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It took Helen about ten minutes to make a basket trap with her shirt. She knotted the sleeves and tied the shirt wide open to a couple of branches that she had rammed deep into the riverbed. In time, fish would swim into the shirt and be unable to turn around. She waded out and climbed the bank. Standing waist-deep in the water had rinsed some of the blood and semen from her jeans and singlet. For now, preserving forensic evidence was the least of her worries. She berated herself again for choosing such a remote area of Brazil for her holidays, when she could just as easily have picked Rio de Janeiro or somewhere back home in Australia.
She checked her watch: just after 11am.
By her rough calculations, she'd travelled about ten kilometres, so the men who'd snatched her from the train station had a search area of some 160 square kilometres if they wanted to find her again. To further confuse a human tracker, assuming they had one or even cared to go looking for her, she'd taken the least obvious route: northwest into the forest, rather than east along the road to the coastal township. She could rest for a while.
She lay with her hands behind her head. Her throat felt dusty, but the sunshine would take some twelve hours to sterilise the river water in the plastic bottles that she'd found in the garbage along the banks. Smoke from a fire was too risky, and since air-drying any fish she caught would take the best part of a day, the decision on whether to keep walking or to stay here and make camp was already made for her. Good. She was too tired to keep running anyway.
Helen's eyes began to close. Three or four of the men had taken turns on her all night and she hadn't slept. Somewhere beyond the trees, a finch whistled. A breeze ruffled the canopy overhead.
She fell asleep and dreamed that she was on the Wimmera plains, a flat expanse of Victorian countryside covered in wildflowers, and Dad was by her side. She was practising her tracking skills on rabbit spoor, and it didn't seem strange that she was a kid again instead of a grown woman approaching thirty. Dad started to point his walking stick, trying to tell her something, but she couldn't hear him and grew afraid.
She woke with a jolt. Nearby was the riverbank. The shadows had lengthened. The noise came again, a rustling in the underbrush. She rolled onto her stomach and looked up into the gun barrel. Only it wasn't a gun barrel; it was a red brocket some five metres away, a deer that tensed at Helen's sudden movement but didn't bolt. They stared at each other with wide eyes. Then the deer carefully lowered its sleek head, took a mouthful of grass, and retreated into the forest.
She dozed. When next she checked her watch, it was nearly 3pm.
Her ad hoc basket trap held two catfish, each about the size of a rat. She dropped the fish to the riverbank and hung her shirt in a tree to dry. A fallen branch served as a club and she set about scaling and gutting her catch. The men had taken her backpack but she still had her penknife. Why they hadn't frisked her, she didn't know. Maybe they were too used to snatching foreign women who had nothing but hotel keys, a few notes, loose change, and tour maps in their pockets.
She ate one of the fish raw; the other she needed to preserve. It had been years since Dad had taught her to make fish jerky and the task took her some time. The strips of fish were draped on sticks in the full sun. To keep off the flies, she tented her shirt over the top. Then, light-headed, she sat down hard.
She was still hungry. Vegetation surrounded her but she didn't know which species were edible. She thought again of her father. Of all the survival skills he had taught her, Dad always said the most important was keeping a cool head.
Daddy, can I ask you something about your tour? Mum always says I shouldn't ever ask you anything.
I tell you what, sweetie. I'll answer if I feel like it, is that okay?
Okay. When they found you, they hurt you, didn't they?
Yeah, they sure did.
That's why you need a walking stick.
What did they do?
Lots of things. But that was a long time ago and it doesn't matter now. So tell me, what's the most important thing to do when you're in a tight spot?
Think about the people you love.
Right, but there's also hanging tough. Never forget that. Don't start carrying on like a baby and you'll be all right.
And she had kept a cool head. She'd tamped down the terror until it was nothing but a knot in her stomach that helped her stay frosty, that showed her the moment to make a break for it.
She gave a silent prayer: thanks again, Dad, for insisting on your access weekends. Mum had never approved of Helen's camping trips with Dad, afraid that Helen would follow too closely in his footsteps, but Dad was a soldier, not a killer. Too bad that Mum had never seen the difference.
Helen checked her watch: nearly 6pm. She lay down, dropped once more into a dreamless sleep, and drowsed in and out of torpor, sweating, her teeth chattering.
It grew dark and then light. For all she knew, animals had taken her fish. Occasionally she saw parakeets and toucans. Once, she thought she saw a family of marmosets leaning over and peering at her, but then again, maybe not. Seeing things that weren't there was a bad sign. Maybe she wouldn't make it out of here and scavengers would scatter her bones. One day, a hiker might chance upon what was left of Helen and move on, assuming that her remains belonged to a wounded deer that had sought shelter long ago.
When she at last woke up with a clear head, the sun was already high in the sky. She had to get moving. Her plan was to hike to the sugarcane territory in the south, and hitch a ride northeast to the coastal township where she could raise the alarm. The image of those men behind bars galvanised her, but when she got to her feet, dots sprang across her vision.
