Noani’s period had gone on for four weeks, bleeding through supplies, and the metal bin where they were kept was nearly empty. The expedition had no medical personnel. There was a small village eight hours’ drive, but she refused to think of leaving, both afraid of what the men would think and afraid they would find something without her. She was not afraid of what the bleeding meant; her mother and aunt had both died of tumors in the uterus. If cancer were to strike here, on the taiga, then so be it. She thought, but did not write it in her journal, that if she were to die, she hoped they would find the return to civilization with her body too taxing; after all, there was barely enough room in the vehicles as it was, with equipment crammed into every available bit of space. The peaty earth was already dug in six places. They could lower her in—roll her in for all she cared—and cover her with mounds of damp, brown soil. Perhaps another expedition would find her in a thousand years; perhaps she would be looked upon with wonder by them, touched by hands a dozen generations younger than her, a step forward in time and collapsed on itself all at once.
Swallowing another three pills—she was constant, at the limits of prescribed amounts, keeping the pain to a dull writhing within her abdomen—she walked out of the tent, the wind catching her up and swallowing her as if she was the pill, the thing it must take.
“Together!” shouted a tall blonde man, and he and two others swept a snapping blue tarp up over their newest hole in the ground.
“Why are you covering it?” she shouted over the wind.
He pointed at the darkening sky, where clouds rolled in over the distant mountains, and got to work with the mallet, pounding in stakes to keep the tarp down. Judging by the wind, the tarp would be tattered by evening. She didn’t relish the thought of another day lost due to weather; rain, not uncommon in early fall on the steppes, had battered their timeline without mercy. They were already behind six days. Still, she wasn’t due back at the university until November, a four-week intensive she was assigned to teach awaiting her. Greek myth and modern Turkey. They would expect Amazons; she’d give them volcanoes and arks, instead.
“Stop,” she said. Leer glanced up. “It won’t rain for a couple of hours. I’ll dig.”
“It’ll rain any minute,” he said, continuing to pound a stake.
“No, it won’t. Stop and I’ll work. I’ll finish the tarp myself.” She reached down to take the mallet, but he pulled it back.
“Go back to your tent.”
She knelt down. “Go back to yours. This is my operation.”
“Our site, Noani.” He stopped, sighing. “Fine. Go down, dig. But if it starts to rain and you’re not up, I’ll drag you out of there if I have to.”
Her smile was thin. “I’m sure you will, Max.”
She climbed beneath at the incline side, the end of the tarp slapping at her as she entered. She heard Max telling the others they were done for the day, that she would work for a bit and then join them. A lie, which they would know. How often did she join them? Meals, sometimes not even those. Their shoulders occasionally touched hers while they worked, a knee in her line of vision, but they moved around each other like ghosts, the men talking, joking. As if she was the ghost.
The odd blue light beneath the tarp and bits of gray sunlight peeping under the edges was not enough. She turned on an LED lantern and unrolled her tools. Taking a trowel, she began to chip away at a bit of gray, clay-like earth, the object beneath beginning finally to show itself. Today, she thought, would be the day she would reveal it for what it was, rain be damned.
Her stomach twisted, and between her legs, another sickening gush of liquid. She paused for breath. Another tap with the trowel, and a chunk of earth fell away.
A horn. She’d expected it, having seen a bit of the curving white shape. An hour passed. It grew larger, longer, as still she scraped. The rain pattered lightly, brief bursts that meant nothing.
Another hour, and the second horn was nearly free. She chewed the inside of her lip, thinking.
An aurochs this far north would be a find; she’d come for something else, something more prehistoric, but an aurochs bull would satisfy.
Another light tap-tap-tapping, and the horn, half an arm’s length from its twin, stood out. She turned her attention lower, and began to uncover the animal’s skull. The wind cracked the tarp above her.
Tufts of hair, dark and bristly, were exposed where white bone should have been. She paused. Got her brush.
An aurochs hide, preserved. She could not breathe.
