Jumbar was their ancestral home. A few decades back, it had all an animal would demand from nature. The place was ideal for all wildlife to thrive not only in population but in terms of health too. Prey was in abundance. Rainfall was predictably regular, filling up the rivers whose evaporation would then become white clouds persistently marching the sky. Clouds would at times drift over the snow-capped mountains and hover above until they condensed into hours long downpours.
The vegetation would never complain of being thirsty. It was ever green. Trees with low hanging fruits and branches stretching over thousands of miles provided food and refuge to tens of native and migratory species. Sycamore was the most common yet sought-after tree in the region, so it was never left unoccupied, mostly by birds, perhaps, for its dense canopy which shielded them from predators, especially after the Sun had crept behind the hills and the dark took over.
Night was not the same for all. While it was perfect for nocturnals for their hunt, it brought for the diurnal animals moments of fear and unease. That anxiety, however, would fade away as soon as the morning dawned signalling the return of the mighty Sun.
Jumbar’s ecosystem had been perfectly balanced until the arrival of humans who were (and still are) pretty much notorious for their intervention in the affairs of nature.
Nothing remained the same since then. The dense forest which had camouflaged the pack during their hunt was by now replaced with large swathes of agricultural fields, producing thousands of tons of cash crops. Rivers had begun drying up since the newly built reservoir upstream had blocked much of their inflows. Snow had been constantly sliding down the mountain slopes as a result of the increase in the regional temperatures. Clouds were nowhere to be seen. Grasslands burnt away. All that signalled the landing of man, the technologically advanced man.
All in all, Jumbar had been converted into the proverbial hell, unlivable for animals anymore. With food scarcity becoming severe, all other animals started migrating but the pack. Even the animals in refugee camps were beginning to dislike Jumbar for its lost glory. They were all already living as Internally Displaced Animals (IDAs). That they would become aliens to their own land was only a matter of a few months.
Meanwhile, the pack found themselves on the horns of a dilemma whether to flee their home, their ancestral home, where they had grown up in, had beautiful memories of and had emotional attachment to. They were to leave their homeland simply because it had been occupied by much bigger hunters than they were.
Accalia, while sensing the gravity of the situation, decided to lead her family in their migration to Hoar, the territory of a pack of twelve wolves. But her equally tall husband, Rollo, had yet to make up his mind. He was not ready for that venture, neither mentally nor physically. He was a fifteen-year-old lame and feeble companion who was nothing more than a liability to the family. His atrophied muscles and sunken eyes spoke volume for his inability to undertake that journey. He was so thin and lanky that his skin had sunken into his bones. He was literally a skeleton wrapped in wrinkled skin.
“How could you just unilaterally decide to leave our ancestral home?” said Rollo in his weak voice, “we can’t make it to Hoar, not with my broken leg and ill health. Worse still, It is a twelve days’ walk, and Beowulf is still too young to cover such a long distance.”
The youngest puff, Beowulf, was just a year old. He totally took after his mother, save for the black streak around his neck, which he had inherited from his father.
“Do you really think I have not considered all that?” replied Accalia, “what choices are we left with? The pups have been underfed for weeks now. We have lost all our food sources. Humans are continuously expanding their agricultural fields. It won’t take long when we come into their sight. They will kill us anyway, and, make no mistake, I don’t want to die in the hands of humans, nor will I let that happen to my pups.”
Her speech half-convinced Rollo, but there was still much to do to prevail upon him.
“Look, my dear Rollo. I understand the pain of leaving the motherland, but we can’t defend our land against those intruders. They are… I mean… they are way more powerful than us. Not just that, they are grabby and inconsiderate too. They will go to any extent to satisfy their needs. Anyhow, can you not just see the environmental mess they have created in here? I wonder if our home is liveable anymore.”
Accalia played her card well. Rollo agreed.
Accalia was up all night making plans for the journey. Sleep eluded her. But the only best idea she came up with was that the journey would have to begin in the wilderness of night when the human world around them was in deep slumber.
As part of the migration plan, the next morning, Rollo and Accalia went for a hunt to nourish themselves and the pups with plenty of food so that hunger might not become an obstacle in their way to safety.
