07/11/2012

A Disturbance in the Herd Affects the Flock

by Matthew Jakubowski

The enormous old man strode across the meadow through the snow. Where the meadow met the woods there was a dead deer hanging from its neck by a rope someone had tied to the lowest branch of an immense oak tree.

The old man didn’t know what kind of sign it was, this thing left on his property by an invisible hand. The sight of it made him angry and a little afraid — emotions he hadn’t experienced for a long time. The carcass turned slowly in the winter breeze until one of its hind hooves clicked against the cold hardened bark. The sound made the old man stop walking.

He turned to see if his wife was watching from the bay window of their house overlooking the meadow. When he saw her there he shrugged, raising and dropping his hands. She made an impatient shooing gesture at him with both arms. He nodded as if remembering something and turned back to the dead deer.

He lifted his arms like a high-diver preparing to jump, closed his eyes, and opened his mouth toward the sky. As he did this his body came apart in twelve pieces, each falling and forming into a tiny complete man.

The men landed with a soft crunch in the snow, then hopped together and ran remarkably fast: under the deer carcass, past the oak tree, and into the bare forest, smaller and smaller to her eye, until their naked running bodies and small puffs of breath were lost among the trees.

The woman sighed and turned away from the meadow now dotted with small footprints. She saw that the fire had died so she crouched at the fireplace and moved aside the black iron grate. Stacked in the brick compartment next to the fireplace were wide sections of wood, no kindling or paper.

The woman murmured, staring at the pile of barely luminous coals. Her face glowed as she conjured flames there in the shape of women. When the fire-women appeared they each screamed up faintly at the woman who’d conjured them, then turned and began to tear into the wood and burn it entirely. With arms like axes and feet like pikes, their dance threw sparks as they crashed across the wood, their hair of smoke quivering under the wind of the woman’s words.

She watched until the dancing bodies and screams of the women of fire were lost beneath the smoke and pop of the burning wood. Renewed warmth rose to fill the room. The house was still. Orange light cast shadows from the mouth of the fireplace grate.

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The man of many men and the woman of fire never learned who killed the deer and left it hanging near their house. There were no footprints by the oak tree or in the woods where the man had gone to investigate. He found only a bright splash of blood across the snow far behind the house where it looked like the deer had been smacked dead with a large branch.

The woman didn’t say so, but she suspected that the deer was a gift from one of their more powerful kindred who existed mostly in spirit. The deer’s unknown origin bothered the man and the woman encouraged him to explore for clues, though she knew he was afraid. She felt grateful toward the hand that had given them the deer for food, but she also understood how the gift had slightly offended her husband’s pride and scared him for reasons she didn’t grasp.

One night while her husband slept, not wanting to wound his pride, she went out barefoot into the snow to offer silent prayers in the moonlight, which caused a soft rumbling in the distance.

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A decade before this incident, word had spread among their kindred that the man and woman couldn’t reproduce. It had been kept a secret for many years. This rare affliction had a superstitious tone that bothered even the most rational of their kind. The couple’s problem, together with their sadness and awkwardly-borne shame, made few others socialize with them over the next ten years, until none did at all.

The couple grew lonely for missing their own kind. Then there were many hard winters and the native fauna suffered. This made scarce the man and woman’s most precious food source. For millennia, their families lived best off natural prey, and had a special fondness for deer meat, which is why their kind had settled in parts of the world where venison or other foods from the earth were plentiful. Their current home was situated in a place that had provided for them in this way for more than two expansive generations.

Yet now with the difficult weather on top of their strange inability to have children, the couple worried they were suffering under a curse. On their worst nights, separately, each of them had dark imaginings that in fact their existence was somehow a curse upon the world. Their loneliness intensified, as did their pain at remembering that both their parents’ essence had left the earth long ago.

Questions and evermore complicated worries they’d never confronted now seemed to loom each day. Life for the man and woman was changing after several centuries together. They could withstand intense hunger for up to a year or more when necessary, but the effects of their brief famine had made their hunger more insistent lately. Between their loneliness and malnutrition, the couple lost their ability to blend in with people in the small town near their home in the woods. Shopping for food became a problem, making their malnutrition even worse. They caught a grouse or two, and killed several turkeys, but this did not provide enough regular nourishment. Only by carefully rationing the dead deer and freezing the surplus had they kept enough of their favorite food around for six months.

Soon after, even harder news arrived. The couple learned via a radio report that thousands of whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in that part of North America were infected with a virulent new strain of bovine tuberculosis, which had swept more quickly than the government agencies thought it might through the deer herds in that part of the continent.

