5796 words (23 minute read)

Excerpt: The Curio Life Museum. Raíz, Paz.

I wasn’t sure how much time passed, but it felt like days. Days in which all I could think about was surviving, but all I wanted to do was die.

Thank god for Sadie. Whenever I was at the peak of despair or pain, I could just put my hand on the wall, and she would push her nose against the barrier, sometimes lifting a paw when she could. I wanted nothing more than to snuggle with her soft fur and have some kind of comfort because our captors were offering none. I barely saw any of them, and whenever I did, they never answered any of my sluggish questions or even acted like they could hear me.

There finally came a moment when I awoke from yet another fitful sleep, and the world wasn’t spinning anymore. My stomach wasn’t sloshing or cramping with every small movement I made, and my feverish, foggy brain felt clear. 

But as I came out of lethargy, I opened my eyes to a wall of blurry green. Then, individual blades of grass came into focus. I felt their soft prickle against my cheek. I inhaled the smell of soil. I rolled from my side onto my back and squinted in yellow sunlight.

A cloudy, blue sky was overhead. The sun itself wasn’t in sight, but its light shone down, sending the warmth of late afternoon into my skin. Tree branches stretched into the edges of my sight, and I turned my head to see tall trunks descending to the ground all around me.

Now that my intense illness had abated, I felt stronger than I had in days, and lighter as if a heavy weight had been lifted off of me. I took a quick breath and pushed myself off the ground. I must have pushed harder than I meant to because I launched into the air. I stumbled forward to catch myself on unsteady feet. I regained my balance and put a hand over my startled heart. 

I turned my gaze back to my surroundings. Grass, trees, sky… I recognized the tree nearest me as a spruce, its short needle points piercing the air.

“I’m back,” I said, relief flooding through my body in a cascade so powerful it almost forced me to the ground again.

I was home. I was back on Earth. Had it all been a horrific dream? The alien spacecraft with its puzzling art, the terrifying abduction, the awful sickness that nearly made me nauseous again just thinking about it…

But I was fine now. A little weak, but whole and sound. My skin felt fresh and free of sweat, and when I touched my hair, it was fluffy and washed. Even my fingernails looked clean and freshly-trimmed. But I looked down at myself, and my eyebrows knit together. I was naked. Just as I had been in the cage during my sickness.

Had it all been real, then? If so, then whoever had washed me had done so while I was unconscious. Tears watered my eyes as deep fear distorted my face into a grimace. Who knew what else those predatory people had done?

A distant shriek made me jolt. Then came a loud roar, followed by a rush of chattering and scrabbling claws. Heavy, thumping footsteps made the ground beneath my feet tremble. I fought to keep my balance as my toes left the earth like I’d been tossed onto a taut trampoline.

The unearthly shriek crawled up my spine again. I spun around and saw the trees give way to an enormous, clear wall, nearly invisible but for the sunlight glaring off its four corners. The wall stretched thirty or so feet high and ran a width of at least fifty feet.

I ran forward, stumbling on the way as my bouncy step caused one of my foot’s toes to collide with my other foot’s heel. I caught myself on the wall’s hard surface. It felt like the same material of the alien spacecraft and the walls of my cell in the sterile medical facility—nano-glass.

I peered through the barrier with trepidation. A large, wide room was outside. It had dark, stone floor, which was engraved with the same manner of artwork that I had studied on the spacecraft—perfect circles connected by straight lines, forming intricate patterns that looked mathematic in nature. The art continued up narrow columns along the walls and coated an arched ceiling above.

But most of the walls were taken up by more enormous, clear barriers like the one I leaned against. But their interiors didn’t look like Earth.

Across the large hall, one clear wall displayed a thick canopy of trees. Sunlight glowed through small gaps, illuminating the vibrant colors of dark purple leaves with turquoise veins. They clung to spindly branches connected to long, black trunks that were spotted with slimy, yellow fungal growth.

I gasped when big blur of amber raced up a tree in a tornado spiral. When it stopped in the high branches, I could see it was a creature unlike any I had ever seen. Sharp bristles with vibrant red and yellow tips shielded a body that had the carriage of an elongated lemur but was large as a panther in size. The creature’s wide, round mouth opened to reveal a womb of two rows of razor teeth. I saw its throat expand, and then contract, as it called out another shrill, piercing cry like I had heard moments ago.

