In northeastern Madagascar, within a changing landscape, apex predators fight for food, space, power. In one particular section of the rainforest, family, tradition, ambition, and a fierce love for home will be threatened by outside dangers.
Hinjitra’s left foreleg tensed and he fought not to cuff some sense into his brother, knock him from his perch. Menabe had seen the potential in their new home, a dead forest at the end of a series of losing fights after they had left their mother’s territory. His brother’s vision had been magical. Even on the darkest days, his brother had been confident to the point of stubbornness that he was steering them right.
And he had steered them right.
But eating tenrecs and frogs wouldn’t keep the not-lemurs from creeping in. Menabe’s stubbornness, which had created a paradise, was blinding him to reality. And that same stubbornness was going to get them killed.
Hinjitra didn’t want to leave his brother. But if Menabe wouldn’t listen, he would.
“I…” Mila looked at the gathering. The males were all sitting on their haunches, silent. “Shouldn’t we talk about who gets to climb the tree first? I was…well, I was hoping that I might…”
Soa took her paws off the tree and turned, her ears flat, her eyes boring into Mila’s. “We do not talk about who climbs first.”
“Why not let her go first, Soa?” The question came from one of the males that Mila hadn’t been introduced to, who was now standing.
“Quiet, Menabe!” The male—Menabe—sighed, flickered his ears back and forth, and sat back down. Faint snickers rippled through the gathering, not at the irate female, but at Menabe.
Soa’s eyes snapped back to Mila. She began to walk, every limb stiff, towards Mila. “We do not talk about who goes up first. I go up first, and I have gone up first since I won that privilege seasons ago. Did you want to contest that? We can.”
The threat was obvious. Mila sat down, crouching, making herself as small as possible. “No. It’s your right, Soa.”
Nenibe sat upright and still on a wide branch and wondered if her time had come. From further off she heard the grunts of lemurs, the rustle of leaves marking their passing through the canopy. She could almost see them, fur against fur, tails flicking at another’s nose, bouncing along the springy branches and sending down cascades of rain drops as they settled down for the night1.
She had followed the group for a day, half-heartedly hunting underneath their discarded fruits. Lurk long enough and they would grow tired of being wary. Now that darkness was falling and they were feeling somewhat secure, it was time for her to make her move.
She crept forward, moving from the tree trunk and further onto the branch she was sitting on. Her paw pads spread against the smooth bark, still slick from an afternoon rain. Her claws dug into the soft wood, steadying her grip. Her tail whipped back and forth, curving left and right to keep her balanced2. The branch was growing thinner, bending underneath her weight. The change in thickness and stability came so quick; nothing like the day she had spent in the mating tree.
And she had only spent a day in the mating tree. The elderly gal, going last after the young and fresh females. The males weren’t picky and her drive to reproduce was as fierce as ever, but there had been a change this year. The drive was losing its burning emotional nature and becoming mental. She knew of no other life. This was what her mother did, and her mother’s mother before her. It was what life was. Mate, give birth, raise cubs, teach them how to not get killed, kick them out, repeat.
Perhaps after this litter I take a break, she thought as she measured the jump to the next tree. It would be nice to have a year to myself.
But that break would have to wait. She had mated with three males, and she was pregnant. She had tread this trail before, knew the feeling, the signs. She wouldn’t see the physical changes for weeks now3, but she could feel them inside her. Little lives, growing. And those little lives needed nourishing.
A graceful leap had her in the next tree with little noise. She dug her claws into the wood to keep her on the branch after it bowed with her weight. She didn’t move, muscles straining to stay still against the pull of gravity. The lemurs were quiet and she imagined them again. Tails still, eyes wide, noses sniffing, searching for a hint of what had made that sound. Nenibe held her breath, her tail straight out, and was grateful that the lemurs were upwind.
The lemurs started moving again, but slower, quietly.
Nenibe crept forward. The lemurs were on the other side of the trunk, the thick musty smell of their damp fur enveloping her. There was a brief chatter among them and in the noise she leapt and began to climb the trunk. One paw after another, belly damp due to the wet bark. She crawled into the fork above her and looked down, colors fading into grays with the coming night. There were three lemurs, a male and two females. The rest were further off. Her tail twitched as she looked at the three. The male was closest, side pressed against the trunk, thick brown tail wrapped around him to protect him from the night’s still chill. The season of plenty might have started with Tree Gathering, but the warmth was still to come and he’d be gone by then. Her shoulders tensed as she readied herself to jump.
Then the wind changed.
