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    Libby Drew
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

Keeper of the Rituals - 1. Chapter 1

KEEPER OF THE RITUALS
By Libby Drew


There is a battle of two wolves inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, lies, inferiority and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy and truth. The wolf who wins is the one you feed.

~Seminole Proverb

 

 

CHAPTER 1

TROPICAL DEPRESSION ONE: NOAA SPECIAL DISCUSSION 600 AM THU JUN 15 2023

THE AIR FORCE RESERVE HURRICANE HUNTER AIRCRAFT INVESTIGATING THE DISTURBANCE IN THE WESTERN GULF OF MEXICO HAS FOUND A WELL-DEFINED CIRCULATION CENTER WITH A MINIMUM CENTRAL PRESSURE OF AROUND 1004 MB. BASED ON DATA FROM THE AIRCRAFT ADVISORIES ARE BEING INITIATED ON TROPICAL DEPRESSION ONE AT THIS TIME.

THE DEPRESSION IS VERY CLOSE TO TROPICAL STORM STRENGTH AND CONDITIONS APPEAR FAVORABLE FOR SOME INTENSIFICATION.

~*~

The wolves are howling. It’s their deathwatch song. The wail of a fallen comrade.

I freeze by the side of my battered Plymouth Neon while the cries of my brothers and sisters carry over the palmettos to the gravel parking lot where I stand in the predawn fog. I’ve arrived at the animal refuge at my usual hour, before the sun stretches above the horizon. Hours before the first volunteer, or my boss, Martina, but I can’t resent the lost sleep when I get to greet the animals before anyone else. Speak with them. Commune.

Daybreak is my time with the wolves. A nod to my Seminole upbringing. A tribute to my ancestors and their rituals, but also, if I’m honest, to my ego. Before dawn, when even the creatures of the night bed down to rest, I am most connected to the earth. I feel the wolves’ hunger. The panthers’ restlessness. The birds’ eager plea for dawn’s light so they can take flight and hunt. The Everglades breathe and sigh with welcome. It’s not whimsy. No, it’s a heartbeat I feel in my veins. I’ve never met another of my tribe, of any tribe, who senses what I do. But tribal gifts are talents to be cherished and kept secret, so perhaps there are those who speak with animals as I do and merely keep their counsel on the subject.

This morning I detect a confusing mix of turmoil and fear. My instinct is to rush forward, but I curb it. Impulsiveness can be dangerous, even deadly. On a deep inhale, I let the urge recede, aware it still throbs in the background. Instead, I pocket the keys, taking several deep breaths as I round the car and stride over the gravel toward the door. The fog deadens the crunch of gravel under my boots, and I can’t shake the idea each step sounds like the gnash of giant teeth, grinding together as though masticating a chewy snack. It isn’t the sort of imagery that puts my mind at ease, considering the circumstances.

A few steps bring me to the entrance of our building. It’s a low, wide structure—one story—built for function rather than aesthetic, with a deeply pitched, red tile roof, weathered white stucco, and dark gray shutters that were once, long ago, a matte black. We don’t neglect its upkeep, but the southwest Florida climate, with its salty air and damp heat, takes its toll.

Beyond the wide double doors and through the nature museum, which takes up the lion’s share of the space, is the only way into the animal refuge. A high and sturdy fence surrounds the entire four acres, stretching off from the edges of the main building and disappearing into the murky darkness. I unlock the door in the almost total darkness of the covered porch and step inside. Despite the air conditioning that runs round the clock this time of year, the room holds the heat of the previous day. The air weighs on my bare arms and smells musty, like damp fur. I lick my lips, searching for any hint to the trouble beyond the wide sliding glass doors that lead to the sanctuary. Nothing. The muffled howls continue, and I can sense the wolves’ agitation growing.

After ten years, I can navigate this room blind. A lucky thing, as the solar lights that line the trails of the refuge are at their dimmest before dawn and no help at the moment. The room is pitch black. But in ten seconds I’m across the crowded space, expertly dodging glass displays and sales racks, and slipping through the sliding glass door into the refuge proper.

This may be my time, but it isn’t my space. It belongs to no human, despite the trappings we keep there. The wire mesh fencing, hoses, food bowls, and small sheds that dot the paths have been cleverly hidden over time as the lush swamp flora grew where it wanted. It lends the sanctuary a mythological feel, I’ve always thought, which can be—on warm, sunlit days—an Eden. A benign labyrinth. Or, on mornings such as this, with the wolves’ cries vibrating through the warm, sticky air, a malevolent maze where monsters hide behind every blind turn.

I crouch on the circular, stone patio outside the door and press my palms to the limestone. In front of me, four paths fan off in all directions. Which way? The earth tells me nothing. Nor does the restlessness of the wolves and panthers pacing their enclosures. The confusion and distress come to me from all directions.

