"The way to bliss lies not on beds of down."
~~ Francis Quarles
He walked in the haze without being seen. No friends, or those he called family, those consummate at seeing through the night and hearing things under the whisper of breezes, detected him. He roamed his dreams as he often did: Alone. Sometimes he saw childhood playmates from memory. Sometimes he relived good times with his family as an adult. More often than not it was utterly, eerily silent. This eve he glided under branches and near boulders to the stream where the cubs played. He couldn't make out their faces, but that was normal. He was amazed when the layered silence was broken. It was about him he knew they spoke.
"Whenever he returns... Why he doesn't stay... Like a crazy wolf chasing water... Papa says... Way it happens... Never Recognize... Makes you foolish... Mama says... Some sort of sentry ... Would've Recognized another by now..."
He felt a heaviness within him at the talk. Was it truly there? Had it always been there? Did it matter any more? Beneath the blanket of reflection, there came another voice, "Help." He thought it sounded familiar but he couldn't place it through the dense fog, "Help." He drifted closer but it moved away from him. "Let me..." Was it Aya? "Help..." Shouldn't he know for certain? Why couldn't he focus? Why couldn't he send? "Let me..." Let her what? Let her go?
Farscout woke and rubbed his eyes. It wasn't his usual waking time. It was after mid-night, but not yet early dawn. Mist drifted about. It would be thick with moisture from the sea by morning. He looked at the treetops in which he slept in time to see a flash of light behind a cloud. He smelled the salt in the breeze from here. No sense in trying to sleep again. He considered a walk along the deserted beach, maybe a quick dive through the waves. Goldspice loved it when he brought back smooth pebbles, coral and colored shells. Usually Cloudfern and Nightstorm wound up fighting over who would keep them. Crackle pestered him to bring back loner crabs; maybe some day she'd learn how to keep them alive longer than two days. Chicory wanted more of the purple spine-disks; he hadn't figured out why.
With the time of morning and the steadily building fog, he felt comfortable walking toward the beach at ground level. His sensitive ears had scarcely picked up the undulating surf, when something completely different sliced within earshot. The keen rose and fell, followed by another lower and bleak. It bore the undercurrent of suffering. Despite not knowing the source, Farscout picked up his pace.
He loped over fallen branches, passed through foliage, under leaves, and down a short but steep rocky slope to where he could see the surf receding as well as hear the breakers. Tide had gone out leaving behind sting-arm bags, large shells, and pink-bellied crabs. He halted, mindful of danger in the open. Sharp eyes cut through the blanketing mist. He detected nothing moving, but did see three bulky forms lying on the beach. He hopped off the rocks and came toward them cautiously, until he realized they would be unable to attack. They were beak-snouts; back-fins, belly-fins, and tailfins instead of legs; half-again as long as a wolf; shimmering, gray skin meant to cut through water; sleek, smooth bodies intended for swimming, not wallowing in sand.
He went up to the first one. It watched his approach with a wary, watery eye. 'What happened here?' he wondered. Plainly, they needed to return to the ocean. When a young wave rippled forward, he bent over and wet his hands. He chose the beak-snout in the middle, larger and further inland than the others, and pushed. To the far right, the smaller one gave two long tweets.
The most he managed to do was to rock the beast back and forth, receiving a wet hiss from the blowhole on top of the animal's head for his trouble. He wouldn't be able to move it himself. Likely, he'd need most of the tribe with nets just to haul it back to water. He knew a three-hand trek to the holt and back would be much too late. So he was it. He looked at each of the three grounded beak-snouts in turn, and searched the horizon where the sun would be climbing soon. The only thing he had going for him was the unfailing tides. They would just have to wait.
He looked the beast over, touching it more attentively. It blinked but nothing else. It didn't appear to be injured outwardly. The one to its right wobbled and made a low noise that sounded enough like a question that Farscout was compelled to answer aloud. "I'm not going to hurt you," he murmured. "You belong in the water, you know. I'm trying to find out why you aren't there."
It responded again, some how, he thought. Farscout watched it for a few heartbeats, considering. It was more talkative than the other two; he assumed it was female. The one to the far left was a bit smaller and he couldn't discern whether it was male or female. He wet his hands again and considered shoving some more.
The female chirped.
"Do you not want to be back in the water?" he asked, but in the silence that followed except for the swelling waves, he felt the answer.
"Well," he dusted his hands off and checked the shoreline for enemies, "you belong in the water, and I'll see to it you get there." The one on the left gave its first chirrup, which didn't sound very cheerful.
"What brought you on land anyway?" The female returned four short cheeps. As long as she seemed to answer, he saw no reason to stop the conversation. "Are you all family?"
As far as he knew the female responded affirmatively. He nodded his understanding. Or perhaps he merely envisaged that the beak-snouts fully embraced what the family meant. What family meant to him.
