(Note: This story originally appeared in a literary journal – Whitefish Review – and it is intended for mature readers.)
Devil’s River, Texas
They moved to the river because Father led them there. Bloodstains and bones on the rocks marked where the fawn had been taken down days earlier, the last good meat picked clean by birds and scavengers. Black flies swarmed the carcass. The girl, eleven years old and covered only by thick, tangled ropes of dirty pale hair, scrambled over the stones on calloused hands and feet. Flies buzzed away from a discarded foreleg, which she grabbed by the hoof and dragged to the water. She bent low and lapped up the river with the others, sensing heightened alert among the wolves. They always remained vigilant here, where the rushing water made it harder to hear, but a few, including Oldest, had not yet come down to the bank, staying behind the bushes and testing the shifting wind with their noses.
The girl strained to smell anything out of the ordinary but only picked up the usual dankness of the river, the death and decay of the deer and countless tiny insects too small to eat, green moss and mold thriving in the cracks of drying rocks and weathered logs. A blossom drifted on the breeze, mixing with the mark of fresh urine, both hers and the wolves’, but nothing that hinted at trouble. The sun had begun its descent, and in the comfortable warmth, the girl squinted to make stars appear on the water where silver light danced across the ripples.
Bending to drink, she saw the dark outline of a crayfish scuttle between stones on the sandy bottom. Her hand shot into the water, fingers crawling until she grabbed it below its pinching claws. She set the crayfish on a stone and crushed it with the deer hoof, then snapped off the two antennae and sucked the flesh from its head and tail. Pieces of shell cracked between her teeth as she chewed the tart meat. When Youngest Hunter sniffed at her side, she elbowed him with a growl and rinsed off her hand. Only she and the pups needed food every day. The pups would receive the deer limb and its marrow; anything else she found was hers. Lean but muscular, with pronounced forearms and calves, the girl wore skin baked by the sun, cracked with dirt and etched with scars, bloody or scabbed in a handful of places and tough as leather around her elbows and knees. She spit out the shell pieces and drank, scooped up the deer limb in her left hand, and turned to join the others with a quick backside shake.
They stood alert, black noses working against the wind that fanned their grey and cinnamon-streaked fur, tails frozen to the charcoal tips. When the girl finally made out what they had long known, she sucked in her breath and ducked behind a bush, rustling leaves. Father and First Hunter turned their yellow eyes on her, Father growling and showing his teeth. She was Slowest, always last during a run and last to notice game or danger. Eyes averted, she sunk lower with a whimper and chewed on a stalk of grass as she peered through the leaves. Dropping from the crest of a distant hill, sitting on the backs of enormous brown horses, were three others like her, tall ones who could walk on two legs. The girl had seen horses running in herds, so fast and powerful she could not comprehend how these tall ones came to sit calmly atop their backs. Mostly she had seen tall ones from a distance. During the last moon, on a clear morning as she fed with the pack on a stray goat, a sudden loud crack, like very close lightning, had struck Second Hunter down. As he fell in a bloody heap, the girl saw a tall one, swathed in smoke, rise behind a nearby boulder. She had fled with the pack, startled and shaken.
Now the tall ones on the horses dropped from view, leaving a dust cloud in their wake. Father cautiously retreated from the river and slipped into the cover of trees. The girl fell in behind the five wolves, following their easy lope along the game trail, single file and nearly silent as they passed through the live oaks that grew along the water. Because the wolves did not seem worried, the girl felt at ease, scampering awkwardly on one hand. Presenting Mother with the deer limb would put the girl in good standing. For all her liabilities, the girl proved her value during this important time of year, whether bringing food back to the den or watching the pups during longer hunts. She grinned as she imagined playing with the pups, presenting the limb then wrenching it away from their sharp little teeth.
The wolves increased their pace, and the girl reluctantly rose to her feet. Though unnatural, this upright gait helped her move faster. At the sound of pounding hooves behind her, the girl’s vision swam, blood draining from her head as she surged forward and tried to keep up. Her next clear thought carried the awful realization that she was Slowest. Weakest. Having been on enough hunts to know how this would end, she gave a desperate yelp, which only spurred Oldest to scurry left for the river while First Hunter dashed up a cut in the hills. The tall ones made strange sounds behind her, their horses snorting. Father led the remaining wolves ahead and out of view, but Youngest Hunter had spun at the girl’s distress. They ran together until she could not keep pace, and when she yelped again, just before he vanished through the trees, Youngest Hunter veered up the next draw.
