[EDITED 2:00 AM after writing a bit more, as well as a quick edit for style and clarity. Not perfect, but… more?]
[Cubones are pokemon (of any variety) whose mother dies in childbirth. The child who outlasts their littermates and survives the next few weeks while their mother’s body decays–her flesh sustains the pre-Cubone– is the child who then takes the mother’s skull and places it on their own head. The skull acts as a physical and metaphorical barrier between the traumatized youth and the full depth of sadness and melancholy. The barrier isn’t perfect, though, so certain stimuli will bring up new waves of grief. Full moons are particularly moving because nighttime, with the cold and steadfast quiet of their infant days, always made the absence of their mother and caretaker that much more palpable.]
They had always known the tug of deep-seated longing in their breast. It made every heartbeat a little slower and each soft and sweeping sigh a touch heavier. Cubone reached a paw up to readjust the skull helmet that had slid down. They shuffled through the fallen autumn leaves and looked across to the far edge of the clearing, keeping to the trees along the perimeter. The moon light filtered down through the branches, seemingly too bright for a waning slice of disk.
Cubone didn’t much like the lack of cover and the strong light. It was better ten minutes before when a low mist had passed through. The somber groundcover better suited their mood, anyway. Unfortunately, they still needed something to eat, and the stream on the other side of the clearing was the nearest place to catch a fish or crawdad or something.
After picking a way between the tree trunks and scraggly shrubs, Cubone spied the snakey glint of the stream at the bottom of a narrow cut along the earth. The trees here were thicker, offering more serviceable cover, which eased the pressing and constant anxiety slightly. They looked up and behind their shoulder, sweeping across the clearing and then back to the stream, speeding up the last shuffling footsteps to the water’s edge. Cubone found a larger, fallen tree trunk that provided a wall of protection to their back while they knelt over the stream and pulled out a stout club of bone.
Poised above the sweetly burbling water, Cubone slowly and silently raised their weapon. They waited, searching for a disturbance in the rhythmic cycling of splashes and low turbulence around rocks and debris. A flick of a wrist and the club neatly rapped the barely seen prey on the head. Cubone reached in with a paw and snatched the sleek, silvery fish from the icy eddies.
Setting down the bone, Cubone turned their attention to food. The fish, stunned from the blow, was small, but sweet. The first mouthful a refreshing respite from a long day of parched tongue and itchy eye. Falling into a freshwater stupor, Cubone closed their eyes, making the sockets of the skull appear hollow and dead to the creature currently stalking its own meal.
A sharp, searing pain cut through the comfortable dull depression that tinted Cubone’s life. They dropped the half-eaten fish, which fell back into the stream from whence it came with a splash. The steady current started to pull it down and away from the still-hungry Cubone. Half-blinded by the bright sensation cutting through its mind, they grasped frantically for the bone club. After what felt like too many aching seconds, fingers wrapped around the familiar, cool handle and Cubone whipped around to meet their attacker.
Perched on the fallen tree trunk, a menacing figure sat. Shaded by another tree, Cubone couldn’t make out the identity of the creature, and so braced themself for a further exhausting activity. The sky began turning a hellish pink, seemingly to set the scene for a bloody battle. A new wave of anxiety washed over Cubone, this time at the thought of being caught out in the open, wounded and hungry after the confrontation. With a sigh, Cubone crouched down and then sprung up on the fallen trunk in order to meet their foe on equal footing. The combatant swung to face Cubone and lurched wildly, clutching its head as if about to scream as Cubone swung the club over its head and brought it down on the enemy.
With a presumably fatal thud and splish, Cubone watched the creature fall down and roll off the trunk, landing straight in the stream. Now out of the shadow and in a well-lit patch of water, Cubone could see they were brown in color and had an enormous nose. A bill, actually. A rivulet of blood trickled from a small gash on the Psyduck’s head, mixing with the water.
Psyduck blinked and winced, reaching over to the bruising cut and patting it tenderly. “PSY?” it muttered woefully. It sat up in the cold water and shivered, looking over to the bank where Cubone stood. Cubone, by this point, had lowered the bone club and–until further notice–felt no need to beat up the poor psyduck more. Cubone saw only a sad and terminal headache sufferer, not a malicious predator.
Turning to look down the waterway, Cubone hoped to spy the fish from earlier, but alas the flow had already carried it far away. They whimpered a little and reached to feel the grumble in their stomach.
