Chapter Twenty Five
Back at the homestead, Emma stormed angrily into their hut. She stopped abruptly and stomped her feet, dust erupting from the cane floor, forming small clouds around her bare feet that evaporated in an instant.
KoKo jumped from her shoulders and skipped towards her sleeping basket as soon as she hit the floor. Emma watched her disappear inside it then let out a therapeutic lungful of air before turning her attention to her surroundings.
She loved their hut. It was round and large with cane walls and a thick roof of weaved palm fronds. And while it would look like a plain abode to anyone unaccustomed to life on a jungle moon, to Emma it was pure opulence compared to the shelters she’d grown up with. And, in a way, it had become the first true home she’d ever known.
She thought back to her childhood life with Adam before they’d settled close to the great mountain. Without knowledge of how to build anything—or the strength to even try—they’d lived in the trees for many years, relying on their massive limbs and fronds for safety and shelter from the harsh elements.
For months after Pin died, they scavenged in vain for food during the days, hurrying back to the branches before the sun went down and night creatures ventured out. On a good day they might have a sweet root to share between them, or a few handfuls of edible blue rock moss. It was a hard and tiresome life without the stability that Pin had established for them.
At merely ten and eleven years of age, migrating inland while learning how to survive took its toll on them quickly.
Within six months they were skinny and all but starved owing to a lack of fish or fruit-baring trees deep within the moon. Without water for bathing they were often filthy, their lips and the skin between their fingers and toes splitting from dehydration.
Their hair grew wild and tangled, and before long their ship’s clothes turned to tatters, pieces shedding from their emaciated bodies like old skin from an aging lizard. After all their clothes had eroded they wrapped themselves in whatever coverings nature provided, truly becoming creatures of the jungle.
Within a year, the usefulness of language had all but eroded and they barely spoke to one another. They became no different than the native animals of the moon. Not that they lost the ability to speak, but silence was essential to survival in the jungle’s interior, where a vast array of previously unseen and dangerous monsters lived and bred.
Sliders were the deadliest— land octopods as quick on the ground as they were in the trees, their barbed tentacles like grappling hooks, chopping into the bark to help them slide through the branches after their prey. Many times in the early days of their travels, Emma had found herself cornered by a red or blue slider, whip-fast appendages lashing around branches in chase, desperate to pull her into their round maws.
Luckily, her years on the moon had made her fast, and Adam was never too far off to help at her call. For all the dangers of the jungle, they’d been lucky. The worst injury Emma had experienced from a confrontation was the odd slider barb in the arm, or leg. Barbs pierced deep and hurt like hell, but the wounds healed within days if carefully treated and bandaged.
Eventually, as the years strengthened them and experience increased their daring, they became more comfortable living a life on the ground. They learned the routines of nature and the movements of the animals around them and exploited those rhythms.
They speared mud mice in the early morning when the nocturnal rodents were sleepy and slow. They gathered sweet roots in the afternoons, which, when mashed together with the bitter red leaves of a common shrub, made a tart, earthy chew that helped them stay alert and energetic during the hottest times of the day.
The only downside of the natural stimulant was that it also made them incredibly thirsty, and water was always challenging to find when on the move. With no camp to set up rain basins, finding small rivers or jungle streams was left entirely to chance and mostly they survived on morning dew by licking it off fronds.
After years of roaming free and living from one meal to the next, Emma finally admitted to herself that they couldn’t go on living as they had. They needed to find somewhere to settle or the moon would claim them like it had Pin. But in a dark world of endless jungle where everything posed a deadly threat, where could they go? What had happened at the ocean—the violence and loss she’d experienced— had devastated her so profoundly that the thought of traveling back was impossible to fathom. No, they had to push forward. She just hoped something better was waiting for them somewhere.
It was four months into her thirteenth year when Emma glimpsed the great mountain, shrouded in cloud and peeking out from the tops of the trees.
It was a typical morning. The wide red limbs of the trees were cool and slippery with evening sweat and she had struck off to hunt alone before the sun rose.
KoKo was on her shoulder, half dozing. Adam rarely woke before the dawn forced his eyes to accept a new day, but she’d learned that early mornings were the best time to gather eggs and snatch young not-parrots from their nests. Watchful mothers were usually off searching for insects and sluggers at this time.
It wasn’t long before Emma’s efforts paid off and she heard the high-pitched wine of a baby not-parrot somewhere above her.
She looked up to see a mess of sticks and ground flora and recognized it was a nest. She climbed higher until she could peer into it and survey its contents. One newborn and three smooth, brown eggs not yet hatched lay inside.
The baby not-parrot became excited when she reached a hand in to snatch the eggs, bobbing its head up and opening its mouth expecting food from its mother. After wrapping the eggs carefully in a frond, tying it up with a vine and sticking the package inside what remained of her shirt for safe-keeping, Emma looked back at the animal, still calling for food.
