SDS Sloth: “The Slow Start” by R. G. Broxson

If you are new to the SDS Challenge, a little background.

Three writers will each write one story a month going down the list of deadly sins. The stories can be anywhere from 666 words to 6,666 words in length, although those numbers are not set in stone. If ambitious, the writers will provide accompanying graphics. These stories will not be anonymous because some writers may want to use the same characters for each story and write a series — or book — encompassing all seven sins. Finally, interpretation of the titular sin is up to the writer. Meaning, each ‘sin’ can take multiple forms.

The seventh set of stories cover the sin of Sloth. This is the offering by R. G. Broxson.

Disclaimer: The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories will likely span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the PG-rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Some readers might find a few of the stories disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, and if so, stop reading and move on.

The Slow Start

Copyright 2022 — R. G. Broxson
(6,400  words – approx. reading time: about 24 minutes based on 265 WPM)

The erratic barking of the hounds suddenly united into a chorus of full-throated howls. They had picked up on Link’s trail. The boy went from petrified to panic realizing that he was the prey they sought. In the darkness, he plunged headlong into the South American tropics not even pausing to heed his father’s warnings regarding all the reasons never to go into the jungle at night.

Wait-a-minute vines turned to snares hindering his progress. Thorns lashed at his skin, clawing and shredding the sleeves of his night shirt. He ran toward the only light that filtered through the layered canopy—the Hunter’s Moon.

The baying took on yet another pitch; there was an undertone of growls and grunts, then yips of excitement as they approached their prey and formed a loose circle around the boy. Scrambling in the moist morass the boy felt something hard—a rock. With his other hand he levered a solid stick from the brush, then he backed up to a large tree, instinctively protecting his flank.

The dogs darted in and out, snapping at the boy as he swung the stick at the lunging shadows. The boy hurled the rock with all his might into the center of the pack and was rewarded with a thud and a yelp. Without the rock, he clutched the stick now with both hands and swung it like the Reaper’s scythe.

The mongrels sensed the waning energy of the boy. They began to dash in on either side of the giant swings, snapping jaws just inches from soft flesh. Then the boy began to rise, ever so slowly.

The frantic child did not even realize it himself until the growling hounds were leaping up to nip at the soles of his feet. The arm that retrieved him was long and ropey, coated with bristling fur and ending in three curved claws. The boy was hoisted higher into the safety of the colossal Wimba tree as the dogs spun mindlessly and barked at its base.

High in the crook of intersecting limbs, the creature slipped its claws out from the straps of the boy’s coveralls and placed him there whispering, You’ll be safe here. Now sit tight while I go back down and take care of those curs. They’ll rue the day they licked man’s hands and slept at his fires. In the darkness the boy saw very little, but he listened intently. The volume of the frenetic fray was incrementally muted, one dog at a time until only silence remained. Exhausted, the boy fell asleep in the arms of the tree.

In the morning, a dollop of dew dripped from an elephant-ear leaf and spattered onto Link’s face awakening him. Blood, he thought. Then rubbed his eyes and blinked twice in an attempt to comprehend the alien oval face just inches from his own. Large, calm eyes, a pinched nose, and a mischievous smile greeted him. Good morning, lad, the sloth said.

“I thought all that was a dream…the dogs, the fight, the, the, you,” Link babbled.

Fraid not. I’m still here, and so are you. But you won’t have to worry about those pesky hounds anymore, she said, as she licked at her blood-tinged claws.

“But how can you…we…talk? How did you learn English?”

My boy, I was going to ask you the same thing. I’ve never learned English; I just supposed that you learned to speak Arbor, the language of the Tree-People. I hear you inside, she slowly pointed to her head. She also thought of the prophesy: He will come with understanding of our tongues.

Men arrived in the light of morning. They carried guns and machetes. A small dark man with sharp eyes and tattoo scars stippled across his cheeks, squatted at the roots of the tree. He picked up and examined a fan of leaves; he sniffed at them. His eyes scanned upward slowly from the ground, climbing the huge tree trunk until all was obscured in the profuse canopy. He shook his head, muttered the native word for Jaguar and then motioned for the others to follow him deeper into the jungle.

