12 Dec Out Hunting for Teeth
“Out Hunting for Teeth”Written by William Grabowski Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 13 minutes
That which is done out of love always
takes place beyond good and evil.
These weren’t like the old days, Jerfastilhak mused. No. In this black age nothing like that peace could be found. They had pain-birds now, killing-birds. Great screaming, swooping demons that raked the sky and shat fire — rattled the bones brittling across the cave’s floor.
These death-birds were not all they had.
One bright morning, while gathering food for he and his lover, Moazirith, Jerfastilhak had idled a few moments sprawled among yellow bursts of primrose. A cool, flowered breeze washed over the hill. Suddenly the sky caught fire; a second sun rose and blossomed into a blazing mushroom. The earth shuddered, then rumbled as if about to open and swallow its children.
The flash blinded Jerfastilhak — wild terror surged through him.
When sight and stability returned he saw a horror…
Below the hill on which he stood, far away from the yellow flowers, the colony of the ugly-ones burned. From this vantage point Jerfastilhak was spared nothing, could see the colony lay flat, twisted, and unrecognizable, save for one tall structure near the river.
Scattered fires raged. Cries of the maimed, the dying, could be heard, borne upon the burning wind.
At that moment two wishes choked Jerfastilhak’s heart: I wish these visions, these sounds, did not exist… and I wish to forget them.
* * * * * *
Moazirith, upon hearing the tale of annihilation from her lover, sank into sorrow.
Nothing Jerfastilhak did could lift from her this dark veil.
The crushing of rodents went unnoticed.
Seven carapace-cracking dives from the tallest cliff barely took her attention off the lazy arc of a falling leaf.
Levitating Moazirith into the air merely lulled her into fitful slumber.
She hardly paid his antics any attention, not even when Jefastilhak raised a pincer, punched into his abdomen and drizzled the molten gold that pulsed inside over a scuttling hermit crab.
So profound was Moazirith’s anguish she refused even to wear the gilded gift around her neck, despite the considerable difficulty Jerfastilhak endured trapping the squid — hostile and slippery — whose entrails he braided into a string for the plated crab.
Was there no way to cheer her? Had Jerfastilhak’s news of the devastation been solely responsible for his lover’s distress? Leaving Moazirith cloaked in sorrow, he went searching for some remedy that might restore her.
* * * * * *
Sad and alone, Ushiro Funikoshi climbed the steep trail that cut through the land above his secluded cottage in Kamuri-Yama. Ushiro had fled the bleak horrors of war and spent each morning running toward the sky in green silence, exhaling the stink of his past. In these hills, along this twisting, secret path, he hoped to sweeten the bitterness poisoning his heart; fill the void in his days once occupied by his father. Tadashi Funikoshi, strong as the bamboo and pine around the family home, had given himself to the Rising Sun as a pilot in the suicide-force know as the Divine Wind. He died the “noble” kamikaze death. Ha! What was noble about it? Kamikaze: “Divine wind” indeed!
Father was dead. Ushiro’s photographs of him possessed, in their abandonment, a weird dignity; at once iconic and mocking. Unbearable.
The Americans and their atomic bombs had drained the spirit from Japan. No divine wind ever imagined could have extinguished those infernos.
Ushiro rounded a weedy bend, sensed something deep in the forest pacing him. He stopped, heart hammering his ribs. He listened…
From the undergrowth leaped a pair of chirping crickets.
“Oh!” Ushiro cried, and laughed.
They hopped across the path, flitted into dense fern.
He stepped into the dark woods.
Here among fern and flower was a small pool. The waters emanated a fragrance of drowned lilies, and Ushiro counted nine on the bottom, white stars set in green.
A praying mantis clicked across his sandals, but Ushiro stood still as the pool. The exotic insect had as much right to live as he. Perhaps more; at least you, stick-legs, take life only when you hunger, or in self-defense.
As if reading his mind, the mantis deftly snatched a cricket from the pool’s edge and — with a crack — pinched off its head.
Ushiro shuddered, beheld his pale reflection in the pool. Rain began to fall, spatting ceaseless circles. The young man’s image shivered and blurred.
