There he was, curled up at his post on the front porch as usual. R’keia was his name, or Wrath in man-speech. His fur was black as a moonless night and he had such a piercing stare out of his one blue eye and one grey one. I don’t know what they did to him after they took him from our pack, but whatever it was had made him obey those men.
A man appeared in the doorway wearing a striped shirt. R’keia lurched to his feet and snapped at him, baring his keen white fangs to remind the captive who was the alpha leader. Soon after, another man appeared and grabbed the criminal by his wrist to lead him away. That one was a warden, I knew. They were the pack leaders in the big human-keeping place. Father called it a prison and said I should stay away because only men who break leader-rules go there. But R’keia was there, and I had to know he was safe.
It pained me to watch him straining against his chain harness for a bite into each prisoner that passed. I missed him, yet at the same time he had become so ruthless that I wished he’d stay chained forever. I remember the time when I called him Kuppra, elder brother, for that’s what he acted to me. Then, I hoped he would become more than that, so he would not leave with the bachelor males in spring. But then man took him and changed him, blackened his soul. They needed him; since they could not get an unwilded dog, they took a wolf instead.
And where was I, his dear Lisha? Left behind. I could watch and nothing more. I watched every day as he did his job – the man-prisoner ran, the harness’ lock was undone, and R’keia chased the man and wounded him so the wardens could drag him back before he escaped too far into our forest. If a man ran for a second time, R’keia killed him. He always kept track in his head, but only one man ever tried to run a second time.
Ah, and there was Caw, just appearing through the trees and headed toward the prison as I watched. He was a nice Indian, Choctaw from down the waterpath. What his man-name was I never knew, but I called him ‘caw’ for the strange sound he made when his friends said something funny. I think they called it a ‘laugh’, but I call it a ‘caw’.
Caw carried a few stitched drapes over his shoulder; men seem to need them to keep warm. He traded them with the warden in exchange for some shiny bits, which he stuck in a pouch for later. I knew he would take them back to his house-place and trade them with someone else. Why men wanted shiny somethings that they couldn’t eat, drink, or plant baffled me. Caw nodded kindly to the warden and also to R’keia, who snarled his farewell to the Indian before he turned back into the forest.
Caw took a well worn deer trail back into the timber, and I trotted across his path and coughed at him. He coughed back; he was the only man I knew who understood a wolf-cough as a friendship bark and not one of anger. He was dear to me. After R’keia was taken, a rogue wolf sprang on my sister-pup the day her eyes opened. I wasn’t there in time, but Caw appeared and took her from the rogue’s mouth and tossed her into a small gulley while he fought the wolf away. I suppose that explains the furry shoulder-drape Caw wears during the snow-time.
I followed Caw back to his drape house, where his she-mate greeted him. His man-pup tumbled toward him and he grabbed the young one up into his arms. I wished for the same comfort, but it was not mine to have while R’keia slept behind the mask named Wrath. I set one paw into the Choctaw camp and then withdrew back into the brush. My home could not be with man, eating his strange, gold kernelled plants and his red-with-seeds berries.
I lay just out of the men’s sight until nightfall when I planned to return to my lonely den. Something in my heart stirred with longing for Caw, just to walk with him. He understood me but not my wolf-speech, so he would never know me. Still, I slept outside the camp that night, for once away from the sight of R’keia. He was lost to me.
The next day, Caw left the camp very early with a cluster of kernel-plant on his back. After a moment of stretching, I followed. He went to see the wardens again, and in exchange for his man-food the warden gave him more shiny bits. The warden unstacked Caw’s delivery, but then he made a human-growl. He took off after Caw and grabbed him by the shoulder, throwing him to the ground. I do not know great man-speech, but I knew enough to understand the warden howl that Caw had given only a little yellow-kernel but took too many shinies in return. Caw seemed surprised, but the warden didn’t care. He grabbed Caw by his head-fur and dragged him to the porch where they tied him to a pole. Caw tried to speak, but the man struck him on the cheek.
I knew Caw had not done the bad thing, because he did not like bad things that other men did. I galloped down my always-watching slope and when the warden raised his arm again, I yipped. The warden spun and, when he saw me trotting toward him, he scrambled toward R’keia at the other side of the porch. Unlatching his harness and pointing right at me, the warden said something to him I did understand.
“Kill it, boy.”
R’keia surged off the porch, snarling and beating the ground hard to reach me. I tried to turn, but R’keia has always been bigger and faster than me. When his body hit me, the life-wind was knocked from my chest. His fangs lashed at my throat and I lashed at his, only to keep him away.