Above, the wind settled as she touched the tip of her brush to the bony precipice, before it took up again in a long, shivering low. It reminded her of the cattle she’d seen once in the Scottish Highlands, red and shaggy and scattered across rocks and crags beneath a steely sky. The Scottish cattle were shorter than aurochs, more compact. The aurochs resembled an African type of cattle, more Watusi than oxen.
She had noted cows since childhood; the luminous, doe-eyed Jersey cows that inhabited a farm by her big island home had been her favorite. Trips to Somalia and Kenya had given her an appreciation for the velvety, wrinkled hides of local cattle there. She sometimes thought that if she were to give up archaeology, give up all this digging in places too hot or too cold, she might take up farming. A garden of no less than an acre, and chickens, one or two cows. Which was ridiculous, considering that she would probably die with a trowel in her hand, in some pit. Possibly this one.
This pit was ten by fifteen feet, and currently ten feet deep. It hugged the tree line, which is where they camped, giving them some defense from the rain. The heavy, dark trunks of the pines were always damp, moss riding their bark to the first or second set of branches. She and the men hung their laundry between the trees; their kitchen was strung high, even scrubbed pots, so as not to attract bears. Their garbage was taken far enough from camp to be disposed of without issue. They had started this dig the previous spring, and the entire area seemed homey to her, now that she had learned its bushes and trees and rocks.
So many rocks. The men piled them by their tents, sometimes, and sometimes left them scattered across the ground, like shattered bones.
The soil fell away with ease, clumps thumping to the floor. A dark brown cheek was exposed, heavily muscled. She touched it with a gloved finger, gingerly. How had this come to be? An aurochs this far north, and so well preserved in strange clay earth not often seen in the taiga? Was it alone? It had to be at least four hundred years old, if not much older. But it looked as if it had been buried twenty years ago.
Noani chiseled, flakes of clay falling more rapidly, revealing the closed eye, the set mouth, and finally, the impossible roundness of a nose, nostrils filled with clay. She shivered in the cold.
The wind scraped at the tarp overhead. The first real bullets of rain hit, and she picked up a small brush. Swirled it around in a nostril, clearing it. Did the same for the other. Small hairs stuck up from the nose, spiky and dark. Removing her glove, she held a hand to it, afraid to touch, but wanting to.
Warmth ghosted across her palm.
Noani jerked back.
“Hey! Rain’s here! Time to come up!” Max lifted the tarp and peered underneath. “Noani? Come up.”
She turned. “I’ll be right up.”
“No. Now, Noani. Look, it’s really coming down.”
It was. The light patter had become a hard rat-a-tat-tat, and already, she could see trickles of water along the edges of the pit.
“What’s that? You got quite a bit more,” said Max.
She grabbed an oilcloth and draped it over the horns. Clicked off the lantern. Max climbed down.
“I’ll help you get your tools,” he said.
“I’ve got it,” she said, gathering everything in a rush. “Let’s go.”
She waited for him to go first, impatiently motioning with a jerk of her head. He climbed back up, and they trotted for the tents.
“What pit are you in tomorrow?” she called through the rain.
“What pit?” she shouted. “Tomorrow?”
“Oh,” he said. “That one, I suppose.”
“No,” she said. “You and Travis take pit two.”
He frowned. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”
“Pit two,” she said, standing outside her tent, tools in her arms. The rain was a downpour, both of them soaked. Max’s blond hair had become dark, plastered to his face.
“Fine. Whatever. We’ll discuss it tomorrow, Noani,” he called over the rain.
“Two,” she shouted. “You and Travis. Pit two.”
He shook his head and ran off for his own tent, and she hurried into hers, dripping water onto the floor. She dropped the tools and began to undress, stripping down quickly. Toweling off her damp skin, she looked in her metal supplies box and took out a pad, thick as a novel.
Noani rehydrated soup over the little burner in her tent, not bothering to join the men. Let them think it was just the rain, keeping her inside.
And if she did not bleed to death, she would uncover the rest of the aurochs after the rain stopped. By herself.
She slept, the rain pounding on her tent like a thousand hooves, and dreamed of lovers from long ago, their breath warm on her cheek.
