A Life Taken
|Screeeeeech, crash, crunch, tinkle. Darkness. “Foomp.” Flame.
Third day. The third day after a second night of dreaming, a never-ending torment of pain and of fire.
On the third day, the low branches buzzed and swayed in mild breezes peppered with sunlight. Earthy stagnant scents of untilled soil and mildewy leaf decay hung heavy atop damp heat.
On the third day, he understood himself to be somewhat of an abomination curled like a fetus beneath the thickest set of boughs crisscrossing at the edge of a glade. High grasses and weeds spread out beyond the forest.
Small furry creatures skittered past his clenched form nestled between the roots extending all around. Winged things soared and flittered across the field beyond.
He stirred, clapping a massive hand to one side of a massive head, shielding eyes from the unforgiving light of morning. Rags shifted and slid along, dragging a layer of dried rot as he pushed himself into a seated position resting against hard wood and bark.
The branches here were thick enough no one wandering in the distance could see inside his makeshift shelter. Anyone, moving nearby and curious enough to investigate, might find the going difficult as the surrounding scrub was heavy, nearly impenetrable, without swinging a sharpened blade.
He breathed in deeply, drawing warmth into his lungs, and wondered at his existence. He held up a hand and turned it over noting the grotesque lines and divots and gouges between his mismatched fingers. He balled his fist and flexed his fingers, straightened his arm and bent his elbow and pressed his outstretched hand against the ground by his side, scooping up a quantity of mixed leaves and moss. He held the contents up and prodded them lightly with a finger that wasn’t his noting the way the dried leaf crinkled and the springiness of the moss. He crushed it all into a ball, opened it in his hands and pressed the mixture to his face feeling a prickling softness and inhaling the world.
He had a sense that he was somewhere remote, removed and safe, away from what tortured him … the flame … the pain. But try as he might, he could not remember.
He could not remember who he was or what he was. He had no sense of his history aside from the fleeting glimmers of nightmare.
All he truly knew, without a doubt, was that he was lost.
That … and a deeply rooted sense that he was completely and utterly alone.
Fear welled in him. An instinct. A fleeting sensation lighting from the tips of his fingers to flitter away like the thousand buzzing things zipping about his head. He pawed at the things, little black specks of annoyance. He swatted them away. With them went the fear only to momentarily return and settle as a loose, chaotic cloud around his head.
Eventually fear was replaced by anxiety which was again replaced by longing and then again by loneliness and regret and guilt. Although, for the life of him, he could not fathom the source or the meanings of these sensations. They were simply there.
They haunted him.
At first, his head snapped around toward the sound of every falling twig and rustling leaf. And now his head hung down, chin against his chest, eyes staring at everything and at nothing at the same moment. He was trying to make sense of it all. He needed to understand how he came to be.
Again he held up a hand and turned it over against the sunlight seeking a sense of something familiar. Yet there continued to be nothing aside from a vague sense of life and of self and of being nothing and of belonging to no one.
He balled a fist and slammed it into the ground. A dull thud was the only reply.
And at once he realized there was no pain.
He balled a fist again and brought it down upon a root extended above the soil. Again the thud, but where he was sure there should have been a spike of something sharp … a throbbing soreness … something, anything … there was only an odd numbness. As if his fist was a club wielded by someone other than himself.
For a third time he held up a hand and gazed at it, except this time he pulled back the rags, exposing on one side a pale wrist wrapped and bound to darkened skin on the other side with wire … not at all familiar to him nor natural.
He picked at a place where the opposing colors were joined along the arm, working the bindings apart until the tip of one stubby, unfamiliar finger fit between.
He pushed the finger in, heard the flesh squish, felt certain pressure beneath the skin, noticed a black liquid oozing down his arm. Still no pain.
He willed his probing further and crooked his finger halfway down the forearm, pulled until the skin tore, an audible ripping which widened into a hole. He pushed forward until his fingertip made contact with something hard, and the removal of his hand left an exposed whiteness within the separation he’d created. He stared at what he had done … at his skin and at his bone … and when the realization hit him, he was overwhelmed by sickness, a dreadful nauseousness forcing his body to double over, threatening to spill his innards all over the forest floor.
He rolled onto his side and clapped a massive hand to one side of his massive head to keep the rest of the world away, and he forced himself to sleep.
