23. Bough’s Shadow

The warmth of sleep slowly effervesces as Richard drearily drifts into consciousness. From pleasant dreams of home he’s drawn away, waking to the darkness of the cave. The strap of his crossbow cuts deeply into his skin, raw sores underneath sticking to the worn polyester with a slimy puss. He pulls the band from off his shoulder, opening the wound. Laying the weapon by his side, he falls back onto the hard rock of the cave-floor.

Supine, he lets his mind drift, staring up into the massless void of death, the shadows of this accursed cavern. Groggy images play like echoes, wakeful dreams leftover from his slumbers. Letting the random pictures ebb and flow over his consciousness, the hunter enters a fantastic world. The dissassortment of chaotic thoughts drains in a whirlpool about one point.

Under a blue sky with no sun or moon, where only stars, their soft light, shine upon a sloping, grassy field with green blades reaching up to your knees, Richard descends a little hill, coming toward the crystalline purple pool below. Within its reflection are the stars held, stretched and distorted by the little waves of that body. These shimmering points dance in the purple soup like minnows circling one another. Over this, a drooping bough casts its shade, the arm of a solitary tree, its knotted, twisted trunk grown by this pond’s muddy embankment. Beneath it, no stars shine, only the gentle movement of the water absent heaven’s light.

The squish and slurp of Richard’s boots, as they seep into the muck with every step, halt as he stands before that reflection. He sees himself once again dressed as the hunter, covered from head to toe in the black regalia of that order. Lifting his hand, he finds in it that small strip of bamboo he’d been given, he’d taken, all those days ago. As if prepared for his ceiling, the stick’s hole is threaded, ready to be hung with the others in his house.

To the bough his arm stretches, looping the fishing-line thin string on its tip. For a moment it stays, but soon travels down that bent branch, falling with a plop into the water, into the shadow of the bough. Its ripple expands over the water’s surface, leaving a glasslike stillness in its wake. Into the purple pond he stares, leaning over its face after the bamboo, and suddenly noting his reflection, there also sees that in the bough’s shadow half his face, half of were his face should be, reflects back unto him with the snarling countenance of the wolf.

He jumps back from the sight, stumbling in the bank’s mire. A moment he stands, staring up into the blue sky, into the heavenly stars above him. Falling, his gaze returns to the pond, where the tree and its bough have disappeared, and yet still casting a shadow, still blocking those pinpricks of heaven, over the purple pool the massive snout of the wolf. Its bloodshot eyes stream tears down its fur, agitating the water below with the salty rain.

So Richard approaches, wetting his toes in the shallows. Dipping its head as if to drink, the wolf’s black nose descends beneath the pond’s surface. Arising, its bristling beard soaked and dripping, it clasps the bamboo by the thread, gently holding the job out to Richard.

Taking the job in his hand, he knows the meaning unwritten: To the ocean, the Forbidden Sea. The water splashes as Richard spins on his heels, making an about face toward the little rise he’d descended. The splooch of his feet lifting up from the mire they had sunk in precipitates his march toward that hill. The solid ground meets his step, the tickling grassy stalks brush his legs, and Richard leaves the dream.

Opening his eyes, he awakens to darkness. Slowly he notices his hand clasped tightly, within his grip, a stick. He knows what it is, his own death sentence, the command he took to execute the wolf, the unknown abomination.

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