They were now all prepared for the journey. It was only six hours until midnight when the pack was set to migrate. There was a casual family gathering in between. The pack sat in a semi-circle under a leafless sycamore. In the middle was Accalia, the head, the decision maker, the provider. Beowulf was sandwiched between her parents, and on the left of their mother sat the other two kids.
Turning towards his mother, Beowulf said, “Mom, why are we going to Hoar?” He did not have the slightest hint as to why all that was happening. “For survival, my son,” she explained succinctly. Without further questions asked, he shrugged confusedly.
Nearly after two days of a walk, the pack reached Aazman, only to find a vast field set ablaze. It was an ocean of yellow flames all over. Suffocating black fumes whirled up the sky. This was pretty bad news for the pack as they had to walk through the narrow openings of this ocean of fire.
Beowulf’s unwavering curiosity prompted him to ask: “Mom, why is Aazman burning?” He had a tendency to ask a lot of questions, sometimes innocently funny ones. Accalia always gave him the right to understand the intricacies of the complex world he was to live in for the rest of his life.
“Humans have harvested the yield and then lit the crop residues on fire.” Beowulf wanted to know a little more about ‘yield’, but Amoux did not give him the opportunity to ask.
“But isn’t that practice damaging to the environment, and for that matter, to their own health?” Amoux, the eldest son wondered. He was only 5 but looked much bigger, only a few inches smaller than his mother. Accalia had been teaching him hunting techniques for the last one year, and he had learnt one or two of her unique hunting skills. He had a very harsh temperament, and sometimes his anger would become uncontrollable. Accalia always believed that Amoux’s anger was a gift which he would have to use wisely.
“Yeah, but only if they knew.” said Accalia, exhausted, as if she had been advising humans to shun the slash and burn practice.
After a brief silence, Beowulf said, totally forgetting the ‘yield’, “I couldn’t help overhearing some people back in Jumbar say that since they had been bestowed with superior wisdom, they were the greatest creation of God.” He wondered what wisdom meant.
“My son, as to the human kingdom, I believe, wisdom is the act of enriching oneself with the riches of others, and in that, humans are no doubt superior to all, ” Accalia said sarcastically.
“Now listen up, shouted Accalia, “we are faced with a daunting challenge ahead of us, that is, crossing the burning fields. We will do this together. I will lead the way; you follow me.”
The run began. The pups followed. The injured father struggled to catch up. And there they were celebrating their success on the other side of the burning ocean.
“We did it!” “We did it!”
Rollo, who was hitherto a silent companion, fell down with an excruciating growl. Blood gushed out of his fatally festered leg wound, and soaked in the mud beneath. He could not walk any longer. Not that his smashed leg did not allow so, but because the lethal smoke from the burning field was choking him to death.
“Father! What happened, father!” the kids cried out. “He is bleeding, Mom. Do something,” Beowulf said, wishing he could have done something himself.
All of them stood restlessly over Rollo lying on the ground in a lot of pain. His half-open eyes looked at each member of the family, from Beowulf to Accalia, wishing he could say a few words of comfort to lessen their grief. His eyes were twinkling with tears that continuously ran down his jaws. Beowulf licked his father’s face, waved his tail in a sign of desperation.
‘I can’t breathe’ were the last words Rollo could say to his homeless family.
Wolves are known to mourn their dead for months. They even visit the remains of the dead. But this pack had no time for emotional episodes. Leaving Rollo behind, they continued the journey.
The fire was perhaps the tip of the iceberg. Ahead lay the real danger: a human zone.
The rectangular settlement was covered with brown single-story concrete houses built in rows. Asphalt roads spread between the rows of buildings. Each house had a car parked in the driveway. Mercedes, BMW, Toyota. Some had bikes too. In the middle of the settlement was a circular fountain surrounded by a square garden which was hedged by yellow roses and poppies. Except for the four-foot wide walking track connecting the garden entrance to the fountain, tiny grass covered the rest of the garden floor. Children were playing hide and seek. Adults sitting on the garden bench, chattering and gesticulating. Birds chirping over.
On the left of the settlement was a jungle, not quite large, but big enough to hide the pack.
