We had always kept our distance from the two-legs — they were loud, they stank (usually of fear), and they couldn’t communicate. But the prey had been hard to find for a few days, and we were hungry, as were our pups. My mate’s stomach was growling as loudly as I’d ever heard him when he had to warn away coyotes.
So when the two-legs had quieted down, well after dark, we followed our noses to the scent of food.
Although there was no moon, the faint glimmer of starlight coupled with the orange glow from the fire help us find fish spines on a rock, and crumbs of something yeasty on the beaten ground by the hot place. Strange clear round things, too, like small bones that had been cleaned of their marrow. I sniffed one and sneezed at its oddly acrid scent, like broken mushrooms after a rain. Nothing edible there. While my mate licked hopefully at the fish spines, I padded over to a sack that smelled promisingly of food. There was a small hole in it that my claw was able to rip open just a little bigger, letting slimy guts spill out. Not particularly appetizing, but better than nothing.
As I was pulling the innards further out, a wind rose that blew the bag away from me. It tumbled end over end toward the strange cave where the two-legs were sleeping. I snapped up the morsel I’d taken and followed the rest, easily fastening my teeth around its neck to drag it away.
The two-legs inside must have heard me, or maybe it had to mark its territory. Suddenly the big leaf moved aside and its ugly face was there, its eyes staring into mine over its flat snout. We both froze. I’d never been this close to one of them before. I let my hackles rise and growled in warning, advising it to keep its distance. I thought I could scent that it was a male, but there was female odour as well. I could smell yeast here, too, very strong, and that odd smell like mashed fungus. I wasn’t about to get closer to find out more, but then I heard a sound in the cave. Maybe it moved, or something else, but I didn’t like it. I let my teeth show, growling louder, and heard my mate answer in kind.
After too many rapid heart-beats to count, I decided to take a chance on moving back. I put a paw on my prize, intending to drag it away also by snagging it with my nail. But there was a second sack there, something else next to the first I had chased, and it was heavy. The two-legs said something loud, and reached out quickly to stop me. I snarled, snapping a stronger warning.
The stupid two-legs gripped my prize and yanked it back. I got close to its stinking face, fighting for what was mine. My mate responded, approaching, and then when the two-legs looked away, I seized my chance to sink my teeth into its forelimb. I expected it to cry out, but it did something else: it bit me back, fastening its jaws on the tender skin of my ear. Instead of the two-legs yelping, I heard my voice in the pain. Surprised and hurt, I spat out its dirty tasting body and scrambled away, leaving my prize — and my pride — in the dirt.
My mate found me later, attempting to lick my wound, but my tongue wouldn’t quite reach. He obliged by cleansing it as best he could. Every lave of his tongue on my hurt reminded me of the shocking strength of the two-legs jaws trying to rip my flesh from my bones. I knew I would never go near their kind again, no matter how hungry I might feel.
The bites took a long time to heal. Flies swarmed over my hurt ear, where pain rumbled like thunder. But by the time the lesser light was rising nearly full and round in each evening sky, it pained me not at all. I felt wonderfully energetic and playful, approaching my mate for penetration when he didn’t expect and increasing my range of hunting until I was angering our neighbouring families. I tumbled and played with our litter until they were worn out and slept where they fell. I couldn’t help it, though; it felt like the glow of thousands suns under my skin, powering my muscles and pushing me to run as fast as I could. I had to run, because then, when I stopped, I would be able to do the other thing that I couldn’t resist, and that I knew my mate would not understand.
Grasping a firm twig in my maw, i traced shapes in a space of dirt I cleared with my tail. A winding path, like the river carving through the valley. Lines crossing each other and blending downward into one thick reach, like the veins on a leaf or the tall trees that rose about me. The unnatural hump that had been the two-legs’ cave. My jaw made these images clumsily, and I found that I could hook my forepaw around the tip of the tool, and by moving it carefully and slowly, I could do it better.
It disturbed me, these moments, and I would eventually rise shuddering, uncertain of the reason or the purpose behind these things.
It was when the lesser light rose in its fullest that I learned the truth of the two-legs’ curse on me.
The pups, my mate, and I had settled in for the night. I had brought home a fat rabbit and our bellies were full. But as they snored in our den, the white light in the forest beckoned me. I wanted to stay warm and safe, listening to my family breathing, but the desire to go crawled on my fur like a thousand insects. There was no comfort in remaining. I silently and swiftly ran away up the mountain, seeking a private place in which to howl my discomfort away.
And then I stumbled.
