It was in the days when the Earth had gone back to the wild, and people lived in round houses of mud or straw. The rivers rushed by faster, and the days turned in timeless abandon. Every forest was primeval, and lusher than ever before, and in all but the coldest climes vines went capering amongst broad-limbed trunks, thick with the spoils of civilization. The rocks grew mosses out of sheer humidity and lust for life, and feral cattle waded through gigantic grasses. If the plants and the beasts, the mountains and the plains, seemed to grow bigger each generation while the people grew smaller, this was only to add to the wonderful colour and savagery of the landscapes.
People lived on the waterways, that they might still travel if they had to, and made rafts and canoes out of the mighty trees. If one caught a fish it would feed a family for days, but if one was pulled by the line and down into the rushing water, it would be one less mouth to feed. Storms thundered over the rivers, and lakes, and coastlines sparsely dotted with their round houses, and just as the storms had grown mightier in scope, their clouds many-hued and their thunder vengeful, the wakes of the storms were many times more beautiful.
Through this glorious, short life Don stalked away from the riversides and into the forests, to kill deer and flee from the towering wolves and cats. He would emerge from the trees and follow the water wherever he found it, dragging his prizes to the nearest settlement. Someone from among the squat house would prepare the deer, and cook it, and by that night he would lie with a full stomach next to embers smelling of smoke and sweet meat.
Don went into the fathomless forests at many different points, and emerged at many different points, so that he roamed far from wherever he had been begotten and suckled, and it was fortunate that he had no mind to return. It would have been impossible to retrace a way over the water, through the tangles of trees and underbrush, across the hills and dells with their questing beasts, and around the mountains whose roots lifted and cracked the earth. Don did not care – he had no direction, for a kill would bring him comforts wherever he redeemed its worth. This was a currency that could not fail. And on the rare occasions when he failed to carry a prize out of the forests, he had some stories that he judged to be good enough for a meal and a bed at the very least.
On a summer day, when the dragonflies and the lesser flies were at brilliant, scintillating war, and a haze seemed to hang over the riverbanks, Don came out of the forest without a deer. A scatter of houses stood to his right, things of wattle and daub, squat but well-made. To his left was open grass all the way down to the rocks that lined the narrow, tumbling river. It was a swift current, but somebody was seated precariously on one of those rocks, leaning over the rush. It was a girl, and she was washing something.
Don went left, choosing the girl, because the sun was gleaming off her head and her outstretched arms. Her hair minded him of the darker bits in a deer’s hide, and he fancied that her arms must be of a colour with the underside of a deer’s tail, although they were not. They turned out to be tan and freckled when he drew near.
She noticed him when he stepped down onto the rocks, and she went from her precarious perch to a more secure one, looking at him in an unimpressed manner.
“Who are you?” asked Willa, because that was her name, and she hadn’t seen fit to change it.
He was annoyed by such a stupid question. “I am a hunter,” Don replied, as if it were obvious. Indeed, it was obvious from his apparel and the direction from which he’d come that he must be a hunter, but Willa stared at him with a flat expression.
“Right. But you haven’t hunted anything to be seen. What do you want?”
“A meal, and a bed, of course. I might tell you some stories in exchange, across a pillow.”
“Buzz off,” said Willa, picking up her washing again.
A noisy parade of ducks came into sight on the river, lead by the three foot wide matriarch, bobbing along and bumping into each other, in such a chaos of feathers that law herself might have fled from them – were this still the age when law held her scales and wore a robe intact. But there was no law here, between round huts, and water, and trees, so Don smacked Willa roundly over the head.
“Christ,” muttered Willa thickly, prying her face off of the rocks. It was a strong word, a word without meaning, because all the books had fallen in rising waters, or had been buried in ruins, or had found and favoured that mysterious, dank abyss of forgotten history.
“Christ,” Willa repeated, glaring at him, and she wiped her mouth.
“I like duck,” said Don.
To be continued.
Elizabeth Cook, 2015.