by Joey Esposito
He sat in the tire swing that overlooked the River. Jesse had strung it up for him two summers back, so he’d be able to sit and gaze out at the landscape beyond the water. Two summers ago he was only eight, but he’d grown so much since then. At ten, he’d already gained an extra four inches and even hunted his first meal without Jesse’s help. Looking back on it now, after what he’d accomplished since, it wasn’t much. But it was more than the other boys his age had done, and for that he was proud.
He recalled the hunt; he had been on patrol with Jesse months ago when the promise of a buck was so alluring that it caused his guardian a lapse in judgment. Leaving the boy alone, Jesse had dashed off into the deep woods after a meal that could feed the village for the better part of a month, if portioned reasonably. It was his first time alone in the woods. Though he had lived there all his life, few ventured into the woods beyond the road by themselves until they were of a certain age. Despite the dangers that the adults assured him lurked within, the woods felt peaceful and secure.
As Jesse’s footsteps padded off into the distance, he stood still until the crunching of dry leaves and crackling of twigs was no longer audible. Only then did he take his first step forward, a first step toward an all new life. He was on his own now, he had thought, and he’d never take a step back. There was a certain wave of adrenaline that filled his bones with each additional step, and he could feel the blade that swung from his belt grow in size. It was heavier now. Though he had used it many times before, he was hunting on his own, as a man, creeping through the woods with only his wits and a weapon.
The sun beamed down, the light trickling through the tall trees. He stalked silently through, his ears at attention for any sign of movement. There was a slight shuffle of branches out of the corner of his eye, followed quickly by the light crunching of ground. He thought it might be Jesse for a moment, but his desire to score his own game pushed the thought from his mind. He drew closer.
In the bushes ahead, he saw the long antlers of the buck bobbing back and forth. The animal had stopped and certainly wasn’t paying the boy any mind. He could never figure out what it was that caused the buck to stop. Whether it was his talent for stealth or the animal’s presumption that the boy meant no harm, the buck wasn’t prepared for the lunge forward or the knife that pierced his throat.
The boy stood in triumph over the bloody remains of the beast, a proud wave of achievement and maturity overcoming him. None of his peers had accomplished a task so great. He had always been small, but there was no doubt he’d be respected by the children and adults alike. When Jesse eventually found him, standing with ferocious accomplishment over the carcass and smeared with blood, the boy could read the jealousy that was plastered all over Jesse’s face. There wasn’t any trace of pride or love; perhaps these feelings had become outdated for the old generation.
Later, as Jesse and the other adults stripped the buck of its meat and portioned it for the village, the children stood around to celebrate their coming meal. As the boy began to tell the tale of his successful hunt, Jesse quickly interrupted, instead weaving an elaborate lie of how he had been the one to make the kill. Infuriated, the boy collected the other children and huffed off to the tire swing to tell them the real story.
Recalling the story, he hopped off the swing, annoyed, kicking some small pebbles over the edge of the cliff. He looked outwards. The River flowed harshly all year round, its white rapids clear and present. As far as he could tell, the land beyond the River was vacant, a canvas for the reflections of the sunset. He was sure that he’d get over there someday. Two summers ago, he could barely get a decent swing going without the help of a push from Jesse or Carol. But now, with only an extra four inches, he was able to reach the ground with his own toes and push himself. He figured in another two summers, he’d be able to push himself with enough force to swing across the River and into the mystery on the other side.
It had been nearly three hours since he left his house, leaving Jesse and Carol behind. He hadn’t planned on being away so long, but he always got caught up in the beauty and mystique of the River. It allowed him to forget the inane teachings that Jesse and Carol had always tried to force on him. They seemed intent on teaching him traditions that felt outdated and history that was irrelevant. They spoke of great cities; metropolitan jungles that stretched on for miles. Even at ten, he couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to be stacked upon one another like the mice that lived in the boards under his bedroom floor. It seemed unnatural, to pack civilization into one small place. Looking over the River at the land beyond, he wished that he could just fly across. But he couldn’t. Why in the world would anyone want to live in a place that was built upwards instead of out?
The thought quickly left his mind. He snatched up a piece of buckwheat that grew along the cliff’s edge, holding it out to his side allowing the tip to brush along the stems of the others. Jesse and Carol would take turns spending time away from the house, wandering. The village was small and tightly knit. It was a collection of cabins that all branched off of a windy dirt road that led up to the cliff with the swing. The cabins were separated by the woods, but it was against the rules for the children to travel alone through there, so instead they’d meet by the beach on the other end of the trail.
He’d lived there all his life, but had never ventured beyond village’s confines. The cliff and the River blocked one direction, and the beach was the end of the other. He supposed one could swim across the lake (or maybe take a canoe), but it was only a matter of time before you got swept downstream. If he couldn’t one day make that swing across the River, he figured, maybe he’d be able to build a boat that could withstand the rapids.
