The fire above me raged, bringing my awareness to new heights. Soon enough I would have to run, but for now I could try to memorize every feature of our most sacred shrine before it disappeared forever.
A hundred and seventy-two seasons of memory, as the mammals count time, had passed since the first mark on the Tree of Awakening. The first mark was nearly at ground level on the strangely smooth bark, about where one of the Ancients would have been able to reach with a foreclaw, about knee-high to one of us.
Even as a hatchling, the Tree had fascinated me. So much history, generation after generation, from the first awakening to modern times, had etched their mark there, a celebration of the fact that the time when all we knew was fear and hunger was past.
The heat, which had been a pleasant glow on my skin, making my blood flow in new ways, was nearing the pain threshold. I got down on all four feet and scampered away, joyfully using my tail for balance as I felt the soft mulch beneath me fly every which way under the traction. It was considered undignified for adults to run – but no one would argue that a fire in the treetops was a special situation, so I enjoyed it.
Some time later, I was back in the nest, watching preparations for an evacuation, should it become necessary.
Rella reclined on one wall, exhaustion visible in the way her nictating membranes opened and closed rapidly. A long scratch ran down nearly the entire side of her torso, parallel to the stripes in her scales. She nodded in my direction. “Hello, Cree. How does it look out there?”
Truth be told, it didn’t look all that good. The fire was well established in the upper parts of the trees, and only a heavy rainstorm would keep it from smoking us out. “We’ve got a few hours before we need to make any decisions about leaving,” I said.
She hissed, whether in frustration or relief, I don’t know. “How could this happen?”
I raised my tail indicating I had no idea. “Perhaps a lightning strike?”
“Don’t be stupid. The clouds came in just half an hour ago. The fire’s been burning for much longer.”
Sekk pushed his way between us, his stubby, cut-off tail a blur. “The mammals did this. They know where we live, and they can’t shoot us in the forest, so they burn it down.”
“We have no evidence of that,” I replied calmly.
“What evidence do we need? The mammals fear us. They kill us whenever they can, and not even for food. This is just another instance of the same thing.”
“It makes no difference, anyway.”
“No difference? Tell that to the eggs that will have to be left behind. Tell that to the elders who’ll have to make the long trek to safety. Besides, it does make a difference. I’ve decided that it’s time to get our revenge on the big mammals.”
“No, you mustn’t.”
His mouth gaped, a challenge. “Mustn’t? We’ve listened to your prattle long enough. You say that the mammals are more than just unfeeling beasts, more than just a scourge we must avoid to have the right to life. Well I say that nothing you’ve said so far has convinced me.”
“How can you say that? Have I not explained that our very language comes from the mammals? All we know about the world? And the few true facts we’ve been able to piece together about the Awakening?”
“Your ‘truth’ is blasphemy. We were awakened by Jhk, with his own heat and through his will. Not because of something the mammals did.”
I was not going to get involved in the ever-frustrating discussion of science versus theology that the sun-worshippers loved to throw in my face, especially not with Sekk, whose idea of religion was to say whatever suited his purpose at any given moment. “Attacking the outpost will only bring punishment down on us. The mammals will call others, and then we’ll die. A hundred years of enlightenment wiped out forever.”
He scoffed at me. “Again, that is what you say. Where are these other mammals, this human alliance you speak of? Why do we never see them? Perhaps because they don’t exist? Perhaps because these seven pitiful mammals scratching a living from the dirt are the only ones that remain?”
“No. There are many more, hundreds, even thousands, farther to the south. They have whole cities where nothing moves that isn’t human.”
“Ah, yes, the mythical Vancouver.” His tail moved even more quickly, something I would have believed impossible. “To think that we once believed your nonsense about cities. All that remains of mammals are those few. They would never be capable of building a city. They are only good for food.”
He turned and left, scattering war-scent as he gathered his followers.
Later that night, an alarm woke me. I had no idea how long I’d slept – it might have been hours, but I felt as if it had only been minutes. I was still exhausted. The den hardly helped at all; it was difficult to sleep when the temperature was high enough to get one’s blood really pumping.
