The storms, the cold, and the dwindling supply of food caused yet another Bad Thing, and Wimsie was the first to find it. We were working our way along the stream, trying to locate more edible roots that we could dig up. At one point, Wimsie started whining. I glanced up, but she wasn't looking at me. She was looking at something on the ground. She kept whining, and then she lay down on her tummy and put her head on her paws. Usually, if she found something, she would yip at me to come and help her, and then she would start digging. I had never seen her act that way, so I wandered over to see what all the fuss was about.
And there, right in front of her nose, was a bird. The bird was lying on its back, with one wing spread out and the other wing folded. It wasn't moving, or even breathing, and its eyes were closed. I touched it gently with a paw, but it still didn't move.
"What's wrong with the birdie?" Wimsie asked. "It won't fly."
I had some idea of what I was looking at, even though I didn't have a name for it. I had seen several examples of it in the Big Dream, after the Time Tree had been cut down, and I hadn't told Wimsie about it because I didn't want her to be sad. And, dammit, I still didn't want her to be sad, so I lied like I had never lied before. "The birdie flew back to the Big, Cosmic Dream," I said, as cheerfully as I could. "It was tired of being cold and hungry and wet, so it went back, and, frankly, I don't blame it. I mean, what is a bird supposed to do when its feathers are wet all the time? That wouldn't be any fun, would it?"
"No, I suppose not," she said, and then she hit me with her simple but devastating logic. "But how can it be in the dream, if it's still here?" As if to emphasize the point, she prodded the bird with her nose.
Shit. I had to think fast. "Well . . . you've seen me in dreams, and I've seen you in dreams, and we were right next to each other in bed the whole time. Right?"
She thought about that for a bit. "But you always wake up and come back," she said. Then she cocked her head at me. "Will the bird come back?"
I was up to my neck in the lie, so I kept it going. "Maybe if the weather gets better," I said, "and it can fly around in the sunshine and be happy." Then I thought of something that might distract her from the pathetic little heap of feathers on the ground. "The next time you have the Big Dream, you could look for the bird in it! There are always birds in the Dream, so see if you can spot this one." I peered at the bird, which was red with a little tuft of feathers on its head. "It's a cardinal, right? So try to pay attention to the cardinals you see in the Dream, and you might be able to find it. And then you can play chase-the-bird."
My strategy worked. She wagged her tail and said, "Okay," and then she pranced off in search of more stuff to eat. I was ashamed of how easy it had been, but I had to do it.
As the crappy weather continued, Nar and Zan "caught a cold," which was something that they had never experienced. They sneezed, and coughed, and shivered, and spent most of their time in bed. Nar ventured outside just long enough to get more firewood. He kept the fire blazing, and several times it got so hot in the house that Wimsie and I fled to our little dog-house, which was more than warm enough because it was right next to the fireplace. While the humans had their "cold," Wimsie and I went scouting around and brought back whatever food we could find. We had to go further and further from the log house to find anything, but one day, we came across a patch of purple cabbage that was apparently as impervious to the cold as the pine trees were. We practically lived on cabbage for a while, until I never wanted to see another cabbage ever again.
The grass in the meadow had dried out and turned brown, but the sheep kept eating it because they couldn't find anything else. The plump animals started to lose weight. Zan felt sorry for them, and when she offered them some cabbage, they snarfed it right up. There was no shortage of cabbage, so she decided to give them some every day as a treat.
We also found more animals that had "gone to Dream-land" -- I had heard the humans talking about animals that they had found, and the human word for the condition of those unfortunate creatures was "dead" -- but Wimsie had believed my story, and she tried to remember to look for the dead animals in the Dream. And every now and then, she insisted that she had seen one, bless her kind little heart.
The humans eventually let go of the cold that they had caught, and the forest let go of the cold that it had caught. Day by day, the air got warmer, and the rain fell a little less frequently. The slow warm-up was too little, too late for about half of the plants and trees, which had "died" during the cold, but the rest of the plants were growing new, green leaves. I was glad to see it, because I was tired of eating cabbage.
Some strange new plants appeared that I didn't know the words for because they weren't in the Big, Cosmic Dream. I had to wait for the humans to name them: "thistles," "nettles," "briars," and "thorn-bushes." Those plants had sharp little spines that hurt our noses and paw-pads. And Nar discovered another new plant, "poison ivy," while he was out cutting firewood. He had pulled the ivy off a tree because it was in the way of his axe, and the following morning, his hands and arms were covered with an itchy "rash." Zan treated the rash with aloe juice, and from that day forward, we were always careful around new plants. Nar never forgot the incident with the ivy. Every time we found some, he dug it up with a stick and burned it, and he also burned the stick that he had used to dig it up.
