Fractured Frontier

by Gerald Arthur Winter

I was brought up to believe in God, but since that day when everything changed, I wonder—if God exists, we must have gotten it all wrong. Here we are, left with the aftermath of that misinformation. At least here I am, because I don’t know if anyone else is left. It might be only me who remains to witness our mistake. If so, was that intentional? Or have I just slipped through the grating of mass destruction? I must wait here to be sure, but if no one else is left, what’s the point? Why delay my inevitable demise? If God got pissed off enough with mankind, what difference could my suicide make?

There are no smoking ruins or smoldering embers in sight, only soft sand as far as I can see from left to right, and a tranquil turquoise sea ahead with mere ripples of surf, like a subtle memory of the cause and its effect on future existence. A salty sea breeze wafts to my tanned face with a sun-bleached, frizzled beard down to my navel. My hair drapes over my bronzed shoulders and halfway down my back. My buttocks is taut against the palm leaves used to clothe me, which are held up by a kudu vine. The white flesh of the coconut I’d cracked open against the coral reef provides my daily bread. Though the flesh is coarse and dry, its milk quenches my parched throat. My rough hand strums the protruding grid of my ribs like a twelve-string oud, but the only music to my ears comes from distant birds assuring me that life, though highly compromised, goes on.

Staring out at the sea with a clear blue sky above, I hesitate to turn around and face what’s behind me in daylight. I’ve ventured into the jungle for food, also for kindling and wood to make a fire, but that’s been only after dark, so I wouldn’t have to see any signs of mass devastation beyond the mountains. So far, the wind hasn’t blown from that direction, and so I wait until it does. And if he, like God, does exist, Satan will give me my due, and anything else that breathes. Thy will be done.

I’ve marked the days with a sharp stone against the trunk of a coconut palm tree—today is the thirty-ninth day. I must have lost more than a pound a day, maybe as much as two a day. My clothes hadn’t been destroyed but, after only weeks, they no longer fit and served me better as towels, using the cloth to dry myself after a bath in a cold spring of fresh water.

So far no wildlife has come to that potential watering hole. Either I’ve been lucky in the event of predators, or there are no living ground creatures here, or anywhere else. I’ve boiled water from that spring, so I’ve not become dehydrated yet, as I might from solar exposure on the beach. But I have to go to the shore… just to look out for any sign that someone else has survived. It wouldn’t be a boat or a plane, no chance of that anymore, but maybe a raft with people floating towards the shoreline with the wind coming from that direction. Just one person would do, anyone. Please, God… if you are out there… if you know I’m here… please bring others to me soon. I may not be able to hang on for even another day. Amen.

This morning I’m gathering clams to sustain me through the day. I find three between the size of, what we’d called “top-necks” and “cherrystones” from two-to-three inches across. Together they make about six ounces of pure protein. I open them with a sharp piece of coral that I’ve tapered against a rock. I can’t open them in the skillful manner I’d learned as an adolescent from my father…

My father, my mother, my younger sister and wife—all gone without hope of ever seeing them again.

Enough of thinking about my losses. Instead of opening clams as my father had taught me, I’ve learned to open them the hard way from watching seagulls. Like a bird’s beak, the sharp implement will whittle at the clamshell. They spurt open with their saline juice spraying me.

I’m so tempted to eat them raw, the way I used to enjoy them best as a boy, but I won’t chance it, not knowing if they will be toxic without being cooked. I’ve boiled the littlenecks because they still remain tender, but the only way to cook these larger clams is to grill them to perfect succulence. I pour out the remaining clam juice into an empty coconut shell to make soup later with seaweed and conch, which is tough no matter how its prepared, but will slide down my dry throat better with clam broth.

Sitting in the shade at the edge of the jungle with my legs folded, I contemplate the horizon where the turquoise sea meets an azure, cloudless sky. There hasn’t been a cloud from that direction since I washed up here, wherever I am, if that even matters. There are no sand fleas, mosquitoes, or flies, but I have seen a few types of bees pollinating varga bushes around the spring pool where I was bathing.

With the tip of my tongue, I feel a strand of clam stuck between two molars, but I can’t floss it, so I use a bug that’s trotting between my feet. I scoop it up in my hand and pop it into my mouth. The carnivorous dentic consumes the clam with a sucking hiss. Job done, I spit the bug several yards onto the sand, but a buglizard emerges from its hole and gobbles the dentic with a crunch. Not satisfied, it finds a sandworm, then a slam-worm, and gobbles them up in a hurry. It blinks its black eyes at me and belches. A gull swoops down and catches the buglizard in its beak, but a crabdozer snags the gull’s foot before it can take flight.

