BY CHARLES S. COOPER
Copyright is held by the author.
PERCEVAL ALONE still hunted, his brothers long ago having gone down river. He climbed to the very top of a tall cattail and sat. He laid across his knees a woven rope of long grass, otter tail fur and basket spider silk. In his right hand he held the knot of the noose; the rest of the loop swung free beneath him. On his left hip, tied to his green breeches, hung a small piece of human iron, the edge sharp, the tip a bright prick. A simple bow, made from a birch twig and hound hair, and a single black arrow were strapped across his bare back.
The warm, moist mist above the marsh vibrated with insect voices. Perceval watched green and black dragonflies dart and disappear in the mists that defined the edges of the marsh. His brothers and he had been on the hunt since the sun started back south, and the simple, foolish creatures were leery of him. If he sat still, they would soon forget, and one would eventually wander near looking for succulents among the cattails. His eyes followed the lanky, four-winged predators as they hunted mosquitoes and other aquatic insects above the slow-moving, murky waters. He waited patiently, his skin glistening in the moist heat.
Perceval held his arms and legs taut, coiled to spring. The strain of holding still under such pressure sapped his strength, reminding him that the days were growing shorter, and his time was nearly nigh. He had the strength this time, but he wasn’t certain there would be another. The grasses were turning brown, the spiders building their winter nests, and Perceval was growing weak with failure and fatigue. He had woven this last rope, cut and shaped and feathered the arrow, climbed the cattail, and could ride the dragonfly one more time. But if he failed again, he feared he’d lose his last chance at life, and instead would lay face down with exhaustion in the marsh to be gobbled down by a muskrat or a red-winged blackbird.
A dragonfly inspected the cattails. Its body alternated between dark brown and shiny, emerald green. Creamy yellow stripes ran the length of its thorax. Green compound eyes shone brilliant when they caught the sunlight. Four transparent wings tinged with amber. Perceval waited. The insect inched closer. A water spider ran atop the marsh water, leaving tiny circular ripples in its wake. The dragonfly darted towards the spider, but it escaped into a tangle of deadwood and water trash. The dragonfly continued its tour of the cattails, drawing ever closer.
Perceval’s hand trembled in anticipation. He fought the urge to wet his lips with his tongue. The salt from his sweat seeped into his eyes. He dared not move, lest when the moment came, his legs would cramp and he would fall, and perhaps be unable to climb the cattail again.
The dragonfly flew up next to Perceval. He could see multiple images in the creature’s eye; tiny, glistening, emerald green copies of himself, each from a different perspective, all gaunt and desperate. He could see the hunger in his own eyes, the wasting in his limbs, and the fluttering beating of his heart in his throat.
He threw the noose over the dragonfly’s head and pulled it taut before he launched himself towards the creature’s back. His legs betrayed him, and he fell short, but his hands held onto the rope. The creature panicked, darting high into the thick air, reversing direction and diving to the water’s dark surface, then speeding back up. Perceval felt the rope cut his hands as it tossed him about, but still he held on. When the dragonfly dove, he slid towards its back. He tried to get his leg atop a wing, to leverage himself up. The creature jerked, and he slid off. It dragged his legs through the water before it darted up again.
Over and over, the two danced above the murky waters. Perceval had not the strength to pull himself up the rope. He waited for the gyrations of the dragonfly to throw him on the creature’s back. Only when he had a firm grip with his legs on its thorax, could he risk letting go with his hands. Again and again, he came close, only to have the dragonfly dart away. The blood from the cuts on his hands made the rope slippery. He slid down the rope toward its end.
He felt his hands lose the rope when the dragonfly jerked up and then dropped underneath a broad green leaf. Perceval landed on the leaf and the dragonfly paused in mid-flight below him. The leaf bent under Perceval’s weight, and he rolled off. He landed on top of the stationary insect between its wings. Instinctively, he wrapped his arms and legs around the dragonfly’s body as it sped away. Minutes passed as he clung there, exhausted, unthinking.
After a time, Perceval raised his head. He was situated further back on the dragonfly than he liked. The dragonfly seemed less panicked than before and was circling open water. Perhaps it was waiting for him to fall off. Perhaps Perceval wasn’t the first rider on its back, and it knew he would eventually let go.
