The traveller closed the map irritably as the wind did everything in its power to open it back up again. It showed a forest filled with what seemed to be the same sequence of trees going on for eternity, rendering it possibly the most useless map in existence. He nearly ripped the damned thing up. Countless streams crossed, vines cut down, and bushed passed by but nothing to show for it. He wasn’t sure how long he had been inside the ocean of bitter green, but it was long enough for his shaded stubble to become an unkept beard. No assistant or friend accompanied the traveller; it was a journey he insisted on going alone. Others distracted him too much. They only brought along more complications, carrying a bag filled with needs and troubles pleading to be fixed. The traveller did not fix broken things; he studied them. He did not think that he was better than these people. In fact, he believed that he was just as horrid as the rest of them, which is exactly why he saved them the trouble of dealing with him. A mutually beneficial arrangement between himself and the rest of humanity.
The most useless map in the world was followed by a piece of parchment, carefully pulled out of his leather satchel, and unfolded. The delicate material was age stained and worn, small tears rippling throughout it. The sheet held a botanical interpretation of a plant in various stages of growth, footnotes fanning out of it like spider’s legs. The plant itself grew from the dirt, its stems beginning in a clump at the roots and then branding out into a clawed hand with too many fingers. Towards the tips of each stem began the flowering of purple buds, which would become tiny flowers resembling little purple pinwheels, almost similar to periwinkles. Its name was Gaudium.
It didn’t look like anything extraordinary. He was beginning to detest the sight of overly ordinary plant, which he had never seen which his own eyes. It would be surprising to know that when the traveller showed this particular drawing to a merchant in the small village across the boarder of the forest, he was met with a disdainful laugh followed by the advice to burn the parchment and pretend he had never seen such a thing. The merchant then turned his back on the traveller, closing all conversation. He was met with a similar reaction from the majority of people within the village. The traveller, of course, ignored their requests and as he left in the direction of the forest, the people shook their heads as if to say “good riddance”.
The root of this particular genus of this particularly ordinary looking plant was fabled to grant the consumer happiness for the rest of their life. In fact, it was not only fabled, but proven, unbeknownst to the rest of the population, by the travellers old, and only friend and colleague. However, this colleague spent a little bit too long perfecting his report before time caught up with him. He spent his final days working on it and passed away almost a year to the day after consuming the plant’s root. His research died with him. His papers and reports were missing when his dank apartment was searched. All but an old, crumpled piece of parchment holding the anatomy of the very plant he had devoted his research to.
The traveller heard a cry in the distance. He did not know an awful lot about the fauna of these forests but by the sound of that shriek, whether it was of fear or predation, he did not want to find out. He continued onward, noting the beginnings of an incline in the dirt leading upwards, as well as the gradual darkening of the sky. He would progress upward along the slope and set up camp for the night when he would reach flat ground before beginning the last of his rations. He had long accepted that his final days in the forest would be spent starving, if not starved. For if he left the suffocating clutch of those woods without having consumed that mythical root, then there was no reason to keep going. What was it all for? Other than a taste of happiness, there was nothing.
The traveller has always had a taste for the finer things in life. Before he was a traveller, he was a scholar. Before he was a scholar, he was a student, and before he was a student, he was a boy who’s only wish was simple; to discover the secrets of the universe. As the boy grew, it became clearer that these secrets could only be found within the earth; infinite knowledge hidden under the dirt and green, fuelled by water and carbon. Humans had a symbiotic relationship with the earth no doubt, but it came first. It had waited for us, and we delivered. Then we did not stop. It watched as our species bred and breathed and built. It watched knowing that it would one day outlive us.
By the time the tent was pitched, and a fire had caught, the night had engulfed the traveller in its consuming darkness and the forest was alive with an orchestra of life. The air began to smell damp, despite there having been no rainfall for days. The traveller filled his belly and felt sleep attempt to take him before he was ready. Although, if the traveller were to be honest with himself, he would know that he was never ready. He knew that once his eyes were close, he would be unable to escape the clutches of his mind. Yet he never went fighting.
When the morning came, the images of his friend were still fresh in his mind. He brushed them off with the last dregs of sleep for they were images which he did not want to see. Things he did not want to believe. Memories are a peculiar thing. If you were to tell yourself a story enough times you could begin to replace them with new narrative.
