There was a time when mystery was commonplace and all manner of creatures walked the Earth, a time just in between the advent of the modern world and the mythology of yesteryear. These tales takes place in that gap between belief and disbelief, when the world was still separated by water and sky rather than brought together by them. Maps were shrouded in mist and changed with each passing day, or perhaps it was the land itself that changed. It matters not, for the heroes and warriors of those days flowed through the country just as the water that streamed through the fields, forests, and mountains that were their domain.
A condor drifts across the cloudy sky, searching for prey. Below, a young hunter strides through a forest of birches. He has black hair that reaches down to his shoulder blades, bound with leather string and intertwined with a single feather. His unsmiling face is unlined, and his eyelids hang low over brown eyes. He is bare chested, wearing only light leather trousers and thin moccasins. Over his shoulder is a quiver of arrows, the outside painted with stripes of green and red in a spiral pattern. It is completely full. Over the other shoulder is a satchel, lumpy with hidden contents. He glances at the raptor far overhead.
“I commiserate with you, my friend. We both seem to be unsuccessful at hunting so far. Naught but scraps and bones of dead animals so far,” he says to himself as he glances up at the bird.
He has been traveling for several months. Though his legs no longer ache from the endless walking, his satchel is empty of meat. The tradition of his village dictates that once males reached the age of 19 they must embark upon a hunt, alone. This hunt was especially important, as their other hunting parties had been away for much longer than usual. Awan was ordered by the elders to make his coming of age hunt somewhat shorter than was traditional due to this need. He was both pleased and displeased with this decision. On the one hand, it seemed dishonorable to have less required of him. On the other hand, hunting alone was both dangerous and, more than anything else, frightening. Elders told tales of strange creatures and mischievous gods that might pick on solitary mortals.
However, none of these qualms matter at this point, as it has been well over the required time he had been supposed to travel. His bag of supplies now grows lighter every day, and his body has grown lean from a diet increasingly composed of whatever consumable vegetation he can find. Would that he could return to the village successful and once again see the sweet face of his betrothed, Makya. The completion of this hunt would also mean that they could finally be married.
“Perhaps my condor friend is actually hunting me,” he muses as he passes from the copse of birches out into an open field. The reeds ripple in the wind, the nearly cloudless sky stretching overhead. The sun is shining and yet the hair on Awan’s arms and neck prickles.
“I’m either in the presence of my place of death or there’s someone watching me.” He scans the area around him. The clearing is roughly circular in shape, with the patchy white spruces forming half the circle at his back. Before him is a variety of trees. Mountains can be seen in the distance over the treetops, and below them the shade and darkness created by their densely knit branches could be hiding anything.
“I know you’re there! Show yourself and I, Awan of the Iroquois will consider you peaceable.” And then, under his breath, “At least, I think you’re there.” A figure steps out from behind one of the trees up ahead and Awan reaches for his hatchet. It is a skinny, wrinkled old man. His long, grey-streaked black hair is bound in a ponytail over his shoulder and his lined face is expressionless. He wears a simple pair of brown leather breeches and no shirt; the straps of a pack run under his arms and seem to pull his weathered skin ever tighter against his bones.
“My name is Kaga. I have been following the beast for many days.” He glances from side to side. “Have you seen it? Have you seen Tumseneho?”
“The man with no blood?” Awan raises an eyebrow.
“Yes, yes! He looks like this!” He stretches his arms over his head, and the wind produced by this movement almost makes Awan blink. The old man is much taller than he initially looked. Where he had been hunched over before, in his excitement he straightens out his back despite the heavy pack upon it. Awan takes a step back.
“And he makes a sound like,” and at this Kaga lets out a long ululating howl. Awan starts at the noise, and several birds take flight from the treetops around them.
“Well, there goes any chance of bringing food back to my village. You’ve scared all the animals away for miles! I’d not think a human could make such an awful noise.”
The old man is still wiggling his bony fingers at Awan, who frowns and looks away.
“In any case, I’ve not seen anything resembling that description in my time traveling. Other than you, of course.”
“I am known for my impersonations. Thank you for the compliment, friend Awan.”
“But please, tell me more about this Tumseneho creature of which you speak. How can something have no blood and yet live?”
“Well, it is as tall and skinny as one of the trees you see around us. But it has no bark as do you and I. With nothing to hold it together, its innards drag upon the ground, trailing behind it like snakes in the grass. And instead of eyes it has two rotating orbs of fire, and its hundred teeth are long and sharp. Tumseneho chews up bones as you or I would bite into an apple.”
“And you’ve seen this creature?”
Kaga looks over Awan’s right shoulder and squints his eyes a bit. “Mmm, not exactly. I was face down in the dirt at the time. But the desiccated villages and trails of bones are all the proof I need. You have not seen what I have seen with these old eyes, young hunter. And the noises I heard as I lay on the ground… I still hear them in my dreams on nights when the trees crack in the wind.”
“And how did you manage to escape this creature, if it is as dangerous as you say?”
“I am not unknown for my luck, though perhaps as I lay on the ground in terror, Tumseneho saw only a pile of bones. It may well be difficult to see with eyes of fire, ho ho ho!”
“I have heard too many stories in which a monster appears in human disguise, but then most of those stories are told to make children obey their elders and stay safe. Though your story does ring with some truth – do you not know of tribes that engage in cannibalism? I think your brain, perhaps addled with age, saw one of these tribes and confused them with a beast from the cautionary tales of your youth.”