Just as the lemurs smelled her and looked up, she fell upon them. The females screeched and disappeared in a flurry of fur and leaves; the male she slammed into. She bit down and got a mouthful of tail fur, scratching her nose against the branch beneath her. The male bolted and Nenibe raced after him, her face smacking into twigs and wet leaves. Instinct and practice kept her from making a misstep as she chased him. The branches grew thinner and the lemurs, one by one, jumped with all their might to the next tree. The male was still in this tree, she could still get him…
But no, he was in the next tree now, scrambling for a grip. She leapt, pinpointing the branch that would get her to the lemur. Paw met branch, tail stiff for balance…and her stomach dropped as she felt the branch give way. She fell and landed with a thud and a crack on her side.
The lemurs above were in a frenzy, hooting and calling, crashing through the dark above her. Nenibe panted, attempting to catch her breath, struggling against the sickening shock of having it knocked out of her. She had fallen from trees before. It was always a nasty shock, but she would be all right. Just had to catch her breath.
The lemurs were long gone; a day of careful work, all because of a rainstorm and a weak branch.
She growled in frustration, stood up, and promptly collapsed as pain shot its way up her back leg. She tried again and succeeded on getting up on three shaky legs, her back left leg refusing to hold her. She tried again, putting her paw on the muddy ground, and growled at the pain shooting up her spine. Broken.
Her tail whipped back and forth and she began to pant again. Broken. How many fosa had she heard of that had died due to a broken leg, because of a fall that had cut their life short4? How was she to hunt? Broken. The word echoed in her mind. Might as well say ‘dead’, because that’s what I am.
“You got to speak to me again at some point, Joko.”
Joko sniffed at the base of a tree trunk. He had tracked the strong tenrec scent along the trail to this point. It had to be coming from here. Loza batted at his rear legs. Joko continued sniffing.
“You can’t blame me for this.”
Joko began to dig into the soft dirt, but knew before he had dug too deep that the tenrec was long gone. The scent was old. He heard Mama’s voice in his head: you should be able to taste the tenrec through the smell. If you can’t taste it, it’s gone. It was the season of plenty, and yet the two had failed to catch much. A few tenrecs, a coua.
They had nearly taken down an ibis5, but Loza had broken a stick and spooked them. What they had eaten between them wouldn’t be enough to satisfy one fosa, let alone two growing pups.
If we had just spent most of our time digging out tenrecs, we wouldn’t be in this mess, half-starved. But no, Loza had to get a lemur.
Laughable. That was what their lemur-hunting attempts had been. They had never found the white lemurs. They had followed the brown lemurs, but couldn’t get close enough. Joko would’ve laughed at their failures, but all he could feel was irritation. Constant hunger did that to him.
“You’ve got to listen to me, Joko. I’ve got a new idea. A plan. This one will work. I know it. What we’ve got to do is…”
“Loza. No more plans. No. More. Plans.” Joko, who had turned to glare at Loza, turned away. “Just start…just start sniffing around.”
“This will work. I know it will. I’ve got it all figured out. And it’ll be easier than finding tenrecs. I promise!”
Joko’s tail whipped in irritation as he started trotting down the trail. The birds were chirping slowly and steadily through the mist that wound its way around wet leaves. He looked at the low-lying bushes, hoping to see some sort of nest. Sometimes the birds nested low to the ground, easy pickings for a young fosa. Or, that’s what Mama had said. But he couldn’t smell much over the overpowering, deep scent of mud and coming rain. At least it was warmer.
Loza brushed past him, planted himself in front of Joko. “Listen to me.”
“I know how we can get food. I found something. But you need to come with me.”
Joko looked at his older brother. “You aren’t going to shut up about this, will you?”
“Will you listen?”
Joko sighed and sat down. He licked at his paw.
“You remember how Mama told us not to go past where the trees disappear, right? Well, I did. It was an accident,” Loza said, almost as if he expected Joko to go running to their mother at that moment. “I was following two lemurs and I ended up in a forest patch. I crept around on the edge and, not far from the trees…I saw this…I don’t know how to describe it. Like a cave, but made of wood. So…I left the edge, crept a little closer, so I could see what it was. Guess what was inside.”
Joko’s ears flicked forward.
“Birds, Joko. These huge, fat birds. Almost as big as a coua. And they were walking around, free, pecking at the ground. They just stood there…” Loza licked his muzzle. “Then I heard a dog bark, and I left. But, Joko, they’re there. Just waiting to be eaten.”
Joko could feel the growl of his stomach in his paw pads. But his ears slid back. “I don’t know, Loza. Mama told us to never leave the forest…”
“We’re not going to last long on what we’ve been eating, Joko. And the birds are just waiting for us. Plump and juicy. We can sneak in, grab one for each of us. I know how to get in and out. It’s fool-proof.”
