Soaring over the delta, Snowhead spied Sleekskin, still lounging on his ledge, his round belly protruding upward as if he didn't care who saw it. "Lazy thief," she muttered, and flew to her home in the high branches, disgusted.
Once Yubash was in the river's domain, she found the motion of the water more predictable. Here in the lowlands its momentum was lazy and smooth, and Yubash made progress easily. As she swam her thoughts returned to what awaited her.
Will it hurt? She had asked this of her cousin, who had been the first of his clan up the river last year. In his spirit form he answered her: it will hurt some, but if it's done right that will not last very long. And afterwards many things will happen to her that their language has no words to describe. But, he added, swimming away from her sight forever, they will not be bad things.
And if it's done wrong? she wanted to know then, calling after him. But that hadn't happened to him, he said, so he didn't know.
One by one, the days of Yubash's journey dropped behind her. The ground stretched upward ever more steeply. Yubash had to keep leaping where the stream spilled over fists of granite. In those moments she saw the mountain far away, bursting out of its skin. In the shadow of a rock wedged against the stream she stopped for rest. While she waited a massive shadow swallowed the light above. Shaggyback's belly fur broke the surface of the water overhead. Yubash drew back as his heavy paws slapped down on either side of her. He must have guessed it was time for her to return, for he kept looking downstream as he shuffled back and forth. He was cranky and snorting about it, wanting dinner.
He spotted her and charged. Flushed from her hiding place, she scrambled for safe cover. Everywhere here the river was shallow. Sunlight struck the rock and exposed her. Shaggyback's pursuit was persistent. She had to dart and leap to avoid his jaws. Each leap took her a little farther upstream, but Shaggyback could move faster than his bulk would lead one to believe, and again and again he caught up with her. He took a swipe at her with his paw, catching her sideways and knocking her upon the bank. With the wind knocked out of her she thrashed to pitch herself back into the water.
At this point the river forked and she had two choices. To the left the stream was wide and shallow. To the right a solid column of water shot from a crevice in the rock and into this she dove.
Shaggyback followed, annoyed with himself for having missed his chance in the shallows. He tried to push the column of water aside with his paws and nearly lost his footing. He stuck his muzzle into the stream to snap her up in his jaws and bit his tongue in the process. Yubash swam desperately against the flow, gaining only inches, falling backward when she paused to catch her breath. Just below her, where the jet of water joined the shallows, Shaggyback sat on his haunches and waited.
© 1996, 2000 ruth pettis