Why am I doing this? I wondered to myself as I trudged through the woods, the rifle slapping against my back with every step.
There’s still a chance to head back, to return to London in one piece.
The truth is, I don’t feel like I have a choice. Life back home is a dull grind, a meaningless cycle of schoolwork and unstimulating lectures. Returning now, after all that’s transpired would be just one more reason for my father to brand me as a failure.
No, I’m not going home. I will either return to England with this monster as my trophy or I won’t return at all.
The snow made travel even more treacherous. I used to be able to see where I was placing my feet but underneath the blanket of white all manner of hazard lay in wait.
Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch.
My steps made an easy-to-follow trail that put me on edge. Should something seek to follow me, it would have little trouble.
“Ahh!” Pulling the rifle from my back with adrenaline-fueled speed, I pivoted about, franticly scanning the forest for whatever made that shrill cry. As my eyes focused on the sights of the gun, a fond memory bubbled up from deep within my psyche. It was of me and my father during one of his rare vacations from a dig site. Taking me to a game trail just outside of London, he taught me the ins and outs of hunting. While we had little luck in bagging a prize, it was one of the few times in my life I felt I had a connection to the man.
Unlike then, I was all alone. The barrel of the gun vibrated as my hands shook from the cold, and from the fear. All the hype was for nothing it would seem as out from a bramble trotted a fox, his red muzzle standing in stark contrast to the snow.
Letting out another, “Squee!” The fox darted into its burrow.
See Ben, nothing to fear. Just a cute little fox.
Slinging the rifle onto my back, I continued through the woods. According to the doctor’s journal, I needed meat. Not just any meat though, it had to be fresh deer. The snow contained a number of compacted highways created by the throngs of wildlife that lived within. Rabbit, fox, deer, wild turkey, there was a plethora of tracks to choose from. Picking out the cloven tracks made by a deer, I followed them for miles as I prepared my mind for the hunt.
The first lesson my father taught me all those years ago popped into my head. Always choose your tracks wisely. Following an old set can lead you on a wild goose chase that ends in failure. Ensuring the tracks are fresh is pivotal. It hadn’t snowed since the previous day, indicating these were at most a day old. That fact, in combination with the fresh droppings left along the way meant I was following a hot trail.
When I got to the top of a hill, I spotted my mark. A buck that had lost his antlers. Now my fathers second lesson came into play. Always stay downwind of your target. Looking at the branches, I could see I needed to adjust my position. Using the hill as cover, I crouched through the snow, doing my best not to make more sound that needed.
Downwind and out of sight, my father’s third and final lesson guided my rifle. Always shoot with both eyes open.
With the barrel pointed at my quarry, I lined up the sights. Taking in a deep breath, I exhaled. As the breath left my lungs, I pulled the trigger.
A deafening explosion rang out through the barren forest sending black birds flocking from the trees. The deer bolted, bounding away at sound of the rifle.
Darn, did I miss?
Moving to where the deer had been grazing, I searched for blood. A trail of red peppered the white snow, betraying the direction in which the animal had fled. Deer can run hundred of yard when shot so this may turn into a scavenger hunt. While looking for the deer, a twinge of remorse spiked into my heart. I didn’t like killing, I never have. Back at university, there’s a vast supply of sheep, frog, and cat waiting to be dissected by the first-year anatomy students. My first time cutting into an animal’s body was a grisly learning experience, one that still haunts me at random. Any time the doctor would demand my assistance when cutting open an animal it felt as though I was back in school. Despite my previous desperation to leave, I now find that I miss its crowded halls. The once boring lectures now seemed comforting. My professors, whom I once regarded as knuckle dragging troglodytes, now felt like old friends. My mother, my dog, even my father, I missed them all.
Having begun to drift off in sentimental thought, I nearly tripped over the carcass laying at my feet. It was the deer, its black, beady eyes still open despite its demise. Removing a knife from my belt, I cut into the animal, carving off one of its legs and throwing it into a sack. Crimson blood drenched the white snow, turning it into a red slush.
Sorry Mister Deer, know your death won’t be for nothing.
Having made my peace with it, I left the rest to be taken by the forest. That was the nice thing about nature. Unlike with humans, nothing ever went to waste. Following my footsteps all the way back to the lab, I left the meat outside, utilizing the freezing air to keep it fresh. The front of the lab still had a gaping hole where the front door used to be, a visible reminder of what I’m up against in my quest to contain the beast.
Now in the basement, I searched for a cylinder containing a green goo. The doctor had written about the concoction in his journal. Apparently, after much trial and error, he had found the perfect mixture for baiting the beast. Using a special mix of herbs to apply to the meat, it would create a scent so pungent that the creature would be guaranteed to show. On the top shelf, next to a jar of pickled eyeballs, was the cylinder. The goo sloshed around as I moved the tube around, sticking to the glass like some non-Newtonian fluid.
With the first part of my mission complete, I moved on to the second. Now that I could lure the beast out of hiding, I needed to unsure I had the means to capture it. The doctor had tried almost everything. Tripwires, sedatives, chemical weapons, electrocution, but nothing seemed to have a significant effect on the monster. It was admittedly discouraging.