If it wasn’t for the hunger pains in her own stomach, Emma might have felt sorry for the animal’s confusion. In this case, however, she took advantage and snatched the not-parrot up without much thought.
She held the animal close to her face and examined it for signs of skin rot. She smiled as she scanned its scales, brightly colored and shiny in the dawn’s light. They’d learned over time that dull scales or marbled underbellies were an early sign of flesh disease, but this young one appeared healthy and safe to consume. It was a lucky find.
Emma was about to twist its neck to snap it when the not-parrot’s head shot forward and pecked her cheek twice swiftly. Its needle-thin beak broke her skin and she dropped it in surprise.
“Oh, you little monster!” she yelled, wiping away a line of blood.
KoKo jumped at her outcry and stood at attention on her shoulders, wondering what was happening.
Emma looked at the red smudge on her fingers for a moment then moved to grab the not-parrot from the nest. It jumped away and fluttered to a higher branch. KoKo clacked excitedly and Emma scowled as she watched the creature chirping down at her, almost taunting.
“So, you can fly already,” she said as she readied herself to chase after it. “This should be fun.”
Pressing the balls of her feet against the red wood, Emma leapt up and grabbed the branch above her head with both hands. KoKo dug her claws into her shoulder as she swung hard, kicking both her legs up and spinning into a balanced crouch on the upper limb.
The not-parrot hopped backwards swiftly as Emma leaned forward to snatch it again and she just missed, almost losing her balance in the process. Looking away to grab hold of a vine, she steadied herself before turning back to search for the animal. But the not-parrot was already gone.
“Now where did you go?” Emma whispered as she scanned the branches. Not one to give up— especially on a hunt—she was determined to see the animal caught and roasted over an open flame for her breakfast if it took her all morning.
Fronds shuffled slightly overhead and she looked up to see the not-parrot disappear even higher into the branches. Emma was after it in a moment, climbing with simian agility until she was once more within reaching distance. A lightning-quick swipe of her hand and she pinched its leathery wing between her nails. The not-parrot chirped and flailed, but it wasn’t strong enough to escape now that she finally had it.
Emma turned and leaned her back against the trunk. She closed a hand around the not-parrot and pressed its wings to its side. Reaching up, she tore a thin vine off the closest branch to her and, holding the not-parrot tightly, she began wrapping its legs quickly and efficiently. It was a task she had performed so many times before, she barely looked as she wound the vine, instead taking a moment to look at the view from the tree. That’s when she saw it— a massive red monolith of stone rising from the sea of trees.
For a moment, Emma was stunned by what she saw. The great mountain’s body dwarfed everything around it, red stone breaking from the sea of trees like a monstrous beast breaking the ocean waves. Its bottom was miles wide, hidden by foliage, while its top disappeared into the clouds giving it the impression of an infinite structure. The only movement she detected was the thin line of a waterfall on one side. She couldn’t hear it from where she was, but she was mesmerized by the brilliant light reflecting wildly from its far away stream.
Emma’s grip loosed around the not-parrot and the animal wriggled free of her and flew away. KoKo chirped wildly in warning, but Emma barely noticed she was so taken with the mountain’s presence. The moment she saw it it called to her and she knew immediately it was where they needed to go.
Snapping back to the moment, Emma double checked that the not-parrot eggs were still wrapped up safely before scaling back down the tree. Her body tingled with excitement. For the first time in years, she felt like she had a purpose, a plan, and a final destination. She could already imagine a better life waiting for her and Adam if they could just get to the mountain.
As she touched down on the jungle floor, she imagined climbing all the way to the mountain’s top, into the clouds, and looking out across the whole of the moon, watching the animals roam far below as though she was their ruler. She began to run, desperate to tell Adam about what she’d seen and to convince him of their destiny.
When she found Adam again, he was awake and brushing a long procession of bark mites from his bare legs. He winced as their tiny pincers nipped at his skin, but they were no more than a nuisance.
“This tree is dying,” he said matter of factly when he saw Emma push into view. He didn’t notice the marveled look still lingering in her eyes. “It seems that more and more of them are. Or they’re sick or something. Have you noticed that? We should be moving on. And be careful where we bed tonight.”
He flicked the last of the mites off his leg and stood up. “I don’t want to wake up one morning with a nest of mites in my ear.”
He stopped talking when Emma moved in close and grabbed both his hands unexpectedly. Her chest heaved with excitement and pushed against his, which sent a warmth up his body and through to his cheeks.
“What’s gotten into you?” he asked, the smallest hint of suspicion arcing through his words.
“I’ve seen it,” she said, her voice soft and breath hot in the morning air. “Adam, it’s enough to light a fire in my heart.”
“Seen what? What is it?” he asked in a whisper, seeing her arms ripple with goose pimples. He ran the tips of his fingers across the bumps gently saying, “You’re trembling. Emma, what is it?”
“Our future,” she said looking deep into his dark blue eyes. “Adam, I’ve found our home.”