The Apotheosis of Forests
A short story by Edison McDaniels
The beast and the man upon the beast moved through the forest as one. He rode the animal as if born to the task, and his every command put the animal to action without hesitation. He was its master.
The animal itself stood half again as tall as the man. It moved upright on two powerfully built limbs, balancing now and again on a long and sinewy prehensile tail. Within its head two eyes the size of men’s fists peered out of a flat face, and below those eyes both a small and a large mouth. A thin, forked tongue pistoned repeatedly from the smaller mouth at irregular intervals.
The man adjusted his weight upon the beast. Its leathery hide had long since abraded and thinned his britches. But so long had he sat the creature that the insides of his thighs had scarred and pitted until his own skin was made leathery tough as a result. As well, the heat of two suns burned overhead and the man’s profuse sweating made his perch upon the animal’s broad shoulders precarious at times.
The pair came now out of the trees and ascended to the crest of a bald ridge, which dominated the land for miles in all directions. The man pulled his spyglass and eyeballed the world. What he saw was all gray and charcoal, a mixture of the meager and the substantial; more the former than the latter.
The putrid smell of the beast hung in the air and the man adjusted the scarf before his nose. The air itself was crystal clear. The trees before him were huge, hulking things, black and burnt and most over on their side as if tossed like twigs, as if some great and fantastic god had wiped his hand across the land and made it so. They jutted every which way, no rhyme or reason except to obscure any path through their mess. An immense expanse of trees of all sizes, from the insignificant to the gigantic, broken only by the odd boulder or clearing. A dry, angular, craggy, uninviting world.
He saw nothing anywhere to suggest water.
He counted exactly two rotting carcasses, both emaciated. He was mildly surprised the feeders hadn’t reduced them to bones yet, then thought how nothing moved in the high heat of day. As if to confirm this, he saw no vultures, no birds of any sort. Even the thrum of insects had fallen to something tolerable.
The great beast shuddered. The man pocketed the spyglass and patted the neck of his beast. “Easy fella,” he said. “You smell water maybe? Just a little?”
No, the man thought, adjusting his scarf again and sniffing the air, not yet you don’t.
He reached behind him and fumbled in his pack for anything to eat. He pulled out a few last bits of dried placenta. He fed half to the animal first, then took the other half himself. The taste was salty and bitter, the texture gritty. He pulled his water bag and took a sip. He offered some to the animal, mostly out of habit this was, but it turned away. “Good fella,” he said, “You know we’re in trouble.”
The beast sniffed the air and shuddered again, then made a loud croaking noise. The man dismounted. “We getting close, fella? You smell it?” He took his knife and water bag from the pack, stuck the knife in his belt. Shook the water bag. Thought, water enough for one more day. He looked at the animal’s rump, at the many scars upon it. “Won’t need eating if there ain’t no drinking,” he said, and so decided against taking any food. Besides, he needed the beast whole if it was to do its job properly. Find water and there’d be time and plenty for eating. He knew this last from experience. He pulled the reins and the animal bent forward to his level. “Find water,” he whispered in its ear, then “Away with you. Yehaw!” He slapped its ass and the animal moved off at a run.
The man tracked the beast, staying out of its way. He rubbed the oily black mud that did for soil all over himself by way of hiding his own scent, then followed the beast’s prints in the same oily crud. Night came and he tracked the beast purely by its smell in the heavy darkness, for the beast had keen night sight and preferred to move in the cooler night air. In the morning the man sought shelter under a deadfall. He dug worms and ate termites from a dead tree. He saw the black dirt melt to an oily crud as the twin suns rose in the red sky.
His water bag ran dry on the second day. He drew his member and filled the bag with his own piss, which he drank sparingly for another day. He rested in the afternoons. Night came and another day and another night. His piss turned purple-brown, the color of beet gruel, and it burned to pee. When he wiped his mouth, there was no spit. It occurred to him he might die and in the early morning he lay prostrate upon the ground, on the oily crud that had once again solidified in the cool night air. He chanted the Ka, or as much of it as he could remember, and once or twice thought he heard the high pitched whine of the feeders on the move.
He fell asleep and awoke to the building heat, to something pricking his arms. He came around only slowly. An insect whined at his ear and he pawed at it. Of a sudden he was fully awake. “Shit.” The whine of the feeders was loud in his ear. He rose in an instant, slapping at his arms and neck, dancing like a man possessed. He took off at a run.
In the low heat of just after sunrise the feeders didn’t follow. They didn’t have too, he realized. He’d be helpless and at their mercy soon enough. He’d seen it before, how the feeders attacked a man and reduced him to bones, and those bones to dust. It hadn’t been a quick death though. It had taken minutes—many long minutes—and the man had screamed the whole time. Awful screams. The man had been his father.
He tracked the beast. He found the animal over on its back at the edge of a clearing. Its tongue lolled to one side as if laughing. “Easy fella, it’ll all be over soon.”
The whine of the feeders moved slowly closer.
The man pulled his blade. “I won’t let ‘em get ya, fella.”
The beast stirred.
“Water? You smell water, fella? Seems like maybe you smell water.” He and the beast had been together for many ages and he knew the beast’s behaviors. Ot maybe he was just imagining it so.
The beast quivered and snorted, more convincingly this time.
It took all his might for the man to move the beast’s great head. The dirt under it was dry, had not yet melted to the oily crud. The man took a handful. He smelled it, put some in his mouth.
Water? Maybe. There was a sickly sweet taste to the dirt that he had missed in the days just past.
He began to dig. A foot below the surface the water ran in tiny rivulets. Slightly deeper and the water puddled. He took enough to wet his lips, then cupped his hands and brought them up to the beast’s mouth. “Here you go fella. You’ve earned it.”
The beast stirred. The man got the animal up and let him drink first. “Good fella,” he said over and over.
Next, the man drank and felt his strength returning despite the heat. As it got hotter, the whine of the feeders disappeared.
Later, as the twin suns faded over the horizon, the man’s hunger came on. Time to eat, he thought. He’d had nothing substantial in days. He tied the reins of the beast to a tree and pulled his blade once more. He ran a hand over the animal’s scarred rump. He said a prayer, something about renewal, and kissed his hand and placed that hand upon the animal’s rump. The great beast, a renewer, made a low whining noise and tensed as the man carved a hunk of meat from its rump, where the hide was thinner.
He was careful to cut only what he needed at that moment.
They were still surrounded by uncounted miles of dead forest, and a long way from anywhere.
Edison McDaniels’ novels and novellas are available for purchase at Amazon.