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Achak cradled the wounded coyote in his worn, chapped palms, a figurative knife digging into his gut and limiting his capability to breathe. He stared down into the dog’s wide, black eyes and in that moment, he wanted to save her. But the wound was too deep, and anyone, near or far, could see that. The blood gushed out onto Achak’s arms, mixing with the dirt and grime, which was powdered along his rough, brown skin.
Achak was used to death. He experienced it often, but he couldn’t bear it any longer.
His blackened fingernails dug into the coyote’s coat, and he felt her chest rise and fall against his knees.
“Shhh,” Achak breathed, stroking the coyote’s snout. This seemed to calm her, and for a mere second, her breathing balanced. But then, a high-pitched whimper escaped her black lips, her sharp fangs bared against them, and once again she was panicking.
“Achak,” Nikan called from behind. His voice was carried off by the wind, and Achak stiffened, pulling the coyote closer to his chest, like only he was permitted to see her.
Nikan stood at Achak’s side, panting and peering down at the dying coyote, who looked like nothing but a bloody blanket from where Nikan stood. It was obvious Nikan didn’t know what he was looking at, and in response to this, Achak felt even worse.
Achak glanced up at his brother, catching a glimpse of Nikan’s long, black hair, which was crazed and had been pulled half-up with a red feather. Nikan was a strong man, with broad shoulders and a stern expression that had been carved into his face at birth. Achak was not as durable as his brother, with a small figure, thin face, and black hair that was always up in a tight knot. He greatly disliked hair in his eyes.
Nikan was twenty-three, and older than Achak by six years. Achak once looked up to Nikan, but once Mother was passed on to the spirits, and Noshi became a different man, shaping Nikan into killer, Achak was forced to look at them both like prey would to a predator.
Noshi wanted them both to be tough--he was their father, after all. But, Achak had failed his father. Day after day, at each rising sun, Noshi reminded his son, Achak, that his brother, Nikan, was stronger, faster, a swiffer hunter, and overall, the better son.
The words once stung, but then became nothing but a conjoined numbness. Such words became normal, and ensured Achak that his life hadn’t changed.
“Achak,” Nikan repeated in a softer voice, crouching low to the earth beside his brother. He gestured to the coyote. “What is this?”
Nikan reached his dark fingers out toward the dog, which caused Achak to flinch away, baring his teeth, similarly to the coyote herself.
Nikan furrowed his eyebrows at this, leaning back in defense. “Achak?” Nikan glanced back down at the dog, staring at her cautiously through Achak’s red arms. “Is that--”
“Ha:csokonay,” Achak barked in reply. “Yes.”
Nikan became tense, his dark eyes hardening. “It cannot be,” he said.
Achak closed his eyes and breathed in deep, petting the coyote’s back and playing with her soft, brown-and-white-patterned fur. She was beautiful, as beautiful as anything else, and maybe even more so, too. She did not deserve to die.
Nothing deserved to die in Achak’s mind, and this is what differentiated him from most--fearing death is what made him “frail”.
“Did you do this, Achak?”
Achak’s eyes tore open, and he jerked his head around to glare at his brother. There were unintentional tears forming along the brims of his eyes, and although Achak willed them not to fall, he was not strong enough in this moment. “How dare you say such a thing?” Achak wailed, his vision now blurred, his lungs filled with a fuzzy heat, a sharp bitterness clawing at his throat.
Nikan raised his hands in defense. “Achak, I apologize,” he said. “How am I to know?”
Achak withdrew his hand from the coyote’s chest, revealing her wound, as well as her face. Once again, he stared deep into her eyes, but this time it was different… it caused Achak to somehow blame himself for this tragic happening, and seeing her so afraid… it was almost like he was looking at his own reflection.
“Who could have done this?” Achak whimpered, pressing a bloody palm to the coyote’s cheek. “An animal would have eaten her… a Tonkawa wouldn’t dare.”
“And who would be so scorn as to leave her suffering, without even giving her life the least bit of appreciation?” Nikan snarled, leaning in to get a closer look at the dog. “Why would anyone leave her?”
“I don’t know,” Achak replied mournfully, at last tearing his gaze from the coyote, for he could no longer look at her. “I do not know what to do, Nikan.” Achak turned to his brother, whose figure had slouched. “Nikan,” he said. “You always know what to do.”