Jesse and Carol would spend long periods of time away from the village; trips that he knew were in search of other people. Neither of them seemed to be content with their surroundings. They constantly longed for something more. All of the grown-ups seemed to ignore the future. Instead of enjoying the beautiful sunshine, the view from the cliff or even the company of their children, they spoke of technology long since disappeared. And as far as he could tell, the past was full of boxes. Boxes that held moving images. Boxes full of history and information. Even boxes that held music. It made sense, he thought, for people that used to live piled on top of one another, that a life full of stackable cubes was considered entertainment.
He had come back from the cliff a few days earlier, only to approach his cabin and hear the voices of Jesse and Carol permeating the walls before he even got onto the front steps. They were shouting at one another. He couldn’t hear it word for word, but it sounded as though Jesse had come across another band of survivors. For the ten glorious years the boy had been alive, living in this small village, it was the first time that anyone had actually found another group of people. According to the conversation he overheard, Jesse had found them only two and a half days southwest. When he peeked through the window as they argued, he saw Jesse frantically pacing around the cabin, throwing clothing and supplies into a bag. He was packing.
He had stood there for quite some time as the pair of them went back and forth on the merits of leaving. He could tell that Jesse was convincing Carol, as he often did, that leaving was a good idea. They would group with these other people and make their way towards one of those cities. Hearing the excitement in Jesse’s voice was repulsive and terrifying. It was as though Jesse longed to be stacked upon other people again. Why couldn’t he simply enjoy the space and freedom they’d been given?
Eventually, Jesse and Carol had decided not to rush into it; to talk with the rest of the village first. Right away, the boy had run off to tell the other children of what was happening. He had never particularly liked any of the other kids, but he knew they all enjoyed their village and its surroundings as much as he did. They would often congregate around the swing to play King’s Edge, threatening to toss one another over the cliff, until they grew tired of battle and instead slouched up against the tree. As soon as their breath was caught, the conversation would turn to speculation of city life and civilization, and how little they desired to experience it.
Naturally, when he broke the news to the other children, it was a mutiny. Having become respected amongst them for his slaying of the buck, the boy was able to keep them calm and quiet until he came up with a plan. Everything came together rather quickly, and though it was rushed, he was proud of the other boys as they became men and did what needed to be done. Only one amongst them disagreed with the plan, but all it took was one serious round of King’s Edge for the insubordination to cease.
It all happened so fast, so when it was over, he had scurried up to the cliff to clear his head and process it all. He felt a great weight lifted from his shoulders. Looking across the River, the dancing reflection of the sun seemed no longer to taunt him, but instead offered him happy tidings, as though the Earth was nursing the landscape for him. Walking across the ridge, he was sure for the first time that this land was born for him, and he would be sure to take advantage of that. There would be no stackable cubes and no humans packed like rats. Civilization had ended.
As he strolled back down the dirt road toward the cabins, he realized he’d neglected to wipe the blood from his knife. He took it out of his belt loop as he walked, and noticed that its usual glimmer had disappeared. The sun shone brightly upon it, but the blood had dried in the hours since he’d used it and the rays were shunned away. He would have to clean it later.
As he came over the hill that led to the main crux of the village, he could see smoke wafting in the air. On the wind, there was the most rancid stench he had ever allowed in his nostrils. His nose burned; the stink felt toxic. He raised his arm to drape across his face in an effort to mask the smell, but gave that up quickly. Despite the horrendous odor, he pressed on down the hill hoping that he’d be able to simply adjust, like pupils in the dark. As he got closer, he saw the bodies stacked on top of one another as the flames engulfed them. He imagined them living in one of the great cities that Jesse often raved about.
The children helped one another drag the remaining bodies to the pyre, blood trailing each one and mixing with the dirt. He had asked them to save Jesse for last, and they respected his wishes. He crept into his cabin where he had left the body sprawled out on the floor of the kitchen. The other kids had already taken Carol, but Jesse remained, eyes still open in shock. He stood over Jesse’s body much like he had the buck only months earlier, flushed with pride and a swelling sense of accomplishment. The buck had fed the village for merely a month, but the latest hunt – the one that really mattered – would set the course for the rest of their lives.
As the final bodies burned, he realized that he had grown accustomed to the stench that had reviled him only moments ago. As his peers circled around him, his mind wandered to the River that flowed just miles from where they stood. But he could feel the weight of his knife as it swung off his belt loop, as though it was tugging him in a new direction. The River had been there all of his life, and would likely be there long after his death. The River would have to wait.
There was a new hunt to be had, about two and a half days southwest from where he stood.