Grabbing onto tree branches, she made it to the riverbank. She drank all the water from one of the bottles but could only pick at the fish strips, her appetite gone. Perhaps this was another bad sign. Packing the rest of the bottles and the fish into her shirt, she slung it over her back and headed south at an ambling pace. Conserving what remained of her energy was now the only thing that mattered.
* * *
Hours slipped by, hours of endless repetition. The curves of the river fell behind. Unseen birds peeped and warbled. The valley was thick with palm trees, and the grass was as green and shiny as fresh limes and was dotted with orchids.
Mint grew wild in the undergrowth, and as she walked through the stems, the aroma conjured roast lamb lunches and lazy Sunday afternoons with the potbelly stove throwing off heat, and the wind and rain beating at the kitchen windows. Dad was carving the roast. Mum was sitting with her elbows on the table and her chin propped on her interlaced fingers. She was smiling with that soft look she used to have for Dad before his nightmares got out of hand and the memories claimed him, before he moved away to live in a caravan and drink beer for breakfast.
Dad offered Helen a plate that steamed with slices of mint-scented lamb. She reached out, salivating, and cactus needles stabbed into her hand. As she stumbled back, her legs gave way.
The ground hit her. As she lay amid the leaf litter, she looked about at the forest, blinking, dazed.
"Get a grip, you idiot," she said, and her voice creaked, a frightening noise. "Stop it right now."
She watched the grey, scudding clouds. Rain was coming. If only she had a poncho. Her forehead was burning but it wasn't fever, she decided; she wasn't sick, goddamn it, only famished. Low blood sugars were messing with her mind. She ate a piece of fish jerky without much interest and started walking south again.
A faint yelp echoed over the forest.
Helen's heart kicked into a gallop. It couldn't be a farming dog, since the only farms around here grew sugarcane and soybean. So it had to be a tracker dog, which meant the men were hunting her after all.
When the dog barked, Helen broke into a run.
She sprinted hard, taking high choppy steps through the underbrush, fearful of breaking an ankle, vaulting over logs and crashing through low-lying branches. Then she tripped and fell full length on her front, knocking the wind from her. For a moment she lay gasping, air burning her throat, the taste of copper on her tongue. She sat up.
To the southeast was a low hill. She abandoned the strewn water bottles and jerky, grabbed her shirt and bolted. In the ten minutes it took to reach the hill, a stitch had her doubled over and panting. She scrambled and clawed her way to the peak and glanced back across the valley.
There was nothing but the coils of river winding through the forest, and beyond, a shimmering blue sliver of ocean. She forced herself to look again and finally, there they were down at the riverbank where she'd slept, two tiny figures, a man walking behind a dog on a long leash.
A strange calm settled into her and she sat down.
She had done everything she could to throw off a human tracker: taking a circuitous route to the township rather than the beeline, wading through the river, keeping to deer tracks, doubling back from time to time. But to a dog, her scent would light up the forest like the flashing bulbs on a trimmed Christmas tree. Then there was the fever. No use denying it now. And travelling slowly would allow the tracker to catch up in no time at all.
As she dropped her head to her folded arms, Dad's voice came back: Don't start carrying on like a baby and you'll be all right.
She whispered, "It's no use, I can't outrun them."
So kill the dog.
"Oh yeah? How? I could never get close enough." Helen croaked out a laugh. "This is ridiculous, Dad, you're not even real. I'm just hallucinating again."
But she did think about killing the dog. Then she thought about it some more. There was an hour until nightfall: the man would soon be setting up camp. The wind carried light drizzle, and no dog could follow scent in the rain. Helen got to her feet.
* * *
By 4am, there was nothing left of the campfire but a few stirring embers. The man was tucked into a sleeping bag, an arm folded under his head for a pillow.
Helen recognised him. Three days ago, this small, middle-aged man had introduced himself as a taxi driver, offering in broken English to take her to a nearby hostel. Helen had followed him through the crowd to a van parked outside the train station. Once she was in the van, a man in the front passenger seat turned and showed her a gun. They had taken her to a shack at the edge of town where other men were waiting.
And now, beside the dying fire at the riverbank, the driver was snoring peacefully. She withdrew the penknife from her pocket, opened its blade and kicked the sleeping bag.
The man startled, and rubbed at his moustache with a slender hand, mumbling, "O que está acontecendo?" What is happening?
Then he gaped at her. Neither spoke for a long time. At last, the driver sat up and cut his eyes around the camp.
Helen said, "Your little beagle is dead. Cachorro morto. I waited in the rain, came up downwind and clubbed it with a log. I don't know any words for that. Cachorro morto?"
"Yes, the dog he is kill. Me also?"
"No, I just want your boots."