The roughly padded paw of the sloth gently pulled away from the mouth of the boy. Sorry, she whispered into his mind. You were dozing and I didn’t want you to become startled and cry out. Those were dangerous men.

Tears streamed down the boy’s face. “They killed my parents. And they tried to kill me…” He looked at the serene face of the sloth. “But you saved me and I haven’t even thanked you.”

And the saved would become the savior—so said the prophecy of The-One-that-would-come. These things she thought at a deeper level, not wishing the boy to pick up on her thoughts. You have lost your home, but you have found another, she said to him. You will remain with us until your troubles have passed and your path becomes clear again.

“I am Link,” the boy said, extending his small hand to the creature. She looked at it and then at his solemn face, then slowly outstretched her paw to his palm.

I am Mozee, she said in her internal voice. I am All-mother of the Arboreals and protector of the Tree Clans.

Feeling he should say more, Link stuttered, “I am Lincoln Dean Doolittle, son of Bruce and Willow, captain of the peewee cricket team.” Laughter rose up from Mozee first, and she was joined by Link, his tears now dried. “But you can call me Link,” he finished, tugging at the straps of his suspenders.

Link, my dear boy, you must be famished.

The boy patted the lower bib of his denim coveralls and replied, “Yes, Miss Mozee. I am starving.”

Thus, Link’s training in the ways of the rainforest began. Mozee taught him how to find seeds and nuts, how to strip bamboo down to the succulent shoots, how to crack open coconuts the easy way and scoop out their sweet meat, and how to dig for nourishing taro roots. His favorite was the soursops. He was reluctant to try one at first; the fruit was green and lumpy and expelled an unpleasant odor.

Many things in the jungle are duplicitous, Mozee instructed. They are not what they seem. Deception is sometimes the greatest defense…and the greatest offense, she added as she sliced open the rubbery rind of the soursop, exposing the candied morsel within. She noted as well that some of the most fearsome looking spiders and insects were the most tasty and nutritious.

Mozee taught him to catch small fish using an infinite amount of patience and stealth. She simply hung low on a branch and dipped her claws into the shallow streams of the Amazon and slowly, ever so slowly, scooped up a silvery fish that didn’t realize it had been caught until it began to drown in the air. Warrant this, young one, slow is strength, she instructed, as he marveled at the wriggling catch.

The boy grew strong and learned the harsh and unforgiving ways of the rain forest. He would spend a lazy day cavorting with monkeys in the first layer canopy, rising a level to receive measured lessons from Mozee, then scrambling down to terra firma to forage in the bush or drink from a brook. It was upon one of these occasions Link heard and felt a great rumbling through the roots of the interconnected forest. His first thought was to get back up into the trees for safety, but curiosity bade him remain.

He sensed as well as felt the coming of the wave. Link bent at the knees like a wicket-keeper, waiting for a yorker from the mound. The fastest of the bush creatures arrived first. Springboks, rabbits, and tapirs zipped past him like errant pitches from a sauced bowler, wide-eyed and panicked like he had been not so long ago.

The ground pulsed with the rhythm of ponderous hooves. Link felt it in his bare feet. His toes tingled with tension that climbed to his calves. He heard it first, then saw the violent parting of the foliage. The rhino swung its massive head and horn east and west, carving out a path, headed straight toward Link, who remained crouched as though ready to stop a cricket batsman from scoring.

Frozen, Link realized a second too late that he had no plan, no strategy; the rhino was going to pulverize him beneath his hooves, yet he stood his ground, hunkered and ready to stop an unstoppable force.

She dropped from the second layer canopy like a paratrooper, her arms open wide, almost gliding. Mozee landed on the back of the rhino’s head and dug her clawed hind-feet into the folds of its massive neck. With her front paws, she covered the beast’s small, myopic eyes. She rode the rhino as it lowered its head to encounter the boy with its deadly horn; he was only feet away. Stop! Thunderfoot, this is not your fight.