It looked right at me. I met its wide, red-eyed stare.

It screeched and leaped toward me from its branch. I flinched as it smashed into the clear wall in front of it head-on. Then I snorted as it slid comically down the nano-glass in an ungainly position. The creature shook its head lightly upon reaching the ground, which I noticed, with fascination, was blue and seemed sticky beneath the beast’s pincer paws. It then raced upward around the trunk of another tree and sprang out of sight, heading deeper into its jungle home.

I shuddered with the strangeness of the scene. I dared to look further around the vast room, which formed a long hallway that eventually curved away out of sight in both directions. All along the walls were more exotic landscapes, all separated from the main room and from each other by tall nano-glass walls. 

I caught rustling movement from within several enclosures, but no other creatures were close enough for me to see in detail. But then, far down the line along my side of the curving hallway, a recognizable animal stalked through grassy savannah, with tawny fur and golden eyes. It was a male lion. I jumped as it let out a massive roar, but at least the sound was familiar. Within seconds, a lioness came into view beside it. They both panted in the heat and looked about their enclosure in curiosity. 

I couldn’t see anything else on my side of the hall, but I heard a chatter of monkeys a distance away. Their noises mixed with a continued host of unfamiliar, disturbing, animalistic calls and roars and grunts.

Then, an enormous shadow fell over me. Across the room, to the right of the strange, bristled creature’s jungle, was a huge aquarium. A mammoth fish groaned through the water, casting the entire room into twilight. My heart stood still as it swam overhead. It made an eerie, low call that made the water around it bubble and ripple away from its forty-foot-long body. Its rough skin resembled barnacles, its stubby head wide and unwieldy. A school of smaller creatures hurried past in a flurry of skeletal bioluminescence, somehow carving through the underwater ripples their larger friend had summoned.

The heavy groaning sound amplified as the fish moved on through its gargantuan tank. It swam around a curve in the hall and out of sight.

My legs shook, and my hands trembled at my sides as I tried to wrap my head around what I was seeing and hearing. More distant shrieks and groans, sharp chirps, and massive roars rioted in my ears, as if the space beyond my wall was a large, hollow world rife with monsters.

A low growl sounded right behind me.

I yelled and spun around, eyes wide, fist raised. Some beast lurked in the trees. I could see its low shadow coming closer and hear fallen leaves rustle under the steps of more than two feet.

The growl grew louder, a warning knell. Then it stopped. 

The creature burst through the trees in a full run. I screamed and fell over, my back hitting the wall.

The terrifying animal scrambled to a halt and barked.

My eyebrows fled upward.

“Sadie?!”

The dog yelped and rushed toward me. I held out my arms and her soft fur and comforting weight collided with my body.

“Jesus, Sadie,” I said, rubbing her sides as she wiggled and yelped in happiness. “Could you have at least tried not to scare the shit out of me?”

She licked my face and kept wiggling her entire body, as if her tail couldn’t possibly express everything she wanted to say.

I scratched behind her soft, perky ears as her tongue lolled. But then I slowed and merely hugged her, pressing my face into her comforting fur, which smelled just as fresh and clean as my hair. I squeezed my eyes shut against tears, and then pulled back and smoothed the thick fur on her cheeks as I met her round, brown eyes. 

“What are we gonna do?” I asked. She butted her cold, wet nose against my cheek. Then she sat down expectantly as if answering, I don’t know, you tell me.

“I don’t know where we are,” I explained. “I don’t know what—they—are. Or how anyone from home will find me.” Tears spilled as my voice broke. “Or you,” I added, my voice lilting in apology. 

Sadie whined and butted my head with hers in comfort. 

I groaned. I ran my hands through my hair and grabbed fistfuls, holding clumps taut against my scalp. I tucked my knees against my chest and buried my face against them.

“I should have gone to see Dad,” I cried, caving. “And Crispin…he… God, why am I so stupid?”

My broken words soon dissolved into nothing but incoherent sobs. Sadie leaned against me, providing steady comfort with the weight of her body and calm breaths. I cried till my tears and painful thoughts were spent and my still-recovering body was wracked with exhaustion.

I rolled my forehead against my kneecaps and loosened my grasp on my hair. I sniffled and lifted my head. I wiped my tears away and stared into space for a while, until I let out a sigh of finality.