An infant troglosaur must have heard the commotion and galumphs from the jungle’s edge to the beach and inhales the entire menagerie with a snort and a triumphant, trumpeting roar like a dying mammoth in the tar pits, a sound I’ve become used to these past weeks.

On day forty, I’m awakened by a whirring sound as a spacecraft hovers above me. Part of my conscience wants to run towards it across the beach, shouting and waving my arms, but starvation and precaution to sand predators holds me back.

A laser from the spacecraft scans the shoreline as I watch. My stomach gurgles and twitches as I watch a net drop to the sea and pull up a thousand stone of huge fish beyond the surf, where I dare not venture for fear of becoming some sea creature’s consumption. I rely on low tide for food gathering just to survive, but seeing the silvery fish flipping within the net and lifted into the spacecraft makes my mouth water.

For fear of being left behind, I burst from the brush and run across the burning sand, blistering my feet.

“Save me! Save me!” I shout without knowing what language my potential saviors might speak.

Instead of lifting me up with a net to safety, they toss one fish to me. It bounces off the coral and lands at my feet. The spacecraft emits words from a loudspeaker in a language even my ancestors had long forgotten, but as the vessel floats upward and out of sight, I recall that language from my ancient linguistic studies at Atlantis University.

I use my sharpened bamboo pole to fight off the sand predators as I carry the huge fish over my shoulder to the jungle. The words from the spacecraft echo in my mind: RETURN TO BASE… NO SIGNS OF SIGNIFICANT INTELLIGENCE.

That’s when I feel so very much alone and forsaken in this frontier of mass destruction, wondering who they can be and why they have come to this dying planet – to study and learn from its remains, or merely to pillage its resources to better their own struggling existence?

Fractured Frontier - Gremlin Creative (2)

I woke the next morning and hear a distant rumbling, but the cloudless sky is bright blue with no chance of rain or thunder. I feel the earth tremor beneath my feet on the sandy shore. There’s a gamey scent in the breeze coming from the hinterland. I run and climb a tree with haste to see off to the distant eastern plain beneath the purple mountains. A broad cloud of dust is rolling towards me and the tree quivers in my grasp. I wonder, what terror approaches me?

I hear the crunching of distant trees crushed by the wake of the approaching onslaught. Then come the bellows of great beasts, followed by high shrills in waves of what seems to be rejoicing hoots. It’s a stampede, but of what I fear, and driven by what? With a telescope from my shoulder bag made from a bison’s bladder, I peer at the distant foray of savages driving the herd of beasts towards me and the sea.

The tawny aborigines are decked in feathered garb with their faces brightly painted. They raise spears above their heads as they ride upon bird-like mounts and poke at the mammoths. Their mounts can outrun the mammoths with sudden bursts of speed, as several encircle the weaklings tripping them with rawhide lanyards and engulfing them with nets.

Food, I think, hoping to scavenge from their catch without being seen, yet I hunger more for human discourse than mammoth flesh. Could they be amiable to a stranger? One of a different race? Dare I hope for such contact after more than a month of bitter solitude? I fear I must try regardless of any impending danger for sanity’s sake—mind over matter. Without such communication I’m doomed, for the brain and its imagination can extend to reasoning beyond the mere gratifications of food. Nourishment of the sole has an infinite quenching over the mere sip of water or the taste of a dumb beast’s entrails. The viscera of mutual understanding through brotherhood will never wither in the baking sun or fracture into crystals at the cutting edge of the great glacier.

The dust from the mammoths’ stamping feet begins to make me cough, even from forty feet above on this feeble tree. I clutch a branch with both arms as Mother Nature seems to cradle me like a newborn in her bosom. A hundredfold dash into to sea, some devoured by sea creatures twice their size and a thousand more are attacked by prides of saber-toothed pumas – from tabby to black-hided – with varied spectacled combinations between.

The sky darkens as I look up to see swarms of pterosaurs, two at a time able to lift a mammoth carcass and fly away with it towards the distant peaks, but not without competition from other winged flocks snatching globs of bleeding flesh from the hairy remains of what had been a proud beast on the ground.

The mounted natives halt their huge saddled birds with serpentine necks and clawed feet that could disembowel any other fallen creature for its own nourishment. I’ve never seen such birds and I’m amazed what control the savages seem to have over them, feeding them with handfuls of mammoth flesh and massaging their long necks. They cluck and blink their eyes which seem to have peripheral vision from front and back with each eye having 360-degree rotation in any direction.

Their unique vision betrays me as the dozen saddled birds extend their necks towards the tree I’m clutching without foliage enough to conceal my presence. They flap their short wings incapable of flight and coo with a unified shrill in D-minor, which I recognize from my woodwind lessons as a boy.

