Best of the Net Nominee 2023
The spirit appears to us as a baboon this time, the sides of its blue snout glowing like the ends of fireflies. He stinks like a real monkey, but the smell is chilling, causing fear rather than annoyance, like I’d typically feel near a baboon.
“It’s time to settle our bargain. Why don’t you give me the male cub? He’s nearly full-grown and will have to leave to find a new clan soon. He’s small. If he survives the wilderness, he’ll be bullied by the females in his new clan. He’d be better off with me.”
But none of my three cubs want to go with him. You humans have your devils, your trickster spirits, your fairies, whatever you want to call them. So do we. What kind of fate would my cubs have as a servant to a spirit? They’d be deprived of a chance to find the love of a clan and family, the greatness of a wild hunt, or an honorable death. It is my fault the spirit has come to collect. My fault for allowing these cubs to exist. My fault for keeping them alive.
Four mating seasons ago, my mother told me I was old enough to have my own cubs, if I wanted. During that first season, some males in our clan approached me, but I found none appealing. My father laughed at the thought of me finding a mate.
“Who could ever catch you long enough to mate with you?” I am the fastest runner in my clan. The others call me Swift. I am not high-ranking, but I am respected because of my talent for running.
The next mating season, I favored a new male, Long Fang, in our clan, and he liked me as well. We caught a bison together. I let him eat first when we were alone together. But a bigger female, our princess, whose mother was the matriarch of our clan, claimed him, attacking any other female that dared approach. So, I did not mate that season. My mother had another cub, a small male that died after just a few months.
“The others say your bloodline is cursed,” Princess told me.
“Pay her no mind,” my mother advised me. “You don’t need to compete with her. If you’re on top, everyone will just try to knock you down. Just be competent.
Two mating seasons ago, I went hunting by myself because I was angry. Angry that Princess was targeting me, angry that my parents laughed off my concerns. I had caught a hare, broke its small neck in my large jaw, when I heard the whooping of a hyena I didn’t know. The fur between my shoulder blades stuck up straight. The other hyena stood out in the open. I assumed she was female because she was big. The night stars sparkled behind her.
I tilted my nose to the air. She maybe smelled male and… strange. Unless I checked closely, it would have been impossible to tell the other hyena’s sex, age, or health. I got closer, although I could hear my mother’s warning in my head against approaching strange hyenas alone. He snorted as I approached but raised his leg to let me inspect him, a sign of submission. Still, fear was bubbling so much inside me that I let out a low giggle.
“Don’t fear me, Swift. I can give you what you want.”
I jumped back from the spirit, his smell becoming even stranger and more potent. I felt like I was drowning in his scent.
“You’re not real.” Mother and Father had warned me about devils. Humans. Lions. Devils. All bad, each one worse than the last.
“Real, not real. I can give you cubs just the same. Three healthy cubs.”
“I cannot birth three cubs; I’ve never birthed before. One of the cubs will suffocate or I might die, like what happened to Sharp Ear.” Sharp Ear was my friend who died when her second cub was too big and ripped her open. She wouldn’t stop bleeding, and we had to leave her when lions attacked us.
“The birth will go well.”
“How can I feed three cubs–”
“You will have to try. Two years after they’re born, I’ll come to take one.”
“I raised you to be smarter than this.” My mother bit me a few times when I told her whose cubs I was carrying. But the pregnancy went well, except for Princess’s curiosity over the father. I told her he was a clan-less male I’d met on the savannah. We delivered our cubs on the same day. She had a normal-looking female, and like the spirit said, I had two females and one male, all healthy, if a little small. Mother helped clean me in my den.
“You’re lucky. Just a couple of days to rest and you’ll be fine to hunt again.”
Father was proud. He snuck me some bits of antelope bone to suck while I healed and nursed for the first time.
"You’ll run out of milk fast with three cubs,” Princess sneered, but I didn’t hold her words against her. She was having trouble feeding her one cub. I gave her a bit of my leftover bone. She considered this gesture with a tilt of her large head, then a quick lick on my snout. If I was going to raise these three cubs, I had to be smart enough to appease her.
My cubs were, like all hyenas, born with open eyes, sharp little teeth, and already fighting. It was constant, exhausting work, feeding them, chasing them, and pulling them apart when they got too violent. Sometimes, cubs kill their siblings while still very young, not understanding the limits of play-fighting yet. But I couldn’t spare one, knowing the bargain I’d made.
