It seems my furless sister has finally found sleep . . . Her breath comes in clean whistles tonight, and she does not twitch back and forth in her covers like she is fighting them. My brother slumbers by her head, while I guard her feet. I watch the mutt, who is sitting apart from us, perched strangely on a table, her hinds contorted one over the other. This is the first night she has slept quietly. When my furless sister frowned and twisted, the mutt would wake and sit with wide, glazed eyes.
I am glad the moon has given them a good sleep. Perhaps if I were kinder to her, she would give me the same. But my right hind still pulses painfully from the battle this morning. I drag my tongue over the fur again and again, reminding myself that, despite the pain, I won.
Victory is a rich cream. If I could fill myself up on it, perhaps I would be strong.
The mutt troubles me. She wears her strength easily, as if it is not something to be fought for. My brother enjoys sparring with her. With me, he hesitates, afraid to inflict a harm he cannot undo.
Today's battle rises in my mind. My foe was weak. If he had not been so, my furless sister would not have sent me out to fight. Even so, I nearly failed. My claws struck harmlessly off its skin and the returning attacks left me almost crippled. In that last moment, the final attack, I did not know which of us would rise.
A breeze lists in from the open window. I get to my feet and hop up on the sill. Another short jump brings me to an adjoining balcony. Settling on my haunches, I watch the moon turn in her fullness.
"You could grant me strength," I suggest to the moon.
"That's not—" The voice, the presence, the scent, all catch me off-guard. I bolt to my feet and wheel around to face the mutt. She inches forward a cautious foot. "Can I—"
"You were sleeping soundly," I say sharply.
The mutt pauses. "Your distress woke me," she says.
The mutt is a stranger. She has not warmed my bed, nor cleaned my coat, nor shared her food with me. She has no claim on my distress. I twitch my tail and say coldly, "I am sorry for disturbing you, then."
The mutt fidgets, but does not leave. "Battling's not just about strength," she says quietly.
My eyes narrow. What else could battling be about?
"I wasn't the biggest in my litter," the mutt says, still looking down. "I wasn't the quickest and I wasn't the boldest. But battles aren't always won by being big, or quick, or bold. They can be won in the quiet space of your mind. The moment between attacks. By watching and seeing." She meets my eyes. "How do you feel when you fight?"
She has no right to an answer, but there is something in the way she asks that gives me pause . . . she asks like she already knows my answer. "I feel scared," I say at last, reluctantly, "of the pain, and my body failing me."
The mutt nods. "Yes. The aura surrounds you from the moment you step into battle. But fear—it's good for losing battles, but not winning them."
If the mutt called me coward, that might be easier. I could challenge her, at least, and though I would lose, I would keep some honor. Instead, my tail twitches rapidly back and forth and the mutt stares at me with pity.
I do not need her pity. I do not want it.
Wordlessly, I unwind my crouch. Brushing past the mutt, I eye the windowsill and prepare to leap back. This has not been the quiet moon-time I hoped for.
"No, wait!" The mutt's heavy paw lands on my back. "I'm trying to help."
"What do you want from me?" I hiss at her. "So, yes, I feel fear sometimes. What could you know about it, you, who has never felt hunger or cold?"
The mutt's eyes widen. She removes her paw like my back is lit on fire.
"You're right," she says, dropping her paw to her side and her gaze to the ground. "I've never known hunger or cold. But I have been lonely and I have been afraid . . ."
Lonely. Her voice catches on the word. I remember the fresh, frigid morning when I woke to the cold bodies of my sisters. I licked and licked at their fur, but they didn't warm, not even as the sun rose to heat the pavement. I think of how the mutt always sleeps by herself, even though the bed is warmer.
"What do you want from me?" I ask her in a softer voice. Lonely is not good for anyone.
"Just for you to listen. Please."
So I sit and I listen, while the moon bathes us in her cool, silver light. The mutt claims that battling is a matter of keeping your head. You must watch your opponent at every instant, how they dodge, when they wince, where their step is slowest. When you attack, you must not let fear be your guide. Instead you must focus, decide where you will aim, what you will do if your foe steps aside. That is how battles are won, the mutt whispers.
When she has finished speaking, she slips back inside without another word. I remain on the balcony, letting the night breeze tickle my fur.
The next day, the mutt's words pass through my mind, like a meal only partially digested. I watch how the mutt battles our first foe, the careful, considerate way she holds herself still before she attacks. When our next foe emerges, my furless sister nods at my brother, but I take a step forward before he can move.
"Sammy? You want to have a go?" My furless sister smells concerned, but after a moment she smiles. "Okay, Sammy, you've got this."
I examine my foe carefully. He is tall, even taller than the mutt. His body is bright with threatening markings.
The first attack comes quickly and only my furless sister's warning shout allows me to jump away in time. The attacks do not let up, one after another. I dart and weave, hot fear propelling me. The mutt was wrong. Without fear, battles are lost. And how can I think when it is all I can do to dodge?
I square off with my foe, but the moment does not last. He angles his head and then lashes out again. As I spring away, my legs already heavy and my breath labored, the thought rises in my mind, He always turns his head before he attacks.
"Slash," My furless sisters shouts, and the fear engulfs me. My claws will fail. He will move and I will be sent flying.
