ON THE LAST DAY OF MY LIFE, time becomes a thing that bends back on itself in an infinite loop and the day repeats itself in uncountable variations forever.
SOMETIMES I WONDER if I have been dying for years.
THE DAY BEGINS.
I wake in my den. The dawning light filters through the tree roots at the opening where I first began digging in summer, four seasons ago. From where I lie, I can see the base of a few trees in our grove. I angle my head toward the opening and sniff the air. It is clean. Icy. It snowed last night. I turn back to my sleeping pups. They are warm and I count them to make sure they are all still there. That their hearts are still beating. I gently nudge them each with my nose. One. Two. I don’t mean to wake them. Their fur is soft and it sticks out from their tiny bodies, piled together. They are so tangled that I can only tell them apart from the shades of brown, grey, or black in their coats. I lick two of them on the tops of their heads. They smell like the leaves that have drifted into our den. Like the flowers I find in summer. Three. Four.
I have woken them.
The little black one and the dark grey runt look at me, blinking slowly. They start whimpering and sniffing the air. They wriggle together. They are looking for their uncle who has been missing for several days. He left for a rambling walk and never returned.
I have promised to search for him. Today, I will go over the Low Ridge, along the River, and toward the Road. I haven’t been able to find him in all of the usual places. Not in our old family den, the one where he and I had been raised as pups. Not in the cluster of brush where we sometimes wait for bison. Not behind the Ridge. I haven’t seen his footprints on our route, and all his markings have become aged.
Every morning, I check the snow near our den to see if he has left any new tracks. Every day there is nothing. I don’t understand. It’s as though he has been lifted out of our valley by an invisible claw.
I have been avoiding the Road. It is a hideous black gash that rips open my valley. It frightens me, but my brother has been missing, and I must find him.
I move quietly away from my pups. For the past several days, I have sent my mate to go hunting with the pack instead of going myself. I don’t want him to follow. I want someone to stay behind to provide for our pups in case I go missing, too.
When I leave my den, it is still twilight. There is a blanket of clean snow on the ground, and my breath swirls in clouds. Our den is nestled in a grove of aspen and cottonwood trees. They are leafless and stark against the morning sky. A thin film of frost on the trunks catches the just-rising sun. The grove glitters. I imagine my brother disrupting the quiet with his uneven trot. Tongue lolling out the side of his mouth. Impish. Like a pup. I close my eyes and picture him pausing in front of me, forelegs splayed awkwardly, his tail whipping back and forth in a playful rhythm. I almost want to wag my own tail to show him that I’m ready to leap into the snow with him, just in case. But when I open my eyes, the morning is still.
I step out of the opening and my paws sink softly into the powdery snow. It is dry, and today will be cold. I check the snow immediately around my den. I step carefully so that I don’t disturb any tracks that aren’t mine. There are only a few. My mate’s and two others’. But there are none that belong to my heavy, gentle brother.
I take my usual route first, trotting through it quickly.
Cluster of Brush.
Today I must find him. I turn sharply toward the River. There is a tributary that breaks off in a fork where I often reach the bank to drink. I know if I follow this turn it will lead me to the Road. As much as I hate the Road, I love the River and its branches. The bison drink there and no matter what time of year it is, the River hypnotizes me. Today, the snow reaches all the way to the edge of the riverbanks. It is piled in rounded white domes on top of the boulders dotting the water’s path. Narrow, leafless trees watch over the River in clusters. The world is severe and cold. And yet, the water flows. I could watch its rippling surface for hours. But not now. My brother needs me.
When I reach the split in the River, I pause to look at the mountains that cradle my valley. They surround me like a great craggy ring. They rise up like giants, draped in snow and dusted with trees scattered over them. Their immovable peaks comfort me somehow. I lift my nose to see if I can smell my brother anywhere. I howl our song, hoping that he will answer me. One long, cascading call and four short ones. Then a long one again. We made this song when we were pups and still sing it to each other, even though everyone else has moved on.
I HATE HOWLING when I am afraid that no one will answer.
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TALIA LAKSHMI KOLLURI’s short fiction has appeared in the Minnesota Review, Ecotone, and elsewhere. She was born and raised in Northern California and now lives in the Central Valley, where she is at work on a collection of short stories, and a novel. Her home on the internet can be found at taliakolluri.com. If you would like to learn more about gray wolves, their environment, and how to protect them, visit defenders.org.