Part 5

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That night, I dreamed I was the hunter from my grandpa's story. I crawled out of the cave to find the morning sun beaming down onto the body of a freshly killed snowshoe hare. Had I done that with my blow gun? I couldn't remember. There was the dart, still in its neck. I must have shot the thing in the cave, and then it ran out here and I thought I'd lost it. Strange to have no memory of that though. I did seem to recall a few other things, but... nothing that made any sense.

Best not to look a gift hare in the mouth—so I've heard—so I immediately set to skinning and gutting the fuzzy little critter. I'd never done such a thing in my waking life, but in my dream, I wasn't the least bit squeamish about it. I was a hunter, after all.

I needed to build a fire before I could make a proper meal of the animal, but I was so ungodly thirsty that I had to set aside a few minutes for chewing snow. At the end of this tedious procedure, my whole head ached from the cold, but at least I wasn't going to die from dehydration.

As soon as I was clear-headed enough for the task at hand, I cleared a patch of ground near the cave entrance and piled up some kindling from whatever dry brush I could find. Then, I pulled out my pump drill and set to work forming an ember I could use to start my fire.

This all seemed perfectly natural inside my dream, but in real life, I'd never used anything but matches to light a fire. Pretty clever device though. You push the handle up and down, and these twisted cords spin a vertical stick back and forth really fast as you go. All the friction at the bottom starts an ember burning in the wood you're using as a base.

Once I had a decent fire going, I skewered the hare—which my dream-self considered to be a very different thing from a rabbit—and roasted it with greedy haste. At this point, I was practically starving. And I don't just mean uncomfortably hungry; I mean dangerously malnourished. I devoured that animal like it was a ripe mango. No salt, no pepper, just blood and char for my spice. And honestly, it was the finest snowshoe hare I'd ever tasted. When it comes to barbecue, I highly recommend the full DIY experience.

With my immediate needs satisfied, I began to look at the cave with a newfound curiosity and a certain sense of wonder. What had I seen in there the night before? The walls had seemed softer than they should have been... almost alive somehow. Before I realized what I had in mind, I was scanning the nearby pines for leaking pitch. If I could find a good-sized chunk, I'd have a decent torch in no time.

And once again, the forest provided. There was a chunk of dried resin the size of a walnut on the second tree I examined. I cut a green branch and split it two ways with my knife on one end. This gave me four prongs to hold the resin in place. Without delay, I walked over to my fire, kicked up a few coals to get the flame going again, and lit my torch. I was heading back into the cave, and this time, I'd have my wits about me.

Torch in hand, my heart began to race with excitement. Or maybe it was fear. Those two are hard to tell apart sometimes. I crept into the shadows of the cave mouth as if I were stalking an animal: toes up, ball first, rolling from outside to inside. My boots were thin and flexible enough to feel the ground under my feet. I carefully avoided any noisy twigs or leaves, brushing them aside before shifting my weight. I don't know what I expected to find in there that needed to be approached so gingerly. I'd spent the night in this cave, after all.

After maybe twenty paces, I was surprised to find that the cave kept right on going. If anything, it had even opened up a little. I held up my torch to have a look around. The firelight illuminated dozens of pale, roundish shapes, which I took to be formations of stone. And then one of them moved.

It was something like a barn owl, but easily the size of a large dog. To wake its sleeping companions, that enormous owl let out a truly horrifying screech, which resonated up and down the cave in malevolent waves. I'm not ashamed to say that at this point, I hit the floor and huddled in a ball with my hands over my face. As those monstrous birds poured out of the cave—really, there must have been hundreds—I felt their wingbeats on my back and imagined the damage a single talon could do to my unprotected flesh.

When it was all over, I felt certain there wasn't a single owl left anywhere in the cave. They moved as a unit, like a school of fish. I wondered what they would do out there in the blinding daylight. Find another place to sleep? If I could have gotten just one warning hoot, I swear I would have backed right out and let the owls have their cave. But as it happened, I had the place to myself now, and my torch was still lit. No sense wasting a good torch.

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