BACK to the Main Index
BACK to Here and There
BACK to the Previous Chapter
No Vuelvas Nunca Mas
We don't get far.
The sun is sinking, I suppose, although I cannot see the star itself; first the little darts of yellow turn to orange, and then to a smeared white... After a time of walking my vision is pierced only from as deep within the jungle as a setting sun could reach, and then the light turns blue. Snow is hazy, walking before me. I feel a bit out of touch with the paws I only just began to get used to this afternoon, and I cannot be sure I trust my senses.
Twilight is not a useful time to be out, I believe. The small, edible animals are emerging to feed on whichever of the piled and growing and cascading plant life is their prey, and I get the sense they know I am not at my best. My alpaca-man leader continues on, for the most part unconcerned, as I focus first one of my senses and then another on the inexorable and mystifying changes in the jungle about us.
"Are we going on until dark?" I ask, my new, deep, coughing voice startled out of my throat after hours of disuse on its first day. After a time of walking, Snow had fallen into the habit of simply humming low in his own white throat to make contact with me, and I grumbled shortly in return. Making my vocal cords work for what passes as human language in this strange place feels untried again.
Snow looks around at me this time, and his ears are drooping a little. "I--" he says, and at that moment something pervades the entirety of our surroundings in what seems to be an impossibly strong and all-encompassing way; how could I have _not_ smelled it? Yet, if it was there all along, how could I have missed its presence? The weariness and twilight have taken more from me than I thought. Snow looks up, and bleats as he did when first I woke him in the clearing, although now he cuts it short and backs to my side in a protective fashion.
"Stay away!" he shouts, into the trees overhead. All I can sense is the smell, captured in every bit of vapor in our humid path, of something or-- somethings, more than one, shades of scent-- which has undoubtedly existed at every turn in the jungle but which only now seems _there_ and threatening. We are being attacked..?
A spotted, no-- banded form drops to the soil in front of me and hisses. Angered, still attempting to collect my wits, I hiss back and raise a paw. I realize as I do so that this is an attempt to protect the foot, withdraw it, rather than fight; my seeming attacker sees my timidity and chuckles in what sounds like a very unnatural manner.
Snow, wild-eyed, as I can see even in the haze of confusion and with this other creature spitting in my face, kicks out with one brown foot, and turns to strike the yellow-and-black thing with a hand. The blow does not fall, because a huge, golden-brown and hideous shape grabs Snow around the neck and roars in his ear. I don't even notice the smaller creature anymore; this odorous, noisy thing has to go. The only thing I can count on so far is Snow. I dig into the path with my back paw and rear, striking out with claws splayed-- something grabs my by the thigh and I fall hard against Snow's legs. Then both musty, dead-leaf scented creatures stand over us, one holding Snow down with his weight and the other twisting my leg so that even when I curve to snarl and try to snag him, he can duck under my own thigh and evade me.
I pant, trying to clear my head.
"Who are you?" Snow demands, furiously.
The massive head of the creature holding onto Snow twitches, and seems to enlarge as its jaws realign and eyes are set to focus on the white head and flaring nostrils. "Bush," says a voice seeming to be from nowhere, but definitely vibrating within the huge, golden-brown and pockmarked snake-man. "And you are on _my_ territory."
"Let us go then," snorts my friend, kicking out ineffectually. "We'll get the Hell _off_ of your territory."
"I don't think so."
I try to say something, but it comes out as a rising growl. "It'll be all right, Gatherer," Snow tells me, even as 'Bush' is hissing in his ear. He seems to want to say more, to encourage me to fight, perhaps, but realizes the futility of a verbally expressed plan when two beings separate us. "SHUT up!" says a voice from behind me, and it's that little, oddly formed yellow-banded snake-thing. "Don't cross Bush. He don't _like_ it."
"I'm not crossing anyone," I manage to grumble, as the creature gives my joint another *yank* that makes the statement end in a sputter. "I'm just trying to get home."
"You can't _get_ home from here," Bush mutters, and somehow the conviction with which he says it is chilling. I don't think I can trust anything he says, given that he is harassing my only friend. But he means that.
"What do you know?" I demand, waiting for the dart of pain in my rear right leg, and indeed receiving it, once the words are out of my mouth.
"I'll ask the questions! Where did you get the bottles?"
