Sniffing the Air
THERE WAS TO BE a policy meeting. It was a most unusual occurrence; there were strategy meetings, meetings to discuss the state of the larder, meetings to decide whether the birth rate was going up or down. Occasionally there would be extraordinary meetings, perhaps to make senior appointments or to confer over a new hazard or threat. But this was none of those. This was something different.
The wolves approached, singly or in pairs, padding into place and forming a circle of grey and white around the leader. Ajax watched as each wolf lay down in submission, tail twitching – just enough, no more. Alexia, his mate, sat on the raised mound they shared. Her body was as still and silent as the ice around her but her eyes darted here and there. If she chanced upon a restless cub the soft mouth would harden and her gaze would become steely. In terror the cub would try to disappear into his mother's coat.
When it seemed every wolf was in place a hush fell over the group. Then Ajax rose, his muscles rippling as he strode around the circle. The early morning sun caught the grey fur on his back and turned it to liquid silver – a wolf god; the sight of him was enough - no member of the pack would stand against him. Tails wagged a little harder in acknowledgement of his mastery and magnificence.
Alexia had seen this display many times. Her tongue flicked out and covered a yawn. She stretched and began to speak. All heads swivelled to this creature of lithe elegance, her white fur a dazzling blur as she too got to her feet. 'We are all here,' she said. 'Save for Hero.'
'He must be brought to this Council.' Ajax's tone was grim – his teeth flashed their cutting edges. But Alexia raised a paw; her ears twitched.
'He has arrived,' she said.
A moment later from around the bend in the mountain came a slim dark wolf. His gaze fixed on Alexia's sharp intelligent face as he made his way to the circle where he paused. Hero knew that the term 'policy meeting' was a euphemism. Such an event had one purpose only: to bring an errant wolf to book. His heart raced as he waited to be told what he must do. He would need all his wits if he were to avoid the ultimate punishment; banishment from the pack would mean an uncertain future with every hour of every day fraught with danger and loneliness. Starvation was an ugly word lodged in his brain.
'You are late,' barked Ajax.
'I apologise,' began Hero, crawling forwards, 'I have had business matters to attend to.'
A titter went around the circle and the pack took the release in tension as an opportunity to lick their neighbour's face; they must keep their bonds strong. They knew what Hero was like.
'Business matters? Hmm'. Ajax's paw stroked his whiskered chin. All knew this was a sign that he was waiting for Alexia to speak.
'There are charges you must answer Hero. Come into the centre where you may be interrogated.' she said.
Hero wanted to turn and flee. Alexia's slanted eyes with their strange white centres filled him with great dread. But instead he walked to the chosen spot, his nails making soft clicks on the frozen ground. Ajax and Alexia sat side by side, their heads alert, their bushy tails curled around their bodies. Hero did likewise: it was important that he presented his case with confidence, not prone in front of the leaders. The other wolves too came into sitting position.
Alexia waited until the bustle had ceased. 'These are the accusations laid against you,' she began. 'You must answer them all. It is some time since you attended manoeuvre training, in which as you know all wolves must take part.
You have made no contribution to the larder for weeks. You do not join the pack on hunting trips. You have been seen taking batches of cubs to secret places.
These are all serious charges Hero. What have you to say?'
The last was accompanied with a growl and a snap of teeth. The fur on the back of Hero's neck stood up in black spikes. He forced himself to return her stare. 'Let me explain...'
He was cut short by a snarl from Ajax. 'We do not need to hear your excuses – your insolence. We are here to decide what to do about you.'
'Please,' Hero stretched out a paw. 'No excuses, just explanations.' He tilted his head to one side with an almost inaudible whine. Alexia's ears pricked forward as Ajax crouched, about to pounce on Hero. She put out a restraining paw.
'We will hear your “explanations”,' she said, 'but be warned, what you say may not change anything for you.'
Hero gulped. His tail wagged in recognition of her gesture. 'I will take these matters in the order you have given me,' he said. He licked his lips. 'It is true I have not been present at manoeuvre training but that does not mean that I have forgotten what I learnt.'