A downpour ensued…leaves wept. Behind Ushiro a twig snapped.
He pulled his gaze from the pool. Great bushi…
Whether what towered above him was dragon, hummingbird, or beetle, Ushiro could not decide. The sight of it stopped his breath and sense.
This must be furyu, a reminder of the imperfection in perfection. Or, something whispered in Ushiro’s heart, was it just the opposite?
Bending at one scarlet joint, the furyu bowed its gold-green head and with some effort drank the pool. Delicately it raised itself; steam sighed from lemon mandibles.
And it was not without awe that Ushiro beheld those unblinking eyes of emerald, glittering in the rain like two fantastic jewels.
The furyu gazed down in judgment, fixed the man in place with those mesmerizing disks. Ushiro’s terror abated…tranquility bloomed. With this came a flood of images: father leaving for war…mother not weeping until that night, alone in the bedroom…lightning at dawn, a violet fork stabbing the sea…doves scattering from the eaves of a dead temple…the drunken painter in Kyoto splashing snow cherry, cobalt, orange, lime…Ushiro seated in the overheated schoolroom, his shoes too tight—
Ushiro’s last thought, before this perfection ended him, howled like a winter tempest:
Great bushi, thousand-year-old samurai, I go with you to join my father!
* * * * * *
Jerfastilhak wandered the solemn pines for days. Light and dark went unnoticed, beneath his attention. Soon thirst would kill him, but his olfactory lobes detected water. Thirst, though, was a minor concern compared to his pulsing dread.
What if no way could be found to deliver Moazirith from her misery? Should she perish, there would follow nothing but blackness and solitude, for where did others of her kind exist? Jerfastilhak concluded that life without his lover would be unbearable. If she died he would engineer his own demise rather than live in desolation, sentenced for eternity to the prison of loneliness.
There — straight ahead to the water.
Something approached. Plip plap plip plap plip plap plip plap—
From the sound, a sizable creature. Fleeing some beast larger still? Dashing toward water?
Ahead, shards of sunlight cut through trees: a clearing.
Jerfastilhak quickened his step, careful not to cause a stir. Fat raindrops began falling.
In seconds dark clouds dumped water in torrents, pummeled the ferns. Green saplings nodded, as though confirming Jerfastilhak’s plight. But the rain could not mask the ever-rising scent.
This was not strong; probably just one of them. Hardly a threat. Never had Jerfastilhak stood near an ugly-one, so curiosity ruled his behavior as much as thirst. He broke through the undergrowth.
Here was a quiet pool. The ugly-one glanced up, its face pale and moist.
How tiny you are, Jerfastilhak thought. The other appeared impossibly soft and fragile, face revealing every nuance of emotion! Could such a being actually slaughter its own kind?
Jerfastilhak drew closer. Fright quivered the flesh of the ugly-one who, after all, really was not so ugly. It fears me. I must not cause fear… must not trouble this one.
What if the tiny creature led others to the pool?
Jerfastilhak ended this possibility by bending nearly in two… and drinking the pool.
Ahh — life! Relief! Soothing cold!
The ugly-one stood solemn.
Jerfastilhak stretched across the empty pool. I shall console you.
He grasped the creature by its neck. “No, no — do not struggle — do not fear!” shrilled Jerfastilhak, unaware that his voice, to the limited hearing of the other, shrieked unintelligibly.
Jerfastilhak’s hold weakened, and in his haste to regain it clenched his pincher — severing the head of the ugly-one, when he had meant only comfort.
The head spun through rainy air, spewing blood and smashing against a rock — cracking open and flinging bits of gray, white and red across the ground.
“Oh-oh! What have I done?”
Warm shards oozed over Jerfastilhak’s clawed feet. “I have ended it!”
Then he saw: tiny white bones scattered through the moss.
Fascinated, he dropped the leaking corpse into the weeds, stooped, and plucked several bones from the springy moss. Beauty. There is beauty and perfection in these.
One bone — incredible! — bore a gold plug, or seal. How had this creature procured blood from one such as Jerfastilhak? What secrets might we have shared had I not ended you?