Crying wasn’t going to do me any good, nor would feeling sorry for myself or wallowing in regret. I was chosen to interpret the art on that spacecraft because I was an expert, dammit. I was smart and knowledgeable and a perfectly capable woman.

I was proud of my ambition which had driven me to seize that opportunity. To regret that would be to regret who I was. And if I could force myself to focus, that drive was going to help me now.

I had to get home. I had to find Crispin and Dad. I had to see them and apologize for being so distant. And I had to get back to warn the military of what was happening and how dangerous these aliens were.

But first, I had to figure out how to get to them. I had to figure out where I was. And I had to figure out if I was alone. I hoped no other humans were in danger, but a bigger part of me hoped desperately that I could see a familiar face, or even a stranger, so long as they weren’t golden-skinned and hairless.

But so far, I had seen no signs of another human—only animals. I shared this new prison with Sadie, and every other enclosure I had seen contained creatures that I either knew were Earth animals or were foreign ones that looked to have a similar level of intelligence. Or less, judging by the bristly creature across the hall, who lacked a basic understanding that its transparent wall existed.

Had Major Haynes been right when he hypothesized that the spacecraft was scanning Earth life to study it? Was it choosing which species it wanted to steal?

The craft had ignored humans after it first scanned Ben Sanders. It had scanned other animals without harm. But the dogs… The dogs wouldn’t go near it. They must have sensed danger, and they were right. As soon as Sadie got close, she was scanned by the craft and snatched inside. And I was caught in the crossfire.

“No, no, no,” I muttered, almost descending into fear and despair again. But I shook my head and stood up. It was time to find the next step forward.

Sadie gave my fingers a little lick before she followed me to my feet. Her presence was helping me stay calm; at least well enough that I wouldn’t scrunch into a ball and deny that this crazy situation was happening.

I looked around, trying to reassess our situation with a clearer head. The trees in my enclosure looked like Alaskan natives—sturdy, paper-barked birch and a couple of bushy evergreens. Had the aliens taken flora samples as well when they stole me from Earth? They would have had to uproot them and plant them again and… I didn’t know how the hell they did it, but from what I’d seen so far, these aliens seemed to be technologically capable of a lot of things I would have thought impossible. 

“Aliens,” I muttered. I shook my head. “No way. No fucking way.”

I took a few steps into the trees, which were spread far apart and didn’t offer much cover from the large, clear wall. I frowned when I discovered a small, primitive building among them, made of wood so that it blended in well with the environment. It only had two proper walls, which made up the shorter sides of the rectangular structure. The longer sides were open, revealing a spartan interior with a wooden foundation. The two walls were made of stacked, horizontal logs like a makeshift cabin, perhaps inspired by Ben Sanders’ Alaskan home near the spacecraft’s landing site. The roof was covered with dried, rope-like vines as thatch, the only plants that I didn’t recognize.

I crept closer to inspect the inside of the structure. A thin pallet was on one end, big enough for me to lie down upon. It was brown in color and looked to be made of cloth with less than an inch of padding between the layers.

A few paces across the tiny building, there was a hole in the ground. I walked over to it and saw a slick shoot running into darkness below. My face crinkled with disgust, but my fear was stronger.

If a toilet and sleeping pallet were deemed necessary by my captors, there was no telling how long they were planning to keep me prisoner. And though my new surroundings were primitive and degrading, they had a much more permanent feel than my sterile, empty cell in the medical ward.

I felt panic rising again, but I focused on the shelter, the trees, the walls, assessing my options for some concrete step toward escape. Inspecting the walls seemed like a logical first step, but I eyed the pallet instead. Escape was imperative, but if I was going anywhere, it might be nice to have some clothes.

I walked toward the pallet, struggling a little. My step still felt lighter than usual, like I was walking along a tight drum. And when I crouched down next to the cloth pallet and found a seam to dismantle it, I ripped apart the fabric with much more force than I intended, making my entire body sway on the balls of my feet. I clutched the fabric in one hand and splayed my fingers out wide with my other to keep myself from falling.

One word jumped through my frozen consciousness. Gravity.

I looked at Sadie. I’d noticed her bounds and excited leaps were all higher than usual as well, and only now did it all click. The gravity wasn’t as strong as Earth’s was supposed to be. So, either we were in a false environment on a spaceship… Or we were on another fucking planet.

