Hunger throbbed between his eyes and echoed in his hollows. He was uneasy in his hide. Everything was emptiness and nothing changed. There were no trees. No earth, no sky, no food. No dirt to paw, no one to sight his scat, nowhere to run.
The walls were wrong. They were not made of bark, or stone, or water. Empty of scent, they did not hold the bitter burn of urine, the musk of others, the stench of death. Their surfaces were furry and moss-like, colored the same dark hue as the rounded innards that spilled out of guts when he fed, when he fed.
Sleep came in jagged spurts. There was no leaping, no hunting, no wrestling. There were only the walls that he banged against until bruised. When he tired, he rubbed against them, wearing away the furry patterns in patches. He clawed them until they peeled, curling like a thin, shedding bark.
A whisper of feathers, a flapping of wings. He cocked his head. A blur of movement caused his fur to bristle. He crouched and lunged. His jaws had closed around the feathered before he knew what he was attacking.
Its screeching in his ears; heat against his tongue; the hint of blood: food. The room buzzed, flashing—dark, light, dark, then light again. Burning entered his paws. His body spasmed and he collapsed to the floor. He stretched toward the food, his tongue aching with want. He tried to scramble forward, but his muscles would not move. Blood seeped through feathers. The scent bloomed in his nostrils. He was flooded with darkness.
The emptiness of the room rippled through him. He shouldered the walls, but nothing changed. He busied himself circling the room, pausing each time he crossed the place where the pain had felled him. A trace of odor wafted up from the floor. The scent the wounded thing plunged into him, inflaming his hunger. He needed to feed.
The whisper of feathers again. He twisted into motion, his body a streak of speed. Before the room could flash—dark, light, dark, light—he lunged, severing the food’s long neck. He was rewarded with thick wetness. Blood soaked his tongue. Then pain pulsed, snatched his body from his control. He whimpered and watched the food stagger—headless and uneaten—around the room.
Sound. But he did not pounce. He waited for the flapping to settle. He watched the food waddle around, flutter its wings. It was feathered and feathered things were known. He nudged it with his snout. The warmth of its body soaking into the fur around his nose. He opened his jaws and hovered over the food, waiting. No pain. He closed them gently on the food’s body. Still the pain did not come.
He forced himself to the ground and laid there, legs puddled around his empty belly. His own sounds were magnified—the thumping of his heart, the gurgling of his stomach. He crept toward the food, hunger swelling in his chest. It ran. He sprang forward, sprawling in air. The room flashed dark, light, dark, light. His feet touched the ground and his legs seized. Before the buzzing could level him, he was in air again. He fell on top of the food. Blindly gouged and gnawed until his body went slack.
The fleshy mound was a new thing. He crept toward it. The mound did not move. He licked it. Cold seeped into his tongue. His throat contracted with distaste. But hunger loomed. He devoured.
After the mound was gone, the air undulated around him in watery waves. Everything sharp about him slouched into softness. He stopped seeking scent. He ate the cold food when it appeared, licked himself lazily, and stumbled about, dulled and diminished.
The cold food had disappeared. He loped around, sniffing at corners and swaying awkwardly. Suddenly food— warm and flapping—fell from the ceiling. Its odor invaded his nostrils. The memory of it flopping and bleeding tempted him, but desire was quickly smothered by throbbing in his joints. He skittered away. His mouth hurt with hunger, but he turned away and cowered in a corner, rubbing his paws over his ears with each flutter.
New sound. He looked past the food. The wall was sliding apart. He limped the other end of the room. The wall continued its scraping and opening. He scented the cold food and poked his head outside the room. Nothing new, nothing known. He waited to know what to do, but impulse was silent.
The aroma of the cold food burrowed into his nose. He bounded forward, sniffed at the floor, but he could not scent trees, soil, or water. He sniffed at the walls, but nothing known was there—just more mossy patterns of a wrong color. The cold food beckoned. He ran on.
The impact of paw against floor vibrated through his limbs. It triggered kinetic memories: the thrill of the hunt, the ecstasy of the pounce and the capture. His mouth grew wet. His jaws hungered to rip through flesh, to feel the crunch of fang against bone. He leapt at the cold food. Gobbled until his tongue went numb.
The new space was only a few paces wide, but endless. He woke and ran, just for the feel of it. Ignored the tenderness of his pained paws. Ran the creaking and popping out of his joints. Felt a whisper of his feral freedom lost. Ran until he scented something new in the air, something known.
