This was their last lalk. They shouldn’t have, but they had been eating them, their deep insides at least. Their poisonous skin had been given to the more resilient animals at first; however the poison had still kept potent inside the pigs, which was why their children had ribs that poked out further than the ribs of the children of the other families in the village. In the end, they had to burn the parts of the carcasses that couldn’t be eaten, and stay away from the smoke.
Elder Mari comforted the lalk. She had let her grey hair fall all the way past her waist and undone her braids so it seemed just like a shimmering sheet. She sat on the big stool in the pen where you would sit to handfeed the lalk, but it knew something was wrong. It shied away from her touch – her black-gloved hands were not welcome, though the beast was too hungry to say no to food. It stood directly opposite Mari, as far away as it could, and it stretched its long, scrawny neck toward the bowl Mari carried. It was apples, its favourite food. It never got apples. Apples had to be traded from the neighbouring farm, and that was a rare occurance. That family got along poorly with this one, as every human in the village knew.
The lalk knew nothing about the families, or about where apples came from. It became afraid still. The other lalk had received a similar treatment; they had caved quicker than this one. And this one needed to trust Mari completely, not just enough to go into the barn where it could be held down. It grabbed just one apple and jerked back to the farthest corner of the pen and it swallowed the apple whole. Mari Battye saw the bulge make its slow way down the lalk’s throat until it disappeared. The lalk coughed, pigeoned with its head a few times and then stood still. There were still apples in the bowl. It was still hungry.
The elder sat there patiently for hours, and when the sun was about to rise the frightened animal let her pet it. One of its eyes – the left one – was closed now, the right brain in half-sleep like its ancestors used to do to keep swimming. The lalk tried to keep swimming. But it rested its head, just for a little while, in the warm lap of the elder human. There were no more apples. Its right eye kept staring up at the sky.
She grabbed its ear and held its face up to stare at it. There was nothing but compassion and tragedy in her eyes. A few strokes against the grain on the hair under its chin and then she climbed down from the stool, stumbled and dropped the empty bowl, and walked toward the barn. She let the handwoven bowl stay in the mud as she unlocked the door to the barn and walked in. It smelt of hay and wet hair.
In the middle of the barn there was an altar, of sorts. It looked like a set of winner’s pedestals for a competition. When the lalk curiously poked its head into the barn, the Battye woman had kneeled and placed her head with one ear flat on the lower of the two pedestals. The lalk whistled, a high-pitched rattling sound. Mari whistled back.
It took a few awkward steps into the dark room and blinked to adjust to the light levels. It whistled – Mari Battye whistled back like a lalk would. A year ago, the farm had been galore with the squeals of pigs and shrieking whistles of lalk, and complex conversations had been carried out in those frequencies. Sometimes the lalk wondered whether the humans knew they could hear what the pigs were saying, but it did not wonder like a human would. It was not a possibility in its mind, rather, its left brain believed one thing and its right brain another. It thought both things, but not always. It tried to squeal, and Battye made a human noise.
The noise continued. It was harmonic, and not harmonic. If the lalk did not trust her, if it did not imitate her and lie down with its head like her on the pedestal intended for it, there would be a problem. If it did not do this by the end of the song, the whole thing would be a fluke and the games would not begin and the village would most likely starve. Her voice cracked and she kept singing, and the lalk half-fell, half-knelt and twisted to place its head on the pedestal like its friend had.
It tried to sing, too.
The slaughter was swift, as the blade had been sharpened that morning.