Marguerite Sheffer -- How We became Forest Creatures

I followed just behind my sister Ada, near the back of our herd, single-file, holding tight to the pissyellow ribbon. My hooves dug softly into the undergrowth. Ada carried her four young on her back. I didn’t have young of my own, as yet, so they were as-my-own to my heart. The littlest, Simon, swayed limply when she walked, asleep. Children are too stupid to be afraid of the forest. Still, I hated to see mothers shushing them. Well in front of Ada, at the front of our line, the eldest led; one who remembered the exact treetrunks marking the only safe path. The rest of us held fast to the pissyellow ribbon and followed.

We were far from our proper home. Most days we grazed the plain—the greensweet tips of swaying grasses underhoof, tickling our snouts, the green scent baking off heady in the hazy air. By the end of each season, we had bared the plain, and must make our way to the next plain and let the previous reseed and grow wild in our absence. It is a rhythm, us and the green plains and the dark forest between.

The forest should terrify us. In the forest we are hunted. The forest has the sweetest food of all, nectarous hanging fruits and sour pulpy fruits and there the un-grazed grasses grow to be as tall as our heads, but we never harvest there because in those grasses and in the shadows of the trees are ferocious beasts that seek to eat us without contest or care.

They came out to watch us parade, looming on the edges, on one side the chompers—their heads were big and swiggy, their grabbers out and their big carved teeth. They drooled and growled. On the other side the snatchers, who looked out from the trees with empty teacup eyes, thirsty, then hid again. They snickered and lurked.

The chompers and the snatchers have reading and writing. I admit their poems are beautiful. Many concern our deliciousness, or the glory of the hunt.

In their forest they menaced us on both sides, but they dared not cross the line, the line which our pissyellow ribbon was meant to recall. Our eldest said the chompers and the snatchers used to be one species, in the days before language. They could smell the territory line. We could not, so the ribbon. The ribbon to mark their ancient division—a line of truce, of stalemate, of cross-here and all hell will break loose. They gave it a berth. That gave us a lane.

We were near the start of our two day journey, of walking along the ribbon-line without cease. The forest was densely dragging itself down, vines and mosses dragging trees down into brush, the earth dragging down fallen logs. The chompers jeered at us. A lurker threw a pulpy fruit and it glanced off the flank of Jut, but she did not stop walking.

Simon grew antsy, pawing and swiping on Ada’s back so I lifted him off and set him next to me to walk on his own. I pawed him some dried hay from my pack, still walking. We could not pause to rest.

A simple thing, maybe my fault, set everything off. Simon, who I had only just put down, matched eyes with a snatcher in the trees. Before I saw to stop him he left the line and walked toward the snatcher.

I did not think then, I just went after. Still holding the ribbon, I bent the line. The others stumbled after me. One thing followed another, quick and without sense. A snatcher gave a mighty screech to alert its own others. Like a ripple through the pissyellow line members of my herd were tripping and falling and someone gave a mighty yell. There was a break—someone stepped too far off and from where I stood I could hear screaming and shouting and the soft clank of packs being dropped to the forest floor. It was a sickening feeling, the pissyellow ribbon going from tight to slack in my paws.

When the ribbon went slack many dropped to all fours and scattered. I didn’t blame them. The ribbon bent to touch the ground, fluttering. We lost sight of the safe lane. All around were trees and pockets of darkness. Many screamed and yelled but I learned a thing about myself which is that I did not yell or scream.

I bent to pick up the line. When you spend your life as prey some fantasies occur to you, often, of all the ways you might act if you are not prey. If you were not prey you’d be the fiercest thing in the forest. If you were not prey you’d run right at the things with big teeth, with claws, with sneaky eyes and ragged thirsty mouths. So I held fast to the line when the others ran—I did not blame them—and I yanked the line out of the hands of those others who stood there dumbly holding a limp line, a tradition already-dead, and I when I had gathered enough of the pissyellow ribbon in my paws I knelt and when the inevitable chomper came rushing at me—like all his life he’s dreamed of this, of such easy hunting—I refused to be easy hunting, and I caught his rushing knees in the ribbon, and when he fell I catch his throat in it and I wrapped round and round and I pulled the ribbon. Some of every kind stopped to watch my unexpected fight-back, and Simon looked too, and I am glad he saw, as he scurried to a good hiding spot in the head-high grasses, saw the ancient line take on a new shape, saw me choke our age-old frights to death with it.