by Gregory Ariail

Every animal is escaping our enemies: the eight drunken hermits. All the remaining animals—the mice, squirrels, and foxes—flee faster than me and disappear into the forest. I gave up pleading for them to stop and answer my questions years ago. I have never seen another elk and another elk would understand me best. 

My mother was impaled by a five-foot tree branch, quartered, and beheaded by the eight drunken hermits. I was bound for the same fate. Seven of them were beating me with walking-sticks while the eighth was grinding an axe. 

Then something terrible yet lucky happened. The branch embedded in the anus of the stump that was my mother suddenly ejected from her body, flew into the air, accompanied by a flatulence, an outpouring of dark blood and the wind of dead organs. The eight drunken hermits marveled and cheered as if at a fireworks display. I took the chance and limped as fast as I could into the forest where they pursued me for a while before giving up. Being drunkards, their stamina is low. They didn’t catch up then and I’ve never smelled whiskey on the air since. By now, they must be a continent behind me. 

Naturally I’m haunted by images. The marbled, tree-like rings of meat on the surface that was my mother’s neck. How she opened her mouth and a web of saliva formed and broke. How her pupils became pinpricks when her limbs left her. The jerking movements of that beautiful elk. I stick out my tongue and replay the scene there as if on a stage. Afterwards I feel a little better. This trick came to me after an adolescence of pure suffering, nights when I’d wake up gasping for air, the walking-sticks raining down on me. 


A red gate appears in the distance. A dark hill rises beyond it. 

I pass through the gate and enter a sphere of night. Is this the home of my fellow animals? Or the corner where our loosely-knit fellowship crawls to die? In darkness yet in peace? 

I near the hill’s summit. And to my horror the eight drunken hermits come into view. I freeze. They sit around a bonfire on flat stones. They seem to emerge from the stones, as if they’ve traveled on the stones to this secret place. 

The eight hermits look almost alike. They have large dark blue eyes. White beards that sprout from ears and eyebrows. Black moles rise from their bald scalps like little hats. 

They pass a jug from one to another. The trees are pillars for thousands of shelves holding jugs. An empty shelf discloses a glint of machinery that must be their distillery. 

As I sneak backwards, the one holding the jug says: “Here you are. We’ve waited a long time.” 
Another says: “There is no escape.” 

I gallop towards the forest but only run in circles. No matter what, I cannot run straight. I edge along the perimeter of the darkness no matter what I do. The hermits chuckle softly. 

They stand up, one by one. Their robes are unclasped and highlight rather than conceal their hairy, plump stomachs. They fly at me and soon have me bound in ropes with expert, unbreakable knots. Over short distances, their speed is second to none. 

“Little calf, you’ve grown old,” says one. “We remember you. We never forget.” 
“You are the last true animal,” says another. “Your countless fellows we’ve made into the hill beneath us.” 

The soft wet grass is not grass but the remains of all the animals that passed through the forest more swiftly than I did. The leaves inside my stomach empty onto them. 

The jug-bearing hermit pours whiskey into the hissing bonfire. The liquid must be something unimaginably potent to extinguish those flames, so great that they obscured the full moon, which I haven’t seen since I was a calf wandering the plains with my mother. 

They lay me across the cinders which eat out bits of my fur. I howl in the language of my ancestors. Two of the hermits lock arms and jig. They circle me, bend down. The tips of their wet beards draw lines on my body. A hermit leaves the group and heads towards a tree with a low-hanging branch. 

“Not that,” I cry in the human language. “Just not that.” 
“It’s the last and wisest of animals,” one hermit says. 

The others laugh heartily, slapping each other on the back. The branch cracks from the trunk and hovers towards me at the hermit’s side. 

“Just not that,” I cry. “I’ve come so far, endured so much.” 
“It’s so proud of itself,” one says. 
“Enough,” says another. 

They tacitly agree to something. The hermit with the bushiest beard fishes in his chin-hairs and plucks a long, white strand. Another brandishes a needle. They sew my mouth shut with the strand of beard. They work calmly and efficiently together. 

A tear falls from my eye. 

Noticing this, perhaps, a previously silent hermit speaks, the voice feminine behind the beard: “We can only offer one solace. The frolic ends with you. Not because we want it to. But because we have no choice.” 

With that, sixteen hands swing the branch back as if to gain momentum to strike a bell.

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