The girl followed, running hard but short of breath. The ground quickly turned dry and rocky, hard on her feet and unfamiliar as the rough path narrowed into a ravine. Before rounding a bend, she looked back and saw dust rising where they had entered. After the bend came a fork where Youngest Hunter veered left. The girl followed, but at the next bend she saw their mistake. This branch came to a sudden end where a flow of water had carved a steep bowl in the earth, now bone dry and littered with rocks. The young wolf took a running leap and clawed at the solid dirt but slid back down. With her long arms and legs, the girl knew she could climb out, but she deferred to Youngest Hunter, who turned to race back the way they had come. They collided at the bend, the wolf retreating from approaching hooves and returning to the bowl, whining as he circled but found no escape. The girl dropped to all fours and caught her breath, surprised to find the deer limb so tightly gripped in her left hand. Pounding hooves grew louder, the ground vibrating beneath her right hand, and the horses appeared through a swirling haze of dust, each with a tall one atop its back.
On the heads of all three tall ones sat woven circles of dried grass that shaded their brown eyes. The girl had always assumed her eyes were yellow. Their skin was bronze like hers but mostly hidden beneath dusty coverings, including ones that masked the bottom of their faces. She could not determine their scent beneath the strong, musky odor of the horses. The tall one in the center flashed a hand from forehead to chest and across both shoulders. Youngest Hunter bolted toward them, each horse rising with a terrified squeal. The wolf dashed beneath their hooves and the girl scrambled after him until a sudden, deafening explosion dropped her to her knees. She released the deer limb and lifted both hands to her ears as the sound echoed in the ravine. Eyes clenched, with a tangy sweetness tickling her nose, she finally mustered the courage to look. Youngest Hunter had escaped. The girl raised her head to the sun and howled in relief.
The tall one in the center made shushing sounds. Rising to her hands and feet, the girl moved to escape, but the horses did not rear. She froze in their massive presence, then backed away as the tall ones made hard, quick sounds similar to barking. Waving a hand to silence the others, the tall one in the center pulled down his face covering to reveal strange black fur on his cheeks and chin. When he quickly lifted and dropped the shade-maker, the girl saw matching hair on his head, so much darker than her own. Finally he showed his teeth, confirming her guess that he was father of the tall ones. She scrambled back, eyes darting between Tall Father and the others. He made soft sounds with his mouth as his horse moved forward.
The girl bared her teeth and growled. His hand froze as he turned to his packmates. The one on the left, largest of the three, nodded; the other, Smallest, lifted a smooth stick decorated with black markings. When her left foot struck earth, the girl spun and launched herself up the steep bowl. She missed a handhold and slid back down, the sharp edge of a rock drawing blood from her thigh. Using the rock as a footfall, she moved to kick herself up just as a hand locked around her ankle. Largest had left his horse and grabbed her. She shrieked and let her body fall, simultaneously yanking her ankle from his grip and seizing his outstretched arm with both hands. She bit hard into the salty flesh of his forearm, tasting blood and scratching at his face when he tried to pull her off. A crushing blow to her back sent her spinning. Smallest stood gripping the stick, ready to club her again. Largest scrambled away. Tall Father spoke from his horse and the girl answered with her own barks and growls, showing them her bloody teeth. In the pause that followed, she backed up, raised her head, and howled for help until she ran out of breath.
With a hand clamped over his forearm, Largest removed a looping length of yellow from where he had sat on the horse. It looked like a snake woven from dried grass. He traded it for the stick, which he pointed at her, while Smallest started uncoiling the loops. Tall Father climbed down from his horse and held something out. Beneath his scent, which struck her as strong and sour but vaguely familiar, the girl smelled meat. He slowly bent and tossed it in front of her. Solid and brown instead of raw and red, it smelled like deer but was neither fresh nor rotten. Saliva rose in the girl’s mouth. She reached out to touch it, and just as her fingers registered surprise at finding the meat so hard and dry, a loop flew toward her. She burst up from her crouch, the loop falling over her body until Smallest pulled it tight around her thighs. When she howled this time, a snarl sent the horses skittering as Father bounded up from behind them, baring his sharp teeth.
