Beating their wings from tree top to tree top, seldom cawing, three ravens followed him up onto his favorite hill. He, in the way his kind, sensed their presence without a need to hear them. The ravens, in the way of their kind, were waiting for easy pickings from his next kill. The ravens did not know he was a yearling male—good at the stalk, weak at the kill.
On this cold clear late spring day, a day for smells to carry well in the northern forest, two strong scents drew his focus. One scent was deer; the other was a mystery. Deer he knew by taste and smell from last fall and winter when his mother gave him venison from fresh kills by the pack. This day he was off on his own, apart from, but still a member of the pack. Rodents were keeping him alive. Squirrels were more filling but harder to catch than mice and moles.
Last fall in her high-pitched barely-audible whimper, his mother had named him.
Scents were his problem, or rather, his curiosity about scents was his problem. His powerful olfactory nerves, stronger than the rest of the pack, filled his brain with irresistible enticements. Like all of his kind at his age, he was cataloging scents. The background odors he blocked out—dank swamp, sweet pine, resinous balsam, pungent sumac, and heavy-in-the-nostrils earth.
The other strong scent was a mystery unlike anything else in the forest, perhaps not belonging to the forest. Pointing his head straight up, he pulsed his nostrils to explore the scent, which he discovered was not one scent, but a package of odors.
Seeker his mother had dubbed him; Seeker he was. In a low soft growl she had named his brother Staunch, seeing in him the stalwart traits of a pack leader. In early winter Staunch died in the jaws of a bobcat.
Seeker lowered his head and confronted a more pressing issue—his hunger. He was willing to scavenge like the ravens, except their greater skill had swept the hill clean. The copse behind him smelled of mice. He dug out three adult mice and a nest of pink infants. In the way of its kinds, a nuthatch crept headfirst down a maple tree. Seeker froze in place, waiting for it to get in range. He lunged and bit empty air. The ravens cawed down a taunt.
Seeker trotted back to the crest of the hill and raised his nose again. The mystery scent came from the southwest. True to his name, Seeker loped down the hill in search of its source. Two of the ravens followed him. Along the way Seeker found a dead whiskey jack, which he crunched in pleasure. His belly fuller and the mystery scent absent in the soft low ground where he was, Seeker crossed his front paws and lay his head upon them to doze.
The rattling of the leaves awoke him to a brisk southwest breeze. Sitting erect and tuning his ears into the wind, he heard a chaos of strange sounds, not one of them familiar. He lifted his nose and tuned his nostrils to the same direction. The package of odd odors had the same source as the sounds. He stroked his left paw over his nose, as if he were trying to erase the scents. He scratched both ears with his back legs. The sounds remained. The allure remained. The danger remained. Putting his supple young body into the effort, he yawned in luxury. He arose, looked north, and then ran to the southwest.
The closer he came to the source, the slower he moved, until he stopped and lay down to imbibe of the sounds and smells. He rose to a slinking crouch, took three steps forward, lay down, listened and smelled. He repeated the process a dozen times until he could see through the brush into a clearing. Here the odor of earth was strong, which he dismissed as meaningless. He saw a pack of unknown animals swarming together making the noises, not quiet and at ease like the pack of his kind. They were tall and walked on two legs.
Over many eons his ancestors had encountered such creatures, but only rarely, passing no memory of them to Seeker. Assessing them as meat, Seeker decided it would take the whole pack to run one down, if they could catch one separated from its pack. Too much effort would be expended for the probable result. Other prey were easier. Some of the creatures’ scents hinted of other food, alien but alluring food. Seeker could be patient. Until mid-afternoon he watched and waited, checking constantly that no upright creature was coming from another direction.
Many noises, some sudden and loud, sent tremors through his body. Slowly he separated the many calls of the creature from the other sounds. Many scents entered his nostrils, some of which stung his nose. He snorted them out.
The wind was shifting more to the south. It might drive his scent towards them. After crawling slowly back through the brush, he ran to the south to circle around the creatures. The clearing, like no clearing he knew, remained in front of him as far as he ran. Even though the upright creatures were a mile to the north, some of their scents hung in the clearing. He lay under a small spruce tree studying—drawn and repelled. A long flat object ran through the clearing from south to north. It was what held the odd scents, scents of the creatures but not of food. None of the creatures was near. He slunk out to the flat object. It was not alive, was not food, was hard as rock, did not smell or look like rock.
Seeker flinched to the ground ready to run. He turned eyes, nose, and ears to the south. New sounds. The ground trembled. A new odor, only one odor, seared his tender nasal passages. He sneezed and then sneezed again. The sounds were louder. Seeker ran back to his place beneath the spruce. As the noise drew nearer, he retreated deeper into the trees, but curiosity drew him back to the spruce.
