The village actually fished two different ways. Those along the bridges used nets to capture the fish sticks, which would be rubbed to be descaled then simply fried on a long, stone plinth put above the grand fire that sat at the kitchen, and then you had those at the falls, spearing the larger fish that made it down the torrential downpour. Nick wondered how it was even possible for the fish to survive it, let alone create a viable ecosystem for them to live at all, but, as Rylo lead him to the waterfall, it turned out it wasn’t as smooth as he thought. It wasn’t one, long flow but a series of jutting cliffs, leading to a smooth basin at the bottom that would inevitably split into the rivers.
Nick witnessed firsthand how the fish came to be there, watched as they flowed from one to the next, guided by the current yet protected by it. He saw schools of the silver remoras rain down, shimmering in the froth like a thousand gems, glistening in the basin before they recuperated and swam off, down one of the four paths given. These were left, though, the spear fishers’ attention still locked above, waiting on something far, far larger to descend. For the longest time, as he and Rylo simply stood there, Nick simply wondered what they could be wanting that required such undivided attention; however, as his intrigue and wonder started to fail and his desire to keep moving started to kick in, he was growing impatient enough to face his favorite set of pins be-
That’s when that beauty crested the falls.
Nick wasn’t sure if it was fish, whale, or snake, but what he did know was it the most beautiful aquatic specimen he ever saw. Its skin was silver like remoras before, but it was just that. Skin. Not a single scale touched its form, leaving its long, lanky yet bulky body to more sliver over the water rather than dive under. Its eyes were striking, set in front, peerless yellows glistening with the gems falling into the pond that it was locked upon. Its mouth hung agape, the four, long incisors keeping it from closing it, and he could see small, needle-like teeth lining the rest... as well as a fat, black tongue.
It ignored every step. It seemed to ignore the falls, diving right into the basin below with a sonorous splash, sending a plume of water towards the sky. And, it was in that moment that they unleashed their spears, flying into that plume. Six spears flew, and there were six squelches as well as a rising shrill, turned to gurgling as the creature sunk under the water. It was still recovering from the impact, body still locked, as were its prey around, wriggling on the surface, and, with the injuries it suddenly sustained, it went into full shock... and drowned under the water. The six spearmen dove in and claimed their prize at the bottom of the basin, needing every single one to hoist that behemoth out of the pool. Even then, two others joined from his fan club, and its head and the base of its tail, fanned out into a jagged maple leaf with hues of pink and orange, swung behind.
Nick would have felt bad for the creature, but then another plopped down from the falls into the basin. By the fourth, he realized they were a dime a dozen and pennies for IQ, which made him wonder more about the lands above and their ecosystems. There’s always balance in nature, and, if these fish adopted to eat the small remoras, something must have adopted to prey upon them-
“The cats! Of course,” he blurted, making them drop the fourth catch of the day. They grumbled, groaned, but picked it up out of the shallows all the same... save for one. She must have been on the younger side, her tufts only half grown, but that didn’t stop her from chewing him out –an act that would have more meaning if he could actually understand it. And if he was actually paying attention. Instead, he was watching those behind her, the ones still holding the fish, suddenly scramble away from their catch, calling out to his fans for their spears as the fish wasn’t exactly as caught as they thought.
He tried to tell her about it, tried pointing at it, but she simply slapped his hand away. Her voice only rose and grew angrier with the thoughtful gestures. As well as for those crying out her name, Shoula. She only realized too late that they weren’t trying to chastise her for her actions but trying to warn her about the twenty-odd-foot snake-fish-whale that grew quite tired of her voice. It took it upon itself to cease the tirade, and it ended not with a scream but with a wheezing gasp, puncturing both her lungs with its long incisors. It raised her up, held sideways in its maw, closing its right eye as she tried to claw at first with such fervency... quickly weakening to feeble grasps. It crunched down again, rotated her with its fat black tongue until only the top of her body was out, still struggling, grasping at its slick maw, then turned and headed for the basin, slinking into it and down the northern river, taking its well-deserved meal for the trip.