While he watched for predators and humans, he reflected on Brightwood. While he dug trenches beneath their belly fins and tails, he thought of Cloudfern. As he brought water to fill the shallow holes beneath them, he considered Lynx. As he toted water to keep them wet and the sun rose higher in the sky, his mind dwelled on Otter and Crackle and Windburn and others in the tribe.
At last the fog burnt away and the sun was rising in the sky. The tide had already begun to climb higher onto the sandy beach, making it easier on him to keep their hides damp. Farscout waited and watched to see how well the water and the beak-snouts fared on their own. After the first good wave reached them, the beak-snout to the far left had been turned and was heading back toward the ocean at an angle.
'She won't leave without you,' he thought, staring through the largest beak-snout. [i] *Why won't you help her? Is she your mate? At least live for her!*[/i] Farscout felt a trickle of cold from one side of his neck creep down his back – a slow trickle that passed in the instant of a gasp and over the period of centuries. He felt as though time itself slowed, between the taking of one breath and the exhaling of the next. "Let me help."
It gave Farscout a lift of spirit. After several attempts at moving the female -- amid her apparent protests notwithstanding his stubborn silence -- he wasn't going to move her until she wanted to be moved.
He paused, bent over, leaning against his knees to catch his breath. "Why?" he asked between huffs. "Why are you making this difficult?"
She chirped and waved a flipper.
"What," he said, pointing to the male, "him? You won't go without him?" He sloshed over to the larger male from the middle. **This is all your doing, is it?** he snapped. Waves crashed close by. Not even a seagull screamed.
In the heat of midday he shuddered, rudely forcing the thoughts of a bad dream from his head. His brow creased. "Well, at least one of you wants to go." He trudged through the ankle-deep water to the one on the left. He used the waves' exodus to help his momentum. He heaved and pushed, breathed and waited for the next wave, and heaved some more until it was in enough water to escape on its own.
It gave him some vague sense of satisfaction when he saw the other two watching him. He sloshed over to the female. *All right, lifebearer, you're next.* The water was noticeably higher now and she was smaller. He managed to turn her in the direction of the ocean. No matter what he did after that, she wouldn't swim to deeper water. In fact, when it became deep enough to be comfortable, she would turn and swim inland again.
"Why?" he demanded. "You don't have to let him ruin your life, too!"
With a breathy string of curses, he trudged to the male. He pressed, and pushed, and petted, and cajoled, and shoved and shoved some more, shoving until he fell on his hands and knees in water above his elbows. He stood, breathing heavily and stared hard at the creature that refused to budge.
High Ones knew he'd lost before. He'd lost family, friends, wolves. He knew death was part of the huge cycle which included life. He'd been there to offer what comfort he could to wolf-friends when they had given up the will to live any longer. He knew nothing about beak-snouts, but he couldn't detect any injuries, it didn't have any signs Farscout would associate with advanced age. And why the female? She still had reasons to live. Why wouldn't she get out there and find another strapping, young beak-snout to frolic in the waves with?
He cursed again, wanting badly to hit something and not certain why. "Let me help you!"
The beak-snout blinked once and allowed a groan, so low even elfin ears could barely detect it.
This time the male seemed to stare straight at Farscout with a single, round, watery eye. The groan sounded a lot like two pieces of wood stripped of bark rubbing together. He only made the noise once. It settled in Farscout's gut like stagnant brine. Water whirled around his waist. Tiny minnows darted in every direction, caught by the tide. Sack-bills dove to feed on larger fish, which were feeding near the surface. The daystar was getting too warm on Farscout's head and back, but his feet sank in the sand with every ebb and his legs were numb.
The beak-snout closed his eye and this time it didn't reopen. The female swam in circles, emitting quick wails and intermittent chirping. Why did he feel like there had to be another way? There was another way. Not everyone saw things his way, though. He plodded to the female, herding more than pushing her in the direction of the ocean. Once her mind was made up, she shimmied her tail, making for deep water almost faster than Farscout could see.
Were his values in this life, about life itself, coming into question? Had it failed him today? Two would live. The third would be food for other creatures the next time the tide went out. There shouldn't be a niggling of doubt.
Distractedly, Farscout made his way toward the low, rocky ledge and the trees and trails he knew so well beyond. Life ended and life began as surely as the tides; like the tides every passing interval brought change. For better, for worse, not a single moment that passed was the same as the next moment to come. Everything changed. He knew his heart, he knew his soul, he had thought he wouldn't change. He rubbed the facefur on his chin. Despite everything he knew and wanted, he [i]was[/i] changing. Each failure, each victory, each new trial the wind and waves brought, wore on him, too. Shaped him, altered him. For better or worse?
If he admitted it to himself, he strongly suspected the female would return. When she did, she would perish beside the other. He didn't want to be here to see it. Why? What did she know? Or was she just following her heart. What would it have taken to make the male change its mind?
Was he a guardian for his holt? A champion? Or was he the crazy wolf? Was he any less stubborn than the beak-snout that lay dead in the water behind him? What was he losing by waiting for the tides to change?
Could it be changed? Shouldn't he want to? Could he help ... himself?