He did not particularly enjoy killing the animals he caught, nor did he consider their dead furs especially becoming, but it was the only way to make a living in the Arctic. His parents had come to Alaska in 1849, two of hundreds drawn to Klondike by the Gold Rush, and he had grown up there the son of a failed prospector. His father had turned to trapping soon after an abortive attempt to work a claim, and Jack had learned the fur trade from him. He knew how to set the traps, and his father had taught him several different ways to skin and tan the hides of the various beasts he caught, but despite both skill and experience he always felt guilty when he killed the animals. He tried not to catch more of them than he had to, and he was always sure to dispatch them in as quick and painless a way as possible if the traps hadn’t already done the job for him. But, above all else, Jack was sure never to look one of the animals in the eyes, as he knew the pity he felt for them would grow so strong that he could no longer bear to kill. No trapper worth his salt could ever allow himself to pity the animals he caught.
The wind grew in intensity as he tramped along the frozen path and inspected the traps he had placed along it. The trail wound through many miles of the Alaskan tundra, and he had traps set everywhere to catch a greater quantity and variety of game. He had gotten a late start on his daily hike to inspect them, and what little sun there was at this time of year had long since vanished. The sky had become a dull grey – there was enough light to see by, but not much more. This perpetual twilight cast a melancholy air over the desolate landscape, and without dogs to keep him company Jack slowly lapsed into a soporific state of half-consciousness. He was slowly losing himself to the cold. The wind bit at him every few seconds, blinding him, stinging his cheeks. The snow fell so thickly he could barely see ten feet in front of himself; anything beyond that distance blurred into a menagerie of twisted shapes described more easily by his imagination than by his eyes. What he thought were his traps turned out to be snow-powdered trees, and what actually were his traps he often perceived simply as natural outgrowths of the forest.
By now his entire face was frosted white by the freezing vapor in his breath and the ice in his beard. His ears and cheeks ached from the cold, and his fingers and toes throbbed with every heartbeat. From time to time he would remember to slap his gloved hands against each other to keep the blood flowing and to stay the threat of frostbite. He walked sluggishly along the trail, overlooking more than half the traps he had set. After wandering almost four miles in the freezing air he finally decided he could tolerate no more of the harsh weather, so he gave up the search for his camouflaged traps and concentrated instead on finding his way home.
It was thus by sheer luck that he blundered upon the one trap that had successfully caught an animal. He could not, through the dense snowfall, tell exactly what it was he had captured, even at the scant distance of a few feet. He approached the trap with great caution, as more than once he had been surprised by conscious, panicked, injured animals that did not care much either for him or for his traps. But this animal was not moving. It did not struggle to free itself or even to turn its back to the wind. It simply hung by one leg, swinging back and forth a foot above the snow. Jack concluded it was either dead or unconscious.
The patch of snow below the animal was stained a deep crimson. Barbs that outlined the main loop of the snare had buried themselves into flesh, and as he drew nearer Jack could see individual droplets of blood add themselves to the ever-growing patch of redness on the surface of the snow. Each drop crackled and shattered as it struck the ground, frozen solid in mid-air. The leg by which the animal hung was brutally torn open, and yet the barbs had held it securely until Jack arrived to collect his prize.
Jack hated to the traps, as he thought them much too cruel for everyday use, but the winter famine called for drastic measures lest he himself fall prey to the hunger that had claimed so many animals that otherwise might have been his pelts by now. His moment of reflection, however, passed quickly in the cold, and as the animal swung towards him he reached out and prodded it. Still the animal did not react. He took hold of its furry coat and spun the beast ’round; he had caught a wolf, a she-wolf in fact, as he saw when a particularly strong gust of wind blew her tail briefly to one side. She was alive - Jack could see faint, feeble spumes of freezing breath issue forth from her nose every few seconds.
It was getting colder and more uncomfortable by the minute, and Jack knew he had to get home soon or he would be just as dead as this wolf was soon to be. He knelt down and raised the wolf’s head to expose its neck, simultaneously producing a sturdy, bone-handled knife from his jacket, the same knife he used to dispatch all of the large game his traps caught. But the bitter cold and the long walk had taken their toll upon him, and in his exhausted condition he made a disastrous mistake. As he peered through the ever-thickening snowfall to see the animal’s neck more clearly, he found himself looking not at the wolf’s neck but straight into her eyes.