The girl followed the wolf’s lead and leapt at Smallest with a proud growl, clawing and drawing blood with her jagged nails. She pressed and pushed him back, readying to lunge for his throat, when a second deafening blast echoed in the canyon. The girl saw how the smoking stick had pushed Largest back. Father lay bleeding into the dusty earth. In the moment of shock in which the girl tried to comprehend the wolf’s sudden stillness, the tangy sweetness in the air made her sneeze and the tall ones took her down, pressing her face to the ground. One clamped her feet together while another jerked her hands behind her back. She went limp as the coils tightened around her ankles and wrists. Swallowing the howl welling inside her, she silently willed the pack to stay away, relieved at least that she had not led the tall ones to the den. Tall Father bent over her, holding out the dry deer meat. The smell pulled at her tight stomach, but the girl did not move or open her mouth when he touched the meat to her lips.
“Comé,” he said. He lifted the meat and tore off a piece with his teeth, making a satisfied sound as he chewed and swallowed. When she refused it again, he went to his horse and returned with a bag that resembled deer stomach. “Bebé,” he said. He tipped it, and though they were so far from the river, with the ground so dry, warm water dripped onto the girl’s lips. “Agua,” he said. She was too thirsty to resist, and Tall Father made satisfied sounds as she drank. When she refused the meat again, he returned to his horse, removed a dusty object that unrolled into a large red covering, and draped it over her body. The girl squirmed and kicked, recoiling impossibly wherever it touched her skin. The tall ones fell on her again with force, staying clear of her snapping jaws. With her wrists and ankles bound, she could not stop them from wrapping her up. The covering smelled of horse, earth, and woodsmoke.
When they lifted her atop Tall Father’s horse, the girl did not resist. Her body hung limp as she stared down at the dusty ground so far below. The horse possessed immense power, its muscles rippling in a sweaty sheen, the hairs of its brown coat short and stiff. She saw Father’s still body out of the corner of her eye but did not look at it. The horse casually defecated where it stood, the excrement enormous and pungent enough to block out every other smell. Tall Father swung up behind her. As the others climbed on their horses, he kicked his heels with a word and the ground suddenly bounced.
The girl closed her eyes against the dizziness of moving so fast from so high up, and she did not open them until a new voice called out. The horse slowed with a word from Tall Father. They had come to one of the strange, forbidden places where tall ones had stripped and stacked trees to make enormous dens. She had seen others like this from a safe distance, so big the tall ones did not even bend to enter. Beneath the stifling red covering, the girl’s ankles and wrists pulsed against their bindings, her arms cramped and fingers numb. When she tried to wriggle off the horse, Tall Father held her firmly but spoke in a soft voice. In contrast came the shrieking of a young one, a smaller version with the same black hair, running over on two skinny legs to see what Tall Father had brought. Like the yipping of a pup, Young One’s words came high-pitched and quick.
Sudden barking spurred the girl to swing her head with hope, but this little female squatting to urinate was a stranger and solid brown, even down to her eyes, with a smattering of grey around her muzzle. She hurried over on legs much shorter than any wolf, an aging brown runt without a pack. Barking at the girl, who barked back louder, Brown Runt crouched to leap but received a kick from Smallest. The pitiful animal backed away with a growl, which the girl answered, showing her teeth to both Brown Runt and Young One, who had run up to look at her. The girl followed his wide, brown eyes as he silently moved behind Largest. By size he and the girl could have been littermates.
Tall Father climbed down from the horse and lowered the girl by the shoulders while Largest took her ankles. She kicked and squirmed, swinging her head with snapping teeth as they hurried her toward the huge den of stacked trees. Smallest grabbed a handful of her knotted hair to steady her head. At the entrance they passed a tall one with long black hair who scrambled back into the darkness with a wailing newborn in her arms. Tall Mother. The baby’s shrill cries clashed with the girl’s unleashed howling, and when the blue sky disappeared as she was carried into their den, the girl relieved herself inside the covering, warm urine splashing across her thrashing legs. Without the open sky to absorb them, her frantic howls bounced back from the logs until the hot, stale air sucked her breath away. When she thought they must run out of space, the tall ones carried her into another chamber, a den within a den. Her eyes went immediately to an opening in the wall where sunlight and fresh air poured in. Smallest hurried out as Tall Father and Largest lowered her to the ground, which was not the ground but the soft cinnamon pelt of a wolf, and this made the girl scream, not the smooth harmonic call of the wolf but a last, jagged tearing of something deep inside. Tall Father held the girl firmly but spoke softly, hushing her even as he held her down.