I couldn’t see anything but black flashes of fur streaked with blurs of white fangs as we battled and snapped at each other. His eyes burned with a murderous fire that I was sure would consume me. Every bite and slash was aimed to kill at my life-points, but despite it I would not put my fangs to his throat. One moment I felt his fangs close on my paw, and the next I pulled away from his claws and he took a slit out of my ear. I tumbled away from him and tried to stand, but my pawflesh was too weak and tore up into my wrist. My thigh burned, although I don’t remember when he bit me.
R’keia circled me, baring his blood-slicked teeth. My paw would not obey when I tried to turn and stay at his face while he walked behind me.
“R’keia,” I choked to him in wolf-speech, “you don’t have to follow them! You are a wolf…you are free.” For a moment I wondered if he really was still a wolf. He snarled, and his mouth contorted to form the man-speech.
“Monster,” he said in the guttural talk of man. His eyes burned into mine, and I was finally able to turn from him a little.
At my back, Caw whooped and then coughed for me. R’keia understood the Choctaw’s noises of encouragement to me, and it only incensed him more. Suddenly he surged at me and brought his head hard against my neckbone. I felt my feet lift from the ground; at first it was relaxing to have the pressure off my paw, but my pain was reawakened when I slammed back onto the ground at Caw’s feet.
I couldn’t stand. Above me, on the porch, the wardens cheered for R’keia in their loud human howls. I had nothing more left. ‘Monster,’ R’keia had said. I closed my eyes to rest. I understood then…After they called him a monster for so long, that’s what he had become.
R’keia crept toward me, and Caw whimpered and tried to kick me and make me stand. The more I rested, the more my wounds burned. I reached out toward Caw’s feet and grabbed a thick rope between my teeth, and I chewed hard. I needed something else to focus on. My mouth began to bleed, but it distracted my mind from other pains. The rope was almost chewed through when R’keia grabbed my ankle and threw me away from Caw. I had to stop moving. It hurt too much.
R’keia left me and headed toward Caw. The wardens only urged him on with their moose-call voices. I saw Caw stare into R’keia’s eyes with a bright burning fire, and when the wolf let out his most vicious growl, Caw only growled back. My mind was so sticky-sap slow that I almost missed the attack.
Caw suddenly lunged forward, free from his rope tie, and slammed R’keia on the side of his head with a sharp stone. The wolf yelped and stumbled sideways while Caw flew toward the forest, dragging chewed rope behind him. R’keia charged after him. A new surge of something kissed my legs and made them strong. I saw Caw running, not fast enough. R’keia was not wolf-free, so I knew that Caw must escape and be free in R’keia’s place. I sprang to my feet and barreled after R’keia. The pain of my paw and leg were forgotten, blurred in a haze of anger, desperation, and love for the two of them who loved me first.
R’keia coiled and then pounced. The ground flew beneath my feet; not even the falling waters could match my speed! Caw looked back and saw steely fangs bared to meet him. I banked and sprung, every feeling in me wishing I could cleave the air faster. After a moment of pain and thrashing, my vision became sparkling like the deep-water in morningtime.
I remember biting down on R’keia’s snout, making him shake his head wildly and jolt me back and forth. My eyes only saw a little of the world amid the dancing lights in my head, but I saw enough of Caw to realize that he was running again. I galloped after him; the edge of the forest was almost under my paws.
Suddenly a piercing flame arched across my back. R’keia bit harder when I tried to shake him from my shoulders. He was too heavy…I crumbled underneath the weight, and we flipped and slid to the edge of the clearing in a bloody mass of fur. As soon as his fangs let go, I whirled in a flurry of angry teeth and claws. I mauled his shoulder, threw him off, and dragged him to the ground, then turned and sprang after Caw. R’keia nipped at my tail, but I pushed one final surge of anger out of me, arched my back mid-run, and kicked. Hard. I heard him yelp and crumple to the ground.
I knew he wasn’t dead, even though I’d snapped his neck back. Perhaps his eyes saw the deep-water sparkles as well, for the moment. But my eyes wanted to sleep, and if R’keia stood to fight me again he would have torn me apart. I looked ahead and saw Caw stop and look back for me. When he saw me still coming, he hooted like an owl-man. I couldn’t help but yip back to him. I felt a happiness in my chest that I hadn’t felt for so long; he stopped to wait for me. Someone, anyone, cared.
A crackling thunder-roar split the air and cut into my ears suddenly. Caw dropped to the ground, motionless. I skittered to a stop at his side. His life-wind was weak and bloody sounding. A woodpecker hole oozed red man-blood from a spot next to his right rib. I looked back; the wardens still stood on the porch, and the alpha-man pointed a long, shining stick at me. Caw’s eyes wouldn’t move, even when I kissed his neck. A strange new feeling welled up inside me – a tingling, heavy thing that settled into my chest and belly. Like…like when they took R’keia. Please, not again…
I nuzzled under Caw’s neck and grabbed his drape-sack strap on the other side of his shoulder. This feeling…I had to move. I had to make it disappear. Heaving his arm over my wounded back, I held tight to that strap between my teeth and dragged him. The thunder crackled again, and something sharp whistled past my ear. But I was too small…I dragged him faster. I would not let them fill me with red woodpecker holes!
