Chirping howlers, swinging in the trees. Chirping howlers, they squawk and squeal and laugh their foolish laughs and forget to look down. They eat their stinking fruit and toss the chewed shells down down down, down from the light, down through the twisting leaves and vines onto the dark earth at my feet. They toss their wasted fruit with their scent, black and coarse, and howl away together. They leave a trail for me to follow. The ants and I notice the fruit, while the howlers laugh and swing and forget to look down.
Look down and see my eyes, little howler. Look down and see me watching you.
They jump and swing toward the burning light. Every morning, despite the past, they strip the same leaves and drop the same fruit on the same path toward the water pit. Their stinking fruit and rolling waves of foolish hoots and woops slither through the tree tops.
The water pit. All must stop at the water pit. No creature can avoid it for long. No creature has found a better place for many miles. Stinking howlers and bounding horns and tuskers and every flying thing must stop and stoop below the trickling ripples of water pit. Legs crouched low, heads down, eyes up but not up enough, they lap up the water and wait. Some stand upright and sniff, eyes wide and shining, ears arched and straining. They twitch while their friends drink. They twitch and worry and wait.
They wait for me.
I follow a trail, but unlike the howlers it is a new path I've never taken. It conceals me as I follow. The ground is soft and gives silently away under my piercing claws. The dirt whispers under my steps. I crouch low and let the brush slide across my ears, across my neck and back. As I draw closer to water pit I can hear the birds begin to stir. They fear that I am here, but they don't know. I stop. One thinks it may have heard me, but it did not. Its head tilts side to side. One dark eye searches, then the other. It peers into the shade, across the broken beams of dusty light. It doesn't see me. I want to swish my tail. It quivers behind me, aching to flit against the leaves and twigs. It wants to flit but I tell it no. It obeys. I hold. I watch the bright light get cut by the birds' wide wings as they circle and search for me. They, like the howlers, squawk and squeal at my presence. They will not see me today. I am in my secret place. I am crouched low, too low for them to see.
They settle their squawking and return to water pit. I must stay quiet. The creatures are wary.
Before I see water pit I smell them. Howler scent, not the stink of their discarded fruits but the smell of their hands and feet, the smell they leave on the branches and rocks they touch. I can smell the heat from their faces. I can hear their fingers slide around the branches holding them. I can hear them shake the leaves. I can hear their breathing. I feel their chests rising as they hold their breath and look around. They are looking for me. They are looking for me and can't see me and the thought of their failed searching opens my mouth. Their breaths chug from wide-eyed faces. My breaths are small and quiet. They will not hear me. They will not smell me. They will not see me.
Not until I want them to see me.
Opening my mouth parts my fangs. They are sticky today. They pulse in my mouth and are ready for the neck, ready to pierce and hold, ready to crush and rip and kill. The tail wants to twitch and the mouth wants to take hold of something and feel it moving. My teeth want to clamp onto bones and hold and feel the squirming struggle. The struggle will be quick, very quick. Their bodies will twist and writhe and they will try to call out to their friends for help. But no help will come. It will be too quick and no help will come and they will realize this and stop. Another twitch, and another, and a slight quiver, and maybe, if they are very strong, maybe one more effort to bellow and scratch and free themselves before the silence.
Before the transition.
The bright light in the sky is quiet today, hidden by moving air. Young daughter is sleeping on my arm but she is moving, kicking out her legs, her hands are thumping against my fur. She will wake soon and be ready for food. Thinking of her hunger reminds me of mine. It is time to move, time to climb and pick from the high fruit. The group is stirring, preparing to leave. Long hair woops. He is ready to go, so now it is official and we are on the move.
After the fruit, we will head to water pit.
The flies are scattered and calm today. The group swats at them occasionally, without real intent, and I stop to listen for their buzzing. I can hear very little, only when one or two flies are near my head. We are all grateful for the rest from their bothering.
