Saturday, June 05, 2010


Meligma has its share of ordinary hunters, the ones who catch fish and muskrats and duffel pigs and small alligators. They are quiet, serious, and businesslike. These are the people who keep the village fed.

The trick-hunters are different. They hunt birds in the canopies of the Shwamp trees. There's certainly no shortage of birds to hunt up there. There are white egrets, flowerbirds with honey-colored plumage, long-tail screeps and quetzals, toucans and thricans, hairy wolfbirds, featherbats and shrieking trebulons. A flock of kaklbirds have a grove all to themselves, as no other birds can stand to be near them. Silver eagles nest in the treetops and bring back alligators for their eaglets. The trick-hunters hunt all of them. They consider it cheating to actually kill a bird unless they're planning to eat it; this is why they're called trick-hunters. Any child with a bow and arrow can kill a bird. To get close enough to pluck a quetzal's tailfeathers, though, or to steal a silver eagle's egg without losing one's head in exchange, a hunter has to be tricky.* They're hard to miss most of the time, leaping through the treetops and whooping at the top of their lungs, but they can be practically invisible when they want to be.

Of all the trick-hunters, Trilliko seems the most interested in travelers from beyond the village.** He sits with me for hours (or leaps from branch to branch while I sit, actually; none of the trick-hunters seem capable of staying still), asking me endless questions about the Train, the floating cities, the Blue Desert. He's more than returned the favor, though; nearly everything I know about trick-hunting I've heard from Trilliko.

Of course, I'm not entirely sure how much of it is accurate. When I first remarked on the age of the trick-hunters - Trilliko is one of the oldest, at twenty-five - he told me that that was because they all break their necks or get eaten by the silver eagles before they reach thirty. My expression kept him laughing for several minutes, after which he took pity on me and explained that every trick-hunter gets too slow, too bored, or too married to keep trick-hunting by age thirty. (The saying is that if the birds don't clip a trick-hunter's wings, his wife will.)*** They don't get eaten.

"Well, not often," he added.

Many of the Meligmans seem to have some bat in their ancestry. Unusually for an amphibian, Trilliko has wings. They're a mottled green with dark speckles - perfect for camouflage in the Shwamp. He steers with his enormous webbed feet and can do dizzying acrobatics in the air. Of course, this means that several of his favorite adventures to retell are the ones in which his wings were broken or deliberately tied up - triumphing without his biggest advantage - and the ones that took place in midair. There's no excitement in doing something anyone could have done.

As I've mentioned before, Trilliko has a piece of jewelry for every death-defying feat he's accomplished. All the trick-hunters do, actually, but Trilliko has the most of any I've met. There are numerous rings in his webbed hands and toes (not in his wings - they would ruin the aerodynamics). He wears a necklace full of the feathers of particularly deadly birds. Almost as impressive as Trilliko's collection of jewelry is his collection of scars. The two collections cover him more or less all over, and they match. A ring and several toe scars are from his riding of the chekaraul when he first became a trick-hunter. Another ring and most of the scars on his arms are from his taming of the scissorbats. The largest feather on his necklace, and the scars across his nose, are from his defeat of the Dire Pelican four years ago.

This is Trilliko's favorite midair adventure. It was a ferocious battle, against a foe six times his size, and he only barely survived it. He won by blinding the Dire Pelican with mud. Unfortunately, the other head got him while he was doing that, and he only barely managed to withstand the pain long enough to trick it into biting off its own flight feathers. He was in a coma for three weeks until the venom wore off.

That's the way he tells it, at least. Every trick-hunter in Meligma claims to be the one who defeated the Dire Pelican. Each has a different version of the fight, winning by strength or agility or cleverness or sheer suicidal bravery. It's the best story in recent history; who wouldn't want to be the hero of it? I'm not sure which hunter actually defeated the beast.

Maybe it doesn't matter. There is no shortage of genuine feats of bravery among the trick-hunters, but the adventures are only the beginning. Everyone has to stop having them eventually. The stories, however, can be told and retold for the rest of a trick-hunter's life.

*According to Trilliko, the trick-hunters actually rarely bother the silver eagles. They get most of their eggs from the truckle-hens, who always lay more than their nests can hold anyway. Everyone has to face the eagles at some point, but there's no point in risking death every time you want an omelette.

**He's named after the Eternal Chuckler of Shwamp folklore. The name suits him.

***Half the time, the villagers replace "his wife" with "her husband." About two thirds of the trick-hunters are male, but several of the most terrifying are women. The title is open to anyone who can ride the chekaraul. Regardless of gender, though, few people want their spouses fighting eagles up in the treetops when they could be safely hunting duffel pigs on the ground.

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