Perceval inched forward until he was just behind the creature’s head. He removed his small knife and cut most of the rope off, leaving just the noose and a short lead. The rest of the rope fell into the dark waters. He tried to put the knife away, but his hands were slick with blood and it fell away into the water. No knife, no more arrows. This would be his last hunt.
He adjusted the rope so it rubbed the sensitive portions of the dragonfly’s prothorax, places where, with the right pressure, he could get the creature to obey. The dragonfly bucked in protest. Perceval tightened the noose until it settled.
Perceval flew the dragonfly in and out of the tall grasses until he felt comfortable with his control. Then he directed his mount down winding channels towards the river.
He searched all the places along his way among dense shrubs that hugged the water’s edge; under a willow branch in a black pool protected by the long, slender leaves; inside a stand of ferns that was half in water and half in rich, dark peat; near an oak branch striped of bark that had become lodged in a tangle of weeds, and formed a bleached white platform suitable for dipping delicate feet in cool, dark water.
Perceval searched the rest of the day, further and further away from his marsh, until the sun grew low in the sky and long black fingers trailed away from the trees, and his dragonfly faded under the strain. Perceval found it hard to stay upright. His eyes refused to stay focused, and he found it difficult to force them into submission. He laid his head and chest down on the back of his dragonfly. The rope slipped out of his hands and the noose fell into the waters. The tired dragonfly, barely alive, drifted towards the open waters of the river.
The dragonfly hesitated when it reached the demarcation line between the river and the marsh. In front of it was a wide expanse of moving water, a great unknown. The creature turned left, against the stream, and flew along the river’s edge. A short distance away, an old oak tree stood on the shore, battered and broken by a forgotten storm. Half its trunk lay in the river, still covered with upright branches and deep green leaves. The dragonfly lighted on an oak branch and let its body droop. Both Perceval and the dragonfly slept. The only sound was the river drifting and swirling through the oak.
When Perceval woke, the world was black. He could hear running water. Beneath him was the exhausted dragonfly. He sat up. The river was to his right. A host of stars hid among the leaves about him. In their faint light, he saw the crests of the river rushing by. Beneath him it was a long fall to a calmer water, protected by the tree from the power of the river, but moving none the less. A faint light beyond the river grew, and Perceval knew the full moon was rising.
The moonlight revealed the massive structure of the broken tree around him. Leaves rimmed in a soft, clear light swayed in the evening breeze. Towering branches piled on top of each other reached to the heavens. Perceval looked about with awe and reverence.
He heard faint strains of other worldly singing.
She was walking down the branch, carefully placing one foot before the other. The song she sang seemed not to have words, composed of soft, delicate, joyous sounds. Perceval saw her first and froze.
She was smaller than him, but not much. Long, flowing hair glowed white when the moonlight illuminated it, but when she stepped into the shade, it cascaded through the colours of the rainbow until the glow had faded away. Her body was slender, her skin a smooth alabaster, four transparent wings tinged with amber, her hands and feet as delicate as her song. In her left hand she carried a small basket made of woven reeds with a soft silver cord tied to it. She wore no clothes and no adornments.
Perceval sat transfixed. His breath laboured in his chest. His vision narrowed until the only thing in focus was her. She watched her feet as she walked, but when she was close, she stopped and looked up. Her emerald green eyes glowed and widened when she saw Perceval. Her mouth opened in surprise. She brought her right hand up and touched the fingertips to her throat.
Her eyes dimmed to a warm glow, and she smiled. Her wings fluttered and then curled sensuously. Moonlight washed over her and the sudden brilliance of her hair lit the canopy of leaves above her. She bowed her head and sounded a slow, musical trill.
Her voice snapped Perceval out of his reverie. His hands acted solely on instinct, drawing the bow and loosening the arrow. He watched, horrified, as the arrow easily pierced her skin. Too soon tore through his mind, too soon.
Her eyes widened in surprise. Her hands grasped at the black shaft that protruded from her left breast. Her eyes, flashing and pleading, sought Perceval, mouth agape.
Her legs gave out, and she fell. Perceval watched, transfixed, until she disappeared into the dark water.
Perceval dropped his bow and stumbled from the dragonfly. His clumsy dismount caused him to tumble as he fell towards the water. He landed on his back, plunging down into the water. It closed above him, rushing into his nose and mouth, choking him. He fought back to the surface and struggled to regain his breath.
