Masters of Beasts, Eric Leclere (2020) — from the novel The Harvesters.
As far as is known, what here follows not so much took place in the Garden of Eden,
Beneath some rock or amongst the stars — Or even as an event over the horizon.
But it did happen. At some time. Possibly at a place not unlike your own,
Where come high tide the best of swimmers can get caught drifting too far from the shore.
For those who told the tale owned its truth, and imparted it to those who told it after them,
Not necessarily the uppermost form of authentication, but enough of one so that for now,
It has never been shown a lie — Or some fancy or deception.
This was a place where summer wilted into autumn and winter bloomed to spring.
A place of rivers and meadows and wilderness bedraggled with wastelands.
Where trees rustled in the rain and lips in equal proportion served love and venom:
A kiss — A sermon.
And where youth’s instruction provided they washed behind their ears,
And the elders wrote down the Judgement Laws and sheltered from the cold.
A place where notions of immortality were deemed best left the domain of the Gods.
The tale goes that in such winsome yet unsuspecting location one day emerged a bear.
Out of the cold it sprung — Blown in with the winter Far Eastern breeze.
And it was a bear like no bear seen before — A peculiar bear of sorts but still a bear.
For one thing it spoke. And for another like no other it could show up at once everywhere.
Be in all places and forthwith be gone — By no means be anywhere and forthwith be there.
And it was a clever bear — It knew its left from its right.
And was neither he nor she —Yet it was truly mean and beastly.
“Out of every 200 people who breathe, one shall be mine to devour in time,” it said;
“Old, young, fat, lean—I’m not fussy! All which I catch shall please my appetite.
Now my hunger may be finite but let me be clear—My visitation shall be great.
So, I repeat: the great, the good, the weak, the ugly—One out of every 200 shall my treat be.”
This the bear proclaimed, and no sooner had it done so than it carried out its threat.
This it did: 199 People it visited and one more it slayed to please its appetite —All out in the open.
And then again, again and again — In all open air places it visited at once one in 200 passed on.
The People never had seen anything like it — Never at any rate in the form of this bear of sorts.
At first they paid it limited heed, trusting it to be bragging forest fury with next to no teeth.
But it soon enough set them straight — A bear of sorts it may have been,
But by all means this bear was no mere beast to be denied, deterred, declawed or derided.
A thousand dead focused the People’s mind — Ten thousand more set their prospects back.
For the bear showed up here and everywhere at once. And it was a clever bear.
It knew its left from its right. And was neither he nor she — And was truly mean and beastly.
Now a great consternation took hold of the People — A great panic; dire rhetoric.
Such that dread and sombre predilections weighted all heads.
The bear was on all sides, scores died and nothing known to the world could prevail upon it.
Only one path remained: poor wretches seeking direction the People turned to their Leaders:
“What’s to be done? Woe betide any soul who meets the bear’s wanton business!
So many of us are deadly done for we’ll soon be digging up bones.”
And without further ado their Leaders did what Leaders do.
They issued forth onto the stage with their Savants in tow pledging all kinds of cures.
After all — so much for being the betters of the pack — they were called upon to lead.
In keeping up with the particular of the predicament they soon settled on just the solution.
They passed a 3-way threefold Decree: ‘Stay indoors—Save lives—Protect our Defenders’.
“We’re at war,” they declared; “And the enemy is the God-damn bear—Cursed be it!”
Orders followed and all locked themselves up. “We must all do it to get through it,” they said.
And indoors and safe from the bear the People stayed — “We’re all in this together.”
The idea — as broadcast by the Town Criers — was to save lives and starve the bear.
The sooner to have it die of hunger or — failing this — have it depart for richer hunting grounds.
Or yet —failing that — to buy time to come up with a means to harm and kill it.
But it was a clever bear. And patient it was too. It was never going to go nowhere.
Or fret about the rate of rotation of its dinner arrangements. One out of 200 was its requirement.
It never said anything about having a hurried disposition.
And for all all knew may even have known that slow eating agrees with the digestion.
Well, the case was that while confined within their houses the People too needed eating.
Along with all manners of supplies and worldly protection — From both the bear and one another.
Some had grown forlorn; some quite mad — Even praying and funerals were restricted;
Some sour and pasty —Too much being alone; parted kindred ordained to remain parted.
Be that as it may, ways and byways could never be fully barren of Humanity.