Noani did not remember her aunt. There was a picture of her, her mother’s sister, faded sepia and framed in tarnished gold, on the wall above the couch. Right beside it was a picture of her great-grandmother, who had spoken only Hawaiian and died just after her seventh child had succumbed to typhoid at age two. There were other pictures, in black and white, or sepia, or faded color squares, all along the wall. Noani knelt backwards on the couch when she was a girl, elbows on the puffy top of it, looking at the parade of portraits and saying their names: Fritzi, Aluala, Callie, Molly Keanna. There were men, too, who died of eating too much, smoking too much, but it was the women who died of nothing much at all: cancer, little black beads strung through their abdomens like leis.
She liked Fritzi’s picture best: the stiff pin curls, the dark lipstick, the eyes like two half-smiles. Noani had tried curling her hair many times as a teenager; she’d been left with ringlets and frizz.
Fritzi was outspoken, they said. She’d had many suitors, drawn by her laugh. Went to all the dances. Wore a bikini to a cliff jumping, and was the only girl there who’d jump. Her top had come off, torn by the force of her entry into the swirling water. Another boy had given her his shirt to cover her; they said she’d wrapped it around her torso like a bandage and refused to give it back.
There were a hundred gods on the islands, but for Noani there was only one: Fritzi, her patron saint.
All the other gods had long been unearthed.
She thought of Fritzi as she descended into the pit the next morning. They’d never had much in common, Fritzi and Noani. Fritzi had been the third daughter. Noani the only one. This was pit four, and perhaps their designated rankings had come together in this.
She paused, blinking. Perhaps she’d lost too much blood. Deities didn’t exist, no more than ghosts were real. There was no portent in the order of birth, and the only thing that would link the long-dead aunt and her wayfaring niece would be an early death, childless.
Moribund didn’t suit her, she thought, frowning. She was serious, even grim, but not morose.
The lantern on, she slid the oilcloth from the aurochs horns.
It was an amazing head, enormous and heavy, not elegantly sloped like a Jersey. There was power in its breadth. She longed to touch it with her bare fingers, to feel the cheek and stroke beneath the jaw.
And it was an amazing find. She was convinced it was an aurochs now, and not some overly large bull that had wandered from its domesticated herd and died out here on the taiga. The angle of the horns, how they curved out and then front, as if they could scoop a man and toss him. The sheer size of it! Yes, this was a creature only a big cat could take down, if that.
She set to revealing the neck, further intrigued by how the flesh did not peel away easily, did not shrivel and turn to husk.
Of course. Because the animal was not old. This was no aurochs. It was some modern cattle, dark and huge, to be sure, but not the near-mythical aurochs.
The trowel shook in her hand. Noani closed her eyes, pressing back tears. She had come out here, hoping to find pottery and tools of prehistoric hunter-gatherers, the mark of culture’s hard march north, and instead had found some modern-day farmer’s lost bull.
What would the men think, that she’d told them to stay away so that she could unearth a cow? Travis and Callahan avoided her; graduate students, she’d had to cajole and coerce them when they should’ve leapt at the chance to come along. But they’d studied under her, and she was sure they found her prickly, stubborn and unfriendly. And Max, the only one who would come with her when she called without her having to persuade him, the only one who seemed to believe that Noani could find something that no one else had—perhaps this time would be the last. She’d be back to begging for funds, groveling for partners.
She would never be free of the demands of the university, when teaching brought in the only real money. Her expeditions were not fruitful. Her dream of living site-to-site, always a pit outside her tent, would not be realized when backers couldn’t rationalize it.
Sniffing, she opened her eyes. She’d dig out the bull.
Black eyes, liquid and deep, looked back at her.
Up above, she heard the men walking around, talking and joking. They were walking to pit two.
Those eyes stared, unblinking, a trace of dampness around their rims.
Perhaps she was wrong, and they’d been open all along.
No. They would be hollows, then. Eyes rotted fast. There should be nothing in the socket, nothing at all.
The springy ground muffled his steps. She heard him call a moment before he pulled the edge of the tarp back.
“Sun’s out. I’ll take this off for you,” he said. “How’s it coming?”