My fingers shook, but I channeled my energy into ripping more fabric from the pallet. I tied sections around my breasts and hips and felt a fraction better once I’d recovered at least some of my dignity. I scratched the cloth on my hip, as frayed as my nerves. It felt like it was plant-based; cotton maybe? Linen? Probably from some foreign plant. At least it wasn’t giving me an allergic reaction.

Some other fibrous material made up the loose stuffing of the sleeping pallet, now littered around the shelter. Sadie was sniffing it and shifting it about with her nose as if she was annoyed that I had destroyed the one soft thing in the environment and was trying to put it back together.

I ignored her and stood up, ready to inspect the walls for a way out. The clear wall hadn’t looked like it had a door, so I approached a gray wall to my right that peeked through the trees. I didn’t see a door there, either, but I started to feel my way around it, tapping places, hitting others, looking for some kind of a door or weak spot.

I found nothing, and eventually turned a corner onto a second solid, gray wall that was just as seamless, followed by a third wall. I reached as high up as I could, struggling for another thirty or so feet. But then, the gray wall met with the corner of the large, clear barrier, completing a rectangular prison.

With no door in sight.

The sunlight had dimmed as I made my way around the perimeter, splashes of orange melding with pale blue twilight that was deepening by the second. I looked up, my heart pounding. There was a faint grid between the tops of the trees and the clouds above. Were they wires to an open-air cage? My mind leaped at that thought, but how was I going to reach it to find out? The trees were tall, but they weren’t high enough for me to reach the grid, even if I stood at the very tip of the tallest pine.

A few distant stars gleamed into existence. I peered up at the tiny lights with narrowed eyes, trying to piece together familiar groupings. But they all looked foreign and offset. Unsettled, I wondered if they even held the warriors of protection—Orion, Perseus, or Hercules, or the ever-watchful beasts—Ursa Major, Canes Venatici, or Pegasus. I wondered if I would find my own horoscope constellation, Aries. I had never taken much stock in astrology, but at this point, I would welcome any guidance I could get.

But it didn’t matter what pretty pictures illuminated the sky above me. I only needed to reach it. The walls of my prison seemed impenetrable, but that grid, that sky… That direction offered hope. And with my unsettling new ability to jump higher than I could on Earth, I started to think I might be able to make it.

My face furrowed in determination. I walked to a nearby tree that had one of the lowest boughs. The sturdiest branch was still several feet above my head. Even with the extra bounce, it might be difficult to reach. But I had to try.

I took a solid stance, and then bent my knees and jumped. My fingertips scraped the rough bark of the limb, but I couldn’t get a good hold. I scowled and prepared to try again. Sadie trotted over to watch. I felt a rise of worry that if I did escape through the top of the cage, I wouldn’t be able to bring her with me. I couldn’t just leave her.

But I shoved the thought away. There would be time to think about that later, after I reached the top.

I focused again on the branch. Then I concentrated on my muscles. I squatted lower this time, took a breath, and propelled myself off the ground. I grabbed onto the branch with both hands and laughed a little with relief as I dangled from the creaking limb. But now I had to somehow pull myself up. 

I had always been athletic. I’d been raised on soccer, and as an adult, many of my treks to remote areas of the world required rigorous hikes to reach an ancient ruin or isolated village. When in more connected regions, I’d often stop by a gym wherever I could.

Still, it was to my great surprise that with a single hoist, I popped up to sit lightly upon the limb. It seemed my hypothesis was right—my muscles were used to Earth’s higher gravity. Here, they had less resistance. I was stronger.

I looked down at Sadie, who was watching me with an anxious expression from several feet below. 

“It’s okay, girl,” I reassured. “Don’t worry about me. I got this.”

I looked at the limbs above me and stood up on my branch, rocking on the arches and balls of my feet to control my balance. 

“I think,” I muttered. I reached for the closest branch and heaved myself upward. My torso curved around it, legs dangling for a moment as I shimmied into an upright position on the new branch. I kept climbing, actually smiling as I experimented with my newfound strength.

I let out a satisfied puff of air when I reached the top, standing on the highest limb that could still bear my weight. But I was still a few feet away from the mesh-like grid, and as I looked up, worry started to gnaw at my gut. The grid didn’t look much like a wired cage at this range. I could still see the sky, but what I had hoped were metal wires looked suspiciously two-dimensional, and the clouds looked closer than they should have.