The spiny plants and the itch-plants weren't the only harmful things that showed up. We saw more and more nasty kinds of bugs. There had always been bugs around, but those kinds of bugs were in the Cosmic Dream, and they minded their own business and didn't bother anyone. Bees, for example, were pretty relaxed, and they would even share their honey with us. The new bugs weren't like that at all. Some of them, the "fleas" and "mosquitoes" and "hornets" and "flies," bit and stung. Especially the hornets. Those nasty little fuckers would sting us if we so much as looked at their nest. And there were other new bugs, like "beetles," and "aphids" and "caterpillars," that damaged our food plants or even ruined the food itself.
It was Wimsie who first noticed that some of the caterpillars were turning into butterflies. We couldn't quite figure that one out. Butterflies had always been around, just like the bees had, and they didn't harm any of the plants at all. Wimsie loved to play with butterflies. But the caterpillars had just shown up, and they were destructive little buggers. Even the caterpillars that were cute and fuzzy didn't want to play, they just curled up in a ball and pretended they were "dead." They had no sense of humor at all.
We soon discovered that the caterpillars weren't the only ones who didn't want to play. When we tried to start a Chase Game with the deer, they ran away, but instead of turning around and chasing us, they kept running until we got tired and stopped chasing them. Other animals would do the same thing. Nobody wanted to play the chasing-game any more.
And just when I had begun to hope that the Bad Things were as bad as they were going to get, we saw a pack of wolves chase a deer around until the deer got tired, and then they bit it until it quit moving. And then . . . they ate it. Or at least, parts of it.
Wimsie was horrified. "Why did they do that?" she wailed, over and over. "Why did they do that?"
This time, I couldn't think of an easy lie. It had been dreadfully obvious that the deer hadn't been enjoying itself at all. So all I said was, "They were hungry. Lots of animals are hungry now."
"Well, why didn't they eat cabbage?" she said, trying to get a grip on the situation. "There's lots of cabbage." She was so upset that she was shaking.
I racked my brain, trying to think of something to say that would fit in with my previous lie. And then I had it.
"Remember the first dead animal we found?" I began. "The cardinal that went back to the Big Dream because it didn't like the shitty weather?"
Wimsie just looked at me. "So?"
I tried to sound casual. "When the bird went back to the Dream, it didn't need its body any more, so it left it by the river, and we found it. Right?"
"But nothing ate the bird," she pointed out. "I checked on it several times, to see if it had come back. But the deer won't be able to come back, because the wolves ate it!"
"Maybe the deer wasn't planning to come back," I explained, "and since the wolves were hungry -- did you see how thin they were? -- the deer let them use its body as food so they wouldn't starve. I mean, the deer didn't need its body any more, and it would have just laid there, so someone might as well eat it, right?"
"But the deer didn't look happy," she insisted. "It looked like it was trying to get away from the wolves. Why didn't it just go away, like the bird did?"
I could tell that she was having a hard time believing the bullshit I had just dumped on her, but I had to forge ahead. "Well . . . maybe the deer couldn't just go away, like the bird did, and it needed the wolves' help. After all, birds can fly, and deer can't, so maybe there's other stuff that deer can't do." And then I went for the distraction. "The deer didn't look happy, but think how happy it is now!" I wagged my tail, emphasizing the happy. "And you can play with it tonight, if you remember to look for it."
I was a bastard, I really was. I knew damn well that the deer hadn't wanted to be eaten. But the bullshit worked. That night, as we curled up on our bed, Wimsie yawned and said, "I gotta remember to find the deer." And I yawned, and I thought to myself, I'm a bastard.
As the days became even warmer and more pleasant, food started to appear, and so did something else: smaller versions of familiar animals. There were little deer with white spots, and small bears, and little raccoons, and tiny birds that had fuzz instead of feathers. There were even little sheep in the herd that lived in our meadow. The humans thought up special names for the small animals. Little sheep were "lambs," and little deer were "fawns," and little bears were "cubs," and so on.
We knew that big plants started out small, and that the small ones grew from nuts and seeds. They didn't grow very fast, but they did grow, and that's the way it had always been. But we had never seen little animals grow into big ones. It made sense, once I thought about it. Before the Bad Things had happened, plants had needed to make more plants because all of the animals ate plants. But if animals had started eating other animals, pretty soon there wouldn't be any animals left unless they made new ones. Nothing had tried to eat the humans yet, maybe because they had started carrying big sticks with them after they had seen what the wolves had done to the deer, and so I wondered if the humans would make little humans.
They sure as shit did. They made one little human, anyway. Zan got as fat as the sheep that had popped out the little sheep, so fat that I thought she was going to burst, and then she popped out a little human. The little human was called a "baby," and it made a hell of a lot more noise than something that size should have been able to. Even though the humans hadn't bothered to give us names, they gave the baby a name: Hala.
The baby cried and screamed so much that Wimsie and I moved back to our dog-house. As far as we knew, no other little animal made as big a racket as Hala did. I noticed that Nar seemed to be spending as much time as possible outside, just like we were, and several times I saw him glance at the dog-house as if he wished he could fit in there, too.
To be continued...