My hand still hurts from before my last sleep. The branch that broke in my grip surprised me. I wasn't ready for the short fall to the branches below and I caught myself without thinking. The strain caused noises. I heard and felt a crunch. Then the heat came. My hand is bigger now. I don't want to use it or have it touched. It is strong enough to hold young daughter, but I usher her off of my arm so she can climb for herself. She should climb herself, for strength, and I am happy to climb one handed without her extra weight on me.
The fruit is good today. The skin is splitting and the fruit within is juicy and sweet. Only a few sleeps ago, these same trees and this same fruit was hard, bitter. We scrunched our faces and choked them down. We chewed at the sweetest parts, dropping the rest to the creatures below and leaving as many on the tree as we could so they could grow ripe and delicious. Our leaving them paid off. Now they are perfect, and we will have many more days to wake and feast.
Young daughter has found a fruit. It isn't yet ripe and she can't pull it from its branch. I call to her and she listens. It is good when she listens. I show her to another bunch, a ready bunch, and as she grips one fruit and yanks at it, the fruit pops free from its branch more quickly than she expects. She does this often, but she is getting better at catching herself before she falls. Today, her tail catches a nearby branch and she holds the fruit while she swings and flails to recover her balance. Once set on a trustworthy branch, she tears at the skin and chomps into the fruit. Her eyes rise to mine. She is happy with her new choice. I am happy, too.
My claws dig into the dirt. I wish they were digging into the trunk of a tree. I wish I was climbing to a high branch, dragging a lifeless howler with me. I want to feel their fur in my mouth. I want to feel their weight, feel my neck pulling, lifting, straining to hoist them into the perfect place in the perfect tree. I want to settle in and lay them down and listen for the quiet after the other creatures scatter in fear. I want to eat in the silence.
Young daughter is full and wants me to carry her again. I tell her no and she listens. She is listening well today. I think she knows about my hand and is trying to help by being good. I let her lead me as we follow long hair toward water pit. She is yet again stronger than she was before last sleep, stronger and stronger every trip to water pit. She is keeping up with the group. She is keeping up better than me, and long hair has to make two more stops than usual to wait for me to catch up. I have been using my hot hand in my climbing hoping it would get better. It is not getting better. I will climb without it for the rest of the journey to water pit.
Young daughter chirps at me. She waves her hands, wanting me to go faster. She hangs by her tail and waves. The group descends toward the sound of water pit rushing.
The howlers are coming. The first in line casts a shadow over my secret place as he swings down to water pit. He is the leader, the one who woops with long hair. He is the most alert, the most ready. He is the most dangerous. Maybe someday soon I will go for him. He is fast, but not faster than me. He is strong, but he would break in my jaws. But with his blood on my lips and his woops silent, the howlers may never return to water pit. I have killed many in the group. I have killed many under the wild eyes and frantic woops of the long hair, and yet they still return. They are wary, but they return. Their eyes dart and scan and their legs are ever ready to leap and scramble away to the high branches where they think they are safe. At the smallest sound, at the slightest stirring of wind or rain or bird or horned beast, they are ready to flee. And yet, they return.
Here, now, over my head, they have returned.
Young daughter will stay with me today. We will wait for safety and clearance from long hair and we will descend to the edge of water pit together. The flies are quiet today and the quiet is making me hear things. I hear the stirring of leaves. I hear the movement of dirt in the darkness. It is probably the wind rustling through the trees, but that sound and the sound of the other, the jagged nightmare, are very much the same.
Is it his bloodied breath I smell?
Was that a glint of deadly teeth?
In the trees, nowhere and everywhere, there is a roaring nightmare, a blazing, thrashing carnage of ripping claws and hissing teeth and leaping, crushing consumption. It is a blur from the shadows. The sound of the hiss and the roar and the scraping of claws on ground and rock and tree means death.
Death always follows the rage.