The great beast shook its head; the sloth held tight, covering the rhino’s eyes with clawed paws. If you resist, my friend, I will carve out your eyes. For you must know that I am the All-mother, protector of the Tree Clan and you are threatening my son. You will live your days forever by night and will become a plaything for jackals.

Mere inches from Link’s chest, the rhino’s horn wavered like a Spartan’s spear, nostrils flaring. Link felt its billowing breath, then saw Mozee peek out from behind the horn, her face as passive as a peach. Come with me, boy, she beckoned; her eyes climbed the Mother-tree.

Slowly, ever so slowly, Mozee reached for one branch, rested, then onto another branch where she might pause to munch a leaf or consider an insect. Link tried to stay calm but soon grew impatient with Mozee. He joked, he prodded, he chided the great sloth but she only replied with silence.

Inch by inch, hour by hour, they climbed. It took half a day just to reach the first layer of the canopy, the playground for young Arboreals. By nightfall they entered the second and thickest layer of the canopy. This is where the elders built nests and homes and sought safety and sanctuary for their families. As the moon waned, Link grew weary and implored Mozee to stop and rest for the night. Again, no reply, just a slow and steady climb from one branch to the next. Resigned now, Link stayed pace with the All-mother, no longer eager to forge ahead.

At daybreak, Link found himself in a section of the tree he had never ventured heretofore. Unfiltered sunlight beamed through scant foliage near the summit of the tree. Together, and ever so slowly, the unlikely pair emerged from the cresting canopy into the blue-bright sky. Link’s eyes widened as he took in the plush panorama. The world in every direction was verdant and green and the air was cool and fresh.

Things were different in the third canopy. Fruits of every kind grew. There were bananas, mangoes, Goji berries, Bacuri, Soursops, and crunchy nuts of all shapes and sizes. This was indeed the Mother-tree, Link thought. It was the original source of all that grew, or maybe, he considered more pessimistically, it was the last resort. He pondered this as he climbed higher.

Then a shadow streaked past the pair, momentarily marring the perfect sky. Come, my friend, Link heard Mozee say, though not to him. He heard a raptor’s peal reply from above and then felt the rhythmic downward gusts of wind brush at his face and hair. The great Golden Eagle found purchase with terrible talons on a bare limb that jutted through the leaves like an ancient, accusing finger.

The curved beak of the bird was slightly open, it’s sharp tongue darting. No, my friend, Mozee spoke to the Golden Eagle; it is not yet time for you to carry my spirit to the sky-canopy. Soon enough, she whispered. We but need your all-seeing eyes to show us the danger that comes. The danger that is promised. The great bird’s lids flickered and it rose into the heavens.

Close your eyes, boy, lest they interfere with the truesight. Link did as he was bidden. Suddenly he felt his inner self rising, soaring above the rainforest. He saw with perfect clarity the great river snaking its way to the horizon. The danger, he heard Mozee say in his mind. His new eyes focused on a white puff of smoke at the fringe of the lacy-green glade. A brown gash of earth opened behind it like a knife wound, or the hack of a monstrous machete. For a raw second, Link thought of his mother.

Suddenly another swatch of green trembled and then just disappeared, more smoke plumed and the dark scar grew gangrenous. The path of destruction would lead to the heart of the rainforest, to this sacred Mother-tree where the Arboreals resided in harmony and guarded the seeds of tomorrow.

“They’re coming,” Link said. Then the all-seeing spell was broken. He blinked away the vision and saw before him, the face of the All-mother, serene yet certain. “Mozee, they’re coming. They’ll plow right through the forest. They’ll cut, and burn, and destroy everything—our home, this fortress. How can we stop them?”

We can’t, but you can, she replied inside his mind. You can save our home, our future. 

“Me? I’m just a boy. I can barely climb or catch up with the others.”

Yes, and that may be your greatest advantage.