“Funny, because a fool made it.” Joko snorted. “What if the not-lemurs come after us? The dog?”
“The not-lemurs and dog will be asleep. They won’t even notice.”
Joko’s shoulder twitched as a fly landed on him. “Loza…”
“Just once, Joko. This will be the only time we do it. We’ll get a few to get back on our paws, and then we’ll be able to hunt better. I don’t know about you, but it seems I just get hungrier every time we eat.”
Loza’s stomach growled again and he could just imagine how delicious a mouthful of meat would be. “Okay. Okay, let’s do it. But just this once. In and out, Loza. Quick.”
“In and out, as quick as the stream after a storm. Tonight.”
The sun was rising along with the mist, and Mila listened with closed eyes as the forest awoke around her. There was a period of time between the end of night and the beginning of dawn that was quiet in a way that the forest rarely was. Now the morning chorus was threading through the silence. She could imagine across the forest lemurs shaking the dew from their fur as they prepared for a day of foraging. She yawned and licked her muzzle, the salty tang of stale blood sizzling through her senses. She had eaten well last night and it looked to be a warm day. Mila opened her eyes and stretched. Onto the tasks of the day.
For the first half of the morning, she ambled down to the nearest stream. She had gone intending to drink, but a bird’s nest, dangling above the water, caught her eye6. She spent a good while climbing first one, then another tree, clinging to thin branches and batting at the nest, trying to knock it down. The birds fluttered about her, chirping up a storm. On occasion she would have to bat at them to keep them from pecking at her. When the nest finally went down, she splashed into the water and sniffed around, looking for eggs. No such luck. She drank her fill and ambled away.
She spent another little while digging at what smelled like a fresh tenrec nest. The dig brought up nothing but a large worm7. She chewed on that, and then rolled about in its remains. She clambered up a tree to chase a few lemurs out of it. After that bit of fun, she got down to the serious business of marking her territory.
Not that marking her territory was business. She enjoyed it, enjoyed seeing the beautiful patch of forest that was now hers. A few streams ran through it, and most of it was flat terrain. There was a stand of fruit trees near the core which attracted more than a few lemur groups. For a young adult female’s first territory, she could do worse.
The first few markings went smoothly. She was busy tracking some fluttering birds in the canopy when a strange scent caught her attention. It was coming from one of her trees.
Mila’s ears went back as she smelled the tree. It was a scent at once strange and familiar. Familiar because it was Soa’s, strange because it was surely a mistake. This tree was deep within her territory. Her tail twitching, she grabbed the tree trunk and rubbed her chest against it, masking Soa’s scent with her own.
Not far was another tree with Soa’s scent. And not far from that, yet another. By the time she came to the fourth tree, her fur was standing on end, her skin crawling. She was rubbing frantically at the scent when she heard a noise behind her. She turned around and hit the trunk with her tail.
“Hello, dear.” Soa emerged from the nearby understory.
“What are you doing in my territory?”
“Your territory?” Soa cocked her head. “Didn’t you smell my mark?”
Mila shifted her weight back and forth, fighting the urge to lick at her chest. She should have expected something like this, particularly after Tree Gathering. She needed every inch of her territory to be able to provide for her coming pups. To lose this section, with its fruit trees and lemurs, would be catastrophic. “This is my territory, Soa. My mark was on these trees.”
“And now my mark is on those trees.”
“Your territory is big enough. Why are you doing this?”
Soa licked at a paw. “You’ll learn soon enough that your territory can never be too big. Not when it comes to pups.”
Mila looked away, looked back. Her tail down, her ears perked, she stepped forward in a friendly way. “Soa, we can work this out. We can split the area…”
“No, I don’t think I want to do that.” Mila’s ears went back and Soa huffed in an amused fashion. “We can always fight, though.”
Mila’s ears flattened further as she looked at the bigger, older female.
“Of course, then you run the threat of being injured,” Soa said. “Do you know how hard it is to hunt with a broken leg? Or how vulnerable your stomach is? I guess you could chance it; you have plenty of years ahead of you. Unless a wound gets infected. That wouldn’t be too good for your pups.”
Mila tried to determine the best course of action. She needed this part of her territory. But her mind was stuck on sizing Soa up. Soa had critical pounds on her, as well as experience. She hadn’t received those white scars on her muzzle by standing down.
“So, we can fight, and you can chance getting injured…or you can better guard your territory. What remains of it, anyway. I didn’t take as much as I could have, Mila. Remember that.”