And with that, I was fully awake. The nest should have been cool and relaxing. Something was very, very wrong.
I ran to the intersection where my burrow met the hall, nearly colliding with Rella on the way.
“Good, you’re awake,” she said. “We’re evacuating the nest because the wind changed and the fire is nearly here.
“You should have woken me before,” I replied, thinking of the young ones and the confusion that they would have felt at being pulled from their homes in the middle of the night.
“There was no need. We had everything under control. And I need you rested so that you can do our thinking for us. Something tells me we’re going to need some wise old heads around in the not-too-distant future.”
No one argues with the nest mother, but there were times when I would have happily strangled Rella. She was as headstrong and independent as she’d been when she was a tiny lizard scampering down suspicious holes and up every tree in sight. It was fortunate that her growth had been rapid and that most of the forest’s creatures had learned to fear the smell of our clan of thinking lizards – or she might never have made it to adulthood. I just chuckled – inwardly – and followed her back towards the entrance.
Once outside, I very nearly went back on my resolution to avoid arguing with her. The wall of trees directly to my left was aglow with a warm red light. The fire was well in sight, a short scamper from where we were.
Rella led me towards the trees to the right, among which I could see the firelight reflecting off the eyes of our people. We were still too close, much too close.
I arrived to find every gaze turned my way. Of course. No one would speak on my behalf when Sekk’s young males were talking about getting into a suicidal war with the mammals, but everyone wanted my opinion when they were uncertain how to deal with a fire.
Fortunately, the warmth of the fire was still in my bloodstream, and my mind was working the way it did on summer afternoons. “North, towards the stream,” I said, without breaking stride.
I led the way, and heard everyone falling into line behind me. Even with the light from the fires, the woods were dark, and those children too small to fend off a wolf would be at risk, as would those unable to keep up with the tribe. The nest mothers would never be able to care for them all.
But that was not something to be doted on. The death of the incapable would make the nest stronger – and the death of the slow, and the unintelligent was our path to godhood.
The stream was unpleasantly cold, and I could feel the sluggishness coming on. But I knew the water flowed away from the fire, and even if the flames caught us in the strong wind, we would be safe in the swift current. But it was unpleasant to feel the sensation of growing dumber, more animal-like as the blood stopped flowing quickly. Perhaps the mammals were smart, keeping themselves at high temperature with their artificial fur – but that would never work for us, we emanated very little heat.
Though I fought against it, the icy water slowly took my mind. I could feel myself becoming less and less sentient, more animal-like as torpor overtook me. The worst part of the process was in those last final seconds as I felt the spark of intelligence die completely and the animal take over, placid, unconcerned, and hungry. I was in no danger, of course, the stream wasn’t cold enough to kill me, the animal instinct would keep me away from the fire, and there was nothing in the woods – not even a wolf – that would attack a full-grown member of our race unless it was starving.
I don’t quite remember the rest of the night, save for a vague memory of the fire creeping past, never quite reaching the bank of the stream.
Sunlight on my head revived a glimmer of awareness. I released the stone I’d been holding onto and let the current push me to the bank. I knew I’d have to go looking for the survivors but, in order to do that, I needed to think. And in order to think, I needed to warm up.
The sun had done a its job well, bringing me to the point where I could begin to think of strategies to regroup the nest. Suddenly, a sharp crack sounded, followed in close succession by another. The noise sounded like something the humans made when out hunting.
Memories washed through me like the stream’s current, and the first thought that came into my mind was Sekk. He said he was going to go after the humans, and then the fire had come and I’d forgotten all about it.
Even knowing that I was nowhere near full mental capacity didn’t stop me. I scampered towards the sound as fast as my legs would go, eschewing stealth in favor of sheer speed. I had no idea what the humans were hunting, but my gut told me it had to be connected to Sekk. What had the imbecile done?
Trees flashed by, and I smelled a dog somewhere nearby, but I ignored everything. I needed to get to the edge of the woods, to see whether I could help my people – I would have time to argue with them later, if necessary.