Moving along the flat object rumbled a monstrous thing, bigger than any moose, bigger than many moose, taller than the upright creatures. Its powerful odor fell heavily upon him. Seeker folded in his nostrils, which did not block the odor. Never before had he seen a scent in the air. He sneezed it out again and again. He tried to fold shut his ears. Just as he was about to flee in panic, a strange sight arrested him. Some of the upright creatures were inside the monster; it must be a thing and not an animal. But things do not move. Animals move; things just sit.
Seeker lay transfixed; his muscles pulsed in fear. Then the monster was gone to the north, its heavy scent still falling from the air. He ran back into the woods to find bare earth. He rolled in the loose dirt, wiped his head several times, scratched himself everywhere he could reach, rolled again in the dirt. Some of the odor still clung to him, making his nose less effective.
Late in the afternoon, hearing the monster coming back, Seeker, despite himself, was drawn to see it again. It still ran on the flat object, still flung its scent into the air. This time many more of the upright creatures were inside it. His escort ravens and other ravens were flying north. Ravens, which he knew as careful and cunning birds, flocked for food. Perhaps the whole pack of the upright creatures had been inside the monster. Seeker ran north, but always a few yards back from the long clearing.
He neared the place where the creatures had been. Several ravens were, in the way of their kind, squabbling and feeding from the ground. Perhaps they had a dead creature as carrion. No, it was the alluring unknown food on which they fed. Seeker charged into their midst, scattering them off a few yards, giving him a moment to sniff and lick the scraps from the unknown creatures’ last kill, which was a new kind of food. It smelled of the creatures but of neither blood nor death. When the ravens saw him hesitant to eat, they attacked from the air and the ground, in the way of their kind, targeting his eyes. Snarling and snapping, he caught a leg of one raven above his head. Ravens could be food, too. When it pecked at his eyes, he had to release it, which made them all retreat to gather for another attack. Seeker gobbled down most of the food before running east with one piece of scrap in his mouth. He carried it to the top of a favorite nearby large boulder.
The smell and taste of the food was puzzling. Some parts were meat, but neither fresh-killed nor carrion. Other parts were soft. All parts tasted good, reducing his hunger and making him thirsty. As he drank from a small pond, he heard his pack calling from the northeast. He called back, but only briefly and not well. He was a seeker, not a caller.
He bedded down for the night in a copse of alder brush and birch on his favorite hill. When the cawing of the ravens awoke him, he smelled the creatures returning in the monster. They must have gone night-hunting and were returning with fresh kill. Perhaps more scraps would be left tonight, which the ravens seemed to expect, and ravens were wise opportunists.
For now he fed on mice and one red squirrel, the catching of which taught him another lesson in patience. When his lunge missed the squirrel on the trunk of a birch tree, Seeker sat back in the same place, feigning indifference. After mere minutes the curious squirrel came back down the opposite side of the tree. When it peeked to look at him, Seeker plucked it off the bark. He lay down and crunched in satisfaction, leaving only the tail for the ravens above. However, in the way of his kind, his limited reasoning could not transfer the dangers of curiosity to his own behavior.
By noon he had drifted back to his brushy hiding place to watch the upright creatures. It seemed they were creating more clearing heading to the north. For hours he lay, trying to understand the strange powers of these pack creatures. The odors and sounds were the same as yesterday. The monster was not in sight. Was this how they hunted? His curiosity unquenched, he rose to get a clearer look.
A sudden cracking sound—pain seared across the top of his skull. He yelped in pain and rolled back into the brush. He saw only light, then only black. Could not smell. Could not hear the alarm call of the ravens or the second report of the sharp sound.
Only briefly unconscious, Seeker found orientation when he heard steps running towards him, which told him in which direction was the forest, into which he ran, stumbling often, his blindness returning in brief flashes of light. Using low cover, he worked his way towards the hill, often pausing to clear his head, tried and failed to hear any pursuit. In the darkest spot under the trees on the hill, Seeker collapsed and slept. Hours later he awoke. He could not shake the pain from his head. His senses were still weak; he could smell blood, which he knew was his own. His thinking process was clear enough for him to wonder how he had been bitten when no creature was near him. He went back to sleep.
When he awoke in the dawn light, ravens were gathered on branches not far above him, drawn by the smell of his blood. He arose and snarled at the ravens, who lifted themselves only a few branches higher. They were patient, in the way of their kind.
Water—first he must have water, which he found in a rivulet along the north side of the hill. When the water revived him enough to hold up his head and sniff the air, the ravens gave him up for alive and lifted themselves to circle higher in the air, keeping track of him while seeking other food.
His pack—he must find his pack. Their territory was north and east. It took four days to find them, his sense of smell still impaired. As he worked his way northeast, drinking water many times during the day, he ate bear droppings and found a dead owl by pure chance, ever keeping in the low foliage. The second day he recovered enough sense of smell to find moles and mice. Many times those first two days he stopped for long drinks and sleep. The third day he smelled and found a live rabbit with a broken leg, which Seeker chased into swamp water to kill. The fourth day his senses were back to normal, by which he found the pack.