With the dark coming over, the pack set out their adventure. Accalia put the first step into the jungle, sneaking around so as not to disturb humans from their peaceful sleep; or else, they would invite more trouble into their already troubled lives. Beowulf saw from the corner of his eyes something move past him. He did not look around, afraid it might be a human. Kept walking. Got a nervous stomach. A lump went up his throat. He saw the shadow again. Collecting enough courage, he finally brought himself to look at what was making him uncomfortable. An Ibex. A perfect meal, except it was a domesticated one. His eyes glistened. He nudged his mother who refused to hunt in the human zone. The starving pups kept insisting. Any mother would have felt dutiful to feed her hungry children.
Pups followed Accalia crawling towards the prey. She wanted to go as close enough as to avoid a long chase. “Kids, stay her….”
“Wolf! Help! Help! Wolf!” Shouted the tipsy blonde woman, throwing away the half-filled glass of wine, teetering towards the white domed-tent illuminated yellow by the gasoline lamp inside. She was in her sky blue pajamas. Her teary blue eyes revealed her fright.
Her muscular husband rushed out of the tent wearing a white undervest and brown shorts, weilding a 12 gauge double-barreled shotgun. His hair unkempt.
“I saw a big wolf over there trying to hunt our Ibex.” she said, her hands shivering, throat dried. “You wait here while I go and check,” said the sleepy spouse in a heavy voice. He wiped off the sweat on his brow with his bare left hand. Took a step forward. Stopped. Chambered the gun infuriatingly. Went on.
Bang, Bang! He shot two fires. “No wolves, ” he shouted, coming back to his wife.
“I am sorry, Mom. I had no idea there were picnickers,” Beowulf said, puffing.
“It was not your fault, son. I should have known better. Anyway, we are safe now. We will arrive in Throngal by dawn. Until then, push yourselves.”
Throngul was a vast barren land with rocky mountains guarding it from every corner like a Mughal-era fort standing firm against enemy attacks. Whatever few trees there were had shed their trees due to the year-long drought that had hit the region.
As soon as they reached there, Accalia told Amoux to look after his brothers while she was gone for a hunt.
“It’s been quite a while since mom has left,” said Audolf, the middle kid. He was 2 years older than Beowulf and 2 younger than Amoux. He would barely talk unless he had to answer something asked or was hungry. He had a totally innocent appearance, and never for once would he say a word of humour, unlike his younger brother whose funny and juvenile behavior would at times bring moments of laughter to the family.
“You’re right. I am now starving to death,” Beowulf said lying inverted, “what is taking her too long? She was never that slow in hunting.”
“Wait just a little more. Mom will come and award us with something big,” said Amoux smiling to Beowulf.
After an interminable wait of six long hours, the pups could finally see their mother coming. Beowulf jumped onto Amoux ebulliently hugging and kissing him. Audolf watched his mother coming and thought how loving and protective she was. He quivered and got goosebumps gazing at the style with which Accalia walked.
To the kids’ chagrin, they got to eat just two little rabbits. The poor kids. Amoux was old enough to realize that his mother still carried an empty stomach. Food was in short supply, so they needed to manage until they reached their final destination.
“I know I have not brought plenty of food, but you should realize that we are in a state of homelessness. As long as we are in search of another home, you may face hard times, hunger or frustration. We have been robbed of our home, our happinesses, our Rollo. But my sons, I assure you I will guard you till my last breath.”
The travel continued once the pup had eaten the little their mother had brought. Unexpectedly, they came across another human settlement. This was newly built and seemed far more luxurious and expensive than what was left behind. There was no time to await the nightfall. They had to cross it during the day.
Not worth the risk but no other options.
Everything looked fine at first. No one had spotted the animals until midway when these two passersby saw them from behind. Their frightened eyes were locked on the wolves carefully treading on the sun-dried oak leaves fallen on the ground. One of them freaked out and shouted: wolves! Within seconds, the whole settlement got the knowledge of the wolves’ arrival. Some ‘fearless’ men chambered their guns and came out to show that they had got the guts to face wolves. Other valorous fellas soon followed suit.
The area was by now virtually cordoned off by furious gun-holding men eagerly awaiting the animals. Children and women were advised to confine themselves to the safety of their walls. A group of rifle men fired in the air in a show of anger.
