The old river god gently laid the sleeping twin boys on the bank. She watched as he sadly backed away from the shore and melted into his domain. Just before he vanished he looked up and met her eyes, charging her with this task in that one glance. He knew her well. She would never turn away the helpless.
The children began to fret, flailing tiny limbs futilely. The smaller let out a mewling cry, and she heard the ancient voice of hunger. She huffed out a breath and then left the cover of her cave entrance.
She approached the infants cautiously. That they came from the river likely meant there were no other humans nearby, but still she remained alert. Humans were devious, and she did not doubt that they might use their own young as bait. She did not intend to fall into that trap.
The larger boy stilled as she stood over him. There was no fear in his brown eyes, but they held a question. Are you going to hurt me, too? So young and yet this pup knew betrayal.
The smaller boy continued to whimper, his tiny face a twisted up mask of unassuaged grief, his eyes darting from sky to river to her face. He took comfort in nothing he saw. She reached out and gently, so gently, brushed his cheek. He turned into her touch, mouth searching for sustenance.
She pawed the infant onto his side and picked him up. So small, he fit in her jaws like a dead hare. Only he was not dead. He squirmed and squealed. Afraid she would drop him, she gave him a slight shake to startle him into submission. Before the shock could wear off, she loped back to the cave and laid him in her bed.
Then she returned to the silent brother. He tensed when she picked him up, but he did not thrash or cry out. She carried this infant to her cave and laid him by his brother.
She was no expert on distinguishing human infants, all softness and mush and milk stink, but she could see that these two had the mark of the war god in their features. And with this realization came a scent of old blood and bone. And dust. Ancient dust.
She drew back. Because why were the children of deity abandoned to the waters? But the smaller boy began to wail and her body ached to give him comfort.
She lay down next to him and guided him to her mother’s milk. He suckled ferociously. Poor starving whelp. She drew the other boy closer. Soon both were nursing contentedly, all betrayal and cold waters forgotten as warm milk filled their tiny bellies. It took so little to soothe the jagged edges. So little. Just this.
They woke in the dawn air and began to flounder against her breast. She shifted away and stood over them. They had soiled her bed.
She prodded them aside. The smaller boy began to crawl toward the cave entrance. The quiet one sat up and blinked owlishly at his brother.
She pushed the filth out of the cave and batted the explorer back inside. She was hungry and sore, but she had no daughters to help mind these two fragile creatures. She sat in the cave entrance and stared at the pair of them. The smaller one poked and jabbed, seeking the attention of his sibling. The quiet one sucked a finger.
She heard a soft thump outside the cave and turned to see the river god’s retreating back. He’d brought a soft-bellied carp. She did not like fish, too many small bones to avoid. But she recognized his offer of partnership. She accepted.
And this became their routine, this peculiar family. She spent most of her days in the cave entrance, guarding, arbitrating, letting the sun warm her back. The old river daemon brought food, somehow sensing when she needed to eat. They never spoke. The infants suckled and played and grew. The moons danced overhead and winter approached.
Human infants matured so very slowly. Months after her own pups would have been hunting for their own sustenance these two continued to nurse. Her body was exhausted.
But she loved them. She claimed them and cared for them. They were her own children now, regardless of parentage.
She watched them with pride as they discovered their world. There were endless novelties in this bounded space. Bodies, sand, stone, insects. And over and under it all, Mother.
They began to talk the strange twin-speak, and she learned their language. They copied her as well, speaking with their bodies. The small family whispered and shouted “I love you, I love you, I love you” with eyes and hands, paws and ears. And the boys grew.
Seasons rolled over the cave family. The infants became children. They learned to look after themselves. They fished in the river, bowing in deference to the old god who they claimed as father. They followed the old wolf, hunting hares and howling at the stars. Their clever hands, never still, crafted tools to compensate for their clawless fingers and inadequate teeth. At times they would wander, but they always returned to her.
Until the day they didn’t.
They had grown to manhood. They were handsome and tall, long-limbed and broad-chested, though naked and rude. Their black hair tumbled down in matted locks. To human eyes, they were indistinguishable and wildly eerie. To the ears of wolves they were men, full of deceit and treachery. To her, they were themselves, her sons.
They had grown to a similar size and shape. But the quiet one remained thoughtful and studious and smelled of moonlight. The effusive one worked hard to contain his tongue and restless body. He often failed. He smelled like summer.
She had grown very old. Her muzzle fur was thin and grey. Her legs, arthritic and stiff. She was wintry and slow. The boys often hunted alone now. But her heart still swelled when she caught their returning scent. She delighted in just watching them in the twilight, being near their warm bodies, hearing their breathing and quiet twin-chatter, feeling their hands on her body.
She knew her task was drawing to its conclusion. She knew she would soon lay her bones down for the final time. It had been years since she’d last seen the river god. She sometimes fretted over this.
The day they did not return dawned bright and warm. The moon brother studied the skies as the summer bother fidgeted with some small thing of driftwood and antler. It was time. They felt a call to some unknown purpose in the wider world. They knew they must leave their home, their mother, their lives, even though it was not the way of wolves to abandon kin.
They had not yet learned that they were not wolves. This foreign longing troubled them. But they listened to its urging.
They set off aimlessly, thinking they might go find their father and ask his advice. They turned to look back at Mother in her cave. She looked so frail, so fragile, so ephemeral and time-worn. She was no longer the firm foundation, the enduring center of their lives. She would fade. She would die. And they would be motherless children if they remained in this, their childhood home.
She watched them go and felt something shift. She remained in the cave entrance until their scents faded to a thin stream. And then she saw the river god. He stood in the shallows, his eyes on her, and she knew. She was to become childless this day.
She threw her head back and howled her heart-breaking farewell.
They heard her cry. They did not return. But they carried away her voice — the sound of love, of home. They sealed her in their hearts. They remained wolves.
Until the world of men broke them apart.
©Elizabeth Anker 2021