written by Leon De La Garza.
A path unwinds in the midst of an endless pine forest. It is yet unknown how tall the trees can get, with their tip swaying beyond where eyes can see. Men hollow out the largest trunks and make their homes within them. The path leads to a mountain top, hidden now to the children and the men who walk it. Around them, the bark of the pine trees seems a labyrinth with no exit, and the black insects that feed on the leaves emit an acrid, acid smell. It stings their eyes and noses and the children weep without crying. The elderly are blind and the younger men guide them. The women have stayed home, tending to the nets used to capture the black locust. Each home is a slaughterhouse, a butchery for locusts. It’s a job for the women, and it requires their full time and attention. The locusts are bitter, and their shell is hard like bone. The exoskeleton is broken and the innards are tossed, toxic, filled with pine leaves. A mistake in the procedure can cause death, for man eats the black locust and nothing more. The ocean has turned acid and the land infertile.
A chant slithers its way through the pines. The men will soon arrive at their destination. They sing together, their voices combining, and at times sounding as one. An old melody that gives them hope and takes their mind far from the semi-darkness the trees force upon them day after day and night after night. The sun is visible now only as glimmering flashes between the myriad tiny leaves of the pines. Newborns open their mouths in awe at the sight of the yellowish light, believing sweet miracles are falling from the heavens, but they don’t know sweetness, for even the milk they suck from their mother’s breast is fetid and bitter. The women have forgotten warmth and the men keep the secret, lying when the question of their whereabouts comes around. We’re going hunting, they say. We’re going far away, where the pines have consumed everything, where there is no place for the feet of men and not even the insects can survive the dense foliage and thorns. In such a place, the men tell their women, one wishes to never have been born. We will wait for you, the women tell their men, we will take care of our homes.
The last ones coming up the mountain, at the rear of the procession, are the boys and their fathers. Nothing grows on the ground they traverse. Beneath their bare feet there is only earth and stone, and old dry thorns from the giant pines that have infested the world.
Where are we going? The boys ask, and their parents sigh and watch them through the corner of their eye. Some ignore their questions, others distract them, and only a few tell them the truth. They carry their boys and whisper into their ears: We’re going to the highest peak of Mount Dark.
Is it very dark up there?
It’s not dark, the parents rarely tell their boys, you can see the sky from up there. You can see the sun and the stars in the night. Clouds cross the skies above and the wind caresses our faces.
Why are we going? The boys ask their fathers, but this question is never answered. The boys look to their fathers, but after a while they forget they ever had a question.
At the top, the first ones have arrived and from their knapsacks unpack axes of wood and stone. New pine trees have infected the plain, and they’re well above twenty feet. The trunks are gaunt still and the men kill them and pile the wood around the edges.
The sky appears, and the men look up and wonder if the stories of other worlds are true. The boys play in the sun and they jump and hop around and breathe the odorless air.
Come here, the men tell their sons, form a circle and take each other’s hands. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. The men sweat with the axes in their hands. Their eyes tremble, and from a distance the sobbing of a man regretful can be heard. And one by one, the heads of the chosen boys fall. Their fathers have cut them off. The land turns red, and amid the incessant chirping of the black locust, the crowd keeps twelve hours of silence. Only then are they permitted to cry, and cry is what they do. The screaming of the crowd booms in the open sky and echoes in the spaces between the valleys of the mountains. They cry for twelve more hours and skin the bodies of the dead and they tear them into pieces and fill their knapsacks with their flesh.
How was the hunt? The women ask their men.
It was fine, the men say, there’s meat this year.
And the boys? Did they learn to hunt the beasts?
Some of them learned, the men say, but we lost the rest.
And at night, in the darkest hour, the men build a great fire, and in the fire cook the flesh of their sons. There is a dance, and the women smile, for it is the closest they have been to happiness. A night of wholeness and abundance. The women eat until they’re bursting at the seams and bask in the heat of the wood that curses their every day, and when the sun rises in the morning from the other side of the myriad leaves, the future appears lighter. The future seems less dark. The coming days feel suddenly as if they can be nice. The chirping of the locust flood the woods around them. In a year, when it’s hunting season again, the women think to themselves, we’ll have another night of plenty, another night of happiness.