Spring’s hardened earth is cool against my flesh as I flee men I once considered equals. Now we find ourselves separated by differences I cannot explain. As their intent is to kill me, I am left with no other option. And so I make haste to escape them.
Casting an upward glance while crossing the dense field, I find a hint of daybreak in the unceasing sky. The heavens are without clouds, not a single star left to wink out. This is how empty I feel. I am an outcast among my own people. And while darkness has aided in my escape thus far, with the moon paling an orange burst will soon illuminate the mountaintops.
Straying from predictability is my best hope for survival, but still I am drawn to the canopy of trees. The forest does not accept me without effort. Exposed tree trunks, a drapery of vines, thick brush, and fallen limbs impede my progress. Traversing these same obstacles will not be as difficult for my pursuers, and I am filled with regret for having chosen this path.
Behind me, they grunt, communicating in their rudimentary way. One of them breaks off to the left while another heads right. Both men are gaining, almost passing me. My pulse quickens with anticipation. There is a tightness growing in my chest, as they close in on me.
Knuckles dragging along the forest floor draw my attention left, and then right. Even with their spears in tow, they use their arms like a third and fourth leg to assist them across the terrain, reminding me of animals. They know nothing of walking upright, yet despite their crude nature, I know how skilled they are at the hunt.
Branches thrash against my chest and face. Each lashing brings a unique sting to delay my escape. Trying to avoid these hindrances seems almost futile, but still I attempt to do so. While I am able to sidestep a few protruding limbs, I am unsuccessful at navigating the fallen branches.
Edges of cracked wood, exposed roots, and sharp rocks are but a few of the impediments I encounter. Meanwhile, these men I once broke bread with move about these obstructions with little trouble. Here in these woods I am not their equal. Comparable to a bird with clipped wings, I am forced to this unfamiliar means of passage.
My eyes catch sight of an object flying through the sky, accompanied by an audible whistle. I turn in time to watch the spear strike the earth, only a handful of footfalls ahead of my location. If I had been but a step faster the spear would have brought my life to a sudden end.
Up ahead I spy something magical. My heart eases at its glimmer and I am desperate for these waters. The stream bears off to the left, and I divert my route toward this haven. But as I near the water, one of the men intersects my path. His mouth is twisted in a hateful grimace, his spear raised in an effort to strike me down. He bounds into me using his free hand to steady himself. Close enough to smell his breath, his spear falls on me and I make an attempt to avoid it.
The spear slices through my belly, leaving a long tear in the initial layer of flesh. I reel from the blow and come to an abrupt halt. Blood gushes out, a sensation bringing streaks of wet heat on my lower extremities. Cringing, I find the will to defend myself before the man has time to ready his weapon.
Fear seizes this man as I turn on him, glaring into his eyes. Although I recognize this man as my wife’s brother, I force myself to violence. We clash with only one difference separating us, the fact that I am the hunted. Because of this knowledge I fight with desperation. Hopelessness alarms the man when I seize his neck in a panicked flail of my limbs.
I squeeze and he attempts to scream, but all that comes is an unexpected gurgling sound. Even in this dimness I am able to identify the way his face turns blue. In this second of time, my sole intent is on crushing. This man I once called brother has chased me down, endeavored to kill me, and he deserves this end because of his callous behavior. Yet, something inside of me remembers the thing that binds us, a woman we both love. In his widened eyes, black holes staring back at me, I am offered a glimpse into another world. It is this expression that reminds me of my reception upon returning to camp. Does this man not recall that I am betrothed to his sister?
The others near, preceded by their crude language. Thinking fast, I make a choice I believe I will soon regret. Throwing the man aside, he tumbles to the forest floor gasping for air. The others ignore my presence to aid their fallen brethren, allowing me time to escape.
Entering the river without hesitation the water is soothing. This is a sensation that spreads fast over my body, stabilizing my heartbeat. My lungs no longer struggle. Calm finds me, and a flood of memories wash over me while I continue to flee. I see an image of myself fishing, scaling the rocky embankment of the nearby sea. My spear always ready, I behold myself diving into the waters, welcoming me back to their depths.
In my brief vision, a large fish cross my path and I am swift with my spear. My weapon pierces the swollen belly of the fish, ending its primitive life. Toting the fish to shore, I tossed it among the rocks and go back for more. Those waters are where I have always felt most comfortable, having worked hard to train my lungs to withstand the pressure for lengthy intervals of time. Then I noticed something unusual among the varied structures of the underwater landscape. Holding my breath, I approached this object. And as I neared it, an illumination equal to that of a morning sun greeted me. I felt no fear, only the hint of a change that was beginning even then.
A grunt to my right pulls me from my memories. I glance up and discover a man advancing alongside me in the trees. On land he is swift, but the water is to my advantage. I glide over the slime covered rocks with ease while he does not share in my luck. He stumbles and falls, allowing the others catch up to him. My wife’s brother is with them and they help this man to his feet.
With them is the man who has been my leader for a lifetime. He sees me and the anger on his face reveals a hatred I have never known this man to express. I am saddened by this and run. I will continue to do so until they no longer follow. This is my penance for being so dissimilar.
Ambling down the widening streambed, the forest soon gives birth to the morning light and a ray of sunshine blinds me. As my vision adjusts, I see the stream empties into a pool of water below. I know this place well. The women come here to bathe and collect water. A few of them grace the waters now.
