Flash Fiction: Dunes and Antlers

Well, that little break from blogging lasted longer than I meant it to! I was only going to take a week off for a beach trip, but then I got caught up in a whirlwind of job applications, work schedule changes, and knitting projects… and that week turned into a month-plus-some. Sigh.

Oh well. Nothing I can do except start up my writing routine again.

So, here’s a shiny new short story for you! (Bonus points if you can guess which Bible story this piece is loosely based on.)

Desert 1

Dunes and Antlers

Burgo lay on his belly just behind the crest of the sand dune, energy rifle aimed at the herd of scab deer below. The animals were foraging among the scrub that clung to life along the dry riverbed cutting through this part of the desert.

The deer were well within range of his weapon, but Burgo didn’t fire. He wasn’t hunting meat today. He was looking for a particular beast—and he wanted to take it alive.

Sweat trickled along Burgo’s skin, running back and forth in the wrinkle channels on his forehead. It was only a half hour after dawn and already the sun was hard at work, baking the desert like flatbread. Burgo’s instincts urged him to seek shade and water. But he just pulled the hood of his cowl lower over his face.

Burgo was good at enduring the desert’s heat. The clan elders liked to say it was because he was full of water bubbling up from a well deep inside him—why else would his skin be such a dark, cool shade of blue?

But Burgo’s brother, Gozza, had condemned his strength as inflexibility.

Clinging to the old nomadic ways was hurting the clan, Gozza had said. Why keep on suffering harsh conditions and constant food shortages in the desert when there were gentler lands waiting just beyond the southern mountains? Lands filled with water and permanent houses and steam-powered machines and stable jobs.

Many of the ogres found Gozza persuasive. But Burgo didn’t want to leave the desert. To do so would have been to shun the land that birthed him, the place his fathers and mothers had called home for countless generations.

Burgo was not afraid of the sun.

But Gozza was. And so was half the clan.

The last words Gozza had said to Burgo before he and his faction split off from the clan echoed in Burgo’s ears as he lay atop the dune, sweating in the heat.

“One day, brother, the sun is going to burn you to ashes before you even realize what’s happening.”

Gozza had spoken those words fifteen years ago when he left the clan. Yet here was Burgo, alive and unburned. Gozza’s prediction had not come true. And Burgo was desperate to prove this fact to his brother.

Below Burgo, the scab deer stirred as the dominant buck appeared, stepping around a clump of bushes and into the open. The buck was bigger than all the other deer, red scab-like scales covering its legs and climbing halfway up its sides, large thorny antlers growing from its head like trees.

Burgo sighted the buck down the length of his rifle, barrel protruding over the top of the dune. His eyes lost focus for a moment as he imagined himself falling on his knees in the sand and presenting one of the buck’s antlers to Gozza. A gift of the desert, a proof of health, a sign of remorse, a plea for listening ears.

Then Burgo squeezed one eye shut, aimed, and fired.

A sizzling ribbon of energy shot from the barrel and hit the buck’s chest. The animal collapsed to the ground in shock. The herd squealed its alarm and bolted, hooves pounding away down the dry riverbed.

Burgo scrambled to his feet and half ran, half slid down the dune, sand flying, robe flapping behind him. Then he dashed across the cracked surface of the riverbed toward the deer. The effects of the rifle’s stun setting wouldn’t last long on such a big, heavy animal. He had to remove an antler before the buck came to. Burgo was as tall and brawny as any ogre, but even he would be no match for a furious 700-pound scab deer.

Skidding to a halt next to the unconscious animal, Burgo slung his rifle over his shoulder by the carrying strap and yanked a serrated hunting knife out of the sheath hanging on his belt. He set to work on the beast’s right antler, sawing as fast as he could without letting the blade slip. The antler would grow back eventually—but not if he accidentally cut the deer’s jugular.

As he worked the blade back and forth, Burgo’s breath came in quick pulses, driven equally by his labor and his racing thoughts.

Burgo hated the way he and his brother had parted fifteen years ago, kept from coming to blows over their disagreement only by the abruptness of their separation. If only Gozza and the others had waited. If only they had stayed long enough to see that the desert was no longer against them.

The clan had been thriving in recent years as more and more ogre nomads abandoned the desert. With fewer tribes squabbling over the land’s limited food and water, the overhunted scab deer had begun to increase in numbers again. And with more food came more children.

Yet as Burgo’s sons and daughters grew, so did his regret. Every time he saw his children playing together around the tents or foraging for sponge plants in the shadows of sand-blasted rock formations, he thought of his brother.

Burgo wished he could relive the days when he and Gozza were young, just two boys wrestling each other in the sand, two friends debating which ogre girls were the strongest, two brothers sharing food and weapons and lookout duties while out hunting scab deer.

Those were the best days—the days when he and Gozza shared the same rays of sun.

But Burgo couldn’t go back. The only paths left to him led into the future—and if Burgo were to meet his brother on one of those paths, he would need a gift to ease the tension between them.

Burgo didn’t know whether Gozza would accept the antler. His brother had, after all, rejected the old traditions when he left the clan. But he was sure Gozza would at least know what the gift meant. If nothing else, Burgo wanted his brother to know he was sorry—for the lost years they could have spent together, for the fact they were no longer brothers, but strangers.

The deer was beginning to stir. With a final swipe of his blade, the freshly severed antler fell into Burgo’s hands. Then he thrust the blade back into its sheath and fled, cradling the antler in his arms like a baby.

Burgo retreated downwind of the deer along the river channel. Then he cut through a dip between two dunes and circled back to the place where he’d left his ground-bird tethered in the shade of a lone rock formation. The robbed scab deer bellowed somewhere beyond the dunes, but Burgo knew the animal wouldn’t leave the riverbed since there was nothing green to eat out in the sand.

Burgo tied the antler to the ground-bird’s saddle, then mounted up and headed back toward camp.

As the deer’s indignant bawling melted into the hot air behind him, Burgo smiled.

It was a small smile. Barely enough to bend his cheeks.

He had found a suitable antler and harvested it without injury to himself or the deer. But until he found his brother, he would have no one to give it to—and his smile would remain as dry as the desert.

Thanks for visiting the Written Woods!

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