“Leave it,” she said. “It rains so often, I’ll probably need it in an hour.” She attempted a small laugh. Max frowned and leaned his head in.
“Noani. What is it? Those are some horns,” he said.
“Yes,” she said, nodding at the thing behind her and moving her body a bit to block it. “Looks like somebody’s bull got lost or buried somehow, and we found it. So. Not anything, really, but I thought I’d dig it out a bit more, see if I can find anything interesting.”
“In a lost cow?” Max frowned. “Seems frivolous, if you don’t mind me saying. We’ve got what appears to be a stone circle in two. Maybe a campfire. Why don’t you come over and see what you think?”
“I will,” she said. “I just want to dig this out a little more, that’s all. I know, it sounds strange, but there’s something about it I think is interesting.”
“All right. If you don’t come over to two, I’ll get you at lunch. Okay?”
“Fine. Thanks, Max.”
“Noani, are you all right?”
Max, always watching her a bit too closely. She clenched her jaw, wanting to tell him to mind his own business, but instead said, “I’m fine. Tired, I guess. The weather.”
He nodded. “It’s wearing on us all. If we come back, let’s push it to summer next time, eh?”
“Sure,” she said, but she knew that she wouldn’t come back. She would unearth this bull and that would be that. Whatever she found or did not find, she would not be back to this site.
Max got up from his crouch and left, and Noani turned back to the bull. Its eyes were closed, tightly shut, and the dampness had worsened to a trickle, cutting a wet path down both cheeks.
The men passed around cold leftover stew—mostly carrots and onions—slathered on hard bread, the juices from the stew vaguely making the bread chewy. She did her best to look at them, to smile at the words they were saying, though she knew the smiles were ill timed, her glances making them uneasy.
Passing for normal was difficult under mundane circumstances; it was not Fritzi’s charisma she summoned, but her independence, her strength. Her bravery. She’d thought those far more valuable qualities, but at the moment, she wished she could relax, charm them with a grin. Make them forget about pit four.
They talked about how odd it was to find cattle out here, but some nomadic families kept cows for milk. Goats were more common. She agreed, and said she knew it was trivial, but she wondered what had happened to this one.
That was the truth. She did wonder. The bull’s neck did not extend back from its head, as expected, but straight down. Who would bury a bull standing straight up? She wondered if the neck would soon stop—a ragged cut, indicating where the head had been severed before being dropped into a hole and buried. Some sort of religious omen, a pagan offering.
Yes, she told herself. It would end at the neck.
Max held out his hands, demonstrating the width of the horns. Travis and Callahan were impressed. Wanted to see.
“No,” she said. They stopped at her abrupt intrusion. “I mean, no. I want it to be a surprise, when I get the whole thing exposed.”
The men exchanged confused looks.
“Well,” said Max. “The radio, near as I can make out, says more rain in a couple of days. Why don’t we drive back to town and wait it out? I think we all need a break.”
Noani nodded along with the others, though with less enthusiasm.
She wouldn’t go into town. Didn’t like the staring, as if she was an outsider, a stranger—which she was. But it made her feel as if she couldn’t breathe, suffocated her anytime she was around people she didn’t know, people who expected her to try to make conversation, even if they spoke another language.
But she could rely on her foreignness, conversely, to keep strangers at bay. It was worse, sometimes, being around people she should, at least nominally, know.
“Good,” said Max. “We’ll pack up tomorrow.” He paused. “Noani?”
She sucked in a breath. Stood, though she was dizzy.
The men were silent.
“Noani,” said Max in a low voice, setting his plate aside and standing. He took her elbow.
She looked down, where they all stared for a moment, wide-eyed, and looked away, embarrassed. Her canvas pants were soaked with blood between her legs.
She snapped at Max, who tried to help her to her tent. Stopped short of shrieking when he came to check on her fifteen minutes later. Jesus, she snarled. It was only a menstrual cycle.
She thought he’d leave, uncomfortable with it, but when she came out, newly supplied and in fresh pants, he was waiting nearby. He looked up.
