Ten rotations later they reach the opposite shore, the banks of which are a gentle slope rising up from thick mud to thick green weeds, bugs buzzing over both. Birch trees rise up a just six feet away, their straight trunks rising to branches that arch over Meda and Masou’s heads. Heavy bags are under their eyes, and they crawl out of the canoe onto the shore and then roll over on their backs on the grass.
“I feel sick.” Meda swallows and closes her eyes.
“I’m just glad nothing happened the second night. I feel as though I’ve been rowing for a week.” He groans and puts his right arm over his eyes. Meda sits up and brings her legs up to her chest, hands sinking into the thick grass on either side of her.
“What do we do now?”
“Well, first we need to get you set up to live here for a at least a week. And then I have to walk around the lake back to our village to see if they’ll accept you back. Going back across the mishigami is obviously not an option, especially if I’m alone.”
“I don’t want to be alone, either! What if that thing comes out of the water?”
“I get the feeling that that’s what killed Kimi. And I think it’s restricted to the water, or maybe it’s part of the water. After all, she was down by the stream when it happened. I don’t think it can come out on its own. I’ll have to follow the shoreline as I go but I’ll not get too close to it.”
“How did it get you, then?” Masou looks at Meda, and a small grin forms on his face.
“… I may have reached into the water.”
“Daqatulakan! Why would you do that after what I said earlier? Even on your own advice, what if it had been a snake or something?”
“Calling me an idiot is going easy on me. I don’t know why I did it either. It was almost as though I couldn’t stop myself. It was beautiful, though. Looked like the night sky was living in the lake, a river of stars flowing just below the surface.”
“That doesn’t sound like what I saw. It was just black.” Masou shrugs at her.
“In any case, let’s gather some branches to make you tent. I’ll leave some of our supplies here with you and hunt as I go.” He stands up and holds out a hand for Meda. Helping her up, they step toward the trees.
Several hours later they have gathered twenty or so long straight branches. They bind them together at one end with a length of leather rope and, propping the branches up to form a cone, pull a blanket of deer skin around it, the soft brown fur on the outside.
“I’m going to get going. Will you be okay out here? Remember, just stay away from the lakeside. There should be streams further in here, but be careful with those as well. Who knows which might connect to the mishigami.” Meda nods at him and gulps. “Meda?” She looks into his eyes.
“Yes. I’ll be careful.”
“Okay.” They hold each others’ gaze for a few seconds and then Masou leans in and kisses her. She smiles as he pulls away but the smile fades as he turns to go, jogging along the grassy shore and into the woods. Ten minutes later she can only see a small shape in between the trunks. She turns back to look at the tent and sighs, head down.
Masou pants as he jogs but does not slow down. He swerves to the left of each tree that rises up in his path, putting them in between himself and the lake waters which churn at the bottom of a slight incline of smooth shale. It is a windy, overcast day, and it feels as though he is being pushed towards the drop-off as he runs at a slant, leaning against the cold air. The terrain goes up and down as he runs, and after an hour he slows to a walk, his panting approaching wheezing. Though it’s the middle of the afternoon, it is even darker than before, the clouds lending a blue tint to the land.
He walks for another two hours and then increases his pace to a steady jog again. Dusk falls and Masou’s face is scrunched with exertion and he stomps to a walk, arms hanging forward. With a grunt he raises them and puts his hands on the back of his head, eyes closed as he moves forward with this chest thrust out. He opens them only to see that he’s been straying towards the lake, and with a small exclamation staggers back under cover of the forest.
He picks a tree that has the fewest gaps between its branches, eying the clouds as he unfolds his blanket and lies down on it, wrapping himself up. He closes his eyes and falls asleep as the wind blows through the trees, howling down over the water.
Masou opens his eyes to the feeling of damp cloth on the left side of his makeshift bed. He blinks and then, with a yell, his arms fly out of the blanket and claw at the moist ground to his right, kicking his legs out as well which splash in the water of the lake. He runs up the grassy slope and spins around at the top, gasping. The edge of his blanket floats up and down on the rippling water, but there are no abducting tendrils to be seen. Looking behind him, he must have rolled several yards down to the shore from where he was sleeping before.
“First time I rolled that much in my slee–” His thought is cut off as the thin rivulet of water running between the grass at his feet wraps around his ankle and yanks him to the ground, his arms waving as his front slams into the dirt. Before he can hook his fingers into the ground he is in the black water. Darkness surrounds him, and where there would normally be the translucent surface of the water above is fragmented, splinters of deep blue seen through the frenzy of tentacles flailing around and above him. As Masou waves his arms and kicks his legs, one foot touches the bottom of the lake with a squish, reeds and mud pushed up between his toes. The other foot finds the bottom as well and, before the tentacles can drag him into deeper water, he pushes off with both feet. It feels as though there is a thick blanket above him in the water, but the desperate kickoff carries him to a more shallow area, where he pushes down again.
This time he breaks the surface, eyes bulging and mouth gasping as he leans forward, trudging out of the water just as the tentacles pull him back. With each step, more of them fall away, plopping into the water and dissolving. They spread like black oil upon the surface. The same black fluid runs down Masou’s back. A single tendril stretches from the water up over his shoulder, becoming thinner and thinner until it snaps. Masou falls face-forward onto the shore again, back heaving.
“Doesn’t have… much… stamina.” He coughs up some water as he pushes himself up. The small sound of grass bending underfoot comes from up ahead, and Masou tilts his head back. Meda is walking toward him. Moonlight passes over her in bands as it breaks through the foliage.
