I do not want to die. I am afraid.
From this fear, life explodes within me, the rushing of blood, whipping limbs, and thundering heartbeat. My body pulses to the rhythmic swell of my chest; the ache of it trebles through me, filling, throbbing, before escaping on a gush of breath.
I run, run, run, each leg bending in frantic servitude to thoughts that scream in silence the certainty of death should they stop. The forest becomes a haze. Deep green pitted with raw umber and flashing slits of sunlight. The air swims in the flavours of the season in transition: the damp of earth and rot of fallen leaf; the velvety sweetness of fruits and crisp spice of root and herb and seeded pod. All soured by the tang of fear, and the scent of the one who hunts me.
My legs, strong and lissom as the willow, have seen me evade the fate of the bear paw, wolf jaw and tearing cougar claw many times. I fly fast through the forest realms, prince of swift warnings, crowned in branches white as cygnet shells. But these legs of mine, lissom as the willow, swift as the kestrel, cannot outrun this new hunter.
A terrible, relentless predator is he, wearing the skins of his prey and wreathed in the stench of smoke, withered hide, and fire-wrought stone. The horse and the dog bow to his command, wild spirits broken. They lend their heightened senses and knowledge of the wilds still etched as shallow grooves deep inside them. Theirs is a folly I cannot fathom.
I run down into the forest’s secret trails, hoping the precariously whittled ways will break this frightening chase. Through bramble hollows and groves webbed in serpentine paths, sunken and shaded. Where the forest collapses into chasms of black water and twisted root, and only the nimblest of steps can fly without being snared.
But the hunter still comes, stretching as the shadows when the sun is pulled from the world, and the kingdom of night awakens.
The noise of the dogs pricks at my body, sending spasms through tightened muscles. Energies scatter to avoid the chaos and quiver in its wake; eyes stare, breaths gasp, wings flutter. The forest watches, a startled spectator, as I run from death.
Above the hollow grunts burning my throat, a churning rumble touches my ears. The air is flecked with a scent, cold and clear. River currents glisten in light-infused ribbons through the trees ahead. The earth hardens as heads of stones breach the damp rind of the forest floor. Soil gathers around pocks and edges, peeled by endless seasons of wind and rain and the stone’s stubborn will to break free of its smothering under-realm.
I have come to the edge of the green realm shadows. The mountain rules beyond the river’s writhing coils. It swells to breathless heights and touches the sky with razored fingers. The sky, responding, churns the clouds and crops the air currents, bending to the sovereignty of its unmatched might. Should I dare the perilous leap across the watery rift, I could fold into the mountain’s steeled and sloped pinions. There, I would abide in safety, as an eaglet under its mother’s wings, and the death promised by my pursuers would break to pieces on the rocks, and scatter as bone dust on the wind.
The tree line ends, and the river stretches before me, a volatile beast thrashing against the banks of its rocky prison. A loose stone bites at my hoof and I stumble. Behind me fear curls and snaps like sleet driven by the North wind, sharp and bitter. I whirl around to recover the distance needed to make the jump.
The baying of the dogs rattles the air from every direction. They close too fast. I abandon the river’s edge, the mountain route foiled. One of the dogs bursts through the undergrowth and lunges at me in a shower of shredded leaves. I thrash my front legs, hooves flailing, and in a flurry turn and charge the other way, silently pleading the other dogs have not circled around to close the trap. Hairy forms tear from the forest shadows in front of me and crouch on the rocky clefts, lips curled and hackles raised.
I drop my head and shake my crown at them, my throat squeezing loose a gust of air pitched with a ringing cry. It is a feeble, warbling sound, which dies under the quaking snarls of the pack. The dogs gather in a curved line of frothing mouths and wild black eyes. My legs fail me and lock at the joints, leaving me all but crippled; a frozen feast for these savage creatures.
But they come no further. The hunter’s silent command presses over them, subduing their instincts even beyond line of sight. Such authority I have never imagined. A terrifying power.
I shake my head again, reminding the predators, and myself, that I do not stand defenceless. The dogs wail in agitated excitement. The stench of smoke, withered hide and fire-wrought stone intensifies. The sound of hooves drums nearer, solid, heavy. They are not cloven.
The horse emerges from the forest, at last. His breath expels in rolling blasts, and his eyes fix mine with a gritty and jealous gleam. I see in him a forbidden longing for the wild, as he once knew long ago. Here I stand before him, a raw and tangible spirit of his forgotten truth; a reflection of his birthright, taken and reformed by the hunter heaped upon his back. The horse ducks his head, ashamed and obstinate. He will not turn from the hunter’s hand. There is a strange and repulsive alliance between them. The horse is content, even adoring of his burden. And the hunter keeps his place as the dominant power amidst his aides.
The hunter grunts huskily. I cannot help but look at him. Beneath layers of stolen fur and woven fibre hides a face of creased flesh and whiskery bundles of hair. His eyes are beaded flints of amber, filled with a fierce and focused hunger. His arms stretch out, gripping a bowed splint of wood nocked with a stone-tipped shaft; his chosen weapon. I do not know its capacity, but his energy shivers with surety of a kill. My heart skips and flutters.
He holds his form, a heartbeat from unleashing the fatal strike. The moment holds, frozen, and then stretches, slow and soft like the setting sun. I have yet to take my next breath when I sink into those fire-spark eyes. There, I glimpse a different facet of eternity. The predatory hunger ebbs away, washed clean by waters untouched by beast or land. I see inside him: the earnestness of his cause, the hopeful smile of his young mate, and the keening of his little ones. The togetherness of his kind: a cultivated community sharing in griefs and joys, successes and failings.
He tastes the winds and reads the prophecies of the woodlands, and understands the coming winter threatens greater cruelty than the last. He knows what he must do to keep his young mate and little ones alive through the frozen days and blistering nights. He breaks the forest so he can graft himself into it and be as one with the oneness that already is; taking life in order to give it. He is a terrible, powerful thing. But he is also intelligent, merciful, and kind. With his hand, he nurtures and destroys—an incarnation of fire. I see in him all that I fear. And yet, I understand him better for it.
I wonder what he sees in my eyes in turn, for the fierceness of his gaze softens and sinks into a pool of unknown depths. He is wading, wandering, wondering. I reach with my spirit and retrace what I have known and seen: the sweet tang of green grass, the blissful kiss of the sun, and the hidden groves, thick with flowers and the thrum of a million energies. A wolf’s jaw snapping as it crushes the rabbit’s spine. A fawn, crying, struggling, at last swallowed by the raging waters, its mother’s wails haunting the hooded vales. Rain, cold and clean, tracing rivulets through oiled fur, and the first flake of snow alighting the tip of a glossy nose. The final shiver of a stricken fox as its body succumbs to the bitter leeching of starvation. An owlet shrieking between the claws of a rival winged predator. Light sparkling off a butterfly’s chrysalis; the laughter of a pebble-strewn brook; skull-pounding pulses when crowns collide, and the thrill of triumph when the rival turns in defeat, head bowed, humbled.
Through each other’s eyes, we see our world in a pure and transparent light and are reminded anew that it has always been this way. This cruel and beautiful world of love and fear, threat and quietude, violence and peace. Where all is one and one is all. And I, in truly seeing him, arrive at a fuller understanding, as I hope in seeing me, he does as well.
But that does not change my place in this present moment. Life explodes within me, a brilliant, finite crescendo. Even at the end, it is something incredible to experience.
I do not want to die. But now I am no longer afraid.
I take a step toward him, my final conscious gift. The shaft in his hand flies free.