Reading Time: 3 minutes
The children followed their mother, eager to continue the night’s adventure. She insisted on strict formation, eyes on the back of the one before – she couldn’t really police them, but her children generally behaved. They had already crossed the Flat Black and spent hours hunting small game on the edge of the river. This was their third visit to the water and they’d done well. Ma felt confident in her latest brood – all but the smallest had managed a kill. This next lesson would help the littlest one.
When they’d sped over the Flat earlier, she’d noticed the carcass off to their left as they completed the crossing and took note to visit it on the return. She paused now, in the culvert, the children’s formation breaking apart. She could feel their trepidation as they gathered in the dark around her – they shivered at the strangeness of the place, the foul odors, the rumbling noise, the intensity of the lights passing over the barren surface of the plateau above. She had worked hard to instill respect for the Flat Black, but they needed more than fear.
She told the others to wait as she led each of them, one at a time, up the crumbling gravel slope to the edge of the smooth, dark surface.
“Look both ways,” she admonished, “and if you see lights, drop your eyes and run. The shortest distance to the edge.” She led her charge to the carcass of the small rodent, cool, but still wet with blood. “Don’t just stand and eat. The Flat is dangerous. Carve out a piece and take it back to the edge.”
She repeated this to each of her children in turn as she brought them to the bleeding body. This, she explained, was the easiest meat they would find and they should continually look out for opportunities every time they crossed. Always, she insisted, take advantage of what you find – never leave a free meal behind. Feed yourself, not the crows. But take care, it was treacherous. Many predators haunted the plain – coyotes, owls, the rushing beasts of noise and light – they must stay on guard lest they become food themselves.
“What do you mean ‘become food’?” The smallest one asked, always the most curious of the lot.
“All life is food,” Ma explained. “If it’s alive, it’s food.”
“But isn’t this dead?”
“It still has life in it,” she answered. “That’s why it smells and tastes so good – we consume the life to stay alive ourselves.”
“So if we keep eating, we’ll stay alive?”
“Yes, and no,” Ma said – wanting to close the conversation but answer honestly. “We all live until it is our time to become food for something else. Food is life and life is food.”
The little one sniffed at the meat in her claws and then tore at it with her teeth.
Ma brought the last of the group to the remains of the rodent and watched him pick at the final scraps of skin. A rumble rose from the distance.
“Take it to the edge!” She admonished.
The child pulled at the piece but it stuck stubbornly to the flat, hard ground. The scene lit as the rumble grew in her ears. The boy pulled at the flesh, stretching the rat skin where it held stubbornly to the pavement. She moved toward her child and nosed the flesh until it snapped free.
“Go!” She squealed, turning toward the lights. She froze. Her vision glowed bright white. This will be a lesson of its own.
The huddle of opossums in the culvert felt the thump, like no other sound they had ever heard, and their heads all popped alert in unison. Something important had happened. Minutes passed before the smallest one crept up the slope to the plain. Several feet further down, she saw the shape lying still on the road. She could smell the sharp tang of blood. Life. Food.
She stood, rigid, staring at the silhouette of her unmoving mother, then spun and stepped back down to gather the brood.
“In line!” An authority she hadn’t previously known rang in her voice. “We’re crossing!”
She led them up. She paused and looked both ways. She noted the carcass one last time.
“We’ll leave this one for the crows,” she whispered and sprinted forward.