I am about to reply, What bottles, when Snow's sudden stillness gives me pause.
"Come on! Where did you get the bottles?"
Snow slides an eyeball in my direction, as if I should know the answer, but when he sees my open-mouthed dimness he seems to dig into himself for a reply and then says: "We got them in a park. We never took them from anybody directly. They were just there."
Something about that sounds wrong, but damned if I know why. Bush, moistened by the wet air, muscles pulsing as he constantly readjusts his grip on my companion, thinks it over. "What park? Where do you come from?"
"And don't try to tell us you're from around here," sneers the bulky little serpent-man who has control of me. "Jaguars maybe, but never one of _them_." He nods slickly at Snow.
"We're _not_ from here," Snow grumbles. "We're trying to head home. Let go."
"You can't get home," Bush repeats. "What part of that place are you from? What park?"
"It's far north," Snow snorts, becoming more and more agitated; he certainly seems to feel that he has right to be who he is and to go where he is going. I would follow him along meekly, if only these monsters would let us go. I wheel again on my captor, but although I may swipe him with one claw-tip he ducks around behind me again, and I feel my back twist uncomfortably as I try to follow through. Out of one of his limbs extends a pointed scale, and he rakes me with it inside the pit of my thigh.
I don't scream. I just flatten down again and switch my tail back and forth as if the expression comes naturally. In fact, it feels weird, and I don't know why I'm doing it. Nothing is right. And the place is so hot, even as night is falling...
Snow must not be easy to hold onto, because both he and the snake-man are panting. "It's in that Other place. I just know it," Bush gasps darkly from his soft-flesh mouth with its odd, scaled edges. "I ought to kill you right now."
"Should we bite them?"
"No. I ought to kill them, but I need them for something. I could do it myself, but there have been enough settlements damaged already in this heresy. Jar, bring the cat. We're getting off this path."
I think for a moment that it might be my chance to run, but the yellow-black-banded snake-with-limbs is all over my whole body at once. It crosses my mind that a jaguar ought to be _somewhat_ capable in a fight with a snake, and droop at the realization of my own uselessness in this form.
It's hotter in the close undergrowth, or at least I think it is, but I begin to realize that I haven't had a drink in hours, and my paws' sweat is starting to stick as though it's piling up on itself just from a few moments of staying in one place. Hunger, in this body, feels different, but I begin to recognize it. In the midst of thinking this, it occurs to me that I remember something else about myself from before: hunger, and that captured sensation brings me a little more into myself. Jar, reeking of danger-- although whether because he has hurt me or simply by virtue of his species I don't know-- hisses every time I move. He lets me lick and chew a chunk of tree bark out from between two of my front toes, but all the time he is breathing over my muzzle and swaying threateningly.
Snow is silent and angry, and seems to want to raise a hand against Bush every time the huge, brown-patterned man steps in front of him in his irritated pacing back and forth. I wonder that he doesn't worry about bringing down other animals upon us, but I suppose that with his weight and knowledge of the area he doesn't care. Something is bothering him, though, and he peers distractedly into the darkening greenery with his high-set eyes.
Jar seems confident, but even he is a bit shaken each time Bush rustles and stamps on another patch of twigs and brush. "What's up, why are we staying here?" he asks, still with sharp, rigid scale-points hovering over me. "We could bite them and that would be it. It's obvious they came from the burned grove. We can't get to their garden, or park. They came with someone else's bottles, and not through a mountain crossover. We can't do anything about it."
Bush's spine seems to elongate as he whirls and snort-hisses over Jar's form. Snow instantly looks to the north, but Bush sees it and stamps a foot down on the side Snow would have to head from to escape. "That's what troubles me, Jar, you know it is. We can't get to that place and stop it. And these two, and all their people, whoever they are, think they can just come and go as they please, and this is _my_ territory! There's been enough damage done. They'll get the bottles from the village for us. Those idiots will be friendly to anyone, even Strangers."
"But, Bush, why--"
"Shut up! Shut up and I mean that!" Bush seems at a loss for how to say more and still not let on whatever bothers him. I take a look at Snow's expression, and see and smell that this detail has given us both a modicum of hope. Bush is uncertain. He and his cohort are better-fed, or rather, fed at all, and know the land, but still they are keeping us alive and for something which makes no sense to Jar. Bush is not letting on about a weakness, and maybe we can yet make a getaway.
