Treetop was pissed. Her man, Staghorn, had snubbed her, shouting at her to stay put. Going on and on about the prattle that Oroco spouts: Protect the open womb. Protect the baby.
So it’s too dangerous for her to go out with the hunting party? We’ll see about that.
She picked up her baby, MonkeyHand, and stuffed him brusquely into the leathers her mother had given her, and strapped him on her back. By now, MonkeyHand knew not to cry: She would simply smother him if he did. He hated that, so he stayed quiet as she left the tent, and started following the men.
Such noise they were making! She sniffed derisively as she followed silently behind them. They were completely unaware of her, of course. No one could move through the forest better than Treetop, with her long, gangly legs. She was a woman of 19 summers with a man of her own now. Likely to be chief someday too!
Staghorn spotted the wolf as it began its kill run. It was moving in from the North, coming fast, hunting something, but not them. Then suddenly his heart was filled with fear as he saw Treetop take off running with MonkeyHand, their baby son, strapped to her back. He shouted for the men to follow, and took off after her.
Stupid! Treetop knew she was stupid! She was so busy in her own mind criticizing the men, that she had missed the wolf, and now she was being hunted. And she had the baby!
She felt more than saw the wolf pounce on her and MonkeyHand. She went down hard. She heard the sickening sound of the crunch of bone, as the wolf grabbed MonkeyHand by the head and shook him.
She heard Staghorn come in with his spear and end the wolf with a thrust through the heart. Then she reached down and picked up her dying infant son. She held him and watched as he struggled to breath, but she knew it was no good. Broken neck. Within a few seconds, he was gone.
He was gone. She felt the blow physically, as she fell to her knees sobbing hysterically. She looked up and met the eyes of her man, as she held her infant son’s body.
That moment was searing. She saw in Staghorn’s face the rage, the fury, at her defiance. And she knew that it was her fault that MonkeyHand was dead. She was wrong all along, and should have obeyed. Yet she also knew that is was not her nature to obey.
Desperately she looked into her man’s eyes and searched for some love, some forgiveness. And then she found it there. She knew that Staghorn was beyond anger, beyond words, for her stupidity. But she also knew that he still loved her. In that she found some small comfort.
And that was when they heard it: A soft scuffling, scratching and whimpering sound. Nearby they found the den, filled with five newborn cubs.
She reached out and grabbed Staghorn’s arm and said: “She was defending her cubs. We would have done the same.”
Staghorn turned and gazed at the female mother wolf, lying dead on the ground with his spear through her heart. He walked over and roughly pulled out his spear. Grinding his teeth he said: “We have lost enough of our people to wolves. I am not in the mood to forgive this one. Pebble! Kill those cubs. Let’s get out of here.”
She collapsed onto the forest ground and began to grieve. Dimly she heard the men’s spears pounding as they beat the cubs to death. And then the men, sensing that she needed to be alone with her son, began to withdraw.
She lay there on the ground alone for a long time, how long she did not know. She was lost in grief, self pity, remorse, and guilt. She wanted to undo what she had done. She wanted her son back. But she knew there was no going back now. What was done was done.
Gradually, she became aware of another sound, coming from the den. Reluctantly, she went to the den, and there she found a sixth cub, a female, lying hidden in the back, behind a rock. She was quite unharmed and helpless, her eyes still closed.
She hated this cub. With all her might she wanted to rip her throat out with her own teeth. Or she could simply leave her there to starve. That would be crueler anyway.
But as she looked at the small, tiny, newborn cub, she began to pity her. She realized, again, that the mother wolf was protecting her den. She understood that. Finally, she found that she could not bring herself to kill the tiny creature.
But what to do? Without a mother to feed and protect her, this cub would die very quickly. The solution was right there on Treetop’s chest: Her breasts were still full of milk.
Impulsively, not realizing what she was doing, she put the cub on her breast. The cub nuzzled, latched on and began to feed hungrily. Holding the cub in her arms as she fed, she made her way back to the tribe.
Treetop never knew it, but that one decision, the choice to nurture and feed that wolf cub, was the most important single thing that had ever happened on this world.