Hard leather moccasins pressed into the powder, and the slender, serpentine form of a white-faced canine weaved in and out of the hunter’s path, following a trail that led through the underbrush and into the virgin forest that stood domineering over snow. The trail was the thick, wide, overbearing scent of game that burned the hound’s nostrils — and the smell was familiar to him. Familiar, yet with an unmistakable mask of wild fierceness — the strong, untame odor that could only be of wolves.
The hunter struggled to follow with the agile, brown-speckled dog on flat ground — let alone on the eastern slopes that led deep into the heart of a harsh valley. And so he lost control of his hound — and no amount of shrill whistling managed to call the dog back to his master.
In those days, a hunting dog was property. Valuable property, at that — a hunter’s livelihood hinged on a strong, well-bred pedigree, and the village relied on the hunter for sustenance, especially in the biting winter when the herds thinned, and the fearsome nations in the far-south waged their wars over precious stones like jade and nephrite, and could not trade their grain to the northern nomads that roamed an untilled earth and followed elk and antelope across frozen icescapes. And so it followed in a sort of cruel irony, that the hunter now tracked his own — through a frigid gorge, no less.
The sun was just beginning to sink below the ice-peaked mountains in the west, and the tangerine sunlight cut through the gaps in the evergreens, and illuminated the facing incline in a golden shimmer that contrasted sharply with the hard-white snow.
The ambience was one of silence, eerily quiet, only the soft crying of blackbirds in the treetops. But now, as dusk fell, the bird’s songs trailed off, and yet still, he could not hear the soft sound of padded feet packing snow, nor the high-pitched bark reverberating on the walls of the ravine. Only in the distance could he hear the droning of howls, and the chaotic snarls of a hunting pack.
It was unlikely, the hunter thought, that the wolves would move past slopes of the valley, because his people had encampments along the perimeter of it, and he knew the wolves feared his people. So he kept trudging deeper into the wilderness, tracing the path of an ancient river that carved gap millennia before humans had ever set foot in that territory. But the wolves — the wolves had been there, and their ancestors drank the cool water at the banks of the stream, and stalked the megafauna in the woods, without fear of the strange, naked, bipedal animals that chased them with stone-tipped spears, and trapped them with leaf-covered pits, and wore their skins and carved their bones. In that age they roamed wildly, and their packs roamed freely, and the elk and the lynx and the muskrat were plentiful. But in generations-past, Man came, with his traitorous bastard-wolf, and encroached on their territory and hunted until the elk left and the lone, packless coyote came.
And now there was a lone hunter, deep in foreign dominion, without his bastard, and the wolves watched him cautiously from the ridge, obscured by the thick forest that filled the valley. It was not unlike humans to use tactics like this to lure the pack into a corner they could not back out of, and they would be killed, their den raided, and their pups murdered. But sometimes, when the moon was but a thin, grey sliver and the night was inky black, they could manage to fell one of the strange beasts, and the hunt would halt, and the old men would sings songs and spread herbs over the corpse.
The hunter did not notice that the howling had stopped.
As he continued his journey, he felt his legs and arms grow heavy with fatigue, and his breath get slower and heavier, and he pulled his pelt closer to his body. It was night now, and he was without the warm communal fires of his tribe’s camp, and the frozen air nipped at him through his raw leather tunic. Yet still he he marched through the soft snow, until he reached the mouth of a huge clearing, and could march no more.
And as he collapsed onto his knees, the wolves descended into the clearing, and grouped together along the edge and in the shadows. Only their eyes could be seen as they reflected what little moonlight pierced through the clouds.
And then, a familiar form stepped away from the pack. White-faced, with a brown-speckled coat that covered the back of the slender creature. Now he growled at him, his ears back, his head low. The fur stood straight behind his neck, and the flesh around his snout bunched up, and he presented his long pale teeth.
Trace Fleeman Garcia is a performance poet, writer, and community organizer from Tulare, California.