Enforcers, Providers and Town Criers now in the Leaders’ pay had to be permitted to circulate,
Whereby the bear could never be denied, the whole time picking its set part of their numbers.
The reality of this extremity now took the form of a great lamentation.
More grew forlorn — Sourer and pastier — More lost their minds and some grew merry.
Few rebelled and far between a dozen more protested: “This is folly,” they said;
“By no means is self-imprisonment akin to ‘Going to War’, said they; “Quite the contrary.
It is surrender,” they insisted; “The same as soldiers yielding their country to the enemy
By virtue of their commander-in-chief’s zero-casualty battle policy.”
Those questioning the sense of living sequestered as a means of survival were shortly corrected.
Dawns followed dusks and a great resignation followed the great lamentation.
Rains followed summers and each day the Leaders followed the deadly bear’s numbers.
“Numbers don’t lie,” they said. Now they let the People out for a breather and up they went.
Back inside everybody was sent and down they fell — One for every 200 of those in the open air.
Tears followed cries and the Savants, regardless of the Town Criers’ much touted assertions,
Failed to dream up a bear-defeating remedy — ‘All in and Protect our Defenders’ continued to be.
Stranded on the path they furrowed earlier, the Leaders could follow only their own footsteps.
By and by — in the course of a hot summer evening — At the end of a very long day,
While no People were still free — all around now being sheer resigned melancholy,
Perchance a herd of wildebeest on their yearly migratory way — two million heads in all, they said;
Past a copse of waterpear trees perchance a great wildebeest migration erred Humanity’s way.
On their travel, finding peace where ordinarily all was People’s industry,
They’d drifted some way from their trail, stumbled to the edge of a blockaded village,
And on noting their error at once set out to withdraw — But they were too slow.
The front of the herd was seen, for the village had a posse out on watch for the bear.
Beneath a banner bearing a brutish dragon a small band of Defenders-at-arms manned a barricade,
Each head concealed in a barrel-shaped wooden cask with prized out slats for the eyes.
“Who goes there!” bemoaned a voice; “Halt at once or be done. Are you with the bear?”
At the outset the wildebeest were unsure of the situation. They’d seen much before,
Known of People for generations, could even recall seeing them learn to walk on their own two feet.
But as of yet never had met one who bore a wooden cask for a head — or seemed so defeated.
“Please accept our sincerest apologies for wandering this way,” the head wildebeest said,
For the smart ones amongst them could talk too; “The land is so tranquil we strayed off course.
We shall go at once.” From what the wildebeest knew of Humanity, this ought to satisfy the posse.
“Oh—I see: you’re wildebeest,” a wooden cask said: “Good—Stand at ease and away with you.”
The wildebeest gave thanks and without further adieu made to leave, but a voice interjected:
“I trust from your surprise at our strange countenance that you have not heard, have you?
We’re being terrorized by a bear—So much for the country’s tranquillity—It’s what it’s come to.”
To be sure, no wildebeest knew of the bear, nor wished to postpone departing on account of it.
But some among the village barricade had other ideas — clearly itched to tell their story.
How the bear had come — blown in with the winter Far Eastern breeze.
How it was a bear like no bear seen before — A peculiar bear of sorts but still a bear
How it could show up at once everywhere.
Be in all places and forthwith be gone — By no means be anywhere and forthwith be there.
And it was a clever bear — It knew its left from its right. And was most mean and beastly.
This was a lot to take in for a wildebeest but the People’s business was not yet done.
The most effusive among the barricade let it known that their name was Johanna.
And so much they wished to tell, not to be thwarted they threatened to unravel:
How the confined People prayed — Longed to gather out again — Yearned for society.
How their Leaders sought to save them — Mortgaging three fourth of the country to aid the needy.
How their Savants toiled round-the-clock to fix an elixir to kill the bear — As yet to no avail.
How the Town Criers braved the morning of each day to unveil the latest calamities.
Well, it is nature’s good grace that all things must pass — Even the most drawn out cry.
But by the time the one named Johanna had cast their spell, the head wildebeest was overwhelmed.
“My—This all sounds grim,” said he; “But, if I may, what of the casks on your heads?”
“Oh—This’ to hinder the bear,” Johanna said; “It aims to catch us with a grab of our skull in its paws.
Ingests us whole—The head, then the neck then the torso—Scorning all from the waist to the toes,
The parts of which form ungodly heaps for our treasured ambulance crews to see to.
Truth is the cask hardly helps— Is mere wood chips for the bear’s paws—But it makes us feel safer.”
