by Jarod K. Anderson
Our tribe didn’t have a word for the huge, winged race of reptiles who shared the cliff-faces with us. They were just “The Clasp.” Same as us. One tribe. One name. One shared livelihood as old as the great butte.
When I was young boy, before I knew better, I asked my grandmother if we were pretending to be like the big, scaly tribesmen or if they were pretending to be like us. After all, we didn’t look anything alike. When I finally made her understand my question, I hated the way she looked at me, like she’d tasted something bitter.
“There’s no ‘they’ or ‘us,’” she said. “We eat the same plants and insects, don’t we? We drink the same water, don’t we? All The Clasp warms our blood on the southern face and shelters from storms in the red caverns, eh?”
As we spoke, I remember a big male, in the gray raggedness of his shed, ambled along the ceiling of the cave where we sat. A curled sheet of semi-translucent skin fell between us, but I knew better than to mention the difference. I had learned. We would all be the same through sheer will and stubbornness.
“The Clasp” was fine for most, but not for me. I needed a new word for the things. I needed to name them so that I could hate them properly. Our language was on the side of unity, but language can change. So, I called them “the swoops” and I wove the new name into a tapestry of curses under my breath.
For a long time, I had trouble articulating why I hated the swoops. I may have feared them as a child. Their size. Their black eyes and hooked claws. But, in the end, it was their freedom I hated. The swoops were the only living things I had ever known to leave the butte. They’d glide away to trace vast, winding circles around the great finger of rock. Sometimes, they’d even veer off toward the horizon, to the dark green line of misty shapes that hemmed in the plains below. They’d come back carrying strange smells, their snouts wet with the pulp of fruits I’d never taste.
I’d watch them do these things as I clung to the stone, clambering from perch to perch, peeping out of caves and fissures while wearing the butte smooth with my footfalls. In turn, the butte wore me smooth, my fingers and toes, my patience and my temper. Every time I looked at a swoop, whether I was on the highest cliffs or in the lowest caverns, I felt my world shrink a bit more.
Trapped as I felt, the resolve to leave was slow to come. We’d all grown up guessing at the horrors that walked the lands below. We’d argue rather the little brown smudge moving across the eastern plain was a dragon, a giant spider, or something new and beyond our imaginations. We’d squint into the empty air and speculate endlessly about sizes and distances for which we had no frame of reference. Further than the top of the butte. Nearer than the sun.
The common wisdom was that only the fastest, strongest members of the tribe could go to ground with any hope of returning. Of course that meant the damn swoops, but nobody ever seemed to list “wings instead of hands” as the key prerequisite. That would admit too much difference.
In the end, my resolve finally hardened from a desperate fear. The mad urge to simply jump into the wind had grown from a passing thought, to a common daydream, to a constant distraction. And one day I realized that I no longer trusted myself to scramble along the narrow ledges or even sit near the mouth of the great cavern. It seemed that if I wouldn’t apply my mind to the task of leaving, my body was prepared to act on its own.
So, on a wet spring morning just before false dawn, I gathered up what supplies I could fit into my small shoulder bag and began climbing down. I loved that time of morning, before the sun heated the rock and the swoops, before their croaking chatter filled the caverns and drove out the gentle sound of sleepers’ steady breathing. That was the hardest time of day to leave my people, but that was part of the reason it needed to be then.
I had no idea what climbing down would involve. No one had ever done it or even suggested that it would be possible. But I knew, one way or another, I’d reach the plains that day. I’d add a new, hazy shape to the children’s guessing games.
It took less than an hour to reach the lowest spot I knew on the butte, a little outlet where rain runoff trickled from our small reservoir in the lower caverns. I splashed along the tiny stream toward the growing daylight, the water making the red dust shine like blood on the hard, brown skin of my feet. When I emerged and felt the breeze on my face and chest, the realization that the lowest spot I knew wasn’t actually low at all felt like an old, familiar insult. It was like the butte itself was chastising me for my childishness, my odd ways. Tutting at me in my grandmother’s voice.
I looked back over my shoulder into the dark. The tinny trickle of water under stone sounded hollow and full of words. The words were edged with laughter.
“The hell with you,” I said, and swung down to a fingertip hold in a narrow crack beneath the outlet. It was the closest I had ever been to the ground. It was the bravest thing I had ever done.
At first, the climb was easy, if strange. The edges of the cracks were sharper than I was used to, not smoothed and rounded by thousands of fingers and swoops’ claws. But, the holds were sound and regular, and before mid-day I was seeing sights beneath me that I had never seen before. The branching limbs of a lone tree standing in the plain. The shifting movement of grasses in the wind. I had to remind myself to keep moving or else I might have stared until I lost the light and my grip. A swoop glided past and cocked its head to look at me. I scowled up at it and started off with renewed purpose.
Before that day, I doubt I would have believed that my hands could tire of climbing, but by the time I was little more than a few hundred feet from the tumbled rocks at the base of the butte, my fingers were starting to fail me. My hands shook, and the aching fatigue in my forearms was becoming jarring shocks of pain that made every muscle in my body tense involuntarily.
