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[Crunching and shuffling. A body moves through vegetation, mulch, pushing aside the brush. A lone female voice threads the air, a vaulted voice singing above a steady, solemn drumbeat.] Though the sky shone clear, teal and bright with the biggest sun I had ever seen hanging overhead, it was nearly as dark and as deep blue as midnight beneath the Wildlands’ canopy.
[The sound of palms falling on the taut skin of the drum as the voice’s lament rings out overhead, as if in a vaulted space.] I’m unsure how long I walked before I reached the clearing. My mouth had grown dry and sandy, spit curdling at the corners of my lips. A pain shot up from the bottom of my feet, into my back. I could scarcely even remember entering the forest. I had taken one path after another. Some paved. Some worn with foot traffic. Some so overgrown with thorny brush that I had to stop and find another way. All this in search of the road that would lead to the tree.
When I finally did reach that fire plum tree, I collapsed before its nearly glowing, dark-green leaves, its twisted branches like the horns of an antelope, its breathing bark that reminded me of elephant skin, and, of course, its purple bounty.
[Spacelike sounds of expansion and contraction, like the universe breathing. Long windy tones.] The fruits were as large as a baby doll’s head. Different than the apricot-sized fire plums you’d find in the Cap’n Savs-a-lot. Perhaps it’s true what they said and the Cross Riverian plums were indeed a different species than the ones you’d find in the supermarket from Bimin. Different even than the ones in Port Yooga. I’d left with such urgency that morning that I’d neglected to pack water or even a snack and now I felt gas pangs echoing in the hollow of my stomach. Yes, I thought, watching a dangling fruit, these fire plums growing here are something different. The Cross Riverian fruits probably wouldn’t seek to destroy me. I paused my thoughts to contemplate how parched I felt and to think through my rapidly multiplying hunger. How many more hours could I wander in the wilderness dying within from a lack of love? Death or discomfort, those were my choices.
I snapped a fire plum from a branch. This is the moment the Great Wolf was to arrive like a shark swimming through blood currents to rip at my limbs.
[Strings shrilling up toward their apex, climbing and falling back down, seeking traction on the sheer face of a glass cliff.] “Oh come ye vicious and faithful wolf,” I screamed and, just as I thought, the sentry beast didn’t appear.
I took a bite of the fruit and felt rooted to the spot, as if I had become the fire plum tree. Sweet illumination passed thickly down my throat like I was drinking starlight itself. I felt all my senses suddenly on fire. Closer to burning bush than early morning housefire. Just then, I heard large wings beating in the distance. And then a loud screeching—an avian war cry. [A long shrill call scars the soundscape, cutting through like a gleaming pair of scissors.] On an ordinary day I’d perceive the call as a faint and harmless forest sound, but today it was so loud it took a little of the hearing in my left ear. I knew that whatever made that sound hungered so much it pained them. Not only that, but it was barreling toward me.
I stood up and began to duck into a nearby copse of trees when I looked to the sky and saw the maker of the noise. A screecher bird, the largest I had ever seen, circled overhead, flanked by two gigantic, but smaller companions. They resembled a formation of fighter jets.
The largest of the birds looked down on me and screeched again. [Bird call, fierce and territorial.] My limbs felt heavy as branches. My eyes and lips, I noticed, had begun swelling. [A deep bass tone thrums beneath the pulse of drums. A shiny, bright sound, like following a whisper into an illuminated cave.] I rubbed my tongue against the roof of my mouth. The bumps were setting in. My senses were still going wild; I could smell charred flesh in the distance. The large screecher perched atop a tree, swaying back and forth, while the other two remained overhead, circling. A blackbird flew by and the screecher snatched it in its beak mid-flight, wailing in ecstasy as it forced the bird down its throat. A worthy appetizer, I thought.
I felt that if I moved, I would be destroyed by a screecher’s claws. If I stayed, likewise the screecher would swoop in and snatch me. My head started to swim and my vision blurred. The Wildlands fire plums were indeed different. Still, I felt parched and like a fool I took another bite of the fruit. As I ripped into the meat, the screecher swooped from the branch and flew directly at me. I dropped the plum and dashed myself to the earth, a wing narrowly missing the twisted part of my face.