Mila stared at Soa, trying to see (or seed) some hint of fear. Something, anything, that would give her the courage to stand her ground. But the older female looked right back at her, her ears up, her tail still. Mila might as well have been attempting to intimidate a tree.
Her tail low, Mila turned and walked away.
“I’m not going back.”
Menabe had been licking at Hinjitra’s tattered ears, souvenirs of this Tree Gathering’s fights. He stopped, stepped away, and looked at his brother. Hinjitra was looking right back at him. “You’re not going back.”
It should have been a question, Menabe knew. I should have asked it, not said it. But somehow, he wasn’t surprised. Maybe he had felt it in the distance that had grown between the two lately. The blood-deep, hidden knowledge that their partnership would soon be at an end.
Menabe could feel every strained muscle, every scratch, every bite on his body. A lot of Tree Gathering was posturing amongst the males, body language advertising who was the biggest, the strongest. It was only the rare confrontation that became a physical fight; the cost of injury was too high. They had traveled to three separate mating trees that were within or near their territory. This mating tree was on the edge of their territory, and was to be their last. Across the forest the frenzy of Tree Gathering was dying down. All who were to mate had mated and it was time for all to head back home.
Little did Menabe know that he was going home alone.
“I talked with another male,” Hinjitra was saying. “He’s heard of a territory that’s opened up further north, but he needs help securing it. The terrain is rough, but that will only make it harder for the not-lemurs to encroach.”
“It’s that young male.”
“The younger male, the one with the shortened tail.” Menabe shrugged. “Smart of him.”
“He is smart.” Hinjitra shook his head. “I told you, Menabe. I told you long before Adala died. It’s time to give up our forest. You wouldn’t listen.”
Menabe stared at Hinjitra’s ears. Hinjitra was terrible about protecting his ears in a fight. Menabe would circling his opponents, confusing them with darting nips, until he could grab at the neck or stomach. His brother rushed his opponent, bit down on a limb, and then held on while the other clawed at him. A lot of abuse fell on his ears. Menabe couldn’t remember Hinjitra’s ears without their scars and tears. The first tear must have come from their first fight for territory.
“Menabe.” Menabe blinked and refocused at Hinjitra’s growl. “What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to come home with me. Where you belong.”
“Menabe…Why don’t you come with us?” Hinjitra stepped forward. “Three fosa have a better chance than one. We know each other. We can handle anything that stands in our way. I don’t want to leave you.”
“I’m not leaving our forest.”
The two stared at each other.
“Then…I guess we have nothing else to talk about.”
“I guess not.”
Hinjitra seemed about to say something else, but instead began to groom himself furiously. Menabe licked at a paw and began to wash his foreleg, nibbling at a swollen scratch. His mind raced. I can convince him, I still have time…
But he didn’t. After only a few audible licks, Hinjitra stood up. “I suppose I’ll be going.”
No time. No time at all. Menabe, frozen again mid-lick, could only straighten and nod.
“Be careful, brother,” Hinjitra said. He turned to walk away.
“Hinjitra.” Hinjitra turned around, his ears forward again. “…Just remember, you can always come back. I’ll be there.”
Hinjitra’s ears went down. “I’ll remember.”
Menabe watched watched Hinjitra walk off. When his brother was out of his sight, he began to wash his foreleg again. Then he moved to his back legs. His stomach. His tail, and his back. He was able to reach all spots except for that one part, at the base of his skull. Hinjitra had always washed that spot for him. It weighed heavy on his mind on his journey back home.
“Loza, you’re lucky you’re my brother,” Joko whispered as they stood on the forest edge.
“You mean you’re lucky I’m your brother.” The two stood side by side, contemplating the field of grass before them. The darkness of the night sky above–so wide, Loza thought–sloped with the earth to land on a far hill. A funnel from the wild to the mysterious homes of the not-lemurs. “C’mon. It’s not far.” Loza darted out into the grass, jumped around a bit, and then darted back. Despite his pricked ears, his tail fur was puffed out.
Joko gave himself a quick, reassuring lick on his chest, and then walked out with Loza into the open air. He looked up into the night sky again. So strange, to see that immense blackness with no leaves to break it up. Tension stiffened every muscle in Joko’s body and he pressed against his older brother. “How far?”
“Not far. Can you smell them?”
As they walked down the slope, Joko could smell many strange things. There was the stench of the large beasts that the not-lemurs brought into the forest, creatures that snorted and left piles of dung on the trail8.There was the smell of fire—at least, that’s what he believed it to be. Mama had tried to describe the smell of fire. It’s something sharp, and painful…it smells like death.