Yet... Bush did say that we cannot get home. He, for whatever nefarious purposes he may desire to, cannot reach our home place. I thought Snow knew how to get there, but in that way at least he seems as confused as I am.
Except that it must be north, so something about this-- world-- where snakes speak and hear and there are men like Snow-- must be aligned similarly to our own. Unless Snow is completely confused. I trust him, however. We could _try_ to get home, or at least to a safe place, a familiar place...
A mountain, or dry plains, would be familiar, I realize. The jungle is familiar, too. If I cannot return to whatever body I had with the knees and what went with them, what I cannot remember, nothing will be home. Will it? Am I homesick, or just lost and muddled? I don't even _remember_ my home. Under a tree in a park of some kind was only temporary. I briefly recall, as if it has penetrated my nostrils, a swift and cool water-smell, unlike anything from this river or its surroundings. Then it is gone. I draw in a deep breath, but gag when Jar's nervous and sour scent slams into my senses. Startled by my movement, or just for spite, Jar swings around to the base of my tail and digs a sharp appendage into the side of my belly. I start to arch and cough, but bring on calmness again as soon as I can. It will do no good to wear ourselves down as they want us to. I can't help a little, deep growl and a flexing of the muscles about my claws, though. At least Snow seems unhurt, except for a few bruises. After their first test of strength, Bush seems least worried about losing his charge. Snow may be confident, but any disturbedness aside, Bush is more so-- at least in a fight.
Snow seems to want to fight, though. His body will move to do one thing, and even before Bush stops it I will see the surprise in his face, and the hurried correction, as though that was not what he had planned.
Of course. He cannot decide how to fight: in the way normal for his old self, or in the way meant for the body design he has now.
I wonder who he was, and is.
"Move it!" seethes Jar, suddenly, jabbing into my side and narrowly but deftly avoiding my quick, aching return swipe. Bush seems to have given him some signal. The huge, writhing, glossy thing bullies Snow ahead of him further into the jungle, away from the river. Jar and I follow, and a fear rises in me. We should be following the river. Now they know the way, and we don't.
Relax, I tell myself, relax, relax. If there _is_ a time to run, take it, and use your senses. You can find the water. You can try to get food. Don't panic.
Jar scents the fear rolling off me in that moment, and chuckles in that grating way again. "You're nothing, Jaguar. A frightened Cat. That's all. I've never seen a frightened Cat as frightened as you."
"I'm not a cat," I growl, twisting away in time to avoid the first respondent slap and poke, but not banking on the next. I choke and continue padding on.
"You are, you are. But you're not even a good one. You're afraid of me, you're afraid of birds and lizards, you're afraid, you're afraid."
I wish I had a use for the anger he is building in me, and if I had a lick of energy I would turn now and do something stupid. He mentioned that they could bite me, bite Snow, and we would die. I don't know that it makes any difference either way if I'm such a pitiful specimen of my new type, but for some reason I don't want to die.
I only hope that if Snow can run, he won't leave me.
Maybe these guys are just... defensive, well obviously, and going to let off on whatever is making them so nasty, in the morning.
I need some sleep. They probably slept all day. Snow was already drooping when Jar jumped out of the tree.
My lungs and stomach don't feel so much like this is going to end in the morning. Everything about the snake-men feels wrong. They mean to do what they said-- use us for something, something to do with bottles and a village, and then unless we can get away they will do us in.
And then what? What if they don't? We travel north, and if nothing gets us and if I can manage to be a jaguar right and proper, we get... Somewhere.
If only the jungle weren't so mind-boggling, perhaps I could stay here. But Snow wouldn't. He has a clearer mind, and it travels further, even though I swear he hasn't said what he has really been thinking, at times, today. And Bush and this odious thing found me one time, found _us_ one time. They could do it again.
I could use some food and moisture. I could try to kill them.
But Snow is stronger than I, or at least seems more ready to defend himself, and he has not killed Bush yet.
I wonder what it would feel like to be snake-poisoned.
I don't like the thought; bile actually rises in me.
I lip a hanging, condensation-heavy vine leaf as I shoulder painfully through the blackening forest, attempting to glean a little drink. Jar starts to claw me again, but decides there's nothing threatening nor challenging in the maneuver, I guess.
I get the distinct sense I shouldn't try it again.
