Ever since I was a kid I always wanted to fly. Throughout my childhood, I would climb to the top of tall trees and look out, wishing I could take wing and soar, higher and higher, to travel great distances and see the world from afar, pristine, wild and beautiful.
As I grew, I was told repeatedly my dream wasn’t possible. Humans, as a species, are not made to fly. Sure, I could catch a plane if I wanted, but under no circumstances would I be allowed the everyday exhilaration and freedom our feathered friends take for granted. Perhaps I should have accepted that and gone about my business, like a good little consumer. But I couldn’t. I had to keep my dream alive.
Dreams are dangerous, however. They are both a gift and a curse. It’s true our most magnificent accomplishments are born of dreams, but so are our most destructive - often without anybody realizing which is which until much later. Daydreams, night dreams, plans, plots and schemes become shelter, security, bridges, tunnels, weapons, wars, vehicles, smartphones, televisions - you get the picture. For good or ill, it is our ability to turn dreams into reality that sets us apart from the rest of the creatures who share our planet (or so I thought, but we’ll get to that later).
The day my dream became real, I rose into a silvery sky, weightless and terrified. I was in the Ecuadorian Amazon, beaten and bloody, and flying over the edge of a cliff. Lush vegetation glistened and sparkled beneath me, and a dense canopy of rolling green stretched into the distance. Between and far below was what looked like a slash of a roiling cappuccino: the Jatanyacu river. Surging through the bottom of the precipice, it rumbled an insistent invitation to join the clatter of boulders being tossed downstream.
The two men responsible for my inaugural flight looked on, eyes impassive, their bare chests still heaving from the effort of murderous violence. I arced away from them, limbs flapping, clawing at thin air. The moment stretched into eternity, and I was almost able to convince myself I might stay aloft, held up by the whispery embrace of the breeze. Then reality set in, gravity took over, and I dropped like a stone.
Twenty feet down I smashed into a rocky outcrop and bounced off in a shower of mud and blood. The slight inclines and protrusions gouged into the cliff by erosion and landslides ensured every inch of my body took a hit as I spun, flew, smacked, and skidded downward over rocks, shale, slick soil.
I fought to stay conscious and alert, twisting my head to avoid direct impacts to my fragile human skull. I was pretty sure the odds of surviving a hundred-and-fifty-foot fall into raging rapids were minimal but had no intention of reducing them further by closing my eyes and giving up. As I fell, an odd sense of calm washed over me. It was as if it wasn’t me plummeting to my death at all, but somebody else, someone separate from me.
I grabbed at everything I could; stunted saplings, scratchy bushes, tufts of coarse grass, woody vines. Nothing held. I was falling too fast. The tenacious twigs and shrubs ripped away from the crumbling cliff face like cobwebs, causing a constant avalanche of dirt and debris to rain down all around me.
Amid the confusion, I noticed a sharp movement below. I assumed it to be some kind of bird or cliff-dwelling animal. But it wasn’t. It was the vines. I blinked, thinking it a trick of the eye, but still they kept on moving. Gathering into clumps, they snagged and buffeted me, first one way, then the other, slowing my fall and moving me further and further to the left.
Beyond the clusters of animated vines, I could see the near vertical cliff face I was careening down was about to disappear. As much as the vines had helped, the drop-off still came up too fast and all too soon I was airborne again. At over sixty feet, this was the biggest drop so far. I knew the moment I hit solid earth again it would be game over.
Then something magical happened. Something I still can’t explain. A thick curl of vine whipped out from the ledge above and wound itself around my left leg, yanking me back with an almighty crack. The pain in my hip joint was excruciating as I swung, like a pendulum, across and down. Ten feet above the bank, the vine unraveled and released me. The impact knocked my wind out, and set me tumbling and crashing down the final straight toward the river. My body should have been pulp and shattered bones by now. Instead, it just hurt like hell.
I stole a glance at the seething rapids and was shocked to see a lone tree in my path. Thick and sturdy, with dark, shaggy foliage, it jutted at an incongruous angle a few feet above river’s edge.
I lunged at it and my forearms slapped against the smooth bark, while the rest of me kept going with the momentum of a freight train. Holding on to that tree took all the strength I had left. For a long and agonizing moment, I dangled, legs swinging above the churning water, hands slipping and scrabbling, until eventually I hauled myself up onto the trunk.
I was dazed, battered, bruised, but alive.
High on a combination of relief and adrenaline, I bent forward and kissed the tree. Turning, I reached out and squeezed the nearest coil of vine, wincing as a jolt of pain fizzed from my hip to my knee to my toes. Despite it all, I laughed. I had no idea what had just happened. Or how. It was so unreal. I stared at the sparse network of twisting vines snaking up the cliff face and wondered if I could ever repay them for saving my life.
As if in response, the leaves on the tree quivered and the trunk began to vibrate. There was a bone-shuddering smack somewhere beneath me and a boulder burst out through the branches in a spray of murky water. I watched it roll on downstream, my heart sinking further with every smash and splash. I felt like vomiting. I had survived the fall but was far from safe.
The river was rising, and monstrous rocks were pin-balling down it like pebbles. Above, the cliff face loomed as sheer and insurmountable as a castle wall. As if my situation wasn’t bad enough, I couldn’t see out my right eye, my right knee wouldn’t bend, my left femur felt like it was floating outside my hip socket, and my windpipe was so crushed and swollen I could barely breathe.
I was trapped and broken, and the only two people who knew where I was were the men who’d thrown me down here. I was finished, the bastards had killed me.
Or so I thought.