I frowned and lowered my eyes to my bare feet and steadied them. When I was sure I had a balanced stance, I took a breath and jumped. My fingertips stretched high…

And touched solid stone.

I landed on my branch and scrambled to hold the small twigs at the apex of my perch. I found stability and steadied my pounding heart that had joined the lurch of my stomach at my sudden drop.

I gripped the spiky treetop and looked back up at the twinkling sky with a sinking feeling. Was it fake? An illusion, maybe a projection of some kind? Was the entire environment in this enclosure false?

I snatched a fistful of leaves from the tree and threw them at the stars. They smacked the stone in a scattered array before they showered me with pulpy-smelling greenery. None had flown any further than the others; none had gone through an open space between the faint grid lines. It was a solid, stone ceiling.

I yelled and shook the tree in rage. There was no way out.

The treetop swayed, and I ceased my shaking. I looked at the swaying branches below, my footing suddenly feeling precarious. Then, something new caught my eye.

It was one of them.

An alien person was across the hallway and inside the red-and-yellow bristled creature’s habitat.

I hadn’t gotten a good look at any of my captors aside from the woman I had first seen in the medical facility, before my horrendous illness had taken over all powers of observation. The stranger across the hall had the golden and white complexion, bald head, and solid black eyes I had come to expect, but otherwise looked distinctly different in body structure. The woman’s golden, calico patterns and soft, feminine features contrasted with the stranger’s sharper patterns and taller stature. The stranger also lacked the arched, boney shoulder ridges that the woman had possessed, instead having smooth, but broader shoulders. Overall, the new person looked masculine in the same way human males looked in comparison with females. I decided to run with my assumption that he was a man.

He was dressed in a similar long robe as the woman had worn, but his clothing was cut differently. The woman’s robe had started as a fabric collar around her neck and had draped over her torso in the style of a halter-top before flowing down her legs as a long robe. An underlayer of looser fabric, which appeared to be some kind of linen, had made up sleeves that started at the edge of her shoulder ridges and extended to her elbows.

The man’s clothing was made of stiffer fabric. The tight collar around the base of his neck was attached to cloth that covered his smooth shoulders and chest and ran down to his feet. The woman’s clothing had been cream, but the man’s robe was black, both colors muted and subdued compared to the lustrous golden patterns on their skin as if they were trying to tone themselves down.

I turned my head to steal a glimpse of the man’s back as he walked with slow steps through the habitat. His robe was cut to fit like an open, backwards vest, baring his skin. Strips of fabric on either side of his shoulder blades were cut in sharp angles and stuck out from his skin in a manner that made him look strong and severe. A linen layer was visible under the outer vest from the waist down, and the underlayer formed sleeves to elbow-length.

All of the skin down his back was golden, and five vertical slits were barely visible from his shoulders to his waist. The skin twitched a little around the edges as he moved, and I assumed they could open to reveal white, pearly skin underneath as I’d seen the woman’s do.

I looked back at his face, but the lower half was covered by what looked like a breathing mask over his nose and mouth. He was walking with slow, cautious steps toward the wild creature, and I noticed he was keeping his black eyes down, not making eye contact as he approached.

He looked anything but submissive, though. Respectful and careful, yet confident, he kept walking toward the beast. The creature looked at him in appraisal but didn’t seem too fearful or aggravated from its invader. It cocked its head in curiosity. Then it scrabbled a little on its branch when the alien man pulled a small item from a satchel at his side. He extended his hand up to the creature, still not making eye contact. The animal reached out and plucked the object from his hand with two delicate pincers. It stuffed the object into its mouth. Whatever treat the man bestowed moved in visible increments down the creature’s gullet.

The man’s eyes crinkled as if he were smiling, though his mouth was still hidden by his breathing mask. He reached up and gently touched the back of the animal’s paw. Its bristles flattened down its body like dominoes. To my surprise, it shimmied down the tree trunk and poised itself on its pincers on the ground. I noticed that the man’s feet were enveloped by some kind of cleats that treated the sticky ground with the same tentative hold that the creature’s paws did. 

The man made a small gesture to the creature, pulling out another treat and coaxing it toward the clear wall at the front of its enclosure. It followed him, looking eager. 

The man placed the treat against the barrier, holding it there. The creature reached out for it, but the man lifted it higher at the last moment. The creature’s paw hit the nano-glass instead. It jerked back and looked at the invisible wall in surprise.

