Continued from Afterdays – 1
“I like duck,” said Don.
But there was no means of catching one of the monstrous, water-tossed fowl. They quacked their way down the river, and the question of Don’s meal was resolved by Willa digging up roots. The digging wore on in a manner incomprehensible to the hunter, who never did such things, and the light turned rosy and riotous among the evening clouds.
Curious faces looked out from the huts and disappeared again, in no hurry to get between a hunter and his meal of choice, and Don hovered over Willa talking about the hunts he liked to remember best. The washing lay abandoned as Willa’s eyebrows slowly singed over the fire, and she glared at Don without him noticing.
“Have you seen a questing beast? Of course you haven’t,” Don replied. “They’re like nothing else that’s ever walked this land. Not long ago, when I happened to be carrying a few fawns across my shoulders (tender, they are), I nearly walked into one of their dells. You wouldn’t know one if you saw one, but I don’t mind telling you. They chew the trees to pieces, you see, so the clearing isn’t proper, and where their scales and feathers fall away – ”
“It’s ready,” Willa said.
Don fell to eating, sprawled by the fire, and night spread her thick cloak all around him, calling to the creatures who crept or hid or slept by day. Like rocs the owls lifted into the air, soundless, invisible but for their tawny irises, and noticed only as they blackened out great patches of the moon and stars. Among the marshes, frogs emerged to scale rushes the size of lampposts, or to splash below the willows that trailed over the water, and they lapped up small birds and their eggs, and the beetles that hummed, and creaked, and glowed on the bark. Every few years one of the willows, somewhere, would crash down, momentarily shocking the air to silence – then the beavers would take the tree to pieces. Great as the beavers had become, they were cautious. Only in the water were they safe from the lynxes and the fishers, who wound solitary paths through mazes of brush, tongues searching and claws shredding the leaves they walked upon.
And bats darted about, bold enough to brush the ears of sleeping grizzlies, and sleeping men, should there be any men so luckless as to be sleeping in the open night. For the bats would circle anything smaller than the gargantuan horses, whose hooves like granite churned up great swathes of the plains, and Willa thought that she could hear a telltale leathery flapping.
The beasts had lost their fear of fire long ago, so as the night and its denizens circled inward Willa wished she were among the huts and sqautted lower, glaring at nearby noises nearly as much as she glared at Don. No one had poked a head out to watch them for some time.
Don ate, and spoke, and laughed, because a hunter afraid of the night would not be a hunter. A hunter camped as best he could and slept soundly whether he would wake or not. So Don heard the formless noises and the spears on his back kept him warm. He told the story of how he had happened upon a wounded puma, its eyes as large as his fist, and had plunged his spear through one of those orange and black-shot orbs. In his tellings he made his best kills, and executed his greatest feats, once more. He recalled, as his jaw worked slower and slower, how just this past spring he had leapt a gorge, so as to avoid a mountain pass riddled by the territorial big-horns, only to notice in mid-jump the wide maws of snapping turtles below.
He saw the turtles clearly. The razor’s curve of their beaks, the sun on their backs, the smell of the water at the bottom of the gorge. His feet found earth with a bone-shaking thud, and he turned back to get a better look at them…
Don’s tongue was thick. He gazed up at the stars from his back and he was pinpricks away from himself just as the stars were so near and so far. Galaxies spun, and yet they were none so vast as this great earth, whose crevices and whose bounds had become unfathomable. Stories would intimate that things had not always been this way; had the children of men dwindled, or had all else grown?
His jaw had stopped moving. Now, sounds and vague shapes of the many-faced night plunged around him, dark and vicious and untrammelled, for he could no longer feel his spears. His eyes moved sluggishly and saw how his spears had rolled away.
“After that you shouldn’t have eaten anything I cooked, whatever-your-name-is!”
Something smashed the spot where Don’s nose had been, and the stars rocketed up and down in a bewildering torrent.
To be continued.
Elizabeth Cook, 2015