'Doing reinforces learning,' said Ajax with a touch of pomposity. 'It makes the training and responses more...what's the word?' Ajax looked around.
'Automatic,' supplied Hero.
'Yes, hmm.' Ajax attended to a piece of fur not quite as pristine as it should be.
'Nevertheless,' Hero resumed, 'I hope to convince you that my time has not been wasted.' The looks he received were not encouraging but he rushed on. 'As regards the hunting trips I may not have brought food to the pack but what I have done is to seek out storage places. I am sure the Comptrollers of the Larder will confirm that I have taken them to three or four areas where meat may be deposited and kept for weeks.' He nodded in the direction of two senior wolves, one of whom, Samo, responded with a nod.
'Yes, that's true. Hero has, it must be said, been most helpful. He finds the most secure places.' Her whole body bobbed as if to reinforce her words.
Hero whined his thanks and thumped his tail in appreciation.
'Turning to the third issue – I take the little cubs to a quiet ground for educational purposes.'
'Educational?' blustered Ajax. 'What is your meaning?'
Hero took a breath. 'There are matters you should all know about.' A dozen pairs of ears pricked forward. 'Some of my time is spent in communication with humans.' A low growl of surprise and alarm went round the pack.
'In communication? How is that?' said Alexia, edging closer to Hero. 'We cannot speak their language.'
'It is not so difficult,' said Hero, 'a question of tuning in. I have spent the last year or two making a study of human psychology, their behaviour patterns.'
'Psycho-babble,' shouted one of the wolves, breaking the rule that no wolf may speak unless invited to do so by the leaders. A rustle of unease went through the circle.
'Yes,' said Hero, 'Some people call it that but an understanding of these “masters of the universe” - as they see themselves, can only help our species.'
'How so?' asked Alexia.
'First let me tell you what I know. This is important: wolves have a very bad image in the world of people. We are seen as aggressive, predatory, dangerous creatures to be feared.'
Ajax sat up straight. 'And what is wrong with that?'
'We need to be seen in a different light – to achieve something of the status of elephants, dolphins, even possibly the dog.'
Much ribaldry followed this with calls of 'dogs are no more than craven wimps.' 'Like you Hero,' one shouted.
'Listen to me,' Hero got to his feet. 'In the world outside, everything changes constantly. The human population is increasing day by day. Our own species is diminishing. We need to be seen as playing an essential role in the wild and not so wild landscape. We must teach people to love us, to know our skills and see our usefulness to them, to want to protect us from extinction.'
There was a silence and Hero breathed deeply.
'Sniff the air my friends. We must all adapt or we will die.'
'How do we do that Hero?' Alexia's ears were well forward to catch every word.
'There are many ways. To start, when I take the youngsters I teach them to look for people in distress, walkers who have lost their way, those who have had accidents and need help.'
'What nonsense,' barked Ajax. 'How could we possibly assist these stupid ones?'
'It's a question of applying some intelligence; for instance someone lost just needs to be shown the path; an injured person can be helped by taking a piece of clothing or belonging from them. One finds the rescue party and drops the article where it will be seen. There will be an individual amongst the rescuers who will eventually catch on and usually they say, “I think the wolf is trying to tell us something”. Then one leads them to the injured party.' Hero ceased speaking. He was exhausted... He could do no more – he had no idea what would happen to him. There was stillness - it seemed as if his words had fallen into a void. Then Alexia stirred:
Her eyes glittered. 'When we gave you your name, Hero, it was in jest. But no longer. You may well save our species.' She turned to the group of wolves. 'Pack,' she called. 'I give you Hero. He is the wolf-man who has sniffed the air and will lead us in this new world... Show him your appreciation.'
As one the wolves threw back their heads and howled into the morning sky. The sound echoed around the mountains and drifted down to the valley below.
CV Craib lives in the Weald of Kent, about 60 miles from London. In her mid-forties she gained a modular degree from the University of East London. On retirement from full time work she took up writing and has since written several short stories in different genres and has now completed an historical novel.