Adrian careened right into her. He was running the few remaining distance to the mountain crest, when she came out of nowhere and just stood there blocking his path. It was too late for him to stop. There was a loud thump and they both went down in a heap.
“I’m sorry, “Adrian gingerly helped her get up. “Are you okay? I didn’t see you coming.”
The woman said nothing. “C’mon, I’ll …” The woman turned, and Adrian stared at the wrinkled, ugliest face he had ever seen.
He almost dropped her arm, but he regained his composure and continued to help the old, ugly woman to her feet.
“Are you okay?” Adrian repeated the question, but she just nodded, and without a backward glance left him gaping at her departing figure.
“Wait,” he called out to her, but the woman limped onwards not bothering to look back.
What was that? Adrian thought. The old woman seemed to be aloof, or was she scared? Who was she? Perhaps she was one of the natives who opted to live in the forest?
He remembered the words of the caretaker at the hacienda. “Don’t stay late in the forest. Strange things happen at night.” But this is high noon! He shrugged his misgivings and continued his ascent toward the peak.
The sight from up there was something he had never imagined. It was a taste of heaven! The air was nifty and fresh, peace and calm reigned. There were white fluffy clouds drifting by like white marshmallows, etched in the clear, afternoon sky. He wanted to reach out and stuff them into his mouth.
At the foot of the mountain, the village was dotted with miniature houses. There was a river that snaked its way around it, enclosing the small nipa huts in a tight cluster. Towering mountains stood all around it like silent sentinels.
He turned around and tried to locate the town where he had come from, but the sight was only of smog rising up in the air from the flat lowlands. He was between two totally different worlds. At The other side of the mountain was the town, polluted, civilized and modernized, and at the opposite side, the pristine, unadulterated village. Perhaps one day, he would have enough time to visit the village below.
The melodious chirping of birds brought him back to reality. He settled himself in the lush, matted moss opening his packed lunch to devour his food as nature watched over him. He basked in the marvelous, invigorating environment. How he wished he could stay there forever. This was his idea of peace and quiet. He needed these rare, serene moments as his job had been demanding much from him lately, and he had bouts of insomnia during the night which was work-related.
He sat there quietly assimilating everything into his burnt out system. It was so “silent” he knew that if he shouted, this would reverberate across the mountain ranges. He closed his eyes and listened to the calming sounds of nature; the hum of the cicadas, the whisper of the wind, the chirping of birds and the murmur of distant brooks. He was in this state, when he heard an audible, chopping sound. His ears prickled and he listened closely.
“Chop, chop, chop…” there it was, resounding in the stillness of the forest.
He stood up and cautiously approached the origin of the sound. “Chop, chop chop.”
He came upon a clearing and to his surprise, he saw the old woman he had met earlier. She was painstakingly cutting up a big chunk of log into smaller sizes. Her back was bent at a dangerous angle, like it would break any moment. She seemed to be laboring under the weight of the ax.
Her abode was a small run- down house that had a big wooden door adorned with strange things: a deer antler, an apparent animal skin, and a roughly hewn digging tool. Piles of firewood were stacked on both sides of the entrance.
Adrian’s helpful nature responded to the situation. He approached the old woman who seemed not to be surprised to see him there. She continued with her laborious chore.
“Let me help you, “he offered.
The woman cast him a strange glance and went back to her task.
Adrian ventured closer, “I can do that for you…” he said uncertainly.
The woman stopped for the second time and studied him closely.
Without a word, Adrian got the ax from her. His sinewy arms rippled as he swang the hatchet repeatedly to divide the big log into pieces of firewood. This was a better exercise than lifting weights, he chuckled.
It felt good to be able to help someone again.
When the log had been neatly cut into small pieces and stacked below the hearth, he viewed his work contentedly.
“Here, have some water,” the old woman spoke at last, her hoarse voice quivered.
“Thank you.” Adrian drank thirstily from the plastic cup.
“Thanks for the help, but you have to go now,” she said.
Adrian was curious, “don’t you have anyone else here with you?”
She did not answer his question.
“Go now, before it gets dark,” she insisted, pushing him firmly out of the clearing.
Adrian left reluctantly. The old woman’s face became contorted and she was wildly motioning with her hands, urging him to leave.
He found it strange that an old woman would be living alone in the middle of the forest. Was this one of those Hansel and Gretel stories that he had read when he was a child? He enjoyed those bed time stories but he knew they were pure fiction. Witches and the supernatural just weren’t in his vocabulary.
Shaking his head in disbelief, he trekked back as the setting sun cast an orange hue in the approaching dusk.
The descent would take an hour at the most, he thought. As he was nearing the clear, bubbling stream which he had passed earlier, he heard singing.
