Listening to the Animals

by Emily Livingstone

There seems to be no way to stop people from swimming into the cave—at least, not from where we are. Each summer, we get at least two or three. The last was only a boy, emerging into our desert soaked and in his swim trunks, still making paddling motions with his hands. We held him while he cried. We listened sympathetically to his insistence that he’d be found, that he’d get back, that this was all a dream. Slowly, he became one of us, and we began to teach him. 

Lesson One: Do not leave the compound alone. The desert is hot, dry, and killing. The ocean may not have an end, and there is no lumber to build a boat. 

Lesson Two: Eat only plants, and even then, you might die. There are several poisonous ones. Rely on us to help you choose.

Lesson Three: Do not listen to the animals. Some of them look ordinary—or like what you’d expect back home. But they can all speak, and their advice is deadly. One sympathetic sounding whale invited Hannah into his mouth, saying it could swim through an underwater portal and bring Hannah home. We begged her not to go, but she stepped onto the tongue of the whale and we never saw her again. 

How do we know the whale didn’t keep its promise? the boy wanted to know. 

We tell another story. A coyote called out to Robin, promised to give him a wish, if he could only catch her by the tail. We tried to hold Robin back, but Robin ran and ran until he was gone. One of our search parties found him, gnawed to the bone by family of coyotes, big teeth and little. 

How did we know it was him? the boy asked. 

There are so few of us. Who else could it have been? 

The boy tried to ask another question, but we cut him off: You will see. 

The boy went out on patrols, exploring, gathering food. He took his turn at watch. He helped us to mend our shelters. But he didn’t speak much, and we worried. 

In the end, it was the pigs who called to him. A small group of us had traveled across the desert, trying to chart this other world and determine if there was an end to the desert, or a way out of this dimension. It was dusk, and we’d just eaten. Things were quiet, and the sand under our feet was warm, but not scorching. By the time we missed the boy, he was just out of shouting distance, surrounded by giant wild pigs. We ran for him, and we thought it might not be too late. But when we got close, the pigs encircled him, blocking our way. 

The boy turned to us, and said, They’re going to lead me home. I just need to run with them, and they’ll show me the way. 

No, we said, trying to get at him, but also wary of the pigs’ tusks as they prodded us away. 

A big sow whispered to the boy, snout upturned, and the boy bent down to hear her. He began to run, and the pigs ran, too. The sound of their hooves thundered on the hardening ground. 

We followed, but too slowly. 

We saw the boy running, saw the pigs split suddenly into a V, then run back, away from the cliff’s edge. But whether the boy had too much momentum, or whether they pushed him, he went over, and disappeared. 

At least, we found the river, making our way down from the cliff, afterward. We never found the boy. 

Fred said, “Maybe he made it,” and we just looked at him. 

Most likely, he’d been washed down the river. We still mourn him, maybe because he was the youngest we’ve had come through. 
Our permanent settlement is by the river now. We still send expeditions back to the portal place, to keep watch for new arrivals, but that is a bad place to live. By the river, we have all we need. There are even trees and some wild vegetables. 

There are animals, too, of course. They watch us, and call to us, but so far, they have let us stay here. 

The first of us is pregnant, and we will raise that child never to listen to them. Not ever. And, perhaps, the child will live.

Emily Livingstone is a tutor and writer living in Massachusetts with her husband, daughter, and German Shepherd.  She previously placed fourth in The Molotov Cocktail‘s Flash Felon contest.  Her work has also appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Necessary Fiction, Chiron Review, and others.  You can find her on Twitter @Emi_Livingstone.  
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