I was once young daughter. I was once being shown how to climb and find fruit and travel safely to water pit. I was once young daughter to a long hair. On a quiet day with few flies and a great heat from the burning light, the shadows moved. The leaves changed. The forest floor came alive and an echoing roar took my long hair from my sight, took him down into the shadows and concealed him in leaves. The forest opened and closed around him and we climbed, screaming, back to our trees. We climbed and screamed and never looked back.
I was young daughter once. I have seen the forest take many others since then and I wish to never again hear those dark noises rising from the darkness.
The leaves move again, without the wind. Long hair hears it, too. He is watching from a safe place, his head steady and his eyes locked on some dark shape. He moves his head and stops again. He looks deeper. We wait. If he thinks he sees something or hears something, we will wait. We will wait for many breaths. We will return to our trees thirsty if we must.
Long hair snorts. Young daughter jumps at the sound and loses her grip on the branch.
He thinks he sees me but he doesn't. The leaves will make noise and he will think it is me. He will think everything is me, that I am everywhere. He will look to the shadows and the shade of every branch and bush and blade of tall grass and think I am staring back at him. He is staring down now, staring to each dark place. He is holding very still, but I can see his eyes. I can see him scanning and searching and hoping that today will be a safe day. He is hoping he won't have to tell his howlers that they are not safe to drink.
They are not safe to drink.
My fangs are aching for blood today.
The others are making their ways down to water pit, slowly, carefully. They settle in on their branches and wait for the long hair to tell them it is safe. He will tell them it is safe because he won't see me and they will trust him and enjoy a few long drinks from water pit. Then the forest will go silent as I leap on their backs and plunge my claws into their shrieking bodies.
They have a little one today. There is a mother with her little one, waiting to drink. The older howlers are quiet and still. The long hair is still searching the darkness for a sign of me, but the young one is bouncing on a branch. It is moving. The mother barks her disgusting noises and the little one stops for a moment. Then it is moving again.
The long hair snorts. Before I realize what is happening, the little one is falling. It lost its grip on the branch it was bouncing on and is falling through leaves and branches toward water pit. It swings its arms and legs out to catch hold of something but can't find a grip. I know I will have it in my jaws in moments. Tail swishes and I don't stop it. My claws dig into the dirt and I am away, bounding over my hiding rock and leaping over water pit. When the little one falls to the forest floor, I will be on top of it. I will crush its body with a single bite. I will be merciful.
Come to me, little one.
Young daughter is falling through the branches toward water pit. I shriek without trying and am down after her. Her little arms reach out for branches. Grab on, young daughter! Grab on! Her tail lurches into the air and finds nothing. Her right arm flails. Her left arm stretches out and she grabs leaves, tearing them from the branches as she continues to fall.
I am climbing down, tearing through the trees after her. Through the branches I see it, the forest opening up, teeth exposed and ready. The roaring nightmare awakens.
Young daughter grabs a branch with her foot. She has a hold of it for a moment and her body swings over and away from water pit. She can't hold on and continues to fall. Her body hits a thick branch and she stops. She folds around the branch and her arms and legs and tail bind together. She is holding on.
But the impact was too great and she is suddenly very still, too still. She is not hanging on but slipping slowly over and off of the branch. Her tail isn't reaching out. Her arms and legs are limp. She falls.
The little one is falling. The mother is coming down after her. She hopes to save her little one. She hopes to steal her from me. If she comes down to the ground, I will take both of them. It would be foolish to challenge me. I will gladly prove that to her.
I leap and claws come out. My leap is perfect. I will land on top of the little howler and tear it to pieces. The mother will see this and try to stop me and I will do the same to her. I will have plenty of meat for my tree. I will not be hungry tonight.
The howlers scream and screech. They know what I am going to do. They know they will have to watch and there is nothing they can do about it.
Young daughter is falling. The beast is coming. I will not live to see another howler taken into the darkness.