The sun had begun to trickle over the horizon, leaking through the gap in the trees. They cast shadows of leaves and branches and as the traveller began to become fully conscious, he looked around himself and his campsite. He remembered being exhausted the night before and so perhaps he hadn’t been paying attention to his surroundings but looking around, he did not recognise a thing. He found himself encircled by trees, of course, with no bearings and no paths. He could no longer see the incline which he had previously trudged his way up. He had never known himself to sleepwalk but even if he had, would he have taken all of his things with him in that slumberous state? He didn’t believe so.
He scratched and combed his beard with his fingers, his mouth half open as he looked around at the trees once more, trying to determine where he was, and he could imagine his useless map would be of no use to him now. Not that it ever was. His thoughts continued to brush over his frustration until he looked down at the foot of the trees surrounding him. He was dumbstruck.
The forest floor, where it should be carpeted with greens of grass and fern was barren for the roughly circular diameter of ten feet around him. The ground was dead, with not a hint of life. Not even a lonesome bug crawling amongst the dirt, not a worm. There was nothing left to feed on. However, in the dead circle’s centre, there was a small bush with little purple flowers. Directly in front of where the traveller awoke. In the distance, he could hear running water.
All worried thoughts of how he had been transported to the top of the hill evaporated as he stumbled to get out his reference with trembling hands. He carefully unfolded it and crawled into the barren circle to the foot of the plant, not bothering to get to his feet. He held the frail paper in front of him, between himself and the bush. There it was. Gaudium. He had located a myth.
He took out a trowel and a knife from his pack and began digging, only taking breaks to catch glimpse at the reference once more in giddy delight. As he worked, the sun finally peaked over the wall of trees and shone over him and through his little piece of parchment, his old colleague’s work, revealing a forgotten stain. An old maroon blotch in the right corner of the paper, dried and faded. The traveller dropped the paper as if he had been stung, like sheet had heated and burned him. He couldn’t think about that now. Not when he was so close. Just a little more digging and he would never have to think about that again. He would never have to see those eyes again, still begging for mercy, long after his voice had given up. He was wasting what he had found, keeping it to himself. For what? Ethical procedure and research. He could have changed the world.
At last, the traveller’s knife was at the ready to cut into the root and he did so, peeling off its thin bark. He didn’t stop to clean the dirt off it or even shake it. He put it directly into his mouth and chewed. It had the most rancid taste; acidic and bitter, burning his gums, like it was bighting him back. It wasn’t easy to chew, and the taste did not mellow over time. It had developed the consistency of a gum. Eventually he couldn’t take it anymore. He held his nose and swallowed it down in one. It felt like swallowing a particularly garish and solid oyster.
He felt no different. He couldn’t believe it. He sat for what felt like decades and began to get up letting out a defeatedly bitter laugh. Of course, it wouldn’t be that easy. So, what was it? Was he immune to its effects? Was his friend wrong? Did he have the wrong plant? No this was the right one. He shook his head as he opened his satchel, rummaging around until he found his box of matches. Approaching the Gaudium he struck the match he had picked out. As he threw the match down to the stem of the plant he uttered “useless” as if it would be able to hear him. It quickly went up in flames, the shape of it creating a small bonfire and, as there was nothing around it for the fire to spread on to, it slowly burned itself away and dimmed. The traveller watched the flames struggle and flail with a granite stare as the purple flowers withered and reduced to ashes.
Despite himself he let out another laugh, which turned into a chuckle. Perhaps he was laughing at his own failure, or the ridiculous notion that he had travelled for so long to find a plant which would supposedly solve all of his problems. He was soon in hysterics, buckled over and ribs aching. He began to choke as he struggled to catch a breath, his laughter coming out as a wheeze. His hand went up to his throat as he tried to swallow. His mouth and throat sill tingled from the plant’s acid, and he began to swell up. He panicked. Every breath he took was becoming harder and more intense. He was no longer breathing but desperately wheezing, asphyxiating on nothing. The world fizzled and distorted around him as his brain was starved of oxygen. The trees warped and all he could see were those eyes staring back at him from every angle. The eyes of his colleague, his friend, begging for mercy that he could no longer give.
It began to dawn on him that he had already taken his final breath. As the world around him faded he could hardly think.
Yet… he was so happy.