The news of the infected deer herd convinced them they had to act quickly on the idea they had come up with a short time ago.

They understood that although they were kindred beings, their near-starvation and solitude had begun to disturb their happiness. During those most recent six months the man had found it difficult to stay in one form. His wife would come into a room and see the small men lounged around reading books and papers in small nude teams on the furniture and, bothered by their sloth day after day, stuck in the house with no one else, she had more than once chased her tiny husbands around in the form of cloud sparks, before the tiny men’s shrieks woke her and she drew back to human form. The last time this had happened, they had apologized to each other, then agreed that it might be time to make a great change in their life.

After hearing the radio announcement, they knew they had to leave to find a new home with more of the natural food they needed, or else live miserably together, yet separated by the many hard things that had recently come to pass.

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They agreed to go north to try and find a wide, cold territory with good fishing and more venison. The cold did not bother them. They searched over thousands of miles until they settled a good distance from a little fishing town built on a large bay. In this mostly uninhabited new territory, they caught deer fairly often and learned that fishing in summertime was easy for them and enjoyable.

To catch food now, they had a system, which they both enjoyed immensely. The woman would speak and boil portions of streams or rivers as the man waited in broken-form, lined up in teams along the banks, ready to wrestle or spear fish when they leaped. It worked every time.

“You look like a bunch of little bears!” she yelled one day and laughed, and the little men, feigning anger at her teasing, raised their tiny fists and barked back in their strange, high voices as they ganged up to club the enormous salmon to death.

The fish were plentiful. The woman and the man ate well and had great surpluses during lengthy winters spent comfortably in their new home.

Thriving quickly in glad renewal, they also had acres of space in which to call and mingle once again with their kindred and the spirits that had sustained their kind for millennial generations. Gradually, the couple’s joy and growing wisdom overcame their previous awkwardness. They began to socialize again. Their old shame over having no children seemed less painful now and, as it faded, their communion with their kindred found a way to deepen.

They were delighted in their new life and the difference compared to before felt to them like what mortal people sometimes call a miracle.

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After several glad years, mortal people who lived in the town by the bay, a hundred miles from where the man and woman had settled, began to speak of a slight glow in the atmosphere above the land to the northeast. This strange light, not universally agreed upon by more than two dozen people in town, was especially strong after good fishing seasons, or so the believers claimed. They were left to observe it from afar and invent stories about its origin and meaning.

Some who believed in the strange light became more convinced after reading a scientific article stating that among the massive flocks of cackling geese and brant that journeyed south each year, crossing over the so-called glowing land, weary or unwell birds had been observed to grow stronger, and at least two threatened species with aerial routes crossing over that place began not only to slow their decline in population, but thrive.

One year, mortal people from the little fishing town by the bay crossed paths with the man of many men and the woman of fire. The mortals made the journey east to camp and explore the area where, unbeknownst to them, the man and women had settled. A few wild stories circulated after this trip. Something bad was going on out there, muttered a few people, though others laughed off their fear and said there was no true strangeness. The tales, they said, were invented during excessive beer-drinking sessions under the stars so the more macho storytellers could feel better about coming home from their brave expedition empty-handed.

One of the stories told of how several people had gone hiking one sunny day and after crossing a meadow to fill their water flasks they saw on the muddy banks of a river hundreds of tiny footprints as if dozens of babies had risen up like some unnatural horde and done some terrible killing: many of the footprints were filled with blood (from dead salmon, though the mortals could not know). Another story said that one day a young man went to soak his feet in the same river after a hike and just as he was about to step in he stopped his foot in mid-air because steam was rising off the water — at midday — and he could feel the heat as if the whole river had just been boiled inside a kettle. He told everyone he was certain a terrible volcanic eruption would soon take place there. The stories continued in whispers for years throughout the little town by the bay. No one view dominated. There was an equal mix of laughter and seriousness, which eventually cast a general disturbance through the flock of good people in the town. A surprising amount of uncertainty spread due to these stories. Few who heard them had the courage to go see any of these wonders for themselves, so bothered were they by the happiness of these two strange beings, which, as is so often the case, seemed to have descended like a curse on the innocents of the land.

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Matthew Jakubowski’s short stories have appeared in Barrelhouse (online) and Apiary and been broadcast on WXPN 88.5 in Philadelphia. He’s a panelist for the Best Translated Book Award and writes frequent reviews and essays for publications such as Bookforum, The National, and The Quarterly Conversation. While writing his novels and short stories he relies on guidance from a close group of writers in West Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife and son. He is at work on a novel about art and envy.

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