After the Pretty Pox Book Two
Copyright © 2020 by August Ansel
Date: What was my last guess? No matter.
Time is a crude tool. The more we tried to master time and matter, the madder we became. It’s always right now, later than we think.
The weather broke warm today and my fingers want to get up to dickens. Silly body. I’ll be sorry later, but here I am, obedient, pen to paper.
There was a thing people said: Be careful what you wish for. Meant to be amusing, uttered with a twinkle in the eye. Was it ever funny? No, no.
It was a scold, a nasty finger-wag aimed at someone already laid low.
Oh, Icarus. Look at you floating there, all broken in a puddle of melted wax.
Be careful what you wish for.
We wished so hard we broke ourselves, and here am I, unlikely historian, wagging my bony digit. Tsk, tsk.
Oh Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt. Oh Remington and Oppenheimer. Oh Bell and Ford and Edison. Oh Jobs and Gates. Oh Watson and Crick.
Can you see it? A rogues’ gallery of good intentions.
I chose to act as so many have before me. Rational! Reasonable!
Oozing with altruism, me.
That things had gone off the rails was not in dispute.
The war to right the train was waged on a battlefield of glorious indignation, fueled by raging conviction and precious, cosseted hatreds.
We dearly love to hate each other.
Perhaps you’ve noticed.
Darling enemy, our enmity feeds me.
When we had reached the point of no return, I helped.
We were everywhere, all at once, helping.
Physics and weather and chemistry, too.
I could fly, so away I flew
to sprinkle on everyone, sprinkle on you.
A wee baptism, one might say.
We thought everyone would tumble.
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
Notice my liberal use of we in my yarn?
We, we, we, all the way home.
Here in this small room the only we
is that shadow on the wall
HE COULDN'T STOP SHAKING. The big turkey roosted on a low hemlock branch and Handy had it sighted. But even with the bow at full cock, arms tensed, his body trembled with cold. When he fired, the tom disappeared in a furious explosion of muscle and wing. Green needles spattered the dark duff under the tree like tiny jackstraws.
“Damn,” he muttered. He shouldered the bow and tightened the drawstring on his jacket’s hood so that only a small oval of his face showed. This interfered with his field of vision, but he was desperate to hold on to every trace of body heat. The afternoon didn’t have enough light left to hunt by, anyway. Before he returned to the shelter, though, he needed to find his arrow.
Past the spreading hemlock, a low ridge rose above a broiling creek. Certain the arrow must have ended up there somewhere, Handy squinted at the bank through a gauzy veil of drizzle. Everything was a gray blur, dripping and two-dimensional. He spotted the arrow two-thirds of the way down-slope, nock end up and business end buried, dangling in a bedraggled mass of horsetail. Easing sideways onto the bluff, he picked his way over the muddy and uncertain scree. Small stones dislodged as he went, skittering and bouncing to the creek bank.
At the low tangle of horsetail, he pulled the arrow free and wiped the point on his pants leg. A quick look told him it was undamaged. As he reached over his shoulder to return it to the quiver, his right foot slid sideways with greasy ease. Handy was pitched onto his hands and knees. He grabbed frantically for purchase, but there was nothing stable to stop his ass-over-teakettle tumble to the slate-colored water rushing through the bottom of the ravine. Cold mud rucked up beneath his shirt and at the cuffs of his pants. Sharp rocks scoured the skin of his hands and forearms as he flailed. He ended his tumble sideways, thudding onto the narrow bank with his entire left side submerged in the frigid water, head to toe.
He gasped and jerked out of the creek, sloshing backward on his elbows. The splintered shaft of the arrow was still clutched in his hand, arrowhead gone and feathered nock stripped bare. He hauled himself upright, stumbling on the rocky bank. Water poured out of the heavy fabric of his jeans, sloshed in his left boot. Its chill sank straight through skin and muscle, burrowing for bone.
Done. He had to get back to shelter. He flung the useless bit of arrow shaft into the stream, did his best to squeeze water out of his dripping clothes, and began his return ascent up the bank. It wasn’t likely he’d find his lost arrowhead, but he retraced the clear path of his tumble—a wide swath where he’d skidded and scraped. Bent to the work of climbing, he peered around, slipping back a bit every few steps.
When he was nearly to the spot where his fall began, what caught his attention was not the missing arrowhead but an unexpected movement among the wet stones and mire. He paused, and there—another soundless twitch. Handy fell on the small frog. Three inches long and wet, it squirted through his numb fingers. Before it could scuttle out of reach, he caught it by one leg and dashed its head against a large rock.
He circled the frog’s throat, cutting with one ragged thumbnail, and stripped off its skin in three, slippery tugs. It was gelid in his mouth, stringy. The flesh had the bland, muddy aftertaste of the riverbank and the iron tang of blood. Small bones splintered between his teeth, and then there was nothing left but chewy silver slivers clinging to the head and vertebrae. He dropped the remains, wiped his mouth with the back of his grimy hand.
With a few more gritty lunges, he got to the verge of the bank and hauled himself up. He’d started to shiver, a whole-body shake, and it was getting harder to fix his thoughts in a straight direction. If he didn’t get back to the hut and warm up he’d end up rambling like an idiot until hypothermia made him strip naked and wander into the woods to be food for something else.
Small meal that it was, the frog had given him a shot of energy; he used it to set off in a shambling trot back to shelter. To fire and family. As his numb feet struck the forest floor in an almost soundless rhythm, he hoped someone else had had better luck finding food.
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