When I was feeling better, I ran after small animals, taking advantage of my natural speed to eat more, so I could keep making enough milk. When my cubs got big enough, I snuck the meat back to our den so they could eat away from the rest of the clan, remembering to leave at least one or two bits for our queen and princess.
“Leave one of them to die,” my mother suggested. “You are my full grown child; I won’t see you wear yourself out just to save a small cub.”
But I couldn’t do that. At night, my cubs snuggled against me and asked me about the bright moon, the grasses of the plains, the biting insects, and all the animals of the savannah. They learned to stalk and hunt little animals quickly and practiced how to whoop and giggle. They followed smells and named some for me that I’d never even considered. Princess’s cub was still tripping over her own paws, while mine could accompany me on hunts.
“Don’t show off,” I warned them. “Princess can’t know how clever you are until you’re old and big enough to defend yourselves.”
I became so thin that my ribs were visible under my skin and was nipped and bullied. I ran after prey until my paws bled, gained new scars, lost a big chunk of my right ear in a fight over a carcass with several wild dogs, and suckled until my nipples were sore and cracked, but I raised my three cubs until they were nearly full grown.
Mother taught me that spirits are dangerous, greedy things. Hyenas could be vain, prideful, gluttonous, and deceitful, but spirits exemplify these traits. They, unlike real animals, have no love, no camaraderie, no sense of honor. They will try to convince you otherwise. They will also try to convince you that nothing could hurt them.
“But the spirits who harass us fear the spirits who follow humans, like we fear humans. They might be able to get the upper hand on the human spirits on rare occasions, but human spirits are so much trickier.”
Mother is the wisest hyena I know. When t the cubs were fully grown, she gave them names. Soft Laugh, the first girl, who was big but gentle, Mouse Catcher,the second daughter, who was fast, like me, and Lightning, the small male, who, despite his size and sex, was afraid of nothing, even the pounding rain and flashing lights of night storms.
“I did not trust these cubs because their blood is half spirit, but you have loved them enough.” My mother told me. “I don’t know what you gave to the spirit in exchange for them, but they are our family now and have made me proud. As their mother, you must always protect them.”
I am sorry I have hidden so many things from my mother, but I think she would understand, eventually. I hid one night with cubs when we became separated from the rest of our clan. We had to hide in a den nestled amongst deep thickets, where I could smell that a lioness had recently given birth. When we woke up, I saw that the cubs looked different. Their fur had lightened, their snouts widened, their ears had shrunk a little, and their necks were shorter. They reeked of lions. Their spirit blood had caused them to change because of the lion's smell. I nearly couldn’t control my instincts, which commanded me to run, but Lightning spoke softly.
“Momma, it’s still us.” They rubbed against me. My skin prickled. We started walking, and as the smell dissipated, they transformed back to their normal selves before we found our clan again.
“Don’t let the others know you do this,” I warned them.
“I am not ready to choose one cub to give up,” I tell the spirit.
“You’ve had long enough.” It bares its long baboon fangs.
“Give me three more nights, and I will give you one cub and the large carcass of an animal from a great hunt. I promise you will feast well.”
The baboon spirit scratches his head and sighs. “Fine. But I need some insurance from you. Give me your front left paw. When you give me the cub, and the carcass, I will return it.”
“How am I supposed to hunt properly with just three paws?”
“I suppose you must rely on these cubs you're so fond of. If you agree to my deal, I will leave you, for now. But return here, after three nights, to keep your end of the bargain.”
I feel sick. If I had known he’d ask…what if I never got the paw back? What if I, Swift, never run again, never feel the wind? I look at my children and then back to the spirit, who was still grimacing.
“Alright.” I raise my paw. He lunges forward. I yelp as he rips the paw from my leg, but the wound closes up before I start to bleed. The pain still radiates, up and down my limb. I breathe deeply, in and out, to steady myself and distract from the horrible feeling.
The spirit fades, and I turn to my cubs. “Come,” I say and begin to lead them, awkwardly, adjusting to walking with just three limbs.
We hide in the bushes near the human den. There are a few humans that come here regularly and walk around this place. I think they clean it, but who knows what humans do? But the ones that sleep here change, every few days. There are a few caves where they sleep, and another cave in the middle of the area, where they light fires inside of strange rocks and heat the carcasses of dead animals.
There is a little metal piece on the wood attached to each cave that can be pushed up by the nose. Then the wood can be pushed out of the way and a hyena can enter the sleeping caves or the food caves.
