This was never going to be easy, thought Ahwa as she approached the raging bonfire and snatched up the remaining duffle bag. Rattling it around, she could have sworn it were empty if not for the clang of a brass compass striking against an unsheathed dagger and a few other items not worth mentioning. It wasn’t much, but she expected that. Ahwa, nor any of the six other teenagers anxiously standing near the fire, were there to celebrate their recent coming of age. That would come later, if they survived. Tonight, for who knows how long, was about the culling. Despite the secrecy surrounding the initiation ceremony, they all knew it was coming. As soon as Olga, the eldest of their cohort, had started to complain about a rumbling waterfall keeping her up throughout the night despite the nearest water source being a lazy stream miles away, Ahwa knew it was only a matter of time before they all received the Great Beast’s blessings.
When Ahwa was younger, she remembered watching the older kids in their camp struggle to cope with their newly enhanced senses. Some would even resort to clawing at their own ears in search of silence. But exceptional hearing was only the beginning. Eventually all of their senses, but especially their sense of smell, would advance to a point where functioning felt nearly impossible due to overstimulation. It terrified Ahwa when she was younger, to see the older kids who had virtually raised her in the absence of any adults, inncapactated face down in the mud. It made Ahwa and the other young kids feel vulnerable. Without the older kids around, there was no one to protect them from nearby predators or hunt for food. Which wasn’t abnormal, it was a pack tradition for the young to be raised in isolation from the adults, but that year was especially bad.
Absent-mindedly rubbing at her abdomen, Ahwa could still remember how empty her stomach felt back then. She was so hungry, she thought she was going to die. She didn’t, but a lot of other kids did. Thinking of all the tiny bodies Ahwa helped bury that summer made her want to cry. Ahwa wasn’t much older than the babies and toddlers she buried back then, only being eight years old herself at the time. Their bodies should have been harder for her to carry, being a child herself, but they weren’t. She remembered holding a little boy in her arms who used to steal her meals. He would shove her to the ground with so much force it rattled her brain. She used to think he would grow up to be the strongest of them all and have no problem getting into the elusive pack they all dreamed of. He was such a burly boy for his young age. Built like an ox, the older kids would mummer. But there in her arms, stripped of any muscle he once had, laid a skeleton. He felt as light as a feather. His face was devoid of the snare he always directed towards her; Ahwa almost missed it, missed him. But the boy was only one of dozens of dead children she buried that day. It was why their culling cohort was so small this year. Starvation had almost killed their entire generation, and if they weren’t careful, the culling would kill the rest.
Swinging the duffle across the back of her shoulder, Ahwa was distracted from her thoughts by the sound of rustling leaves from afar. Glancing up through the flames, Ahwa made eye contact with Olga who tilted her head towards the forest.
“It’s coming from there,” she whispered, catching everyone’s attention.
Turning towards the sound, Olga pulled out her dagger; some of the braver teens of their group followed suit. Dropping her bag, Ahwa flexed her fingers to reveal a set of matte black tapered claws – a blessing from the Great Beast that few received. With bated breath and narrowed eyes, everyone waited to see what would come through the crowded curtain of evergreens.
In slow steady strides, arrived a short stout woman with crow’s feet at the corner of her eyes and gray strands peppered throughout her bobbed mahogany curls – an elder. Immediately all of the teens dropped to one knee and bared their throats and the underside of their wrists to the aged woman out of respect. Despite never having met a person above the age of twenty before, not yet being initiated into the pack, every teen knew it took a great deal of strength and wisdom to survive as long as this older woman seemingly had. Although she walked with a limp, she appeared to glide past Ahwa towards the middle of the group.
From the corner of her eye, Ahwa caught a glimpse of a jagged raised scar running from the tip of the woman’s left shoulder, across the width of her back, before diving benthe her clothes and stopping somewhere out of sight. Ahwa shivered with glee. How cool, she thought. Ahwa couldn’t wait for the day her dark pin straight strands faded to gray and her umber skin was littered with scars. Oh the stories they would tell; to become so well acquainted with death that he would know her on a first name basis and yearn for the day she would enter his kingdom. There, Ahwa imagined she would reunite with the Great Beast and have supper with the few pack members lucky enough to live to become elders before dying. But that day, if it ever arrived, would be in the distant future. Until then, Ahwa would live.
