Amias looked down at the ground.
She was twice his size, paws leaving indents in the mud as she slinked. His heart thrummed in his chest and it was all he could do to avoid trembling, but he willed himself to stay still.
“Something’s different about you,” she snarled, “you’re not quite like the others.”
She opened her mouth to flehmen, lips curling back, exposing her canines, as she sniffed the air.
He held his breath.
If she came any closer, surely she’d figure it out: it would take just one chunk of clay falling to the jungle floor and he’d be exposed for who he really was. But she closed her mouth and seemed satisfied enough for the moment, though evidently still suspicious. If it had been dawn, rather than dusk, the gap in the canopy above them would have made the clay coating obvious.
He let out a muffled exhale when she finally moved away.
Eduardo and Pabiola followed her to the edge of the stream, bowing side by side and lapping up the water. As much as Amias wanted to sidle up to them as well, he instead went to an area crowded with ferns and acai palm trees, and hunched down to drink in the cloak of their greenery. Some of the clay on his chin washed off, swirling away in the water like a tiny brown snake. He blinked at his lumpy reflection. Though his mother’s eyes were green, his were the same color as his fur, tawny. Pabiola also had tawny eyes—at least they had that in common. But now, with some of the clay washed off his muzzle, the fur beneath his chin was like the white petal of an orchid. He would have to be careful to keep it tucked during the trek back to the den.
For several days this schedule continued without change: Genoveva feeding them regurgitated meat during the day and taking them to the stream at dusk. He continued to go to the hog wallow while she was out, carefully avoiding running into her along the way, and it wasn’t long before he got stuck in a rainfall again. He had no choice but stay home that evening, enduring a parched throat all through the night as he tried in vain to think of some other way to disguise himself.
The next day, when he asked his siblings for new ideas, Eduardo suggested he try biting off the spots. His fur would still be the wrong shade, but at least then he’d be a solid color like they were.
So the two brothers went outside the den for sunlight and Amias started with a spot on his foreleg. He chomped down and teared at it with a twist, the pain burning like a patch of fire ants eating his flesh. He stopped almost immediately, spitting out the flap of skin and licking his leg to soothe it, whimpering softly. Eduardo looked away. Pabiola, who’d been watching from inside, let out a gasp and a cry, bounding to his side to help him stop the blood flow. But Amias recoiled and sulked off to a far corner of the den, telling her to leave him alone. Eduardo made no offer to help at all and moved into the mouth of the den where he sat and stared at the outside world.
Amias didn’t attempt to coat himself in mud that day but knew he couldn’t endure another night without water either. So once the bleeding had ceased, he limped to the stream for a drink and hurried back home again, overfilled belly sloshing as he went. His leg ached all through the night but the spot was scabbed over by morning. Over the days that followed it gradually dissipated, a bumpy scar taking its place. His heart sank to realize the scar was as black as the spot had been. Whether covered in scars or spots, he would never look like his family. It was no use. He’d suffered a painful wound for nothing. His only choice was to continue suffocating under the weight of clay, refraining with great mental exertion from scratching, and subsisting without the attention and affection of Mother that Pabiola and Eduardo both enjoyed in abundance.
Then one night, on their way home from the stream, Genoveva made an announcement.
“It’s time to take you cubs swimming,” she said. “We’ll go tomorrow at dusk, and once you’ve learned how to swim, I’ll teach you how to catch fish.”
She said this more so to Eduardo and Pabiola, however, as Amias was trailing at a distance in the shadows, feeling much like a shadow himself. She didn’t look back at him anymore, as she once had, and sometimes he wondered if she’d even notice if he didn’t return to the den with them one night. He’d gotten used to the sensation of a stone in his belly, but with her announcement it weighed him down like a fresh weight. What could he do but refuse to swim? She’d never put up with that for long; it was her duty to teach them. He knew sooner or later a rainfall would occur while they were out drinking from the stream anyway, it was inevitable; but if he still had a few days left of maintaining his disguise, maybe he could learn how to fish from observing the others. He knew that if he didn’t learn to hunt before Genoveva discovered who he really was, he’d starve to death on his own.
The stream they drank from was too shallow for swimming, so the next evening Genoveva told them they’d be going to a river instead, and led them to it. Being a much longer hike than usual, Amias was sweaty and itchy by the time they arrived, and feared the clay would slide off. But it clung to him as fast as ever, like a second skin. The river was grey and murky, being dusk, but a few residual sun-rays still sparkled in the center. Acia palm trees and the roots of mangroves crowded the riverbanks. Genoveva dove in first and Amias ducked under a fern to avoid being splashed by the great wave she created. She turned and swam back toward them, whiskers limp and only her head and shoulders above water. Eduardo jumped in next and was soon swimming alongside her with ease. After a few minutes, Pabiola whispered in Amias’ ear—”I’m so sorry”—and dived in herself.
“What are you waiting for?” Genoveva called out to him from the water.
He peeked out from beneath the leaf, blinking at them but saying nothing. There was nothing to say.
“You’re always so timid,” she said, swimming back and forth with his brother and sister, her tone one of annoyance.
The pull to join his family in the water, the yearning for refreshment, was like being parched while everyone else drank freely. But while he could attempt to cool his tongue at the water’s edge—to actually feel the water immerse him, washing away the dirt, his fur going all slick and glossy like the others, could never be. His constricting disguise, the only protection he had, might as well have been an anaconda.
He laid down in the grass and rested his chin on his caked paws. A macaw squawked repeatedly in the distance, its voice piercing through the din of innumerable creatures. Amias shuddered. Macaws liked to eat clay, he’d seen them doing it. He doubted one would have the nerve to attack him, but how could he know for sure? Each day that passed he realized more and more that it wasn’t only his family he’d have to be on guard against, but others as well.
Just then, his mother called out to him.
“Amias, this is your last chance before I throw you in.”
His heart drummed in his chest like a woodpecker. She was swimming toward him, eyes narrowed with determination. Should he make a run for it? No, she’d only tackle him. There was no escape.
Genoveva gripped the roots on the riverbank, hoisting herself up.
Amias slinked backward, gasping and choking for air, squeezing his eyes shut. Next second her canines were on the scruff of his muddy neck and she was dragging him through the grass. He opened his eyes when he went airborne, seeing the water right before colliding with it.
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