He stopped short, threw his head back, and howled. A howl came echoing back. He shot forward, hurrying toward the sound. A silhouette. A scent. Another of him awaiting his arrival in the narrow space ahead.. He trotted up to her. She stood steady and calm. He sidled close; sniffed at her neck. She licked his face; pranced as he sniffed down her back.
When he had the scent of her, she yipped and took off running. He followed, keeping pace at her hip. Bodies running together—this was known. She changed course, veering into an opening. He poked his head in. A rank odor. A spear of warning. He dove into the room, growling. He hunkered down in the center of the room. Bared teeth, ears flattened, shoulders hunched.
The other of him nipped him. Shoved him toward a mound of cold food. He turned away, resumed his search. She nudged him again, pushed his snout toward the cold food. His mouth moistened, but his gut did not urge. He licked it. It had become known. He ate, cold bite by cold bite.
He sprawled, slack-limbed, the other of him backed away. She yipped and beckoned in the distance. A new scent struck him: sweet, sharp, not known. A new thing gurgled, toddling around him on shaky legs. It was fur-less and paw-less. A glistening mouth and sticky hands.
He raised his head to lick the little wrong paws. A rumble growled out behind him. The other of him—held back by two living things—strained toward him. They towered over him like small trees. Their barking was choppy, indecipherable, and they radiated the rank odder. One of the tall ones neared, pointing something dark and shiny at him. The desire to snarl was there, but he could do nothing with the urge.
The new thing wandered away, trailing a string of tiny nosies. He padded after it, craving surging through his throat. The other of him barked, loudly. The tall one bent its limbs and crouched over him. Like the new thing, it had no fur and no claws. It touched him with its wrongness, pushing him to the floor. He shrank away, too weak to fight or flee. It stretched out his tail, prodded his legs. Pushed against his belly, pressed its odd head against his chest. He shook himself as hard as he could, but he could not fling it off.
His eyes darted over to the other of him. She was struggling against the grasp of one of the tall ones. He felt his back leg lift; pressure on his soft parts. The tall one shifted to his head and cradled his jaw. Wrapped its clawless paws around his maw and forced his mouth open, touched his teeth. He gagged on that terrible scent. Stomach clenched, a hoarse hacking broke out in his throat.
The tall one released barked at each other and released them. She yipped and ran to him. Nudged him to his feet. Ran across the room and pushed her head against a dark spot on the wall. The tall ones followed. She nudged their clawless paws, until they leaned against the wall. Then she trotted back and forth between him and the wall as the tall ones pushed. The wall split under their pushing. Bright light flowed into the room. She yelped and ran into the light. He ducked his head, skittered through the putrid odor of the tall ones, and dove into the light.
Warmth. He inhaled. A crispness sear his lungs. He craned his head back and scented the known odors around him: earth, leaf, tree, food—warm food. A cacophony of images flashed through his mind: branches stirring in the wind, the undulation of a river flowing quietly, a flock of birds cutting a shadow across the sky. He lowered his head and sniffed at the dirt. He scented urine, insects, feces. The other of him leapt at him, wrapping her paws around his neck. They tumbled over. She nipped at his hide and scampered away.
He watched the flash of her haunches as she leapt into a gathering bushes. He sprang forward and plunged in after her. She buried her face in the bush heavy with fruit. Snatched a bundle of berries from its branches. Dropped them at his feet. She bit at the bush, gnashing berries between teeth. When she had swallowed, she nosed the berries toward him. He backed away. She nipped a few from his pile and gnawed. She barked, then nosed the berries forward.
Berries were not known as food, but hunger pressed at his ribs. He scooped up the the berries. Fangs pierced skin. Plant juices seeped into his mouth and swelled on his tongue. He swallowed. A loud howl tore loose from his throat without him commanding it to.
The other of him bit his shoulder and ran off. He licked his chops and followed. He ran beneath leafy overhangs and jumped over fallen trees. Foliage brushed his sides. His fur tingled. He lost himself in the flash of color around him. Then a yelp. A screech. He slowed. She sat licking her paws, a fresh kill splayed in the dirt near a tree. She bowed and clamped a warm limb in her mouth. Severed it from the body. Scent exploded in his skull. He bit into its side. Reveled in the resistance, then release of hide. Blood swelled in his mouth. He tumbled into the gorging.
When the warm food’s body was nothing more than head and paws, hide and bones, they lay in the dirt, heads lolling. Sleep suffocated them in a sudden embrace.