He just shook his head, not understanding the deep wisdom of the sloth.

Tell me, young one, the memory you still bury.

“Mozee, I’ve told you a hundred times, I can’t remember what happened that night. I just know that my mother and father were killed.” Link shook his head, his eyes closed and moist.

Remain here, Mozee instructed. Memories live on the winds at the top of the world. If you stay here, your past will blow back to you.

“Wait, Mother-Mozee, what if I need you. What do I do?”

The sloth reached out to the boy and caressed his cheek with her claws. She looked directly into his eyes and replied in his mind; You will fulfill your destiny, as have I. You won’t have to find me; I will always be with you. She touched his chest, his heart, then slowly, ever so slowly, touched her own breast.

The shadow appeared again. The great Golden Eagle reappeared; its talons pierced skin and fur and took the sloth. The All-mother was lifted high, high into the blue-bright sky, straight into the burning sun where Link squinted and lost sight of them both.

He screamed into the cold, uncaring sky for his loss, then went silent. This was not the first time he had lost a loved one. It all flooded back to him, here, perched atop of the tallest tree in the Amazon.

~ 0 ~

Lying awake in bed, link remembered the slow oscillation of the ceiling fan; it had been too hot to sleep. This is the way the memory dream always started. But each time his mother screamed, the vision stopped and reality rushed in.

Now, however, looking out across the sea of green, Link closed his eyes and allowed the memory to blossom. Hearing his mother’s terrified cry, Link saw himself jump out of bed. Sensing something very wrong, he slipped into his play clothes that were laid out at the foot of his bed. From the stairway he peered through ornate balusters.

Dark men with machetes were hacking at his parents’ limp and lifeless bodies. The furniture and walls were repainted in red spatters. Link had almost cried out; he covered his mouth to stifle a scream that was rising like lava in his throat.

That’s when the man in the white suit and straw hat stepped out from his father’s den shuffling folders and files. Then he looked directly into Link’s eyes: “My boy, I was told you would be spending an overnighter with friends in the village. How unfortunate.” He flicked his eyes from the butchers back to the boy. A man with a puckered tattoo across his face picked up on the subtle command and inched forward. “Why not come on down, son. We can talk about it,” the man in the white suit cajoled.

In the dream, Link saw himself bolt back into his bedroom and heard thundering footsteps on the stairs below. He fumbled with the lock and then tilted a straight back chair under the door knob, spilling his Pooh Bear from its throne.

The window was already open; the night was hot and humid. Link sprang out from the sill onto the swaying limb of a Kapok tree. He slid down on a rope-swing his father had fixed for him and then he ran blindly into the night, into the jungle.

The dream stopped here. This is where his memory picked up; his encounter with the dogs, the rescue from above, Mozee. That man, he thought, the man in the white suit and straw hat was…Fritz Hofmann, his father’s partner. He was the key to unlock the memories; the devious plot was becoming clear. Dinner conversations, overheard tiffs in the kitchen with his mother, and offhand remarks from his father all started to jell into a plausible narrative leading to the savage massacre of Bruce and Willow.

Link had never paid much attention to the business side of his father’s work; Dr. Bruce Doolittle was a scientist at heart, but was forced to deal with the bureaucracy of corporations in order to get funding for his research. And his research was promising. Bruce had discovered an isoprene polymer that might supplant the Ficus elasticus, the rubber tree. This new synthetic rubber could be created in a lab or factory. If he was successful, there would be no more need to ravage the rainforest for its dwindling supply of rubber trees.

Bruce had been on the verge of presenting his research to Charles Goodyear, the chief buyer of natural rubber and the financial investor for Bruce’s synthetic research. He had explained to his partner, Fritz Hofmann, that this discovery would eliminate the need to exploit the natives and destroy the rain forest. Fritz had implored Bruce to wait a while before announcing his findings; there were contracts already in place that needed to be completed. But Bruce refused to delay. He abhorred the abuse and destruction and decided to move ahead despite Fritz’s fiscal objections.