“Disrespectful though you may be, you may also be right. I would invite you to travel with me to one of the places Tumseneho has been, be it a tribe or a monster that is responsible. We may decide then once and for all whether the inhuman activity that has passed was the work of an unnatural beast or the work of those who have abandoned their humanity.”
“Well, do not expect me to share my food with you, Kaga, especially after your awful imitation. And I would ask you to remain somewhat quieter, as my village is still in need of my hunting.”
“You need not worry about that, as I can be as light-footed as a deer when I want to, and I eat little and scavenge whenever possible. I’ll lead the way from here. Come, Awan, and I shall show you things that will put some wrinkles on your eyes.”
With that, Kaga strides off into the trees at a pace that would not be expected of such a bony frame. Awan has to jog to catch up.
The foliage grows thick as they travel, the shade of the trees drying up the sweat gained from standing in the open field. It is an alternate jump and push, their legs constantly assaulted by a variety of weeds, reeds, and thorns unchecked by human hands. Kaga walks ahead of Awan at his same even pace in spite of the hostile plant life.
“How far away is the village?”
“The remains are about a day’s travel”
Well, I truly have nothing better to do in the meantime, Awan thinks to himself. This rite of passage has gone on way past how long it was supposed to last, and if an entire village really has been wiped out, this is something my village needs to know about.
The day seems to drag on and as it does so too is Awan’s stride transformed from a jog to a shuffle. Kaga keeps the same steady lope, and he is barefoot. When it becomes too dark to see, they settle down in between the trees and wrap themselves in the blankets that are requisite of such traveling. Before he falls asleep Awan traces the designs woven into his blanket by Makya, and imagines running his fingers through her long, dark hair. The last thing he hears before slumber overtakes him is a light rustling from the boughs overhead.
Awan awakens to Kaga crouching at his feet, crunching up a handful of what appear to be nuts, berries, and a few dead leaves. The sun is shining over his shoulders.
“Your right arm has been twitching for the last few hours. Are you perhaps anxious about today?”
Awan blinks twice and shakes his head, but Kaga remains.
“Let us move onward, and never mind my arm.”
“Bodies speak louder than words.” And he stands and begins to leave their campsite. Awan rolls out of his blanket and pulls it over his shoulders as he does. He is already walking as he picks up his pack and dashes after the retreating back of Kaga.
“Never have I met someone so restless.”
“And you never shall again, Awan!” Kaga laughs from ahead.
And with sharper ears, thinks Awan. Would that my faculties be so intact at that age. Awan half expects Kaga to turn and remark upon his thoughts, but these are at least one thing that he does not perceive.
They pass by fallen trees and cleared patches of ground. A hoe lies in the midst of a patch of carrots. Weeds grow up around the discarded tool. In the distance Awan can see that a condor is picking at a pile of –
“Kaga, if I was not anxious before I am definitely anxious now. Is that a pile of bones not forty feet ahead of us?”
“If I was sustained on the times I have made people eat their words I would never go hungry. Yes, Awan, those are bones. But they may yet be buffalo bones, yes?”
The condor takes flight as they approach, and rises above the clouds. It’s wavering cry accuses them from above. As they walk nearer to the bones, it became clear that they are not bear or buffalo. The skull and tattered leather clothes confirm that it is a human skeleton, one that is missing a good portion of its frame.
“Kaga, is there a tribe that makes a practice of carving circles out of their enemies corpses?”
“Not that I know of, and I have lived amongst many. No, that looks like it was made by, oh, around a hundred sharp teeth pressed tight together,” he said, a crooked smile on his face. Awan takes a few steps forward and crouches next to the bones. The edges of the missing portion are very smooth, the tiny holes where marrow used to be revealed to the world. There are no signs of breaking or sawing. The hairs on his neck stand up as he imagines what could cause such a wound.
“Kaga this… this is not the work of humans.”
“Humans are never so perfect in their destruction.” Awan looks over his shoulder at Kaga. The old man lets loose a wide grin, his teeth all present and accounted for.
“How much farther to the village?”
“It’s right past those trees. Though it can barely be called a village anymore.”
For once Awan is in the lead, and his pace is slow and deliberate, his body tense. Each step seems to be louder than the last, and a smell begins to enter his nostrils. He thinks of times when, while playing in the woods around his village, he came across a fresh deer carcass. The closer you got, the further away you wanted to be.
They pass through the trees. The remains of a village can be seen but it is as though it has been flattened by an immense hammer, aside from the numerous corpses littering the ground. Each one is missing a portion of its figure. More often than not, the head and torso are gone, leaving only a pair of arms to either side of the abdomen and legs. There is still some skin and organs visible on many of the bodies.
“How long ago did this happen?”
“A few days ago. It is the practice of Tumseneho to destroy a village, wait for its hunters to return, and then devour them as well. He will return again. Always three times. The scavengers have not yet begun to pick the remnants left by the master.”
“Be respectful of the dead, Kaga.”
“The dead are fortunate to be free of the plagues of the living, though there are certainly more enviable ways to leave this world than how they left.”
“Let us not linger here. The sun is going down and, as you said, it is a known fact that predators return to feed on previous prey.”
“Ah, so you do listen to some of your elders.”
“I listen to my elders. You are not one of my elders.”
“Last I checked I was older than you. In fact, I am much older than most humans…” And with that, Kaga once again stretches his arms up into the air, but this time a bit further. A loud cracking noise comes from his chest and he gnashes his teeth at Awan.
( ©2015 Sean Dorsey )
7-5-2015: Removed “and his pouch of preservative salt full to the brim” from fourth paragraph; Native Americans preserved meat by drying it in the open air.