32: Blood of the Forest

The man rowed as sweat glistened on his brow and bare forearms. The relentless river would pull them back if they ever stopped. Only the boy was exempt from the rowing while the four other men took turns. Their oars rose toward the canopies before dipping into the brown water again with a splash. The branches of the trees reached over the river forming a tunnel around it like some arterial walls of the giant organism that was the forest. A thick mist lay over the water obscuring the floating logs and roots protruding from the riverbank. Now and then the call of animals echoed between the trunks or something rustled the leaves high above them. The water turned colder with every passing day, but its movement kept it from freezing.

I tell you, The man with the long mustache said, We saw one so big a grown man could’ve stood upright in its mouth.

Are you telling me snakes could grow that big? I don’t believe you, what would they eat? Another man said.

Don’t know. There’s a multitude of edible beasts in these forests, The first man continued.

If a regular snake eats stuff the size of a rat, what would such a beast eat? The rowing man said between labored breaths. Horses?

There aren’t any horses in these parts of the world, The man with the mustache said as he twirled it between his fingers. They could probably eat those giant centipedes I imagine. Swallow them with carapace and all.

But what do those eat? Said a boy sitting flown up on a barrel with salted meat.

An older man stood holding a fishing rod while trying to see through the mist. He pulled at the line and let it go again as he said, There’re different kinds of centipedes, both carnivorous and herbivorous. Some burrow into the ground and others climb the trees. Some grow to sizes twice the length of a man. Others remain small.

That didn’t answer the boy’s question, old man, The one with the mustache interjected. You’re rambling again.

I did answer it, The old man said.

Then shut up.

They stopped the boat when they came upon a large branch transversing the river so close to the water they could not go under it. The men quibbled for a while before the rower demanded they tie the boat to the branch. The rope stretched tight as the water pulled at the boat that moved from side to side. They discussed dragging the boat onto land and around the branch but decided to try chopping through it with axes instead.

Fuck this! The man with the mustache called out after a while as he sat down in the boat again. The other men kept at it for a little longer before also they gave up. No one said anything for some time as they caught their breaths while gazing into oblivion. The little light that came through the canopies had become dimmer and bluer indicating the day had ended and it was a full moon in a clear sky.

So what should we do? The rower said.

We’ll have to drag it over land, The old man said.

And unload all the things? Said the man with the mustache.

If you’ve another idea, I’m all ears, The old man said before they all fell silent. The Devourer opened a crate with salted meat and picked out one of the smaller pieces that he ate as he listened to the sounds of the forest. The other men followed suit. They spent the night there under their pelts in the boat tethered to the branch. In the morning, they unloaded all the things onto land. Then they dragged the boat around the obstruction before again launching it into the river. One man stood with his bow readied at all times as the others labored. He watched the shadows dance before him. Then they continued.

As the days passed, the trees grew shorter, and soon they disappeared entirely. The tunnel of wood and leaves opened up to a summer sun that never rested. All day and night it shone upon them. The light was now as total as the darkness in the forest had been. They took turns rowing, never stopping to rest, never tethering the boat to the shoreline. A couple of days later they arrived at the Borderlands.