by B.S. O’Brien
Stepping along the mossy forest bed, a boy named Arin followed a small quail here and there, aping the creature’s zigzag pattern. It darted this way and that, the bird’s beady eyes evaluating its route every half-second. Sunbeams streamed through the branches of the great tall evergreen trees, filtering down a hundred feet and illuminating this wild place with golden light.
A squirrel nibbled on a hard nut and Arin glanced up at it, perched indifferently on a branch above his head. Sensing its opportunity, the quail dipped under a decomposing log, which resembled nothing so much as the fallen column of a once-great coliseum. Arin darted after the escapee, shoving his hand into the hole through which the bird had disappeared. Feeling around for a moment, the boy drew out his hand and with it, two fat white beetle larvae. Gently brushing them off, he examined them for a minute before popping them in his mouth one after the other and swallowing them whole.
The boy continued his journey, the leathery soles of his feet carrying him over trickling streams, anthills, rocks, and mossy mounds, until he reached his destination. A lazy river lay before him, clear enough that he could see the occasional fish flash silver in its depths. Unburdened by clothing, Arin stepped into the river. The water came up to his mid-thighs, his slender body not yet touched by the developments of puberty. The cool water refreshed his dusty skin baked by the heat of summer, and he waded in further until he submerged himself entirely.
Popping out of the water, Arin pulled himself onto a large rock. He lay on his belly, which burned slightly on the rock’s hot surface. Dangling a hand into the water, the boy let it hang limply, directed by the current until he felt a familiar tickle against his palm and snapped his hand into a fist, fingernails lodged in the gills of a fish the size of his forearm. He hauled it out of the water and smacked it sharply against the rock. He lay the still fish on the stone to admire and wondered whether he should try to catch another, but he was tired and thought the one would do for tonight.
He found a sharp stick and speared it through the fish, propping it against his left shoulder for the walk home. The return trip seemed much shorter than his meandering route to the river, and in no time at all, he spotted the remains of last night’s fire and around it the log pieces on which he sat to warm himself and cook. Quickly, he stirred the ashes and coals, feeding some dry leaves and twigs into the pit until lick by lick the flames came to life. Arin relieved his fish of its guts and bones, then placed it on a rock in the middle of the fire to cook as his mother had shown him.
There was not much he remembered of his parents. His father had gone missing from a hunting trip when the boy was still toddling. Just a few years later, his mother had jumped out of a tree and landed on a sharp bone hidden in the moss, succumbing to the ensuing infection. Not quite strong enough then to drag her to the river, Arin had built a funeral pyre in a clearing and made up a ceremony to say goodbye to his mother as her spirit ascended to the stars. He had not seen a creature like himself since that time.
In the farthest reaches of his memory, Arin could barely recall other people spending time with his family. There had been a few adults like his parents. The strangers had stumbled into the ground shelter the boy and his parents used in the winter, clad in furs just as they were. They had stayed a few days and left to continue their mission of finding a settlement they’d heard about, despite the warnings from Arin’s mother that the community had long ago disbanded.
Since the disappearance and death of his parents, Arin had been alone, except for the animals and the trees and the river, all of which he recognized as fellow survivors and friends. As he dug into the now-cooked fish with gusto, the boy pondered whether he would again see any of his kind. He thought he might like someone to talk with, but on the other hand, his mother had told him that a group of humans together for too long couldn’t help but fall into conflict and dispute. Perhaps it was better to be free of other people.
Arin scaled the oak tree where his hammock hung, settling down for the night. He could glimpse the bright white starlight through holes in the tree’s foliage and didn’t feel alone at all with those great stellar bodies watching over him.
Clambering to the ground in the morning light, Arin found the remains of his fish where he had tucked them safely in a bundle of leaves under a rock in his fire. He rounded out his breakfast with a handful of hazelnuts and some fresh mushrooms. Satisfied, he weighed whether to obtain more fish and dry some for later, or repair his weather-worn shelter in preparation for the unpredictable, yet inevitable rains. Dedication to his shelter won out and the boy set about finding suitable branches that were small enough for him to carry, yet thick and leafy enough to fortify the roof of the lean-to like structure his parents had built against a thick-trunked oak and secured with medium-sized rocks on one side.
