by Dawn Paul
Shorter and shorter days. The sun pours its heat on my back but no longer drives me to find a part of the rock ledge still in shadow. In the long bright days, the sun was something to hide from, the whole length of my body crying out with too much heat. Especially after shedding, my skin new and tender. Now that remembered warmth feels good.
These are the two places I know, that I carry inside as home: the ledges and the den. One where I am alone, the other with so many of us. Two places with the long travel line stretched between. I follow the travel line when it’s time, trust that urge to keep going, let it draw me to the den. Always, I am reluctant to start. But now the stones of the ledges lose their heat before sunrise and my body wants to seek out the old trail. It senses the den out there, the heat of our bodies entwined, the darkness. The rasp of our skin, the smell of all of us there, together. No more hunting now. Wood rats, small quail: I am satisfied.
The day begins cold. The travel line enters me like the feeling of hot meat in the mouth. Like sunlight, like sex. When I am on the travel line, I cannot turn back. It draws me. I slip off the end of the ledge, slide down to the dust below, its open danger. Down, down, my tail gathering weight, my head thrusting forward, faster, my belly muscles trying to grip, to keep ahead of the flow of my own body.
Onward then through level ground: leaves, gravel, rocks. The land rises. Sand, small pools of water. I stop and drink. Thirst quenched, I need nothing now but movement. The travel line is not a place. It is not the ledges, not the den. It is only motion, a certainty that pulls me, spools me out, as though the earth is disappearing behind me, sliding off into its own nothingness.
The land levels out again, through tall dry grasses. I see the heat-flicker of mice, but do not pursue. Soon there will be the long dark path through rocks that leads up to the den. Coolness, then slipping down into gathering warmth. So many of us. I feel us all on our journeys, drawn along the travel lines that always lead to the den.
But now something new: short green grass, sunlight. In the middle of this grass, something looms. Like a strange square hill, but bright yellow, with no trees on it and many rectangles that glint in the sun. This place was not here before. This short grass is too open. It is not safe from things that attack from above, those winged shadows I know of but have never seen. Grasping claws, pain, such speed. Their danger inheres in me, in all of us. I hold still, confused.
The sun fades to night. The air cools. In darkness I go, stretch my body to reach the other side of the open place, to the safety of the woods beyond. I come out of the woods onto a hard flat place. It is smooth and holds the sun’s heat. Another new strangeness. But its warmth feels good and I curl up on its edge to wait for morning. The flat hardness starts to vibrate under me. Eyes glare like two suns in darkness and a scorched smell fills the air. The eyes come toward me, fast. I know two ways to meet a threat: leap toward or slide away. But I have no knowledge of this, not my own, not the danger-knowledge that exists inside to warn me. So I do neither, and the eyes flash by in a rush of poisonous wind. When the land and air is still, I slide off the flat place, sorry to leave its good warmth.
When the sun rises, I go across the smooth place. Into the woods, following the travel line through scrubby bushes, past crickets and their small bits of heat. I come out into another dread place of short grass that exposes my back. I go, this time quickly and in a straight line, toward the woods beyond. A large animal, reddish like a huge fox, appears and puts its black nose to my body. But it’s not a fox: a fox would know better. I leap at the foxlike animal. It jumps back, tongue lolling out of its mouth, eyes bright with surprise. It wags its tail, leans in again. I rear up, open my mouth, feel my fangs snap down, ready. My tail whirrs.
Then another animal, tall, moving on two legs, rushes to the foxlike one. They both flare with heat. The tall one grabs the neck of the foxlike one. I rear back to strike but this one pulls the other away. I turn, flee. In my terror, I lose the travel line.
What is this place and these creatures? Where is the danger-knowledge of them?
I wait until slowly, like damp, darkness, warmth, light, or hunger, the travel line enters me. I go again with dread across the open-back place, across another narrow smooth flatness. Into the woods and the large animals do not pursue me.
The travel line grows more certain. I feel us. I feel the torching heat of sun on a rock but the heat is in my body. Then I see the long warmth of one of us: yes, that one, large and old. I feel all of us on our travel lines. The old trail is now a strong vibration around me. I stretch my body, push each muscle against the earth, let the vibration enter. It surrounds me like water in a stream and I feel its current deep inside. The current grows stronger. I know this path through the rocks. All of us are around me now, part of the current, the vibrations. There is more short grass, but I see the backs of all of us rising from it. I see the long heat of our bodies glowing. We are all gathering. The den is near. I go.
But then—another square hill with gleaming rectangles. This one has a wood ledge attached to it. An animal stands on that ledge, a tall animal like the one that pulled the foxlike one away. It stands on its two legs, flaring heat. So much heat, like a wood rat just before we strike. But we are not hunting. We only want our den. Where is the pile of rocks that shelters our den?
The surface of the earth is changed and there are new animals. But the den must be here. The den is all we know, all we have. It has been here for all time. Perhaps this new animal now marks the endpoint of the travel line, a pillar of heat showing us the way.
Dawn Paul’s stories have been published most recently in The Sun Magazine, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Apple Valley Review and she is the author of the novel, The Country of Loneliness (Marick Press). Her work has also been published in anthologies and performed with the Kelley Donovan Dance Company. She teaches writing and interdisciplinary studies at Montserrat College of Art.