He followed her scent into air that grew cool and thick. The land underfoot sloped downward. The earth grew soft and moist beneath him. He heard the other of him crash into water. Saw her head and shoulders cutting across a wide rippling. He dove in after.
Water soaked his fur as he paddled. Dunked his head every few strokes, washed away the remains of cold-food haze. The other of him emerged, dripping, on the other side. She climbed onto the rocky bank and shook herself. She disappeared behind a great stream of water. He paddled harder, fought the churning of the water to scramble up the rocks. He shook the water off his fur, sniffed the ground for her scent.
The smell of her led him to a small dry space behind the falling water. He stepped into darkness. The slamming of the water echoed against the walls of the cave. Its pounding vibrated his bones. The other of him sat licking moisture from fur. He loped toward her, then froze. He remembered other walls, mossy walls that triggered endless circling with no escape. Outside was open space, outside was the maze of trees, the shelter of leaves. He scrambled toward light.
She was on him before he could exit. She nuzzled his cheeks and licked across his forehead. The ghost of pain daggered around inside him. He barked and raised his shoulders. She yipped softly and licked behind his ears. The pull of her tongue soothed him. He yawned and fell into a heap at her feet.
His fears surrendered, he turned to groom her. He licked her face and belly. Moisture collected on his tongue. He nipped across her shoulders and down her back. At her tail, her scent blossomed, blocking sight and sound, spurring the soft parts of him to shift. When sound returned, everything was her panting, the pounding of water, the rustling of his own breath. Then he was behind her, a flicker of memory tugging at him: his pack lying about; the leader of his pack thrusting behind another. His soft parts grew heavy and hard.
His belly tightened. He entered her, the water’s rumbling in his ears. Heat, rising from her body. Heat, rising within him. His thrusting becoming a thundering that took him over, that shook loose all forgetting. He knew then that he was lone. Splintered from his pack, he had no one to kill with, no one to punish his errors. He was alone with the other of him; alone with the furious water; alone, knowing that he had become unknown to himself.
The coupling done, they lapped sweat from each other’s fur until they could separate. She yawned. He paced the confines of the space, stepping outside to seek scent. She streaked past him, bounding back and forth on the rocks. Her barking ringing clear across the water.
When he ran beside her, he could see a tall one on the other side. The tall one was holding the wrong scent, it was holding their scent. He growled. Nudged her toward the dry space, but she dove off the rocks. He plunged in after, racing toward the moist earth on the other side.
They climbed out of the water, but the tall one had gone, trailing layers of odor, both putrid and familiar. She ran up the hill dodging bushes and branches. He skirted trees, leapt over logs and rocks. She ran to the bad place, stopping to bark at its closed walls. That rank odor rolled toward him. He halted, his chest grew tight. He needed to run.
The bad place opened. A tall one emerged from the entrance. It placed a pile of cold food on the ground and returned to darkness. Another tall one stepped into the opening, one of their own captured in its arms. She pawed the dirt and keened in uneven guttural tones. The captured one began to whine, stretching toward her, pushing against the tall one with long, gangly legs. Their cries swirled around him.
She crept closer. The tall one stepped back and motioned to the cold food. She crouched over the mound. He growled at the tall one, darted forward, and pushed her away. The tall one carried the captured one into the darkness. Its yipping faded. She lowered her head and consumed. He watched the dullness climb into her eyes. She licked his face and turned away.
She stood before the opening and lowered her front legs to the dirt. She buried her head in her paws and tucked her tail between her legs. A clawless paw emerged and grabbed the back of her neck. The shadows of the bad place consumed her. The tall ones leaned over her. Her tail, lifted; her soft parts, examined; her belly prodded before they moved away. The yipping of the young one was joined by others of their kind. He crept toward the opening to see them—the beginnings of a pack–surround her. They nipped at each other’s fur, jumped over each other’s limbs, pawed at each other’s bodies. The bad place began to close. She ran to the opening. They licked each other’s mouths and inhaled each other’s scent. The wall shoved her backward. He howled and ran.
Kiini Ibura Salaam is a writer, painter, and traveler from New Orleans, Louisiana. Her work is rooted in eroticism, speculative events, women’s perspectives, and artistic freedom. She has been widely published and anthologized in such publications as the Dark Matter, Mojo: Conjure Stories, and Colonize This! anthologies, as well as Essence, Utne Reader, and Ms. magazines. Her short story collection Ancient, Ancient—winner of the 2013 James Tiptree, Jr. award—contains sensual tales of the fantastic, the dark, and the magical. Her micro-essays on writing can be found at www.kiiniibura.com.