But what disturbed him most was the absence of smells. No comforting tenrec scent or clean smell of wet leaves here. No lemurs, no other fosa. A completely different world. And above, that gaping maw of a night sky. He found himself crouching, attempting to slink further underneath the cover of grass.
“Joko, do you smell them?”
Joko paused, and Loza stopped with him. His brother gave him a reassuring lick as Joko sniffed the air. “…Yes?”
“See? Don’t they smell good?”
His mind was still on the smell of fire—the smell of death—but Joko nodded.
As they continued to creep down the slope, Joko realized they were on a trail. The presence of a trail reassured Joko. He knew trails. They may not have fields of grass in the forest, but they did have trails.
But soon the ground leveled, the grass petered out, and the trail vanished into open ground. Joko stopped again. Loza stopped with him. “You see over there? Those dark caves? That’s where the birds are.”
“C’mon. We’re so close!”
Joko unsheathed and sheathed his claws for a moment. Then he walked with Loza towards the dark caves, each paw landing on the ground so lightly that he felt a breath of wind could send him blowing back to the forest. What are we doing out here? This is a terrible idea. Mama would nip us until we were bruised if she knew what we were doing.
Loza stopped, taking silent whiffs of the air. Every shadow hid a dog, a not-lemur with their strange, shiny sticks. His brother–despite the fur standing on end–looked calm and confident. Loza crept toward the smallest wood cave–which would be the furthest one from the forest, of course–looking back to see if Joko was following. Joko was, but froze when he heard a soft cough from the wood cave they were walking past. Another reassuring lick from Loza had him moving again. They stopped outside the small cave. The entrance was small, but the brothers could squeeze through.
“Now,” Loza breathed, speaking just loud enough that Joko could hear hints of his words. “We grab two, and run as fast as we can back to the forest along the trail.”
Joko nodded. His mouth was dry.
Loza crept inside and Joko was behind him in a flash.
The earthy smell of the birds filled the cave, and Joko could see them, sitting on flat wooden rocks. He looked at Loza, who looked at him and nodded.
Joko lunged for the nearest bird, sinking his teeth into feathers and flesh. The bird emitted a strangled squawk and hot blood flooded Joko’s mouth. The delicious taste lit something within Joko’s brain. He could see himself taking three more down, easy, and he almost dropped the twitching bird to grab another. But something brushed past him…it was his brother, running out of the cave with his catch.
The brief touch brought Joko back to reality. He was in the middle of a veritable explosion of feathers and beaks, squawks and clucks. And then, the sound that made his heart go still: a dog, growling somewhere near by. Joko sunk his teeth further into his bird and bolted out of the cave, tail straight and stiff as he raced away. The bird was so big he stumbled a few times, paws tangled up in its legs. The sound of the dog grew louder. The bird’s blood threatened to choke him. His heart pounding in his ears, Joko didn’t stop until he had rushed through the grass, climbed the slope, and made it back to the safety of the trees.
Dropping the bird and panting, he looked around. His brother was nowhere to be seen. Did the dog get him? “Loza!”
Joko looked up; his brother was in a nearby tree, flopped on a branch. Joko grabbed his bird again and jumped onto the tree trunk, putting one paw in front of the other. It was awkward with the bird between his stomach and the tree, but he made it to the branch. One brother sat, the other lay, both panting, their birds between their paws. They listened to the dog, its barks echoing up the slope. It didn’t sound any closer, but they stayed still anyway. Their ears strained for any sound of a not-lemur rustling through the grass, but there was no sound. They had gotten away with it9.
Joko turned and licked his brother, tasting the blood on his muzzle. “We did it!”
“I told you we could.” Loza laughed. “I was so scared…”
“I was, too…”
“Mama would kill us if she knew.”
“The dog was so close, I thought I was dead for sure…”
“I almost forgot where the cave was.” Joko stopped laughing and narrowed his eyes at Loza. But his brother was looking into the darkness, his gaze distant. “That was easier than I thought it would be. Maybe…”
“No.” Joko knew that look, and pressed his paw further into the branch. “No. This was the only time, remember?”
Loza’s nose wrinkled and he licked a paw. “Fiiiine.”
“Let’s eat. I’m starving.”
The two brothers began to pluck the feathers from the birds, leaving them to drift to the ground. Joko’s mouth watered and he began eating before his bird was completely plucked. His fur stood up again with the first mouthful of meat. He had never tasted something so delicious.
Will Nenibe survive a broken leg?
Will Mila be able to successfully raise a litter of pups despite Soa’s seizure of part of her territory?
Will Hinjitra ever come back?
And will Loza and Joko find themselves raiding a chicken coop again?
This has been the First Year of Fosa Forest. Stay tuned for the next episode!