There are three branches between me and young daughter. Good hand grabs the first and I swing. I land on second branch with my feet. On third branch, I will have to use bad hand to swing or use bad hand to reach down and scoop up young daughter. Before I can choose, I am doing it: I am swinging on bad hand and reaching out to young daughter with good hand. Something cracks above me. I feel the shift in my grip. Bad hand bursts. There is a scream in my arm and burning fire in my fingers. I don't feel the branch anymore, but good hand grabs young daughter by the skin on her back and holds. We are tumbling across the dirt and rocks. There is a roar from above and another scream from my body. Something hit my back, it is burning hot like bad hand and we are still tumbling. Bushes scrape at my face. Branches are breaking all around us. Another roar, and woops from long hair and shrieks from the others and when I finally stop, young daughter is under me, against my chest. She is not moving.
I am moving. I stand and run and reach for the trees. They reach back, offering me help, offering their hands for me to grab. I take their offerings and grab, pulling myself and young daughter up off of the ground. I reach for the next branch and pull. Bad hand is grabbing each branch and holding on somehow, though I don't feel my fingers or my hand or my wrist or most of my arm. I feel the pain. I feel something crunching and moving around inside my skin. But mostly, I feel the tree shaking below me as the forest opens and the monster reaches out to take me down.
I missed! The little one dropped and I leaped and I didn't see the mother coming in. She dropped down so fast. I've never seen them come down from the tops so fast, not when they've seen me, not when I've been here. She jumped down and grabbed the little one and tumbled into the brush, through one of my secret places.
Even though she surprised me with her stupidity, I still took a piece of her. I can feel her blood on my claws. I can smell it. She got past me, I missed grabbing her, but it doesn't matter. They will both be mine.
She is scrambling to get back into the trees. She is having trouble carrying little one and climbing at the same time. No one can escape from me. No one can escape from me when they are scratched and bleeding and carrying a little one. I will lunge for her. I will leap on her back and plunge my fangs into her skull. I will crush her and silence her and throw her from these high branches to the dust and dirt below. I will not drag her into a hidden place. I will tear into her in the open, on the forest floor, in front of all of her fellow howlers and any other creatures who wish to watch. I will end her world, and take her little one with me. Maybe I will kill the mother and save the little one to play with later. Maybe I will hold her in my jaws and let the other howlers hear her squeals and screams. Maybe I will carry her with me as I follow them everywhere they go. Maybe they will never be free of me, or free of the helpless screams of one of their own.
Maybe then they will leave for another water pit.
I can hear the claws and teeth but I won't stop. I will climb. I will jump and climb on bad hand through all of the crunching and snapping and loud, aching pain. I will reach and pull and claw my way up and up and up until young daughter is safe. I will fight the dark beast if I have to. I will roar into those jagged teeth and rip them from their mouth.
I will shred the mother's back. I will chew off her face and tear out her throat and swallow her heart.
I will not let young daughter be taken.
I will not stop until the little one is mine.
I hear the beast coming. I hear his claws tearing the bark off of the tree, snapping off branches. I hear his breaths huffing and hissing at my feet. My back is pulsing with pain, and as I hear the sound of the beast's claws hitting the tree, I know the pain on my back is from those claws. It doesn't matter, I will not stop. When the claws get closer, when I feel them hit my leg and dig in, I still climb. When claws slice into the back of my thigh and try to throw me from the tree, I still climb. Up, up another branch, up again, high into the trees. Long hair is watching. He is coming to me from above, reaching out. He will not be able to save me.
But he can save young daughter.
Another stabbing and ripping of claws hits my back. The beast's weight nearly pulls me free from the branch, but bad hand holds. It holds long enough for me to cup young daughter in good hand and fling her limp body through the leaves above me and toward long hair's outstretched hands. Young daughter floats upward and slows. She will come back down. I didn't throw her far enough to make it all the way to long hair's hand. As the claws tear I wait for her to come back down. I might have enough time to catch her and try once more. Before she falls her eyes open. Life returns to her arms and legs and she looks down and sees me. My little one. My young daughter. She sees my face and my eyes and I see hers and she stops falling. She hangs and her arms and legs dangle down toward me. She hangs, and then continues to rise. Long hair caught her. He jumped down lower so he could catch her and now he is pulling her up into the tops of the tree, into the leaves and the high fruit and the safety of the light. She is rising to her troupe and to the rest of her life.
