Dlǫ́ʼátsoh had always hated the Fox. Somewhere, deep within him, he understood that the Fox was a source of pain for his kind, a predator of immeasurable power. It was because the Fox made his prey a part of him, unlike the beasts of the Black River.
The beasts of the Black River killed without cause.
But the Fox was hungry, and savored every bit of what he could grip within his jaws. The Fox had hunted the Squirrel, the Opossum, the Rabbit, the Mice, and many others. Ones that Dlǫ́ʼátsoh did not share a tongue with were also the Fox’s prey- those that ran the sky and those that slept in the sun. The Fox did not discriminate, unless the One was larger and more dangerous. While there were many beasts like the Fox of greater size and strength, the Fox was deadly because of its smaller stature. Dlǫ́ʼátsoh was a proud and seasoned Groundhog, having survived the worst of his yearling and thrived alongside three other yearlings, but he had seen the Fox make short work of chucklings- some of his own, even. He remembered when the Fox had squeezed itself into his burrow in one of his early winters and torn at the young within. In his own fear, he had scampered to the safety of the bitter cold, what few chucklings remained following close behind. Luckily, his territory was peppered with other burrows, and he had been able to vanish into another. Some of his chucklings had survived the flight, but the sickness of winter set in soon after.
It was only his hatred of the Fox that had kept Dlǫ́ʼátsoh warm that evening. Strange, then, that Dlǫ́ʼátsoh felt a sense of sorrow as he watched his mortal enemy lay dying not far from him. The Fox was lost in the shallows of the Black River, trampled and tossed asunder by the beasts that traveled there.
Dlǫ́ʼátsoh had heard the night runners screeching overhead as he sat, complacent, in his burrow. While they ran the sky, their tongue was different from those that filled the air in the daytime, and it was on nights such as these when Dlǫ́ʼátsoh swore he could make out some of his own tongue in their cries. They were unsettled by something, even more than their usual high-pitched voices implied. Dlǫ́ʼátsoh was not one to be roused by the night runners- in his old age, the darkness was even more dangerous for his weakened vision and plump stature. But something in the voices of the night runners pulled at his heart.
Upon squeezing from his burrow, he had noticed an old acquaintance, the Shrew Chį́į́shnézí. An unspoken acknowledgment passed between them, their noses twitching at their own respective rhythms. Though Dlǫ́ʼátsoh was by far the elder of the two, he had enjoyed watching the Shrew grow over the past yearling, and the small, energetic creature had been his connection to the places he no longer had the energy to reach. As the two had bonded, Chį́į́shnézí had revealed his true name to the old Groundhog- a sign of trust and goodwill between the Ones. Dlǫ́ʼátsoh had many names for the Ones of the forests- the Squirrel, the Opossum, the Rabbit, the Mice, and many others- but they also possessed names for themselves, and when they shared those names with Ones not of their group, it was considered a special event. If Chį́į́shnézí’s babies ever shared the name Dlǫ́ʼátsoh with the Groundhog’s chucklings, they would know, somehow, that the Ones once had a bond in their ancestry. Unfortunately, Dlǫ́ʼátsoh had no chucklings to share the Shrew’s true name with- and he was old enough to know the Shrew was a forgetful creature, more concerned with making it through their yearlings than remembering true names. Still, he had appreciated the the gesture and returned it in kind- there were few special bonds he could make in his waning years.
Dlǫ́ʼátsoh entered into the small cropping of trees that separated the grassy hill where he made his home, Chį́į́shnézí following close behind. The Groundhog knew these trees well, even in the dark, and used his sense of smell to point himself towards the Black River. The strange, burnt stench of its waters contrasted with the other smells of summer. There was some similarity to the occasional burning of wood or coal, but the smell of the Black River was persistent- it did not swell, nor did it diminish. It was always there, and had been so since Dlǫ́ʼátsoh was in his yearling.