They found him by the smell of his blood.
Leader charged at him with low rumbling snarls, with lips curled back from his teeth. In subservience Seeker rolled onto his back. Still growling but with only his nose wrinkled, Leader pushed at his belly and inhaled Seeker’s scent, recognizing Seeker as one of his own, despite the reek of blood. Leader trotted back into his pack. With head down and tail drooping to show his low social rank, Seeker followed. A female touched noses with him. Each knew the other’s scent well, but in the way of their kind, the mother-child bond had been erased from their memories. When Seeker lay down, in the way of their kind, she licked his wound until it was clean.
The males and one fallow female headed out to hunt. At sundown they dragged in the carcass of a fresh-killed fawn. Seeker was allowed to take a small share of the meat. For three days he lay in their protection recovering his strength. At Seeker’s young age the urge to dominate and to mate had not yet risen, making him no threat to the leader, which Seeker’s body language communicated. The pack pups made him their plaything, crawling across his upturned belly, nipping at his ears, tugging his tail, which he tolerated. When their play was too rough, he cuffed them or pinned them to the ground.
Soon he joined the hunting group, learning skills of rabbit, squirrel, and deer hunting. Three weeks later Seeker, with his superior nose, lead the pack to a dead buck. He made it his job to scatter the ravens, who had torn open the soft belly and gorged on the entrails, after pecking out the eyes.
Later in the summer his urge to seek alone returned. Some nights he slept away from the pack, living on mice, voles, squirrels, and now and then a rabbit. Hunting deer, he knew, required the whole pack as well as luck. He roamed to the north into new territory with more lakes and higher hills, often with the ravens above him. One fall morning he crested a ledge east of a sprawling lake and lifted his nose into the northern wind seeking carrion and, as always, new scents. With nothing of interest in the air, he lay down with his front feet over the edge. He dozed. In the afternoon the wind died and turned, now coming from the west. He jumped erect, and backed away from ledge, whimpering and tripping over his back feet. The stinging odor of the monster had reached into his brain, evoking memory of pain and fear.
Three ravens flapped off top branches of a dead Norway pine, circled him three times, and flew west. The ravens reminded him of the upright creatures and the wonderful food. The memory of pain and fear dominated. He found a safe haven under the dead pine and slept fitfully, waking often, the scent finding him even as he hid.
Awaking in moonless darkness to the sound of mice rattling under the red mat of pine needles, he took a quick breakfast before returning to the rock ledge to inhale night scents. The frightening but alluring scent was gone. Seeker made his decision. He ran down the hill and around the lake on the north side. Revenge was not his motive. His kind knew no revenge, nor could they afford it. Seeker he was; curiosity and exploration were his motive. At daybreak he found the long clearing, now much farther north than last spring. He could smell and see the long flat object in the clearing. The scent of the creatures was stronger to the north. Keeping several yards back in the brush, he followed to where his nose led his curiosity.
When he knew the upright creatures were near, he dropped, waited, took three slinking steps, dropped, waited and repeated the slow process until he saw new large things in the clearing. They smelled of pine but were not trees. The scent of the creatures was stronger than he had ever smelled it. His nose pulsed in other odors, one the enticing smell off the wonderful food. Another odor was like but weaker than the monster, not stinging his nose. Arising from the pine things was the same visible scent which rose from the monster. He waited for the pine things to move. They did not. Instead some of the upright creatures came from them and milled about in their pack before traveling north to their mysterious hunt. He watched until noon, when thirst drove him back to the lake. He made a lucky catch of a duck sleeping in the reeds. For three days he stayed away, catching another duck, a mole, and a diseased raccoon, ending each day on the rock ledge. A new urge was stirring inside him, which he had not felt before, which confused him.
The fourth day he awoke to the ravens cawing. The wind was from the north. He arced around the lake to the south to mask his scent as he approached the creatures one more time, hunting along the way without reward. Today the monster was with the creatures, who were again busy in their pack where he had left them four days before. Two ravens circled above him. Everything was louder; the scents were strong and disturbing, masking any hint of the wonderful food. The confusing urge returned and was not to be ignored. Now he knew; it was the desire to mate. It was time to head back to his pack. He arose from his hiding place to turn and run.
A sudden cracking sound—pain ripped into his chest and though his heart. The ravens flew away, not hearing his final high-pitched yelps and screams, not seeing him tumble and roll to his death in the brush. At dusk the ravens returned, drawn by his skinned carcass, on which they fed for three days, first pecking out his eyes.
Fifty years later one of the upright creatures dwelling in one of the pine things near Lake Superior, in the way of his kind, often pulled out a tattered old pelt and told the pups of his breed how he had shot the wolf just as it was lunging for his throat.
©Clyde L. Birkholz 2017