Bob Armstrong, “Succession”

I’m curled in a soft, sheltered spot out of the reach of the filthy, back-biting wind, waves of warmth lapping against my belly. I must be dreaming. And then The Boss growls in my ear and I’m up and sniffing. He’s got a job for me.

Red’s excited. Fucking Red. Always showing off for The Boss. He bounds toward the lake, first in line. The Boss follows, close enough to nip at Red’s heels. Fats and Runt jump in behind The Boss. Fats snarls to keep Runt back. Runt feints to the right, veers left and sprints ahead. Four dark blurs in the thickening twilight. I trot along last. No point pissing away fat if we just end up chasing shadows.

We reach the thick brush above the high-water line. Still can’t see a thing, but the drool on our tongues and hair on our backs tell us something’s out there. When we pick up the scent – musky, meaty, bloody – we fill our chests with cold air and launch ourselves over the snow. I know where we’re going. The big marsh at the end of the bay with willow thickets so dense you can only move where the twig eaters have cleared a trail. We come upon a line of hoofprints, a scattering of broken branches. The scent thickens, bringing the rich rot of summer despite the snow. Something’s not right. Too many broken branches. The twig eater must be smashing its great bulk into the thin trunks instead of pausing to nibble last year’s tender growth.

The trail leaves the shelter of the willows and crosses a deep drift. We’re running, leaping, swimming through soft, white death. The twig eater is on the far side of a frozen pond, rubbing his body against the rough bark of an evergreen and thrashing its branches with his antlers. If he knows we’re here, he doesn’t care. I split off from the group to cut the twig eater’s escape to the right. Red does the same to the left. The Boss and the sisters keep charging straight ahead. After a few more steps I see why the twig eater is ignoring us. Patches of pink skin and slashes of red stand out on his haunches where he’s rubbed himself raw. Clusters of round, black bloodsuckers hang off his neck and belly like obscene berries, thick and round, kept alive by the warmth of the twig eater’s body. They’ve weakened him, cut his weight by half, but we still need to be careful. Scrawny as he is, a kick from those long legs could shatter ribs.

We’re nearly on him when he realizes the danger. He charges, antlers down, and with a glancing blow on the thigh forces Red to roll awkwardly to safety. Then he turns and shakes his antlers at The Boss. The Boss, Fats and Runt fan out, leaping forward, then jumping back, keeping the twig eater in place, unable to escape without turning his back on them. I dodge into the trees and, with The Boss snarling almost directly below the twig eater’s beard, I leap out of the shadows and sink my teeth into the sinews of a hind leg. He flails and turns, trying to shake me loose so he can trample me, and reveals his neck to The Boss. With a powerful jerking motion, the twig eater kicks his hind leg to the side and flings me onto a fallen tree trunk. A broken branch pierces my skin and the impact forces the air from my chest.

I tend to my wound, tasting my own savoury brine, while The Boss, Fats and Runt take the twig eater down. Now that the animal is on his back, Red rushes to claim a share, tearing at the unprotected belly.

Later, I limp forward to join them in the feeding, tearing strips of tough, tasteless flesh from the desiccated corpse. The bloodsuckers are still drinking from the animal they’ve helped to kill. I roll in the snow between swallows to keep them off me. We feed, then howl to let others know this meat smell is claimed, then sleep by the kill so we can defend it.

In the morning, we feed again, the flesh now hardening in the cold. I work at the sinews holding one thigh in place, intending to crack the bone open and lick up the thick, dark marrow. Just as I have the bone free, Red seizes the other end and begins to pull. I pull back, but when Red jerks it hard to the side I feel a weakness in my chest from yesterday’s fight. Red pulls the leg free and stands over it, snarling at me, daring me to take it back. Fats and Runt stop their feeding to watch. My hair rises and a growl emerges from deep within my throat, a growl I’ve never made before, mature and murderous. Before I can attack, The Boss is on me, jaws around my throat. He’s taken Red’s side. I roll on my back and offer my submission, then return to the carcass and chew on whatever Fats and Runt don’t want.

***

Hungry. Always hungry. Winter has deepened and the twig eaters have become a hazy memory of a better time, like warm sunshine and soft grass and Legs.

Runt uses her speed to bring down a hopping whitefur, but it’s not enough for five. She cocks an ear to hear movement beneath the snow and dives deep, disappearing in a blizzard of her own making and emerging with something small and round dangling from her teeth. I give it a try. Not worth the effort, if you ask me.