She gazed mournfully back up at him, her stare never leaving his face. He tried and failed to avert his own eyes from hers, and they stared at one another for several uncounted moments, neither one blinking, neither one glancing away. For the first time in his life Jack found himself unable to kill an animal. He saw in her face every animal he had ever destroyed, and her sorrowful, unyielding gaze finally touched him where no other animal had. He decided immediately that she would not share their fate. He raised the knife and brought it swiftly downwards, cutting not the wolf but the rope that held her off the snow. She tumbled to earth and her injured leg struck the ground hard, driving some of the barbs deeper into her already mangled leg. She moaned weakly in pain as Jack loosened the slipknot and removed each barb individually. Whimpers floated up to Jack’s ears as he pulled the barbs out, but she had been in the trap for some time, and so weakened by the loss of blood was she that otherwise she could offer no resistance to his ministrations. Once she was free of the trap he wrapped her in the canvas tarpaulin he used for carrying all his captured game, and he lifted her gently off the ground and carried her towards home.
Her fear was, by design, accompanied by another instinct, flight, and she tried to stand up. She would have succeeded had the trap’s barbs not caused such grievous hurts upon her leg, but they had so damaged muscle and sinew that her leg refused to move. Indeed, her efforts were rewarded with a sharp stab of pain, and she, with a start, yowled out her agony and frustration. Then, just as quickly, she quieted herself lest some unseen predator locate her by way of her cries.
She tried again to stand, this time being more careful. Still her leg would not obey, and another, milder, stab of pain ran through her thigh. Defeated for the moment, she continued her optical inspection of the surroundings. She could see all varieties of strange objects, some round, others flat, but none of them recognizable. A strange crackling noise caught her attention, and she craned her neck backward to look behind herself. What she saw was yet again outside the breadth of her experience, but it differed from the other items in the room in that it was moving. The object cast out rays of orange and yellow light, and she could feel warmth radiating from it. Spires of red and gold grew forth from its base, sending wisps of smoke where they topped out. Occasionally the object would expel a small glowing piece of itself with a determined, authoritative snap.
Another sound drew her attention away from the fire. She heard several rhythmical thumps approach her, each louder than the one before it. Something was coming, and with her leg in such poor condition she knew she could not hope to outrun this new menace. She bared her fangs, and the hair on her back bristled until it stood straight. Whatever her enemy was, she would be ready for it.
But indeed she was not ready for what came next. No amount of instinctive precaution or dread could have prepared her. The thing that now stood before her was an animal more peculiar and also somehow superior to all others in her memory. It was two-legged but she could not see any wings growing upon it. It had no fur to speak of, save for a single patch of brown upon its face and a thicker patch on top its head. She growled at it, but it did not growl back, nor did it bristle, nor show its teeth. She did not know what to make of this beast, and indeed she was so puzzled and afraid that she made no effort to escape. Instead she contracted in upon herself, still growling, ready to strike out with claw and fang but otherwise not volunteering any aggression to this new foe.
The creature’s behaviour was even farther beyond her ability to comprehend than its anatomy. She had always known predators and large prey animals either to flee immediately or to make some sort of preliminary posturing to advertise their willingness to fight. This animal did neither. Where other animals would have run or attacked, this one hefted an object with its strange, prehensile forepaw and placed it a moderate distance in front of her. As she watched, the animal sat down upon the object and faced her, still making no prelude to act in a normal, identifiable way. It did not run, and it did not fight. It sat.
She, on the other hand, had not the fortune to be as healthy as this animal was, and she recognized that in an instant it could pounce upon her. Her growling became lower and more severe, her lips drawn as far apart as they could go and her fangs loomed malevolently behind them. Still the animal did not move. But finally it answered her growl: it began to speak, and with that her warnings increased even more. The two-legged creature’s response was not in kind to hers; rather, it spoke in calm, soothing tones that confounded her but did not frighten her. Despite all her innate misgivings about this animal, her fear waned. It had not attacked her, as any other enemy would surely have done by now. Likewise it had not fled her terrible growls, so this clearly was not a creature subordinate to herself. She did not know what to do.
