"Listen," Jandra whispered. "Where's that sound coming from?"
"From the dell," I replied, "at the bottom of the hill."
"Let's investigate," she said.
The trail leading down the hill was even more obscure than it'd been when I was there five years earlier. Stegosaurian fern fronds, king-like, and moss-padded fallen logs crowded the edges of the trail.
"What do you think it is?" Jandra asked.
"Must be hurt," I answered, "the way it's shrieking."
The noise grew sharper as we approached the dell.
"Do you think it's dangerous?"
"Not to us," I replied. "It might think we are, though."
The dell was dense green with ferns and plush leaves. Long purple flowers hung from rain-blackened branches. Jandra's ruddy scarf jangled against the forest wall. She was funny when she was onto something serious.
The howling animal was quite near. Jandra and I approached its domain respectfully, not sure how we might stir it.
I saw a rock that had slipped through the mossy floor. I'd seen it before and knew I'd thought other things then. I thought those things again now. Memory compares, but only differences are added. How does that work? I smell the musty fungus. That's the same.
"I think we should go back," Jandra said. "The habitat is resisting."
I think I felt it, too, like a gentle tug.
It was getting late by the time we got up the hill and back to the car. We soared over the coastal mountain range, and home for the night.. . .
"Art," Brecul announced, gesturing grandly toward the piece as we walked onto the patio.
He looked at Jandra and me with a face that read, "What do you think of this?"
"It looks almost ... delicious," Jandra said. "Like a big chocolate dessert. So smooth."
She smiled sheepishly at Brecul, who nodded proudly.
The sculpture was about half a head taller than Jandra. She stood close to it and ran her fingers along its sumptuous curves. Then she let her whole arm be drawn through one of its arched holes, pulling herself nearer to it until she and the sculpture embraced.
It was made of a kind of stone that looked like rich, almost black, buttery marble. I caressed its hard, polished surface, letting my fingers explore one of its many pockets and indentations.
"Where did you guys end up going yesterday?" Brecul asked.
"We flew over to a place across the range where I used to go a few years ago. Wanted to see how it was coming along," I said.
"And?" Brecul asked.
"The whole area is recovering nicely," I answered.
"We heard something," Jandra said. "Something fairly substantial."
"Probably wouldn't have wanted to get face to face with it," I added quickly.
"Excellent," said Brecul.
We stood taking in Brecul's masterpiece for a few moments.
"Punch it with your fist," Brecul said suddenly to Jandra. Her left brow rose, puzzled, wrinkling her forehead.
"Seriously," Brecul insisted. "Punch it as hard as you can.
"Trust me," he said.
Jandra studied Brecul's face for a moment, and suddenly her expression changed from puzzlement to intense interest. She bit her lower lip slightly, took a step back, and slammed her right fist into the marble sculpture with her full force and body weight.
The sight of her hand slamming into the marble sculture took my breath away. My earthly instincts told me that her wrist would snap and the bones in her hand would shatter as it collided with the unforgiving rock.
An unsuppressable gasp escaped from my throat as her arm plunged into the rock, immersing itself up to her elbow.
As Jandra slowly pulled her arm back out of the rock, the rock made a moist, tight sucking sound.
"What does it feel like?" I asked her, maybe a bit more sordidly than I meant to.
"Kind of like a really heavy custard pastry, once you're inside," she replied, "but as you're going through, it feels like rubbery skin, maybe eel skin."
I rapped against the stony surface of the sculpture with my knuckles, just to satisfy my visceral curiosity that it really was hard.
"I call it the Furious Gaul," Brecul said proudly.
He began to explain. "Jandra, meditate on where your mind was just before your hand went into the rock."
"The Celts were skillful at using fury.
"The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote that their fury was mesmerizing. To the urbanized Mediterraneans, their physical presence was awesome. They were unusually tall. Their muscles rippled under their pale skin. They bleached their hair with lime and raked it back. They seemed like wood-demons.
I imagined the awestruck Italians as I pondered Brecul's own black Mediterranean hair and tanned skin.
"Extreme anger provokes fear," he said.
"And fear causes paralysis in your adversary," Jandra added. "The strategy works well for domination."
"But why do you think fear causes paralysis?" I asked. "That wouldn't seem to make sense. Seems to me that in a dangerous situation where something's coming at you, the last thing you want to do is freeze. Seems like you'd need to decide and act even faster than normal. Do anything. Just don't freeze."
Jandra said, "Yeah, unless you're a really small animal.
"And in that case what you want to do is become invisible. Many predators only see prey if it moves."
"It's taken until now for human beings to get free of that frightened little animal inside ourselves," I commented.
Brecul added, "and of the domination that came with it and almost did us in.". . .
"Twenty years," Dreshan said, "I'm sure the settlement has been there at least that long."
"Where did they come from?" I asked. "Originally, I mean."
"A settlement further up the river," he said.
"And why do you think they left?"
Dreshan looked thoughtfully toward a tall ridge off to our left.
"I don't really know," he answered. "We can ask, but I doubt they'll have a good answer."
From the air, the forest looked like a lush green rug. The settlement was in a clearing, which looked like a small hole torn in the rug by an ungraceful heel.
As we descended into the clearing, several large rust-colored dogs with long bristly tails and pointy snouts rushed out, looking up at us and barking excitedly.
A monk with a brightly colored headband also emerged from one of the buildings at the edge of the clearing. He was crossing his long spindly arms over his head, making them sway from side to side in a broad welcoming gesture.
The car planted itself silently onto the large "X" in the center of the clearing.
I slid open the roof of the car, and as Dreshan, Jandra and I climbed out we were met by the celestial aroma of wet pine.
A few more monks came out of buildings that surrounded the clearing. They called after the dogs in vain to be still.
The monk with the headband grabbed Dreshan and hugged him with his long arms.
"Dreshan! We're glad you've come to Stray Lark's Ridge." said the monk. "You're well?"
"Well enough," Dreshan said, returning a smile nearly as luxurious as the monk's.
Later we were invited to the dining hall to enjoy some of the extraordinary food that had made this settlement famous. It wasn't the dinner that was most memorable for me, though, but rather what I heard and learned during the after-dinner conversation.
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