~≡~≡~I have howled the traditional lament for the departed that will guide Akaimaru’s spirit safely to the great beyond, and facilitate his journey as I did whilst he lived. I've watched his spirit uproot itself and depart. There is nothing left for me here so I should leave as well, but it is difficult. The memories of our love flash before me and the pain wells within; I howl a farewell forever and obey the imperious and instinctive need to run through the night, away from the pain, away from the place of his death, away...
The earth rushes beneath me and the landscape flashes by, far I have run and the sun is tinting the edges of dark night sky with blue, promising a soon forthcoming dawn. My tongue hangs and my sides heave as I suck in the brisk morning air. Regret, remorse and vengeance are not in my nature, I feel exhilarated and free once again. Free as I was before meeting Akaimaru, not that I was ever bound to Akaimaru by anything other than love. He was at least smart enough never to try to bend me to his will. As I sit upon a hill waiting for the sun to rise on the horizon, I recall our first meeting...
At the time, I ran with my father's pack. My father was different from his pack brothers: he was bigger, stronger, faster and smarter than most of the others, his fur was rust-colored and his fangs were white. I inherited most of his intellectual attributes but physically I took mostly from my mother. My black and white fur and larger than average but lithe frame came from my mother; but the fangs that I too have snow white come from my father.
We had separated an old reindeer from its herd and had frightened it into the forest of pine trees to hinder its escape. I remember how I was the closest to the prey that day, I was leading the pack for the first time, and I was only two springs old too. I had never been a match for my father when it came to a contest of raw speed and strength, for though I was bigger and faster than most of our pack I was still much smaller than he, but when it came to dodging in and out of trees he just wasn't built for it. I, on the other hand, had seemingly been born for feats of agility and stealth. So I was the closest behind the prey, all my senses reported that I would soon be making the killing bite. I saw the prey and it was within leaping distance, I knew it could neither have seen nor have heard me and yet it seemed to have sensed me. It drained the last of its reserves in a wild leap forward; I leaped after knowing that I would catch it by the throat in mid leap and take it down.
My fangs indeed sank into its jugular and then quite abruptly the earth vanished beneath us. The prey and I were falling. We had both leapt of a cliff, and as we fell the prey died, but I swear there was a wryly satisfied glint in its eye as it did. The fall seemed long, though in retrospect I suppose it wasn't, the white snow-covered earth was rushing up to meet me and when it did, I knew that I would die. I struck it with a terrific impact that jarred me from nose to tail. There was a dreadfully loud cracking sound that could only have been the sound of my bones shattering. Then white unconsciousness engulfed me.
I awoke some time later. I couldn't tell exactly how long since my internal clock seemed to have been frozen out of order, but I had other concerns. Such as, why was I half dry and chilled to the bone, why was I tightly tied up in a thick warm blanket and placed next to an ironpipe stove, why was I still alive? Still alive! I gave a garbled yelp of surprise and joy through chattering teeth. I then realized that I was in cabin and I wasn't by myself as a voice said: "I'm happy to see you're going to make it. I had a cold hard time pulling you out of that lake you know. I had to dive in myself, glad it wasn't for nothing!" I squirmed until I could the see the voice's owner. It was a spiky red-haired fresh-faced young man wrapped in a red blanket.
My father had begun his life in a family household, and had lived with many other humans after that. In the evenings of plentiful summers, when all had eaten their fill, he would tell me the tales of his tribulations among men. He taught me to read their mannerisms, body language, smells and to neither fear them nor trust them blindly. The others in the pack refused to acknowledge the wisdom in these tales, they obstinately stuck to the tradition of blind fear and disgust for all things human. True enough my father had encountered some despicable humans, but also some few that he had loved. The last of which was a miner who tore him away from an abusive slave driver, my father joined the pack shortly after the death of that miner.
I was confronted with my first human; it kept making placating noises. I had learned through my father that humans place great stock in oral communication, observing this specimen I understood what my father meant when he had told me that their oral language was completely redundant. Although I didn't know the man's language, his movements and smells spoke eloquently. The man seemed decent enough, he had after all saved my life but I didn't appreciate being tied and I wanted to know a bit more about the man's character. I shrugged out of the blanket and the coils of rope that bound me by performing an undulating movement that fully made use of my exceptional suppleness and strength. The man gawked at me, his mouth hanging open, and his eyes open wide.