A clump of earth near my left hindleg exploded upwards, throwing me into the air. The landing was a hard one, and I ended up buried under the piled leaves that littered the forest floor. The only thing I could do was to stay very, very still while I assessed the situation.
That was easier said than done. It was obvious that the mammals had used their thunder-stick on me, and that I was alive only because they hadn’t managed a direct hit. Fortunately, it seemed that the damage to my leg had been minimal. I could move it, and even flex all three toes.
Less comforting was the fact that my head was buried in the mulch, keeping me from seeing anything. I could hear the mammals thrashing about in the woods, and I was amazed, as always, that they hadn’t all been eaten by now. I wondered how they’d ever managed to survive their own awakening if they were that noisy.
“I guess I must have scared him away.”
It took all my will power to keep myself from running; the voice was right on top of me. I refrained from breathing, hoping against hope that they wouldn’t spot the disturbed forest floor. I strained my ears as well, to determine whether the footsteps were coming my way or not.
“No problem. We probably got most of them last night. Why do you think them lizards went bad all of a sudden?”
A different voice, higher in pitch. I was very interested in hearing the answer, as well as thankful for our ancestors’ foresight in learning and adopting the mammals’ language.
“I dunno. But they’ve been getting bigger and bigger every year. I saw on TV that it’s because of global warmin’. They’re supposed to be getting’ smarter, too. Some of the really big ones are supposed to be as smart as dogs.”
“I don’t think so. Even starvin’ wild dogs have enough sense to stay away from people.”
The other mammal grunted. “I’m not sure. I coulda sworn they was talkin’ to each other. Lots of esses, but I thought I could understand ‘em. I’m sure it was English they were speaking.”
“Don’t you start now, Emmit. I had enough with Liza tellin’ me that the lizards said they was gonna kill her.”
“Well, they did, didn’t they?”
“Yeah, but only for food, and because they could probably smell that she was afraid of ‘em.”
“Whatever you say, Hank.”
The mammals thrashed around a little longer, farther away than before. Finally, the one with the deep voice said, “C’mon Emmit, let’s get back. I don’t think there’s any more of ‘em out here. I want to call the fire service about puttin’ in new firebreaks. We ain’t had any rain in months, and the fires are just gonna get worse.”
“Think they’ll come this time?”
“If they don’t, they’ll lose more than just a couple of acres. The first fire with the wind blowin’ south will tear into the country clubs around the city. Vancouver won’t want the swanks to lose their weekend places.”
They moved off into the woods, back the way they’d come, but I didn’t move. I waited until I could barely hear their thrashing, pushed my head above the leaves, and watched. Nothing seemed immediately threatening.
It was completely unnecessary to follow them too closely. Only a blind lizard could possibly miss the huge gouges their careless, arrogant wandering left in the forest floor. Perhaps their awakening had been like ours, but, in their intelligence they had forgotten what it meant to be hunted. Or perhaps Sekk was correct, and they’d simply grown dumber and dumber as the temperature rose, leaving them good for little other than food.
The tracks led towards the edge of the wooded area, into a plain of low grass, where it was no longer necessary to follow them. The mammal’s above-ground borough, the compound as they called it, was just a short walk into the meadow. It was surrounded by fencing of a type that had been designed to keep other large mammals penned inside. It didn’t represent much of a barrier to my people – it hadn’t been designed to keep reptiles, who were capable of climbing as well as squeezing through small holes, out.
But something on the wind made me stop. I sent my tongue out, questing for information, and there was much more than I could process immediately. The essence of violence was in the air – the strong metallic smell of mammalian blood mingled with the unmistakable odor of injured members of my nest. The acrid scent of the mammals’ hunting sticks hovered over everything, although it mingled with the smell of wood smoke from the fire.
I crept closer, endeavoring to keep my head below the level of the tall grass, until I came to the path leading to the main compound entrance. I peered between the stalks.
Tied to the gate with some kind of metal fastening were the skins of three of my people. I recognized Sekk’s dark blue stripe immediately, but the other two could have belonged to any one of his followers, the thin red markings were nothing special.