Part of me despises the need to jump. But the others are closing in on me, will soon be able to attack. I am certain if given an instant longer, they will. They will not hesitate to draw more blood from my already anguished body. My only recourse is to leap for my freedom.
The water greets me and although I know little of its depths, I am fearless. A multitude of tiny bubbles escort me to the surface where I am met by shrieks of trepidation. Two women abandon their small vessels by the shoreline, no longer concerned with gathering water. A third woman dashes out of the water, leaving her skins behind. She would rather take to the brush nude than share these waters with the likes of me. I follow her to land.
Distracted by this last woman’s screaming, an attack comes from overhead. I lift my eyes to meet the skyward flight of the spear. Its shaft quivers when the spear finds land several lengths short of where I stand. I take this as a warning, recognizing the face of the clan leader, his stance valiant at the lip of the waterfall. The look in his eyes is menacing.
The rest of his men begin to clamor down the earthen walls, intent on continuing their pursuit. Anger radiates through me and I decide I will run no farther. If these men wish to bring the fight to me, I will face them.
I grab the clan leader’s spear and snap it in two before throwing the useless tool aside. I do not require such unsophisticated weapons. Glaring up at their leader with defiance, I dare him to come fight me, but he refrains. He stands observing his men nearing their prey.
Having scaled the walls of the canyon, his men reach the sandy beach and do not hesitate. They taunt me with their spears, thrusting them at me in short, quick lunges. They move to encircle me, a tactic I have witnessed them use on many creatures prior to this day. I stand my ground.
Seizing the first of these men, I coil one of my tentacles around his neck. He drops his spear as I constrict his throat, trying to squeeze the life from him. When his face flushes red and then to a bluish hue, I discover an odd pleasure in his suffering. I draw him in close to me, watching as I press tighter. His life fades and I feel gratified when his clansmen go to his assistance instead of confronting me. That is their weakness.
One of these men I take into an appendage, encircling his chest and lifting him high into the air. He tries to strike me with his spear, but he misses and the weapon falls away useless. I clutch another’s leg and lift him as well. But he keeps a tight hold on his spear, but to my surprise seems to forget how to use his weapon. The teeth-like mandibles at the end of my limb dig into the flesh of his shin, drawing blood, forcing him to drop his spear. He screams, further feeding my indulgence of his pain. I rip away the muscle of his leg, finding bone and cinching down upon it.
Seeing this, the other two men are frozen by their terror. They no longer have interest in helping their fellow men, or in me for that matter. Instead, they make an attempt to defend themselves as they run. Now I am the hunter, and send a bold tentacle lashing outward to trip them up. I pin one of these men to the ground, sliding the weight of my body over him. The other I hold at bay, as he tries to fend off one of my lower appendages.
While I admit to having little taste for man, I will not say it does not bring me satisfaction. Surely there are better creatures to devour, but if given no other choice mankind will suffice. I might even be quite capable of growing accustomed to the flavor. Should I escape and they continue to track me, I would consider this, but I do not wish for it to become the case.
Taking the man I hold by a mutilated shin, I throw him toward the canyon wall with all my might. He strikes the rock with great force, his skull caving in against the rigid stone. A thin trail of blood marks his descent, as he slides to a watery grave. This end suits my wife’s brother well for having crossed me. Content, I glance up at their leader, and he at me. My resentment of him offers me increased strength.
His ribs giving, a snap indicates the man I hold about his chest has endured a fracture. Before I can look, I feel the hot sting of his blade and turn to discover him readying to thrust the makeshift knife into the muscle of my limb once more. Trying to tighten upon his chest, I fail as his first cut has already weakened the muscle. And I am forced to switch tentacles.
My new teeth, of which I am unfamiliar with, claw at the man’s face. He tries to scream, but his weeping is muffled. Fraught for breath, I finally find enough strength to collapse a couple ribs, though it no longer matters. When I release the man, he falls to the ground faceless and near death.
Beneath me, the man offers little struggle, succumbing to my mass, perhaps hoping I have forgotten him. I have not. The other man, having toiled with my tentacle, finds an opportunity to escape and seizes the moment. I thrust both limbs at him, finding his legs, and tripping him up once more. He falls forward, impaling himself on his own spear.
My attention returns to their leader, as I relieve this last man of my burden. I take this fallen man up into my clutches, his hands in one tentacle and his feet in another. He does not struggle even as I lift him to the sky. Their leader surveys me and at first I tease, before severing the man in two. His blood and entrails shower me, I am overwhelmed with confidence.
There are many things I want to say, messages I want to convey, but I know this man will never understand my words. He turns and runs and I consider giving chase, as I know someday he might seek to return. Perhaps he will even bring others. I do not know why I let him live, but then I realize with certain clarity I might want him to come back.
Until that day, I will construct an underwater lair in the sea, where I will wait for them. I will long for them to interrupt my slumber, to provide me with another taste of humanity. Here I will be both the hunter and the fisher of men, ever patient in awaiting their hopeless return.
Author Kenneth W. Cain writes dark fiction from his home in eastern Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and two children. He is the author of several novels and short fiction, including his acclaimed collection These Old Tales. His work has appeared alongside such notable authors as Hill, Barker, Ketchum, Braunbeck, Maberry and others. He writes a blog about fiction at The Dark Fiction of Author Kenneth W. Cain.
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Story illustration by Steve Santiago.