Sunday, May 10, 2009

Chapter Nineteen

In the end, only the Man and the man-cub are able to wield red fire.

Even the bravest of apes and the mighty elephants are unable to hold this mysterious magic without trembling.

“I feel great shame,” says Hathi, “but this is why it is called Man’s Secret. Only Man may use it.”

And thus it must be. The ape-lord embraces his adopted mother, Mowgli says a tearful good-bye to Baloo, and the two set off to fight the invaders.

Red fire. Man’s secret. That which the Wildlands cannot fight or control, the destroyer of flora and fauna alike. It is the anger of nature. It is destruction. In a way, it is similar to the deadly plague that has spread throughout their world. Perhaps, hopes Mowgli, it is stronger.

For the first time, the Man and the man-cub find themselves looking for one of the hungry dead. Even though every instinct in their bodies begs them to flee, they now hunt.

It doesn’t take long. They smell one before it appears - not only does it carry the stink of rot and carrion, but also the unmistakable and overpowering odor of dung.

“A warthog,” whispers the Man. Mowgli nods.

Can it smell them, even in death? The Man has long since wondered. An enemy without its senses would be most vulnerable. Even the deadly cobra cannot strike what it cannot see.

However, the warthog must see the bright flames in their hands, and it drags itself through the brush, the remains of its ribcage scraping along the ground.

“It isn’t afraid…” whispers Mowgli.

“Stand back,” says the Man. He puts out one muscled arm in front of Mowgli, and thrusts the burning log toward the creature.

It doesn’t flinch. It stares at the Man, flames reflected in its empty, dark eyes. It grunts and gurgles amidst its cloud of flies.

“It isn’t working,” decides the ape-lord. “Into the trees.”

Mowgli climbs quickly, even with one hand holding his torch, and the Man lifts himself up soon after. The warthog, unable to climb, gnashes its curved, deadly, filthy tusks against the trunk of the tree.

“It didn’t work,” says Mowgli. His plan has failed. He so badly wanted to help the Council, to help the Wildlands, but he has failed. He discreetly wipes away a tear, lest the Man notice.

“It’s all right,” says the Man. He deliberately keeps his eyes on the warthog. “We’ll figure something out.“ Slowly, he lowers the torch, bringing it closer and closer to the creature, until they almost touch.

Aroused by the proximity of living flesh, the warthog pulls itself up against the tree with its two remaining hooves. Straining and grunting, it ignores the red fire just above its head. Even when its hairs begin to singe and smoke, it pays no attention.

They watch the warthog burn for many moments, until the Man snaps his head to one side. He peers into the darkness. “More are coming. The Bandar-log. We’ve got to go.”

Mowgli follows after the ape-lord, jumping lightly from branch to branch. The warthog patiently crawls after them below. As it moves through the dry brush, the surrounding grass bursts into flaming brightness.

There’s a distant whisper of branches. The Man curses in the gorilla tongue. “More are coming.”

He looks around. They could outrun the warthog... or they could remain in the trees. He is comfortable amidst the branches and vines, but so are the Bandar-log.

He gestures to Mowgli, leaps down and begins sprinting. The warthog follows, birthing more fires in its wake, but the ape-lord pays it no mind. It’s the quick-moving Bandar-log that he fears.

They quietly glide through the trees, grasping and swinging from their tails. Unlike the days of old, they do not laugh and jabber from the treetops, nor do they pelt them with nuts. There is nothing buffoonish about the Bandar-log anymore.

Although they are tireless, the ape-lord is well-coordinated and graceful. But more of them are coming. And how quickly they’ve learned to hunt.

Mowgli, his night vision ruined by the torches, cannot see the growing numbers above him. He wheezes and tries to keep up with the Man’s stride. He wishes Bagheera were still alive. He always protected him. Even until the end.

More and more eyes are reflected in the light of red fire, too many to count. Like a stone that has disturbed a hornet’s nest, their torches have attracted the swarm.

“Come,” says the Man, still calm, looking left, right, skyward, then turning to the south, away from the trees. Take away the Bandar-log's advantage. After several minutes, Mowgli stumbles, and the ape-lord lifts him onto his sweating shoulders, not bothered by the man-cub’s weight.

And finally, he stops running. He’s come to the cliff. He didn’t want to come here - he’d been hoping for a spot where he could veer to the left or right. But the hunters are closing in, relentless as a pack of hyenas, and they’ve not been given one opportunity to escape.

But despite all that, the Man thinks of the burning warthog, still crawling, still etching its blazing arrow of fire onto the ground.

Time for one final gambit.

“Don’t worry,” says the Man. “Just hold on to me tightly.” Mowgli, still holding his torch high, climbs onto the ape-lord's back.

The hungry creatures come closer, a rotting mass of buffalo and ape and crocodile. He throws his torch into the horde, but none step aside. A female leopard sprints ahead of the pack, and the Man begins to climb down the cliff.

It is difficult, especially with the man-cub's legs wrapped around his chest, but his toes grip into the rock, he finds a hold and he lowers himself another several feet.

“Don’t worry,” the ape-lord repeats.

Man, born without the tools of the jungle, without claw or fang or sense of smell, has one tool greater than any: that of reason.

And the Man sees something wrong with the invaders, something in the way the warthog burned so fearlessly, the way the meerkats walked through the fiery brush, the way the crocodile allowed the torch to bounce off its scales.

They’ve forgotten, in their death, the first and most important instinct: how to survive.

If all goes well, they will have a new plan to save the Wildlands. And if he is wrong, then at least he and the man-cub will not succumb to the plague.

The she-leopard reaches the edge of the cliff and pounces. As she falls, she bites at Mowgli, but the Man ducks away. She silently hurtles hundreds of feet to the ground, where she smashes onto the unforgiving stone.

More of the dead follow: a gazelle, a lion. They step to their second deaths without hesitation, never thinking to climb, only following their desire for flesh and blood. The Man’s jaw eases into a slight smile – he was right, his gambit was a success.

As the Man continues to descend, Mowgli whimpers and waves his torch in a useless threat. The Man raises his head to see the great snake Kaa. Rather than walk off the cliff, the legless serpent awkwardly wound its way down after them.

Kaa stares at them, his blank eyes no longer trusting and hypnotic, and vacantly bites into the Man’s shoulder. It no longer occurs to him to smother his prey; that instinct was lost in death.

The pain is slight – Kaa lacks the teeth for ripping and tearing - but the Man instinctively grabs the snake’s head. A mistake, perhaps the first one ever made by the Man, but there are no second chances in the Wildlands. As he flings Kaa away, the ape-lord loses his balance. He, the man-cub, the snake, and the torch - all fall, and all are extinguished.