Tuesday, July 10, 2012


I'm starting to think it's just something about this stretch of road. Today was my third encounter with someone who couldn't speak to me - at least not in any way I could understand.

Just like yesterday, I had been walking for most of the morning when I saw a dark shape in the distance, just off the road. I couldn't tell what it was at first. A blanket? A dead tree? The outline shimmered in the heat haze and refused to resolve itself into any shape I recognized. I had to get much closer before I realized what it was.

It was one of the flying hyenas.

Even the ordinary, ground-dwelling hyena is an oddly proportioned creature: thick-bodied and front-heavy, all neck and shoulders and ears. Its back slopes up from short back legs to a high, domed head, with a scruffy mane of fur along the spine. Its neck is almost as thick as its waist. The little tuft of tail almost seems like an afterthought.

Flying hyenas are stranger still; all of their proportions have been exaggerated even further for flight.This one had bat-like wings easily twice as wide as the span of my arms, and its toes were unusually long and flexible, somewhere between paws and talons. Its chest was massive. It takes truly amazing flight muscles to lift a creature the size of a hyena. The Desert name for the flying hyena - sarkotha - means something like "sky-hunch," and now I can see why. Most of the animal seemed to be shoulders and a long, muscular neck heavy enough to balance its small hindquarters in flight. Like a bat, there was webbing between its tail and its hind legs.

I don't know whether it was male or female. Unlike most mammals, there is no obvious way to tell male and female flying hyenas apart except that the females are larger, and I'd never been close enough to one to make a comparison. This one was large enough to be frightening, even lying sprawled on the sand.

The hyena's fur was gray-brown with a pattern of black spots. The bare skin on its wings was much the same. The wings were tough, translucent membranes, like those of a bat, leathery and wrinkled at the joints. Enough light shone through from the sand that I could see red and blue blood vessels beneath the surface.

There was a loop of rope tied around the hyena's left wing.

I'm not sure how the rope had gotten there in the first place. Maybe someone had left it somewhere, and the hyena had gotten tangled in it; maybe someone had actually tried to catch the creature. If so, they must have been insane. I could see its fangs from where I was standing. The area around the rope was red and swollen, chafed by the fibers and the hyena's teeth. It looked as if the hyena had been worrying at the rope, trying to get it off, and had only succeeded in pulling it tighter. The membrane was so constricted by now that the wing probably couldn't have opened completely - which explained why the hyena had been traveling on foot. From what I've heard, they never walk when they can fly.

Judging from the tracks in the sand, it had walked for a long time, and dragged itself for a long time after that, before collapsing from exhaustion or dehydration. It wasn't moving. I was fairly sure that its eyes were shut, though the dark rings around them made it hard to tell. Until I noticed the faint rise and fall of its shoulders, I wasn't sure if it was even alive.

It was clearly alive, though. That was all I needed to know. Aside from the fact that I hate to see anyone suffer, I've read enough fairy tales to know the proper course of action in situations like this. That rope had to come off somehow. I set my bags down a safe distance away and rummaged through them until I found my bread knife. It was a less-than-ideal tool, but I needed something with teeth to cut through rope that thick, and I don't carry a saw around with me. The bread knife would have to do.

(The picture above, by the way, I drew later, from memory. This was a situation that called for either helping or running away, not standing around sketching.)

The hyena didn't move when I approached. It seemed to be unconscious. It made a noise when I touched it, somewhere between a snarl and a snore, but it didn't open its eyes. Gingerly, trying to shake the beast as little as possible, I crouched by its wing and started sawing at the rope.

It was a long and difficult process. The sun beat down mercilessly. It had been bearable when I'd only been walking; sawing at a rope was much more strenuous, and therefore hotter. The rope seemed to part at a rate of one strand per hour. As slick as it was with my sweat and the hyena's saliva, it was hard to even hold onto it. I was terrified that I was going too slowly and would never finish, that I was going too quickly and would wake up the hyena, that it would wake up anyway and bite my arm off. Somehow, I managed to keep going.

I had almost finished when I became aware of a low rumbling sound from somewhere nearby. I looked down to find a pair of dark eyes, ringed in black, glaring at me above a wrinkled muzzle. The hyena was growling.

I had no idea how long it had been awake, but that was obviously a sign that I was out of time. Fortunately, one last yank of the knife was enough. The last strand of rope parted, and I scrambled away as fast as I could without stabbing myself or turning my back on the hyena. I got to what seemed like a respectful distance and then went a bit further.

The hyena didn't get up immediately; it sat there, baring its teeth at me in a snaggly bear-trap snarl that would have put a crocodile to shame, until I was far enough away to satisfy it. Only then did it stagger to its paws. It moved gingerly at first, favoring its injured wing; something must have felt different, though, because it turned away from me to look. The tendons flexing in that great neck were as thick as my wrist. Cautiously, it unfolded its wing, and the frayed rope slithered off and fell to the ground.

The hyena gave its wing a tentative flap. Then, with a thoroughly inhuman cackle that raised all the hair on my spine (never mind that I don't have any right now), it beat both wings in the most ferocious takeoff I've ever seen and flung itself into the air. The river was fairly nearby, just over a few small hills. Apparently, they'd been too much for it to manage before; with its wing unencumbered, though, it swooped right over them. I could hear the splash when it dove into the water.

I climbed over the hills and sat just behind the crest of the last one, watching the hyena. It drank at first, lowering its head into the sluggish current and chomping down water in great, famished gulps. Having dealt with its thirst, it just stood there for a while and let the water wash over its wing. It took several minutes for the swelling to start going down. After that, the hyena romped and splashed around in the water in what looked like sheer joy, kicking and scooping up big waves with its wings. It shook itself like a dog when it finally climbed out.

It froze when it saw me. I'm not sure what it was thinking. On a human, its expression would have looked like a perplexed frown, as if there was some puzzle it was trying to work out. We stood there and looked at each other for what seemed like forever. Finally, the hyena dipped its head in what might have been a nod, then turned and loped away up another hill. It lifted into the air with another ghastly cackle and flapped off into the sky. I watched it until it was out of sight.

I didn't do any more walking today. Instead, I went to lie in the river myself for a while, until I was less overheated and my hands had stopped shaking. It had been wonderful to see the hyena back in the air, free to return to the element it was born to rule. I was glad I'd been able to help it.

But I hope I never have to do anything like that again.

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