The damp morning forest reached up into the dusky dawn sky, the various woodland creatures began rooting in the soft leafy topsoil, and Agaue stealthily followed his Grandfather down an invisible trail otherwise unknown to the civilized world. Needling vines would catch the pimples strewn across his pustule scarred face, and would occasionally get dragged open by an errant burr, but the perspiration coolly flowing over his skin allowed him to escape the worst of the prickly hang-ups. The pressure of the first hunt of the spring was tantalizing, it was also Agaue’s first trip with his grandfather, a special privilege awarded to the young men of the family when they first crossed the cusp of manhood. Every older male in the clan had gone hunting only once with Grandfather in their lifetime, the lesson need only to be seen once, Uncle Charles explained. The hunt was cause for deep personal reflection, and a celebration concurring with the first full moon after a young man’s circumcision. At the rite, Grandfather retold the antediluvian story of Avram; his voice steady like a train, travelling the ancient tracks of the tale, his corncob pipe, a crown jutting from his face, channeling up hot embers with the exuberant iron puffs. Agaue could not hear the story; his ears were clogged with slippery fear of the physician’s scalpel. For a few brief moments, Agaue would halt and scratch the itchy bulbs on his face, newly revealed to the world. Wet dew streaked his vest and evenly coated over his tense sweaty hands, firmly gripping the hard wooden shaft of the rifle pressed firmly against his chest. His consciousness was tacking the line with adrenaline, but the disorientating clang of the morning iron triangle still rung between the ears of the bourgeoning young man, the tip of his penis still raw and successfully healing beneath hand-me-down fatigues, hanging loosely on his gaunt bony frame. Every step was deliberate and without debate. Without prompting, Agaue knew when to halt and look around by following the subtle twitch of Grandfather’s wrinkled old tawny ears. If just the right lobe perked, Agaue learned that the old sinewy bull of a man would quickly jerk his head to the left, and that if neither ear was buzzed with the crunch of antler or claw in the low knotty pines, Agaue knew to slowly breathe in through his nose, tasting the rich deciduous air on the back of his tongue as it whooshed silently down and illuminated his lungs with the fertile aroma of the woods.
Before coming on this trip, many pains had been taken to instruct Agaue on the nature of hunting and the sacred right of the slaughter, but Agaue was easily distracted by the looming reminders of the encroaching blade. The days leading up to his circumcision had been tense and waterlogged with the benign teasing of the teenage boys, now married, and some even with child. Not that this was uncommon among the fraternal members of the clan, but Agaue would have preferred to skip the whole show and continue helping his mother and aunts picking blueberries and hoeing the elaborate vegetable garden, activities closer to his heart than gutting carcasses and rifle maintenance. His age, and the offering of the foreskin became a signifiers of the new responsibilities he must take for the health and sustainment of the clan, but some of the work was flat out awful, carrying heavy buckets of reeking excrement filled entrails to be tossed into the forest, his Uncle Charles threatening the lash should Agaue not be prudent and quick footed when transporting his duties. He was explicitly told shoot to kill, the lesson hammered into his aching face. Always dress the beast with respect, and never feel remorse for the beauty of the creature slain at your feet. Many hours had been spent, rookie duties really, skinning and beheading the kills of his uncles and cousins, dragged back to the clearing of the farm on the heels of a small foot powered tractor. They always looked proud when they returned from hunting, but it was different from the pride found in game or sport. Instead it was a feeling mixed with something special, as they described it, the real knowledge they said was folded in with grandfather, not the banalities of waking up early to prey on the errant beasts of the wilderness. When Agaue closed his eyes, he could see the awful mounts of bear and elk hanging above the long oaken kitchen table, each one testament to the instinctual knowledge of Grandfather, and the importance of tradition in the cold isolated Yukon village. Every creature, Grandfather said, had the spirit of ancient gods within, and that every fresh kill stole the pride of the spirit, bolstering the heart of man when eaten at the table. The circumcision simply prepared the heart for the offering of the pieces. It sounded trite to the intelligent ears of Agaue, but the shameful crusty mask of pimples prohibited his courage from leaping into his mouth. He suspected it was the constant exposure to bear bile that caused such maledictions of the skin, his throat often clogged by the inward leaching of reluctant slime.
