For this story, written as the second exercise in my Writing Short Stories course back in June, I attempted a story without dialogue. I love dialogue so expected to find this difficult, which it was. In the story I try to imagine what it might have been like to experience an extinction event, in an effort to capture a sense of being in the liminal state from a limited first-person (or rather animal) perspective.
She had chosen well.
It had been a good spring. Her pups had almost weaned and were growing fat on insects and berries. Even the reckling was looking healthy. He was a survivor, escaping the quick-feathered hunters with sharp eyes and sharper teeth that had taken two of her litter a few moons ago.
In her world there was much to fear. Death came in many ways: quick from the sharp-teeth or sky-claws; slow from starvation or thirst (the nearest spring was a perilous journey - although she had learned from her mother how to harvest the prickly watery green leaves which grew close to the burrow). But this hillside had one advantage; it was too high and steep for the long-necked ground-shakers that crashed and bellowed through the valley below from time to time.
The moons passed and, as the nights started to lengthen, she began to harvest the nuts, green leaves and tubers, storing these in dry clean chambers close to the comfortable living nest. Something – perhaps the unusual bounty of the season – made her collect more this summer.
It was a warm dusk. After a good night’s forage she and her pups had spent the day sleeping full-bellied in the cool of the burrow. Her pups were now almost full grown and the biggest and boldest were restless to leave. Two, a brother and sister, moved to the burrow entrance with a purpose that she knew from her own time so, with a touch of their noses, mother and eldest made their farewells.
Then, just a few moments after she had returned to the nest chamber, the ground shook. But this was not the rhythmic shaking of the long-necks in the valley. Nor was it the noisy anger of the fire mountain that turned their nights red from time to time. This was different: a silent deep tremor that felt as if it was coming from the belly of the earth. The tremor grew to a crescendo. Terrified the small family nest-huddled as the tree roots groaned while soil and stones rained upon them. Then it was still.
They waited. She lifted her head and sensed around. The nest air was full of dust. She felt the silence then realised that the breeze-scent of outside was gone. She knew something was wrong, ran to the entrance tunnel and found it blocked with stones and earth. Fear rising she started to dig. She was a good digger with powerful front claws. She dug and dug until she started to feel weak, then – rest-pausing – she heard a scraping sound. A few moments later the soil and stones ahead broke apart and there was her eldest daughter. With joy and relief they touched noses, but she sensed a sadness that told her that her eldest son was gone.
Together mother and daughter cleared the spoil from the entrance tunnel, then – followed by the rest of the pups – they emerged, cautiously, into the night. There was no moon. Instead the sky clouds were lit high with lurid reds, greens and purples, yet – she noticed – the fire mountain was silent. The night was quiet at first although some familiar sounds slowly returned: the bellows of the long-necks in the valley below and skyward the distant cries of the sky-claws. The family fed and foraged and still fearful returned to the nest before dawn.
After sleeping most of the day the nest family was awakened by a long roar of thunder that seemed to roll in from afar and rush over them before receding into the distance. She had heard thunder before but never like this. As it passed it hit their tree – although not with the long shake of the sleep-day before – but with a great cracking crash that was the last thing they heard for awhile. She felt an ear-pain she had never before experienced, and so – it seemed – had her pups. Dazed, deafened and frightened they did not venture out of the burrow that night.
Restless and hungry the family stirred again before dusk the following day. She was relieved that the ear-pain had gone and her sound sense restored. Cautiously they emerged from the burrow entrance to find that their small exit platform was now a tangle of branch and leaf. Luckily it was not dense, and they quickly made a path through to the open hillside. What they saw by the dull grey light of dusk was a world changed. No tree was left standing, including their home tree – indeed it was that tree that now provided their exit canopy.
They sensed something moving nearby, then saw one of the sky-claws fallen onto a prickle leaf bush; it was broken winged and near death, but still able to fix them with its sharp eye. They had never before seen one of these creatures close up and – even in its death throes – their terror of its kind was undimmed, so they quickly retreated into the exit canopy and nervously fed on insects and home tree nuts.
The next two nights, alerted by the bad tempered chirruping of sharp-teeth feeding on the sky-claw, they did not stray outside the home thicket. She noticed that the nights were cold: too cold for this early in the autumn. A few nights later the sky-claw was joined in death by the sharp-teeth, and the nest family were able to feast on the insects drawn to the carrion. But their forages were short as it was too cold to stay out for more than a few mouthfuls before returning to the warm of the nest. A few nights later even the carrion insects were gone, as the corpses had frozen.
With a deep sense of unease the nest family settled for their long winter sleep.
© Alan Winfield 2020
The Gift (2016)
Word Perfect (2020)