Fats finds fresh tracks and The Boss orders us into action. It’s a solitary set of small hoofprints, leading to an island of trees in an expanse of frozen marsh. A lichen eater. Not a big meal, but better than listening for a mouthful of bones from under the snow. We follow the tracks, the food scent calling so urgently that we don’t turn away when we notice those of our own kind. They are digging at what’s left of their kill. Two are only half visible, their heads and shoulders buried in the lichen eater’s belly. The Boss bounds directly at the largest of them, seizes it by the front leg and flips it on its back. Red pounces on the shoulder of another as it tries to pull itself out of its fleshy trap. Amid the snarling and circling, I examine the kill, which has been nearly stripped by the other pack.

The others agree it isn’t worth fighting over. Their leader wriggles away from The Boss and leads the retreat. Red lets go of his opponent and sinks his teeth into what remains of the lichen eater’s rump. We feed and are hungry again the next day.

***

Hunger’s a sharpened shard of ice in the guts. It’s a fang of wind slicing through your fur. It’s struggling to force out a hairy little shit and then sniffing it and wondering if there’s anything in it worth passing through a second time.

Hunger is the courage of having nothing to lose.

***

We strike out in bright blue-white daylight for the death trail, the endless line of flat not-rock. It smells of two-legs and the smoke beasts that run without legs, killing without pausing to eat. We walk single file through the trees at the edge of the long clearing that runs beside the not-rock, close enough to nose out a fresh carcass if one is here, but far enough, we hope, to avoid attention. We know what can happen if we are seen. A smoke beast will stop and a two-legs will appear, raise his thunder arms, and one of us will run no more. This has happened to us. I remember when we were one more than we are now.

The death trail crosses above a stream and we pause in the trees below before splashing across. We’re waiting for The Boss to lead us, but he’s sniffing down the stream, away from the death trail, following his nose to a hollow behind a boulder. I catch something familiar in the air. The Boss digs through the snow and rolls his fur on the hard dirt below, soaking it up. It smells of milk and the first chewed and puked-up bits of meat I ate. It smells of Legs.

The Boss has lost his stomach for the death trail. He curls up in the hollow to sleep with his memory of Legs. Fats and Runt stay close, attracted by the familiar scent, digging their own shelters in the snow to wait out the rest of the day. I’m too hungry to stop and rest, so I cross the stream and keep following the death trail. Red bounds up behind me and we play chase along the treeline with all the speed we have left. If we find nothing to eat we will at least have one last good run.

Our run takes us to a place where the smells become thick as marsh water: two-legs, smoke beast, food, and something both familiar and strange. We hear barking, warning calls. Something has caught our scent. We are too hungry to turn away. We creep closer and see the first of many two-legs dens. It’s the size of a small hill. It’s guarded by a creature that looks like us, but not like us. The not-wolf raises the alarm, calls for help, but no help comes. It tries to attack but jerks to a stop. It is attached by the neck to a long strand, like webbing from a spinner out of a terror dream.

My nose senses something else. A pile of red pebbles that smells both of two-legs and of meat. Red and I are hungry enough to take it. Red runs toward the not-wolf, then veers in a wide arc to the far side of the den. The not-wolf follows. I rush forward and take a mouthful of the strange food – part meat, part rock. It crumbles as I bite and no warm blood drips out, but it quiets the voice of my hunger. While I’m crushing the meat rocks, the not-wolf turns back and rushes at me. Before I can run away, he yelps and turns to face Red, who has taken a bite out of his back leg.

This game has changed. The prize is no longer a pile of dry, dusty meat rock.

I strike at the not-wolf’s injured leg while he chases Red. He turns to face me and Red jumps on his back. He is larger than us, stronger than us, but slow, stupid and lazy from eating food without killing it. We make quick work of the not-wolf and fill our bellies with fatty, greasy flesh. I am nauseated, but alive.

It’s time to return to The Boss. But Red’s nostrils flare and he faces the larger cluster of two-legs dens. He trots closer, tail held out behind him, flickering with anticipation, and dashes into a stand of trees that runs along a row of two-legs dens. I follow, ears twitching, skin alive with thorn pricks.

Howls and alarm cries echo off the dens and the trees. Red is not deterred. I hear another noise. High, whining, pleading. Then I am struck by a new smell, a smell that reminds me of Fats and Runt, but is far stronger. In a clearing behind a den is another fat, stupid not-wolf. She is well fed, rolls of flesh visible under her fur, but still she hungers for something. She is pissing on the yellow snow of the clearing and filling the forest with her need. It is this not-wolf, not us, that makes the others bark and cry.

