pines. They might grin, perhaps, and welcome me back to the living.
But the fog remains still.
I strain to see through the white. Where are the calls coming from?
Perhaps I should wait here for them to find me rather than blindly stumble in any direction.
It came from the woods. That woman’s voice again. Is it just her?
Here, I scream back but the fog is too tight—a brick wall that will not carry my words to my saviors. They want me to stay, the whispers in the mists, they won’t help in my escape.
Still afternoon, my watch says, but the light slowly dims. The shadows around the trees grow wider, the fog becomes grey, the red of my watch turns into a muddy claret.
But I wait, answering the calls now and then. It’s always the same female voice, high and somewhat despairing. It feels familiar. Wishful thinking, I know—I’ve been alone for too long.
I shiver from the lack of movement and produce more clouds every time I exhale. My heart doesn’t beat in my throat anymore, although breathing remains just as difficult. I should follow her. Before the calls vanish, before my chance slips away. But what if I will find neither her nor back to the cliff?
My feet remain glued to the mud while I listen to the woman’s voice growing fainter.
Until she falls silent.
The fog strokes my arms and hair, kisses my thermal blanket with wet droplets. As if trying to soothe me.
My fists clench, crumpling the blanket. I still have the cliff. The woman wasn’t my only hope. But it’s difficult to unclench my fingers, to relax my face, to ignore my stomach’s growling. I ran out of food reserves days ago.
I need to get out.
I am getting out.
But for now, I have to find a place to sleep. I duck under a pine—careful so its wet needles won’t spill too much water into my hair—and lean against the trunk.
The tree is icy, and it steals my warmth, leaving only its misty frost. But it’s not the pine that freezes my mind and thoughts, that makes my chest heave with quick, shallow breaths.
I squeeze my eyes shut and try to forget the whispers. But they amplify, no longer rushing noises, not just unintelligible background voices. But sounds that coalesce into words.
Cold seeps into my body, crawls up my back, raises the tiny hair on my neck. The longer I listen, the clearer these two words become.
A threat. A warning. A promise.
I slither more than walk down the mountain. Yet, my steps are determined; every pine I pass is another pine I leave behind.
The calls have returned. Still the same female voice, still somewhere to my right. I was elated at first, when I heard her again, was about to enter the woods and follow her blindly.
But I faltered. I never saw a sign of someone looking for me. No lights, no footsteps, merely this one voice shouting two words.
It’s the mists trying to lure me into the woods, I realized. Even now, they swirl around me as if to take me by the hand. As if their guidance would lead me to safety. I shake them off, stare ahead, stay next to the cliff that leads me around another soft bend to the right.
Over here! I’m Elena.
I halt for a second. A name. That’s a first. Who’s Elena?
It’s the fog. Mocking me, trying to distract me. I keep walking.
Come here! Over here!
I withstand the urge to plunge my fingers into my ears, keep my head down instead and my eyes on the cliff. It’s afternoon, says my watch, flashing its red hands at me.
My stomach growls. At least I have enough to drink—from the water that gathers on the pine needles. So the fog is good for something. I just hope it doesn’t poison me.
The slope steepens, slippery rocks replace the mud, and I must be careful where I tread.
Still afternoon, my watch says, and I frown. I’ve been hiking for hours—how can time not pass? Are mists tricking me again?
Over here! I’m Elena.
Did Elena fall victim to the whispers? Did she follow their calls into the woods?
I tuck my blanket tighter. It’s not of much use to me anymore, wet as it is by now and no sun to heat it. But it’s the only thing protecting me from the mists, the only piece of God I have left.
I walk around a knee-high boulder, but the image of my watch won’t release me. I stop and examine it, brush away the swirls that try to keep me from checking the time.
The red of the clock hands fades. Creases on my forehead deepen as the color turns claret, then brown, then dark green.
My hand trembles.
I shake my arm and observe as drops of water bounce gleefully inside the clockwork.
The fog. It’s tampering with my watch.
I don’t notice my breathing quicken until dark spots appear in front of my eyes. I stumble, try to find a hold on the boulder, but it’s slick from the mists. My chest heaves but there is no air. There’s only the fog that poisoned my watch. I drank the same water—is it poisoning me, too?
I grip the watch, tear at it, try to rip it away. But it clings to me as does the fog. I lash at the mists. They swirl and merely laugh at me.
I need the watch gone. I feel for its lock, but it isn’t there. The wristband has melted, clings to me, constricts.