The flowing, vibrant voice came from a woman seated in a gleaming stone. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever set eyes on. Her toes were immersed in the water and she was playfully wiggling them.
He stood transfixed for some interminable minutes and then willed himself to move on.
But the woman noticed him, “Hello, are you new to this place?” He stopped in his tracks and looked back.
She had stood up and her flimsy, flowing clothing could not hide the voluptuous figure she had.
Adrian stared and became speechless, he nodded his assent.
“Come sit with me for a while, I need company.”
He could not take his eyes off her. Am I being hypnotized? Or being enchanted perhaps? What’s a beautiful woman doing in the forest alone? He asked himself.
He wanted to refuse but the woman pulled him closer and held his hand tenderly.
He went willingly. Vestiges of night shadows were beginning to take shape. The air seemed charged with numerous atoms that began to collide with each other.
As she sensuously caressed his hands, his pulses quickened and his spine tingled. When was the last time he had been with a woman? He couldn’t remember.
Just then, a piercing scream rang through the air. Adrian bolted up, like he was struck by lightning.
The scream echoed in the distance, he was almost certain it was the old woman! What was happening to her?
“That’s the old woman I met earlier. I have to see what’s wrong with her.” He blurted out and started to disengage himself.
The woman restrained him. “She’s just an old witch,” she said scornfully. “Stay here with me and I’ll make you happy.”
Another scream reverberated in the evening air.
Adrian firmly dislodged the woman’s creamy hand from his shoulders and ran. “I will have to see what’s wrong with her,” he insisted.
It was easier for him to go back to the old woman’s hut. It felt like he was going home. The old woman had her back to him and was staring at the distance. Adrian was at her side in an instant.
“What’s wrong?” He asked breathlessly.
The old woman turned and to Adrian’s utter amazement, her face transformed slowly into a lovely, young woman’s face. “You have a good heart that transcends the mundane. You have opted to help an ugly, old woman,” she said. ”And because of that, you have broken the evil spell. From now on, no one will die in these mountains, ever again.”
What’s this, the Lord of the Rings? Adrian thought. Am I imagining all of these things? He held back an urge to laugh.
“I met a young woman at the stream…” he said, wanting to know all the answers.
“She won’t bother anyone anymore with her deadly enchantments,” she smiled at him.
“Here take this as a reminder of the good you have done here.” She pressed something into Adrian’s hands.
“Hey, Adrian, wake up.”
Someone was shaking him not so gently. A bright light was shining directly into his face.
He sat up disoriented, and recognized his two friends hovering over him.
“Where is she? I was just talking to her,” he queried.
“Who?” Paul, the raconteur of the group asked, “the princess from far, far away?” and he laughed heartily.
“C’mon, you have fallen asleep. Who wouldn’t be? This environment is conducive to sleep,” Pete seconded. “You were dreaming, my friend.”
And together they helped him to his feet. “You were not answering your cell phone. We were worried. You’re lucky we found the man who saw you come up here.”
“But, I have seen this woman. I had talked to her, talked to them,” Adrian insisted.
“Hey, no one lives in this forest. Let’s get moving. It’s getting really dark. “
“Wait,” Adrian remembered what the woman pressed into his hands. He opened his palm and saw the tiny flash of light.
He scrutinized the object and noticed a tiny diamond winking at him beneath the dirty exterior. “Look,” he shouted jubilantly, “She gave me this.”
The three of them peered closely at what was obviously a diamond; caked with a little mud, but a diamond nevertheless.
“Why, yes, it’s a diamond,” Paul exclaimed. “Where’s this woman?”
Without replying, Adrian ran back towards the house in the forest, while the two were in hot pursuit. They arrived breathless at the clearing.
“Where is she?” Peter asked excitedly, “We’ll get rich.”
Adrian looked around him puzzled. The small house had been right there in the middle of the clearing. Now, there was only an enormous tree. There were fireflies on the tree making it appear like it was lighted with small incandescent bulbs.
“Perhaps, this is not the right place.”
“No, this is the right place. I am certain.” Adrian stated positively.
Finally they decided it was futile to search for something that was apparently not there, so they hiked back to town cloaked in silence; each to his own thought.
Paul was thinking, “perhaps Adrian got a little mad, because of his insomnia? …But how could the diamond be explained?”
Peter was thinking, “We should trace where that diamond came from. Perhaps he just concocted that tall tale so that he would have an excuse not to reveal the source of the diamond? “
Adrian was thinking: “The two women were real. The diamond in his hand was proof. But would anyone believe him?”
Every year, Adrian went back to seek solace from that forest. He never came across the two women again. Whenever someone asked him to recount his “diamond story”, he would say, “a fairy gave it to me.” Everyone would laugh thinking it was a joke.
But to him nothing was more real than the two women he had encountered in the forest.