With that, Rylo seemed to think Nick had enough of an orientation to his people’s daily life and their culture.
In truth, Nick was rather pleased that his sheer disregard of their lives was not so uncommon, and that death naturally comes swiftly for the... less than suitable of their kind. Darwin would be absolutely thrilled to see his work on full display, and there would be plenty of his rewards to hand out. Regardless, Rylo returned to the village, with Nick in spiky tow, and placed the still writhing mass of fish onto one of the red tables. There were already a plethora of other nets filled to the brim strewn across them and a small platoon taking to removing the heads, tails, and scales. Another table was laden with the giant snaky boys, which were being given more care. Except for the heads; those were lopped off immediately. Darwin would question why they don’t do that when they first take it out of the water, but then there would be no awards to pass out.
It was watching them work those snakes that kept most of Nick’s attention for the rest of the day. Rylo had moved on to other business, but he told his keepers something before he did, which, if he had to assume, Nick was allowed to freely roam the city, but, if he so much as stepped out, make a gang bang look kid-friendly in comparison to how many ends he would be penetrated with. He couldn’t help but feel that some of them wanted him to try it... or, at the very least, move elsewhere instead of simply standing there watching the butchers. The way they shifted and grumbled around as he leaned against the side of the mound’s entrance told him they would soon be running each other through if only to break the tedium that set in, but how could he not be enthralled by their work.
He might have been amazed by their culinary abilities in the morning, but watching them filet, separate bone from flesh with such ease and quickness using stone blades; there was a level of intimacy involved with their tools and how they approached. It was as if it was both second nature and rigorously honed for years, thought out with excruciating detail yet reflexive, done in the moment. He would compare their work not to a martial artist but to a musician –until it came to the unneeded items inside; those were ripped out and dumped, with care, into the baskets set in the dip before the tables.
However, the amount that was unneeded was rather surprising. Stomach went, as did the nasty business that came after it and the pipe leading to. Lungs were tossed, which it turned out they had four sets, each of varying size, color, and, more than likely, weight. What he thought were lungs were more like buoyancy sacks to allow it to skate across the water with such grace. It would explain why they sunk like a stone and stayed under when struck with arrows and put in shock, since the body would be in panic mode trying to readjust everything after impact and the sudden addition would lead them to an outcome not unlike the Hindenburg. Regardless, though, those were tossed.
What was kept, though? The hearts, huge, eight-valve monstrosities that looked more like a kid’s toy than an actual organ. The spleen, kidneys, liver, skin, teeth, and, most important of all, bone. The bone was treated with such care it was as if it was the true prize. After seeing it doused in the water troughs that ran in between and separated every table, though, he understood why. They didn’t use wood, at least not indigenous wood. They probably imported some through trade, but most of their buildings, their tables, their stalls; all of it was made out of treated snake bone... Which, also, meant the majority of their “fabric” was its skin.
That was both an enlightening revelation... and a disappointing one. He hoped that it was more the cats so he could make culturally inappropriate jokes to the people back home, but no. They were normal, everyday, snake-eaters. It was such a normalcy there was even a game about it... At least, that’s all he could assume the game was about. He never could get into them; why waste time on such a meaningless talent? Besides, he was saving for guns that would inevitably put in the pawn shop to feed his financial dynasty.
The white sun dipped over the horizon, and that’s when the dinner bell was finally rung. Well, dinner chime, but it was still pretty to look at. It rang across the mound, down into the fields and off to the streams, but those that were keeping watch were already heading up to kitchen before the cooks struck the first chord. They watched them raise a blade to it and jumped at something other than dying slowly. Nick joined them, and finally had the chance to try something other than fishy balls. The little silver remoras were pretty much kept intact other than their heads, tails, and scales and were grilled with a toss of spices on top of the wooden plinth, given a rich, yellow skin. Meanwhile, the snake was portioned then given a glaze from a skin. Nick didn’t want to know what it was in it, not yet at least, but it smelled strong... and gave the soft, white flesh a deep red finish. They were served with a bit of vegetable, which Nick couldn’t really place the origin of any of them, all on an actual wooden plate, handed a wooden fork to go with it. He looked around at the others, given small, stone blades, and sort of expected this. The snake was soft enough, at least, and the remoras were little more than fish sticks.