To put the noticeably distraught Agaue at ease about his forthcoming rite, Grandfather, the night before his circumcision, had taken him to the shed where the fresh kills were prepared. The long wooden shed sat silently at the edge of the compound, near the forest so that the rotting intestines and acrimonious pancreatic sludge could be easily tossed into the gorge bordering the ravine, the place on hot days stinking of discarded viscera, the various woodland creatures fought over the tripe. Exposing the underside of a massive black bear laying on the center table, the thick mangy hair clotted with encrusted blood, Grandfather aphonically massaged the titanic oblong penis out from within its hairy sheath. The putrid stink of murdered flesh cooked the air with its rotting intensity. It looked cold and limpid in the hand of Grandfather, the veins and arteries drained of their precious fluids, but still robustly protruding from the side of the shaft. The glinting steel knife, expertly wielded, cut the grey foreskin away easily, revealing the pale purple crown of the bear, the sword of many a proud legend in the clan. Here, Grandfather instructed, lay the spirit of the masculine, and that to reveal the true nature of man, it was ancient custom, even older than the legend of Avram, to remove the motherly swaddling sheath, and allow the hilt to explore the bosom of the forest, the earth, and the female womb. The first hunt went hand in hand with the public unveiling of the crown, a threshold that every young man must experience. It was perfectly acceptable to cry, to scream, to fear, be proud or defiant during the ritual, these were all things that were part of being an adult male, waiting to be emotionally unsheathed and physically wielded for the health and sustainment of the clan. Grandfather patted Agaue’s sandy brown hair, winking a promise to the confidence of the boy, bolstering the dim spark of adulthood chained beneath the abhorrent pimply mask. Agaue shuddered as grandfather returned the freshly cut staff of the bear to its fleshy pocket, telling him that even though he may not fully understand what may happen to him in the coming days, that all would be revealed when he and Agaue would partake in their first hunt together.
It was paramount in the eyes of Grandfather that every kill was sacred, and that no ammunition should be wasted on sloppy shooting or whimsical gunplay, which the teenage boys were prone to exercise in fits of boredom or curiosity. Agaue picked at the scabby acne that marred his visage, while listening to the old bull speak, often the brunt of jokes due to his jovial severity, but his silent authority was never questioned by the younger full men now wresting the reins of the clan, with quiet dignity shuffling the old man into a peaceful retirement. The cresting yellow summits on his face would often erupt with an exultant ejaculation of pus onto a book or some hard earned meal. It would pass, Grandfather had said in comforting paternal tones, and now, alone in the woods, Agaue welcomed the quiet of the forest to the daily jibes and incessant taunts of the fresh faced girls and taught skinned men. A long heavy knife bounced on the belt of Agaue, the same knife that had performed his rite just a week prior, a gift from his uncle Charles, a bear of a man, a great hunter and a flamboyant devourer of meat, but still kind and supportive of his many children, pulling down his jeans with every tromping step. Charles had taken dictatorial charge of the boy, forcing him to clean and sort the flesh of slain beasts since Agaue’s father, many years ago, had wandered into the woods one spring morning and never returned, a cause for much gossip among the clan, and doubly stoking the cold fire of emotional vacancy in Agaue’s heart, reflected in the blotches and scabs of his acrimoniously scarred face, the subject of many a remedy, but triumphant over all. He was exhausted from the treacherously long hike into the ravine, having eschewed breakfast in light of the awesome excitement of this fateful morning, his stomach broiling with silent curdling resentment for what the physician had done to his penis, it had bled, and Agaue was ashamed for having wept furiously during the dressing. But now, in the woods, a deep hallucinatory sleep was crawling up the back his neck, curdling the skin, entering through the rear of his skull and pulling his eyelids shut from within.