With a deep breath, I reach into my back pocket and take out the leather cord I always keep there. While I tie my hair into a ponytail at the base of my neck, I scent the air. I’m no wolf, but my heart beats a little faster when I think I might smell blood on the wind. I take the leftmost center path. It’s as good a choice as any, and in the end it won’t matter. All trails lead back to this building, and I know shortcuts and secret ways through the dense foliage that most don’t. Slim paths where adjacent enclosures are no more than eighteen inches apart and my shoulders brush the cages as I pass between them. Often, the wolves walk beside me, one on each side, snuffling at where my fingers brush the wire.

I let out a low whistle as I walk, and a few of the howls quiet. “Hector. Dash,” I call softly. Twin shadows appear to my right. Our only mated pair. Beauties. We found Dash in a snare, nearly dead of dehydration. Hector, although not trapped in any way, was at her side, near death himself as he refused to leave his mate. It’s a love story for the ages.

I pause by their enclosure and let them sniff my fingers. They’re distressed but unharmed. I mutter comforting words and move on. Dual pens that share a makeshift system of felled trees, ramps, and manmade, cement tunnels take shape in the gloom. I whistle again, a different tone this time, and call the names of our resident panthers, Dagger and Saffron. Unlike Hector and Dash, these shadows swoop in from above, pouncing gracefully to the ground from the branches of a cypress tree, and I sense rather than see their lithe, powerful forms approach the fence. Raised in a private home, the pet of an eccentric millionaire, Saffron is nothing more than a large kitten. She shares space with Dagger in hopes the older female, born and raised wild, will teach her a thing or two. Both cats are testy. They turn away from my soft words and they’re panting, a stress reaction. Gentle Saffron’s lips curl as a low growl rumbles out of her throat.

For the first time I wonder if I shouldn’t have called BIA. But there hadn’t been any sign of a break-in, and only a few trusted volunteers have keys to the sanctuary. I have the distinct feeling the trouble is not an intruder. This close to the edge of the Reservation, the Indian Affairs officer who will answer my call is a good man, one I’ve known since I was a child, but not likely to appreciate being dragged out of bed at dawn for no good reason.

“Peace,” I tell the cats. “Climb. You’ll feel safer.” I point to the gnarled branch of the cypress tree behind them. Saffron, my good girl, obeys. Dagger glares. It brings a wry smile to my lips. “Peace, little sister.”

I move away, deeper into the maze. Sunlight edges onto the horizon, a thin strip of light that casts more shadows than illumination. Despite my own efforts to stay calm, I feel sweat on my palms and the leap of my heartbeat. My cell phone is a lump in my pocket, a reminder that help is close if needed. Fortified, I turn left at the next fork, calling under my breath to the wolves I pass along the way. Hyde, Razor, Outlaw, Banshee, Bane, Acadia, Nero, Luna. Sentinels, their heads turn to follow my progress. They are safe and unharmed, but rather than comforted, I grow alarmed. Only one wolf remains. He occupies the largest enclosure on the property, and he is—perhaps sadly—my best friend in the world. “Kane!” I call as I approach. I forget my initial efforts to be stealthy as panic sets in.

I race toward the last habitat on the path. There’s no question I’ve reached the source of the problem. Kane is a shadowy lump on the ground in the middle of his enclosure. I hear a rhythmic snuffle, labored breathing, and I rip the keys out of my pocket and shove them in the lock.

Only three individuals have clearance to enter enclosures at the refuge, and they may only do so in pairs. I’m one of those people. Brought to the sanctuary as a pup, Kane is tame and fully socialized. I feel no trepidation about entering his domain alone, although the rules forbid it.

I stumble headlong through the first gate, slam it behind me and jab the keys into the lock of the second. A moment later, I’m rushing toward what I believe to be my injured wolf. The lump hasn’t moved, and it isn’t until I’m halfway across the pen that I realize the odd, frothy panting sound isn’t coming from in front of me. Goosebumps break out on my arms. It takes a few seconds for me to fumble my phone from my pocket, wake it up, and shine it towards the noise. My trembling hand causes the beam of light to flutter like a strobe.

“Who’s there!”

Kane pads into the weak pool of light. He is unmistakable to me, despite the dark mud coating his muzzle. “Kane?” I adjust the light to the packed sand at his feet. More dark mud. Or is it just wet sand? The marks resemble giant abstract rose petals and they form an overlapping pattern around Kane. A line of them stretches between him and the slumped figure on the ground, and I realize the truth with a sick dread.

Not petals. Footprints. And not wet sand. Not mud.

Kane lets out a forlorn howl, bloody muzzle tilted toward the sky. At his cry, the other wolves fall silent. Even the insects pause their ever-present drone. In the silence, my heartbeat thunders. My vision, what little I have in the gloom, narrows and grows tunnel-like. No, I plead. Not now. Not now.