~ 0 ~

This all became clear to Link as he looked out across the expanse of the tropical terrain from the twisted branch at the top of the evergreen that Mozee had called the Mother-tree. What else had she taught him, he thought. Slow is strong. What did that even mean?  He wanted to strike hard and fast and destroy the men that destroyed his family. He thought of Mozee and fought the urge to surge. Slow is strong, he thought again, then his eyes rolled up into his head and his lids fluttered.

Down he went. Link fell bonelessly through the multi-layered rafts of branches, leaves, and vines. On his way to mother earth, Link remembered; it came back to him like an old newsreel. He saw himself playing with his Pooh Bear in the kitchen; his father was working over a burner. A pot was bubbling with something black and noxious. Link remembered pinching his nose and asking his father what he was cooking and asking if he could have dinner at Billy Porter’s house in the village.

His father had laughed and explained. No matter how busy, Link reflected, his dad, and probably most scientists, would always stop everything and explain. That’s what they do. “This is it,” his father announced excitedly. “I’ve found a way to vulcanize the rubber with super-heating; it’s exactly what the car companies need for their tires. The military will be clamoring for this recipe.” He pretended to sip a spoon full of the tar-like substance at his puckered lips.

“But rubber comes from the trees,” a boy argued. Link looked at himself, almost without recognition. This child was clean, blond, and so young, so soft. He tried to look at himself now. His inner eyes opened and he saw himself falling. A brown-skin boy, bouncing off branches, pin-wheeling off a limb, slipping and sliding off a bough of leaves and vines. Third, second, then first canopy. It was a 150-foot slow-motion fall.

Half-way down Link heard his father reply: “Such a barbaric practice,” he looked into the boy’s eyes. “Imagine getting hacked by a machete, and someone collecting your blood with a bucket, your sap, in this case. Barbaric.” His father had winced as if it was his own pain to share. “Sometimes I hear them scream, Link. Sometimes I hear those trees scream when I close my eyes.”

Open your eyes, someone screamed at Link. It was Yamon, sometimes called the old man of the forest. The orangutan waited patiently. Where’s Mozee? he asked.

Link was back, back to this unreal reality. Yamon, looked into his eyes and asked again, Where’s Mozee?

“I was falling…” Link’s mind and eyes scrambled. He looked up and realized that he had somehow grabbed onto the last branch of the mighty tree. He was hanging by one arm, his toes just six inches off the ground. Then the bowed branch snapped and Link folded onto the soft carpet of leaves.

Link got to his knees. The orangutan lifted the boy’s chin to look him in the eye. Did Mozee finally climb to the sky-canopy and fly to the Higher?

Tears ran down both their cheeks. “She said she would always be with me. She said I still had a destiny to fulfill, but I don’t know what it is,” Link confessed.

Yamon plucked the small branch from Link’s hand. You have already started, he said. The prophesy states that The-one-that-would-come would fall from the sky and would wield a mighty spear.

You certainly fell a long way, my boy. He looked up into the profusion of brown and green that peaked at 150 feet. This, Yamon chomped on a leaf from the small branch… I guess it could be a spear. He poked the sharp end at the air and hunched his shoulders comically.

Link snatched the branch from the orangutan. “This is the Mother-tree’s first branch, the one that led up to all others. It didn’t grow into a mighty trunk or strive into a higher branch; it just stuck out here, near the bottom of the tree. It was the foothold for climbing the Mother-tree; we all used it on our way up. We all took it for granted.”

“She taught you well, lad. What will you do now?”

“Like all branches, I will return to my roots,” he looked at the twig. “My weaknesses are my greatest advantages. I will avenge my parents, and I will put a stop to the destruction of our home.”

“Let’s go, the Arboreals are behind you; we can take the war to the destroyers,” Yamon cried, waving his arms frantically, exciting the other members of the Tree-clan. They chittered and whooped, ready for war.

“No!” Link answered. Creatures of feathers and fur stopped their frenzy and stared at him quizzically. “If there is one thing that Mozee taught me, it is not to be rash—slow is strong.” Link took his broken branch and walked away from the circle.