It seemed so far that I dragged him before I couldn’t hear his chest rumble any more. I stopped to listen. Did I hear it, or did I only hear my own? I had to take him back to his she-mate; everything would be better then…
It must have been an eternity that I slowly trudged those paths, my paw split and throbbing with every step. I wished the fur on my shoulders would finish ripping apart and be done with it. I felt my own chest heat drift up into my face, but Caw was not warm. If I could have given him my own chest-rumble, I would have.
Finally, I saw the Choctaw drape-homes. I yelped and whined and howled until finally a man-pup noticed me. The moment he stepped through the bushes, I realized it was Caw’s man-pup. He whimpered and his eyes began to rain on his face. Finally he turned and ran back into the place, yowling. Why…why him? Why had he been the one to see his own alpha covered in red blood? He looked so…frightened.
Soon a man came and touched Caw’s face and chest, then chirped for a few more men to come. They lifted Caw in their arms and carried him into a drape house while his she-mate and pup watched and whimpered. I stepped into the camp, but something hard whacked my back in an explosion of fiery pain and I had to get away. His she-mate waved a big stick at me and shouted something in man-speech which sounded like
scay-ven-jeeyurr. I was in too much pain to argue, so I retreated back into the timber to watch.
My eyes never left the drape house; I watched it just as I had always watched R’keia each day. The sky began to turn red in the distance…red like Caw’s blood. Before it seemed I had blinked, the many-sparkles lit up the sky. And I knew, from my throbbing paw to the very tip of my snout, down even into my aching chest-rumble, that every moment the sky grew darker took me further away from every seeing Caw again.
I couldn’t explain it, why I loved him so much. Not a love like I had for R’keia, but a knowledge that if he left me forever then my chest-rumble would become so heavy that it would eventually stop too.
Each moment seemed to drag on as I waited. Even as I speak this story for you, my words must creep slowly to remind myself of the long wait I spent for Caw.
The many-sparkles had moved far across the sky before a Choctaw appeared out of the drape house. I couldn’t help but raise my ears and step forward to watch Caw come out next. The Choctaw put his hand on Caw’s she-mate’s shoulder, and she followed him back into the drape house. Her pup was forced to wait for her outside.
I was confused, and I couldn’t bear it any more. My wounds no longer stung like my chest-rumble did. I bounded into the place and right into the drape house where they were keeping Caw. Once they saw me they picked up branches to hit me, so I lay down and whined for them to prove I wouldn’t hurt anyone. Thankfully, they turned away.
The place where Caw was resting was too high for me to see over, so I had to watch the face of the man they called a dok-o-tur. He didn’t move his face very much.
Finally, he backed away from Caw and said something in Choctaw to Caw’s she-mate. She covered her mouth and ran out of the house whimpering. I could still see her out by the fire, and I knew what the rain falling from her eyes meant.
I felt it rising from my chest and I just couldn’t keep it in. I howled, so loud and so long. I frightened the dok-o-tur, but I didn’t care. In the far distance, Father returned my call; he said he was burdened by my pain even though he did not understand. Although the world was spinning like angry water in my tired eyes, I did not stop. I howled until the many-sparkles disappeared, pleading, screaming for someone to help. When the bright day-star rose, R’keia answered my call.
Father’s land was already far behind me. I couldn’t stay; there was nothing left back there that I needed. All around me were Choctaws, pulling on ropes tied to strange creatures with long skinny legs and a flat rock instead of toes. Everyone called them
har-sus, and I always looked for the white one with grey speckles. As I thought about it, that very one loped up beside me carrying Caw on its back. He was too weak to walk still, so he sat on that thing. He coughed at me and made his cawing sound – I coughed back and started running to keep up with him. I couldn’t help but throw my head around as I ran; I had never felt such happiness. Soon enough, R’keia caught up with us and Caw coughed to him too.
Wherever Caw went, so did we. That’s where we were happy. When the Choctaws stopped for the snow-time, so did we. R’keia always wrestled with Caw’s man-pup, no matter where we were; ever since I had fought with R’keia, reminded him of the wolf free-spirit, the man-spell didn’t affect him any more. I had what mattered most – R’keia and Caw. As long as I was with them, anywhere was home. And both of them were always with me, even to the day our pups opened their eyes. And even now, as you hear the end of my words, Caw sits sleeping with his pup while R’keia plays with ours, teaching them always to fight for the things they hold dear. But my wounds from R’keia’s folly ache tonight, so I must close my eyes. Goodnight, free-spirits whom I love. Do not bear your regrets upon your torn shoulders. I must sleep now. Forever.