The girl closed her eyes with a whimper as her body, slick with sweat and urine, went limp beneath the covering. She smelled death on the wolf pelt below her and listened to goats bleating outside. Brown Runt paced and growled under the opening until a grunt signaled that she had been kicked. Three quick strikes against the outside of the den made the girl look up to see the opening now blocked by a wooden barrier, light filtering through two horizontal cracks, each as wide as her thumb. Three more loud strikes followed, then Tall Father spoke loudly and Tall Mother entered, the newborn wailing in the other chamber. Tall Mother held a white covering in one hand and what looked like a round rock in the other. She set down the rock, hollowed out and holding water, which the girl leaned forward to lap up. When she paused, Tall Father and Largest quickly stood the girl up and spun her out of the red covering. Tall Mother sucked in her breath, raising a hand to her mouth and then flashing it from forehead to chest and across both shoulders. She dropped the white covering and hurried out of the chamber. Tall Father flashed something silver that released the coils around the girl’s ankles and wrists, but before she could lash out with her tingling hands and feet, he and Largest followed Tall Mother out of the chamber. The entrance closed with a bang and a click.
The girl backed into the darkest corner, away from the wolf pelt to hard-packed earth. The scent of tall ones clung to her skin and she licked herself clean where she could reach, missing the help of the wolves. They would have returned to the den site without Father, scattered and stunned. The waiting pups would go hungry until Mother or First Hunter brought the pack together by leading a hunt, hopefully as soon as the coming night. The girl rose uncertainly to her feet and pushed against the logs but found them solid as an underground den. Through the bottom crack, she saw the dust of the day settling against half-lit hills, a faint star shimmering in the lavender sky. Goats and horses grazed within their own dens of stripped, horizontal trees, though these logs had been stacked alternating and without a top, leaving the animals visible. The girl could not understand why the tall ones did not kill the goats and eat them. She could not guess what they had in mind for her.
Dropping to all fours, she scrambled throughout the chamber, vainly pushing against logs and scratching at the earth. The coverings on two soft pads smelled so strongly of tall ones that she knew they must be for sleeping. Following her nose and fingers along the sides of the den, as well as the few pieces of wood fashioned into raised surfaces, she found no food or means of escape. Something on one of the surfaces caught her eye. It was the size and shape of a river rock but very flat and as clear as still water. She reached out to touch it, amazed to see how perfectly it reflected the image of her hand. Carrying it to the light of the opening, she lifted it to her face and gasped. Her eyes were blue like the sky in the middle of the day. She pushed the strange object through the opening. Brown Runt barked. The girl had never seen eyes like that.
Movement above the opening made her freeze. A lizard had crawled inside for the night. The girl struck with the speed of a snake, trapping the brown lizard by the tail. It squirmed and spun, harmlessly biting her thumb. She seized its head in her fingers, snapped it off with a twist and let it fall, then did the same with each leg. She rubbed the lizard’s blood over the rough skin along its back, tore off the twitching tail, and swallowed the plump body in a gulp. After defecating on one of the sleeping pads, the girl skirted the wolf pelt and sniffed around the blocked access to the other chamber. She listened to the tall ones and wondered what they thought of her eyes. When the lizard tail stopped twitching, she popped it in her mouth and lapped up most of the remaining water. A shadow appeared outside, Young One silently watching her. The girl growled and returned to the darkest corner, circling twice before curling into a ball with her forehead pressed to her knees. Exhaustion pulled her into a restless sleep.
Distant howling startled her awake. The room had darkened. The girl uncurled her body and heard it again: faintly, far in the distance, the howling of wolves. She listened to the call fade and leapt up to the opening with a backside shake. Goats bleated and jostled within their log den. A horse whinny triggered a quick pounding of hooves before all went silent beneath the cricket song. When she heard them again she knew the howl, had heard it most recently when a pup had gone missing. Her pack was calling her.
Their long song faded so dimly in the distance that Brown Runt did not hear it. The girl dropped from the opening to distract herself from the overwhelming urge to reply, shaking her backside and looping around the chamber. Through the crack in the opening came another distant howl, this one barely audible below the rising chorus of crickets. The wolves were moving in the wrong direction, and the girl imagined herself among them, looking for a missing packmate. She imagined moving with them through the night, waiting and hoping for an answer even as she struggled not to lose them in the darkness. The darkness gave her pause, hope stirring in her belly as she opened her eyes to the night. She had never seen another tall one after dark. The night belonged to the wolves.