Nikan shook his head in defiance. “Not now, Achak.”
Achak bit down on his lip to press back his current aggravation.
“Father could help,” Nikan said, glancing away from both Achak and the coyote, his black hair falling over his eyes and hiding his squared face, which had softened.
“Noshi isn’t here,” Achak snapped. It was no surprise that Achak called his father by his first name. Achak had resented calling him ‘Father’ ever since Mother died; he was no longer a fatherly figure.
Noshi had abandoned Achak, strengthening the better son, Nikan, and never second-glancing at Achak. And for that, Achak promised his own self that he would never forgive him.
But, this was not the right moment to contemplate such thoughts--Achak was holding a half-dead coyote in his arms, and nothing else mattered besides this.
“Maybe we can save her,” Achak said, lifting his chin and peering deep into the horizon. The green fields were endless, the sun slowly nearing the Earth, it’s rays creating a soft glow over the lands. The land was mostly flat, despite the few rising hills behind them. Achak’s favorite spot was on a hill, which was a short walk from their village and overlooked the land in a way no other place did.
But, this spot was good, too.
“How?” Nikan asked. His voice was low and quiet, and Nikan did not seem like himself.
Achak looked back down at the coyote, whose eyes were now limply closed--Achak could tell she was trying very hard not to close them. She didn’t have much longer, and Achak knew this. He felt his breath thicken, his dry eyes stinging, for the tears had disappeared.
“You don’t have to leave just yet,” Achak whimpered, now to the coyote.
Achak had said the exact same thing to Mother, while she lied on Noshi’s favorite buffalo hide and held Achak’s hand with her frail fingers. Achak had said those words to her, staring deep into her eyes, and he remembered so clearly that in response, Mother only shook her head and smiled.
“My son,” she said to him in a raspy voice, “you are the bravest of them all.”
But Achak knew he wasn’t brave. He was weak, and small; Nikan was the brave son, and Achak was led to believe Mother was confused, and spoke to the wrong son.
“Achak,” Nikan said, setting a hand on his brother’s shoulders.
Achak turned his head slightly, peering at Nikan with narrowed eyes. He pulled the coyote close to him again, wrapping her up in his warm embrace, hoping to somehow keep her alive this way.
“You cannot save her.”
These words dug deep into Achak’s chest, causing him to quickly intake breath and stir anxiously on the grass. “I can try,” he replied in a harsh tone.
Nikan frowned, his stern expression returning. “Mother didn’t want you to try,” he said. “And she wouldn’t want you to try now.”
“How do you say this? How can you speak for Mother?” Achak growled.
“I knew Mother well, Achak,” Nikan said.
“I knew her better than all of you!” Achak erupted, his tear-streaked face becoming red with anger. “She was the only person who treated me like I mattered, Nikan, and you of all people should know that.”
Nikan sent him a sympathetic look. “My brother, I care for you--”
“Do not lie to me, Nikan,” Achak growled. “All you care about is making Noshi proud.”
“You have never spoken this way, Achak.”
This was true--Achak was always quiet, and he’d rather listen than speak. He blames Noshi for his reserved personality, for Noshi was the one to compare Achak to dirt, and encouraged him to keep his lips sealed.
Achak turned away from his brother, staring deep into the coyote’s eyes. He stroked her neck, and she whimpered softly.
“Maybe because I’ve never had the opportunity,” Achak admitted in a gentle voice.
“Why do you say this?”
“Noshi hates me.”
“Father is mourning, Achak.”
“And I am not?” Achak’s eyes flickered to meet his brother’s, and Achak noticed that his brother was now sitting comfortably on the grass, his legs crossed and his worn fingers pulling weeds from the earth.
Nikan didn’t look at him. He sighed, then said, “Father does not try to--”
“I do not--”
“Do not interrupt me, Achak!” Nikan roared. Then, he cleared his throat. “Father does not try to hurt you, Achak. He is trying to make you stronger, only. Father loves you, Achak.”
“Father does not love me.”
Achak’s face wrinkled as he held back whatever fought within. Was it guilt, or sadness? Maybe it was both. At that point, Achak didn’t know anymore. He held the coyote closer to his bare chest, feeling the pace of her breath decrease against his skin. Please, do not go, Owner of the Earth.