Any doubts I might have had regarding what had transpired there disappeared. Sekk’s troops had evidently attacked, and been repelled by the humans’ superior armament. The skins had been hung there – and presumably along the other entrances – as a warning. At least I hoped it was a warning and not a declaration of war.
My thoughts went back to the rest of the nest, the juveniles and nest mothers. Were they safe? I scampered back into the forest as fast as my legs would carry me.
The new burrow was an impressive achievement, considering that it had been built in less than a day by a workforce at less than half its strength, many of whom were frightened juveniles. But then, nothing Rella did would ever surprise me.
“I had to keep them busy,” she told me after I’d finally located them. Her choice of location was faultless, far enough from the river so that it wouldn’t get too damp, and also well hidden among a clump of bushes, but it had made finding them difficult. My people, unlike the thrashing, clumsy mammals, knew how to move through the woods.
“You did well,” I told her, and she puffed up. I was just an elder male, and she was a nest mother, but she’d always respected my opinion. “Defending the young will have to be our foremost priority if we want to bring the nest back to respectable strength.” I put her up to date on the grisly scene at the mammal’s compound.
“I knew that Sekk would come to a bad end.” She seemed saddened, but also relieved at the outcome. “At least we don’t have to worry about conflict with the humans any more.”
“I’m not so sure. They might come after us. They attacked me a while ago, and I wasn’t even moving towards them. From what I heard, Sekk’s crew must have done some damage, and now they see us as a threat.”
The following few days proved me right. One of the youngsters lost his tail to a trap. The disturbing thing was that the trap wasn’t baited like the ones we were accustomed to ignoring or raiding for food, it was carefully concealed within the forest mulch, clearly meant to snag intelligent life as opposed to dumb animals.
The forest was no longer a safe haven where the young could grow into their intelligence, understand the rhythm of the seasons and the effect of the temperature changes. Now, every sound announced a potential attack, every shadow held hidden humans with their terrible weapons, and the logical paths between the trees had to be treaded carefully or avoided altogether.
Making things worse, the leaves were turning, inevitably, yellow and red, the stage before they turned brown and fell off. The time of thought was giving way to the time of memory, where each of my people had to struggle against the sluggishness that came with the cold, fight to recall, at all times, the fact that they were intelligent beings, not just reptiles from before the awakening.
Rella shared my concern, but for different reasons – while I was worried about civilization, she brought more practical issues to the table. “I’m worried about the hatchlings,” she said. “With so many adults killed, who will guide them through the time of memory? It takes more willpower than most youngsters possess to remember to think, when your glands are telling you just to give way to instinct.”
She was right. Winter was a time of fighting to keep self-awareness alive. Our bodies had, over the generations, become hardened to the climate – which was becoming warmer every year – but our brain, the single part of our anatomy that needed the most flow of blood, tended to shut down. Blackouts could be fought against, but they were, in the end, inevitable. The young, less disciplined, were particularly vulnerable.
They didn’t care about what they’d done when the animal was in control. They had no concept of civilization, and were more cavalier about the danger. Only age taught us that, even in our ancestral home, our brain was our greatest survival tool.
I wondered how much we’d have been able to figure out on our own if we hadn’t had access to the mammal’s language and printed information. It was ironic that humans, the only creatures that we feared, had both allowed us to come into being by heating up the planet and educated us after we’d awoken. Even more ironic was the fact that these acts had sent the mammals themselves into a decline.
There was plenty of time for the humans to correct this, however. Our community was much too small to survive a concentrated attack, and with the tree gone, how long would it take for our unity to vanish as well? Winter was when we were most vulnerable, and this winter promised to be even harder than most. Sekk and his gang might have been irrational hotheads, but they’d never shirked their duty to the nest. Yes, there would be even more losses than usual this year.
The cold war with the mammals seemed to relax as the days grew shorter. Perhaps they believed we were no longer a threat, or perhaps they had other concerns as winter approached. Either way, the number of traps decreased as the ones we discovered went unreplaced, and incursions by the humans themselves grew less and less frequent.
