Aniyé's Breath

I’ve been in the cave for a week and I can’t get out. The wildergar has me trapped. Once in a while I peak out through a crack between the safe-stone and the cave wall and see her there. She’s a magnificent creature. Her fur floats around her like feathers. I watch her pace. She moves edge-first, fluid as a spear-dance, the largest and most terrifying of the mountain cats. If I’d seen her from a distance I’d have bragged for weeks. But not now. No one boasts about getting cornered and (probably) eaten.

My backpack is empty, my stomach is as hollow as this cave. All I have to drink is the slimy trickle on the rock face. My one consolation is that if I starve in here I’ll cheat the wildergar out of a meal. At first I fancied I could fight my way out. But what use are rocks against such a beast?

How Mamé would scoff if she heard me say that! “Rocks, Aniyé? Is that the only tool available to you? Aren’t you a windspeaker daughter?”

I scowl and hunch my shoulders. I’m not trying to get myself killed. I’d get out of here if I could. I’m hungry enough. But I can’t. It isn’t my fault that the only sky breath that listens to me are baby breezes, or that they never carry any useful messages. Can I help it that they love the stupid rhythms I make up?

“But you shouldn’t hear them anymore, Aniyé,” Mamé says. Only children hear baby breezes, and I am no longer a child.

I sigh and rest my head on the cave wall. The air in here is still and musty. Only my own breath stirs it. If I put my lips to the crack I can taste freshness, but I like listening better. This cave is in a narrow canyon and most of the sky skims over top. It rushes along the rim, as smooth and clear as a waterfall. Only a few breezes float down, touch the canyon floor, and then whisk away. Even if I could reach them with my voice they wouldn’t carry my words. They prefer shouts and drumming.

It’s the small puffs I like: the air that flows in and out of lungs, the eddies beneath footsteps. I like the song of the wildergar’s breath. It starts deep and low, a growling hum, then turns to huffs and sighs. To me it is more beautiful than the melodics of breezes or the bass of storm winds. That’s the real reason I’m out here. I don’t want to grow out of hearing the thump of air flattening beneath the wildergar's paws. And I’d miss the baby breezes’ foolish songs.

Sitting here for the past week, I’ve thought a lot about death. I’ve thought about my lungs stopping, about that air rasping out of me and never coming back. I’ve thought about the wildergar severing my limbs and slicing my throat with her claws. Lately she’s taken to sitting above the cave mouth, no doubt hoping to lure me into making a break for it. But I know her breath. I know the song it makes. Even when I can’t see her, I can hear the air moving in and out of her. Tiny, powerful air.

That’s when I decide I’m not going to get eaten or starve to death.

The wildergar is pacing again: growl, hum, thump go her paws. I put on my backpack, force my fingers into the peephole crack, and push. The safe-stone shifts. A shudder runs through the wildergar, rippling her fur. She pivots to face the cave mouth. Her breath song is different now: focused, narrow, low. Mine is high and wispy. I’m trembling all over. Mamé’s voice is in my head again. “Don’t you dare die, Aniyé. I’ll be upset with you.”

I laugh and push the stone again, widening the opening. The wildergar's ears prick forward and I grit my teeth. Careful, or she’ll have her paw in here and you’ll be dead. Push, push, nudge. There, that’s far enough.

When Papé and Mamé speak to the wind I can hear the vibrations deep in their chests. My wind-voice is a squeaky, buzzing whine, high pitched and thready. I warble it out, trying not to giggle or wet myself. No, no. That’s the wrong rhythm.

The wildergar pounces. I feel her impact against the safe-stone. Shadow cuts across the crack. I’m too close. One of her claws sinks into my hand. I would scream but her breath hits my face. I taste it. The rhythm fills my mouth and I speak. Growl. Huff. I draw it out long and low, reel it in, call it with hums and whispers and nonsense.

No gale wind would listen to such a thing. No meandering wind would echo it back. It’s a child’s song, but I don’t stop speaking, mumbling, singing. This is what I love. These frivolous joys. These quiet movements. The tick of a heartbeat, the flutter of an eyelash, raspberry kisses.

I’m about to die. Tears slip down my cheeks. And then I gasp. The wildergar’s breath leaves her. It comes to me.

I force the stone aside and throw myself through the opening, past that gasping, magnificent creature. She’s fallen to her side, lungs emptied of air. I stumble over her legs, feel her fur feather across my toes. I almost fall, but there are baby breezes here, skittering down the canyon walls, chasing lizard tails. They rush over, skipping and hopping beside me, shrieking with glee, poking me in the knee and back, keeping me upright.

And then I’m out of the canyon. A gust of wind nearly knocks me over. I turn and throw the wildergar’s breath back to her, see it fill her. And then she’s on her feet, panting.

I plunge down the mountain. There’s air all around me, gusting and flowing and rushing, an ocean loud and huge and strong. But it’s the smallest breezes I treasure: the wind in my lungs. Tiny gusts coming in. Tiny puffs going out.