Psyduck clambered clumsily onto the pebbly bank and sat down with its feet sticking out awkwardly. Rubbing its head and attempting to push down the now different and coalescing forms of torture rattling around in its skull, they rocked side to side gently. Cubone hopped down from the tree trunk and reached into the stream. Pulling out a pat of cold mud, they turned to Psyduck and offered to smear it on the wound. Psyduck spent a few moments staring straight ahead and massaging its temples before noticing Cubone. Finally the pupils came into focus and Psyduck could motion to indicate that yes, a cold pack would be appreciated.
Cubone then learned that Psyduck frequently comes to the stream in order to self-medicate with soothing mud compresses whenever they are suffering from particularly bad bouts of migrane. Psyduck also apologized for the sensation that Cubone had felt, the splitting bright light from earlier. Apparently their friends used to live close by, but the increasing frequency of mind shattering pain blasts had eventually proven too much for their mortal faculties, and they all felt compelled to move away.
Psyduck could hardly remember their old friends. Sometimes memories of laughter and warmer days from earlier in the year managed to slide in-between an otherwise numbing existence, but lately it only seemed to make the headaches sharper in contrast. Big, salty tears began to fall down Psyduck’s face, dripping, one plop at a time, off the end of their bill and landing in the stream.
Cubone looked to the sky, offering their companion a moment of privacy. The sky had morphed from deep blush to peachy gold, and soon would break into the cold, clear blue of a late autumn’s day. The sleepy cries of a flock of pidgeys waking up from their slumber peppered the crisp morning air.
Cubone’s gut growled again. Hoisting themself up from the pebbly ground, club in tow, they returned to the earlier task of catching something to eat. Once more readied and with feet planted firmly on the ground, Cubone lifted the bone over their head and squinted, seeking food.
And once more, a dazzling pain blinded Cubone. It was almost as startling as the first time, but it wasn’t quite so sharp, and subsided rapibly. Cubone returned attention to the stream and then skipped a step back, caught-unawares. Apparently Psyduck had blasted a magikarp straight out of the water, and it now lay flopping on the bank. Splash! Splash!
Cubone regained composure, and leaned forward to bash the great, big, tender, juicy, golden orange fish on the head. Their heart was willing but the fates intervened. The pidgey bastards from earlier swept in and attacked Cubone and Psyduck both, beating back the would-be feasters in a successful coup to control the pile of fishy meat. Cubone grabbed Psyduck’s paw in one fist and their bone club in the other, favoring a hasty retreat to a brutal eye-plucking. After traipsing up the hillside, far enough away from the flock of pidgeys as to be safe, Cubone paused to look back, a brisk breeze cutting through their helmet. The magikarp was still flailing on the bankside, half a dozen pidgeys holding the fins down as another half a dozen pidgeys rotated duty in stabbing the poor creature’s various tender areas until the jerking motions slowed and finally ceased.
Cubone flinched and lamented how they had missed a chance to ease the suffering of this poor beast, while also remembering how equally upsetting it remained that they hadn’t had a chance to eat more than two bites of anything in the past day. Psyduck stared in the direction they had been traveling, out across the clearing and into the eyes of a caterpie, munching tirelessly on the last sunny patches of grass to be found this year. Cubone finally noticed Psyduck’s fixation, and followed their yellow-eyed gaze to the new prey. Cubone poked Psyduck, to see if they would be keen to follow at a quiet distance while Cubone crept up behind the caterpie and smacked it with the club. Psyduck barely deflected from the jab, and so Cubone shrugged and decided that Psyduck would probably be less of a nuisance in this delicate operation if they just… stayed right… here.
Stepping gingerly along the trees hugging the clearing, attempting to minimize excessive crashes and crunches on the fallen twigs and piles of dry, crackly brown and gold leaves. They thought briefly how nicely they probably blended into the dying foliage and occasional medium-sized boulders resting in wee pockets of earth, like teeth poking out from the maw of the mountain. Ducking and weaving the last dozen meters, taking special care to remain under cover in this uncomfortably well-lit scenario, Cubone closed the last distance between themself and the caterpie and readied their substantial boney club once more.
The caterpie never wavered from its ceaseless greens nibbling, seemingly staring into the far-off eyes of the Psyduck across the clearing. Cubone’s finishing move was deft and effective, which pleased them, since their goal in life these days was to prevent as much needless suffering as they could. As soon as the caterpie’s spirit floated away and the glassy, bulbous eyes clouded, Cubone ripped the stench-organ from the caterpie’s head, leaving it in a shallow grave in the earth, and lifted the foot-long carapace to fling it over their furry shoulder.