We eventually became suspicious, but it wasn’t until Rella and I went out to have a look over the protests of the other elders and nest mothers, that we learned the truth.
“What is that covering the openings?” I asked her. The living area of the compound was a squat rectangular building inside which the mammals slept. Normally, the rooms within were left open to the elements, large square entrances serving as both ventilation and access points. I assumed the cloth coverings hanging beside them might have been used to block the wind on truly cold nights, but I’d never seen them in use – it was probably because any night cold enough that the mammals would have to draw the curtains would have torn my senses away immediately.
“I don’t know. It looks like wooden squares. But I can still hear them moving around inside. How can they get out?” She focused tightly on the living quarters, trying hard to avoid looking at the tattered remnants of skin still hanging from the fence.
Her question was answered quickly, when one of the humans emerged from the compound and walked towards the cattle pens, trailing the smell of burning vegetation. The wooden square had pivoted to allow her to emerge, and then swiveled back to its original position when she pushed it shut. Typical human ingenuity, turning nothing but a piece of wood into a system that would keep their warmth inside.
“I wonder why they did that?”
Rella sighed. “I’m sure we don’t want to know. The humans are lazy, and they never do anything without a very good reason. The thing that worries me most is that the only reason I can think of for building such a device is to keep the cold out.”
“But humans don’t care about the cold.” It was true. They never seemed to mind. If it was chilly out, they might build a fire or adopt a thicker set of their removable skins – clothes, I remembered – but the cold wasn’t incapacitating. You’d never see a human wandering around mindlessly because it was nippy outside. Even the juveniles seemed immune.
“Maybe they know something we don’t. Maybe this year will be colder than others.”
It was possible. I was old enough to remember the year of the water, when it seemed like the river was going to drown the entire forest. That had come just as winter ended, and we’d watched the humans dig a huge pit and use the earth to build a compact wall around their compound. How we’d laughed at their incomprehensible behavior. I suppose they’d have laughed right back at us if they’d known about us. While we suffered with the damp and the itching and the deaths, the humans had been safe and dry inside their wall.
I wondered if this would be the case once more. Would all of us wake, dazed, at touch of spring wondering what had happened over the last few moons while the humans sat inside their shelter, well supplied with food, ignorant of the suffering in the forest?
I hated them for it, but could also respect their power to control their destiny. Our people still had much to learn.
Autumn progressed and bare trees bore witness to the rains that came that year. The rains soon froze and turned to small white flakes – this was the legendary snow that the ancestors had so often mentioned, and so bitterly hated. It fell without pause, covering the ground and growing deeper day by day.
Food was difficult to find, and the juveniles went feral one by one. The amount of energy needed to stay intelligent was simply not available. Soon, even the smallest of rodents had disappeared from the forest and still the snow grew deeper. My awareness of self was patchy, coming on and off.
I suppose winter progressed, but the animal had taken over long before I got to see it.
During that entire winter, I only remember waking once.
I must have gotten too close to the fire, because I found myself marginally aware and intelligent as I chewed on a large, soft piece of flesh. The smell of death, both of mammals and of my own kind filled the air, but I ignored it, concentrating on the ecstasy of food. The animal was still firmly in control, and I was just an observer.
The flickering fire revealed that I was within the human’s compound. From where I sat, I could see one of the square wooden coverings hanging brokenly from one corner, flapping in the bitter wind.
Beside me, I spotted one of my people, dead of a gaping thunder-stick wound in the belly. All four of her legs were sticking up into the air as she stiffened. The small part of me that was awake was saddened to see Rella in that undignified pose. Another wondered that I was still alive in the silent aftermath of such violence.
The piece of flesh I was chewing on was the arm of a female mammal. Her eyes, wide in death, bore into me accusingly. Despite the glaze, I could still see the intelligence they’d once held.
I then did something I’d never done before. I willingly relinquished control, allowing the animal to take back our existence.
Perhaps spring, that eternal fount of life, would awaken me to a better world.
by Gustavo Bondoni