When next he opened his eyes, the air seemed heavy and wet, and the pale light filtering between the branches appeared to be gaining ground, overcoming silence and darkness. Despite the oncoming daylight, he continued to lay on his side, immobile beneath his mound of rags between shallow roots. The earth beneath him remained a solid platform from which he felt he might never fall. Somewhere deep within, he feared confronting the reality beyond his shelter, as if the edge of the world lay just beyond the brush and the brambles. He lay curled up and safe and alone. Wanting nothing. Needing nothing. A burden to no one.
Occasionally, he found himself forced to charge the box, press the paddles to his skin and energize. But he limited the practice to nighttime when the darkness might hide his movements and the small lives around him might sleep against the high pitched whine the box emitted and his temporarily aggressive state immediately after the charge was delivered.
He knew he couldn’t sustain the conditions forever, but he found as long as he was comfortable enough, he just didn’t care. Eventually the box would die. Eventually he would find he could not rise. And then he would simply cease to be. And that was ok. All alone. Undisturbed. A burden to no one.
A slight rustling caught his attention. It seemed to be just in front of where he could see and just outside the criss-crossed boughs shielding him from everything. He lay very still and stared and hoped he had misheard.
But there. Just there. Just beyond the brush outside the branches, a twig snapped. Leaves stirred.
Something was there. Something pawed at the undergrowth. Something sniffed slightly. Something larger than the little furry things running amok all around and above chittering at him during the days.
A breeze rose, subsided, causing the forest to move and to sway and to hiss and to rustle.
And then silence reasserted itself.
He stayed very still and watched and waited. His eyes grew tired so he closed them.
A sharp crack and a crackle just to the right popped his lids open again.
He scanned the area, focusing on blocked light unnatural midst the dappling of the branches all around. He could just make out a shape there, upright and on four legs continuing on pensively and pausing to lower its head to sniffle at the ground. It’s coloring was a blanket of warm, friendly tans across a long, graceful body accented with white. Its head was a streamlined wedge atop a long tapering neck with high pointed ears on both sides above two huge dark eyes. It stepped forward, nearly silent among the brambles and the twigs pausing to snuffle at the brush beyond where he could see.
Another breeze pushed through and the trees all around creaked and swayed.
It threw its head up suddenly and craned it neck back in the direction from which it came. It froze for what seemed like an eternity.
A loud, unnatural sound. A horrible sound. A man made sound erupted from the distance, somewhere well away from where he lay. The shock of it startled him into a seated position, and he saw the thing flinch. It squawked, an awkward, forced, unnatural noise before it came crashing down against his cover.
The branches shook and cracked and showered leaves. There came a dull thud and the creatures head poked through into the small open area where he’d found respite.
He stared at it, motioned it away, but it did not move. It’s dark eyes stared. Froth appeared along its lips before it went silent and its tongue fell out against the leaves.
Everything around him went quiet. The trees, the breeze, the tall grasses in the glade beyond were still.
He shuffled over, hands and knees, to the side of his enclosure where the creature had fallen expecting it to jerk up and run at his approach. But it did not.
He came on cautiously, waving his mismatched hand above its eye. There was no movement at all. No recognition he was even there. He stared into the eye feeling kindness and calm. He recognized its beauty and a sense of warmth emitted from its gaze before a cold whiteness appeared and seemed to begin its spread slowly within.
He reached compulsively out and patted its neck in comfort.
A “whoop” erupted across the glade. A childish, excited noise piercing the air crashing against his calm.
He turned toward its source, but he couldn’t see. It irritated.
He looked back to the gentle creature, a slow trickle of blood dripping from its mouth.
He scanned the distance across the grasses, but noticed no obvious movement.
Then came a low noise. Voices. Voices coming across the grass getting louder. Coming right for him.
He turned back to the creature, yanked it through the branches causing a helluva racket. Its body slid into his enclosure well muscled and lean. It was young, not quite fully grown by his estimation. He lay a hand on its sleek chest and once convinced there was no movement, he snatched it by its hooves and drug it out of the branches further into the forest, away from the glade. When he was sufficiently clear, he slung it up over his shoulder and he began to run deep into the forest.
Thump thump thump went his feet against the hard pack of the forest floor.
Thud thud thud went the dead thing across his shoulders.
Yells and cries erupted behind him.
He ran, and he ran until silence became his friend once again.