“Don’t ask if I’m all right,” she said, staring at him.
He raised an eyebrow, cocked his head. “Okay, I won’t.” He produced a small, leather-bound flask and wiggled it in the air.
“Only schnapps. My mom always said it helped.”
“Schnapps for cramps?”
“And for burnt dinners, parent-teacher meetings, and putting clothes on the line.” He shrugged. “Kind of a cure-all, in our house.”
“You had some kind of childhood.”
“You could say that.” He held it out. She surprised herself and took it, unscrewing the cap and sniffing. “Blackberry,” he said.
She sipped. “I prefer cinnamon.”
“It’ll be on the manifest, next expedition.” He smiled. “Sorry you’re feeling shitty. So, do you want help on pit four?”
She took a breath and said nothing.
“You probably don’t want help in four. But I’m asking.” He took the schnapps and swallowed, wiping his mouth after with his wrist. “Look, Noani, this is our second time at the site. We haven’t come up with much. The board will withdraw funding for another trip.”
“So… you want me to forget about the bull, and help in two?”
He shook his head and grinned. “No. I want you to dig out the damn bull, and if you want help, I’ll do it. Just do it by tomorrow, and if you can’t, oh well. We’re going to town, and we’re going to eat real, hot food. Even if it is sausages and cabbages. And we’re going to drink beer. You included. Well, you can pass on the beer if you want. But we’re getting out of here for a day or two. We need it. It’s… the trees, or something. Like they’re closing in.”
They looked at the forest behind their camp, the spruces bent and snaking unevenly upwards. The soft ground routinely froze and sank, twisting the trunks.
The air smelled like pine needles and wet earth.
“Out here?” She laughed softly, gesturing to the space on the other side, the yellow-brown rolling hillocks of the taiga.
“Mm. Do you want our help?”
She shook her head.
She shook her head again. “Thanks, Max. But I want to do this by myself.”
He didn’t understand, she could see that. It didn’t matter, however; she took a swig of schnapps and—in a strange moment that left her off-kilter—winked at Max before heading back to the pit.
Her stomach felt much better.
Fritzi, she decided. That’s where the wink had come from. It was so unlike Noani. Had she ever winked at anyone?
Another clod of clay fell. It was odd, this clay. Almost foreign. It reminded her of a dig in eastern Macedonia once; they’d been on the border of Greece, and the clay was thick, gray-brown, and dried out the hands until they bled.
She was used to that, bleeding. Tools slipped. Rocks protruded where one hadn’t noticed them before. Hands cracked from being in dirt all the damn day.
She was not used to thinking about Max. She found herself idly wondering if he would’ve been taken by her Aunt Fritzi, if he’d have been one of the many men who called, who asked her out. She’d liked blondes, they said. Told everyone she was getting off the island and going to California, going to meet herself a tall blonde man in a suit and hat.
Fritzi loved the sun, loved people. Noani loved the shadows of the pits, especially with tarps overhead, or climbing into caves and catacombs where the sun was only a memory.
The sun on the taiga was weak, but still she’d blocked it out with the tarp. The autumn rains were frequent, true, but she liked it in the darkness, with only the LED lanterns.
More clay. She’d been worried the head wouldn’t be able to support itself, but it held up just fine, despite her carving out the area beneath it. She’d gone around the neck, discovering what could only be, like sunlight in caves, a memory of muscles. But what muscles they’d been! Immensely thick, rippling dark waves that extended the length of the neck.
She imagined the shoulder would be next. Or not. Perhaps it would, finally, end.
She peered up. The rain had started again. Hadn’t Max said it would be a couple of days?
Holding up her trowel, she listened. The rain quickened, the winds picking up, snapping at the edge of the tarp. At this rate, it would be in tatters soon.
She sighed. Max would come get her if it looked like a storm. She scraped away at the clay, waiting for the inevitable. And there it was: her name, the tarp edge being lifted.
“I’m coming right now,” she called, and placed the trowel back in the tool roll. She reached for the lantern, clicking it off.