He frowned, shrugged, and contorted his mouth like he was going to cry. "Sinto muito, eu não entendo." I'm sorry, I don't understand.
"Boots. Your shoes," Helen said, and patted one of her feet. "Sapatos."
"Ah," the driver said, and nodded and smiled. He picked up the tattered pair of sneakers by the campfire and tossed them to her. Helen couldn't comprehend his flurry of words, but the beseeching tone was clear.
She lifted a placating hand, and said, "It's okay, senhor. Without your dog or your shoes, you can't follow me, right? No cachorro, no sapatos, you no seguir."
"Yes, no follow. Okay missy. It is deal, okay?"
The driver laughed and clapped a few times, then thrust out a hand for her to shake. Helen nodded and took it, smiling, and he wrenched her towards him and threw his other arm about her neck and rolled her beneath him.
The campfire embers hissed through her shirt and burned her back. The driver tightened his grip. Helen slashed over and over with the penknife. For a time, the only sounds were their harsh gasps and the clattering of the campfire stones under her writhing body. Then the driver cried out and his grip around her neck loosened. He started to gurgle. Helen shoved and his weight shifted. She crawled some distance away, fighting for breath.
After a while, the gurgling noises stopped. For the longest time, she couldn't bear to look. A finch whistled. The sky paled and the horizon showed pink through the trees. Helen looked behind her at last. The driver's eyes were dull and his blood glistened like treacle.
"Didn't you hear me, you stupid bastard? I wasn't going to hurt you."
And then she wept, but not for long.
* * *
Later, much later along a path, sugarcane bristled in shiny rows and the sun blazed butter-yellow. Helen's vision blurred and ran red. Unexpectedly, Dad stepped out onto the path, his arms wide open to her.
Her breath caught. "Oh Dad, I've done a terrible thing."
A female voice replied, "Quem está lá?" Who's there?
Helen squinted into the bright light. A woman and a girl shimmered like luminous deities, each figure perfect in the cast of her shoulders, the glow of her hair. Godlike, they reached out with their long beautiful hands and caused the ground beneath Helen's feet to turn into water.
Helen sank down and the darkness crowded over her.
* * *
The mother and daughter at the sugarcane farm had called for the town's doctor. After four days in the city hospital getting treatment for dehydration, exposure and a kidney infection, Helen was well enough to be discharged. She went straight to the Australian embassy.
The deputy chief-of-mission was a fat man with ears that stuck out. The room was small and papered brown. Through the window came noises of the street: motor scooters, the odd shout, canned music from a transistor radio.
The deputy's pen hovered over the documents on the desk. "And your passport?" he said.
"In my backpack."
"The backpack that was stolen on the hiking trail?"
"Ah, the same old same old, thievery in this area is terrible. It could've been worse, believe me, the tales would turn you grey, but what can you do?"
"Get out and never come back."
"Wise words, that's for sure." The deputy scratched his pen across the form. "Okay then, done, I can get you an interim passport and book you on the next flight." He looked up and smiled uncertainly. "Are you all right?"
She was thinking about the river, which held the driver and his dog, both weighted down with stones. Catfish would be pecking at the man's moustache and sucking the meat from his face, reducing him to bone.
She said, "I just want to go home and put everything behind me."
"Of course. Sign here."
She took the proffered pen with shaking fingers. During her last visit with Dad, he'd sat mute and gaping at his trembling hands as if they'd held invisible horrors. She was her father's daughter after all, but whether or not she could avoid the bottle and the madness, Helen had no way of knowing.
She scrawled her name and put down the pen.CHAPTER 2
Risk of Recurrence
Dr Wainscott tries to smile, then says, "I'd very much like to talk about it with you."
"Okay," Bernadette Fry says. "So tell me why you did it."
She shifts her weight on Dr Wainscott's couch and hunkers down like a child settling in for a story. Transfixed in his armchair, Dr Wainscott mentally scrabbles for an answer that could satisfy her. Unfortunately, he can't think of one.
* * *
Bernadette Fry had walked into his office for the first time about a year ago, her hair uncombed and her gaudy dress too tight. Dr Wainscott had gestured at a seat and she'd dropped into it, fat shimmying. According to her file, she had no chronic illnesses, prior surgeries or major health concerns — apart from this one. Her mammogram pictures were clipped to the light box on the wall.
Dr Wainscott removed his glasses. "If I may call you Bernadette," he said, and indicated the pictures with a roll of his wrist. "Now, Bernadette, this image is of your left breast and this one is of your right. These spongy areas suggest normal breast tissue. And this little spot here, on the left ..." He tapped the arm of his glasses against a starfish shape. "Do you see?"
"That spot isn't what I would consider to be normal breast tissue."
"So, I have cancer."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Figments and Fragments"
Copyright © 2019 Deborah Sheldon.
Excerpted by permission of IFWG Publishing International.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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