The dogs barked and the men on their horses swore as Mariam pressed herself into the hot August mud the same shade as her skin in the drying up creek. The dogs veered off south chasing the interfering scent of an unfortunate possum and the neighing, salt-sweaty horses followed. The men complained of the heat as they left, and of the inconvenience of looking for a crippled woman who wasn't worth much.
Mariam couldn't move; the adrenaline of the chase paralyzed her limbs and though her brain shouted to run further, her body knew not to make a sound just yet.
"Don't look back," said a voice from up in the trees above.
Mariam risked a glance, her breath shallow, but could see nothing. Then she felt hands slink around her shoulders, snagging across many bumpy scars.
"You," she whispered.
"Yes, me," said the silky voice.
A cool finger traced its way down her spine and she shivered.
"You leave me alone," said Mariam.
"You don't tell me what to do," said the voice.
The finger pressed into the small of her back. Mariam shifted but could not free herself from that touch.
"You keep running," said the voice, "because I've got other plans for you."
"I've got my own plans, thank you."
"So you do. But I never said that our plans were different."
The dogs barked frantically in the distance.
"Sounds like they've caught that possum I sent," said the voice. "Poor little thing. Didn't know what it was doing. You'd better get going before those men double back."
"I'm no possum," said Mariam.
The voice laughed, and removed its touch from Mariam's skin. She stirred, and pulled herself up the embankment, holding fast to the roots of trees with her good arm.
"Run," said the voice. "You made a bargain with me, now run. Fulfill your destiny."
"No such thing as destiny," said Mariam, struggling up onto the forest undergrowth. She tucked her mangled arm into the folds of her tattered blouse. "People is as they are, and if they choose different than they will be different."
"And you chose me."
"I wasn't going to wait for deliverance--not like the others, sitting in church and looking to the ceiling."
"You took it."
"I take it myself, yes I do."
Mariam limped forward, her beaten knee giving her pain that she ignored. She pushed herself along, between the trees and thorns. She pulled up her skirt and tucked it under her blouse so that it didn't tear and leave pieces to be found by the men. Even though the thorns punctured her skin, she did not bleed. Tendrils of cold pressed into the thorn holes and healed the skin.
"It's small actions, in the proper direction, that change the world. Little tipping points," said the voice. "We can't let stasis win. We have to pull."
"Your desires are no concern of mine," said Mariam.
"No," said the voice. "But know that the game is long and I intend to win."
"Games!" scoffed Mariam. "You don't know what you're playing with. We're the ones that will win in the end. Not you. Not the other."
"You're more clever than most," laughed the voice. "I'll give you a gift as reward. Long life. What do think of that?"
"That's neither a gift or a punishment," said Mariam, growing wearing of the accompanying presence. The dogs grew louder and her awkward pace quickened.
"That's an interesting bit of wisdom," said the voice. "But I'm going to let you live for centuries, to see your impact on the world."
"You speak like you know what will happen."
"Maybe I do."
There were sudden screams from the men. Mariam turned round at the sound.
"What's that?" she asked.
"One of the men just had a heart attack. Stone dead on his horse. That can happen when you indulge too much in liquor, food, women, and fat cigars and listen too frequently to my encouragement to do so."
"You are, very bad," she said.
"You needed a little more help."
"Oh, I don't need your help."
"It wasn't much. And you're helping me in return."
Mariam was silent, her lips pressed together.
"You have doubts," said the voice. "That's always good."
Mariam continued without acknowledging the words. The sound of the dogs became fainter until they disappeared altogether. Summer insects buzzed and picked at her skin, and the humidity pressed in as the cold presence left.