The crowd around the fire pit grows quickly. The fire pit itself was rather modern. Blue gas propelled flames lick black stones at the base of the pit. And grey slate surrounds the stones in a shape like a triangle. I stare at the flames as conversation floats about. Kids lounge across the plush chairs and sit cross-legged at their counterpart’s feet. Subbi and Tendo are deep in a conversation which I do not care for. Thus, my only companion is the blue flames I aspire to be like. Rogue when over-stimulated and calm when satiated. I have only ever seen blue flames burn bright in my Highschool laboratory. Flames poured out of the Bunsen burner to heat a murky substance in a flask. The flames scorched the glass flask leaving blackened soot in its wake. Outside of that experience, all fires burned a million shades of orange, red and yellow. Like the sun, the flames of the pack’s harvest bonfire were blinding. But the bon fire’s children were kept tame in every household across the pack lands. A symbol that we shall feast from the same supply.
“It is important that every one of you understands wolf folklore and our origin story,” Mr. Kumar’s voice cuts through my thoughts. He is our Geography and History teacher. “Your homework for the weekend will be to write a paper on how it is your pack began.”
A cacophony ensues shortly after the siren, as people rise from their seats. Withheld chatter breaks loose from anxious lips. The girl ahead of me pushes against her chair to leave, her glittery backpack swipes at my head as she heaves it onto her shoulder. I hold back my line of curses as she walks away from me. Her mind lost in the depths of her phone. The classroom quickly clears of the hurried crowd, leaving behind stragglers like myself. I see no point in rushing when every space in the academy Is but a five-minute leisurely walk away. As I toss my books into my bag, I gaze at the river of students flowing into the courtyard.
“Mr. Kumar,” I ask as I rise from my seat.
“Yes…” His head is suppressed in his ledger as I make my way to the front of the class.
“Growing up my Father always emphasized that fire was our friend. Unlike humans, the fire was used by our ancestors to receive messages from the moon goddess…”
“No!” His response sharply cuts me off.
“Oracles. They were and are still used to receive messages from the moon goddess, not fire,” His gaze reluctantly lifts to mine.
“But the flames speak to us!” I defend.
“Where did you hear that folk tale?” I snort at his dismissive label.
“My parents,” I retort. My face was frozen by the sharpness with which he speaks.
“They probably told you that to make the story seem interesting. Have a good weekend.” I nod my head, eyebrows furrowed at his blunt dismissal. I avert my gaze with intentions of escaping the awkwardness.
“Oh Zoya!” With my body beneath the door frame I return my eyes to his. Mr. Kumar hands me a graded paper. “Good Job on your paper. I was surprised by how much you knew about the Australian and South American packs. Especially the Chilean packs!”
“Mr. Kumar, I am the product of a society that believes encountering other cultures will only better help me understand my own. The knowledge doesn’t surprise you, It’s the ethnicity attached to the wielder that does.”
He does not return my warm cheeky smile. Instead, I make my way towards my locker before my smoothie date with Subbi. Unlike her, I have yet to master my schedule and complete my tour of the academy. I know where the training field, my room, and the dining hall are situated. I think that is comprehensive. And in all honesty, those buildings are all I need to survive. Seeing as this is the first weekend on campus, I hope to explore the rest of the activities and spaces they have to offer. The brochure I picked up at the beginning of the week spoke of a gaming room, and a café.
I tug on the latch of my locker after inputting my code. My gym bag tumbles out, onto my feet. The pinned note on my magnetic board reads, ‘Dorm Training @ 4pm’. A quick glance at my phone’s screen leaves me with twenty minutes before I must be on the field.
Walking into the changing rooms, I see my roommate, Shannon, seated on a bench. Acknowledging her presence with a quick nod, I search for a free changing space. Shannon hails from the Tahoe Pack of North America. She is the truest definition of a tree hugger. The walls on her side of the room are covered in posters of everything and anything from woodlands to whales. Last night she hung a wash line of pictures of herself camping, hiking, swimming, and even boot skiing with her family and friends. We have not spent much time hanging out; most of our small talk revolved around HI’s and Hellos. Even then we share the common thought of leaving this place.