Amidst all this, Accalia and the kids clandestinely walked through a narrow empty street.
Rat-tat! A shot was heard nearby.
Accalia looked around only to find Audolf lying on the ground moving his arms and legs. His head was bloodied, eyes half-opened, tears red with blood. Streams of blood were running down his jaws, muzzle and mane and flowing over the asphalt. By the time Accalia came near him, he had stopped moving.
A tear drop from his mother’s eye fell on his muzzle and disappeared into the blood.
Rat-a-tat-tat! Firing continued. Accalia took the other kids and ran as fast as they could until they stepped out of that hell.
The trio mournful over Audolf’s murder in cold blood sat in the shade of a tree to rest. Accalia was now regretting her decision to leave Jumbar.
“If I had listened to Rollo, this day would never have come.” Her heart cried and cried and cried.
But she had hope— hope that kept her strength from faltering.
On the tenth day of this intimidating march, they reached a village called Gerook, 22 miles away from Hoar. Among all the obstacles left behind, Gerook was the biggest and most threatening one. The Gerookians harbored a myth dangerously biased against predatory wolves. They believed that there were no wolves per se; rather, they were humans who changed themselves into wolves. Werewolves, as they were called, were believed to be a curse of god upon the nation they had been sent. This myth was more than enough to justify the killing of any “werewolf” that came into sight.
As the pack entered the region, the clouds burst into rain forcing most of the dwellers to go inside. Cashing in on the blessing in disguise, the pack moved as fast and as quietly as they could. But with the rain becoming human-tolerable, children came out to chill.
Accalia was taking utmost care not to be caught. But could the wolves have betrayed human eyes? The big telescopic human eyes? Nay. Nothing could hide from man. Neither Mariana Trench, nor Mars. Neither atoms, nor galaxies. Neither wolves, nor werewolves. Nothing. Nothing at all.
Everyone from the old to the young, from the rich to the poor, from the sick to the healthy, from the daring to the weak, all were delivered the bad news. The news that a group of three ‘werewolves’ had been seen wandering their territory.
“They have come, but they shall never go back,” shouted a 25-year-old man wielding a hammer.
“I swear to God I will chop them alive,” said the other of the same age holding an axe.
The situation here was not too much different from that in Throngal except for the myth of the villagers and the smaller size of the pack.
At Shanz, a small jungle north of Gerook, a crew of 26 werewolf-hating strongmen, wielding axes and choppers, encircled the pack. Everyone had positioned himself, and was finding the chance to hit the savage animals. Fearful and concerned for her kids’ safety, Accalia was constantly rotating to ward off possible attacks from any side.
Beowulf, being the weakest, was an easy target, so he received the first blow on the head. In defence of her child, Accalia jumped onto the attacker, gave him a deep bite on his right hand with which he held the axe that hit her child, and struck him down.
Amoux turned violent when he saw Beowulf collapse in agony in front of his brotherly eyes. He growled, stepped back readying himself for the attack, bounced onto an axe holding man. Tore him apart. His anger, the gifted anger, was totally out of control. His eyes saw nothing else but Beowulf’s bloodied body and head busted open.
Both Accalia and Amoux unleashed themselves on the crowd like a violent storm lifting and smashing everything coming in its way. They fought for life. They fought for freedom. They fought for Rollo, Audolf and Beowulf.
As soon as the storm calmed down, there was nothing left except for a few injured human bodies fallen on the ground, grunting. Accalia and Amoux walked triumphantly toward Beowulf, with blood dripping from their mouths. Accalia sniffed at him, turned his body over to see if he was breathing.
Accalia saw Amoux cry out loud. She wanted to too, but the realization that her tears had not brought Rollo and Audolf back to life kept her eyes from watering.
She picked her dead little son up between her fangs, carried him outside the human zone, placed him beside an oak tree and put some fallen leaves on him.
Within the next few hours, Accalia found herself running, jumping, shouting, laughing as if her childhood spirit had entered her body. Hoar had made her a child once again. Hoar’s beauty and bounties resembled those of Jumbar’s in its olden glorious days.
Accalia stopped under an oak tree. Now she weeped at the memory of her lost ones.