“Good evening younglings,” called the woman as she came to a stop.
“Good evening grandmother,” replied the teens. Although a title of respect, Ahwa sent a quick prayer to the Great Beast above wishing she were actually the woman’s granddaughter. All things considered, there was a high possibility that she was. None of the teens knew their parents, having been removed from them at birth. It was a pack belief that children were a weakness despite the need to procreate and keep the pack growing. Their solution, create a separate camp isolated from the pack adults and force their offspring to become self-sufficient. As soon as the babies were weaned from their mothers, they were delivered to the eldest kids in the camp to take over their care. Whenever these kids came of age, they would join the culling and with luck become a part of the pack restarting the cycle. Doing this ensured only the strongest survived.
“Get up, pups!” commanded the woman, “follow me”.
For a woman with a limp, she moved quickly. Rising from the ground, Ahwa jogged ahead of her peers to catch up with the woman. She wondered if she would answer any of her questions. Staring at the ground as they walked, Ahwa hesitated.
“Yes youngin,” the woman prompted.
“Where are we going,” Ahwah asked.
“To an island”
“And what will we do there,” Ahwa attempted to elicit more information
“Not us. Just you kids.”
Ahwa waited for the woman to say something else, but she remained silent for the rest of the walk. Ahwa could take a hint and watched as the red clay of the path transitioned to sand. They had arrived at a beach and there tied to the dock was an old beat up rowboat. The tin sides were rusted orange and upon closer inspection, the wooden seats were splintered and worn down from years of use.
Walking up to the boat, the old woman gestured to Ahwa.
“Hold this steady for me”. Ensuring the boat wouldn’t rock, the older woman stepped into the hull and took a seat at the rear.
“Well,” the woman looked at the teens expectantly, “what are you waiting for? Get in and grab a paddle”.
With everyone settled in, and the shoreline growing smaller and smaller the further they paddled out, Ahwa started to feel nervous. Great Beast forgive her, she respected the old woman, but she was so brittle there was no way she intended to stay on that island with them. She could barely get in the boat let alone survive on her own. Ahwa glanced back at the woman, she didn’t even have a duffle bag.
“Watch out for this current and paddle to the right. We want to dock on the far side of the island – calmer waters,” the woman directed.
But she knows a lot about this area, Ahwa thought, how many times has she done this? How many people has she taken to this island? Did they ever come back? Stepping into the water, her feet sank into the sand as she walked to the front of the boat and started to pull it and the old woman ashore, but she shook her head.
“No need, pup. This is where I leave you”.
Here? Ahwa thought to herself unconsciously cocking her eyebrow in disbelief.
“You’ll want to familiarize yourself with the terrain,” the woman sent Ahwa a gentle smile, “it’s easy to become prey in a foreign place”.
Looking at the treeline, it seemed desolate. There were no birds overhead or paw prints in the sand. It was bare, like they were the first people to ever visit this island. Ahwa strained her ears to hear anything, but even with her heightened hearing, she was met with a resounding silence only broken up by the crashing tides. Frantically lifting her nose to the sky, Ahwa prayed she would catch the scent of something, anything, but there was nothing. They were there alone.
Panicked, Ahwa whipped around to interrogate the old woman – respect be damned – but she was nowhere to be found on land. Ahwa charged towards the waters to catch her, but the crone had already dislodged the boat and started rowing away.
“What’s wrong,” Olga asked, alarmed at Ahwa’s erratic behavior. Everyone else had already left to scout the island and set up their individual camps.
“She’s leaving us here alone,” Ahwa shouted nervously tugging at her hair.
Olga scrunched her brows in confusion, “That’s nothing new. I’m sure everyone figured she would leave anyway. That’s the test; we earn our spot in the pack by surviving. It’s just like the camp, it’s just a different place”. Olga rationalized, trying her best to calm Ahwa down as she grabbed at her armand tugged her out of the water. Ahwa yanked her arm back.
“That’s not the test,” Ahwa tried to explain. “There is nothing here but us. There are no animals,” she stared directly at Olga, “no prey”.
Olga’s eyes widened with alarm. She felt a sense of dread in the pit of her stomach, “What are we supposed to eat?”