Red sidles up to the not-wolf, sniffs her ass and her pisser and licks his lips when he gets a splash in the face. The not-wolf snaps at Red, then sniffs his pisser, now hanging down red and fierce toward the snow. Red bites her on the neck. She shakes loose and bumps him with her broad chest. I can’t take my eyes off those hips. Red mounts her and she carries him around the clearing as she tries to shake him off. He thrusts and shakes and takes one last bite of her neck and frees himself. As he trots away he sees me staring at the not-wolf, slams his body into mine and places his jaws around my throat. She’s not for me.

Fucking Red. I don’t want some fat, stupid old bitch. But those hips.

***

Our strength is fading. Too weak for a proper hunt, we must search the death trail for food. Red and I, still warmed by the last of our meal of not-wolf, must provide for the others. We patrol the death trail to within scenting distance of the two-legs dens and again our blood rises at the smell of the female not-wolf. Red growls at me to stay put and bounds to the crest of a small ridge above the dens, where he is silhouetted against the bright moonlight. He rushes down the ridge and out of my sight and I hear barking, growls, yips, and a roar like thunder. I hear Red’s whine, then a second roar, then the murmuring call of the two-legs. I glide through the shadows to what is left of my pack.

***

The Boss is sleeping, Fats and Runt curled up beside him for warmth. It’s a clear, cold night of silver and black and the smoke beasts have been active, the big ones that shake the ground and stop for nothing. I wake The Boss. I have found food. A twig eater has limped away from the smoke beasts and will be an easy kill, even tired and hungry as we are.

I lead the way. We find the twig eater where it has collapsed and tear through its throat, quenching our thirst with a long, salty drink. We feed until we feel the twig eater’s fat burning in our bellies, warming us to the pads of our paws.

When we dig through the snow to create pits for sleeping, Fats and Runt lie down beside me to share my warmth.

***

Water drips from the trees. The sun brushes the fur on our backs. It is time. Fats and Runt begin to walk past me, their tails held high, pissing holes in the snow. They remind me of the not-wolf among the two-legs dens, but without her greasy two-legs smell. Fats is no longer fat. If anything, she is thinner than Runt. But beneath her winter coat, now beginning to thin, I can see where she will build muscles again. Runt is tall-hipped, elegant, long-legged, the best chaser of us all. She’s the one I want to catch.

We will complete one more hunt to strengthen Runt for what will follow.

I scent the food first, a lichen eater, and Runt rushes past me to give chase. Fats isn’t far behind. The Boss barely breaks into a run. The snow has melted to a hard crust. The running is good. I leap a fallen tree and feel as if I could chase the watching black wings into the sky. I am nearly even with Runt when we catch sight of the lichen eater. We come at it from either side. The Boss and Fats can keep it busy while we hobble its back legs. But as we are closing in from each side, the lichen eater charges straight for The Boss, who is too slow to dodge a kick. The Boss yelps, steps back and nearly lets the lichen eater escape before Runt and I take it down, each grabbing a different hind leg.

Fats bites through the thick white fur on its throat and reddens the melting snow. We eat our fill, leaving the rest for a second or even third feeding later. The bitter nights are gone now, so the remaining meat will still be soft and tasty tomorrow.

After we have fed, I smell, above the fresh blood and marrow and pungent guts of the lichen eater, the life coursing through Runt. I feel it in my own body, especially in my pisser. I rise from my resting place and begin to sniff Runt, but The Boss launches himself on me. He reaches for my throat, but I am too fast for him. I rake my fangs along his injured ribs. He recoils. I seize a hind leg and bite down hard on the ankle, feeling tendons snap. He yields, rolls on his back, exposes his belly and his throat to me.

I look at that throat from which so many threats and orders have issued. It would be easy to tear it open. But soon we will need more meat than ever, soon there will be tender, tasty young twig eaters to take and even an old, slow cripple may be of use. I let him live. He limps cautiously on his bent paw as Runt and I walk away to find a quiet, sheltered place.

***

The young ones are hungry and cold. This is their first snow. We’d better find them something to fill their bellies before the bitter time hits. The lichen eaters are gathered to breed. This is our chance to catch them while they are fat with summer’s warmth locked in their flesh. Runt is sleeping with the young ones. Fats is sniffing along the trail. I growl in Bent Paw’s ear to wake him. I’ve got a job for him.

 

  previous  next