John stooped down and picked up a handful of the warm red dirt and let the fine material fall through his fingers as he hiked. The land had always reminded him of blood. It wasn’t the color – that would have been a cheap and easy connection. No, it was much more profound than that.
Blood was life. Blood also meant death. It joined the two in an unbreakable companionship of opposites that few truly understood. This land was the same way. It was both life and death, and he appreciated the connection. More importantly, he understood and contributed to that connection.
His boots moved silently across the terrain, disturbing very little, but the damned pack animal wasn’t quite as respectful. It scattered rocks and dirt as it plodded along behind him. John stopped pulling the bridle and turned around.
“I don’t know why in the hell I picked you up,” he cursed as he pulled his water bottle off the pack. “There were plenty of other animals I could have picked…. I don’t know why I bother talking to you either, you sure as shit can’t answer me.”
John took a mouthful of sweet water and watched the flies land on the beast’s head and face. The damn thing was worn out. At one point in his life, before he decided to break away from the civilized world and reach back to his natural self, he would have felt sorry for the animal. But now that he had been out here for a few years, John realized that life was no different from death, it was just a different way of being a part of the land.
He put the water bottle back in the heavy pack and coaxed the tired creature onward with a stiff pull of the rope and bridle. They were almost back at camp. Spastic breathing and grunts behind him caught his attention. John turned to see his animal lose its footing in the rocks and nearly dump the heavy pack. He dropped the rope and grabbed the bit sandwiched between the animal’s broken teeth and made sure it didn’t fall. The thing’s eyes were wide with fear, red from exhaustion, and full of an almost human pleading.
“Fine,” he said as he grabbed the bridle and continued to hike. “This is your last trip. I’ll cut you loose at camp and see about getting a replacement.”
John was surprised to see the animal managed the rest of the trip without any issues. It even seemed to hurry a bit, as if it understood what he told it. But that was silliness. He really needed to stop attributing human emotions and comprehension to simple creatures.
Camp was inside a cave at the end of a hidden canyon. It offered simple relief from the heat of the day and the cool of the desert night, as well as the isolation that John wanted. The animal stopped at its spot and let him shackle its legs in place. Proper training and more than a few beatings had taught it to follow this routine. He pulled the pack off the sweaty beast and placed it against the back of the cave. John whistled a nameless tune as he poured some water into a bucket for the creature. He untied the bit from behind the animal’s head and let the thing drink its fill.
The thirsty slurping came to a stop and the animal pulled its head out of the bucket. Its eyes watched him with renewed energy as John started the fire. The thing made mewling noises and groans that probably meant something, but he paid no attention. Animals that have been properly dealt with didn’t speak. He had made sure of that personally.
“But if you could talk, would you ask for me to let you go?” he asked as he stood up. “Would you ask to be released into the wild? You might, but that would be a bad idea. Why? Because you are tame. The land would kill you. That’s how you and I are different. I’ve become an integral part of the land, and as such, I live. You are tame, like so many of your kind, and as such, you die in this land. It’s your natural place. Tonight I’ll set you free, but not as you might wish.”
The groan and guttural cry from the creature was perhaps the most pathetic thing he’d ever heard.
Tears welled in the things eyes and fell in heavy drops to the red dirt at its feet. John reached behind his back and pulled out his knife. The animal kicked and pulled against the restraints, heedless of the damage it was inflicting on itself, apparently aware of what was about to come.
“Shut up,” John growled, furious at the weakness displayed by this thing. Why couldn’t it simply understand its place? He swung his blade carefully and smashed the thick butt of his knife into the side of the creature’s head, sending it crashing against the rock wall of the cave.
Large drops of blood began to patter slowly to the red dirt that turned a deep crimson with the addition of the offering. The land accepted the blood and drank it thirstily. It was indeed time.
John knew there should be nothing to impede the flow of blood, so he grabbed the leather strap that secured the cloth to the beast. He had found it best to keep them covered while they hauled his gear for them. They seemed to last a little longer.
He grabbed the leather and cut through it with his knife while the animal was still dazed from the blow. John pulled the belt through the straps, dropped it to the floor, and quickly sliced through the flimsy material. The dirty shirt fell in a heap on the ground. John could see the thing was starting to come to its senses so he quickly cut away the Levis.
“All right, let’s get this done,” he said and slapped it across the face. John wanted the animal to be lucid as he offered its blood to the land. The creature recoiled, fear shining bright in its eyes, and it tried to speak again.
“Preeeezz… U wanna nee!”
A crucifix swung on its necklace, the tarnished metal bounced across its filthy skin. Chest hairs shook with the silent sob that overwhelmed the creature. Cold air whispered through the cave and caused it to shiver, accentuating the miserable thing’s shaking. Its hands, bloodied and useless, had been handcuffed behind its back since the day John picked it up. A pair of emaciated legs wobbled as they tried to keep from collapsing.
Maybe it had been a man at some time, John wondered, but that would have been a long time ago. Most of what he saw walking around the rest stop near the highway didn’t qualify as human. Sure, they had their vehicles, their fancy clothes and families, but they had stopped being human the moment their lives became measured by likes and comments, and their self-centric view of everything around them guided their narcissistic interactions. In a few days he would hike down to the rest stop and pick up a new beast. They were nothing short of animals. Every one of them.
He pushed its head against the cave wall and pressed until the artery in its neck was easy to find. The creature tried talking again, this time definitely sounding like a please, but it was hard to enunciate when your tongue had been cut out. John remembered that moment very well, not because it quieted the shouting and pleading, but because it was the last time he had eaten meat. It had been a small meal. That would all change in just a minute.
John placed the tip of the sharp knife against the skin that pulsated from the nearby artery and looked into its eyes one more time. He couldn’t tell if the creature was pleading for the blade or pleading for freedom. To John it was all the same. To the land, it was all the same.
The blade cut deep and the warm blood sprayed. The first slice of meat sizzled in the heat of the fire before the blood stopped flowing out of the deep wound. John ate the meat, the land soaked up the blood, and the sweet companionship of life and death continued under the desert moon.
~ Zack Kullis
© Copyright 2016 Zack Kullis. All Rights Reserved.