Into his mouth went the bones; mandibles clacked shut. Powerful digestive acids flooded the orifice, dissolving the ugly-one’s teeth, gold mingling with that of Jerfastilhak’s circulatory system. After a few moments, there came a strange elation.
Energy, unlike any before, thrummed through his limbs. The white bones must possess curative effects! Perhaps these should be fed to Moazirith? Hope! Hope!
Sudden pain spiked his thorax.
With a pincher he punctured his shell, probed… and located the irritant.
Wrenching it free revealed a malleable white mass larger far than the original bones ingested. Some strange alchemy must have occurred between them and their taker’s digestives, but Jerfastilhak would not be intimidated.
Curious, he played with and molded the warm blob. This conjured a memory: once, while cooling off in a rushing river, he had scooped clay from the weedy bed.
Moazirith had taken this and, with skilled, sensitive pinchers and mindsight, sculpted it into a likeness of her lover.
Could this material be likewise formed? Already it grew firm. He must hurry.
Bracing the mass with a pincher, he took the other and squeezed, scraped, stippled and pulled.
Mindsight added further detail. An inspired burst of activity created the figure of a hopping croaker — an albino with eyes golden and bulging.
This must be good… must be.
* * * * * *
The headless body of Ushiro Funikoshi lay undiscovered for months, until one autumn night when crickets creaked and the moon daubed his bones with its luminous brush. A spider crept onto them… spun a chaotic web between two ribs and, where once pulsed a young man’s heart, assumed its silent sentinel, glittering in moonglow like a jet crystal.
If Ushiro’s starving ghost haunted the place of his death, it did not disturb one thread of the spider’s net.
* * * * * *
Jerfastilhak saw his lover lay dying and shrilled her name.
Every bird, beast, and insect fled that unearthly howl.
He stood over her, offered the white figure. “Eat of this, my Moazirith. You must.”
Weakly she opened her mandibles, eyes brightening but for a moment as she recognized what the object represented. Her lover fed her the albino croaker. With an effort, Moazirith broke down the hard enamel.
She shuddered… vibrated her thorax. “What charms does this conceal?”
Jerfastilhak leaned close. “I do not know, but it filled me with the breath of youth.”
Gazing into the twin gems of her eyes, he could see fiery life. Would she live? Thrive as before?
Moazirith, after absorbing the figure, produced no precipitate. Her lover reasoned that his own caustics must have greatly weakened whatever catalyst activated the process. What else could account for this?
Two sunfalls passed, during which Moazirith shone floridly in good health. On the third, as twilight spilled deep blue into the cave, her robust demeanor dwindled, then wholly failed. Alerted by her hollow tone, Jerfastilhak knew something was terribly wrong. “The white croaker,” she managed, “bring me more… bring me many….”
Creeping shadow settled over her like a shroud of doom.
Embracing her, Jerfastilhak again tasted the dread of solitude. Moazirith, of course, did not know where the albino croaker originated, nor what her lover had done to obtain its ingredients. Jerfastilhak, as strongly as he loathed to repeat the act, feared more losing his beloved to the black waters of the river of Death.
“Lover,” she pleaded, “hurry!”
Her golden tongue traced Jerfastilhak’s plated throat. Easing her onto the cool cave floor, he determined to hunt day and night, gather so copious a cache of bones he need never leave Moazirith’s beauty again. Any pain, any horror, was preferable to a life barren and loveless.
He must hurry; go out into the world and collect what must be collected.
Any living thing that dare stand in his path would know the face of Death.
* * * * * *
Here rose a hill, a view, a special place. The bleak hunter surveyed the province of the dead.
Would not there be a nearly limitless supply of the tiny bones here, free to harvest?
Jerfastilhak ascertained he was not being watched, and climbed down from his perch.
Beneath purple twilight the burial ground stood stark and silent. Trees, twisted and black, clawed at the moon’s silver scythe. At the heart of this necropolis, a tall light-post ticked with moths. Honey-sweet whiffs of paraffin and incense lingered in the air, phantoms of some recent ritual.
The hunter moved among ranked stone monuments, some taller than he. Any grave would suffice.