~ 0 ~

Link unerringly found his way back to the home he had fled so long ago. Bittersweet memories assaulted him as he entered the overgrown yard and sat on the rope-swing his father had built for him; the rope he had used to escape the massacre. He finally pushed himself to step up onto the creaky porch, half expecting to see his mother in a rocking chair, knitting.

Inside the family room, red-spattered walls had turned to brown; the wallpaper had curled at the edges like ragged claws. Link clinched his jaw and walked past the place his parents had been murdered, unconsciously stepping over long-gone bodies. He went straight to the back of the house to a locked door that led to a rudimentary laboratory his father had called his Sanctum. The once impenetrable door opened with a tentative touch as though this foreboding place now welcomed him.

Dusty test tubes and a rusty Bunsen burner adorned the long counter. Link remembered nosing up to his father’s elbow, peeking over the tabletop, watching, observing, as his father poured, measured, mixed and heated one solution after another. Noxious fumes and bubbly black liquids erupted from these experiments keeping Link in constant astonishment. Once, the fumes had gotten so bad that Link’s father had flung open the window and waved the malodorous vapors out with his mother’s favorite kitchen towel.

Link remembered asking his father why he had gotten so alarmed; he had actually liked the sweet odor. Always the scientist, Dr. Doolittle had explained that humans can only breathe oxygen and that too much or too little of various elements can be deadly; the sweeter the fumes, the deadlier, he warned.

Link knew then what he had to do. The trick, he thought, would be getting his prey to step into the trap. But he had a plan. He looked at the small branch he still held and shook it with fury and determination.

~ 0 ~

Link knew he would come. He knew the ways of predators; the jaguars, the vipers. They never snubbed a free meal, or a chance to gain the advantage. In his best penmanship that he recalled from his mother’s knee, he wrote a note to the Current Amazon Representative for the Ford Corporation.

Link wrote:

He rolled the note up and attached it to the leg of brilliantly painted parrot. He whispered to the bird and it squawked and took to the air.

Link had a lot to do before the meeting. There was equipment to commandeer, manuals to read, friends and enemies to cajole and convince. When the trap was finally set, Link reclined in his mother’s knitting chair and waited. He thought of the All-mother and knew that time was on his side.

Three days after the message was sent, a Jeep rumbled up the forgotten path that was grassy and wanted wear. It stopped adjacent to the rope swing where Link now toed slowly back and forth in small languid dips. He was dressed now, in his father’s finest. The clothes fit loosely on him but they triggered the response he hoped from Fritz Hoffman, his father’s old partner and murderer.

He stepped out of the Jeep and said, “By God, Bruce, is that you?” he regained his composure as though he had glimpsed a ghost. “We thought a big cat had got you, boy.” He smiled with too many teeth, as though he was actually happy to see the son of the man he had murdered.

Link stopped the rope-swing, scuffing the toes of his father’s favorite shoes, stood up and smiled, “Welcome back, Mr. Hoffman. It’s been a long time.” He still held the small branch in his hand, the one that he had clung to when he fell from the Mother-tree.

Hoffman’s driver got out; a native with a stippled scar across his cheeks. He now wore khakis and a cotton shirt. He also brandished a revolver that he held low at his thigh.

Hoffman’s forced smile quickly faded as if it had taken way too much energy to sustain, “Enough with the pleasantries, let’s get down to it, boy,” Hoffman said, himself feeling nauseous in this place of blood and betrayal. “I went through all Doolittle’s papers and couldn’t find that miraculous formula he promised us. If you’ve got it,” he held his palms out to Link, “it could be worth millions…for both of us.”

“He buried it.”

“What?”

“My father must have suspected you were…if you don’t mind an insect analogy… a back-stabbing scorpion.” Link paused for effect but Hoffman was beyond insult. “He buried the formula you need to perfect a synthetic rubber. A reproducible vulcanized rubber that will take you out of here,” Link swatted at a monster mosquito and raised his palms to the rainforest encircling him. “A place you really don’t like anyway.” He emphasized this assumption by shaking his head sorrowfully, pitying Hoffman as the victim.