Shannon’s eyes meet mine as I take a free spot towards the corner of a bench. Even though multiple conversations are under ways about classes, food, and the never-ending romantic interests, Shannon is neither interested nor participating. A conversating group near her lets out a ripple of giggles before one starts spilling the details regarding her feelings for a wolf she left at home.
“Ey! Ladies! five laps. Quick I don’t have all day,” coach shouts from the doors to the field.
I am reminded to do a load of laundry given the all-white set I am subjected to for training. White training sets were a Tamika style choice, not mine. “Just the right amount of spandex to accommodate you for years,” I can still hear Tamika quote the packaging. White clothes are a necessity in Tamika’s closet. She has an endless amount of white and always makes sure to keep them looking as pristine as the day she purchased them.
I walk past the coach as she props the door open, pausing before the tracks to let the boys run past me; a blow of a horn signals their final lap. I was no stranger to running laps. Everyone raised in the Daka household had to run no less than ten laps a day. Laziness was not condoned when it came to running laps, hence, the coach’s five warm-up laps would be a breeze.
“Keep your form, no slacking!” she shouts over the final horn. I had passed the group of girls twice so far. Now aiming for a third overtake, seems not to sit well with the other girls. I heard their whispered talk of overshadowing and showing off when I pulled away the first time. But I pay them no mind because I am not here for them. I round the corner of the track, pulling further away from the other girls. Their lack of stamina does not surprise me. Unlike other packs, Zambezi had a strict rule on training. Everyone was expected to know how to fight, and for those who could shift, training in their shifted form was necessary. Special sessions were even held for the expecting and postpartum. Thembiso made sure that we all had the basic fighting techniques down by the age of ten. With no one else ahead of me I search the stands for Subbi. Her brown skin peeks through rips in her white jeans. Her legs stretched out before her with one on top of another. Subbi is not an exercise fanatic but I would bet a hundred Zambezi kwacha that she could outrun everyone on the field. She sends me a curt wave though her eyes never leave her book. Shortly my body is crossing the finish line. I walk off the tracks onto the field where the boys are huddled in groups and crouch down beside them. I let my head go limp as my attention is solely focused on my breathing.
“Daka!” my surname travels across the field silencing the chatter. I lift my head from between my knees in search of the shouter.
“Daka!” The coach walks towards me as she ticks away at her clipboard. His sniper gaze does not meet mine until she is in front of me.
“Did I tell you to sit down?” she asks calmly. A firm betrayal of the tone she used to gain my attention. I cautiously remind myself that she would be regarded as an elder in Zambezi and to treat her with a certain amount of respect.
“Exactly!” She breaks eye contact with me and addresses the rest of the dorm.
“My field! My rules!” I feel her eagle eyes on me, “Get Up!”
I press a palm to the cool grass and shift my weight onto my toes. I am barely upright when she calls upon me once more.
With her attention on her clipboard, she issues another command, “I understand that you are an avid gym member… Take the center and lead us.” My body stalls for a quick second and I begin to mumble to myself.
“You better watch your tongue around me, Daka. I was warned about your swift tongue, but you don’t want to mess with me.”
I stifle my words, in exchange for a more pleasant set, “What a beautiful woman, a wonderful, cheerful, woman.”
My dormmates spread out into a circle around me. I take the opportunity that coach has thrust into my very capable hands and exploit it to the max. I lead the group through a series of advanced yoga stretches for flexibility. The lack of enthusiasm quickly shows, and everyone is forced to do a group count while the coach merely observes my leadership. Five minutes into my torture session, I am relieved of my duties.
“Double up! We are knee boxing. I need to see all of you shuffling and I want to see height differences.”
My family members are quite aware of the hate I have stored for team activities. They were simply another space where I had to prove my self-worth because everyone felt the need to outshine others. As though if I do not have enough to prove to the rest of the world. Paired activities are even worse because if the person is awful, I have no way out. I stand by and watch people pair up. As the seconds' tick by the hope of an odd number leaving me without a partner grows. I take a small step backwards letting everyone else do their thing.