One native shifts in the saddle turning in my direction and points. Another does the same until all twelve are shouting in a unique harmony unfamiliar to my acute sense of sounds. But when one native, apparently their leader shouts a sole command, I’m aware that their language is a Nahuatl dialect with which I’m somewhat familiar. I shout in my best conversational Nahuatl, which is formal, royal court expressions that might offend these savages if they’ve been harassed by Montezuma’s legions.

They surround the tree and look upward towards my precarious perch. I’m shocked when I look down to face their bright, toothy grins, for there is not a man among them. All women with wiry muscular tones, I cannot call their similar faces beautiful. Handsome would be more accurate. Despite their individual feminine auras, they exude the pride of a wolf pack. Together as a hunting party they seem like one ferocious alpha male making me pray they are not inclined towards cannibalism.

One among the pack snarls. She points her spear at me and shakes her feathered headdress as she rasps a baritone growl that seems to mocked my masculinity. The others chant as she leads them, but then she abruptly hushes them. She was surely their chief.

In broken Nahuatl I force a deeper tone of response to get their reaction with a smidge of hope that their huntress tribe was akin to the King of the Beasts with a male figurehead honored back at their village on his throne while they bring back their daily kill for the evening feast like lionesses in a pride. All of their full-lipped mouths drop open at the sound of my feeble utterances. I prayed they will understand my best intentions as I call to them:

“Like you, I’m lost since the great cataclysm last month. I am your friend!”

They begin to laugh, some almost falling from their mounts in such hysteria. I play into their jest with self-mockery by puffing out my chest and grunting like an ape. This gesture has frightened a few of them while others gather on their mounts around their chief as if to protect her from me.

I recall the saying of a great sage from my village when I was about eleven years old and being bullied by a teenager:

“In humility there is greater strength than arrogance,” he said.

In kind I let my arms drop to my sides and bow my head to their chief.

Catching only a little more than half of her words in response to my humble posture, I still understand the essence of her meaning, telling me:

“I am Ziracon, our chief’s only daughter widowed by the fiery ball that plunged to our land. These are the only survivors, the widows, sisters, and daughters of our once great tribe. I honor my father by taking my husband’s place as provider for the surviving children. Among them are babies born after what we have called The Great Goolp. It has killed so many and also has transposed the lands and waters that have fed us for millions of cycles of the moon. Where was your village?”

“Not far south of the southern tip of the Baja peninsula along the western coast.”

“I know of this territory,” she says. “And your family?”

“My parents died long ago… I’m a widower,” I say, creating a murmur among the women as if they are at the market shopping for the best cut of meat.

“Are you a hunter?” she asks.

“More a trapper and fisherman,” I say.

“Then we can exchange our skills with one another,” she says. “Come down from there so we can take better measure of you.”

I shinny down the trunk, breaking off a few branches in my descent. The women wear moccasins that give them no extra height yet they stand eye to eye with me. All of our heights exceed 3.5 cubits. They are a tall breed of women with tough lanky physiques, almost flat-chested, and with a near childlike glimmers in their expressions. Yet, beneath their welcoming façade is an unsolved mystique that draws me to them.

“How long have you been left alone in this forsaken frontier?” she asks.

“Just over forty nights.”

“Join us tonight for a feast,” she says. “We are celebrating the first full moon since The Great Goolp turned us back to our savage ways, which have lain dormant for centuries, but still pulse within our veins from our ancestors and noble chiefs of our tribe.”

“Thank you, Ziracon.”

“What may we call you?” she asks.

“Davy.”

“Then join me on my mount back to our village, but hold on tight around my waist,” she cautions me as the other eleven women chortle with amusement. “Hush!” she scolds her merry minions. “Pay no attention to their frivolous good cheer, Davy. These girls are young and imagine us as lovers tonight beneath the full moon, but I must mourn for my husband according the sacred laws of our forefathers for no less than sixty days. With a few more weeks ahead, I trust that you may soon find comfort with another of your choice, perhaps prettier and more affable than the daughter of a chief so hardened by the arduous course that nature has set before her.”

“I have no romantic intentions,” I say mounting the huge bird, which makes the young girls titter.

With my hands snug around her narrow waist I feel the hardness of her taut abdomen. Her feathered headdress tickles my nose as she turns to look at me over her bare left shoulder.

“You must bathe as soon as we arrive,” she says with a flare of her nostrils.

“I’m sorry, with so much time alone I’ve become accustomed to my own fetid scent.”

“Well enough for you, Davy, but I would never become accustomed to such a stench, so be grateful I don’t make you walk at a distance.”