It was getting dark now but still, the head wildebeest delayed and took a look around.
The sight of his fellow wildebeest poised behind and on either side of him cheered his heart.
“This is grim,” he said, just as every village door beyond the barricade burst wide open.
Briefly, from every threshold cask-headed figures banged tambourines, chimed bells, clapped hands.
“Fear not, wildebeest—This is their daily show of worship to we who defend them,” Johanna said.
Then from one side a spirited crowd dragged in a naked figure covered in tar and hoisted it up a tree.
“Don’t mind them. This stranger was caught heading this way with the bear in tow,” Johanna said.
But the greater disruption had yet to come. Now a distant explosion rocked the ground itself.
“Be not alarmed. This is the sound of our youngsters toppling our old statues to erect their own.”
Johanna sighed — And a yell and a song issued from two of the barricade’s casked-heads:
“Down! Yes!” — “And the toppermost now will later be bottom—For the bottomest now will later be top.”
“Pay these no heed. They only heckle and sing on account of being troubled,” Johanna declared;
“Their ship steers wide rivers blind of wild mountain streams.”
And in a dream all fell quiet again — The wildebeest picked up where he’d let off — He had an idea.
“One for every 200 of you? These are the numbers the bear slays?” he said.
Johanna: “To please its appetite.”
“And you know not how to overcome it?”
Johanna: “Our Savants are on it—But like I said: it’s a clever bear.”
“Must be hard on your sons and daughters—Don’t your children need to play outside?”
Johanna: “It’s hard for all of us—We all need the open air. The praise of strangers.
The thrills and perils of getting together. None here shall ever be satisfied by captivity.”
The wildebeest had an idea, and not without trepidation now elected to hazard an opinion:
“If I may be so bold as to suggest: could you not take a leaf out of us wildebeest’s playbook?
Make accommodation for the bear? Look upon it as more of a storm and less of a curse?
You may know that each year on our 1000-mile trail we wildebeest lose near two in every 100:
To the Lion, the Hyena, the Wild Dog, the Cheetah, the Leopard, the Crocodile—And other hunters.
Yet it is near a million years now that we roam the plain—Fit and unbound; proud and hearty.
For long ago we agreed that life and freedom commonly exact a levy.”
Well, it was plain — Where at first the wildebeest had only erred he now had spoken out of turn.
Ahead of him at the barricade the cask-headed People started tsk-tsking.
“Bloody Nora—Who does the wildebeest think he is!” — Johanna no longer was too friendly.
“Such savage notions have been promoted before—Though never as yet by a plain wildebeest.
None ever dared. We are not immoral creatures without consciences, wildebeest—We care.
To forgo their own may be to a lowly beast’s betterment—But we stand together—For one another.
Enact feats beyond your discernment—You are speaking of things beyond your comprehension.”
This being the state of affairs, no reason remained for the wildebeest to stay there.
It was late and dark and it was hot, and it had been a long day even before this parley.
“We better be off now,” the wildebeest said; “We crossed a river a little way from here.
Just beyond the waterpear trees—Would you mind if we camped the night at the riverbank there?”
“Be our guest—And help yourself to the water too,” Johanna said; “It costs nothing.
You be safe now. And please feel free to return for goodbyes before making off tomorrow.”
“Indeed. And you be safe from the bear,” the wildebeest said; “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”
That night under the stars by the riverside the wildebeest smelled the water, the air from the plain.
He’d never felt better amongst his millions of slumbering brothers and sisters.
It was just as well as — for a while there — Johanna’s words had caused him vexation.
No wildebeest should get above their station: amid their towers the People still held to be Masters.
Masters of conscience, Masters of wars; Masters of beasts and the 10 commandments.
Masters of the Wheel and the Little and Great Bear, the greater they held to be Masters of death.
So used they’d grown to be Masters of all they now sought to rival their homespun undying Gods.
And here it is where this ends — With the dew of dawn the wildebeest rejoined their trail.
They never visited the village again — Steered well clear of beaten tracks and barricades.
What happened to them is not known; nor of what came to pass to the bear or its foes.
But rumour has it that the People became so mortgaged to the meanest of their own,
The bear became the least of their woes — Their children wound up bound to greedier predators.
But it’s only rumour. For their towers and barricades tumbled into dust — Nothing in space remains.
And for all their kisses and sermons not a ghost of their spells haunts the Creation.
Only this tale — Not so much from the Garden of Eden.
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