Hiking in the woods I found an abandoned baby animal so young I couldn’t fathom what sort of creature it was. It looked a bit like a miniature cow in that way that a new, gangly pup might, but it had pointy ears like a cat or fox, but no fur to speak of. At first I thought it dead, as its eyes were shut tight, but after I watched it a moment and saw the tiniest of breaths expanding its chest, I realized that perhaps the eyes had simply not yet opened.
It lay on the trail in the dry dirt, with no evidence of how it got to this spot to be seen, and I wondered if perhaps it might have fallen from one of the trees that canopied high above me. The little thing had a wound on its head which ants had already started to invade.
My first thought was that this poor little whelp should be put out of its misery, but the thought of doing such a thing, putting my boot to it or such, brought such a pang to my chest that I had to steady myself against a nearby tree. I’m not a squeamish man, but that was not something that I could bring myself to do. I wiped moisture from my eyes and gazed away from the thing and into the deep, green womb of the forest.
The hour was late, and I was not too far from my camp. At length I picked the little thing up. It was not much bigger than the palm of my hand, its gray, hairless skin feeling as clammy and hot as a teenage girl’s palm might as she awaited a nervous first kiss, or perhaps it was more like a dying old woman’s, too far gone to care. The little thing barely moved as I made my way down the trail.
When I reached camp, I wet a rag from my canteen and cleaned away the ants from the little guy’s head. I then mixed some dairy powder I had for my morning coffee with water and rubbed the paste on its mouth, hoping this might give it a little nourishment. He licked his lips at this, so I gave him some more. “You’ve still got a little life left in you, eh boy?”
After he seemed to be sated, I spread an old flannel shirt on the ground by my fire pit and placed the little guy upon it. I then set about building my fire and making my dinner. After I finished, I retrieved a bottle of whiskey from my backpack and sat with my back to a stump near the fire and drank, watching the little thing in the flickering firelight as darkness slowly enveloped the camp.
About half a bottle later, I began to think about Mary, wishing she were here with me. She was the great lover of animals, and I only loved them because I loved her, but like so many things in life, we were not to be. I’ve never really loved anyone since, and I’ve always been happiest alone, like here in the forest.
“I guess I’m not really alone now, am I?” I said to the whelp. “Not while you’re here. She’d probably know what you are. She’s a vet, you know. Maybe she could take care of you. Maybe I should take you to her. That’d be an excuse to see her again.”
I took another shot of whiskey, and as the liquor burned down my throat, I coughed. “Mary doesn’t want to see you no more, you stupid fool. She made that perfectly clear.”
The little whelp twitched, perhaps lost in some mysterious, unknowable dream. I took another drink.
“Mary, Mary, quite contrary,” I sang, remembering how I used to tease her with that line. She hated it. Perhaps that had been just one of the myriad of things that added up to her leaving me. One never knows what one has, until it’s gone.
I drank the rest of my whiskey, the thing Mary perhaps detested the most, and as my fire died down to embers, I got up and stumbled into my tent. I slept the stoic sleep of drunkenness for the bulk of the night, waking only when dawn began to blue itself through the fabric of the tent. Dry mouthed and headache shod, I climbed out of my tent.
I was in a bit of a mindless daze for a moment, then I spotted my flannel shirt by the fire pit. The little whelp was gone.
I rushed about the campsite madly, but found nothing. There was no trace of anything. No tracks on the ground. No sign of a struggle.
“God damn it! I should have taken you in the tent with me.” My mind raced, thoughts wrestling about, trying to find some measure of hope. Maybe he wandered off. No. Too small. Too young. Maybe his mother came for him. No, don’t be stupid. Something came for him and it wasn’t his mother. That’s the way of the forest. “Damn my drunk hide. I should have taken you into the tent. You mighta grown up and been a good friend, whatever you were.” I stared down at the shirt, its green and white tartan pattern stained with a small red spot from the little fellow’s head wound, which must have bled again in the night. At length, I sat down on the stump, my head in my hands. Mary was sure right about me. “I coulda taken you to her, little whelp. She’d a known what to do. Mary always knew what to do. I sure miss her.”
A little while later I pulled myself together and rebuilt my fire, making breakfast and coffee. Bugs and birds chirped and chittered all around as the forest went about its business, indifferent to me, indifferent to the passing of one little creature.
Christopher Owen lives in Texas with his wife and two cats. His work has appeared at Daily Science fiction, Mirror Dance, Mystic Signals and other places. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing workshop and the Yale Summer Writers’ Conference.