Perceval took several deep breaths and dove into the black, swirling waters. He drove himself down and down into the deep. Before him he could see a dim, faraway green glow. Her eyes. He struggled, the muscles in his arms and legs burning as he forced them beyond exhaustion and pain. A fire started in his throat and spread to his lungs, as he fought the urge to inhale the dark, cold water. The green glow grew dimmer. Perceval tried to swim faster, but his body could not give more. He forced the remaining air from his lungs, hoping he could reduce his buoyancy.
The green light disappeared. Perceval wanted to scream. He struggled on though his body resisted. Perceval struck the bottom of the river, propelled into the deep, soft silt. He righted himself and started wading against the current towards where he thought her body may have fallen. His leg hit something solid. He reached down and felt flesh, pliant and warm. It was an arm. He pulled her out of the enveloping muck and brushed his hand across her face. A faint glow still in her eyes.
He wrapped his arms around her from the back and kicked for the surface. The bottom tried to hold fast, but Perceval persisted and broke free. He kicked and he kicked and he kicked. All the slow way up, he pleaded with whatever gods cared to watch, to let her live.
When Perceval broke the surface, the air rushed into his lungs like wild fire through dry brush. He coughed and gasped and went under to take a breath of water, and then he surfaced and coughed and gasped some more.
Perceval could never carry her up a tree branch, so he kicked for shore. When his arm touched bottom near shore, he stood up and carried her in his arms. He found a broad, green, oak leaf and straightened her body out on it, placing her hands across her chest. He stroked her hair, and when the moonlight washed over her and her hair stayed dark, he cried. His hunt almost finished, yet all he could do now was wait.
Perceval sat next to her, his body consumed in sobs, while the moon passed overhead. When the orb was directly above her, he reached down and grasped her face in his hands. He looked down into her eyes, his head blocking all possibility of moonlight entering them, and he could see in their deepest reaches, the faintest, most delicate, green light.
He kissed her.
The sunrise awoke her. She sat up and found herself on the river’s shore. It was a strange place to wake in the morning. The river before her was running as it always had. Morning birds were singing, talking about the day to come, as they always had. The air smelled of marsh grasses and earthy loam and river mist, just as it always had. But she felt something was different.
The oak tree still tumbled out into the water’s flow. A dragonfly. now gone, had landed on a branch last night. She reached up and touched her left breast. The spot felt tender, but when she looked, nothing appeared wrong. It was as smooth and lovely as ever.
When she turned to get to her feet, she saw him. He was lying on his side with his back to her. He wore nothing but a pair of woven grass trousers that were torn above the knee. His hair was curly and black. She crawled to him and turned him over so she could see his face. He had round, grey-green eyes, an aquiline nose, and a small, narrow lipped mouth. She ran her hand down his throat, across his right breast to his belly, before she brought it up to touch the black shaft protruding from his left breast.
She caressed his cheek with hers and sang in his ear. He did not respond. She kissed him on the neck, then on the chin, and finally on the mouth. His lips were stiff, and she could feel no breath escape. Her tears fell on his face.
She brought her hands to her belly and massaged it. She thought she could feel the warmth of life. Her wings were lying on the leaf where she had slept. The moment life began, they had detached themselves from her body. She had lost her freedom, but he had given her life.
Soon she would have to swim down to the bottom of dark, still waters and build herself a nest of mud and grass, where her body would give birth in the spring. Her babies would go their separate ways, the females to take wing and fly away, the males to grow strong and explore, to hunt and seek out dragonflies.
But before she could go to her long sleep, she had one last labour to perform. When the moon was again overhead, she laid Perceval on the leaf he had chosen. She straightened his body, folding his hands across his chest, her wings covering him. She dragged the leaf down to the river’s edge and pulled it in. With one hand always near a tree limb, she swam, dragging Perceval, until the river’s current snatched the leaf from her grasp. She climbed up into the oak and huddled there, singing a slow, melancholy tune as his body drifted into the night.
Perceval went down river to his brothers.
Charles S. Cooper lives in Indianapolis, Indiana. He was a Macintosh computer consultant before taking up writing full time. His first published story was “Jack and the Magic Hat” in Mytholog in Autumn, 2006. Other stories have appeared in Sci-Fi Shorts, Fantasy Shorts and elsewhere. Many have been reposted to Medium under the name Chuck Cooper. He edited the internet poetry site “Why Are We in Iraq?” and self-published the play “The Trial of George W. Bush by gnimbley the gnome.”