Cuta trotted over the ground, head low, her heavy shoulders working. The scent in the air was maddening, crawling up her nose to hurt the inside of her head. But at least the noises had stopped, the terrific thundering that made the ground shake was over.
Cuta hated the noise as much as she hated the strange smell, the mix of smoke and rancid Otherness, which still lay so heavy in the night air and made her head ache. The smoke wasn’t even a clean smoke, like the familiar odour of burnt wood. It was something else, something different, oily and redolent of danger, something which made her hackles rise. Normally, she wouldn’t have anything to do with it, would never have come out where she had to breathe it. But she had no choice. There was an imperative driving her, one greater than her fear and the uneasiness that consumed all of her being.
Cuta was not far short of starvation. Hunger was a fierce gnawing pain inside her, hunger so severe that she had had to abandon her better judgement because of it. It had been days since she’d been able to forage, because the nights had been filled with flashes of light and thunder, and the ground had shaken as though the earth had set to quaking and would not stop, and the days had been filled with fires burning on the horizon while buzzing things flew overhead.
Even then, she might have waited a day or two longer. She would have been able to last till then. But back in the den, her squirming mass of cubs were waiting, and they couldn’t live without food. She daren’t starve them any longer, not even for a single day.
To her flanks and behind her, the rest of the clan loped, silent now, intent on the hunt. Cuta glanced around at them quickly, making sure they were where they were supposed to be according to the hunting plan they’d decided. All except her mate, Cro, younger and still far too callow, who was too close to her, almost brushing her left flank, so close that he’d be in the way if she had to make a sudden move. She whirled at him, her huge teeth snapping shut a nail’s breadth from his face. He jumped away at once, falling back into his proper position, and Cuta swung round again to take up the lead.
Earlier in the evening, before the hunt had begun, she’d come out once before, and – climbing on an abandoned, eroded termite hill – had checked the lie of the land. The two-legged things had mostly gone now, which was why the thunder and the shaking of the ground had finally stopped. Some of them were still around, though, in a collection of shelters they’d made by hanging sheets of material from the branches of a stand of acacia trees.
There was no way they’d be hunting zebra or wildebeest tonight. None of the grazing animals would stay anywhere close to the two-legged things after the noise and smoke and the earth-shaking of the last few days. There was only one source of food to be had – the two-legged things themselves.
Of course, Cuta wasn’t crazy, and had no intention of trying to prey on the two-legged creatures themselves. But her experience of them had showed that wherever they were, they tended to leave a lot of refuse behind, everything edible garbage to meat scraps. That wasn’t the best of pickings to be had for the starving clan, but it was much better than nothing.
Cuta hated and feared the two-legged things, more than she feared and hated anything else, even the lions which would kill a whole litter of cubs or an unwary member of the clan if they got a chance. She knew what they were capable of, had known since the time when she was less than half grown and had gone out once, foraging with her sister, Fisi, long limbed and slender and graceful where Cuta was squat and heavy bodied and musclebound.
They’d left the den and gone down to the river behind the old red hill, the river which had been a trickle of liquid mud in the dry season. Birds came there to drink, and could be captured if they were quick, and even then the two of them had been quick. But when they’d come down to the river bed, it was already occupied, and not by birds.
The creatures were tall and spindly, like overgrown tailless baboons, and were making noises among themselves in a yammering cadence that struck Cuta’s sensitive ears like a blow. And though their smell had made her wrinkle her muzzle in disgust, she hadn’t been afraid of them. Not until one of them had almost casually raised a stick, pointed it at the two of them, made a noise like a tree trunk bursting in a savannah fire – and Fisi had gone rolling over and over in the mud, painting it dark red with her rich blood.
She’d reacted instinctively, turning and racing away as fast as she could, jinking from side to side like a gazelle, and that had saved her life. The noise had come again, and she’d felt a burning, red hot along her flank, and smelt her own trickling blood. But she had lived – lived to be filled with anger and fear and the embers of hate.