I turn and bang the watch against the boulder, smash it against the rock’s sharpest edges. Glass cracks, metal clinks, stone rings. Splinters fly through the air.
Pain. My arm struck the rock. But I can’t stop. Not until this possessed thing flies off my wrist.
I lunge out once more. The watch falls off my wrist, clanks onto the stones, and rolls down the hill.
The watch hand still lies in front of me, and suddenly it’s red again.
It’s fake. A trick by the fog, it wants me to believe I won. I step on the hand. My boot buries it in the ground, but it’s still there, still shining when I lift my leg. I step on it again, grind my shoe into the rock, twist. Red. I trample it, scream at it, kick it.
The ground gives in.
My arms flail, but the boulder is too slick, and suddenly the world is gone.
Sharp rocks bury themselves in my flesh. The thermal blanket slips away; I try to catch it, but it’s ripped from my fingers. Mud invades my mouth.
Something slams into my side.
My fall stops. I groan, can’t move. Everything hurts.
This is punishment. I stole from the fog, and this is how the whispers repay me. I’m theirs.
I spit out. The dirt tastes of moldy fruit and grass. I don’t want to be theirs. It’s cold.
We can make you warm.
Muddy water soaks my clothes. I need to get up. I’m almost down the mountain. The sun might be waiting for me just a few trees away. God might be waiting for me.
I lift my body, somehow get my arms underneath me, and push myself up. I groan but heave myself on my knees and then climb to my feet.
I slump against the tree that caught me. It’s different from the other pines, has fewer branches and needles. Is it dying? Maybe the fog is punishing it for helping me.
I pat it once, thank it. Then I limp down the mountain.
The slope isn’t as steep anymore, and soon, I reach even ground. But the fog remains as thick as ever, and the whispers grow to screams. I stick my fingers into my ears, but the screams don’t lessen, as if the whispers don’t come from the outside, as if they have infiltrated my body, my head, my thoughts.
I grimace. I’m so close.
Please, God, if You can see me, know I am Yours. I made mistakes, but I vow I will be Your most devout servant if You only give me another chance.
Can You hear me?
The call comes from ahead of me now rather than the side. I turn but the cliff is still there.
It’s so cold without my blanket. But I won’t need it anymore, soon, I know it.
We will make you warm.
I limp on, fire shooting through my rips with every step. I close my eyes. My arms fall to my sides. My steps slow. But then … I frown.
My eyes widen. My heart pounds. Is it the exit? Is it God?
I hurry as quickly as my clumsy feet allow, panting.
The pines. There’s a treetop. And another. Are they smaller here? This must mean I’m reaching the end of the woods.
But the trees are lopsided. They lean against others as if blown over.
It’s cold. My fingers are cold, my feet are cold, every time I inhale I draw in wet, cold fog.
But this coldness is only on the outside.
It’s the coldness on my inside that makes me freeze.
My chest doesn’t move as I gape at the cut-down trees. Felled by the silver shape leaning against them.
I glance to my left. The cliff is still there. I trusted it to lead me out, but it still brought me back to where I started. I flinch away from it. It obeys the fog like everything else, preyed on me like the rest of this damned forest.
But there was something red, wasn’t there?
I squint. A figure. A tree? No, it’s moving, stepping out from behind the pines.
I exhale, blink.
It’s a person. Her blouse is red.
Over here! Her mouth moves. I’m Elena, your pilot for today.
I frown and suddenly I don’t stand in the mists anymore. The sun burns on my face and shoulders. A warm shudder shakes my body as I suck up the heat. The sky is blue, and I smell gasoline and dust. The asphalt under my boots is cracked. Weeds fight to the surface.
Over here! someone shouts, and I turn my head. A woman waves in front of the familiar silver plane. I’m Elena, your pilot for today.
I blink and the warmth disappears. The fog surrounds me again. My fingers are numb. The clattering of my teeth is disturbingly loud. But it’s the cold on the inside that’s worse than the chilling wetness on my skin.
The whispers are quiet now, a mere buzz in the background. As if they are satisfied. Because I know now. Can’t deny it.
God has abandoned this place.
Elena reaches out. Her blouse … red. But it darkens as the mists swirl around it, first claret, then brown, and then green.
We can make you warm, she says with the voices of the whispers. Will you let us?
My knees give out and Elena smiles.
Leonie Rauber is a student at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in Germany. She lives in a small village near the big city, where she works on turning her ideas into stories. She is writing her debut novel.