Grandfather could sense, without looking around, the ebbing energy of his vernal hunting partner. His kind black eyes, nestled in leathery sockets, grinned at the strained enthusiasm of the novice hunter. Grandfather tread on silent rails of energy, his hide moccasins silently caressing the earth with every step. The same eyes had welled with teary affection when Agaue was brought before the clan physician to be initiated. A great fire had been lit, and Agaue, the sole initiate this year, had trembled with nervous shame, picking at the irritated red stumps on his face, as the physician undressed and mutilated him in front of his entire family and clan. Grandfather stopped and turned to Agaue, kneeling at the root clump of a massive overturned tree, forming a moist sweaty haven amidst the cool dank air of the morning dew, small spotty mushrooms and odiferous fungus growing plentifully amid the bedraggled earth. Kaleidoscopic caps and stems feeding furiously on the black unearthed roots, transmitting their unseen offspring into the dewy air, carried aloft in a breeze complicit with the cursed diaspora. Rest Agaue, Grandfather said, I will continue up the edge of the ridge dividing this ravine in two, once on the high ground, any prey will naturally flow downwards, like water, towards the inlets of the grassy ravine leading to the next range of mountains. Agaue nodded and with a great yawn, nestled into the humid spore laden earth, with instructions that resting was acceptable for now, but that should a great animal come within scope of Agaue’s gun, he would not hesitate to shoot. From this vantage point, Grandfather instructed, Agaue would have a clear and relaxed shot at anything that would travel down this half of the ridge. All he had to do was to wait patiently for the sound of the prey, save his strength, and the family would be grateful for the great bounty of meat and hides that he and Grandfather would soon deliver. It would be proof that the ritual had not been in vain, that the customs of Avram still flowed virulently in the hearts of the young. The hot faced self loathing feeling that Agaue felt the morning the physician cut back the tender bleeding foreskin was only superficially assuaged by the confidence that Grandfather instilled in him with this responsibility. With that, Grandfather stood, sniffed the air, caught some ephemeral spectral odor, and silently disappeared upwards into the forest, the sun just peaking over the ridge. Nestled in the dark humidity of the overturned root bulb, the decomposing fungal odor of the spores perfuming the air with a surprisingly pleasant acidic stench, the sun would have to expand great energy to disturb the restful sleepy haven now giving sanctuary to the young man.
A fitful sleep swept over Agaue like the rain that tripped in the heavens and fell to earth, fertilizing the tubers and corn that fed the clan. Opening his eyes, and realizing he was now standing alone in the forest, naked, the sun gleaming hot rays through the canopy and reflecting off his pale white skin. Looking down, it was though his circumcision had been performed in a most awesomely monstrous way, the penis cleft in twain, each half a writhing adder hissing and snapping at the inside of his thighs, their green purple diamond scales clicking and gliding when they caressed one another. Agaue did not flinch, nor give any indication he was frightened of the furious reptiles dripping acidic venom onto the prismatic leafy ground lazily swirling about his feet. He slowly breathed, and stretched in the warming rays of the sun. The adders seemed to take a cue from trembling Agaue, momentarily halting their fussing and looking up to warm their scaly necks in the bright orange light. Revelation, suddenly Agaue felt complete, whole, and in total awareness of the forest around him. He could hear the vibrations of large beasts from far away, violently trampling through the forest through the sensitive ducts of the snakes. The song of birds became a symphonically inspired masterpiece echoing among the creaking arthritic bark of the sentinel trees, reverberating with perfect resonance in all of Agaue’s tissues and bones. Looking into a golden liquid stream, suddenly flowing next to him, he saw his reflection, a mimetic masterpiece of nature’s grand illusion. His pupils were wildly dilated; the abyssal black recesses of his eyes lapping up frenetic streams of light reflecting off the ebullient stream. There was not an itch or any perturbance of the skin, his muscles tensely relaxed, idling with the great flamboyant energy flowing equally from him into the forest, and the earth responding by conducting ancient sacred jubilant juice into the soles of his feet where it excitedly coursed upwards to his furiously beating heart. He looked upwards, and the golden river turned to lavender silky blood then disappeared, quickly ambuscading beneath a shattered chunk of brilliant grey granite. His tongue darted from out of his mouth, tasting the igneous heat and rimy dew in the thrilling air. It was also divided in half, each moist leathery segment mimicking the adders now easily gliding on the downy breeze. Agaue was pure electricity, a living flash of brilliance in harmony with the singing forest. He felt no shame at his nakedness, nor did the whereabouts of his fatigues bother him in the least bit. Raising his arms upward, the weight of the gun in his left hand seemed negligible in lieu of this awesome experience.