This would be the end for me, I knew it. [Unidentifiable sounds, birdlike and brief, overlapping and mingling and shifting in tone. Deep beneath, an ominous note yawns, something subterranean or hidden, waiting to be seen.] I had used all my energy in the dive. There remained nothing in me to lift myself. I lolled about on the ground watching the giant bird regroup. It turned toward me, rearing back its head to spear me with its sharp beak. Then a shadow passed overhead. [Movie music, for a swordfight or adventure sequence, and then suddenly a flurry of electronic sounds. The vocal line resumes, the woman’s voice wailing above, and beneath the strings tense for what will come next.] The majesty of the Great Wolf collided with the screecher. The crash—loud as two monster trucks—sent the bird shambling across the clearing.
The birds above stopped circling and rested in the trees. I tried to find my strength to protect myself from the beasts, but I could scarcely make it to my feet without collapsing. The wolf’s fur ran gray and black, its hide knotted with brush as if it had just borrowed through the thorns of the underbrush. The canine was not nearly as large as the bird, but still it looked like four beasts standing atop one another. When the wolf roared at the screecher, the ground rumbled a thick bass beneath me.
The wolf charged the bird again, snarling and roaring, and the screecher, flying low to the earth, fluttered and yelped. The bird pecked at the wolf’s coat, beating its gigantic wings into the wolf’s back and scratching gashes into its hide with its talons. I looked at the bleeding wounds on the Great Wolf and waited for it to collapse. How could it survive much longer in this state? What a way to die, defending the life of a human who was here to steal fire plums from the glowing tree, the wolf’s beloved protectorate.
The bird flew backward a bit, angling to peck at the wolf’s head, perhaps to deliver the death blow. The Great Wolf leapt, taking a bird leg in its mouth, and pulled the screecher to the earth. The wolf pinned the bird with a paw and sunk its teeth into the screecher’s torso. The bird’s pained yawp filled the entire Wildlands, I think. Hundreds and thousands of years of agony. [A bird’s final cry, desperate and wild.] The wolf bit into the bird’s neck and rattled the gigantic screecher’s body until it lay lifeless as a chew toy. I looked away. The screechers in the trees flew off rather than fight alongside their dying comrade.
The Great Wolf now had a mouth full of blood to go with its open gashes. It turned to me; at its paws, the screecher writhed and shuddered every few moments, a kind of tortured death dance.
I felt no fear watching the wolf’s eyes. Instead I felt peace. Maybe it’s because, from some angles, they appeared human. From others they glowed the same dark emerald color of the tree’s leaves. The wolf nuzzled at my side as if requesting me to stand, and I did. I wanted to tend to the wolf’s wounds, but I knew nothing of animal medicine.
It appeared not to be suffering. No wailing or moaning. Just quietude and contentment. It pointed its muzzle at the tree, offering me the plums I had come for.
“No,” I said. “I can’t loot your bounty now. I owe you, you don’t owe me.”
The wolf moaned, something like a low howl. I took this as an insistence and I walked slowly to the tree to pull off several of the round purple fruits and place them in my bag. When the wolf thought I had taken enough, it yelped softly to let me know. [The bass is thick, tectonic, unsettling. Deep, spare thrums like punctuation. Soft, echoing utterances halfway between a yelp and a song as the drumming continues, both fading into the distance of the story’s end.] I removed one from the bag and held it out for the canine. It took the fruit from my hand and gnawed the meat until it reached the pit and then licked that clean.
I felt a tingle in my throat and for the first time my allergic reaction made me happy, as it offered proof that I was still alive.
[Male voice from the introduction returns.] Dear listener, our tale ends here with Percy arriving home that night, his eyes, lips and cheeks swollen and purple, but his hands bearing fruit for his wife. Her eyes widened at the bounty. Sharaina bit into a large round plum from the top, but she stopped mid-chew. The fire plum tasted like nothing. She reached for another, but it too tasted like emptiness. She bit another and another, tossing fruit after fruit to the floor, but they all tasted like nothingness. She went on digging through the bag for more, frantically searching, long after she realized there’d be nothing there for her.
Rion Amilcar Scott is the author of the story collections The World Doesn’t Require You and Insurrections, which was awarded the 2017 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and the 2017 Hillsdale Award for Fiction from the Fellowship of Southern Writers. He teaches creative writing at the University of Maryland. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, Kenyon Review, The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2020, and Crab Orchard Review, among other publications.
Alexandra Kleeman is the author of You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine, Intimations, and Something New Under the Sun. She lives in Staten Island and teaches at The New School.
Adriene Lilly is an artist and sound designer. She hosts The Blind Tourist on WFMU, and her work has appeared on-air and in festivals around the world.