There’s the smell of something dead outside. The stench curls inside the tent, squeezing in between the animal hides. I think it’s Chepi’s body, but I daren’t see for sure. The sky-buffalos stalk the plains outside the village; I hear the distant snapping of mechanical maws and the wheezing of metallic snouts as they sniff the air for flesh.
I used to be a hunter before the ships drifted down from the sky. I used to be brave: I caught fanged stripe-rabbits, I wrestled mountain cats. I’d even bite the head off a fire scorpion to prove my worth. Now I don’t know what I am, except the only one alive, and a coward. And that’s why Chepi’s soul won’t leave me alone.
The sky-buffalos started as whispers from the tribes across the plains: great creatures from the stars, the rumors said, so terrifying your spirit escapes your body at the mere sight. Some are hordes of fighters, leveling villages to the ground, and behind them come the collectors, snatching up what bodies they can find. All are the same hulking forms of metal, with black eyes and horns like deathly, shimmering crowns on their heads. I don’t know what they want with human flesh. Maybe they carry it back to their ships to feed something terrible inside.
They consumed the villages by the river first. Across the plains, screams echoed for two days and two nights. Chepi came to my tent on the third day.
“It’s over, Samoset,” Chepi said, her eyes inkblots in her fear-sheeted face. “They’ve taken the river villages and they’re coming for our tribe. We’re leaving for the mountain caves. There, we can fight.”
She clutched a torn pack, and her long hunting knives were at her side. Her braids hung wet in the rain. She looked half-woman, half-animal, with gritted teeth and wild eyes—but one who was ready, one who would survive.
“If we go with the others, they beasts will trace us,” I protested.
“So let them! Let them follow us to a place where we can make a stand. From the mouth of the caves we’ll face them with iron-tipped arrows!”
“Chepi, we can wait this out together. Let’s hide in the thickets outside the village. They won’t care about two of us when there’s a whole tribe to pursue.”
Something died in her eyes. “You would stay here and let them chase the women and the children? Your ancestors will be ashamed.” She shoved the pack roughly into my chest. “If you won’t come with us to fight, then take this. There are waterskins and food. It’s not much. But I’m sure you’ll be dead before it runs out.”
It was a harsh thing for her to say—she who I had thought would take my family tattoo one day. She left, her face dark like a storm cloud.
I hid in the bushes as the sky-buffalos arrived. Their hulking figures squealed through the tents, hooves kicking through sheets of hide, but they didn’t linger. They lifted their shining heads to the sky, frothy snouts sniffing. When they caught the scent of my tribe, they rumbled off towards the mountains, the ground quaking as they went. That’s when I finally slept, dreaming scarlet-red dreams of horns plunging into my flesh, tearing tangled wet things out of my tattooed belly. I remained in the snarly thickets. I skulked around the edges of it, too afraid to leave.
One night, I saw Chepi’s silhouette darting in the shadows toward my tent, carrying another pack. Her anger must have subsided—she’d returned from the mountains to find me. I would have called her name, but my mouth wouldn’t form the words because she was followed by a particularly sly sky-buffalo. She went into my tent, but came out right away, her face fearful and pale. She searched the nearby tent remnants, but eventually gave up and went back toward the mountains. Her stalker followed her into the darkness.
I hurried into my tent. My heart wrenched once I saw what she had left behind: more water skins, dried meats and her hunting knives. She’d tried to save me once again. I curled up on the hides and wept.
Now, days later, rotting flesh stinks all the way to my hiding place. I know it’s her corpse — I feel the anger in the air: her feverish fury over my cowardice.
The smell of Chepi’s corpse widens and grows taller. It’s not just a stench in my nose, but it tickles my throat, leaving a film on my tongue and a prickling sensation all over my arms. I hear the maggots feast. I imagine her inky eyes sunken in, her braid torn off her scalp.
The monsters have stopped rummaging through the tents and returned to their ships. Everything is still; there’s just the shimmer of that sickly sweet rot in the air. We don’t bury our dead, and I have no canoe in which to send her down the river, but the idea of Chepi rotting is unbearable. The least I can do is burn her.
I steal outside where dawn struggles to come to life, its light casting a grey-dull pallor over the soaked plains. The ships vanish into the distance, rain dripping around their bellies like tears. Over the grass creeps a fizzling burn. It’s over. Everything’s over.
Just outside my ruined tent lies the body. Flies swarm around it, touching down onto the cadaver as though they’re placing light kisses on the skin of a lover. Contorted and burned, it’s a splayed figure of flesh savagely broken. But I don’t see a torn braid, or inkblot eyes decayed into sockets. I only see the open tattooed torso, and the bloody tangles ripped out from it, scarlet-red.
I know then, my cowardice didn’t cause Chepi’s death, and it’s not her spirit that is lost.
And the smell will never, never go away.
Sylvia Hiven writes in Georgia, USA.
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