Beelo sat at the dinner table and looked at his plate. The steamed vegetables and spicy rice were gone. He had eaten them in a flash. However, he could not bring himself to cut into the loin chop. He stared at it. It was a slice of perfectly roasted meat and a creamy gravy made from the drippings had been poured over the top. On a normal day, Beelo’s plate would have been empty before the food had a chance to cool.
But today was not a normal day.
The trek back from Terramort took twice as long as the journey out. Beerok sensed that his son was shaken after what they saw in the crater and took a slower pace. They rested often. At every stop, Beerok would look at Beelo with a concerned look. He would ask the boy if he was okay.
“I’m fine,” Beelo would say.
It was nearly dark when they reached the stand of willows. The swaying, droopy branches struggled to welcome them home and Beelo was annoyed when he brushed them away from his face. When they approached their doma tree, Beelo was struck with a sudden heaviness. He looked up and dreaded the climb up to the hidden door of his home. The weight of what he saw today pulled at his shoulders. It curled around his waist like a belt made of heavy stone.
Beelo wished he could forget and return to the world he knew yesterday. He wasn’t sure he had the will to carry the memory of the slink, the dying lapina, and the smear of blood on the back rocks up into the warm safety of the doma. After some steadying breaths, he dragged himself and the dense feeling of his memories up to the door. His mother let them in and Beelo collapsed on the couch in front of the stove and stared at the little fire inside.
Beelo did not move until dinner. He was ravenously hungry and had devoured the rest of his plate. But he could not bring himself to cut into the meat. It was lapina. A slice from a roast, expertly prepared by his mother from the share of meat given to her by a neighbor earlier that day.
As Beelo considered the meat in front of him, he could not help but think of the sound made by the struggling lapina as it dragged its bleeding body away from the claws and jaws of the slink. He could not help but think about the blind ferocity of the slink as it reached into the searing sunlight in attempt to grasp the soft flesh of the lapina’s leg.
When Beelo thought about carving a bite with his knife, he was revolted. In his mind, the knife became a black, shiny claw. The slice of meat was no longer roasted and covered with gravy. It was alive. It quivered and strained beneath a coat of soft fur. He had to put the knife down before it fell from his hand.
The revulsion Beelo felt was not a moral quandary. All Téchni ate meat when it was available. He had always known, like all children were taught, that meat came from a living being. A living being that died to bring sustenance to the hunter, their family, their village. The Téchni taught children that the hunt was as necessary and natural for them as it was for the wolf or the eagle. It never seemed wrong. It hardly even seemed violent. Both hunter and prey had their place in the universe. It was a timeless contest, the biological compulsion to eat versus the desire to survive. Beelo did not feel bad for the creature that became his meal.
What caused Beelo to set his knife down was the connection he felt with the slink. Beelo couldn’t bring himself to be anything like that murderous black nightmare from the crater. Beelo pushed his plate back and felt relief when he saw that his hands still ended in thin, nimble fingers. His skin was still brown like clay. Beelo had half expected to see wide, muscular paws covered in inky, black hide. Beelo shivered and edged his chair back from the table.
“May I be excused,” he asked.
“Yes, little bug,” Beerok answered. “Go sit on the couch, your mother and I will join you as soon as the dishes are done.”
Naru and Beerok rose at the same time and began to gather the dishes. Before Naru could take Beelo’s plate, Baro grabbed the loin chop with his fingers and set it gleefully on his plate.
“More for me,” Baro exclaimed.
Beelo was glad he couldn’t see. He had no more desire to watch his brother eat than he did to see what the slink did to its prey after it pulled the lifeless animal into the shadowy passageway. He sank onto the couch and crossed his arms over his chest.
Beerok and Naru put the dishes into the sink and informed Baro that it was his turn to wash. Baro rolled his eyes as he chewed the last of the meat but he dutifully carried his plate to the sink and used water from the tap to clean the dishes and cookware.
Beelo didn’t look up from the fire when his mother sat next to him on the couch or when his father sat in the adjoining chair. He didn’t look up when his father started to talk.
“I’m sorry that you had to see that. When I took you to Terramort today, it was supposed to be a gentle introduction to the danger we face from the slink. We were supposed to see the landscape and,” Beerok paused to take a deep breath. “And maybe, just maybe see a slink as it darted from one hiding place to another. I never thought we’d witness one hunt and kill-”
“Beelo,” Naru took over. “You had to know where our meat came from. The fact that animals die to feed other animals, to feed us and our neighbors, none of this could’ve been a surprise.”
Beelo’s vision shimmered. He squished his eyes shut in a vain attempt to keep the tears from falling. Fat drops rolled down from the corner of both eyes and hung from his jawline for a second before they dropped onto the front of his shirt. Beelo wiped his face with a sleeve of his shirt and sniffed.
“I know we are hunters,” Beelo spoke with a low, hoarse voice. “I know the Téchni are hunters. I know that I have eaten meat, that it was the flesh of a living creature, that it was the result of a hunt and that the creature died for me to have that meal.”
Beelo stopped to take a few slow breaths. He sniffed again and used his other sleeve to wipe his eyes again.
“But that slink wasn’t just hunting. The lapina wasn’t just trying to survive. It was more than that, worse than that.”
Naru put her hand on his knee and patted it. Beerok leaned forward in his chair. They both looked at their son with empathy. They tried to understand.
Beelo knew they didn’t. He wanted to say more. He wanted to tell them that what he saw happen in the crater shattered his notion of the world.
Until today, Beelo thought he understood his world. He had been taught the laws of nature. He was under the impression that if they were to live according these laws, the Téchni would continue to prosper and live happily in their trees.
After what he saw this afternoon, Beelo knew that wasn’t true. The scene of blood thirst and terror was an omen, a horrific sign of what was to come.