Continued from Afterdays – 2
Something smashed the spot where Don’s nose had been, and the stars rocketed up and down in a bewildering torrent.
It was Willa’s misfortune that Don was not eaten that night, where he was laid out cold by the riverside. There was no reason to think that he would not be eaten, but in its reasonless way the world went on, so that Don was untouched when only a few miles down the river a beaver had been torn open on the bank, the teeth that might have crushed a man’s head hanging open quite fruitlessly.
He sat up, and someone who had been peeking from among the huts screeched. This irritated his head. He did not bother putting a hand to his nose, for he knew what would be there. He simply reached over to his spears and hurled one in the direction of the offending noise. Which stopped, sensibly. Don stared at his spears with his vision wobbling slightly and decided that aside from the one which he had just thrown there was a spear missing.
It was Willa’s second misfortune that the people of her cluster of huts were presentient. Or they must have been, for they came at Don’s bellowing and tended to him, although he was weak and a jab of the oldest man’s harpoon would have killed him. They did this although he was not to be feared presently, because they were thinking only of he would soon be fearful. Foreseeing Don’s rage the people sought to propitiate it before it occurred. Hence did another self-fulfilling prophecy come to pass, a phenomenon which had survived the fall of civilization, and which would persist until the end of mankind.
When Willa saw that Don was not dead, her satisfaction with the morning was ruined; and when she saw her fellows’ intentions, her satisfaction in general was ruined. She took the spear which she had stolen and cut all the boats free while her neighbours crowded the hunter, even her father, tongue-tied and fearfully seeking to distance himself from Willa’s misdeed.
So Willa cut the boats free and jumped into the last one, a canoe far too large for one person, and for the moment she left herself to the river, which she now trusted more than the scatter of houses.
It did not take Don very long to see what had happened. It did not take Don very long to decide what he would do.
“How quickly,” he demanded of the oldest man, “can you make a boat?”
Don left on a raft, for a boat would have taken too long. While the cowering people of the huts built it for him, he told his stories and spent some time expounding upon how their way of life left was liable to make them effeminate, and how they should leave their uncertain peace for the life of hunter, which was the only proper way to live. The people piled the raft with food and gave him a strong rope, so that he would go in good humour, and never come back. Willa’s father gave him the blanket that Willa had forgotten on her pallet, broad-mindedly disregarding the way his jaw had been cracked in penance by the blanket’s recipient.
The raft proved great fun until it smashed, and Don had a day and a half of coursing downriver, which widened and slowed only by the most stubborn increments, as though it resented being tempered. He hollered more loudly than the crash of the current on the rock and swung his pole around brazenly.
When the raft smashed it was on a shallow rock, which Don had been too busy yelling to see, and then he thoroughly cursed the raft, and the pole, and the people who had made these things. He dragged his newfound wealth from the raft and sunned himself dry on the shore, for it was midday.
He entertained pleasant thoughts of going back to Willa’s village and berating its inhabitants, all of whom he stood at least a head above. Then Don made a pack out of the blanket and set a serious pace. He felt that his sojourn had come to its proper conclusion, and now he marched rapidly down the riverbank, for Willa must have been carried this way, and there had been no signs of disembarkment on either bank; Don thought thus, and so thoughts of the village were supplanted by thoughts of the girl, and her deer-tail arms, and his fist at her temple.
Don had marched in this manner countless times before. There was little to say of his finding the trail, and of following it, that he had not accomplished in some variation before, and that had been explained much to his own satisfaction in the stories that he’d shared.
But somewhere between the dell of the five-horned questing beast and the eerie of the boar-eagles, somewhere between the hills of the wild dogs’ and the haunts of the black monkeys, looming and glitter-eyed, their intelligence a menace, somewhere along Don’s march the manner of his marching changed. He did not know it, but he pressed onward with less sleep than ever before, hale and keen. He sought villages more often, and commandeered countless watercraft, for he realized that the traces of Willa were often to be picked up there, whenever the trail had petered out. The people were usually near in subservience to those of Willa’s village whenever one such as Don appeared, and the hunter laughed at their effeminate ways, they who scarcely killed for themselves, and he took what they offered for his journey and demanded more. The darkest dark of the deer’s pelt grew stronger in the image of Willa which he retained, the downy white of the tail flashed brighter, and Don made haste. He slipped past another monstrous questing beast with his teeth shown in a grin, his arm hooking around one of the beast’s eggs as he went.
If their routes were traced and viewed from an aerial perspective, something which was once a trivial matter, the trails of Willa and Don would differ astronomically on a human scale, and would be two near-twin squiggles on an earthly scale. But far as Don ranged, and doubled back, and took to the water, and came around again, eventually he gained.
To be Continued
Elizabeth Cook 2014