Unless . . .
He always turns his head before he attacks.
Because he can't see what's before his nose . . .
I spring forward, my body angled straight. My claw strikes him right in the belly and he lets out a howl.
"Yes! Now fury swipes!"
My claws flash silver. He tries to angle himself away, but I move with him, always staying between his eyes, in that small cone of sight where he is blind.
It's not fear I feel anymore. This sensation is just as hot, but it is richer, sweeter, singing a victory song.
My foe falls to the ground. I step back, my blood roaring. I step back . . . and everything changes.
It is like swallowing the moon. The light fills me up, flowing from the steady center of my breath, until I am engulfed in a warmth so complete that I cannot remember cold. Even the pain is warm, as my bones shift and my tail stretches. When I blink, the world comes back into focus, the scents exceedingly vivid and bright. I can taste my furless sister's surprise, my brother's exaltation, and from the mutt—a mixed cocktail, satisfaction blurred with envy.
"You've changed," my brother shouts. He looks so small now. When he comes forward to give me a friendly bat, I swat at him and send him tumbling backwards. My new weight grounds me.
I will not flinch now, I think, marveling. I will stand and not retreat a single step.
My furless sister beams and wraps her arms around me. They cannot reach the full way round. "You did it! Sammy, you were so good!"
"What's it like?" the mutt asks, loping closer. She sounds wistful. "I've heard during evolution you can see the tree, whose roots link every living thing."
"There was no tree." I turn to my brother. "Did you see a tree?"
My brother laughs. "No tree! How can a tree hold the world together?"
I join his laughter, reveling in my new stature. The mutt drops her head and watches us awkwardly.
"Your help was good," I tell her. "You are right. It is better to fight without fear. That way your mind is open to see."
Everything is open to me now. Even walking is different. My paws land heavily, powerfully on the ground. For the first time, I mark my scent as we enter the red-roofed nest. I want the world to know that I am strong.
Heads turn as I enter the building, hands descend to admire my new coat of fur. A purr rumbles through me, loud and powerful.
I fall to sleep quickly that night, still warm from the pulsing energy.
When I wake, suddenly, it has been many hours, and the moon is high.
Words rise on the wind.
"Glory to the moon, to the lady and the moon
Silver is the moon but your fur is brighter!
Shining is the moon but your claws are brighter!"
I raise myself silently and pad to the open window. A large glameow is perched on the branch of a nearby tree, his yellow eyes glinting in the moonlight.
He is singing to me.
Though I have heard countless love-songs on the streets, I have never been courted before. I sit still as I listen. He has a fine voice, deep and rasping. His scent reminds me of home.
The next night I wait expectantly. As the moon clears the clouds, his voice rises again into the night. This time he sings his own praises. He is agile, cunning, and bold. He would make a fine mate.
The third night I find an offering waiting for me on the windowsill. The night air carries the scent to me, warm and rich. He sings that every night he will bring me the same. And when life stirs in my belly, there will not be a single moment when my mouth is not full.
Kits. It is a strange thought. I imagine a litter, new and squirming. I would give them enough milk to fill their bellies full. I would press them close under me and they would be so warm, the coldest nights would not touch them. And if any foes dared come near, I would bear down on them with my full weight and my claws would send them running.
"Who is that?"
I start at the mutt's voice. She is watching me from across the room, her red eyes unblinking.
She has earned an answer. "He hopes to be my mate."
"Is that why he yowls all night under the window?"
"You don't like his song?"
"His song?" He ears twitch uneasily. "I don't understand it."
"How do your kind court their mates?"
"I don't know. I was raised by humans."
"Maybe your people sing too, and you just don't know their songs."
"Maybe." Her scent spikes sour with discomfort. "I didn't know you were looking for a mate."
I wish to tell her that looking is not the same as being found. "We would rear strong kits," I say instead.
"So you plan to leave us?"
Startled, I turn. It is true—the road would not be kind to kits. I would have to wait several moons before I could travel again, and my furless sister does not stay put for more than a single moon.
Only a few nights ago, when I sat weak and pained, the mutt claimed my distress woke her. Now the scent of her distress nags at me.
"When were you lonely?" I ask her suddenly.
Her eyes widen and her scent becomes thick with unease. "Always," she says softly.
The moon beams down her blessing. I know I owe her thanks. I have the strength now to walk any path I choose. Hungry, weak and cold are behind me.
My furless sister gave me food when I was hungry. My brother gave me warmth when I was cold. And this one, the blue mutt, taught me a new strength when I was weak.
I turn away from the moon and the open window, and look at her, hunched over on the table. "Then why do you always sleep apart?" I ask.
She blinks her red eyes slowly. "How else should I sleep?"
A strange question. Almost nonsensical. "Here. Where it is warm."
She stares up at me. I meet her gaze steadily, and she must find an answer in my eyes, because she lifts herself gingerly and pads across the floor. My furless sister whistles and my brother snores as she cautiously climbs onto the bed. I press myself into her side, kneading my large paws against her gently until her breathing slows and deepens.
Our scents mingle strangely, but it is good.
One day, I will raise a litter. I will tell my kits all about my furless sister, about my sharp-toothed brother, and even about the blue mutt who has become my other sister. But that is for a future day.
For now, my family is here.