The beast has me. I know what he will do before he does it. I have seen it many times before. I wait for the tangled mass of teeth to appear. I wait for them to part and clamp around my head and crush my skull. The claws will rip me open and spill my life onto the branches and the forest floor below. The beast will take me down and I will disappear from the tree tops and the sweet fruits and the light forever.
No! No, I had them, I had them both, how did she free the little one? No matter, I will see the little one again one day. Maybe when she is bigger and can offer me a bit more flesh I will revisit this encounter. For now, I will give the mother her little victory and take what is mine. My claws are already digging into her flesh. Soon my teeth will be around her neck and all will be finished. The thought of it, of her, being this close, forces a roar I can't stop and don't want to stop. I let it come, let it rise into the canopy.
The building roar of the beast rises behind me. I don't cry out. I don't howl or woop or scream. There is nothing to scream about now, young daughter is safe. The sound rises behind me and I wait for it to crash over me. But a crack ends the roar. Something has given way and the claws release from my leg and back. The weight of the beast leaves me and then I am falling.
No! We are falling, we are tumbling through the branches toward the ground and I can't grab a hold of anything. The thin branches break under me. I reach into air and grab nothing. I turn and look to the ground and it is farther than I thought. I climbed too high during the chase. I have never fallen from this height. I would never jump this far. I have jumped from high branches and felt the heavy impact of landing on the ground. This is much higher than my highest jump. If there was pain from the landing before, what will this landing feel like? We are heading for rocks. A sound is rising in my throat. It is building up and preparing for the impact. When my eyes go up, the howler is no longer right above me. She is much higher up, getting constantly smaller as I fall. She isn't falling. She has grabbed a hold of a branch and stopped herself. She is looking down on me. Her face is shrinking away, but I can see her eyes. She isn't afraid. She isn't angry. She is surprised. And there is something else in her eyes. She is curious. She is wondering what will happen when the source of her fear, when something with such power, something that has affected her life so much...
We fell. The branch I was holding snapped under our combined weight and we fell. I reached out and caught a branch. I don't remember thinking about reaching out. I don't remember seeing a branch, or feeling my hand find its grip, but here I am, watching the beast fall from me toward the rocks below. It will probably land and make its way back up the tree to try again. No matter, I don't have the strength to get away. If it wants to return and try again, I will be here, resting.
Looking down now, seeing that the beast has eyes, I can see that it can be confused. I can see that it can be distracted, and angry, and most surprisingly, I think as it is looking up at me it is feeling... afraid. The greatest source of our fear is... afraid.
When it hits the rocks, I wait for it to get up and dig its claws back into the tree and roar its way back up to me. It doesn't get back up. I can hear it making noises. It is hard to see from here but I think the beast is trying to get up but can't. Then I see the blood. As the beast moans and growls and quivers, a red pool is spreading out beneath its massive head and chest.
It slipped and fell. It messed up. I saved young daughter and escaped from the beast. Now, sitting on this branch that caught me, feeling the blood run down my back and legs, I still might not survive. Many howlers have received injuries like these and the heat and the ache overtook them. I may lie down soon and not get up again. But for now, the beast is bleeding in the dirt. I carry its wounds but I am alive and unafraid. Today, the troupe will quench their thirsts at water pit. Today, I will quench my thirst and feel the light on my face. Tonight, I will enjoy ripe fruit and the sight of young daughter.
After a sleep, I don't know. Tonight might be my last sleep. But today, I am a howler and I survived the beast of the water pit.