You are reading Fiddleblack #11
His shot sliced only an inch or two wide of its mark, close enough to kill the creature regardless, in time. But off by enough to keep the caribou bleeding for hours, which he couldn’t stomach. So when it staggered away the hunter crossed the distance between their two bodies and pushed into the brush on its trail, following breadcrumbs of blood. He hadn’t come north to leave things undone.
He heard stunned legs stumbling, an off-kilter body not heeding commands, bumping trunks and tripping over itself. Despite injury and blood loss and no doubt confusion the caribou managed to stay ahead, to always be on the far side of a gully when the hunter arrived or up the first leg of a switchback with him at its foot.
The day dragged on like that but he followed. Each extra meter or mile made him feel worse for the creature, made him borrow more of its pain, and the notion he was preventing its suffering by driving it on a long chase became more absurd the longer it went. But this was his mess, his mistake, and he would make things as right as he could.
He was thirsty but didn’t drink because the caribou hadn’t stopped to drink either.
He was hungry but the trail mix and pemmican remained in his pack.
He walked while the creature kept walking.
And there it was, close enough to take a new shot—not a retake, never those, but a chance to finish what had taken too long and what, had he known, he would not have begun.
The caribou wobbled below him on a scree slope then buckled onto front knees; the side facing the man was matted and running with blood. Its tongue draped low from far back in the mouth and the auburn chest heaved and as the hunter took the shot he should have taken before.
It was done.
He slid sideways through the loose stones, stopping himself beside the carcass, then looked back up the slope wondering how he would haul that still-warm weight to the trail. He took hold of one foreleg and one hind, dug in his heels, and tried to work his way up by pushing with one foot at a time, alternating as if pumping some awkward machine, but the animal had hardly shifted before the hunter was spent.
He drank, taking water slowly to ward off the cramps and the dehydration headache he knew he deserved for dragging this out.
And he tried again to haul the caribou up with no greater success. Now his arms were bloody, his boots and pants, too, and the animal’s thick, sticky fluid had soaked through his socks and run into his boots and oozed now each time he put weight on his feet.
One final attempt, pushing with both heels at once plus the boost of a keening yell that bounced back at him off the opposite slope. The weight of the animal dislodged all at once but instead of climbing toward him it slipped, freed from whatever had held it fast on the scree, and it pulled the hunter down with it; he let go just in time, barely keeping his own bloody body from following the other, the body he’d killed, off the edge of a cliff and onto the rocks far below.
The falling corpse carried with it the waste of a life, the waste of a day, weeks of meat lost for the hunter, his family, his village. He would return from his hunt empty-handed and his wife would tell him it was okay, they had enough in the larder to last, but the fan of wrinkles at the edge of each eye where for so long she’d squinted against harsh northern glares would tighten as it always did when she worried but wouldn’t say so.
This place. All its promise. Too much to leave now they’d come close to achieving what they came north to do, so close to cutting their ties to the world and untangling themselves from its net, but still. If there was something, just something, this place would give up to them more easily… if they found some resource they could sell back to the world, minerals or diamonds or gold, uranium or oil or even a way to send south the steam from the ground that powered their few contrapted machines, he wondered if the villagers would be willing to do it despite their ideals and the pronouncements they’d made upon packing up and heading north.
It was fortunate, in its way, that their excursions all over these mountains had given them nothing but berries and meat. Nothing to tempt them back into the web of the world. The decision was always already made for them.
The hunter leaned his head to his knees, cursed, and sat until his breath returned. Then he crawled up the slope, regained the trail, and walked back in the direction he’d come from toward where the mountains gave way to the coast and to home.
But it wasn’t a waste for everyone, that falling corpse. When caribou struck ground at the base of the cliff organs ruptured, bones cracked, and flesh tore. Before the thunderous waves of its impact reached the far point of their rippling across yellowed grass, flies lit on the syrupy blood of the wounds the hunter had provided them with, and among the dark runnels congealed in the animal’s fur after walking so long with its heart pumping hard.
Flies were already laying their eggs in rich layers of fat and flesh before the body had cooled. Microbes descended out of the air and rose from the soil to penetrate every delectable niche. Foxes crept closer; a bear raised its nose into the wind with a snort and a sniff and shifted course toward the corpse; mosquitoes as large in actual fact as their southern cousins only sound in a dark, quiet room drew blood from the carcass and its four-legged diners alike.
How long would it be until every scrap of that carcass was broken down and devoured, and how long after that before every vestigial scrap of its generous energy had been exhausted in smaller bodies then in concentric tiers of even more bodies that fed second-proboscis through those? Generations of bacterium and black fly would rise and fall on that caribou’s haunches and a civilization of maggots and worms would reach the proportions of legend, an empire of gristle and blood in those vast dormant lungs, persisting through skirmish and snap-freeze and epidemics of food poisoning, perhaps someday half-remembered in wonder as another species might speak of Atlantis.
Elsewhere icebergs were crumbling. Elsewhere all signs were the Arctic was dying but here in the bloat and decay of a corpse there was life after death as millions of miniature stories were written in blood, an overflowing database of past, present, and future on the broken bones of a man’s failure.
Steve Himmer is author of the novel The Bee-Loud Glade, and editor of the webjournal Necessary Fiction. His stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in Hobart, The Millions, TriQuarterly, 3:AM Magazine, and elsewhere