Two young gray wolf pups fumbled over rocks before triumphantly rising to the peak of their den. The verdant mossy overhang of their early childhood had been conquered, for they, after many failed attempts over weeks, had finally reached the top to survey the land around them. Their imprisonment to den-musk and darkness was over, and all their dreams of “the outside” were now fully realized: green, lazy forests stretched out all around their quiet meadow den underneath a sky of ocean.
For two, wide-eyed pups, this was what they had been waiting for— a world no longer shrouded in blackness, cramped by mud walls or overwhelmed by the smell of feces and milk, but a world bursting with color (to the best that wolf-eyes could detect), where a wolf’s only confines were the highest peaks and the lowest valleys, and one where a vast array of scents were carried, both fair and foul, for a wolf to delight or disgust itself with.
This was a world a wolf could not outgrow.
At the sight of this bountiful land, one pup could not restrain his excitement, and let out a yip. The male, earthier, deeper in color than his sibling, had arrived at the crowning rock and gazed out onto the land. His pale sister, fur flecked with brown hues amidst a soft gray, whined as her paws flailed, just short of a grip. Both of their claws were mere stubs, and though new, they would serve little purpose here. Strength prevailed, and in the end, the weaker sister could not summon what was needed to succeed. Her weighty brother towered over her. She gave up. She would have to make do sitting aside him, just underneath the rock he proudly perched upon.
He howled once, enjoying the results of his labor. Politely, his sister below smiled, but did not join in. The silence that ensued caught the attention of the male, who decided to change the subject to ease his sister’s feelings of insufficiency.
“Feels good to be out, doesn’t it, Imana?” he offered.
“It does,” she replied, her blue eyes gently brightening. Suddenly, they pooled with worry, and a whisper caught her brother’s ears. “Will Mom be okay with us being out like this, though?”
Imana passed a glance at her brother above. He was clearly unmoved, and continued his stare into the beyond. She cocked her head, straining her eyes in an effort to see the object of his attention. What is he so fixated on? How he could remain so unconcerned by the trouble they could find themselves in was incomprehensible to Imana.
But her brother was always the reckless one of the two— this she knew, and knew well from their days spent in the den. He would be the first to greet their mother, running into her headfirst while narrowly avoiding being stepped on. There were times he would “accidentally” fall on Imana, who was much smaller than him and consequently easily suffocated. She swore he did it on purpose, though he said he never meant to. He was always pushing the limits. With their newfound taste of freedom, Imana figured this unbecoming trait of his would only grow worse.
The thought of an angry mother was enough to make her cringe, but the prospect of her father catching them would spur her to run away. But he was always so slow to get back from hunts, given that he walked with an incurable limp. She remembered the stories her mother used to tell swooning of how her father, in his younger days, once swaggered with impressive poise. His steady, confident gait drew their mother to him instantly, and they paired. Curiosity bubbled inside of Imana, and she wondered if her mother still found him attractive.
But she decided it wasn’t any of her business. Imana wagered she and her brother would be dealing with her, anyway. She tried to contain her anxiety, but struggled, fighting the urge to return to the den.
Wanting to remain collected in front of her brother, she replied coolly, “I hope we don’t have to go back in there again.”
Imana heard him sigh. He then muttered, “I don’t think our den days are over yet.”
She reluctantly agreed and left her brother to silence. She felt so new, so small in this great, perilous land of the unfamiliar. Wild with imagination, Imana wondered if she, once away from the den, would find herself in a place so confining ever again. She shivered.
What were those big ‘dens’ Mom always talked about?
As she searched for the word, she joined her brother in surveying the landscape, hoping something would remind her. But as the young female breathed in the sweet air, she became distracted by pine sap and budding flowers. Everything at this point in the season either seeped from foliage or rose from the ground, breaking away from seedling roots, to join the world. The pups were a part of this same cycle of flowering life. But they would not be able to join the world fully just yet.
A stern voice came from below. “What are you two doing?”
Imana startled with a yelp and stared wide-eyed at the brown figure that loomed below. Her eyes met with a maternal, expectant gaze. A second whimper escaped Imana’s lips. They had been caught. She couldn’t speak.
“Getting some fresh air,” her brother answered for her. Imana glanced over at him in awe. He hadn’t flinched at their mother’s arrival. His voice did not quiver. Compared to him, she looked cowardly. She had been choked like a hare.
“Get back in the den.” Her mother ignored the subtle defiance of her son.
“Do we have to?” he questioned, testing her. Her fiery hazel eyes, deadlocked with his, were almost at his level— the crest of the den, though a small mountain for the likes of pups, was easily accessible by an upright adult. Imana flushed at her brother’s cockiness. This is nothing for her. Patiently, their mother sat below them, but Imana knew her patience would run thin. Instead, the pups’ mother mercifully offered a compromise.
“If you do, I’ll tell you a story.”
Both pups yipped gleefully, and started to carefully clamber down the rocky overcrop of the den. The mother grinned, wagging her tail. As Imana planted her last paw on the ground, welcoming solid earth, curiosity struck her again, and this time she thought to ask of the big dens.
“What were those big dens you talked about, Mom?”
“They’re called caves,” she muttered. “And if you don’t do as I say, I might just leave you in one.”
Imana squealed with horror, as her brother playfully cuffed her ear. “Nah,” he replied. “Mom’s too soft—“
“And your father isn’t?” she retorted. Her brother grew hot with silence. Imana found it difficult to stifle a laugh. She couldn’t contain it, and soon the little family burst into laughter. The pups bayed excitedly, licking their mother. She laughed at them, joined in their banter and roused them for awhile, before ducking inside.
Obediently, Imana followed, sensing no need to create more quarrels. The soothing den still appealed to her innate need as a pup to be comforted. As she entered, she breathed in the den’s cool air in relief.
Behind her, she looked for her brother. But he had not joined them.
“Anpu!” her mother called, realizing his mischief.
The absent dark figure of Imana’s brother did not heed their mother’s cries. At last, the mother’s patience ran thin. She shoved past Imana, ducked under the den overhang once more and out into the light. A loud wail suddenly came from the den entrance, and for a moment Imana wondered if Anpu was hurt. Serves him right, she thought. But then her mother came in, her mouth firmly clasped on Anpu’s nape as she towed him into the den. A wry grin stole across his face, his eyes flitting back at Imana in satisfaction. There were no clear injuries on him. Imana rolled her eyes. He had always been dramatic.
“I’m not hauling you two inside just to be a nagging mother,” the earthy female began. “I’m all for playing and exploring the outdoors— when I’m around.” Her eyes trailed, falling on Imana’s, and lastly on Anpu’s, her gaze resting on him for awhile. Though Imana expected a scoff, he gave no sound.
“But today is different. Now,” she began, “I don’t expect you two to be able to smell it that well, given your age. But there is a fire, not far from here.”
“Will we be okay?” Anpu asked. “And where’s Dad?”
Their mother nodded. “It’s a perfect time to tell you the story I wanted to tell. And yes, we’ll be fine. Dad is ‘catching up,’” she said, rolling her eyes. “I’ll kill him if he’s looking at another—“
Stopping abruptly, she sighed. “You know him— he’s just so slow. He’ll probably miss the entire damn story.”