Saeter walked until it was dark and he was absolutely sure he was alone but for the wild animals and the thick scent of wet leaves, and then he sank down onto a log and put his head in his hands. He bent double like he could protect his heart with his own body, and finally thought:
Skault needs to get hurt.
Despite the cruelty of the thought, there was no maliciousness, only relief. It was just a solution, a way to free himself from this obsession. He wouldn’t do anything to kill Skault, of course—just something to hurt him. Saeter didn’t want him dead, he wanted him aware.
Saeter couldn’t use a person to that end—every person who knew Skault loved him desperately. Instead, he dragged his tired body upright, digging through leaves, lifting rocks, looking in every crevice for the lowest, dirtiest, most disliked creatures.
First he found a rat, tucked away in a little burrow near the base of the tree. He crouched there, hands and his clothed knees both coated in mud alike, and stared at it. It was frozen in alarm, its beady eye reflecting him.
“Rat, please,” he said. “Do you know Skault, of the nearby village?”
The rat slowly relaxed. It crept forward.
“I need you to hurt him,” Saeter told it. “Bite him, scratch him, crawl all over him. Let him learn what pain is, and I’ll reward you. I’ll feed you the best food and take care of you until the end of your life.”
The rat seemed surprised, then pitying. It shook its head, and Saeter knew: It could not harm Skault.
Saeter turned his head to the side and spat, but it was more to vent the poison inside himself than to try to insult the rat itself. So the rat loved Skault. No surprise there. Mammals were warm creatures, with as many feelings as men.
He found a snake next, darting through the underbrush, but he was faster. He caught it, then transformed himself into a larger snake, staring it down. It balled up in fear, and he whispered to it: “Snake, do you know Skault?”
“I know Skault,” the snake answered in its own tongue. It did not come out of its ball.
“Please, bite him. Your poison is not enough to kill, is it? But it will bring him discomfort for days. If harm Skault, I will reward you. I will catch you everything you could ever want to eat, and help soothe you when you molt. I will give you everything you could ever want.”
The snake’s head pulled back further into its ball. “I cannot hurt Skault,” it said, apparently shocked by the idea. “Skault moved me aside when some of the village boys would have trampled me, many years ago. I don’t think you will find a single creature in these woods that will hurt Skault.”
Saeter darted at it, making as if to eat it. It finally fled, twisting through the underbrush.
Even a reptile. Even a snake, who did not feel as men did, could love Skault. What wouldn’t? But he knew. An insect was an alien creature, foreign entirely to feelings besides their instincts.
His insides ached from this many transformations at once, but next, he became a spider, and ran and climbed until he found another of that kind, stretching a web between two bushes.
Spider, he danced, letting his scent and motion explain his purpose. Know Skault? Hunt Skault. Hurt Skault. To you, good eating. I will give.
The other spider paused in its weaving. Its legs worked, and then it danced back: Know Skault. Will not. No. Leave. My web.
So that was that. Despite being unable to think of a lowlier creature that could exist that would not love Skault, Saeter combed the woods until the first light of dawn began to crack over the hill, until he was exhausted to the depths of his being and there were tears streaking the dirt on his face and he could barely keep himself upright, and he knew:
He’d have to do it himself.
© 2019 Meredith Katz. All Rights Reserved.