Then the animal began to move again. It extended to her, in one of its curious paws, a piece of meat. She could sense no overt malice in this act, but she was still frightened and she still growled. The paw stopped moving towards her, and it dropped the meat a few inches from her head. The meat smelled good, and as she growled yet another warning to the animal her stomach growled one of its own to her. When the other animal’s paw withdrew she reached out with her muzzle and ate it with one quick snap, bite and swallow, all the while keeping her eyes on the potential enemy. This was good meat, she decided, and she wanted more, but she could ill afford to let hunger dictate her actions in the face of uncertainty.
The animal gave her another piece of meat, this time moving its paw closer to her head before depositing it on the floor. Again she ate the meat, and again another piece was provided. As her stomach filled her growls became softer until, at last, they stopped. Came the time when the next piece of meat was not thrown upon the floor. Now the paw stopped within mouth-reach, holding the meat tantalizingly out to her. She eyed the paw with suspicion, half expecting it to lash out with a terrible claw and tear her apart, half expecting it would continue to behave peacefully. She leaned out to receive the meat but kept her eyes on the animal, the hair on the back of her neck bristling again as she got closer to the paw. Still there was no response from the other animal. She snatched the meat from the paw and withdrew just as suddenly.
The animal continued to feed her for uncounted moments, constantly gaining her confidence, as it talked to her in calm and gentle tones. After a time she no longer withdrew her head from the paw, and the animal rewarded her faith by feeding her as quickly as she could eat. When many bites had been consumed the animal extended to her mouth one paw, holding meat, and its other paw, holding nothing, to the top of her head, both paws moving slowly and with manifest caution. She could not bear it when the empty paw came dangerously close to touching her head, so she immediately recoiled away and snarled her apprehension. The empty paw retreated, but so did the one that held the meat. The seated animal waited for her to settle down, then it held out the meat again. As she moved to take the meat again came the other paw in its inexorable journey toward her head. The gentle voice she had been hearing grew even more placating, more appeasing. Hunger’s demands overwhelmed her resolve and she allowed the animal to touch her head in exchange for the delicious meat.
Though she did not notice, the amount of meat offered slowly began to shrink and the amount of paw-contact slowly increased. She had never encountered man before, and she thus did not realize that she was, at this very moment, being petted, but she knew that what she felt was not painful but in fact pleasing in a way she had not known before. She did not endure the pleasure easily, for it was her nature to fear such contact, but this animal had provided her with meat and not attacked her yet. So she decided she would tolerate its bizarre strokes, scratches and rubs as long as it did not hurt her.
Many days passed, and she would let the animal touch her in new ways now. She allowed its caressing paws to roam freely over her sides, back and flanks, down to her leg and the injury that was healing under the superior animal’s supervision. She could flex the leg without pain now, and she had actually been able to stand upon it for a few moments at a time. With each day she trusted the two-legged animal a little more, and its ability to bring food and surcease from pain did nothing less than amaze her. The animal kept her fed, warm and safe. It had the power to heal her wounds and it could provide her with physical pleasures she had not enjoyed even with members of her own kind. She had learned to tolerate the unfamiliarity of the cabin and she no longer bristled at the strangeness of the other animal or its peculiar ways. The only thing that still worried her was the faint smell of something she could not quite identify, a thing she had once associated with great pain and sorrow. It was this unknown smell alone that kept her from becoming truly comfortable and relaxed in the cabin.
The gentle animal that had protected her during her stay had not once changed its attitude towards her. It had never made any threatening motions or sounds, it had not caused her any physical pain, and it had kept her fed with good meat. She began to like this animal, to regard it as she had regarded those of her own kind. This animal, different as it was, became a friend in whose presence she felt secure, and whose absence gave her longing to be once more together with it. This animal became a wolf to her, a pack-mate, and she became its pack-mate as well.