Damn. Now my mouth hurts more than ever, and I ache all over. This body is brand new, it isn't _used_ to being beaten on and badgered through the jungle.
A peaceful image of paddling ducks and geese on a greener, cooler river sustains me as we trek. Bottles, bodies, village, something. I must have drunk from or handled a bottle, a bottle in the park at home, although again Snow was not telling exactly what seems right when he answered Bush.
I hope some of the fluid off that leaf got into my insides, because now I'm burning up for another drink and I may as well not have had that one.
"Gatherer?" Snow calls, concernedly, before Bush claps him across the face and draws up alongside him to make sure he won't try a headlong bolt into the night forest. I get the feeling Bush could track him, though. And the alpaca-man at least has enough sense not to flee when he has no sure strength to maintain a pace.
"Snow," I reply gruffly, and he hums to me, but then Jar hangs back further from Bush and my friend as though we may be able to do something against the serpents if we're too close together.
So. This can't be _all_ bad.
Well, yes it can. I suppose, honestly.
Glinting eyes in the dark may be actual eyes, and indeed sometimes I smell dusty, musky, pungent or rocklike scents that are not our own. They may be false eyes, too. Whether in my own mind, simply a droplet reflecting on a leaf-tip, or designed, on a worm's head or a moth's wing, I cannot tell. Not ever having been in a jungle, always seeing it through an electronic glass window, I can't tell whether the dusty scents are miniscule butterflies' feathers, scattered by night-hunters, or beetles in troughs of tree bark eating even smaller particles. The flowers, though, huge in this place, with the unimaginably tall and unwieldy tree trunks deciding their places of growth, are unmistakable. Their perfumes are so open and intense, some inferring ripe fruit and others simply something they made up, and a few rotten even in freshness. The flowers are fading in zeal as the night goes on, and it occurs to me that they have closed and the scents are dissipating.
We could be going to die. I could die never remembering who I was.
There must be armies of jungle animals feasting on rotting meat of all kinds, right now. It could be any one, next. And then the other animals will keep on eating, eating him, whoever he is.
We haven't really been walking all that long. Everything happens so quickly here, and it takes so long for me to comprehend it. I never will. But I know who my mind and senses trust, and it's not these two. No way.
"Hurry up!" bellows Bush, completely unafraid of any _real_ jaguars crouched on their unbruised feline haunches in this uneven and buzzingly vibrant night.
"Come on, you heard him," Jar speaks up nasally, and jabs me.
"I'm not a cat," I mutter, unbidden.
But, of course, I am. Much as my feet are hurting from the tripping-roots in the ground and my ineptitude, they are still paw-feet. What I mean is, I _was_ not a cat.
"So?" Jar echoes me, and I feel somehow sick at having been in any way like the nasty thing that controls me. "Get a move on. You heard him."
Yeah, I heard him.
I sigh, and we plod on. I think I smell the backdraft of some previous meal on Jar's breath, at one point, and I feel jealous as well as angry that his breath is so close to my face. Damn snakes, they have all the luck.
In the morning I awake, dry again as
yesterday when I first woke, yet draped on all
sides with the same humidity as if someone were
baking water. My paws move and I roll up into a
position to gaze around me, and something bleary
and yellow snakes into place before me just as I
recall last night.
So, they let us sleep.
Yes, they let us sleep, for an hour or so before dawn, and now with the sun high enough to have waked me with its light in a place overgrown and rich, not at all like the burned clearing, I have come to and I realize that I needed the rest so badly that several pokes into the roughed-up, spotted coat over my ribs went unnoticed while I slept. I have myriad insect bites, too, and Jar must have been verbally goading me as well as sticking me with that damned scale, but I must have been out cold.
Now I itch and sting all over, I'm thirsty and completely empty of any nutrients save my own meager fat, and I want to bite Jar but _good_, to see what would happen to _him_, whether my thoughts alone are poison enough to send him into his wonderful death throes. But I don't really have the wherewithal to clench my jaws as I am envisioning.
Still, I hiss and raise a paw.
Snow, whose own concerned and pungent scent comes as a welcome greeting after the overriding odor of snake-men, seems pleased. He snorts a little, looking at Bush, and Bush sighs menacingly.