I fell, as I ran. Nothing had ever happened to me like that, at least not since I had been a pup. I got up to run again, and my forelegs wouldn’t grip as they had done before. I dragged myself, whining, my bones burning, to a clear flat place on a rock, and lifted my nose to the sky.
But my nose no longer angled before my eyes, jutting proudly before my face. I shook my head, trying to rid myself of the painful tingling, as the black tip shrank away and my teeth and tongue with it. I raised a forepaw, panicking, confused, and scrambled back as I saw the hairless limb waving in the space where my nose had been. The limb ended not in my fuzzy paw, but in something flattened and naked, my knuckles stretched and unfamiliar. My bladder released in my fright, and although my skin wrinkled for hackles, cold air whisked across my neck where the raised fur should have been. A strange sound ululated from my throat — neither a bark, nor a whine, but a low keening wail. I fell back, and in my panic, I recognized an absence of pain where I ought to have jammed the bone of my tail. I twisted around to see, and to my horror, my beautiful thick tail was gone, swallowed into a strange smooth round surface. I tumbled over and over, crying out as the mountain rock and brush left stinging scratches on my suddenly tender skin. When I finally skidded to a stop in a cradle of stone, the light of the moon revealed my new body and I wept.
How would my children feed from me, with only two bulbous mammary glands where six had been? And how could my mate accept me, without my fur? I curled forward, protecting the underbelly which had grown long and felt so hollow. When I tried to stand, my back legs were ungainly and awkward, hitting the ground in two places, bending at an unnatural angle. And I was cold, so cold. I missed the warmth of my family, our bodies piled together in the heat of our den. Something leaked onto my face and ran from my nose, and I knew I must be dying. Wolves did not leak in this way. I was sick and I would not be able to return to my home.
The night wore on. I managed to find grips on the rock, moving slowly as I grew accustomed to myself. The freezing wind tore my breath from me. My body ached and shivered. The fur which had been left to me was long on my head, shorter than a newborn kit’s on my legs, matted patches between my legs and under my forearms — not nearly adequate for protection. If I was now a two-legs (for that certainly seemed to be the truth), I understood better their reason for building hot places when they lived in their strange caves. Why their dens were filled with bedding like a bird’s. Naked, they could not survive.
So when I saw a two-leg place with a fire, I had to swallow my revulsion and panic in order to get close enough to be warmed.
As before, the beings were gone. I could not smell them this time, or smell any food right away. The heat drew me in. There was a pelt by the fire, something scratchy and the colour of blood, left hanging on a strange bush. My teeth were unable to pull it over me, but as I had done with the stick in the dirt, I was able to use my forepaws to stretch the pelt onto my body. Between the pelt and the fire, I was soon able to stop shivering.
I do not remember falling asleep, but it must have been true, because a touch on my shoulder woke me. Again, I tried to growl, but a high-pitched noise hummed from my throat instead. Two-legs were looking at me, making soft sounds. I snapped my teeth, moving backward away from their outstretched limbs. Behind them, the sky was still dark. I felt dirt under my nails as I clawed the ground. I looked down at the marks these long knuckles could make, and felt calmer. I made furrows, digging, and traced the spiral of a cut tree stump, while the two-legs made more noises.
The shock of understanding — it exploded in my chest, when one of them made a sound I could interpret: “Water.”
I looked up at a hollowed bone, filled with clear water. “Aa-der,” I intoned, and crawled forward, hanging my tongue out. It was difficult to lap the drink into my mouth. I tensed at the feeling of the bone touching my teeth, but when the water poured in, I found it easier to swallow. When the two-legs took the bone away, I whimpered. I watched as more water was poured into it from a sack, and then it was offered to me again, this time with a soft touch on my forepaw which made me flinch back.
The smaller two-legs was holding a bone, too. I watched as it curled its ugly knuckles around the bone and raised the liquid to its mouth. Astounded, I realized that this was something I could do, too. I dropped the bone and spilled the water with my first few attempts, but I had always learned things quickly. I found that I could drink like a two-legs, after all.
“Who?,” they kept saying to me. “Who?” Like monstrous owls changed by sorcery into poor mockeries of the birds they had once been.
“Where?” It sounded like a growl, but wasn’t. The noises were intelligible, but I did not know their language. “Hurt,” they said, but what did it mean?
They gave me food, hard like tree bark but tasting of berries and wheat. They built the fire, placing more sticks on it, so that I would not be cold. These were not the terrifying two-legs of my nightmares.
So when the sky brightened and I shuddered back into my normal form, perhaps their screams were also to be understood. As soon as my four legs were under me, my tail brushing the air once more, I ran from them as fast as I could, retracing my path back to home. Far better that I had frightened those who had bitten me, changed me, than my own offspring and pack.