Another night runner gave cry overhead- this one, a low whistle unlike the screeches from before. The Groundhog and the Shrew froze, understanding this call as predatory. Dlǫ́ʼátsoh’s old spirit flared with life, his instincts telling him that his predator was more dangerous than his adversary, the Fox. This night runner was able to swoop downward and snatch Ones easily with its steely talons, and at his age and size, he was a prime target. The Shrew whistled through its teeth, tasting the darkness. His heartbeats came so fast, they almost sounded like a continuous tone to Dlǫ́ʼátsoh’s ears. Consumed with primal fear, the Ones did not know whether to run and hide or keep still and hope the night runner would pass over.
In his panic, Dlǫ́ʼátsoh’s senses seemed to hone exponentially, and his vision focused in the darkness. In the distance, he could see the powerful lights that accompanied the beasts of the Black River flying past, and he knew that they were not far from their destination. After an eternity of waiting, another call sounded, this time much further off, and the Ones relaxed. They had placed themselves in a dangerous position, but if the night runner had been hungry, it would have killed one or both of them already. Dlǫ́ʼátsoh continued forward, the hairs on his neck prickling upward as he picked up another scent- the Fox.
But it was not the mangy, scrappy, wily scent that normally accompanied the One. It was suffering, desperate. Perhaps this had been what the screeching night runners were trying to tell Dlǫ́ʼátsoh before- that his adversary was in pain. Chį́į́shnézí became more reluctant, knowing the stories of the Black River that many Ones would tell to warn each other: that the Black River was a place of great risk and often death. The beasts of the Black River would mercilessly overrun any Ones foolish enough to attempt to cross, although when instinct or caution seemed to be on their side, many will still challenge their fate. With a squeak, the Shrew could no longer risk his own existence, and scampered back into the depths of the woods.
This did not bother Dlǫ́ʼátsoh, however, he was entranced by the smell of the Fox. It came to his nose in small whiffs- carried by the wind only. The predator was still. In many ways, he felt that his own life had been rich enough to risk such a journey. Though instinct had seized him before, his feelings and his will to live were another matter entirely. He wondered if Ones like the Fox shared such thoughts. Did the beasts of the Black River, as well? He continued onward, and upon reaching the shores of the Black River, Dlǫ́ʼátsoh made out the shape of the Fox resting on the water. Mangled and heaving, the once-spry beast was now nothing more than a jumbled heap. Its breaths were quick and wracked with pain, but aside from this, it could not summon the ability to move. Despite the longing in Dlǫ́ʼátsoh’s heart to see his foe suffer, he felt that a death such as this was not right.
“You have come to watch me die, Dlǫ́ʼátsoh?” The Fox said through gritted teeth. The Groundhog was unfamiliar with this tongue, but he did recognize his own name. He wondered how the Fox had come to know such a thing.
The Fox whimpered before starting once more. “I do not ask for your pity. This is my punishment, for challenging the Black River. Although, you would have me punished for other reasons.”
Again, Dlǫ́ʼátsoh could not respond. He searched for meaning in the small whispers of breath, but found nothing. He ground his teeth in curiosity, tilting his head and taking a few more small steps into the Black River. He dared not submerge himself any deeper in fear of meeting the same fate as his foe.
“We are not for this land much longer, Dlǫ́ʼátsoh. The Black Rivers will spread, even more than they already have. They will consume us all. Soon, there will be no differences between you and I. These Rivers... they make equals of us all.”
The Fox closed his eyes and hissed one last word before becoming still. Dlǫ́ʼátsoh’s eyes widened, as if he suddenly understood all that the Fox had said prior. Another pair of lights from a beast of the Black River appeared in the distance, and the Groundhog shrank away from its depths. His body relaxed as he touched soft ground once more, but his eyes remained wide as the beast of the Black River roared past, narrowly avoiding the lifeless carcass in the shallows.
With a final grit of his teeth, Dlǫ́ʼátsoh turned and headed back to his burrow. Mąʼii łitsooí- what a foreign name. Perhaps the Groundhogs could use it to show kinship with their hated foe, if only Dlǫ́ʼátsoh was not so old. If only Dlǫ́ʼátsoh was not so old...