“When the humans are sleeping, be very quiet. Go inside their caves. Sleep near them. Roll on their things. Get their smell on you, as much as you can. Do not wake them up. Do not hurt them,” I instruct my cubs.
“I will keep watch for you and warn you of any danger. We can hunt or gather food during the day. But we must not be seen by the humans.”
My cubs do as they are told. They each sneak into a different human den, so they won’t smell like each other, and sleep next to a human. After the first night, they wake up with less hair and shorter snouts. After the second night, their paws have started to change shape, their noses are completely different, and their fur has become sparse and changed to hair. They lean most of their weight on their back legs, which have elongated, but they’re hunched forward and their front paws drag on the ground. They are too misshapen to hunt, so I gather food, as much as I can, from the piles of food the humans left behind.
After the third night of sleeping in the human dens, my cubs have turned fully human. They take the humans’ fake animal skins and cover their delicate human bodies with them. We hide and watch the humans get in their moving caves that reek of ancient death and leave for the day. I can smell newly dead meat in the food cave.
My children follow me inside the cave. On a cold, white rock, we find a large piece of meat and bones taken from the carcass of a big prey animal.
“This is for the spirit,” I tell my children. “This was a hunt a hyena could brag about to the rest of her clan.”
My human children giggle (I am glad they are still capable), wave their long, human limbs, and poke at their human skin and hair. They pick things up with their human hands and marvel at the usefulness of such tools.
“It’s almost worth giving up my teeth and jaws for these,” muses Soft Laugh.
“Almost. Not quite. I need four legs to run,” Mouse Catcher answers. Her comment almost makes me feel sorry for myself, but I don’t have time to mourn.
“I miss my nose. But, Mother, I wish you could see the colors we see…” Lighting seems lost in thought.
“We have an appointment to make,” I tell them. We take a while to walk to where we will meet the spirit, each of us on less than four legs, but we make it in time. The spirit, now in the form of a male lion with star-like eyes, recoils at the sight of us.
“You little bitch!” he growls. “You ruined my cubs. I hate humans. Their blood has been tainted. I never want to see them again.”
He speaks out of fear. Now that they’ve become human, the human spirits might have noticed them, and might challenge him if he tries to keep one.
Lightning, who is now the biggest, drops the cold carcass at the spirit’s feet.
“The gift, as promised.”
“I will remember this day. And I will keep this paw.” The spirit stamps his own front two paws down hard and roars, the sound echoing, but he fades away, leaving the carcass. I am hot and tired, the bright sunlight of a cloudless afternoon sky bathing the land. I whoop and sing as a sudden feeling of relief grows inside me.
My daughters want to become hyenas again. They will sleep next to me in a nearby den our clan used to use before we moved until they smell like hyenas again and transform. But my son tells me that he wants to stay human. I know that even if he were a hyena, he would be leaving me soon to find a new clan of females not related to him. So, I let him go.
I return to my clan with my female cubs.
“How will you hunt on just three legs? And we’ll have to change your name from Swift,” Princess scoffs when we return.
“No. She will keep her name. Our mother’s mind is even swifter than her gait,” Soft Laugh raises her tale high.
“I can run enough for her,” Mouse Catcher adds, kicking some dirt in Princess’s direction.
I meet my son, some months later. He is still human, but now he is much more confident in his body. He wears new animal skins. He presents me with a fake paw. I offer him my stump, and he attaches it.
“It’s a little small.” I stand on four legs for the first time in many moons. I almost lose myself in a daydream about running fast again.
“It’s made for a dog, originally. I will try to get a different—ʺ
“No.” I shake my head. “This one is fine. You have more important things to do, I’m sure. Are you healthy? I heard that humans are like lions, and the males are larger. They are not led by females, like hyenas. You must enjoy having more power.”
“They are more like baboons as the males aren’t that much bigger. Yet, the men are not as powerful as they seem. The women have more power than is obvious at first–perhaps, like the male hyena.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you gave up your own paw for me, Mother. If that’s not power…”.
“Being human suits you, so clever and cruel,” I tell him and nip at his fingers. “But don’t talk back to your mother again.”
I nuzzle his human hand a final time before returning to my clan.
Jennifer McArdle lives in New York State, along with her partner and an agent of chaos (her dog). More info about her here: https://jenniferjeannemcardle.blogspot.com/ Kubwa and Kidogo, the hyenas at the Bronx Zoo, would be delighted if this story inspired you to visit them or to support the zoo's parent organization, Wildlife Conservation Society, which supports conservation programs all over the world: https://www.wcs.org/