Looking back to where Psyduck had been standing, they saw instead a void where their stupefying friend had once stood. Quickly, Psyduck lumbered up the hillside to meet Cubone, but not without a crunchy, noisesome accompaniment as leaves swooshed and twigs snapped underfoot. Cubone sighed, and commended themself on their good judgement about leaving Psyduck behind while hunting the caterpie.
The bumbling companion plodded the last bit of distance and breathed heavily. Again at Cubone’s side they rubbed their head a little and murmured something about losing time or somesuch. Cubone paid little attention as it seemed troublesome, and food was so near at hand as to overpower any creeping concern.
Now Cubone had a decision to make. Bring Psyduck to their home and share the caterpie? Or ditch the new guy and eat in peace, possibly never to see them again?
Cubone surprised themself by how long it took to make this decision, since it was so obvious that eating alone and without competition was the better decision. A new thought wormed its way in, asking if it truly was better, or simply seemed easier? It was merely easier to not change habit, wasn’t it? It took effort and persistence to build bridges and make lasting friendships, energy that could be spent getting by with the status quo. Maybe the chill of autumn made a difference, and picturing a more vibrant, warmer cave dinner for two appealed this one time. And so, Cubone asked Psyduck if they would care to eat this caterpie in Cubone’s stony home.
Psyduck, intrigued by the prospect and thoroughly excited for an opportunity to spend some time with someone else, rocked from one foot to the other in rapid succession and opened their mouth, lolling a pink tongue around in their yellow bill and gurgling happily. Cubone took this manic response as Probably Yes, I Think. Readjusting the skull on their head and the caterpie corpse on their shoulder, Cubone motioned the direction in which the cave called home was, and began walking. Psyduck followed closely and couldn’t stop grinning stupidly. It was almost cute?
Rolling a few boulders away from the entrance into the leaf littered sockets where they had come from, Cubone stepped inside and brushed away the dust and cobwebs that had built up in the past two months. After Cubone gestured that the interior was ready, Psyduck waddled in and inspected the rock walls and floors appreciatively, glittering eyes watering a little with suppressed glee. A new friend! A true friend! Someone seemingly unfazed by the very behavior that drove away old mates this past summer, when the headaches and subsequent telepathically shared tortures picked up.
Cubone sat down in the middle of the floor, on a mat of aged and crumbling moss in dire need of replacement. Later, they decided–after this meal–a new pile must be gathered in order to improve the warmth and comfort of the teeny abode. Psyduck sat down near Cubone and wiggled its toes. They waited as Cubone cleverly used the club to crack the now quite stiff caterpie down the middle into two long halves of goopy innards in bowls made of its own body. Cubone handed the nutrient-rich “soup” to Psyduck, who sniffed it gingerly. It carried the faintest whiff of grass and wood. Lapping inquisitively at the food, Psyduck learned that caterpies are absurdly adequate; and their subtly spicy, nutty flavor increasingly delicious. By the last slurp, Psyduck was cleaning the carapace with gusto.
Cubone, more accustomed to caterpie, did not find the meal less satisfying than Psyduck, but did pace their consumption more evenly. The slightly slimy and heavy fluids filled the hole in Cubone’s stomach, and once done, they patted their newly plump belly and felt a slow warmth emanate from head to tail.
Cubone’s eyes suddenly felt heavy and thick, their brain cloaked in the throes of impending food coma. Nodding and then drooping gently to one side, Cubone nestled on the dry, itchy moss and fell asleep after its long night of travel. Psyduck, more of a creature of the day by nature, sat at the entrance of the cave and watched the world pleasantly spin on.
When Cubone awoke, it was dusk and the world was gently thrumming with the cross-chatter of many animals hunting insects and each other. Psyduck was no longer there, but a fresh pile of moss lined every part of the cave floor except precisely where Cubone lay. It smelled moist and cool around them, and Cubone only now registered just how uncomfortable their nest of dessicated primordial plant matter was. Sitting up, and rubbing it’s joints tenderly, Cubone stretched, yawned, and blinked.
Stiff. Cold. Ouch.
Cubone could feel any dreams encountered during the day fade away, unidentified and never again remembered in detail. They probably had something to do with memories of Mother. They usually did, anyway, but this time it didn’t seem to matter so much. To hurt so much, either. It was almost… pleasant to be awake tonight? Hmm.