‘Don’t be a big baby and find a partner’ Subbi’s voice fills my head through our link. Yet another benefit of having a twin. According to history, only twins can communicate with each other using their minds or what we now call a link. This skill is given to them by the goddess in order that they may protect themselves from har. Twins were rare in the early days, but when they were born the first baby was considered the original person, and the second baby was thought to be the bad soul. As a result, the second twin was killed to keep evil at bay. This was after wolves had tried to forget the goddess and all her deeds.
’I don’t like people. You know this,’ I point out, turning to see her gaze directed at me.
‘We don’t need the attention Zoya, and the last thing we need is for you to throw a fit. Have you forgotten that we are identical? I would like to live my life without people associating your missteps with me. You made your mark with the staff. Let us leave it at that’. I flash a finger at her in retaliation. She smirks knowing she won that round. Though my sister can be a pain at times, the last thing I want is for her to be given a rough time because of my actions. Besides punishment would require that I be away from her which would not help our case. We are all we have while in Russia. We take care of our own.
I focus my energy on the commotion before me. I search for a partner in the wave of students who continue to… avoid me. I notice a guy standing not too far away with his back to me. His arms moved around in theatrical gestures. He was most definitely blessed with height by the moon at birth. Something I generally overlook because I am surrounded by skyscrapers daily. The thick wavy black hair on his head is held back by a clear hair tie. I recognize the person he is speaking to. I had met him a couple of times in the bathroom; his room is two doors down. On the day of our arrival, he hosted a small ‘get together’ for the dorm. He had left a note in the elevator with the time and location. He and his friends could be heard laughing like maniacs late into the early morning, only to be woken at seven for our briefing on what the first four weeks on campus would resemble and what they would mean for each of us. During the briefing, I learned that the first week was about the physical development of our bodies in preparation for the Moondance as well as a lot of history and geography classes on the world of wolves. A History that so far has been centered on western civilization. I also learned that we were to receive numerous assignments over the next two weeks. Then in the final week, on the day of the full moon, we will welcome our fur gifted to us by the goddess. It will be on this day that we may or may not find our mates. There are greater chances that I shall find my mate. According to Rykov all the unmated from various packs across the globe will be present for the ceremony. He briefly talked about eye colors and how every wolf’s eye color determines what role they would play in society. He then said we would learn more on Eye colors next week in history.
Mr. Theatrical is still chatting with his friends. His body jerking with laughter causes him to twist his torso in my direction. I rush to locate a useless object worthy of my gaze. Shyness floods my being as a quick glimpse his way has his eyes meeting mine. I have been caught. He bumps fists with his friends in a parting gesture and cuts through the people between us. With only a foot’s distance between us, he finally stops before me. With my face devoid of all expression and his cool gaze on mine, we share an unspoken agreement.
‘I guess I have a partner,’ I whisper through the link.
“Okay, I expect you all to have partners. I want to see bent knees and serious strategy.” Coach blows the whistle and I sink into a guarded stance. I shift my weight between my feet before he makes the first advancement. A quick swipe from his left has me staggering back. Our stark differences in height make it easier for his long arms to reach my knees. I adjust my angle and within thirty seconds the first victory is mine.
“You are good at this,” I remarked after his first strike. A light shrug is the only response my compliment elicits.
‘Sefya, stop being an ass and talk to him!’ Subbi’s voice rings out through the link. I spot her cross-legged form gazing our way once more.
’I left a bowl of fruit at his doorstep. If he is a decent being, he shall do as wise,’ I snap. I gain another tap on his right knee, but Subbi’s interference already cost me two taps.
“Focus.” My body momentarily freezes while I connect the voice with the person. My eyes narrow at my partner.
“Excuse me?” The defiance in my voice is more prominent.
“I would like to actually build my skill and get some work in with this training session. but you are chatting with your sister which is leaving you open to attacks. I prefer my wins effort filled.”
I straighten my body to its full length and roll the clear hair tie on my wrist onto my fingers. I pull the strands of my 4C hair into a high puff, not caring about whether every strand is laid appropriately.
“My sister was encouraging me to be nice. To be the first to extend the olive branch. Maybe it’s best I bruise your ego before that.”
‘Sefya!’ Subbi screams through the link. But I am quick to cut her off.
If he wants a challenge, I can most definitely deliver.