Still partly immobilized by her injury, she was not able to leave the cabin, and thus she could not seek the companionship of other, true wolves. And yet, had it been within her power to leave, she would not have. She enjoyed the company of this new animal, and while her simple mind could apprehend that it was fundamentally different from her, she had grown dependent upon it, and she found herself not only unable but also unwilling to escape.
At last the day arrived when she could stand and walk, and these she did with great joy, happy to move at long last. The animal that had nursed her back to health allowed her free run of the cabin, and this shortly extended to the clearing around the cabin, and finally to the frozen forest beyond the clearing. She was still too weak to survive on her own in the wild, and she understood this in the dim way that she understood many things, so she contented herself with staying near the cabin when her caretaker was gone, as was its wont almost every day at the same time.
It was not unusual for her guardian to be absent for many hours at a time, and sometimes it would return late, sometimes early, but it would always return. One particularly cold day, however, her pack-mate did not return. She sat waiting many hours outside the cabin, fully expecting at any moment her companion would come walking on its two ungainly legs up the path to the cabin door. But it did not come, and she grew as worried as any of her kind was capable. The animal’s return was something that happened every day without fail, but today there was something most definitely not right. She could not define the source of her anxiety, for such emotional self-awareness was beyond her, but she did know that whatever had happened to the animal was out of the ordinary, strange, uncommon and therefore dangerous. She did not know what she would do should her provider not come back, so she decided to find the provider herself. She got up and walked off down the trail, following the animal’s scent, her weakened leg and the loose snow-pack keeping her to a frustratingly slow pace.
She covered many miles on the trail, ever watchful for signs of her companion. She began to recognize parts of the forest that had once been her home before the accident with her leg, before the new animal had become her friend. Its scent was getting stronger so she lengthened her stride, the weakened leg aching from overuse. Her walk had become a trot, and this broke into an outright run when she saw her pack-mate’s silhouette far up the trail. As she approached it she slowed down, suddenly very cautious and careful. The two-legged animal hung off the ground, upside down, its head not a foot off the snow. Something had caught it by the leg, and she could see blood dripping down where horrible, shiny teeth had bitten into its calf. A sheet of heavy canvas, not unlike what had been her bed in the cabin, lay flat on the soft surface of the snow a few feet from the animal. Supported upon the canvas lay a piece of bone that glinted in the light. She cocked her head and took another look at the bone. Although she was no stranger to animal bones, she had never known one to reflect light.
A sudden gust of wind blew into her face, carrying with it the divers odors of the objects around her. She inhaled the metallic smell of the teeth and the blood they had drawn, the odor of the canvas and the peculiar scent of the bone object. These triggered memories of pain in her mind, pain whose source she finally identified when her leg throbbed again. The teeth, the bone object, the canvas and this animal all had been the cause of much agony to her. She did not understand how they had done so, but the memory itself was enough to throw her into a rage.
She snarled in fury, flattening her ears and baring her teeth at the helpless animal that swung back and forth in front of her. Its neck was exposed to her and she moved in, determined to tear to pieces the body of the animal that had harmed her so viciously. In an effort to keep her away it thrashed its forelegs about, carving tracks easily through the snow below it. She was too quick and too determined, however, to be held at bay, and she darted between its frantic appendages. She opened her jaws and was about to snap them shut around the soft throat when she stole a glance downward at its upturned face. She did not see fear upon its countenance but rather something she would have defined as intense sorrow, had she the ability to define anything at all. The animal’s eyes were widened not with fear but with remorse, and its gaze penetrated her, going past the aggression into the place she had newly cultivated, the place where companionship and friendliness had blossomed in the company of this animal. The memories of the pleasure then animal had given her overwhelmed the memories of pain and incapacity. Affection overcame instinct, and slowly she backed away.
The trapped animal now relaxed slightly and made new motions with one of its forelegs. She walked back to the animal, every trace of animosity now departed, and the animal began to stroke her along her back, She rubbed against its friendly paws, enjoying the petting she thought she was receiving for sparing its life. Suddenly, the animal grasped her tightly and pushed her away with a considerable shove. In doing so it swung backward a few feet. At the apex of its swing it stretched out in a desperate motion and snatched up the shiny bone-object that lay gently on the canvas that was finally within reach.