“That’s two times you’ve escaped it now. Your medicine must be pretty strong.”
“Meda! What are you doing here?” She looks up to the left.
“I followed you. I was scaaared.”
“I sure didn’t see you. Didn’t know you were that sneaky.” A small smile forms on his face. “Can’t say I’m unhappy to have you here, though I must look pretty pathetic.” She walks forward, standing next to him on the shore.
“It is beautiful, isn’t it?” She twirls a strand of hair around her finger. Masou rolls over and and scrambles to his feet.
“Get back from there! What happened to being afraid of the water?” He rushes forward and grabs her shoulders, pulling her back from the edge. She stumbles as she moves backwards and the hair wrapped around her finger is yanked out. The extracted follicle stiffens and elongates, becoming a four foot long lightning bolt shaped spike of pure, shining black. Meda holds it in both hands and plunges it through the gap between her left arm and body, leaning back such that she falls back, pushing Masou off balance. The impact pushes the spear through him and into the ground as Meda falls on top of him. She then uses the spike as support, pulling herself up, a bloodstain visible on her left shoulder-blade. The solidified hair does not bend, and Masou cries out as it sinks in up to the zig-zag at its middle.
“Meda, why–” he coughs up blood, and tears stream down his face from closed eyes.
“Can’t have any competition for my children.” She crouches down by the water and the tentacles rise up and spiral around her extended arm, touching a points in a circle around her forearm. Moving white lights appear within them when they make contact and flow down them into the water. “The more I make, the more I understand the medicine. And the more I understand the medicine, the closer I am to the final mystery. And then I shall become the mystery.” She looks back at Masou, the skin around her eyes a bright red, a rash of lines and bubbled flesh. Masou is umoving, and the ground around him is covered in a spreading pool of blood. “Oh. Guess I was talking to myself.”
It is afternoon of the next day. Meda walks alone through the village that took her in, humming as she goes. Most of the tents have collapsed, and impaled villagers can be seen through the shredded door of the chief’s house. A wolf runs out of the house, an almost free of flesh bone in its mouth, tissue trailing from between its fangs. Meda laughs and kicks at it as it passes. It turns its head to look at her but keeps on running. A raven lights upon one of the posts protruding from the top of a still-standing tent and croaks, and right as the caw begins Meda turns to look at it.
“And what are you talking about, bird? Are you angry that you missed out on the meal?” The bird drops from its perch, wings pointed toward the ground, and a mass of black feathers extend from them, splashing as they hit the ground like a waterfall upon stone. “Uhh!” Meda jumps back from the downpour, eyes trained on the middle of the flow of feathers, where patches of skin can be seen between the quills. A man steps forth from them and the cascade slows and then stops. A few stray feathers float through the air. The man is a little over six feet tall, with hair mixed with feathers that trail in the ground behind him. A sharp, rounded beak protrudes from his forehead and below it nearly black eyes glare at Meda. Black streaks run under each eye, sharp shapes that are painted in curves that disappear under the bangs that hang down either side of his smooth, thin face. He wears unadorned deerskin trousers dyed dark grey, the seams lined with black feathers, and his feet are bare.
“Do you know what happened here, girl?” His voice is not deep, but has a slight rasp to it.
“I do not know! I was lost in the woods until just now and am as confused as you are.” Her face changes to a look of worry, eyes tearing up and lower lip trembling. “Where is my family, my tribe?” The man stares at her, and his frown deepens.
“What is your name?”
“My name is Meda–”
“And my name is buzzard. I saw you dancing ’round here as though it were your wedding day. What is your name?” Meda smiles.
“I guess I don’t really have one. I’ve been thinking about it myself. Perhaps… Sukanwi?” The man’s eyebrows furrow and he glares at her.
“I’m thankful you make your nature so clear.” As soon as the last word has left his mouth, he flies forward, a jump that seems more like flight. Meda’s mouth opens with glee, a laugh ringing out through the clearing as she is enveloped in black feathers that burst from the extended arms of the silent man.
The girl walks around the man, who is laying on his back, eyes closed and arms and legs stretched out. As she walks, she plucks hairs from her head and spikes them through first his wrists and then his ankles. He does not make any sign of feeling these punctures. Once done she walks around him a few more times, then standing with her feet to either side of his stomach crouches down, drawing a simple knife of wood and rough hewn stone forth from the fold of her dress. She places the tip of the knife at the top center of his chest, right below the hollow of his neck. Blood wells around the point.
“Do you have a raven’s organs as well? I’m really curious to see.” She slams the palm of her hand down on the pommel of the knife and it sinks into his chest, and then drags it toward her in a wandering line all the way down to the bottom of his stomach. She reaches both hands into the created gap, one over top of the other, and pulls apart, the tendons in her forearms standing out. A croaking noise comes from within, and she gasps and then smiles, eyes wide and shining, and pulls even harder. In the midst of the slick red organs and membranes is a creature, small and pale where the skin is not smeared with red, limp feathers hanging from its arms and in a line on its head. The tiny mouth has lips that are straight and stiff, and a small line where the corner of a human child’s mouth would be more like a beak than a mouth. The sinew between stretches as it lets out another rough cry. Its eyes are black but as it looks into Meda’s the irides shrinks down and turns red, the scleroses around it almost blending in with the skin around them. It ceases its crying and reaches a thin arm out towards her.
“Look at you, so bright and white, my little child. I think I shall call you…” She looks up into the mid-day sun, “… well, though your father was a raven, for my purposes you will be a bit more than a scavenger. You will hunt those who hold medicine, my Ántimán.”
( ©2015 Sean Dorsey )