A fantastic bone cracking sound alerted Agaue to the clearing immediately to his right. The adders cocked their lithe bodies in the direction from which the sound had come. Suddenly on the bifidous tongues, the funky stench of a large brutish beast lathered Agaue’s brain in murderous salival chemicals, tensing his frame and directing his now open eyes to the direction of the clearing. The only sound was the silent flicking of the three forked tongues flogging the air into submission for evidence. The agrestal current that had been flowing steadily was now a furious grey ball spastically throbbing in the acidic pit of Agaue’s belly. With a silent flourish, a magnificent stag stepped into the clearing, its proud velvet fur eclipsing the tawny foliage with its deep purple black tones. Gazing upward, Agaue noticed that the left antler had been broken off; the muscles on the huge neck were ostentatiously straining to keep the head from lilting like a damaged flower. The right antler was a thorny exposition of pride, each point sharply commanding the authority of this beast’s kingdom like a bluestocking crown forged from the rarest of metals, now hideously fractured. As the stag took a step forward, its curious ebony sad eyes looking directly into the eyes and heart of Agaue, now firmly rooted to this spot. Hyperventilating, the great beast was fighting for air, each breath gurgling with great effort to escape the lungs, now mutedly filling with chunk ridden black blood. The commanding stench was erotic, full of musk, sweat, and the charred sexual aroma of muscles aching for rest. The stag bowed his lopsided head to Agaue, collapsing in exhaustion on the ground at the foot of the silent boy, not fearing the venomous reptiles looming above his streaked velvet head, the distal end of the broken antler digging troughs in the earth. Agaue realized he had not breathed since first eyeing the stag. In his rapidly perspiring hand, the rifle began to the feel heavy, the muscles of his fingers twitching with unrestrained activity. With a sheer strained effort, the stag shifted its head upward and spoke in rich paternal tones, like the blasting horn of a train pulsating through the dark Yukon jungle:
“I am here, Agaue!”
The rifle fired from Agaue’s hand, almost by accident, but it had been without a doubt his nervous hand that had squeezed off the shot. The stag stretched and stopped breathing, the greased mucus slug being the last thought to travel through its weary old brain. The adders hissed and writhed furiously, biting into Agaue’s legs, into each other, injecting cursed poison into the self hating river of Agaue, but looking down at the embroiled mess, Agaue realized that he had woken up from his tremulous sleep, and no reptilian appendages existed where they had been so curiously natural. The staccato report of the gun dropped Agaue like a sheaf of wheat into a swiftly flowing brook, swept up in the intensity of wakefulness Agaue looked up at the sky, now darkening with the setting sun. How long he had been here was mystery that only served to rattle his already disheveled confidence. He felt cold, his body shivering as though plunged into an icy bath. The gun dropped from his hand and landed with a dull thud on the scarred floor of the darkening forest. Looking down where the gun had fallen, Agaue’s heart stopped again, for there at the foot of the young man lay prostrate the freshly killed body of his grandfather, the left arm acutely mangled and fractured by some hideous accident, the splintered humorous protruding through the torn fatigues, as though a terrific rabid beast had torn into the old sinewy arm of the man, his eyes now staring in opposite directions, his tongue lazily spilling out from his mouth, the bullet hole behind his ear leaking a lipidinous white discharge, giving off a cholesterol infused smack to the singed hairs of Agaue’s nostrils. Silently crouching next to the slain man, Agaue nervously petted the grey sweaty tufts of hair on his head, and lovingly caressed the old grey beard. Tears erupted from his clear watery eyes, spilling into the splenetic aqueducts and scabby recesses of his face. Realizing that when there had been time, as he pulled the long dull shank from his belt, he had not known him.
BIO: Trevor James Doherty is a freelance adventurer living in Boston. When he is not banging his head on the keys, he is out playing with his wife or dog.