I turn, unhurried even though I sense the world fading out around me, and walk toward the small, caged storage area at the rear of Kane’s pen. It’s a cramped space, barely twelve feet square, but it’s closer than the exit. As I will my feet to move, to take calm, even steps toward safety, Kane shoots a plaintive whine in my direction and begins to trot forward. My paralysis is almost complete when I reach the gate to the closet, open it, slip through, and latch it firmly behind me. Kane is at the other side a moment later, scratching at the wire, deep, dark eyes boring into mine. I don’t sense myself collapsing, but suddenly the ground is firm under my butt and palms. The last thing I see is a weak beam of sunlight piercing the weave of palmetto fronds to spotlight the limp, bloody body in the center of Kane’s pen. It’s a mess of blue denim and green cotton. And red. So much red.

~*~

When I come back to myself, clawing out of the pit of my mother’s screams and my sister’s sobbing, of thick, acrid smoke, and cruel, heartless laughter, I know immediately I’ve lost time. Again. The sun sits fully in the sky, though it’s still low. And someone is saying, “Michael. Michael. Can you hear me?”

I stir, open my eyes, but don’t answer. I fix my gaze on the dirt under my nose. At the sprigs of weeds that dot the perimeter of the fencing a few inches away. I don’t look at anything else. A touch of authority and impatience touches the faceless voice. “Micco! Cvhēcetskes?”

You are Micco, I tell myself. You are Michael. Answer your elder. At first, my dry throat won’t let the words pass. “Yes. I can hear you,” I rasp after several seconds.

“Are you hurt?”

“I...no.” But I ache with a familiar and unwelcome pain. Adrenaline-induced. My head pounds at my temples and the base of my neck. “No. I’m not hurt.”

I hear a relieved sigh as other sounds filter in. Shouting, from some distance away. A woman’s quiet crying. I lift my head, squinting to my left toward the sobs. It’s Rory. One of our steady summer volunteers. Her whole body shudders as she weeps. I open my mouth to comfort her, then close it when I notice her companion, Matthew Burke. BIA Officer Burke, the very man I considered calling earlier that morning, when the most frightening thing I could imagine encountering was a group of trespassing teenagers.

“Rory.” Burke steps in front of the crying girl. “Go back to the main building. Send Officer Kippel out to me if he’s arrived.”

I assume Rory nods, or gives some indication of understanding, because her feet turn and disappear, sneakers crunching quietly on the pea gravel. The sobs of distress, never loud, fade altogether. Burke spins in a slow arc back toward me, and I get a strong enough hold on my courage to sit up. My hands are filthy, but I swipe the back of one over my lips and pull my legs against my chest. I don’t feel steady enough to stand. Not yet.

A subdued woof draws our attention, and Burke’s head turns in time with mine. It’s Kane, sitting on his haunches next to his food bowl. His head swivels between Burke and myself. In the light of day, the blood staining his muzzle gives me an electric shock. I’ve yet to glance towards the poor soul who lies mauled not fifteen feet away. I may never look, I decide. The gore on Kane’s face, his bloody paws, evokes both horror and extreme sorrow. Because I know what happens next. The inevitable, imminent goodbye I can’t possibly prevent. Nor should I.

Burke circles as close to my position as he can, measuring my mental state with deep brown eyes. I better get a hold of my balls and pull it together before he calls in the sort of medical professionals I never want to see again. With nothing but pure will, I push to my feet, though I have to steady myself with a hand to the wire mesh of the cage. “Who is it?” I mutter. Not because I need the information right at that moment, but because it’s the right thing to ask.

Burke sees right through me. He’s always been able to. “You know what I have to do, Micco. Don’t you?” His voice is incredibly gentle.

“Yes.” I choke on the word, which is grossly unfair to Kane’s victim, but I’ve always felt more connected to my wolves than my human brethren. At least most of the time. “I know.”

Burke nods and unstraps his firearm. Kane cocks his head, but unlike most wild animals, he’s never seen a gun. Doesn’t understand the danger. Burke steps up to the fence, fits the pistol through a hole, and takes aim. His eyes dart to me. “Look away, son.”

I shake my head. I won’t look away. I will bear witness. As a brother should.

The shot is perfect. Kane drops like a stone when the bullet enters his brain directly between the eyes. No pain. No fear. “Hvtvm Cehēcares,” I whisper to the wolf’s limp form. We will see each other again in the spirit world. Many Seminole, indeed most tribes, don’t think animals are granted passage to the spirit realm.

I believe differently.

