Jaydan Salzke (Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand)
In a wooded area, there’s a clearing.
There, the grass is littered by fallen, wilting leaves as the surrounding trees sag and shed under the weight of recent rainfall. They offer protection from all sides as the tree line is visibly impenetrable, but not from above where the night sky offers thick clouds with only the faintest glow from obstructed stars and moon. Erected in the middle of the clearing, bathed in shadows, is a tent. With rusted tent pegs and fraying ropes, the tent, once red, is faded and growing mould. The tent is hollow, but for a sleeping bag and a body. The body of a boy.
He shivers, eyes shut tight in a desperate attempt to claw his way back to sleep. He’s lying on top of the sleeping bag rather than in it, but still feels every stone and stick he failed to clear before setting up camp. The sleeping bag, which rustles with even his slightest movement, is as dark as the clouds above. He’s long given up on the fire outside, once a bright orange, now reduced to smoke and ashes. He’s almost given up on the sun too and, as the night draws on, he doubts it’s yellow, warm glow will ever return.
Arms wrapped around his legs, the boy feels terribly small within the tent and yet knows he barely fits in it. His mind spins as he considers checking, not for the first time, whether the two mesh doors are zipped up and secure. The green attitude of his younger days is now a distant memory, replaced by an impossibly eternal blue. Though even it is beginning to fade. Using tears and gaps in the zipper’s ripped teeth, wind seeps into the tent and attacks his skin, turning his lips and fingers a mix of indigo and violet. Gales whistle. Canvas flaps tremble. He hears every foreboding howl and hoot and yet still wishes for safe passage through the night. The boy clings to that wish tighter than he grips the sleeping bag, tighter than he holds his own body.
But it’s all a lie.
Even the rain, whose first drop startles the boy as it runs down the dome of the tent roof and trickles in through a rip to land on his arm. He manoeuvres onto his back where he can see the path that the raindrop bled on the canvas and watches as that first drop is quickly followed by several more.
Soon the sky is unleashing a torrent of water upon the tent, the noise so deafening the boy can no longer make out the sounds of the woods or even his own breath. He believes he’s going to die this way. That his forever will be played out in the confines of this tent, never to see the light of day. It’s better this way, he thinks. Better that no one can see it.
The volume of the downpour grows even more and the water begins to accumulate on the tent floor. Before long, the sleeping bag is soaked and so is the boy, his hair releasing beads of water that run down his face, forming tracks where tears should, did, do go.
The boy sits up, still on his water bed of a sleeping bag and looks straight ahead, at the mesh doors that have consumed his thoughts all night long. He thinks of the sun, the fire, the green grass from long ago and he misses them. Yearns for them. Dares to wonder if it’s possible they’re out there waiting for him. Yet he cannot break through that wall.
But that too is a lie, right?
Slowly he crawls his way over to the mesh door, cowering his head as he wraps his fingers around the zipper. Propped up on his knees, he can’t bear to watch, to see what lies beyond the wall he built up, and so he shuts his eyes tight and scrunches his face in defence, an expression he’s used to wearing. He feels the cool metal of the zipper on his skin and traces the path the teeth create around the door with his free hand. The water laps at his knees and feet and threatens to consume him. He must make a move. Now.
He tugs and the door unzips in fits and starts. It gets caught and eventually refuses to budge, but he carries on, moving carefully and methodically at first. With each tug, though, his desperation grows and he grunts with effort. Soon he’s screaming as he’s tearing the door apart, not caring for the damage he might do to it. The mesh rips underneath his fingers yet they bleed as if he’s scratching at brick.
He has no plan for when he is out but knows now that he must get there.
Canvas. Mesh. Red. Mould. All blur his vision as his eyes are open now and he’s lunging at the tent wall and through pain and grit, he makes it through, crawls through and finds himself outside.
Where, still on all fours, he looks around. Dumbfounded.
At first he thinks the rain has cleared, but it becomes obvious that nothing around him is wet. He searches for the trees, but his eyes are captured instead by a sea of colourful flowers. Except that they’re not flowers. He knows he must be delusional, lying to himself.
But this time there is no lie.
The colourful flowers are other tents. And there’s millions of them, further than his eyes allow him to see, much further than his mind allows him to believe. They’re not uniform, no thought of rows or organisation of any fashion. Instead they’re scattered about, a rainbow in a clearing where there was never any rain.
The boy is stunned, blinded by the colours. He feels his shivers subside and his skin dry out in the heat of the day. And as he adjusts he realises that now that he’s out of the cold, he never wants to go back.
The boy looks up at the sun, and it’s as bright as ever.
He looks back to his tent, and it’s a fiery red.
And when he looks out to the fire, he finds it still alight, burning on.
Jaydan Salzke, originally from Queensland Australia, is a teacher turned writer who is intent on wielding the power of words for good. His creative pursuit centres around using writing to make our world better, not just noisier. As of 2022, Jaydan is completing a Masters of Creative Writing through Auckland University of Technology (AUT), penning a short-form literature collection that explores the notion of intersectionality.