May 9th: A ‘cracking’ start to the day

Friday May 9th 1997 began in a memorable way…

You might say, with a bang…

Shortly before six that morning I was curled in my sleeping bag, the tent pitched many miles from anyone and anywhere, all alone, deep in the woods. Birds were probably singing. The first silver light of day was probably spilling through the trees. No that I was aware of the new day… I was still unconscious, lost within the kind of deep sleep that’s almost like death itself. But not for much longer…

One second I was asleep; the very next I was shockingly awake, adrenaline coursing through my veins. The reason: a loud shout had just occurred, followed by several gunshots, from somewhere horribly, horribly close: CRACK… CRACK… CRACKCRACKCRACK… followed by… nothing… just absolute… throbbing… silence.

I must have jerked awake into a sitting position because that’s how I found myself, without memory of sitting up. Hidden within my tent I couldn’t see anything outside, but I could listen, and I could wonder. And so I listened, and wondered, without moving, without barely even breathing, for long minutes, ears straining, finding nothing to hear. Even the birds had shut up. But the sound of the gunshots still seemed to echo through the trees. Questions raced through my mind: hunters? Should I call out in case they were still hunting? In case they hadn’t seen my tent, green as the surrounding forest? I didn’t want to catch a stray bullet, shot by accident. But why the shout? Hunters don’t normally shout right before shooting, do they? What if it wasn’t hunters? Someone out for target practice, surely? But why would anyone have ventured deep into the woods at dawn, to shoot for fun? And the shout? Something about the shout was unsettling. There had been no meaningful words that I could recall. It had just been… loud… piercing… more of a shriek. There was something… un-nerving… and not quite right, about the whole thing.

Now, I don’t know how you would have felt, but I can tell you that being entirely alone in a forest in wildest Calabria at dawn near persons unknown who had guns and had just used them didn’t make me feel especially… comfortable. It was a bloody effective alarm clock, though.

I waited ten more minutes, by which time the birds had resumed singing, and then – ever so quietly, and ever so swiftly – I packed up camp, and stole almost on tiptoes through the trees, with every sense alert. After less than a minute I came upon a narrow dirt road that I hadn’t been aware of, and perhaps a hundred and fifty feet down it where the road apparently ended, to my left, were three brand-spanking new SUV’s, parked. The vehicles looked thoroughly out of place in the woods; I hadn’t seen anything like them since beginning the walk. Every other car and truck had been old, beat up. But these were spotless, gleaming, jet black all over, with black tinted windows, too. There was no-one about, so I darted promptly across the road, merged into the trees beyond, and disappeared like a shadow back into the embrace of the sheltering woods.

It took a while before my heart-rate slowed to an acceptable level. And I didn’t stop for breakfast until a good few miles had passed.

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