There came a sensation, as nameless as it was novel. (Ushiro Funikoshi, were he alive and not suffocating in the endless night of transmigration, might have called this awe.)
The hunter had never seen another of his kind in death. All he knew of his, and Moazirith’s, existence was that both were immensely old. Of their origins he knew nothing.
He paused before a bulky gray monument which bore the chiseled likeness of an ugly-one: slanted eyes; long mournful expression, as though the face might slide from the stone like shadow crossing water. Below this, rows of sharp etchings like marching insects. From this grave the hunter absorbed an aura of violence, hatred, and betrayal. Did this originate with its attendants, or the occupant?
At once there bloomed a vision: a solitary figure perched on the edge of a chasm boiling with crimson mist. Above this the sun towed a flaming raft of clouds. The figure cried out, jumped into the abyss….
Whoever lay below in black silence was not mourned.
Jerfastilhak bowed to the earth, extended his pincers; spread the lemon blades of his mandibles and scored the soil.
At first its dead solidity resisted, but soon the exhumation was finished.
The hunter’s pincers scraped against something harder than the musty dark earth.
He straightened to his full height of thirteen feet, and drew huge breaths from the gloom.
Finally, braced about the grave’s periphery by four of his spiky limbs, he reached into the pit and gripped the coffin.
Slowly, he raised it toward dying twilight… brasswork gleaming beneath the moon’s cold face. Brighter stars jeweled the sky, indifferent suns flaring nothingness.
The hunter rested his prize on the ground and — with a violent stroke — smashed its lid into long splinters.
Offended by the strong odor, Jerfastilhak’s olfactory lobes twitched.
The corpse’s flesh shone pale green, patched here and there with gray rot and shiny with moisture. The hunter lifted the body from its seclusion, eased it onto dewy grass. Death lent the face a composure both stern and tragic, as though this ugly-one’s sleep stirred still with dreams of ruined empires… of love lost.
The hunter touched the flesh.
Its taut chill unsettled him, and for the first time he wondered what life as an ugly-one might be like. What terrors? What hopes? What joys?
With a delicacy belying his size, the hunter prized apart the corpse’s jaws, took the flat sides of both pinchers and clamped the skull, squeezing until — with a loud report — it split like a rotten log.
Thick, putrid fluid welled up. Unanchored teeth were gathered; others pried from dry sockets. Abruptly the hunter sampled one.
Rage blazed: useless. These bones were useless! Dead — all traces of life-force gone.
Waste! My struggles and sorrow futile! Dead! Dead!
In his fury, the hunter walloped the gravestone, smashing it into jagged pieces.
Heedless with despair, he turned from the pit and shambled toward the looming hills….
Though unaware, the hunter bled droplets of molten gold from a fissure in his carapace. After a few moments, these cooled in dewy grass. Perhaps on the morrow some mourner, sad and starved, might gather them. Follow their trail to the desecrated grave, and wonder with drumming heart and wide eyes why some terrible goblin had felt compassion enough to scatter such riches along this path of misery.
* * * * * *
The sun sailed above the horizon like a blob of molten bronze. The sky blushed a marriage of rose and flame.
From his concealment the hunter regarded this vista with anticipatory calm. Only the jewels of his eyes broke the mirrored surface of the pond in which he lay. Now and then dragonflies with rainbow wings lit upon them, hummed and buzzed and clicked, before taking to the air once more.
Not far from the pond stood a fence of crosshatched steel, the top adorned with razored loops of barbed wire. Beyond this stretched black runways, seemingly endless, blurred by heat-shimmer.
As the hunter watched a silver sky-raker raced toward him gaining speed with each moment, then nosed sharply into crisp morning air. The thing whined over the pond and headed for sunrise.
The hunter rose dripping, locked his emerald gaze and — focusing his mindsight — pulled the aircraft from the sky.
With great velocity it plunged earthward, engines screaming their torment. Sunlight flashed across a row of windows. An instant before impact fifty-two minds wailed their common doom, piercing the hunter’s resolve and nearly undoing him.
The ground shuddered with the crash. The aircraft plowed through a thousand feet of tall grass, shrieking, crumbling, scattering a fiery litter of metal, plastic and people.