Even now, her skin bore an ugly white scar in a line all along her left side, where the two-legged thing’s fire stick had burned her.
Remembering, her upper lip lifted in a snarl, and she might have snarled but for her rigid self-discipline as clan leader. Even so, the mane along the back of her neck lifted, and those of her clan near enough to see caught her uneasiness. This would not do. Uneasiness and doubt had no place on a hunt.
She fought down her fear, fought it like an upstart female from the clan who might think of challenging her for the leadership, fought it until it was under control, until she could assert herself over it. Stopping, she quickly gathered the clan around her, and sniffed at their noses and tails, calming them, reassuring them that she was unchanged in purpose. It took longer than she liked, so close to the two-legged things, but that wasn’t something she could help. Cro, especially, took much reassuring, to the point where she considered taking him by the scruff of his neck and shaking some sense into him. She was more than big and strong enough to do it, too, but they couldn’t afford a fight now.
The clan members were close enough to the two-legged things’ encampment that they could hear the creatures’ vocalisations. Some were rhythmic noises, which made Cuta’s ears twitch as she remembered the time by the river. Others were shrill and staccato, like the clan’s vocalisations when they gathered to decide on the hunt, as though the two-legged thing making the noise was trying to submit itself to the clan. And there was another, low and constant, like a wounded animal crying out in agony. Cuta hunkered down when she heard this noise, and began creeping slowly towards the sheet-shrouded stand of acacia.
Then she saw it, the movement near the shelter, a sheet lifted as two of the two-legged things emerged, pulling something between them, which moaned as it dragged on the ground and tried to lift itself up on its arms from where the two others threw it under an acacia tree. Cuta froze where she was, trying to merge into the shadow, the clan following her example as she waited to see what would happen. The two of the two-legged things which had dragged the third one out carried, she could see clearly, fire-sticks over their shoulders. They stood over the third, moaning one, and made some more of the staccato noises which resembled the clan’s calls as they kicked at it. Then they seemed to get bored of their kicking – Cuta could see it in the way their bodies moved, like prey which had become complacent – and one of them took its fire stick off its shoulder. There was a noise like a tree bursting, and the moaning thing on the ground jerked and went still.
It was then that Cuta showed why she was a great leader – the best the clan had ever had, by far. Instead of fleeing at the noise, she waited – bristling, fighting down her terror, but waited, watching. The two-leggers who had just killed the third made a few more noises at each other, and with a final kick at the corpse of the third, went back to their encampment. The sheet rose and fell again.
Then Cuta stole forward, belly nearly to the ground like a leopard. And when she returned, she was dragging the dead two-legger in her jaws.
Silently, voraciously, the clan fed.
It was two nights later.
Cuta sat outside her den, licking the blood from her fur. Behind her, the cubs played with each other, wrestling and growling. The noise made her happy, just like the weight of the meat in her stomach. The clan had hunted well tonight, and the cubs had full bellies.
The smell of the night was clean, too, the burned oil and smoke gone from the air along with the two-leggers. The next night the acacia stand was empty, but the clan had found some foraging there, enough so that they could bring something back to the den to regurgitate for the babies. And tonight –
Tonight the wildebeest were back. Not many, but enough so the clan had eaten. And what better than that could one expect?
Cro came out of the den, cringing and whining as he presented himself for Cuta’s attention, just as a lowly male should. She didn’t even feel like snapping at him to teach him his place as she might have otherwise. Tonight, she was simply happy, despite the pain of the wildebeest kick in her hindquarters. The pain was natural, like hunger, like sex, like the smell of the world.
The cubs squealed and grunted, so she whined at them to calm them down. They, she thought, were probably going to survive, if the clan continued to be able to find prey to hunt.
And if the two-leggers didn’t come back, she thought. They’d done well enough this time, but she didn’t want to see them again.
Across the savannah, the blood-red moon rose slowly into the sky.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015