The darkness shifted. She took a step, hesitant. Something moved, rumbled beneath her feet and around her. She took another step, eyes searching the gloom. Was it an earthquake? The pit collapsing? Her insides jittered; her vision unfocused.
She buckled, falling to the ground. Her guts felt as if they would dislodge themselves in a moment. She put a hand on the earth to feel its trembling.
Max grasped her beneath the armpits and hauled her up. He was saying her name, but it was so far off. She told him to get out of the cave, that it was going to collapse, and it was all right. She’d stay.
Shouting. Travis and Callahan, clambering down into pit four and taking her by her assorted limbs. She wanted desperately to tell them to stop, they were pulling her apart.
The climb to the surface hurt; her head ached from the light.
She cried, trying to reach back for the bull. His eyes were open again, she could feel it.
They were open, and they were looking right at her.
Her mouth was dry. She mumbled for water. Immediately, a glass was presented at her lips. She sipped.
The rain hadn’t stopped. Max pressed the back of his hand against her forehead, his skin cool.
“Noani, can you hear me?”
“Course,” she said, voice hoarse. “You’re right next to me.”
He smiled and took the glass away. They were in her tent, she realized.
She licked her lips and looked around, then up at Max, hovering beside her. His face was drawn, pale mustache stretched over his lips.
“I don’t know, but as soon as the rain lets up, we’re taking you to town. Maybe farther, if their doctor doesn’t know what’s wrong.”
She sighed. “It’s nothing.”
“Noani, I’m no expert, but something is wrong.”
She struggled to sit up, but fell back. She felt weak. Tired.
“I just need some sleep.”
“Then get some. I’ll wake you when it’s time to go.”
“I’m not going anywhere, Max.”
He smiled. “Not this time, Noani. This time, you do as I say.”
She attempted to stare back, the patented Noani death glare, but it dissolved immediately, with no will behind it. Looking down, she realized he was holding her hand.
“I just want to sleep a bit more,” she said.
He nodded, and as she closed her eyes, she saw him watching her, the corners of his warm, brown eyes creased with concern.
She drifted off, thinking of the pit.
It was still raining when she woke, and dark. There was a lantern giving a low bluish-white glow at the table nearby, and a blanket that was hers but had not been on the chair. Max had left, she supposed. Gone for food, a break.
She sat up, swaying a bit, and pushed off the covers. She was not soaked in blood, which was unexpected. Her thighs were bare, caramel skin prickling with goose bumps.
Clean pants were nearby. She didn’t pause to think about Max undressing her; she pulled on pants, grabbed a waterproof jacket, and pulling the hood over her head, she opened the tent flap.
She hadn’t checked the time. It didn’t matter.
All that mattered was finishing the excavation.
Taking the lantern, she hurried across muddy ground. There was light in one of the other tents; the men were up. Max would come to check on her soon. When he discovered her missing, he would surely check pit four. She would show him she felt fine, and that the rain meant nothing. Tell him to go back, leave her alone.
She slipped on the ground at the pit’s edge and fell, bumping, to her butt. She hissed.
A sore back. Just another small inconvenience.
Getting to her feet was difficult. She put a hand to the pit wall to steady her. It was damp, and her fingers sunk in a little.
A few steps, her breathing hard, and she lifted the lantern.
Someone had been digging in her pit. Clumps of clay were piled on the floor of the pit, not even shoveled to one side. Her heart thumped in anger. She took another step, holding out the lantern.
Its eyes were open. She stared into them, into the liquid black that seemed to be seeing her, and let her gaze drift downward.
The neck ended. There was no ragged slash. Flesh, darkened with dirt, seamlessly ran into the furred neck of the bull.
She reached out, a trembling fingertip touching the place where a human collarbone, impossibly, sat.
Its skin trembled in response. Her eyes snapped up.
It let out a breath, hot and strong, and snuffled. Strained—she could feel it, see the muscles tighten and tense.
It wanted to break free. It wanted loose of the clay, so heavy and dense, that held it down. Its mouth opened, sucking in air, and she imagined in horror the weight of all that clay upon its chest, its head, the impossibility of taking a breath—
The impossibility of such a thing existing. Her head swirled with imagery, all of it from books.