With a backside shake, the girl settled on her haunches, cupped her hands around her mouth, closed her eyes as she drew in breath, and aimed a howl through the opening loud enough to reach the stars. Brown Runt burst into barking but the girl overpowered her. Tall Father appeared outside in the murk. “No!” he yelled, shaking his head. He shushed with his mouth and kicked Brown Runt when she barked. The girl heard the pack answer, still very faint in the distance. Tall Father cocked his head and listened, then spun on the girl. “No!” he yelled. He ran away shouting, and Brown Runt followed him. The pack howl faded and the girl replied, relieved to let everything pour out. She sang her loneliness in three long calls, each shifting to a lower pitch halfway through. “No!” screamed Tall Father, now aiming a stick at her. She dropped and tucked into the near corner, howling again. Tall Father growled and stomped away. The girl set her eyes on the blocked access between chambers. If it opened she would charge, slashing and biting and not stopping until she was safely under the stars. In the distance, the night had fallen silent. The pack was on the move.
The girl returned to the opening and saw Tall Father and the others carrying fire. She ducked away but immediately returned, eyes drawn to the flames. The wolves howled from much closer. At a shout from Tall Father, Smallest ran with a burning stick that he planted at the far corner of the goat den. Goats ran bleating to the opposite corner, which set off Brown Runt and the horses. The girl howled and the wolves answered from nearby, a unified chorus from separate points surrounding her. Knowing they would probe for weakness next, the girl fell silent as she considered her lowly status among the tall ones, their scent fouling her skin as she stood in their den on stiff, unsteady legs. She dropped to all fours and listened to the goats and horses bleat and neigh in their panic. Brown Runt barked stridently, her old voice raspy and suddenly piercing as she squealed. An aggressive frenzy of guttural snarls quickly ended in silence. The girl edged back. A blast like a lightning strike sent her scrambling to the near corner.
Tall Mother screamed from her den chamber, the baby wailing. Wood cracked where a terrified horse broke through its den and triggered a stampede. The girl returned to the opening and watched in silence as the wolves, also silent, streaked in and out of the firelight. Two of them chased the horses, one leapt into the goat den, and another passed within arm’s reach of Largest, who fumbled his stick and backed away when it fell near the fire. Young One suddenly appeared in front of the girl, raising a stick. Dropping to the near corner, she heard scraping beneath the blocked opening, followed by a creak of wood and a snap as the barrier fell away. Young One reached in with his fingers extended. The girl growled. He waved his fingers and she hesitated, inching toward the back corner. Another blast triggered a wolf yelp, followed by quick, piercing whines of pain. The girl ran forward and gave her hand to Young One, who had taken a step back at her sudden approach. Their hands locked perfectly, both clammy with sweat, and she let her arm be guided through the opening, using her free hand and feet to climb the side of the den until she tumbled into the night.
The cool air sent a shiver over her sweaty body as she scrambled up to all fours and turned to Young One, who had picked up the stick. In the firelight, she noticed it was different than the others, gleaming along its entire length, curved at one end and flat on the other. He held it up to ward off an attack. The girl wagged her backside and turned away, following the whine to a wolf hobbling toward darkness. First Hunter spun and bared his teeth at her approach, tilting his head where blood marked a missing ear. She held her position for several long moments as he sniffed her scent. Smoke tainted the air, burning wood mixed with the tangy sweetness that once again made her sneeze. First Hunter finally twitched his tail. The girl shook her backside as Youngest Hunter materialized out of the darkness. At the sound of a click, the girl spun to see Tall Father aiming his stick at them. She kicked back against the wolves, urging them to leave, but one took a friendly nip at her heel. Spinning with a growl, she saw Youngest Hunter poised to play, front legs splayed with his haunch in the air. The girl rose to her feet, towering over the wolves. She squinted her eyes and showed them her teeth, barking a strange noise that sounded like, “No!” They tensed, growling, and she considered kicking them. Instead she growled louder, reaching down with both hands and pushing Youngest Hunter away. He lowered his tail and followed First Hunter into the darkness.
Without looking at Tall Father, the girl returned to all fours and hurried toward the goat den, where a still figure had caught her eye. As she slid through the lowest gap between the logs, the bleating goats scampered away and left a young kid lying where it died. The girl smelled no blood, nor did she feel any as she ran her fingers over its coat. Fear had killed it. She grabbed the goat’s hind legs, dragged it to the edge of the den, slid back out, and dragged it over the bottom log. As she picked up the body, she turned and saw Tall Father and the others watching her, sticks held loosely in their hands. Young One stood beside them, his hands empty. From inside the den came the wail of the baby. A chorus of howls rose behind her. The girl adjusted the body in her arms and turned to run off into the darkness. The little goat was heavy, and she would have to carry it far, but the pups would eat well for days.