“So, where do we dig?” Hoffman clapped his hands together and smiled at Link expectantly.

“How about the garden?” Link gestured to a verdant patch of ground his mother had tilled to provide fresh vegetables for the family dinner table.

Hoffman glared at the native with the puckered tattoos on his cheeks. Without hesitation, he barked, “Dig it up!”

“With what?” the exasperated native responded, searching for tools.

An angry noise arose from the jungle. It was a low, chugging sound that grinded and grew louder and more dangerous as it drew nearer. The thrum of the diesel engine was accentuated by the banshee shrieks of primates. When the Caterpillar backhoe broke through the jungle it was carpeted with monkeys. They hung, clung, and swung from every inch of the banana-yellow machine. The driver was animated and hairy. It was Jamon, he waved his hairy arms left and right like a drowning swimmer and occasionally placed his hands on the control levers to guide the excavating contraption.

Somehow, the growling machine stopped just inches in front of the headline characters: Hoffman, the evil antagonist; Tattooed native, the wicked henchman, and Link, the reluctant and unlikely hero. The Arboreals, however, were a secondary force to be reckoned with. They waited, not so patiently, only by the will of their master.

Link pointed to the overgrown garden that his mother had tended so meticulously. Pointing his small branch like a scepter, Link announced, “My father buried it here, beneath this transplanted Azealia bush. The only non-indigenous plant in the garden—like him. He always felt like an outsider here.” At this, Link began to glide again in the swing his father built for him.

“Dig!” Hoffman commanded to the native. The Arboreals scattered and vanished as Hoffman’s henchman climbed into the cab of the backhoe. He studied the controls for a moment. The dragon-toothed bucket rose and descended, then chunked and chewed at the fertile earth that was once Willow Doolittle’s family garden and flower bed.

“Deeper.” Link said from the swing in a child’s voice, dragging his toes in the sand. Already five feet deep, the tattooed man plunged the bucket deeper into the soft but rooty earth. “My father never did anything halfway,” he smiled apologetically.

The black mamba coiled behind the backhoe’s seat waiting patiently, a quality that kept her kind revered and respected, unlike her prideful ancestor. Still proud, Mamba didn’t like taking orders, but the snake believed the legend of The-One and was honored to play a part in this unwritten future—again. She watched with anticipation as the native worked levers and pressed pedals, bare flesh flashing with every movement.

Link finally hopped off the rope swing and walked to the edge of the growing pit. He smiled, satisfied. Hoffman peered into the hole, searching for anything inorganic. “That’s enough,” the boy waved at the native. “You’re finished.”

That was the phrase Mamba had been waiting for.

“Where is it?” Hoffman barked. “Is it here, do you see it?” He started sliding down into the pit, his white suit now blemished. The Caterpillar lurched backward, making coughing noises through the smoke stack. The toothy bucket bit the air spastically.

The man in the cab pulled levers back and forth causing the machine to fight its own inertia. His eyes rolled up into his head as the backhoe ramped over a discarded pile of logs and flipped onto its side. The bucket continued to rock and bite like a dying animal gasping for air as the large black mamba inconspicuously slithered out and back into the jungle.

Hoffman climbed back up to the top of the pit to watch the slow-motion spectacle. Link kicked Hoffman in the face with his father’s favorite shoes. The man flew backwards into the pit. Lying on his back with a bloodied and broken nose, he realized he’d been tricked by the unassuming child. “Boy!” he shouted angrily, then avuncular, “Link, hey what’s going on here? I thought we were partners.” His forced smile was rimmed red, like a crazed clown, bubbles formed and burst in his nostrils.

“I’m aware of how you treat your partners,” Link sneered. “My father was loyal to you; you were his friend. And you had him butchered like a goat. And for what…rubber rights? Contracts? Fortune?”

