It took some time to realize the storm
had beached us on some time-lost shore unmarred
by human tracks. A race with birdlike feet
had been here since the last high tide had ebbed:
beyond a row of trees we found their camp,
a bit of charcoal and some metal shards.
A jaundiced forest grew like tea-stained teeth,
its leaf blades clattered but the air was still
as stifled breath. No cries, no song, no shift
among the branches other than those leaves
that flickered at the corners of our sight
without a wind . . . and yet our nerve-ends knew
observers elsewhere. Measuring those prints
in damp sand silenced us with data: depth
and length and punctured patterning of spikes
(or something very like) confirmed the worst —
we hunted something big and fast. Its scent
reminded me of anaconda coils,
and of a film I’d seen a fragment of,
but, curse me, I forbore to say “Go back.”
The trees closed ranks and in their humid shade
bespeckled fungi stared with Rorschach eyes
as we slunk by through shadows flitting past.
Strange calls and rustles dogged us all that day
once we escaped the forest’s moist regard
and struck out in the open, tracking what
our hindbrains feared to find. No arms aside
from some few stunners had survived the ship’s
unplanned and brutal landing, yet we kept
them close as talismans against a dark
imagining that rose inside our minds
silent, primal, twisting on itself.
Then something much like grass grew tall about us —
a wind blew up, that pungent scent raised hairs–
a cough or bark broke somewhere in the dark —
clouds fled across the moons — we shuffled close
together. Nine, I made us: Cap is gone?
We shouted, but no human voice replied.
The whispers of the grass stalks bade us run,
while in the deadly darkness something laughed
and half a dozen nightmares answered. Musk
hung heavy in the air: a verdant stench
primeval as the swamp that spawned our fears
so many evolutionary rungs
ago, when we’d had treetops for our lives
to cling to. Not these grasses falling fast
in slashed swathes close behind us as we broke
and fled, my second count abandoned. Eight.
Backs pressed against a solitary tree
atop a hillock in the grassy plain
our stunners drawn, our bodies drenched in sweat
(the cook has improvised a sharpened stick)
we wait. A scaly head bobs up, I fire
and miss; a hissing snarl foretells our end:
The captain’s dead, there’s none to say “Stand firm.”
Two run; we hear their quickly cut-off cries
swallowed by silence — saving for the crush
and shred of grasses underfoot. Too close
for courage, yet too distant for our eyes
to pick out more than shadows, their approach
inflames imagination, turning few
to skulking multitudes. We shudder. Clutch
our fruitless weapons. And then all around,
the air tears open in a roaring deep
thus ends the record on the chip retrieved.
The language is a human one, the stains
of blood allow assignment of a date
some thousand years before we settled here
upon this shoreline. Carved out by some stone
from space, the lake beyond is deep as time
& silent, summer sunset burning water
to mystery. We watch, entwining tails.
David C. Kopaska-Merkel edited Star*line, served as SFPA President, and was voted Grand Master in 2017. He won the Rhysling award for best long poem in 2006 for “The Tin Men,” a collaboration with Kendall Evans. He edits and publishes Dreams and Nightmares, a genre poetry zine in its 31st year of publication. He lives in a centuried farmhouse that has been engulfed, but not digested, by a city.
Ann K. Schwader’s most recent poetry collection is Dark Energies (P’rea Press, 2015). She is a two-time Rhysling Award winner, and a two-time Bram Stoker Award finalist. Ann lives, writes, and volunteers at her local branch library in suburban Colorado. http://home.earthlink.net/~schwader/