Short Story by Andrea Frisby
I sat silently at the edge of damp wool-woven bedding, waiting for the strength of the rain to cool from the heavens above. Lord knew that when it finally did, I would have to run back into the night to evade the beast that grew in the dark. As if Zeus himself saw fit to eradicate the bodies he had once expected to praise him on ruddy knees and scratchy palms. The cave was darker this evening than it had been in the last fortnight, water starting to run in and scare even the bats that found harbour in the high-tops of the hollowed roof. If I closed my eyes, I could almost pretend that I was young again, sitting beside our river and brushing my mother’s golden locks while my feet lay submerged in the water. We’d go together from time to time between hidings, but she was one with the streams and the forests; it was a man of the night that took her from me. Laboured breathing stole me from my peace and forced my back into the pain of the present.
Beside me, only a few meters away lay a wasted man who had been caught by the beast many moons prior. His face begged for death, sunken in and paled with the story of moss that now crossed his corneas. He breathed still. A bronchial choir calling to the heavens to open and free him of his pained battle, but neither the virus nor the earth would be so kind.
From his spine grew thorns as thick as Black Gum roots, concave and mutated from bone and damp sinew. It was as if he had been taped to the forest floor for long enough for the roots of Redwood giants to invade his skin and turn his cartilage to fibrous heredities for their own gain. He had been a victim of the plague spread by mutated beasts who fought with the roots to rid the earth of mankind; paralysed by the virus and left to be eaten alive by the earth. A poetic fate one might suggest, with the force of nature now seeping life from humankind; that which was left anyway.
As caustic as the thought was, nothing could move my mind past the cracking of ribcages in the corner of the cave, too loud for me to even begin to focus on the heaving of my own breath. They had crawled in here to seek refuge from the beasts of the ground, yet anyone wounded by this viral plague was aware of their impending fate. For me to sit here in silence amongst the sick allowed me enough time to rest. Once they were caught by the earth, they were no longer contagious in anything other than the starkest reality. I couldn’t stay amongst the dying for much longer. To be amongst those who begged for death was to watch the once picturesque human form be turned inside out, livers degrading to compost.
As being once from marble, so beautiful; we thought of ourselves as images of higher beings, reflections of gods who resided on the top of Mount Olympus, now calloused, and rotting whilst still breathing through the aches of breaking bones and poisoned blood. How much of this was purely what we deserved? The scales of karma dipping to feed us what we had once fed every crevice of this desolate planet. How much of this pain was self-inflicted by the torment that we had laid waste on the world during our own reign?
Once infinitely beautiful, now grotesque and foul. A mockery of how we took the world and how we left it. We had ruined earth and now it was alive to ruin us, to rid its surface of the very beings that took its children and stole its breath.
A distant ruckus told me it was time to run. I had not yet been shot down by the natives of these parts, and my idea was to run until I reached the ends of the earth where some reparations for these awful acts might indeed be possible. The noise grew nearer and called my aquamarine eyes to the dark mouth of the cave. Slowly, my boots invaded the flooded floor but couldn’t be heard over the cracks and rot. Like a gargoyle perched so high on a throne of thorns and bone, watching the world burn, I saw it. Nesting for the night on a perch of a mangled olive tree. A beast so small, but loud enough to tell the cruelties that I was indeed right beneath their nose. I had to wait. His muzzle of flesh pecked away at the grubs digging into his feathers to find refuge from the rain, but the beast missed nothing. What would become of them when the last of us were melted into the forest floor? Would they find peace? I wanted to reach out and hope that it may rest with me instead of sending me to my death. I knew it to be impossible.
Could I perhaps pray as the Pagans did in the English wood? Clutching soil in my hands and letting the fertility of the earth run across the heat of my flesh?
Or dance with the moon to wish away the demons we brought forth through torture and fire?
What if I fell naked into the sea and let saltwater fill my lungs until I choked on the realizations that I had prayed my forefathers would have had. Would I be spared then?
But that was simply not the way it worked.
For even if it did, I would lie alone on the forest floor around the intestinal wreckage of humanity, cold and alone. Without connection.
Only with the spirit in the trees that would only calm once the last of us had gone; returned to the soil where we belonged. To be fed on. Digested. Ash.
I would run until I couldn’t anymore.