As Maili lowered his head and drifted into semi conciseness once more, the smell of the autumnal air brought forth more memories from his past, not the pain and terror of the cages but of a brush with death that proved ,at the time, no less terrifying for the then young cub;
The late evening’s autumnal sun, dappled by the browning leaves of bank side willow trees, tipped the ripples of the river’s surface with its watery bronze light. The mild autumn air had not yet succumbed to the icy fingers of Jack Frost, although if anyone had been there to taste twilight’s breath they would have been sure that old Jack would soon be dusting the ground and what few lingering leaves remained with his softly shimmering carpet of white, translucent powder. With daylight rapidly retreating many of the riverside creatures were making hasty retreats to safe havens away from the night eyed vision and keen noses of the nocturnal predators presently to be stirring. Soon, even the raucous calls of the rooks would be subdued by the encroaching dusk as they welcomed the last of the parliament to their sanctuary, high in the distant chestnut trees.
The smooth surface of the river belied its depth and strength as at this point in its journey it now began to widen and meander seeking the sea to which it was forever drawn. As it left the forested hills and spread onto the flat pastureland below, the river, fed by countless mountain streams and tributaries, had acquired immense and unrelenting volume and power. Only the inner banks of the meanders provided enough footholds to allow aquatic vegetation to grow dense enough to provide a place of shelter, or of ambush, for the river’s many inhabitants. Felled by high winds when its root system became exposed during the massive rain storms of some ten years ago, the great trunk of an ancient willow cut across the apex of one of the meanders. The trunk’s anchor to the abrupt bank side was now decayed and it would not be many more seasons before the river, heavy during flood, would take what remained of it to the sea. But for now the dead willow providing asylum for all manner of the river’s inhabitants, from startled shoals of fry to innumerable invertebrates, from resting water fowl to stealthy assassins, all sheltering from the river and from each other. The barren river bed and its outer curves, where the racing water made it naught but impossible for even the most tenacious of plant life to grasp a hold, were inhospitable areas ignored by all but the strongest and most determined of creatures. These underwater deserts offered little relief to the small, unwary or feeble, with only the occasional smoothed rock outcrop, bank side eddy or discarded piece of man made debris providing the smallest of oasis’s for those creatures ill-fated enough to be swept from stronger cover.
Shoals of sleek roach kissed at the surface, taking unfortunate insects which had succumbed to the faltering evening temperature, their silver flanks, touched with a hint of gold, flashing like mirrors catching the waning sun from afar as they rolled over with their catch. Several dark olive green tench, just a little more visible than specters in the more gloomy light near the river bed, shouldered aside the thinning reads as they cruised unhurriedly out of cover to scour over the mud and detritus of the river bed. Powerful enough to ignore the rivers current they slowly made their way back and forth disturbing clouds of silt as they rummaged, nose down and powerful tail up, searching for the wealth of food just below the mud’s surface from small crustaceans and invertebrates to decaying seeds and berries dropped from trees overhanging the river’s edge. A shoal of small perch crashed through the few lifeless remaining branches of the fallen willow intent on nothing but the swarm of fry they’d surprised moments earlier. Their sergeant major’s stripes giving them the perfect camouflage whilst they hovered in the reeds in the failing light awaiting their prey to show themselves a little to far from cover. In a few seconds the rout was over and the perch headed back to take station in the reeds near the surface, hidden once more from untrained or unwary eyes. But not all the eyes that watched this tableau of underwater events were untrained, or unwary for that matter.
From within a dark hollow, formed by the arch of the fallen willow tree’s vast trunk, a pair of forward facing eyes pierced the deepening gloom. With no light entering the cave the twenty pound plus fish remained invisible and undetected to the river’s residents. Able to hold her station with only the smallest of rotating fin movements, her eyes followed the tench cruising the silt towards the far bank. To far away for the lunge, they’d be deep in the rushes before she was half the distance to them, no point on wasting energy there then. The dancing roach knew well enough to keep away from that gloomy hollow; in the past several unwary members of the shoal had already disappeared in a sudden, explosive mass of bubbles and blood with none of them truly aware of what had struck. She knew that it would be some time yet before the roach shoal became complacent enough to drift into striking range once more. Her gaze fell upon the shoal of perch hovering overhead, confident that their own stripped camouflage was making them invisible to all. She dismissed them, being too small yet to make the sudden rush of effort profitable. The river seemed devoid of any prey close enough to make her sudden, assassin like, burst of terror worthwhile. Still having not fully regained her weight after the spawning season, the river had not been over fruitful this summer, maybe she’d move on further upstream where abundant vegetation provided more opportunity for the ambush. She waited seemingly unmoving, with no sign of the growing hunger inside which was driving her on, maybe the perch shoal may well become less, she continued her vigil.
Maili’s eyes followed the bird from across the wide river as it settled down to roost, thinking itself unobserved within the decayed roots of the willow. It had been several turns of the moon since the day that he’d been dragged from the cages along with others of his kind and thrown into this mad, unfamiliar world. The screams of his mother still reverberated within his ears as she fought to protect him, the unknown smells of beer, cigarettes and diesel, whilst the thundering of the metal monster and the excited chattering of the unwashed, dark clad humans, had assailed his senses and then he’d been falling. When he came to there was no sign of his mother, or of any of the others. It was just him, cold and afraid. He’d stayed motionless for an age, petrified by events that he could never understand. Finally, hunger drove him forth from the roadside ditch and instinct took over and led him to the river. He’d lived for days now on snails, insects and worms, too inexperienced and perhaps to small to be able to provide himself with enough food to survive the coming winter. He’d never known anything but the cage before this moment, but the hunting songs that his mother had crooned to him and an instinct from deep within pushed him on. He’d stopped in awe at his first sight of the river, so vast, foreboding and alive, but it brought forth from depths he never knew existed a feeling that this is where he needed to be if he was to survive at all.
Instinct gave Maili patience; instead of blindly floundering across the river in a mad rush to seize his prey, he weighed his options. The river was far to swift for him to swim directly to the fallen willow, instinct once again pushed him, this time further upstream to allow the river to work with, instead of against, him. He entered the water for the first time in his short life, at first the river pulled at him, dragging him under to take his breath from him. He burst back to the surface spluttering and cursing, and then struck out, it may have been his first time immersed in water but now he became part of the flow instead of at odds with the current, the river welcomed one of its own.
The shoal of roach sped for the rushes as Maili’s shadow passed overhead and as he angled nearer the willow the perch backed further into cover, this time not trusting to their camouflage to protect them from this new, strange, intruder on the surface. The moorhen felt disquieted and, leaving her roost in the willow, slid into perceived safety of the eddying water along side its trunk. Maili caught the movement of the bird and slid underneath the surface as he neared the tree, hunger giving him the focus and strength to close upon the unwary bird.
From the hollow below she moved slowly but purposely forward and upwards, the faded light and mottled skin tones now making her invisible to anything from above. Her prey’s limbs slowly pushed the water aside sending her a beacon as clear as the brightest of lights for her to home in on. Slowly she rose from the depths, her muscles tensing for the final burst forward, all her senses locked onto the swimmer above. She plunged forward, backward facing teeth grasping her prey as she exploded through the river’s surface, and then she was gone, the ripples already spreading and thinning, an oily stain dispersing and pulled away by the river…..