Cubone could sense a touch of hunger pressing in their belly once more. Not nearly so bad as the last time. They reached for some of the fresh moss and plucked a bit to suck the moisture from. It helped. And the refresher brought a new wave of clarity through the usual ebb and flow of cloudy thoughts.
A shadow flickered in the corner of Cubone’s eye, and their heartbeat quickened. It was Psyduck, carrying armfuls of watery vegetable matter and holding three persimmons, ready to eat. At ease once more, Cubone greeted Psyduck, and asked how they came upon so much fresh food. Psyduck mentioned finding more of the stream, this stretch of which had a few quiet and deep pools with many nooks and crannies for vegetation to take hold of and proliferate. The persimmons came from a tree between here and the pooled waters. Psyduck described the attributes of this tree and it sounded quite beautiful. Bare, dark and twisting branches weighted down with plump, round, vibrantly orange fruits.
The veg was crisp, and the high water content within was greatly appreciated. The persimmon itself was a particular treat. A dry and sweet sort of fruit, with a delicate flavor. They both spit out the flattish seeds on the ground, and then Psyduck picked one of them up and split it in half with their claws. Revealing the pale, milky interior of the seed, Psyduck inspected the more opaque primary root. It appeared to be straight and sharp, as like a knife. “A bitterly cold winter comes. Lots of icy winds.”
Psyduck dropped the seed halves to the ground and brushed them outside the cave with a foot. Having finished their food, they busied themself by pulling up the last of the dry moss and tossing it outside, then selected pieces of fresh moss from a pile in the corner to fill in the gap.
“Thanks for helping set up my home, by the way,” Cubone finally stated. Should they escort Psyduck out at this point? Maybe walk them back to their own abode? No need to be rude, I suppose.
“No problem! I am happy to help out a friend. You were clearly tired.”
Friend. Cubone had never had one. Never needed one. They hadn’t grown up with the company of family, and had gotten used to living by their lonesome. Relationships seemed complicated. Messy. In the past day, this one had been forged out of a misunderstanding and, admittedly, so far hadn’t so deeply impeded upon Cubone’s habits as they had initially feared.
Maybe this friend thing could stand a trial period. A few days, and then reassessment. Safe. Orderly. With defined parameters and expectations. Just as Cubone was about to tell Psyduck they could stay, as long as their friendship was clearly defined, their daft companion hurtled outside and practically tumbled down the mountainside.
Landing in a sizable puddle, Psyduck scrambled for cooling mud to pack onto their once again splitting headache. Cubone cautiously trailed behind, hoping to avoid another bout of migraine. By the time they arrived at the puddle, Psyduck was definitively coated in a layer of dark, damp, earth from the top pf their head to their shoulders. Cubone looked at the puddle and noticed the fresh, frenetic claw marks resultant of this episode overlaying older, more poorly defined scoops, half-filled with settled water. Psyduck had been here several times already, just throughout this one day. This did not bode well for the coming months, when the ground would firm up with frost and any water found would be beyond icy and simply be ice.
Feeling bad for Psyduck, and not sensing any explosive blowback, Cubone tried rubbing Psyduck’s back a little. The rock-like muscles initially tensed and then relaxed. “That’s… actually helping.” Psyduck gasped uncertainly.
“Huh? Oh, um. maybe if you could… point me to where I should push?” Psyduck motioned to their neck, which was practically nonexistent, it was so short, and at this particular moment is was heavily doused in a mud pack. Cubone sighed and reminded themself that rinsing caked mud off at the stream later wouldn’t be impossible, and that it could be doubled into another hunting trip…
The light had completely given way to an inky blue night, clear except for a patchy cloud or two drifting above the snowy mountain peak across the valley, far to the north. Cubone watched the stars twinkle and the moon shine a little less from the night before as they spent several minutes beating the abused and stiff muscles of Psyduck’s back and neck. Coming away from the task with crackly drying mud clods for hands, nearly painfully frozen, Cubone resolved to walk down the rest of the hill to the water and wash up.
Psyduck lay down in the grass and spent some time watching the constellations turn way up high. They had missed interacting with others. And they hoped, nay–wished–that this was a bond that would last. For the briefest of moments, a streak of light split the sky. The science unknown to these mortal creatures, it was in fact, a fragment of space rock incinerating in a fiery death as it punched through the Earth’s atmosphere. The humans called this phenomenon a “shooting star,” which is what it appeared to be, certainly.