Heat wavering from hissing fires did not deter the hunter, for the gold of his very blood burned hotter far. He must hurry — harvest what he came for lest the ugly-ones spot him. Quickly, quickly!
Hooked by a mangled engine cowling, the armless torso — and the head — of an ugly-one smoldered. The rest of him must be lost among the widely strewn wreckage.
The hunter loomed over his prey, bent at his scarlet abdomen and prized open the broken mouth, deftly extracted those bones intact enough for use. These he deposited into his own mouth for storage.
Farther along the path of burning debris he found his fortune.
Here was a fantastic union of bodies: two females, locked in an embrace; squashed onto them an obese male whose open back revealed layers of yellow fat, shattered bone, and the head of one of the females. Fused by flame into a single entity the threesome became, in death, more intimate than any fevered fantasy in life.
Although he did not care for the stench of this collage, the hunter carried out his duty.
Finally, heading back toward the pond, his path lay hindered by a melting seat. Still strapped in, an ugly-one burned. Little more than blackened bone, smoking hair and gristle, it screamed at the sight of Death’s angel.
Shock surged through the hunter, but he soon regained focus and emptied the smoldering skull of its fare.
He continued collections for a few minutes, when the eerie wail of rescue sirens drove him to escape.
Mouth heavy with teeth taken from the newly dead, the hunter made for the hills. Ghosts of annihilation wailed from the field of wreckage.
With each stride of his insect legs the hunter’s mouth rattled its catch, as if hail battered the inner surface of his skull. It tasted strange, that music.
* * * * * *
Moazirith lay unconscious. Jerfastilhak parted his lover’s mandibles, and dropped the tiny bones into her mouth.
She cooed softly, acknowledged his presence. All at once she convulsed.”Swallow them!” Jerfastilhak demanded.
No good; she was choking.
With a pincher, Jerfastilhak probed into her, unseated the mass and consumed it.
Moazirith gave a feeble wheeze.
Caustic juices welled into her lover’s mouth to liquefy its morsels. Immediately he felt the pulsing fullness in his thorax. Punching through his carapace he extracted the white glob — spattered the cave with a rain of burning gold, a shower that would end any other creature. Smoke swirled like morning mist.
Left with no alternative, Jerfastilhak force-fed his lover, shrilling all the while, “Please, please, please!”
A clacking, as of submerged seashells, sounded inside Moazirith.
She rose, extending eight green-spiked limbs, carapace flushed with the iridescent gold of health.
“My Moazirith.” Jerfastilhak embraced her. Their golden tongues twined, untwined, when Moazirith gently released from her lover’s heat.
“I doubted your return,” she shrilled, “but you’ve shown me the folly of such thoughts.”
Jerfastilhak surged with guilt over his recent musings… his abominable self-pity.
His gaze met hers, and he saw there a violent beauty.
The hunter’s heart boomed. Around Moazirith’s head formed a brilliant nimbus, nearly unbearable to behold.
She levitated until taller than her lover.
At that moment Jerfastilhak would gladly have given himself to Death, so searing, so erotic, was this vision! In the face of beauty, dread is annulled.
“It is fortunate,” shrilled Moazirith, “that you have triumphed and returned. I would not relish the task of raising our offspring alone.”
Dizziness invaded Jerfastilhak. All at once it did not matter that he and Moazirith were alone in the ugly-ones’ cheerless world. Were they not, by virtue of their very existence, miracles in such a place? One offspring — glorious! — pulsed within Moazirith’s womb; would not others follow, fill the emptiness of their days?
“The ages we have seen,” Jerfastilhak shrilled, “and shared…”
Something must be done to honor those whose lives had been ended so that Moazirith could keep hers.
Jerfastilhak took in a large quota of bones. After a few moments he punched into himself, showered hot gold everywhere.
Already his carapace began resealing. His lover dripped nuggets.
White mass in pincher, he began.
* * * * * *
The ugly-ones had not died in vain.
For the artistry of their Death angel sculpted a replica of the sky-raker in which they had ended.
Prideful, Jerfastilhak shrilled, “A plaything for our young!”
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available