She steps out onto the ice in her tall winter stockings and sleek dark boots. For most of the year she goes unnoticed, almost prudish in how little attention she conjures in her earthy red coat and muddy leggings. But now, against the backdrop of this snow-white wonderland, she is radiant and impossible to ignore. The moon is transfixed by her beauty and shines its torchlight to illuminate the heart-shaped marking on her chest. Along her back, the tips of her thick auburn fur and fluffy silver peak on her tail sparkle with crystalized snowflake appliqué. It's not the best time for her to be so visible; she is desperately hungry and will quickly deplete her energy reservoirs if she cannot soon locate food. She cannot afford any exchanges of fruitless pleasantries or respond to the calls of eager bachelors who yearn for her warmth to satisfy their own type of hunger. She picks up her pace and squints her eyes to shield them from the threatening icy winds. Even with many layers of soft down and her dense outer coat, she is feeling the cold of this long barren winter night. It will soon be time to find shelter before both she and the moon itself are eclipsed by the storm.
She’s tempting fate by following the snow map on a night like this. It’s beginning to disappear beneath the fresh snow, and the symbols to an untrained eye could easily be lost. But her eyes are far from untrained. Tracking skills were one of the first lessons she learned in her den. Hop sets of five toes, then four toes. Then a hop of five toes, and then another set of four toes. Sometimes you might even get lucky and notice a pause, a place where there’s a slightly deeper impression in the ground at the flank of the five toe steps. This signals to the huntress that her prey has had to reduce pace and catch its breath. It’s the critical moment when she must push through her own exhaustion and pick up her stride.
Once at the edge of the lake, she slows her steps and scans the large clearing ahead. Standing between herself and the dense forest is her only chance to survive the night. The hare locks eyes with her. She can see its whiskers twitch, its nostrils flail, and its body tense. It lunges towards the trees in a desperate attempt to lose her in the undergrowth. She’s been anticipating this manoeuvre and bolts to pick up the left flank. The hare senses her approach and ducks down as it dashes between some shrubs. It has lost sight of her and runs towards its only chance of escape. Only a few leaps before the forest and it’s almost in the clear. The hare drives its remaining energy into its hind quarters and takes off in a giant leap towards the treeline. Its paws bound far above the ground, much higher than any leap before. Just as the hare descends into the undergrowth, it feels a piercing sensation across its abdomen. Sharp pointed teeth clench down on white fur, and with a series of quick shakes, the hare is no more.
Still panting from the exertion, she reaches down and picks up the hare behind its long neck. The once strong and agile body has gone limp, with the exception of the hind paws that release three distinct kicking twitches as the muscles surrender to their permanent retirement. She scans in the distance for movement, eager to avoid any confrontation this evening. On this cold night, and not having eaten in several days, she can’t afford to share her meal. Satisfied that no one is coming to steal her prize, she heads towards home.
She’s salivating as the warm blood of her fresh kill drips down the corners of her mouth and tickles her parched tongue. Her jaws have begun to tremble. Not only from the weight of trying to run with her supper, but also because she’s eager to indulge in the satisfaction that will come from a full belly. Up ahead, she spots a familiar crevasse in the snow and bounds for it. The smell of rich earth and damp roots fills her nose. It’s a well-received homecoming after such a long and tiring night. She sets down the hare, slowly and deliberately. Now finally safe to inspect her kill, she looks it over from the black tips of its white tall ears to the very bottom of its stubby tail. Licking her lips, she indulges herself in a well-deserved feast.
After eating her fill, she slips out from her den and buries her leftovers in a nearby cache. She’s careful to hide the scraps deep beneath the snow so that neither the sight of the fur nor the scent of the blood would be detectable to any opportunistic passerby. Once satisfied that her meal is well hidden, she dances her prints in a scattered formation and then proceeds to take a roundabout path home. It’s a little longer than her usual trek, but she wants to keep a low profile and tread lightly on the snow. If the storm keeps up, it won’t be more than a few hours before her trail is completely erased and even the entrance to her den will disappear.
Tired, yet satisfied, she crawls down the short dark tunnel into her sleeping quarters. A few scratches on the ground move some misplaced stones that must have fallen in earlier. Content with her housekeeping, she releases a big yawn, extends her back legs for a deep stretch, then lays down on her bed. She has outrun the cold and outwitted another storm. Unable to resist the temptation of sleep a moment longer, she wraps her tail tightly around herself and buries her snout into its warm soft fur. Tonight, she’ll dream of dancing with the hare.
© Mette Cooper