He was old. An unfathomable number of their years, not that she could count so much. Her kind did not live so long. But he—enormous and old—was very, very dead in the frigid night. Nesting covered his body, the way it did all of them, as if it to make up for the fur they didn't have. Naked they were under it, almost all of them (though this one had some fur not just on his head, but other places too). But not enough; that fur and his nesting covered him, but still he froze.
The nesting; this was a problem. She ran up and down the length of him, pointy nose and whiskers busy, hairless tail sweeping for any missed information. It might be some time before the others came, but came they always did. And they would take him away before she could figure a way. Cold, so cold; if it were only herself, she would take her chances and start gnawing. But her nest was full of little ones, little ones who hungered. If she could just get enough to hole up until the weather was warmer…
She shivered and curled one paw under her chest. It was that time of the cold season when the Big Ones, not content with their little stars, strung myriad stars of kaleidoscoping colors all over their giant nests. She remembered; after all this was her fourth litter and she was still alive and providing. Always, at the darkest part of the cold time, when the days were so very short, out came the bright stars. And the Big Ones were everywhere! Usually in the dark she was safe from their big feet and their hurled objects. But when the many stars appeared, they swarmed out of their nests just like her own kind did when the sewers flooded in the warmth of the new season. That was the time to have a litter, not now, not when it was so cold and she could hardly find enough to feed herself, let alone sustain those mewling little babies.
She knew there was good eating in these Big Ones. A few times, not many, surely no more than she could count on her tiny digits, she had eaten their meat. Faces usually, they were the easiest to come by, but a mean portion. Quick to fill a belly, but not succulent, not rich and flavorful, like the parts deep in their flanks. Her mouth watered as she thought of the soft chewy organs that might feed her tonight.
There! Noise—one of the Big Ones, coming this way, its gait unsteady. Not surprising—they often walked like babies just born when they had that sharp smell of fire about them. All the ones she saw seemed to have that stench. This dead one too. But no time to think about such things, it was getting closer. She hated to leave her food, but there was little she could do against the Big Ones.
It shambled down the alley, muttering to itself in their odd language of multifarious sounds. More songs than any bird had a right to—how could they understand one another? Her babies, only days old, already knew her cries: hide! food! quiet! What more could these Big Ones need to say?
The new one approached the body and she slipped down the back side, skittering away into the shadows. The creature bellowed at the fallen one and shook it with its paws. The dead one rolled over limply, one forepaw lying now in the icy puddle. The Big One grunted and touched the eyelids of the other. Standing up, it shook off some of its nesting materials, then reached down to take some from the corpse. With difficulty, swaying from side to side, it fitted the nesting over its forelegs and put its own covering back on. Reaching down once more, it tugged the nesting from the bottom half of the dead one. That was a struggle and it fell over backwards with angry cries. Clambering back up, it continued the battle and finally the nesting came free. It threw the soft covering around its neck and limped back down the alley, muttering still in its sing-song voice.
She couldn't believe her luck. Its nesting gone, the Big One lay there unprotected as her little babies—and almost as soft. It would not be possible to take a large part, bones were heavy, though she could dream of such bounty. Anyway this was a male creature, and without its nesting the good, dangly bits lay unprotected between its legs. One of those! That would feed her family for some time, when maybe the worst of this cold spell would have passed.
She set to work at once, gnawing away at one of the sacs. It would take some time to chew it free, but the anticipation of a few warm days made her tired jaws work faster. A full belly was the only heat she could hope for these days, but the cold season would not last forever—
Her head snapped up. She had been so intent upon her prize she had almost missed it: the Evil One! It was here in the alley, but where? Nervously she glanced around, drops of blood flying from her white whiskers, nose working frantically to local the danger. Her senses cried for flight, but she knew to hold herself in check until she could find the location of the Evil. It came in many forms, but the Evil was always the same.
There! High on the boxes piled by this creature for a nest. The blood had drawn it, no doubt. Yet the smell of the Big One was enough to make it cautious. The Evil One feared the Big Ones and she had seen enough to realize that the Big Ones were as likely to hurl stones at the Evil One as they were to take them in and feed them. But the Evil One meant death to her kind—always. If one were quick and smart, sometimes that death might be avoided, but the Evil One was quick—oh, so very quick—and that mattered so much more than smart when there was nowhere to hide.
Did it see her? She wasn't sure. It looked back up the alley, as if in fear of the Big One returning. It was the color of night with eyes like spring grass and a long tail which whipped back and forth in the air. Often the Evil One would play with her kind, pretend not to see them, then pounce—wham! and shake them in its teeth. Even after they were dead, the Evil would continue to play with their bodies, rolling them back and forth between its paws, acting as if they were still alive, before settling at last to chomp the soft belly while making that rumbling sound of happiness. It had happened that way with her own mother, sacrificing herself for the litter. A dim memory now, but it was a well-learned lesson about Evil.
She slipped down a little more into the space between the Big One's legs. Dangerous, but it was so cold and she stubbornly refused to leave her good meal if the Evil One hadn't seen her because only a few more bites, if she pulled really hard the flesh sac would tear and she would have her prize. Maybe, maybe, she hoped to herself—but then the Evil One turned its head toward her end of the alley, laid back its ears and hissed with hot anger. She felt her mouth go dry and her belly tense with terror. It saw her. She was going to die. She tried to flatten herself between the thighs of the Big One, laying her own ears back like the Evil One and silently licking the salty blood from her whiskers when a shadow fell over her. Rolling her eyes back, she saw what it was and lost all control, a thin trickle of water flowing hot from her hindquarters.
Another Evil One. This one was shadows, like night and dirt alternating down its coat, ending in rings on its tails. Its eyes blazed like the bright yellow stars and a low rumble rolled from its chest. She just had time to think of her poor babies freezing in the cold of the nest without her before the Evil One sprang. She could hear too that the other Evil jumped as well, a sickening scream accompanying the leap, coming her way.
But then, inexplicably, crazily, dizzily, the two Evil Ones locked in embrace, screaming, hind paws digging furiously, jaws clamped on one another in murderous hatred. They were attacking each other! How could this be? Yet there they were rolling and yowling in the dirt and debris, each one crying for the other's blood, fur flying around the battle.
Get out, the mother part of her mind told her sharply, get out with your food before it's too late. With a renewed frenzy she tore into the flesh, pulling with clamped jaws on the delicate flesh, feeling it almost ready to give way, almost—keeping her eyes on the struggling Evil in case they should deem her worthy of notice—a little more, a little more, and yes! It was free.
Triumphant, she clamped the reward firmly between her teeth, turned her back on the freakish combat behind her and ran drunkenly for the wall, the hole and safety. Darting into the hole, she dropped her juicy meal for a moment and looked toward the Evil Ones. Still they wailed and fought. Fresh blood filled the air. She stared, amazed, another lesson learned, then took up her tasty burden again, running down the corridors and around the darkened corners. Her children would feed well, grow strong. And she would sleep comfortably on her full belly and ponder the way to turn Evil against Evil.
Bio: K. A. Laity is the author of the novels Owl Stretching and Pelzmantel as well as Unikirja, a collection of short stories based on the Kalevala, Kanteletar, and other Finnish myths and legends, for which she won the 2005 Eureka Short Story Fellowship and a 2006 Finlandia Foundation grant. Dr.Laity teaches medieval literature, film, New Media and popular culture at the College of Saint Rose in New York, although at present she can be found at NUI Galway on a Fulbright for the 2011-2 academic year.
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