A lost bull. Yes. Lost to time and myth. She was standing in a pit on the taiga, and she had found something that ought never to have existed.
She had found something.
It groaned, straining against the wall of clay that held it back. Noani scrabbled for tools, a pick, a trowel, and held them to the body in front of her. It paused its exertions to stare at her. She should be careful, she could damage it.
It allowed the trowel’s edge to scrape, carefully, at skin. But it didn’t tremble, didn’t shake. Nor did her hands. Faster, and faster, she scuffed and scraped. Clay fell on her boots.
It jerked, and a shoulder was free. Another jerk, and clay cracked, but held.
“Easy,” she told it. “Easy.”
She wouldn’t have much time. Max would come for her soon. He wouldn’t understand. Noani didn’t know if she understood, even when the truth was right there, where she could touch it.
Thunder like crumpled wood, like breaking trees, echoed over them. She caught the creature’s gaze, and saw a wagon, drawn by nervous, foam-flecked horses, rumbling over uneven ground. Wheels sunk into soft earth. The sun hid behind gray clouds, and inside the wagon, inside the massive wooden box, its cargo shivered and moaned and bled and tried to take a breath, but all was cold clay.
She tore her eyes away, and dragged a hand down the exposed chest. Bits of clay rolled under her fingers. The clay earth of its home, packed with rocks along tunnels it roamed endlessly, the only light a few torches, forever burning out.
A deep breath, the deepest one of all, and it bellowed. Noani fell back, and the walls of the pit started to crumble.
It would not wait. Could not. Not another minute, another second. Roaring, its mouth a yawning cavern with long, stiff tongue, it heaved itself into the pit.
The clay sucked at it, unwilling to release its captive, but with a final shake, the Minotaur stumbled forward.
Her heart beat, almost painful in her chest, and her vision clouded, but she stood straight. A step… another… The last steps in a long journey, she realized. She had traveled all over, to find so many dead ends, but this was what she had been searching for all along.
Her arm outstretched, she walked over chunks of earth, fingertips stretching. Reaching for it. It held its enormous head high, looking down at her as its chest expanded, taking in breath after breath.
She touched that broad plain, pressed her palm flat against flesh flushed with warmth.
The Minotaur shoved, and Noani backed up, falling over clods of clay and hitting the wall of the pit. Getting to her feet, back to the wall, she waited. It lowered its head.
Huge horns imbedded in the earth to either side of her head. Its nose was inches from her. Its breath stank, she realized, like blood. A scent she knew well. The iron scent of blood.
There was no more fear. She would dive from this cliff. And if the water pulled her under…
In those eyes she saw longing, and hate, and sorrow. She saw young men and women held limp in the Minotaur’s hands. She saw a man who came to the Minotaur with no fear, but a sword. A hero who glowed like a hundred torches in the maze, who placed his palm upon the monster’s chest just as Noani had, and whose touch made promises.
A fierce protectiveness rose up inside her. I’ll never betray you.
Her hands grasped a horn on either side. She saw herself in those black eyes: dark braid hanging over one shoulder, the sheen of sweat on her round face, and her own eyes, as black and determined as his.
Max tore back the tarp and shouted her name. For an instant, he was stunned, frozen. Then he jumped into the pit, sliding on the wet ground near the entrance, and the Minotaur jerked its horns free of the wall and turned to face him.
“No!” Noani didn’t know who she screamed at, or what it meant—it was simply No, no one else, not here, no, no, no.
The Minotaur barreled towards him, and Max held out his arms.
God, not Max. Not Max, oh please.
If the Minotaur heard, she did not know, only that it turned its head and swept Max aside with those massive horns at that last moment, the man slamming into a wall and crumpling to the ground.
It climbed the slope in two strides, slashing the tarp as it rose into the air above the pit. Noani clambered after it, slipping on the slope and falling to her knees.
Her guts wrenched themselves in two. She clawed at her stomach, pain spearing her from front to back. Gritting her teeth, she hauled herself up the remaining feet, fingers digging into the mud at the pit’s edge.