“Thank you, Ziracon.”

“You’re welcome,” she says and snaps the reins putting the giant bird into a gallop, which the others mimic with hoots and shrills like I heard when I’d first seen the stampeding mammoths from the top of the tree.

* * *

In a wooden tub, I’m scrubbed by three of the girls from the hunting party. They fluff-dry me with deer skins and set me before a fire to fully dry as night falls. Through distant trees the full orange-tinted moon reveals only half its majesty, but promises to unveil its full glory in the coming hours. Once dry, I’m clothed in shammy pants and shirt as soft as a baby’s butt.

Ziracon approaches in the full regalia of a princess.

“Time to present you to my father, the chief,” she says offering her hand, which is warm but rough from her hard work.

I follow her into a teepee where I find the chief seated on the floor with his eyes closed and his arms extended with his elbows on his folded knees.

To the chief, Ziracon utters some guttural expression I don’t understand. His eyelids flutter and blink, then his gaze turns to me. He nods for me to sit beside him. His daughter has already told him where she found me and of my story. He bids me welcome. I nod with appreciation for his hospitality.

“There is another among us of your breed,” he tells me.

“May I see him?”

Her,” Ziracon interjects. “She refuses to see you.”

“Why? I’ve done nothing wrong—or have I?”

 “It is not your fault,” the chief tells me. “She wants desperately to see you, but it’s too soon. The time is not right, at least not yet.”

“You will join our tribe, just as she has,” Ziracon says. “First you must take part in our ceremony before the full moon has completely risen. Join us.”

One of the younger girls from the hunting party brings a tray into the teepee and sets it before us. There is some kind of fruit on the tray which glistens with the moonbeams casting through the teepee’s entrance. Ziracon serves one to the chief and he smiles broadly. She puts the tray in front of me and nods for me to partake. I hold the bulbous plant in one hand and sniff at it. The chief bites into his with a crunch. Ziracon does the same. Their eyes blink oddly as if they are just waking up in the morning of a new day and they grin as if they are stupefied.

I shrug and bite into my portion and feel the teepee spinning. I see the full orange moon through the entrance, but colors I’ve never imagined dance across the sky around the moon and I feel weightless.

I hear my own voice asking in a slow deep tone say, “I’m ready to see her now.”

I hear Ziracon tell me, “she just outside the teepee, but she won’t come in, and she begs you not to come out. She says, ‘It’s not time.’”

“Please, ask her just to stand outside the teepee where I can see her from here,” I say, but everything is blurry and spinning.

“I can’t, Davy,” I hear a familiar voice in the distance beyond the blur and the buzzing in my ears.

“Go back,” the woman’s voice implores. “You’ve too much left to do.”

Those words echo in my mind until they blend into another voice, also familiar, but not a woman’s voice. Instead it’s a man’s voice telling me the same thing, “You’ve got too much left to do.”

A hand is waving in front of my face. “Come on, Davy, they’re coming back. You’re wounds not so serious. Come on, Davy! Get up and fight! That bayonet missed your vitals. We stopped the bleedin’, too. Those peyotes that injun gave ya were powerful medicine, but you’re OK. Stand up, partner. Here’s ol’ Bessy.”

He shoves a rifle into my hands and I clutch it like a lifeline to pull me out of the whirlwind inside my head. A mission bell clangs reverberating as my eyes begin to focus. I feel a hat plopped crookedly onto my head.

“Can’t fight without that coonskin cap, Davy! We gotta show them Mexicans we mean business this time.”

“Georgie!” I call out and he turns back to me with a grin.

“Come on, Davy. We’re gonna make that Generaliˊsimo eat crow. If we don’t shoot ’m all, ya can just grin ’m down like a b’ar.”

“I saw, Polly, Georgie,” I tell him. “She’s waitin’ for me to finish this skirmish and come home to stay with ’er forever.”

I see the concern on my best friend’s sunburnt face. He sees my wound, but I won’t look at it and go into shock again. Whatever that Texican gave me for pain sure worked, but only on my body. My mind aches with desire to see Polly again, just one more time, and I know now that I will. Yet I wonder—on which side of this cloud is reality? What happened first, the battle for Texas or The Great Goolp and my survival in the Chihuahuan Desert on a cactus that can turn me into a time traveler

When its effects wear off, how bad will my pain be? I see that I needn’t be concerned with that, because rows and rows of troops are assaulting us in what seems like endless waves. Soon they’ll be no more hunger, pain, or thirst. There will be only me and Polly. That’s why I’ll fight now till I drop, and my own voice will join with those of us left in this moment of glory. We’ll rejoice in our well-fought fight to its bitter end:

“Remember, The Alamo!”

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