"Stop, Jar, you're wasting your time with that worthless Cat. It's only good to us in a semi-rested mood. As for _you_--" he nudges Snow bruisingly-- "keep your damn voice to yourself. We're over a rise from that village, and you're going to be listening to me and listening closely. Do it my way and nobody gets hurt, and for helping out you Hell-animals can go where you please."
I don't like his deep voice, not nearly so clear as Snow's, and I don't like that we're close to a village. If the people are friendly, maybe Bush will hurt them, too. And if they're not, we're more surrounded than ever. I flatten my ears and listen, as ordered.
But Bush does not speak of his plan right away. Instead, he paces some more, and looks over at Snow's still-bright and intelligent eyes frequently. Then, seeming to judge (rightly, frustrated as that makes me) that we are too unsure to make a run for it, he takes Jar aside and whispers down into his face for some time. Jar twitches frequently, and nods, and makes threatening gestures with a widening of his throat whenever he looks at me.
Not that I'm going anywhere. I dig further into the loam and feel growls moving around inside me, with no release out my mouth.
Snow brings himself just a little closer, remaining on his seat yet managing to get to where he can whisper to me while Bush and Jar confer.
"I think they're re-thinking how they've handled us, and coming up not so good," he hisses carefully. "The large one said something about a village, and he never keeps anything straight when he's talking."
"Seems consistent enough so far, to me," I dare to answer, eyes fixed firmly on our enemies.
"I mean, he wavers. Between being decent and taking violent charge."
I hold an ear in place to listen to Snow, and do not reply.
"He wants to use us to get to somebody. Somebody in a village. But if he would have had that plan, before they caught us, he would have tried to smooth it over, make us like them, you think?"
"But, they didn't know we were coming," I answer under my rasping breaths.
Snow leans closer still, and Bush eyes him, but mutters on and simply ripples his muscular body to show how fast retribution will take place should Snow try anything. Bush seems bruised in one or two spots, and Jar has that tiny scrape where I snagged him once; I can smell the fluid that arises before blood. Other than that, they're untouched. I am duly intimidated. Snow just glares back, and speaks again to me.
"You're right, they didn't. They had no way of knowing. We... we must have come in a way that they cannot predict, and it has something to do with the village. They hate us, but they don't know us."
"They don't want us here."
"Obviously. That's what I mean. That's _all_ they know."
"I think they know something. I think Bush knows how this happened, and he's not telling."
Snow rubs his lower front teeth against his lip, thoughtfully. I sense hedging again, but I don't care, not now. Anything from Snow is welcome. I'm sick to death of Jar.
"I don't think so-- at least, I don't think they know how we can get home. Or back into-- well, I don't think they know. But they have a reason to hate us, maybe the territory thing, that would make sense."
"But we would _leave_!" I hiss back. Damnit, I don't see why we can't just step across their little line and wave goodbye and be gone.
"_We_ might. But they didn't know we were going to be here. We changed and landed smack dab in the middle of their land. That's the thing. They know, or think they know, some way to _stop_ it, and that's what they're trying to do."
"You mean, the same thing that happened to me, happened to others? Really?"
Snow nods, taking care that the action is not too pronounced so the snake-men won't be down on us again. "Yes. It must have. They didn't expect us, but they know this isn't our home."
"Our home. Right, but, Snow, what were you--"
"Separate yourselves, and let's go. I'm showing you the village."
I scutter back away from Snow, cringing as Bush's weird foot threatens to drive home his command. "Jar, scout ahead."
Snow moves calmly back to his original spot. Jar, nodding once to Bush, withdraws his oddly bent limbs until he truly seems nothing more than a bulky serpent with no man-ness to him. He drops as he does so, and, keeping his arms and legs and whatnot tucked into whatever scaley crevasses he has in that body, glides into the thick brush and is gone.
Wearily, I realize that Snow and I are no match for Bush even as two-against-one.
"I need some food," I say, ashamed of the begging tone.
"You'll get it," growls Bush. "Shut up and wait."
Snow looks like he wants to say something, but instead takes a chance and plucks some likely-looking blossoms from a nearby vine.
Bush lets Snow nibble, and the alpaca-man's hot saliva strengthens the flower-scent until I wish _I_ had an appetite for green things.
"You'll get food," Bush assures, darkly and distantly, like the plan he is forming is none too sure but seems all right so far. "You'll get it and you'll damn well be grateful for it. You never would have found the village on your own, there are none to the north, you would have died."
