The tale of a solitary priest in the valley of death.
It is a peculiarity of human nature that one cannot despair for too long, even – perhaps especially – in the worst of situations. Somehow, sleep came to me in my treetop nest and, with sleep, consolation. I awoke feeling resolute. I was alone, yes – hungry, parched and alone – but I was alive. I would eat and drink and relieve myself (perhaps not in that order) and then I would set out to find my comrades.
I unfolded myself from my sitting position, wincing as my stiff limbs complained, and carefully began to swing myself down through the branches, the spear between my teeth. And then I heard – o God! – a sickening sound. The sound of my nightmares. A low, rasping growl, and teeth – teeth tearing at flesh!
With trembling hands I parted the branches and looked down. Yes, there he was, at the base of the tree: the very creature who killed my friend Father Olivero. Or, if not him, then one of his brethren. A foul beast all over feathers, with rangy hind legs and a long tail. He had pinned down some poor woodland animal of the kind I had become accustomed to hunt myself and he was pulling the entrails from its belly.
I did not think. I took the spear, and I clambered down and dropped, feet first. I landed on the thing with a fair thud, and I believe I broke his neck, for beyond a vile hiss he could offer no resistance. I am ashamed of it now, but such was my rage that I went to work with the spear and did not stop until my arms ached and the creature had long since hissed his last.
I do not know how long it took me to return to myself. I know only that I stood there for some little while, in the open, with the creature’s twisted and broken body at my feet. Looking back, I believe I heard sounds – rustling or crackling, as if something, or things, were moving nearby – but my heart was pounding and my blood was high, and I took no heed. But sense prevailed, or else the needs of the body did. I was aware of an intense nausea, and then a powerful hunger. I could not countenance plucking and eating the horrible thing, or partaking of its leftovers – I shoved it into the undergrowth as best I could, kicked the sad remains of its victim after it, and set out to hunt for my breakfast.
This took longer than usual, because I was in a dreadful state. It was as if all the terror of the past days descended upon me at once. I fancied the woods full of noises, and every noise one of those evil bird-lizards out to avenge its brother. My scalp tingled, my hand shook – I felt eerily like the prey and not the hunter. But eventually I did flush out one of those small brown curl-tailed mammals on which my diet depended, and even managed to kill it, if not as cleanly as I might.
I had wandered some way from my tree. This suited me well, for I did not want to stay near the bird-lizard’s corpse. To be frank, I had the greatest difficulty in deciding to stay still at all. The noises seemed to pursue me, and I felt as if I were being watched. But I could not eat if I did not stop and make a fire – I was not, and hope I never shall be, so far gone as to eat my catch raw. And so I squatted with my back to a tree and dressed the animal: a gruesome process, but one that was becoming second nature. I had hunted as a boy and accordingly the burden of skinning and eviscerating generally fell to me – or rather I assumed it, for I had little patience for the others, their hesitation and their squeamishness.
It struck me then with great force that I must find them, for they would surely starve without me. I hastened to gather wood, tinder and the sharpest stone I could find, and set about making my fire. A time-consuming business when four people are involved (or rather three: may God rest Olivero’s soul), but for one alone, almost impossible. It must have taken me an hour. My muscles ached unbearably and my temper rose; the stick wobbled and slipped and tore at my hands, and by the time the vital spark came forth, I was as bloody and bedraggled as the discarded pelt of my prey.
I could delay no longer. I cooked and ate my breakfast – trying not to think of teeth tearing at flesh – marked an X on the bark of the tree with my spear, and struck out in the first direction that came to mind.
© Alix Montague 2015