I dashed at him, he only had time to stand up, which conveniently exposed his midsection as I rammed into it. I heard his breath leave his lungs in a whooshing sound as he was propelled backwards against the door that slammed open to let him fall on the snow that lay behind it. He staggered to his feet fighting to regain his breath. His body language expressed pain and surprise, but unexpectedly it also expressed amusement, admiration, playfulness and a strong fighting spirit. None of my father's stories had ever described men as fighters, he had narrated their skill at killing and hunting but never had he described men as possessing the fighting spirit and yet the man before me was like a wolf in his fighting spirit. He assumed a fighting stance, feet spread, one hand outstretched before him and the other at his shoulder... He was waiting for me.
I sprinted straight at him, a few feet away from him I swiftly sidestepped and leaped at him aiming to take him down and settle this. He didn't move, at first I thought I had caught him unawares as my teeth sank into the bandana he wore around his neck, I had begun pulling him down when I realized that something unexpected had happened. I was indeed holding the scarf between my teeth but it was tied around a log. The man had vanished. I was astonished, "What happened?" I wondered. Instinct or some primal sense warned me and I looked up. He was high above and fast falling towards me. With a flick of my neck I tossed the log upwards at him so as to distract him and leaped away, I had decided to attack just after he landed, expecting him to be vulnerable. He then demonstrated why he kept a hand at his shoulder when it flashed forth and back revealing a short sword that sliced the log in twain and was resheathed in one impossibly swift movement. I leaped forward, he landed, my paws connected flat against his upper chest and he fell backwards. Time stopped and we were both still, like statues planted in the snow. I was standing over him with my teeth at his neck yet not biting, his blade’s edge was against my throat, not cutting...
There was a hush and the world seemed to stop in dramatic anticipation when the two halves of the log were reclaimed by gravity and descended, landing precisely and squarely on our heads. The man was silent for a while longer and broke into a grin, which quickly turned into laughter of pure unbound merriment. He slowly took his blade away from my neck and sheathed it. It was then that I decided that I would love this man, that I would protect him, and follow him faithfully. I licked his face looking in his eyes and there was a moment of rare and complete understanding between two strangers of different species. His laughter subsided and he smiled softly. His eyes reflected my emotions and thoughts, his smile was one of grateful awe and love. Thus began our friendship.
Shortly after it was time for us to depart, I had given a thought to my father who would either think me dead in the lake or find the place where I battled Akaimaru. In the latter case he would read the signs and the smells and would understand that I followed in his pawprints and went to live amongst men. I wonder now if he did find that place, it seems I followed his path to its end: I have loved one man like a mate and now that he is dead, I return to the wilds.
I feel the longing upon the primal fabric of my soul, an undeniable pull that leads me back to the land of my birth. The distances completely escape my comprehension, but I know that it is far from this strange land to my native hunting grounds. My instincts guide me north, besides I have one last duty to fulfil there in Akaimaru's memory. After several weeks of uneventful travels, and a stolen boat ride, I find myself in Hokkaido following familiar paths that I had often trod with Akaimaru. I near the village where sleeps my rival, the woman Akaimaru loved. The first snows of December have just begun to cover the earth, like my winter fur that has just begun to grow and is already showing signs of growing unusually thick and lush. The signs announce the premises of a winter that I know will be exceptionally harsh. I think to myself that food is going to be hard come by. The thin crescent moon lights my way along the mountain paths and beckons me.
I have reached the bluffs that dominate the village that I observe a short ways off. Below, I see the clustered wooden cabins, the stables, the sacred tree with it's paper twists next to the clear stream that runs still but will be completely frozen over and snowed under in a couple of weeks. The moon's light flowing over this place is like a lover's careful caress wary not to awaken the sleeper. Just months ago I was down there amongst the people... amongst friends. I have changed, it is time for me to deliver my message, I tilt my head back and howl at the moon. The horses stir in the stable, the dogs bark, and I sense that many of the people below have awakened, they are unaccustomed to wolves and know of us only through legends which depict us as wise and dangerous. I feel a vague sadness not to hear a reply to my call, I only sense the tame animals' fears and the peoples' wonder.
A lone figure is silhouetted against the snow in the middle clearing formed by the cabins, she sees me and recognizes me. I smell no fear in her, nor superstitious wonder, I sense a deep sadness. She was always clever when it came to understanding the ways of the wild. She is akin to these mountains: beautiful, cold and strong. No tears from her, just the deep and tranquil sadness of one that knows death and accepts its existence with wisdom. I leave on my journey home, I leave behind that which was once my life with Akaimaru. The coming winter will freeze the waters before me; I will pass beyond and away, home.
~≡~≡~Takeko and Teruro both sat in silence listening to the crackle of fire… Both lost in their thoughts.
After a while Teruro asked “What happened next?”.