He returned to his nook and slid down it to sit, cross-legged, looking at his meal. It looked scrumptious, first-class, akin to many a fancy meal in the restaurants they portrayed rich people to eat back at home... but that was also why he showed hesitation. They didn’t exactly eat the most... appetizing meals, and this was snake. No matter how much the media tried to make it normal, he had never eaten snake before –at least, to his knowledge. Then there were the vegetables- he wasn’t much a vegetable fan to begin with, with his favorite being sweet peas but that wasn’t fair since those things were green crack and no one can eat only one. His second favorite were the lentil crisps he bought once to try on a whim back when he lived in Accident, and he only had a few out of the bag before She completely devoured them, so he couldn’t really say if he liked them or not. Any other vegetable? Poison.
He nudged them with his fork, grimacing yet appreciating how they stayed firm, finding it hard to push it through, so focused on his quickly-cooling meal that he didn’t realize his main keeper had returned. It was only when Rylo nudged him that he managed to snap his gaze away and notice that his entire fan club joined him in sitting, inhaling their food with wild abandon. Even Rylo was tearing into it with such voracity, the kind, gentle soul he knew replaced by a ravenous beast. There were times Nick thought he wouldn’t stop with just the food and eat the plate and fork, as well, but he showed enough restraint to go get another serving before continuing.
But now Nick felt all their gazes upon him again, angrier and more disgusted than ever. Each one must have gone up so far for three-to-four plates, whereas he was still on his first, cooled. Nick knew, in some cultures, it was rude to refuse their meals or custom, and that, in some extreme cases, it would be grounds to execute the person. So, he swallowed his fear and doubt at last, cut into the snake steak... and regretted putting it in his mouth. It wasn’t the worst thing he ever ate -that honor goes to a certain bargain brand pizza-, but it was more a texture issue than the taste. He couldn’t really stand pork, aside ham and bacon, and it had the right texture to be similar to pork steak. The flavor, itself, was almost buttery, with a hint of game, and had a sort of vinegar-soaked venison aftertaste... but in a good way. It was more a play on the senses than sitting on the tongue, carrying into his nose and creating this effervescent canvas of sweet, salty, and savory. But it was what lingered on his tongue that he could not stand.
He stomached it for three bites, but then needed to switch to something else if only to avoid truly insulting their culture, which that meant the fish sticks... They were fish sticks. No issues, but he found it hard to pace himself to that and the steak. He still had a third item to add to the rotation-
Poison. Pure poison. Crunchy poison, but still poison.
His club exclaimed as he suddenly bolted to his feet and ran for the path down to the river. Rylo urged them to wait, to give him a chance, which wasn’t needed as his retches came before he even made it to the slope. Thankfully, the outcome did, and it splashed into the grass, making him taste the poison all over again, this tie with bile to add that much-needed oomph. There he stood for five agonizing rounds until even yesterday’s snaky balls were gone from his system. He lurched back over, plopping down beside his plate... and raised it to Rylo. He pointed to the steak first, giving it a meh gesture, then the fish sticks, giving a thumbs up. For the vegetables, though, he gave them a thumbs down, grabbed the knife off Rylo, and stabbed it through the wooden plate.
Rylo nodded his head, and told them this, where they all heaved a sigh, but Nick didn’t stay there to listen to them. He needed some food on his belly, and, just like most of his adolescence, it would be fish sticks to the rescue. It seemed it didn’t matter which culture, fish sticks were the salvation of all.