The tale of a solitary priest in the valley of death.
I meant to sacrifice myself – of course I did. When I ran out into the dusk and drew the terrible creature after me, I believed I would die. I wanted only to give my companions the best chance of survival. And I didn’t want to live – didn’t see how I could live, after the horrors I’d witnessed. But I kept running, with the monstrous thing gathering speed behind me. I ran while my lungs burned and my legs ached. I ran as if to save the life I no longer wanted.
And then, just as I knew I was lost – just as I prepared to stop and turn around and face the thing, to submit to the embrace of its foul jaws – I realised that I was still holding the spear.
That was not part of my plan. I had meant to leave it behind, but I had snatched it up to fight my way out – yes – and now…
Something sparked in me then: something shameful and hopeful all at once. The urge to live – or, if that were too unlikely, to die fighting. I skidded to a halt and turned to face my pursuer. To my amazement, he too stopped. He reared up and turned his coffin head hither and thither. It was as if, in ceasing to move, I had somehow vanished from his sight.
I stayed perfectly still. The creature let out a grunt of frustration and swung his tail, lashing at the trees and making them quiver. It really seemed that he couldn’t see me. He inclined his vast body – that scaly trunk of a torso, with strangely short and delicate arms – and pulled in air. His muzzle was just a few feet above my head, slanted nostrils flaring. Down and down it came, searching, searching…and then, driven by some impulse I can now scarcely recollect, I raised the spear and drove it with all my strength into his right nostril.
The creature started backwards, almost pulling the spear from my hands. He bayed like a thousand hell-hounds, and blood cascaded from his snout and poured into the mud at my feet. I wanted to flee, but I stood where I was and tried not to flinch as the blood spattered my legs. My would-be assassin bayed again, almost deafening me, and then – I could scarcely believe it – turned and ran, his great feet pounding the earth as if to punish it.
I would like to say that my first thought was for my fellow Jesuits, unarmed and stranded in that dreadful cave. No – I should be a liar if I denied it – my first instinct was to make myself safe. And to be high off the ground struck me as the safest possible thing. The trees in this forest, thank God, were of the kind any child might climb: they extended gnarled limbs in every direction. I ran to the nearest and hoisted myself into it, and I did not stop climbing until the branches above me grew too fine and pliant to hold my weight. I settled into a sturdy fork, with my back to the trunk and the spear resting between my knees, and took account of my situation.
I had no inkling where I was. I had run blindly, I knew not how far. The cave was by a watering hole, but the forest was full of those. From my vantage point I could see the gleam of moonlight on water in no less than three directions. Despair assailed me, and a stark cold fear. If I had survived this terrifying encounter only to die alone, why had I survived at all?
© Alix Montague 2015