It was dark, no moonlight in the storm, and the rain stung her face in vicious, needling hits. She could not see him.
Behind her, somewhere in the pit, Max groaned. She hesitated. Part of her wanted to go after the creature. Part of her wanted to go to Max. And part of her wanted to rip itself free of her body, an alien parasite straight out of the movies.
She sat on her bottom and slid carefully down into the pit. Max was sitting up, holding one shoulder. She walked slowly over and sat next to him.
He eyed her. “It takes more than a farmer’s lost bull to break me, Noani.” He winced. “But the shoulder, no. Probably just dislocated.”
“I can do that. Put your shoulder back in.”
“You like causing me pain, don’t you?”
She leaned her head against his good shoulder. “Oh, Max.”
His cheek was warm atop her head. “Oh, Noani,” he whispered. “What have you done?”
The tarp crinkled, and Travis and Callahan peered down in the light of their lanterns.
“Find her? What happened?”
Noani was silent.
“Fell on the damn slope in the damn mud. Help me out,” said Max.
The two men, wary of Noani, as if coming too close or looking at her too long might cause a disaster, helped Max to his feet with no more than a cursory, “Are you all right?” to her.
They were concerned, she could see. And at their wit’s end with her.
Maybe, she thought, she was at her wit’s end with herself.
There was no argument when they decided to leave at first light to find a hospital—for both of them. Noani, exhausted and weak, looked for prints in the ground before they left, but there was nothing special about any of the indentations. They all looked like the footprints of men, and if some lacked the tread of boots, well, those were hardly remarkable otherwise.
Max sat in the backseat of the SUV beside her, giving her thoughtful looks but saying nothing. And when the vehicle jolted over yet another hillock, and his hand slid atop hers, she didn’t pull it away. He closed his fingers over hers and squeezed.
It was a damn shame, she thought, that just when she’d found her bravery, she should have to die.
She squeezed back, and mercifully fell into sleep, and in her dreams, she stood at the center of a labyrinth, with white stones spiraling all around her feet.
There was a moment when Max knew: standing on the lanai of her mother’s house, Noani wore a red dress, wrapped around her and tucked, and a thread along the hem had come free. It was just above her knee. He saw that red thread and wanted to pull on it, unravel the entire thing until it was piled at her feet.
He had come to see her, all the way from Connecticut. Maybe he should’ve known then. At least on the plane, all those hours in a seat that gave him a terrible crick in his neck.
He’d known better than to ask how she was doing, and at any rate, she looked wonderful. Her emails had been forthcoming and, progressively, warmer. Benign tumors. She’d opted for a hysterectomy. Such strange things to tell a man she’d known for years but who knew little beyond the lines on her face that meant she was angry, or afraid, or—
New lines. He read them then, as spring winds fed them scents of plumeria and ginger. Lines of determination. Those he’d seen before. And…
“Of course,” he said. “Of course I’ll go.”
“Just you and me,” she said.
He paused. Their emails had been honest, even teasing sometimes, but of all the things they’d talked about, this one thing had been left unsaid. Well, perhaps two things.
“And if we find it?” he said, voice low. “Do you intend to feed me to it, as a sacrifice?”
She beamed up at him. “No. You’re much too skinny. Wouldn’t feed an iguana.” She became serious. “There was a sighting in Siberia.”
He nodded. “I saw it online. They’re calling it the horned Yeti. No pictures, though.”
“Doesn’t matter. Has to be him.” She put her hands on the railing and stared into the forest. “The university is letting me come back in September. I can leave now.”
“I’ve got another week, Noani. That’s it. Not enough time. We’d have a few days, at best.”
He thought about it, the particulars, the planning involved. “Then there’s flights—”
“There’s one tomorrow afternoon, back to the mainland. I’ve got it all scheduled from there.” She put her hand on his. “Please, Max.”
“Fine,” he said. “Fine. Let’s go. Find your lost bull.” He gazed around at the lush, green forest, at the lanai with its two chairs, where he could plausibly sit forever. “What do we do until then?”
She grinned. “Ever been cliff diving?”