Tim Weed |
Snarl is listless, collapsed in a corner of the packed-earth prison with her nose tucked into her forepaw. It hurts to see her like this, but I’m helpless to do anything. At first we fought against it. It was impossible to believe our lives could have ended this way, locked in a cage far from the open savannah, but now the reality of imprisonment has overwhelmed us. We’re beaten. We grow weaker by the day.
There’s a broad shade tree in our enclosure. Sometimes, narrowing my eyes, I can almost imagine home. But the skin-monkeys have hung a net of metal wire across the lowest branches, so even if we could leap high enough to clear the fence our attempts would be thwarted. The land around the prison is lit up at night with false suns that drown everything in a sickly yellow light, making it impossible to feel the moon. No wonder Snarl’s given up.
As for me, I sleep. I pace. I try not to think of the howling red-eyed nights beneath the stars. I try not to think of dry scrub and rattlegrass, fresh kills and blood on my teeth, the smell of tender rotting flesh wafting over the grasslands, rutting with Snarl under the huge naked moon. She’s not interested in that now, not capable. So I pace.
Today one of the skin-monkeys came up to the fence and sat down with its legs folded under its body to observe me. The skin-monkeys are uncanny, hairless, somehow not real, like living corpses or ghosts inhabiting flesh. Whenever I see one I get a chill and the fur on my back stands up, though they are ancient, nearly as ancient as us.
It watched me pace, then produced a flat blue rectangle, unfolded it, and used a twig to scratch marks in it. I’ve seen them do this before. It’s unsettling, this quietly aggressive way they have of asserting their superiority. I curled back my lips and gave it a blood-freezing growl. This didn’t get any reaction, so I interrupted my pacing to rush the fence. As my weight hit the wire, the skin-monkey yelped and fell backward. A small satisfaction.
They never attack us; that’s almost the worst thing. But no. The worst thing is the food, hairless meat that is bland and cold, drained of blood. Whatever they feed their herbivores, it’s not leaves and it’s not grass. We’ve tried to let the meat rot, but the skin-monkeys take it away before it has a chance to gain any flavor. This is not food. It’s not sustenance. It’s an insult. A soul-killing affliction.
Snarl has pretty much given up. She’s just waiting to die. As for me, I keep pacing.
Maybe it’s a full moon. The night does seem a little brighter beyond the false suns polluting the darkness around the prison. And there’s something in the air tonight. A faint, barely detectable whiff of decay seeping in through the wire on a breeze usually filled with the overwhelming smell of the skin-monkeys and their perfumes and machines.
Snarl is stirring. Something has changed within her. It’s her time, for one thing, the first oestrus she’s had in months. Unable to resist, I approach, whining submissively. She snaps and bites me hard on the ear. A surge of red fury flashes in my vision. For a moment I’m tempted to attack, close my jaws on her throat, tear her to shreds. But it’s not her fault. I retreat to a far corner of the enclosure. In that moment of frustration and pain, something has occurred to me. The outlines of a plan.
In the early morning a skin-monkey in a yellow uniform brings in the day’s tasteless meat. It pulls the gate closed behind it, complacent in our long dormancy, and I uncoil, leaping for its chest. I knock it over and it sprawls on the ground, screaming. I rip out its tender throat. Its fresh warm blood tastes good, even better than I remember. The spirit of the moon tingles in my atrophied prisoner’s body.
Snarl’s on her feet, whining with excitement. I beckon her to the skin-monkey. She lopes over, sniffs, and tentatively tears into the flesh. I can feel her reawakening. A new energy floods into me from the blood, the ground, the air.
The gate is unlocked. I nose it open and the two of us sprint off, slinking fast, our heads and rear ends low to the ground. More of the skin-monkeys in yellow uniforms see us and start up a chorus of their horrid vocalizing. Something heavy hits the ground beside me, kicking up a tiny cloud of dust, and there is a loud mechanical pop like contained thunder from the direction of the chasing skin-monkeys. But before they can catch us we come to the fence around the prison cages and slip through the widely spaced bars.