Burke holsters his gun with a sigh and holds a calming hand out to Kippel, who’s just rounded the corner of the path at a jog. “It’s okay. Just putting the wolf down.” He circles to the entrance of the enclosure and curls a hand around the handle. “Come on now, Michael. Let me in.”

Of course I need to. I’m the only one of the three of us with a key. It means walking past the limp body of Kane’s victim, but my head is clearing. I can do this. With a short nod, I pop the latch on the storage closet and sidle into the enclosure. My eyes flick to the body. It’s an involuntary reaction, and a bad one. My step falters.

“Eyes on me, Micco,” Burke says. And with that lifeline in hand, my gaze locked with his, I cross the enclosure and unlock the gate.


 

Copyright © 2023 Libby Drew; All Rights Reserved.
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I hope you enjoyed the chapter. 
Thanks for reading!
Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 
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Chapter Comments

11 hours ago, Summerabbacat said:

I agree wholeheartedly @VBlew. Given the story is set in Florida I was not all surprised by the execution of Kane. I was very angry and at the same time very sad. Speciesism is always ugly.

An outstanding start to your latest work @Libby Drew. A story with non-human animals playing an integral part, as long as they are not being hunted or abused, is a story bound to attract my interest. I share some of Micco's sentiments, my cats are the pinnacle of joy for me (even more than ABBA and Donna Summer). I look forward to witnessing more of your literary talents as this story progresses.

And, as always, I look forward to your thoughtful and insightful comments. Thanks for reading. ☺️

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3 hours ago, JeffreyL said:

Your story starts with tidbits of information that tease and bring up lots of questions. Micco is an interesting character, and many of the questions are about him. You have definitely piqued my curiosity, and I will try to be patient for the next chapter. Thanks.

Yes! Many questions, and not a whole lot of answers for a while. I hope you continue to read and enjoy. Thanks for the comment!

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7 hours ago, drpaladin said:

Killing Kane seems rather abrupt on circumstantial evidence and without examining the body. He wasn't exhibiting any aggression and was known as tame.

Michael has some past demons judging from the severe level of his attack.

Good beginning.

Thanks. I find it comforting, in a strange way, that I'm not the only one disturbed by what happened to Kane. I'm one of those animal lovers who can't watch those videos on YouTube about abandoned and neglected dogs or cats. They're just too sad. 

Because of that, my initial draft didn't include Kane being put down, simply separated and isolated. However, the individual I interviewed during my research phase rather brutally disabused me of the likelihood of that scenario. Apparently, when it comes to animals, especially wild ones, it's 'shoot first, ask questions later'. 

And yeah, Micco has demons by the dozens. Thanks for reading!

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5 minutes ago, Libby Drew said:

Thanks. I find it comforting, in a strange way, that I'm not the only one disturbed by what happened to Kane. I'm one of those animal lovers who can't watch those videos on YouTube about abandoned and neglected dogs or cats. They're just too sad. 

Because of that, my initial draft didn't include Kane being put down, simply separated and isolated. However, the individual I interviewed during my research phase rather brutally disabused me of the likelihood of that scenario. Apparently, when it comes to animals, especially wild ones, it's 'shoot first, ask questions later'. 

One is reminded all too often of the 'shoot first, ask questions later' mentality when it comes to non-human animals Libby. And the story is set in Florida after all, where the same mentality applies to human animals, other than those deemed 'suitable' in the current political climate.

 

Edited by Summerabbacat
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8 minutes ago, Summerabbacat said:

One is reminded all too often of the 'shoot first, ask questions later' mentality when it comes to non-human animals Libby. And the story is set in Florida after all, where the same mentality applies to human animals, other than those deemed 'suitable' in the current political climate.

 

A sobering fact. 

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On 9/10/2023 at 7:18 AM, Summerabbacat said:

One is reminded all too often of the 'shoot first, ask questions later' mentality when it comes to non-human animals Libby. And the story is set in Florida after all, where the same mentality applies to human animals, other than those deemed 'suitable' in the current political climate.

 

I responded with an "angry" emoji, as I don't appreciate painting all Floridians as supporting the attitude of killing both non-human and human animals.  I, for one, do not support this attitude and I know many others who believe as I do.  And, yes, I am a Floridian (not by birth, but by the fact I have chosen to live here!).

As for the story, I agree with all the comments about your superb writing in all your stories!  You have quite a gift!  Thanks for sharing it!

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On 9/13/2023 at 8:06 PM, pvtguy said:

I responded with an "angry" emoji, as I don't appreciate painting all Floridians as supporting the attitude of killing both non-human and human animals.  I, for one, do not support this attitude and I know many others who believe as I do.  And, yes, I am a Floridian (not by birth, but by the fact I have chosen to live here!).

As for the story, I agree with all the comments about your superb writing in all your stories!  You have quite a gift!  Thanks for sharing it!

Thank you for reading it! 

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