I don't feel too lively as he speaks at the _moment_, but I let that go unsaid.
"I _could_ do it all my _self_ you know," the snake-man suddenly insists, jamming a foot into the ground and twitching his tail as his features work into a simulation of a snarl. I see a fang, glistening, drop just its tip and part of its side into view, and shudder involuntarily. "I could, but I won't. I could have done anything I wanted. Now, you do as I say and you'll save a few idiots' lives. Yes, I could kill them, they would resist me, this way is better for you-- I am feeling generous with my land for those stupid villagers. Just be glad I decided this, and did not kill you when I tracked you down."
"I don't see what's so wrong with a few visitors--" I begin, but Snow shushes me with a sudden turn of his head.
"Damn you!" shouts Bush. "Just because you travel all around, and don't care what you do to anyone, or what they do to you-- I'll make you care, if you don't. You fail at getting those bottles, and I'll kill you. I won't bite, either. I'll torture you, and I'll leave you to rot in the old burned grove where I shot the gatherers with their own arrows and set fire to their bodies and the fruit trees. It's _enough_, I tell you, _enough_! And you can be a warning to anyone else who comes as you did with those cursed bottles. So don't you try to tell _me_ what to do with my land. Damn villagers have to have their drinks all the time. Damn villagers..."
I stare, and Bush's vibrations and scent come into my own space as he lets off the tirade and balls a fist in front of my face.
"Enough," he hisses finally, finger-spines still tight but breathing evened out. "Do as I tell you. Both of you. You have no say."
I wonder whether the villagers have any say, in Bush's mind. If he doesn't trust them, sending his sidekick to check out the place before he proceeds, then perhaps we _can_ trust them, to help us. Yet he claims he could handle them himself. Maybe he has more men, or maybe the villagers are under his power, by force, as he wishes.
Yet he does seem nervous. Say, then, I think to myself, that they _are_ powerful, these village-creatures or people or whatever the case may be, and they _don't_ like Bush's actions and they can do anything they like, should they catch him. Say that is so. It does not, I conclude, sighing, follow that they will like us any better than they like Bush. Yes, this could be as bad or worse than ever.
I quake at the thought of a town full of serpent-men.
Or, what if they are jaguars? Surely they wouldn't be pleased at my presence.
"I need a drink," I venture. Snow plucks a limb from a bush, and hands it to me.
"Hold still, you'll both get your drinks," Bush grumbles.
I lick off a few drops of water, but after just a moment Bush steps up to us abruptly, takes away the branch, and sits in a pounce-ready posture on the side of Snow where my friend has been getting the flowers.
The day gets further from yesterday. My thoughts continue into odd meanderings, something to do with popcorn, whatever that is, and sunshine unlike any here. A sound, something I _know_ I should be able to identify, sounds from the recesses of my ear and, although I know it is a memory and not a real sound, for an instant I entertain the fancy that it came from Snow. I look at him.
Snow cocks his head slightly, quizzically.
I turn away, knowing it was in my mind alone. Yet I could have _sworn_... So, what am I remembering? The voice, the sound, whatever it was, is gone from my brain, yet it seems to have been a part of that park and the river. It seemed as if, briefly, Snow called me clearly instead of in a whisper. Should I _know_ him?
I take another good look at the alpaca-man. Bush watches me looking, and I gaze back at him, too, repulsed yet too tired to keep cringing away.
Snow is between me and the fanged man, and for that I am grateful.
Snow's fur, fluffy and pure at the outset, is intertwined with thorns and in places stained leaf-colors. Little black bits seem to have managed to tie knots of white coat around themselves. I know I look a sight, too. I set to licking myself with my dry tongue, wondering if any of this dirt and loose fur may have any nutritive value. I thought cats were supposed to be able to go for days without eating... Could the aching necessity inside me have anything to do with the possibility that this body has never eaten?
I still think Snow appears composed and would easily regain his brightness when out of this situation and this jungle. I'm supposed to be at _home_ in the jungle.
Snow blinks, and his eyes are huge and dark, and take away attention from the little flecks in his white fur. He fiddles with just how to comfortably rest his brown-skinned hands and feet, how to get comfortable in that body, and next to that enormous snake-man.
Bush seems used to everything. He crouches, perfectly still.