We creep along beneath a thick line of vegetation at the edge of an open field. We find a hiding place, a dense patch of garbage-strewn undergrowth, and decide to rest there until nightfall.
From the direction we have come the skin-monkeys keep up their vocalizing for a time, but they have no way to track us. It’s more peaceful outside the caged area, away from the bleats and soul-crushed stink of the other animals, although the sounds of the skin-monkeys’ machines fill the air around us.
Night. We cross a wide swath of barren ground, like a dry riverbed of stinking black stone. The skin-monkeys’ deadly fire-machines roar and keen and clatter as they fly by us like crazed rhinos. On the other side of the black stone we come to a kind of self-contained savannah lined by hedges and dotted with overspreading trees.
Keeping to the shadows, we make our way to the center of this natural space. The noise of the machines is more distant now, more bearable. Every step brings new smells to our nostrils, the most common being the dung of the skin-monkeys’ slave-dogs. This smell is rich but strangely uniform, because the slaves’ diet includes only two or three distinct sources of meat. Snarl and I press on. After the initial excitement an abiding feeling of lightness has come into us. We are free! We can even feel the moon now. The true, full moon floating high above us in the sky, beaming its power down upon us despite the skin-monkeys’ best efforts to obscure it with their false suns and bitter-smelling pollution.
Beneath the hedge in a small sheltered opening we come upon the carcass of a slave-dog. Three of its legs have been broken, Snarl thinks by the crazed fire-machines. We revel in the carcass, tearing off great chunks of maggot-tenderized meat and rolling around in the remains to perfume our bodies in the glorious stink of rot. For a moment we forget where we are, and the danger that surrounds us.
When we are finished Snarl whines and nips at my muzzle in a way that is thrillingly familiar. I am happy to oblige. My cock locked tight in the fever-hot crevice between her flanks is an unbearable ecstasy. My hips move in a helpless primal rhythm and it is done. Snarl!
Before dawn I sniff out a kind of cave for us to hide in. A rusty grate leads to a tunnel, and this, in turn, to a whole network of long interconnected caves where the skin-monkeys have channeled their dung with water. How many of them are there, these strange clever beasts who make underground rivers for their dung? Who choose to imprison and enslave other animals rather than simply killing them? Are they a random mistake, or the wasp-like harbingers of planetary doom?
We explore the caves as the day unfolds outside. Occasionally we hear a terrible thundering overhead from the death machines, but mostly the caves are silent, and we encounter no skin-monkeys. The caves host a population of plump rats and we stop to snap a few up, their small bones crunching easily in our jaws. The initial excitement of our freedom has begun to subside. Our bodies are weak from our long imprisonment, and we’re tired from the night’s adventures. Snarl finds a dark corner that seems safe. We take turns napping while the other keeps watch.
Night finds us outside again, sprinting low-assed under the moon, just like the old days. From time to time we stop to rest or mark our territory, so happy we can’t help breaking out in purrs and giggles. The moon animates us and paints the grass silver. Shadows pool like blood under trees and hedges, spilling over into open gutters and swales. We come upon a pride of escaped slave-cats, sprawled like miniature lions around the roots of a huge strangler fig. Snarl kills two and I kill one; we gobble them down and run across the shining grass. Snarl has been revitalized. She is back to her old self, argumentative and fierce.
We’re in a new section of the park now. I sense a presence that pricks up the hairs between my shoulder blades.
We’ve wandered into a kind of death garden, sickly-sweet with the cloying scent of thorn-stemmed flowers. All around there are columns of different heights, like the broken stumps of stone trees, and on top of each column is the head and chest of a different skin-monkey. The faces are frozen but realistic. It’s as if they are watching us in the moonlight, but they are cut off below the chest and this spooks us. Shaken, we retreat into the hedge and creep along in the shadows.