To make matters worse, the web of cracks and lines of erosion I had been following downward became few and far between the closer I came to the base. I was obliged to spend less time climbing and more time peering down at the rock face beneath me, trying to plan my descent with ever-decreasing options.
There came a point, not a hundred feet above a mound of shattered stone that sloped down to the plain, that even my clever fingers couldn’t find a hold anywhere. The butte had become a blank, red wall. Featureless and merciless. I was sick with weariness and terror and defeat. I couldn’t climb back up if I wanted to, and the only path I could see was a lateral jump to a crooked shadow on the rock. I couldn’t tell if the shadow was a finger hold or just discolored stone. Necessity decided it was a hold and I tensed my trembling limbs to jump.
The moment my fingers left the stone I knew I was going to die. Even a foot closer it was plain that the shadow was just a shadow. I struck at the rock with my numb fingertips and hardly made a sound as I tumbled backwards. I didn’t have the energy to scream.
Time slowed as I fell. Twisting through the air, my eyes fell upon a stand of brushy shrubs where the broken rock met the soil of the plains. They were alien and beautiful and I wanted to fill all my vision with them. I spun as I fell, looking from ground to sky and back again. But, with each fleeting glimpse of the approaching plain I felt the wonder of it filling me up, beating back the fear and loss. All the while the sky and the butte felt more and more distant, even as the daylight was swallowed up by a swift darkness.
The impact of the diving swoop clutching me with tail and talons brought time back to bear with bone-cracking speed and ferocity. The unexpected blow reawakened the life and terror in me, and my scream joined the croaking wail of grasping swoop. They huge, slate-blue creature beat its wings madly and the whip-crack of them stole away my remaining breath. But, strong as they are, swoops were not made to carry burdens.
A moment before we struck the ground, I felt the swoop draw me in, curling its wings and body around me. We hit the rock pile on an angle that sent us off in a crumpled roll down the stones and out into the brushy edge of the plains. There were flashes of light and then gray nothing.
I awoke to the steady rise and fall of breath. The swoop lay on its side, clutching me to its chest with folded wings. When I stirred, the swoop gently withdrew, letting me slide down into a tuft of amber grass. It stiffly stood, raising itself onto its hind legs and the clawed fore-joints of its wings. It moved as if pained, but its eyes were bright and it stood tall and steady.
My body objected, but I eventually made it to my feet as well. I limped over and put a hand on the great reptile’s chest. I had never thought of them as beautiful, but I thought it then.
“Thank you,” I said in a whisper.
I received a rolling croak in reply.
I bowed my head and rested it against the creature’s chest. I could feel the life there, old and strong, resonating with my own to make something new and potent. Something better.
“The Clasp,” I said with a tired shrug. I cocked an eye up at the butte. I imagined my grandmother’s spirit in some high place looking down. Looking smug. I shook my head and silently admitted defeat.
My hands and feet burned with pain, but the new feel of the grass sent a giddy thrill through my limbs. I turned and looked out over the plains, a space without end or edge or limit. How could I choose a direction? It made my head swim, but I started walking anyway. The Clasp walked with me.
About the Author
Jarod K. Anderson lives in a white house between a forest and a graveyard. He writes and narrates The CryptoNaturalist podcast, a scripted, bi-weekly audio drama about unusual nature (@CryptoNature on Twitter / cryptonaturalist.com). You can find more of Jarod’s writing in places like Asimov’s, Escape Pod, and Apex Magazine.
About the Narrator
Elie Hirschman is a self-described “former aspiring voice actor” who has worked with Darker Projects and Dream Realm Productions and is also involved in Cool Fool Productions, turning bad audio scripts into intentionally bad comedy gold. He’s currently still active in all EA podcasts (including Cast of Wonders) and also appearing semi-regularly in the No Sleep Podcast. He doodles constantly but doesn’t draw enough and moved from the Western Hemisphere to the Eastern Hemisphere against his will and better judgment (but has never been in the Southern Hemisphere).
Elie was born in New York City and raised just outside of it. He started down the voiceover path in 2004, with formal voiceover and marketing training by Creative Voice Development Group. His professional voice work ranges from children’s educational material to real estate advice website audio, with a scientific article and a guided tour of a Polish salt mine thrown in for good measure. In his free time, Elie enjoys cartooning, listening to old-time radio drama, and referring to himself in the third person. By this time next year, he will also have mastered speaking in future perfect tense.
About the Artist
Barry is a game developer based in Bournemouth, England making freemium games for clients such LEGO and the BBC. His latest game is breaking all records on iOS, not surprising with a title like L”. It’s for younger kids, but if you fancy blasting alien brains check out LEGO Hero Factory Brain Attack.
All this game developing has meant that Barry hasn’t been as active in the podcasting and fiction world as he used to be. He still does the occasional narration for other shows, such as The Drabblecast, and appears on Cast of Wonders from time to time.