If a mind such as Doctor Winston couldn’t succeed, how could I expect to fare any better?
Sitting down, I let out a sigh, wallowing in self doubt and fear. As my legs hit the seat, I stiff object dug into my thigh.
Rummaging through my pocket, I pulled out a wooden figurine. It was of a mama bear with her cubs, the wretched being standing upright, it mouth agape as if to let out a roar.
Ah yes, the antique I took from the DuPont’s not long ago. I had almost forgotten about you.
A glimmer of hope broke through the despondency. It was then I realized the doctor hadn’t tried everything. Brilliant as he is, he never sought the help of those who had been living with this beast from the very beginning, the natives. The murals I found in that cave were made by the Native Americans centuries ago. If anyone know how to prevail over the monster it must be them.
Heading outside once more, I hurried to the top of the local peak. It took a few hours, but I made it. With an abundance of dead wood to choose from, I gathered enough for a roaring fire.
Flink, Flink, Flink.
Striking my blade against a flint rock, a shower of spark rained down on the dry tinder placed beneath the wood. Once the dry brush was smoking, I blew on it softly, turning the small smolder into a lively flame. In no time, the twigs ignited, followed by the sticks and larger chucks of wood.
It’s just a matter of waiting now. Hopefully, Inola meant what he said.
Smoke bellowed into the sky, the crackling hickory wood making an excellent signal for all to see. After hours had passed with no reply, I began to lose faith that any assistance was coming. That was until out from the tree line appeared Inola, a deer cloak hiding his stoic face. Moving towards me, his eye contact was unbroken. Most would need to look down in order to traverse the treacherous terrain but it seemed as though he was hovering over it, each step as confident as the last.
“You wished to speak with me?” he asked, his voice as deep and stern as when we first met.
“Yes, thank you for meeting with me.”
“I should be thanking you, Mister Taylor. It is because of you that the mad doctor now lays silent in the stocks.”
One of my eyebrows perked up. I was surprised he knew. Picking up on my curiosity, he said, “Word travels fast, especially when its good news.”
“Aha,” I chuckled. “Well, in any case, I have a favor to ask of you. But first…” I dug through my pockets and pulled out the figurine, placing it into his calloused hands.
He fingered it for a moment, his emotionless gaze giving way to a pensive grin. “Where did you get this?”
Pointing in the direction of the Dupont’s estate, I replied, “Mister and Misses Dupont had been hording artifacts like these in their manor. When visiting, it caught my eye, so I swiped it.”
Inola remained silent as he stared longingly at the carving. With a mist forming in his eyes, he said, “T-this was a work of my Agilisi, my grandmother.”
Seeing him rejoice over the figurine made a warmth swell within my soul. All the pain, all the love, all the history of these grand people could be so obviously seen upon Inola’s face. “I’m glad I could return it to its rightful place my friend.”
He stowed it in his pocket and stared at me appreciatively. “I must apologize Mister Taylor. I have no gift in which to give in return.”
Sitting down atop a fallen log, Inola followed suit and took a seat across from me. “Well, perhaps you do.” Cupping my hands together, I continued, “The beast that carving portrays, what can you tell me about it?”
Inola looked on at me with great hesitation. This was a topic he clearly had no interest in discussing. “It’s just a playful image,” he stated defensively, “nothing more.
Gawking at his suspiciously, I replied, “Come now, this creature, I saw it with my own eyes. If I was convinced it was the stuff of adolescent legend, would I have trekked out here in the first place?”
He slinked back on the log, his gaze returning to its expressionless nature. The smoldering of the fire and the frozen wind rattling the barren tree branches provided the only sound as Inola stayed silent.
“Mister Taylor,” he announced, his tone as serious as could be. “Where it anyone else, any other outsider, I would not give them the time of day. What I am about to say, I say only because I feel a level of trust in you. Please don’t betray that faith.”
Giving him a nod to as to convey my appreciation, he began his explanation. “The thing you call a monster is nothing of the sort. Its name is Tsul’kalu in our tongue and it is an ancient being. While its exact nature differentiates among tribes, it is thought of as a game master of sorts. Blessing our hunts and keeping the balance of the forest in check. I’m sure as a learned man, you would disagree with these statements but it’s a truth my people have held dear since time immemorial.”
“I’m not here to cast doubts on your faith Inola. I need only to understand this creature’s nature. What are its motivations, its behaviors?”
He once again took on a defensive posture. “While I have no qualms of sharing my culture with you, I am afraid I wont reveal anything that would put this being in harms way. I am afraid I can say no more.”
Standing up, he began to walk away. “And Mister Taylor,” he announced just before entering the forest. “Do be careful. Should you pursue Tsul’ Kalu and find yourself in danger I will not be coming to your aid.”
I watched as his cloaked form weaved through the trees, vanishing from sight as quietly as he arrived.
A mixture of disappointment and respect churned within. He was right, I don’t share his belief in the spiritual significance his people place on the beast. At the same time, I can’t help but admire his determination and reverence. Despite hitting what appeared to be a dead end, the interaction was more enlightening than most might think.
Tsul’ Kalu eh? If it’s a Tribal legend, then a former member may be just the thing I need. ns18.104.22.168da2