In the next open area we come upon a pair of living skin-monkeys. It seems unusual for any to be out of their machines this late at night—these are the only ones we’ve run into—but then, these two are mating. It’s odd. They’re out of their clothing, sprawled on a cloth on the ground with one on top of the other instead of mating from behind like sensible creatures. But from the sounds they make, they clearly enjoy it. They go on and on. They seem not to sense us.
We sit in silence and watch them for a long time. Then Snarl whines very softly under her breath and I understand what she wants. I lower my head in agreement.
Snarl moves first. She approaches in stalking mode, silent and fluid and low to the ground. She pauses for an instant, raising her muzzle inquisitively, almost as if she intends to make friends with them. Then she rushes in growling and takes the top one by the back of the neck. Snarl cartwheels, tearing the skin-monkey cleanly off its mate with the force of her projected weight. The skin-monkey lets out a quavering, strangely haunting cry and tries to fight her off. Meanwhile I attack the other. The meat of its throat is wonderfully tender. Skin-monkeys are an unusual prey animal, but I can see myself developing a taste for them.
My kill is quick and I’m so engaged in tearing at the hot delicate flesh that it takes me a moment to notice that Snarl is having trouble with hers. The skin-monkey is up, screaming loud alarm calls and using its hard feet and fists to beat back Snarl’s advances. I back up a few steps and go in with a running leap, hitting it in the middle of the chest. It topples over, and from there it’s a simple enough matter for Snarl to tear its throat out.
We take a few minutes to cackle at the moon and then set about our meal. It’s an indescribable pleasure to plunge our muzzles into the entrails of a fresh kill. Snarl snaps and growls angrily, reminding me I have my own kill to attend to. She is very much herself. I am happy.
We spend the next day sleeping and exploring the underground dung caves that fan out in all directions. The odors no longer fascinate; skin monkeys all eat the same kinds of foods and the scents blend into one. We long to be out in the open again, but we understand we must wait for night. Something indefinable has changed above us. We can hear it in the patterns of the death machines shaking the roof above us. We can smell it in the rivers of dung flowing through the caves.
Fear is everywhere, and we know it’s because of us.
Night. The moon is out again, its face yellow and dim behind a thick haze of pollution. We find another pride of escaped slave-cats and spend an idle hour tormenting them. Then we hear a chop-chop in the air above us. A powerful false sun snaps on, trapping us in a bright circle of light that stays with us relentlessly as we sprint across open ground. We make it to the hedge, and the light travels on. The chop-chop flies away, but we have a bad feeling. Snarl is wide-eyed, panting in the shadows. The night is no longer ours. The skin-monkeys have taken it away from us.
We spend the rest of the night cowering under the hedge, not daring to move. At dawn we’re still there, and in the distance we hear the sound of baying slave-dogs. Exhausted and afraid, we hurry along the hedge, looking for an entrance to the dung-caves. We manage to find a grate and slip inside. We pass the day sleeping fitfully, our smell masked by the pervasive smell of skin-monkey dung.
We know we should stay hidden, but when night comes around again we are starved. The moonlight on the open ground calls out to us. All day Snarl and I have been dreaming of free ranging prey and rotting carcasses. We slip out the grate into the cool breeze.
All is quiet in the park. Maybe the skin-monkeys have given up on us.
Once we hit the open grass, we start sprinting for the sheer joy of it. Snarl, beside me, is a fluid rush of panting muscle and fur. She has never been so beautiful. We are wild and ancient, worthy avatars of our noble line. We are free.
There is a loud multi-part clicking of metal on metal. Bright false suns snap on from all directions. We freeze in place, surrounded. Beyond the suns a hundred skin-monkeys wait, shelled and helmeted like enormous metallic beetles. I watch Snarl take it in. She sighs, lowering herself to the grass.
Whining softly, I come over and sniff her muzzle. We look into each other’s eyes, blinking in the aching white light. I lie down beside her for a moment, feeling the warmth of her flesh, the rhythmic expansion and contraction of her rib cage, her pounding heart beneath the coarse hair that separates us.
Then we get to our feet. We pick a gap between the suns and sprint.
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