Aphelion Issue 239, Volume 23
May 2019
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by Rekha Valliappan

'But it is one thing to read about dragons and another to meet them.'
—Ursula K. Le Guin

Hunters who break animals unknowingly hunt themselves. This year I see Zara and something changes—a sense that it is I who am the monster, the predator. We enter the woods. I see winds scatter the leaves, trees scurrying, decapitated heads of trophy animals mounted on walls. It's the usual season of deer culling to control the population.

We are gathered here to slay these 'ferocious' ten to fifteen point deer. Don't know how it's going to shape up. We are not close to the animals we hunt, nor to those we eat. Our meat is from the produce aisles where products are readied and sold. We are close to our land, our houses, our families, our roads, our front yards, all the places deer have been spotted this year. So, quid pro quo as our local dailies headline when dealing with the marauding antics of these savage beasts. All I can say is I'm one of the sports hunters, licensed to kill, here for the entertainment like the rest, reporting at my zone, for hunting duty.

I want to trust my instinct when I first see Zara. She is walking the forest floor. She looks like a lost tree. Her many arms hang down, her legs harnessed to the undergrowth. She is not easy to detect, the camouflage of her leafy face blending in with the shadows leaving no silhouette.

The sensation of her sentience is not lost on me, the way she follows our every step, how she lingers, her hesitation of approach to come nearer, the gliding stride, almost as if with her stops and starts she would break into dance. The passing look she throws me endowed with feeling commingles with her gait. Just for a fleeting instant I am lost in the crystalline purity of her silence, the maturity of her gaze flowering within the circle of her radius. She captures the essence of the cosmos with that look.

It is love at first sight. Lot of reasons. I love trees, spindly or thick, craggy or moist, wiry-twisted or ornamental-like. She is so near I can smell her. But I cannot place her. A walking species? I have heard of monocots that actually "walk." But how has she arrived here? And to what purpose—stalking us? Will she let me touch her?

The experience leaves me chilled, the shout I am about to deliver to the others whether in alarm or joy, or a meaty combination of both, it escapes me which, frozen on my tongue. We have been prepping all summer, me and my hunting partners—veterans all, who without the sport would have no hunt. Three hours of tracking our elusive target has taken us deep into forest canopy. We are familiar with the route. Same trail last year, and the year before. I embrace the prickliness of the humidity and feel some unease. It will not be long.

And there he is, not ten yards away—a magnificent gray. The moment is past. Our group misses Zara's presence entirely. When the shot rings out it screams into her shadow. I jump. The stag with scarcely a stagger oozing mucus and blood sinks like a dead weight to the ground. The aim is true. Bulls-eye! We would not have to track an excrement and stench trail the following day, to complete the kill. A cheer of sheer relief is felt and expressed as the stag's eyes go dull.

I forget Zara, distracted by my group, by the animal stilled with a rifle shot— something beautiful that was once living just moments ago. There is no denying such activities contribute to our households. Deer hunters know what's afoot in their neighborhoods. My mind empties of all thought as I wonder who is the more savage, us or the prey, who is the one occupying whose land, us or the deer, who is the one who is armed, us or the animal? Modern life has altered my old age. My generation is no better than the old men who used to hunt rabbit and quail with bow and arrow. Am I the only one squeamish? I glance around.

In seconds the insect-like stick creature, my walking tree Zara, without hesitation had scuttled at lightning speeds covering distance in a twist of sliding indistinguishable movement. Not a sound copies to our callous ears. A neon green ray of light glows eerily in the jungle. The light strobes, probes, cording through the trees to where the dead stag lies in a motionless heap.

In less than an instant the impressive beast stands as if merely waking from a sleep—restored to its former self. It sniffs the air, massive antlers shaking mightily in a wild swagger. Its gray coat turns a creamy white. Clawed into the back of my mind is the sound of its roar mightier than anything I've ever heard, louder even than the deafening sound of the muzzleloader.

Or could it be Zara booming out the dark cry of the universe. I will never forget the look of incredulous stupefaction on everyone's faces, or their bulging eyes, one for the hunting magazines, as if each is ready to take off as fast as their legs will carry. We are struck speechless.

Before we can move a step, stag and Zara without backward glance silently gain purchase and escape into the cover of the woods.

2019 Rekha Valliappan

Rekha Valliappan is a multi-genre writer of short fiction and poetry. Her horror, fantasy, scifi, and clifi short stories have featured in international magazines including Lackington’s Magazine, Thrice Fiction Magazine, Across The Margin, Third Flatiron, Eastern Iowa Review, Theme of Absence, Intellectual Refuge, ColdNoon Journal, The Punch Magazine, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Rabid Oak, Friday Flash Fiction, Mercurial Stories, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Five:2:One Magazine, Coffin Bell Journal, and Boston Accent Lit, where she won the Accent Prize, and elsewhere. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee 2018.

Find more by Rekha Valliappan in the Author Index.

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