The man lowered the treat again, keeping it pressed against the wall. This time, he kept it still as the creature pushed its paw against the treat and pinned it to the wall. Then it snatched the treat in its round jaws and raised its head. My eyes widened as this time, I could see its double rows of teeth gnash the treat inside, though the creature’s jaw itself didn’t appear to move.

The man’s eyes crinkled in a smile again. I watched him carefully repeat his process, trying to teach the poor creature that there was indeed a wall there so that it wouldn’t run into it anymore.

I felt a pull of sympathy for the creature, and an involuntary rise of tenderness as I watched the man’s kind eyes and patient gestures. 

Then the man looked up at me.

I froze, high up in my tree. His golden eyebrows furrowed, concern fleeting into his eyes. He gave the creature beside him one last treat, and then stood up, most of his attention on me instead.

He didn’t hesitate to meet my gaze. For a moment, we just stared at each other. Then he slowly raised his hand and held it near his head, palm out, as if he were sending me a single wave of greeting.

I lifted my eyebrows. I raised my palm as well. He looked surprised and delighted at my echo of his gesture.

“Hey,” I said. “Hey, come here.”

He lowered his hand but didn’t answer. He looked back down at the strange creature beside him, who paid him no mind anymore now that it had its treat. The man stepped back and disappeared into the black-barked trees. 

I tensed, ready to call out again, but then he reappeared outside of the beast’s enclosure and into the outer hallway. He must have used a hidden exit, which frustrated me to no end. I gripped the tree branches, but kept my hard gaze on him, waiting to see what he would do.

Sadie startled me by barking at him, riled up more and more the closer he got. He slowly removed the mask from around his nose and mouth, letting it dangle around his neck. 

Sadie stopped barking and sat down.

I looked closely at his face, trying to recall if I’d ever seen him before because Sadie seemed to recognize him. I didn’t know at all what the lifespan or aging process was for the aliens, but by human standards, he looked my age, perhaps a year or two younger. His face was a chiseled diamond, with high cheekbones and hollowed cheeks, a bony nose, and a narrow jaw, but his eyes were round as if he wished to encompass the entire universe within his vision. And right now, the entire universe seemed to harbor only me.

No, I’d never seen him before. I would have remembered a face like that.

My heart leaped with hope as he took a few slow steps toward my enclosure. He spoke, and though his voice was muffled through the barrier, his single word sounded compassionate.

But then, a second alien man strode down the hallway.

He was shorter than the first but held his chin high and kept his beetle eyes narrow as if trying too hard to impose authority. He reminded me of Pete. He said something to the taller, younger man, who gestured to me in response. The short man looked my way, and his dark eyes analyzed me from head to toe. He reached out toward the barrier of my cell, but then drew back his hand with a shudder from fingertips to shoulder, as if overcome by disgust. His grimace of distaste accompanied a sentence and an odd rumbling sound in his throat that he attempted to share with the man beside him, but the man didn’t look amused.

But the short man retained his thin, close-lipped smile that had a slippery, reptilian feel to it. His white lips stretched wider than seemed natural for his narrow face. Goosebumps fled up my arms.

Then he turned away and volleyed what sounded like an order over his shoulder. The younger man answered in a tone that sounded defiant, but I had no clue what either of them were saying. They were speaking a language I didn’t recognize. The cadence was tight and rigid, but none of the consonants were harsh, and the vowels were smooth and never spread too far apart. There was beauty in it, but I doubted I would find the meaning beautiful.

The man in charge said something else and gestured down the hall with authority. The young man looked back up at me with worry, but then looked back down and started to follow the boss away.

“No,” I said, my heart thumping as the threat of their disappearance jolted me into action. “Wait!” 

I looked down at the many branches between me and the ground, where Sadie looked up at me, whining and prancing on nervous paws. But the men were nearing the curve in the hall that would take them out of sight.

I frantically stepped down onto the nearest branch, but the one below it was further away and at an awkward angle. I stretched out one foot and found a solid place to step, and then pushed my upper body off the branch that I’d been holding for balance. Swinging, I reached for the next handhold.

My right foot slipped out from under me, and I crashed against the hard branch and tumbled through scratching twigs. I heard a rip of cloth as I fell toward the ground.

My head hit the base of the tree trunk with a loud and painful smack.