Pulling up a branch that was partially embedded in the ground, Arin spotted something unnatural in the broken up dirt. He uncovered it and brought it to his face for examination. It was a ring, jewelry from long ago—a perfect circle. The gold was so dulled and scratched that it had no gleam whatsoever. The boy slipped it onto his index finger and went about his business. His mother had told him what she had heard from her grandmother, who had heard from her own grandmother about the old times, back when humans lived in great colonies. Sometimes millions of them gathered in enormous cities within homes stacked on top of one another like anthills. They had an excess of food to eat, clean water came right into every home, and artificial lights shined so numerous and eternal that they made the night sky nearly invisible. Something had gone wrong, causing the great cities to decay and fall apart. People suffered all kinds of diseases, there were brutal wars over resources, and cities were burned and abandoned by their own inhabitants.
Over time, fewer and fewer people occupied the cities. Who was to say how many were left? Often, Arin felt as if he could be the very last, the only one still living on the entire planet. But then he would chide himself. What would qualify him to be the last remaining human? What qualities did he have that would allow him to live when all others of his species had perished? There must be others out in the world somewhere. He just hadn’t seen any in years.
Admiring his newly strengthened shelter, Arin decided to proceed to the river, since his tasks there were twofold. He needed to collect water to make mud to bind the branches on his shelter, and he wanted to catch some more fish to dry and have on hand. Climbing back up his sleeping tree, he collected two bladders for water, yoked together with a leather harness, a spear, and a crude fishing net his father had woven out of grasses.
With the bladders harnessed to his back, the net draped over his shoulders, and the spear pointed up in his hand to double as a walking stick, the boy set out with a song. If Arin went directly, it would be only a short distance to the river. But his habit was to wander, never knowing whether he might stumble on some animal acquaintances, a bird’s nest cradling delicate eggs, or a patch of mushrooms to supplement his dinner. Peering up once again at his old friend the squirrel, Arin was startled to see a person jump out from behind the animal’s tree. She posed in fighting stance. As Arin slouched, she relaxed.
“Who are you?” asked the girl.
Arin found himself unable to speak. He stared at this human. She was small, perhaps his age or a little older. Her skin was tan, ruddy, and she was as naked as he was, except for a loincloth and an animal skin bag held against her slim back with a strap.
“I’m Lark,” said the girl. “What are you called?”
Pulled from his reverie, the boy found his voice, saying, “Arin. Where did you come from?” Having not held a conversation with another person in at least half a decade, he was surprised by the confidence within his tone.
“I’ve been just walking for so long,” said Lark. “I lived with my family and two other families for all my life. One day, my father and the father of another family fought and that very evening, our shelter was set on fire as we slept and the exit blocked.”
Her jaw tensed, holding in emotion.
“My father and brother died in the fire, but my mother and I got out and ran, then kept walking for days. We startled a mother bear with her cubs by accident, and my mother was killed. So I ran and ran. I kept going for I don’t know how many days. And here I am.”
Leaning against a tree for support, Arin felt curiosity rise in him like the river after a rainstorm.
“What was it like, where you lived?” asked Arin. “Was it like this?” He pointed at the trees.
“There were many trees where we lived as well,” Lark replied. “But also a field with a tiny lake. There were fish in it. We often saw deer. Do you have deer around here?”
The boy nodded. For a time they stared, each left to his or her own thoughts. Arin broke the silence at last, asking, “Where are you going?”
“Here, I guess. I was just looking for some new people. Are there any more here?”
“No. My parents are gone. It’s just me.”
“Don’t you get lonely?”
“I miss my parents some,” said Arin. “But I have the squirrels and the birds, the trees and the river, the rain and the stars. I wouldn’t mind having someone else, though.”
“I can stay with you for a while then?”
“Yes,” said Arin, nodding his head. “It will be nice to have you. I’m going to the river now. Come with me.”