“Why do you not speak with Father about your feelings?” Nikan asked his brother, cocking his head to look at him.
Achak met his gaze, which was brilliant and outlined by the sun’s light. “Father won’t listen to me.”
“Father will not listen until you speak, Achak.”
Achak turned away from his brother’s cold eyes, and now he was staring at the endless, green field. The sun was setting now, decorating the sky with streaks of orange and pink.
And the coyote was dying.
Achek was not ready. He did not want her to die, but there was no way he could save her, and he knew this now. Nature would take her at any moment, and in the afterlife, she would thrive. She would be at peace, and yet, Achek was afraid, because who is to truly know if her soul is safe?
Achek trusted the earth, and he trusted the sky, and he trusted the way of life, but the way of life remained increasingly difficult, and he seemed to be the only one suffering. He seemed to be the only one to question life’s motives.
“I love you, Achek,” Nikan said.
This startled Achek, and he didn’t precisely know why. He looked at his brother beneath the glow of the setting sun. “And I love you, Nikan,” he replied. As he said this, a wave of heat washed over him, and he shivered. A heavy stone lifted from within, allowing Achak’s breath to become steady, and encouraging his thoughts to calm.
It was always a competition with Nikan, but, during this moment, Achak looked at his brother as a friend. He realized then that Nikan was never against Achak, and that all along, Nikan was by his side, guiding him.
Achak was holding onto the past so tightly, he failed to realize he still had a family.
“You are strong, Achak,” Nikan went on, turning his eyes toward the sunset, which had now caused the sky above them to darken, an array of stars peering down at them. “And you are brave, just as Mother said.”
“Why?” Achak whispered.
“Because, Achak, you are kind, and you are sincere, and you see what others do not.”
“This makes me brave?”
“Even I wouldn’t be so brave as to show a hint of kindness to anyone but you, or Father,” Nikan said, smiling to himself.
“I am sorry, Nikan, for thinking of you and Noshi as my enemy.” Achek breathed in deep, feeling the coyote’s soft fur against his chest. “It was I who became silent and excused myself from the family.”
Nikan patted his brother on the back, but said nothing.
The coyote whimpered, which cut through the quiet, light air around them, and caused both Nikan and Achak to glance down at her.
“It is time to let her go, Achak,” Nikan said, softly.
Achak closed his eyes and remembered Mother. He thought about her smile, and the way she wiped his tears away when he’d skin his knee fighting with Nikan, and the way she held him at night as the village huddled around fires and told ancient stories of the past. He grew up beside Mother, listening to tales of the powerful Ha:csokonay.
He also grew up beside Noshi. Noshi taught him how to hunt, and fish, and how to be a man, not a boy. Noshi was there when Mother was not, which wasn’t often, but often enough.
Noshi took care of Mother during her final days, and because of him, Mother seemed content with her death. She was not in pain, and she was not sad.
But even then, it was challenging to let her go, undoubtedly so.
Father is mourning, Nikan had said. Father will not listen until you speak, Achak.
Maybe it is time to speak to Noshi, Achak thought to himself, digging his fingers into the coyote’s fur. Maybe, I am brave.
Achak felt the coyote stir in his lap, and when he opened his eyes to look at her, he noticed that her gaze was wide, and the blood from her wound had stopped flowing. He held her closely. “Ha:csonkonay?” he said.
And, to his surprise, she barked wildly into the night.
“It is possible?” Nikan said, pressing a hand to the coyote’s cheek, which was now warm with a sudden liveliness.
Achak rose abruptly from the ground, holding the coyote close to his chest, and Nikan followed. Neither of them could believe the coyote was showing signs of life, and they couldn’t determine whether it was a miracle, or entirely unreal.
A thought crept into Achak’s mind, and he gazed up into the sky, which was now dark and speckled with millions of stars. He smiled, and thanked his Mother, who gazed down at him through the constellations.
Achak would never have to let go of Mother--that was not the point. Mother was still alive, and Mother was happy, and this was her way of letting him know; healing the Owner of the Earth.
“Achak?” Nikan said.
“Come on, my friend,” Achak said to Nikan, beginning the long journey back home by turning and walking over the hill behind them. “Let us go back home. I think that maybe, Father can save her.”
And so Nikan followed him.