“No, son, you don’t understand.” His white suit no longer white. “I work for people, ruthless people that won’t stop until they have it all. I mean everything.” He spread his arms wide. “I was just a pawn in a much bigger game…” A rock bounced off the side of Hoffman’s head, cutting him and adding macabre makeup to the nose bleed. He cried out pitifully.

Yamon waved his arms in triumph. He excitedly used his inner-voice to speak to Link…Make him stop the machines; the rest of them that are eating a path to the Mother-tree.

“I’m sorry, my friend.” Link looked sorrowfully at the old orangutan. “That was never the plan. This man,” he pointed to his parents’ murderer sniveling in the pit, “will come and go and will perhaps even go on to serve a higher purpose. The force that destroys our rainforest will not stop or delay at the behest of a single man. The machine will grind on until the evil forces behind them have perished.”

But our home, our tree? Yamon asked, already knowing the answer.

“Slow is strength, my friend.” Then he kicked some dirt back into the hole with Hoffman in it. Arboreals of all kinds ringed the edge of the pit and did likewise.

Small dexterous hands scooped and flung egg-size clods of dirt back into the pit. Suddenly sensing his doom, Hoffman panicked and attempted to scramble out of his would-be grave. He was met with the curved edge of a rhino’s horn and knocked once again, flat onto his back.

“Keep guard, Thunderfoot. We need sufficient fertilizer.” The rhino snorted it’s understanding.

From all sides, dirt flew into the hole. Hoffman somehow rose to a kneeling position as the soil reached his shoulders, finally pinning him. Soon only his clownish face could be seen, the whites and reds of his facade contrasted with the halo of dark, rich earth. Hoffman’s open eyes and mouth began to fill. Link remembered Mozee, how she had slowly, ever so slowly scooped a small fish from the still waters. How the fish had realized too late that it was drowning in air. Hoffman knew his fate at the first pitch of dirt into his grave, but the gasping, gulping, dying were the same as the unsuspecting fish.

All night, the Arboreals filled in the pit. In the morning it was done and Hoffman had vanished beneath and assumed his higher purpose. The animals all watched as Link retreated to his rope-swing still holding the small branch. He sat and concentrated, his eyes rolled white.

Ten thousand feet above the top-tier canopy, Link soared, seeing again the rainforest through the eyes of the Golden Eagle. He watched with strange calmness as mighty grunting and belching machines converged on the Mother-tree. He heard the crunching and snapping of branches and felt the ripping of roots as the ancient tree toppled, spilling its treasures into the forest.

Link stood up, his eyes now gleaming with anger while his face, the face of a boy, remained calm. Link walked to the spot where the pit had been just hours before. The Arboreals parted as he stepped into its center.

Link raised the small branch and spoke to his friends. “This,” he shook the branch, “this is our home.” Confusion shown in the eyes of every beast, but they remained locked on The One.

Link plunged the broken end of the branch into the earth. He kneeled and molded a small mound of soil around the base of the limb. A tear dripped down onto its shimmering leaves. He stood and addressed the Arboreals. “The Mother-tree lives. Our children’s children will climb in her canopies and will feed on her soursops.” He smiled at the imagery. “She will be the first of a new breed of tree. While other plant life takes in carbon dioxide and releases oxygen, our New-mother will not. She will not offer the life-giving air that men breathe—that we breathe. She will connect her roots to all the forest and one day, a millennium from now, man and animal will all cease to breathe. Only then,” Link paused to recall Mozee’s message, slow is strength, “then we can start over—stronger.”

The End

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Here are the links to the other two stories:

Ultimatum <<link
Writer: E. J. D’Alise
Word count: 1,865  words – approx. reading time: about 7 minutes based on 265 WPM

The Sloth Queen <<link
Writer: Perry Broxson
Word count: 13,190  words – approx. reading time: about 50 minutes based on 265 WPM

If you’ve read all the stories and care to cast a vote, here’s the link to the Poll:

The SDS Challenge — Sloth Voting <<link

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