The tale of a solitary priest in the valley of death.
In the days that followed my encounter with the bird-lizard, two ideas came to me with terrible clarity: that I would not see my friends again, and that I would die in that valley.
Of course, I could hardly expect not to die. A missionary cannot hope to live. Death is more than a hazard of the journey – it is practically a sign of doing the d–n thing right. I had not set off to the New World in order to return from it. And I had tried to embrace death once already, when I believed it would save my brother Jesuits. But something had changed. Knowing I would die, I wanted – urgently, perversely – to survive.
Time passed. I became adept at climbing, and could soon cross from tree to tree, clambering hand-over-foot like a child or an animal. My shoes obstructed me – I shed them. My spear was lost – I did not mourn it. Rocks were plentiful, and just as handy. I stored them up in the crooks of my favourite trees, and stunned my prey from on high. I learned the habits of the great coffin-headed beasts, and to sense their presence by the vibration of the soil. The bird-lizards left me alone. I took a stout vine and hung the skull of their brother, my victim, from the tree where I best liked to sleep. In short, I was a savage. Only two things marked me out as human, and a priest: my cassock, which I retained only because it had saved my life, and the rosary around my neck, which I hoped might do something for my soul.
But I hardly remembered to pray any more. My whole preoccupation was with staying alive. I clung to what had proved safe, and clung with all my being – I would not have left my familiar patch of forest for anything, but that the little brown mammals who were my prey began to grow scarce. They, too, wanted to live, and so they left that place. So, then, must I. I untied my trophy, tied the vine around my waist, and began to walk.
I had not been walking an hour when I felt a sharp pain in my toe. My first instinct was to cry out to God, for I was sure it was a serpent’s bite. Now I would die – yes, and painfully – and after all my care! Fury overcame me, and I cast about for a rock – if I could do nothing else with the time left to me, I would bash my assassin’s brains in. But I had scarcely moved when I felt that same sharp biting pain, and I looked down and saw an object in the grass by my foot: an object of metal, manmade.
The world seemed to tilt on its axis. I crouched down and picked the thing up, turning it in my hands. It was a double-ended tool, like the head of a mattock – the handle long gone, perhaps rotted away. It was blunt and corroded, but the rough edges were still sharp enough to hurt. There was my blood on it, red upon rust. I was faintly aware that my toe was throbbing, and that the ground beneath it was wet.
For some time I stayed there, on my hunkers, and looked at this marvel: this product of civilisation, cast in the forge of some nameless smith. My mind had been too long focused on the sordid business of eating and not being eaten to grasp the repercussions of such a find. Only when the ground began to shudder did I come to my senses, dropped the thing, and shinned up the nearest trunk – and just in time, for a squealing plant-eater erupted through the trees with a pair of coffin-heads after it. I will not describe the poor creature’s sufferings. Suffice it to say that I clung to my branch with renewed fervour, and that I did not dare descend until the night had come and gone.
© Alix Montague 2015