Arin leapt forward, making for the river at a brisk pace now, Lark in his wake. They traded questions back and forth—How many other people had they seen in their lives? What possessions did each have to his or her name? How many people did they think were left in the world? Had she heard the same stories about the old times that he had?
Lark proved to be deft with a spear and it didn’t take long before they had three fat silver fish. They settled into a companionable silence as they trotted back to Arin’s abode. He hurried to stoke the fire, as they had worked up an appetite with their adventure and the surprise of meeting one another. Arin stared at his new friend, still amazed that such a creature could just come walking into his backyard. Lark remained quiet, staring into the fire and watching the fish smoke.
When their meal had finished cooking, Arin cut one of the fish in half lengthwise, pulling out the spine as he did so. He placed the halves on wooden rounds that served as plates and handed one to Lark, who further deboned hers as she popped bits of the meat in her mouth. Arin cut the other two fish into smaller strips and placed them back on the fire to continue smoking.
“Do you plan to store those?” asked Lark.
“Yes, as soon as they’re a little drier and will keep better.”
“Where do you keep them that’s safe from coyotes and other scavengers?”
“I bury them or put them into a hole in a tree and block it up with rocks or something. Animals don’t get to my food often.”
Lark raised her eyebrows as she looked past him into the trees.
“It’s alright. There are plenty of fish in the river, anyway. I eat well enough around here.”
“That is quite different from the food problems we had,” said Lark. “Often our food stores went missing and we never knew whether it was animals or other people who had done it. It would have been pretty tricky for an animal to get into the tunnels we put the food in.”
“If our food gets stolen, you know it was an animal here. But like I said, I haven’t had that problem much. It’s more likely that we would steal from animals, with birds’ eggs or such.”
Lark nodded and continued nibbling her fish. Once they had both finished, Arin took the bones and fish head and walked a ways into the forest to throw the remains into some brush.
Arin said, “A gift for the animals so they don’t take the rest of our food.”
“What do you do all the time here, besides fish?” asked Lark. “We played some games with the families we lived with. Sometimes we had a small garden to take care of or had things to fix in our tents.”
“I walk around this whole area to look for different foods, plants, nuts, or birds’ eggs. I have to take care of my structure some, too, and my winter shelter. Sometimes, I make more plates and things, sing a couple songs my parents taught me, or look for wood for my fire. When things become quiet, I just climb up into a tree and look around.”
Lark scratched her head, jumped up, and walked over to a nearby tree, pausing to look up into its branches before she hoisted herself onto a low-hanging bough. Arin watched as she continued her climb, sure-footed as a mountain lion. She climbed and climbed and climbed some more, until she reached a branch near the top of the tree. He could see her maneuvering so she could look out past the leaves and twigs.
As Arin glanced up, Lark looked as tiny as a chipmunk, giving him a quick wave. Arin busied himself collecting firewood as he waited for her return to solid ground. It seemed like an eternity before she descended.
“Hard to see much with all the trees, isn’t it?” Arin asked.
“Yeah,” said Lark, smiling. “It’s just crazy that we’re alone out here. Right now, it feels like it’s just us in the whole world.”
“Maybe it is. There’s no way to really know how many people are out in the world, on other continents or islands or a million miles away. Not too many from what my parents told me.”
“That’s kind of what my parents said, too. Just a few, ‘Maybe only the ones we’ve seen’ is what they said. What was it that the Native American people used to do a thousand years ago to send messages—smoke signals?”
“We don’t really have firewood to waste for smoke signals, and we don’t even know if there is anyone in the world to see them. Even if there was, are they good or bad people?”
“I know,” Lark replied. “It just made me think that maybe some thousands of years ago, there were just as few people as there are now. But who’s to say.”
“Let’s go for a walk and see what we can find,” said Arin as he started walking between the trees.
Lark smiled and chased after him.
A native Seattleite, B.S. O’Brien earned a B.A. in Communications from Washington State University and an M.B.A. with a Certificate in Environmental Management from the University of Washington. She is currently at work on a novel.