The sun sank behind the trees, and the blue-black shadows of the forest encroached farther down the sloping beach. The younger children eyed the dark warily and pushed closer to the weak, gasping fire at their center; the babies rolled their heavy heads and fell into whimpering sleep against their mothers' necks. The mood among
the women and the old men was tense and silent. Motionless they sat, kneeling against each other in the sand, backs against the ocean winds, gazes steadily fixed on the fire, while inside, their thoughts roiled and screamed:
Twelve, it was almost too much to believe, their twelve strongest hunters — their beloved sons, their adored husbands and fathers — were missing from the camp.
The hunters had set off into the forest on the morning of the last full moon, for what Roland, the leader among them, had announced during the prayers to Aliama would be a three-day hunt. The ocean had been greedy with her fish, and Roland and the other hunters believed they could do better venturing inland with their spears, following the rumor of deer, a scattering of split- toed tracks left in a slop of mud by the trees. They had crossed into the shadows of tangled vine and prowling beast with cheerful war cries and prideful hearts, the twelve. The clouds had made stripes in the sky, a sign from Aliama that He would protect them. But on the fourth morning the hunters had failed to return, and on the eighth day of their absence the remaining
young men had gone to look for them, fearing that the recent rainstorms had altered the forest somehow, causing the hunters to lose their way home.
Now they all were missing. Six more nights had passed and what could their families do but watch the swaying wall of forest with growing dread?
Beneath the crackle and rushing gusts of the fire came the quiet sobs of a waiflike and darkly tanned little boy. He clutched at his stomach as if to catch in his fist and pull away the pain of his hunger, as one might remove a pinching crab. After a long, plaintive whine he was quickly silenced by his mother's sister with a sharp slap on his hand. It did no good to cry; everyone was hungry. They had found nothing to eat for many days but a half- dead bush bearing red sourberries and a few foul-tasting clams that two young mothers had dug up with sticks from the sand. The warm season would end; already the twilight air was crisp. If the hunters did not return soon, or if the terrible thing had happened and the forest had swallowed them all, then surely the women and the children and the old men left on the beach would starve.
Night crept in from the blank horizon and fell over them fully, and the children dropped off one by one into sleep. A pack of dogs howled in the distance, broadening the dark with their calls. The waves heaved and crashed, heaved and crashed, an endless song that had once brought comfort but now seemed like a terrible lullaby, their old friend the ocean saying goodbye. The older people rested their heads on mounds of damp beach. None had washed in many days, and the sand caked their hair and faces and gritted between their teeth; it settled in the crevices of their clothing and limbs, already laying claim to their flesh. Gradually the older people gave in to sleep too, though only the thin, reluctant dozes of those who are afraid.
It was from the deepest depths of this quiet, at the moment when despair had all but slipped to deadly acquiescence, when a strange noise suddenly reared from the forest. Instantly they were all awake, even the babies, who felt the rigid jolt of the bodies they clung to and screamed. Astonished eyes met with more astonishment around the circle. Then they were up on their feet, the women shrieking, the children clapping and darting like water bugs from one skirted hip to another, and the old men hollering prayers to Aliama, open- armed to the stars.
"Heey-yaa, hey-yaa-ho," came the swelling chant from the forest.
The hunters had returned! Their voices rang with triumph!
At last the chant crescendoed and the first faces sprang from the forest's grasp. They were all together, the twelve hunters and the ones who had gone after them. They were filthy and exhausted, in torn leathers and with matted hair and sliced, bleeding bare feet, but alive, truly alive, all of them.
Sobs of relief broke to the surface and hot tears washed many faces clean. The men's eyes glittered with merriment, for they had not returned empty-handed: slung up by the ankles hung one, two, three — four slain deer! "Oh!" cried the children, stretching up on their toes and rubbing their bellies. Now they would have a feast for their breakfast. The fire roared as if in anticipation and everyone laughed. Roland brandished a bloodstained spear in two strong fists over his head and led the reunion into the warm, happy light.
This was the last moment: the first sliver of sun appearing over the ocean, unfurling a shimmering, golden path across the dancing waves; the smell of meat filling the air; the boys and girls draping their long limbs over their fathers' shoulders; and the stories of trial and adventure still only at their beginning. Then from a high place in the nearby trees, a small red light flashed from the lens of a well-concealed camera, and a soaring bright object, like a giant spearhead, broke from the wisp of clouds above.
An instant later the sky exploded, and all existence turned to ash.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from by Ariel Djanikian. Copyright 2013 by Ariel Djanikian.